Looking for Easter

Looking for Easter

 

“Calvary is Judo. The enemy’s own power is used to defeat him. Satan’s craftily orchestrated plot, rolled along according to plan by his agents Judas, Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas, culminated in the death of God. And this very event, Satan’s conclusion, was God’s premise. Satan’s end was God’s means. “

Peter Kreeft, 1986

I am on my second Lenten season of reading through Bread and Wine, an incredible collection of writings by ancient and modern Christian writers, philosophers, activists, theologians, and leaders.  I am in love with my mornings of directed readings.  The book is broken up into six sections:  Invitation,  Temptation, Passion,  Crucifixion, Resurrection, and New Life.  It has 72 articles, and I am slightly behind because I usually marinate on one article a day.  72>40, so I need to step it up, but I feel that I am drinking from a fire hydrant as I soak up the wisdom of those who know a heck of a lot more than I do.

The quote is an excerpt from today’s reading, and I have always found something wonderfully exhilarating about what Kreeft terms “Christian Judo.”  Jesus remarkably used the enemy’s power against him, in that he willingly stepped in as the passover Lamb, wielding the keys to the kingdom.  This is the hope that surfaces when it seems that all hope is lost.  This is the shift that I had the privilege of experiencing in the heart of my three-year-old as we watched Aslan willingly lie down on the stone table as the ice queen slaughtered him in the Disney rendition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.   I told my daughter ahead of time not to worry, that Aslan would come back to life and “save the day.”  She can watch any movie as long as she knows that the good guy will save the day in the end.  Can’t we all?

In the depth of the dark night of Aslan’s slaughter, as Lucy and Susan were weeping into the shaved, cooling skin of their murdered beloved Aslan,  Lily sought reassurance. “Mommy, you said that he would save the day.  When will he? Are you sure?”

I responded, “Wait for the sun to rise, sweetie.  The stone table will break, and he will be alive again to save the day.”

Her anticipation was palpable.  My daughter was longing for Aslan to cancel out the evil magic that had rendered him the lamb to be slaughtered on Edmund’s behalf.

We both exhaled sighs of elation and relief as we saw Aslan’s profile rise over the stone tablet with the rising sun.  This was Lily’s first portrait of kingdom judo.  And this is the beginning of perfect love casting out fear for my three-year-old.

The enemy’s power is used to defeat him. Not only is the enemy defeated, but his own efforts to destroy us are thrown back in his face as the means by which our redemption is made possible.   Only God can do that. It is the greatest twist in the history of time. The death that the enemy thought would undo all of God’s plan was actually the death that opened up the opportunity for death to be crushed and turned on it’s head. This is the fragrant essence of hope. This is why we hope. In our seasons of death, we rejoice, because we know kingdom Judo. God’s secret weapon, His trump card, is always safe in His hand, and He will play it when the enemy is finished with all of his moves and thinks arrogantly that he has won the game.

This sickness, these shortcomings, and these areas of brokenness are indeed the undoing of me. And in this undoing, I am made whole because the ends becomes the means to God’s redemptive, overarching stunning plan of life destroying death. We don’t have all the answers, but we have the final answer. Life wins. Death dies. The love that surrenders to death actually releases the power that dethrones death. No fear is needed. Fear is negated and made obsolete.

We can exhale the fear of death’s finality when we see the cresting of our King on Sunday morning as He pulls out His trump card,  His deeper magic, and says, “See?  I hold the keys to life and death.  Why were you afraid, beloved?”

And I sigh with my daughter, able to freely take a deep breath for the first time, releasing it in trust of a Lord who breathes life into death, into me.

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From Invisible Illness to Visible Illness

