Sunday, May 31, 2009

The summer road

Standing in the shower just now, with a window open to catch the evening breeze, I was thinking how much I love--that's LOVE--summer.  (And yes, I'm a night-time shower-taker.  There's nothing worse than going to sleep sweaty, I think.)  Anyway, I started thinking of summer plans, then summer thwarted plans, and the next thing you know, I've realized that it was just about a year ago when our African foster-child, V, showed up on our doorstep.  Talk about thwarted summer plans.  From then on, very little went the way I'd planned for the summer.

You see, I come from a long line of planners.  It's part of the genetic code in my family.  And I definitely have that marker--I think it's on my 19th chromosome--even though it's in a weakened form in me.  This was very clear to me back when my mother was trying to impose plans on me, when she'd ask--like in August--what we were doing for Christmas.  Heck if I knew in August.  That was back in the day when I had three little rugrats nipping at my heels all day long and half the night, and I barely knew what the next day held. And both of my sisters have it in a much stronger form than I do.  I'm traveling down to Southern California this week for my nephew's high school graduation, and my sister, the Dump, sent me a rundown of the week.  She's a consummate list-maker, that one is. Writes them all over the margins of papers, on little scraps of envelopes, on torn out pieces of some note or other.  And she and her boys (especially the younger one) are always pouring over things they want to do, making plans for some trip or other.  And youngest sister, RE, shoot, you should see how intentional she is with events and holidays.  She marks them all, plans special treats for her kids, her friends, me...Next to her, I'm just plain lame.  El Lame-o. 

But I do half make plans in my head.  I have an idea of what I hope the summer will look like, and I have to say, last summer was something I couldn't have planned, wouldn't have dreamed, definitely didn't hope for.  It was a left-turn into a world I never felt comfortable in, and still don't know if any of it--our care, our presence, our prayers--made a whit of a difference in that teenager's life.  She's back in Africa now, 'visiting' her father whom she hadn't seen in fully half her life.  Her mom sent her off, thinking that the shock of it might spur her to gratefulness for what her life is here.  When V left Zaire in 1999, or so, her father's family was still quite rich, had servants a plenty, lived in luxury.  Now her dad barely has a home, nor a job, and just the work of finding food is a daily chore.  I imagine it's about as difficult a culture shock for V as one can imagine.

But that's her summer.  Mine, I hope, will be a whole lot less stressful than last year's.  Time just enjoying the glory that is the northwest in summer.  Weddings to attend, old friends to see, family to treasure.  These are the small things I hope for. 

But here's the thing: I also want to be available for the unexpected.  Awake to what odd turns this summer road might have for me--for the Beve and me.  Aware that "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," says the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8).  And it's His ways I want to plan for, to be flexible for. I wouldn't in a million years have guessed ahead of time what last summer would hold.  And yet, though it was very challenging and I wouldn't want to go through it again, I'm not sorry for it now. Believing in His sovereignty means that I trust in His purposes--even when I might never see the result.  So I ask but one thing, that like Isaiah, as we--you or I-- walk this summer gravel road (it's my Palouse-country upbringing that makes me imagine a summer road as a gravel one--all those bike rides out among the hills!), that "whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way, walk in it.'" (30:21)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Better than applause

Have you ever experienced a silence better than applause?  I have.  I did today.  Beve and I drove down to Seattle today to attend Seattle Children's Chorus 20th anniversary gala concert.  My closest friend is the founder and artistic director of SCC, and we've been privileged to hear many of their concerts over the years.  But today we sat in the spectacular venue of Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle, where there's not a bad seat in the place, and we listened to the over 200 voices of these children, their eyes all focused on my friend--my very gifted, very awe-inspiring friend-- and her assistant directors, sing an array of music, including many new arrangements by composers both local (even K's talented eldest daughter) and from across the country.  The final piece was a brand new piece SCC commissioned to commemorate this anniversary by well-known American composer, Steven Paulus.  As the four combined choirs stood together in their black and white concert attire on that beautiful hardwood stage holding the last note of that brand new piece, a song, a hope, a prayer to carry us through each day (as K said) there was a collective intake of breath in the concert hall as K lowered her arms.  A gasp of silence that made the tears that had gathered at the corners of my eyes drop onto my face.  This is it, I thought in a flash.  This silence is better than a standing ovation.  That held breath a holy moment that makes us know we're in the presence of something so much greater than the sound, so much greater than the performance.  It's Incarnation.  He is there and He is also holding His breath in awe.

Then came thunderous applause, hands clapped so hard that palms tingle and still we clap.  It's the gesture we have to say we are honored to be part of this company, that all the sweat, the worry, the discipline, the attention to detail by dozens of people to create this event have all been worth it.  It was, as they say, more than worth the price of admission.  I might sound a little corny to say this, but the heavenly host that sang with the angel in that dark night might sound something like those children.

There's always the same benediction at the end of SCC concerts.  "May the Lord bless you and keep you," those choristers sing in soaring harmony. Most of the time as they sing this they have rimmed the auditorium so that the sound bounces from all sides, a true blessing to the concert-goers, supporters and family.  But today as they sang, I thought, "Yes!  Yes, SCC.  The Lord has blessed and kept you these last twenty years and even before when you were only a dream in K's head.  The Lord has made his face shine upon you, K, as you birthed this baby, nutured it, watched it grow.  Yes, board members (of which I was a part years ago), the Lord has lifted His countenance upon you as you made hard decisions over the years, believed in the dream and gave it wings.  And yes, SCC, the Lord has given you peace, and beauty, and riches aplenty--He has blessed you and made you a blessing to all who listen."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Last things

Years ago Beve worked fulltime for a basketball camp.  The summer I was nine months pregnant with our first child, he took a week off for her birth...then two weeks, then three before she finally made her appearance.  It was pretty much the last possible day Beve could have been with us--he had a wedding across the state to be best man in, then three more weeks of camp in Oregon.  When he left, (both of us crying!), a mere 10 hours after E was born, I had to weather my first days as a mother under my parents' roof.  We had quite a few mis-steps in those first days.  Fresh-squeezed lemonade which I drank by the gallons in the late July heat gave E such bad gas she barely slept an entire night.  And it turned out I was allergic to the tape placed over my C-section incision, and within the first day home, had giant blisters under each strip. 

But those weeks brought a whole lot of 'first things' for E and me.  First bath, first pictures, first feedings, you know the drill.  And that night when she didn't sleep at all, and I was beside myself with exhaustion and missing Beve, my mother got up and took E from me, sat in the rocker, cooing at her.  Mom said to me, "You know, I don't remember the last time I held one of my own children.  You know the first times, but you don't know the last."  My BB was 14 years old then, and probably hadn't sat on my mother's lap in a few years. 

I've thought about that statement many times over the year I've been a mom.  There are lots of things I don't remember the last of.  Last time I read a good night story to one of them, last time one of them climbed into bed with us because they'd had a bad dream (we used to keep a sleeping bag under our bed because J appeared in our room so often).  The last time I brushed my daughters' hair (E hasn't put a brush through her hair since she was in high school--her curls tend to frizz with brushing).  And yes, the last time I held one of them on my lap.  All the first things in life we mark clearly, but the last things...they just slip away without us even knowing that they're last.  I mean, if I'd known the last time I held SK (my baby) on my lap was the last time, I don't know that I'd have been able to let her go. But off she went, off all of them went to their own lives, their own grown up beds.

I've thought of this a lot this week because this last weekend was a last thing, though not for me.  My BB flew across the country to say goodbye to our mother.  He wanted to come while she still knew him, which she did.  He wanted to say a few things to her while she could still understand.  You see, I remember the first time my mother saw BB.  I was right there, itching to hold that baby as well.  Just a week ago, I found an old diary of my grandfather, in which he noted one June day in 1971 that my parents had received a phone call saying there was a baby boy to adopt. 

I wasn't in Pullman last weekend when my mother saw BB for what might be the last time she knows him.  But our sister was there, and she told me about it last night.  She was crying as she spoke.  See, BB knows that his life is what it is not due to the accident of birth, but through the deliberate choice of my parents.  Just a few months earlier, they'd gotten a call about a different baby, and decided, for a variety of reasons, that it wasn't time, it wasn't the right baby to complete their family.  But that June, they didn't hesitate.  The chose BB without even seeing him.  And his life was set upon a certain course.  It's impossible to know what his life would have been like with different parents, with his birth parents, for example. But the family who chose him, loved and adored him.  And  made him the great man that he is.

