Imani Haerenga

I’m not really sure how to put into words all that this last weekend was for me.  My favorite times in ministry are those times I get to spend extended intentional time with the young people of our church: lock-ins, mission trips, camp, and retreats.  This retreat is always special.  We have a theme, we start dreaming about and creating a vision for Youth Sunday.  I always walk away with extreme pride, a warm heart, and insight into how much these kiddos have grown over the last year (sometimes even just in the last few weeks).

One important thing I have seen in my own life, but I know to be true for others and for faith formation and retention in youth, is genuine connection.  To me that includes vulnerability, and openness, and realness.  So this year’s retreat theme landed on “Faith Stories”–broad in many senses, but also adaptable to be narrowed down.  We talked about what a faith story is, some examples from the Bible, different ways to express your story, mandalas, and then our sponsors shared their own stories.  The stories were raw, and emotional, and not candy-coated.  It can be uncomfortable sitting with someone else’s story, but our youth did an amazing job being respectful and receptive and present.

I’d like to share the story I wrote for my youth with you all here.  It was a struggle to read for them, but I got through it.  Please recognize that the audience this was written for was the youth on retreat, so the pronouns and language should be read as such.

Shannon’s Faith Story

I find writing my faith story to be a lot like journaling.  It ebbs and flows and most times just eeps out of me.  The first thing I’d like to make clear is that I don’t have just one faith story.  I have many.  Some are big, some are small.  No matter the size they have all had a hand in shaping me.  And that is ongoing.

I could tell you about my confirmation experience, and why I decided to go through with joining my church when I was in the 7th grade.  I could tell you about my African faith story.  How it felt to be God’s hands and feet and what culture shock was like for me.  I could tell you about my call to ministry and my process for discernment in youth ministry as my vocation.  But I think an important lesson in stories of faith is knowing they don’t always come in happy and joyous experiences.

I want to share with you my faith story from the last couple of years.  Bear with me because there are bound to be tears.  Some of you may know that my mom had Parkinson’s.  It’s a degenerative disease, meaning it doesn’t ever get better but medications and therapies can slow the progression of the disease.  Parkinson’s is a neurological disease so it affects the brain and nerves.  It was very difficult to see the spread of the disease but I found it gave me new perspective about my mom, our relationship, and our faith.

I’d have huge bouts of frustration with my mom in the early stages when she couldn’t remember things I had told her repeatedly, when I had to do everyday tasks for her, or things that seemed strange because she couldn’t do herself.  This is when my prayer life picked up.  My prayers morphed from just meal times and when I feel asleep to constant breaks in my day: anytime I was driving, after I hung up with talking to family or friends on the phone, when I was exercising, etc.  I’d pray for her, my dad, my sisters, myself, and for specific situations as they arose.

Then November 11th 2016 hit.  Shelly and I were planning to see our parents and we got an urgent call from our dad saying that he couldn’t wake our mom up.  We got in the car and drove to their house.  I was in constant prayer then. “Give us strength, give us strength, give us strength.”  My heart was racing.  We arrived, finally roused my mom, got her in the car and we all immediately went to the ER.  This time I wasn’t driving but my prayers kept flooding in “she has to be okay, God, she just has to…”

They ran all sorts of tests in the ER.  And found nothing.  We’d been down a similar road before.  But the crazy thing is once we hit the ER her temperature plummeted.  She got so cold the machines had trouble reading her pulse and signaled several times that she had coded.

From there she went to the ICU and our family made the decision after about a week that she should be moved to hospice care.  Generally, hospice is used as a way to ease patients and their families into the dying process making patients comfortable for their last days.  For me, this took even more prayer.  I prayed for my dad, who was going through a horrible time as he thought about losing his wife, life partner and best friend.  I prayed for my sisters: one far away who could be in a sense of denial and one close at home who takes emotions very directly.  I prayed for our decision making, that we were doing what my mom would have wanted and that God would continue to provide comfort and peace for her through the process.

The thing about my faith at this point is that I believed in the power of God, I believed he would surround us and provide us support but I didn’t make myself the center of my prayers.  I have a tendency to be a protector, someone who looks out for others, and gives so much that sometimes I neglect my own well-being.  This showed me my own strong faith.  It’s like breathing, I don’t have to consciously tell myself to breath in and out, I just do it.  The same way I didn’t have to worry about myself because God already had me taken care of.

The next 5 months were tough.  I wasn’t myself.  I wasn’t always present, in my own life or admittedly at work either.  And I probably neglected you all along the way.

