Category Archives: Aging

Sing Along With Me

Last week, as I was leaving a family dinner at my parent’s house, my Dad hugged me and said quickly “We need to talk.”  He sounded concerned, and so I decided to take him out for coffee later that week so that we could have some privacy.  My Dad is retired and has dementia, so he is home with my Mom 99% of the time; because he can no longer drive, his life has become limited to the things he can do with my mother.  I figured that my Mom could use some time alone, and my Dad could use an excuse to get out of the house, so we set a date to go out for coffee.

By the time I could get to my parent’s house to pick up my father, he had already had two cups of coffee and really didn’t feel like having more caffeine, so instead we opted for a late lunch.  I gave him several options, but his dementia kept interfering with the conversation.  After about three rounds of asking him to pick what kind of food he wanted for lunch, I finally blurted out  “Tacos or salad?” and he quickly replied “Are you crazy? Tacos!”  I’m still learning how to effectively communicate through the fog of his dementia.

While we were still on the way to our lunch, I asked him what he wanted to talk about, and he opened by saying “You probably don’t want to hear this.”  My standard response to anyone who says such a thing to me is “It doesn’t matter what I want to hear, if what you’re saying needs to be said.”

I should have kept my mouth shut.

For the next 10 minutes, I had to fight to overcome the urge to put my fingers in my ears and loudly sing “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!”

What is it with older parents who suddenly start revealing deeply personal things to their children?  For several years now I have thought perhaps my parents were just unusually candid, but recently a colleague told me that her father has been making similarly shocking (and occasionally unwelcome) revelations to her.

It must be one of the provisions of joining AARP: Once you get over 65, you must overshare with your adult children.

The funny thing is that until recently, I thought that my parent’s habit of oversharing was simply an extension of their honesty with me when I was a teenager. My parents never hid the truth from me about their own teenage mistakes, challenges, and outright failures; my parents believed that I could learn from their life lessons without having to repeat them myself.  Even back then, before I realized how rare it was to receive such a gift of honesty from my parents, I greatly appreciated their candidness.  Please understand, I was not one of those saintly teenagers who never gives their parent’s any problems.  The truth is that I was an obnoxious teenager (especially during my freshman year of college) and I know that I tested the limits of their patience many, many times. Despite that, I valued my relationship with my parents and respected them. Hearing stories about their struggles with self-esteem, or the social cost of refusing to go out drinking with their friends, or the ways they were singled out as nerds because they valued learning…it made it easier for me to believe that high school only seemed like it would last forever. It made it easier for me to believe that one day I would find my group and discover that I was perfectly normal.  The idea that I would one day ‘fit in’ was balm to my incredibly nerdy, chubby, over-achieving, academically-focused self.

Let’s not discuss the fact that I am still nerdy, chubby, and a notorious over-achiever; the only reason I’m not currently academically focused is because I’m not in school anymore. I have, however, found my people and feel like I am relatively normal.  The fact that I found a husband who is almost exactly like me…except for the chubby part…has made a huge difference as well.

Back to my parents.

So there I was, in the car with my Dad, listening to him say things that in all actuality I did not want to hear. Let’s just say that his sharing was intensely personal.  All I could do was listen, because I didn’t have any good advice for him; I’ve never experienced anything like what he’s experiencing right now.  I’m 53 years old and in relatively good health. My father is 76 and he has vascular dementia; the stroke that brought this on happened eight years ago.  He has been slowly losing himself ever since, and the loss gets greater and faster every day.  That’s what dementia does: it steals your “Self.” You think you know who you used to be and who you are now, but what you think you know keeps shifting and changing and getting lost in the haze that fills your memory.  Dementia steals your ability to observe yourself and your performance; it keeps you from honestly admitting to all that you cannot do and from understanding how your deficit impacts those around you.  Consequently, my father cannot drive anymore and he blames my mother for that even though he failed to pass a driving evaluation designed to evaluate people with dementia. My father cannot travel anymore because he becomes disoriented and afraid in unfamiliar places, but he swears that he and my mom don’t travel because she doesn’t want to go anywhere. He doesn’t remember his own behaviors towards my mother over the last few years (or months, actually) and so he can’t understand why she reacts to him the way she does when he raises his voice.  Dementia has stolen the life my father imagined that he and my mother would have after he retired, and now dementia is even stealing his past.  During our lunch together I was stunned to discovered that my father is forgetting key details of his parent’s lives, which tells me how advanced his dementia has become. Any attempts on my part to jog his memory and try to remind him of the history that I remember (especially the things that have occurred in his family since I became an adult) only serve to frustrate and anger him.

I sat in the car, listening to all my Dad had to say, feeling helpless to relieve his emotional distress and helpless to stop things from getting even worse.

Just as we got to the restaurant my father turned to me and said “I know that I shouldn’t tell you these things, but I feel safe telling them to you.”  He could barely look at me.

So I looked at him and said “Daddy, you tell me anything you want to tell me. You get no judgment from me, no matter what.  I’ll always be here to listen to you.”

