Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bone Marrow Gratitude

A Crazy Owsley Thanksgiving
Welp, it’s November.  The one month in the year where most of us pause from the crazy, whirling ride of this-here life... and attempt to turn our hearts toward being grateful.   It’s always been one of my favorite times of year.  Pumpkin bread, blustery autumn sunsets, and a thanksgiving feast shared with people I adore.  But this year...well, this year I’ve had an untold amount of time to think.  And as I’ve waited in this place of contemplative solitude...I began to wonder.  If my heart has to turn toward gratitude...what is my heart turning from?   

I daily face a sad truth about my character...I far prefer to be grateful when I’m actually feeling grateful.  And I only really feel grateful when a blessing is presented in a lovely gift wrapped package...with sunshine, rainbows and puppies.  Oh, and a choir of angels never hurts either.  Don’t laugh...I’m just trying to keep it real.  A $20 bill I found in my coat pocket...BAM...gratefulness.   Big strong men offering to do stuff around our house...BAM...gratefulness.    An unexpected hand written letter in the mail...BAM...thank you, Father.   And when I’m sitting around a Thanksgiving Day feast with friends and’s easy to eat, laugh, hug, and tease my way into a deep wellspring of appreciation for the community the Father has given me.   I’ve had lots of HUGE opportunities to feel grateful.  And in these moments, the eyes of my heart are drawn to the heavens, and with a song of thanksgiving...I rejoice.  Oh yeah, I rejoice...until the sunshine and puppies disappear and my gratitude dissolves back into the hardships of daily living.     

So, here’s my confession...I’m totally guilty of circumstantial gratitude.  I begin to suspect there’s something horribly wrong with my memory...because even having experienced life-altering blessings and Divine intervention beyond imagination, my spirit of gratitude is easily abandoned.   And I does a girl go from only feeling grateful to truly being grateful?  I’m no longer content to be a, I want gratitude to flow through the very marrow of my bones. 
That’s why contemplating the question, “To turn my heart toward gratitude...what must I turn my heart from?” has become an eternal question.  And that’s why I truly believe that a Merciful Father is using my current illness to teach me a thing or two about bone-marrow gratitude.

In normal life...pre-chronic illness, my daily emotional regime would usually consist of sporadic moments of joy, bouts of anger, endless curiosity, occasional conviction, an unhealthy dose of self-righteousness, a smidge of condescension, plenty of self-doubt and a passel full of good-natured sarcasm.  I considered it a pretty good day when I managed to hide the condescension and doubt behind a merry cloud of good humor.  And I knew it was a bad day when the anger found its way to my face...and out of my mouth. 
But now my range of emotions has been somewhat stunted.  I usually just bounce back and forth between misery and anxiety...with an occasional dusting of despondent expletives.   It took me a really, really long time to see the mercy in this new short list of emotions.  And it took me even longer to be grateful for them.  But as I begin my slow journey back to the land of the living, I bring with me an invaluable “knowing.”  

In the last few months, many of you have shared really lovely Scriptures with me.  Scriptures about comfort and peace.  About rejoicing, healing, and victory.  I have considered each one of those as a good, good gift from the Father...for the Words themselves and because you cared enough to send them.  But the Scripture that has been clinging to me for weeks is Philippians 4:4-6.  “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again, Rejoice! ...Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with THANKSGIVING, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 
Several weeks ago, I was in the middle of a full-fledged panic attack...brought on by what we’ve affectionately dubbed “a level 10” round of nausea.  I was sitting on my parent’s old green leather head dangling over an empty WalMart bag.  And because of the panic, the left side of my body had started to go numb.  I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes.  The heaving was so hard...that it felt like my ribs were cracking.  And all of this misery was peppered with random bouts of sobbing and a deep conviction that this must be what it feels like to die.  During this particular episode (as my mom sat next to me rubbing my back), I was trying to pray.  In response, the Spirit said...”Alissa...Rejoice.”   You’re kidding me, right?  Talk about bad timing.  Can’t you see how miserable I am?  Can’t you see the anxiety is eating my last shred of rationality?  “Alissa...I will say it again, Rejoice.  Don’t be anxious about anything.  Be thankful.”   I think if I’d had the emotional energy in that moment, the Spirit and I may have gotten into a fist fight.  Are you kidding me?  Before I get to even present my request to God, I have to rejoice and be thankful?   Clearly the God of the Universe doesn’t understand anxiety attacks.  My heart is beating out of my chest...and I’m at a level 10 of suffering.  The Spirit’s request felt cruel...and backwards.  This is an emergency, Father...give me the peace first...and then I’ll be in the “place” to be grateful.  But in that moment, I was desperate.  So, with a weary, childlike effort ...I rejoiced.  I thanked Him for giving me a mom to rub my back.  I thanked Him for placing me in the comfort of my parent’s house while I endured the attack.  Then...I thanked Him for making really, really good drugs.  Soon thereafter, I began to feel my arms and legs again...and the dry heaving stopped. 

Since that day, the Spirit and I have and many similar encounters...especially as I’ve battled through many bouts of anxiety.   Just so you know, it’s quite an emotional blow to a control freak when she discovers that very, very little is actually under her control.  Sure, there are drugs that help take the edge off of the anxiety (and without shame, I sometimes take those drugs)...but, I’ve found that the sometimes Herculean effort of turning my heart from fear...toward gratitude has taught my heart to not trust circumstance, but the Rock of Ages.  The Ancient of Days. 
Because...get this...I’ve figured out the magical, delicious truth that God revealed to us in Philippians 4:4-6.  He gave us the formula for bone marrow gratitude!  He says if you want to stop just feeling  grateful and start being grateful...then Rejoice when you LEAST feel like it.   See, the Father knows that our emotions of anxiety, despair, confusion, frustration, and anger are all rooted entirely on “self.”   And that intentionally being grateful in the hardest moments of life is the anti-venom to the serpent’s lies.  The Father is asking us to detach ourselves from what we feel...and proclaim what we know.  And the “knowing” will settle His peace in our ways that we can’t comprehend. 

