Battle Fatigue

IMG_0459You know, it’s just lunch. Simple, right? I get in the car, I drive over to Mom’s care facility, I punch in the magic code to open the door, I gather her up, confused and beautiful as she is, I open the door so we can both go out into the sunshine.

She says, “Do you really want to bring this old thing?” pointing to her walker.

Every time, she asks me this question.

EVERY TIME.

“Yes, Mom. You can’t really walk well without it and it fits right into the back of my car.”

I settle her into the front seat, lock the seat belt around her, nudge her gently to move her feet completely inside the car. I load the walker in the back and come around to the driver’s door, belt myself in and begin to drive out of the residence area.

“What a good driver you are. What a nice car this is — so smooth!”

“Thank  you, Mom.”

I hear these two sentences EVERY SINGLE TIME WE GO OUT, which is every 3 to 4 days. But 3 to 4 days is an eternity to someone whose brain is full of holes. 3 to 4 minutes is an eternity. Somedays, 3 to 4 seconds.

“Now tell me your name again and why you came over to get me today?”

And we’re off. The litany begins.

Again.

And again.

“Do you have children?”
“Do you live nearby?”
“What do you do?”

“Where are we going?”
“Why are you being kind to me?”
“Now tell me your name, please.”
“Do you know my family?”

Round and round we go, the same set of questions, the same set of answers.

Today we went to a place we have not visited often. She is, however, convinced that she has been here, “many years ago.” Often, this is at least partially true. Not today. We’ve been here exactly twice in the last 3 3/4 years.

The sun is warm, but the restaurant, located directly on the sands of Ledbetter Beach, acts as a wind tunnel for the ocean breeze. She is immediately shivering, despite being fully covered with two layers of clothing.

So I return to the car, get my wool shawl and my wide-brimmed black hat with the droop-down brim and wrap her up as much as I can. She continues to hold down the brim of the hat or to place her hand over her ear during the entire meal, despite the fact that she is no longer in direct contact with any kind of air movement whatsoever. Once cold, always cold, I guess.

I order her a diet Coke and get a glass of water for myself. We sip quietly as we wait for our lunches to be delivered — a kid’s sized grilled cheese with fries for her, a salad with grilled salmon for me. 

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“Here, don’t you want some of this?” she asks.

And she asks.

And she asks.

AND SHE ASKS.

“No, Mom, ” I tell her each time. “That is your drink. See, I have one of my own. I don’t need yours.”

When lunch arrives, she relishes each bite. But begins immediately with the same, recurring question/statement: “Oh  my, this is delicious! I am so happy, so happy, so happy! Here, take some of this. It is really good.”

She seems to be unable to see that I am already eating from a very full plate. I tell her exactly that, every single time she invites me to eat her lunch. “No, thank you, Mom. I have my own lunch. I don’t need to eat yours. Please enjoy your meal and stop worrying about me — I am doing just fine.”

“Well,” she says timidly, “I surely do not want to ever seem to be selfish.”

“You are not being selfish, Mom. You’re enjoying your lunch, which is yours, all  yours. Please enjoy it!”

After I finish my salad — which I always do, LONG before she is halfway through her own plate — I begin to take a French fry or two from her plate. And she is ecstatic!

“Oh, here! Have some more!”

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I cannot even begin to put into words how deeply enervating I find these outings. I love that she loves to go. I love that she finds happiness in simple things. I love her. But being with her is the most exhausting thing I do these days.  

And there is no end in sight.

I heard a bit of a cough today and, God help me, I found myself wondering if this might possibly progress into something serious, something that might help her transition to that place where she will once again be able to think and remember. 

That is not likely. She is 95 years old, can’t see, can’t hear, can’t remember, can walk short distances only. But otherwise, her health is excellent. Her mother lived to be 101. Her mother’s sister to 102. So chances are, she’ll be with us physically long past the time when what remains of her mind has completely left the building.

I give thanks daily for her life. I see the beauty shining out of her face, the unceasingly cheerful spirit that is indomitable and gracious. I enjoy her occasional attempts at humor and the increasingly rare flashes of that mom-that-used-to-be insight and self-deprecating trash talk. (Today for example: “I imagine those children I hear are looking over here and wondering what strange sort of woman is sitting there under that hat!”)

