the colorful mess of joy and grief

I’m sure you would expect this post to be coming next. I’m busy doing all the regular things: washing the clothes, planning the meals, counting the days ’til the last day of school. I’m also doing some not-so-regular things: caring for family members who aren’t well, preparing our guest room for a last minute visit, comforting our girl over some unexplained anxiety. All the while, there is a cloud of sadness that I can’t explain, but I understand.

And I’m learning, again, what it means to abide in Christ in the midst of the same and the not-so-same. I’m thinking of them and of us and of all the land and water in between. I’m shocked at my ability to compartmentalize. I grieve it. And yet, I question if that’s what this is. People here need me, and so I carry on. But I do not forget. This foggy sadness tells me so. Music helps a little. Prayer helps more. I wash the dishes and whisper short pleas, small longings, and lots of questions into the silence.

As I continue to process, I’m sharing with you a little piece of happy today. These photos are from the wedding I shot before I left for the Philippines. You know, the I-can’t-hold-it-together-so-I’ll-just-pray-over-the-SD-cards wedding? That one.

I look at her lovely face, at the way the light hits her just so, and I think of new beginnings, of life just starting and keeping on, of a God who offers hope and a future. I think of every good gift coming down from the Father of the Heavenly lights, and how marriage is a good gift.

I think of the posts I’ve written on art, over 40 of them by now, and I consider how pursuing our art in some ways feels extravagant when you consider the mother living from meal to meal in a one room shack.

But we don’t stop living simply because others live hard. Seeing them could shut us down if we let it. Or it could open us up. It is not for us to feel bad about where we live, what we were born into, what we have been given. But it is for us to reconsider the gifts, that perhaps they are just that: gifts. Not entitled, not owed, not earned. But gifts.

They have gifts too, ones called grace and mercy and forgiveness and love. Sometimes those of us who have much have to dig through all our provisions to find peace and contentment sitting small in the bottom of the bucket instead of holding grace with simple hands, embracing the nothing, and feasting on Jesus.

Life keeps right on, and we celebrate because there is much to celebrate. We swallow down joy in big, breathless gulps. We must. And then, we grieve when it all gets to be too much, and that is as it should be.

But if the grieving begins to linger too long, it can be good to circle around to the gifts again; to whisper thanks, to receive the blessing, and to turn ourselves outward. Grief closes us in. Gifts spin us around to thankful, and thankful opens us wide for the giving.

I have to keep coming back to that, the life raft of thankfulness. I have to believe in a God who knows things that I don’t, in a faith that is bigger than the shadows it casts, in the simple beauty of life–even when it’s hard. And I pray with open hands for the Lord to use the art of words and pictures to spin you and I back around to His goodness, ready to give however He may ask.


  1. says

    “I have to keep coming back to that, the life raft of thankfulness.”

    Me too, Emily… me too.

    When I know what I’ve been given, all gift — I give — and pull more up onto this raft too…

    The photos of a new beginning are beautiful, pure loveliness, Emily — blessings on you too as you begin again — heart full of thanks and gifts to give.

    More love than these words can hold, friend
    All’s grace,

  2. says

    Yes, Ann stole the line I was going to quote too! How do you do this, Emily? How do you stitch together the sadness and the hope in a single quilt of beauty?

    This post may be my favorite one you have ever written – the wedding photos and the Filipino words. Breathless.

    Your writing here – it has taken on deeper shades of purple and ocean blue lately. It swirls with a fullness of an artist coming into her own. An artist who sees the whole world as one story, all integrated, all written with the one pen – His.

    Thank you for reading it to us here.

    You are amazing

    • says

      This: “Your writing here – it has taken on deeper shades of purple and ocean blue lately. It swirls with a fullness of an artist coming into her own.”

      Nodding happy, agreeing… clapping thrilled… sitting still and grateful … so grateful — the fragrance of Christ here in this place where souls can breathe…

  3. says

    “But we don’t stop living simply because others live hard.” – No, we don’t stop living, but knowing and seeing makes us live differently. Our thoughts are different, our steps are different.

    And we don’t live apart from those who live hard – we live with them. In grieving the injustice, in mourning the loss, in sorrowing over the pain – we live with them. We don’t turn a blind eye; we embrace the sadness and the pain, and surely the joy, in their eyes. And we embrace them with compassion and love. This is the living to which we are called.

  4. says

    I love that God is giving you a little bit of happy in the sea of “processing” … continuing to pray for you as you encounter God in this season :)

  5. says

    “I consider how pursuing our art in some ways feels extravagant…”

    I have so wrestled with this. For years the art has been paralyzed, partially because it seems wrong to be so extravagant and lucky when others are not. But isn’t that prideful and self-centered? As you say, others have gifts, too, gifts that I have work very, very hard for in my own life: peace, joy, contentment.

