Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Blocking the Peace

"And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts..." Colossians 3:15b

Having been in church since before I was born, these words have mushed into a blur; all run together into one word. letthepeaceofChristruleinyourhearts... Having heard them times beyond counting, they had almost ceased to have meaning to me...until today.

I have been feeling for a while as if there's a thick curtain between God and me. I've resurrected my practice of daily devotional and Bible reading and prayer, but it feels...effortful. It is a meaningful time, and I have been touched, moved and learned important things, but my spirit feels sort of stodgy. Recently, I have been praying about this, asking God to show me what roadblock I have put up.

A feeling of distance from God is never caused by Him pulling back. He is unchanging, and His love is poured out in never-ending, changeless bounty. If I feel far from God, or cut off from Him, it is always because I have moved away or allowed something to come between us. But what is it this time?

The light began to dawn last night, as I talked to our daughter on the phone. I think the feeling of broken communion may be tied directly to a sticky note on our dining room table.

The note signifies a move in the right direction, but it also represents the sticking-place in my walk with God. The note is a short list of names, and it is titled, "People I need to forgive."

Thankfully, because of God's deep, heart-deep, decades-long work in my life, the list does not extend beyond last year. I have been on a long journey of forgiveness, starting about thirty years ago. I have learned that forgiveness comes in layers, as a long process over time. I have learned to forgive, by God's grace, in the exact moment I am being hurt; to forgive instantly rather than carrying around the offense like a trophy of my victimhood.

I have spoken boldly on the topic of forgiveness, and urged others to walk right into those deep waters, because I know the incredible healing and freedom that bloom on the other shore.

And yet, I have a list of names on my table, of people I have not forgiven.

There is a common thread to this list. It is comprised of a couple of people who have a fairly short path of influence toward the suicide of our son, people who said thoughtless hurtful things to me in the wake of his death, and people who made this already-agonizing year even harder for Lee or our other three kids. Mama Bear struggles to forgive hurt to her cubs.

God, in His infinite, gentle mercy, did not address my need to forgive for long months after Michael died. I think it was probably eight or nine months before He started, ever-so-gently, nudging the idea of forgiveness. I knew the hurts that lay behind that door, but I felt that unleashing all that wounded rage might tear my fragile self to pieces. Despite God's loving nudges, I kept that door firmly, emphatically locked, barred, bolted and nailed shut.

The first, most tiny of baby steps that I have taken forward was to write this list on a sticky note, and to acknowledge the need to forgive. I made that step, and there I stopped.

Given my decades of experience on this topic, I have no illusions over the process. I know that I can't just hurry by with a quick, "Yeah, I forgive them." For true freedom and healing to take place, I know that I need to sit still and let those incidents out one by one, honestly facing the pain and hurt and deep betrayal that are bound up with them. Before I can let go of those heavy wounds, I have to feel them, at least for a moment.

I know that the moment will be brief, if I then turn and release the people and incidents into God's hands, but I have been avoiding even that short time of feeling the pain. I'm just tired of bearing hurt and sadness. It gets really, really old.

I also know, though, that I will never move forward into healing, into peace, into many things, until I let go of these hurts and my rights of resentment.

This is why the peace of Christ is not ruling in my heart. It can't, because I have filled that space with hurt and anger and resentment. If I want to move back into God's peace, I have to clean house. I have to relinquish my "right" to hold onto those offenses and surrender them to God's much-better justice and wisdom. I need to move from my sticky-note list to the actual work of forgiveness.

The broader picture and beautiful benefits of this are spelled out in the rest of the verse I quoted above.

Colossians 3:14-15 "And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful."

- I am not acting in love by holding onto these hurts, no matter how deeply justified my hurt may be.
- It is love that creates a commerce of harmony between hearts. It is love that heals. I am not acting in love by holding stubbornly to this list. God's love is all around me, poured out to me like Niagara in flood, but I am letting it lie on the floor, not taking it up, because I am holding other things in my heart. His love heals, and makes possible the love that flows between hearts.
- Letting the peace of Christ...I used to hear that like, "May the peace..." as if it were a benedictory wish from the author to readers. Now I see that in that one small word lies a wealth of choice, determination and opportunity. I have to choose to allow the peace of Jesus Christ to operate in my heart through the avenue of forgiveness. My willingness is the key that will open the door to His peace.
- And be thankful. My eyes need to move from the hurts of the past to the face of Jesus. My heart will rest in His peace when I fill my thoughts with gratitude, rather than rehashing or clinging to past hurt.

