Cancer Update: Jesus is More Than Enough

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   Twenty-seven days. That’s the number of days since the final radiation treatment for my husband’s prostate cancer. He still isn’t quite ready for a nice rare steak, but that’s getting ahead of my story. It was quite a summer, not an easy one. Yet ironically, this very summer, of all summers, our pastor embarked on a series from Colossians. The theme? Jesus is Better.

     If you haven’t already, you can read here about the rough times of late 2014 and up to now. How we put off the biopsy for months and finally went ahead with it at the same unfortunate time as his massive oral surgery. We knew the mouth issues would be tough for a long while, but had no idea radiation would dwarf that ordeal. How could we know? I’d undergone radiation during my breast cancer eleven years ago, and it was more or less a piece of cake. He, on the other hand, almost immediately, suffered constant stomach upset, no appetite, and almost daily weight loss.

    With no stamina whatsoever, each day he’d manage our business as best he could, then ask to be left alone to rest. As I grieved, I questioned. Why did he resist distractions like a small outing or a walk? Sometimes we left the house. Then a few miles out, he’d turn the car around and head home.

    Each day, though, he’d drive himself the hour to the treatment center, then the hour home. Five days a week. Alone.

    Jesus is More Than Enough

    I entered church the Sunday after his first five days of treatment, and barely acknowledged the theme’s announcement. For the next several weeks, the pain I felt during church trumped my ability to concentrate. I’d sit there and wonder why. Why he only wanted food and laundry needs met. Why he wouldn’t let me comfort him – no holding each other, not even his favorite foot rubs.

    When I did register the theme, Jesus is More Than Enough, my response was hollow. Well, I’m sure that is true in the grand scheme of things. Of course that’s what God says…The screen behind the pastor glowed with the words, but weeks passed before I actually took them in.

    I felt completely abandoned.

   Then I began to dig into Colossians at home. My pastor pointed out how Paul struggled (ch. 1:29 and 2:1) to make the people see “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I realized that God, through Paul and our pastor, wanted me to ask the question: Is Jesus really more than enough?  Going about the day, I asked, “Is Jesus better than earthly relationships?” I knew I’d have to know, really know, the answer to that someday. But I wasn’t ready to face the question just yet. It blindsided me. I’d read Colossians over and over, and wrestle with God. I’d challenge Him. “Haven’t we already worked this out? Other times of trouble in our relationship sealed the matter, didn’t it? Jesus is enough!”

    But is He More Than Enough?

    In the moments of working alone folding laundry or walking in the neighborhood, I had to face my anger, and this persistent belief that puny me, I, knew better than God what should happen. These unrelenting needs, the friendship and love of a husband who lives in the same house, who surely has many good years left, clashed noisily with the supremacy of Christ. In my head a cacophony of voices screamed against the quiet assurance: No matter what, when all else fails, Jesus will prove to be more than enough. Whether in the resolution of Hubby’s health issues and restoration of our passion.   

        Or in the loss of both.

       To jump off that cliff of trust, find the net solid underneath, then walk in the truth became the challenge of every day. Colossians 1:23 reminded me to continue “in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel…”

        Finally, I had to say, You are not only enough, but more than enough. You know best. You know more. You love me best. You will figure all this out.

     I had to say it over and over again, with thankfulness (Col. 2:6 and 7) as I went about caring for and releasing my Hubby.  

     How often do I have to jump, Lord? Okay, You know that, too.

    So, you might wonder, where are we now, as a couple?

    After the treatments ended, he still felt horrible. Days went by. When we woke up to the usual how are you this mornings, I’d take the temperature of the room, remembering my truth. My barometer still wondered, is the glass half full? Or half empty? Is Jesus really more than enough if my husband stays emotionally gone?

    Twenty-seven days. Not long, really. Twenty-seven days since the last treatment of summer. We made it through. The laundry smells sweeter, food tastes much better. One of these days my babe may even enjoy a steak again. It’s a process. And one we don’t take for granted.

   But he did come back to me. We comfort each other now, laugh more readily. Finally. But my heart’s desire is to live in the Jesus-is-more-than-enough mode. I want it to be my default mode. I want His enoughness to infuse every minute of every day. His enoughness will get me through the next cliff I face – and hopefully I’ll jump a bit quicker into his net.

    Until the day I get to jump right into His arms. Won’t that be grand?

Facing Loss

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It was November of 2014. Our mouthwatering ribs on the breezy patio of Longhorn Steakhouse tasted even better being near the ocean. If the first item on our ToDo list was eating ribs, the second item was to discuss our future beach condo. This weekend getaway provided uninterrupted, relaxing time to dream. Retirement, my hubby’s reward for a lifetime of hard work, must include the romantic sound of the surf and sand between our toes.

     In an instant, my husband’s eyes flooded with tears and he buckled in excruciating pain. He grabbed his napkin and covered his mouth with another moan.

     Though we didn’t realize it yet, in that moment, life as we knew it, plus our hopes and plans for the future, vanished. We got through the night with ibuprofen, and headed home in the morning where the dentist confirmed sad news of immediate oral surgery. My husband’s wince of pain had come from a deep crack in a vital tooth. One procedure led to another issue, and in the end he lost all his teeth. I will spare you the details, but bone crushing was only part of it.