Don’t get me wrong.  This is hard work.  Like...really, really hard work.  I wish I could tell you that one time does the trick.  Yeah... not so much.  I’ve had many, many bouts of nausea and anxiety since my first rumble with the Spirit.  Which means I’ve had many, many opportunities to exercise my gratitude.  I’ll be honest, it hasn’t necessarily gotten easier...and I’m not sure I even do it that well.   But, as the weeks go by, I find that a byproduct of exercise is being genuinely grateful...even when I feel miserable.  Funny that, eh?  During some of the worst days of my a place where almost nothing is under my control...I’m finally more grateful then I’ve ever been.   
In fact, so many of you are on my bone-deep gratitude list, that I can’t help but let some of it spill over a little onto this blog post. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share pieces of the thanksgiving that has been bubbling in my heart in the last few weeks.  Which means (drum roll please)...another list!  Man, I love me some lists...

1.  I am overwhelmingly, ridiculously, and profoundly grateful for my mom.  Some of you know the craziness of this particular gratitude.  Because, truth be told, prior to mother was my number one source of anger and resentment.  But in the last few years, with a lot of hard work and several risky conversations, we have been experiencing radical reconciliation.  The idea that she is now one of my greatest sources of rest and comfort...well, that means we both serve a God who is in the business of restoration (there’s a great story that I may tell someday).   And as I battle with a broken body...she has been by my side I don’t even have to ask.  She’s just always there.   Talking through my anxiety.  Feeding me.  Doing my laundry.  Driving me all over yonder.  Or just sitting next to me all day because she knows I don’t want to be alone.  And when I try to express my gratitude for being “my hero”...she says, “I’m not your hero...I just get to be your mom.  This is what good mom’s do.”   So, that’s what I’m grateful for....a really, really good mom. 

2.  I’m thankful for a praying Bride.  I’ve said it in previous blogs...but I can’t help but mention it again.  I hear stories of people and congregations who don’t even KNOW me...who are constantly praying for me.  What?  I’ve gotten cards and handwritten notes from friends, family, and strangers.  Random texts from people I haven’t heard from in months...letting me know they’re praying.  And my friends...oh friends.  They are the lifters of my head, the physical manifestation of the Great Comforter.  I’m more grateful to them than words can express...and I know a lot of words.  I want you to know that I pray for you too.  You are constantly in my thoughts...and someday soon we will DANCE! 

3.  There is not a day that goes by that I don’t audibly express my gratitude for my job.   Yes, I’m grateful for good insurance and the ability to take medical leave (believe-you-me, I’m grateful)...but that pales in comparison to the magnitude of what I feel for the PEOPLE that I work with.  I have no doubt that God knew exactly what I would need during this Season in my life...and He planned it right down to the last detail.  In this crazy job market, He gave me a boss who is kind and compassionate....and who genuinely cares for those she leads.   She has offered me untold grace and patience during one of our busiest times of year.  The Father also gave me a “big” boss who has battled his own chronic illness for, he has a great storehouse of empathy and concern.  Not a week goes by without him sending me an encouraging text.  Abba also gave me godly co-workers who lift me up in prayer, drive me home at a moment’s notice...and cover my butt when I’m not there to oversee a project.  They have treated my tears with kindness (and hugs).  And reassured me time and time again that I’m still a valuable.  These people are more than co-workers...they are friends.  It’s an honor to know them. (you too, Dave)

4.  This may sound a little backwards, but I often find myself thanking Abba for allowing me to be single and childless during this season.  I can barely take care of myself...trying to imagine having the responsibility of taking care of others is a little overwhelming.  Instead, He has gifted me with a 24/7 on-call family.  A dad who will sit with me and watch a TLC show about Princes...just to keep me company (sorry, Dad...I had to).  He drives me to doctor’s appointments.  Takes care of my dog.  Prints off all my medical forms and gives me acupressure when I’ve got a horrible headache.   Abba also gave me a sister who makes homemade chicken noodle soup and talks me through panic attacks.  She leaves her kids at home (thank you, Steve), so she can come watch HGTV with me.   And, when I’m going through niece & nephew withdrawals, she’ll bring her babies over to give me hugs and kisses.  And even though they’re long-distance, I was also blessed with two brothers and a sister-in-law who send me random texts or emails telling me they’re praying and they love me.  Every year around the Thanksgiving Day table, I’ve expressed that my family is one my greatest sources of gratitude.  This year...those sentiments will be coming from my bones. 

5.  It’s amazing how the “little things” in life have now become an endless source for thanksgiving.  
  • A co-dependent dog – who never leaves my side.
  • A giant fuzzy robe.
  • Animal crackers
  • Quick doctor’s appointments
  • Cold weather
  • My bed
  • Protein shakes that don’t make me hurl
  • Good music
  • HGTV
  • Survivor
  • Wireless internet
  • Really good drugs
  • Yoga pants
I really could go on and on.  Believe me...once the gratitude hits your bones, you find there aren’t really enough words in the English language to describe it all.  I could go item by item...person by person...and tell you all the reasons I’m grateful for them.  (Heh...maybe you should do that someday, Owsley). 

Most of all, I hope you see-hear-feel my deep gratitude for a Father who loves me beyond reason.  He loves me enough to mercifully push me to do hard things.  He loves me enough to provide for me in ways that I’ll never understand.   It’s not enough for me just to get, He wants to use every tear, every misery, and every lament to forge me in the depths and strength of the “knowing.”   So that when the world looks at me...they won't see the Alissa I want them to see (which, for the record, is a keen fashion sense and an epic sense of humor), they'll see the Alissa He created me to be.   And through her heart...they will see Him. 

So, for this Thanksgiving season...I’d like to challenge you all to stop feeling grateful and start being grateful.  It’s easy, time you’re angry, resentful, lonely, miserable, or heart-broken...REJOICE.   Be mindful of what your heart is turning from...and with prayer and petition...turn it toward Thanksgiving. I know, right?  Piece of cake.
Ooooooo...cake.  Someday I'm going to eat cake again.  And when I do, I’m adding it to the list right under “yoga pants.”  