These hurts are big, and beyond my strength. I cannot, in my own abilities, do the heavy work of rooting them up and moving them out. I just have to be willing to look at them, and then let go of them. Once I do that, God will do the heavy lifting.

Sometimes, the process is quick. Sometimes, it is a layered work that takes place over time.

I see now that I will not move out of this stuck, clotted place until I let this process begin.

One of the best quotes I've ever heard is: "Refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die." It is so true. Holding onto hurt and resentment, nurturing them and clutching them close...it only hurts me. It keeps me from really wonderful things that God wants to do in my heart and my life.

So, this is me, preparing to do the hard and scary thing; preparing to tear off the locks and start letting the big things out of their closet. And you know what? I'm pretty sure that God is already sitting in that moment, with a heart full of tender love, ready to meet me there. He will not leave me to face these hard things alone. He will hold me close through it all.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Beginning and Ending With Thanks

My greatest battles take place inside my own head.

The giants I wrestle with most often are hurt, resentment and a complaining attitude. It is so easy to fall into those traps. My mind can be spinning in toxic spirals without my even realizing that I've gone there, yet again.

So... how do I fight the battle for my mind?

The stock answer would be, "Just pray. That will solve it."

But it's not always that simple.

Prayer can take many tones. There are whiny prayers, and resentful prayers, and angry prayers. Praying angrily or resentfully does not help to pull my mind out of its unhealthy track. Toxic prayer does not heal.

I have a long journey with this struggle, and I have learned a few things. Many would say that if you're having a bad attitude about someone, you should pray for them. That can work, or it can just be a continuation of the same destructive thoughts, dressed up in spiritual clothes. Complaining about someone in prayer is no different than complaining about them in my own head. Praying angry prayers about someone can feel like flinging sharp rocks at their head. Spiteful prayer is ugly.

Angry, resentful, complaining, whiny prayers do not help move a person to a more healthy inner space.

What does help?

Here is what I have learned:

When I am in that space of toxic spinning, the only thing that will stop it and send me in a fresh direction is to focus entirely on God. Talking to Him about my resentments does not help if my attitude still stinks. Talking to Him about the beauty of His own character helps tremendously!
Singing worship songs, even silently in my mind, helps. Recalling Bible verses about God's love and faithfulness helps also.

In my struggles with sleep, I have learned that the moment my mind goes still it will leap to upsetting places. It will either fling me into some painful place about the death of our son, or it will dig up hurtful words and dismissive actions that have come my way. Either one is sure to kick my adrenaline, which guarantees that I will not sleep for a couple more hours. Reading the Bible just before I go to sleep often helps to circumvent this cycle. I have the Bible on my Kindle, which sits next to the bed. If I put my thoughts on God's Word just before I sleep, that puts me in a better frame of mind and helps me to downshift from the day.

There is still the moment after I've put down the Kindle, when I'm settled and ready for sleep. What I'm thinking of as I drift off makes all the difference. For me, if I start praying about issues or for people at that point, it can wind me up all over again. The one thing that works is...gratitude.

The same is true in the morning. If I can plant gratitude in my mind before it has a chance to take any other tack, it sets a better tone for the entire day.

Gratitude is not fancy, but it works. All I do, as I lie in bed, slowly waking up, is to say, "Thank you," in my mind. I do the same at night. When I'm all settled, and drifting toward sleep, I simply think, "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you."  It doesn't have to be thanks for anything specific. Simply saying thank you is enough.

This, making my last and first thoughts be words of thanks, has helped me more than anything else.

I do still deal with skirmishes inside my mind during the day, but it truly does make a difference if I begin the day by pointing my heart toward gratitude.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Softening the hard ground

I recently listened to a podcast that spoke of the Parable of the Soils (also known as the Parable of the Sower). This refers to the story Jesus told in the New Testament, in Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15. 

The parable speaks of a farmer who sowed seed on all kinds of ground rather than on carefully prepared fields. Some of the seed landed on a hard-packed path where birds came and ate it, some on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. The plants sprouted and grew but with no deep soil for their roots, they could not bear the sun and soon withered and died. Some seed fell on ground full of weeds, which grew up and choked out the good plants. Finally, some seeds fell on soft ground, on fertile soil, where they grew and flourished and produced a rich crop. 

In the parable, the seed is the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, and the different soils represent the hearts of people; how they respond when they hear about Jesus.

Being a church girl, I have heard this parable my whole life, almost to the point where the words have no impact on me anymore. I think of it as getting anesthetized to the Bible- having heard it so many times that we just don't hear it anymore. 

