Puzzles and Surrender

Puzzles and Surrender

This summer, our family had the privilege of spending a week at a friend’s house on the lake.  I was excited to find a 1000-piece puzzle of a cottage lake scene in their collection of games in the living room.  I hadn’t pieced together a puzzle larger than 24 pieces since my little ones were born. Upon opening the box filled with a broken picture, my brain lit up like a Christmas tree. The challenge of 1000 pieces of chaos seemed intoxicating as the pieces summoned me to transform them into a coherent whole.  I quickly fell into the puzzle trance (come on, puzzlers, you know what I’m talking about), and within a day or two, the chaos resolved into a beautiful portrait of peace and calm.


Thus began my puzzle addiction.  Since that vacation,  I have set up a card table in our living room, having a complicated puzzle in the works at all times.  And for me, the more complicated, the better.  I tried a 2000-piece puzzle, but I couldn’t find a surface in the house large enough to accommodate its expansive dimensions. I really love the picture-mosaic puzzles, where the larger images are composed of thousands of tiny pictures.  This complexity adds an extra layer of challenge and adds about a day or two to the course of completion.

Now, aside from keeping my brain agile and engaged, I think that for me puzzle-doing holds something more symbolic than just a time-consuming activity.

My life seems like chaos.  My brain feels like scrambled eggs.  My medical situation feels like that 2000 piece-puzzle that I can’t seem to find a surface large enough to complete.  Not only does it feel like that 2000-piece-puzzle, but it feels like 2000 pieces from 2000 separate puzzles that will never fit together.

And it’s not just my medical situation.  It is my scrambled, jumbled, broken history that seems like it will never make sense in the present.  It is my chaotic regimen of medications that alleviate a few symptoms but create their own awful set of side-effects that sometimes seem infinitely worse than the symptoms that they treat: Side-effects that alter my personality, my mental state, my ability to remain sane and stable.  It is enough to make my brain feel like it is going to ooze out of my ears in a pharmaceutical-enduced alphabet soup.   It is the endless questions about my future and the future of my family, as we navigate life in its insecure complexity.

The puzzle of my life seems like it will never in a million years create any kind of cohesive whole, let alone a beautiful portrait.  So, I work on puzzles that make sense. The puzzles that have edge pieces, corners, patterns, and colors that fit together.  No matter how chaotic it seems when you open the box, you can trust that in a day or so, you will be gazing at an orderly, well-formed, complete masterpiece.

But here’s the thing about life:  It may not make sense on this side of heaven.  We may not have a complete picture while we are still breathing air here on this broken ball of earth.

And here’s the thing about God:  We also will not be able to put together the puzzle of the Master-Creator on this side of heaven.  God refuses to fit in our “box,” and so will not fit together like one of my clear-cut puzzles.

My intellectual human brain likes concepts that fit neatly in a cohesive whole.  I like questions that have complete and clear-cut answers.  I like to feel larger than ideas and questions, and in order to feel larger than ideas,  I have to be able to fully wrap my mind around them. I am larger than the puzzles that I create.  I can be “creator” and “master” of the puzzle.

No matter how popular Henley’s “Invictus” poem might be, I am not “creator” and “master” of my life.  I am also not “creator” and “master” of God.  In surrender,  I release the need to fully understand.  I let go of the drive to put every piece together in order to fully wrap my mind around my past and present.  I release the need to be able to predict and control my future.  This process of surrender is counter-intuitive.  It goes against my desperate drive for control and mastery.  It tramples on my self-sufficient pride.  And I am confident that it is the only way to peace and wholeness.

Ironically, the only path toward growth and wholeness is surrender.  What if I took the pieces of my chaotic puzzles in my hands and lifted them, handing them over in sweet abandon to the Creator who actually knows what He is doing?  What if I stopped asking “why” and started seeking the face of the One who intimately knows me, past, present, and future?  What if I left my puzzle-master pursuit to the cardboard cut-out pieces on my card table in my living room? What if in doing so,  I could sincerely sing “Whatever my lot, He has taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul‘”?

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The Old Thoughts in the New Life

The Old Thoughts in the New Life

I had an old thought last night. It was about ending my life. That thought does not fit in my today-life. It was part of an old story that was my life a long time ago. My today-life has become stressful and overwhelming. We are being hit on all sides and at every angle as a family. It is all that I can do sometimes to keep breathing and moving forward minute to minute, second to second.