Often times when people are grief stricken they resort to asking God “why”.  Why do they have to be sick?  Why now?  Why did they have to die?  Why her?  Because Parkinson’s patients who have the specific diagnosis my mom had generally live 5-10 years after initial diagnosis, I had been gearing myself up for days and decisions like these with which we were now faced.  My mom was diagnoses in the late fall of 2009 and this was November of 2016.

I had already spent the last seven years processing the fact that my mom’s life would come to a close much sooner than I would like, and much soon than the parents of my peers.  I already had seven years to fight with God, to question, and to work through much of my grief.  So my questions, in Shannon fashion, at this point became more geared toward advocating for my mom.  Why is she still in pain?  Why this back and forth of good days and bad days and all the in-betweens?  When will this burden be lifted?  I’m not always so proud to admit that last one.

Even though these questions were difficult, you can see that my faith changed.  I knew my mom would be provided for in heaven.  I knew she was already having vision of the other side.  And I knew that much of her continued time on earth, though stressful for myself and my dad as we visited everyday or every other day, and stressful for my sisters as they processed in their own ways—this continued time on earth was necessary for my mom.  Because even in my mom’s strength and dedicated faith, she was scared.  She was frightened of the unknown of what heaven would be like, what dying would feel like, and how my whole immediate family would deal with the hole in our hearts and our lives.

This whole experience that I walked through with my mom and her journey to eternal life strengthened my faith and showed me that our prayers are not always answered in the ways we expect.  Sometimes the desires of our hearts are not what wins out when put up against the desires of the heart of another.  I kept praying for an end to my mom’s suffering—in my mind that being a peaceful passing.  But I am confident that she was praying for clarity and comfort as she came to terms with the unknown in front of her.  Her needs and wishes were greater than, and honestly, more important than, mine.

I am thankful in knowing that even when we are sad and suffering, our faith can grow in positive ways.  We may not always expect the outcomes we get, but with the many prayers God receives, he fits the pieces together to create the needed outcomes.

**The title is a combination of Swahili and Maori words.  The first is Swahili for “faith” and the second is Maori for “journey”**

In the nick of time…

About two and a half years ago, my sisters and I were spit-balling ideas for our parents for Christmas.  They are often difficult to buy for, especially since they didn’t need more “stuff”.  And then I got an idea: pictures.  We hadn’t done any kind of family portraits with all five of us since…our Olan Mills days?  And we for sure hadn’t had Josh in any with us.  Good photography can beis expensive.  It’s one of those things that I think you really do need to splurge for, if you want a good end result.

I wracked my brain, how were we going to pay for photos?  Even with all four of us kids pitching in, I wasn’t sure we’d get the effect we wanted.  Until I thought of Chelsea.

Chelsea and I attended OWU at the same time I did, she was a freshman when I was a senior.  The funny thing, I think, is that I actually met her mother and brother before I actually met her.  See, I was working as an intern in the Admissions Office at the time, and I helped at an event in Indy that OWU was hosting.  And her brother was there as a “prospective student”.  To be candid, he wasn’t ever seriously considering our school, but it was free food and it helped the event to have a current student’s parent present for questions.  Chelsea’s mother was quick to learn that I had a car on campus and set up our first meeting–carpooling home for…Thanksgiving break (right, Chels?)

We were quick friends based on our love of Starbucks, good music, and unbelievable abilities to hold an endless conversation with a seemingly complete stranger.  What more could you want?  That year I gave Chelsea many rides home, and the following year as well as I returned to OWU to fill a temporary position in the Admissions Office.

She has been one of my closest friends here in Indy. Someone close geographically that understands my longing for HamboInn and Amato’s. And at Christmas time two years ago she was a Godsend. Chelsea has her BFA and is a professional Art Therapist, and she is super talented in many of the arts. But one of my favorites is her photography. So she agreed and trekked with us to Nashville, IN and took photo after photo of the 6 of us. I will forever be grateful for this kindness and the resulting memories in my mind, my heart, and captured in print.

They offer me of tiny glimpses of silliness, joy, togetherness, and love. And those moments are so dear.

Expectation

I love the seasons of the Christian church.  There are so many memories from my childhood wrapped up with each and everyone.  Mardi Gras, Lenten breakfasts, palm parades down 39th, the Hallelujah chorus on Easter, Youth Sundays, Advent festivals, 5pm Christmas Eve service plays, Epiphany parties and so many more.  But I have to admit that Advent has been difficult for me.  I’ve never been strict in my observance and the call to slow down and expectantly anticipate the celebration of Christs birth.  And working at a church now, I definitely don’t spend the necessary time in silence, and wonder, and meditation.