Friday, October 19, 2012


You know those moments in life where you throw up your hands and say, “Are you freaking kidding me...I have to endure this again?”  Yeah, I’ve had my fair share of those moments lately. In fact, in the last few weeks, I’ve developed a distinct loathing for the word “again.” I’m on short-term medical leave...again.  I’m living at my parent’s house...again. I can’t drive myself anywhere.  I hate food.  I spend most of my days in bed.  It’s the cruelest form of deja vu...and I have to live through it all...again.  Sometimes it feels like my wellness is totally a house of cards...and that suffering is shaped like a boomerang.  I spend almost every day trying to find the perfect balance.  Drink just enough water.  Get just enough sleep.  Eat just enough protein. My life now seems to be entirely focused on stacking my body back to health, card by fragile card. But then, like a boomerang, the misery swings back around in a great, vicious arc, and I watch in horror as my health begins to crumble...again.
I’m not gonna lie...this type of existence totally blows. Sometimes it almost feels like it’s happening to someone if I’m looking at some strange woman passed out on my parent’s spare bed...with a dozen prescription bottles within reach. Every morning I wake up hoping that today will be the day I feel better.  And every day I’m reminded that I’m a prisoner of my broken body. The one word question, “again?” has become my heart’s lament.  
I now find myself in the brutal tension of wanting desperately to feel well...but living in constant fear that wellness is just a precursor to more misery.   Last Tuesday I was having a surprisingly good day...and then, with no warning...I spent 45 minutes dry heaving into a plastic bag while I sobbed.  It’s because of moments like this that I begin to fear hope...because I truly begin to doubt if I have enough strength for another “again.” I feel like a boxer who has endured punch after brutal punch...lying on the floor of the boxing ring bloodied and exhausted.  I can hear the saints screaming for me to get up...but I know that if I stand up, I’ll just endure more suffering.  And I it worth it?
It’s in these raw and horrible moments that every carefully placed pretense of “toughness” is blown away, and I glimpse the fear that holds me captive.  I am no Rocky Balboa, that’s for sure.  Internally I’m crying, “NO!  I can’t do it again.  I can’t.  Please don’t ask me to do it again.  Take it away, Father.  Heal me. more agains.”  
You know, in a crazy way...having a chronic illness almost gives me an advantage.  It makes the “agains” of life pretty cut and dry.  There’s a big ‘ol line drawn in the sand.  I can either choose to push through the suffering and hope for what’s on the other side of devoured by the fear.  So, every day, with a breadth of hope and by the strength of a praying Body...I stand up.  Again. 
Another one of the benefits of lying in one place for days is that it gives me the space and time to contemplate life outside of my parent’s house.  And do you know where my mind often wanders?  To you.  I think about you.  Because I know that I’m not the only one enduring repetitive suffering.  And I know that you don’t get to call a time-out on life as you watch 15 hours of HGTV and have your mom cook your food and do your laundry.  No, in that way...I have it way easier than you. 
Which is why I think about you facing the daily battle of raising your children alone.  I think about you enduring a bone-deep weariness of body, mind, and soul.  I think about how you’re struggling with the pain of terminal cancer.  I think about you facing the pain of waiting for your baby girl’s diagnosis.  I think about how you ripped out your heart and gave it to Abba...because He asked you to.  I think about how you’re struggling in your marriage or how you’re facing intense loneliness.  I think about how you’ve encountered yet another betrayal.   I think about your broken heart...unmet longings, divided churches, abusive relationships, fractured family, and unimaginable grief.   I can put a face and name to each one of these battles.  Some of you have been here before...and now you find yourself here again. 
And yet, even as you are confronting the agony of your own’re praying unceasingly for a girl lying on her parent’s spare bed.  That’s why...when I’m lying in bed, contemplating my “again” mind wanders to you.  As a girl who has often found the Church wanting...lately I’ve been awed and humbled by the splendor of His Bride. 
That’s why for the last few days, I’ve had a terrible sense of urgency to tell you something.  Something that Abba has revealed to me in slow, agonizing glimpses...over a year of extreme refining.
Even though it’s very, very hard to believe on some days...I’ve learned that suffering isn’t shaped liked a boomerang.  That would imply that we alone have the strength to remove it (which is good news...because when we’re facing our “agains,” strength is often hard to come by). No, the shape of our suffering is just another lie from the enemy.  He wants us to believe that we should always be looking over our, that we’ll miss the flaming arrows headed straight toward us. 
He also wants us to focus on our own misery and bitterness long enough...that we feel alone and hopeless.  Imprisoned by fear and facing our own impending doom.  What a total load of hooey. 
Believe me...this is not my chosen method of refinement.  I’d rather drink mint juleps as I’m being fanned by a good-looking man reading me Song of Solomon.  But, alas, Abba has decided to use my broken body to show me some profound truths.  Because the more times I stand up in the midst of my misery...the more I begin to see the big picture.  
It’s kinda like Google maps.  The Accuser wants us to only see things at street level...but if we want to see what the God of Universe is up to...well, then...we have to zoom out. oh man...what a view.  Turns out, I’m not standing alone in a boxing ring.  I’m standing in the shadow of my Father’s wings.  I can see His strong right hand upholding me.  He alone is my shield.  The horn of my salvation.  My strong tower.  He is surrounding me with songs of deliverance.  He has delivered my soul from death...and my eyes from tears.  No weapon forged against Him will stand.  He will satisfy my needs and strengthen my frame.  He will bind up my broken heart and bestow me with a crown of Beauty.  And the more I’m forced to push through the “agains” of suffering...the more I am forged in the truth that the Lord my God is with me...and He is mighty to save. 
Friends...we are not prisoners of suffering, fear, or our broken bodies.  No, we are prisoners of hope (Zechariah 9:12).   And through this Divine hope...we will see the redemption of our “agains.”   
Hold fast to the truth.  Keep standing up.  Push through the fear.  And remember...if you have a British accent...”again” is pronounced...a-gain.  Hallelujah.  Amen. (Z-snap)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Crying Week