I sent my husband to the ER with my poor sick three-year-old, and stayed home to tend to my also sick two-year-old.   Lily had collapsed in the hall. Croup and asthma don’t work well together. I collapsed with her. My husband swept her up, buckled her in her car seat, and barreled off to the emergency room while I sat with my youngest and wept in anxiety, fear, and inadequacy. She will be fine, but last night, neither of us was fine. My life became too heavy for a moment. As I cuddled with my youngest in my king-size bed, I felt my heart ripped in half. I wanted, needed, to be at the hospital with my eldest. Yet I couldn’t. I’m too sick. And my youngest needed me. We are at T-minus 48 hours until my husband goes out of town for a week, and I feel the crud that has attacked my children descending on my own vulnerable body. How will we survive this one? Will we survive this one?

Waiting for my sleeping medicine to kick in, that old thought assaulted me for the first time in years. You could end it all. Shocked, I guffawed at the absurdity of that thought in the context of my meaningful and fulfilling life. At the same time, a part of me leaned into its familiarity. Horrified at my inclination toward this suicidal thought, I prayed that my sleeping medication would kick in and knock me out so that I could wake up the next morning fully planted in the present again.   It did. I slipped into sleep, in that massive bed with a tiny two-year-old and no husband, next door to an empty room where my three-year-old should be sleeping.

Oh, the speed bumps in life are brutal.   When half of your family is not under your roof with you when you so desperately need them. When you are not under the same roof of the pediatric wing of the hospital with your sick child when you feel that she so desperately needs you. Someone told me today ,”It’s not fair,” when I told her the medical drama that is occurring in my family.   I know that fairness is just a construct of our fallen human minds that leads to nasty comparison, leading to either pride or envy. With that said, it certainly doesn’t feel fair at times. To move from hellish situation to hellish situation, squeezing in quick breaths every once in a while. To feel like you are standing on the tips of your tip toes in an unsteady ocean, with your nose bobbing in and out of the choppy water as you spit and sputter, trying to come up for air. It does not feel fair.

Suffering never feels fair. To pursue suffering would be utter insanity. And yet, suffering can serve as a sharpening tool, as a refining fire, burning and destroying any sense of self-sufficiency or pride in our own resources. If I ever thought I could do life on my own, that notion is snuffed out when I collapse on the floor daily, when my daughter is whisked off my husband in the middle of the night unable to breathe, when I come up against that same old thought that haunted me for years. I can’t do this. Not in my own strength. I’m at the end of me. I’m exhausted, spent, maxed out. It has to be God. Suffering is a quick trip to the end of ourselves, where we find at the end either despair or God. Out of those two options, I don’t know what inclines some people to end with despair and others to land on God. I do know, however, that I have had seasons of my life where despair seemed to be the clearest answer. This is not one of those seasons. Suffering is driving me to the cross. The old thoughts of suicide drive me not to actual attempts, but to my knees in confession of my dependence on my life-source. Thomas Merton states, “ Suffering becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to receive more abundantly from the mercy of God.”

It is no good to worship the actual suffering in life. In suffering and in abundance, we can know God. We worship and believe in a God who can transform suffering into mercy. This knowledge transforms the phrase “God is good all the time” into so much more than a mere cliché. It gives me the assurance that no matter what floods my life, even if the mountains give way and fall into the heart of the sea, even if I lose my own life, my Lord loves me and is for me. His presence is good, and He never leaves. Therefore, wherever I go, I am safe.

Psalm 46: 1-3

God is our refuge and strength,

    a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,

    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam,

    though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

Turning Our Eyes Upon Jesus

Turning Our Eyes Upon Jesus

The last few weeks have been difficult.  Last October was a bad-health-month (like a bad-hair-day, only like 1000 times worse), and it seems that this October followed suit.  Maybe my illnesses have least favorite seasons.  Being sick feels manageable some fraction of the time, but over the past month, it has NOT felt do-able.  Yesterday was particularly bad, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  I felt poured out, wrung out, and blown-dry with a hair dryer.  I had what felt like nothing left.  My husband was shivering in bed with 102-degree fever, sputtering, “Is this what chills feel like?” My children were acting like the three-year-old and two-year-old that they are, and I was dancing on the impatient side of parenting.  I was not savoring each moment with them, that’s for sure.

Bed time is sacred time at our house.  We read, rock, and sing about Jesus. The kids have special song requests, each one gets his and her own time in the rocking chair with mom, and I get to sniff their sweet little babyish heads before bed (I think that baby head-sniffing works better at calming my adrenaline rushes than any medication that I have found).  In between Jesus songs, my daughter usually comes up with deep questions that I am not prepared for, like, “Mommy, what is death?”, or like, “How is Jesus going to come out of my heart so that I can sit on His lap and rub His beard like I rub daddy’s beard?”. I stutter and stammer for a few minutes, and then God in His wisdom usually helps me communicate some little nugget of truth that hopefully her three-year-old mind can comprehend.  She deems my response acceptable, closes her eyes, and settles her fair curly head into the bend of my arm, safe and comforted, trusting that she knows enough now to rest for the night.