This is all my father has to give me now.  He can give me his truth, no matter how twisted and ill-remembered it is.  He can’t help me fix things around the house anymore because he can’t follow instructions.  He can’t give me good advice because he can’t keep his own wisdom from getting twisted up with vague memories and everything comes out wrong.  There is so much that he can’t do for me, and so many, many things that I cannot really do for him either.  But neither of us needs the other to do anything, really.

Maybe all that is left for us to do is to listen.

My Dad can tell me things that he knows I don’t want to hear because he knows that I am safe, and that word means more to me than I can tell you.  My Daddy trusts me, and that is the greatest gift he could possibly give me.

My prayer today is that God grant us each someone safe to share our truth with, and that God make us a safe space for someone who needs to say the words they know that no one wants to hear.

Amen.

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The Full Catastrophe

It’s family disaster week.

Actually, there is nothing “family disaster” in what I’m about to say; in fact, what I’m about to say probably reflects the same family life most people have in their fifties. Some days are good, some days are bad, some days are both good and bad, and some days feel like Murphy moved into your house, took over your bank account, and decided that he personally has a vendetta against you.

I hate that Murphy guy.

This will serve as your one and only trigger warning: if you are already overloaded with family drama, I’ll see you next week. Otherwise feel free to read on.

So…the mom brag moment!

My oldest daughter called me and told me that wonderful things are happening at her job. Since she hasn’t told the world yet I won’t give you details, but let’s just say that the money is getting significantly better, she’s about to become very happy with her job and her commute, and she hasn’t felt this valuable to a company in a really long time.

It was so surprising that she was a little stunned and overwhelmed, but I’m here to tell you that she totally and absolutely deserves all of it.  Yes I’m her mom but dang that girl is bright and capable!

To put the icing on that cupcake, she told me that her partner (who is a professional photographer who does mostly BMX races) has been marketing himself a great deal in San Francisco because she travels there twice a month for work…so why not fly there together, you know? Well, after showing his work around town he got hired for a 3 day commercial shoot for a major fashion designer!!  Seriously, when I heard this I squealed out loud and he’s not even my kid.  Again…they haven’t told everyone yet and so I am keeping some details under my hat, but OMG a major (MAJOR) fashion designer!

After our phone call was over I was so excited that I danced all around my house as I got ready for my Zumba class, where I danced rather exuberantly and with great joy.  I had to let the energy out somewhere!

It has been a good couple of weeks for my girls. My youngest passed her certification exam and now is a certified Pharmacy Tech (hello, big raise!) and my son-in-law got a great job at an airport with benefits and everything.  Considering that he is thinking of going into aircraft maintenance, this is a good job to have.

Some days are good. Some weeks are good.

And then…

I have written previous posts about the challenges of aging and how important it is admit and accept that you are going to require someone else to take care of you. I have written about the importance of working through the emotions of becoming more and more disabled before you come to that point, and understanding that aging doesn’t have to be about loss.

Yeah, my parents don’t read this blog.

My dad is 76 years old and has dementia; my mom is 70 years old and chronically ill.  Both of them are slowly losing their ability to be independent, although neither of them wants to admit it.

My dad is unwilling to admit that his dementia has reduced him to the point where he cannot live independently and needs a caregiver. My mom has been filling the caregiver role for eight years, with increasingly less and less physical ability to do so, and more and more emotional and mental stress related to my dad’s decline.

I feel like we are at the breaking point.

I talk to my dad and he unloads about his frustration and overwhelming confusion in combination with his anger with my mom.  You see, he still believes that he is capable of independence, and he keeps trying to live his life the way that he used to. He thinks that it’s my mom’s anxiety that causes her to stop him from doing maintenance around the house or driving. Sadly, my dad’s dementia has made it impossible for him to evaluate his own functioning, or lack of it. And he does keep trying to function, despite the fact that the results are consistently bad.  Over and over he’ll try to “be of use” and do the things he used to do around the house, but since he no longer remembers details or how things function he ends up breaking or destroying clothes, appliances, fixtures, you name it. He has lost or destroyed so many things that my mom is at her wits end, so she tries to stop him or she ends up criticizing him because he is doing it wrong and refusing to receive instructions on how to do it right. This causes him to become belligerent and angry and then he becomes aggressive and things just keep escalating until there is a huge confrontation.

That’s when I get frantic, emotional phone calls from my mom telling me just how bad it is, how agitated and aggressive my father is becoming, how exhausted and overwhelmed she is…and I gather resources and try to offer help to her…which she refuses most of the time.  Recently she revealed to me just how aggressive my father becomes when he gets agitated, and the last time I was at their home she had me take pictures of the bruises. It broke my heart to think that my father has become that guy and that my mother feels trapped in the situation.

Disaster.

Believe me, I have tried all sorts of things, and I have gathered all sorts of resources including an elder law attorney. Nothing is getting either of them to realize how explosive this situation is becoming.

I was up until almost 2am last night running it over and over in my mind, furious with both of them for the choices they have made and are making. I have a huge list of fears, with each one more terrifying than the other until the final one involves such a horrible occurrence that I would lose both my parents at once: one to death, and the other to the criminal justice system.