This has been a crying week.  And I’m not really a crier. 
I’m in the middle of one of the worst attacks that my body has endured in over a year.  I’m exhausted.  My limbs feel like 50 pound weights hanging on my body.  I can barely form a complete thought.  And for the last 7 days I have been plagued with extreme and unrelenting bouts of nausea.  And as I lay alone in bed, day-after-day, with my head hung over the side, dry heaving into an empty trash can…the enemy attacks.  Over and over again.
He tries to convince me that I will never again feel well.   He says I will lose all of my friends because I keep canceling plans.  He tells me that I’ve become a liability.  And because no one really knows what to say to sick people, they will all start slowly abandoning me.  He tells me I’m a disappointment to everybody.  He tells me that I’ll lose my job.  He calls me a coward.  A weakling.  He tells me that no man will choose me now…because I’m broken.  He prowls day and night…whispering over and over again that I’m alone and trapped.   But, most of all, he tries to convince me that my God has forsaken me.  And that is when the weeping begins. 
You know, I think I could actually handle the physical misery part pretty well…if it weren’t for the lies.  After a week or so of hanging on by a thread…I become a pretty easy target.
One of the things I’ve learned most about enduring a chronic illness…is that I’ve taken a whole lot of things for granted over the years.  Little things.  Trivial things.  Like getting ready for work.  On a good day, I barely think about it.  Shower, lotion, brush my teeth, deodorant, makeup, hair, get dressed…bam…I’m out the door.  But on a bad day…each one of those simple tasks feels like climbing Mount Everest.   On Monday, taking a shower was so exhausting, I had to sit on my bed for 10 minutes before I could move on to my next task.  I just started thinking about all the small tasks I had left to do, not to mention the part where I actually had to get to work…and all the sudden I just started sobbing.  That’s when the enemy pounces…screeching lies about my uselessness and weakness.  I sent out a desperate text to all of my praying friends…asking the saints to once again carry me on their shoulders.   Within seconds, I could literally feel their prayers and eventually the weeping stopped. 
Last night was the first night of a Beth Moore Bible study at our house with my mom and a dear friend.  I had been looking forward to it for weeks.  Hoping against hope that I would finally hear from God.   About an hour before we were set to start…I knew my body was going to rebel.  I swallowed a cocktail of drugs and dragged myself to my bedroom.  Soon thereafter, I started dry heaving again.  My door was cracked open…and I could hear them out in the kitchen enjoying a meal together.  Laughing.  Talking.  I was overwhelmed by a profound sense of loss…because, once again, life was happening without me.   The enemy started hissing in my ear that I was a coward and that I had no more strength left to fight.  He then played his trump card: your God has abandoned you…and you are alone.  And as I sobbed quietly in my room…I finally started to believe him.
I don’t know if someone heard me crying or if the Spirit brought them to my room…but the next thing I knew, my mom and friends were on the bed with me…laying hands on me...praying over me...fighting on my behalf.   And soon my tears of loss turned into wracking sobs of gratefulness. Because in the moment when I needed Him most…after almost a year of deafening silence…I finally heard the voice of God. 
Brothers and Sisters...this blog entry has become my spiritual act of worship.  A medium to praise Abba with a scattered brain and a weak body.  I realize today’s post is pretty raw…and outside of my normal humorous approach to life.  But as I lay in bed last night, I knew the best way to stick it to the enemy was to publically proclaim the glory of God right smack dab in the middle of my suffering.   It’s a little messy, I know.   Just me typing my thoughts in real an act of defiance against the accuser who has been ruthlessly tormenting me with lies.  This is as real as it gets.  A bloodied and battle weary daughter of the King...fists raised....shouting in the midst of battle, He will never leave me, nor forsake me!  I am not alone!  I get to keep my friends!  I’m not a coward! I will feel well again!  And it’s by HIS strength alone that I can face another day.   Because He’s standing over me...stripped for battle. 
Here's the thing...I didn’t start “We Will Rise” to talk about my chronic illness.  My original intent was actually quite the opposite.  I wanted to tell other people’s stories of survival and faith.  I didn’t anticipate that it would be my story of survival that ended up on the pages of this blog.  Heh.  Figures.  But many of you have written me that you know someone in your life who is suffering from chronic illness...and that you have shared this blog with them.  That is equal parts humbling and terrifying...but, I want you to know that I’m extremely grateful that you trust me enough to speak to your friends.  I also want you to know that it’s for all survivors that I continue to write about my suffering.  Because I figure if you live down here on’ve suffered.  And if you’ve’ve survived. 
So, before I swallow more pills this morning (I feel the nausea coming back)...I really want you all to know what I’ve learned in the midst of my suffering...during my crying week.  Sometimes miracles aren’t the healing we’ve been begging for...or the just-in-time money that keeps our electric from being shut off.  People we love die despite our unceasing prayers for life.  There is still crippling division in our churches.  Some of us still get the worst case scenario diagnosis.  Many of us face our days alone and heart broken.  Our husbands or wives don’t miraculously start loving us well.  Our children still rebel.  Some of us feel trapped in unfulfilling jobs.  And many of us will never conceive a child that we want so desperately.  It would be easy to wonder why the God who loves us so much...would deny us the miracles that we pray for unceasingly. 
Yeah, I totally get that.  I don’t know why the God of the Universe has continued to allow my body to take such a beating.  I have prayed time and time again for a miraculous healing.  But maybe the miracle has been staring me in the face this whole time.   Maybe the miracle is...despite the enemy attacking me over and over again during some of the lowest points in my life, I still believe God is good.   And despite no miraculous healing and God’s excruciating silence...I still truly believe He loves me.  My faith has been shaken, yes...but it has not been broken. 
Sisters and brothers...WE are the miracle.  God’s army of Believers consists of flesh-eaten, sinful survivors who choose to believe the Word of God even as the accuser tries time and time again to destroy us.  As we stand in the midst of a battlefield overflowing with the bloody carcasses of our broken bodies, destroyed dreams, loveless marriages and unfulfilled longings...we still cry out the name of our Savior.  Some days we may scream like banshees...other days we may only whisper through the pain...but despite our suffering, we still believe.  If that’s not miraculous...then I don’t know what is. 
That’s what my crying week has taught me...and that’s what I wanted to say to you today.  And,’s only Wednesday.   Who knows what tomorrow will hold?  Maybe more lies...and more crying.  But as long as I keep claiming God’s glory in the midst of my suffering...I keep claiming victory over my broken body.   Halleluiah and amen.  (Z-snap) 
Now I’m going to go take more drugs.  Thank you for all the saints out there who are praying for make me cry too.  But in a good way.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I am a Tree