     Anxiety and depression mixed with physical pain form a terrible force. Engulfed by sadness, we found that even normal hugging and tender kisses had to be suspended because of pain in neck, jaw, and gums. If that weren’t enough, my husband lost his appetite, and worse yet, his sense of taste. Over six months he dropped forty pounds. Also, we both faced a new face – one I saw every day for thirty-nine years, and one he once knew in the mirror whenever he shaved.

    A few months later, with the hardest procedure only a week past, time ran out for “the biopsy.” During the holiday season our doctor had noticed his PSA lab numbers rise, putting him at risk for prostate cancer. So, in spring, not able to put it off any longer, he submitted to the prostate biopsy.

    When “the call” came, my husband buckled once again.

     Notice I said he buckled. I, on the other hand, sucked in my breath, set my (intact) jaw, and moved ahead. This cancer was caught early! We are in great position for complete recovery. We can get through this. We will be fine.

    “Come on, Honey, we’ll hear the options and take the one best for us.”

     We decided to go the route of radiation. Forty-five treatments, five days a week, nine weeks. As the treatments began, he slipped farther and farther away from me emotionally and physically. Tired to the bone, he fell asleep by eight each night. I inwardly railed. A sort of panic set in. What will become of us?

      In actuality it was me. What about me? What about our relationship? What about our plans? Somehow the “us” got lost in the “me.” And the “him” got left out. As a result he felt even more pressure. He asked for space. He asked for time. Time to grieve and to heal. But I didn’t want to give it to him or take it for myself.

     Walking the house at night, I planned how to engage and encourage. I cajoled him, and (there it is) I lectured him on “trust” in the Lord. I became that “‘dripping wife” of Proverbs. My situation went on the altar, then off the altar, then back on again. But much more off than on. I didn’t help us, or me, and definitely not him. How could I help when all I could see was my own agenda going up in smoke?

      And I finally did it. I reached out. I called the American Cancer Society.

      You thought I’d say I prayed. Well, I’d been doing that. Or you thought I meant I found a certain scripture. I have dozens of them, they are all wonderful. No, I called the American Cancer Society because, well, I couldn’t carry on any more without some expert terrestrial input. I needed someone to read between my “going forth” lines, ask the right questions, and get me to face my reality. It took a while to get there, though. Extremely condensed, our conversation went a bit like this.

     “Hello, I’m calling about a support group for wives of cancer patients. Prostate cancer.”

     “Okay, tell me your situation.”

     “Well, I uh, so I like to help people, uh, and if there isn’t a group, I’d like to start one… because I want to know if other wives are experiencing the losses, uh, the problems, we are.”

     “My name is Bonnie. Maybe I can help you. What are you feeling?”

     “Well, he says he wants space, but I know he needs connectivity more than space…”

     “He’s asking for space?”

     “Uh, yes. But I just worry that if he sort of drops out of the game now, we might not be ‘us’ again when all the treatments are over.”

     “Do you think maybe he’s asking for space, but you are the one needing connectivity?”

     “Maybe.”

      “Your husband’s cancer diagnosis, as well as his mouth situation, will mean a new ‘us.’ Can you accept that whatever you thought your life was going to be no longer exists? Will you not give him the space he needs to process that? And also give yourself a time of grief?”

     At that, my wall began to crack. She went on.

    “What you do have is today. Only today. We can’t mold tomorrow. Your husband needs support. And so do you. But you need support other than his. He has all he can handle on his plate right now.”

     Saying goodbye to Bonnie, I decided to give in to grief. Just because I’m so good at denial doesn’t mean I hurt less. I work and work and fix and fix. I blame. I manipulate. I deflect the real pain of the situation. I put it off for another day – a day when it may be worse and there are hurt people to whom I must apologize. No, best face it head on. The plans, the dreams, irrevocably changed.

   Yet that is not to say our future is dashed to pieces, either. To say things will never be the same is not failing to trust God. It is just reality. When I read Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes (“a time for everything under heaven…”) I see loss in a more eternal perspective. Loss can be refining. Loss gives us empathy for others. Loss is a vital part of life.

    It seems that in Autumn losses begin to mount up. They actually mount down, because they are really holes. Holes that can swallow our joy and pull us down into their pit of sadness and depression. Yet, does anyone’s life turn out like they thought it would?

    So what do we do?

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    I plan to grieve. I must grieve the loss of what I thought my marriage would be like. Mind you, I give God room to do “above and way beyond anything I could ask or think” for our final years. He’s definitely not through with us yet! But it won’t be like I thought it would. It will be His kind of good, His kind of wonderful, because He is good. Our future may involve ribs by the ocean.

     But it may not.

    

Don’t Mess Up My Picture!

jessicas painting     What quirky traits have you inherited from your mother? And what about your girl from you? I bet you can think of quite a few. As for me, take school art.

In my elementary grades we had an easel or two at the back of the classroom. When we finished our work, fresh white paper and nice mixed paints awaited. Maybe if I had worked faster or smarter, getting back there more often, I would have had a different experience…

But each and every time, without exception, I drew the same thing. A big tree on the side, a house in the middle, and a swing set beside the house. It never occurred to me to put a car beside the house, or children playing on the swing set. That level of drawing, totally out of my reach.

I remember more than once, standing in front of blank paper in the 3rd grade, having this conversation with myself.

Me: You dummy, why can’t you paint something different this time? You’ve been waiting for this chance all day. Be brave, be creative!