All morning I have been trying to interject more logic and less fear and anger into the discourse in my head, and I have realized that no matter how much I want to, I cannot make their choices for them. As much as I love and want to protect them, every attempt to help them make a decision that would admit that they need help because of their increasing debility seems to create a backlash of resistance and petulance out of my dad, which only serves to increase my mother’s anger with him.  I don’t want my desire to “fix things” to become the reason they end up in the next screaming, violent confrontation.

I fear that the best course of action is to sit back and let their choices drive what comes next and hope that none of my fears comes true. But I’m telling you, I’m going to get a hold of that elder law attorney and get papers that would allow me to file for conservatorship and get them filled out in advance. I’m also going to ask her for a referral to an attorney that deals with criminal charges against compromised adults. I can’t save them from themselves, but I can arm myself with information, prepared paperwork, and referrals.

And then I am going to sit back, close my eyes and meditate on raises, promotions, new jobs, photo shoots, and the incredible joy I feel when I think of what amazing women my daughters have become and what amazing men they have chosen as their partners.

In the movie Zorba the Greek, one of the characters gets asked if he is married and he says “I have a wife, children, house, everything…the full catastrophe.”

Life is a catastrophe, indeed. A wonderful, excruciatingly painful and beautiful catastrophe. I would complain, but then I think of Jesus’ life and all that He went through and I realize that even my Savior lived the full catastrophe, even if he never had a house and may not have had a wife and children.  It turns out that this is the nature of incarnate life, and I don’t know that I would honestly want it to be any other way.

 

Epic Fail Birthday

This has been one of those weeks when I feel like an epic failure.

Not that everything has gone wrong this week. Far from it; in fact, many good things have happened this week. What has me feeling like an epic failure is that something went wrong with one of my clients—like wrong—and she quit therapy abruptly, which usually causes me to seriously question if I am burnt out, if I am in need of a tune-up of my skills, or if I am just slowly losing my mojo as a therapeutic person.

Obviously, I cannot share any specifics of what happened, since I want to (and legally need to) respect my client’s privacy. Let it suffice to say that we had a major parting of the ways over a religious issue; my client is very conservative and is an activist in this area, and I am a committed progressive that does not believe that my morals should ever dictate what other people are allowed to do. We have laws to dictate behavior; after that, my morals should stop with me.

I have to admit that I view this person as an extremist. I say that because she holds an ethical viewpoint that labels anyone who disagrees with this viewpoint as immoral and of lower personal character.  I also view her as an extremist because she spouts “statistics” and “facts” without really examining if those statistics and facts meet the test of simple logic, which means her belief is unexamined and also unchallengeable.  After all, how do you challenge someone’s viewpoint once they have chosen to simply accept whatever data they are fed by their ‘leader’ without any critical thinking?

This is where I got into trouble with her.  She was sharing her views and statistics, and I lost my ability to smile and remain silent.  And of course, that loss is why I feel like an epic failure right now. I’m not okay with losing my patience with someone and arguing against their opinion. I’m not supposed to speak sternly to a client, ever. I’m not okay when I act like this whether it happens with clients or just with people in general. Sadly, I find myself behaving like this often enough for me to be embarrassed to admit to it.

It’s my birthday today, and I keep hoping that my increasing age will grant me greater amounts of patience, compassion, silence (oh how I could use some ability to remain silent!), and wisdom.  While I often get really nice presents for my birthday, God has not yet chosen to shower me with the gifts of patience, silence, and wisdom.  I don’t know that I actually need to be more compassionate that I am, but I often think that I would be better at tolerating extremist viewpoints or just generally stupid behaviors and viewpoints if I was more compassionate.

Then again, maybe if I didn’t give a damn that would help too.

But I digress.

I keep waiting to grow up, to become more of all the things I thought I would become with age. It isn’t happening, at least not the way I want it to.  I won’t deny that age has granted me a number of characteristics that I didn’t possess at 22. I told my oldest daughter not long ago that the greatest gift of aging is that you calm the hell down. Actually, I think I said it more colorfully than that. Nonetheless, I have calmed down a great deal since my 20s. I have also become a bit more comfortable with having others tell me that I have screwed up. Sometime in my 30s I decided that being wrong isn’t as horrible as we like to make it out to be.  Discovering you are wrong is embarrassing and it hurts your pride a little, but only just a little, as long as you don’t act like you’re being accused of a capital crime and start defending yourself as if your life was on the line. The truth is that being wrong represents an opportunity to learn from someone, to thank them for their honest feedback, and to prove yourself to be a responsible and accountable adult. Oh yeah…and you get to be certain, at least for a moment, that you are now just a little ‘righter’ than you were a minute ago. Nice, huh?

Growing older has also granted me the wisdom of realizing that things are never as great or as bad as they seem, and that I need to step back and let things unfold, instead of going straight into freak-out mode. I used to freak-out over the slightest little thing that didn’t go well…now I moan a little and grump a bit, and then get on with dealing with whatever it was that just happened. I suppose that this could come under the heading of ‘Calm the hell down’ but it also contains a great big piece of ‘Look for the good to show up, because God always sneaks in a little good into everything’. God has a funny habit of blessing me even in the midst of the ickier parts of life, which has led me to start looking for the hidden blessings in just about everything.

