The Upside-Down Reality of Weakness

The Upside-Down Reality of Weakness

Paul’s life was a constant reminder that his own strength could accomplish very little.  That dang thorn in his flesh never gave him much wiggle room.  I imagine Paul trying to take a few steps in his own power, in some self-reliant deviance, only to fall face-down, back into dependence on his Maker. 

Paul, I feel you, brother. I keep forgetting this God-dependence thing, and I keep trying to walk in this soul-amnesia.  I foolishly think that I can stand on my own two feet and white-knuckle through this life in my own feeble strength.  As soon as I start to act a little cocky, wobbling along in my own power, I receive a sucker-punch to the gut, and find myself trembling on my face, totally helpless in the presence of my own thorns in the flesh. 

And there you are, saying, “I will boast in my weaknesses, for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  And here I am, asking, “what in the world is this upside-down kingdom about, where we praise God for our weaknesses, and glory when we reach the end of ourselves?” 


What counter-intuitive calculations lead us to the conclusion that the meek shall inherit the earth; that those who weep will rise in joy; that when I am weak, then I am strong; that the poor inherit the kingdom of heaven; that the King of the universe came into the world in a cattle stall? 

And yet, here-in lies our hope: Paul asked three times for healing, and God said, “MY grace is sufficient for you, MY strength is perfected in your weakness.”  So Paul, head bowed and hands raised in submission, said, ” I surrender.” 

So here I am, flat on my back, at the end of myself, reminded for the 134,582nd time that I am, indeed, weak.  And, Paul, you say this: 

Most gladly, therefore, I will boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. I am well content in weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

I will celebrate in my weaknesses for this reason: They create space in my life for the power of the Almighty God.  And I will be content in my suffering for this reason: it opens me up to deep communion with my suffering Savior. 

And yes, Paul, we can laugh together along with rest of beat-up, face-to-the-floor humanity, because in Christ, all of this mess is simply grace. 

He makes every little broken thing beautiful

He makes every little broken thing beautiful

I shoved my rear-end closer to the window as the plane prepared for take-off.  The passenger beside me stretched out to get comfortable. I tried to make myself smaller so that I would not be an inconvenience for the person wedged next to me in these impossibly small airplane seats.  Never mind that I had the right to occupy my entire seat.  In my mind, I had no rights.  The space that I occupied was space that I shouldn’t take up.  As I tried to become smaller so that the person beside of me could expand,  I realized that I held a core belief that was horribly faulty.  I could not change my system of thinking on my own.  It was too deeply embedded.  That plane ride was four years ago, before I became sick.

My belief that I was not allowed to take up space was birthed out of a great deal of trauma and abuse.  When a child is taught that she is evil and at fault for the evils that are committed against her,  she learns that she must try desperately to disappear in order to make the world a better place.  Before I learned the truth of my identity in Christ,  I held white-knuckled to this belief.  I held so closely to it that I tried to rid the world of my very existence.  When this type of reality is drilled into your head early in life, it seems nearly impossible to unlearn.

God has a masterful way of using horrible situations to help us grow in ways that we never thought possible. When I got sick, I started to take up more space.  I’m not talking actual physical space necessarily, but a wheelchair certainly takes up more space in a vehicle.  It is harder to hide when you are ill.  You have many more needs than a healthy person.  Those around you are more aware of you and the risks that come with your presence.  With food restrictions, you make a challenging dinner guest.  Often, your dietary limitations dictate the menu for the evening.  When you are a house guest, you quickly become aware of how high-maintenance you are.  Your special diet, need for rest, wheelchair requirements, and medications are front and center.

As my illness gets more severe, I seem to be ever-expanding.  I can’t disappear into the background like I once did.  In a recent church meeting, at each break,  many individuals turned to check on me: to see how I was feeling, if I needed anything to drink, if I needed to lie down.

I am so appreciative of the care that I receive.  I need it.  And I resist it.  God is using my illness, however, to show me that it is okay to take up space.  He is showing me how wonderfully loved that I am, and that He created me to take up a certain amount of space.  He designed me in such a way to make an impact on people, to leave footprints, to change lives.  I can’t do that without taking up space and owning my space.

So here’s the thing:  In God’s gracious, generous way of making every little broken thing beautiful,  He is transforming my illnesses and disabilities into powerful teachers.  He is using them to show me how incredibly valuable that I am.  He is teaching me that I am worth every square-inch of space that I take up.  He is showing me that I am worth the care that people give me.   Why am I worth it?  Because I am His child.  As a child of God,  I have a right to take up space.  Not only do I have a right to take up space, but my existence is important and cherished.