I have crossed a line in the world of chronic illness.  It is a line that I never wanted to cross.  Up until this week,  on a really exceptionally good day, I could go out in public and hope that no one could tell that I was sick.  If I wore the right shirt, no one could see my port.  I could resist using my scooter, with the assurance that I would sit down if I thought that I was going to faint.  I could put on some makeup, fix my hair, shave my legs, and put on a cute outfit. To the untrained eye, I looked okay.  Just a really thin person with a pale complexion.  No need for alarm or pity. People pass by, unfazed.  I blend comfortably into the background.  The perfect wallflower.  This is where I feel safe.  I’ve been working harder and harder at hiding, suspecting that others are picking up on my secret.  I see it in their eyes, the recognition of illness, but I quickly look down or look the other way.  I recoil at pity. It nauseates me.  (Well, lots of things nauseate me. Maybe that’s not fair to say!) Up until this week, I could go out to dinner with my family, and with great effort, seem like a pretty normal young mom of tots.  I could go to church gatherings and seem like the pretty average pastor’s wife.  I could have coffee with friends and feel like one of the girls.  I was in control of how much people knew about my illness.  I was in control of if  people knew about my illness.  I could call the shots, and I could maintain the illusion of normalcy until it felt appropriate to share what feels like sensitive, privy information about myself, a 34-year-old mom of a 3 and almost 2-year-old, wife of a pastor, writer, singer, teacher.  I could let people believe the lie that I was pretty normal before this week until I chose to open up further.

Now, I feel like my choice has been taken away.  The portable oxygen tank and tubing coming out of my nose, reminiscent of the The Fault In Our Stars or other tragic movies about illness and dying, now alert people with first glance to my crippling conditions. I can’t keep my secret and share at my own discretion.  I can’t go out and expect to be treated just like everyone else.  As I step out of the car, I can choose to look into the eyes of pity or stare at the ground in embarrassment.  That is my choice now.  So I’ve needed oxygen for a while.  Getting on oxygen doesn’t intrinsically change my state of health, except to regulate my O2 saturation levels.  It does, however, change my state of health in the eyes of others.  Now I am officially, 100 percent, unequivocally sick.  My presence carries with it a state of tension, of awareness of our morality, an unwelcome reminder to many people.  I am now more offensive than I was a week ago.  And maybe I can start to let go of my false pretense that has probably not been fooling anyone but myself.  Maybe this is the beginning of acceptance, and even hope.

I struggle to understand the concept of “invisible illness.”  I am not sure what illnesses fall under the umbrella generalization term of invisible illnesses.  Mental illnesses, chronic illnesses that people generally cannot see, anything that is not obvious to the unknowing bystander I suppose.  I read on boards and on blogs about the burdens of carrying around “invisible illnesses,”  and I think that I understand to some extent.  Sometimes, we really just want others to know how much we are suffering.  We want to scream from the rooftops how much pain we are in, how “exhausted” doesn’t even scratch the surface of our deep bone-weariness, how much we are in emotional and physical agony.  We can’t just “suck it up” and get better.  For me, however, I think the majority of the time, having an “invisible illness” felt like a preferable option to having a “visible illness.”  I certainly don’t want to step into a room and be seen.  I like to settle in under the radar.  I don’t want to be a label or a stereotype.  I want to have the ability to present myself as I please at any given time.  I want the chance to write and share my own story, not to have “a story” written across my body.  I do think that I understand wanting compassion and understanding in the midst of indiscernible suffering, but I also want the ability and privilege to limit what people know about my illness.

I want to be able to share pictures on Facebook and not have people think, “oh, poor girl.” I want them to be able to see my joy and my hope and my peace.  I want them to see my healing, emotional and spiritual. I want my strength to be more apparent than my dependence on hospitals and oxygen tanks and other medical equipment to keep me going.  I want to run 5K’s and 10K’s and half marathons and marathons and have my children cheer me on.  I don’t want to have to explain to my three-year-old what these canisters that mommy has to carry around with her are (by the way, they are mommy’s friends, Jim-Bob and Frank. They are now my daughter’s friends too. And sometimes her babies need oxygen.).

So here is the core of my problem: (Spoiler alert:  It is not that my invisible illness is now a visible one.) The core of my problem is that I am too proud.  I am too self-sufficient, and I am too bent on being “strong.”  I don’t really want to be known.  I don’t want to be a burden, or in the spot-light, or heaven-forbid, to be pitied in any way, shape, or form.  I am a control freak (That was one of the doctor’s diagnoses for me at Mayo. No joke.).  You would think that by now,  I would be more adept at releasing control.  No control driving. Check.  No control with my schedule. Check.  No control of my body.  Check. No control of the amount of chemicals coursing through my blood. Check. No control of my finances.  Check.  No. I’m still a control freak, and by golly, I want to control what people think about me.  I am unwilling to be seen as sick.  But here, I am. Sick.  Clearly sick.  And I’m not in control of that.  Now, my therapists would offer me options of things that I can feel in control of so that I don’t feel totally helpless. That strategy could be helpful to some extent, but I think that really, I just need to let go.  Like completely let go.  It’s not mine.  None of this is mine.  People’s opinions of me, their appraisals of me, and their pity of me is not mine to own.

