Practicing What We Preach

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Sunday morning, I didn’t have a sermon. That wasn’t planned. Perhaps you noticed that the following morning, I didn’t have a blog either.

Let’s let me recap.

Monday

My husband stayed home from work with the stomach flu. I spent the day in a combination of caring for him and living in mortal fear that I could not escape this doom. (So far, I have.) Also, Monday was snowpocalypse. So there’s that.

Tuesday

while routinely driving my daughter to the train station for work, we got in an accident. A very young driver, probably in a hurry and certainly not paying attention, turned left and slammed into my driver door and fender. Hard. I walked away with a broken arm, and more importantly, both my daughter and the young woman were unharmed. Unfortunately, my beautiful, far too young, metallic peacock, best-beloved car did not fare as well. Sally Ride is no more.

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Wednesday

No one went to work, except the doctor who casted my arm, as all of Chicago hibernated in the deep freeze.

Thursday

We took our ailing middle cat to the vet, hoping that she could offer us some treatment. Instead, she offered us a lot of medication that we could try at home, but cautioned us that he would almost certainly die. In fact, it became traumatically clear during the course of the treatment there that we would have to relieve his suffering immediately, and our dear Pippin would not be coming home with us.

It’s hard to dictate those sentences (since I can’t type right now given said casted arm) because just saying the words is making me cry. This is not the cat that was diagnosed in December with cancer-–yet he also had the same disease, under the radar, hiding it well, just like a cat/middle child. We expect still to say goodbye to #1 cat very soon as well. Merry and Pippin will both be gone-–the fellowship will be no more. I’m not good at pet goodbyes. Who is?

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None of us felt quite certain we should even get out of bed on

Friday

Was it the same old week, or was it a brand-new month? I didn’t have long to wait for the answer. That morning, I came downstairs to a loud roaring sound in my hallway and water gushing all over the floor. Have you ever simultaneously panicked, laughed, and cried? It’s pretty strange.

This all comes barely a week after we got the text that my mother-in-law would refuse treatment for her cancer and go into hospice. We expected her to make that decision—it was the right and best thing for her. That doesn’t mean the final choice isn’t devastating.

There are many things you cannot do without water. Also, there’re many things you cannot do without your dominant hand.

I couldn’t do anything.

I couldn’t even wash my grapes for lunch. So I sat here wondering if the next item in the series of unfortunate events would be my death by listeria. Do grapes carry listeria? I don’t know. I just know that I was eating dirty grapes, and I could taste the dirtiness, and that nothing was right in this world.

(Also, I came to the realization that I should never audition for one of those survival shows. When all of the plumbers said they couldn’t make it out for two or three days, my first response was not,” What must we do to cook and clean and survive for three days?” It was,” Where is the nearest hotel with a hot tub?”)

I never imagined I would stand in front of a group of people and tell them I hadn’t done my job. I never imagined that I would just blow off my blog for a week. I like my image as a fighter. I like people to know I will just power through and get the job done.

Except I couldn’t. The words wouldn’t come, even had I had 10 minutes not punctuated by calls from insurance adjusters or other emergencies.

And that is okay.

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Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

You see, I preach and write a lot about letting go of perfectionism and expectations. I know how dangerous they are–I let them control my life for far too long. They still lurk in the shadows, because that is who I am. Hello, enneagram 5. My highest need is to appear competent.

Yet this is not what I teach others. Our Word of the year for 2019 at church is Peace. My personal word is Restore. Right now, I feel like January pretty much failed me on that one. But I know the One who can and will restore all things, and I know that sometimes before restoration comes death. This is not what I had suspected or planned, but if that is what it takes, then I will wait expectantly for his restoration.

Restoration Requires Death

Sometimes, we are forced to practice what we preach. Sometimes, that takes the form of telling people that we couldn’t do what they expected us to do. Sometimes, it means telling the truth about what we are capable of handling. Sometimes, it requires us to lean hard on the arms of the one who tells us we don’t have to do every thing and in fact, we can’t do anything without him.