You know, considering just how much aging has blessed me with already, I guess that it’s reasonable to hope that sometime in the next 30 years, God will sneak a little patience, silence, and wisdom into this hard head of mine. Maybe He’ll drop a little more compassion into my heart just for fun as well.  In fact, perhaps this particular epic failure will contain the seeds of great things…a few more hidden blessings from God.

So for my birthday, it appears that God has gifted me with hope that I’m still growing up and growing wise, and that is a very nice present indeed. Well played, God.  Well played.

My Curmudgeon Speaks

Yesterday I drove a friend home from her chemotherapy appointment. She was starting a new regimen and wasn’t sure how she’d react to it, so she wasn’t sure she would be able to drive herself home.  I was grateful that I was able to help her, considering there isn’t much else that I can do to help her deal with having terminal cancer.  She, on the other hand, was sorry that she had to inconvenience me.  She is uncomfortable with the ways that cancer has forced her to rely on friends for help with stuff she used to be able to easily handle on her own.  I think anyone in her situation would be terrified of just how helpless they could become and how much they might have to rely on others to care for them and for their family before the whole thing would be over.

And you can’t really blame someone for feeling like that.

I don’t think anyone likes to ask for help from others. For some of us, asking for help makes us feel weak and incapable. Here in the US, we like to think of ourselves as independent and resourceful; we don’t rely on others, they rely on us.  How that equation is supposed to work is beyond me. If everyone relies only on themselves, then being reliable for others is impossible.  The math of this equation is beyond me, and I have two master’s degrees, so I’m not going to try and figure that one out. Instead, let’s deal with the assumptions that come with asking for help, one at a time.

Here we go, folks:

The truth is that humans are weak and incapable— every day, all the time, in one aspect or another of our life and health we humans are weak and incapable. Get used to it. No matter how healthy you are today, your body is ultimately frail and bound to fail.  Eventually we will all need the services of a surgeon, a physical therapist, a mental health counselor, an oncologist, a rheumatologist, or a neurologist (just to name a few.)  Eventually the frailty of our body will cause us to rely on our family, our friends, hired help, and even skilled nursing facilities just to be able to attend to our daily needs.  Our bodies are fascinating machines, capable of so much but they are also capable of terrible amounts of sickness, frailty, and failure.

Get used to it.  It isn’t a pleasant thought, but it is important to remember that birth is a terminal disease, as the mortality rate for human beings (as it is for all other living creatures) is 100%. If you are born, you will eventually die, and the majority of people will not come on their death suddenly but instead through a process of decline and increasing disability that will require the assistance of others in order to meet simple daily needs.

Having said that (rather bluntly…but I was hoping that we could talk turkey here on this blog)…

As a counselor, I frequently ask my clients why they have not asked friends and family for assistance when they are really struggling, and I get a host of reasons:

“I don’t want to be a bother.”

“I can never repay them for all their help.”

“I don’t want to be beholden to anyone.”

For my thoughts about the first one of those reasons, see the section above.  You will be a bother occasionally, and that’s the way life works. Get used to being human for the sake of everyone who loves you, please.

But what is our issue with needing to ‘repay’ the good that is done for us?

We seem to view assistance from others as if it is a loan we receive from the bank, requiring repayment with interest.  This is especially evident in the statement “I don’t want to be beholden to anyone.”  This betrays the belief that any assistance we receive is like a debt held over our head to be called in at random when it will be most painful or perhaps even destructive.

Folks…our friends and family members are not loan sharks lurking around, hoping that we’ll need something from them so that they can squeeze us later for whatever we’re worth. If the people who supposedly ‘love’ us behave like that, perhaps it’s time to consider finding a new group of friends and putting some distance between ourselves and our extended families, because there is no love in behavior like that.

The other thing that this attitude betrays is a transactional sense of friendship and love. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”  There is nothing wrong with reciprocity; it gets a lot done in this world. The thing about reciprocity is that it creates a closed system where you only ever give to someone who can give back in equal amounts.  The implication of such a system is that we often end up refusing to give to someone who cannot give back in equal amounts, and that puts service and random acts of kindness out in the cold. It also reduces all of our most loving relationships to simple transactions where we give only so that we can receive in kind.

And that seems to be a huge problem in our society these days: many of us refuse to give to others unless there is something explicit that we can receive in return.  And don’t start on me about how giving to others “feels good”, because the people who refuse to be beholden to others only give for the “good feeling” when their giving is to faceless others like the poverty-stricken folks in Africa.  It’s easy to give to faceless others, and so much harder to give or receive when the face before you is not only known, but in close relation to you; giving like that creates the emotional debt of “beholden-ness” that these people are trying so hard to avoid.

What would happen in the world if we simply abolished the concept of repayment when it comes to kind acts? What would happen if no one was ever beholden to the one who helped them?

