Tag Archives: Prayer

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.

 

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The Morning After the Mourning After

This morning I went to a yoga class.  I was exhausted and anxious and needed to let go of some stress. My daughter is getting married this evening and all that anxiety has built to a peak of anticipation.  I figured a little stretching and sweating would do my soul some good.

The instructor, Jeff Martens, is a great teacher. He speaks softly during class, reminding us of proper posture and breathing techniques.  He also speaks words of wisdom, meant to guide us into greater relaxation and greater submission to the spiritual process of yoga.

Today he reminded us that every posture is a prayer that we pray with our body and our soul. He reminded us that prayers are not requests; prayer is more than asking for things. The prayers we make with our body are affirmations of all that is already ours: health, peace, communion, joy…or conversely, they can be affirmations that we believe we exist in a state of struggle, discontent, and FEAR.

There has been a lot of fear this week.

I told you in my last post that the days after the election were particularly difficult for LGBTQ persons, minorities, and women.  Many were consumed with fear that they would lose their civil rights, their safety, their nation and their home.  This week wasn’t much different, and I had plenty of people who cried their way through their session, worried about the future and wondering what they should do next.

One of my clients yesterday was particularly upset, and nothing seemed to comfort her. We talked about the allies that are all around her; people who love her, people who are not willing let her be re-victimized or denied safety.  I reminded her that I will always be an ally.  And then I told her that my greatest hope is that there are many good people in powerful places, people who are not willing to silently stand by as millions are denied their civil rights and human dignity. I said that I believe those people will slowly reveal themselves as Trump’s plan unfolds; I believe that one by one they will stand up and say “Not in my America!” and they will be our allies as we fight against a rising tide of bigotry, sexism, and homophobia.

It won’t be as simple as the split between Democrats and Republicans. I told her that we will probably all be disgusted to discover bigots, misogynists, and homophobes among people we thought were our allies.  I’m betting we will also be stunned at the number of staunch Republicans who stand up for civil rights, equality, and justice.  Neither side has a monopoly on righteousness; in the long run, I believe that this will be a great blessing that will work to our advantage.

She smiled at me and said it was a lovely idea, but she wasn’t sure it was realistic.

I told her that I am counting on it.

I never thought it would happen so soon!

Today Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton made an announcement in response to President Elect Trump’s decision to begin deporting undocumented immigrants.  The mayor stated:

“Phoenix is an incredibly diverse and welcoming city where we endeavor every day to protect our community while treating residents with dignity and respect, no matter who you are, who you love or where you come from.

Our diversity is our greatest strength as a community, and our strongest selling point as an economy. It says much about who we are as a people that Phoenix is considered one of the safest and most welcoming cities in the United States for those seeking refuge from the violence of war-torn countries.

That will not change, regardless of who is president.

Residents and visitors can be assured we will professionally and steadfastly uphold the laws of our city. But that does not mean that Phoenix will fall victim to discourse that is openly antagonistic and hostile to members of our community.

The Phoenix Police Department will never turn into a mass deportation force, even if the new government in Washington, D.C., threatens to revoke federal dollars. This is something worth fighting for, and we will not be bullied into taking backward steps on civil rights.

I cried when I heard it on the news, and I cried when I read the article online, and I am still crying as I write this right now.  There are things worth fighting for: our deepest values and dearest morals, but most important is human lives.  These things are worth standing up for, no matter what the cost.

Today the Phoenix mayor (along with mayors in Boston, New York, and Chicago, as well as the police chief of Los Angeles) took a stand against bigotry, hatred, and fear.

This morning I heard that every posture is a prayer, an affirmation of what we have.

Today powerful people in a number of major cities struck a posture of resistance to injustice. They still have some stretching to do before their posture can be firm and true, and we need to join them. We are only beginning to understand just how deeply our privilege (white, straight, male, educated, etc.) has stepped on the necks of our brothers and sisters. As a nation, we need to change our posture to a prayer that affirms freedom for all, justice for all, and welcome to all who would live in peace.

Today I stand in a posture that breathes a prayer of willingness to stand for others, and gratitude for allies in the struggle.

And I am going to stay in posture for as long as I possibly can.

For more information, use the following links:

ktar.com/story/1362041/phoenix-mayor-greg-stanton-vows-city-police-will-stay-deportation-process/

www.azfamily.com/story/33729670/mayor-stanton-phx-pd-will-never-be-a-mass-deportation-force

For more information on yoga or on Jeff Martens http://www.innervisionyoga.com/

Finally, congratulations to Katie and Phil!  I could not be happier for the two of you, and wish you a long life of joy together.  Phil, Michelle, Dan, Jason, and Arianna…welcome to my family!!

The Mourning After

This has been a rough week.  My candidate lost, not that it really matters.  My life will go on, largely unchanged.  I still have a job. I still have a house. The fluctuations in the stock market affect the net worth of my retirement portfolio, but I’m only 52 and retirement is a long way away and so right now, those fluctuations exist only on paper.  In the end, November 8th came and went and absolutely nothing changed for me or my husband except the name of our president.