This time, though, the words struck me in a fresh and relevant way.

The past year has been a hard one, to put it mildly. I was already under tremendous stress before we got the news of our son's death, which drove my stress to ridiculous heights. In those early weeks, when I could hardly breath from the pain, I clung to Jesus like I never have before. I knew that He was the only way I would survive that desperate sorrow.

As the months went by, though, that sense of urgency faded. I no longer stuck to Jesus like a limpet. I was no longer faithful and deliberate about drinking in the healing words of the Bible or filling my days with the beauty of worship music. 

Grief is an extreme roller coaster of emotion, and it affected my walk with God.

How thankful I am, that my understanding of God's grace and love has grown so much deeper these past few years. I know now that God has tremendous compassion for our slow, fumbling, confused journey on His pathway. He loves us hard every moment, every step of the way. He loves us deeply and sweetly in midst of our sadness, questions, distance and anger. His love is poured out to us like the grandest, most thunderous waterfall, every moment of our lives. His love is like the softest, most fragrant and gentle breeze that cools our miserable faces when life beats hard and hot like desert sun.
Because I have learned these important things, I knew that God would not be impatient or angry with me for the place I was in. I knew that He would sit with me in love and help me gently to a better understanding.

One of my new favorite sayings is "God has not brought you this far, just to bring you this far." There is always a further plan. 

This time, He spoke to me through the long-familiar parable of soils and seeds. In that story, He showed me the state of my own heart.  The story was suddenly not about a response to the Gospel, but a metaphor personally tailored to my own struggles.

I saw my heart hard-packed and dry, with tough, stringy weeds and sharp rocks stuck fast. A wave of despair swept over me at that. I was overwhelmed at the thought of all the work it would take to change soil like that to something soft and alive and ready for good things. 

But...another version of the idea in that saying- "God has brought me this far, but He loves me too much to leave me here." 

He quickly changed my view, bringing other verses to mind, tying them to a parable of my own life, to real things happening that very day. 

For weeks, storms of lightning and torrential rain had rolled over us every night. Vigorous weeds had sprung up with all that nourishment, making the spot where our travel trailer is parked look a little shabby. I miss puttering in my yard, so I decided to do a little weeding. It's not my job to make it neat. The people who take care of this park do a good job, but I wanted the physical activity and the satisfaction of the work. 

I put on gloves, took a sack with me and went out to pull weeds. It felt so good. I enjoyed being outdoors with a fresh breeze blowing, easing the weeds out of the soil. Though this ground has been compacted by years of tires driving over it, and though it is covered with a blanket of packed gravel, the weeds came out easily...because the soil had been softened by the steady, daily rains.

Ah. That is when the lights started to dawn. 

When faced with a patch of dry ground with a heavy crop of weeds, what does a gardener do? What did I do, in my flowerbeds back home? I did not start by trying to pry those tough weeds from the brick-hard ground. 

No, I started by softening the ground, by putting water on it to mellow it and loosen its grip.

I did not need to throw exhausting effort at trying to fix the state of my heart and force it back into line. All I needed to do was to put water on it, to let the water gently soften that hard soil. God will do the work of pulling the weeds and digging out the rocks. I just need to get my heart ready for His gentle, healing work.

But how? How do I "pour water" on the dry ground of my heart? I can't set a sprinkler and let it run. What does that even mean, to water my heart?

The verses that God brought softly to my mind as I worked at pulling weeds were these:

Romans 12:2a "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind..."

Ephesians 4:23 ..."and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds"...

Ephesians 5:26 ..."that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word"...

God connected the dots of these ideas to show me a beautiful picture. The thoughts bumping against each other in my head were about renewing my mind (refreshing it, giving it new life) and the phrase "washing with the water of the word."

When I called a halt to my weeding project, I came inside to do some digging in the Bible. I don't have Bible verses and their references all neatly filed in my brain. Often, I do an internet search with the bits of a verse that I recall, which gives me the reference for the verse. Then I look it up so I can see what it actually says.

The picture God gave me with those few words was so beautiful.

The heavy work is all His. All I need to do is to soften the ground. How? By filling my mind with the living water of His Word. My job is only to get into His presence, by reading my Bible. His job is everything else.

That is so beautiful, and brought deep relief to my soul. Instead of heavy labor, all I have ahead of me is to rest under the shadow of His wing, close to His heart, and read His love letter to me.

He will do the rest.


