Anchored in the Storm

Life involves every form of storms: squalls that pass quickly; tsunami’s that exhale gigantic waves on land before inhaling anyone or anything it chooses; tornados that obliterate one home into toothpicks yet leave the house next door unscathed .

Beyond natural disasters, storms can come in advanced health problems, an IED that explodes, a child who dies for reasons no one can ever explain, a senseless act of violence.

The Message paraphrases John 17:33 this way. “In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I have conquered the world.”

How do you take heart? How do I? Hopefully, something or someone anchors us in the deluge or through extended monsoons of pain, suffering and grief. If we have no anchor, we can be sucked into a whirlpool or be swamped entirely.

As a four-year-old, I received blisters when the hot packs on my back and the backs of both legs remained on all night. I have always thought the nursing staff too busy to check on a child who missed her parents and cried most nights. My room alone held 20 polio patients, and I could see the iron lungs lining the hallway as nurses worked nonstop. But I kept singing or humming “Jesus Loves Me” and the hymns “Blessed Assurance” and “Trust and Obey.”

I would not discover the Amplified Bible for years, but I was anchoring in Hebrews 6 because I’d been taught and believed that God couldn’t lie and His promises were true because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Hebrews 6:19 (AMP)

[19] This hope [this confident assurance] we have as an anchor of the soul [it cannot slip and it cannot break down under whatever pressure bears upon it]—a safe and steadfast hope that enters within the veil [of the heavenly temple, that most Holy Place in which the very presence of God dwells],

If you find yourself struggling to stay out of a maelstrom that’s currently threatening to undo you, you need a solid anchor.

As a preschooler I grasped for relief through the endlessly lonely nights and the pain. Yet almost 70 years later, that anchor hasn’t ever broken despite the pressures. If you feel adrift now, anchor your time to read one of the Gospels during Lent. You’ll not regret it.

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Imperfect as a Gift

Gaining in both popularity and television time, the paraolympians amaze me. These athletes’ training comes with gargantuan effort and extra pain. Truth be told, all the athletes on the Olympic stage currently hold me spellbound.

This week, while this little guy has been so sick, we’ve watched more than curling and skating. Lots more tv than usual! When the skiers fly down mountains and the snowboarders careen easily through those half pipe runs, Tyler will ask, “Grandma, can you do that?” He giggles and I do too. Then, with his smile gone, he says, “Grandma, could you ever do that?” I respond, “No, bud, never could do that one.” He hugs me then and tells me he loves me. Who needs to be a downhill racing star? Not this lady. At least not anymore.

But going to kindergarten (1951)in a buckled corset and having to sit on the steps while the others raced around during recess was.

By fourth grade I was an easy out in kickball. If I did kick the ball at all, whoever got it could aim for my legs, so I often fell on the sand and gravel cinder playground. To the nurse’s office I’d go. Taking peroxide-filled gauze pads, she slowly tried to coax the tiny pieces of gravel out of the wound. My knee still has a scar from repeated falls.

But somewhere around 12, I discovered other things. People talked with me when they were nervous or felt left out. My parents sacrificed to see I received piano lessons. And a new pastor’s wife started a junior choir at church.

I also discovered how much I loved being a spectator, especially for soccer and basketball. I understood both games well enough to keep score and chart attempts on goal, rebounds, and assists. Without my personal “imperfects” I would have missed honing skills in areas I love even today. Whatever your imperfect, celebrate the avenues that opened to you as a gift.

Ripping Off the Mask

I take pleasure in the unmasking of the beast when Belle’s tenderness transforms him. He can love and be loved, thus breaking the curse he has lived with for years. I confess to being a romantic at heart. A happy ending seems controlled, the way I wish life were.In a much darker play, the disfigured phantom terrorizes those who do not submit to him. He appears and vanishes into mists unexpected, unsought.

One of the harshest elements of grief or suffering is that the precipitating event unexpectedly rips off the mask that says we have control.

Yes, Christians know God is sovereign, that He has absolute control. But in the trenches, the traumatic moments that may stretch on and on, there’s the stark reality screaming. Not only are we not in control, but we find ourselves needy and helpless. Tragedy unveils or unmasks the truth. And it’s uglier than we imagined.

Mark 9 recounts the story of a desperate father, a parent whose mask was torn off by years of his son’s self-destructive behavior. Listen to the father’s desperation.

And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes. Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Mark 9: 21-24

When life tears away my mask of imagined control, I find solace alongside the father in Mark 9. In humility, I too say, “Lord, I believe. Help my I believe.”

Appearing Normal

Whether grief or pain overcomes us, most humans make valiant efforts to appear normal. Whatever normal may be at a particular time. But at what cost? American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, gives his answer in “We Wear the Mask.”

