Conviction

The end of the semester rush is here, and I feel like I am constantly running a few steps behind the pace! I have over 300 pages of carefully typed papers to grade in the next week, along with some 20 research articles to peruse as I grade my sophomore students' research analysis projects. It is enjoyable work but exhausting and time consuming. Today marked my final clinical day for my first year of teaching full time! I have to say I am happy to see the 3 a.m. wake-up time going by the wayside until October.

With the busy season comes a stillness to my writer's heart and mind as all energy focuses on the tasks of teaching and evaluating my beloved students. It is a breath of relief from the agony of self-reflection and healing, as the troubles of the day disappear into the abyss of yesterday with the coming of each short night of sleep. I have felt deep conviction since writing my last post. My dear mother shared a verse with me, in a different context, and the Lord has been quietly speaking deeply into my soul with the simple phrase of that one sentence from the King James. I share it here so that you know how He speaks to me, even through pain, busy seasons, and the few moments of quietness in the morning before the sun dawns again.
...the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. (James 1:20 KJV)
A new painting of mine from this Sunday's "day of painting" that soothed my soul

When peace is a distant memory

Photo by Ann Voskamp
Sometimes I wonder, if this is how love feels, what would His anger feel like? Life seems an insurmountable pile of trials thrown together like dirty laundry, and you will never complete it all. If suffering is to be our food for the rest of life, are we willing? Oh, to skip back to the naïveté of childhood, before I realized the weight of this life.

How do you roll the crushing boulder off your broken frame? What could possibly give me leverage in this mire? I keep counting blessings, as if to make a rope ladder up from the pit out of these gifts numbered. But it is slogging work, to push away the dross of each day to hunt for the few jewels. Life is hard, times are bad, and it seems too much to bear.

Guilt piles up heavy as well. Every time the dark thoughts collide inside, more wounds are created, in me, in these children, in my husband who so tenderly supports and comforts me. How can I keep doing this to the ones I love? If it were up to self-control, if I could fix these broken places myself, I would have, a thousand times over. The problem is, I can only rely on the One stronger than I to heal me, and instinct makes me push Him away, as He seems, too, the source of my pain. By His allowing it feels as though He gives His consent. How can He not rise as my shield and make the sun shine upon my soul for a season? Does He really think I am strong enough to survive all of this?

Today I am to be at a women's conference, but I cannot drive, I cannot think, and I cannot be in a group of women - anathema to an introvert's bleeding heart. It would be like walking back into the fire the day you get out of the hospital with your old burns still weeping. I cannot make myself participate.

Oh, how I beg for deliverance.

Grace.

Peace.

Healing.

When will my Lord hear and comfort me?
Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for mine help. Draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me: say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. (Psalm 35:1-3)



Look what's peeking through

It is piling up again out there, the blanket of white stretching it's arms far into April, and we tough Midwesterners are beginning to truly say "Uncle". If there is one more gray day, we say. If it doesn't start to warm up soon...
I silently wonder if winter's expanse hasn't lingered just for me. The gray days match my mood (or do they cause it?) and snow keeps scars under wraps. Summer is not so kind.

I am cutting cords, this wintery spring. Trying to be willing to change. It's a big leap for me. After all, I've kept myself relatively safe with this way of coping and I'm scared that the new ways won't give me the armor I need.

Happiness creeps in with the study of a list of Scriptures with my mama. This list tallies all the ways healthy coping is straight from the good Book. And I breathe - let myself believe, again - that this might work. I feel happy and say so, and then touch my chest in shock that those words just slipped easily from my lips again.

It's a little like the blades of bright green grass sticking up through the snow, the crocus leaves catching flakes in the diffused light of the snowstorm. It has grown in silent and the secrets of my heart these last weeks, this tiny fragile piece of happiness, and it is birthed, even through snow. There it is. I think that it might be hope. He is saying
I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:22)



Five Minute Friday
"Jump"

Legereté de printemps

Sometimes I wonder where we all came from, rag-tag sisterhood of broken pieces on the internet, uniting around some imaginary campfire to clink glasses and say, "Me, too!" It wasn't any path of wholeness and satisfaction that led us into each other's arms, but a path in the wilderness. It wasn't a mistake, both of us ending up here. One note at a time, I'm singing your song right back to you.
All along it was a fever
A cold sweat hot-headed believer

Round and around and around and around we go
Oh now tell me, you know

Not really sure how to feel about it.
Something in the way you move
Makes me feel like I can't live without you.
I want you to stay