I would remind you that Christ, who died so that we might know eternal life, did not expect a payback for his love or his sacrifice.  You cannot give God anything as God possesses everything.  God is not ever in need. Christ did, however, expect that we would take the grace and forgiveness that we received because of him and pass it on.  He asked that we go to all corners of the world, making disciples and teaching them everything that he taught us…basically he asked that we give away all that we’ve learned from him and all that we’ve received from him, and then teach the next recipient to pass it on just as we have.

Jesus…turns out he’s the guy who invented “Pay it Forward.”

Perhaps that’s the answer to our feelings of indebtedness when someone helps us. Don’t pay it back! Take the grace that we’ve been given and pay it forward to the next person who needs us. Give to others as we have been given to. Help others as we have been helped.  And give without thought of repayment because we have been given to by Jesus without any thought of repayment.

And when that day comes that we can no longer give to anyone—on the day that we find ourselves helpless to pay anything forward ever again—let us pay back the service we receive in humble thanks and genuine gratitude, something else that is in short supply these days.

Thank you for enduring my curmudgeonly frustrations.  It isn’t often that I want to use this space to rail against human foolishness.  You are a generous, giving reader and I intend to pay your kindness forward with a less curmudgeonly post shortly in the future.

That is all.

I Am Not Happy.

Lately I’ve had a case of the blahs.

I’m irritated with everything. I’m tired of everyone (hi honey…love you!). I am tired of my counseling practice and sick of being giving. I’m sick of weighing more than I want to but am unwilling to actually do what it takes to change that.  The worst part is that I am tired of caring…about pretty much everything. Every time I pull up next to a homeless person, I close my eyes and sigh because the feeling that I am supposed to do something for this person is draining the life out of me.  I know that sounds mean, but it’s just how I’m feeling right now.

I think I have what they call compassion fatigue. But I’m really low on passion for life and I’m drained of energy and ‘give a damn’ in general.

I could easily blame my blahs on menopause and there would be quite a bit of validity to that if I did. I am in the throes of wicked hot flashes, leg and foot cramps that strike without warning, pimples on my face and on the nape of my neck that just won’t quit, too many sleepless nights, and periods that remind me of the Arizona desert: some months it seems the river has run dry and other months are so bad it’s like “Noah! Get the boat!!”

TMI, I know.

While I am not going to lie about the stress that menopause is putting on my body and my life, I am unwilling to write off my blahs as a little menopausal mood swing because this has happened to me before.  In fact it has happened more than once, and every time, God was trying to tell me something.

This first time it happened, I was still a computer programmer and my children were still babies.  God used a major case of the blahs to convince me that I didn’t want to be a computer programmer anymore, which made it easier for me to obey God when God asked me to abandon my career and go to seminary full time. In other words, God used a case of the blahs to motivate me to ‘move on’…to get out of my rut and get my butt moving in the direction that He was pointing me.  Years later, as I reflected on that time and my experiences, I labeled what I was feeling as “holy discontent”.  To me, holy discontent is when God makes us restless, irritable, and maybe even downright unhappy until we realize that things need to change. It’s not that anything is actually wrong, it’s that God is not interested in us getting too content in that space. Holy discontent is what God uses to make us let go of things are no longer serve a purpose in our life and to start heading in God’s new direction for us.

I’ve been in this place for a couple of months now and I have only realized today that it might be holy discontent that I’m feeling.

Can we just admit that I’m kind of slow on the uptake?  Thanks.

In reflecting on my holy discontent, I don’t think that God is trying to lead me out of anything, although I need to leave the door open to that possibility just because I don’t want to shut off God’s guidance in this experience. The last time God planted a little holy discontent in my life was back in 2015 and it was because God wanted me to start writing. (Hello! Welcome to my blog! If it sucks, blame God. LOL)

I have no idea what God is trying to do in my life right now, although my reaction to the homeless person—the feeling that I’m supposed to do something for this person—might be a clue.  I don’t know.  Luckily, though, God has always been kind enough to place a few folks in my path to help me figure things out during past instances of holy discontent, which means that I should start keeping my eyes open for those folks.  It’s always easier to find someone if you are actually looking for them.

There is something else I think I’m going to do. A long time ago, a seminary friend of mine told me that the best way to devote yourself to the work of the Kingdom is to let God break your heart over some issue. Once your heart is broken, she said I would know where God’s heart was breaking and that would be my invitation to build the Kingdom in that broken spot.

Back when she said that to me, my heart was on fire for the Kingdom and I knew where God was calling me to work…in the broken spot of mental health counseling for the poor…and I don’t regret following the Lord into that spot, not one bit.  Now the fire in my heart is down to glowing coals that desperately need some kindling and I am consumed with holy discontent.

But I know what I need to do.

Holy, holy, holy Lord…I know You see this world and your heart breaks.  Break my heart into pieces, Lord, and show me where You hurt the most.  Then set my heart on fire again and give me strength to do Your will, whatever it is.

I pray it for me, and as we move into Jerusalem this Palm Sunday, I pray it for you too.