Me: But I can’t be brave or creative. If I draw something other than my tree, swing set, and house, it will look horrible. I’ll hate myself for making a mess of the paper. No, I have to do what comes out of my brush.

Now, fast forward twenty-five years to my daughter’s kindergarten class. The teacher sent home special paper and issued a challenge for all the students to enter a painting into the state fair. The rules, however, required all the paintings to begin with crayon drawings, then washed with broad stripes of watercolor in varying hues over the top.

So on a Saturday morning Wee One and I assembled our supplies on the kitchen floor, so she’d have plenty of room. Then I informed my budding artist she could draw anything she wished with the crayons. Without hesitation, you guessed it– a tree. Then a house. Finally, the swing set.  My smock-clad five-year-old’s brain worked just like mine!

But when the rules added a twist, the twist quickly became a tornado. The conversation went something like this:

Wee one: Mother, Mom! Not paint on top! Maybe stripes on the top and bottom. That might be nice.

Me: But that doesn’t finish the piece, Dearest.

Wee one: No! I will mess up my paper!

Me: But we have started a project, and the paint won’t mess up your art at all. It will make your crayon picture look different and lovely.

Wee One: (sobbing) But… but, I know I will mess up my paper!

 

Looking back at that moment, I think of how many times since then I’ve gotten stuck thinking I know what lovely looks like.

“This was to be our special weekend to do the river together. Now a major back ache, really?”

And we read an awesome book together– and we learned important stuff…

“I’m settled and happy here! Don’t make me make this huge move!”

And the move turned out to be so wise- especially for the children.

“No, Father! You know I just finished menopause; things look much better now. Do I have to go through breast cancer?”

And cancer unearthed, for healing, important realities in a stuck heart…

On and on it goes. Loveliness so often doesn’t fit our picture of it. God has to wash over our routines, schedules, and goals. Kicking and screaming, I follow his rules. For I am not really my own. I am His.

My Wee One won second place in her division. Her stripes of color must have impressed some judge. For there it hangs now on her wall. As a mother of five, soon to be seven, she lives with a constant reminder that His version of loveliness trumps ours- if we let it.

 

Women of Strength and Dignity

      Sunlight assaulted my eyes. Man, the bed felt cold. I squinted over jumbled covers to find the clock. Yup. Late. 9:20 and a migraine. Disentangled, feet on the floor, I groaned. John probably heard my incoherent complaint in the dark and headed to work hours ago. Did he scramble his own egg, or grab the decidedly second-rate bowl of corn flakes? I didn’t care really. I had to remember this dream. Had to document this dream.

    My disoriented brain, determined to hold on to it, almost gave in to the body longing to climb back in. Good thing the bed’s cold. Zombie-like, I dressed, stumbled to the bathroom and splashed water on my face. Raking dampened fingers through a cowlicky short crop, I felt gratified. Not half bad. Why didn’t I think of this years ago?

    Should I even go into the kitchen? Yes, this will be a long morning. Lukewarm coffee sloshed a bit onto the counter. Thank heavens for microwaves. With an impatient exhale, I grabbed a cloth and swiped the dribbles. Toast, maybe? No time. Ibuprofen, yes.

    Settled at the computer just under ten minutes from splashing water, I began. Oh, that my fingers would fly for a change! Please, dear digits, let me get this dream out!

   The Setting

     At first, mostly fuzz. Then slowly, a circle of some eight or ten ladies, my age mostly, came into focus.  A low roar in the background made me think of a rainstorm outside… or loud air conditioning. The room itself then took shape – kind of an old cement block library, or church basement. Most of its walls contained wooden shelves full of plain books- where did the dust covers go? It smelled a bit musty with a hint of lemon oil and and metal.

   One middle-aged, pink-lipsticked woman spoke above the hum.

   “Ladies, welcome!” Sitting in old folding chairs (ahh, the metal smell) the women held notebooks and pens on crossed jean-clad legs. Ready to learn. But what?

    Then it dawned on me that we met regularly and that, in spite of their unfamiliar faces, I mysteriously knew each one. Lynn, a housewife with a married daughter down the street, babysat the grandchildren often. Tabby drove back and forth from Houston, caring for an aging father-in-law. Evie taught an exercise class at the gym. Louise baked wedding cakes and entered her fruit jams into the state fair. Each one had nothing in common – and everything in common. Jeans sized two to eighteen, colored tops, flip flops, and eagerness. What did they expect here?

      When Evie prayed a blessing on the night, I looked on as if from the ceiling. But now I sat with them.

     Lynn (how did I know she usually spoke last?) shared first. “I just want to thank you all for helping me with ‘the conversation.’ See, he always paid the bills, and I stayed busy with the house– signed the tax return, that’s it. I couldn’t tell you all this until now, but the first week of class we had a terrible week-long fight. ‘Why are you doing this?’ he asked. He admitted it… he wondered if I planned to leave him! Owning our own business makes the emotions roll. It’s so complicated, and the conversations are tense. But I do see light ahead….when I got home last time he wanted to hear what we talked about.

      The Class

      Lynn’s comments confused me, so I shocked myself when I began to speak, “Sally, about that homework (what homework?). I’m behind. I don’t want to fail at this. How could missing one week overwhelm me so much? I kept up pretty good until …”

    Sally gently pursed her pink lips before she broke in, “… you mean last week’s assignment to sort the entire week’s mail, locate the insurance policies, and ask your husband to get you a copy of your will? Pfff….How could that be a big deal?”