I do not need to try to shrink myself into a half of a plane seat in order to make someone else more comfortable.  I can lean over and start a conversation with my fellow passenger, and we can enjoy the gift of one another.  I don’t have to dismiss my dietary restrictions in order to make my hostess’s job easier.  I can graciously accept generosity and allow others to love and care for me.

Graciously receiving is a gift to the giver and the receiver.

I have lived a life dominated by the lie that I don’t deserve to take up space, and my illnesses have given me the opportunity to take a step back and realize the value of my existence and the space that I occupy.   God created me.  I wasn’t a mistake.  I am still not a mistake.  I don’t have to apologize for my existence.  I also don’t have to apologize for being ill.  I have always been and will be valuable because I am a daughter of God.

There may be those out there who are reading this and thinking, “Well, no duh, Sherlock. Of course you can take up space.  We all can.”  I am so thankful that you have never had to experience the torture of having to live apologetically, desperately trying to pay penance for your very existence.

For those of you who can relate,  please hear me:  You are valuable.  You are made in the image of God.  You can take up the space that you take up.  You’re worth it because God calls you worthy.

And He is making every little broken thing beautiful.

The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect

In late November of 2016, we bought our first house.  It was, in my eyes, idyllic.  Murals were painted on the walls of each of the children’s rooms, a blue ocean with a tiny boat sailing on the horizon for Elijah, and a willow tree with a picket fence covered with flowering vines for Lily.  Our walk-in closet and spacious bedroom had me pinching myself twice a day.  The sunrise cascaded over our kitchen table through the bay kitchen window.  We could peer out Elijah’s window to say goodnight to the moon each night.  The carpets were lush, the walls were painted rich, welcoming colors, and we even had our own fire place.  The basement, though unfinished, could house the play room where the kids could play freely whenever they felt so inclined.

The most attractive feature of our new haven, however, was its sprawling yard.  The previous owners clearly had green thumbs in addition to their artistic flair, and they took better care of this yard than any other yard in the entire neighborhood.  In Kansas, the land of sparse trees, we have eight trees around our house.  One is a massive willow, whimsical in every sense of the word.  One is a luscious bradford pear, another an apple tree.  The grass is the richest shade of green that I could imagine, with a built-in sprinkler system, to keep it velvety-soft and fresh.

When we moved in late November, as fall was descending into winter, and colors were fading into grey, white, and black, we had no idea what the garden would look like: if any flowers were perennials, returning in the spring, or if we would have to start from scratch.  All we had were dead stalks, skeletons of flowers, and I am no expert on gardening.  Thus,  I couldn’t even guess what the landscape would look like in the spring. I had no idea the beauty that could rise out of this garden, now my own, that I never planted.

Spring is blossoming into summer, and this garden that I inherited has been a highlight of my year.  As the months of April and May have passed,  I have inhaled the glory of tiger lilies, dark red lilies, marigolds, roses, and hostas.  Each plant blooms on its own time table, and each day is like unwrapping a gift from someone I never knew.  When we toured the house initially before we made our offer,  I whispered to my husband, “I could be friends with these people.  I love them already.”  Amazing how you can feel a kindred spirit in a home, even when those who made it the home are not even present.  It is also amazing the impact a person can have on the life of another person whom they may never meet.  I met the husband briefly.  He brought the extra garage door opener over the day that we first moved in.  I greeted him at our door (his door), our eyes locked, and I gave him the biggest, most appreciative smile that I could muster, and he left, to drive about five hours, to his new house.  This one encounter was the extent of the overlap of our lives.

I am too sick to garden.  Even being outside is a strain.  I could never do to our yard what the previous owners of our house did.  I am so thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the fruit of a crop that I did not sow.  They planted a little vegetable garden in the back yard. My in-laws are keeping it bursting with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.  My life is grace upon grace, blessing upon blessing.  I get to tuck my babies in at night and admire another person’s artwork on their walls.  In God’s special way, He met our needs before we even knew that we had needs through someone that we would never really know.

The lives of those who went before us sing from the walls of this house and burst forth from the soil surrounding it.  Their love, their innovation, their unique giftings and personalities paint shades of color that extend into the life of my little family.  They will never know their impact.  They were just doing what they loved, and it colored the world.

We have a ripple effect that can heal and bring hope.  God has used our home as a picture of His provision and hope.  He knows that I love flowers, murals, and beauty, and He knows that I cannot produce these elements of life that I love at this point in my life.  He used someone else to plant the seeds that would blossom in my life as symbols of providence, hope, and His own Shekinah glory.