    Thanks for this post.

    PS–I second the sentiments of Lisa-Jo and Ann. Even in just the few short months I’ve been following, your writing has gotten fuller and even more beautiful. I can’t wait for the book to come out!

  6. says

    Beautiful photos, Emily. I love the rings with the LOVE tiles…my husband and I have a Scrabble kind of love.

    I felt something similar to what you’ve described after being with all of the families of the fallen at the TAPS National Survivor’s Seminar last Memorial Day weekend. After seeing 500 children who’ve lost a parent and all these young wives and grieving mothers, and seeing the magnitude of the composite loss, it’s hard to go back home. Thank you again for going. You shared what you saw so beautifully – I found myself talking about it with my five-year-old and my friends and family…I couldn’t help it – your words painted unforgettable pictures.

  7. says

    These photos are delightful, Emily! So soft and lovely and vulnerable and real and fresh – just like you! You did such a beautiful job!

    I’m sending a hug (seems I’m doing that a lot lately), and I’d bring it in real life, except I suspect you don’t need more company right now. Praying for you this week,


  8. says

    This is among the loveliest of all your posts. And that’s saying something because you’ve written a whole lot of lovely. It has me in tears this morning and grasping for the gifts…there are always so many and I always need reminding, especially when the grief and unfixableness threatens to suffocate, that beauty and goodness are there for the inhaling every moment of the day if I’ll just be mindful to look and breathe it in. And that even in the midst of grief, there is still grace enough to give. Thank you sweet friend for these beautiful words today.

    Your photos are spectacular. They are a lucky, lucky couple.

  9. says

    Emily, to live full while others live hard.

    I did not travel to the Philippines. Just through your eyes. I can’t stop thinking about it all.

    I am working on becoming an Advocate. My heart is so full.

    Praying for you.

    Much love.

  10. says

    I really loved this Emily. I feel like I am constantly in the battle of grief and confusion vs. thankfulness and joy … it is so hard to reconcile it all but I know my personal grief over the conditions around me do not serve anyone or anything. It is a colorful mess for certain.

    With respect,

  11. says

    i love these pictures, but i LOVE these words. & as i thought about what you said, about the difficulty of thinking about art when we are faced with the reality of those who live with so much less than we. but i think art is in the living well, regardless of what you have. my grandparents are from honduras, and in them i see an art of grace and patience and giving and love, even though they’ve not been blessed with many of things i’m blessed to have in the united states.

  12. says

    I am praying with you, Emily, as you debrief and process your trip. I like it that you bring your States side life to the Philippines and your Philippine experiences to you life here. (My parents trained pastors in the Philippines for 14 years.)


  13. says

    Well, I can see I need to express mail you a shipment of Kleenex. But I somehow knew that already even before you came home. Because you feel so deeply and take it all in wherever you go. And hold it all dear to your hear and spill it out here in words that make us all need to grab the Kleenex too.

    And that’s why we love you. And that’s your true art whether shuffling through filthy water in knee high rubber boots (that image is persistent in my mind) or capturing the romance in a new marriage (and not just the exterior trimmings of the wedding).

    And maybe that’s one of the reasons God chose to let you experience such vastly different experiences. Because you would help us all to see the art in ALL of it through your eyes.

    Praying for you as you think and sort and transition and remember and carry on. Hugs and love!

  14. says

    I don’t know how I could possibly say what is on my heart better than Ann and Lisa-Jo. He is, indeed, doing a ‘heart-work” in you Emily that spills out in your beautiful writing and in the stunning photos. You bless sweet girl.

  15. says

    I have this quote that I love, and it made me think of your experience:

    “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Homes

    The liftraft of thankfulness. I like that.

  16. says

    i love the combination of new life and comfortable wedding with the reality that we aren’t all. comfortable. so hard to reconcile the two. and yet you have. thank you for sharing your journey.

  17. says

    I was thinking on the drive taking kids to school today, looking around at our city’s version of poverty, thinking about posts from the Philippines, thinking about where we are going to be living this time next year in Peru… And I’m praying that God will open my eyes to see the poverty around us here – not the physical, economic poverty like I am going to be surrounded by as a missionary, but the soul poverty that is rampant in the middle-class and the poor and the rich here and all over the world. It looks so different and is so much harder to be heartbroken over… yet I know “pity” isn’t the answer to anyone’s need and in many ways those who live in the dirt are richer than i am. I know these are issues I am going to wrestle long and hard nights with… and I pray God continues to show His faithful love to you as He opens your eyes to see differently yet again now that you’re home. Thanks for sharing your heart with us.

  18. says

    “..thankful opens us wide for the giving.”

    I’m in a situation where I keep feeling things taken from me. Leaving me without…or the belief that I am left without much to give. Yet today, even before I read this post, there was a shift starting. Reading your words reminded me to shift my focus, to go back to my thankfuls and to remember I always have something to give. I’m like the moon…I can always reflect His goodness.