I got on Facebook the morning after the election and noticed that a lot of people have been posting about unity, and how both Republicans and Democrats need to set aside our differences and work towards unity.  Many of my Christian friends have posted on Facebook encouraging their friends to pray for unity and to pray that God grants wisdom and guidance to our nation’s leaders.

Gosh that sounds nice, doesn’t it?  Pray for unity! Pray that God guides our nation’s leaders!

I kind of expect Christians to be praying for unity and guidance on a regular basis. I’m kind of confused why anyone has to encourage Christians to do something that they should pretty much be doing every day.  Moments like this make me wonder if I need to go on Facebook and encourage Christians to brush their teeth and shower daily.

Apparently, Christians are struggling with the basics these days and need some encouragement.

The thing is that I’m not convinced that unity is what we need to be praying for.  Let me explain.

Do you remember when you were still a teenager and you used to wonder when you would meet the one?  I used to dream about the boy I would marry and how handsome he would be; I would dream about the house I would live in and the children that I would have with my handsome husband. I never wondered if the police would stop my wedding, or if the government would refuse to grant me the right to marry the one I loved the most.

Such is the thing we call straight privilege.  I never wondered if I’d be allowed to marry because I thought that everybody had the right to get married…and I forgot that everybody included a bunch of LGBTQ persons who did not actually gain that right until 2015.

Yeah…that’s right…LGBTQ persons did not gain the right to legal marriage in the United States until 2015.  I think I was almost 35 years old before it occurred to me that there were whole groups of people in the US who weren’t legally allowed to marry at all.

So…you can imagine how the election of a right-wing President and even more conservative Vice President impacted the LGBTQ community.

Shortly after I arrived at work on Wednesday morning, I got to listen to the despair of a young lesbian women who is engaged but hasn’t yet reached her wedding day.  I cannot imagine the pain she must have felt wondering if such a basic civil right—the right to marry—would be stripped from her come January 2017.  I cannot imagine how frightening it must be for my gay colleague in Nevada who got married last month just after adopting his son.  I can’t imagine the terror his newly adopted 11 year-old son must feel, considering that the poor boy was rejected by his biological family when he came out of the closet.  Now he gets to wonder if his new family will be destroyed by politicos who don’t even know his name simply because his fathers are gay.

If you didn’t wake up on Wednesday and feel any fear, you are probably white, straight, and male. Congratulations!  That’s quite the trifecta of birthrights!  You might not feel very privileged and God knows how hard you have worked to achieve the success that you currently know.  In fact, I’m pretty certain that you deserve all the money, success, and respect that is currently yours, and perhaps you might deserve more money, success, and respect than you are actually getting.  On the other hand, you have never had to fight for your right to marry your beloved. You have never been arrested for driving while white because it is always assumed that white people don’t have to steal to be driving a car that nice.  And you’ve never been afraid to have one drink too many for fear that the people around you will strip you naked and sexually violate you while calling you the whore.

Please, if you woke up on Wednesday and weren’t afraid, do more than pray for unity.

Go out and create some unity.

Do me a favor.  Look in the Gospels!  You will discover that Jesus did not sit in his prayer closet asking His Father for unity and governmental guidance for 33 years before crawling onto the cross and dying for your sins.  While Jesus’ ministry only lasted three years prior to His death, that man was busy!  He prayed plenty, but He spent much more time doing the right thing than He did praying about the right things.

Look, you and I both know that a Trump presidency is NOT the end of the world, no matter what you or I think of him.  A Trump presidency will not be the end of America as we know it, either.  On the other hand, the people who are terrified of what this election has done have good reasons to be fearful.

Maybe you should find out what those reasons are.

Speak to a Muslim, and find out what it is like to be blamed for the behaviors of other people whose choices you never supported.  Talk to a member of the LGBTQ community and find out what it is like to be denied basic human rights, and to fear that your recently granted human rights will be taken away again.  Speak to a woman who fears that women’s equal rights are about to disappear along with women’s safety from sexual harassment and assault.  Speak to a Hispanic person who fears widespread racism against citizens of the US who just happen to be of Hispanic descent. Speak to someone who benefited from the Dream Act, and find out what it’s like to be raised in the US but considered an illegal alien.  Find out what it is like to fear being sent “home” to a country that you’ve never even visited.

Go and find someone who is truly terrified; sit and listen to them without arguing with them about why they are wrong.  Just listen.  Try to understand that the campaign speeches that you may have found liberating felt like threats to the person you’re listening to. Imagine yourself in their shoes, having to fear your country’s government and what they might do to you only two months from now.

Listen closely to them no matter how you feel about what they say.

Having done all that, if you are still serious about the unity you are praying for, look them in the eyes and speak these words:

I promise to use whatever privilege is mine to protect your human rights and your human dignity.  I may not agree with how your live your life, or how you came to live in my country, or who you worship. None of that matters, because I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and He gave His life to save the lives of every human being, and that includes you and me. If you mean that much to Jesus, then you mean that much to me.  I will not stand idly by while other people try to take away your rights and your safety.  Everyone deserves their human and civil rights. Everyone.