Our God is great enough to show up in the little things, like orange crimson carnations and a wistful sail boat painted on a toddler’s wall.   Our Father God gives good, sweet, thoughtful gifts to His children, even, or maybe even especially, in their suffering.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.   James 1:17

The Art of Surfing

The Art of Surfing

Two weeks ago,  I had a good few days.  I felt stronger.  I went outside with the kids.  I was upright more frequently.  I was thinking, “The feeding tube has helped! We might be getting somewhere!” I was not falling over when I stood up.  I didn’t have to lie in bed all day.  I hadn’t felt so well in months, maybe even years.  Ground has been covered.  There is hope for improvement, maybe even healing.  We finally found an intervention that really seems to be helping me to gain some forward momentum.

It was great.

Then, five days ago,  the fevers started again.  Every 8 hours, lasting for about two hours.  The pain starts in my fingers and toes and slowly spreads inward, through my body, like a poison, until it infiltrates my entire being.  My stomach, my core, shoots searing pain like a volcano, sending me gasping and retreating to my safe place in my mind to escape the agony.  With the fevers come the chills, which seem more appropriately labeled convulsions based on their intensity.

The POTS symptoms have escalated, and we suspect that I have a new allergy–to my tube feed formula, the stuff that is being pumped into me for 15 hours a day.  I am allergic to the formula that is helping to restore me back to health.  And insurance will not cover any other formula.

And everything crashes again.

I am a surfer.

I’m not a surfer in reality.  That would be disastrous. I only surf theoretically.  I surf the waves of chronic illness.  Some illnesses have consistent, predictable symptoms, though, I suspect that most illnesses do not feel very predictable.  My illnesses, however, are highly unpredictable.  I feel better one day, go out with the family, and I get slapped in the face with a reaction in the middle of a perfectly normal outing.  I am laughing with friends at noon, and by dinner time, I am moaning in bed in pain.  And the next day, when someone asks me what happened yesterday, I don’t remember anything out of the ordinary.  The waves are frequent, and the tide is choppy.  But I am getting better at surfing.

With unpredictable chronic illness, I find myself forced into extreme flexibility.

I have to be able to adjust quickly. Got something planned for today?  Can’t move?  Okay, so we take a rain check.  My actual health is not the only thing that forces flexibility.  Finances and insurance are almost as, if not more, difficult to deal with than the illnesses themselves.  I can do my infusions at home until I am forced to switch to a new insurance, that no longer covers home infusions.  Then I have to find someone to drive me to the hospital for three hours, three times a week.  Okay.  No biggie.  Shuffle the schedule.  It may be a little inconvenient, but at least I have access to modern medicine and a multitude of folks willing to shuttle me around.

Sometimes,  I long for the waves to just settle down.  I long for peaceful, quiet, calm waters in which I could simply peacefully float.  Maybe just for a span of seven days.

And yet,  here I am in this ocean, learning to ride the waves.

I am learning the skills of surfing on this ocean called life.  (I’m pretty positive that most people feel like his or her life is marked by some pretty unreal waves).  Some of the skills that help me navigate the waves of unpredictability are lament, gratitude, and laughter.

My friend Esther Fleece,  in her book No More Faking Fine, pours out her heart, which is a reflection of God’s heart, about the necessity of the process of lament. “When we lament to God,” she says, “we see Him more clearly on the other side.”  To chose to not communicate to God our brokenness, disappointment, and frustration, we miss out on actual spiritual intimacy with God.  It is not self-pity to cry out to God when life is difficult and painful.  To lament and weep before God is actually life-giving, and in doing so, we can regain our balance on that surf-board.  So I know it seems counter-intuitive, but my first skill in riding the waves of this health-storm is my ability to express my frustration.

My writing role model Ann Voskamp knows all about gratitude.  She was called by God to change her life through daily acts of gratitude, and she collected blessings like wildflowers in a never-ending feild.  She counted a thousand gifts in her life, and her life was forever changed.  It is the secret that Paul let out in Philippians 4:11-12:

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing, or with everything.  I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.”

Paul’s secret was thanksgiving, so Ann picked up a pen every day and wrote down her gifts.  And she says that there is always room for gratitude.  There is.  Every day of my life, in bed, or out of bed, in pain or pain-free, verticle or horizontal, there is always something to be thankful for:  Crisp bed sheets, a window to look out,  the sound of the birds, access to running water,  the presence of my God And on the days where I can only know for sure that God is present, when I know nothing else for sure,  I can be thankful.  I would rather spend a day suffering knowing that God is by my side, than spend that day free of suffering but in the absence of God.  God is good.  I choose gratitude.  I steady my balance on the board, and ride on.

