CHRISTMAS MORNING MUSINGS

 

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A bleak midwinter morning

Christmas morning,1981. I can see him through the floor-to-ceiling front windows as I pull up to the house.  My father, dressed in his camel hair sport coat with the suede patches on the elbows, cup of tea in his hand.  He doesn’t come to greet me as he sees me; instead he turns and walks away, prepared to leave.  Not because he is heading out on some early morning holiday errand, but because I am there.  And I am not welcome.

I’m not sure why that Christmas morning, of all the Christmas mornings in my six-plus decades of life, came into my memory this year.  But as I sit this Christmas morning, watching the red sunrise through the bare trees, a scene many might consider dreary and foreboding, I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

The gratitude is not for the warm, comfortable home that I now sit in, with the lights of the tree and the family that will soon join me downstairs; it’s not for the welcome that I will receive later in the day at the home of my sister, surrounded by siblings and their families who truly love me; it’s not even for the favorable doctor’s visit that I had a few weeks ago, declaring me another six month’s removed from my cancer diagnosis.

These are all wonderful blessings which have come about in my life, unexpectedly different than what I thought my life would look like on that lonely Christmas morning 37 years ago. It took a few more years for my father to welcome me back into his home; a few more years that my mother and siblings had to endure the heartache that my selfish choices created; a few more years before I would lay aside the arrogance and stubbornness that I chose to wear as a badge of honor, claiming independence and self-sufficiency.  A few more years before I would put down the alcohol that I used as a source of comfort and courage and accept the gift of freedom that comes with true surrender.

But my gratitude this Christmas morning, as tears streamed down my cheeks, comes from acknowledging the underlying reason for all these blessings and many more.  It overwhelms me when I clearly see the one real difference in my life, the “common denominator” to which all the dramatic changes in my life can be attributed.

The woman who pulled into that driveway in 1981 was alone, terrified, yet indignant at being judged; a 25 year old law student who thought she knew all about what was important in life, even as she sported two black eyes, a partner in rehab, and a barely functioning car.  She didn’t arrive bearing gifts for her parents and siblings but was seeking comfort and “familiar”.  It took years before she found what she was looking for, before she even realized something was missing.

I sit here now, a 62 year old mother of three, 33 years away from her last drink, a cancer survivor, who was able to help care for her father at the end of his life.  Sometimes I wonder how I got here.  But this Christmas, I know it is only by the grace shown by my heavenly Father that I have been able to make this journey with any degree of success.  An infant, born in a “bleak midwinter” over two thousand years ago, unwelcomed in ways I can’t even fathom, and my belief in what some consider “just a story” is the only real difference between my life then and now. 

It makes no sense, yet it makes perfect sense.  I can’t point to any other event that could explain the transformation that has taken place in my life, and in the lives of others.  I have been shown forgiveness and thus have been able to forgive; I have been comforted in loss so that I could comfort those experiencing similar grief (2Cor 1:4); and I have been welcomed where I once was an outcast.  For those who knew me then and now, I pray they recognize a difference, and acknowledge the reason for the change.  For those I have met during these last 3 plus decades, I apologize if I have taken any credit for where I am today, for it is only by God’s grace.  And for those I may meet going forward in this new year, may I never be ashamed to give a reason for the hope that I have (1Peter 3:15).

I may experience some “bleak midwinter” mornings going forward.  Things may not go as I hope, or as I think they should.  But in those times, I need to remember where I was all those years ago, and how differently my life turned out from what I had imagined or planned.  And I will remind myself, with God’s help, of the source of that life-changing event, a Christmas morning which demands my attention and gratitude every day.  “Now to Him who is able to do more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3:20-21)

 

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HEAVY BLANKETS

I have a quilt that I bought while on a trip to Oklahoma. I love the colors and the scalloped edges; the matching pillow shams; the way it looks on the wrought iron bed. But the weight of it is sometimes too much- too heavy. It is almost unbearable to have that weight on my feet some nights.

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That’s how I feel lately about life.  There is a sadness about it that is suffocating. I find myself crying in the middle of the day when someone comes to mind. I hear about those for whom the sadness became too much. Not just the ones in the news like Spade and Bourdain, but people I know or whose families I know.