But I am tired. I am tired of continually telling myself to keep my ever-present impatience at bay, to respond with kindness to the 20th version of the same comment/question, to smile, to hug, to touch, to encourage. I do it, yes, I do it. But sometimes it feels forced, even phony, and I don’t like that part. No, I don’t like it at all.

So I am weary at times. Today is one of those times. I returned her to her room a bit earlier than usual, settled her into that recliner chair in the corner, the one by the window that looks out onto the patio with bright red geraniums. I kiss her and tell her I love her and that I’ll see her next week. I find someone on the care team to tell them she is back in her room.

And I exit the building as fast as these aging legs of mine will carry me, willing myself not to cry out, “How long, O Lord!! How long?”


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A Love Story — for SheLoves

Theirs is a love story that not many remember these days. One of them has been gone from this plane for 10 years; the other has no memory of ever being married, despite their 63 years together. So it’s my story to tell now . . . you can start this sweet tale here and click over to SheLoves to continue it. It’s a good one for Valentine’s Day weekend, don’t you think?

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Celebrating 50 years on the island of Kauai in 1991

On paper, they were seriously mismatched. He, the brilliant, favored son of a well-educated southern family, she the hard-scrapple middle child of working class Canadians, each family migrating to the Los Angeles area before their kids were old enough to remember anyplace else.

Ben’s family was firmly ensconced in a downtown Methodist church, teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, providing leadership in a multitude of ways. Ruth was a church orphan, whose parents dropped her at the front door each Sunday.

They came up through the youth group separately — he, four years ahead of her — but each knew of the other. She had a steady boyfriend by the time she was in high school and dated him for four years, most of their life together centered around that old brownstone church.

Ben was gifted musically and intellectually, but very reserved, even shy. Ruth was vivacious, smart, mischievous, funny and a natural leader. He stood on the sidelines of her life for a while, becoming increasingly smitten. After Ruth’s early relationship ended, they gravitated toward each other, each of them happy to discover the ways their differences were complementary.

The rest, as they say, is history. They ‘went together’ for several years, as he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA; she matriculated there, but dropped out when family funds evaporated. By then, they were committed to marriage, the US had entered WWII, and her folks saw no reason for her to get a degree. She regretted it the rest of her life.

He failed to pass the physical for the draft, so began to teach in San Diego at a small military academy. In 1941, they married in a friend’s garden, honeymooned in Laguna Beach, and settled into community life at the school.

Their love for one another grew deep and sturdy, but it was never particularly easy, especially during those early years. His family didn’t really approve of her — his mother took to her bed for a full week when they announced their engagement and wore black to their wedding. Each of their families of origin had their own unique dysfunctions and patterns and, as is true for all of us, the wounds of childhood were real and lasting.

He was the ‘show-kid,’ his skill at the piano and in the classroom regularly put on display by a pushy mother. She was the caretaker, intervening at a very young age when her dad came home drunk and became verbally and even physically abusive to everyone in the family.

He kept things in, she let them out, often in a big and dramatic way. Learning to communicate, to deal with anger issues, to build their own individual self-confidence — these were issues that didn’t go away.

Hop on over to SheLoves to finish this story and to share with all of us a love story that’s important in your own life.

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 30 — Facing Death

Even to your old age I will be the same,
and even to your graying years I will bear you!
I have done it, and I will carry you;
and I will bear you and I will deliver you.
Job 12:12

This verse is a great source of comfort and assurance for me as I walk this journey toward the end of life. You know it’s there, don’t you? And you knew I’d have to talk about it at some point. The end of the road, on this side of glory, is the same for each and every one of us: d e a t h. The last breath, the transition from this life to the next, however and whenever that happens. I don’t begin to understand it, but I choose to belief that our last conscious thought on this side of the veil is of God, and our first conscious thought on the other side is not only of God, but in God — in a way we cannot now begin to imagine. 

That means that somehow, my body will be there, too, and that it will be at least partially recognizable by others who have known me here. Timing is irrelevant, whether immediate or at some distant date, as the scriptures seem to imply in all that talk about the end of time. NO clue what that all means, only that Paul assures us that we will be one moment here, one moment there. Of course, the whole concept of ‘moment’ doesn’t really fit into eternity very well, does it?

So rather than spin my wheels deliberating about when and how, I have chosen to rest in the promise of reunion, of transformation, of a familiar but intrinsically different way of being and living. And this photograph, taken almost six months ago, speaks volumes to me about what the writer of Job means in that verse up there. “I will bear you. . .”

