“They’re not handling things well”

“They’re not handling things well”

pic-lossA client or friend tells me they’re concerned about someone whom they love, a family member, significant other or friend. “They’re not handling things well,” they tell me. Sometimes that person about whom they are concerned is their very selves. Because words mean different things to different people,  I ask them to explain.

Usually it comes down to this. The person has had a significant loss. They are sad. They are grieving. They may even be a bit depressed. I point out that such reactions are perfectly normal given the situation.

We have a skewed idea of what handling things well means. We praise people saying, “She did so well. she never cried during the funeral.” Excuse me, but aren’t most funerals at least little sad? You miss the person and your going to be missing the person the rest of your life.

Having a feeling doesn’t mean you’re not handling things well. Now if you cannot get out of bed or your anger is peeling the wallpaper off the walls, then we need to talk. But simply being sad because you’ve had a loss comes with the territory.


Losses come in all shapes and sizes. Join me on my free webinar (late January/early February) as we talk about other kinds of losses and why they matter.

If Nobody Died Why Am I Grieving? More info and registration here 


Looking for the Lament Band

Looking for the Lament Band

From time to time I look over listings of ministerial job openings, mainly to make sure none of them are saying, “We need Peggy Haymes to come and let us pay her a large amount of money which she will be happy to tithe.” Haven’t found that yet.

I do see, however, music ministry openings whose requirements include being able to lead the Praise Band. I’ve heard of lots of churches that have Praise Bands. I keep looking for one that has a Lament Band.

There’s no reason not to, if you think about it. If you keep track as you read the psalms you’ll find that there are many more psalms of lament than songs of praise. The psalmist gives thanks but the psalmist also pitches a fit, wails in deep sorrow and directly questions God.

Both the praise and the laments of the psalms create a container for the realities of our lives. There are times when we can say with glad and grateful hearts, “God is good.” And there are times when we must shake our fists at the heavens and scream, “If you are so good, God, then where are you?”

Why do I suffer?
Why do I lose what’s most dear to me?
Why do the bad guys get to win, running over the good guys time and time again?

This hymnal of the church doesn’t provide easy answers. But it lets us know that there is no part of our human experience that is off limits to our faith and no feeling that we need to express that God cannot hear.

So maybe I’ll get started on that Lament Band.


My latest book, I Don’t Remember Signing Up for This Class: a life of darkness, light and surprising grace” is now available for Kindle. The print version will be out in September.

“Don’t just stand there despairing.”

It’s been a rough week on this corner of the planet. A boy is killed, apparently for the color of his skin, and the long simmering racial divides of a community erupt into what looks like a third world uprising: unarmed protesters against authorities in full military gear. And we wonder how it will be different.

A man who was obviously enormously talented in moving us both to laughter and to tears as well as making our hearts soar (and who was by all accounts a lovely human being) takes his own life. We try to imagine – or try not to remember – the depths of such black despair and we wonder how it will be different for others.

In other parts of our planet centuries of conflict are being played out with weapons old and new. Hatred stoked by the centuries erupts into killing and cruelty, and we wonder how it will ever be different.

Along the border of our own nation there is a struggle between too much and not enough. Children fleeing from too much danger, abuse and hopelessness find themselves rebuffed by communities feeling already over-stretched by not enough resources, not enough answers for the problems they themselves face. We wonder how it can ever be different.

There were events in my own life this week that didn’t make the news. A former client shared an email with me that she’d sent to her friends, “outing” herself as one who has struggled with the great black dog of depression and who now consciously chooses to live her life in ways that allow the light in. It was a brave and heartfelt email, and a reminder that for her, life is very different.

Last Saturday I also attended a meeting of the Steering Committee of Baptist Women in Ministry, NC. As we talked about next year’s meeting I thought back to the first meeting I attended so many years ago. Thirty, maybe forty people huddled together hoping for hope that locked doors might be opened. Our theme, taken from a song lyric, was “One by one, truth will grow.” As we met on Saturday I thought about how different things are now. We provide not insubstantial scholarship money for a woman student at each of the Baptist Divinity Schools in NC. And in recent months women have become pastors at both Watts St. Baptist in Durham and Riverside Church in New York City. One by one…

This week I’ve been reading John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God. In it he quotes Nobel Peace Prize winner (and Mayanmar activist) Aung San Suu Kyi who has spent most of the last twenty-five years under house arrest. “Don’t just stand there despairing. Do something.”