What is mine?  Jesus is mine.  He’s in control. And He is good. And He loves me.  And that is my foundation.  Visible or invisible illness, I have what matters.  I have an unshakable foundation, so I can lay down my illusion (I promise, that’s all it ever was) of control.  I can wear the oxygen, ride the scooter, pray for healing, and accept the answers, knowing that healing looks like many different things for different people.  And who the heck cares what people think???

When So Much is Unknown

When So Much is Unknown

How do you know that you have a blind spot? That’s the problem, right? You can’t know what you can’t see until someone tells you that you should be able to see more than what you are currently seeing. And that is exactly what happened for me this past weekend.

In my medical journey, I feel like we are slowly collecting pieces of the broken puzzle that is my body. It is taking much longer than I would prefer, but we are finally moving forward with gathering information.

It was just an eye doctor exam. I expected nothing to come out of it. The doctor just wanted to make sure that my symptoms were not connected to optic nerve issues, and I expected everything to be fine (I always do).   Everything was panning out as I had anticipated, until the last test. The test is called an Automated Periphery test. It basically identifies blind spots in your peripheral vision, and somehow, that can point to problem areas in the brain. To my surprise and ultimately disbelief, I had an abnormal result that was consistent in both eyes. These blind spots indicated, according to the doctor, that I have something problematic in the middle section of my brain, in or around the pituitary gland. During this conversation, he cheerfully used the word “tumor” on several occasions. He also said that it could be benign, and he honestly didn’t seem too concerned or overly urgent. He seems to think that it is sufficient to follow up with the neurologist when we have the appointment scheduled in about five to six weeks at Mayo.

With this information, however, I have a couple competing and opposing reactions. My verbal response to him was something to the effect of, “Yes, I have been aware of neurological issues for some time, and this does not surprise me. I know that there is something very broken in my brain.”   A simultaneous internal response was, “Yeah right. Just wait. Everything is normal. He’s a quack. This, just like everything else, is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.”

In this moment, I am going to put aside the latter thought process so that we can deal with the seeming reality of this awareness. It has been difficult for me to assert the idea that there is something wrong in my brain. Maybe it is the fact that I have so many mental health issues that I cart around. How does one sort out what is brain structure and brain chemistry? What are blind spots and what are normal bouts of dissociation that occur within individuals with PTSD? What is normal? I have no idea, but I have something inside of me that screams, “THIS CANNOT BE NORMAL!!!” I don’t know how many times I have told someone that I think my brain is broken. But, really, who am I to say what a functional brain is supposed to be like? I’ve been on psychotropic medications for 20 years. So this is a tough issue, and I would not place myself on a platform as an expert on healthy brains. Evidently, however, based on my most recent medical feedback, it seems that I have more credibility than I initially suspected.

The other side of this “acceptance of reality” coin is that now I have grapple with the “c” word and the potential of a tumor. And I have to sit with this question for six long weeks. Fortunately, I am far from bored, and six weeks in my life zooms by before I can count to six. Time will fly, because I have two tinies to chase after and a wild pastor husband to keep up with. I have one Bible study to teach and two, maybe three others in which to participate. I have playgroups, music groups, story times, play dates, and crafts to do. I have choir and relationships to maintain. I will blink, and the end of October will be upon us. But still.. TUMOR. In my BRAIN. (Possibly). But still…

So this leads to me to my end of the world dreams. For months, I have been having dreams about the end of the world. I find myself in different but parallel scenarios where I am a protagonist in a fight to the end…the end of the world. I am trying desperately to keep whatever forces that be from destroying our planet. These bad guys are super bad, like aliens twenty times the size of planet earth, and they are out to wipe our species out from existence. They can snuff us out at any point, and for some reason, I am one of the few chosen to try to prevent them from doing so. The problem in this scenario is that I have no idea what the heck I am doing, and I am just a sitting duck along with everyone else. I am no hero. I’m just waiting around to be decimated, but I feel the weight of the salvation of the world on my shoulders. Fortunately, I wake up just as I see the fiery fury coming to consume the planet, including this powerless heroine. The key sense in these dreams is powerlessness. I can’t do one thing about impending doom.