I read an article the other day about a young man who, after years of love and encouragement from his family, after years of treatment, who was gifted and talented in so many ways, just went for “a walk in the woods” because he couldn’t find a way to the surface. And I was overwhelmed with sadness.

I look at my children and each of their individual struggles and wonder if life is too hard for them.  Are the expectations too high? Will I be the recipient  of a text, as this young man’s mother was, which says “I’ve gone for a walk in the woods”?   And it makes me sad.  Rather than crawling under that blanket for comfort, it becomes a source of oppression.  And instead of finding comfort in the words I read in the Bible, as I so often have, they too become like a weight.

I think back to my life in my late teens and 20’s- when I was in the throes of addiction and alcohol was the only thing that relieved that sadness of life. Or so I thought.  If I’m totally honest, I thought more about taking my life after I stopped drinking than I ever did beforehand.  I understand all too well that “jumping off place”[1]; the feeling that life is just too hard.  It becomes like walking in wet sand, and each rush of water acts like a suction cup, making it impossible to move your feet.

The sadness comes from my seeming inability to “make things better”, from the lack of enough eloquent words or persuasive encouragement which will lift friends and loved ones out of those pits of despair. While I know it’s not my responsibility to do so, there is still a part of me that wants to fix things.

I try to recall what it was that pulled me out of those places of despair, those “dark nights of the soul”.  Was it something someone said?  Something timely I read?  A song on the radio at just the right moment?

One of my favorite verses in times of darkness is Habakkuk 3:17-18 – “Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls- Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

While I certainly see the faithfulness of God in my own life and am truly grateful, my sadness comes when I see those around me struggle, paddling desperately against an undercurrent of fear and longing.  It is like seeing the beauty of that quilt and yet being pained by its uncomfortable weight.

I see friends who cannot overcome the curse of addiction, returning to the “quick fix” rather than pursuing the daily reprieve which comes from following a spiritual program of recovery; I see family members searching for satisfaction in so many things, trusting in “chariots and horses” (Ps. 20:7) rather than in who they are in God’s eyes; I understand the challenge some of them have fully embracing the truth that ”weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning”.  I think my sadness comes from my inability to convince them, based solely on my own experience, that there is truly nothing which can separate them from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).

I have another blanket that one of my sons got for me. It is soft and warm, providing just the right warmth and comfort on chilly mornings as I sit and spend time in the Word.  I know I have a choice today as to which blanket I crawl under. And so this morning, as the sun starts coming up on a new day, I will try to turn my thoughts from the “wormwood and the gall”, as the prophet Jeremiah did, and have hope in the promise that “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion’ says my soul, ‘therefore I hope in Him’” (Lamentations 3:22-24).

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[1] “Alcoholics Anonymous”, p.152

ON GOING HOME…

ON GOING HOME

(and the kindness of strangers)

 

 

There’s a Miranda Lambert song that brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it. (Part of the reason may be that my daughter sang this song at a Country Music open mic event, and I loved hearing her sing it.  A dream of mine is that my children will record something together some day.  But I digress…)

The song is “The House That Built Me”, and it’s a touching song about returning to the home of one’s childhood to try and regain a sense of self.  Some of the lyrics are “I thought if I could touch this place or feel it, this brokenness inside me might start healing.  Out here it’s like I’m someone else; I thought that maybe I could find myself….”  Who hasn’t had that feeling of being so far from where we started that we think maybe we’ve lost our way?  And there seems to be a deep longing in everyone to discover their roots, to know who they are and what made them that way.  Look at the success of companies like Ancestry.com or 23andme, where you can pay a fee and find out all about your “family of origin”.

What is it that drives this desire?  I think I might understand that need in the case of someone who’s adopted, who may not know what their heritage is.  They don’t have the benefit of family photos or possibly a grandparent to fill them in on the traditions and traits that may have been passed down. I work with children who have been placed in foster care, who have been removed from their birth families for one reason or another.  A large part of what I do with them is to create a “life book”- a book that traces their journey, with a goal of honoring their past even though they may not be able to return to that family.  It gives these children a sense of belonging to look at pictures or recall traditions and hopefully allays some of the fears and insecurities of an unknown future.  This is an intentional process, well thought-out by “experts” who have spent years working with children in these situations.

