In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

A little over three weeks ago, I entered the valley of the shadow of death. I feared this day would come. I felt its imminence and had hoped I would be ready, but who can ever be ready to watch their parent die? Maybe you’re like me and you’ve always wondered if the movies are accurate at all. This is my story, not anyone else’s and certainly not an idyllic deathbed scene, but as always, I strive for truth plainly spoken. So here it is.

My day began with a phone call from the ICU nurse. This was not wholly unexpected as I had given consent just a day earlier to attempt a repair on his perforated bowel. As she held the phone to his ear, I asked my dad what he wanted me to do for him. His answer? Push the magic button. Less than half a day later, I was headed to Idaho, unsure of what would come, yet dreading what felt like the inevitable.

I was the designated legal medical decision maker, so the doctors came and looked at me, waiting for an answer. The irony of that. Who could be mentally or emotionally prepared to make the choice to remove nutrition, to start the morphine drip, to remove life giving antibiotics and oxygen? That was my gut-wrenching duty (along with my siblings input) and no matter how many times the doctors and nurses assured me, it felt horribly wrong. It felt like I was making him die and still, I replay those pivotal scenes like a nightmare.

At first I was hopeful. Then the hours dragged on like a cruel form of emotional torture, watching him try to get out of bed, wanting to go home. This was not going to happen for him though and so we kept vigil at his bed side. They assured us the waiting was worse than what he was going though. I doubt that. I saw it in his eyes. He knew what was happening.

Moments of deep sadness and sweet remembrance were mingled together in sharp juxtaposition. My siblings and I recalled stories of times past, times that would never be again. I felt the injustice as I watched patients rounding the floor of the hospital in their gowns, knowing eventually they would go home.

Suddenly his breathing changed. We made phone calls and every family member got to say their good byes. Even though coherent words were absent, he heard. He heard the love in those voices and his eyes said he understood. I just wish he could have said, “I love you” one more time.

What felt like a hundred times, we released him to heaven and Jesus, assuring him that we would carry on as best we could without him. The chaplains came and went, offering prayers, kind words and listening ears. Comforting, but even this felt like a hollow religious exercise. We held his hand and sang old hymns to him, probably more for us than him.

As his breathing grew labored, I began coming unnerved. My stomach felt like I had been on a roller coaster and the bottom dropped out, except in a sickening way, not a fun way. Our ambling around the halls and floors of the hospital became frequent, looking for a respite of what we knew was coming.

I wish I could say that some supernatural presence was felt, but it wasn’t. What I can say is that my prayers were answered for a short duration of the process, that my siblings and I had beautiful synergy and that my dad left this earth surrounded by his children’s love.

I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, comforted by my eternal hope but nearly crushed by the horrendous journey. It seems unfair, like a sudden reversal of fortune. I came out alive and went home; he never left the valley. Now I’m the one with all the sadness, he with all the joy.

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Undaunted

 

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I was dizzy. Someone grabbed my arm and pulled me back from the edge.

“Becky,” they called, “You cannot jump. Who knows what dangers are down there at the bottom? It isn’t safe.”

So I heeded their voices. I strove to fit inside their tidy boundaries for me. Don’t do this. Do this. And for the love of all that is sane and reasonable, do not take risks. People pleasing had always been an art of mine and so I crafted a careful life, safe from all the unknowns. I was afraid of heights anyways.

Somewhere in my late twenties, married, with 2 kids (and one on the way), I began to seek a precipice. For all the years of obedience had left me wondering: “Could there be more than this flat land existence? Is there a place where I can be me, not always bowing to the confines of someone else?” I longed for it, for freedom from the suffocating rules pressing against me. There had to be a way that I could step off of the ledge and not die.

The longing grew stronger, yet inside me there were always voices, warning me, cajoling me not to want it. In the next decade, I started to see the beauty of grace, the treasure of the cross, my salvation full and free, without regard to any rule following on my part. Those things chaffed against the neat list of expectations I had made for myself: the submissive wife, the godly mother, the dutiful daughter. Conversely, I knew the façade of safety was just that. All the flat land existence was eating me up inside. Gloomy clouds of depression suffocated me.