Saturday, July 27, 2019

God loves me with quarters

Sometimes, when we're too lost in our own pain or numbness, we can become a little blind to God's attentive love for us. Sometimes, when this happens, and He knows that we especially need to be reminded of just how loved we are, He does something a little out of the ordinary to get our attention. He did this for me this week, with a handful of quarters.

Remember those state quarters, one for each of the United States? I loved those. I diligently hunted for them, putting together a set for each member of our family. I got the special pasteboard folders for them, and felt such satisfaction when every divot was filled with its proper coin.

And then came the U.S. territories series, and the parks and monuments series. I truly enjoy both the search and the quarters themselves. Many of them have beautiful artwork.

I didn't start collecting the parks and monuments quarters until a year or two after they started being issued, so I missed a number of those early ones. I've kept a list of what I'm missing, and over the years I've found many of them. There were a few, though, that I had never seen. Yosemite, El Yunque and Acadia were the final three that I had never found.

Since we started living in our travel trailer last December, we now frequent laundromats and the laundry rooms of RV parks, which necessitates a stead flow of quarters. I often take a few minutes to sift through each new roll of quarters, hunting for buried treasure. I have found a few to fill gaps, but still, those few early ones eluded me.

In the process of all the shuffling in our moving process, some state quarters had fallen out of our folder, and Michael's as well. I was so frustrated to see that. Too late, I thought to put each one in a large plastic zipper bag. I did that, sighed, and started searching for replacements for the missing coins. I'd been able to find all but two, by the time July rolled around.

In addition to the frustration factor, there is also the emotional element of having lost anything remotely related to Michael. That nerve is raw.

This week, we passed the thirteen-month mark since we learned of our Michael's death. He took his life on June 24th, and was found by a friend the next day, which is when we got the news. Every month, those two days are just hard for me. My heart hurts, and every one of my nerves is on edge. This loss of our beloved child is like no other pain I have ever experienced. The days that mark the count of how long I've lived without him carry an especially heavy weight.

One of the ways I survive those hard days is to intentionally carry on with basic tasks of daily life. This week, that meant laundry. I could have done my laundry on another day, but I decided to do it on the 24th. I thought it would help me to get through the day in a healthy way. The laundry room is a few dozen yards away, so doing laundry gets me out the door, walking back and forth in the sunshine and fresh air. It's good for me, and does good things for my heart.

I had schlepped the first bag over and started the first load, scanning the quarters as I dropped them into the slots. There was nothing I needed, so I started the machine and walked back to our trailer. I thought that, rather than checking each quarter as I used it, I should probably make the effort to check all of them at once.

I sat down at the dinette and emptied the baggie of quarters onto the table. I pulled out the wrinkled little paper with my list of long-sought treasure, and began the search. On the second handful, I smiled. There was the last state quarter I needed to refill our folder. A few coins later, I smiled again. There was the last one I needed, to fix Michael's folder. I whispered, "Aww, thank you," and continued my search. That comforted a small sore place in my heart, being able to replace what was lost.

I dropped each handful back into the baggie as I finished checking it. In all, we had about one or two rolls worth of quarters on hand. On the third or fourth handful, I turned a quarter and my eyes grew wide. There was Yosemite, from 2010! I smiled so big! "Oh, thank you!"  I set it aside with the others, turned over a couple more coins, and froze. There was El Yunque, from 2011.

I sat and stared at that quarter with misty eyes and said, "Are you kidding me?!" Goosebumps prickled my arms as I added it to the pile of "finds." I turned over a few more quarters and there it was: Acadia, from 2011, the last of the long-sought quarters. I looked at that silver coin, buried my face in my hands, and cried.

It might seem silly, but I had been searching for these specific quarters for seven or eight years. Every pocketful of change, every time I emptied my coin purse, I checked every quarter, looking for these missing few. All those years...nothing.

Until this day, when my heart was sad and sore, and my loving Father reached down from Heaven to send a precious message to me. It wasn't really about the quarters. It was about my heart. Finding every single one of the coins I'd longed to find in one small pile, all together, sent me a very clear message.

It said, "I see you. I see your heart. I know you. I am with you. You are so loved."

The odds of those specific, hard-to-find coins all showing up in one single batch are beyond any measure of coincidence.

But God.

He wanted to speak love to my hurting heart, and He did it in a way that I could not miss. He did what He has promised to do, and what we have seen Him do over and over this past year: to love me, to hold me close, to be tenderly with me in the broken middle of my pain.

He is here, holding me close. He sees my aching heart and catches every tear.