Our mother knew him when she saw him, and in the end, when they were saying goodbye, she said, "Of course I love you, you're my baby."  Coherent and true.  Her last baby, a last conversation.  A last thing, that surely should be marked as clearly---here?--as all the first things in BB's life.  A moment to honor, a moment to mark with as much honor and even joy as the first conversation, the first look.  Yes, sad enough that our sister dared anyone to have been in that room and NOT cried, but also good.  To get to say those things he wanted to say, to hear her tell him--one more time--that he had always been loved, had always been her baby.  

I don't know when the last time will be for me with my mother.  Her days are likely marked in months not years now. But I'll think of BB when that moment comes.  And honor the privilege.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Plants

Another beautiful spring day here in Bellingham.  Now that my summer annuals are in the pots around the patio, it officially feels like we're edging into summer.  I'm not a natural gardener by any stretch of the imagination, but I love the colors of various flowers, and have had fairly good luck with indoor plants over the years as well.  I have two giant Christmas cacti that bloom various times of the year, though, oddly, not usually at Christmas.  One of them--the white one--my children gave me for Mother's Day the first year we lived out in Sequim, 1991, I think it was.  The pink-flowered cactus, Beve bought me year or so later.  So both of those plants are at least 15 years old.  But, believe it or not, they're the youngest of my indoor plants.  When we were first married, Beve's mom gave me a plant that has been thriving ever since.  Twenty-five years of giant green leaves (with maroon stems), pinkish blooms in the spring and all kinds of elephant-trunk stems.  I should really look it up in Sunsest's Western Garden, but it doesn't matter.  To me, it's Grammie's plant and that's good enough.

I also have two large pots of shamrocks.  These came from a small bunch my father gave me when I left home for college in Eugene.  In the fall of 1977.  Yep, 32 years ago.  My dad was the indoor plant person in our house, watering, transpotting shoots, dividing.  The shamrock he gave me was from a plant he'd gotten from his mother a few years earlier.  I carted my shamrock to and from Oregon, left it with Dad while I lived in Holland, picked it up again when I got married, and have shlepped it all over this state.  I've repotted it a time or two, but it wasn't until two years ago that I finally divided it into two giant pots.  I intend to give one of them to E when she finally has her own home.  The other I'll divide for SK (J?  Somehow I think he'd let a plant die without batting an eyelash!).

But the oldest plant in our house isn't even mine.  It's a salmon-flowered geranium of E's.  She was given it by Grammie's best friend in Pullman.  Grammie had brought this geranium to Laura sometime in the 60s, when they were both newcomer wives at WSU.  Laura gave it to E when E first started at WSU and brought it home last spring when she went off to Colorado. I have been guarding it with my life (so to speak), carefully bringing it into the house before the first frost, though I yearly allow my own geraniums to die off.  I'm not about to be the one to kill this old lady.  Just this afternoon, I repotted it in an old aluminum tub and sat it on our back deck so it can thrive in the sun alongside my pots of thyme, mint and cilantro (I still need to buy some basil).

It makes me happy caring for these plants.  I used to have more of them, but these are the ones with histories, the ones that remind me of people I love.  I love that variation of color outside on my patio, the greens of the trees swaying overhead.  These ornamental plants can do nothing for me, but they live, like lilies in the fields, cloaked in the glory of creation, and the glory of history.  If they do nothing else, that's plenty.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A glass of whine, anyone?

A quiet evening--Beve and J are watching NBA basketball, E's eating ice-cream with a friend in the living room, and I'm holed up on my bed, trying desperately not to have a headache.  If wishful thinking worked, I'd be fine.  Unfortunately, I've never found wishing to be a very successful venture.  I've done all the medical things I can think of to avoid the migraine as well, to no avail.  So here I lie.

Maybe tomorrow I'll have some creative idea for a post.  Maybe then I'll have an entire headache-free day.  I wish it, I will it, I ask God for it.  At the very same time that I surrender my will and my wishes to Him, I tell Him this truth--that pain hurts and I'm tired of it.  Really, really tired.  Tired of being weak, and achy, and more aware of what I can't do than what I can. The price I pay for even simple things like pulling weeds in our garden can put me flat on my back for a couple days.  It's ridiculous that this is true, annoying, frustrating and...

Yes, I'm whining.  You think this is bad, you should try living with me.I'm sometimes like a large decanter of whine, to tell the truth.  So you're lucky I'm just offering you a single glass. See, I know I come across at times like I have it all figured out, but that's so far from the truth, I can't even see it from where I'm standing.

The other day, I talked to my BB (baby brother), who was in our home town, having flown in from Boston to see Mom while she might still recognize him.  She did, thankfully, and she knew his wife is someone special (though BB doesn't think she understands what marriage is anymore).  Anyway, Mom was talking to BB's wife, telling her some long incoherent story, pointing out the window, gesturing wildly.  And at the end of several unintelligable paragraphs, she looked straight at EC and said, "Everything I just told you was a lie."

And tonight, as I lie here, thinking about suffering--complaining about my own suffering--I'm aware that lots that I say might be no more than a lie.  That is, a lie in my lived-out life.  There's a disconnect between what I know to be true--that suffering is used by God to grow us up, and connects us--in some mysterious way that we humans can't quite understand--with Jesus and His suffering.  "I want to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in His suffering," Paul says in Phillipians 3. "My grace is sufficient," Christ has told Paul, when Paul prayed--three times-- for his thorn in the flesh to be removed. "For my power is made perfect in weakness."  Not just revealed in weakness, but actually made perfect--and (have you followed the path of this convoluted sentence?) how I actually feel, how I really respond when my 'normal' suffering takes a hairpin turn into something more acute.  When this happens, and I'm crying out to God, crying to myself through the pain, I come face to face with the difficulty of what He says about suffering.  Pain hurts.  And I don't want it.  I want there to be some simpler way to become holy, some easy, flower filled meadow in which to live and run and sing to Him.  Not dark nights, pain-flooded days, and a rocky road on a beast of suffering to get me where He wants me to be.

And yet.
Even as I lie here, writing this blog instead of holding a pillow to my throbbing temple, even as I lift my heavy-with-pain body off the bed and down on my knees, I weigh the pain against what I want more than anything else.  The weight of Glory, CSLewis calls it--when I reflect Him in both light and honor.  I think that if I can say this, if I can lie here on my pallet and say I want Him more than I care about my own pain, then that pain is defeated, and the one who would have me cowed by it, the enemy of Glory, is banished.  He has no place here, no even in pain.  What Satan intends for evil--for my undoing!--has already been used, is being used, is eternally used for His GOOD.  I speak these words, and I ask Him to help me mean them.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Geography

Today was the kind of day that we Hamsters (Belling-hamsters, which I didn't make up!) live for.  Bright blue sky, warm and sunny.  I'm telling you, there's no better place to live...Now I know that lots of people think their part of the country--the world, even--is the best place.  Years ago, when E was in preschool, she became friends with a little girl whose dad was in the airforce, stationed in the northwest.  I got to know the parents a little over the course of that year, and they could hardly wait to get back to where they'd come from.  I think they were from Kansas.  Maybe Missouri.  They talked about buying property, living where life was better and slower.  I could buy that, of course.  We lived in a city in those years, and I wasn't particularly fond of the bustle myself.  But when they started talking about how they liked the wide open spaces of their home country, the way they could watch the sun all the way across the sky, I probably tipped my head like I was a confused puppy dog.  The place they most loved actually made me claustrobic.  Seriously.

I've traveled to the middle of this country a time or two, driven through the wide plains of Kansas, where grass grows in undulating waves. One summer, with my grandmother, I lay on a bed with a very old black fan rotating about two feet from my face, but the air it moved was so stale I finally ran a cool bath and sank into it for relief.  In the next room, my blind grandmother and her childhood friend (whose name was Fern), laughed and spoke a language only those who'd lived it could understand.  That whole Kansas trip I felt suffocated, farther out of my element than in all those countries I'd visited across the sea.  My mother, who'd spent many years on her grandparents' farm there, had told us to be sure and climb the hill across the road from the farm, because one could see for miles around at the top.  When my sister and I got to the farm, we looked all over for the alleged 'hill'.  Turns out it was nothing more than a slight bump, which took no more than a dozen steps to climb.  We walked up the gentle incline, and took turns pretending we were about to fall off a cliff.  In fact, I think the driveway in front of my current home is steeper than that little mound.  But sure enough, it was the only hill around.