For the first time ever, I slowly taught myself to stop heeding the voices telling me to not seek the cliff. I began shedding those like layers of skin, each one more painful than before. The better I understood the simple message of the gospel, to believe and be free, to live for Jesus because He died for me, to embrace HIS expectations for my life knowing they come without strings attached, the closer I inched to the edge.

When the clouds of gloom were lifted, I saw that my feet were closer than ever to the rim of the canyon and I looked down into the vastness, its beauty captivating. I stopped reading the “how to” books. I stopped making my husband my god, instead putting purposeful and deliberate distance so that I could be me and he could be himself, all the while loving him deeper than ever.

There was one final rock I was about to stumble on; a rock of momentous proportions on which I would not just stumble, but fall entirely: parenting an adult child who chose a path of life I never could have imagined. Only then did I realize that the very thing I hated, all the man made parameters that had constantly kept ME away from the edge, I had built those very things around my kids to a lesser degree. Deconstructing them took time but as I did, the view became clearer and the canyon beckoned me to come.

Unshackled, I ambled to the edge. There was no fear. I was finally ready, confident,  my arms outstretched and breath bated out of sheer thrill of what was to come. I felt dizzy, light, unencumbered and yet, I felt wrapped in a security I could never contrive myself. This was the arms of my Savior that held me, close to His heart, warmly, gently, and safely. I was enveloped in His love and this assured me of a landing without harm.

I could feel the breeze blowing up from below and I began to totter. Before I could acquiesce to any shred of doubt, my feet left the edge. Air that I had never breathed before filled my lungs and I was in a freefall, sure this was not the last time I would fly.

Mud Pies

Contentment is one of those virtues that we often talk about and hardly truly attain. It’s generally the idea: “ok, I’ll just live with  fill in the blank .” This is more of a spirit of acquiescence than anything.

Contentment is often sought after in want. What if, we would not be content with mediocrity?  What if, we are not satisfied until we ask for more of God’s grace and goodness, instead of a lukewarm, paltry request? What if we are discontent with the status quo faith when we have the power of the true and living God of the universe accessible to us? Or perhaps we don’t know Him yet and we are living life seeking total fulfillment from all this world has to offer.

We often relegate ourselves to far less than is within our grasp.

CS Lewis says it best in his book, Weight of Glory:

 “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. “

We are content with making mud pies when we could go to the magnificent ocean and play in the infinite sands! We are content with being clothed in rags, instead of wearing the royal robes as child of the King.

A prayer I read this morning sums it up beautifully:

I go into a far country,

And come home a prodigal, saying “Father, forgive me”.

And yet, God is always bringing forth the best robe.

Every morning let me wear it,

Every evening let me return in it.

Let me go out to a day’s work in it,

Be married in it,

Be wound in death in it,

Enter heaven in it shining as the sun.

Grant me to never lose sight of the:

Exceeding righteousness of salvation,

Exceeding glory of Christ,

Exceeding beauty of holiness,

Exceeding wonder of grace.

Let us not be far too easily pleased!

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my so-called-insta-life

Pictures are stories captured in moments. (Or so that’s what my Instagram blurb says.)

It IS true. The shutter opens and closes for less than a second and depending on how fancy shmancy your device is, you can have a 40 picture burst in a mere 2.5 seconds.

Then you crop and chop and filter and frame– and VOILA- out comes the image we pass on about our lives to how many ever followers or friends we have.

It’s so simple. But is it? What you didn’t see are all the mistakes and outtakes, all the before filter blemishes and lighting issues, or more importantly the emotions that no emoticon could quite convey.

So here’s the lowdown: my beautiful picture of the beach was amidst a heart full of worry and turmoil. The cute one with my teenagers had a prelude of not-so-nice sibling spats and concluded with complaints about “how ugly I look in every picture”. The one with my hubby (where we look so in love after 22 years) was taken after a couple days of exhausted tension in which countless conversations seemed to fall on deaf ears for us both.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to bash on social media pics or the evils of selfies or the perfectly coifed and highly filtered shots we post. (I always find it strangely ironic when people complain about that through the conduit of social media!)

