It has taken me one full week since the day I spoke for the first time at an infertility/adoption conference to formulate my thoughts and put them into words. I am a high maintenance, anxious traveler. It is not easy for me to go places, but I love public speaking (who the heck am I?…if you would have known me as a little girl…seemed super unlikely) and decided to offer to speak at breakout sessions on using the Lament Psalms as a framework to grieve our losses. They liked the idea, so I was asked to speak at two sessions. I have been to many adoption-centered conferences over the years, but my favorite one that I had been to (near Atlanta) six times ended their run last year (Created for Care). I was devastated by this and was searching the web to find another conference I could attend this year when I ran across “Choose Joy Event.” I was immediately intrigued because it also had an infertility focus in addition to adoption. In other words, those for whom forming a family is more difficult than the average bear. So I decided to keep my eye on that conference on social media. When I saw last fall that the organizers of this event were looking for speakers, I decided on a whim to send in an audition video. I was delighted to find out they wanted me to speak.
Over the last several months I have put countless hours into re-studying the Psalms so I could refresh my memory (been awhile since seminary days) and make sure I knew as much as possible about this totally awesome book of the Bible. I wrote, studied, tweaked my writing, wrote out my own story, many times and was super excited to be a part of this. However I didn’t really know what to expect as far as how many would show up to my sessions, what the conference would be like and whether I myself would come away with anything of value personally (I figured I would be hyper-focused on my own sessions to be able to let my guard down to receive anything).
But, boy was I wrong! First of all, I was taken aback by just the beauty of the decor! Emmy Blakely and her team did it up right! The theme was “It is Well,” and the colors were peach and white. The decorations were simple and elegant. Each table had beautiful flowers adorning a simple white tablecloth. I didn’t know a soul (save for one speaker I knew from the Created for Care retreats) and many came with spouses or friends (or met up with friends they’d met last year at the conference when it was held in CA). Although I was uncomfortable and felt like a lone ranger, I didn’t close myself off (the informal mingling thing is my kryptonite) but stayed with everyone. I met some lovely ladies and gentleman and just took in the experience.
The praise and worship band played and sang some beautiful songs, which of course tugged at the heart-strings and reminded me once again of the importance of giving God the glory, even in the midst of the struggle. There were people who have been trying to conceive for months and years. People who have had heartbreaking miscarriages or infant losses. Those who had experienced hope that an adoption was going to happen but for whom it has fallen through. Those who have drained their bank accounts for expensive fertility treatments to no avail…so much collective grief in that room. Yet also the resolve to trust Him and praise the One who makes all things well. So the spirit of God was moving about that room, no doubt.
Beth Barker Forbus was our keynote speaker. She is the founder and president of Sarah’s Laughter-Christian Support for Infertility and Child Loss. Beth spoke from the Word and her heart. Because many at the conference are still trying to conceive, I figured her message would be one of, “don’t worry, there is still hope that you can conceive.” I am quite a bit past that point, and I know that I will never have a biological child. Many of the conference attendees are hoping against hope that they will have that miracle baby they long for, and many of them will. Knowing this, I struggle to find someone with whom I can connect. Someone that knows they are forever “barren.” Someone who can celebrate they are a mother on one hand (through adoption) yet who still has not come to terms with their barrenness. At any rate, when Beth shared that “some of you need to hear a blessing over your situation and to hear that God says “it is well,” I broke down in a quiet sob. In that moment I imagined God looking into my eyes as he held my face and saying, “Valerie, I know.” And that is all. He is not giving me answers, or telling me “be grateful for what you have” in that moment. There is just the loving reassurance that He knows my deep pain and I do not need to explain it to Him or try to justify my feelings. For that moment I will forever be grateful. Even if I needed to go to Atlanta to hear it.
In my sessions where I spoke about the Psalms and took the participants through writing their own Psalms of Lament, God met me there, too. I had mistakenly thought this was for the participants who have “gone through more loss than I have.” But in the sharing of my story I realized as I broke down while saying, “I was never able to conceive a child,” that I was saying that out loud for perhaps the first times ever. Of course I apologized for crying, but the attendees were so gracious and reminded me that all of our stories are ones that would elicit grief and that they wouldn’t expect any of us to remain stoic during their telling. I guess it further lends credence to the message that I was sharing anyway: Grief doesn’t have an expiration date and our losses and how we perceive them are unique to each of us. Yet God invites us to cry out before Him as the psalmists of old have done in beautiful ways.
I was delighted that the attendees at my breakout sessions all set out to work on their Psalms of Lament and seemed to learn from the process and enjoy it. I so wanted all of them to benefit from what I was sharing. My favorite discussion was around the fact that all the Lament Psalms end with a declaration of praise. Not that we always FEEL like praising God in our storms, but that we declare we will praise Him simply because He is good. And that is how we can “choose joy” even amidst the desire and struggle to grow our families. I feel like it was a sacred privilege to be let in on the tender heart-break each was going through and to, in some tiny way, enter into their grief with them. And they with me. I absolutely want to do this again.
The other big takeaway I had was in a breakout session I attended that was led by author (It’s okay about it) and speaker, Lauren Casper. I went to her session because I knew Lauren from those other retreats and had heard her share her heart before. Her session was on “waiting on God,” and since my life story seems a big waiting game at times, I figured I could use her perspective. She briefly shared her story, and then in reflection on what she had learned through the years said something like, “chaos and peace can co-exist.” Whoa. What? In that moment my mind was blown. For so many years I’ve had the mindset that once the chaos passes I can get to the peace. Yet I’ve wondered why the chaos doesn’t pass. I think It has less to do with my circumstances and more to do with my inner turmoil and anxiety over that. Even though my beliefs about the world are that we are in an “already and not yet” place in life (we live in a fallen world yet can experience parts of God’s Kingdom on earth) and I know nothing is perfect, but I’ve not thought about it in the way she described. What that gives me is the realization that I don’t have to wait anymore. For anything. I have what I need to experience peace already. Does that mean all of life is hunky dory or that pain and grief are not a part of it? No, but I can experience God’s peace right now, today, even though nothing has changed in my circumstance. And even as I still wait to see if my family will grow by one more child or not.
I am so grateful to Emmy and the Choose Joy Event 2018 team, all the speakers, volunteers, and all the wonderful people I met for being part of my journey and for letting me be a part of yours. All in all, I am so glad I embarked on this trip, and wholeheartedly recommend this conference to anyone who has dealt with infertility or desires to grow their family through adoption. It will be of benefit to you wherever you are in that process.
May God bless each and every one of you and may you find deep peace amidst the chaos of this life!