the unexpected welcome home: abundant gifts in the face of grief

Grief.

When we hear the word, despite potentially knowing that it encompasses far more than the bereavement type of grief, we think about death. Perhaps the death of a loved one.

Merriam Webster agrees with this. It defines grief as “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement”. But because it is vitally important to remember that grief goes far beyond the idea of tangible death, I found the following definitions from The Grief Recovery Method to be helpful: “Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind…. Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior”.

Grief is hard and brutal and overwhelming no matter the circumstances. But when it’s a much less tangible “loss” or “reason” for the grief, it presents a unique and complicated type of challenge. Not that the death of a close loved one isn’t absolutely brutal and immensely difficult – it absolutely is. For anyone walking through a season like that, please know that my heart and prayers are with you.

More and more, grief that falls under the category of a slightly less tangible “death” (maybe much more along the lines of a significant loss) is gaining awareness. And for that I am so, so glad. It’s important to realize the debilitating grief that can come when a season of life comes to an end or when a close relationship is broken.

But… when the grief doesn’t even fall under one of the more “common” non-death loss type categories. When you can’t even recognize it for the deep, panging ache that it is for several months after the change takes place.

When the grief of no longer being around so many people that became close family can’t even be eased by hopping on an airplane to California because the moment you think about going, you’re harshly confronted by a whole other similar – yet slightly separate – burden of grief… one where you don’t feel fully at home in your hometown, where you can see all of the people you miss… all the while there is still this deep heartbreak because things in that place will never, ever be the same…

That’s when a burden of grief takes on a whole new form. Because try as you might… the writer in you can barely find the words to communicate what this grief is like. But even if you did? So few people would be able to fully understand the deep heartbreak married with this crazy-full mixed bag of painful emotions.

It was sometime after arriving in Illinois that I began to explain it to people this way.

When COVID-19 absolutely halted and shut down our everyday lives in March 2020, seemingly overnight… When all we thought we knew about life was suddenly challenged, turned on its side and thrown back in our face… when all sense of normalcy in life was all of the sudden just… gone…

I will put it this way – it was when I began to see these similarities that I began to understand why I did not react to the total shutdown from COVID in the same way as most people around me. See, when life was halted tangibly and much more externally in March 2020… I was standing there going – oh, this is no big deal. I already went through this five months ago. Thankfully this time around we all have each other, because it makes something like this a whole lot easier.

October 2019. It was a beautiful season of change for my parents and me. God had been working and moving in some pretty incredible ways, and it was an absolute joy to watch it all unfold.

But after being in Virginia for a week or two, I was quickly cornered by that feeling… that feeling of “now what”, that nothing in life would ever be the same, that everything we thought we knew about life was suddenly turned on its side, when all sense of normalcy was just… gone.

The biggest difference, though? Everything and everyone else continued on around me as though life was normal. Because for them, it was.

In a matter of weeks I went from living at home with two of my closest friends (my parents) in a familiar city with so many familiar things to living 3,000 miles away in a brand new state and a brand new city surrounded by brand new people.

In a matter of weeks I went from the security and peace of knowing that my parents were serving in ministry at St. Mark, the only church I had every really known, to knowing that they would never again be there – at least not in the same way.

In a matter of weeks I was confronted in a very harsh way with the reality that I would need to grieve a season of life that would never again exist. I had to grieve seeing familiar people and places on an everyday basis while also grieving the grounding peace that came with Santa Rosa unquestionably being my home.

My first “home post” on my blog here spoke mainly to just living here in Washington/Peoria. I remember reading it back over afterwards and thinking about how funny it was that I barely (if at all) mention the amazing and beautiful church home that God has given me by way of Trinity. Looking at it all now, though, it works out. It gives me an opportunity to devote an entire to post to this beautiful redemption story, to the incredibly tangible example of God working beauty out of the ashes in my life.