It seems as good a word as any for this week. Don’t know how to resolve the Middle East or global warming or immigration or race relations or the scourge of depression? Do what you do know. Do one thing. You may think you’re only touching one life but you do not know how many other lives that one life will touch and how many lives those lives will touch. You may only write one letter but you do not know if yours will be the letter that’s the tipping point. You may only clean one stream or befriend one person who is of another race or political party or from the other side of the tracks. But you do not know where those steps will lead.

Don’t just stand there despairing. Do something.

The little boy in the tree: Reflections on grief and life

The little boy in the tree: Reflections on grief and life

Just finished reading a new book the other day, “The Little Boy in the Tree” by Roland Russoli, a memoir of his son Andrew’s life and death and Roland’s life in the Peace Corps before, during and after that loss.

First, a disclaimer. I make no claim to be an impartial reviewer. I’ve known Roland for more years than I care to count at this point. For many years when his mother came to visit I gladly shared in her homemade green noodles. I called her “Ma” and she called me “Jenny.” (Somehow she never quite got it that my name was really Peggy.)

memoirI watched Andrew grow up from a young child to a young man. I’ve written of Andrew before in this blog. He was killed by an IED in Iraq as he was serving his second tour of duty as a Marine. Walking with his family through those first weeks was both holy and hard.

So, I come to this book with a heart already open.

Even so, I think it is a compelling book for anyone. Unlike many similar books, Andrew’s death is and isn’t the focus. Of course, it is the huge, inexplicable thread that runs throughout the pages. In a terrible moment, the focus shrinks to that single thread. But then life demands that the focus widens again. In this book we see the dance (sometimes more of a shuffle) between the loss and the life that somehow must go on.

Roland allows us into the depths of a father’s grief. One of the most poignant scenes is his trip home from Mongolia (where he was with the Peace Corps) after receiving word of Andrew’s death. He is lost in a strange airport where no one speaks his language and he does not know the way. He is lost in a world of devastating grief in which he knows neither the language nor the way.

And yet life  does go on. After the funeral he returns to his foreign posts. We see him trying to learn and become familiar with cultures so completely strange to him. But we see him equally determined that in the face of his loss he will find some way to give back, to bring some gift of life, somehow, someway, to someone. Having lost his son he somehow finds the grace and courage to allow a group of orphans to enter his heart and life.

This is a well written book, and I don’t mean that in the “It’s better than I thought Roland would do” sense. By anyone’s standards, it’s a well written book with the depth of someone who has always been willing to ask questions that sometimes have no answers. It is honest with being overwrought, heartfelt without being overly sentimental.

It is a gift for all of us who knew Andrew.

It is a gift for all who have to face difficult journeys of grief.

Which is another way of saying that it’s a book for all of us. I commend it to you.

I went running

I had a bit of a break today at lunchtime so I grabbed the dogs and went running. Tuesday’s not a normal running day since I work out at the gym on Tuesdays. But today I needed to run.

Like you, I have been heartsick over the tragedy in Boston. I have all of the feelings that come hand in hand with tragedy like this. But with this one, there’s another layer.

While I know people who’ve run Boston, more than likely I never will. I’m still looking for that elusive first marathon to to hang on my wall. But I’m a runner all the same.

A marathoner on NPR said it well today. “Marathons are about the best of the human spirit. Total strangers cheer you on and give you orange slices and tell you they’re proud of you.” I love to do races because of that spirit and energy. When people tell me, at the end of a training program, “I don’t need to do the race because I’ve already run the distance” I tell them that they’re missing the best part.

Like you, I’m heartsick over this new Boston Massacre. I didn’t quite know what to do with it all so I went running. I ran to honor all of those who were there yesterday. I ran because when we feel a little lost we go back to those places that feel most like home.

I think that’s why Peter announced he was going fishing after the resurrection. Sure, Jesus was alive but it was probably still very confusing, even if less sad. Besides, Peter knew he’d let Jesus down when it mattered most, and that air had not been cleared between them. So he went fishing.

And  I went running. I packed the dogs into the car and took them to one of the places they love best, the trail around Salem Lake. We ran between the perfect combination of water on one side and woods on the other. Deep still waters. Tall, deeply rooted trees with the first vulnerable leaves of spring. Clouds drifting away, leaving behind a warm blue sky.

The dogs grinned and sniffed and grinned some more. They’ll sleep better tonight for having exercised their full dogginess. Perhaps I will too. For there was healing in the running and healing in the creation and healing in hearing all of the stories on the radio, today not stories of mayhem and confusion but stories of compassion and caring.

ImageThe marathon is about the best of the human spirit, she said, and it was so yesterday as well. Restaurants offered whatever they had, free of charge if you didn’t have your wallet on you. A “pet hotel” offered to keep the pets of stranded people. People opened their homes to complete strangers. A man somewhere in the south called his tax preparer and said he wanted to donate $100 of his return to injured marathoners. 