I see His hand in the beauty around me, and when I revel in an exquisite sunset I often think, "He paints the sky with glory." But that is not something He does for me alone. I am blessed and uplifted by the majestic, fiery beauty of it, but it's not just for me.

This, though, was about as personal and pointed as it could be.

My God, my Abba (Papa, Daddy), my Heavenly Father, reached into my world and showed me His presence and His love with an unmistakable flourish.

Some might think of this as a sign from Michael, but I've never known what to think about that idea. It never sat comfortably with me. I read an article a while back, where the author talked about these things not as signs from the departed loved one, but as signs of love from the One who loves us most. That felt right to me. That spoke peace to my soul.

So, this week, when my heart was a small sad thing, hurting and tired, Jesus reached out and sent me a love note, spelled out with common coins.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The struggle to be still

"Be still, and know that I am God." Psalm 46:10

Those words have blown in on the breeze, waved like a banner, and been spoken in the words of friends and strangers, so many times in the past year.

In my struggle to understand the "why" behind the massive transition of our lives, I slowly came to think that part of it was so that I would rest, and in that resting, learn to be still in the presence of God. To sit at the feet of Jesus and be loved, and learn- this made some sense of all the changes. Not of Michael's death. That was a bomb that exploded in the midst of intense and comprehensive change.

Some of you already know this story, but for those who don't: Lee first proposed the idea to me in October of 2017 that he would retire, we would sell our home, buy an RV to live in, and that he would work different jobs that hire people who travel. This entailed giving up our family home and leaving our kids, family, friends, church family, community, my work (teaching violin) and ministry that I dearly loved. It meant going from a life of steady income and comfortable familiarity to one of uncertainty and constant change.

When people would ask about our plans and I would explain the kinds of jobs Lee might do, the next question was usually, "So while he's working, what will you do?" Most often, I would answer, "I will rest and write." This sounded lovely, but every time I said it, something about it felt "off" to me. It seemed a little too me-focused. It felt like that shouldn't be the end of the sentence.

After a while, the lights started to dawn, and I added to my answer, "...and sit at the feet of Jesus." Now, the whole thing actually started to make sense to me. I needed rest badly, to help restore my health. In order to write, I needed a less busy life. In order to grow, I needed to sit with God and listen.

So many things crossed my path in those months with the message, "Be still," confirming this idea.
I started looking forward to this time of rest and spiritual refreshment. It seemed simple.

The reality has been much more of a struggle than I ever imagined.

For the first several months of this new life, we were basically on vacation. That time of rest and togetherness was much needed and very healing. It was only when Lee went back to work in late March that I started having long spans of alone time. Somehow, it didn't go as I'd expected, and it took me quite a while to understand why.

Instead of quiet hours of study, prayer and worship, or of richly creative writing, I went face-first into the internet and stayed there. I would spin the hours away crawling through Facebook or watching one YouTube video after another.

At first, I just thought badly of myself for wasting so many days this way. After a while, though, I finally started to wonder why I was spending my days (and nights) this way.

After a long time of wrestling with the issue, I finally asked myself the right question:
"Why am I afraid to be still? What am I afraid will happen?"

Oh. There it was. Yes, it really was fear-based. But why?

The answer lay in my struggles with sleep. No matter how many calming, soothing things I did before going to bed, the moment my mind stilled, intensely upsetting things would flash into my thoughts, usually things to do with Michael. This was upsetting, to say the least.

This was the thing that was stopping me. It was not an unfounded fear. From experience, I knew that if I tried to Be Still I would be tormented by painful thoughts. I would suffer a fresh outpouring of agonizing grief, and I was tired of being desperately sad. Deep grief is exhausting. It wears you to the bone, then pounds your bones until they break. It is miserably hard.

Identifying the problem was good, but it did not solve anything. It was a relief to understand the reason behind my avoidance, but it did not fix it. I talked to God about it, saying, "I see the problem, but I don't have an answer for it. Being still does not feel safe to me." This was my position for a month or two more, seeing the problem but having no clue how to move from that stuck place.

As I was traveling back to the Northwest in late May for a visit, my feelings finally began to shift. I started to feel that the day would come when I could be still. I knew that the pounding waves of sadness would sweep over me, but I began to see that God would meet me in those moments and help me through them. I would not be alone in that storm. He would be with me and would hold me close and comfort me and give me strength. I could see a time, once I went home to my quiet little corner of the world, that I would feel safe enough to go to that place of stillness.

I've been home for a few weeks now, and I have still been shying like a skittish foal from the specter of stillness. I came home completely exhausted, physically, mentally and emotionally. It was absolutely wonderful to see my people, but all of the people time, travel, busyness and goodbyes wore me out and used me up. Two days after I got back was the first anniversary of Michael's death.