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This is our Lilly, in rapturous delight at her new cousin, Matteo, holding him tenderly and carefully and rhapsodizing over his deliciousness. I’ve written before about the revelation I received at the beginning of my training in pastoral work, that sense that dying is about being born, born into a new kind of living. So I relish this picture because that adorable infant reminds me of myself, and of each one of us, when we move from here to there.

And because Jesus himself told us to delight in little ones, to welcome them . . . indeed — to become like them, I have NO trouble imagining our loving and almighty God taking on the joyful demeanor of a young child, looking at me with the same kind of joy that Lilly looks at Matteo.

Can you see it? Oh, I hope so!

Imagine tenderness, delight, gratitude, acceptance, welcome. Because that’s who God is, that’s what God’s about, that’s what dying means. Glory be.

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 14 — Valuing the Old

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Of course today’s topic is one close to my heart. I am graced to have my 94-year-old mama still living. I myself am now 70. I am personally familiar with old things. And old people.

But you know what? We are not a society that particularly values old anything, maybe most especially people. That is painting with far too broad a brush, I own that. But there are times when it surely feels that way. I’m not sure it’s entirely intentional. We get busy, our lives are full, there is more energy to be found in the company of younger folk. I get it, I’m guilty of it, I know it.

But.

The sixteen people who live in my mother’s Alzheimer’s unit were once thriving, contributing members of society, living lives rich in friendship and family. Now, many of them seldom see any young face other than that of their closest caregiver — the one who is paid to be there.

I myself am deeply, DEEPLY grateful for those paid friends. My mother’s life is incredibly richer and safer because of the place where she lives. And for a long list of reasons — most of them to do with my own emotional and physical limits — I see my mom only about every five or six days. For years, I called her nightly on the telephone. Now, that is too confusing for her, so I stopped doing that this summer. It was both a relief and an opening for yet another kind of grief, deep within me.

I love my mother very much. I miss my mother very much.

Yet she is still here.

And the pieces of her that remain have been lovely to see for the last two years or so. Just in the past two weeks, however, I have seen a deepening level of confusion and ‘lostness,’ which come yoked with an exponentially deeper sense of panic that permeates almost all of our ‘conversation’ of late. Three days ago, she was frightened to use the bathroom before we left for lunch, sure that someone was going to get her wet (she now hates the shower.) And she insisted that she had never been to the Cafe before, though we have been there at least once each week for the last six months.

“Are you sure it was me you took here?”

“Yes, Mom. I know you. It was you. You are Ruth Gold, right?”

“Yes, I am. But there must be another Ruth Gold because I’ve never been here before,” she said in a frightened, trembling voice.

I patted her arm, told her I was going inside to order our lunch and left her, sitting at the counter, peering at the view with a troubled look on her face.

Seven or eight minutes later, I returned with her diet coke in hand and told her the cheeseburger would be coming soon. She turned and looked at me, much calmer, and said with conviction, “I think that other woman must have left.”

Clearly, she had been thinking about our earlier conversation, something she is generally unable to do. Something about it hit her deep inside, requiring her to ponder and try and figure out how she could be so lost. Her conclusion was unbearably sad to hear.

Yet something deep within me resonated strongly with that so-sad sentence, that oh-so -carefully prepared sentence. Because she was right, you see. That other woman has indeed left, never to return this side of heaven.

And oh, I miss her so.

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 6 — Facing Fear

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If I am being honest — and I want to be, to use this space to speak my own truth, as I am experiencing it — I have to admit that this past year has been laced with fear. Falling flat on my face, spending time in the hospital as a result, suffering through a torn abdominal muscle and the resulting nerf-football-sized hematoma plus low blood counts and a medicare form that read, ‘life-threatening treatment’ — all of the above has brought bouts of anxiety the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.

It’s a very scary thing to face into your own frailty, to face into the possibility of life forever changed. I’ve had some small panic attacks and flashbacks that have stopped me in my tracks in the past few months, and I’ve uttered the Jesus Prayer more times than I can possibly count.

If I let it, fear could pretty much rule my life these days. That picture at the top of the page is of a sunset we enjoyed the third week in our new home. Stunning, isn’t it? Yet, still. A sunset, right? The end of the light. The end. That’s what I could choose to focus on as a result of the anxiety level rising to code red proportions. I could so easily be a real Chicken Little type, friends. SO easily.

