Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Silence, Solitude and Invitations

This past Saturday, I was challenged to spend 3 hours in silence and solitude, just listening. The challenge came at a prayer retreat led by Alan Fadling, the author of one of my favorite books, An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus' Rhythms of Work and Rest. Before our time of solitude we asked ourselves, "What do I bring to this day? What stressors, what questions, what concerns, what anticipation?"  Then we asked God if there was anything he had for us. So I headed into my time away with the awareness of where I was at emotionally and with the insight that God was inviting me to soak in his peace.

Now for some honesty, I was super excited to attend this retreat when I signed up. I attended a 2 day retreat co-led by Alan last year and thought it was amazing. Plus I love Jesus so a whole day just to focus on prayer sounded awesome. But back to my confession...that morning I didn't feel like going. I was tired. The day before was an awesome, busy day and I need recovery time after busier days. The idea of staying home in a quiet house was so appealing. However, I had encouraged friends to go with me so not showing up to a day that was going to be laid back and refreshing because I was tired didn't seem like a good plan. So I went and I'm glad I did. 

One distinction shared with us today is that prayer is not a task you complete; it's a relationship you invest in. During my 3 hours I was telling God that I didn't know why I fight spending intimate time with him. I love time with him, I love the peace he gives me, I love the way he quiets my mind and settles my soul. I love feeling his love and expressing love back to him. I love that he knows me so well and doesn't need me to fill him in on back story or why I'm reacting a certain way. And yet I will avoid designated time carved out just to listen to him. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I will neglect God; I spend my days talking to him--asking for insight, direction and wisdom, sharing my heart, requesting help for friends in need and I read my Bible most days. But when it comes to sitting in silence and solitude, I let that time get squeezed out by things nowhere near as important. 

As I shared all of this with God he gave me the coolest example. He reminded me that my husband and I have made it a priority to not let our marriage devolve into simply being roommates. We don't want to get so good at co-existing in the same house, doing the necessary things to keep the household running but neglecting focused time with each other geared to build intimacy. Rick and I make a point of spending time together alone. No TV, no computers, just talking, listening, playing, being open with who we are and where we are at in all areas of our lives. We do this most days. Sometimes it's several hours; sometimes it's much shorter. But we know that without this we will miss out on connection that we both love and feel refueled by. 

This is a great practice for any marriage, but even bigger than that--God invites us into the same thing with him. As I sat by the lake I felt God assure me of two things. The first is that no matter what, his love for me is constant; I can't make him love me less. The second is that he's not going anywhere; he will never abandon or give up on me. But an invitation came with that assurance, and it's an invitation for all of us. It's an invitation to make a practice of spending focused time alone with him so that I'm not simply co-existing in the same place with him. God invites us into a deeply intimate relationship. One where he is able to speak words of love and healing to us and we are able to lean in and know him at a deeper level. He longs for this level of connection with us that can't happen in quick exchanges tossed out as we go about our busy lives. He knows this will refuel us and give us peace. 

God doesn't want to be the friend I bump into at church; he doesn't want to be the neighbor I chat with over the fence. Instead he invites me (and you) over and over to come away, to fall into his arms, to be part of a great love story. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

My Beach is Gone

I have a favorite spot along the beach in Coronado. It's a little more secluded, there's a parking lot right there, and reaching the water doesn't require a super long walk across the beach. I love being able to get out of my car, walk down a few steps and be on the sand close to the water.

As I drove to my spot this week, I had the picture in my mind of what it would look like; I've gone there so many times. But this time, as I got out of my car, I noticed the ramp up from the parking lot had a reinforced barrier instead of just the usual metal handrail, and I was shocked when I reached the top. My beach was gone! The bottom half of the stairs where I accessed the beach were completely buried in sand and the waves were coming all the way up to the rocks, there was literally no exposed dry sand. The storms had completely changed my beach. I was reminded that we could think we have control by creating barriers and concrete walkways and stairs, but man-made objects can’t control the forces of nature.

This was an easy one to deal with. I just walked farther North down the boardwalk to a spot where a small sliver of beach remained dry and set up there. It was different than I expected but the ocean was still beautiful. The waves were big and powerful, the roar of the crashing waves and the hiss as the water receded pulled me into a relaxed state. As I sat and watched the waves I reflected on my life. I had things so planned out in my 20's. I had big plans for my career, big goals that were attainable with hard work and dedication. I had an idea of what my marriage would look like, when my kids would enter the picture, how independent and in charge I would be. But none of those things turned out how I pictured them.

