How A Resurrection Really Feels

Every summer, I plan around the Week of Guided Prayer retreat. And every year, even before this blog was a thing, I’ve written up a reflection on what came out of it. In some ways, this year is no different. The Week is coming up soon and I’ve made sure to keep my calendar clear, even working ahead in class so as to have no homework due. But in other ways, it’s very different. I’ve always been a little apprehensive going in – one year I didn’t even sign up until three days before it started. But this year, it’s more than apprehension. It’s open dread. And I don’t know why. Okay, that’s bullshit. I do know why. I’ve been sitting here the last couple days reading back over the last few years’ worth of post-Week reflections and seeing the memories that pop up on Facebook and the level of raw emotion that comes up every single year is frightening. Every year, I go in not knowing what to expect and something that needs healing comes bubbling up to the surface and in the end, I’m better for having dealt with it. That sounds all wonderful, but I assure you it’s not in the moment.

For a long time after my divorce, people asked me what I was going to do next. When would I start dating. What about going back to school. And for a long time, it looked from the outside like I didn’t do much at all. But on the inside, the changes were incremental and monumental and terrifying. Because healing isn’t all warm fuzzies. It means walking through the dark stuff and coming out the other side. The best image I have to describe it is more than a little disturbing. In the opening moments of the anti-war film Grave of the Fireflies, the protagonist, Seita, stands in a field full of fireflies looking back at his own dead body lying on the floor of Kobe train station. His face conveys confusion, then wonder, and finally, peace before he moves on. That’s what healing feels like. It feels like dying until you find out you’re not dead but are standing on the other side quite whole, albeit, perhaps, a bit shocked and confused.

Now here I stand, looking back at the many things I have faced that felt like dying, and I find that I am stronger, bolder, and freer now than I ever thought possible. So, yes, in spite of my feelings of dread, I registered for the Week. And I know going in that I may wish for the walls to fall on me or the floor to swallow me when I have to face what God is trying to show me or when it feels like I’m a small rose bush that’s been run over by a lawnmower – twice. But I know that in a week or a month or maybe three, I’ll look back at some part of me that has died and be freer and more whole because of it.

In baptism, God claimed me as God’s own; an act of God that can never be undone. As a believer in Christ, I have come to believe in the resurrection, not just as some eschatological event but as a common occurrence. There are ten thousand tiny deaths that I will face in this life. And after each one, I will be raised up to look back in confusion and wonder before walking forward with new peace to the face next one.

So I stand in this space, not quite sure what’s coming next, knowing it’s probably going to hurt like hell, knowing I’ll be better for it in the end, and knowing that, technically, I could walk away. But, in the words of Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I can do other.”

Pray for me during the first week of August. I’m gonna need it.

The Hard-to-See Stitches

I spent the past week alone on Cape Cod as I’ve done every year for the past several years. Long before I left, I had reached the point of burnout and I suppose it was that feeling of having way too much coming at me that prompted me to start up a needlework project in early February. Starting something that I know will easily take me months to finish seemed a little crazy but at the same time pulling a needle through fabric has long been a way for me to find order and calm when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the chaos around me.

As I prepared to leave for the Cape, I made the decision that I would not take any homework or school reading with me. I brought my bible, my journal, a novel and my needlework. I also brought my little Peter Rabbit and that Tale of Peter Rabbit and the Tale of Benjamin Bunny with me. I also made a promise to myself that I would listen to what I was feeling. I would rest when I was tired instead of trying to push myself to go see everything I possibly could in the time I had on the Cape. I knew I desperately needed some downtime, both mentally and physically.

img_6822Much to my delight, the townhouse I had for the week faced due east. I could sit by the sliding glass doors in the early morning sunlight and it was warm enough most days to open the doors in the morning and listen to the flock of blackbirds who lived in the marsh grasses. I spent several hours every morning working on my needlework, using the abundance of natural light to work on the lighter, harder-to-see colors and saving the darker colors for the evenings. By the third morning, I sat down to stitch and needed to work in nearly 100 white stitches, which barely even showed up against the pale ivory fabric. Given that these were the edge stitches between a pale yellow sunbeam and a bit of blank fabric, I pondered whether or not they were really necessary. They were very hard to see and seemed to serve little purpose. But after working over 1200 stitches over the course of the week, I noticed those 100 barely-there hard-to-see white stitches added texture and light in the larger scheme of things.