Trees. I adore trees. My earliest memory of prayer was about a tree...a towering White Pine in the backyard of my childhood home, to be specific. To the mind of a five year old girl, it stood at least twenty stories high...with huge deadly branches and pine cone missiles. Every night for months (or perhaps years), I prayed that Jesus would keep that big scary tree from squishing my house.  I also prayed that skunks wouldn’t get under my bed.  I’m happy to report, that both prayers were answered.  After I recovered from the fear of impending squishedness, trees quickly became my good friends.  I took to climbing them...any limb in jumping distance became a personal challenge. Of course, sometimes I lost the challenge; I still have a big lump under my upper lip that proves some trees are mightier than adolescent tomboys. Creation was ripe with adventure...and trees were my childhood playmates. Fallen trees provided passage over streams, strong branches became the infrastructure of elaborate forts, snow covered pine branches made perfect hiding places, and apple trees dropped piles of rotten grenades.  And even though adulthood has dulled the edges of my adoration...trees have always remained high on my list of personal delights.

That’s why my absolute favorite characters in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are the Ents.  For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, allow me to let my inner geek show for a moment.  Ents were giant creatures created to guard the forests against destruction in Middle Earth.  They closely resembled the trees that they were protecting…tall, strong, bark-like skin, arms like branches and deep penetrating eyes.  They were considered very patient, very cautious “shepherds of the trees”, with a sense of time suited more for creation than mortality.  One of my favorite lines from the oldest Ent, Treebeard, is “we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.” 

In the second volume of LOTR (The Two Towers), the Ents got pissed off at a really bad guy and destroyed his tower, Isengard.  They save the day.  I clap every time I watch the movie.  Seriously, there’s just something deep in my soul that totally loves the picture of trees as super heroes.  That’s why, to this day, when I find myself standing under a tall, grizzled oak tree…I’ll pat the bark and whisper, “I know you can hear me.”   Which I’m pretty sure they can, by the way.  In the Psalms trees sing for joy.  In Isaiah they clap their hands.   And in Romans…all of creation groans as it waits for the return of the King.   So, I don’t think it’s merely a flight of fancy from a girl with an over-active imagination.  No way…one day I’m pretty sure I will have a conversation with Treebeard.  I’m going to ride on his shoulder like a Hobbit.  We’re going to be besties. 

In the last few months, I have watched the trees in my yard struggling to survive a Missouri drought.  Huge limbs are now brittle and dying.  The bushes are all turning a burnished orange color.  And the Magnolia tree has shed hundreds of dead leaves that scatter across our brown lawn like little miniature carcasses.  In the last few weeks, as I’ve stood outside for what feels like hours…waiting for my passive aggressive dog to go pee, I often find myself staring at the trees, feeling a strange kinship to their plight.  I too feel the effects of my own personal drought. 

This morning the weather was actually tolerable, so I decided to attend the Church of the Back Porch in my mismatched pink snowflake pajamas.  I made it about 20 minutes of staring at the skeletal remains of a Redbud tree before I was outside…still in my pjs…inexplicably desperate to rid my yard of the corpses of my fallen childhood playmates.  After furiously raking and sweeping for about 20 minutes, I noticed a huge dying limb that looked like it was scraping the ground in agony.  Because I couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore...I wrapped both hands around it and pulled.  I shouldn’t have had the strength to remove that limb.  It was huge.   But with very little effort and a huge cracking sound…it fell to the earth.  I stood there for a while...wearing silly pink snowflakes…staring at that limb.  The more I stared…the more it started to look like an arm.  Feeling a strange sense of remorse, I looked up at the Redbud tree, patted the bark and said silently…”I’m sorry, old friend.” 

These days…as a 35 year old single woman whose daily highlights include a can of soup, Wheel of Fortune, and an 8:30pm bedtime…I think a lot about abundant life, or the lack thereof.  In my quest for knowledge, I even Googled it.  Good news, people…abundant life has its own Wiki page.  Did you also know there are hundreds upon hundreds of churches that have “abundant life” in their names?   But I’d bet my left butt cheek that there are faithful parishioners who attend their Abundant Life Church every Sunday…and yet still don’t have a clue what it is.  Oh sure, they’d  probably be able to give a lovely explanation of what life looks like when it’s lived abundantly, but that would be like asking a scientist why the sky is blue.  Yes, yes, it has to do with the reflection of light, but that answer leaves me a little disappointed.  A glorious canvas of blue should carry a bit more romance...physics just seems to tarnish the truth of its splendor. 

John 10:10 says, “...I came that they may have life and live it abundantly.” 

I think if I stood still long enough, passersbys may mistake me for one of the fragile, dying trees in my yard.  Some days, it even feels like a gentle tug could easily rip off one of my limbs.  I used to hear from God a lot.  I was daily in His word.  His truth was far more real to me than my next breath.   But now my life is surrounded by a great void of silence.  Yes, the Father sent His only Son to give me life…but, if I don’t hear from Him…how can I live it abundantly? 

One of my absolute favorite quotes of all time is from Beth Moore.  She says, “sometimes we don't realize how real God is until we've experienced the awesomeness of His answerless presence. He knows that what we crave far more than explanations are the unshakeable conviction that He is utterly, supremely God."