But I don’t want to do that. Truly, I do not. Yes, I want to be increasingly realistic about the truth that my days on this planet are stretching less far out into the future than ever before. Duh. This is true for all of us, every day, right? But do we focus on that truth?

Or do we choose to enjoy the diminishing light for as long as we possibly can? Have you ever noticed that sunsets tend to be longer than sunrises? It takes a while for that light to leave the sky. And as it fades, it can be exquisitely beautiful, sending beams of color across the sky and the landscape below. I want to be a lovely sunset, don’t you?

And I want to remember that the sun also rises. Every single day. Rain or shine. There it is, sending its beams out to nourish and sustain us, shining down on us, even through the foggiest, grayest day. For every sunset, there is a sunrise.

And there will be one for me, too. 

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This picture, taken on one of my morning walks, deep into our new neighborhood, reminds me of that truth in a powerful way. As the sin was rising this day, I could see a cruise ship come into view. A big ole boat, filled with tourists, happy to be taking in the sights and enjoying the water. Reflecting on this photo helps me to breathe out the fear, to breathe in the hope, to lean into the promised future that is mine as a child of God. Don’t know if there will be a cruise ship to ferry me there, but I’m bound and determined I’m going to enjoy the ride.

Just Wondering

The Surprising Nature of Grief

He was in his late 50’s, I’m guessing. Salt and pepper hair and mustache, thick black shoes, Bermuda shorts and the usual bright red apron. I was at Home Depot, purchasing something or other for the work we’re doing on our new home, and I noticed him, cheerfully helping customers through the checkout process.

He was kind, with a peaceful, even happy expression on his face. I could see him from where I stood waiting in line, and I remember thinking, “That guy is one of the good ones. Yeah, the shoes with the shorts are a tad nerdy, but what a sweet man!”

I dug into my cart, laid my wares on the conveyor belt and he quickly moved to the end of the island, getting ready to put my purchases into a bag for me. I handed over my credit card, signed my name and turned to thank him as I got ready to exit the store. And that’s when I saw his name tag:

                                                               “KENNETH”

Big black letters, larger than life. And as I saw them, I was startled to hear a great gasping sob erupt from my mouth. The next minute, tears were streaming down beneath my sunglasses as I made my way back to the car.

I had been blindsided by grief, deep and wide.

Kenneth was my youngest brother’s name. The one who died in 2009. A man I’d never met called me early in the morning of October 2nd; he was the manager of Ken’s sober living residence. He’d found my number in my brother’s cell phone and told me tearfully that Ken passed away in his sleep. He was 53 years old.

Oh my, such a sweet man. Troubled, broken, sick and tired, but such a sweet man. I’ve written about him elsewhere, detailing his life of struggle and pain. But that day — that instant in the Home Depot — my thoughts were these:

This could have been my brother.

He would have been so good at a job like this.

Oh, how I miss him! Oh, how sorry I am for all the turmoil he endured! Oh, how I wish I could change it somehow.

But I cannot. I cannot go back in time, much as I might wish to do so. I cannot change one second of his life.

This much, though . . . this much, I can do:

I can acknowledge my own sadness about him.

I can make space for the grief to surprise me, again and again.

I can thank God for Ken every day.

I can pray for his sons and daughter-in-law.

I can remember the best pieces of his story.

I can pay attention to those I meet who remind me of him in some way — size, demeanor, struggle.

I can not be ashamed of the sobs, the tears, the sadness or him. Instead, I can remember him with love and gratitude, accepting him for who he was, warts and all, and rejoice that his suffering is over.

Grief comes in waves, they say. Who knew the tide would still roll after this many years? Sometimes I think I’m ‘used’ to all the death and dying we’ve experienced in our family circle. But I’m not, and — thank God — I never will be. Though it often comes disguised as blessing, especially after a long, difficult illness, death is always our last enemy, a reminder that our time in this sphere is limited and finite. Ah, Lord, I thank you that Ken’s dying was gentle, though his living was harsh.

I miss you, sweet brother of mine. I truly do. 

Tapestry — SheLoves

The themes over at SheLoves this year have been rich and provocative. This month: fabric. You can begin this meandering piece here and then follow the link over to one of my favorite magazines in order to read the rest:
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This life we live is a woven thing.

