Carrying Sorrow and Finding Joy

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness says we “can lean into pure joy without denying the struggle in the world”  My husband says, “two realities can coexist.”  In other words, a person can simultaneously be devastated by a school shooting and cheer loudly at a basketball game.  We can hold two things at the same time.

This is hard for me to wrap my mind around.  If I am really hurt, I want to really be sad.  I want to grieve, mourn, and wail.  I want to go all-out Old Testament and rend my garments, put on sackcloth, and smear my face with ashes.  I want to fully commit to my feelings.

I remember a time in junior high when I felt betrayed by a friend.  I ran through the front door of my house, flew up the stairs to my bedroom, flung myself on my bed and wailed — audibly wailed.  My mother came into my room, heard my tale of woe, rubbed my back, and commiserated with me.  She tried to get me to shake it off and laugh a little, I’m sure, but I would have nothing of that. I needed time and space for my grieving.

Of course as is true of most middle school devastations, my grief was short-lived.  In fact, in the words of my great grandmother, “everything looked better in the morning”.  I likely laughed with my friends at the bus stop the next day.

However, life doesn’t stay as simple as middle school.  Some devastations don’t right themselves overnight.  Some griefs have staying power.  I am thinking of the families of this week’s school shooting victims, for example.  They will carry grief with them for the rest of their lives.  I’m thinking of sexual assault survivors, too.  That kind of devastation does not go away when the sun rises.  And, I’m thinking of the kind of aches that many of us carry with us every day — the pain of childhood abuse, the darkness of abject poverty, the burden of overwhelming debt, the brokenness of divorce, and the cumulative scars from years of neglect and unintentional hurts.

What do we do with that kind of grief?  How do we simultaneously hold that kind of pain and still find moments of joy?

Years ago we were very close with a family that had suffered great loss.  The mother and father had had four children — their oldest child was killed in a motorcycle accident in his early adulthood and their youngest child died in an early-morning car accident during her senior year of high school.  We met this family years after these devastating losses, and I can remember listening in stunned shock to the recounting of the stories. I felt the ache of our friends’ loss, yet I also noticed, as we spent more time with them, that the members of this family were often initiators of celebration, of gathering, of laughter.  In fact, the patriarch of the family, the father of the four children, was known for his practical jokes and for his annual elaborate Easter egg hunts. The mother was one of the sweet grannies of the church where we belonged — she was a smiling presence in the kitchen for every function from Vacation Bible School to funeral luncheons to holiday gatherings.   The remaining two sisters (mothers and grandmothers themselves) often hosted huge gatherings at their homes — hayrides, pool parties, picnics, and the like.  The family embraced and even cultivated moments of joy, yet certainly they still carried the sorrow of loss.

Ann Voskamp says “There isn’t one of us not bearing the wounds from our own bloody battles.”  It’s true. I forget that sometimes, especially when I am walking around in figurative sackcloth and ashes.  I look at the people around me and I think, “look at that perfect life.  Certainly they are not suffering.”  But everyone carries pain.  Everyone.  We don’t often see one another’s brokenness because we like to keep it under the thin veneer of Facebook profile pictures, Instagram images, and the other public faces and masks that we wear.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I mean, pain can be paralyzing.  Some losses seem so devastating that we are tempted to lose hope.  We are tempted to stay on our beds wailing at the top of our lungs.  Most of us don’t.  Usually we find the wherewithal to wash our face, comb our hair, and get back to the business of life — work, school, groceries, and laundry.  However, not all of us find a way, like my friends have, to simultaneously hold sorrow and experience joy — the joy of a birthday party, of a new baby, of a basketball win.

Even if we do find a way to be happy for a season, “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” (Voskamp 15).

How indeed?

I’m not entirely sure. I have my own unspoken broken and the only remedy I’ve found is a moment by moment lifting of it.  It’s as though I’m a small child and I’ve just fallen with my most prized treasure in my hand.  It has been marred beyond recognition and I am inconsolable. I cry.  I weep.  I wail.  And then, in exhaustion, I hold it up as high as I can as though to say, “See?  Do you see what happened?  Can you fix it? Can you make it better?”