Maybe that’s a different kind of restoration and peace. It doesn’t look like I expected it to. But Jesus told me to be a peacemaker–-and if that means that I lay down my idol of competence so that others do not feel they have to take it up, then I am grateful to make that kind of peace in someone else’s life.

Jesus restores. We have evidence. This hasn’t been the wonder and amazement that I thought restoration would be. It’s been the tearing away before the healing.

God loves me when I’m not competent. God loves me when I cannot do what I believe I should be able to do. God loves me when I stand in front of a group people and say, “I’ve got nothing.” Fortunately, so do they.

God loves you. Full stop. There is no qualifier. I pray for peace and restoration for you today. I know how much you might need it.

Six Years. The Opioid Crisis Is Real

It’s been six years, yesterday. Six years since I wrote this piece. It’s an anniversary I’d rather not have, but those choices aren’t always ours. I can’t believe it’s been six.

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I’ll Do Anything, God

My “anything” prayer happened in a credit union lobby, viewing security tapes. The image on the tape was shady, in more ways than one. He wore a hoodie pulled low over his brow, not surprising, since having anyone see his face would have been detrimental to his purpose. The tape was grainy, at best. Still, I could identify the vehicle, and its driver.

 Explaining this all to the security woman at the credit union felt like an out-of-body experience. Surely, this was not my pretty, suburban Jesus life. Yes, I said. I do know who the young man in the tape is using my debit card. Yes, I do know he’s a drug addict and what he’ll do with the money. Yes, I know if I don’t press charges you won’t return the money. No, I still don’t want to press charges.

Her look called both my sanity and my intelligence into question. I just shrugged my shoulders. “I’m a pastor. It’s an occupational hazard. I can’t really explain.”

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I didn’t pray “anything” intentionally. It happened to me the day Casey happened to me, and I might well have told God I had other, more pressing business had I any notion of the rough road ahead. Fortunately, God does not give us those notions. He knows my heart that would probably have embraced the fear and the comfort rather than the strange boy in my back hallway.

So I never offered God everything. But by the time he asked it of me, I could do nothing else. God knows, sometimes, that’s the way we work.

No Turning Back When You Tell God “Anything”

Fortunately for Casey, that shock of overgrown cocoa-colored bangs and those huge brown eyes beneath the ever-present hoodie endeared him to people before they knew him. At least they did to me, a sucker for shy smiles and already well aware of my daughter’s penchant for collecting what we could euphemistically term “the least of these.”

 He had nowhere to go, could he maybe sleep in the basement? OK. I guessed that would be fine. For a while.

Two days later, his mom came knocking on the side door, letting us know the reason he had nowhere to go–she had a restraining order on him, because he had stolen from her, again. The same day one of our mutual friends informed us of his past in detail, containing more interactions with law enforcement than Snoop Dogg. “He’s a loser. He’ll never change. You’re out of your mind if you let him in your house. He’ll take you for everything you have.”

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And he tried. I’d never been called to a bank to review security videos, never had someone steal my debit card and use it to buy gas for ten of his closest friends. Never had police bang on my door at random hours. Never sat at the hospital bed of someone who felt so little hope for life he’d OD on heroin, again.

 He progressed to grand theft auto while we were on vacation. Not the video game. The rage I felt when the gift cards I’d saved points for to give our kids for Christmas turned up missing the week before—from my underwear drawer, which feels relentlessly violating—mixed with the sorrow and desolation of knowing that by this time, I loved this kid.

OK, he was no kid; he was 23. But only chronologically.

When Jesus told me to love the least of these, he wasn’t being rhetorical. He didn’t mean sending money to African orphans to satisfy my conscience or buying a pair of shoes so a needy child could have one, too. Yes, those are good things. I do those things. But until Casey, I didn’t understand that real love takes risks, gets personal, gets hideously, nakely messy. Real love looks a messed up kid in the eye and says, “I’m with you for the long haul. What do we have to do?”And sometimes the crapshot you take with love comes up bust. There is no guarantee.

