C is for Collaborate (what to do with your broken heart?)

"I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.
Mary Oliver

When I first met Mike, sparks lit the wide Texas sky. It was on a sunny 40-acre campus dotted with classical fountains, Live Oak trees and June bugs.

I felt the arc, body and soul. On the surface, he was adorable with his broad shoulders and brown curls, but underneath was his heart for kids at the Muscular Dystrophy camp where he spent his summers and now his dorm floor, the ones with broken bodies and soaring spirits.

At the time, I was attending a hearty Bible-teaching Baptist college group housed in a boxy, brick building. Mike was attending a luminous Episcopal Church steeped in stained glass and the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. We knelt on velvet padded prayer kneelers, held the Book of Common Prayer between us and took communion. Right from the start, we wanted to worship together and share church life. We found the best of both worlds by attending the Sunday morning teaching and fellowship at my suburban church and then attending Communion service at his city church on Sunday nights. We worshiped with guitars, fresh baked bread and wine. Jeans welcome.

We were young, sparkly and falling in love. With nimble college schedules, we could embrace the beauty of two worshipping worlds each in their own space and creativity.

Once Mike asked me to marry him, we brought our worship together into one place both for the ceremony and the children we hoped to have one day. Still, we didn't want to lose the vibrant, textured creativity we had cobbled together in worship.

That process of patching together two styles of worship and another one serving in tandem threaded a faith rich as Joseph's technicolor coat. After our honeymoon, we found a place we didn't think existed except in our hearts, a limestone Episcopal church with a Baptist preacher in the pulpit and Young Life in the youth group.

That was in the beginning of love when any and everything seems possible, when you walk around with tingly toes and a singing soul, before bills, a cross-country move and four small children. That was before we met autism.

If you have ever met autism face-to-face, a near impossible thing to do as it never wants to look you squarely in the eye, you will know how it shatters and scatters. All the pieces you may have drawn together, whether of yourself or love, family or faith; all fall and break. Or maybe they shatter first and then fall.

At least that's how it was for me.

I want to tell you the pieces were like calico pottery, but it felt more like burning shrapnel. Even at the time, I knew God's hand was in it somehow, if not in the actual breaking, then in not stopping the blast. But knowing it didn't keep me from feeling shadowy, abandoned and broken. I asked some hard questions. Can I trust God's breaking hand? Where can I run and hide? How can I stop my heart from hardening into a husk?

I stood among the shattered pieces afraid if I took a single step, I would slice the soles of my tender feet. I stood shell-shocked among the ruins. I had three other young children and a husband who needed me unstuck. Mac certainly needed me unstuck.

I walked through the shattered glass of my own broken heart and all of our feet bled.

"Sometimes we do not know what we know until it comes to us through the soles of our feet . . ".
Barbara Brown Taylor

We may have been taught that Jesus carries us through our troubles and there is some truth to that. I always liked that better than the equally true "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me". Walking through the valley bloodies our feet and shapes our souls.

We may have to walk through the shadowlands, but not alone.

I am the stubborn redhead who tried.

I was sitting in Faith's office crying my eyeballs out over Mac. As my friend and pastor, she laid down the challenge to choose a mentor right in this moment, and surprisingly a name bubbled up clear as a bell. A woman I did not know except in passing. Through my snotty tears, I said her name out loud.

On a cold call, I told her simply, "I have no idea what I need, maybe a strong shoulder, a listening heart, a praying woman?"

She said, "Yes". Bless my heart she said yes.

At our first meeting in her living room, Judy sat at my feet hugging my knees, holding my hurt. My pain, pressed down and bottled up, poured out of deep reservoirs. Between us, we found common ground: mama hearts, following our Savior and a fanatical love of books. She was in the middle of her own grief work, so our time together involved mutuality. We collaborated in rugged reflection, buckets of tears and all around ragged edges. You could call it a mess, but it was process and revelation. It was healing collaboration.

It was Judy who taught me to come just as I am without any answers or strength. She insisted I be vulnerable and raw, allowing witness to my unvarnished pain. She called me a stinker when I held waves of grief behind my levied heart. Let the levy break and flood the world. God knows how to float driftwood, teach us to swim or build an ark.