But what about those of us who can look at a family photo album and clearly see where we got our nose or our eyes?  What about those of us who grew up with a large extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins who regularly gathered for Sunday dinners and shared stories?  What is it that makes us want to go “home” again?

 

I recently took a ride to the community where my childhood home was located.  Not the home I lived in from birth, but one which was a large part of my growing up years.  The community is now gated, and no one is granted access without the permission of a property owner and the issuance of a temporary gate card.  I explained to the woman in the office that I had lived here 50 years ago, when the community was just being built; that my father was one of those original builders (as if that would gain me special access).  As I was making my plea, one of the current residents overheard me, and offered me access by way of a visitor’s pass.  Perhaps she was just being kind, or maybe she, too, understood that need we all share to go back home.

As I drove through that community I found that I didn’t need to make use of the map they provided at the office; it was as if I had just been there, and I easily recognized street names which took me directly to our old house.  As I approached the house, which sat at the top of a hill I remember as much higher, my first reaction was sadness at how it had aged.  My pre-teen recollections of this house were ones of grandeur-with two fireplaces, a sauna, a jalousied deck that wrapped around two sides of the house.  The deck was still there but was certainly showing its age.  I toyed with the idea of pulling a Miranda Lambert and walking up to the house and knocking on the door, asking only for a peek inside.  But common sense got the better of me.  Besides, what if I saw inside and was terribly disappointed at what had happened to the house, this home that my father built?  Weren’t the memories forged in that home by me and my siblings more valuable than its current physical condition?  I remember lining up for a daily dose of cod liver oil during the harsh Pennsylvania winters; enduring early morning swim lessons on the beach during the summer, mainly because the lifeguards were cute; and my brother still bears a scar on his thumb from going through a door on that once-impressive porch.

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As I contemplate the reasons this desire to “find myself” continues to surface, I think about my children.  Will it matter that they don’t have one special childhood “home” to visit; one where they can see the marks I put on the wall as they grew or wander in the yard where they played?  I think of my daughter Sarah, only 4 ½ when her birth father died, and of my older son, Daniel, who wasn’t even born yet- do they struggle with that constant desire to find where they started from, to heal a brokenness inside?

And what about me?  Where does this longing come from, this desire to go back, as if returning would somehow ground me, let me start over?  I have been at this “wandering” long enough to realize, when I stop over-thinking and return to what I believe is true, that “home” is not a physical place, a house or a town that made me who I am.  One of the Dictionary.com definitions of home is “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered”. As corny as it sounds, home really is “where the heart is”.

I think, for me, when I start to look to go back where I started and maybe get a “do over”, it’s because I’ve lost sight of where I’m headed, of my real purpose for being here.  When I am resting in the promises of scripture, such as being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14), I don’t question my physical struggles or limitations.  When I can get assurance from promises such as is found in Psalm 107:9, that “He satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness”, I don’t need to look to things or places to make me feel worthwhile or whole.

I am grateful to the kindness of that stranger who allowed me a trip down memory lane, a glimpse into my childhood memories, if only because it put into perspective what “home” is really all about.  I hope that my children will always feel they have a home to come back to, no matter where it may be physically. I have tried to provide that security in a sometimes tumultuous world.   But more importantly I pray, for my children and for myself and for any other “wanderers” out there, that “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”.

“That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.” (Eph 2:19-22, The Message)

NO PHOTO ZONE

9E62D247-EB48-4BC4-A76F-0B94F54618BDI hate having my picture taken. That thing about the camera adding 10 lbs has always distressed me, although at times I’ve used it as an excuse for why I look so terrible in photos. This past year there have been no photos of me whatsoever, other than a few selfies I’ve taken to chronicle what I have sometimes called my most difficult year. But really, it’s been a year made more difficult by pride and self-centeredness. Isn’t that often the case?