Textures, colors, strengths, weaknesses, flaws, beauty, warmth, breathability — a wondrous, complex, sturdy fabric of relationships, experiences, emotions, encounters, learning and un-learning.

Weaving in and out of each of our stories are some glorious threads that glisten and shine; and then there are those others, the darker ones that cannot reflect light at all. Sometimes, the tension between the two can feel chaotic, without design or beauty. We can feel buried under the weight of it all as the loom of life pulls and pushes us in ways we might not choose to go.

When those days come, I try to remind myself that the fabric that is me is only one small piece of the much larger work God is creating across time and all around this universe. And that larger piece is a design of such magnificence that not one of us can even imagine its depth and beauty. Those ‘thin places’ we talked about last month sometimes give us a peek, a hint, of what God is up to in the ongoing creation of life. And that old cliché — the one about seeing only the backside of the tapestry God is weaving? Yup, I think it’s true.

There are those days when we catch a glimpse of the front, though. Moments when the glory-light shines in and our lungs feel like they’re breathing heavenly air. In the fabric of my own life, there have consistently been some glittering threads, ones that make me gasp with gratitude and sigh with recognition and relief.

Please come over and join the conversation at SheLoves! Just click on this line.

When the Bottom Falls Out


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Lovely flowers, brought to me by my fine son while in the hospital this week.

It has been a strange and difficult week, one that I wrote about in detail in my newsletter, which went out on May 1. If you’d like to read that account, simply subscribe, using the link provided at the end of this reflection, and I’ll be sure to send you a copy.

But in this, more public space, I want to spend a few minutes reflecting on what often feels like the capriciousness of this life we live in our earthbound home. 

Sometimes things happen suddenly, coming from left field and slamming into your gut, throwing you completely off balance, leaving  you stymied as to what in the heck just happened. I cannot even count how many times in the last six days I have uttered the words, “I cannot believe this has happened.” 

And I can’t.

Except it did — I was hit with a sudden, life-threatening condition, putting me in the hospital for 48 hours and sending me home to rest and move slowly for about a month. Say what?

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The beautiful new hospital wing I was privileged to stay in, as seen from my window.

The combined effect of the event itself, the powerful pain medications I was forced to take to survive, and the complete disorientation of being in a hospital and then coming home again, unable to do the things I do every single day of my life — well, it’s a more than a little bit unsettling.

Who am I? In my own mind, I’ve always been the strong one, the capable one, the one who takes charge and gets ‘er done. I’ve said it before in this space — I’m a large person, an increasingly confident person, have been known to be ‘bossy’ in my time (though I’ve worked on that quite a bit!), and I like to be the person who is helping others, not so much the one in need of help.

At this moment in time, that is no longer true. It is not even close to being true.

My amazing adult children rallied this weekend. Both of my daughters brought their youngest sons and they shopped at Costco and cooked in my kitchen all day yesterday. I now have two fridges full of home made chili, salmon chowder, delicious quiches and bunches of good, packaged salad mixes plus an enchilada tray from the Big Box store we all hate to love. Our son and his wife came over for dinner, bringing their lively, fun girls and I could listen to everyone having a great time together — best medicine possible. I was even able to be up with everyone for dinner, and that was a gift. But I was not the one doing meal prep or clean-up. I cannot be right now.

As I struggle to recapture some sense of balance and wholeness, I take deep joy in thanking God for the lovely slingshots of grace amidst this chaos — our son’s fine medical instincts which sent us back for a second ER visit and ultimate stay; the care of the best medical team I’ve ever seen, the loveliness of our new hospital and its nursing staff, the grace of business colleagues who have extended some deadlines for us, and the sheer fact that I am here, breathing and upright (some of the time!)

Here is the deepest truth I am learning right now: we simply do not and cannot know what is around the next bend in the road. For me, that bend was the simple act of rising from bed on a Tuesday morning. We plan, we program, we research, we scout out contingencies. But we are not in charge of our own lives, at least in any ultimate sense, are we?

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The other view from that window in the hospital room. There IS a bigger picture.

I am not downplaying planning — believe me! We have done some good, healthy planning and we are in good shape for this last bend in the road, this last leg of the journey. But we assumed it would be an easier leg than it has proven to be — and those assumptions now need to be set aside.

A good friend said to me on the phone this morning: ”This is the new normal, Diana.”

Yes, it is. The new normal is the unexpected, the sudden, the quick drop in the pit of your stomach when you realize the entire universe is shifting on a very tiny pivot. Very tiny indeed.