So I wait, with one side of my consciousness (the one that comes out in my dreams) doling out heavy doses of doom and gloom and ultimate destruction, and another side invalidating every single step of this journey, unable to acknowledge a single ounce of my experience as real. Could there be hope, validation, and redemption in the midst of this battle? Could everyone lay down their weapons and surrender to the One who is in control, is the Author of truth, and has defeated death, making a spectacle of it on the Cross? I am powerless, yes. In a sense. But the one who is supremely powerful dwells within me. IN CHRIST, I am no longer a slave to the lies OR to death. Neither force will win in my life, no matter what happens. My Lord, the one who indwells me, is Truth Himself, and He is Life.   I will not shrink back or be consumed by fear. I am safe and secure, no matter what happens.

Death and a prayer

I am at a church caregiver training this weekend, and I feel sorely insufficient for this calling. I hear that God enjoys using all types of people, however, including those who feel like they don’t measure up. So here I am. God used unlikely people in the Bible, right? I think that He is good at that. I’m counting on it. If not, I’m screwed.

The training was going pretty well, as we have covered the basic areas of congregational caregivers, such as prayer, listening, boundaries, visitation, mental health issues, and organization. 

And then we came to a topic that scares me more than anything else: death. I don’t know if it is those few stubborn postpartum hormones still holding on paired with anxiety and my hamster-wheel runaway train thoughts of possible tragedies and losing my children, or if it is the guilt that if my parents died that I would exhale a sigh of relief. It could have to do with the sex games that people played with me when I was a child, seeing how close they could kill me without actually snuffing me out entirely. I imagine that being smashed against the pearly gates and raped would deter anyone from ministering to the dying population in the church. 

During the session, I persevered valiantly for roughly 45 minutes. The tears stayed balance like little champions on my eyelids. I didn’t allow them to spill over. I was also conveniently sitting front and center, so there was no means of a clandestine escape from the workshop. But slowly, I felt those child parts nudge their way to the front of my consciousness and take over ship. My feet carried me out of the workshop, and I quickly found what seemed to be a safe place to hide. I let myself cry and breathe for a while and looked at my feet. I saw bricks….probably a hundred or so, each engraved with memorial words for loved ones who had passed away, elderly, middle-aged, babies with only one date. I sighed. Perfect. I escaped the teaching session on death and dying only to be “rescued” by the memorial garden of this mega-church, with a hundred bricks screaming at me the reality of death. 

I asked God for a little favor. I’ve done that a lot lately. I just asked for him to show me that He cares and that I’m worth something to Him. Just then, a young pastor came and sat next to me. This church is so large that they have a pastor of prayer. Her sole job is to build and equip the prayer ministry of the church.  And I hoped that her presence was the answer to my prayer.

We started to chat, and I fumbled around, trying to communicate in as few words as possible the source of my extreme angst. This is a game that I often play with people. My belief is that surely I am a waste of peoples’ time, so I better see how few words I can use to communicate so that they can go on their merry way, liberated from my tedious presence. So I played my 25 words or less game, but this young pastor actually seemed to care. Better yet, she trusted me in that moment enough to share a vulnerable and honest part of herself as well.  She’s scared of death too. She and her husband are both pastors, and on Easter, they each had to do a funeral. Hers was for a baby born at 22 weeks gestation. On Easter Day. Then, she and her husband watched The Fault in Our Stars together that night and wept in each other’s arms, terrified of death. And they are pastors. She spoke to me of her anxiety and her own hamster wheel, her struggle of not knowing sometimes how to stop the wheel, and her difficulty in communicating it to her husband. Like we were friends. She just trusted me. 

And you know what? That’s what I needed. I needed a friend.

Not a pastor. Not a counselor. But a companion.  He cares. God cares. I’m still scared of death on so many levels. But so is Katherine, my friend.  And it is pretty clear that I am worth something to God.