 

I Was Blind And Apparently I Still Am Blind

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”         Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

Lately I have been irritated with everything.  I have been irascible, difficult, quick to complain, and disdainful.  God only knows what my issue is…literally. God only knows, because I have no clue.  Lately I have been blaming it on menopause, and before that I blamed it on having too much on my plate, and before that on too many destabilized clients, and before that I was blaming menopause again. In the end, I have no idea why I am so unbelievably grumpy and unhappy, but that’s where I am and I am trying to be as accepting of myself as I can be, although I have to admit that I am getting tired of my bad mood.

Dear God, perhaps I am going through a second adolescence!

Okay…I got a giggle out of that idea, but in reality it is exactly how I feel.  To me, adolescence is a horrible time when children are forced to live in the strange in-between…that space where they want to be an adult but don’t really know how, where they want to have adult privileges but don’t want adult responsibilities, and where their body takes on the outside appearances of adulthood while their mind maintains the worldview of a child.  I remember it as a time when I felt entirely out of kilter, and I felt the same way when I watched my own children going through adolescence.  The funny thing is that we cannot move out of our own childhood and into adulthood without traveling the road of adolescence.  It isn’t just about our body’s need to mature; the entire process is a time of trying on new roles, new identities, new ways of thinking and behaving.  I think that is a part of why moodiness and negativity are such harbingers of adolescence: in order to take on new ways of being, first we must become unhappy with our current way of being.  In other words, everything has to suck before we are willing to let go of it and move onto something new.

Perhaps I am going through a second adolescence.

I am finding myself at that place in my life where I find myself asking “Why am I still doing this?”  I ask that about my habits, about my career, about my decisions, about almost everything except my husband.  Nothing seems to be as satisfying as it was five years ago.  I thought that it was just my own inner musings (and a heaping dose of hormones in flux) but then my massage therapist asked me how well I was sleeping.  I told her that I hadn’t been sleeping very well for a while, but assumed that it had to do with menopause (I blame it for everything these days) and then I asked her why she was asking.  She told me that I felt wrong to her, that there seemed to be something that I needed to let go of, something way down deep…perhaps soul deep.

Her statement gave me pause and I thought about what she said for the rest of my hour on the massage table.

I wonder if Saul wasn’t in the same position as he headed to Damascus.  Certainly he was doing what he thought was right, rooting out heretics (Christians) who continued to worship in the synagogues so that they could be brought condemned and executed for blasphemy.  And yet on the way to Damascus he found himself struck blind, confronted by the same Jesus whose followers he was bent on persecuting.

The funny thing is that when Saul, later calling himself Paul, tells this story to King Agrippa in Acts 26, he says something we often miss.  Paul tells Agrippa that when Jesus spoke to him:

I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’  Acts 26:14b

“Kick against the goads” is a phrase we don’t use anymore, but it refers to an animal being goaded along by a sharp stick, like a cattle prod.  An animal kicking against the goads was refusing to accept the prompt it was being given, refusing to move…and sadly risking a great deal of pain, because kicking at something sharp is a really good way to get poked really hard and maybe even cut or stabbed.

Essentially, Paul was admitting that Jesus had been prodding at Paul for some time and that he had been refusing the prompts of the Lord to move along, to change, to accept what he was being shown.  Apparently Jesus had been poking at Paul for a while trying to get him to accept Jesus as Lord and stop persecuting the Christians, and when Paul didn’t listen, Jesus decided to go big and appear to Paul on the road to Damascus, striking Paul blind.

But wasn’t Paul blind the whole time?

After all, when something is prodding and poking at you, trying to get your attention, how blind do you have to be to miss it?  All of us have been there, where something was obvious to everyone but us, but we just didn’t manage to see it.  But then there comes to bigger blindness, when something keeps prodding and nudging us and we refuse to acknowledge it no matter how great the prompt.  As counselors we sometimes call that choosing to be blind.  Saul/Paul chose to be blind for so long that Jesus pulled out all the stops, simultaneously revealing himself to Paul and revealing Paul’s blindness.

Which brings me back to adolescence.

Adolescence is one long period of being goaded to change, to release childish self-focus and embrace accountability and responsibility for ourselves and others.  It is uncomfortable and only a child’s dissatisfaction with the restrictions of childhood can make them let go their old ways of being and embrace their emerging adult self.

Could it be that I am in a second adolescence?  Is God goading me to let go of my current ways of being, ways of being that are no longer useful or meaningful, ways of being that don’t reflect my advancing age, my changing role in my own family and in my community?  Is God letting me know that I’m not really attending to His will like I should? I don’t know.  But my lousy mood, my bad attitude, and my generalized dissatisfaction with my personal status quo just might be God trying to tell me to move on, to go where He is leading me.

“And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.”        Acts 9:18a

I am waiting Lord.  Help me before something big shows me just how blind I have become.