And Beve and I took the kids up to Alberta a couple summers for various things, where the road laid out in front of us, with empty fields on either side, from horizon line to horizon line.  The sky was like a blue curtain hanging all down to earth.  And you know, I had what surely must have been a panic attack driving through that featureless land.  I might be a little crazy (and even more so for admitting it), but it felt claustrophobic to me, like all the air had disappeared in the emptiness of the terrain. And it suddenly hit me what my trouble was.  I like living on the edge of the continent.  I like marine air, and soaring evergreens, and hills so tall no one could mistake them for anything but hills--and even mountains.  Actual mountains.

Yep, this is my place on earth.  My real place.  The rolling hills on the Palouse, where I grew up, I've always called 'the geography of my soul,' and in some sense it's completely true.  It's certainly been the grist for the mill of my so-called creativity.  And the foundation of faith that was planted there has reaped a bounty in my life.  But as far as living, as far as where I want to retire and grow old, well, it's right here among the varigated greens of the many evergreens here, the breathtaking view from our flagstone patio of the bay, the island beyond--this is perhaps the geography of my chronology. 

It's a good thing, though, that we're all drawn to different places.  Otherwise all of us clustered together would tip this planet straight out of its orbit.  We need the balance of our differences--for food, for community, for life.  So, this day, when Beve and I, with the help of two of our kids, planted my Mother's Day flowers in their summer pots, spent the rest of the daylight hours, weeding and moving plants around the garden, I am thankful for the glory of this place, the joy of creation in this particular geography.  And I thank God that all across this world, others are feeling just as glad for their own place, their own geography. 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Travel dreams

I just read an email from Uraguay where SK went on a wine tasting tour yesterday.  I've never even been on that kind of tour...and SK doesn't drink.  In fact, a few years ago when we first instituted sharing communion on Christmas Eve in our own home with real wine, she completely spoiled the moment by taking a swallow and saying, "Euwww!"  And I admit, after a single sip I have to take a migraine pill myself.  Alcohol really doesn't agree with my temperamental head.  But all in all, SK's having the time of her life in South America.  Her email made me long to travel.  So I thought I'd write about where I'd most like to go:

1. Africa--to anyone who reads my blog, this will come as no surprise. It's a large continent, with a variety of terrains from sandy deserts to lush jungles, so it might be naive to lump it all together, but I think I'd go just about anywhere in Africa, from Kenya to Senegal to Zambia to Zimbabwe (even though there is a war going on there).  We sponsor a child in Zimbabwe, and I'd like to meet him someday.  His name is Pardon, which is what drew me to him to begin with.  Pardon, as in "Pardon me, Africa--for taking your people captive, turning them into living, breathing farm implements; for ignoring your cries and assuming that you needed to become like westerners in order to become like Christ; for not helping enough as you starve or are killed by tribal violence, dictators, all the human-made destruction that has rained on you while you survived drought after drought."  Yes, Pardon us is exactly what we need to say to Africa on many levels.  But don't think I think of 6 year-old Pardon as merely a symbol simply because his name has meaning to me.  No, he is a real boy with a slight frown on his face who works harder as a boy than I've worked as a grown woman. And he's only one of the many reasons Africa is at the top of my list of places to go.

2. India.  India was a chief player in Beve's and my relationship 25 years ago, and I'd love to go back with him, to walk those streets of New Dehli, to smell the garbage, see the emaciated cattle picking their way through such heaps of trash, to crowd onto buses that are already stuffed out the doors and windows--you know, the ones with festooned pictures of Hindu gods pasted right above the drivers, along side the signs that say, "NO Teasing allowed" (which means men, keep your hands and everything else to yourselves!) and possible camera robbers plastered in beside us.  I'd like to hear the vendors in their tiny shops call out, "Hey bubba, want to buy..." and feel safe among the throngs because I'm with the tallest person in the city.  And I'd like to go back to the Taj Mahal where Beve and I stood for our first photo as a couple, and made the choice NOT to buy a star ruby for a ring for me (a decision I've always regretted).

3.  Australia.  Beve's been there twice, both times playing hoop, and Australia is the one place my dad talked of going in his never-to-be retirement.  He dreamed of going to the 2000 Olympic games there, but died three years too soon.  I'd like to look up some old YWAM friends in Melbourne and Canberra, to swim on the Great Barrier Reef, to eat some 'barbe', see a Kangaroo, sink into the accent until I can mimic it in my sleep.

4.  England.  OK, so I've been there a time or two, but the other day I was just talking to a friend about doing a "Jane Austen" tour, and the idea caught hold in my imagination.  Back in the 80s, I covered her territory with a friend, but I'd like to do it again, more intentionally.  Maybe add the Brontes moors to the trip, as well.  I'd take along my Austen-loving daughter, SK, and maybe the other one for good measure, and what a time we'd have together.  My mom took her daughters on a Great Britain trip almost a decade ago, and it was lovely (well, apart from the whole Mom aspect!).  I think my girls and I would have a great time investigating these haunts, eating fish and chips, having tea every afternoon.  Yep, I could really do this.

5. Heaven.  "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain," Paul says, and I totally get this.  But I have to say, I'm completely curious about what heaven actually is.  The only people who have ever described it are ones who (like all of us) have never actually seen it face to face, but in visions and dim mirrors.  They describe heaven in terms of earth, describe its riches with earthly images.  Streets of gold?  Seriously, why would they be more beautiful than the most glorious mountain magesties and the widest of wild oceans?  It seems to me that heaven will be nothing if not OTHER, just as God is other.  What heaven means is being with Him, in His presence.  So it doesn't really matter to me what it looks like, only that He's there and I'm there and His Kingdom is come.  That's good enough for me.  Yes, I dream of traveling there, of hearing His voice call my real name, and of the moment, the glorious, hoped for, beyond anything I could ask or imagine moment of seeing Him face to face.  Finally.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Savoring Life

"Do human beings ever realize life while they live it?"  'Emily Webb,' Our Town.

Had a conversation this evening with some folks who were contemplating this very idea.  One of my friends, as she looked back at the days when her now-married kids were in high school, was lamenting that she didn't really savor those days. Those sweet days just sped by while she wasn't paying attention.  I instantly thought of Our Town, and the day the character Emily Webb was given to return to her life after being dead.  Everything is so poignant to her, from her little brother to her mother, just busy making breakfast.  She pleads with her mother to look at her, to just stop a moment to really look at her, but Ma Webb can't.  She has bacon and eggs to fry, lunches to make.  Slowing down isn't part of the plan.

And so it is for us.  Just a couple of weeks ago, SK (who is currently in Uruguay) commented that she can hardly believe she's halfway through college.  I told her, "Time only moves faster."  She thinks these days are quickly passing, just wait until she's my age.  Wasn't it only yesterday that I had three children under the age of 4, spent my life with Sesame Street, Marble Works, Polly Pockets, Shoots and Ladders, and "Can I have a snack? A drink? I need to pee. J hit me, she's looking at me," and tears--oh the tears.  Baby tears, angry tears, tired tears, "But I'm not tired" tears.  Didn't I finally just close my eyes and sleep straight through the night for the first time in years just last night?  Wasn't it just this morning that I was standing at the end of our road watching my oldest in a brand new dress climb onto a school bus for the first time?  Wasn't it merely a half day ago, that I was taxiing them all over town to various activities and obligations?  I could swear I'm still wearing the same pjs I wore when I was pregnant with each of them (Ok, I really am...it's an old hospital scrub Beve traded for when he was working at a sports camp in Arkansas during college!).

My point is, like my friend, like Thorton Wilder's Emily of Grover's Corner, I think I've been so busy living, that most of the time I don't stop and savor the wonder of each season, let alone each day.  Yes, I'm thankful (as someone else said tonight) that I have my memories, but if I've learned anything lately it's that memories can disappear.  All I have--all any of us have on this earth--is one single moment at a time.We don't have the privilege, like the fictional Emily Webb did, of returning to some earlier moment in our history.  We walk, run or skip (if we're lucky!) on this one way-street that always ends in the same place--breathing out one final breath in these bodies. What we have, therefore, is this: We can either be like Mrs. Webb, bustling about our lives without ever noticing what's right beneath our noses, OR we can breathe in wonder, and expel what doesn't count.  Those things, I might say, that don't last.  Because just as sure as this life is like a whisper of time, that solid is eternity.  And I believe that the only way to really know life while I live it, the only way to taste and see that this life--this day, this very moment--is good, is by tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.

