Fixing and Praying

Fifty years ago we stood before “God and these witnesses” and vowed to love, honor, cherish and obey. We entered into marriage as the teacher hoping to find an English position and the recently-returned Vietnam veteran who wanted to complete his college education. Ours was a relationship of more letters, reel-to-reel tapes, and prayers than typical 60s dates of dinners, movies, and walks.

From our honeymoon in Stowe, Vermont, we drove south! With Dave stationed at a Strategic Air Command base in Little Rock, we prayed primarily for the US Air Force to get his pay figured out and restart the checks he had received before we tied the knot! We had less than fifty dollars left (all wedding gift money spent), before Uncle Sam’s much-prayed-for check arrived.

Our other prayer request involved a northern lady (read that as Yankee) landing a teaching job in a very provincial city. In her first interview, the superintendent leaned his stern-looking face across the desk and demanded, “Are you a northern agitator here to register blacks to vote?” Although seething inside about his question, I smiled and said, “No sir. I just want to teach.” In another school’s interview I was dismissed. “Although your grades are excellent and your student teaching record outstanding, I’ll always hire someone from Arkansas before you.”

We prayed because I had wanted to be a teacher ever since I was four, and yes, with the government snafu, we needed my income. But I remember that summer of 1968, as an important lesson about praying or fixing.

Do I seek the Holy Spirit’s taking my groanings before the Lord, or do I, like an irate tenant, demand the landlord fix my problem so I can move on with my plans, my life? Little did I know then that the coming of age moment would surface repeatedly as pain, illness and grief opened their doors on my life. In my most honest moments in prayer, I still pause to consider my motive. Do I come with the prayer of open hands, seeking what God has planned, or do I just come to grouse and expect my problem will be fixed as I envision. That’s worth pondering each time I pray.

Combating Loneliness Through Grief and Pain

My mother died in 1988, and for a year I daily reached for the phone to call her. Then, the desperate truth would again clutch my soul. The loneliness, in tsunami fashion, pushed forth tears, and along with them, the realization that our earthly phone line was permanently disconnected. Jokes about doing dishes together, chats about her flowers, or my questions about canning, gardening, sewing or her hand-written recipes all circled in my head. Mundane as these topics were, I closed the mental drawer on them, feeling the loneliness of the severed cord.How could I face the thousands of stories, laughs, tears, even arguments that would probably bore anyone but mom and me? Wallowing may keep pigs cool, but it does not serve humans well.

Enter loneliness, a word not found in the concordance of the ESV, NASB, or NIV Bibles. The word lonely, however appears three times in the ESV, and four times in the NASB and NIV.

Let us consider two examples of the word. The psalmist uses “lonely and afflicted” (Ps 25:16). Additionally, the following simile paints a word picture that is all too familiar: “I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on a housetop” (Psalm 102:7).

Most of us experience loneliness when pain, suffering or grief enters our lives. It stabs with a searing reality of glass shards on our theology of this world’s brokenness. Broken, yes, we believe that. But the depths of that pain come from a deeper darkness than we’ve previously imagined. We cry out with all generations over an emptiness that sits in the pit of our heart and gut.

What helps us deal with these feelings differs somewhat from person to person. Yet, I believe the Lord uses people and places to help us in these thunderous moments of solitary silence.

As we age, we begin to lose those who know us best. On good days, I make the effort to meet people beyond my immediate family. From book and garden clubs, from walking and yoga groups, from choirs to cruisers, from Bible studies with kids to volunteering in the community, from art classes to computer courses… people with similar interests or those with merely a willingness to try something new, help us alter the narrative of us, our grief or pain story. No new friend needs our life story when we meet. Now new topics expand rather than contract.If you physically can’t, or aren’t emotionally ready, to get out of the house yet, alter your view. Someone you know may paint your bedroom. After my last major back surgery, Beth Smith repainted, repurposed and reorganized the master bedroom around the hospital bed that would be my world for four weeks. Cindy and Todd Bauchspies even did a mini concert for me from the hall outside the bedroom!