Sunday afternoon, as I sat by the ocean on a hidden gem of a beach, it occurred to me that maybe the time I spent every morning in my favorite pink hedgehog pajamas, sitting with my feet up, soaking up sunshine and birdsong whilst sipping my tea was just as important as the time I spent doing anything else. What might be considered wasted time actually added texture and light to the rest of life. And those four or five hours a day spent quietly pulling thread through fabric was time spent with mind and body at rest, time when prayer didn’t involve me reminding God of all the things in life that needed fixing. Instead, it was time simply spent in God’s presence. It was precisely that kind of time that I desperately needed.

img_6777Maybe that was what Peter Rabbit showed up to teach me. He sat in the chair opposite me the entire week and was rather pleasant company. I re-read those old stories every night and remembered when life wasn’t so complicated. And by the end of the week, I had realized that maybe it was okay once in awhile to flop down on the sand and rest or to go to bed early with a cup of tea when my own misadventures have me feeling worn out. Peter’s mother wondered what he’d be up to, but she didn’t get upset with him for losing his coat or his shoes. Instead, she took care of him. God certainly wasn’t upset with me for showing up worn out. Instead, God drew closer to me and cared for me as I rested in God’s presence.

img_6936

Work in Progress

 

God In Aisle 7

God has a funny way of showing up in unexpected ways. Moses got a burning bush on a desert mountain. I got a stuffed bunny rabbit in Aisle 7 of the grocery store. God told Moses, in rather dramatic fashion, that God was the God of his ancestors. Me? I got a nudge to notice a cardboard display of Beatrix Potter’s rabbits. Moses stopped and listened and asked questions.  I noticed. Yep, there’s Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. And I kept walking. I’m about to be 46 years old and I do not need a stuffed bunny rabbit from my childhood. That’s just silly.

But God seemed to think otherwise.

Honey, don’t you remember this? img_6533

Of course, I remember. I can still practically recite those stories. I loved Peter Rabbit.

But it wasn’t really the story of Peter Rabbit that mattered so much now. It was the memory of a time when life was simpler, back when someone was taking care of me instead of the other way around. It was remembering that sense of security that comes with being held and loved so completely, especially now, when I am feeling so completely tapped out.

Yes. I remember. 

And cue the waterworks. Right in the middle of the Aisle 8. And I don’t mean a stray a tear. I mean a good old dig-for-tissues cry next to the Pepsi display. And of course, I still had half the shopping to do yet. But, before anything else, I doubled back and picked up Peter Rabbit.

The grocery store may not look much like a desert mountain, but some days, it sure feels like one. The same God who has been at my side through the darkest times in my life is here with me now. And while a burning bush might freak the neighbors out just a bit, a stuffed bunny riding shotgun in my car’s cup holder barely raised an eyebrow when my son saw it. God let Moses know that he had the cries of his people. And God let me know – yet again – that he hears mine too.

God will not be distracted. And it seems, God will remind me of that fact from time to time in whatever way it takes to get my attention.

 

 

God Will Not Be Distracted

distracted

As the Fall semester was winding down, I spent weeks working on a unique project for one of my classes. I was in an independent study called Theology & Ethics of Death and Dying. At my professor’s suggestion, instead of a typical research paper, I crafted a pair of prayer services. One was written for patients with a chronic or terminal illness. The other was written for their caregivers. In addition, I included a short paper on why these services were important and should be a regular fixture in the ministry of the church.  This project started off in early October as a way combining what I was learning with my passion for invisible people while at the same time channeling my creative side. it quickly became so much more. It became a way of addressing what I was experiencing at home.

I’m the main caretaker for my mom, who has advanced congestive heart failure. Some illnesses progress in a roller-coaster with dramatic upswings and sudden drops. CHF is more like a Slinky falling down a flight of stairs. It may pause for awhile, but it never goes back up. Over the last year or so, I’ve found most people don’t understand the progression of the disease unless they’ve been through it with a family member. Over the past few months, I have politely and gently answered the repeated question: “Is she doing better?”  with an explanation that no major improvement is to be expected. But after months of this, I find myself wanting to scream “Didn’t you hear me the first 30 times I answered you?”  On one hand, I try to remind myself that the person asking cared enough to ask but on the other hand, I have reached a point in life where I’ve realized that it’s the not the people who ask that I count as friends. It’s the ones who listen to the answers. It’s also the ones who follow up with a question on how I’m doing and won’t accept my favorite lie, “I’m fine. ”