    A ripple of laughter helped calm me. (Yes, in the dream I felt shaky.)

    “Hey, Girlfriend, this isn’t a contest or a class with a grade. We are here for each other. You can catch up. Our work will definitely extend past the couple of months we have together. We’re about a change in lifestyle–never easy.”

      “Thanks, Sal,” I kept on. “But this stuff terrifies me. Your list of talking points for the meeting with our accountant requires all these other things, so I have nowhere to go but forward. I did make it to the bank last week to discuss all the bank accounts. The lady treated me great, and seemed proud of my effort.”

     Sally smiled and I felt warmth from the others. Now the dream began to flow from my fingers. As if the room, once a dull sepia, cleared into brilliant color. At that moment I knew Sally was a banker. In her job as one of the managers, she dealt with so many bereaved widows who had no idea how to process their loss. But what made everything worse? They felt in the dark, were in the dark, with the family finances. Over weeks and months, she’d compassionately walk them through things they should have been doing regularly for years.

    Oh, she knew plenty of women who always took care of the banking and insurance policies. A few female math wizards and money managers live on every street. But she saw dozens walk through her door who let the husband do it all.

    Now, she educated women whose husbands still lived. She doggedly worked to design this class to help us achieve the goal: No more “Kept Women” we would learn everything related to household finances and our estate. And we were to become involved in every area.

        Louise spoke next, clear and unemotional. “Brad is proud of me! Each week our relationship gets better. He says I’m going to college, but he doesn’t have to pay!” Then noticing some sombre pals, she added, “But I’d much rather bake cakes and go to Starbucks than do this! It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

      Sally reviewed our mandate. “God expects us to know the details of our financial situation–to live in a true partnership. And then, whether He choses to take our husbands away suddenly- or slowly in a debilitating disease- we should be able to handle money and estate details– and move ahead. Unafraid of decisions, even in our grief, we’re equipped to make them.”

   Tabby

     Now in the dream Tabby’s stifled crying turned to heaving sobs, and we all desperately wanted to go and sit with her and hold her. But the ground rules stood. As each one expressed grief or anger or fear, hugs remained relegated to the end of our two-hour sessions.

     As Tabby’s sobs slowed down a bit we all helped her breathe. In. Out. In. Out. Through the diaphragm, just as we learned in yoga. She finally spoke, “You guys… you are tough. You haven’t let me slide. And I guess that’s good. But, right now… I hate this class! I hate it! And I just can’t see me finishing it! This syllabus! I want to throw it across the room! How do I finish? Tell me! I get up in the morning, take the kids to school, and head out the door to fight Houston traffic. When I get to Dad’s room, it reeks. Just like my life reeks. I don’t know how to do it all. I want to be cared for! In those single years I couldn’t wait for that. I hated to balance my checkbook. I stunk at it. And my car insurance constantly fell between the cracks! Before Phil came along, robbing a bank crossed my mind…”

    The exhale in unison felt good. And then- the wry smile. Kept women. Cared for yet hamstrung. Crippled Christians. Full of good responsibility. Full of talent. Yet, lacking in the most important: a “couple sense” of family identity and financial legacy.

        Then I saw why I felt so compelled to remember the dream!  As I typed, I knew this class, this group, could be a reality – to give many women freedom and new hope.

      Earlier, I had woken up to painful sunlight and a terrible headache. Normal mode? Stay under the covers . But as I typed and typed and typed I remembered the beauty of the light that shone into the dull basement room. In my dream, I also remembered the pain of plugging on, the tug of remaining in the status quo. Like me, very one of those girls would rather have taken the easy route. What determination, what courage, what strength.

    The dream – chronicled at last – my neck and shoulders ached.

    But the pain in my head? Gone.

    And I wondered, what ever happened to Tabby?

.

 

Carried

When I was a little girl in Ireland I remember more than once being moved from one bed to another in my dad’s arms. When he picked me up I was aware that He was lifting me high above the floor. But if I woke up, there was a good chance- like 100% chance- that he would ask me to walk. And that would be awful. To miss a chance to be carried by Dad? No, I would feign sleep, deep sleep, in order to feel the feeling of his strength. Being limp in his arms was easy. Do you have any such memories?

Being limp in our Heavenly Father’s arms, however, is usually a different thing. We resist Him, afraid He will drop us, even when we need His help profoundly. Anyway, we reason, doesn’t He require tough obedience, hard work, and our own legs (though sometimes wobbly) to get us to the next place?

But being carried by Him when we have no strength is an awesome thing! Fully aware of our surroundings– the little darling who cries while I brush her tangled hair, or the cat who throws up on my good chair- we keep going through the day. But when out of the blue, thoughts turn dark and pain begins to close in, it is then more than ever, that I’m aware of Him under me, around me, holding me.

Our family has experienced this reality during these almost two months of missing our precious baby boy, TJ.

Recently at church we sang this “Oldie But Goodie” hymn. One of my favorites, in spite of the “thy”s and “doth”s, it has always spoken to me of hope. When I go about my duties amid “changes” and “thorny ways,” he will remain…. faithful….leading me (carrying me) to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves the winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, fear, and grief are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

How can you beat that?