There have been years where I've surveyed my life and felt the same shock I felt when I stood at the top of the stairs and realized my beach was gone. Nothing was as expected. I have even felt like those stairs, buried under a layer of storm residue wondering if I'll ever make my way out. And unfortunately, those times weren't as easy to deal with as walking north a few feet and finding a new spot at my beach. Life can make me feel like I need to grab on and dig in and fight like hell to maintain things the way they've always been. But that's not natural. Life instead is full of roaring, crashing waves and peaceful receding water and allowing myself to be shaped, to be changed, to be fully transformed by all that happens is not a bad thing. None of it may look like I've expected or planned but it doesn't change the capacity for beauty.

Learning to see the beauty when life looks completely different has required learning to relinquish control. I can only do what I can do. There are things that are beyond my ability--that are truly beyond my power--and I can either fight and claw and reject what I didn't plan, or I can allow life to unfold around me while I find a new way to thrive in the midst of whatever is thrown my way. 

"The ocean is roaring, Lord! The sea is pounding hard. Its mighty waves are majestic, but you are more majestic, and you rule over all. Your decisions are firm, and your temple will always be beautiful and holy." Psalm 93: 3-5 (CEV)

Friday, January 29, 2016

Defining Moments

It’s funny how life has defining moments. My life will forever be divided into two distinct parts, the 28 years before my aortic dissection and the years after. As of today, January 29th, 2016, I’ve had 20 years after my dissection. It honestly just hit me as I typed this that I’m actually only 8 years away from catching up to my pre-dissection total.

On the day of my dissection I went about life as planned. My family and I went to my sister’s house to watch the Super Bowl. We ate and watched the game while our kids played. But I remember the feeling of dread I had deep inside that colors my memories of that day, the feeling that made me want to stick close to my husband’s side and convinces me, in hindsight, that beneath my mind’s awareness my body knew something big was happening. I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe well in the car. And I remember holding my infant son longer than usual after I nursed and rocked him to sleep--wanting to cherish the feel of him in my arms. Three details that would have faded into oblivion if the day had ended like every other. Those three details also fueled my anxiety in the post-dissection years. Any time I felt a sense of dread or the desire to hold a loved one close, it created overwhelming fear that something traumatic was about to happen.

One of my favorite phrases is, “anxiety is a bitch.” But it would be more accurate to say that anxiety is a thief or maybe a tyrant. I knew my survival after my dissection was a miracle. I knew that my survival didn’t make sense—even my surgeon said he wasn’t going to take credit because he was amazed I didn’t die. Well, he didn’t say he was amazed I didn’t die but he did tell my friend he’d never operated on someone whose aorta was that shredded who made it off the table alive. But every celebration of the miracle, every realization of how amazing it was that I was alive was followed by the suffocating fear that I had cheated death and it was only a matter of time until it got me. Anxiety told me I needed to play my cards right, be constantly grateful for the time I had with my kids, cherish every moment on this earth, make only wise health decisions, be vigilant constantly and fight for the life that had already been given to me free and clear. I guess it’s apparent that anxiety is also a liar.

Each year, as January rolled around I could feel it ramp up. Remember Randall Boggs, the creepy, purple, bad monster in Disney’s Monsters Inc.? That’s the face of anxiety for me. January would start and the low level anxiety I lived with fairly peaceably would creep out of the closet and start circling me, usually beneath my conscious awareness. Then he would slither up my legs and circle around my middle, creating restlessness and stomach aches. Eventually he would climb all the way up and rest on my shoulders, weighing me down as he altered my vision and planted horrible fears in my head while whispering, “this is the year your ‘miracle’ runs out.” Shame would often chime in and remind me that I could beat anxiety if I would only trust God enough.

Here’s the truth. I couldn’t trust God enough. I couldn’t will my way out of anxiety. I couldn’t figure out a way to make my body believe that it had actually survived, that the trauma of the dissection was not still happening. And having Marfan syndrome means that health issues stay constant for me, which makes it even harder not to feel like the threat is imminent and very real. As health issues ramped up because aging with severe Marfan syndrome is not easy, the anxiety also became a constant companion. Which is when my therapist entered my life and helped me reclaim it.

I’m not going to go into the details of what she does, or how she helps me, or what’s in my tool chest. If you are looking for those details so you can also find some freedom let me tell you not so gently, but with great compassion and empathy, get yourself to a therapist. You truly can’t do this on your own. I know you’re reading this and thinking that you’re the one who can—I thought that too. I wasted a lot of years thinking that. I had measures of success on my own. But the freedom I have now exists because an objective professional helps me hone the tools that work for my personality and life.