Working on this project gave me a way to acknowledge the isolation and inherent loneliness that comes with a chronic or terminal illness. I chose scripture readings that acknowledged loss but also conveyed hope in God who sustains all things. I found hymns that brought me strength and prayers that offered comfort. But even as I assembled and wrote, I realized I was struggling far more than I was willing to admit. The emotional impact of trying to be a a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend, a good employee, a good student, and still maintain enough detachment to be a good caretaker and medical proxy had pushed me to the brink of burnout. Simple everyday things, some days even getting out of bed, became emotionally taxing. Okay – so maybe I was past the brink. But what was I going to do? Everything still needed to get done and some things simply can’t be delegated.

In the midst of this, prayer had become more difficult. In the same way I felt withdrawn or removed from people around me, I also felt withdrawn from God. I simply had nothing to say and quite frankly, I didn’t feel like listening much either. And yet, God was the only one not demanding my time and undivided attention. Our time spent at the beach every morning became the only quiet in my days and yet even there, I couldn’t quite take a deep breath and relax. I showed up anyway because I really didn’t know what else to do.

As Christmas break approached, I had time to read whatever I wanted and I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison. My younger son questioned my choice of reading materials. After several conversations, he finally said to me, “Mom, you’re going to get your head stuck. You need to stop reading shop [theology and/or religion] and read something like normal people read. You can’t be a good theologian if you can’t see with fresh eyes and you can’t see with fresh eyes if you can’t look away.” And so for Christmas, he and his brother bought me a light, fluffy non-religious novel. I’ll have to admit that it helped to crawl into a book for a few days and escape for awhile. I bought another by the same author, which I also burned through in a few short days.

By the time break was coming to a close, I went back to reading Bonhoeffer, but as my 16 year-old predicted, I read with fresh eyes. At the end of particularly long, difficult day, I read the following:

“I’ve learnt here especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf:

With sorrow and with grief…
God will not be distracted.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge
Written from Tegel Prison
Christmas Eve 1943

In that moment, after weeks of feeling disconnected, invisible, and often unheard, I suddenly felt very much understood and embraced. While I had been distracted, God was not. God heard every word I hadn’t said, followed every line of thought I’d not dared bring to completion, knew every feeling I’d pushed away and then, ever so gently, God let me know I was not alone.

I’m back in classes as the Spring semester is in full swing. The demands for my time and attention are no less than they were before. I still find myself feeling detached and removed. But my time with God at the beach in the morning has again become the one time and place that I can take a deep breath and relax, even for a little while and I know that I will be heard, even when I have nothing at all to say.

Advent, Music & Memories

Twelve notes. That’s all it took. Suddenly, I was 6 years old again, twirling around the living room with my father.

I took my younger son to see The Nutcracker and The Four Realms last night. I was a little shocked when the opening notes of the overture and the opening scene brought me to tears. Of all my father’s Christmas albums, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was one of my favorites. I still listen to that music every year. He read me the story of Clara and The Nutcracker more times than I could ever count. I knew the movie was a different take on the story. And yet, with those few opening notes all the innocent wonder came flooding back. It was as if I was hearing it for the first time. 

It’s funny how much music is tied to memories. The Rolling Stones and baking endless batches of chocolate chip cookies. U2 and hanging Christmas lights. Pink Floyd and writing end of term papers. And of course, it wouldn’t be Advent without O Come, O Come Emmanuel and my father’s alternate lyrics inducing church giggles.

I have so many good memories of Advent and Christmas. And yet, as I sit on this dreary first Sunday of Advent, I find myself feeling a little off. Last year, the holidays were a time of great apprehension. This year, things are more stable but there’s that part of me that constantly asks, “For how long?” Last year was the year without a Christmas. I don’t want to be so afraid of a repeat occurrence that I miss out of what good can be this year. So, I’ve tried the last couple days to listen to some of my old Christmas favorites. I mean the really old childhood favorites from my father’s collection. These are the songs I asked for over and over that have nothing but good memories attached to them. This is my attempt at being hopeful. The Holly and The Ivy, The Coventry Carol, What Child Is This?, Carol of the Bells, and The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns lead the playlist. Yeah, I know, I was a weird kid with a great love of pipe organs, bells, and big choirs. 