Laughter is wonderful medicine, and it helps me hold steady on some of largest, most terrifying waves.  God knew how much I would need humor when God gave me my husband.  He is hard pressed to be serious, and in our conversations, I can be confident that at least 80 percent of the time, he is joking.  With a simple witty quip, he can stabilize me when I am struggling to maintain footing. We laugh more than anything else together, and it is balm to my soul.  I feel that sometimes, the choice to laugh is the choice to hold onto hope that the world is not crashing in on me at this very moment.  This moment will pass, and there will be joy.  For me, laughter screams “hope” when life looks quite dreary.

Lament, gratitude, and laughter:  These are vital parts of my survival kit for my topsy-turvy life.  It is okay to cry,  it is okay to count blessings, and it is okay to laugh.  God is here, on the bad weeks, when my body is so reactive that I can’t function.  God is here, on the good days, when I try to test the limits a bit and see what life could look like when I am healthy.  God is here, in the in between, when I am holding my breath and hoping that treatments will work.  God is here, when I am completely certain that He is NOT here because I can’t seem to find him anywhere.  And God is here, calming the waters of my soul, even when the waters of my life seem violent and difficult to navigate.

And because He is here, I can surf these waves and have some fun. I’m getting pretty good at it.

On Running and Brokenness

On Running and Brokenness

Welcome to fall: The season where running is the thing to do. Around here, fall and spring invite runners of all varieties to the sidewalks, streets, and paths around the city. All the cool kids are doing it. You cannot help but see droves of individual runners and groups of runners of all ages along the main street outside of our neighborhood. Our city holds a couple half marathons and one marathon each year. It abounds in running culture.

Once upon a time, I would have happily signed up for every event possible. I would have even won a few races. I was hard-core. I say that pridefully. On my best running days, I ran with freedom and joy, my feet barely touching the pavement. It was my element. A kindred spirit with Eric Liddell, I felt God’s pleasure when I ran. I hit a spirit-note that resonated with the music of heaven when I ran. Granted, on a bad day, I ran as a slave to an exercise addiction and an eating disorder, but isn’t that what the enemy loves to do? Pervert the holy into something toxic? It doesn’t take away its God-breathed intrinsic holiness.

Once upon a time, I celebrated the crisp leaves and even crisper air with an “easy ten-miler.” (And no, that is not an oxymoron, believe it or not.) October ushered in the most glorious running adventures imaginable, and best race times as well. Last October involved longing, because I was waiting out my six-week postpartum time after Elijah was born. There was promise of a restored body, however, and soon. Six weeks is not too long to wait to run again. There seemed to be no reason to think that I couldn’t return to my passion as soon as my pelvic floor could bear it. This October, however, I find myself coming face-to-face with grief and possible bitterness. I see the blissful, healthy runners, and jealousy electrifies my being like a bolt of lightning. I swear, it sometimes physically hurts to see them. I see even sluggish runners, straining with bodies that aren’t quite adapted to the exercise, and I feel envy.

They tell me I am sick. Even my two-year-old daughter tells me that I am sick. As I place the blood pressure cuff on my arm to take my blood pressure ten times a day, she says matter-of-factly, “Momma sick.” I don’t know where she got that. No one told her that I was sick. The poor (and wonderful) child is an intuitive genius. I never know how to respond. Anyway, I would be out there running with the best of them in a heartbeat if I were able. I would be up with the sunrise, pounding out those delicious miles on the trails in the park if I could stand up in the morning without my vision closing in and turning black. At this juncture, however, I am lucky if I can stand up long enough to push my daughter on a swing for five minutes, or take a shower without needed to lay down for half an hour to rest.

I am so beyond sad about my limitations. I never imagined that at 33, I wouldn’t be able to function at a normal level, even bordering on “disabled.” They tell me that this is chronic. It sounds like it gets better at times and worse at others. I’m still waiting to find out what is embedded in my brain, but for now, I am trying to swallow the bitter pill of POTS. With a one-year-old and a two-year-old. I have to have people drive us to playgroups just in case I pass out while we are playing ring-around-the-rosy. This feels humiliating and pathetic. I struggle to embrace grace toward myself to replace the self-loathing and shame that seems to naturally come with my long list of limitations. In my hubris and high expectations, I assume that chronic disability should not be placed upon a young mother of two toddlers. But who am I to call the shots? Who am I to assume that I would be immune to life and the “hard” that inevitably comes along with it? And who am I to assume that within the “hard” isn’t found the greatest treasure of all?