Letting other people have their rights will not take away your rights.

Giving other people respect will not deny you respect.

Working to achieve justice for everyone will create a just world for…EVERYONE and that includes you.

And praying…praying is nice, but when it comes to where the rubber hits the road, action is what it takes to create unity.

And just in case you’re still not sure if God is on board with this idea, remember Micah 6:8.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

You heard the Man.  Now do it.

I’m Gonna Build Me A Wall

I am one of those people who loves metaphors.

God knows, I am plenty verbal.  (Ask anyone who knows me: I will talk your ear off!) Nonetheless, when I need to learn something or teach something to someone else, I look for images or metaphors that will help explain the concept.  Visual images that represent a concept are great because they can gather meaning as time goes along, representing multiple things as you learn more about the concept/subject.  Images that can do this are “multivalient.”   It’s a bizarre made-up word that I learned in seminary that means “more than one meaning” and it only reinforced my desire to use images to represent concepts.

On to our subject for today: WALLS.

I’m a counselor, and when counselors talk about walls, we are usually talking about emotional blockades that people use to keep others at a distance emotionally.  We talk about refusal to be vulnerable and to “let people in” so that they can know the “real you”.

That’s not what I’m talking about today.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about walls, mostly with the focus of keeping undesirable people OUT; walls as a means of keeping the ‘good people’ safe from the ‘bad people’ who want into our country and our economic system.

That’s not what I’m talking about either.

I like to talk about walls when I talk about relationships, especially romantic relationships, and most specifically marital relationships.  The reason that I do that is that so many people have misconceptions about what it takes to make a marriage last, to truly succeed as a couple.  I tell the couples that I am working with that a good love connection is going to be a lot like a really good brick wall.

Here in Arizona, most of our fences are concrete block walls or brick walls, so you see freestanding brick walls in almost every neighborhood.  Every now and then you find a block wall that has collapsed, scattering bricks or concrete blocks as well as chunks of mortar all over the sidewalk and the yard.  On a rare occasion you will find bent rebar (the metal bars used to reinforce block walls) still sticking up out of the ground with a few blocks still intact at the bottom, held in place only because of the rebar.  That’s a rare occurrence, mostly because walls reinforced with rebar don’t ‘collapse’ per-se…usually something happens to bring them down, like an uprooted tree falling on the wall.

What does that have to do with relationships?

Well…block walls are usually built of bricks and mortar, and occasionally rebar. Each of those things represents something crucial to a successful marriage. Let’s start with the bricks.

When it comes to relationships, the bricks represent the common morals, values, and priorities of the couple.

It is very important to have shared morals because it means that behavior that is forbidden for one of you is forbidden for the other, and behavior that is considered laudable for one of you is considered laudable by and for the other.  For instance, the animal rights activist is never going to want a fur coat as a gift from their spouse, no matter how cold the climate they live in, or how much of an expression of love their partner might think that would be.  You might think that shared morals is a given, especially when your partner seems like such a good person, but it takes exploration to suss out the finer points of morals.  Do you cheat on your taxes? Do you take office supplies from work?  Do you lie…to anyone? When is that acceptable and why? Do you support abortion rights? Would you ever opt for an abortion in your own life? What do you do if your child is profoundly intellectually disabled? Would you ever put a child in an institution?  What if you become really rich?  Do you give a bunch of money to charitable organizations? Do you ever give money to family members?  What do you think about helping out adult children with financial issues?

See what I mean? Morals aren’t as easily determined by daily behaviors as we think they are.  Of course, your partner’s daily behaviors say an awful lot about who they are and what their morals are, but you have to ask the hard questions…and answer them yourself as well.  I am consistently shocked by the things my clients reveal that they didn’t discuss before they married…and that topic always comes up because of the problems they are having in their marriage now.

Commonly held values and priorities are also important and act as the bricks in your marital wall.  Let’s use work as an example. Work should hold the same value and your careers the same level of priority for both members of the couple.  This doesn’t mean that one of you can’t stay home to take care of the children, because that is another thing entirely and has to do with your beliefs and values (and priorities) around raising children.  However, a lack of common values and priorities around work can lead to one partner frustrating the other by working long hours for an extended period of time, or by repeatedly changing jobs or careers.  The first illustrates a difference in the how work is valued as a priority, and the second a difference in the value of stability and commitment to career.  Money is another area where common values and priorities are really important, because money is frequently a subject of conflict for couples. One partner usually wants to save and invest and the other partner is more prone to spend and the truth is that there needs to be a balance of both saving and spending as well as financial responsibility focused on a saving for retirement and aged years. This kind of stuff can create major rifts for couples and long term resentment, and these are two things you never want developing in your marriage. In the end, having similar values and priorities allows you to act in concert and support each other as decisions are made and changes occur.   Both of you will feel equally respected and equally committed to each others goals, since after all, those goals will be driven by common values and priorities.