    So today I will spend time finding what I have to give to someone who has taken so much and I will feel fuller for giving.

  19. says

    I have to second (triple?) Lisa-Jo and Ann. Your words and your message are wonderful, challengingly beautiful, but the writing…good gracious the writing is so ‘full’ as Lisa-Jo says. I have always enjoyed stopping by to read your lovely words, but the last few months you have reached a place that is entirely ‘other’. You are so gifted, Emily. God bless you for honoring your gift with obedience and diligence. You are such a blessing and inspiration to me.

  20. says

    You taught that today.
    Grief without hope is so empty.
    Thankful for He who knows what we can’t even utter-and thankful for this — you saw–and now you hope for them.
    I was so drawn by your images-those were of hope too-such a gift-how do you do that?

  21. Kim says

    Beautiful post…..the life raft of thankfulness.
    Thank you Emily
    Your writing, your journey and my faith has led me to adopt a child through Compassion

  22. says

    “But it is for us to reconsider the gifts, that perhaps they are just that: gifts. Not entitled, not owed, not earned. But gifts.”

    Yep — this. Walking through it with you, sister. Love you.

  23. Sissy says

    I’ve been living in this weird place lately, where I think of Dennis and grieve his death and am hurt and angry and lost in the corners of my mind, but then the next minute I’m back in my life full of dogs and adoption and my husband and shrubs to plant. The busy-ness of the day to day often take me out of the sadness, but I know, for Crystal, she is there always, minute by minute. I visited her today, and we had a good laugh, in between some very serious moments. The life God gives us is like a kaleidoscope, ever turning. If we are smart, we point it toward him, the light, and see the beauty in all of it, but many times we look down and miss so much of what he has to offer. I’ve made it a point recently to look up, worship him in my sadness, praise him for the life I have, focus on his presence and peace, and drink up every word of your posts about your trip. I’m forever thankful that our worlds collided at Andrews.

  24. says

    As I admired your lovely photos, the lighting, the emotion, the celebration. And read your words….the fullness of art and heart. I was reminded of this verse from Ephesians 2:10…”For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we would walk in them.”

    I’m not a Bible scholar. But as that verse came to mind I am reminded that God is the ultimate artist. His art is everywhere we look, touch, smell, feel….and in the innermost and uttermost. I love that He created us for good works…yes, bringing healing, comfort, justice and more. But certainly to put our hands to art as well.

    I have a hunch your art will become deeper, brighter, wider, and more beautiful because of your experience….which will be alive in your spirit…and you will bless and inspire and lead through your good works…your art.

    Thank you for becoming available to HIM…to be bruised, hurt and now molded for the good works you were created for.


  25. Shan says

    Your words! Your heart! Your eye for what matters! The Truth that brings all three of these to resonate together is exalted. Thank you for sharing. For bringing hope and light and life to us, your readers. I know there are days I don’t have time to read all that I’m subscribed to. So I pick. Yours. Because I know it will be time well spent being reminded of grace and love and comfort. Press on. The pictures turned out great, by the way!

  26. says

    I would love to hear more about not feeling guilty about our “gifts.” And I mean this 100% honestly. I would love to hear more about that. Because sometimes I feel like our “gifts” are American distractions that get in the way of The Real Gifts like what you saw in the Philippians. Sometimes I feel like my gifts are keeping me from really seeing and knowing God.

    Here’s a little story that explains what I mean…

    One of my pastors was visiting with a Christian guy from Asia where poverty and disease were part of the everyday Christian life for him and friends. My pastor asked him something along the lines of “How do you deal with that? That must be terrible? How can I pray for you?” The guy replied with something along these lines, “no. We pray for you. For the Christians in America who have so much to distract them from relying on and seeing God.”

    I hope this isn’t coming across harsh or judgmental because that’s not how I mean it. I just really love to hear your take on things. I’ve been on a lot of trips like yours that has helped me simplify my life, but sometimes the trips aren’t enough. I want more less. I want a simpler life where I can know Him more.

  27. says

    For some reason, I always prefer to think of “the gifts” as just blind, random luck. I don’t know why. And it’s too late to parse my (faulty?) theology on this one. My dad would always say, “We are so blessed to live in America”. And I know – I know – I know it’s true, but I have trouble swallowing it all the way down, because if we’re blessed for it, then others are not. So I finally fall on luck, because the real Gift is something we all have. The extra stuff – Stuff – is just by chance. I just can’t believe that God only wanted some of us – not all – to have thousands of options for the color on our walls and art and 100 varieties of tomatoes and piped-in cold air when it’s 90 out.