What I’m finding is that trying to be hopeful is not really possible. Either I can cling to hope… or not. Either I can remain haunted by ghosts of unhappy Christmases past or I can let go and experience one full of joy, love, and wonder. The opening notes of the Nutcracker Overture caught me off guard in that movie theater last night because I went in not knowing what to expect. I was ready for something new, something unexpected, something wonderful and I was not disappointed.

Can I approach this season of Advent with that same kind of hopeful expectation? I suppose I shall have to wait and see.

Come to Me

img_4779

Come to Me

 

Come to me when you’re stressed out,

When you’re overwhelmed,

When the burnout has set in,

When the anxiety grips you,

When the exhaustion never seems to end,

When tired is the only word you know to express the emptiness you feel.

 

Come to me when the responsibilities keep growing,

When the demands are more than the resources,

When you feel like you need six of you and, at best, you’re only at half-power.

 

Come to me when the thoughts won’t stop racing,

When the words won’t stop coming,

Even when all you want is to be quiet,

Come to me and I will listen to it all.

 

Come to me when you are angry and full of rage,

When you want to rant and scream,

When you are full of hurt and trying to keep a lid on it so as not to hurt anyone else.

Come to me and let me be angry with you and for you.

Let me soothe the hurt inside.

 

Come to me when the words run out and all that is left are the tears.

Come to me, for I understand the language of tears.

Come to me and I will give you space to breathe.

I will give you time to cry.

 

Come to me when you are surrounded by people and yet you feel so very much alone.

Come to me and I will sit beside you.

Come to me and I will embrace you.

 

Come to me and I will give you rest,

I will give you peace,

I will give you silence,

I will give you stillness,

I will give you space,

Come to me and I will give you healing and strength.

 

Take my yoke upon your shoulders,

Let me share your burdens.

They weren’t mean to be yours alone.

Let me help you carry all that is heavy in life.

 

I am gentle, kind, and patient.

I am love and compassion.

I will teach you and support as we walk.

 

We will bear these burdens together,

You and I,

Every step of the way.

You are not alone in this.

You never have been.

You never will be.

I am here.

 

Come to me.

Let me give you rest.

Knowing When to Shut Up

img_4717

The remnant of Hurricane Michael passing south of Long Island. Do I see the storm or do I see the sun rising?

About a week ago I was talking with a friend about Job. I have a great fondness for Job, especially when life gets overwhelming, which it has been for awhile now. It seems like every few years, God and I circle back to this space where all I can do is shoot my mouth off about everything that is going wrong and when I get like that, it’s easy to lose sight of what is going right. Eventually though, usually after a much needed kick in the ass, I’ll end up where Job ended up:

Then Job answered the Lord and said:

I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.
 “Who is this who obscures counsel with ignorance?”
I have spoken but did not understand;
    things too marvelous for me, which I did not know.
“Listen, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers.”
By hearsay I had heard of you,
    but now my eye has seen you.
Therefore I disown what I have said,
    and repent in dust and ashes.

 

Or in my own paraphrase: I shot my mouth off about stuff only God can understand and I’ll shut up now because I know God better now.

Am I ready to shut up now? Am I ready to stop trying to justify the things in my life that aren’t going well – or more precisely as well as I’d like them to be? Can I stop coming to prayer with my scorekeeper’s math of working half time and going to school three-quarter time and trying to find time to shop, cook, and do laundry? It’s not like God doesn’t know already. Can I now come to prayer and shut up and let God speak to me with the love and encouragement that God knows I need?

Maybe. Maybe it’s time for the perfectionist honor student to sit down and listen for awhile. Maybe it’s time to remember why I went back to college at 41. Maybe it’s time to remember it’s a miracle that I was able to go back to college at 41. Maybe it’s time to take a look at the people God has brought into my life, including an incredibly loving and supportive church community.

Part of looking around at the mess around me means taking a look over my shoulder at how far I’ve come and then taking a look ahead to see how close I am to the next steps in life. Instead of focusing on how College Algebra makes me feel incredibly and unbelievably stupid, I can focus on the renewed energy I’m finding in a uniquely creative assignment for an independent study in the Theology and Ethics of Death and Dying.

I’m thirteen months away from graduating. There was a time, not all that long ago, that I could never have seen myself in a college classroom. So yeah – life is a mess right now. But maybe where I see a mess, God sees something more. And maybe if I can shut up long enough, God might be able to show me just a glimpse of what God sees in that mess.