So I let it flood over me--all those days with my tiny children, all those teaching moments in the car as I drove them to and from school, church, activities, all those conversations with my now adult children--I smell them as a sweet aroma tonight, and thank God for them.  Thank Him that my times--our time together!--is in His hands.

PS. Today is my mother's 79th birthday.  I wonder if she had a clue. Since she doesn't even know her own name, I'm guessing not.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A simple jar of clay

 "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from ourselves." (2 Corinthians 4:7).  I've never had trouble thinking of myself as a simple jar of clay, one made more for utility than decoration.  I know what I am, what I am not, so this verse has long sung to me in a key I know well.  But when Paul writes of this clay vessel and the treasure within, it helps to understand that in in the first century, crude clay pots were made for a specific purpose.  Silver and gold, obtained in war, were melted down and poured into these pots.  These pots were like a safety deposit box, hiding immeasurable wealth within earthen vases.  When the jars of clay were broken, the silver or gold was revealed.

Knowing this makes Paul's words even more meaningful, doesn't it?  The verses following this one speak of being pressed on all sides, but not crushed and broken. But in some real sense, which is born out in Paul's lists of sufferings found in chapters 6, 11, and 12, it is in our brokenness that His glory is most clear to the world.  I don't know exactly why this is so, I don't know why God chose to use the 'foolish of the world to shame the wise and the weak things of the world to shame the strong;' it certainly isn't the way any human would do it.  But if there's one thing I know, it's that God's ways are not our ways, and that we're created to reflect His glory, rather than giving out our own measly light.  Therefore, if it takes my brokenness to reveal Him in my life, if it's only when I'm chipped and cracked and fragmented (which are all words these women used yesterday to describe the condition of the clay pot that is themselves), that Christ is revealed, so be it.  In some fundamental way, because of sin, because I live on this earth and bear the marks of Eve in my body, I will never be any more than a mended clay pot.  A forgiven one.

It's only in a new pot, in a new body, in my Father's House, that both the treasure and the pot willl shine in equal measure.  Well, maybe that's not so.  Maybe...even then I'll be a simple jar of clay.  But what will be reflected in me, what will shine will be like the bright morning star.  I can only imagine.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

An unknown future

Home.

The sun is out, the air is warm, but I lie here on my bed, wrung out from the time east of the mountains, the traveling back, the stress of coping with Alzheimers.  The moment my feet stepped off the airplane and touched terra firma, my body began its now familiar post-stress vibrating.  It feels like every nerve in my body is a tuning fork that has been hit against a solid surface.  The first time this happened to me was several years ago, and was worrisome enough that I made an appointment with my neurologist.  After many such tuning fork episodes now, though, I know I just have to wait it out.  Just another sign that I don't have the luxury of thinking myself strong and in control of my own life.

As I was winging my way across the state yesterday I was obviously preoccupied by Mom's situation. And for the first time I began to consider the possibility that I will someday walk down this same path.  And, as might be expected, the prospect  (exacerbated, I'm sure, by the fact that I was flying and, therefore, anxious) was quite alarming.  I've lived with physical pain for a long time now, and, for the most part, am used to it.  But this mind-losing disease, I have to say, scares the bejeebers out of me.  When Mom first faced the truth that she had dementia, , she was very scared.  I told her once that the slide into Alzheimers might be something like falling asleep.  For a while she'd know, then she'd drift away into a strange between place, where she wasn't really aware of life.  And then she'd wake up and be with God.  But both Mom's fears and my assessment of her future were based on our intellectual understanding of the disease.  Neither of us had ever known well someone suffering from it.  But that has all changed.  Now when I wonder what my future--or my siblings' futures--holds, whether a holey brain will be part of it, I have something concrete to fear.  It's not nearly as benign as I suggested to Mom that it would be.  When I sit with Mom, the chief emotion I 'feel' from her is fear.  Fear and sadness.  Part of this might be her innate personality. But maybe not.  At one point the other day when she was working very hard to communicate and getting frustrated by her inability, I said, "The world's a confusing place now, isn't it?" And she nodded. "It is," she said. My words and her thoughts had met for a moment. 

Oddly, when I started thinking about it, I was reminded of being in labor with my first child.  It was an excruciatingly long labor--36 hours--and somewhere toward the end, there was some complication with the baby's heartbeat.  The doctor decided that a probe should be attached to E's head in order to moniter her more perfectly. "Will it hurt her?" I asked.  The doc reassured me that the baby wouldn't feel any pain.  But when she was born, when I had a chance to really inspect her, head to toenails, there were three puncture wounds in the top of E's head--from the three tries it took to attach the probe.  And I realized that I'd been an ignorant idiot.  Of course she'd felt that pain.  Of course!  It was only because she couldn't make herself heard that it seemed otherwise.  I imagined her feeling that sharp probe and crying hard--the first pain she ever felt.

This is what Alzheimers feels like to me: if there was any real way to express the confusion, the anxiety, we'd be overwhelmed by the psychic pain of those sufferers.  What most of us feel, I'm sure, is that we'd just as soon avoid pain altogether, but if we have to have pain, physical pain is preferable to that.  At least this is my feeling now more than ever.  So I think, grant me the grace of physical pain, Lord.  Grant me the grace of dying before I go mindless, before my children have to watch me deteriorate, have to make the tough decisions my siblings and I have had to make for our mom, before Beve has to live with a demented spouse.

But...if God's Kingdom is served by such uselessness, even though I can't imagine how, let me go gentle into that good night.  If the twilight falls on my brain before the sun sets on my body, may (somehow!!!) I live with grace, trust and as His instrument.  Of course I don't understand how this will work.  But this I believe: even if I forget my own name, as mom has now, He will not forget mine.  Even if I can no longer pray, the Holy Spirit who will still indwell me, like He indwells my mother, will do my praying for me.  He promises that this is true and I take Him at His word.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A displaced person

It's been a very long day.  Started with the early morning activity upstairs at my sister's house, where the farmers get up before the dawn to eat a hearty breakfast, catch up on the news of the world (news they can actually see now that they've got a satelite dish! I get my best sleep usually about the time they're climbing into their big rigs and heading off to the fields (if it hasn't rained, anyway!). So I might have started out a little grumpy.  It's been known to happen--my grumpiness, that is.

Didn't improve much when I had climb about two stories into my niece's fiance's three-quarter ton, extended cab pick-up.  I'm barely able to step into a car, let alone pull myself up by my arms, with a mighty hop.  My nerve-damaged left leg immediately raised a protest, but I did what most administrators do, I ignored it!  Yet that inconvenience was only the beginning.  Niece and I walked into the nursing facility where mom is supposedly getting adequate nursing care (hence the name!), and there she was, wearing an untied hospital gown, uncovered by blankets, her legs turned and sliding off the bed, as though she'd been trying to get up, hair every-which-way-but-loose on her head, eyes closed, mouth dangling open.  And no sound coming from her.  SE gasped, and I had the same thought, "Is this it?" but when I touched her skin, expecting it to be cold and silent, she snorted and opened her eyes.  But this is what it will be like, I know.  Then, this afternoon, when we returned to see her--after lunch, clearing out her room at the Dementia unit, running to Good Will and storage--she was no where to be found.  She seemed to have vanished into the clear blue sky, and the longer we looked, engaging the staff as well, the more the panic rose in us.  The duty nurse finally said, "Start over, look in every room, every bathroom."  And that's when I found her, closed into a bathroom of a vacant room, hands gloved, opening 'wet-wipes.'  I'm guessing why, but didn't investigate any closer.  As a reward for having misplaced herself, she's now sporting an orange ankle bracelet with an alarm on it.  If they can't find her, they simply press a button on the main desk, and follow the sound.  My niece said, "That's quite a treat, Grammacy.  Just you and the juvies get to wear those."

Every day brings a little more change.  Yesterday my sister and I were surprised that she could name every color in her bed throw (striped red, blue and beige), could point to that person when we told them her name,  but today, she didn't even know what the word color means, and simply stared when we told her our names.  Then she gave my nieces new names that might become a part of family lore.  The older one, SE, is now Porsa (I think it's like purse with an a at the end), and her younger taller sister, L, is snicky.  Oh my, how we laughed.  And laughed and laughed.  And my mother smiled at us.  She somehow knew she was making us laugh, but didn't understand why.  No, what my mother does now is fold.  She's fixated on folding--her sheets under which she lies, the clothes that she's still wearing, and random pieces of pillow cases, sheets, towels that she can get her hands on.  She just loves to fold.  And it's a very strange thing considering she never liked it in her right mind.  Mostly, as we grew up, clothes were dumped on our beds, with the strict order to get them done.  But now, this is the one thing she knows how to do that she can still do...and she likes it.