I needed other voices, other ideas, other expertise, other people. It would surprise me who those others turned out to be. I desperately needed Much-More-Mercy, closer, with skin and bones. I needed a team around Mac for testing, multiple therapies, education, building social skills, navigating the IEP meetings and managing his meds. I still do.

But first, I needed Mike. That meant NOT cleaning up the mess before I talked to him or he got home after work. That might be the ruins of one of Mac's tantrums or school suspensions or the mess of me after one of these moments. We had started out in those early Texas days telling each other everything and sharing any loads together. Now, we were in way over our heads, both lost in grief and trying to manage Mac each in our own way.

I had some deeply ingrained ideas about what I should be able to do on my own. In my mind, it seemed ridiculous, weak and frankly impractical for me to call Mike with a crisis he could not fix. Why burden the both of us?

I already knew autism isn't fixable. But fixing is not the only point of collaboration. There is holding each other close, dividing the sadness and healing to do together.

It wasn't until much, much later, recently even, that I added creativity to that list of reasons to work together. I finally began to see and appreciate how Mac was made in love, by God's own hand and for his purposes, with autism. But in that season, I was barely surviving the day.

Collaborate: co + labor; labor alongside, team up, join together, unite; a shared commitment, a collective endeavor.

I am fond of another word in that same vein, cahoots. Cahoots is a cousin to collaborate. It is from the French word for cabin or hut, "cahute". To me that suggests housing, taking shelter together under God's mighty wing. Being in cahoots together carries the idea of planning or scheming with mischief, creativity and home. We would need it all.

Autism has this way, as with most hard things, of making our hearts feel alone in the world, ruined and abandoned. But to collaborate with the Living God is to challenge that feeling with a spiritual reality. We are never alone.

God is the author of creative collaboration. The Trinity will blow your mind. He gives us that trio along with human collaborators in our marriages, mentors, rising tide friends, and co-workers. Let's be in cahoots with them all.

It won't be pretty in the silk ribbon sort of way. It takes dreaded vulnerability. It takes guts and tenderheartedness. We need grit over grit and strength beyond our strength. I do believe God absolutely gives us more than we can handle. Otherwise, how do we truly need Him or anyone else?

I was too hurt, and let's be honest, too stubborn, to ask for help. To let others, especially my beloved, into my great grief, grief I thought would never heal, was a breakthrough for me. One day, I called Mike in tears even though I knew he could not fix the situation or even come home to help. I let him mend me in ways I never had before. I have to tell you, it didn't feel good in the doing. I only felt as though I was scattering my sorrow and lostness into the world. I did it anyway.

We crafted a crack team one valuable member at a time: a mentor for me, a marriage counselor for us, a deliberately slower pace of life, a Life Group community, and therapists of every kind for Mac. We gathered a psychologist with insight into autism, a psychiatrist at the Children's Hospital, an educational consultant to partner with at IEP meetings. We reluctantly, thoughtfully, carefully added the tiniest-dose medications; whispers we call them. And over the years, we got the bravest band of teachers in the whole world: Thuy, Jennifer, Jason, Rick, Rollie, 2 Adams, Linda, Lindsay, Kelly, Kelso and Jim. We needed them all.

Every team member brought expertise and heart to Mac's care. They may not have all shared our Christian faith, but they were part of a team built on our faith in God and his creative collaborative heart. Some were with us for a season, some are still on our team. Underneath it all, Mike and I are more solidly and vulnerably together, still learning to fit our broken pieces into a new pattern. Oh so many prayers are flung from our broken places to a gritty God who can handle it all.

When I think of being in cahoots, I might add good strong coffee, reading books and a short run up the hill near our home as team members in their own right. These daily rituals give me small starting places for each day and help me breathe. Just breathe. Some days that is all I manage.

The shattered pieces come together slowly, creatively, with God as backboard and mortar. If you have ever wondered where Jesus is in your breaking, he is near. He is near to the brokenhearted; body and soul, he is near. He is hanging on a wooden cross under a blackened sky. In our suffering, His own bleeding hands gather the sharp and shattered pieces. His feet bleed too as he walks across the shards to reach us.

He comes for us all, piecing our broken pieces together out of our bloody wounds and rivers of grief. Because time is no barrier for him, at that same moment, we find the cross and tomb are empty. He is by our side. We finally recognize him and find we both have scars. We want smooth skin, but our scars remain as tender, terrible reminders that we have survived. For now, we have survived and we did it together.