This is the first year that I feel like I’m wholeheartedly celebrating. I’m reflecting on what has happened and feel like I can feel God’s presence and love no matter what is going on in my body or with my health. I don’t know why I survived my dissection. Many people don’t survive that. God also extravagantly loves them. Their lives also had meaning and value; they also had loved ones who needed them, prayed for them, begged for their survival. I’m not more special. I don’t have some huge amazing purpose to fulfill that they didn’t have. So I don’t pretend to understand why I’m still here. I don’t have to understand to embrace it and be thankful.

I do believe that these “after” years are a gift. Every year, every birthday, every gray hair, and every wrinkle—all gifts. Whenever I’m bothered by signs of aging on my body I remind myself that it was almost all stopped at 28. I would have been frozen in pictures with unlined skin, dark brown hair, forever young. Each health challenge gives me another reason to celebrate.

January 29th, 1996 my life was saved through the hands of a skilled surgeon who replaced a portion of my aorta and my aortic valve.

January 23rd, 2012 a fantastic neurosurgeon completed the second, and ultimately successful, attempt to repair a spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak, ending six years of spinal headaches and worsening weakness to just name a couple symptoms.

January 28th, 2015 a general surgeon repaired an obturator hernia ending 15 years of intermittent episodes of debilitating abdominal pain. (Obturator hernias are pretty rare, extremely difficult to diagnose and therefore dangerous, and often seen in frail old women who’ve had a lot of kids. That last part never fails to amuse me.)

20 years, 4 years, 1 year. All occurred at the end of January, which is the month when we Americans celebrate fresh starts, new beginnings, and setting aside old ways. Last year as I prepared for surgery amidst panic-laced anxiety, God reminded me of a favorite verse. Isaiah 46:4(NIV) says, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” I love the fact that God will sustain me—I don’t have to sustain myself. But I also love that he reminds me that he was the one who made me. Marfan Syndrome and all of its challenges aren’t a surprise to him. He made me and he promises he will carry me. He’s not going to get tired, neither my problems nor I are going to get too big for him, he’s not going to regret making me in the first place because I need to be carried more than I see others needing it. That’s love that I can celebrate.

This year, as I journaled and prayed about celebrating my life, God led me to another verse. Isaiah 64:3 & 4 says, “We remember that long ago you did amazing things for us that we had never dreamed you’d do. You came down, and the mountains shook at your presence. Nothing like that had ever happened before—no eye had ever seen, and no ear had ever heard such wonders, but you did them then for the sake of your people, for those who trusted in you. (VOICE) The first line is the one that really gets me, “You did amazing things for us that we had never dreamed you’d do.” Before my dissection I firmly believed that if my aorta dissected I would die. Not that I might die, that I WOULD die. As I endured 6 years of headaches and 15 years of abdominal pain I thought maybe this pain was just something I needed to get used to, maybe healing these things wasn’t going to happen for me. God didn’t need unwavering faith, he didn’t need my vigilance, and he didn’t need my expectation for these amazing things to happen.

Over and over again, in all of our lives, God does amazing things. He redeems and he reclaims and he puts the right people in our lives when we need help to heal. He gives life—a free and clear gift, assuring us we owe him nothing in return. I remember and I celebrate.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Can I Avoid People in Heaven?

There was this incident on Facebook a few years back. Shocker, I know, meanness on social media is so rare. But a guy from high school--I'm intentionally not calling him a "friend from high school," because he wasn't, I'm also intentionally not calling him a "bully from high school" because that doesn't reflect much grace or compassion for what his life was like. Anyway, back to my story, a few years back I commented on a friend's post agreeing that I had also loved the book The Shack. Seemed pretty non-controversial at the time so I was surprised when that was followed with an attack from a guy I hadn't had any interaction with in at least 25 years. None, zip, nada. We live on opposite ends of the West Coast, we don't meet for coffee to catch up when I'm back in my hometown, we don't run in the same social circles. Knowing nothing about my present journey, he proceeded to tell me that loving this book meant that obviously I didn't love God, that I was stupid, that I didn't have true faith, and that he wasn't surprised because he remembered my Catholic roots. He wasn't nearly that concise, it was paragraphs long, spanning a couple of ranting posts. A couple of friends jumped to my defense which just fueled his rage and caused additional posts. I blocked him and we again ceased to exist in each other's worlds.

So why bring it up now? The other day I was thinking and praying about the way we love to be right as Christians. We look at our own relationship with God, or our own brand of Christianity, and decide that's the only way. We love being right so much that we will hate others in the name of the one who died because he loved us so much. To me, it's as ridiculous as if I said, "Wait, you don't brush your wife's hair every now and then? But my husband loves to brush my hair. It's an expression of his love and care for me since he knows I like it. I guess you don't really love your wife because your relationship doesn't include every detail mine does and it doesn't look exactly like mine."

