Category Archives: Aging

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?

Flu glorious flu!!! (sing with me…)

I promise you’ll understand the link between the title and the picture soon.  I promise.

1 Peter 1:24-25a

“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

I had the flu last week.  Actually, I had flu minus, because I got my flu shot in August.  I am certain that last week would have been a giant disaster had I not gotten that flu shot because I would not want to be sicker than I was last week.  Believe me, there is nothing pleasant about a 100.6 degree fever, aches, chills, cough, and the incessant need to sleep.

Actually, I lie.  It was glorious!

I don’t slow down often, which is a mother’s euphemism for “I am ridiculously over-busy.”  My husband and my kids will tell you that I do way too much work for way too many people for way too little money.  I don’t disagree with them, but I’m not going to stop…unless I’m sick.

It used to be that being sick didn’t stop me either.  I was younger and stronger then, and the only illness that could keep me at home was the kind that could keep me locked in the bathroom.  If you can’t leave the bathroom you can’t really go to work.  Anything else: colds, bronchitis, walking pneumonia—it didn’t matter. If I wasn’t contagious, I went to work.  In my mind, I could be miserable at home and do nothing or be miserable at work and be productive.  At that point in my life I voted for productive.

And then I got older.

As I approached my 50th birthday, I remember deciding that to celebrate my 5th decade of life, I would train for and run a 5K race.  50 years, 5K…they just seemed to go together.  I started training for my 5K and things were looking good.  After a few weeks of alternating running and walking in shorter spurts, I managed to run my first mile without stopping.  I was feeling pretty good about things, so good that I decided that I would be ready to run my first 5K only a few weeks after my 50th birthday, which left me about 16 more weeks to train…and then I discovered something rather upsetting: you cannot run a mile if you cannot breathe.  Who knew?  Anyway, many doctor visits, two CT scans, one nasal scoping, two breathing tests, and a full set of allergy tests later (oy vey!) I discovered that I have lung issues, rather nasty seasonal allergies, and exercise induced asthma that gets really bad when my allergies are really bad…which is about 9 months out of the year.  Leave it to me to decide to start running during two of the only three months during the year when I don’t have bad allergies.

I’m 51 years old now, and I still haven’t run a 5K and I’m guessing that I’m not going to get to run a 5K. I came to peace with that not long after my 50th birthday, but it left me with no interesting way to celebrate my 5th decade of life.  I wanted to celebrate my 50th birthday by doing something that would illustrate my vitality, my continuing youth, and my growing strength despite my age.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was heading in the wrong direction, mentally.

After all, when do I get to grow up?  Being 50 isn’t a bad thing—I still feel young, I still look young, or at least I still feel like I look young.  But when do I start working on the ‘mature woman’ thing?  What is that supposed to look like?  A few blog posts ago I wrote about the challenges involved with becoming aged and frail enough to require a caregiver  (see August 27).  There is a long, long road between where I am now as a 51 year old woman and being aged and frail, but it is a road and that implies journey.  In other words, I can’t get from where I am now to where I’ll be then without a process.

So how do I prepare myself now to become the aged and frail woman I will be then?  For me, that started by admitting that I can’t afford to keep working when I’m sick.

Remember those lung problems I mentioned earlier? They are most obvious to me whenever I get sick, because no matter what I get sick with, it goes to my chest and becomes bronchitis.  Colds become bronchitis; flu becomes bronchitis; sinus infections become bronchitis; ingrown toenails become bronchitis.  Okay…not really, but it’s almost that bad.  Last week I had the flu…this week I have bronchitis.  Seriously, I do.

So I decided that to celebrate my 5th decade of life, I would learn to value my own growing frailty, my aging process, and the reality that I am NOT ALL THAT I USED TO BE.  To celebrate my 50th birthday I would allow myself to be sick.  Doesn’t sound like much of a celebration, does it?  But it is…because in order to allow myself to be sick, I have to decide that my need for rest is more important than everyone else’s need for me to be on time, where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to do.  In other words, I have decided that I am important enough to inconvenience others in order to take care of myself!  Maybe I should just say that I am important enough to inconvenience others.  It has been a lot of years since I last allowed myself to inconvenience anyone for any reason without feeling guilty.  I was sick with the flu last week, and I didn’t feel guilty at all.  How’s that for maturity?!