Find a way to get outside if the weather and your mobility permit. An amazing world of beauty and order can greatly help bring some peace to the internal chaos going on inside. While no single activity or scenery change is a magical panacea, each step forward staves off a bit of loneliness and may help another fellow struggler.

Grief Doesn’t Play Fair

Besides the Scriptures, author Elisabeth Elliot’s writings have influenced much of my thinking about suffering and grief. In her no-nonsense approach to life, she’d read this blog title and retort, “Of course grief doesn’t play fair, foolish woman! Don’t you understand the depth of brokenness in this world?”

I continue to learn that boxing up grief or suffering and stashing it under the basement steps sounds tidy and finished, but fails to stay contained, just like unexpected rampaging flood waters that run the courses they choose and leave devastation in their wake.

Grief so often reappears without warning or provocation. I expect, and even try to anticipate, certain things to tilt my emotional world off its axis: photos, smells, calendar dates, or certain traditions. But I can go about a number of totally mundane tasks, and grief deals me a wicked blow from behind.

Consider Elliot’s experience in a grocery store after her husband and four other missionaries were murdered in Ecuador in the 1950s. Jim and Elisabeth, married on the mission field, had never shopped together in a grocery store. Yet when Elisabeth and her young daughter Valerie returned to the US after Jim’s death, Elisabeth headed to a super market to purchase a few items. In one aisle, she saw a young couple shopping together. Suddenly, Elliot realized this simple task represented an act she and Jim would never do together, and she left the store in tears.

So how do I cope with grief when it levels me in body, mind and spirit? When I cry, and I do lots of that, I cry hard. But I do make some effort to do a couple of things:

1. I look to see what grieved(s) God, often my thoughts as well as actions.

As early as Genesis 6, God regretted forming people, grieving that He had created us. Genesis 6:6

2. I look to see what caused(s) grief, often my anger and/or rebellion to events that affect me, or pleading for reasons why something occurred, or was not addressed as I wanted.

King Saul’s behavior grieved Samuel, and God regretted having named Saul King over Israel. I Samuel 15:35

Jonathan grieved for his friend David after Saul disgraced the shepherd who would become king. I Samuel 20:24

Job grieved for the needy. Job 30:25

In Psalm 35:14, David speaks of the way he wanted to treat his enemy: “I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one laments his mother, I bowed down in mourning.”

Taking inventory of what grieves me, and what grieves God, helps me sort through my motives and beg for insight into the heart of the matter. More importantly, my heart reaches to the One I know as Father, or Daddy, the One who holds me — even as I fall apart.

Injustice: A Different Grief

The annual Chautauqua performances occur in Garrett County, Maryland, right after July 4th, providing attendees with three evenings of living history interpreters. They present thought-provoking ideas and knowledgeable re-enactments. This year’s theme opened my thoughts to another aspect of suffering: injustice.The actor portraying Frederick Douglass, Bill Grimmette, had extensive primary source knowledge and the passion of the slave turned vocal orator and then statesman. Douglass fled the slavery of Maryland’s Eastern Shore once, but was found. However, he had taught himself to read and write, and his second attempt (1838) took him to Baltimore and finally to New York City where he was free. Still, whenever Douglass returned from European speaking engagements, he had no assurance that his freedom would be honored. Though he rose to U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, he sought justice for all his life. He overcame his suffering, both physical and psychological, and pressed the cause of justice for others, including equal pay for black soldiers. The second night, Eleanor Roosevelt, portrayed above by Susan Marie Frontczak, presented a segment of Roosevelt’s very busy life. Frontczak’s extensive research has led her to create four different presentations of this First Lady. As a child, shy Eleanor lost both her parents before her tenth birthday. Yet, she became a debutante, raised five children and dealt with FDR’s polio limitations before she started speaking out for several causes, including child labor, minimum wage, women’s rights, civil rights and world peace. The Doctrine of Human Rights that she helped hammer out in the early years of NATO, framed the presentation we attended. Like Douglass, she sought justice for those with a lesser voice. The final night’s performance brought Thurgood Marshall to life through actor Brian Wilson. While the first two presenters had prepared their information from many primary sources, Wilson had Lenneal Henderson, adjunct professor of government at William and Mary, to give more historical information in the question and answer session that follows each Chautauqua presentation. The first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court, Marshall’s earlier fame rose from his success in Brown vs the Board of Education. State-sanctioned segregation of public schools ended.