The absence of photos has been by choice. Embarrassment really. Which is pride.
A year ago today I was recovering from surgery to remove a tumor. A lump I never would have found because of where it was located. Miraculously found on a mammogram. A lump that turned out to be breast cancer. The recovery was much more painful than I expected. But the worst pain only lasted a few days. In the months that followed there was chemo- only 4 rounds, but strong enough that hair loss was pretty much guaranteed. I said it wasn’t that important in the overall scheme of things; got a short haircut to “prepare”. I had no idea how much of my identity was tied up in my hair. So cliché, but in a lot of ways my hair became a way of identifying me. And there were a lot of people who didn’t recognize me once I lost my hair and began wearing hats. (I have to say there were times when I welcomed that anonymity as my treatment went on and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone).

That was followed by 7 weeks of radiation. I bemoaned the fact that I had to travel almost 30 miles each way, 5 days a week, taking up most of my summer. Again I experienced unexpected pain, some of which still lingers. And I’m sure my rants of self-pity did little to instill sympathy in those closest to me.

Then came the weight gain. At first I rationalized that I should eat while I could; it was good that I didn’t have nausea or lose my appetite, right? Then it was that awful fatigue that kept me from exercising. And now there’s the excuse of the medication. True, one of the side effects is weight gain, but that doesn’t give me carte blanche to consume endless amounts of cookies or stop for that daily package of Zingers at the Dollar Store.
My struggle with weight and how it affected my self-worth has been a lifelong one. Food has always been my go-to for comfort (except when alcohol was) and this past year has been no exception.
So now, after surviving surgery, chemo and radiation; after follow-up mammograms showing no evidence of cancer; even after my hair started coming back, the self-loathing begins. What? Where is the gratitude that should accompany enduring a year like that? Where is the recognition of how much more fortunate I am than so many others? Try as I might, I can’t seem to muster up the proper, spiritually mature response that makes others comment how strong my faith is.
Instead, I look in the mirror and see an overweight, weary woman who looks older than her years, hating the gray curls poking out from under my hat. I cringe when I struggle to get out of my chair or walk up the stairs, knowing the extra weight is adding to my lack of mobility. And thus the “no photo” policy.

Instead of being grateful for the friends or family who reached out and offered help during this past year, I choose to focus on the ones who weren’t there without considering their reasons or extending the grace I have repeatedly been shown. I have isolated myself physically and emotionally from everyone, and then complain that I’m lonely.
The worst part is that I didn’t even realize how miserable I was. I really thought I was handling things well, showing a brave face, saying and doing all the right things. But in the last few weeks I have been confronted with the ugly truth that my attitude has contributed greatly to this being my “worst year ever”.
I am ashamed when the widowed husband of a friend who lost her battle to cancer this past year makes an encouraging comment on a Facebook post. My “no photo” policy seems arrogant when I see the posts of a Facebook friend facing her second battle with cancer in as many years- smiling, unashamed by her hair, encouraging others.

There are a few writers I used to love reading. Their stories about faith in difficult times gave me encouragement, grounded me, even inspired me to write. But lately I’ve avoided reading anything intended as encouraging, dismissing those essays as rhetoric, as tired platitudes. I guess I got comfortable in the muck and mire, clinging to my martyr status as a way of not acknowledging my part in my misery. But an email made its way into my inbox. It was a weekly devotion from Sheila Walsh, one of those writers I used to love to read. A few months ago I was looking forward to her new book “ In the Middle of the Mess”. But then I decided I didn’t need to read one more book about overcoming depression and anxiety by trusting God. Oh, that beautiful arrogance! After all, I’ve spent over 30 years trusting and believing, and still managed to end up riddled by fear and anxiety. And because of the fact that through most of those years I have experienced peace in spite of circumstances, I concluded that the failure must surely be mine, not God’s. Then I read this: “Grace doesn’t come with a sell-by date…it’s possible to be healed and to fall again and again and again.”
I think I believed that, somewhere in the recesses of my chemo-wearied mind. I know without a doubt that I am not the person I was before I turned my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand Him. I have fallen many times since then but have always gotten up, never without the help of that inexplicable grace. Sometimes those lapses into selfishness and pride have lasted longer than others. This last tumble into the pit of darkness was a little messier and longer than others. But I am choosing to trust that “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ”. A day at a time.
So why share this ugly side of myself which many of you wouldn’t have noticed? Why tarnish that heroic image that I’ve tried to create of this stoic woman who has endured a lifetime of challenges? Truth be told, there are plenty who have endured much worse, with much more grace. But Sheila Walsh said something else-“We are all broken, all a little lost in this strange land. We need to see one another’s scars, to see where the light shines through”.
So here I am, scars and all, crawling up out of the pit, grateful for the ones who have patiently waited for me to return to the light. Maybe I’ll even post a photo now and then.240404BA-1611-449A-9845-B27069800DFC