Bedtime last night did not feel sacred. I was an unholy terror, and I hurried and scolded my kids, stretched too thin in all angles.  I just wanted to go to bed and have the day over. I was hurting physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and I was done fighting.  Rocking a child, however, seems to be the antithesis of hurry.  The act of sitting in glider with my son and singing a JJ Heller lullaby was enough to snap me out of my impatient self-centered focus. I pleaded with God to help me to be present with my children, at least for the final few minutes of their day. I sniffed his freshly washed hair for a couple seconds longer, and laid him in his crib with his blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you…”.

My daughter met me at the chair, and asked for the Jesus song. Which Jesus song?  You know, mom, the one where Jesus is REALLY BIG.  Where His face shines.  I sing the hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, and she sings the chorus with me word-for-word.  After the song, my big-hearted prophetess child says with the concern and agony of a 25-year-old, “Mom, why does it feel like Jesus isn’t here?  If it is so dark in this world, and Jesus is light, He can’t be here, can He?  And Jesus is too big to be in my heart.  He’s not in my heart.  He’s too big.  He would break my heart.  Is Jesus not here?”

On this night, October 31st, a night of darkness, when barely three-year-old daughter questions the existence of her Savior, my throat swelled, and my eyes filled, and I said, “Baby, I know how you feel. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like Jesus is here, but He is.  I promise. He promises.  And it is dark, but His light is here.”  I said a few more things.  I felt a lot more things. She asked a few more despairing questions, and she finally settled into the tension of not seeing yet believing.  She was okay.  Jesus was with Her.  She could rest.

I laid her down, tucked her princess comforter around her tiny body, blessed her, prayed over her and her brother, closed the door, and sobbed.  OH, I know how she feels, but I never imagined that she would feel this so soon.  But God met me in her questioning.  In this dark night, full of pain in all forms, God met me through the need of my darling daughter. He answered my despairing questions through my own mouth as  I answered her despairing questions.  We will keep trusting.  He is present. He is good. He loves us.  He is sovereign.  My sweet dreamers will learn to trust and hope, as I am learning to trust and hope, in the One who is present, gentle, and faithful. We can’t always see, but we know because we have seen undeniable manifestations of His goodness.  We therefore

Turn our eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.  (Helen H. Limmel, 1922).

Who is Scared of the Dark?

A five-year-old runs house-to-house around her rural neighborhood in the early days of October just before dusk approaches. The sun is still entirely visible on the horizon, and she is oblivious to the impending darkness that has continued to approach earlier and earlier due to the recent fall equinox. After only five years of living with the shifts in the seasonal patterns, she has not yet come to expect them.  In the days prior, she could play for much longer after dinner with her friends in her neighborhood.  They could play hide-and-seek and race on their bikes for what seemed like an eternity before she was beckoned in for bath time. Still early in the evening, she shudders as she senses the darkness begin to descend upon the evening.  A haze seems to distort her vision, and she realizes that the sun has disappeared when she wasn’t watching. Fear and foreboding flood her little body as she sprints for her home.  She doesn’t even stop to bid her buddies a farewell for the day.  She is too desperate to escape the canopy of darkness that chases her home.  She does not understand this fear of the dark, but only knows the experience of dread, helplessness, and torment that comes with it.

Twenty years later, I still have the echoes of the visceral response that comes with the descending of the darkness on fall and winter evenings.  God has undoubtedly healed, and I am still reminded of my early winter prisons as the temperature drops and the days shorten.

There is this disorder called SAD. How appropriate.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder that awakens during autumn and goes dormant with the arrival of spring.  There is a high correlation between decreased moods (depression) and a scarcity of light.  Why is this?  The scientific answer involves decreased levels of melatonin from the sun, serotonin, and circadian rhythm disruptions. SAD, a subtype of depression, involves absence of hope, energy, worth, motivation, concentration, and can even lead to suicide.  SAD is directly related to a loss of light.  Because we are complex biological, psychological, social, and spiritual beings, I believe that it is impossible do divorce this condition from what we know about darkness in the context of Jesus’ relationship with light and darkness.  This does not downplay the physiological and psychological mechanisms involved in the manifestation of mental illness.  It is real.  And we are super-complex.

I’ve been wrestling with this whole issue of darkness as I study Genesis 1:3-5 and 14-19. Is the darkness intrinsically evil?  I could see that in verse 4, it says “God saw that the light was good” (ESV).  It never mentions that God says that the darkness is good, yet in verses 14-19, He created day and night, and he created seasons.  He saw that these were good.  In the midst of this question that lies in the safety of intellectual theological inquiry, I ask a more difficult question:  God, where were you in my darkness, in my nights, and in my suffering?