As more stories emerge, our hearts will break again and again. If we are wise, we’ll care for our hearts by doing whatever it is that we do… running, fishing, caring for one another, allowing our broken hearts to open to the world.

We weren’t able to stop the bombs from going off.

But that bomber cannot stop our tide of love.


Facing Evil

grievingLike many of you, the shootings in Newtown, CT have stirred lots of feelings… horror, anger, deep grief. I’ve thought of my niece who teaches in a school. I’ve thought of my great nephew who is almost six and proudly in kindergarten. I’ve thought about Christmas presents that will never be given and stockings that will never be explored. I’ve thought about my friends who have buried their children, for no matter the age of the child it is always an unnatural act. I’ve been angry at how easy it is to get a gun and how hard it is to get help for mental illness.

And I’ve thought about evil.

As I write, we know little of the shooter and so I cannot say he is evil, as easy as that would be to do. We do not know if wires were short-circuited in his brain or demons lay undiagnosed. We just do not know yet, if we will ever know. But I thought about evil because that is my point of connection.

While my blogs are usually personal reflections this one is more personal than most. Many things have conspired in service of my knowing that it was time to speak.

He was the proverbial stranger. I don’t really know how we met. I only remember where he lived because for many years and by whatever methods, I was a regular visitor to his house of horrors. From childhood well into adolescence he abused me in every way imaginable and in some ways that were truly unimaginable to me.

I don’t toss around the word evil casually but in this case the label fits. How else can you describe someone whose joy is inflicting pain and provoking terror in very small children? In anyone?

Shame and humiliation and rape and pain were his weapons of choice. But also guns and knives. I know what it is to have a gun at my head and why I didn’t die, I’ll never know.

I don’t know how I survived physically, let alone emotionally or spiritually. I don’t know why I was given a chance that those children in Newtown were not. I don’t even know if why is a terribly valid question.

One of the things that I do know is that in the midst of the profoundly dangerous hours in his basement I also had many safe places in my life.

Spirit was safe for me. Both at home and at church I was told stories of a God who loved me. The fact is, no child was ever welcomed into the world with more gladness, the rejoicing both of my mother who had prayed long and hard for a little girl and of a neighborhood who’d seen only the birth of boys for many years. I was the kid who broke the string.

Both at home and at church I was told of a God who loved me, no matter what. No one ever used fear or intimidation as messengers of the gospel, as if such a thing could be possible. If they had… if I had somehow gotten a fear inducing God mixed up with a fear inducing abuser, I don’t know what would have become of me.

But it didn’t. And I survived. I survived with enough intactness to do things like school and career, to develop deep and intimate friendships. To laugh. To appreciate and join in my family’s propensity for puns. I don’t take such things lightly. And I survived with enough courage to do the grueling work of healing.

I sometimes tell clients that stubbornness can be a virtue and in this case, it has been for me. Somehow my stubborn self found a way through the horror and walled it off from the rest of my life so that I could indeed be a silly sixth grader or be giddy about my date to the prom. As an adult, my stubborn self kept me going even when I had every excuse for stopping my healing. When money was tight my stubborn self made sure money for therapy came first. When no cell in my body wanted to walk into the therapist’s office because I knew what I would have to confront when there, my stubborn self pushed me out of the car and through her door.

There is much work that needs be done in secret and that is how it should be and how it needs to be. But there comes a time when keeping the secret means colluding with our abusers, holding onto the shame they so freely passed on to us. Sometimes we survive and we heal, and those of us who have been granted both of those graces owe a responsibility to use our voices in whatever way is right for us.

From time to time I am reminded – or have to be reminded – that the light is more powerful than the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. It’s a hard word to write right now, knowing that the darkness has indeed snuffed out the light of so many. But we who survive, be it surviving the dangers of our own particular worlds or simply surviving on this planet while others are killed, we who survive are entrusted with the responsibility of carrying their light forward.

Over the last twenty years, every decision I have made about my work has been made in the context of my survival. The fact of my life is a gift and I am bound to be good steward of that gift.

While it is more dramatically true for some, in reality it’s true for all of us. Are we good stewards of the lives we have been given?

We have been entrusted with the light, and by our lives we reflect its shining or contribute to darkness. The light is in the causes for which we stand and for which we work, even when they are neither easy nor expedient. It is in the hundred odd choices we have each day as to whether or not we will walk with kindness, love mercy and do justice.