If I had been in a less exhausted state, I might have leaned into Jesus and let His peace carry me through that painful "deathiversary." All I could do, in the state I was in, was to be very still. Not in the lovely, "Be still and know that I am God" way; more the frozen state of a rabbit who senses a predator nearby. That is exactly how I felt- like a terrified rabbit, holding desperately still, knowing that any movement might trigger the predator to attack and destroy me. I had imagined that I might do something emotional and meaningful to mark that first year, but I couldn't. Through those few most-intense days, if I even thought about Michael, I felt like I might start screaming, or throwing up, or both. The pain really is that intense.

All I could do was hold very still and breathe quietly until those days passed.

Colossians 3:15 "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts." <3

I have been using devotional plans through the Bible app on my phone. The other day, the message was about merely existing versus really living. I thought about that, and it rang very true. For people in grief, this is probably pretty common. This past year has been one of gut-level survival. It has not been about shining or achieving or living victoriously. We have survived. So...yeah, in light of this devotional, I am existing rather than living. It's all I can manage, most days, and that's okay.

I do have a tentative hope that the day will come when this changes.

I do believe that someday, maybe soon, I will take a deep breath, take hold of the supportive hand that Jesus is holding out to me, and step into stillness. I know it may unleash a flood of agony, but I also know that it won't end there. I know that in time I will move through the agony and into a better, restful stillness; a stillness that heals.

Far off, somewhere on that hopeful horizon, I can imagine a time when, not only outwardly, but from my heart, I will once again truly live. I will not only survive, one clutching moment at a time, or drift quietly through the days avoiding the pain, but I will live.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Pizza Stones and Camel Straws

I could have made the title of this something deeply melodramatic, like, "When the pizza stone broke like my shattered heart." My wry sense of humor won't let me go that far, though in a way it's true.

My pizza stone did break. My beloved Pampered Chef pizza stone, dark with years of use, deeply seasoned with memories; all those years of pulling homemade pizza from the oven to feed my eager family.

This morning, I'm making biscuits, and it hasn't gone well. It was nothing big, just that string of petty frustrations that get under my skin. I spilled the dog's water dish, spilled more water down my leg while putting away dishes that weren't quite dry, knocked things over, dropped things into the sink and onto the floor. Petty things, but so many of them, one after another, was getting under my skin.

Hungry and harassed by all these irritating incidents, I stood for a moment, leaning against the counter, head bowed, eyes closed. Praying? No. For just a few seconds, I let it all wash over me. I thought of how, if I didn't have so many food restrictions, I would just give up and ask Lee to take me somewhere for breakfast.

Much as I would love to drive into town, find some cute little diner and sit down to a stack of hotcakes and a pile of hash browns with bacon...I can't.

If I want to eat, I have to cook, even when everything goes wrong.

So...I pulled myself together, pushed back the waves of self-pity and moved on.

We have a little gas oven in the trailer, one that we have to light each time we use it. I got out the lighter and opened the oven door....and saw my pizza stone on the oven rack, broken in two.

It's nobody's fault that it broke. It just happened one day while I was gone.

I stood there with the pieces in my hands, struggling with tears.

Before you think, "Wow, she's weirdly attached to her kitchen equipment," let me tell you about straws.

Not drinking straws, though the whole nation is worked-up about them right now.

I'm talking about the "straw that broke the camel's back" kind of straws.

The whole point of that analogy is that the straw itself is insignificant. What is one single dry wisp of grass among thousands? What is one more petty frustration, piled upon a whole string of other small irritations?

But what about one more small loss, one more small heartbreak, on top of a mountain of other losses and shattering heartbreak?

The thing itself, the thing that breaks me, is often something small and rather meaningless.

Last week, it was a drink shaker.

You know those plastic tumblers with lids, that people use for mixing up protein drinks? That was the thing that made me cry. A drink shaker was my straw; the thing that broke me.

Was there any special significance to the shaker itself? Maybe a little. It was Michael's, and made me think of all the times he must have used it. It reminded me of the years he invested in body-building, and how intently he'd researched fitness nutrition, to give his body what it needed to be strong and resilient.

Still, that would not usually be enough to break me. It's a fairly small thing, on the scale of things that hurt.

Except that, this time, that piece of plastic was my straw. It was that one more seemingly insignificant thing, piled on top of so many others, that suddenly became too much.