Every time I thought I had had enough and was ready to turn this kid in and wash my hands, I asked God if I could. Well, I kind of begged him. There were some pretty bad days. And every single time, he said, “No. I am not done with Casey. So neither are you. Anything? Really?”

Holy Spirit Leverage

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 As part of our “I’m not turning you in so now I have some power over you” strategy, we “sentenced” Casey to community service at our church. He met people. They loved him, no holds barred. He came to a few services. He went forward to the altar, trying to start over and get out of the iron-bar-less prison he knew he was still in. He got better; he got worse; he got better. I felt the Spirit moving me to go back downstairs to him one night at 2am, long after I had gone to bed but not to sleep.

“Casey, what’s keeping you from turning your life over to God?”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to give up the fun I’m having.”

“Really? So, this homeless, jail time, drugs gig is fun? How’s that working out for you?”

He shook his head sheepishly. “Yeah. Not so good.”

 He told us no one in twenty-three years had made him feel so loved. Like the security woman, he shook his head at us and said he could not understand why.

 But eventually, he got it. He got that love beyond all human ability comes from Jesus alone. A tiny bit of comprehension seeped in that, maybe, possibly, it wasn’t too late for someone like him. A God who would die for any sin on the books just because he loved us would love him, too. The Recovery Bible got a used look to it.

Eventually, I got it, too. I got that compassion means so much more than a thoughtful email, and mercy is the greatest inexplicable gift someone might get from me. I wrote my senior seminary thesis on grace. But I don’t think I knew it at all until I knew Casey. I know now how amazing grace is not just when its received but when its given. I’ve hugged Jesus in the form of a messed-up, love-bewildered kid. And I’ll never see Him the same.

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Not a Fairytale

You know those stories with bittersweet endings that you hate but know are really more true than the happily ever after ones? This is that kind of story. Casey didn’t make it in this life. He tried hard. He went though recovery and was on the road. But there were too many years of pain and bad choices, and one last time on heroin, after being clean for a while, was the last. I had to find out through Facebook, not the number one choice for devastating your heart.

Sitting looking at the waves of Lake Michigan roll in that week, I cried for the man he might have been and the life that could have been his. But I also cried because I knew, absolutely knew, that at that moment, Casey was looking at Jesus through eyes free of fog. He had no pain, no past, no chains of addiction or scars of abuse. He had no tears of hopelessness or self-hatred. He was free. And I’d never been so happy for someone in my life. Or sad. 

“Anything” prayers may take you no farther than your own back hallway. But they’ll take you much farther than that, once dangerous love sets in.

 

According to our surgeon general’s remarks when I heard him speak this spring, “This is a medical addiction issue, not a moral failure. The only way we’re going to create better opportunities for those we love is by sharing our stories and eliminating the stigma. None of us can do it alone.” Amen. The heroin epidemic is real, and it’s deadly. Someone dies every 12.5 minutes of an opioid overdose. The start of it for someone could be in your own medicine cabinet right now. Please check out some facts and know what you need to know. Don’t lose someone you love.

Pulling Weeds: Being Thankful for Real Community

Guest blogging today is Sarah May. Sarah writes about seeing happiness in the most unlikely of situations and how we can bring that happiness to grieving people.
Sarah is a 20-something trying to navigate the world with a little help from Jesus and little bit of sarcasm. For more from Sarah visit http://www.mycompletemayhem.net.

I Hope They’re Weeds

IMG_8765Killing weeds is never fun. It may be cathartic if you’ve had a rough day, but no one jumps at the chance to weed the garden. It’s just not pleasant. I recently found myself cleaning the yard and killing weeds with my trusty bottle of Round Up and like most mindless task, I found myself thinking about life while I sprayed roundup on what I hope were weeds.