So…you’ve got the bricks to build your wall because you share morals, values, and priorities.  Now you need mortar, and sex and intimacy are the mortar in a relationship.  What separates a partnership/ marriage from a regular friendship is the level of intimacy.  Friendships might have a great deal of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy and the more there is of those three things, the closer and longer lasting the friendship will be.  I frequently tell couples that the best thing they can do is become really good friends as well as lovers, because their friendship will get the relationship through difficult times when they don’t feel as ‘in love’ as they used to be.  The ‘in love’ thing is what brings the flush of sexual intimacy to the fore.  Sexual intimacy takes the other three levels of intimacy and deepens them significantly, and then it ices the cake, so to speak.  Sexual intimacy creates an incredibly strong bond because it’s hard to hide from your partner when you are naked and being sexually expressive. It is the deepest and most private form of intimacy, and I truly believe that it is sacred. Maybe I’ll blog more about that another day, but for now I just want to say that sexual intimacy becomes the mortar that holds all the bricks in place, that brings the wall to a level of cohesion and stability that other relationships cannot reach.

We’ve all had friends who were really good at the sex thing but who lacked commitment to the other person in the relationship. You can call this commitment issues; you can call it “friends with benefits.”  I call this an example of someone trying to build a wall out of mortar alone.  You can do it…you can mound up your mortar and try to build a wall, but it won’t last through any serious storm.  The difficulties that life brings will inevitably cause the wall to slowly disintegrate and crumble.  This is why marriages based in chemistry alone don’t work for very long.  The sex is great and for a while the couple can use the sex to cover up the growing divide between them, but eventually no amount of sex is enough to cover for what isn’t there: real friendship, along with common morals, values, and priorities.

So what’s the rebar for? Well…rebar is there so that the wall can’t be toppled easily.  Like I said, my neighborhood is full of block wall fences, and occasionally they collapse…usually due to harsh weather.  Walls with rebar in them, however, tend to remain standing until something specific happens—something like a car crashing through the wall, or a tree falling in a monsoon, or someone purposely trying to tear the wall down. This is because the rebar is driven into the ground below the wall to anchor the wall and the rebar acts as an internal support for the bricks and mortar.  In a relationship, rebar is made from a common spirituality that often establishes many of the common morals and values.  In my marriage, the rebar is our Christian faith.  When life gets rough, my husband and I turn to God for support and we openly discuss the evidence we see of God’s action in our lives.  We encourage each other in our faith, and when we are struggling, we pray together.  I’m not saying that a couple without a common faith will fail; that simply isn’t true, since those couples have shared values, morals, and priorities and hopefully deep levels of emotional and intellectual intimacy, as well as a robust sex life that builds their wall tall and strong.  However, having gone through quite a few “storms” that tried to tear down the wall of my marriage (a child addicted to cocaine and opiates, the death of both of my husband’s parents, a severely ill child, etc.) I can tell you that a common faith will strengthen the union in ways the common morals, values, and priorities as well as sexual intimacy simply cannot achieve.

Having said all that, my mind wanders to a certain politician that thinks that building a wall will solve some of our problems with Mexico and its citizens. Perhaps he’s right, but only in the sense that focusing on our commonly held values, morals, and priorities might bring us to a much closer relationship that could change everything.  It would be a wall built of bricks alone, as many friendships are…and honestly, it could change everything.   Maybe he’s right. Maybe we should build a wall, one that no one would have to ‘pay for’…but wouldn’t it be worth everything?

Random Jesus

Today a friend and I were working in one of the classrooms at church.  After several hours of working together, she looked up and said “Wow…I really like random Jesus.”

What??!

Actually, she was referring to the décor in the room, which was traditional Sunday School décor: a poster advertising an event that happened over a week ago; a map of the world in Biblical times; lots of chairs stacked against the wall; a whiteboard; and the word “Jesus” spelled out in shiny cardboard letters above the window.

Random Jesus, indeed.

The funny thing is that my first thought when she said that was “I really like random Jesus too!”  And I mean that.

I was standing in the parking lot talking to a friend who is a colleague after a meeting this week.  As we walked towards our cars, I realized that she had a new vehicle and commented on that…only to have her burst into tears.  The only reason she has new vehicle is because her son was in a horrible car accident that totaled his car and took the life of his girlfriend Ashley.  After many months of healing and grieving, life had to return to normal and that meant her son needed a car to get to school and work, so my friend gave her son her car because he couldn’t afford a new one.  She and her husband bought a new vehicle…and every time she drives it she is reminded that Ashley is gone and her family will forever grieve her loss. Every time she sees her new car she is reminded that her son was badly injured and easily could have died, leaving my friend and her husband to grieve that loss for the rest of their lives.  We stood in the parking lot crying and admitting that tragedies like this take a long time to stop hurting, and then we prayed.  We blessed Ashley and her family. We blessed my friend’s son and his healing. And then we prayed God’s blessings upon my friend, her ministry, and her car.  I have never prayed blessings onto a car before, but it sure felt like the right thing to do at that moment.