For three weeks, I had been reveling joyously in getting to see so many of my precious people...and then having to say goodbye to them all over again. I had been fully immersed in the life that I miss so much. That week, we had emptied one of our storage units back in Oregon and hauled a load up to our long-term storage in Washington. Added to the physical exhaustion was a heavy emotional burden, as a good share of what we moved were Michael's belongings. All of them. Everything that is left of the life he had built.

I had soldiered on for days on end, bravely facing those remnants of his life, handling mementos of his passions and dreams. Lifting, packing, moving. Every piece of that sad puzzle was a small hurt, added a small weight to my heart.

As I sat in my mom's living room, going through yet another box of his things (hunting for the title to his pickup), the pain was building. One book, one dish, one piece of mail with his name on it at a time, the suffering of my loss crept in on me. Finally, when I picked up that silly drink shaker, it all became too much and I broke. I sat on my mom's floor and cried, for all we've lost and all that's ended; all he worked for and dreamed of that will never be.

It's just a drink shaker; just a pizza stone...just a straw.

The point of the camel analogy is not that single bit of straw, but the thousands and millions of straws that came before.

The pizza stone is just a pizza stone.

It is also one more loss.

On top of loss after loss after loss after heart-breaking loss.

After selling our family home, moving into a travel trailer, and wandering a thousand miles from our children, family and beloved friends...after leaving behind community, work and ministry that I loved...after having my entire life ripped up by the roots, torn into a hundred pieces and cast to the wind...after receiving the news that our son was dead, and that death had been his choice...after loss after loss, after letting-go after letting-go after letting-go...my heart is raw on this topic.

Strong as I seem, I am deeply fragile in ways I never was before.

After enduring so much loss and letting go of almost everything and everyone that matters to me, any fresh loss, no matter how small, hits me hard.

The nerves of my heart are raw, my reserves are fragile and low.

And so, some days, a broken pizza stone is enough to break my heart.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Don't be that guy...

A while back, I started to write about things not to say to a person who is grieving. People have asked me to help them know how to respond to loss and, as this is an important part of that, I feel I should share what I've learned.

What I learned while trying to write that post is that I have a lot of unprocessed, painful emotion around some things that were said to us in the past year. I pulled open that internal door and was floored by what poured out. I am not ready yet to talk about those things publicly.

I do think it is a deeply important conversation, though, so I thought I'd start talking about it through a trauma that is not quite so fresh.

Some of you know about a traumatic experience that our family had in the summer of 1994.

Lee and I had taken our two little children camping, along with our first Golden Retriever, Mandy.

We had camped at the Standish Hickey State Recreation Area on the Eel River in California.

I think it was on the second day of our time there that we walked over to play in the river. We have some wonderful pictures of our little two- and four-year old kiddos playing in the sparkling blue water in their bright orange life jackets.

What the pictures don't show is what branded that day on all our memories, for life.

As we were enjoying our fun water time, Lee suddenly said, "I think those people are calling for help." I had not heard anything, but he had. We gathered up our little troop and headed upriver. The shore was rocky, so we were wearing sturdy shoes. As we got closer, Lee heard what the people were shouting. He gave me his watch and rushed into the water, swimming across the deep hole to where a frantic man and woman stood, on the far bank.

A family with four or five growing boys was having a fun camping trip in the same park. One of them, a boy of around twelve, wanted to play on the river, so he took one of those floaty-mattress pool toys to use. He went in where the water was shallower and started floating down. At some point he fell off, and ended up in a deep pool.

He could not swim, and neither could his parents. They crashed through the shallower water upriver and scrambled along the rocky bank. They could see him down in the water, but they could do nothing to save him. They stood on the bank, helpless and desperate, screaming for someone to come.

Without hesitating, Lee dove down to the bottom of the hole and pulled up their boy. He was not breathing. We had no experience or training with life-saving, but Lee started doing what he could, trying to express the water and give him mouth-to-mouth. We were all so focused on the boy that it took Lee's startled shout to make me realize that the dad had disappeared into the water. Maybe he had a heart attack or stroke from the intense distress. We don't know. We only know that he was there, and then he was gone, sinking to the bottom of the same deep pool that took his son.

Leaving the boy up on the rocks with his mom, Lee again dove down to the bottom of that deep hole. He brought the man to the surface, but Lee was tiring so quickly that he could not hold him up pand bring him to shore. He had to let the man go. I told our little Heather, four years old, "Hold onto Mandy and Michael. Do not let them in the water!" I told little two-year-old Michael, "Stay with Heather!"