Each line is either a fact or a promise. We serve a God who is both fact and promise all at the same time. Each promise is FACT in His Son, our “joyful end.”

A Patch of Grass, Prayer, and TJ

When you walk out the back door of our kitchen, you pass the cat dish on the stoop, veer slightly to the right around our patio set, chairs askew and draped with the towels of our latest grandchildren pool romp. Then, mindful of Dust Bunny, our fluffy gray cat who is liable to be sprawled anywhere along the way, you pass the curved knee wall guarding the pool. With a sharp left, you go down a few steps to the open grass. There, across the way, you see outbuildings we gradually transformed into apartments. I’m sure you can imagine how painting, mowing, repairing or replacing appliances, cleaning and preparing interiors–all fill much of our everyday autumn lives.

But also –and most importantly– grandparenting does.

Our grandchildren are our delight. With two younger offspring unmarried, the two older ones have thrilled and filled our lives with their Treasures. Each one is a miracle. From our first and second-born, there are eleven grands! One set lives only two hours away, the other only 30 minutes. So just as “landlords” our work is endless, as “Granna” and “Granddaddy” to a large group of “cousins,” our joy is endless. With about seven scooters and almost three acres on which to play, we inhabit a heaven for both grands and their parents.

But returning to our walk — as your feet touch the lawn between the patio behind you and the driveway to the other buildings, you enter my private prayer walk. When my feet touch that grass I inadvertently begin to pray.

I learned to do this years ago, when life was acutely difficult, and scary things were happening. During that short walk, alone, the sky would seem big; but with my head bent I was actually in a closet with the Lord. Often crying out loud, I would ask, “What are we going to do about this business situation?” “How will we pay these tax bills?” “How can I parent these teens?” And the accumulated trips across that grass provided plenty of time for private conversation.

It became a habit. Just talking to Him…

Until this summer.

    The unthinkable happened. One of our precious jewels flew away. My precious, radiant daughter is suffering the loss most mothers seldom suffer even in old age, and usually only read about.

     I feel helpless. And speechless. His name was TJ, our youngest grandchild, only fifteen months old.

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     He left way too suddenly. Before I had time to hold his hand and stroll together through the yard. And we remain in shock- stuck. Shock because just the other day he was healthy, riding contentedly in his car seat. Then he began to cry, as if for help. There was vomiting of blood…. followed by silence. A rare, unrecognizable abdominal weakness had caused a fatal aortic rupture.

     As I walk across that patch of grass now, my mind reels. I can hardly pray. What’s happened to my reverent, yet animated conversation, concerted questioning, and sometimes pleading with my Heavenly Father?  Just silent groanings now.

Many, however- so many more than we know- have reached out to us. I can picture them as they work in their kitchens or walk across their patches of grass. They tell us they cry for us. And we have felt the hand of our Father – under us. In the loving meals, in the sacrificial cleaning, in cards, in calls, in long, tearful hugs…

But the one thing no amount of tears can give to us is the soft pair of chubby arms around our neck, his toothy grin, the adorable toddler who brightened our world for fifteen months.

In a twinkling our darling baby was taken.

      Surely one day my praying through our yard will again be alive with supplication and thanksgiving, answerable and unanswerable questions. But today I walk in silence with a God I know must be there….carrying me. For with the heaviness in my heart weighing down my body, how else would I be able to walk at all?

Elegant Brokenness

“I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” Habakkuk 3:19 (ESV)

 “I must file all this paperwork carefully or they will take my apartment away,” she confided.

I sometimes wondered why God brought tall, elegant “Carlita” into my life. Her silky complexion and deep green eyes had befriended me at a Bible study, and we decided to share occasional lunches together, even though living on opposite sides of the city. During our times together she described earlier days of glamour and excitement as a designer and fashion model in both America and Europe — the “high life.”

But all that changed when her children grew up to reject her, travel and leisure succumbed to depression and poor health. Finally, when a devastating divorce robbed her of home, furniture, and stability, she was forced to subsist on government housing and food stamps.

Then, eleven years ago, she found forgiveness and peace when Christ completely transformed her heart. One would think her circumstances would also change. That at least her children and health would return. No. As a matter of fact, some circumstances have gotten worse.

Next week beautiful Carlita will celebrate her 72nd birthday. Never allowing me the luxury of complaint, she chooses the excruciating discipline of praise, often through tears of heartbreak. Daily small miracles keep her going.. “Look at my life!” she says. “Never forget how blessed you are to have a family and a home!”

And I feel ashamed of my whinings.

During a heart-wrenching chat on the phone the other day, she reminded me of this Habakkuk passage. “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food……yet I will rejoice in the Lord. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”

Yes, God sometimes removes many of life’s earthly trappings. Yet, most of us have abundantly more than we need, besides Christ. But if all goes away, He is our strength! He will provide just what we need to encourage another fellow traveler for another day. Paul possessed the amazing gift of praising God “in want.” He said, “I have learned to be content with either want or plenty…”

And God gives that gift to my friend Carlita. What a blessing to have such an example! I no longer wonder why this elegant woman is in my life.

Oh, that I would elegantly praise You, Lord!  Whether little wants are taken away, or in utter brokenness, devoid of everything this fading world has to offer, let me rest in You. Amen

The Pit Was Empty…

“And they… cast him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water… “ Genesis 37:24 (ESV)

    “I’m so excited! I’ve got to tell you…”

It was 1983 and my friend Teena was loading up the kids for our shared nursing home visitation day. On these carefree afternoon outings she often bubbled cheerily as we drove. But today Teena was in rare form. “Okay, when Joseph was thrown into that pit by his brothers?”