    Am I sounding disagreeable? I hope not. You just always get my wheels turning, O.

    ps – Your photos are just beautiful.
    pss – Still perpetually heart-broken over not seeing you in July! (sniff)

  28. Claire says

    I think this is my favorite post ever Emily. And your pictures are fabulous. Thank you.

    Thank you Jesus for these godly ladies, that I don’t even know, that write words that reside in thin air; words that I can read and learn from and that make me think and feel. God bless their efforts to glorify You with their words. And help Emily and the others make sense of the things you showed them.

  29. says

    Oh Emily, thank you for these words. I have been quiet as I read all the Compassion trip posts. Not because they didn’t move me. On the contrary friend, they stirred me deep. I struggle to process it all. I wonder if it is okay for me to live in a home with 4 bedrooms when others live in a space the size of my laundry room. I needed these words of yours – “But we don’t stop living simply because others live hard.” Praying for you as you continue to process it all.

  30. says

    Honestly and sincerely, Emily, ALL of your posts always get to me (in many good ways). But each post always has a few lines that REALLY get to me.

    For this one it’s this: “But we don’t stop living simply because others live hard. Seeing them could shut us down if we let it. Or it could open us up. It is not for us to feel bad about where we live, what we were born into, what we have been given. But it is for us to reconsider the gifts, that perhaps they are just that: gifts. Not entitled, not owed, not earned. But gifts.”

    And this: “Grief closes us in. Gifts spin us around to thankful, and thankful opens us wide for the giving.”

    For someone who feels guilty too much and even guilts myself into grief, these words (and knowing The Truth from which they come) grace life. Thank you.

  31. Kendra says

    I’ve started having a lot of fun reading the comments of your posts. I love seeing how your words are changing people’s lives. It’s really a privilege. It’s also really fun seeing these photos in the context of a post. What a cute little sister I have. :) I can’t wait to move into my house and frame some of these bad boys to look at all the time. You’re a dear. Everyone thinks so (*said in my best middle school girly voice that still maintains its sincerity… I’m a freak).

  32. says

    Dear Emily, thank you so much for these beautiful words. I am in the middle of figuring out my heart after being on the mission field for six years — two of these long years specifically dealing with great poverty. It is turning my heart in knots and I am trying to work my way through. I am going to have to bookmark this and come back to it again (and probably again) to remember that “We don’t stop simply living because others live hard.” Such a challenge to this heart of mine. Thank you!

  33. says

    so so beautiful.
    Ive been posting and processing for over a year now. Finding my place in the journey, my voice in the quiet, allowing myself a place to create again and remembering daily. Its all grace. and mercy. baby steps.

  34. susan says

    In the midst of all you are doing in love&thankfulness, I do hope you are getting a little extra rest. That said, only you can juxtapose the seeming black&white of the different worlds in which we live & not make them come together in shades of gray, but in full color. In breathing, eye-popping color. The kind that makes your pupils change involuntarily and your ribs expand in full, deep breath, taking it all in. And yes, “spinning us around” on the color wheel that is life no matter which world we live in. Thank you. You are back, in all your Emily-ness. Forever changed,perhaps, but forever you. Thank you again.

  35. says

    I have read along with you for months now and have cried on different occasions because your gift of putting things just so speaks to my heart. Today I am writing for the 1st time because I want you to know that I know how you feel. To me it matters that someone actually “gets it” so I thought it might matter to you to know that I get it.

    Not just in that I have experienced joy and pain, but I too have just returned from the 3rd world and am stumbling and struggling to go on with my days and do the old things that used to be all my life was made of without guilt or anger at the excesses of those around me who complain about their little inconveniences etc etc. Those who have not been there no matter what we say to them and how many photos we show, they can’t feel it like we can. A wise friends told me this week that the experience was given to me alone and I am not supposed to make anyone else understand, I am just supposed to grow closer to God. That’s why he sent me.
    I spent 2 weeks in Uganda 2 years ago and just returned from a month in Uganda at the end of May 2011. If you can handle more photos from the 3rd world, you can look here Thank you for sharing what you have been taught and living out loud and inside out for all of us to grow along with you. You are a blessing to me.

  36. says

    “I have to keep coming back to that, the life raft of thankfulness.”

    Me too Emily. This post, these stunning images brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for your beautiful writing, and lovely images. May God continue to give you such amazing vision. Nics

  37. Becki McAuley says

    Emily, I just returned on May 26th from spending 2 wks in Ethiopia on mission. I completely understand. I was not really prepared for the emotions and underlining sadness I felt for the first 2 wks home. I struggle now with wanting to remember those precious days and yet knowing that when I go back there I also take on that sadness again. I’m so grateful for the gifts that God has given us. We are blessed but then I remember that the people who touched my life in Ethiopia considered themselves blessed not because of their material things but because of their eternal home with their Saviour Jesus Christ. That much we have in common.

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