Though I am a poor swimmer at best, I headed into the water.

There was no-one else to do it. I had to.

I dove down, pushing myself all the way to the bottom of the hole, grabbed that big man by the arm, and hauled him to the surface. I have always been convinced that God sent angels to help me that day. The guy was tall and heavy, probably well over two hundred pounds...and I pulled him from twelve feet down to the surface, with one hand. Angels.

I towed him over and passed him off to Lee and the man's wife, then struggled back to the shore where our little kids waited. I barely made it. I was exhausted by the time I staggered from the water.

Like I said, we had absolutely no experience or training with life-saving, so it had not occurred to either of us to take off our shoes before diving in. We just didn't know. Wearing heavy sneakers to swim and dive, under intense stress, will do you in.

We had no background to help us. We were simply the only two people on that whole stretch of river, besides those frantic parents.

After I made it back to shore, another guy showed up and swam across to help. Soon, others came. I remember shouting, "Call 911!!!" over and over, until someone assured me that one of the others had gone to make the call.

Soon, the sirens came screaming. Professionals helped bring father and son across, using our kids' life jackets to help float them, and rushed them away in ambulances. It was much too late, as both were gone before we pulled them from the water, but still every effort was made to bring them back.

The ambulances left, and the crowd milled around, excitedly talking over what had happened. I saw this wife and mother standing, stunned, alone in the crowd. I went to her and wrapped my arms around her. I think I was the only one there who realized who she was. She held onto me so tightly.

That whole scene is a vivid scar on all our memories. For me, the worst parts are the memory of the man's face, as I pulled him up through the green water, lifeless.... and the desperate embrace of that suddenly bereaved wife and mom as I held her close in the faceless crowd.

For Lee, it was the trauma of being in the middle of such intense loss, and then the fear that he could not make it back across the river; the horror it would be to his own little family if he drowned in front of us. The possibility was all too real. It had just happened to this other family, and he was exhausted from all he'd done to help.

For the kids, the trauma lingered also. For Heather, it was the terrible responsibility of keeping a strong dog and a very young brother safely on the riverbank, while watching both her parents disappear into deep water, then struggle to make it back to shore. For Michael, the intense desire to do something was so strong that he actually thought he'd been out in there river with us, helping.

As I hugged that mama close, and thought of the immensity of her loss. I started to shake. Shock was setting in and I couldn't handle any more. I was only twenty-six. I did not know what else to do. I pulled away from that poor lady and we went quietly back to camp.

There was no question of staying. How could we possibly go back to having fun after such an experience?

A man we knew stopped by as we were loading up to leave. I think he worked for the Department of Fish and Game and had some law enforcement background. He was surprised to see us getting ready to go.

Here is where we reach the point of this story; the Things Not To Say part:

"You're going home? Why?"....

"Don't let it ruin your vacation."

We both just stared at him in disbelief.
I'm not even sure what Lee said in reply.

How do you even answer such a thing?

There we were, a young couple who had just pulled a dead father and son from the river bottom, whose two young children had just watched people die and seen us nearly drown trying to help, and.......don't let it ruin our vacation????

We did.
We let it ruin our vacation.

All we could think of was that sweet lady who had just lost her husband and her son within five minutes, and of her other boys, bereft of their dad and brother. We were in shock and deeply shaken. We headed home.

We left so quickly that we were long gone before the news reporters came looking for "heroes" to interview. The guy who swam over to help after Lee and I had pulled both of them from the river was credited as the big man who tried to save the day. Whatever. We shuddered at the thought of having to talk to anyone about it. It was horrifying.

But...don't let it ruin your vacation.

I think of that wife and mama every year when the middle of July rolls around, praying for her and her other boys, wondering how they're doing. I wish I could have held myself together a little longer; held her close for a few more minutes...helped her more.

I hope she's okay. I wish I could give her a hug.

Here's the thing: We should be impacted by tragedy and trauma and the sorrow of others.

Yes, it is terribly uncomfortable to be up close to suffering, but it is cowardly and selfish to sweep it away with dismissive words. Those kinds of words add damage on top of heartache on top of trauma. They leave scars.

It should ruin our vacation.

It should touch our deepest core and move us to reach out in love and mercy.

It should change us, and if we're wise, we'll learn from it and grow deep with compassion.

It should ruin our vacation, and it should change us for life.


*In memory of Gary and Linus Carter, who lost their lives that day, and of their family, who lost so much in one tragic afternoon.*

Blocking the Peace

"And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts..." Colossians 3:15b Having been in church since before I was born, these words...