RECONCILIATION

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“All of us die eventually.  Our lives are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.  But God does not just sweep life away; instead He devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from Him.” (2 Sam 14:14)

I first came across this verse in early May while reading through the book of 2nd Samuel.  Although the impact of the words was powerful at the time I read them, powerful enough that I made note of them in my journal, it has taken me until now to gather my thoughts enough to attempt another blog post.

The verses fall in the middle of the “pre-story” to a more familiar story in the Bible about David’s son, Absalom.  Many people may know the account of how Absalom revolted against his father and was killed as he hung by his hair in a terebinth tree.  But before any of that happened, Absalom had fled Jerusalem after killing his sister’s rapist, one of their half-brothers.  Wow! Before the word “dysfunctional” became trendy, this family exemplified it. 

          The words in this verse were spoken by a wise woman who came to try and convince King David to reconcile with his son before it was too late, to allow Absalom to return to Jerusalem.  David did let him come back, but it was years before he would see him.   Even though he finally reconciled with his son, I can only imagine that those years of separation caused David to mourn even more deeply over Absalom’s death.   

          I’m not sure why these words hit me so intensely.  Perhaps it was because I was right in the middle of treatment for what could have been a terminal illness had they not caught it in time (the word “cancer” makes you think morbid thoughts at times); perhaps it was the result of watching some people close to me experience the loneliness and heartbreak of abandonment by family members during special times in their lives, milestones that could have been made more special had they been shared by people once close to them; maybe it was because I was saddened by seeing hatred spewed out on the news and social media by people who stand firmly on opposite sides of issues that they are passionate about.

          Whatever the reason, I was deeply convicted to take a look at the “unreconciled” relationships in my life.  No, I don’t have a rift with a family member that has caused me not to speak to someone in years; I choose a way of life today which recommends clearing the wreckage of your past and making amends for wrongs done others.  I have tried to do that to the best of my ability.  I haven’t done it perfectly I’m sure, but I’m grateful for the absence of glaring regrets with people in my life, past and present. 

          The stirrings of guilt are more subtle.  They come about in those relationships that are not present in my daily life; the ones I’ve convinced myself are resolved, apologies made, did my part, now it’s on them.  Those relationships that are hard work, that require constant effort on my part without ever seeing a return.  At what point do I stop making the calls, sending the notes or messages, rationalize that “it’s in God’s hands”?  I have a verse that nudges me every once in a while: “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9). 

          I do admit that I become weary sometimes.  In my humanness I sometimes stomp my feet and say “Why do I always have to be the one to make the call, reach out, take the first step?”  As trite and as cliché as it sounds, when I get out of my own self-centered way, it’s because it’s the “right” thing to do.

          I read a bunch of articles in psychology journals that promote a distinction between “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”; they claim that forgiveness is individual, while reconciliation takes two people to accomplish its goal.  I’m not so concerned any more about those situations in my past where I perceive I’ve been “wronged” or where I’ve hurt someone and need to make it right, where I’ve “forgiven and been forgiven”  I strive more now for the internal sense of peace that comes from knowing that I’ve not been so stubborn or staunch in my opinions on issues (that won’t really matter in the long run) that I’ve created chasms that will never close.  I desire to let go of that pride that has so often tripped me up in the past and ask myself, as Lysa Terkuerst shared in her book Unglued: “Am I trying to prove I’m right, or improve the relationship?” That’s really what this word “reconciliation” means to me today- a reconciling of my thoughts and actions with the command to “love as He has loved us” (1 John 4:11). 

          I went to the funeral for a friend recently, a man who was one of the kindest most genuine people I knew.  The kind of person who makes you want to desperately scoop that spilled water up and put it back in its container because you weren’t ready to let it go yet.  He was posting pictures, working, texting one day.  And then he wasn’t.  He was gone in an instant.  Another harsh reminder that I’m not guaranteed tomorrow.