So I go home tomorrow, knowing that as fractured as she is, how broken her body is, she's all in one piece, all in one place.  And she didn't even cry when we told her it was time for us to leave.  I think it's gone as well as can be expected.  And I'm so exhausted, I'm definitely ready to go home.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

In the nursing home

Nothing like sitting in a nursing home to feel depressed.  My mother, lying in a hospital bed, lowered until it's merely inches off the floor, waves her hands in front of her face, flicking away figments of the imagination, mumbling incoherently.  "Did she have a nice sleep?" she asks without opening her eyes. Seconds later, for the upteenth time today, she tries to swing her legs, broken hip and all, off the bed.  "You can't get up, Mom," I say, my voice as firm as hers ever was. Her head drops back onto the pillow, a defeated sigh (one I recognize from a lifetime as her daughter) billowing from lips. I know she'd like to tell me a thing or twenty, if only she could figure out how, but I'm implacable. Her squinty eyes close again, her sighs turn to snores and her arms lift in a symphony of reaching and grabbing.  I shut my eyes as well, willing myself away from the bleakness of this linoleum floor, ornately swagged wallpaper border, and faded rose valances--the very ones I could swear were here when I last sang Christmas Carols with my middle school youth group.

This is the last address she'll ever have, the planter box with dead, scraggly vines outside her window the last view she'll ever see, if she even recognizes it as a view at all.  Things move at a steady clip downhill for her.  Yesterday, when someone put a straw to her lips, she knew what to do, and obediently swallowed pills with water.  Today, she chewed her pills, then clamped her teeth against the straw, because she's forgotten how to suck.

I wish I could glimpse what the world looks like from behind her vacant eyes.  I wish I could understand what she keeps reaching for, whether she sees an invisible watch on the wrist she keeps staring at, whether time passes in slow motion, or drifts away without her notice. I think I'd like to know what it's like to face each day within that holey shell stretched out on the bed...but then again, maybe it'd scare me to death. Perhaps there's a mercy that those afflicted with this dreadful disease cannot really really tell us how dismal, how terrifying, how lonely such an existence is.  I think of how she used to be--even three years ago--and know that even her greatest fears don't come close to how strange and empty the landscape of Alzheimers.

A few years ago--probably long past when she should have been traveling--my mother flew to Boston to see my baby brother.  We were skeptical of this trip, imagining how lost she might get.  But the trip went swimmingly, she was well-cared for and she enjoyed it.  But the lostness revealed itself nonetheless.  In a picture with D after one of Boston's famous "Duck tours," she stands holding a buoy, which frames her face.  The first time I saw it, I blanched. Her face, old and wrinkled, looked childish, her eyes absent of intelligence. From then on, every succeeding picture chronicled the light of true presence fading from her eyes.

So I sit, dulled by the drabness of this place, and the drabness of her twitching, the dreariness of her increasingly vacant self.  I sit, waiting in this straight-backed chair, watching her like she's a tiny child who would be safer sleeping in a crib. I don't think anyone can really fathom the strange shadow world dementia brings...until one enters that land with a parent, a spouse, a friend.  And then one enters the land and discovers that the wiping out of a mind while the body still lives is the cruelest death.  There is more than one way to lose someone you love.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It all depends

So I'm sitting in a hospital room next to my poor demented mother.  It's been nothing if not exciting since I got here...well, I suppose it depends on what your definition of exciting is, actually.  She talk nonstop, even when her eyes are closed and she's snoring--which is a trick I wouldn't have believed if I wasn't sitting right next to her.  She's tried to get out of bed every few minutes, or works her fingers against the blankets, and a half an hour ago, announced in a completely coherent sentence, "My gown is wet!"  And indeed it was, because she'd somehow managed to take off the Depends she's been wearing since she pulled out her catheter.  Yep, quite an afternoon, and I've only been here three hours.  She wasn't responding to "Mom," so I tried her name, which my sister told me she'd answered to yesterday, but when I tried it, she said, "Call me Mommy."  Well, I'm willing to do a lot for her these days, but I draw the line at changing her wet gown or calling her Mommy.  The nurses who don't know her are happy to do the work they're paid for, and I'm so thankful to let them. They find her incoherence somewhat endearing.  I find it just plain incoherent. I guess, like most things, this day all depends on your point of view--and especially whether the Depends are where they should be!

I was thinking about the ministry of being this afternoon as I sat here, the very real Kingdom work that happens just by being present.  This is what I'm doing here, sitting with my mother at the end of all her days.  She has as much trouble understanding my direct statements as I do following her incoherent ramblings, so the most I can do is simply be here, listening to her (or not, honestly), able to answer when something clear gets through.  One of her common statements is, "I wish I could just go upstairs."  By this she means she wants to flee the sorry old bag of broken bones her body and brain have become, and climb into a new body in heaven.  She very much wants this now, and...I very much want it for her.  It's a very sad thing that the end of a life should be so splintered.  My sitting with her, my being present in her pain (the pain she doesn't quite know she feels, though it makes her agitated and anxious) is what I have to give.  My sitting here is my way of praying for her last days here, and praying for--hopefully, please God--her home-going.

It is well with my soul to pray such things.  And I'm glad of that.  There have been times in my life--many, many long seasons--when I wouldn't have dared to pray such things, when such a prayer would have been for my release, rather than hers.  But today as I sit here, watching her snore, listening to her sleep-talking, I can breathe her hopes with her, believing that the best that life has to offer her now, will come when she goes home to the dwelling God has for her in the mansions of heaven.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Marriage as a mattress

So I'm flying to my hometown tomorrow.  Yesterday my mother fell and broke a hip.  It's the second hip, third appendage she's broken in the last five months, the third surgery done to repair it, the third cliff dive into a deeper pool of Alzheimers.  Last night my sister, who lives there, told me she didn't think I needed to come.  This morning she called to say Mom had taken a gigantic turn in the night, is now throwing things at people, yelling at them, trying to pull out her catheter and IV tube. It was quite an SOS from my sister.  So I'm flying over tomorrow to sit with Mom, try to calm her, try to ease the way between her and the nurses. It will work if--and it's a big if--Mom actually recognizes me enough to listen to me.  At the moment that's not at all certain.  But one way or another, I'll be moral support for my sister, who definitely will recognize and appreciate my presence.

I'm not going today, however, because this is Beve and my 25th wedding anniversary.  25 years.  We went out to lunch and I asked him if he wanted to re-up for another 25.  He said he wants at least double that but I said he was probably on his own.  50 years from now, he'd be 102 and I'd be 101, and if he should be so unfortunate to live that long, he'll have to do it with a second wife, because I'm not planning to pass the century mark.  I can't imagine...
But I am grateful for these last twenty-five years.  Almost half my life of loving the Beve, sharing table, bed and home with him.  Sharing the load of parenting, of aging parents,  house ownership and dog ownership.  Twenty-five years of squabbling like siblings at moments, of being selfish and acting like children, and selfless and being Christ to each other, of seeing the best in each other and the worst in each other, and taking those things together to make the imperfect, perfect whole that is US.  Two-become-one adventure that is us. I guess I'm saying that our marriage is the core of the community in which we grow up in Christ and Beve is the first 'other' through whom God works to make me mature.  At the best of moments, I know this is true.  At the worst ones, I'm sorry it's so.  At lunch today--at this lovely little Italian cafe where the owner had the beautiful lilt of Italy in his voice, and I ate a wonderful tomato and gorgonzola soup--Beve prayed that we continue to get to know each other, that we continue to discover new ways of being one, new adventures of this life we are called to live together.  I smiled at his words, echoing them in my head.  To continue to get to know him, to continue to find new ways of loving this man--it's a good goal for our 26th year.