Ash Wednesday

I drop the kids off at the nursery. Miraculously, the toddler is distracted long enough for me to slip out. The baby loves the nursery, so there is no push-back from him. My husband, the pastor, is dressed in purple. This morning, he was debating between black and purple. I helped him choose purple, because the poor man’s black pants were too faded for his new black shirt. Ash Wednesday. This is my first experience of having the ashes placed on my head. This is my husband’s first experience of administering the ashes. I enter the sanctuary alone, a bit lost without tots in my arms or clinging to my legs. Being a pastor’s wife, you get used to sitting alone during the services. A girl in the mom’s group makes room for me to slide in beside her. “This is my first Ash Wednesday service,” she says. “Mine too,” I respond with a bit of an internal sigh. Maybe I’m not entirely alone. A third friend slides in beside us. We smile apologetically to the other occupants of the pew who are having to shift again. I feel a sense of sisterhood. This is a first since my husband and I moved to this state three years ago. Three years is a long time to be lonely.
I see my husband up front. I appreciate our decision on the purple shirt. He looks very “Eastery.” Black would have been too somber. But, then again, it is Ash Wednesday. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It would have also been appropriate. I reflect on the beheading of the 21 Egyptian Christians. Interestingly enough, I finished reading The Book Thief last night also. This has been a week of extreme awareness of mortality. Still, I go into the service blindly. I am told that this is the senior pastor’s least favorite service. I can’t seem to understand why. It is important to come face-to-face with our own sinfulness, right? To see that we are only mortal, in need of a Savior. He must just be a little too optimistic, I assume. Too feel-good.
I am not sure at what point I am blind-sided by the power of the awareness of death, but it hits me like a two-by-four over the head. I stare at the stain glass image of Christ above the altar. My eyes swim as my heart sinks. I will die. My children will die. My husband will die. One day, every single soul in this sanctuary will be taken from these bodies. My children, both under the age of two, will face death because of this stupid broken, fallen world that we live in. Eventually, this planet will cycle through its current population of humans to host a new population, who think, like we do, that they are invincible.
We stand up to sing a hymn. Dang it, where are the tissues in this sanctuary? We sing “What Wondrous Love is This,” one of my favorites. My spirit hovers over the line that says, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.” I am perplexed by this word choice. Obviously, the writer is speaking of eternity after death, but he refers to this as freedom from death. And then my heart leaps with epiphany at this realization: In death, and only in death, we are to be liberated from death. And this is the work of the Cross. The Cross, that in 40 days we will celebrate, will open up the opportunity for us to find freedom from the death that we face tonight, this Ash Wednesday. I am terrified of death. Terrified to the point that it can become a preoccupation, an obsession. But within this gem of a hymn, I find a grounds for liberation from this fear. I can find freedom from my fear of death within death itself, for death is what will usher me into eternity. It is there, that I will indeed sing on, unfettered by the earthly power of death. My mom-companions and I approach the front of the church for the ashes. I am horrified at myself, the pastor’s wife, ugly-crying all the way up the main aisle of the sanctuary. I allow the youth pastor to rub the ashes on my forehead, my first ashy cross, and I make my way to my seat. My companions dab their eyes, and I ask for a tissue. We sit there, ugly-crying together, taking in this strange ceremony that holds up a magnifying glass to something that no one really wants to think about. But it is not simply for the sake of making us look willy-nilly at the fact that we will all die and that we all sin. No, we will go from dust to dust, but from dust, we will ascend to glory, where we will no longer be haunted by the shadowy fingers of the grave. We come to this service with the awareness of the victory that has been won, and in hope of the ultimate victory to come. Death will meet its demise, and we will sing on of His Wondrous love. I look up to my husband and smile, once again glad that we opted for the purple over the black.

The Death of Death

Death, you are the story of my life,

I wish that today were your death-day, but it is not.

Because you are still alive and well, you haunt me.

Peeking around corners,

showing up in the gummy grin of a baby,

hiding in between the little pink lines on the stick,

streaking the back windsheild of my SUV,

Painting the pages of every book,

Sprawled out on the side of every country road,

You lurk in the shadows.

Life captures my heart, and you steal it back in an instant.

Beauty catches my breath, and you turn the catch into suffocation.

You corrupted my mind.

There is no joy that is not tainted by your gruesome breath.

One day, oh death, you will be the one suffocated.

You will be the one who bleeds out.

You will be drowned.

You will be beaten, tortured, defeated.

Death, you will die.

And we will live.