Holidays and Grief – Emmanuel Comes

God is with us during the holidays as we grief. It is okay to be sad. You are not alone.


signal-2017-02-16-101815-1The past week has been challenging for me due to illness. In addition, the holidays are here and so is grief for me and many people. My grief is the loss of my marriage. My friend lost his daughter to brain cancer. People have lost jobs, family members, friends, and ways of living. Grief, loss, death, stops for no one just because a holiday arrives.

My friend David, who lost his daughter, said he is going to do his best to be happy during the holiday. His attitude humbles me. I told him I wasn’t trying to be happy, just trying to get through them and get them over. That is what most of us do when we grieve and yet also need attend holiday or festive gatherings.

What is powerful in the Christian tradition at this time of year however, is that we celebrate God coming to us in the middle of it all. God comes to us in the middle of the muckety muck of life. The coming we celebrate is different than was expected in Joseph and Mary’s time. The expectation of a “messiah” was one who would deliver. Jesus came to be with us to help us through our challenges. We’re not being rescued in other words.

Darn. Sometimes we just want to be rescued. We want someone or something to just take away the pain. We want the grief to go away. Yet, when we lose someone, we always carry with us those memories of joyous times past. We know that no one can rescue us from the pain we suffer. We suffer because no more memories will be made with that person. For those losing a job, it means starting over. For the newly disabled, it is learning to live with physical limitations that can affect self-worth.sad woman

When the holidays or a celebration arrives that a grieving person is expected to attend, sometimes the grief seems even larger; maybe even formidable. The grief feels larger because of the person missing, but also because we know others will expect the griever to be happy. Grief is not something easily stuffed down into a person’s heart and soul. When grief is stuffed, it can become a health hazard mentally and physically. What can we do to survive the holidays while grieving and also wanting (or trying) to be present for others still here?grief

The first thing is to be real and be truthful. When asked how one is doing, perhaps a response like “still hanging in there” is a good response. That is truthful for me while trying to accept where I am, but also trying to move forward. There’s a word that I’m looking for that is not “happy” or “joy”, but is related to love.

This morning as I sat in my meditative time, my soul suddenly said, “I love my life.” When I lived with my ex-wife, my heart and soul said that all the time. That has bubbled up in this new place and I’ve wondered about it. When that happens, does it mean I wasn’t truly happy in my former life in Sylva? Of course not. Perhaps “gladness” is the word for which I search. It’s not as exuberant to me as “happy” or “joy”.

All during this trying time, God has sent me messages about my being loved. Whether through dear friends, family, church, or my devotionals, the message is always the same. God loves you and you are not alone. This is the Christmas message. This is the message we celebrate in one called Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us” and isn’t that the message of the entirety of scripture? That no matter where we go or what happens to us, God IS WITH US. We are not alone in our grief, loss, and sadness, no matter if it is a celebratory day or an ordinary day.

How can I love my life while grieving? I’ve asked myself that all these months. At first, that blossoming of that soul phrase made me feel guilty; perhaps my love was faulty in my relationship. Yet, we all have room to grow when it comes to loving another. At the same time, I loved my wife with all of my heart. As I continued to question what it meant for my soul to now exclaim “I love my life”, I began to see the beauty in my life in spite of the loss.

Yes, I have lost life as I knew it and had to move to a different town. However, God is still with me. When I lived in Spirit of the Mountain Lodge, God was there. My music, family, and friends still loved me. My dog always loves me of course (that’s why many believe the dog is most like God). These are all wonderful and beautiful gifts given to me and I am most glad to have them in my life. I did not lose all of that love and beauty by losing my wife.

“These three things remain; faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.”  1 Corinthians 13 (my summary)

No matter what we go through: faith, hope, and love remain. Love is the greatest because it always changes one for the better. My wife’s feelings changed for me. While that is heartbreaking, she loved me well when we were together. On some level, she still loves me now. The real thing that matters however is that I still have those eleven years of love. Part of the grief is that the love we have for each other will change. Yet, even then, all the love that came before changed me into a better and more loving person. My life is better now because I was loved then.

“There are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness; facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.”   