And as the vicissitudes of life roll around us--aging, demented parents; children who--oddly--think they're actually adults now that they're in their 20s; friends with various ailments of body or heart; jobs and ministries to the broken and needy--may this marriage continue to be the sanctuary it has always been to us.  May it be the metaphoric mattress we each fall onto at the end of the day (just as our bed is the physical one), when life hits hard and we are exhausted by it.  May this marriage be a witness for good, a testimony to God to all with whom we rub shoulders.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The mother that I needed

Mother's Day.  All of my life, I've made sure that I talked to my mother on this day, even if I could barely think of something positive to say.  My relationship with her has been fraudulant for a very long time, since adolescence at least.  And as I became an adult, I made a conscious decision to tell her the truth, but also to not intentionally hurt her.  This sometimes proved a difficult, even impossible proposition.  I thought of how I approached her as standing on an ocean beach as the tide rushed in and out.  When a person stands in the surf, the sand beneath one's feet erodes through the power of the waves, making it feel like the feet are moving, even though they're stationary.  This is how I tried to deal with my mother.  No matter what she said, how she cried or yelled or manipulated, I simply stood still.  Sometimes she felt I'd changed--moved--into being a hurtful person, because I'd stopped caving to her.  And I have to say, it was very unpleasant at times.  She'd say she was a terrible person--a wrong person--and I'd say, "That's not the issue.  We're talking about a behavior, an action, not about your worth as a human."  She didn't like that I'd stopped playing the game with her.

So Mother's Day would come around and I'd call her, find something to tell her about what I appreciated about her--her commitment to her husband, her children.  Her ability as a teacher. But I only told her what I could say with integrity and truth.  From her on Mother's Day, I often got cards that were flowery and sentimental, full of words difficult to believe from someone who was so eager to criticize and take offense.  My mother didn't like the way I parented, for the most part.  Everything I did that was different from how she had done she took as an indictment that I thought she was a bad mother.  And there was more than a little truth in that accessment, I admit.  I was purposeful in doing things I believed God intended me to do as a mother, and much of that was very different from the way I was raised.

It's hard to admit such things. It doesn't reflect well on me, I admit, and trust me, I wouldn't be doing it if she still knew how to read. It would hurt her deeply to hear me speak so of her, even as it confirmed all the things she's believed about herself.  Here's the truth: my mother loved me as well as she could, given who she was, how damaged she was.  It was a far from perfect love, but it was what she had to give.  The biggest flaws in our relationship came from within me.  It was me who couldn't accept her as she was, me who just plain didn't like her, found her needy and pathetic. Me who cringed when she criticized my children, my home, my life, especially when she'd say, "I was just kidding" after such criticism.  See, most people I know who had a difficult parent, who never pleased their parent, still crave that parent's love even when they're parents themselves--or grandparents, even.  Not me.  I can't remember wanting my mother to love me.  Most of my life I simply wished she'd leave me alone.

Yes, this is the ugly underside of my life to write this.  To be this honest. I'm not proud of it.  But here's the thing--this is the first year since I can remember when I won't talk to Mom on Mother's Day.  She no longer knows what a phone is when it rings, probably barely knows what today is, or that she's a mother.  And it's a funny thing that this year is when I can't talk with her, because finally, I love her again.  I really do. This sad, lost little-girl mother of mine, this vacant, confused speaker of sentences I cannot understand, is someone I care deeply about.  I know that if God snapped His fingers and gave her back her brain, my feelings would likely move right back into what they've been for 40 years, but today, thinking of her sitting blankly in her recliner in her room in the Alzheimer's Unit, I'm thinking fondly of her, feeling thankful if not exactly for her, at least for the love God gave me again for this woman.  I am glad she gave me life, taught me to read, to tie my shoes, helped me learn to write more legibly with my left-hand (my penmanship is one of my vanities and that's thanks to her!),  made all those meals for me, cared for me when I was sick, listened to my stories, laughed at my jokes.  I may not have had the mother that I wanted, but I believe--I really believe--that she's the mother God intended, the one that I needed.  And finally, I'm fine with that.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom.  I love you.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Pruning

The spring flowers are in full bloom in our garden now, tulips, the blueberry bushes, lilacs and the dogwood tree.  Spring really is the most colorful time of year. Driving across town this afternoon, I saw pink-bloomed ornamentals, including flowering plums, such beautiful harbingers of this season.   Years ago when we lived in Sequim in a new home that needed lots of landscaping, Beve's mom bought us an ornamental plum, which we planted just out our back door below a corner of our deck.  It took a couple of years, but when it began to bloom, I was captivated by it. 

One spring day, one of the last years we lived out there, while I was at work, Beve's dad came by our house.  We only lived about a mile away from Grampie, and popped in and out of each other's homes all the time.  In fact, they were our nearest grocery store.  When I was short a cup of sugar or an egg, I just hopped on our scooter and shopped in their pantry and refrigerator.  And Grampie felt just as at home as we did.  I'd come home some days and he'd be sitting at our computer, putting in a new program or something.  Anyway, this particular spring day, when I walked up onto our deck, I noticed that our plum tree had been raped and pillaged.  Pruned within an inch of its life.  Long branches with glorious pink blossoms were scattered beneath it.  Grampie had taken it upon himself to prune our tree--at the very worst time!  The tree, denuded of so many branches, had a huge hole right in the middle of it!  And I was furious.  To cut off limbs when a tree is in full bloom feels sacriligious to me.  And then to leave those branches lying where they fell...well, nothing about this act made me happy.  And being the shy, retiring type that I am, you can imagine my conversation with Grampie about it.  Grampie, unflappable as always, just laughed at my frustration.  Come to think of it, that's his typical response to most conflicts or outrages at him.  Quite unnerving.

See, I don't like pruning trees.  Yes, I know it's important, I know the point is to actually yield more fruit, but it still goes against my feelings.  Beve can be pretty ruthless; he is a lot like his dad, though I can't imagine him pruning a tree while it's in full flower.  And I'll always maintaim that Grampie was wrong that day.  Obviously, I haven't gotten over it.

But pruning--the cutting off of branches in order to attain a greater harvest, more flowers, a healthier plant--is pretty hard for me to accept in the best of times.  Even harder is the truth that pruning is really Kingdom work.  I want to hold onto, with all my might, every last limb of myself, inside and out.  I want a harvest of Godly fruit in my character and my relationships, but without the painful work of pruning.  Without having to have dead and worthless branches cut out of me. But there's no choice.  All those dead, unproductive branches cause me more harm than good. The dead must be sawed off so that the whole can live and be effective.  And though sometimes it feels like God's pruning off blooming branches, and even that those branches are lying on the floor of my life, slowly dying, I trust that all--and what a large word that all is--He's doing is shaping me, clipping away what will not produce a harvest of holiness.

I don't know how that ornamental plum tree felt that day--being unable to speak tree as I am--but I know that it's okay to grieve the loss of a limb, and that it's only right to look forward to a better yield of fruit in my life.  Beve usually asks me how much of our trees he should clip. I always err on the conservative side, then watch him be far more ruthless than I would be.  Thankfully God is exactly the same way.  The goal of Beve's ruthlessness is that harvest.  The goal of God's is my life.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A different purpose

Another journal post:
July 19, 2003
I want desperately for my words to God about surrender, relinquishment, abandonment of self to surge from the marrow of my being.  I want my desire fo Him and His will to be strongest when I'm hidden, when I'm out of the public eye, but so embedded in me that it spills over into every conversation, every encounter, every decision.  I know, of course, the slothfulness of my human heart.  I know that I can't sustain faithfulness on my own.  I grow complacent, then distracted, then consumed with selfish concerns.  I must be changed from the inside out, and changed daily.  This salvation stuff, this glory-to-glory stuff, is not a one time only proposition.  And it takes suffering to do what my complacency won't do on its own. 

He uses whatever is available.  That means if I'm suffering from unrelenting pain, as Job puts it, that He will meet me in that pain to draw me closer.  And the great thing about pain is that it wakes me up to my need of Him.  When life runs smoothly, it's easier to believe I'm in control of my own world, master of my own domain.  And I take too much for granted--walking, standing, sitting--that in this hellacious pain, I cannot.

Do I believe that I have sinned and am being disciplined for it?  That there a one to one ratio of pain to sin?  No more than I believe I'm so Joblike good that I've been picked out by Satan for special testing.  Though each of these things are possible, what is also true is that bodies are part of the fallen-ness of a world corrupted by sin.  Bodies fail and break down, just as souls do--but for His redemption.  Can bodies be redeemed/saved as souls are? Yes...but only temporarily.  Saved from one disease, even by obvious supernatural intervention does not mean physical death will never occur.  All those people Jesus saved when He walked the dusty roads of Palestine: Lazarus, Jairus's daughter, Peter's mother-in-law, and the woman who touched His cloack?  They all eventually died. Their earthly lives were lengthened by Jesus' healing, but not eternally lengthened.  All as short as a whisper of time was their chronos, just as mine is.