But what I’m trying to remind myself — sometimes from moment to moment — is that none of this is a surprise to God. And I am not alone in the midst of the terror and the pain.

I am held, I am cherished, I am seen.

And that makes all the difference.

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God Is in the Business of REDEMPTION! Can I Get an Amen?

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I WANT YOU TO HEAR ME WHEN I SAY THIS, OKAY?

I want you to hear me in my preacher-voice, my emotional voice, my truest voice. I want you to hear me cry out with conviction, to see me raise my hands in benediction and thanksgiving, to believe me when I tell you this powerful, life-changing, life-saving truth:

OUR GOD IS IN THE BUSINESS OF REDEMPTION!

Can I hear an ‘amen?’ Maybe a ‘hallelujah,’ even if it is the middle of Lent? Oh, yes. I’m standin’ in the need of a great big hallelujah over here tonight.

I have felt God moving me toward this declaration for a few days now. I think maybe it started with these flowers, these dying flowers. They were headed for the trash can, after many days of gracing our table with their beauty and color, twisting their pretty heads toward the light, bending and dipping in the breezes created by people walking by. The sunlight on their last day happened to catch them in all their radiant, lingering, grace-filled glory. And I was reminded that even death is a beautiful thing in God’s world. A hard thing, yes, yes. But beautiful in its own way, bringing with it a reminder of our mortality, our inevitable end, the cessation of life as we know it now, in this place.

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Oh, yes. Even dying things carry the beauty of creation and the mark of redemption-in-process. Even dying things.

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And I am a dying thing, too. I don’t mean to depress you (or me) with that pronouncement), only to underline the truth of the matter. We are all dying. We forget it too easily, I think. From the moment of our very first breath, we are headed in only one direction. For some of us it will come painfully early. For others of us, it will feel too late. But it will come — it is part of us, every day. 

We have lost this truth to our peril, I believe. We need it near us, we need to hold it inside, like a precious gift, a coming reality. These bodies that carry us around are dying, they are fragile, they are not meant for eternity as they are now.

BUT — these bodies also carry within them the seeds, the heart, the soul of that forever place, our home-to-come. Case in point: healing and recuperation. It’s a miracle, I tell you. An incredible, day-by-day, minute-by-minute miracle, no matter how limited, no matter how slow, no matter how frustrating. When healing happens, it is a dang miracle, every single time. 

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I posted this picture on Facebook in the afternoon of February 21st of this year. I was in the emergency room after a terrible fall, face-first, onto asphalt while walking strongly across our local cemetery. I spent a night in the hospital and I was frightened. Hence, the picture-posting and the heartfelt request for prayers — which were quickly forthcoming, bringing hope and peace and rest — thank you all so very much.

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This picture was taken two days after I got home, with the bruising in full bloom. It hurt, it looked frightful and I felt every bit of this. At the time, I was very nearly convinced I would carry these colors around with me for the rest of my life. But day-by-day, minute-by-minute, things began to improve. Color is fading, swelling is gone, stitches are out, scars are smaller.
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The remnant remains, and will be around for a few more days, I’m sure. I’m thinking that perhaps the color will last as long as the post-trauma watchfulness period of one month required for every person on blood-thinning medication who experiences trauma to the head. Only one week left for that.

But here’s the point I want to make: I carry within me the seeds of eternal life, you see? And so do you. The body’s ability to heal itself is amazing. There is no other word that will cover it.

Both the flowers and the face are leading to the real story I want to tell you tonight. The most powerful picture of redemption, of healing, of God’s Spirit made real — the most powerful picture that I have seen in a long, long time was on display in our sanctuary tonight. It’s a grand tale, filled with woe and brokenness. But at the end? Victory! Challenges met, lives turned around, healing from the inside out. These bruises may not have been as visible as the ones on my face, but they were every bit as real, every bit as painful, every bit in need of deep, deep healing.

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This night, our church was fortunate enough to host the graduation service for four women and eleven men who have successfully completed the one-year residential program at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. My dear friends, if you want a visceral, heartfelt reminder of the ongoing work of God in this world of ours, I strongly encourage you to find such a service wherever it is you live. The work of rescue missions in this world is one of the surest ways to experience the power of grace and the goodness of God that I know anything about. 
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These photos were taken during the closing moments of a 90-minute celebration of worship that gave testimony to God’s redemptive power at work. Our small sanctuary was filled to the rafters with excited, supportive, grateful people. People who don’t look a bit like the usual crew that fills these pews. Muscular men, covered in tattoos, gloriously redeemed women with high, high heels and even higher hair. Skin tones across the rainbow, very mixed educational levels, not one thing homogenous about this congregation. 