When I was a little girl, I would hold broken items up to my dad.  He was over six feet tall and very calm.  He didn’t react in anger or disappointment when something was broken.  He quietly took it from my hands and said, “Well, let’s see.”  I knew if it could be fixed, my dad would find a way.  He would bring the situation in close, examine it thoroughly, and determine if indeed the item could be restored.  He might grab a pair of pliers or some crazy glue.  He might take off his glasses to get a better view.  And usually, after a few moments, he would had back my treasure and ask, “how’s that?”

I can still feel wonder at my dad’s ability to make things whole again.

But, as we’ve all learned, some broken things can not be made whole.

And so I’m standing here holding my unspoken broken in my hand.  I’m reaching up as high as I can and I’m saying, “Do you see this? Can you fix it?” And in the moments that I calm my desperate cries, I can almost hear a still small voice:

Behold, I am making all things new. 

I cup my hand around my ear and listen:

Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning. 

“But what about right now?” I yell.

Fear not, I am with you. 

Yes. Yes, you are.  You have never left me nor forsaken me.  I’m sitting here trying to be strong and courageous because you are with me wherever I go, but this is a pretty dark and miserable place, you know?

I know.  I see.  I’m here.  

And for that reason, today I will try to cultivate some joy.

Psalm 56:8

You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book.

Brown, Brené . Braving the Wilderness. New York: Random House, 2017.

Voskamp, Ann.  The Broken Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016.

How the Health are You?

A friend of mine used to ask me this every time she saw me. It made me laugh.  I was just a kid, and I liked how she, an adult, was playing with language and ‘getting away with’ saying a ‘bad word’.

Who knew, way back then, that questions of health would one day dominate my life?  Who knew that I would spend years trying to discover what the health is wrong with me and how I can remedy the problem or at least minimize its effects?

But guys, I have relatively good news!  After five years of trial and error — testing, medication, treatment, side effects, etc. — we have discovered a strategy that, at least for now, is reducing my symptoms!

Let me pause here and give my disclaimer that every body is different, no one treatment works the same for every person, and certainly this is just my story.  I am in no way suggesting that your strategy for managing your health is inappropriate or that you should alter it in any way.  

I haven’t written about my health since last summer when I was doing a trial of Cosentyx.  After a over a year of no medical intervention for my illness, which had been labelled psoriatic arthritis and/or fibromyalgia, I had gone to a new rheumatologist who, at least initially, promised hope for reduced pain, better mobility, and less fatigue.  She felt that Cosentyx was a miracle drug and that I would certainly see dramatic results perhaps even with the first dose.  I was so excited!  After four years of pain and fatigue that limited my everyday life, I was looking forward to ‘getting back to normal’!

Well, I did see a dramatic effect, but it was not the one I was looking for.  Cosentyx made me an emotional wreck — I mean a serious emotional wreck.  I could barely function, particularly when the doses were back-to-back in the initial ‘loading’ period.  I was irrational, depressed, impulsive, and downright mean.   Nevertheless, I continued through that initial phase hoping to strike the promised gold; it never surfaced.  I stayed on Cosentyx for six months with no real improvement.

My doctor, suspecting a different diagnosis of degenerative arthritis, next recommended that I visit a pain management clinic.  I have been very opposed to this from the start.  Remember that prior to this illness, I had been a pretty avid runner for about 10 years.  I had run 5-6 days a week and completed two half-marathons.  I was in pretty great shape up until I started noticing joint pain and extreme fatigue.  I did not want to resign myself to a life of pain meds — I wanted to get better!  I wanted to find the source of the problem, fix it, and get back to my life!  My previous doctor had also recommended pain management; that’s when I had decided to try  homeopathy.  Homeopathy offered me hope and agency but no true change.