I found myself praying again this morning, getting ready for a meeting.  I got a call from Joe who didn’t have good news to share. The cancer is back and it doesn’t make sense because things were going so well until now.  All I could do was listen to the bad news and then sit alone and pray that God would do the same miracle this time that God did for us when the cancer was first diagnosed. Not long ago, Joe told me that he has stopped praying for himself and has chosen to pray that God will answer the prayers of everyone who prays for him simply so that they will know that God hears them, loves them, and answers their prayers…and so this morning I prayed for everyone who was praying for Joe, asking God to strengthen their faith and show them that their prayers are effective.

Shortly after I took that call, I met with two people from my church, Beth and Troy, so that we could prepare the cardboard testimonies for this coming Sunday.  I thought it might be a good idea to have some folks help me get the signs all lettered and prepared…legible handwriting is a gift many of us do not possess…and then we could photograph the testimonies so they can be projected on the screens during worship.  As we worked we told the stories of how we became Methodist, how we all came to worship at our particular church, and how our faith histories formed us.  After Troy left to help his girlfriend welcome a brand new grandbaby, Beth and I continued discussing our own personal challenges, especially the challenges we have with our kids and our jobs.  We unloaded our hearts and our worries and all of our fears onto one another.  It’s always an anxious thing to talk about those places where things aren’t going smoothly, those places where you feel like you are falling short or should be doing better. We spent a lot of time looking at what we were working on instead of looking at each other because it was hard to say the words we had to say.  Still, it was really good to speak our peace and finally get things off of our chest knowing that we could trust each other; knowing that we were speaking with someone who would listen and not judge; knowing that we were with someone who wouldn’t minimize the struggle or the fear or the pain.  Friends like this are truly friends in Christ and they are priceless!

Random Jesus.  This is Random Jesus.  Those amazing moments when Jesus pops up unannounced and unexpected in the middle of things to make the mundane holy, to create sacred space in the middle of nowhere, to consecrate words and emotions and tears.

One friend sharing her grief.

One friend sharing bad news.

Three friends sharing the story of how they got here.

Two friends sharing their fears and their failures and all the places where they don’t feel like they stand on solid ground.

This is where Jesus shows up and sits with us and gives us ease and peace where formerly only fear and pain existed.  This is how Jesus begins the healing and promises us that we don’t have to do anything alone, and then proves that by providing people to be with us, hear us, sit with us, and walk our journeys with us.  Jesus—his life, his death, and his resurrection—are the promise that we will never have to walk this difficult journey alone, ever, because God likes to show up in flesh.

Blessing a car.

Finding the strength to move forward in the face of death.

Knowing that you are exactly where God wants you to be.

Realizing that we are not enough but we are more than enough through Christ who strengthens us.

Random Jesus.

I really, really like that guy!!

 

The Path of Placeholders

A single story in fractured pieces.  We can never know in advance how our divergent paths will converge, even when the paths are all our own.

One: 1997

During my first year of seminary I was given the chance to take a one-week intensive class in pastoral care and chaplaincy at the City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, California.  City of Hope is known for its work with with cancer and terminal illness, and the one-week intensive promised many chances to work with patients and their families. When my professor presented the information on the program, I felt God pricking at my heart and I knew that this was something I needed to do. I filled out the application and sent my money to the program director and started looking for someone to help my husband Phil take care of our children while I was out of town for the class.

The date for the class was fast approaching and I called the director of the program at City of Hope to get information about housing and transportation, only to be told that the class had been cancelled due to financial problems.  The hospital had been bought by an investor who was less interested in the not-for-profit ethos the hospital had been founded under.  They were even less interested in providing training for chaplains that would never work at the City of Hope on a regular basis.**  I was deeply disappointed, but what could I do?

Two: 1998

I sat in the kitchen and listened to Phil share horrible news: Lee had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma.  Lee and his wife Tracy both worked at Boeing, and Tracy was on Phil’s team.  Phil’s team had lost their boss to cancer only a few years before, and now they were facing losing another coworker.  The diagnosis was all the more devastating because Lee and Tracy had three young daugthers.  Phil had spent many days taking care of our two girls while I was in California; he knew the burden of being a single parent intimately, even if he only had that responsibility for a few days a week.  He deeply sympathized deeply with Tracy and worried for her children.  I remember Phil asking me if I would be there for Lee and Tracy “at the end” as if somehow, they would ever ask for me…a coworker’s wife who wasn’t even an ordained minister yet.  Shocked, I said I would do anything for them if they wanted my assistance.

Three: 1999

Churches who accept student pastors do their best to make sure we get a full platter of pastoral experiences, and so I taught a Disciple Bible Study on Sunday mornings.  I had a class of 12 and we had become close as a group, praying for and with each other every week.  So when one member’s 18-month old daughter needed a heart valve replaced, the class covenanted to fast and pray on the day of the surgery.  I was going to be at the hospital with the parents and promised that I would pass on word to the class so that they could praise the Lord and break their fast when the surgery was successfully completed.