    “Yeah. So?”

    “Well, I hardly noticed it either. Until today, it hit me! Joan, the pit was empty!”

     Furrowing my brow I confessed, “I don’t get it.”

    “Come on!” she grinned. “Think what could have been in there! Watery slime, drowned animals…creepy bones, or deep mud! But the pit was dry and empty! God didn’t have to give us that detail, but He did! Maybe it was for Joseph to look back on… through all those hard years.”

    My friend’s exuberance about the pit has never left me. Now, thirty years later,  I remember driving in silence for a while, each pondering all that would come into our lives– financial losses, parenting struggles, serious health issues.

    And as in Joseph’s life, whatever difficulty, no matter how deep and dark, the pit would be empty.

Heavenly Father, Help me to trust you in circumstances that seem so pit-like. For you have prepared the way into it, as well as out of it. We praise You! Amen

Wondering About “To The Wonder”

    It’s not often than an art film makes a clear point, other than to make you wonder about things. Though a couple of brief sex scenes make me hesitant to recommend it, this film does contain a clearer message than its dream-like smoky tone would seem to indicate. Even with grand, epic music and breathtaking cinematography, will Hollywood reviewers dare to give a thumbs up?

     Let’s look at the “wonder” this film might be showcasing. The “wonder” of feminine beauty fairly floating among grassy fields and the cobblestones streets of  modern Europe? Check. Terrestrial splendor, shimmering sea, radiant sky? Check. What about the “wonder” of youthful romance? Interestingly, missing. And that is rare in the offerings of Hollywood these days.

    Two young women (one played by Rachael McAdams) and a middle-aged priest (Javier Bardem) narrate this human drama in mostly short, sometimes cryptic sentences of drawn-out, pitiable grief. Even with sprinklings of joy and hope, the story moves slowly, agonizingly.

     Scriptures used in the priest’s homilies present to us a clear standard for a fulfilling human relationship. A standard which requires, and without which it cannot survive– commitment. And here, played out before us, is the glaring truth: commitment is the one thing the male lead (Ben Affleck) somehow cannot, will not give.

    The young women, in love with him at separate times, are seen as giving their all, in the deepest sense of the word,  in a yearning for not only intimacy, but the security and confidence that only comes with the “C” word.  And their complete rapture in finding their perfect lover is portrayed through scene after scene of playful abandon mixed with a kind of sensuality that would be possible only through emotional nakedness. Yet this film is skimpy with overt sexuality.  We see a picture of its utter futility in the relationships here, another rarity in Hollywood offerings.

    The priest never meets either couple, though they attend his parish. We see him as a secondary character. A hard-working, kind man who, devoid of deep human connection himself, seeks to see the face of Jesus in his poverty- stricken Oklahoma congregation. We see him grapple with the temptation to give up hope.  Is the “wonder” in our gladness that he doesn’t? That in his commitment to daily sacrificial service, his honest doubt will someday give way to a harvest of fruit?

    So the moments of ecstasy in the “love” relationships are juxtaposed to the abject needs fulfilled by the humble priest. And the emptiness of the former is a fascinating contrast to the pain of the doubter.

    True to art film form, the Affleck character rarely speaks. Silence is the refusal to make a solid commitment to either love. Do men relate to this problem? Do women relate to these two women more than they would like to admit? The film tacitly wonders that if in putting the cart of vulnerability before the horse of commitment, are women’s lives doomed to one failed attempt at intimacy after another?

    And all of us are thus left “wondering,” is the “C” word quietly slipping away?

 

How God Worked in My Marriage

   “Hey, Mom, don’t be long! The babies will wake up soon and we don’t know what’s for supper!” But I was already gone, tears of desperate frustration flowing. Winding down our mountain road alone was not unusual; it was just me once again at the end of myself, anger bubbling up and spilling out.
I’m not coming back until I can function normally, without yelling or crying.
Ha! I almost laughed. Of course I would wind back up the hill and fix supper as usual!
It was not the four children who were the problem, challenging as two teens and two toddlers can be. No, after 18 years of marriage I was drowning in self-pity, self-doubt, loneliness and confusion. Neither my husband nor I felt loved by the other. How had we gotten here?

The Beginning- Miss Desperation Meets Dashing Desperate

In the beginning, “desperate” could effectively describe both Walt and me. Not desperate in getting dates. It was a different kind of desperate.

Walt, the third child of four, raised in a small town in North Carolina, was a social dynamo in school. He looked just like the little boy in “It’s a Wonderful Life” whose ear was hit. He loved to hunt, spending endless hours in the woods. During high school summers he helped his dad in the family pest control business.  He married his long-time girlfriend, but there was no honeymoon;  within weeks he realized that her unplanned pregnancy embittered her so deeply she would hardly be civil to him. So, in the depths of utter rejection, he decided to pursue his love of music. He put together a band and became a professional musician. The college and nightclub scene, glamor, drugs and alcohol became his new life. Back at home the few attempts they made to heal the marriage produced two more children, but no resolution. And so Walt’s career, partly by default, mostly by design, took top billing.