          So when I stop to reflect, as I try to do daily, just how much love I have been shown, how much I’ve been forgiven, how much of a gift each day truly is, I again feel that prompting.  It has been over 6 months since I read that passage in 2 Samuel and made note of it in my journal.  I admit I haven’t written one note, made one of those “hard” phone calls, didn’t even send out Christmas cards this season.  I had plenty of “good” excuses- it was a long year, one that included chemo and radiation, doctor’s visits and tests.  And the fatigue and fear that accompanied them.  Then there were all the other “distractions”- work, children, church – which I used as justification for not having the energy to reach out.  All these things certainly worthy of my attention, but not to the exclusion of others. 

         

It was never my intention to write this as a “resolution” post.  The timing of finishing it is just coincidental.  But as I move toward the end of 2017 and look to put the challenges of this year behind me it serves as a divinely appointed “chapter break” in the book God is writing about my life.  Perhaps it is one of those ways He has designed to bring me back to him and HIS purposes before the water of my life spills out.

 “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.” (Romans 12:9-13a, The Message).

 

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PLAYING SOLITAIRE

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Just one more game.  Just until I win two in a row.  These are the thoughts that keep running through my mind as I obsessively play one game after another of Solitaire on my phone.  Or on my tablet. Or my computer.

I start my days so full of purpose, focus; spend time in prayer and meditation, asking God to “teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps.90:12). And then I play one game.  And an hour later I’m late getting ready for work; the bed’s not made; and all that spiritual wisdom I tried to assimilate into my day is left in my journal next to my chair.

I have to wonder if this is an intentional sabotage on the part of my addled brain to avoid facing the difficult things in my life, especially these last several years- the death of my parents, my feelings of inadequacy as a wife and mother, my loss of purpose in ministry.  And now my latest hurdle- my cancer diagnosis.

I think back to when I was a pre-teen, in that horribly awkward age of adolescence when I struggled with things like weight, not fitting in, being clumsy.  I suffered with that “first born child” overburdened sense of responsibility.  I always thought that my sisters, just one and two years younger than I was, were closer to each other than to me.  They shared a lot of the same interests, and while they were outside playing and riding bikes, I was inside, pulling out the deck of cards and playing Solitaire the “old fashioned way”- laying those cards out on the bed, in 7 piles, flipping cards 3 at a time.  Was I doing that to avoid solving problems, to keep from looking at my “issues” at 11 years old?  I don’t think it went that deep.  But I do know it gave me some sense of accomplishment if I could win a few games in a row, and improve my time. And it served as an escape for my addict “brain in training”.  Probably healthier than some of the other ways I found to escape dealing with life, later on in college and beyond.

What is it that makes me so fearful, so unwilling to face these challenges of life, even though I claim to be a woman of faith?  I read and claim these promises- that “The Lord is my light and my salvation- whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life- of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps 27:1); “I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears” (Ps 34:4); “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (Ps 46:2); “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10).

What a beautiful image – that the God of the universe would hold me in His right hand!  How much more comforting are  these words when I let them truly dwell in my heart than the fleeing satisfaction of a few winning games of Solitaire, or the comfort of a pint of ice cream, or the mind-numbing distraction of a few hours of television.  And yet, how often I choose the instant gratification of the flesh over the sometimes painful pruning of my soul.  Even though I know the latter has much more long-lasting results.

I just finished an amazing Bible study called “Finding I Am” by Lysa Terkeurst, and the final chapter about abiding in the True Vine, about the pruning that is necessary to produce more fruit really brought this home for me.  She points out that God isn’t hiding from us- he wants us to know him, so we can more fully abide in him, rely on him for that growth we so often try to produce on our own.