AND IT WAS CHURCH. Church like we rarely experience it. Loud hollering, clapping, stomping, singing. I mean LOUD. I got up to offer a word of welcome and an opening prayer after the graduates had walked in to the tape-recorded music of “Pomp and Circumstance,” each one greeted like a rock star by friends, family, alums of the program, staff and co-residents. I asked the entire center section to please consider coming to our worship service in the morning because — I’ve gotta tell you! — we’ve never heard anything like that before. 

Now if you’ve read this blog before, you know that I love our church. I love our worship times, I enjoy the preaching, I’m grateful for the community. None of that is changed by my experience tonight. I love who we are and who it is we are in the process of becoming. 

But tonight, I got a glimpse of something we don’t see very often. I got a peek behind the curtain, a look a the work of the Wizard, the kind of work that isn’t nearly so dramatic in our usual community. That usual work is real and deep and I’m grateful for us. And yes, I see God’s redemptive power in all kinds of ways and places in the midst of our life together.

Also? I’m grateful, right down to my toes, that I don’t have a story like the ones I heard tonight. Yes, I’ve lost loved ones and friends to addiction. But the stories I heard tonight are not part of my day-to-day life. And yet. . . 

I need the stories that I heard tonight. I need to be reminded that God is about so much more than what happens in my world, my very small and intimate world. I will write again about God in the details, God in the everyday, God in the goodness and beauty of creation, God in the midst of my own personal story. This is the truth of my story — I love it, I live it, I share it, I’m grateful for it.

But these stories? Oh, my. Out-of-the-pit kind of rescue stories, finding salvation in the midst of death, jail, addiction, estrangement, abuse stories. Oh, my friends. GOD IS IN THE BUSINESS OF REDEMPTION. May we shout it from the rooftops once-in-a-while!

Hallelujah, thank you, Jesus. PRAISE YOUR NAME.

And may we all stand shoulder to shoulder with the people who carry these stories around inside them, offering our hands/arms/hearts in blessing, solidarity, encouragement, thanksgiving. Because these are our stories, too, aren’t they? All of us who claim the name of Jesus are related to the people in these photos, all of us are sinners, standing in the need of grace. All of us are broken up, broken down, torn-up, messed-up, needy people WHO ARE REDEEMED. Every single one of us. Praises be!

 

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Added one day late — photos of the altar piece, which was planned to go along with the scripture passage for Sunday. And which — and this is SO like God! — fit perfectly with the celebration we enjoyed on Saturday night:

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Because each member of our current pastoral staff was committed to other activities on this Saturday evening, I was invited to stand in for them in welcoming the Rescue Mission crew to our facilities and to open the service with prayer. Don kindly sent me an description of the altar piece in advance and I was able to help the 400+ people in attendance understand why they were looking at a collection of ‘dead’ branches and broken pottery. Our Sunday morning text was superbly preached on by Associate Jon Lemmond today — the story of the birth of the first board of deacons in the early church. Out of brokenness (the immigrant widows were being ignored), came beautiful service (members of that immigrant community were ordained and commissioned to be the careful servants of those in need). Out of brokenness, comes new life!

And these are the words God gave me yesterday afternoon as I prepared for the opening prayer. As always, God provides what needs to be said, graciously picking up threads that even I don’t know are there:

Our great and good God, maker of heaven and earth,
the one who calls us from darkness to light and brings us from death to new life, we greet you tonight with full hearts and open arms.

Thank you for showing up in the lives of these graduates, for walking with them, and with all of us, through the tough stuff of this life and for redeeming every single struggle that we’ve somehow, by your grace, managed to survive. We know that the grace that brought us to this evening’s festivities continues to prepare us for the promise of new life to come.

Thank you, Lord God, for each graduate,
for each family member,
friend, loved one,
staff member, cheerleader,
trusted sidekick;
for those who’ve shown tough love when it was needed and have shown your love, no matter what.

Thank you for the gift of hopes realized,
of dreams come true, 
of a future where once there was none.