As I considered the freedoms I often take for granted, this year’s seeking justice theme led me to a deeper understanding of those who suffered injustices, and three individuals who devoted themselves to fighting for people who suffered injustice.

Humility and Anxiety

When anxious thoughts disturb sleep at night and invade like storm troopers by day, the porch swing offers soothing medication and meditation. Pushing off just once, I then glide, sing, and inhale … repeat. On one recent medicinal application on the swing, I asked myself if my anxiety could be recording a lack of humility.When Dave married me, almost 50 years ago, he knew I was a polio survivor, but neither of us knew about post polio syndrome. And chronic pain. But what person ever knows how their road will wind?Anyone who experiences pain or grief, understands anxiety. Ask any cancer survivor how he/she sleeps the night before the “routine” follow-up exam. Or consider all the celebratory dates a widow/widower walks through after the death of a loved one. The first Christmas or birthday or anniversary looms ominously ahead. Please hear me out: I realize a need for medication to control depression may be needed. I’ve been there too. But today, on the swing, I long for a larger dose of humility to curb my anxiety. Will I stop thinking I have to solve each problem, end each ache, or dismiss my misery this side of the grave? Will I truly live my Sunday theology the rest of the week? While I fully believe God is sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, to such a degree that I will live out those tenets once I leave the pew? Francis Chan, in his study of the Holy Spirit, gives a powerful illustration. If a football team huddled midfield, called a play and then returned to the bench, we’d wonder what was up. Ten minutes later the team would regroup midfield, call another play, and then return to the bench. Would you follow such a game? The fans would be screaming for the team to run a play! But if the church gathers to study, worship, and affirm biblical truth in a Sunday holy huddle, but runs no real plays all week, merely huddling up the next week, who wants this faith?so today, I look above at the trees and ask the Holy Spirit to better match my belief and my behavior. Holy Spirit, please give me the humility to cast my anxieties on you today.

Joy and Peace in Believing

Beautiful as a view may be, pain or grief dull the clarity of the image. That battleship grey cloud looms, and haziness shrouds the beauty that lies in front of us. Just as humans cannot move the weather along, we also cannot force our dark clouds of the soul. As the Creator ultimately controls the weather, He also has set an individual timetable, something more personal than a doctor’s prescription or Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. From my neighbor’s porch, I look beyond her garden and see one of my granddaughters reading to her sister. The photo captures light and shadow. A moment later, the girls relocate, Halley, the old brown lab, rests to listen – in a field now flooded with light.

The two scenes remind me of something my years of dealing with pain have taught me. In the times of thunderhead clouds, downpours, constant aching or stabbing pain, God will shift the sun as He chooses. But He is purposeful, never vengeful, in the challenges he sends.

The snapshot of our current difficulty may involve testing, growth, or waiting on the Spirit. Looking at someone’s method may help, and I recommend to those dealing with loss, but there are roads or journeys uniquely appointed for us. I have found joy and peace in believing that my good, good Father has His hand on me and will lead me home.

When We Have No Answers

As efforts worldwide continue to seek the eradication of the polio virus that plagued the United States and UK over a half century ago, we can now thankfully vaccinate against this virus that can keep on giving 30-40 years later. When people cannot, or choose not, to receive the vaccine, we can understand why they may contract any of the various strains of polio.But for the 15-20 million worldwide survivors (Dr. Colin Tidy, 24 June 2016) who experience post polio syndrome, some wonder why or how they got the disease before Jonas Salk’s successful vaccine that became available in 1955. They have no answers.