It's not much of a life you're living
It's not just something you take – it's given

Ooh the reason I hold on
Ooh cause I need this hole gone
Funny you're the broken one but I'm the only one who needed saving
~Stay, Rihanna~

We come for the saving grace. We come for the sisterhood. We come because here, there are others just like us. Staring into the blackness of the pixels on the screen, reading lines of hope penned by the ordinary broken. We see Jesus in the shadows across our floors, in the lonely night, in the heavily peopled yet solitary day.
It is audacious, living for the grace you only see twinkling back now and then. Intrepid, creative, contagious verve. That's what it takes to stand alone in one world and reach into the circle of another for a knowing hand. To reach with words instead of arms and hold the world in our grasp - audacious.
Is this what galvanizes us afresh, in this day and age? The sisters of the screen, bloggers anonymous to famous, women whose sorrow shrouds character in mist too thick to cut through. It is only here we see each other naked, and here we sigh, "You are seen. You are the beautiful, broken Beloved." He's bought us back, broken beauties, and picks up each shard of our shattered self-respect and gently hands it back. We gather up the crumbs of our own selves redeemed to feed each starving mouth slowly. We pour that self-respect by shreds into comment boxes and tweeted replies and late into the night. And so we are fed, daily dose of the divine, one hand to the next, one sister bending to lift the next one's weight from the bloody floor.

You pick me up with your words. I will do the same for you.



Holding embers

She says that people like me are living in hell on earth. The searing pain of our situation has us grasping at any means possible to escape the torment. Including deciding to climb up the hot aluminum ladder leading up, even though that is sure to cause more pain with each step. Problem is, she says, I've climbed the ladder before, seemingly "out" of my personal hell, but I've done it on willpower alone. I slog through my disappointment and discontent; I pull up and up into happy and unhappy cohabiting. Beyond that, I keep looking, straining upward, so sure there is something more. Most people are happy just to live in the quiet of this space, and they never glance upward. But I do, and I see a light that leads to another level - joy and despair. To hold on to the emotion and solution at once is like a hot coal in each hand. 

Up here, on my way to radical acceptance of both joy and despair, is where I either fall off the ladder or the level, if I make it that far. Just like that, back in hell.

To be inflated is as certain as to be crushed...extremely good and extremely bad dancing in the neverlands. To be here is to be vulnerable, to risk everything every time. No wonder I fall back in.
How will this next climb ever be different? Have I any say in recovery at all? The hopelessness of it all weighs me down when I would take flight to escape the burn inside.

Is counting joys safe? I guess not. I keep counting for today - my gesture of radical acceptance of all of this to the universe.
#2052 Bits of joy ARE beginning to creep back in for the cracks
#2057 ice cream on the weekend!
#2061 phone call from a friend at a crucial moment
#2063 husband's cooking
#2068 little hands reaching in the night









Traveling from pain to glory

Here is the joy. Here in this moment, this place, this space. And fear is a thief, a joy-monger, launching into the moment to devour the gifts at your feet. You may think fear is not the enemy when it's just soaring in the periphery of your vision. It only takes one glide for it to dive into the present and scare off the kids and birds and leave you alone with it's devious face, it's cackle of triumph. 
I hold a turquoise cross tight in my grip, bending it's soft form between thumb and forefinger. I do this because the ache in my hand keeps me present in the moment, instead of soaring off with fear for wings. For emotions are as fickle as the April weather here in Wisconsin, and fear could drop me from a thousand feet high and crush me on the pavement far below. Choosing this moment, with whatever it contains, sometimes isn't so attractive. Last night, in a group, I didn't want to be present. But I grabbed my cross from my purse, and the bite into my palm forced me to stay nailed to my chair, body and spirit. That cross keeps me on the ground instead of floating off into the tornado of grief above me.

I think of the Savior lugging His heavy cross up the hill at Golgatha, Place of the Skull. Did the bite of the slivers into his shoulders striped from beating keep Him on the ground, keep His mind from wandering too far into the future? Was it mindfulness of the weight of the moment that kept Him going that last day? I follow the path, with my small cross in my hand, and the snaking line His cross ground into the dust is sometimes hard to find. I only know it's on the ground, not in the sky, and so I pin myself to moments and find the path now and then, and this is how you get from one place to another. From one emotion to the next. From pain to glory.