The surgery went on much longer than initially anticipated.  I stepped out into the parking lot so I could get a cell signal (ahhhh, 1999 cell phones…remember Nokia?) and called Phil to let him know that I would be home later than we had planned.  He was somber.  “They are transferring Lee out of the bone marrow transplant unit and into the hospice.  There are no more options.  He’s dying.  Can you go?”  Lee was only a few floors up from the surgical waiting room where I had spent the majority of my day.  I agreed to go but reminded Phil that Lee and Tracy had never met me and would likely want nothing to do with me at such a critical time in their lives.  I hung up the phone and headed back into the hospital to see what I could do.

Certain that I would be turned away, I got into the elevator and headed up to the bone marrow transplant unit, which was on the 12th floor.  As I stepped out of the elevator I looked up at entry to the unit and saw these words:

Welcome to the City of Hope!
An extension of the City of Hope in Duarte, California.

It took my breathe away.

Four: 1999

I went to the nurse’s station and asked them to speak to Tracy. I told them that I was a minister, that I was Phil’s wife, and that I would go away if Tracy was not interested in seeing me.  The nurse went in for a moment and Tracy came out of the room and invited me in.

Thus began several hours of going back and forth between the surgical waiting room where my friend waited for word that her daughter’s surgery had gone well, and the room where Lee was being prepped for transfer to a hospice bed.  It seemed that the timing was always perfect as I moved between locations; guided by God’s timing I arrived at each spot just as the doctors came to speak to the family, just as critical decisions were being made. I went back and forth repeatedly, watching the families receive words at opposite ends of the spectrum of emotions from their doctors.  Your daughter is doing well and her heart is strong.  Your husband’s organs are failing.  She’ll be going home soon.  He won’t home for Christmas; he won’t live that long.  I struggled to contain my emotions as they swung from one end of the spectrum to the other.  I called my class members to relay the good news and then to ask them to pray for a family friend who would probably not be alive come morning.

With the surgery over and the family comfortably settled in the room with their daughter, I headed upstairs to the hospice wing.   When I got there, Tracy asked if I would be willing to stay for a few hours while she went home to see her children in their Christmas programs at school.  She planned to tell them afterwards that their father would not live until Christmas and would never come home again.  I agreed to stay and prayed with Tracy before she left for the last fun evening her girls would have for quite a while.

Death can be a painful thing even with medications, and I watched Lee move in and out of pain as I sat at his bedside.  I wanted to be useful and comforting, so I tried reading the Psalms out loud, very quietly. I prayed between each Psalm.  As a sat there watching Lee suffer, I realized a horrible truth: every person faces their death alone.  There are plenty of pain medications, but not one thing that can be done to ease the pain of leaving behind everyone you love, knowing that they still need you.  And it disturbed me to know that there was nothing that I could do to take that pain away from Lee.  Essentially, he was all alone in this journey and I could do nothing but sit and watch.

So I sat and watched and wondered why I didn’t know what to do.  I was a pastor, I was trained…isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing?  Isn’t there some relief that I’m supposed to bring?  Certainly I provided assistance to Tracy, but what could I offer Lee?  He was dying!  Reading scripture wasn’t going to help him much, and even if it could help, most of the time he wasn’t conscious to hear it. I prayed but he didn’t hear that either and what was I supposed to pray for…a quicker death?  I sat there for several hours feeling futile and useless and stupid.  The critical moment of pastoring had come and I had nothing to offer. I felt like a failure.

I finally made it home later that night.  Phil and I went into the bedroom, sat at the edge of the bed and cried bitter tears.  He felt Tracy’s pain and loss acutely, and I deeply identified with Lee who was leaving his children behind much like I left mine behind week after week to attend seminary.  We sat and cried and tried to comfort each other.  It was all we could do.

Five: 2000

Even student pastors go home now and then, and so I would occasionally cut out of services at my student pastorate and attend church with my family.  St. Matthew UMC was the church that confirmed my call into the ministry and sent me off to seminary; attending worship there felt like coming home.  It was springtime and we were all gathered on the patio after worship for coffee and doughnuts.  That was when Dan approached me.

“Thank you for being there for Lee at the end. We really appreciated it.”  I was stunned!  How did Dan know Lee, and how did he know that I was there at the hospital for Lee and Tracy?  I discovered that Dan was Lee’s boss at Boeing, and that he and his team had been devastated when they found out that Lee was going into hospice.  They hadn’t known what to do.  Should they call?  Should they send someone to the hospital?

“That’s when word came from Tracy’s team that Phil’s wife, the minister, was there at the hospital to take care of Lee and Tracy.  I knew you and I told the team about you…and we were okay after that, because if felt like one of us was there, because Phil is one of us, and you’re his wife, and I knew you…you know what I mean?”