A much lesser known disease, the Spanish flu, was a killer second only to the Black Death. Most students of Western Civilization know the Black Death (Great Plague), killed an estimated 75-200 million people in Eurasia between 1337-1350. Some sources claim the Black Death took 30-60% of Europe’s total population.

But until I recently read Susan Meissner’s As Bright as Heaven, I knew virtually nothing about the second greatest pandemic, the Spanish flu. This horrifying flu epidemic occurred just a century ago in 1918. One of the hardest hit cities, Philadelphia, buried more than 12,000. Like polio, the Black Death, and other unexplained tragedies, the Spanish flu was no respecter of persons. Poor, rich, educated, or not, this epidemic took life indiscriminately. One family member might survive while another succumbed within days. Again, we have theories and historical records, but no answers.

Evelyn, a character from this historical fiction, studies neurology in the mid 1920s, and seeks to treat a woman suffering from what was termed “dementia praecox, a psychotic disorder.” Sybil’s illness progresses until she has no ability to speak or even recognize her extremely devoted husband. Treatments of 1925 included “bathing therapies, sleep cures, barbiturates, hypnotics, and alkaloids,” but none kept Sybil from descending into madness (term of that time). Again, they had no answers. Even today, almost a century later, we have no answers to many physical and mental maladies.

When we lack answers, we try to explain situations by using metaphors or some concrete examples. In Meissner’s novel, Evelyn says, “Her mind is like an onion whose layers are peeling off all by themselves. And just like there is no way to reattach an onion’s layers, there is no way to stop Sybil Reese from mentally disappearing.” Such word pictures offer limited insight into the effects of a malady but no answers to the searing ache of loss.

Ever since Job, people have wondered, feared, and/or angrily confronted God for answers to why. Why me? Why this? Why now?

Yet I believe we do well to take a look at Job’s reaction after loses virtually all, and then demands counsel with the Almighty. Job’s contrite response follows.

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted… Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;”. Job 42:2, 3b, 5 ESV

I find real contentment in a sovereign God, One whom I trust to have designs, events, and ways beyond my comprehension, even when I can decipher no earthly answers. And when we all walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can know the One who surmounted evil, triumphing over man’s universal enemy, death. We will see Him face to face; all earthly questions will cease to plague us, and we shall be home.

The Messy We Can’t Hide

A few years ago a woman sat in my living room, sobbing and trying to choke out words and apologies for her inability to regain control. Though we didn’t know each other well, she desperately feared growing old without a husband. Long before Carrie Underwood’s song, “Cry Pretty,” was written, I witnessed in myself and others that “You can’t cry pretty.” We love looking at the camera when we’re smiling or laughing, but who wants a picture taken when tears stream down her puffy, red face?

Somehow we easily begin to foster the image of the sanitized person, ignoring the reality that we live in this world, affected like everyone else, by its brokenness. As I think back over almost 70 years of being different, unable to do many activists other kids did, I realize I got a jump start on dealing with life from a particularly odd angle. My “messy,” like this rescued owl’s, was quite visible. Oh, I found ways to hide some of my “messy” in matters that didn’t involve physical strength and agility; my attempts to appear all together involved school work, singing, teaching, and leading Bible studies. In virtually every situation, my pride lay at the root of the each facade.

And that, my friends, is the messy we can’t hide from the One who sees our hearts. He has told us no heart can be trusted; deceit and desperate wickedness lie at our core. Antithetical as it sounds, acknowledging our utter brokenness to the Lord unfetters us.

No longer do my motives and actions have to remain cemented in performance or perfectionism. Yet, with the tenacity of a jackhammer, I return to break up the cement and drag out those foolish mindsets. What kind of help can I find? Over the years, I have applied wisdom from Proverbs, and have coupled that with the accountability of my husband and a few close friends. Deep inside us all, we know messy defines our DNA. Thankfully, we can know the only One who sees it all and yet chooses to love us unconditionally and change us steadily.

Bringing the Spaces Closer

For our silver anniversary Dave and I toured England, Scotland and Wales for 15 days. That first trip to the British Isles introduced us to the above graphic at each underground stop. Americans might say, “Watch out!” or perhaps the more formal, “Watch your step,” but Brits post, “Mind the gap.”