That’s the thing…because I’ve stood at the foot of the Throne, the silence doesn’t throw me into fits of panic.  In fact, the quiet has come with a deep, wordless resolve that God is very near.  Would I prefer to go back to the place where I hear His voice and feel His presence?  Yes.  Absolutely.  Without a moment’s hesitation…yes.  But it’s in this place that I’ve truly learned what life means when it’s lived in abundance.  I think the answer lies with my old friends…the trees. 

“But blessed is the woman who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him.  She will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out her roots by the stream. She does not fear when heat comes; her leaves are always green. She has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit." Jeremiah 17: 7-8 

I don’t think abundant life is a sort of spiritual high.  I don’t think the answer lies in the perfect combination of church attendance, service, Bible study, or prayer.  No, a tree that bears fruit is really just being a tree… doing what it was created to do.  Whether it’s a season of abundance or time of drought…a tree fulfills its divine purpose simply by living.  For me, that means living without fear or anxiety in His answerless presence.  

So, despite a fragile body and an 8:30 bedtime, my roots are still planted in the River of Life.  My limbs draw strength from the confidence of my Salvation.   For I am a tree…living life abundantly. Because regardless of the silence, I still stand in the conviction that even in the face of drought, God is still utterly, supremely God.  

As the wise Treebeard once said…anything worth saying takes a long time to say.   My solitude has taught me, that like the Ents…Abba’s timing is more suited for His creation than my humanity.  I guess that means when I can’t hear Him, He’s only pausing between sentences…

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Barf Bag of Mercy

A couple of months ago, I traveled to Europe with three of my favorite people…where we joined another one of my favorite people, Marcus, for an adventure of a lifetime.  Some adventures were awesome…and some…not-so-awesome.   But today I want to talk about a day that was a whole LOT of not-so-awesome.  Wednesday, May 3rd, 2012.  This was the day I took a 2 and a half hour ferry ride across the Adriatic Sea.  It was the day I was almost broken by a green monster.  It was also the day I learned about my rage…and Abba’s mercy. 
By now…if you’ve been reading this blog…most of you know that I was recently diagnosed with a rare digestive disorder called Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (CVS)…or as I like to call it, Cyclic Bite-Me-You-Mean-Stupid-Life-Stealing-Fun-Killing-Uglyhead Syndrome.  (If you want some fun reading, I invite you to google it…of course, you should probably google CVS and not CBMYMSLSFKUS. Cause I just made that one up.  Heh.)  Needless to say, whenever the Uglyhead comes calling…I morph into a barely-there human.  Unrecognizable…as all of my joy, humor, and personality are sucked out of my body…replaced by extreme suffering, dark circles and green skin.   Almost like the Hulk…minus the bulging muscles.     
The best way to explain CVS is to relate it to a migraine. Researchers think it manifests in the part of the brain where the nausea receptors live.  It can strike at any time…with a whole range of triggers.  Some of the triggers can be mitigated, others cannot.  Over the last year, as the list of triggers gets longer and longer…the list of things I can no longer do gets longer too. I hate this list with all of my being…but it has become my new reality.  Here are some of things that turn me into a green monster:   
No, seriously.  Be afraid.
1.       Eating too much.  Or eating anything delicious and fun.
2.       Eating too little. This one gets me a lot…because eating and nausea are not friends.
3.       Being tired.  Sometimes even just the normal not-getting-8-hours-of-sleep tired.
4.       Being overexcited.  I mean, really…have you met me?  I get excited about everything.
5.       Stress.  Not necessarily big stress…but sometimes “oh, hey…I lost my keys” stress.
6.       Heat.  Which is hard to avoid in the Missouri summers.
7.       Aunt Flow (Men, you may need to ask a girl about this one).
8.       Breathing.  Standing on one leg.  Walking across a room.  Sitting still. 
9.       And…my personal favorite…going to Europe. 
Fade in…European Dream Vacation…
Anna Banana Feagans and I had been dreaming and planning our European vacation for what seemed like years.  Two BFF’s with a dream and a money jar…longing for an adventure.  We scraped and saved, forfeiting salon visits and new shoes in the pursuit of a trip of a lifetime.  And after several generous donations and a RECORD breaking garage sale…we bought our plane tickets and reserved our hotels.  Then…BAM…I got crazy sick.  Trip postponed.  $700 lost.   Curses. 

One day, as I was laying on my mother’s couch…40 pounds thinner and still no diagnosis…we passed the time by dreaming about Europe.  Bernie, my mom’s BFF, was there…she drove up from Dallas for a week to take care of my caretaker.  All four of us were hanging out in the living room, when all of the sudden…I had an idea.  What if we ALL went to Europe together?  Two generations of BFFs?  Well, once that idea took hold…we couldn’t shake it.  After I started feeling better (thank you Dr. Schiller), we started round two of dreaming, planning, and fundraising.   Hell or high water…I was going to get my dream vacation. 
Old BFFs

Young BFFs
I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Abba wanted us to go on this journey together.  Even more…all four of us had many Divine encounters that confirmed this. We had several anonymous cash donations.  Miraculous healing.  Seamless trip planning.  Beautiful weather.   It was like God was extending His hand to us saying, “Come, Girls…let’s go play together.”  We were prayed up and ready to party.