This guy's zeal grew from his love for Jesus. He was defending Jesus by attempting to prove the rightness of his own beliefs, and if I was a casualty of that defense that was ok, because I mattered way less than Jesus. He was making sure we knew he was going to be at the big party in heaven, and since I suck so much and don't like all the right people (or pieces of fiction) I am not going to be welcome at that party. And as I thought this I laughed. Not the sweet laugh of a woman with a gentle and quiet spirit, but the "HA! In your face sucker! You're going to be shocked to see me in Heaven!" laugh of someone who can be a little obnoxious deep down. That laugh was immediately followed by the thought of "dang, I can't wait to have him see me in heaven and then I'm going to avoid him." which led me down the rabbit trail of who else I will be happily avoiding in heaven.

That's when it hit me. Creating a list of who I plan to avoid in heaven is ridiculous. It's just as graceless as those who confidently declare who is not going to heaven. I'm outraged that they believe they have some insider scoop on knowing who isn't a true follower of Jesus, as if they have access to the workings and intricate details of someone's heart and private wrestling with God. But my inside thoughts show the refining I still need in my own heart. They show the areas where I'm so much quicker to pick up a grudge and silently carry it around rather than work on releasing the offense and the hurt back to Jesus. They show the lack of faith I have in God's ability to continue refining others when meeting Jesus didn't cause the 180 degree turn around and they still act like jerks. God can and will continue to form each of us into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and he'll continue to guide us as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). He will continue to invite us into a deeper relationship with him that's not exactly like his relationship with anyone else because we are not exactly like anyone else.

That's the good news that we can share. The news that God loves us enough to form a unique intimate relationship with us based on the minute details of who we are now and who he created us to be. The news that God wants to work with us so we can grow in righteousness through Jesus--and that he cares a lot more about that than our rightness on issues.

The other good news for me, and maybe, just maybe you need to hear it too, is that when scripture tells us there will be no death or sorrow or crying or pain in heaven that all of those behaviors we see in ourselves and each other that wound and infuriate are included in that list of what won't be there. I won't want to avoid anyone in heaven because I won't be the petty, grudge holding person I am now.

Remembering that God makes all things new reminds me again that I want to submit and allow him to remake me. I want to focus on eliminating the things in my heart that are sick and painful and dying or dead. I'm going to start now rather than waiting for heaven. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Adult in Me

A part of me reached adulthood today.  Well, in all honestly, it’s an added part of me, not something I was born with but something given to me.  The rest of me is 46…turning 47 in June.  But this small part just reached that magical age of 18.  When I was a teenager, 18 had such allure.  It was the age where I would get to do what I wanted with my life.  It was the age where my decisions were my own,. From the other side, as a parent, 18 is the magical age of responsibility—the ultimate goal that we raise our children toward—the ability to be self sufficient and self regulating.  The age where I don’t stop praying and guiding but where my control, my need to regulate, ends and theirs begins.  When my kids have reached that age I realized they will either do what they’re supposed to do...or they won’t.  It’s ultimately the time when I can trust that God, who was in the process from day one, will continue to be in their lives and continue to lead them. 

So going back to the adult in my chest.  18 years ago today doctors cut out my shredded aorta, and my damaged aortic valve, and replaced them with a Dacron graft and a mechanical valve.  (You can read part 1 and part 2 of that story by clicking those links) I woke up to learn that I had this new piece of equipment that I needed to watch out for.  I had to take anticoagulants and monitor my blood levels.  I had to go for regular follow up so that they could monitor the function.  I had to take prophylactic antibiotics whenever I had a procedure—even just having my teeth cleaned—so the valve wouldn’t get infected. I even had to make sure my address stayed current with a registry so that I could be notified if there was ever a problem with the valve.  (Yes, mechanical valves can malfunction and be recalled.) I listened to the loud click, click, click coming from my chest and was reminded that I had something foreign and new inside me and, while I was so thankful to be alive, my anxiety climbed because of the responsibility. I needed to monitor it, I needed to be on top of it and make sure it was doing exactly what it was supposed to do because my very life depended on it.  So I lived grateful but also tightly wound from the vigilance required.  My outward persona didn’t always show it, but the muscles in my shoulders and neck screamed out the secret that I was a bundle of stress and anxiety because I felt like it was my job to help God…and my valve…and my doctors…keep me alive. 