It made me realize that even though I claim to know God, to believe in Him, I still tend to hide from him when it starts to get hard.  When I don’t think I’m ready for the lessons he might be trying to teach me.  Or quite possibly the lessons he wants to teach someone else through my response to difficulty.  Quite honestly, I get fearful that he will use me as some sort of sacrificial lamb, as an “object lesson”- how grandiose of me to think my struggles are that important, that unique!  And so I try to delay the inevitable pruning by playing one more game…

I know that God has given me this desire to write, to share my story in a way that might reach others.  I was recently blessed to share part of my story in church, and I pray that it was able to give hope to some who might be sharing some of the “life on life’s terms” stuff that I have gone through.  I hope I was able to communicate God’s faithfulness through those things, even when I failed to see it in the midst of the storms.  And when I started this blog, it was with the idea of showing how God has brought beauty from ashes- to reveal the redemption that is only possible with him. 

When I used to write in college, in what I consider my Hemmingway “tortured soul” phase, my imagery consisted of things like rusty swings, tear-stained cement walls, dreary pictures that only a soul without faith in any higher power could conjure up.  Now, I delight in things that speak of the great artistry only a powerful God could create- the mighty ocean, colorful sunrises, the variety of birds at my feeder in the morning when I’m reading. 

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Meigs Point, Hammonasset Beach, CT. Photo by PAhlstrand
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Sunrise from my chair, Photo by PAhlstrand

And so, for today, I am choosing to abide, to allow some pruning by surrendering these current struggles to God without the distractions of mindless games or fleshly comforts.  As I sit in anticipation of the side effects I may have from my first round of chemo, waiting patiently to see if my “time released” medication will start it’s infusion soon, I am choosing, for now, to meditate on the promises that I have found to be true- God says “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6, Hebrews 13:5); I choose to be amazed by God today, and by his creation, rather than to try and understand why he has chosen to allow yet another struggle in my life.  I am overwhelmed by the thought of him quieting me with his love, rejoicing over me with singing (Zephaniah 3:17), rather than lamenting over my  perceived burdens, throwing poorly attended pity parties.

Will I occasionally fall back into that obsessive behavior of playing game after game of Solitaire, temporarily avoiding the pain of pruning and growing?  Of course I will.  And it may not be so bad to give my tired, overtaxed mind a little break once in a while.  I will still enjoy to escape into a great (or mediocre) piece of fiction, or indulge the guilty pleasure of another season of Dancing with the Stars. 

But when it comes to really facing the trials of life, I have come to believe, in my heart of hearts, that He will be glorified through it all- and that it will be “well with my soul”. 

FINDING MY PURPOSE

 

PURPOSE

pur·pose, pərpəs/

noun

  1. the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

The age-old question- What is my purpose?  Why am I here?  About 15 years ago, there was a “movement” in the contemporary Christian community spurred by the publication of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life, which purported to answer the question “What on earth am I here for?”  Warren started with the premise that “you didn’t create yourself, so there is no way you can tell yourself what you were created for.”(p. 17)

Armed with the knowledge this book provided, along with the humility, or so I thought, which comes from believing that it’s not all about me, I moved through the next dozen or so years with purpose- I was a wife (maybe the third time’s a charm?), a mother, a lawyer, a student and sometimes teacher of the Bible.  I still volunteered at church, was the team mom for baseball, a coach or supporter for other school activities my children participated in.  I drove the car pool van, baked the cookies, did the laundry, cleaned the house.  During that time I worked as well at various professions-a lawyer, a substitute teacher, a legal assistant, a barista.  At one point we moved across the country, and I had the all-important purpose of getting everyone settled into their new environments without giving my own needs a thought-the ever self-sacrificing martyr, doing the right things because, after all, it’s not all about me.

Six years later we moved “back east”, again with a purpose.  I thought it was clear why we were coming back – to be closer to family, to help care for my parents, because it was “home”.  At first all the “signs” pointed to that being the right decision.  Things fell into place- and then they fell out of place.  My mother, who was so excited about having all her children close by again, died before I could move back; the house that we thought we had sold in Colorado stayed on the market for a year and a half; the neighborhood we moved back into was far different than when we left.  But I pushed on, finding my purpose in the circumstances that remained.

I threw myself into helping my siblings care for my father.  We returned to our old church and jumped once again into serving.  I thought my mission was to be there for my husband and children, making the clichéd “house into a home”.  I took a job designed to provide great satisfaction.  And bit by bit everything that gave my life it’s meaning, those things that I thought I was “created” for, began to slip away.  My father died.  As challenging as caring for him was, my siblings and I were united in a common purpose, and then it was gone.  The church we had invested so much time in, had served selflessly in, crumbled from within, and we had no choice but to leave.  My older children no longer needed me as much, not for any reason but they were becoming adults and had to start making their own lives.  The job that had been so fulfilling became physically and emotionally exhausting.  I found myself floundering, wandering aimlessly from day to day, wondering as I had years ago what on earth I was here for.