Like I said, it was glorious.  I haven’t had five days of rest and relaxation (without leaving the country on vacation) in years and years. I sat in my recliner in front of the TV and slept through episode after episode of Law & Order. I would run an errand and then come home and take a nap that took at least an hour longer than it took to run my errand.  I ate tomato soup and cheese toast and slept late in the mornings.  I didn’t get much of anything done and the world did not end.

It is a long road between where I am now and becoming a frail, old woman who needs a caretaker.  Somewhere along that journey I need to learn to accept my limitations with grace, instead of throwing a tantrum like some toddler who doesn’t want to be told ‘no.’  And so this year I choose to allow myself to be sick and I choose to call that my personal celebration of turning 50.  I have lived 5 decades and I have finally gained enough wisdom to know that I am worth being inconvenient.

I didn’t want to be so doggone serious but…

This last weekend I visited my husband’s aunt Margot and her partner Ginny.  Margot will be 90 years old this January and we have visited her every summer for the last 18 years or so, maybe longer.  We would stay with her as a part of visiting my husband’s family at their lake cottage in Indiana.  Now that both of my in-laws have died we make sure to take time every summer to fly east and spend time with Margot and Ginny.  It was wonderful being with family and getting away, but it left me with a lot of things to think about.

Margot has dementia.  She had dementia last time I saw her and probably the time before that as well, but this time…ouch.  She would ask the same questions over and over again.  She often couldn’t remember something for more than three or four minutes…even if that something was as simple as “Have I eaten lunch?”  She would forget that I had sat next to her eating breakfast as soon as I left the breakfast nook to head upstairs for my shower.  It took me a few days to realize that Margot was not always oriented to time either; sometimes she seemed to forget that Phil and I have been married for 27 years and aren’t fresh-faced newlyweds anymore. I wish I could remember more examples of her behavior, mostly because I want to convey to you how alarming it was to realize how much she was deteriorating.  I remember Margot as the consummate hostess, on top of everything.  I expected her physical health to deteriorate as she aged and for her ability to be the hostess to come to an end; I guess I didn’t expect her mind to leave us before her body did. The hardest part was realizing shortly after I boarded the plane to come home that Margot wouldn’t remember our visit by the time dinner rolled around.  We left her home for the airport shortly after lunch.

I had a number of discussions with Margot’s partner Ginny about the challenges of taking care of Margot.  I won’t go into details because Margot would be horrified if she knew I was telling you about her struggles. I realize that she will never read this blog (and even if she did, she wouldn’t remember the content for more than a few minutes) but hey—I love the woman and I don’t want to do anything that would cause her pain, whether she’ll actually have a chance to experience that pain or not.

The thing that has been picking at me ever since I started speaking frankly and honestly with Ginny about the challenges of being a caregiver is how deeply we fail, as adults, to prepare ourselves for becoming old.  I realize that most of us think about the money we’ll need when we retire, and where we want to live when we’re old and done with our career…maybe we even think about final things and write a will or create a medical power of attorney so that we can insure that our wishes for our own final days will be carried out faithfully.  All of those things are great, but these are not the things I’m talking about.   I’m talking about the stuff that few of us plan for, the stuff that has nothing to do with finances or who gets what.  So for the sake of this blog post, let’s just assume that all of will live to be 95 years old before we die.

So…what goes along with being old? Sagging skin…age spots…difficulty moving as quickly and as deftly as you used to…aching joints…Medicare…those kinds of things.  And I think all of us can accept those kinds of things, as long as nothing worse than those things happen.

Except things far worse than those things happen when you grow old.

I have taken care of both of my in-laws as they died, and I am here to tell you that if grow old before you die, you will probably lose the ability to take care of your basic needs before you die.  This is the point where you say “Duh!  I think I knew that!” and I say “Really?  Are you ready to have someone change your diaper?  Wipe your bottom?  Shower you while you sit there naked?”

I’m betting you’re horrified at these thoughts.  Most of us are horrified at the possibility that we won’t be able to go to the toilet alone, or shower alone; that we may need to have someone help us do something as simple as eat a meal.  Basically, we avoid thinking about the possibility that before we die we will be as helpless as an infant and require as much care.