Much darkness and light that we see mentioned in scripture is symbolic, but there is something about real, legitimate darkness that brings about fear, pain, and agony.  Genesis 1:16 says, “God made two great lights–the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night–and the stars” (ESV).  He created lights to “rule” the day and the night.  In this text, I see His promise to me. The darkness may seem incredibly dark.  The night might seem obscure and black.  But His light is there, and it is ruling.  He rules the dark. Always.  He is always sovereign.  Always supreme.  He is the light, and He rules the darkness (literal and figurative).  We are desperate for light.  Our bodies reflect this in incredible ways as we battle physical struggles as the result of lack of natural sunlight and shortened days.  Our spirits, however, do not have to ever be deprived of the light that Christ has to offer.  We can always soak in His rays, even on the bleakest days or the darkest nights.  When we aren’t soaking in H       is rays, tiny pinpricks of His light are enough to exert control over the darkness.

God faithfully established His stars to light even those darkest nights for that five-year-old child. That child was hidden under the shadow of His wings. Darkness did not win, and darkness will not win. Light was created with complete dominion over its power. As days shorten and I begin to face reminders of the dark, I will continue to worship the King of light.

 

 

Peace

Peace. We pray for peace. We light the peace candle on this, the second Sunday of Advent. We ask for peace on earth. I ask for peace of heart and mind. I may be selfish that I can’t see beyond my weary war-stricken brain to a weary world, but it is where I am. The opposite of peace? For a long time, I have considered peace’s antonym to be division, which seems to be the definition of my internal state. I cannot even go through a train of thought without having an all-out brawl with myself, or one of my selves. This is the state of my parts. Many seem to hate each other. Peace? Not yet. But we aren’t really yet to the idea of peace on earth either. We still have wars and countless conflicts, and the world keeps turning, and we still have Christmas. We still hold onto hope. We hold onto the promises of Christmas. Peace. The second Sunday, followed by joy. JOY. Peace for me is unity, and not a political type of unity. Honestly, if I could achieve an internal unity, I would be in the running for the happiest person on the planet award. Shalom. It means among other things, completion. Wholeness. I long for wholeness. I long for my brain to come untangled and stop pulling against itself, the different threads and chains and ribbons to be woven and braided into something beautiful. For now, it seems like an endless chaos of interminable confusion. For me, the peace that I pray for this Christmas is internal. I need clarity, parts working together. I need my mind to no longer be a war zone but a sanctuary, a cathedral. Lord Jesus, come with PEACE. Shalom.

Come, Lord Jesus

It is interesting how the Advent season seems to amplify the pain and brokenness in the world. Folks drink cider, put up colored lights and trees, sing songs, and go to church. Businesses are shut down.
Christmas Day.
Christ-worship Day.
Children are molested. People are murdered. Homeless ignored. It is bone-cold and dark. Evil is profoundly present. In fact, in light of the “glow” of Christmas, the darkness appears that much darker. To me, one of the greatest tragedies and let-downs of Christmas is the increased awareness of the agony and ache that remains–that all of this feels like it shouldn’t be present, not on this supposedly special day. Not on Christmas. Not on Jesus’ birthday celebration. That name, Jesus, that name that is supposed to dispel the darkness, doesn’t yet seem to be powerful enough even on His own celebratory day. What a sham! What a travesty! What a slap in the face!
Magical? Hell, no. It always seemed more cursed than magical. On a night in mid-December a few years ago, I had my second of three attempts at my life. On the second week of Advent. Of the coming. Advent couldn’t save me from my destructiveness, could it? My world remained hell on earth through the Christmas season. I was still sentenced to suffer. I particularly did not get a day off on Christmas. Not when you are in treatment centers, psych wards, hospital rooms, the prison of your corroding consciousness.
No, evil and its consequences don’t honor “Holy-days.” They actually just rub salt in the wound just that much deeper. They hold themselves up to reinforce just how screwed up I am. I can’t even embrace joy and celebrate for 24 hours, let alone 24 days of Advent.
Hell on earth doesn’t honor “Holy-days.” Abuse doesn’t honor them. In fact, it seems to lord itself over them.
And all the more, we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Weeping, we cry it. With all of our desperate hearts, we wail it until our voices crack and we crumble. “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel.”
That name.
Lord Jesus.
Emmanuel.
Prince of Peace.
Wonderful Counselor.
Be those things. FOR ONCE. FOR ONE DAY. Is that too much to ask? ADVENT.

And yet….
Maybe this is why we have Advent: To make us yearn that much harder. Let His kingdom come. To make us hope, that there will be a day of PEACE.