Cancer’s New Normal

You see, the weeds in my yard are two and half years old. I know this because that’s how long it’s been since our yard received some serious love. The weeds were symbolic of our lives going through cancer and then grief. When you enter the world of life with cancer, your new normal does not involve yard work, or home repairs. It involves clinics, hospital stays, trying to not fall behind at work, and chick-fil-a more than once a week.
After a year and half of our new life with cancer, we lost our new normal life and entered the world of grief. Grief exhaustion from the past year and half collided, and the energy to do anything outside of the normal means of living was just to overwhelming. For every weed, a new emotion.
When we first entered the world of cancer, people were quick to help without us asking. Food was delivered; a group showed up to finish some home projects and clean the yard. We were and are thankful for this. It helped make the transition easier. Then the rain fell and the garden grew. Yard work was never anywhere near the top of the to do list.

Smiling in Grief

Grief is terribly isolating. However, if you go the other side of the world, you will find a group of women who smile the biggest smiles you have ever seen. These women are either widows or they were left by their husbands. Due to the culture and the legal marriage age of 15, they have limited skills to earn a living and mouths to feed. These women have banded together and are supported by the community. They learn job skills as they go through life together. Not because it’s fun or church organized. They have to. To put food on the table and educate their children in hopes of a better future one day.
If you are ever blessed to meet a group of these women, I hope they rip your heart out in the best of ways. I have met these women, and they are full of more life and love for the Lord than anyone I have ever met. In meeting them all, I wanted to do was cry with an overwhelming emotion I cannot explain, but I couldn’t cry because a short 4’5″ woman with missing teeth grabbed me by the arm singing with the biggest smile on her face. Soon after, I found myself in the dancing circle singing and dancing.
I couldn’t cry; they were just too happy and I didn’t want to rob them of this joy. These women in this community, who had nothing, were so very happy. This is where happiness is in its purist form. Living life and supporting one another because it’s what they must do to live. It wasn’t about a monthly to do at the church or a biannual event. It wasn’t a way to feel like they had served the Lord and filled up their Jesus tank.

Good Deeds vs Good Neighbors

My family has been on the receiving end of these church groups and good deed quota filling events. But here I am, killing those same weeds. While my yard has been cleaned up and repairs fixed, those weeds grew back, because cancer and grief aren’t a one-time thing. They are a lifetime thing. While everyone is quick to help once or twice, few are willing to walk this path; for those few who have we are so very thankful.

While my dad was sick and in the months following his passing a neighbor would push his lawn mower down the street to our house and cut our grass. He wouldn’t ask or say “Call if you need anything.” He just did. Friends that call and say “I’m a minute from your house and coming to visit”–Those are God’s people. The small group of people whom I would call my parents’ true friends, who showed up to clean and organize our garage without motive or invite. And this tiny group, even though my Dad no longer gets to join them on their Friday night Mexican dinners, still always invites my mom.

I am often asked “Hey, how’s your mom?”. I have decided I will no longer answer this question. I am not my mom, and I cannot tell you how she is doing. If you want to know, call her, message her, stop by the house and find out for yourself.

I once had a fortune cookie tell me “Joy shared is doubled, sorrow shared is halved.” This cannot be more true.
This phase of life has taught me to help other without asking and to listen when a friend needs to talk. I can’t fix the world, or anything any one else is going through. But I can listen.

In short, if you find yourself wanting to share God’s love with someone in need,  please do, but be prepared to pull up the weeds when they regrow.

Family Decentralized

Second in a series of Family Discipleship articles published in Light and Life Communications.
We’ve taken a few Mother’s Day pics.

For the first five years after my mom’s death, I hated one Sunday at church—Mother’s Day. No matter how sensitively it was phrased, other people had mothers that day, and I did not, and it hurt.

Doris, however, noticed. Without children herself, she took that eighteen-year-old college kid into her heart and made it her business to be what I didn’t have–an older woman who listened, advised, and modeled the way to be a Christian woman in a graceless world. For that time, Doris drew me into her circle of “family.”