I did know what he meant, but what Dan said had revealed something much larger to me. Suddenly, I understood what my purpose had been when I sat at Lee’s bedside. I was a placeholder. I sat there at Lee’s bedside as a placeholder for a number of people.  I sat there in Tracy’s stead until she could return so that Lee wouldn’t be alone.  I sat there in the place of each member of Lee’s team at Boeing, because they couldn’t be there and weren’t sure what to do.  I was there in place of each member of Tracy’s team who wanted to support her and be there for her in a terrible moment of need.  And I sat there with Lee to represent God, and God’s presence with Lee even in his final moments.  While there was nothing I personally could offer to comfort Lee as he faced death, I could hold the place of every person who wanted to be there.  I could be a placeholder for them so that Lee would know that he would be missed, that he was loved, that his life had value, and that God was present even as He eagerly waited for Lee to come home.

Six: 2000

When I returned to school after Christmas, months before Dan revealed my purpose to me, I told my Field Education professor the entire story.  I was still distraught and feeling worthless.  Strangely, several of my classmates had experiences similar trials in ministry and were feeling particularly broken as well.  The professor reminded us that God was not wrong when He called us to dedicate ourselves completely and entirely to the Kingdom.  She said that we can never know just who we are in the Kingdom or what good we have done, because none of it will be clear until all is revealed to us in Heaven. Until then, she said, all we can do is trust that God knows what He’s doing.  Then she read us this Psalm.  To this day, whenever I hear it, I think of Lee and Tracy and the revelation that all things, even me, have a purpose greater than what we realize at the moment.

Psalm 19:7-11, 14
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

** This was back in 1997, so please do not levy judgment on the current leadership of the hospital.

Chatter On

Psalm 104:1-4

1Praise the Lord, my soul.
Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
    and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.

Many years ago I was taught that to properly pray, I should remember the acronym ACTS:

  • Adoration
  • Confession
  • Supplication
  • Thanks

In other words, all prayers should begin with an expression of love for God—our awareness of God’s greatness and our thankfulness for God’s being, ending with an expression of pure, unbridled love.  After letting God know just how much we love Him, then we must confess that we aren’t what we are supposed to be, that we have failed and fallen short of what He calls us to be.   After confessing our failures and sins, then we should ask God for forgiveness and for anything else we need (supplication).  Finally, we should thank God for all that we already have, for His graciousness in forgiving us, for his patience in listening to our prayers, and for all that God supplies.

As a child my prayers were very simple and honestly did not follow this format at all.  As I grew older and was more aware of my need for God, I did my best to pray this way—so that I could please God—and to be mindful that I failed God daily and how He continued to love me, to forgive me, and to listen to my prayers and answer them.  I feared that God was perpetually displeased with me because I struggled with the same stupid sins day after day.  I found myself groveling before God as if my inability to overcome my own personality was a fatal flaw that left God perpetually shaking His finger at me, shaking His head in frustration. This mental image of the finger-shaking God actually distanced me from God quite a bit.  I began to dread praying because I didn’t want to have to grovel and beg for forgiveness.  I didn’t want to have to confess to the same stupid sins done the same stupid way for the same stupid reason and admit that I just couldn’t get over myself one more time.  I found myself resenting God and alternately hating my inability to overcome such simple challenges as cookies and cursing.

That kind of faith persisted in me well into my 20’s, past marriage and until after the birth of my first daughter.  Having kids changes a lot of things in life, and for me it changed the way that I imagined God…and how I imagined God’s reaction to me when I prayed.  It took a while for the change to develop, but around the time that Alex was 18 months old I had an epiphany.  Alex was driving me absolutely crazy and I yelled at her, which caused her to burst into tears.  As a parent you are simultaneously in charge of discipline and comfort, so once she started crying I bent down to pick her up and was amazed that somewhere between the floor and my shoulder, my anger dissipated entirely.  By the time I had Alex cuddled into me with her head on my shoulder, all that mattered was that she understood that I still loved her even though she was being obnoxious.  Epiphany: how could I be more loving than God? How could I be more patient than God?  What made me think it was any different between me and my daughter than it was between me and God?  Suddenly it became possible for me to imagine a God who could be frustrated with my bad behavior and determined to comfort me and reassert His love for me at the same time.  In other words, no finger shaking God!!

This little change in my mind yielded huge changes in my relationship with God.  It greatly reduced my sense that my sin separated me from God in some crucial way.  It changed the way I understood God’s reaction to my sin.  And it changed my conception of holiness, because holiness didn’t include finger-shaking condemnation and disgust.  Let me tell you, it gets hard to be self-righteous when your God doesn’t do the self-righteous thing either.   What a relief.  Maybe we should share this realization with Donald Trump?  But I digress…

Like I said, having kids changes a lot of things in life.  Recently, I ran into this acronym again and thought  WTH??!