Anyway, I digress.  Last fall, when my current rheumatologist recommended I go to the pain management clinic, she suggested I try a steroid shot in my sacroiliac joint — the biggest source of my pain.  This sounded different to me.  She was not suggesting that I take NSAIDS for the rest of my life or that I take opioids or some other form of pain medication.  She was just suggesting a steroid injection.  I was willing to give that  a try.

With the very first injection I noticed a change — I didn’t have such a high degree of pain or such dramatic fatigue.  In fact, I was moving around more easily and having more energy.  After my second injection a month later, my chiropractor and physical therapist both noticed structural differences — my spine adjusted more easily, my muscles seemed more relaxed, and my posture was more erect.  After the third injection just two weeks ago, I notice that I have more endurance as I move through my days and I sleep more comfortably at night.

For the first time in five years, I have noticed a significant change in my ability to function!

Now, I will say that I am cautious in celebration.  First, I am only two and a half months into this treatment.  I do not know how long it will last.  In fact, after the third shot, the medical team said that I should call them “as needed”.  What does that mean?  Will my relief last a month? Two months?  a year?  What I am told is that everyone is different.  Some people get relief for months; some get relief for much longer.

The second reason that I am cautious is that I do not want to go back to my soldiering ways.  My illness has helped me, through trial and error, find a better pace for my life. I don’t try to cram twenty hours of living into every day any more.  I find time for work, but I also find time to rest.  I have built boundaries into my life that never existed before. I have more time with my husband, more availability for my kids and grandkids, and more margin to manage the unexpected stuff that arises in life.  I don’t want to lose this balance as my health improves.

I still believe that this journey of the last five years has been a lesson designed uniquely for me.  The way I was living my life previous to this illness was a path of my own making — I was kicking butts and taking names. I was not caring for the others in my life or, least of all, myself.  I don’t want to lose what I’ve learned in any level of recovery.

So, for now, I will continue the practices that have sustained me this far:

  •  A commitment to daily Scripture reading — this has been a calming anchor to my days.  I listen to a daily ‘dose’ on a YouVersion Bible reading plan every morning as I move through my routine.  It’s a small thing that makes a huge difference.
  • Regular visits with my chiropractor and physical therapist who have been my coaches and supporters for going on three years now.  I can’t say enough good about these two.
  • Yoga, a healthful eating regimen, and walking.  Daily intentional care of my physical body helps maintain both my physical and emotional health.
  • Writing — putting my thinking on a page with a commitment to total transparency has been an accountability that contributes to my emotional and physical health.
  • Psychological therapy — a once a week discussion with a trained professional who helps me sort out the healthy and unhealthy messages I am giving myself.  I am always surprised by the interrelationship between physical and mental health; it cannot be overstated.
  • A renewed commitment to prayer — this seems to be the hardest for me.  I am so used to muscling through and finding my own solutions.  Turning to prayer is a highly intentional act right now.  I am praying that it becomes more automatic over time.

I sometimes joke that taking care of myself is a part-time job.  It takes a lot of effort.  However, I have learned that if I have any hope of caring for the people I love or for being effective with my students, I have got to oxygenate myself first.  It’s not selfish; it’s a healthy practice that enables me to do the things I love.  It honors the Creator to care for what He created.

Jeremiah 17:14

Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.

How hard can it be? pt. 2

So, it seems like the turning would be the hardest part, doesn’t it?  If you are headed down a road of your own choosing, recognizing that you are going the wrong way and deciding to turn around should be the most difficult step, shouldn’t it?  I have not found that to be so.  I have found two other parts of repentance to be much more difficult — 1)  keeping my eyes from looking back, and 2) continually stepping forward.

Here’s the thing — walking down the road of my own choosing causes a ton of collateral damage.  You would think that once I realize this, I would want to turn quickly toward a path of safety and run just as fast as I can.  Not so.  I am drawn to looking back at all the wreckage.  I get lost in regret and what ifs.  I keep thinking, “Oh my gosh, why did I do that? Why couldn’t I see how much I was hurting myself and others?”  My eyes turn back and guess what happens next; my feet follow.  Just that quickly I have lost my way again.