That’s why I was convinced…CONVINCED…that I was going to get a pass on my CVS.  I just knew…deep down, that I was going to have two weeks of blissful health and “the Hulk list” would be temporarily suspended, so I could delight in all of the things that I’ve been denied.  I mean…why would Abba take my hand…fly me across an ocean with my favorite people…and NOT protect me from illness?  No, I knew Him to be sovereign.  He was going to protect me.  Other than 5 tons of medication serving as a constant reminder, I planned to completely forget about my broken body.  And then, when I got home, I was going to tell the world about His goodness.  It was going to be EPIC.
We make plane rides look goooooood.
The first week in Europe confirmed my unwavering faith.  I had boundless energy.  Despite several long plane rides and crushing jet lag…I felt amazing.  Not even a whiff of nausea (well other than the taxi rides in Rome…but even the stoutest of dispositions can’t survive a Roman taxi ride unscathed).  I got to see and taste Italy…Rome, Ancona, and a day of Venice.  We laughed, argued, ate, explored, drank wine…and then ate some more.  Yep, I was definitely one of Abba’s favorites.  This was confirmed by the mind-numbingly BEAUTIFUL Pietro…the Innkeeper who greeted us at the front desk of our Venice hotel.  Siiiiiigh.  I mean, why would God put Pietro in my path, if He didn’t want me to enjoy His creation?   I’m just sayin…
When I woke up the second day in Venice, I knew this day was going to be different.  Something wasn’t right.  But as I got dressed and ready for a second day of exploring, I doggedly ignored the nausea chewing on my stomach.  No.  Absolutely not.  I was going to will it away.  It was only the enemy trying to scare me.  Abba was going to protect me.  I was convinced.   Less than an hour later…on the crowded streets of Venice…I knew I was wrong. 
Fade in…present time …
Do you know what I hate the most about the life-stealing-fun-killing-uglyhead?   I have to take back every mean thought I’ve ever had about people with chronic illness.   This confession isn’t flattering, I know.  How could I harbor mean thoughts about someone who is suffering?  Pretty easily, actually.  I thought that life is what you made of it.  All those sick people just needed to buck up and live life!  Or better yet, get out of their heads…go sit in the sun…pray for healing…get out of the house…immerse themselves in something useful…DO something to feel better.  And, for pete’s sake, stop using it as an excuse to stop living!  I know, right?  The inside of my head was like a cheesy, motivational poster.  I have since stabbed that inner voice repeatedly in the heart.  Die motivational poster…DIE!   
Above all…I hate my illness because it has stolen my misguided sense of control.  You see, I’ve always harbored the secret belief that everything in life is up to ME.  And now I’ve been handed a chronic condition that proves just the opposite by ruthlessly morphing me into a woman I barely recognize.
Fade in…Day 2 of Venice, Italy…
I was standing on a crowded cobblestone street when the first wave of nausea smacked me in the face.  It was a national holiday in Italy…so, there were droves of people everywhere.  Happy people.  Laughing.  Chatting in rapid Italian.  Eating gelato.  BAM…another wave of nausea.  I remember hurriedly cleaning out one of the shopping bags I was holding in preparation for potential yarfing.  I couldn’t breath.  No, this couldn’t be happening.  The Hulk was back.  Father…where are you?
We had checked out of our cute little boutique hotel (Ciao beautiful Pietro!) and planned on spending the day shopping and site-seeing until catching a 5:00 pm ferry to Croatia.  There was a Gustav Klimt (one of my favorite artists) exhibit in the Correr Museum on St. Mark’s square.  I woke up giddy with anticipation…I couldn’t believe that I was going to be able to see some of my favorite paintings in freaking VENICE, Italy!   But as I stood in the middle of a crowded street…clutching a plastic bag …I knew that I wouldn’t get to see Klimt in Venice.  I knew I wouldn’t enjoy any more site-seeing.  I silently slipped into survival mode as my mom and friends led me back to the hotel. 
Goodbye Klimt exhibit.
To be honest, I don’t remember much from the rest of the day.  I was forced to take a pretty intense cocktail of drugs to try to keep the nausea at bay (hey, that rhymed).  The hotel graciously let me crash in our vacated room for a couple of hours until they had to clean it for the next guests.  Then I had to move to the now empty breakfast room where I spent hours sitting in a chair with my head on a table.  I was vaguely aware of occasional voices as Anna and my mom took turns watching over me.  Apparently, Pietro was very concerned and came to check on me.  (Anna was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with him…you’re welcome, friend.)  Needless to say, this was NOT how I imagined Venice.  Father…where are you?
Fade in…present time…
I admit.  When the Uglyhead comes calling, I spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself.   I’m no Job…that’s for sure.  On some days, when I’m lying in my bed…in a medicated stupor…it’s easy to believe that I’ve been handed a really raw deal.  Sometimes Abba feels very far away when extreme loneliness claws at my heart… as I’m forced time and time again to escape into the deep oblivion of survival.  But I’m not writing this story to invite you to join my pity party.  In fact, my intent is just the opposite.  Yes, the Uglyhead is my new reality …but it is not my identity.  Yes, I don’t have control over my life …but I still have a choice of how I’m going to live it. 
Fade in…the Port of San Basilio, Venice, Italy…
After a short and EXPENSIVE private water taxi ride to the port, we stood at the ferry counter, staring in abject horror, as the ticket agent explained to us that the Ferry wouldn’t be running that evening.  What was to be a quick 2.5 hour trip across the Adriatic Sea to Rovinj, Croatia…would now be a 4 hour trip around the coast in a cramped minivan with strangers.  Given my state of misery, this felt like a worst case scenario.  I swallowed more pills and my mom handed me an empty pretzel bag.  I escaped to the deepest recesses of my mind as I prepared, once again, to survive. 
The rest of the week is somewhat foggy.  I remember thinking that Rovinj was an enchanted village right out of the pages of a fairy tale.  I didn’t realize places like that still existed in the world today.  Narrow cobblestone streets, fishing boats, an open air market, fresh bakeries at every corner, and the most majestic sunsets I’ve ever seen.  But, I only caught glimpses of these things as I faded in and out of misery.  I spent most of the week in bed. 
A beautiful Rovinj sunset
This place really exists.
The open sea food market was my nemesis.  The smells and chatter of the restaurant below our apartment constantly tortured my fragile hold on sanity.  Eventually, as the week went on, the charm of the beautiful fishing village wore thin…and I longed for home with every fiber of my being.   I was done with Europe.  I wanted my own bed.  I missed my dog.  Drowning in nausea is never fun…but it’s especially cruel when it crushes your dream vacation.  
 Finally, May 3rd arrived…the day we were going to leave Rovinj and catch the ferry back to Venice.   It was running that day, thank the Lord.  We dragged our ten tons of luggage to the porter…and climbed to the second floor VIP section of the boat where there was a picture of the Pope who had once sat in the very place we now found ourselves.  Ahhhhhhh.  We’re going home.  