On Being a Tree

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”   Isaiah 55:12-13

“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”  Psalm 92:12-15

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” Luke 6:43-45

I love trees.  I grew up in the Midwest, where the trees turn color in the fall, lose all their leaves for the winter, and cover themselves in green buds and red sprigs in the spring.  And every fall, we would go to New York state to see my father’s parents and to stare in awe at the forests of maple trees.  Nothing is as beautiful as a maple tree in the fall.  We would drive all night to get from our home in Illinois to this tiny town in New York where my grandparents lived.  I absolutely loved the forest covered mountains of New York. Leaves in every color—pine trees to add in just the right amount of green—just enough wind to make the leaves shimmer as they moved.  It was beautiful.  I didn’t think I could ever see anything as beautiful as that.  Of course I hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon yet, or Sequoia National Park, or Bryce, or Zion, but that’s another story.

Now that I’m a homeowner, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with trees.  Anyone who’s ever had a Palo Verde or a Mesquite in their yard knows all about branches that come crashing down in the middle of monsoons, and little flowers all over the yard, and trees that grow so fast and so large that you have to trim them to keep them from growing across the roof and lifting up the roof tiles.  Yet I still love trees.  They’re so solid, so steadfast, so ordinary and yet so unique.  I wish could be more like a tree.

If I were a tree, I’d be taller by now, and probably thinner, and that would be great!  Every year I would grow taller and more majestic, and it wouldn’t matter if my bottom was kind of big—which it is—because a big bottomed tree is a good thing—nice, sturdy, not likely to blow down in a windstorm.   And if I were a tree, adolescence would have been so much easier.  I have yet to see a tree start to hate itself for how it’s trunk is changing, or end up with low tree-esteem because it looks different from all the other trees.  Trees are totally comfortable in their tree bodies—they seem to be just fine with how they grow, how they look, how they express their unique “tree-ness” in a way that is kind of like other trees in their species, but not exactly like the other trees of their species.  And growing old would be easier if I was a tree.  Old trees might not look as nice as younger, neater trees—their bark might be a little ragged, and they might not fill out their crowns with leaves quite like they used to, but an old tree is a respected tree.  We know that, and I think that the trees know that.  They seem to know deep within themselves that growing old is just a part of the cycle of living, and they go with the flow of it, accepting each phase of life as it comes.

And speaking of growth, have you noticed that trees are willing to take as much time as they need to grow?  Some trees grow quickly, others take years and years to look like much more than a skinny sapling, and the trees don’t seem to be bothered about this at all.  Of course, we humans are not quite on board with that concept.  We plant a sapling, and we want a big tree next year.  After all, we are the folks who invented “Miracle Grow.”   We seem to want everything quickly, and the quicker the better.  Instant coffee, microwaves, fast food…   And if we can’t have it right now, we want it at an accelerated pace.   We advertise weight loss products that speed up our weight loss, even though it took us years to gain the weight.  We look to relationship gurus who are supposed to fix us in the space of a one-hour television show when it took much longer than that for the relationship to grow into disrepair.   But the place where we really mess ourselves up is that we expect accelerated growth of ourselves in areas where there is no such thing as accelerated growth.  You cannot become mature overnight—it is a long journey through adolescence and into young adulthood.  Deep abiding relationships are not built overnight unless you’re in elementary school.  Truly close friendships develop over months and years.  It should be no surprise that you cannot become spiritually mature overnight either. If you want a deep, abiding relationship with God, it is going to take time.  And every day you will reap the benefits of that deepening relationship, but you will have to keep working at it, day after day, month after month, year after year.  In fact, spiritual maturity seems to take longer than physical maturity—despite being almost 52 years old, I could swear that I am a spiritual teenager.  I say this because of all of the resistance that I seem to give the Lord, and that “I-know-what-I’m-doing” attitude that I can cop when God is trying to give me direction.   I’m hoping to grow out of my spiritual adolescence soon, but I just said that there is no such thing as accelerated growth, so…

I think I want to go back to talking about trees.

We’ve all seen deciduous trees—in other words, trees that lose all their leaves in the winter.  When I moved to Arizona I was surprised to discover that there were evergreen trees that weren’t pine trees.  In Arizona, many of the trees are evergreen and don’t lose their leaves in winter and I like it that way.  When I lived in the Midwest, I couldn’t stand the bare trees during the winter because everything looked dead. And don’t think that snow made it look prettier for more than one day after a fresh snowfall.  Within a day or two, the snow looked dirty and the landscape went back to looking dead.  That happens at some points in life, doesn’t it?  The landscape of your life starts looking dead.  Everything looks bare, or barren.  It gets kind of hard to live at those points, because you start thinking that it will stay like that forever.  Yet every winter the deciduous trees lose all their leaves, and they seem to hold on just fine despite their barren look.  They seem to know that there are cycles of life that are kind of bleak and bare—times in life when things look totally dead and wasted.  They seem to trust that spring always comes, and that life is renewed—the trees sprout and life looks green and alive again—filled with new growth and new possibilities and new beauty.  I think the trees count on that—that God always manages to renew life.  I think it’s that resurrection thing.  And the trees that don’t make it through the winter, the ones that actually do die—well, maybe it was their time, maybe it was a bad year, I don’t know.  The other trees don’t seem to be bothered by this; they just get on with budding up and getting green.