God’s message to me during my devotion time today was so powerful that I could see that even though it feels like I’ve failed at marriage, I am still enough. I put on my “BE” shirt today. My counselor has been encouraging me to “love myself” and that’s something that has always been hard and a bit confusing for me. Yet, with the message from scriptures today and my soul’s comment, I think I get it.

I am enough for God. God uses the weak, broken-hearted, the down trodden. When we look at the life of scripture and those lifted up as great in church history, we see time and again that God uses the ordinary to create the extraordinary. God is that powerful. God can use someone like me. Like Moses. Like Paul. Like Mary. God can create an extraordinary miracle of love, even in someone as small and ordinary as a baby, like Jesus.




Helpful books during a time of crisis:

Social scientist Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW , Braving the Wilderness

Pema Chödrön, Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better

Photo Journey

Photo journey is my story in pictures and song. I chose the music because of the mood it sets. Because the trip was odd, I also liked that I can understand some of the language and some of it is still a mystery to me. Love is always a mystery. These photos are not about photography but about a mood landscape if you will.


Presence, the Red Lamp

Presence, the Red Lamp is from Robin’s poetry book “More Than Knowing”


In early morning light, I see
red glowing up the hill,
shiny bright light glows in the brown of the wood,
shining eternal light of God down the mountain to my home?
I look closer to see sunlight
flow through red water-food for hummingbirds.
I remember the homeless poem
I promised to write.

Public Domain by Leroy Skalstad

How the homeless haunt me;
the man sitting in the rain in a park in Charlotte.
He was an attorney who lost his family someone said.
Rain fell a sheet of gray wetness one morning
as he sat on the bench in the park
beside of my office.
The morning was cold,
I took him my rainbow-colored umbrella.
Large canopy of color in my hand,
I said, “Here this is for you,” and he looked blankly
at me, but took the umbrella.
“Don’t give them money,” the dictum of all city dwellers.
Instead, I gave him my umbrella
little comfort to me.
What happened to him? To his family? What gray day destroyed him?
At the end of the day,
when the rain had stopped and the sun began to shine,
outside my office door leaned the umbrella gently in a corner.
The homeless man nowhere to be seen.
A colorful yet silent thankfulness
dripping wet in the corner.

The homeless are nameless birds
roosting on our corners,
sleeping on park benches, streets, sidewalks, warm doorways.
Relatives by loss and often mental illness,
they are connected by a cardboard sign
and some same black magic marker.
Who gives the marker?
Odd questions always come at the wrong time.

Public Domain by Leroy Skalstad

Once I knew her name, for she lived on my street
or nearby in the woods where rapes happened.
She had multiple personalities
that she argued with as she walked by my cozy house.
Once, after a stint in jail,
she was lucid and clearly intelligent.
She was forced to take her meds there.
The officer said she would be fine
if she could just stay on her meds,
but they are expensive and
how do the homeless get prescription cards?
The last I saw her she was arguing with her other personality,
the one who was belligerent,
“Why didn’t you take that sandwich she offered? I’m hungry!”
“I asked for money and I want money!”
One Christmas I gave her a small token gift,
wrapped in pretty paper with a bow.
As I write, I know it was more for me than her.
She still was gracious and kindly thanked me.
As she walked into the dark woods,
she celebrated the shiny bow
as precious.

a gift given in nature
by light, trees, water.
We celebrate these beautiful things,
these places that are the wild
where our homeless live.

In Columbia, South Carolina,
there once was a river city of homeless.
Their cardboard houses were constantly taken down.
The average homeless person walks ten miles a day.
Nobody wants them.
Keep them out of the neighborhood
away from the rivers and bridges.
That is not my daughter, sister, mother.
Not my brother, son, father.

©JRobin Whitley

Mother Teresa said that when we look in another’s face,
we see Christ.
The red lamp in the church is
about the presence of God
shining light into our dark places.
We always have hope.
Even if we are Christ of the homeless,
Christ’s face is homeless.


too could be homeless
or light.
You are the light of presence.
Red light shining down
kindness, a meal.
Bread of life.
Tabernacle of the holy.
Feed the birds.
Shine your light.
The hope is you.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Luke 9:57-58 NRSV

Clothing as a Faith Statement…or a Political Statement?