Thirty years later, I would take a troubled boy into our home and become what he didn’t have—a “parent” offering Christian love in a painful world. I’d love him into the kingdom, though I would not be able to save his life. Thirty years later, Doris’ legacy of bringing others into her family continues into three generations, because she knew what we forget in this age of circling the nuclear family wagons. God’s “family” includes a lot of people.

Ephesians 2.19 explains that 

“You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.” 

The word “household” expresses belonging. One who is in it is devoted to its members—to a family and a relationship. Thus, anyone who is a believer in Jesus has also agreed to be part of God’s big, crazy family. When one member of the family needs something, others step up to supply that need.

And Easter. And yes, one of those is not my daughter.
Technically. But she is.
That idea of extended family in God’s kingdom matters to our discipleship. It means we’re always to be looking out for someone who may need to be part of our family, though not related by blood. God’s declaration that they belong to us is stronger than blood. 

It means that a growing disciple of Christ will naturally become a mother or father or sister or son to someone who needs that relationship because we are growing away from being strangers and toward one big household.

  • Whom do you know, personally, that needs a family? Single moms, college students far from home, estranged teens, parents missing their kids, older people alone, that homeless guy you pass every morning, someone in prison?
  • Which of these people do you believe God is calling you to make your family?
  • What can you do today to follow through?

good grief

I’ve just finished the final manuscript on a book about The Hobbit. I’ve also just finished a sermon on dealing with grief and loss. And oddly enough, the two intersect. (Although, finding a connection between anything and Tolkien isn’t really a stretch for me. I do it on a scarily regular basis.)


But this connection leaps at me without effort or expectation as I search one passage in the book. Tolkien’s party of dwarves, one hobbit, and a wizard, recovered from their second or third near-death experience, continue their quest. They pause on the edge of Mirkwood Forest, a dark, mysterious place they have good reason to fear, and Bilbo pleads with their departing wizard about the path ahead.


“Do we really have to go through?” groaned the hobbit. 
“Yes, you do,” said the wizard, “if you want to get to the other side. You must either go through or give up your quest.”
“Is there no other way round?”
“If you care to go (hundreds of miles) out of your way. And even then you wouldn’t get a safe path. There are no safe paths in this part of the world.”


There are no safe paths in this part of the world, either. Life takes us to scary places where pain happens and loss blindsides us from places we least expected it. A spouse is unfaithful, a child turns her back on you, a doctor tells you your mind or your body is going to fail, slowly but surely. 


We had a plaque on our wall when I was a little girl with a poem that said, “God did not promise . . . flower-strewn pathways all our lives through.” I used to stand over the heating vent and read that poem a lot. Because it was warm there, and I liked the poem. Now I realize, cheesiness aside, the author sure got that right.


We fear that path of pain, because we fear we may never get to the other side. We may just curl up on the path and end the quest right there. So, we try other ways, detours around, which end up taking us far afield. We pop pills; drink, smoke, or inject something; buy something new; or, if you’re Elizabeth Gilbert and publisher-financed, you escape on an around the world odyssey.


The thing about loss is, like the Forest, we really have to go through. We can’t circumvent it. We can’t ignore it. We can’t put on a happy face and pretend it didn’t happen. We dare not mouth Bible verses or insipid quotes off of Pinterest that make it sound like we’re on a higher spiritual level with the whole thing when we really are not. Those things work only until, having detoured away from the scary giant spiders in the forest, we find ourselves facing goblins and wolves hundreds of miles away and realize we’ve gained nothing and gotten much farther off the path.


Going through makes us healthier people. Wholer people. Better people. People who understand that life has an exquisite tenuousness about it we never valued. Who don’t waste time grasping at grudges or playing hide and seek with honesty. People who look for ways to hold out grace because we know other humans are as afraid as we are. Who realize that being afraid is an illusion that keeps us from completing the quest.


I hate grief. I hate loss. I really hate giant spiders. But I love the other side.