We need to be more like those trees. Sometimes a certain part of our life just needs to die off, to be laid to rest.  I don’t mean that some person needs to die.  What I’m talking about is the parts of our life that aren’t sustainable, the things whose time is up, that no longer work in our lives.  God removes those things, and it doesn’t always feel good.  On the other hand, maybe letting a few things die is what makes spring and all that new growth possible—some things die, and some things live, and some things grow by leaps and bounds like never before.  Trees seem to have no trouble accepting that. I wish I had more of that grace.

You may have noticed that the scriptures at the beginning of this post are filled with references to trees.   I think sometimes that the Lord compared us to trees so often because He wants us to be more like the trees.  And you’re sitting there thinking “Exactly how would that work, Tina?”

Well, let’s see.  “All the trees of the field will clap their hands.”  This isn’t the only time that this is mentioned in the Bible.  In fact, Psalm 96 says that the trees of the field will sing for joy!  Apparently, trees are relatively comfortable being public in their praise of God.  When they have something to praise about, they do things that are outside of their normal character, stuff that no one expects—they sing, they shout, they clap!  What do you do when it comes time to praise the Lord in public?  Do you sing?  Do you shout?  Do you mumble “Praise the Lord” under your breath so low that only your best friend notices?  Hmmmmm.  That public proclamation thing—that’s a rough one, and I understand that.  Getting all public with your faith is risky—you never know how people are going to react.  But God didn’t say the trees did a can-can down the road, or that they started a traveling revue, either.  God said that they clapped their hands, that they sang for joy.  We’re not talking televangelism here.  No one wants you to become Franklin Graham, God bless his soul.  One Franklin Graham is enough!  God is just looking for a little acclamation, a little jubilation—when the time is right, God is looking for some public celebration.  Say it out loud—GOD IS GOOD, ALL THE TIME!  ALL THE TIME, GOD IS GOOD!  Don’t be afraid to tell your neighbor.

And what did the gospel of Luke say?  “There is no good tree that produces bad fruit; nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit.”  What fruit are you growing? Most of us, when asked about the fruit we produce, look to Galations 5:22-23, where it lists the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, faith, and self-control—and we start asking ourselves—am I patient?  Am I kind?  Do I really have peace within?  Yes, those are the fruit of the Spirit, and when the Spirit is within, those fruit do grow.  But those are kind of private fruit, meant to fill our own spiritual cupboards with good things.  There are other fruit as well—a kind of public fruit—like the fruit of ministry, the fruit of witness, the fruit of mercy and mission.  What kind of fruit are you bearing there?  Because when the fruit of the Spirit is growing on the inside, there tends to be some more fruit that grows on the outside.  Or maybe I should say that when the fruit of the Spirit is filling up your spiritual cupboard, you start providing some tasty pies and jams for the public to consume.  Things start happening—fruits become works—and works build the Kingdom.   Not that I believe in a salvation of works—but the proof is always in the pudding.  Fruits growing on the inside yield works happening on the outside.

And speaking of fruits growing, in Psalm 92, we read that “The righteous man will grow like a cedar in Lebanon planted in the house of the Lord…they will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green.”  Apparently, age is an illusion.  Long after our bodies become old and begin to fail us, our spirits remain young and vital, continuing to grow towards a maturity that our bodies passed a long time ago.   As long as we remain connected to the Holy Spirit, the fruit just keeps on coming.  Unless you step away from the wellspring, the growth just doesn’t stop.  What an amazing consolation, because as human beings it is hard to grow old.  It’s hard to be witness to the slow fading of our health and our vitality, to lose our stamina and our prowess.  We tend to view ourselves as physical beings and see our purpose as rooted in what we can do.  Makes sense—just a moment ago I said that fruit on the inside bears works on the outside—and works are expressed through what we do. But what we do for God is merely an expression of who we are in God.  As trees of the Lord, our roots are planted in the house of the Lord, not in the soil of the earth.   Our feet are planted in Heaven even though we are standing here on the ground, so let’s not invest too much time and energy into the illusion that the riches the world can offer us are important.  We spend a lot of time trying to make our mark in the world, trying to become somebody.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use the gifts you’ve been given, but remember, the accolades your looking for are coming from on high, not from this world.  Our treasure is in heaven.  Our home is in heaven.  Our feet are in heaven because that’s where our roots are and all this is just the trappings of the physical world.  Remember: in it, not of it.  Keep your mind where your feet are.

I wish I had some brilliant ending for this post, but I don’t.  The truth is that sometimes you just have to say what the Lord sets before you, and this week, He sent me trees, and so that’s what I have brought to you—thoughts on how to be a tree.  I wish I could say that I have all this tree stuff in my own life, that I’ve got this all sewed up, but I don’t.  I’m no more a good tree than the next guy.  But I do know that the Lord doesn’t ask of me what the Lord does not make possible for me.  So I’m planning on spending a little more time in my backyard, sitting next to my grapefruit tree, listening for the word of the Lord on how to be a better tree.  I suggest that you find a tree close by and do the same.  We could do worse, you know?