Rather, I am simply reminded that life is like the photos we share, snapshots into a larger world- a moment in time that passes as quickly as our shutter speed. And often, it is not all it appears to be.

Maybe you’re going through hell right now, waiting with baited breath for this season to be over. The shutter can’t close quickly enough on life as you know it.

Perhaps, the picture you posed for is a moment you wish could last forever, hoping by the image captured, you will be able to conjure this blissful memory for years to come.

Whatever the case, good or bad, the moment will pass soon enough. If you look longingly into the snapshot of someone else’s life, it may appear glamorous, exciting, perfect even, but it’s not. It really isn’t. Remember that you can never know the “before filter or effects” version of their picture. You see what they want you to. The pixels on the screen only tell a fraction the story.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Let’s stop pretending that all those words are amazing, beautiful and stunning because they are not. In fact, some are downright ugly and painful. But some truly are magical and lovely, picture stories that will linger on for years to come.

Forget to Remember

Sometimes it is so good to remember. Generally speaking, we like to forget all the bad stuff (and certainly it is a coping mechanism that proves to be effective). But the good things, well, they are easy to recall, then we get all mushy on the inside- as we should. Some really bad things seem to self-destruct, leaving something like a temporarily numb frontal lobe behind.

September is our month to remember as a nation- not in a good, celebratory way like the fourth of July, but in a somber, reflective way. In fact, we adopted the slogan: “We will not forget”. Last week, as 9/11 came and went, I pondered why. Why is it we will never forget those terrorist attacks, fourteen years ago? Why must we remember? Why all this reflection and reviewing the images of that day?

I think that pain, that gut-wrenching, heart-gripping memory, makes us stronger, resolute, united. It makes us feel the ire of injustice all over again. It makes us defensive and protective so that it may never happen again.

In a micro-cosmic way, it’s the very thing we need to do from time to time in our own lives.

Don’t forget to remember the feeling of emptiness when we lost something or someone we cared about, the self-doubt we experienced as teenagers, the feeling of separation or loneliness from a divorce or broken friendship, the fear of the unknown when we lost a job, the worry over a wayward child, the anger of being hurt by words and actions of others.

Why?

It makes us real to people who may be going through something similar. It makes us profoundly grateful for having crossed over to the other side of the challenge. But most of all, it makes us resolute, stronger, a tiny bit more invincible. It allows us to see that though the divine plan has unexplainable injustice, it also has inconceivable joy. We can wear the victor’s crown for having overcome.

We are changed. Forever. We are better when we remember.

One Word

A few months back, I posted how we like to hear ourselves talk about this or that. This is also known as, venting, blabbing, gabbing or (if you’re of the female persuasion), bitching.

Since that post, my desire to write became wrapped in something mysterious. It was a little like fear, something until the events of this summer, I had never before experienced. Me, afraid of words? How could this be?

After some evaluation, I realized I wasn’t afraid at all; I’d simply become more cautious, more reserved. I want what I say to be reflective and impactful. Every breath matters and I don’t want to waste mine.

You see, over the summer, I met a woman who had an aura about her so divine and spiritual, her words burned into my soul. She was simple yet authentic in prayer, with pauses that were downright uncomfortable, each word deliberate and thoughtful. She didn’t waste breath, yet what she said hung in the air like a beautiful fragrance.

I guess I learned to be okay with silence, actually, not just okay, but to invite the quiet, to bask in it. And strangely when I did that, both in prayer and in life, a single word would come into focus. The prominence of that word would overcome every other thought, flickering like a neon sign until its full brilliance was illuminated.

Now I can put my finger on it: that is what has changed.

A powerful word can linger on the tongue like one bite of a decadent dessert or savory appetizer. It stays with me throughout the day, simple and beautiful. Words like:

 Lavish

Exquisite

Marvel

Array

Bountiful

Steadfast

Long-suffering

Unshackled

Enraptured

I read a statistic that women speak up to 20,000 words per day while men only 13,000. We are word gluttons, gobbling them up and spitting them out with great rapidity.

I intend to change that. Starting one word at a time.