Psalm 139:14 NRSV
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

My life in the mountains these past nine years has been very healing. Because of our loving, supportive community, and church, for the first time in my life, I feel good about who I am. I am a butch woman. To be “technical” I am what is called gender queer. You can read a full article on that term, but here’s a summary from’s article:

“Genderqueer, alogender-queer-from-slate-pageng with the somewhat newer and less politicized term nonbinary, are umbrella terms intended to encompass individuals who feel that terms like man and woman or male and female are insufficient to describe the way they feel about their gender and/or the way they outwardly present it.”


I guess this is a “coming out” of a sort in that I have never said this to many people. It’s scary enough to come out as a lesbian, much less to say the word “queer”. I should have calculated how many years it took me to say the word “lesbian” applied to me. It might have been interesting. Butch and lesbian are not terms often used in Christianity as a way of talking about faith. Yet, without acknowledging these identifying terms, one cannot know the faith challenges and blessings found in a life condemned.

Many who meet me do not understand what I mean when I talk about being condemned. When I was younger, in order to protect myself, I learned how to “pass” so that I could be in the church and later become a pastor. I know how to wear a dress and walk in high heels (though I hate both). Once I was removed from the church however, the dresses and high heels were history. I will never wear anything like that again. From an early age, the only thing I didn’t like about church was the fact that I had to wear dresses (or skirts). When I was a child, this was before the times where you can go wearing dress pants if you are a woman. The males wore pants and ties (which I loved) and the females wore dresses/skirts and hose. It was physical torture for me.

Attire is not what condemns a person, but attire is often seen as an indicator of sexual preference. It’s been great to see many straight women embrace pants and ties. When I began to work in offices, I found a way to wear dress pants in a way that felt natural to me. My attire would have been considered gender neutral probably. It was a safe way to dress, one that didn’t call attention to how I felt inside. Yet, dresses always made me feel wrong and vulnerable.

I remember a conversation with a colleague in seminary where she said that dressing up made a person feel good about himself or herself. Since she was a woman, she of course meant dressing up in a dress, hose, and pumps. I know this specifically because of our conversation. I disagreed with her, but at the time could not say that the dress made me feel worse about myself because of my gender identity. It was only during that time that many were beginning to talk about gender identity. Furthermore, at that time, there was a witch hunt for LGBT seminarians. The church had basically a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy but many seminarians were asked and they had to lie to stay on the ordination path.

Many things changed. Several years after my removal as a pastor, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) voted to accept Lesbians and Gays in committed relationships as pastors. Of course, it was too late for me to return to the pastorate because of my health. Still, I rejoiced that the church could see the ways that the LGBT community serves and witnesses to God. Then, several years later, Gay and Lesbians were allowed to marry in the entire US in 2014. By 2015, I was married to the woman of my dreams. Every year, I’ve gotten to be more and more myself.

My wife and I have talked about gender and how it’s interfered, or the perception of it has interfered, with the things we’ve wanted to do in life. For me it was learning to play trumpet and how I dress. For her, it was learning to play guitar and how she dressed. There’s a theme here. How many times have I been asked, “Why are you dressed like that?” My answer finally became (because it’s true), “I dress for comfort.” Which is true.

Robin in January 2017.jpgAs you can see from this picture, comfort often means being dressed casually. While I wouldn’t wear this as a pastor or in the offices where I worked in Charlotte, I would have worn this to the doctor’s office. Lucky for me, mountain life is casual.  At the same time, the community is so loving that I’ve been able to wear bow ties and vests. I often wear hats.

Now there are new companies who cater to those of us who avoid dresses and still want to look dressed up or dapper. As you can see by the hoodie I have on in the photo, it is produced by a company called Haute Butch. I’ve become a big fan of their site because they show styles of how I always wanted to dress.hautelogo-final-for-black-bg-sample They also have great clothes. They are teaching me how to dress to impress…when I need to do that. Of course, here in rural NC, my way of dressing to “impress” is dangerous.

How can clothing be dangerous? As you can see by the hoodie I’m wearing, it’s rather easy to see the word “butch” on the hoodie. It’s a really comfortable hoodie and so I wore it to my allergy doctor today where I get my shots. The office I must attend is in a more rural setting near a more conservative town. Today, I actually worried that what I wore made me a target for hatred. A target in ways that I never felt targeted before.