I want to be able to run. I want to be able to push a stroller for a simple walk. I want to be able to go grocery shopping, be alone with the kids, walk up a flight of stairs, stand up through an entire song at church, sweep our kitchen floor, and have dance parties in the living room with my daughter. Some day, maybe I will again. Maybe I will run next October. You never know. As self-indulgent as that rant feels, it leads me to my next moment of gratitude.

I have what really matters. I had the gift of snuggling with my sweet Elijah until he drifted off to sleep tonight, as I reveled in his half-asleep baby babbling. I experienced the privilege of watching my daughter read to herself for an entire hour, quoting the words of books by memory that we have read dozens of times together. I get the joy of cuddling in next to my sweet husband at night every night and feeling known and loved. For me, that connection in itself is an honor that I never imagined to be a possibility. I am engaging in unlikely relationships with individuals who are reaching out to me in my physical brokenness. My brokenness is a blessing. It is a magnifying glass through which I can really study the truly important and remarkable snapshots of life. These moments are mine, and they are where my life is found.

I am thankful for all of this…and I would also like to be able to run. I miss it.   But, really, life is beautiful, maybe even more beautiful from this perspective.

Reflections on the Wasteland

I often avoid thinking about my days (or 20 years) of anorexia.  It is painful and confusing, and frankly, I’m not entirely out of the woods.  Occasionally, however, on the nights when I am lying in bed unable to sleep, I face the unpleasant flashback of a particularly disturbing behavior or mindset that permeated my life at a certain point in my illness.  The other night, my mind flashed back to the basement of my college dorm.  It was circa 2005.  I was restricted from all exercise by the campus doctor, but my raging eating disorder knew no limits, so it found a way to sneak in my compulsive behaviors.  A lone stair climber had been placed in our dorm basement, after the campus gym had been upgraded to more up-to-date equipment.  As most anorexics experience, insomnia was my companion, so I spent hours each night in the literal dungeon of our dorm building, climbing a never-ending stair-case, sweating lakes under this outdated stair climber.  I remember the secrecy of slinking down the stairs to this isolated basement, terrified of being seen, only to return hours later, saturated head-to-toe with sweat, while even the most wild college students had been snoring away in their rooms for hours.  The main feelings that surface with this memory are loneliness, shame, and terror, the most poignant of these emotions being shame.

In the spring of 2001, I sensed God’s call to this private Christian college, hours away from home.  I was at a stronger point in recovery and had high hopes about what I would “accomplish” during my time on campus.  I crashed and burned upon my arrival at school, and I just never could kick the anorexia in college.  In fact, I was dangerously ill for the majority of my college career.  I felt like an utter failure.  I was unable to “create myself” as I had so optimistically dreamed I would be able to do as a college student.  I usually would walk the tight-rope of trying to maintain the lowest weight possible in order to not be kicked out of school and shipped to treatment.  I was blessed with incredibly compassionate individuals on campus, who cared for me and wanted what was best for me.  The student nurse at the health clinic at times required that I come in daily for weights and vitals, and the head of the counseling department worked with me weekly.  At times, I was sent home in order to receive higher levels of care, from residential and inpatient treatment.  I tried, desperately, to be a normal college student, but in my opinion, I failed. I was a college student with a chronic eating disorder, and I was utterly ashamed of myself.  Who was I to think that I could accomplish something huge for God during my time at college because He “called” me to this particular place?  I failed everyone.  Honestly, until tonight, I felt this deep sense of shame regarding God’s call on my life in 2001.

Tonight, however, as I was sharing my basement memories with my husband, he opened my eyes to a different, much more grace-filled perspective.  He said, “Maybe God called you to that particular school because He knew that the people there would help keep you alive.”  It was such a simple thought, I don’t know why I never thought of it.  Of course! God knew what He was doing.  He knew that I would struggle.  He knew that recovery was down the road of my life, quite a bit further, and that He needed to keep me alive to get there.  God’s calling wasn’t about my failure.  It was about His purpose and His greater plan.  Those people at the school were the ones that God would use to carry me through, albeit kicking and screaming, but alive, to the next step in the process.  I wasn’t able to recover at that point.  I had yet to uncover what the eating disorder was protecting me from.  But recovery was nevertheless down the road, and I needed to survive to make it down the road.  Thanks to the compassionate people who persevered with me through my hell, I am able to know freedom now in ways that I never thought possible.  I also don’t have to look back on my college years with a sense of shame and self-loathing for staying “stuck” in my eating disorder.  I can reflect on them with gratitude, knowing that God was actively working to sustain me and nurture me through my pain and suffering to get me to the place of wholeness and healing that I experience today.