We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, — This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O dear Christ, our cries To Thee from tortures souls arise. We sing, but oh the clay is vile. Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world believe otherwise, We wear the mask!

Please understand that we need to understand boundaries, both ours and others’, and we need wisdom about people. A delicate balance lies between our recitation of a litany of every bruise and pain we have today and a pasted on smile that says, “I’m fine,” even when we need to be home in bed. I am not pointing a finger at anyone, for I have played the “I’m good” retort more that I’d like to admit.

For a number of my working years, I had an admin assistant who had godly wisdom and a fine ability to read people. Some days she questioned whether I was so dressed up because of a special meeting. My answer was generally, “Nothing special.” I finally confessed to her that I wore dressier clothes on the days I didn’t feel well. Call it mind over matter on my part, but in my taking off a layer of my mask, she understood, and our friendship deepened.

The Gospel allows us to write a brighter final stanza of Dunbar’s poem. The Lord knows our frame, that we are vile sinners made of dust, but He redeems us as His, and bids us share our trials. He knows us better than we know ourselves.

Psalms 139:1-4 (ESV)

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

Be Careful What You…

Carl Sandberg’s photo is small, like his poem “Primer Lesson.” Despite its brevity, this poem sparked many lively discussions in the years that I taught freshman English.

Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back. They wear long boots, hard boots; they walk off proud; they can’t hear you calling —
Look out how you use proud words.

Not only was this the style phone we had in 1950, but we were also on a 6-party line. When anyone received a call, all six families heard the ringer. One long and two short rings meant the call was for us. Our sons, let alone our grandchildren, cannot conceive of this archaic system.

Fast forward to 1980, and a chat about something mom had never shared with me:

Once friends and even some family heard that I had polio and was hospitalized, my mother was the recipient of phone conversations about why she had allowed me to play with their children. At times, people on the streets of town crossed rather than walk by her. I wept for her fear, her loneliness, her lack of support from people she knew.

It is crucial to interact with those in pain, suffering and grief, but we must be careful in what we say and what we do.

Encouragement in Suffering

Who or what encourages you when you suffer? This smiling boy, fighting polio in the ’50s, shows the relief brought by the hot whirlpool baths of that era. I remember my entire body being eased down into a larger tank and my initial aversion to the very hot water. Miss November – that is her real name, my physical therapist, talked to me until the effect of those swirling waters began to ease painful muscles and joints.

Fast forward to 2007, and my recovery from yet another spinal surgery. This operation involved incisions in my back and in my abdomen as the medical team fused eight vertebrae. I remember a particularly agonizing day after I returned home after my 8-day hospital stay.

That day, despite my pain medications, and multiple readjustments made to settle me comfortably in the leased hospital bed, nothing brought relief. The pain level hammered; I began to panic. My most frequent prayer of those four months of recovery, “Lord, it would be a mercy if you would allow your servant to sleep,” did not bring sleep that day.

Women from our church, our neighbors, and moms whose children I had taught formed a volunteer list. What an offering of grace! They fed me, cleaned house, brought meals, answered the phone, helped me get a shower. Even play a concert at the bedroom door.

I asked Rhonda to come back to the bedroom and simply read Ephesians aloud. Passages began to roll over me, body and spirit.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 1:3

My mind next latched into 1:16. “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.”

Some spasms released their vise grip on my incisions. Rhonda told me later that I drifted off into a restless sleep around Ephesians 2:14.

“For he Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility..”

I share this experience not as a mere talisman for ever pain, but as an acknowledgement that anyone who suffers needs encouragement. What might you do today to encourage another?

Every Question

Sandi Patty stole my soprano’s heart from her first note! I sang along with her records and then with her performance tapes – at least until she broke crystal with her amazing range. In 2015, in Patty’s farewell tour, she took along a quintet of University of Mobile graduates called Veritas. The group, described as crossover pop, applies each man’s rich tones and harmonizing abilities to older hymns as well as original and contemporary tunes.

After praying for my courageous daughter-in-law one morning before she went for chemo, I first heard the title song from the album above. The lyrics allowed my mind and heart to soar to the sustaining truth that hope, real hope, survives and resuscitates in our darkest moments of life.

As I listen closely to Veritas’ lyrics, their words raise some chords, both raw, dissonant ones and lavish, resolved ones. I appreciate the honesty of the questions and find comfort in the truths. To be honest, I need help to shed the melancholy mood I get from the angry/sad news that crescendos in my ears daily.

As they sing about “every question you’ve been asking,” my soul cries out, “Yes.” But then they help me regain equilibrium and hope as their song reminds me that “even when He’s silent, He will not leave you.” Whatever suffering or grief we face, we can submit every question to the Father with confidence.