Thank you for calling us to celebrate,
for always inviting us to the table of your grace,
for clothing us in the righteousness of your Son, Jesus,
and for filling us with the fresh Wind of the Holy Spirit.

We give tonight’s service to you as a gift of love and worship, and as we do, we want to remember
who we are:

We are, every single one of us, your children,
          deeply loved,
          highly valued,
          and richly gifted.

We are the beloved.

Help us never to forget that, to cling to that strong statement
like the lifesaving, world-changing truth that it is.

And help us, through the words, music, prayers, tears, laughter and love shared tonight to see you in the faces of one another. Because you promise us that is exactly where you can be found.

All praise to the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whom we know and love because of Jesus, Amen.

Designed for Work: The High Calling Synchro Blog

There are seasons in life, I am learning. And sometimes the rougher seasons are the very ones in which the work we do can be a source of inspiration and solace, a place of ministry and renewal. The details of this part of my story have been shared before, but it’s good for me to remember and to celebrate.

The six year stretch between 2005 and 2010 was a tough one for us. At times, it felt as though my family was riding a dangerously out of control roller coaster, careening from side to side, tilting on one very narrow edge as we rounded some treacherous turns and corners.

Here are a few ‘highlights’ from that season:

My dad died in February of 2005, leaving my mom both exhausted from care-giving and desperately lonely for her partner.

My husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer two months later, enduring painful and debilitating surgery and a long, rocky recovery. 

Our son-in-law was applying for long-term disability, literally fading away before our eyes. His wife, our eldest daughter, was beginning an intensive 12-month master’s degree program in special ed — after almost 20 years of being an at-home mom. Their three boys were struggling to find their bearings in this new universe.

Our middle daughter’s 3rd boy was born in distress, tiny and in the NICU for 5 days.

Our daughter-in-law needed a slightly dicey C-section for her first-born, just weeks after her cousin’s difficult entry into the world.

Our son-in-law entered the last year of his life with multiple hospitalizations, and a miraculous six-month respite, giving us all some memories that were lovely and lasting. That year, 2008, ended with a devastating pneumonia that took his life in a matter of hours.

My youngest brother landed in the ER with a severe leg infection, requiring a long list of care-giving efforts from all of us.This began a hard, downward spiral of missed diagnoses, homelessness, sober living residences, heart surgery and eventually, sudden death in 2009.

The very next month, our beautiful town was hit by the first of two wildfires requiring evacuation from home and church, plunging our worshiping community into emergency mode for months on end.

As I said, it was a difficult few years.

And every week, except for vacations and emergencies, I went to work. Many people wondered why: why do you want to step into other people’s difficult situations? Why do you want to visit the sick? Why? Haven’t you got enough on your plate already?

I don’t know that I can fully answer that ‘why’ question, but I will try to write a coherent list of possible reasons here:

work grounded me;
work reminded me I was not alone;
work taught me about community;
work provided an external focus;
work brought at least the illusion of order to my terribly disordered world;
work brought relief from the weight of worry that
was a constant companion;
work allowed me to stay in touch with the
creative parts of me as well as the care-giving parts;
work gave me a different place to look,
a different place to reflect,
a different space in which to be me –
the me that was called and gifted and capable.
As opposed to the me that was helpless, impotent and
overwhelmed.

My life was spinning frantically out of control,
at least out of my control,
heading down deep and dark crevasses that terrified me.
Work was more easily containable,
expectations were clear,
contributions were valued.
Work was grace for me during that long,
long stretch of Job-like living.

Work was a gift,
a gift of God to a weary and worried woman.
And it brought me into contact with people
who could bear me up,
who could tend my gaping wounds,
who could be as Jesus to me,
even as I tried to be as Jesus to those
I loved most in this world.

I did not do any of it perfectly. Lord knows, that isn’t even possible and it surely wasn’t true.

The end of 2010 brought the end of my ‘official’ work life. I have missed it at times. But I am discovering that even in the different structure, schedule and, yes, ‘work’ of retirement, God is underneath. And around and in between. Just as God has always been. And somehow by the grace and goodness of God, we are still here, clinging to the sides of that coaster car, doing our very best to enjoy the ride.

I am linking this with The High Calling’s bi-weekly synchro blog, this time on the theme, “Designed to Work.” Please check out the other posts in this link-up, and while you’re at it, read the fine articles published by THC this past week. They do such good work there!