I was no longer the responsible eldest child; no longer the revered bible study teacher; no longer the caring, sacrificial mother providing for the physical and emotional needs of her children.  I shared with a few close friends that I felt “purposeless”.  They nodded in sympathy, perhaps pity.  I felt myself entering one of those dark nights of the soul, a place I had been before and had no desire to return to.  I started to revisit those feelings that I didn’t matter, I had reached my expiration date.

Dock

I went back and re-read a book I had read a number of years ago when it first came out, “The Fresh Brewed Life” by Nicole Johnson.  She, in fact, released an updated version of the first edition after life and its fickleness made her look at her dreams and longings again.  So with new eyes I went back and read these words: “Our yearnings, longings, cravings, and hopes are telling us something: there isn’t enough love, peace, hope friendship, and intimacy on this earth to completely satisfy us.  We will always want more because we were made for more.” ( p. 39)

Rather than give me comfort those words once again begged the question- what am I here for? What is my purpose?  I thought about the idea of dreams and longings, those desires which theoretically lead  me to find my purpose.  As a little girl, I never dreamed of the white picket fence with a husband and children.  I didn’t long for fame and fortune.  I can’t even tell you what my dreams were, just that I wanted to fit in and never did.  Just empty.  Johnson says “The emptiness is the mark and reminder of God”( p. 55); our longings “point the way to God every single time” (p. 57).  I spent years trying to fill that emptiness with other things, and thought that some 30 plus years ago, when I put down the alcohol and started my “new” life, that I had gotten a handle on filling this hole with God.

I really thought I had found that purpose that God had for me, that I was being obedient to God’s call on my life, to coin a Christian buzz phrase.  But lately I identified more with David in Psalm 38:9-10: All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes.”

How had I gotten here? I thought maybe I just hadn’t found the right “audience”, that my gifts were being wasted on people who didn’t truly appreciate the wisdom my colorful life had afforded me.  Yes, loneliness and lack of purpose sometimes lead to arrogance as a defense mechanism.

As is often the case, God uses my arrogance, my brokenness, to teach me.  I seem to have been confusing purpose with longings and desires.  I’ve been making it all about me, trying to figure things out in my head, trying to force my feelings and desires into some God-given purpose. I read books and devotionals about purpose, calling, obedience.  I watch as others claim, mostly in posts on that oh-so-spiritual social media site known as Facebook, that they have found their purpose.  I feel stirrings of envy, but then my cynical side cautions against that very human trait of rationalization- taking the ordinary occurrences of life, some which might appear to be timely, and attributing them to a definitive indication of “God’s will”.

I am tearfully preparing to bring my youngest child to college 1700 miles away from home.  My mind races, as it did with my older children, with thoughts of whether I’ve done enough to prepare him, the all-powerful “me”.  And of course there’s that fear of loss of purpose, of no longer being needed.  What will happen now that there’s no one in the house except me and Dave? How will I fill my time? How will I measure my usefulness?  My anxiety rises as I spend all this time in my head, a practice, as I was told long ago, was a sick mind analyzing a sick mind- not at all productive, and certainly not one which leads to any peace or serenity.

Mary DeMuth, in her book Everything, reminds me that “This world doesn’t covet our intelligence.  It doesn’t need our wit or wherewithal.  It has no use for our coy phraseologies.  It needs Jesus- full of outrageous grace, unconditional love, and hope-filled pardon.”  And that thought smacks me back to where I need to be.  I did not create myself, I am not the answer.  I am merely a vessel.  If I allow myself to be filled to overflowing with that grace, love and hope, it can’t help but overflow to those around me.

When I can stop my racing mind long enough to reflect on what I know to be true, what I have learned through this turbulent yet joyful journey called life, I know deep in my heart that I have one purpose:  “To do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God” (Micah  6:8).  All my desires and longings flow from that.

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