Anyone that knows the church of St. Mark Lutheran in Santa Rosa, CA knows what an exceptionally unique and beautiful family of faith it is. It is an immense gift for anyone and everyone who is a part of the family there, so of course it was an incredible gift for the Durham family during our twenty-one years there. During my young adult years, as I continued to call Santa Rosa home and share a home with my parents, I tried very hard to recognize the beautiful gifts around me and discontinue taking them for granted. Try as hard as one might, though… nothing can prepare you for nearly all of those gifts ceasing to exist in the same breath. As I spoke about when my parents had their last Sunday at St. Mark… is one ever really “ready” for a day like that?

It wasn’t until nearly a year later (August/September 2020) that I began to recognize and begin speaking about the deep grief that came by way of this change. The tears began to come… a little bit, anyway. Still not enough, but at least I was no longer completely ignoring the heavy burden that had been clinging to my heart for so long. Grieving something that no longer exists – yet all of the people are still alive and there – is just… strange. Weird. Different. I have had to grieve a life that, plain and simple, no longer exists.

Little did I know that God was getting ready to launch me into a season of beauty and miracles and redemption.

In my first “home” blog post I spoke to the miracle that there was still a place in the world that could so quickly and easily feel like home. And not just that it existed at all – but that God would bring me here, just like that.

Over the last several months of being here in Illinois (it’s been over four now – WHERE is time going??), I have come to call Trinity Lutheran Church my home.

Trinity… the church where my dad was baptized as an infant. Where he grew up, where my grandparents attended until they died in 2014 and 2016. The church where one of my aunts and cousins still attend. The church that I visited over the years as I grew up. The church that is familiar and, in my mind, has always represented my dad and his family.

A church that, in some very similar ways to the incredible family of faith at St. Mark, has always felt like… home.

As Trinity has more and more become home for me, I have continually been grateful and amazed at all that God is doing. But in this last week, as I have had a chance to reflect more on how much I miss the family at St. Mark and the life that part of me always hoped would be there, I have begun to just fall down on my face at the feet of Jesus in awe and gratitude.

I’ve spoken to the fact that coming to Peoria/Washington is an absolute miracle because there was likely only handful of places in the world that could MAYBE begin to feel like home again… in fact there was probably only one where it could happen so quickly and naturally. So, to have God work things out to transfer here, keep my job, and begin a life here that felt even the smallest bit normal again? There’s only one person that could make that happen.

But… as if that wasn’t enough.

Anyone that knows St. Mark knows that there will never be another St. Mark in my life. There just won’t, and it would be unreasonable to ever try and imagine that. But to imagine that, hypothetically, there could be another church home out there that could even come close to meaning just as much in my life… well, prior to moving to Illinois, I guess I had not really thought about that possibility a whole lot.

Believe it or not, there had been a thought process I had sometime last summer or fall about where in the world I might consider to be a place of spiritual heritage, someplace that still felt reasonably normal and safe and undisturbed… well, guess what came to mind. Yup. Long before I knew I might be leaving Virginia, let alone moving to the ONE place where this all could happen.

But the idea of finding another church that has not only incredible leaders in ministry, a wonderful music ministry, and some incredible members and people within the congregation… but that ALSO is a place that carries with it a certain sentimentality, where you feel connected to God but also to family, and a place that by its familiarity can provide a sense of belonging and grounding and home…

All of these things describe the life I knew at St. Mark, no doubt.

What is crazy and just the biggest gift and miracle, though… is that all of these things also describe life for me at Trinity.

When we experience deep grief and pain and loss in this life, it is so much harder to move forward while that gaping hole in our hearts remains just as big as ever. We all know intrinsically that it’s okay to begin moving forward into the next season of our lives, but when there is this near constant reminder of what we have lost… easier said than done becomes an understatement.

As with these types of losses, expecting that someone or something could fully replace that which was lost is foolish at best and harmful at worst. So, in this context, expecting another church to feel not just equally as special as St. Mark but special in the exact same ways… it’s just not going to happen. There will only ever be one church where I grew up, one church where my dad pastored for 21 years of my life, one church where my dad confirmed me. One church for so, so many things.

But… God.

BUT GOD!

The phrase and idea of “beauty from ashes” has been in my mind all week. This is such a tangible, significant, and real example of God doing this in my life.