Summer Surmising

Dear Readers,

It would seem I’ve lost my mojo.

Hundreds of blog worthy thoughts have been bobbling around in my head, but it’s been a season of no traction for me. I want to say it (whatever “it” is), but it never sticks. I open my Word doc and nada… Epiphanies, confessions, encouragement- it’s all “right there” and then flatlines.

Outside it’s been summer- (and a blazingly hot one at that) when you’re supposed to take it easy and bbq with friends or family, maybe take a vacation or two. That is at least what middle-class Americans expect from their summer- give or take a trip or two. My summer has reinforced one of my many mantras: expect the unexpected. For good and for bad.

The summer kicked off (no pun intended) with my skater hubby in the ER, followed by a total hip replacement surgery. I spent the next five weeks toggling between being his home care nurse to keeping my bottom glued to our couch enraptured with the glories of an online astronomy course (slowly chipping away at my GE requirements).

Then came a small reprieve, when I did kinda chill for a few days.

Mid-summer, I was off to Indonesia, which I could write about for days. I went prepared- armed with English teaching skills and an open heart for embracing the culture and people. They embraced me instead and I felt enveloped by their admiration and respect (figuratively) and by the stifling moist heat (literally). I hold dear memories of each face I met. I long for another dip in the warm Java Sea. I could pass on white rice for quite some time.

As summer proper spiraled down and I dragged myself through days of jet lag towards 8th grade supply lists and senior transcripts, something (or maybe some things) were overcoming a part of me. It was welling up and running over. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it.

(to be continued)

Shattered Illusion

This is not your typical Mother’s Day blog post, but hang with me.

 The illusion of control…

It’s a concept I have been battling with for several years now. Sometimes the illusion has been broken and I accept it. Most other times though, I’ve fought it with both fists drawn. This invisible force seemed to be working against me at every turn- cruel fate was dealing me a crappy hand and I was not having it.

Recently, I watched a video that compared the safety of driving an automobile to riding in an airplane. By a long shot, riding in the airplane is much safer than driving your car anywhere, BUT why do we feel safer driving and more apprehensive flying? The illusion of control. Behind the wheel, we control our every move. When we fly, we are continuously at the mercy and trust of the pilot. We do not like this, not one little bit.

You see, we fancy ourselves masters of our universe, holding our puppet strings. If we are mothers, we think we are holding our children’s destiny in our very capable mother hands. In marriage, we balk against feeling like our partner controls us (thus why many marriages where men are controlling or women are strong willed, fail.) It chaffs against our very nature. And so, we accept the illusion that we surround ourselves with, convince ourselves with really- that we control us and if we are mothers, we are pretty darn comfortable controlling our kids too.

As of late, I am more and more comfortable outside the illusion. I’ve tried being the one who spins all the plates without dropping them. I’ve tried being the strong, hard ass type who doesn’t let my guard down or ever be vulnerable. I’ve tried controlling my kids’ every move in hopes of churning out successful, motivated, educated, people (who happen to think just like me). Guess what? I failed at everything. And maybe that was the intention; the magician revealed the trickery and spoiled the show. I was undeceived at my ability to be god of my destiny and though at first it unsettled me, slowly, I began to accept it.

This left a void and then I was forced to acquiesce to what I knew deep down all along: faith was the essence of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. Try as I might, I let me down. My illusion to control myself, those I loved, and my circumstances broke indefinitely.

Only one thing was left- faith in One greater, wiser, better, more loving, more kind, more fulfilling. God knows the secrets I could never begin to understand. He knows me before and behind. He loves me totally and more importantly, He loves those I love even more than I could ever love them.

The shattered illusion has left me happier and more at peace than I could have ever imagined because what was never intended to be mine in the first place was “put back” into the hands of the God more capable than I ever could be anyways.

Breathless

There are moments in life that take your breath away: some for good, some for bad.

When it happens in a bad way, nothing can prepare you for that, neither strength of character nor faith. Neither mental preparedness nor emotional stability.

I had that kind of moment just a few weeks ago when my husband called to tell me he’d been fired from his job of two months. (It only helped a little knowing that it happened because he had stood up against injustice and unethical behavior.)