We can well apply this idea to what happens to us between a crushing incident of grief or pain and any ability to move our life on after that. There’s no time line, no outline, no series of steps that fit all. Wanting a closure date, though we do long for relief, sounds presumptuous. So with tentative, faltering steps, we venture into the open fields that lie before us. Can we bring the space between the pain and some measure of peace closer together? If so, how?

Perhaps an illustration from our woods can help. Three Lady Slippers stand as sentinels on the mossy hill, while a solo plant sits isolated, down below. Digging up the one to move it closer to the three rarely works because of the fragile nature of these flowers. Aren’t grieving, suffering people equally fragile? There is healing happening in the soil that we do well not to disturb Those who wish to offer help or come alongside a hurting person do well to also mind the gap. Some consolers decide they don’t know what to say or do, so they avoid the one in pain. Others rush in with platitudes or their own experiences. Whether the hurting soul or the hopeful comforter, we all do well to avoid attempts to pull, push, or transplant. Why? Don’t we long for relief, quickly and completely?

Yes, we ache for a quick remedy, but in the secret under the ground, work does continue. Left alone, the Lady Slipper (or Moccasin) orchid reproduces via symbiosis. The New England Today website explains this well.The organism, in this case a fungus in the soil, causes the stubborn seed to open. Once the fungus cracks the seed and attaches, the fungus gives needed food and nutrients for the plant to flourish.

While people, music, solitude, or cards and written notes may all prove helpful, God can crack the most stubborn heart in the work He accomplishes in the secret places. May we have the grace and patience to allow the Gardener to close the spaces as He chooses.

In-between Places

After the agony of suffering, tragedy, or grief strikes, we often receive what I’ve referred to as God’s anesthesia. Something akin to the gentleness of a fragile lady slipper cushions us. We move, undulating like fragile petals swayed by a spring breeze.We have moments or prolonged spaces, despite the best support systems, where we are painfully alone, a solitary blossom trying desperately to cling to the soil we’re in at the moment. Though the sun shines around us, chill air is what we feel.

However, as we attempt to move on, to find a new normal, we find ourselves in what novelist Susan Meissner calls “in-between places.” Her skillfully written novel features two women. Clara Wood is a nurse who witnessed a friend plummet to the sidewalk after jumping from the flames of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. She works on Ellis Island, never taking the ferry back to New York City. The contemporary (2011) female character, Taryn Michaels, has worked at a fabric shop since her husband died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, the day she headed into Manhattan to share with him the news of her first pregnancy.The events of this broken world that strike the soul can be identified in most cases. The resulting response, however, can leave some people living or merely existing without purpose or strength. Why do we sometimes get stuck in an in-between place? Meissner posits this idea: “Time ceases to have substance when you are flattened by despair.” That, my friends, is one powerful sentence!

Our culture uses the word depression more often than despair, but the connotation of the latter word gives a sense of utter hopelessness. A metamorphosis must occur so we are not flattened or consigned to remaining in some form of an in-between place. Let’s consider first the writings of two Old Testament writers.

After trying myriad forms of pleasure, intellectual pursuits, and power, King Solomon wrote, “So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair, over all the toil of my labors under the sun,” (Ecc 2.20 ESV)

Ezekiel, in describing God’s wrath in bringing about Israel’s coming destruction, wrote, “The king mourns, the prince is wrapped in despair, and the hands of the people are paralyzed by terror, (Ezek 7:27a ESV)

And, the Bible’s shortest verse, “Jesus wept,” (John 11:35 ESV) attests to our Lord’s anguish, despite the fact that He was about to raise His friend Lazarus from the dead.

Yet the apostle Paul comforts us with words that follow the most spectacular metamorphosis ever, the resurrection of Christ. Paul, describing all believers, offers this pure truth: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;” (2 Cor 4:8-9 ESV)

The hope of this truth can, in God’s timing, move us out of the in-between spaces to places of peace, beauty, and growth.