Will Trinity ever be another St. Mark for me? Not at all. For many reasons, it’s just not logistically possible. But when it comes to the human heart and the journey of this kind of grief, having something so similarly beautiful to fill that hole in one’s heart… no, it doesn’t suddenly make the grief disappear. If only it were that easy. What it does do, however, is help us to begin moving forward, honoring the life that we lost, but no longer remembering that same life with the gaping hole still in your heart, still staring you so harshly in the face every single day.

When we finally have something tangible to hold onto that represents the beauty God can work out of our ashes… even though our steps forward are so often still surrounded by those ashes, it makes it maybe a little bit more doable. It makes it a little bit easier to entirely ignore the grief less and less because, each time you remember what you’ve lost, you can see the beautiful (new) gift that God has given you. The idea of “beautiful dichotomy” that I often talk about, the idea of holding two things together that, on the surface, seem contradictory… it suddenly makes that just a little bit easier.

I have said it this way to a few friends and loved ones this week… “It’s as though God knew there is really only one church and one place in the world that could ever even hold a candle to the specialness that St. Mark represents for me… and He brought me here. He made it happen.” Don’t get me wrong, the grief is still there. It will probably still be hard for a long, long time. But now, each time I think about that church and the painful reality that things will never be the same… I can also think about the amazing miracle that, out of all the places in the world, God brought me to the one right place… the one possibility of ever having something that could ease the pain of what I lost even a little bit.

Over the last few months, as I’ve been walking through so much of the pain and heartbreak that hit while I was in Virginia, there was a moment in conversation with one of our pastors in which I felt God tangibly give me a couple of words for this season in my life. As we sat in the sanctuary, he prayed and mentioned something about the miracle of being “in this place”… looking back, I know that he originally meant the miracle of being in the house of God, free and able to access God through His son, Jesus. In that moment, though, what popped into my mind was the miracle of being in Peoria… at Trinity… beginning to find home in the one place where I could still so easily do so. And as the miracle of that began to hit me, the words God gave me were “redemption” and “restoration”.

It’s been a journey of making sense of both of these words and how they apply to this season of my life. Redemption, that’s something I have been familiar with in the past. But in those first moments I definitely felt much more emphasis on the idea of restoration, so in the weeks afterwards I did some digging into what that word means in the context of our faith. That could be an entire blog post on its own, and likely it will, but for now there is an element of restoration in this idea of God working beauty from ashes when it comes to a church home in my life.

Restoration… God restores what is broken. He restores it to what it once was, yes, but always better and stronger than before. As only He can.

With as much as St. Mark was a gift in my life, there was a part of me that always knew it wouldn’t last that way forever. It’s highly likely that I will outlive my dad, not to mention that I will outlive his years as a pastor. So for as special as it would be to call St. Mark church my home indefinitely… it wouldn’t be the same way forever. It would eventually change and it would be hard regardless.

But now that I’m an adult, living my life, having launched myself into the world… finding Trinity in this season not only means restoration of a church home that can be just SO meaningful and special… but just as when God restores things so that they are better and stronger than before? I don’t have to worry about things changing at Trinity in a way that would disturb what makes it so special, at least not nearly as much as something like my parents no longer serving in ministry at St. Mark.

And as if that wasn’t enough, now that God has brought me someone that I will be able to do life with, someone that was already a member at Trinity, and someone who already loves the church so much… it means that, in this restoration, in the gift of once again having a church home that means SO much… I get to look forward to the future in a way that I never really could at St. Mark.

I don’t know that I will ever NOT miss St. Mark and the life I had with my parents there. Grief is hard, and it just means we look forward to the heavenly reunion where we will never again have to say “see you later”. In the meantime, though… to know that we have a God who cares enough to see the heartbreak, to see how there is still one place in the world that could help ease that grief even a little bit, and to make it all happen and put it into place not just for the short term but for the long term, too…

It’s pretty incredible. The words like “gift” and “miracle” only begin to describe it.

No, it does not suddenly make everything all better. It does not mean that my same stressors are not there, that life immediately becomes easy all the time. The grief is still there, the mental illness is still there, the depression is still there.

But what it does do is make our next breath possible. Then the next breath, and then the next one. And before we know it, we see Him for who He is… one “who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20 ESV).

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