Five Minute Friday
"Here"

Winter white

It's April and the snow just keeps coming. I can't escape the analogies out my window every day. Snow covering mud, the old deer carcass on the front lawn, the mighty roaring rivers through the culverts from all the melting. Snow settles over all and the earth quiets and stills beneath her blanket. All ugliness is forgotten and lies buried invisible again.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause. “Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord: "though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 1:16-20)
The red road to Galilee is covered with white. The bloodiness of weeks past is covered over by God's infinite grace.

Choices monumental mark this road of forgiveness. Will I accept it, as freely as it was offered? Can I find the strength to seek joy and to do good, to turn from my own oppression and free others in the turning? 
Easter in the snowdrifts. Bright colors dancing across the white driveway up to family celebration. I can hear each tiny snow crystal hit the ground, dance up off it and fall again to become part of the earth's down comforter on April 11th. Slowly each little crystal melts from the warmth of the earth below, and all become one, and then will be the melting, and the joining with the roaring rivers through the culverts and rushing out onto the fields to make ready for planting. I long to join. To become one with the One great love our world has known. To rush out to make ready for the planting and the harvest. I turn quiet and stoic, exhausted but ready. For such a time as this I have endured.




Busy is good

I've always liked being busy. Maybe it's because my mother doesn't stop moving between getting up from her morning coffee and Bible study and the time she falls asleep at night. Maybe it's because being busy makes you feel productive, successful, useful. 

I was a workaholic when I got out of nursing school. Sixteen to twenty hour shifts were my favorite - both because I loved working all my waking hours, and because of the awesome bonus pay for "doubling" into the next shift. When you perform well - at work, at church, at school, at sports - people take notice and appreciate you in a way they don't when you aren't performing. It's constant positive feedback for your brain. Now, my busiest days mentally are Tuesdays, when I depart from home for clinical instruction at the hospital at 4:30 a.m. and don't return home until after the last student leaves my other class around 4:30 p.m. On Tuesdays, I don't have to think. I just do. It can be a wonderful break from the mental chaos and constant clamor of depression and anxiety - but it can also be a horrible way to live.

In his excellent book on performance-based Christianity and it's relationship to spiritual abuse, Ken Blue states:
"It is true that God demands much. In fact, His demands are more than we can deliver. The good news is that Jesus meets God's demands fully for us. Saints know that they have failed Christ. Yet Jesus promises rest for all who are weary of trying to please religious leaders. He offers an easy yoke to all those laboring under a load of spiritual performance. If your religion is wearisome and burdensome, God's answer is not a longer quiet time, a firmer commitment or one more trip to the altar. God's solution for spiritual tiredness is rest- rest in the loving acceptance of Jesus" - that you are radically accepted by God through Christ - "and his perfect load-carrying work for you. Once the list of external behaviors is replaced by Jesus' definition of sin, we all fall to the same level of absolute poverty. Abusive spiritual hierarchies [and performance based posturing] are destroyed and we all see our equal need of a savior." (in Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences)
Over-performance can be a compensation for a peace-less spirit. I know in my case, in those early years of work, it was. Again, as a Christian, I began over-performing to meet the needs of my church, and that wasn't healthy either. Thankfully, I only have those crazy-busy days once a week now, and life feels somewhat more balanced. Yet still, when I am alone with my thoughts sometimes, I crave the way work completely erases my worries. And wonder, still, if it wouldn't be the cure to what ails me.

It is infinitely more difficult to rest in the Lord than it is to show up for the world.

Life is easier when you can fly

My friend Ann wrote today what she wished the Church knew about mental health. It was salve for wounds worn dry and dirty from the rub of shame, guilt, disgust. I am perhaps even more saddened by the death of Rick Warren's son Matthew than the general Christian public, having so closely walked that dark path he found himself upon just a week ago. Everyone seems to be talking about it - and I'm thankful for that. Part of me also wonders - what about the thousands upon thousands who have silently slipped away without notice? Did anyone hear their earlier cries for help? Did anyone acknowledge and validate their pain and offer to walk with them through the experience?