As my children have grown up, I’ve developed a peace about them and their futures that has allowed me to fully turn them over to God and trust that they are responsible people who can make their own decisions.  I also am at peace with the knowledge that I may not love or even agree with every choice they make.  Reflecting on my now adult valve the other day, I asked myself if I could embrace that same peace when it came to this piece of equipment.  Could I trust that this adult in my chest, who was created to do one thing, would do it?  Could I trust that the same God who guided the doctors and saved my life 18 years ago was only asking me to do my part and then trust him with all of the rest? It can be pretty easy to look at my story and feel like my vigilance and my intelligence and my perseverance are the reasons I’m still here.  But I can’t do that for long before I hear God’s voice from Job 38,

“Prepare yourself for the task at hand. I’ll be asking the questions, now— you will supply the answers. Where were you when I dug and laid the foundation of the earth? Explain it to me, if you are acquainted with understanding…In your short run of days, have you ever commanded the morning to begin or taught the sun to rise in its place? Under your watch has the early light ever taken hold of the earth by the edges and shaken the wicked loose?”

My response echoes Job’s,  “I know you can do everything, therefore I realize the truth.”  I don’t have to be constantly tense and anxious, waiting to catch the signs that my health is about to crash and burn.  Instead I can rest, the kind of rest where my breath comes in slow, deep rhythm and I feel my muscles loosen. It is in that rest that I know that whether things are crashing or not, I choose to trust that the same God who saved me—who gave wisdom to scientists who created my valve, who gave skill to doctors who performed my surgery—that he will be the one who is on constant alert so that I don’t have to be. 

I choose to embrace this second adulthood with freedom and peace.  Care to join me?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Naked and Unashamed

Shame. Let that word resonate in your head. Let it resonate in your heart. Shame like tar, dripping down over you. Irritating and abrasive, thick and suffocating. Shame wielded like a weapon, "Shame on you!" "You should be ashamed!" "Have you no shame?" Shame was never God's intent. Shame makes us feel something is wrong with us and causes us to hide. Shame isolates, showing us that we are alone...alone in our woundedness or alone in our sin, alone because of our own choices or because of the choices of someone else, we're still alone. In the first mention of shame in scripture (Genesis 3:7) it didn't come from God, it came from within. It caused them to pull away and hide from God, it caused them to cover up. It was the result of eyes being opened, it was the result of choices that weren't what God had wanted--but where shame made them feel like this was the end of the story, God had already shaped a way to begin again.  

I remember several years ago I was in a Bible study with several other women. One young woman was weeks away from her wedding. We were studying the book of Genesis and on that day as we went line by line through Genesis 2, sharing what had jumped out at us, she said "it's good to be naked." (see Genesis 2:25) This line popped into my head again the other day. Probably not in the way that you're thinking, though. I've been talking with God a lot about what it means to fully be the person he created me to be. And a big part of that is defining what it means to be naked, and what it means to feel no shame.  

One reason I get dressed each day is protection; protection from the weather, protection from scrapes, protection from contact I don't welcome. Another reason is to cover up. I'm covering up my flaws, my imperfections, and the parts of my body I don't want everyone to see. But my clothes dull my sensations, they cover the biggest sensory organs in my body--my skin. Holding hands with my husband while wearing gloves is never as satisfying as when our skin touches. And yet we cover up and get used to feeling less. 

I can be tempted to do more than put on literal clothes. Sometimes I want to cover myself in the same way emotionally. In the past I have put on one layer at a time and pretty soon I was covered with layers so thick that no one was getting through, not even God. I thought my layers helped me feel safe, protected and in control, but soon I was so used to the dulled sensitivity that I thought it was normal or even preferable.  

But God wants the naked me. He doesn't want me to hide when I hear him coming. He wants the real me, flaws and imperfections showing. He asks me to come to him even when I feel dirty and sticky and covered with tar-like shame. He calls and extends his hand. He promises that he will search me and know me, that he will show me the things I need to work on so that I'm the person he wants me to be. (Psalm 139:23-24) He promises in Psalm 51 to wash me so that I am whiter than snow. He reaches out and extends the way to begin again and he calls it grace.  Grace for the times that I didn't turn to him for help. Grace for the times that I let my shame suffocate his accurate assessment of what was wrong and what needed to be fixed. Grace for the times when I decided that my ways of dealing with my hurts didn't need his help. Grace for the times that I decided to just live my own way because I had hidden myself so well that I couldn't see or hear him anymore. He calls and hold out his arms, he reminds me that my friend's assessment is true. It's good to be a naked soul, without polish or pretense, in the presence of God.