But this year…this year is different.  This year I need that time.  I need to take moments of silence for myself.  I need to wonder about the story, and about how others celebrate, and about how the birth and gift of Christ is enough.  I need to meditate with my own thoughts, and the Word, and the talented words of others.  So I have been reading more intently (and with regularity) the Advent devotions our church members have created.  It’s easy because they are populated in my email when I check it each morning.  And so I spend a few minutes centering myself, a few minutes reading, and a few minutes praying.

Advent is different this year.  Amidst the hustle and bustle and joy of the season I find that my melancholy is all too obvious.  The songs and music that generally make this season “merry and bright” seem less sparkly, less joyous, and less welcome to my ears.  It’s something to work through, and something that I know won’t always feel this way.  I am extremely thankful for the bright spots: Christmas cards and candy from my youth, nights full of laughter and frivolity with friends, surprise gifts throughout the season, and Holiday greetings from dear ones near and far (Christmas season mail is my favorite–TBH any mail is my favorite).

I just have to keep reminding myself to feel how I feel and not apologize.  I have found some solace in Anne Weems’ Kneeling in Bethlehem.  My favorite poem of the moment is below.  It speaks a little to how my heart is feeling.  But it also brings memories of her other poems from the same book that we used for our Christmas pageant each year.

Yesterday’s Pain

Some of us walk into Advent
tethered to our unresolved yesterdays
the pain still stabbing
the hurt still throbbing.
It’s not that we don’t know better;
it’s just that we can’t stand up anymore by ourselves.
On the way to Bethlehem,
will you give us a hand?

Shades.

It’s been a little difficult getting back into writing.  I love it, it’s therapeutic, and I always feel better on the other side of having hit “publish”.  But time has been a little difficult.  I find myself with way too many ideas, that is never an issue.  But not the opportune time to sit, grab coffee or tea, and just spew onto the page (screen?).  I guess I need to start carrying a bigger purse and tote with me a Common Place Journal.  Duly (and truly) noted.

As October ends and November begins, I get chills–we will start marking our grief in years.  Sunday, though it was still in October, started a flow of really difficult times ahead.  I have the opportunity to preach for my congregation on November 5th.  That’s the traditional date to celebrate All Saints’ Day (the first Sunday after Halloween).  But as a requirement to my preaching, I told my boss that we would have to celebrate ASD a week early.  I just didn’t think I could handle preaching on that day.  He graciously obliged and here we are.  So we stood when mom’s name was read on Sunday in remembrance.  All three of us, right in a row, with clasped hands and Kleenex at the ready.  There were tears, there were hand squeezes and hugs from friends.

I’m tied to dates.  Heavily so.  I take stock in time and place and catalog it all away.  So November will be hard; really, really hard.  One year since she went to the ER.  One year since she went to GVS.  One year since it all started and she didn’t come back.  One. Year.  And then you throw in Thanksgiving, one of our family’s favorite holidays.  And you throw in her birthday directly after, and it’s a lot.  Needless to say, I’m taking a couple extra days in November–for me as much as for anyone else.  Because, as I become more and more aware, grief is a process.

I handle the grief surprisingly well.  Most days I can hold it close to me and find the light in the moments of dark.  But other times the tears fall–I’m not afraid of the tears, it’s okay, crying is healing for me.  I just don’t like the public tears.  I appreciate the raw emotion, and being able to share my vulnerability with my closest friends.  But my grief in spotlight is not something I enjoy.  (Maybe that’s a part of why this post in particular is so difficult–but necessary).

Thankfully I have friends who understand, and those who empathize when they can’t quite understand.  Friends who hug, and laugh, and ask the tough questions.  The friend who has seen me cry time and time and time again at lunches at restaurants (there are still more to come).  The friend who tentatively asked me if I’d be willing to discuss hospice with her as she felt it may be necessary for her own parent (we both cried for that one).  The friend who empathized for a long time and now is travelling her own journey with a parent with unknown health outcomes.  The friend who searches for glimpses of mom, in our lives and in her own life, and pushes us to feel Mom’s presence around us.  The friend who creates space and brings light through her understanding of many of my worlds as they collide–as she said to me last week “There is just something about OWU friends…”  The friend who; though she lives in a different state; prays for me constantly, is my rock, and has been there since the beginning–us sobbing under the table (discussing mom’s diagnosis) at her husband’s 21st birthday will always have a bittersweet place in my heart.  I am thankful for these and more–many people have held and continue to hold me up.

I feel my grief in shades of purple.  Today I’m a light lavender, tomorrow may come in more of an eggplant.  I’m sure that things will never be pure white again–though who knows if they were ever more than off-white to start with.  But I am thankful for the shades; they remind me of my strength, my love for my mom, and for reality in life’s ebb and flow.  Without the “bad” would we ever truly appreciate the “good”?