The first thought I had was how sick and twisted praying like this would be.  Remember, I understand God as my heavenly father, my loving parent…not the finger-shaking jerk that I thought He was when I was younger.  So when I’m praying, I’m talking to my dad…or my brother if I’m feeling the need for a Jesus boost.   I would never, ever, ever talk to my dad—earthly or heavenly—according to this twisted acronym and I would freak out if my kids talked to me like this.  Can you imagine?

“Mom, I love you so much!  You are the most amazing mom and you give me everything I need! I truly love and adore you.  You are my everything and I am nothing without you; I can do nothing without you.  I admit that I haven’t been the daughter you want me to be.  I fail you every day, not always sharing the whole truth when you ask me a question.  I don’t always keep my room clean and sometimes when I’m mad at you I call you bad words in my mind.  Sometimes I mouth the bad words.  When I’m with my friends I call you bad names out loud.  I’m so sorry for that.  Please help me not to call you bad names anymore.  Please help me to clean my room more often.  Please help me not to lie to you when you catch me playing on my phone instead of doing my homework.  And please help my friend Anna, because she’s going out with a real jerk and is lying to her mom about it.  Thank you for hearing my requests, and thank you for all that you do for me.  Thank you for forgiving me for being a jerk sometimes. I am so thankful for all the stuff you’ve given me, and the great furniture in my bedroom, and all my clothes and my iPod and iPhone and iPad and all my other iStuff.  Just…thank you! You are so amazing! Amen.”

Does that not creep you out?  I cannot imagine letting my kid talk to me like that.  The level of butt-kissing in that previous paragraph approaches critical mass! The word ‘sycophant’ comes to mind…along with a few other words that I’m only saying in my mind.  Okay actually I’m mouthing them but not saying them out loud.  I’ve gotten a little better in this regard since I was a kid.  Anyway, I just find this whole thing creepy and gross because I don’t ever want my kids to talk to me like that.  I feel like it would shut down our relationship since relationship is built on intimacy which is built on vulnerability and honesty…and those things do not thrive well in environments where communication is formal and must adhere to rigid guidelines.  Then there’s the fact that butt-kissing is absolutely fatal to relationship because it is based in the belief that you must inflate the other person’s ego or they won’t respond nicely to your request.  Do we really think that God’s ego that fragile?  Is God having self-esteem issues?  I’m thinking that God has this ego thing nailed and really doesn’t need us to tell Him how almighty He is.  After all, He raised His kid from the dead.  I’m pretty sure that somewhere in Heaven there is a plaque of macaroni art from Jesus that says “BEST DAD EVER.”

What I’ve learned about communication and love from my daughters is that it works best when there’s lots of informal moments of ‘chatting’ where a whole lot of unimportant details get shared…because somewhere in all those details is the important stuff.  My kids never sat down and gave me a boiled down synopsis of their lives with bullet-points to highlight the important stuff.  Nope…I found out about their lives, their needs and their loves from the moments spent washing dishes after dinner, or giving each other manicures, or grocery shopping…and that’s still how I find out about their lives now.  I won’t lie: occasionally they do come over and request a serious ‘sit down’ discussion with me and their dad.  They come over so that they can pour out their hearts and their tears while cuddling on the couch. But you don’t get to those precious moments without the million minutes that come before and after, filled with endless chatter and emotions that change so fast that I have to keep a scorecard.

What I’m trying to say is that prayer should look a lot more like what Paul prescribed:  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5:16-18)  Then you have to add what Peter said in 1 Peter 5:7 “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” And then there is the Psalmist who said “I sought the Lord and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” (Psalm 34:4)

By the way, taking time to praise God isn’t a bad thing.  Just don’t be weird and compulsive about it.  Occasionally my daughters will text me a sweet message telling me how much they love me, or how they miss me now that they don’t live at home.  Sometimes they’ll come up to me and hug me out of the blue and tell me how much they enjoy spending time with me.  I love those moments!  I’m betting that God loves those moments as well, so praise and adoration are encouraged, and they don’t have to be accompanied by confession, supplication, and thanksgiving.  As a matter of fact, I’m betting that God would occasionally just like to know that you love Him.

When you put it all together, there should be an unceasing river of chatter that should flow from us to God…moments of praise, thanks, and joy mixed in with moments of frustration, anger, and confusion.  Momentous requests and confessions mixed in with mundane details and even trivial crap. If God truly is a parent, then God is interested in the minutia of our lives.  If God is truly a loving parent, then God wants to hear about it all even though He already watched it all happen (apparently God had live-streaming down way before the rest of us did.)  God isn’t worried that you won’t praise Him or that you won’t approach Him correctly or that you’ll be less than perfectly respectful in your prayers.  Like most other parents, what worries God is the possibility that you won’t talk to Him at all…that you’ll cut Him out of your life and won’t tell Him anything. Relationship stops when communication stops…so after a while no prayer becomes no relationship.  So talk to the man for goodness sake!  And skip the formula…the formatted “it has to be this way”-ness of praying.  Just talk.  Please talk.  God is listening.

 

one does not simply talk to god