  Fade in…present time…
I’ve been a Christian for a long time.  I actually celebrated my 30th re-birthday this week…because on July 2, 1982, with the tender acceptance of a five year old …I invited Jesus to come live in my heart.  You would think by now I would be able recognize God’s mercy.  Granted, even as a five-year-old, I understood the profound mercy of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  But until this year, I don’t think I’ve really understood how that looks in day to day living. 
Fade in…Wednesday, May 3rd…on a Ferry somewhere on the Adriatic Sea…

 About 15 minutes after we hit the open waters of the sea, I knew that even after a week of suffering…I had yet to reach the pinnacle of my misery.  I can’t really put words to that Ferry ride.  Other than one day last year when my mom rushed me to the emergency room…I have never been that profoundly nauseated.  About an hour and half into the trip, I remember contemplating jumping overboard. Anna handed me one of the barf bags stashed in the seats of the Ferry.  I swallowed more pills and literally begged God to take away the misery.  I’d been here before…and I knew if I started to vomit, I wouldn’t stop…for a very, very long time.   Once again, I closed out everything around me and chanted over and over in my head “Please, God.  Please.  Please, God.  Please.”  Where are you?
Eventually, we landed at the port of San Basilio.  But, unfortunately, we found ourselves on a floating city…with the prospect of yet more water transportation ahead of us.  After we made our way through customs, Anna overheard a little Italian man asking if anyone needed a taxi.  A real taxi.  With tires.  A minivan…big enough to fit our luggage.  So, after a short 15 minute ride to our mainland hotel, I crawled into bed and sank into a deep sleep.  I hadn’t vomited…the pills finally kicked in. 
That evening, on our last night in Europe, we all sat around in the living room of our hotel room talking about the Sabbath.  Mom and Bernie had prepared some fun things to do to celebrate the Sabbath while in Rovinj, but because of illness…we never got around to it.  As mom talked about the faithfulness of God, I felt a deep rage boiling within me.  It had been there for months…but this felt like the last straw.  It felt like I had been betrayed by the God who I had trusted with my deepest desires.  I couldn’t keep it inside anymore…and as my mom and friends sat next to me, I wept.  And then I wept some more.  Why would the God that I’ve served since I was five…deny me the ability to enjoy His creation?  Why would He tease me with a feast of Klimt exhibits and sunsets…if He knew I was going to get sick?  Two weeks…that’s all I’d asked for.  But, I had not gotten a pass.  I didn’t get to forget about my broken body.  He had not protected me.  Once again, I was forced just to survive.  I was weary of surviving.  My heart was broken.
Fade in…present time…
I have read the Psalms many times.  To be honest, I always thought David was a wee bit melodramatic.  Flood your bed with weeping?  Your couch drenched in tears?  Your tears are your food day and night?  Really?  Come on, David…suck it up.  But today Psalm 42 resonates in a painfully familiar way.  It reads almost word-for-word like the inner voice that has been on repeat in my head since I got my diagnosis:

I say to God my Rock, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt
me, saying to me all day long, "Where is your God?”

After a 24 hour day of mind-numbing airplane rides and layovers…I eventually made it back to my bed.  And my dog.   Since getting home, I’ve been visited by the stupid-uglyhead several times.  There has been no magic cure.  There is no storybook ending.  But as the days pass, and I get further and further away from the misery of my European dream vacation…something significant has floated to the surface.  Something life-altering, in fact. 

On May 3rd, 2012…on the ferry ride from hell…I didn’t throw up.  The barf bag…never got used.  I didn’t throw up.

To some, this may seem like a small detail in a story rife with misery.  But for me…it brings tears to my eyes.  I didn’t throw up.  He heard my cries.  Despite a petulant daughter’s heart full of rage…He faithfully carried me across the Adriatic Sea.   It means even as I was accusing Him of betrayal, He didn’t abandon me.  It’s a small, significant moment in time that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt…that the God who feels so far away, was holding me through my suffering. 

You know, I may never know why the Father didn’t give me a pass in Europe.  I may never know why He hasn’t cured me from a vicious chronic illness.  I would be lying if I claimed that I wasn’t still a little bit angry about both of those things.  No, I still struggle…almost every day.  But now when I look back at the story of Europe…this is what I remember:

He gave me one week of unfettered health to explore a new country with some of my favorite people. He provided a kind innkeeper who let me rest away from the chaos.  He knew I couldn’t handle a ferry ride across the sea on the first day of the Uglyhead, so He provided a minivan to drive me to Croatia.  He knew I was going to be sick, so He held off the worst of the nausea until I could rest in a cozy little apartment.  He gave me a little Italian man to drive me in a taxi…because He knew I couldn’t survive another boat ride.  He gave me my mom and best friends to watch over of me.  And, most of all, He carried me across the Adriatic as I clutched a barf bag and cried out for mercy.

Why do I tell you this story?  Heh…I’ve asked myself that question many times.  The truth is…it took me a really, really long time to work up the nerve to post this blog.  You see, I’ve spent most of my life cultivating a reputation of carefree independence.  When people look at my life…I’d prefer they see an image of a spiritual Zena Princess Warrior.  But now the gig is up…as you can see, I’m just raging green monster who clings to faith with a gallon of desperation…and a thimble of hope.

No, I finally got up the kahunas to write this blog because I know I don’t have exclusive rights to suffering.  I imagine there are many of you out there who feel like you've been set adrift…buffeted by life…begging for mercy from a God who feels far away.  My hope is that by telling my story you’ll be able to catch glimpses of mercy in the midst of your struggle.  Because the moral of my story is…even though my couch is often drenched in tears…even though I’m sometimes forced into a dark place of survival…even though I didn’t have the European vacation of my dreams…He hears my cry for mercy.  Despite my unbelief…Abba is near. 

Which is why that unused barf bag is one of my most treasured keepsakes. It is now displayed in a shadow box…hung on my wall…with a verse to remind me that I am not forgotten:

The Barf Bag of Mercy
I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.

Huh.  What do you know…I ended up telling the world about His goodness after all.  High five, Rock of Ages…high five.