So there is clearly a different purpose in physical healing than just quantity of days.  It is not time that has any value.  What He's after is a quality to my days: His glory--revealed in my body, whether by life or by death.  Which circumstance--pain or no pain--will help Him be most glorified in my life?  Whichever it is--and I actually think pain has a better chance of doing the job--that is what I want.  So let me open up and embrace it.  See it as the great glory adventure it is.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Daily troubles

The other day I was talking with a friend about how our habits have gotten so lax since our kids have grown up.  When our children were small, we never allowed them to eat anywhere but at the table, and really curtailed their TV watching to about a show a week.  But these days, we all trot down the hall with dinner plates to eat in front of the large screen.  We feel quite guilty about it--Beve and me, my friend and her spouse, shoot, lots of people we know.  I don't know how things came to this pass, really, but here we are.

So imagine the great howl riccocheting through our house when, last night in the middle of a basketball game that E and Grampie were watching, the satelite dish suddenly turned off.  I spent hours on the phone this morning with the Direct TV people, particularly a smoky voiced woman who'd forgotten to set her DVR to record Grey's Anatomy tonight.  'Oh well,' she said, 'I'll watch it on ABC.com tomorrow.' 'Isn't that against the rules for you to even talk about, seeing how you work for Direct TV.' 'Probably,' she said, cheerfully. 'But you won't tell anyone.'  Then she set us up with a repair man to come out--MONDAY!  That's like one-two-four days from now.  NO TV for four days...and just as I decided I wasn't up to making the trek across the state!  What exactly am I supposed to do with myself all weekend while my family is gone?  Play with the dogs?  Something productive like read or study or play the piano? HA!

And we've had the phone repair folks out three times in the last week.  Oddly,we didn't even notice that our phone wasn't working for something like 5 days, until Grampie called Beve's cell in a panic, thinking we'd died or something.  And you know what I hate more than the inconvenience of these things not working?  Having the repair people tromp through my house. Obviously, like I said, I watch TV.  I know that most serial killers, rapists and thieves worm their way into houses by dressing up as repair people.  I'm always shaking my head at those little old ladies who let them in...but when they pull into my driveway I'm right there, meeting them at the door with a smile and two barking dogs.  Who knows what they could do to me?...But, if truth be told, that's not really the reason I don't like them in my house.  I'm not really afraid by nature.  If I were, we'd probably be worried enough about security around here that we'd lock our house and carry keys.  Now that I've admitted that, I'm sure all the criminals who read my blog will hunt us down...That's why we have this 110 pound lab who likes to jump at people's faces.  He and the frantic Springer are our security.

No, the thing is, I just feel awkward having strangers in my house.  I never quite know how to handle it.  And, without being sexist, I'll admit that only once in my memory was it a woman who came to do a repair.  No, make that twice--an exterminator who didn't set foot inside was also female.  But other than that, plumbers, electricians, cable guys, washing machine repair people--all men.  All strange men wandering around my house.   And I don't like it.

So I'm feeling a little cranky.  Beve's off being a good son--and a good dad to SK, who was really happy to see her Daddy--a good brother, a good egg.  That's my Beve, for you.  His brother's wife wrote me a note today thanking me for allowing him to do it.  I laughed when I read it--like I 'allow' Beve to do anything.  That would be the day when I actually had that much control over the giant I live with.  It was a nice note, though.  I'm just saying...

Wow, what a random post this is.  You might be waiting for me to say something profound at this point.  Making a spiritual connection.  But I don't have one.  Not tonight.  Not when I'm grumpy about not being able to watch the Cavs play, having to spend so much time on the phone my battery practically died, and getting to set up an appointment for another stranger to walk through our door.  Sigh. 

It's the ordinary, the daily that reminds me of how far I have to go spiritually.  It isn't catastrophes that define growth, but what I do when I'm faced with inconveniences, long waits and all the other complications that come day after day just in the living of them.  And tonight I'm aware of just how human I am--I'm made of flesh and bone, and dying flesh at that.  If let to solve my own daily troubles, and think about the ones ahead, I'll eternally be what E fondly calls, 'grumpy gills' (Name that movie!).  Let each day's troubles be enough for that day, Jesus said.  Let me wear them lightly as well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

You know what I am

I'm on my way to the ferry to meet Grampie, bring him back here and entertain him for the day.  Tomorrow Beve and I drive him across the state for Beve's nephew's graduation from pharmacy school.  I doubt I'll have a moment to blog for the next five days.  So I'm posting again from the bowels of my journals, still related to those early days of suffering (this is what happens to me when I start teaching about a subject--I'm all in, all the time! But I promise that one of these days I'll write about something other than suffering...maybe)

June 16, 2003
Physical pain is the least of it.  There is no one hurting me.  Pain comes because we lived in a diseased world.  I never expected otherwise.  And the Holy Spirit reminds me in my bleakest moments that He is working for good in every situation.  No matter what I'm going through--even if it's a hell of my own making, amazingly enough--He is working for good.  That comforts as nothing else can. Along with: "He who began a good work in me will be faithful to complete it."
I am intensely aware of His presence in my circumstances.  Wow, it just occured to me that I can say with Paul, because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, "I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether lving in plenty or in want." Philippians 4:12
The secret of being content--not my circumstance, but His presence in my circumstance.
I don't want to sound like Pollyanna.  I am not a 'put a smile on your face, be happy and think happy thoughts, PMA' kind of person.  Happiness is not even something I aspire to.  In fact, I'm not even sure I aspire to joy, in and of itself.  What I want, what I am thirsty for is not His joy, but Himself.  I want Christ.  I want to know Him, to be swallowed up in love for Him to the point that I don't have to ask what He wills for me because I only want His will.
There's just so much of me left to die.  If it takes physical pain to help me die to myself, should I mock or reject that?  From the same nail-scarred hands that saved me come all things meant to draw me to Him.  I haven't ever complained when life was good, easy, full of abundance, so why should I start complaining when it takes suffering to make me His?
Does this mean that I'm a martyr?  Oh God, You know I'm not.  I get plenty terrified of what You may allow in order to complete me.  It isn't that I think You'll do anything harder than I can bear--You promise You won't.  But I have a hunch You think I can bear a whole lot more than I think I can.  But, even at this scary thought, I trust you.  Your goal is my salvation, You motive love beyond my comprehension.  Your means?  Anything that springs up.  Even the harsh things of life on a fallen planet, things the enemy means for ill, You use for my good.  So while the immature child in me wants to bargain with You to stop hurting me (or allowing pain to be the instrument of growth) I don't make that plea.  It hovers at the corners of my prayers, but I trust you.  So saintly in suffering? Ha, You and I know better.   All I am is a person in whom Christ dwells...come to think of it, there's nothing I'd rather be.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

He wins

I've been looking through old retreat materials for the suffering teaching I'll be starting next week, and found some of my journal entries from the first few months that I lived in 24-7 pain.  If anyone had told me then that six years later I'd still have this kind of pain, I'm sure it would have destroyed me.  But thankfully, we only have to live each day at a time, each moment as it comes.  When I think about it objectively, I think the nerve fires on the left side of my body are every bit as bad as they were in those early days, but I've grown used to these neuropathies as a constant, if somewhat truculent, companion.  They annoy me, sometimes to a distracting degree, and certainly my life is reduced because of them, but...I'm still here, still living by faith, still hopeful and joyful and...still being used exactly as I am.
Well, here's an entry from the beginning:

May 19, 2003
I will say this: if this pain is a ploy of Satan's to see what I'm made of, or how far I will last before folding, I admit defeat.  I failed before it started.  I am made of flesh and blood and dust and earth.  I fold.  I cannot bear another instant of discomfort alone.
However, God wins.  HE WINS!!! Before another moment passes, God has already won.  I abdicated a long time ago and I surrender again right now.  If I can bear nothing, He can, and has, borne everything: Satan is defeated--in my body as well as in my soul.  I've been bought with a price, sealed in His blood.  He lives in me and He can handle this pain.  The evil one might as well pack in His tortures and slither back to the hole he crawled out of.
I believe that not only will this backfire on Satan, but that God will use my broken, hurting body for His glory.  That's what He's about.  I don't know how but I trust Him.  That's the treasure in the jar of clay from 2 Corinthians 4--to be used for His purpose exactly as I am today.  And I'm thrilled by that prospect.
Am I crazy, presumptuous, irrational to assume God will use for His Kingdom-come glory a pain-riddled recluse who can barely leave the house?  But that is exactly how otherworldly, how counter-worldly, I should say, God is.
"But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the lowly things of the world to shame the strong." 1 Corinthians 1:27