Did it stop me from wearing it? Truthfully, I thought about it. With HB2 and all the other hatred that is being fueled, I wasn’t sure that it would be wise to wear it. Yet, it was perfect for the temperature. Then I realized I can’t allow my fear of others hate to control me any more. Many of you have known this all along. I’ve been a fearful person in my life and I’m tired of it.

When I bought this hoodie, I bought it because I wanted to live out and proud to be who I am. For 2017, I didn’t make formal New Year’s resolutions. Yet, perhaps I did unconsciously  make a decision to live my life braver than ever. At my age, it’s time. If you are younger, you have a better opportunity than I to live your life to the fullest. Be who you are. You are good. You were created good. Be brave and live braver still. You are a wonder.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

Psalm 139:13-18 NRSV (the entire Psalm is awesome)



December 2016

Grieving during the holidays, how do we rejoice? Let us always follow the light.


December 2016 is here already. How did that happen? I’m not sure what happened to the rest of the year. It was a pretty bad year, so maybe I hid a lot. Of course, the reality is that I was sick a lot this year…for most of this year if I’m truthful. I finally had to stop working because my health continued to put me down. Then, the election and wildfires happened in our area. The wildfires still burn and people still feel threatened on many levels.  There’s nothing as frightening as feeling that your world is burning down around you.


As I write, I am listening to Don Oiche ud i mBeithil*, a Gaelic Carol trying to get in the “holiday” mood. The chant is lovely and calming. I listened to Of the Father’s Love Begotten, another carol at least ten times. It’s one of my favorite carols. Still, I feel like a stranger in some weird outpost where Christmas is strange and foreign. I bought a beautiful, handmade Advent wreath in preparation, thinking that this household tradition would bring back some of the magic of the holiday. My wife put up a tree. There is beauty and light in the darkness, but I can’t say that there’s magic for me this year.

How can I rejoice, when just over the mountains in Gatlinburg, there are tragic deaths because of fires set by juveniles? Thousands of acres of forests have burned because of arsonists who are not juveniles, who should have known better. How can I rejoice when I know that my young friend who died suddenly has left behind a grieving mother, a grieving family?

I think on my friend who lost her wife of 30+ years, what is Christmas to her? What is Christmas to me as I still grieve my own loss of my dad two years ago? The loss of my old dog, Bear? How long before the magic of Christmas returns again, or does it leave forever if you have no children?


Page from a French Book of Hours
Page from a French Book of Hours

Als I Lay on a Yoolis Night is an Old English tune that seems to capture my mood. “As I lay on Yule Night alone in my longing…” is the line speaking to me as well as the tune and haunting sound of harp and psaltry playing accompaniment. As I listen to more ancient carols from different regions, perhaps I want to know that I too can rejoice in the midst of a frightening world. In comparison, our world, with all its craziness is still a safer more stable place than the world that surrounded the writers of these carols. Can I sing even when my heart is breaking? Can I find beauty in the world around me even in the midst of the charred remains of trees of life?

The beauty of the ancient carols, paintings, illuminated pages of prayers and hymns is to remind us that there IS something beyond the sadness. There will be light in the darkness even if we can’t see it at the moment.



*Gaelic and English Translations

Don oíche úd i mBeithil
beidh tagairt faoi ghréin go brách,
Don oíche úd i mBeithil
gur tháinig an Briathar slán;
Tá gríosghrua ar spéartha
‘s an talamh ‘na chlúdach bán;
Féach Íosagán sa chléibhín,
‘s an Mhaighdean ‘Á dhiúl le grá
Ar leacain lom an tsléibhe
go nglacann na haoirí scáth
Nuair in oscailt gheal na spéire
tá teachtaire Dé ar fáil;
Céad glóir anois don Athair
sa bhFlaitheasa thuas go hard!
Is feasta fós ar sa thalamh
d’fheara dea-mhéin’ siocháin!

I sing of a night in Bethlehem
A night as bright as dawn
I sing of that night in Bethlehem
The night the Word was born
The skies are glowing gaily
The earth in white is dressed
See Jesus in the cradle
Drink deep in His mother’s breast
And there on a lonely hillside
The shepherds bow down in fear
When the heavens open brightly
And God’s message rings out so clear
Glory now to the Father
In all the heavens high
And peace to His friends on earth below
Is all the angels cry