Sticky problem, isn’t it?

You and I really cannot do much to avoid such a future.  Oh, we can eat healthy and exercise, do things to prolong our healthy years, etc. but there is no way to avoid the slings and arrows of aging.  We cannot predict if we will become debilitated with cancer, or if we will lose our minds and abilities to dementia, or become disabled because of a stroke…we have NO idea what our future holds.

The truth is that we have never been able to predict our future. But I am betting that many of us have had children, and at some point in that journey we asked ourselves what we would do if ____________ happened to our child.  You can fill in the blank with all sorts of challenges.  What if our child is born with Downs Syndrome? What if our child is deformed or disabled?  What if our child commits a terrible crime? What if our child is a genius? What if our child is mentally ill?  What if our child uses drugs? What if our child is a musical prodigy? What if our child goes against our religious beliefs? What if our child is gay?  What if our child never marries? What if…what if…what if…

I don’t know about you, but my husband and I spent hours and hours thinking about how we would handle different scenarios, and I must admit it gave me comfort to think about some of the challenges that we might face as we raised our daughters.  Some of those challenges actually came true and I believe (although I may be wrong) that we faced our challenges with greater grace and peace because we had already made some decisions in advance.

What stops us from thinking about our own aging?  Why, when we are so careful to think about the challenges we may face in our marriage or with children, do we fail to think through what might happen as we age?  It’s not that hard to do.  Try it.  For a moment, think about how you would LIKE to handle it if you would need to have someone clean you after using the toilet because you are unable to do it yourself.  Go ahead…imagine the scene, and then imagine yourself dealing with your feelings, your impulses, your loss of independence and power…think about how you would like to act without suddenly granting yourself abilities (like independence) that you might not actually have.

For myself, I would hope that I would have the grace to thank my caregiver for their help.  I hope that I will take the time to make conversation with my caregiver, get to know them and perhaps become friends with them.  I would hope that if I was struggling with humiliation at my situation that I would remember that my caregiver has feelings and needs and that I would pray for them to have patience with me; then I would ask for as much grace as God could grant so that I could let go of my ego and sense of humiliation over needing that much assistance.  Do I like thinking about this scenario?  NO.  Do I need to think about this scenario?  My experiences with taking care of my in-laws speaks a resounding YES.  When it comes to caregiving, I have already done diaper duty and I pray that my mother-in-law could felt my love for her radiating out of me as I cleaned her bottom.  I hope she felt no humiliation and simply knew that whatever she needed was okay with me.

After all…that’s how I felt when I cared for my own babies.  We forget that babies are born totally helpless and remain helpless to effectively care for themselves for years after their birth.  I was still showering with my youngest daughter until she was 11 years old and finally achieved puberty.  Once puberty hit I couldn’t get her to stop showering and had to limit her to three showers a day. Why was it so easy to care for my children and love them unconditionally no matter how much care they needed and how often their needs changed? And why is it that when I am faced with becoming just as helpless in my old age do I have this idea that my worth as an adult rests on my ability to care for myself without assistance?  We act as if babies are priceless…as if young children are worth their weight in gold…mostly because this is absolutely true.  How is it, then, that we do not grant ourselves the same worth when we become old and need the same assistance that small children and infants do?

I do not understand why aging and our eventual helplessness is such a bitter pill for us to swallow.  What I do know is that we will all find ourselves in the position of being caregiver for an elderly person, and we will all find ourselves in the position of being the elderly person who needs care (unless we tragically die before we reach our old age.)  I challenge you to decide NOW how you want to think about being elderly and needing care for your most basic needs.  I challenge you to decide how you want to think about caregiving for your parents, your elderly relatives, and maybe even your siblings.  I challenge you to think about how you want to understand yourself and your personal value when you can’t do anything and have to allow others to take care of you.  Do it NOW while you still have time to think about it with leisure and clarity, because there is no guarantee that you will have any clarity left at the point you begin to need care.  The decisions you make NOW may be the difference between being miserable in your old age and being one of those elderly folks that others want to grow up to be.