No, it’s not like a family member announcing they have stage 4 cancer. It’s not even like living through a stomach churning 6 point earthquake. It is more like a kick in the stomach or somebody yanking the rug right out from under you. At which moment, you’d like to yell some choice profanity!

Just like dental work, the numbness of bad news wears off slowly and pain is left in its place. But instead of feeling better over time, this pain often creeps over your heart like thorny tendrils of bitterness. I knew this from experience. They would have to be clipped quickly!

Some days, I was unwilling. The injustice of it all set in. My husband’s reputation was called to question and maligned. I was angry and rightfully so. I love him. He’s a hard worker and labors with fastidious ethics.

It was all so disturbing, confusing, maddening, unjust.

As I shared the story with friends near and far, they were just as baffled as I was. Yet, in the days and weeks that followed, an incredible series of snapshots began to unfurl into a bigger, grander picture- one so wholly unexpected and complex, even I was left speechless.

The picture became clearer and so did my faith.

What man meant for evil, God truly meant for good. What we cling to as security in this life is often nothing more than a vaporous bauble. We feel safe in a title or an income bracket when, really, we should only ever feel safe in the arms of Jesus.

Yeah, I could feel happy because the ending is good (my husband has a new job, four miles from home in a much more peaceful environment). I could feel happy that his name was cleared a little and we can breathe easier now. But I don’t.

I feel happy that my breath was taken away. I feel glad that God stripped away false securities. I am thrilled that our struggle has brought such encouragement and joy to others.

Am I ready for the next breathless moment, either good or bad? No, probably not. But I know God has my back and I know He acts in His good will because I have a lot to learn. My Potter sits faithfully at His wheel, molding this hard headed and hearted piece of clay until He makes something beautiful. For that, I am truly thankful!

I Don’t Want No Stinking Band Aid ®

I’ll never forget the Sunday. Passing through the church lobby, a book on a small table caught my eye. The title: “Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology”. I turned away disgusted. (In all fairness, I haven’t read the book. It might be helpful or truthful.) I was ready to go see a therapist myself after months of dealing with the reality that someone I loved was a substance abuser. It was an exorable grief, coursing through my veins on a daily basis.

This opened a can of stinking rotten worms in my head. Reminded me of a time when I too, thought I could give a hurting someone a bible verse band aid and make it “all better”.

A flood of incidences came to me, like the time I mentioned yoga as one of my fave forms of exercise in a bible study and getting “lovingly rebuked” that this was a no-no. (She said), “Do you know what Namaste’ means? You have to be careful because this is tied to eastern mysticism.” Made me want to downward dog right there!

Or the time that I mentioned a personal problem that one of my kids was having, suggesting that I might take them to see a psychiatrist. You should have seen the narrowed eyes on this sister! “You need to be wary of those worldly philosophies,” she admonished in a lowered tone. Translation: treat this as a spiritual problem and go seek some counseling at church.

Don’t get me started on the stuff people have told me about my struggle with depression. Let’s just say that posting 25 3×5 cards with Bible verses all over my house was not doing the trick.

Before you go all Bible thumping on me, you gotta understand something: I love the Bible. I think it is the very breathed out words of the living God, without error or unable to be added to or subtracted from. It is my most cherished book and the Psalms speak volumes about the plight of human emotion.

BUT, I also strongly hold to the fact that LOTS of other things can help us when we are in the doldrums: like the calming poses of yoga, the trained words and methods of a psychologist or therapist, recovery groups, self-hypnosis (yes, I’ve used this one with great success), rhythmic breathing patterns, friends with open minds and hearts, journal writing, heck, even a great cup of coffee or a relaxing glass of wine.

I will never again just offer the bible verse band aid. It’s no solution to the wound, only a temporary cover-up. Underneath the gash remains, festering, like the continual grief I was weighed down by that Sunday.

Instead, I will offer a listening ear then perhaps a truthful word, soft with empathy and flavored with the salve of hope of Jesus Christ. I will offer arms to hold or hug, eyes to see solutions beyond the obvious, and feet to walk along the path they are walking on until a brighter way comes into view.