We - Aaron and I - refer to our time at Valleybrook Church as our time in the spiritual hospital. This church opened it's arms to us with incredible grace when we were most wounded. A pastor opened her door to welcome me into her office once a week just so I could talk about things I had never told anyone. They hosted a network of small group studies based on the Wounded Heart book by Dan Allender. Through this experience our eyes were open to a different kind of church - one where people walked like Jesus as much as they talked about Him, where you could come for sanctuary. Do you know why we call our worship spaces "sanctuaries" today? Because from the 4th to the 17th century, you could run to a church and be safe as long as you stayed within it's walls - safe from lawmakers and their police, anyone wishing to harm you, safety from legal prosecution and even the death penalty. Back then, if someone violated the Right of Sanctuary, hassling or hurting the fugitive in any way, the perpetrator went free, and the punisher took his penalty.
Life - and by extension, faith - is so much easier when you're soaring. Clear blue skies and a sweet summer breeze are what we Northerners think about and long for the better part of the year. But this type of weather rarely comes - and so it may be with the mind, too. For me, it is like the undertow of a river, or trying to carry something heavy through water. I remember that time back in 2011, when I was drowning, and a few who were soaring above noticed and joined me on the water. By the flapping of their wings beside me, I was comforted in the reminder that I, too, have wings, and someday would soar again. Since the healing that came to me last year, I've had long stretches of few symptoms - and yet, here I am in the middle of a relapse of sorts.
What you may not realize, when you see me bleeding all over the church floor, is that I've confessed each sin a thousand times if I've confessed it once. A thousand times I have not felt that relief of release that should accompany confession. My heart and soul were so torn by the break that came with childhood abuse that it still feels black and muddy and shameful. It is the weight of that millstone around my neck that I cannot break free from - yet. The time may be coming, but for now, I'm still bleeding and it's still a mess all over my church's floor, the floors of my home. Dragging around wounds everywhere you go messes life up all over again.
Is someone in your life struggling with mental health issues? Won't you be the one who sits down beside them, or takes them on a walk, or offers them a space in which to heal every now and then? Can your church be a hospital for the wounded? Are you willing to bind up wounds and bear the stink of surgery and the long, slow road to recovery?
When we say YES - personally and corporately as the Body of Christ - then, truly, we are the hands and feet of Jesus' love for His people. In Galatians 6, in a section of the Bible titled by English translators "Bear and Share the Burdens", God says it this way:
...let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.


.................................................................
Still counting gifts...
2008 Snuggling my son
2009 A moment of pure joy in a rainstorm with my Aaron
2010 those caring, willing hands of my family
2011 the rescue and release that is confession comes for a moment
2012 a true conversation with my own mama


The narrow escape

I have been in the hospital for four days. Dealing with chronic illness lays your soul bare and opens an ear to the whispers of evil. There are times when you go dancing with the inner demons, the triumphs of sin in the expanse of your life. You lift the ruby red blanket of Christ's sacrifice and allow those demons to jump back out from underneath, cackling and carrying you on their backs down the path of dangerous thoughts. I am not good enough. I am not worthy of the life I've been given. Look at all these awful things I've done! Do they not condemn me forever? Am I not marked as a wicked one?

The Jews of ancient times ascribe Lamentations to Jeremiah, the "weeping prophet". In my darkest times of soul distress and distrust, the words of this book scream like dervishes confirming my worst fears about myself:
All who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her. All your enemies open their mouths wide against you; they scoff and gnash their teeth and say, "We have swallowed her up. This is the day we have waited for; we have lived to see it." As if it were a feast day, you call enemies to terrify me on every side. (from Lamentations 1 and 2)
I've danced in the minefields for one day too long. I am weak and weary. If I were writing a Psalm, I would repeat the words of David, Do not cast me from Your presence, but grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Psalm 51:11a & 12b) I gather things around me, books, Bibles, my thumbprint cross, the tattoo on my wrist that says, Choose life (from Deuteronomy 30). As talisman against the darkness.

I think back on this present trial, the worst of it 8 weeks long now, and there are a few things to rejoice in. I suffered 8 weeks of impulsive thoughts pushing me toward the place I have chosen not to go, and at the end of the 8 weeks I chose triumphantly with all the weapons at hand. I believe this turning, this repentance - the Hebrew word  שׁוּבָה transliterated "shubah", meaning a return or a turning away from - is counted by God above as gold, silver, and precious stones.

I return home stronger, although despair and hopelessness still nip at my heels. I have seen redemption worked out in my life again, and I have lived to tell the story, I love to tell the story -  because I know 'tis true; it satisfies my longings as nothing else can do (I Love to Tell the Story, by Arabella Hankey, 1860's).
Are you dancing with your demons? Are you surrounded on every side? May the blanket of white snow that is Christ's covering salvation return your demons to dust, and may you find peace in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. My prayer for myself, and for you.



Five Minute Friday
"After"