Monday, May 4, 2009

A pulley

"God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." ~CS Lewis

When I was in seminary before the turn of the century (doesn't that sound like it was a hundred years ago?), one of the classes I took was Apologetics.  That's one of the theological terms that abound in seminaries. Others are hermenutics, systematic theology, doctrine and dogma.  I have neither the time nor interest in defining all these words this afternoon...ok, the truth is, I never really did.  They always sounded so incredibly dry to me compared to living as a disciple, leaning in to know and love Him more.  But perhaps (duh!) this is all beside my point today.  The Apologetics class I took turned out to be far meatier than I'd expected, and this is because it appealed to the creative side of my brain--where I dwell only when I'm breathing!  We spent half the term talking about "Pulleys", those things, people, ideas, objects, experiences that pull us closer to God if we're believers, and closer to seeking Him if we aren't.  The second half of the term, we talked about "Barriers", those things that keep us from God. The nutshell I just gave doesn't do justice to the rich, meaty readings and discussions we had in that class--it really expanded how I looked at experience, maybe how I catalogued life in the odd moments when I do catalogue it. 

Each student had to write a term paper and give a presentation to the class about the paper.  I wrote mine about "Pain as a pulley; Pain as a barrier."  I did research at such places as the ICU waiting room at our city's hospital, and even in the aisles of local stores.  I unashamedly listened in to every conversation I could.  See, most people start conversations by saying, "How's it going?"  And though most often that question is met with a non-committal, one or two word answer, "Fine," Pretty good," "so-so," I was lucky enough to hear folks tell the truth.  One conversation overheard in that waiting room between two men in their sixties:
A. balding man with black-rimmed glasses:"...no, it's in her lungs now, and she gets pretty tired." he said. "And your wife's?"
B. lean farmer with a midwestern accent: "yeah, it's moved to her liver, they don't give her much time.  We took her to Missouri to see her sister and family.  It was hard.  Everyone knew we were saying goodbye."
A."We're just trying to take it one day at a time."
B."I guess it's up to the good Lord now."
A. "You know I never really thought too much about God, but now..."
B. "yeah, it makes you want to believe, doesn't it?"
A. "And she really gets comfort from going to church so I take here.  And you know, I think it makes sense. The whole thing makes you wonder what the point is."
B." It helps me be grateful for what we have, to know that there's more than this."

Yes, I copied that straight from my paper, which I had copied straight from the little notebook I'd taken with me to the waiting room that day--those lovely older men had no idea I was doing any more than writing in my journal.  But what a treasure to have them prove my point so completely.  And here's more from the paper...quite eloquently put (if I do say so myself):

In thinking of pain as a pulley, I recognize that it is clearly also a barrier.  It seems to me that pain in the abstract is almost always a barrier, i.e.: "Why does God allow innocent people to suffer?" and "He let (or caused) thousands to die in a fire, earthquake, flood, volcano, etc...how could a loving God do this?"  At a distance it is easier to get angry and hostile, but when pain comes nearer and wears a face, it elementally changes.  Then the horror of it looks personal and the warer more often cries out to God--even the very God he or she blamed for disasters across the world.  Sometimes those cries ring with reproach: "How dare you do this to me?" but they are cries encased in human flesh--You' to 'Me'--rather than simply abstract wonderings.  Those are the pulley moments.  I almost imagine God saying, as I would of my wayward child, "At least she's talking to me." It's a starting place.  Nothing can happen until there is an honest beginning.  Abstract pain may imply God's absence, personal pain begs for His presence.

"In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed. But there also is character made.  The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making."  Nicholas Wolterstorff

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Absolutely central

So I've been working on a Bible study on suffering that a friend asked me to lead this month.  When she first asked, I wasn't sure I'd be able to do such a study at this particular point in my life.  However, even as I hung up the phone, Beve said, "You'll do it."  Yes, he definitely knows me.  What came to mind almost immediately was my experience in college as I lived through a broken engagement and broken heart.  I went to see one of the pastors at the large church I attended, and His counsel to me was three part.  First, he wanted me to begin to meet with a young woman in our church weekly.  Second, he suggested I read Martin Luther's commentary on Romans (a very dense commentary that made me have to concentrate deeply on his words and The Word). And third, he told me to start ministering, which led me to become a Young Life leader again.  This last seemed counter-intuitive at the time, when I felt dry and full only of pain, not of any kind of living water. 

But he knew what he was talking about.  I loved the Romans study--my spiritual temperament positively blooms when I have something to study.  I doubt this pastor recommended Luther to every young person who walked through his door, but the Spirit sure gave him insight to me. And the encouragement to ministry?  Ministering out of pain was the road to healing for me.  And so it has always been, for me, and I'd venture to say for most of us.  Getting outside ourselves and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us is an avenue of grace.  And I've experienced this phenomena more than once over the course of the last 30 years.  At my neediest moments, when I feel like I have the least to give, He sets a task before me, an engaging with His Word and others, and before I know it, I can hear His whisper again, can see touches of His presence written large and robustly across the face of my life. 

So I'm grateful for this study, and specifically for the topic--suffering!  There are no accidents in the Kingdom.  I don't know what will come of this study when I work through it with the women, but I know He's met me in the reading and the writing of it.  It still worries me a little to have to be as vulnerable as I will...but I know myself.  I'm not very good at being anything but transparent. 

I'll be writing more reflections about suffering in the next few days.  But here's one small thought:  suffering is an essential part of growing up in Christ.  Absolutely central.  If you haven't had suffering in your life, you're either in denial or not paying attention.  There is some fruit that ONLY suffering can produce, you see.  If we are to be like Christ, if we are to be Christ to the world, we must also suffer with Him. Paul tells us, "If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him;" and "I want to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in His suffering."  And Jesus said, "In the world you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Center stage

I remember clearly the moment I realized the world didn't revolve around me.  I was in first or second grade, living in Ypsilanti, Michigan and one night as I lay in my twin bed--you know, the one with the off-white puffy vinyl headboard in the bedroom I shared with my sister (who turned 50 today, Happy Birthday, Dump!)--and for some reason, I began thinking about a friend who lived on the next street.  Suddenly--and this is such a strong memory, I can actually smell the vinyl, and see the light from the hallway coming in through our partially open door--it occured to me that she was moving around her house, lying in her bed, living a whole life that had nothing to do with me.  And it hit me that until that moment, I'd really thought of other people as if my life was center stage, and only in my presence did anything happen.  It was like everyone else just waited, like carboard cutouts, until I was around.  That revelation was shocking to me.  And then it was shocking to me that I'd ever thought such a thing. Of course, everyone else in the world was living their own life.  How silly, how childish to think otherwise.

Writing this out now, it all sounds quite absurd.  But that moment has always stayed with me.  It was the starting point to faith, I think now.  I had started on the road toward understanding that not only am I not the sun, but my life was a momentary thing in eternity.  That was a stage I went through too--the sense that I was nothing more than a speck in time, and there would be no ripple in the universe when I was gone.  In those days--my junior high years--I was terrified of death because there was nothing beyond it.  That phase catapulted me into faith.  To discovering that though my life is small and fleeting, it has purpose because I was created intentionally by God for relationship with Him and other humans.

However, I still need to be reminded (more often than I like to admit) that I am not the center of the universe, that everyone I meet, interact with, as well as all of humanity, lives lives that are unrelated to my presence.  I am not the most important person in the world.  But at the same time, I'm every bit as important as anyone who's ever lived.  As important as kings and prime ministers, as plumbers and prostitutes.  Exactly the same.  In God's eyes there are no unnecessary people, not a single redundant soul. This is a revelation I need over and over.  When I lie in my bed tonight, letting the names and faces of those I've thought of and spoken to today, I'll be thanking Him for the unique and precious lives they are living beyond my knowledge and presence.  As I write this right now, I'm thinking of all those ripples in the universe caused by every individual who's ever breathed (and the myriad more who never had a chance!!!).  And I'm especially thankful that I'm not the center of the universe--God knows how I'd screw it up if I were--but that HE is.