I cannot bring those children back. I can do what is mine to do to help create a world where other children are not targets, where division is not celebrated and violence is not glorified.

At my church this morning, in addition to the chaos of a services altered at the last minute we were were faced with a power outage in the sanctuary. No organ, no sound system and no lights. As the guitar choir played the prelude and the choir gathered for the processional, suddenly the lights came on and we all caught our breath. And so it is.

Darkness makes an appearance, so impudent to come breaking into this season of light. We mourn and grieve and shake our fists at the heaven for the profound wrongness of it all. But sooner or later we who survive come around, we must come around to remembering the light that shines even in this darkness.

May we who live commit ourselves to being light and to shining light and to creating spaces for light in this world, even in this world that sometimes falls into the deep darkness.

Response from Colorado: Love Back

Someone just sent me these words from Colorado state senator Mike Johnston, and I wanted to share them with you:

Love Back

Yesterday, four million Coloradans went to work and played football in their front yard; strangers opened doors for each other; people gave blood, offered shelter, served hot meals, held grandkids, played pick-up basketball and committed unnumbered acts of kindness and gentleness. One Coloradan dressed up like a villain and believed that by showing up at the site of America’s mythical hero he could slay our actual heroes.

It’s true there was no Batman sitting in the theater to fly down and tackle James Holmes, as he hoped there might be. He had tactical assault gear covering his whole body, ready for America to fight back.

But love is more organized than that. Love has cellphones and ambulances, nurses and doctors, complete strangers and policemen and emergency responders always at the ready. Love has nurses who will jump out of bed in the middle of the night and get family members to watch their children so they can rush to the hospital and save the life of someone they’ve never met. Love has first responders who will walk into a booby-trapped building to save the lives of neighbors they will never meet.

It must be lonely being James Holmes, spending the first part of your life planning alone for an act that will leave you sitting alone for the rest of your life. For the rest of us, life is crowded. Love is always only three numbers and one movie seat away.

We have lived our country’s history as a chapter of wars, and many of those wars we have been blessed to win. We are a team that loves each other and will fight for each other, and if you punch us in the mouth, we will fight back.

That is one of our obvious strengths, but it is not our greatest strength. America’s awesome strength to fight is overwhelmed by its irrepressible strength to love. James Holmes took twelve lives last night. Love saved fifty-nine lives. Policemen on the scene in minutes, strangers carrying strangers, nurses and doctors activated all over the city.

But we didn’t stop there. Love saved the 700 other people who walked out of the Aurora movie theater unhurt.

But we didn’t stop there. Love saved the 5,000 who went to see Batman all over Colorado, and the 1.2 million who saw it all over the country, who walked in and out safely with their friends, arm in arm.

But we didn’t stop there. Love claimed the four million other Coloradans who went to bed peacefully last night, ad who woke up this morning committed to loving each other a little deeper.

The awe of last night is not that a man full of hate can take twelve people’s lives; it is that a nation full of love can save 300 million lives every day.

I sat this morning wondering what I could do to help: give blood, support victims, raise money, stop violence. How could we start to fight back?

My friends were texting me that they had plans to take their kids to Batman tonight but were now afraid to go. Others who were going to play pick-up basketball or go out to dinner were now afraid to leave home. They thought they would bunker down in their home and wonder, “How do we fight back?”

The answer is we love back. We live back. We deepen our commitments to all the unnumbered acts of kindness that make America an unrendable fabric. We respond by showing that we will play harder, and longer. We will serve more meals, play more games, eat more food, listen to more jazz, go to more movies, give more hugs, and say more “thank yous” and “I love yous” than ever before.

So while James Holmes settles into the cell where he will spend the rest of his life, wondering what we will do to fight back, we will love back. We will go to a park this afternoon and play soccer, we will go to the playground and restaurants and movie theaters of our city all weekend and all year.

He should know not only that he failed in his demented attempt to be the villain, but that Batman didn’t have to leap off the screen to stop him, because we had a far more organized and powerful force than any superhero could ever have. Even the twelve lives that he took, this nation will love so strongly and so deeply that we will ensure they get a lifetime full of love out of a life he tried to cut short.

And the fifty-nine lives we took back will be so overrun with love that they will live their lives feeling blessed every day, and everyone who ever meets them will pass on in an instant a love they never knew they earned but we will never let them forget.

In a movie theatre in aurora 50 years from now, one of last night’s survivors will be waiting in the popcorn line and mention that he was in Theatre 9 on that terrible summer night in 2012. And inexplicably, with an arm full of popcorn, a total stranger will reach out and give that old man a huge hug and say, “I’m so glad you made it.”