Disaster struck, however, when a letter arrived that began with one word, “Greeting.” His band on the verge of fame, the army drafted Walt for a two-year stint during Viet Nam. With his career gone, a worse downhill spiral ensued. But Walt had a praying mother. It is an amazing story of redemption. In the midst of suicidal thoughts, poverty and isolation, a co-worker witnessed to him about the Lord Jesus. And the Lord saved him. At 29 he became a new man, a changed man. And “desperate” to start over.

I was born in Canada, the eldest of three. According to my Mom, Jesus became my Savior at 5 years; I don’t remember not knowing Him. My father, who worked as a youth in the Belfast shipyards, survived WWII there, sailed to Canada at 24 to become a pastor/evangelist. He married my mother, a nurse, and after I was born, moved us back to Ireland where my sister and brother were born. So after several pastorates, when I had grown into an exuberant 12 year-old, the family finally settled in Wisconsin.

School activities marked every waking hour. My Christianity did keep me out of deep trouble, but all in all I was a lot like Charlie Brown– a wee bit wishy washy. After college I landed a teaching job in far away North Carolina, precisely in the town where Walt had been raised. But  a busy life of church activities couldn’t stop the growing seeds of insecurity. In my mid-twenties I was thoroughly tired of singles apartments, “surfacy” dating, and having to scrounge for car insurance when my company dumped me for too many accidents. Thus in a sense I was also “desperate.” Desperate for the appearance of my handsome knight in shining armor. Surely he would sweep me onto his magnificent steed, ride into the romantic amber sunset, and heroically pay my car insurance!

And, voila, he arrived!  Having moved back home after two full years of university, hard work, and discipling by the Christians there, he was “substance-free” —and adamant.
“We are a perfect match,” he said. He’d fallen in love with my smile, and I with his hope for our future.  Absolutely, in my heart Caution whispered. But…We dated six months and married after a short engagement. Yes, we were Christians, but nonetheless carrying a boatload of expectations. He needed, expected, a wife who would accept and admire him, hold down a good job, cook his meals, keep house — all while he fiscally “caught up” with his peers. And he was behind, mind you. No high-maintenance chick for him. I, at 26, on the other hand, married to be cherished and cared for, to enjoy our babies on a checkered quilt under a shade tree. With Romance, lots of it!

Depression or Temper Tantrum- You Decide

In August of our first year he literally lunged out of the gate in his race to middle-class security. “Hey, Hon! I’ve bought a farm- a Christmas tree farm in Virginia!”

“Really? Today. You bought a farm.”

The following year our first child, a daughter, was born;  then a year later our son. I traveled back and forth to the farm on weekends, helped Walt keep in touch with his first three children, and taught school. My career of choice had turned to motherhood, but I was doing both! One day we came home to a flooded kitchen after having left the windows open to a major storm. My well-meaning husband found me crumpled on the floor, laughing hysterically. As soon as he picked me up, the tears came, and he knew. Exhaustion. Not Romance.

When the farm house burned down and Walt sold the farm to an investor one would think his attentions would turn fully to our own local business. Wrong. Wholesale Christmas trees, real estate investing, plus pest management. By year 7 I had quit teaching school to homeschool our two little ones. And by then our biggest struggle had clearly emerged. Managing conflict. My outgoing personality seemed to clash with his leadership, creating an atmosphere of competition. As he hated conflict, my dire need for affection would bite my tongue rather than question or disagree. If I did, the chill was palpable. He felt attacked. I was afraid he would leave me. And there it was, a doormat/dictatorship in the making. Walt, full of his own fears, acting like a dictator, was a severely wounded, sensitive man; and I, playing the role of doormat, was a very angry, needy girl, on a roller coaster of disillusionment.

Over the next few years, even with a crazy schedule of entertaining, church activities, and homeschooling, my growing unhappiness brought out piles of marriage books.  I was determined to win more affection and attention from my over-achieving, often depressed husband. But he just felt manipulated. Even with this tension, for years I had also wanted more children. Perhaps I thought this would draw us closer together. So when our second child was 9, he agreed. And, deja vu,  two “latter babies” were born- a year apart. They did bring new joy to our home and we experienced a sweet, though brief, “honeymoon” period. When our 4th and last child, a daughter, was three weeks old, I was 42, Walt fulfilled one of his dreams and moved us from the city to a beautiful spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So pushing Rejection and Anger temporarily to the back burner, I began my quieter rural life.

Now walking for exercise had been routine for years, and after getting settled I was anxious to tackle those challenging hills. It wasn’t long until a young mom from church, Sharon, became my new walking partner. She also filled the bill as God’s instrument for my refining. Her candid, perceptive gait paced my emotionally unstable one. The mesmerizing crunch of autumn leaves combined with massive vistas were the backdrop for the outpouring out my woes. Her perspective, however, was as crisp and clear as the dazzling blue sky. Walt was the one getting the bad rap. Lovingly she would insist, “Sandi, there is nothing wrong with your marriage — or Walt. You need a new heart. Ask God to give you a new heart. One that lets Walt be Walt.”

How dare she? She did not understand. But God had engaged my stubborn will —and the fight was on. Oh, sure I prayed,  “Lord, change me.” But I knew and God knew, the only right thing was for God to change him to meet my needs.