I can lose hours of my time paging through the photo albums of poor choices and missed opportunities.  I mean, I can still lose sleep over the way I treated a childhood friend in 1972.  A terse word with a student can occupy my thoughts all evening.  I can make myself physically sick by rehashing parenting decisions and formulating ways to do things differently.   It’s as though I think I can rewind the movie, cut out the scenes I don’t like, and splice in a version of how I wish it would’ve played out.  But we can’t do that.  What happened happened. I can’t undo what I did, and I can’t undo what others did.  I can’t, but for some reason, my brain still wants to pretend as though I can.

And I think I know why. My mom and I were sitting side by side last week, watching the Olympics and lightly chatting.  I mean, I thought it was light chatting until she said something about getting lost in her regretful thoughts.  She said that she can spiral downward very quickly when she starts thinking about the mistakes she has made in her life, but when she feels herself doing that she says, “Get behind me, Satan!” I about jumped out of my rocking chair — she had hit the nail on the head!  If the enemy can get my eyes turned toward regret, my feet follow.  He just has to grab my chin and turn my gaze toward what I did wrong in 1983 or 1998 or 2004 and pretty soon my whole body has made its way back to a path of my own choosing and I am no longer aware of Jesus walking beside me.  I can’t hear his voice any more.  I don’t care to look into his eyes.  I am a soldier on a mission to make things right, and you’d better get out of my way.

But, guys, I can’t make things right.

It won’t work.

I can’t undo what’s been done.

And I’m not supposed to try.

In these moments, I need the second part of the clause, but, so often, I miss it.

I hear, “repent,” but I don’t seem to hear “believe the gospel.”  Or maybe I hear the words, but I don’t understand the message.  I mean, what is the gospel, after all?  It’s God’s commitment to me — He already knows that I am human, that I am bent on turning, and that I cannot of my own strength follow Him.  He knows that I am going to continually walk down a path of my own choosing, and yet He has promised to be with me wherever I go.  He doesn’t leave me or forsake me.  He has seen all my lousy decisions.  He has watched me ignore the people in front of me.  He has seen me choose myself over others time and time again.  And yet, He loves me.  He has patience with me.  He forgives me.  He continually chooses to walk beside me, to reveal himself to me, and to allow me the time and space to choose over and over again to turn away from my destructive path and toward His Way.

And that is not all.  He is in the business of redemption and restoration.  He takes the wreckage from my past and transforms it into beauty.  It’s beyond my comprehension.  I thought my parents’ divorce was the end of my life, but God used that experience to prepare me to be the wife of a divorced man and the mother of his child.  I don’t hold my husband’s past against him. It’s just part of his story, and now it’s part of mine.

In the mid-80s, I was anorexic.  My whole life revolved around reducing the amount of food I ate and thereby reducing the amount of me.  I was on a path of destruction that many never walk away from.  However, God, in his grace kept walking beside me, he kept talking to me, and before I knew it, I had turned around.  I was worried that I might have done irreparable damage to my body and that I would never have children, but my worries were for nothing, because God is in the business of redemption and restoration.  Not only did he restore my physical and emotional body, he has used my path to minister to others who have similar stories.

Time and time again, I’ve heard stories of people who have witnessed God transforming much greater disasters into stories of restoration. It is what God does.  He creates, he redeems, he restores.

Lately I’ve been spending way too much time in the photo albums of regret.  There is a time and a place to look back and grieve.  Sometimes we need to spend seasons in mourning.  However, when mourning turns into self-blame and punishment, it’s time to close the album for a bit.  It’s time to turn around, walk down the path that has been designed for me, listen to the voice of the One walking beside me, gaze into His eyes, and recognize that He is in the business of redemption and restoration.

God is faithful, and He will do it.

Psalm 30

11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
    you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

How hard can it be?

It sounds pretty easy.  I mean, it’s really just one independent clause. I’ve read it, or had it read in my hearing, certainly dozens of times in my life.  I have an image of Jesus peacefully walking along a dirt path, probably next to the Sea of Galilee, wind blowing through his hair, gazing lovingly toward his hearers.  His voice is gentle, and he’s giving the simplest of invitations, “repent and believe the gospel.”

How hard can it be to do two simple things: 1) repent, and 2) believe in the gospel.

Pretty darn hard it turns out.

If you have been with me since the beginning of this blog you are aware that I have spent a fair amount of time writing about repentance.  It’s such an archaic sounding word, isn’t it?  Kind of King James-ish, if you ask me.  Why in the world would I want to utter a word like repent in 2018?  It conjures another image, one of a wild-eyed, locust-eating John the Baptist, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Repent and be baptized!”

Can’t we just all hold hands and sing Kumbaya?

We could.  We could all gather together, hold hands, and sing kumbaya. It might be soothing for a moment,  but it wouldn’t provide the healing and restoration that true repentance gives.

Perhaps way back in confirmation class was the first time I heard repentance described as “a turning”.  I have imagined myself walking down a street of my own making headed toward a future that only seems bright, and then, realizing that the path is truly headed toward my certain demise, I turn on a dime to head in the opposite direction toward a future hand-crafted for me — one that I don’t have to manipulate myself into.

Doesn’t that sound blissful and so “one and done”-ish? Yeah, true repentance isn’t like that.  True repentance is realizing that I keep ending up on that same darn street and I have to keep turning around and heading in the other direction.  I am bent on turning.  I keep figuring out a better plan, a more exciting path, a way that seems right to me.

The road I typically end up on is one that promises to make me happy.  In my younger years, it promised make me thinner.  Over the years it has offered financial security, family peace, work satisfaction, physical healing, or some other sort of relief from some other sort of stress.  It promises an escape from the troubles of this world.  But guess what  — it has not once delivered.  Oh, sure, I walked a path for a while that certainly made me thinner, but it also left me empty.  I have patched together short-term fixes for all kinds of messes, but none have lasted.  All of my efforts lead me to the same conclusion — I do not have the answers.

So, I turn.  I walk away from my own path, and I promise myself, and God, that I’ve learned my lesson.  I’m done trying to soldier through. I’m done coming up with my own solutions.

About two seconds pass, and, whether I realize it or not,  I’m back on my own path.

Why?  Because I forget the second half of the clause — “believe in the gospel”.   I know, I know, more John the Baptist, but guys, the dude was running around shouting because he understood the good news!  He knew what has taken me a lifetime to learn — all my answers are crap.  They set up me to be my own rescuer and they inevitably fail.  Good ol’ JTB understood that Jesus was the answer, and not just in the Sunday school answer kind of way.  He was the solution. The remedy.  The Way.

But ya know, even though I believe that, I don’t always believe that.  Instead I believe that I need to solve my own problems, pay for my own mistakes, and forge my own path.  I get confused and think that repentance means guilt and punishment.

It doesn’t.

Let’s picture the scene a little differently.  Let’s have Jesus walk right up beside us wherever we are today.  Let’s have him walk with us on our path for a little while; let’s hear his voice and begin to trust him.  I see him walking as quickly or as slowly as we want to go.  I imagine him making a lot of eye contact, so much so that I stop looking at whatever it is that I’ve been chasing at the end of the path of my own making.  Before long I  want to go wherever He is going, just so that I can continue to see those eyes and hear that voice.  I imagine hearing him say things like “don’t worry about tomorrow, I gave the birds their clothing, I’ll make sure you have things to wear,” “follow me,” “I love you,”  “I forgive you,” and “I’m going to prepare a place for you.”

Turning isn’t so hard when you know that you are turning toward love, when you recognize where you belong, and when you understand, finally, that he’s had you all the time in the palm of his hand.

Isaiah 30:15a

In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.