Over the next several years as our walks continued, God enrolled me in many new classrooms. Our construction business failed, Walt’s depression worsened, I found myself homeschooling a second pair of kids, my second set of course; and our eldest daughter got married. Then when Menopause made it’s official appearance I thought I could just hide out forever in “them thar hills”. But no, Walt’s career took a hairpin curve and we made another major family move — this time to bustling San Antonio. Yet, through all this my friend didn’t give up on me. Half a continent away, she remained resolute. God will win, one way or another. It was year 2001.

Now mean, menacing menopause was not a piece of cake. It put a spotlight on my pain, made settling into the new Texas surroundings harder. When our 2nd born son got married, I continued to wilt. Then what only happens to other folks happened. Their first baby, a boy, was born way too early, weighing in at one pound, 4 ounces. His tiny life hanging in tenuous uncertainty, I felt strangely detached. Even tho’ God did spare him, seeing my son and his incredible wife through it all, sadness lingered in my heart.

In those seemingly endless months of self-absorption I would often leave the family to close myself in my room and cry. Was this depression? Or a long, drawn out temper tantrum? The sermons I heard each week, the scripture I read pointed to selfishness and a need for repentance. But despite all of God’s patient dealing with me, I was stuck. Stuck in critical mode– critical of the way Walt lead, critical of the way he loved me. And he knew it. My  need was actually sabotaging its object. Romance was slipping away.

Now, I would like to tell you that everything changed with the news of breast cancer in 2003. That this turned me around. But if I did, I would be lying. Yes, the cancer was fairly advanced with lymph nodes involved; there was surgery, chemo, radiation, and reconstruction. But, since detachment now felt at home in my heart and in my marriage I had chosen safety over vulnerability, Walt’s deep agony couldn’t touch me. He was terrified he would lose me, but he seemed unreachable. Were we really in trouble? Should we have ever gotten married? So many questions, so much doubt. Fear gripped me. Why was I here, and why would I get well? I was really quite sick, but it was way more than physical. Then one day after a particularly difficult part of chemo, we decided to go to a Christian counselor. After listening to my litany of complaints, my anger and loneliness, he said something I thought was the coldest, most uncounselor-like thing I had ever heard.

“Sandi, stop. When these moods hit you, you must call a friend immediately, and don’t go to that place. How will you get well if you insist on your pity parties?”
I was so furious my bald head was about to explode. But I went home and called my friend in the mountains. Listening quietly she said, “Hmmmm….ditto.” Of course, I knew she’d say that.

Okay, Lord, you win. You must be all I need.

The Ongoing End

I began to get well. First, I had to deal with addiction to my favorite drug, Tears.
This took excruciating practice. I vigorously fought my moods. Some days I marked as “Turning Points,” but whether they were or not, most days showed a little progress. I asked and expected God to fill me with a new acceptance for exactly the man Walt was–trying to remember and thank Him specifically for the miracles we had witnessed in our married life. And so, reading my Bible, often aloud, I inched out of my pit. I came to see that if I was embarrassed by my past thinking I was on the right track. When I reverted back to it, I was veering off. Walt says often that when he first met Christ, “everything was opposite from before. What was up was now down, and what was good was now bad.” Getting my thinking right is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and it is an ongoing battle. And getting physically well was God’s poetic justice. He must not have been through with me yet.

So, of course, “life” continued with setbacks. We had just started a business in Texas so had no insurance. And there were more surgeries, more business troubles, setting off more debilitating financial losses. But there were also more blessings– many beautiful grandchildren, renewed health, daily energy– all amid grateful days. Gratefulness, as a discipline, became my new friend. But mainly and miraculously, I no longer saw Walt as the problem. Our marriage was validated. Love could grow.

Accepting him with all his imperfections, joking with him, thinking up playful things to do together brought a newness. As his fears, insecurities, guilt, and depression began to lift, a new person emerged.  With a new desire to lead, warmth characterized him. Lying next to me in bed, his fitful breathing smoothed out.

How, while escaping down that mountain road so long ago, had I failed to grasp the truth? God loved me! Only by realizing God’s love could I accept Walt’s love. And he did love me. Oh, the sadness of wasted years. Years of pursuing, hiding, pursuing, hiding. But now….how much more, the glory of a pleasant today, and heading into a bright future.

As you might guess Walt likes to be at home alone together. Sometimes he’ll come over to my desk and quietly wait until I leave my computer to cuddle down beside him. Then he will look into my eyes and say, “Thank you, Honey, for not giving up on me, on us. Where would we be if you had?” Then I tell him, it was really he and the Lord who didn’t give up!

God’s work in my emotions is an on-going process. Even with an empty nest in this autumn season of our lives,  I can revert to my old thinking patterns in the twinkling of a millisecond; and I can react to Walt’s fears even quicker. However, as I keep going back to God’s truth, I have peace. He says His grace is sufficient for me and He will meet all my needs.  I choose to believe Him.

And Romance? After 36 years shouldn’t it be too late? Oh, no. Romance is and always has been a matter of daily forgiveness and diligent work —at any age. It is never too late. Then of course there’s the matter of order.  For true success  “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, then all these (other) things will be added to you.”

What about that Desperation? That is oh, so thankfully a distant memory. Did I really yell and cry in those earlier days? Yes, for a long time. And there are still witnesses out there to prove it. They do come over often with their broods — 11 grandchildren– and they don’t hold it against me. But take this memo: their babies are probably napping right now, so I wouldn’t call and ask them.