Monday, May 6, 2019

Doing Better

Sometimes it's a big thing, a life-altering tragedy, a death, a disfiguring illness, or financial ruin that breaks you down. But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it is the accumulation of smaller things. The kick in the belly while you are down. The second, third, fourth blows to the already fractured skull. You are left flattened. Motionless. Unable to move on. And wondering where the hell God is. You can't see him. You can't feel him. You can't touch him. And you are all alone. Or so it seems.

Kelly Kapic, Covenant College professor and author of Embodied Hope, says this in an interview with By Faith Magazine:

One of the reasons our suffering can be so difficult is that in the West, including in the church, we have become so individualistic. We put all the weight on the isolated person, rather than also seeing that person within a larger community. 
Employing the ideas of faith, hope, and love, I try to argue that we need each other if we are to live this Christian life, and that seasons of suffering just make what is true undeniable. I want people to know that amid their difficulties, it shouldn’t surprise them to have really hard questions and doubts about God, about His seeming absence or unconcern, and about their struggles. 
During these difficult times, we must lean on other people; when we struggle to believe in God’s compassion and presence, they believe for us; when we find it almost impossible to hope in the promises of the Gospel, they gently hope for us, embodying those promises to us; and when we feel alone and afraid, they are genuine physical representatives of God’s loving presence. Alone we are in trouble, but together, we are sustained in faith, hope, and love.

I'll be totally honest here. I don't think we as a church know how to do this. Oh, we are good at fixing others. Giving advice. Teaching them. Rebuking them. We are trained in right theology and saving souls and personal piety and whatever manifestation of that we prefer. But we don't know how to come alongside the suffering. Hold them up. Stand in the gap. Plead for them and with them when they can no longer plead for themselves.

Too many of us have opened up and begged for help only to be set aside, ignored, chastised, patted on the head, or worse. Nothing is more painful than begging for support and care and being met with silence, pat answers, or reproof. As one friend said, "I've learned to be very quiet in the church building....it is messed up..."

People, this should not be.

We in our fragile shells of humanity cannot go it alone, (no matter how much we introverts want to try). At some point we need each other. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. We are told that if part of the body hurts the whole body hurts. Then why is it so damn hard to care for each other?

People don't get in the way of ministry. People are ministry. We are called to be the flesh and blood of Jesus to one another. If we can't even love each other what business do we have trying to tell people God loves them?

We can do better. We are called to do better. We had better do better. I want to do better.





Friday, May 3, 2019

A Sword Is a Dangerous Thing

People like to get up in each other's business. It's natural. We are relational beings. The problem comes when we get up in each other's business in hopes of controlling and changing each other.

Honey, that ain't your job. 

The problem gets even worse when we jump to conclusions and rush in to fix whatever it is, waving around the Word of God like a battery operated light saber, eager to be the one to save the day and save the soul.

The Bible likens the Word of God to a sword. A very, very sharp one. Sharp. Not like the knives I have in my kitchen. Sharp like the knives I see on Chopped.  In Ephesians 6 the Word of God is called to be our weapon. Even children know that weapons must be handled very, very carefully or people get hurt. Really hurt. Waving around the Word of God, often out of context and in order to further our own agenda, can cause unspeakable destruction.

In fact, using the Word of God to bolster our own position (and this has been done throughout Christian history to the detriment of mankind and to the shame of the church), in my opinion, qualifies as a violation of the 3rd commandment, to not use the name of the Lord in vain.

I've seen the misapplication of God's Word and some really circuitous and faulty Bible-speak used to endorse all sorts of ideals and control the choices of others from how you feed your baby to how you educate your children to how you dress to what you eat or drink (or don't) to how you spend your money to whether or not you have a right to leave your husband or call the police. Scripture can be worked into a pretzel to say anything anybody wants it to. This is straight out of Satan's textbook. He, after all, used the same moves on Jesus.

The reality is that we all need to be very careful about the assumptions we make about another person and what our role might be in coming alongside. We may be called to care well or to confront boldly. We may need to speak the truth in love (but never in arrogance). But we need to remember that we may not have all the facts. We may not know the whole story. And we always have to remember that it is never our job to control the other person or to get a guaranteed outcome.

If we truly trust God to work in the heart of someone we care about, we don't need to fling around his words, willy nilly, to get the kind of outcome we think is right. We can use the Word of God carefully, love deeply, and trust God with the outcome.




Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Hiding My Story

Some of you know my story, especially if you knew me as a teenager or have read the My Story posts of my blog. Some don't. There is a lot of my story I haven't shared in length or detail. A lot I don't mention very often. But here goes....

July 1981 found me in the hospital. Seventeen years-old and 82 pounds of anxiety, depression, confusion, and despair. The psychiatric facility, a trip to hell and back, had only made matters worse. My home life was torture. A diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa in 1981 meant that nobody understood what was happening nor knew how to treat me. Socially, I was a freak. I felt I had nothing to live for. 

That is when I opened the Bible I had brought with me and the pages fell open to Romans 8:28. 
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
Because of that verse, I kept reading. Because of that verse, for the first time in my life, I had hope.  My spiritual development from that moment on has been a dizzying trip, complete with carsickness and full of ups and downs, twists and turns, growth and setbacks (or seemingly so), but that is beyond the scope here. But that day I had hope because I believed God when he said that all things, including the horror of my eating disorder, would work together for good.

In college, I thought that was happening. I thought God was using it. I could tell people my story and they listened and were amazed. Eating disorders were a hot topic in the 80s. Celebrities such as Karen Carpenter died as a result of her eating disorder so people listened. Everybody knew somebody with an eating disorder and so my story meant something. It seemed to have a purpose. Then things changed.

In 1988, shortly after Matt and I were married, I chose to tell my story to my small group at church. It was a group of about 10 couples. We were taking turns telling our stories ("testimonies" as they are called in church circles). The guy the week before me had told his story of drugs and crime and years in a motorcycle gang and how God had stepped in and plucked him out of it all. He was met with the "ooohs" and "ahhhhs" of admiration and approval. So the next week I told my story. It was met with horror. Discomfort. Silence. It was the silence that was the hardest. With the exception of one person, nobody ever spoke to me again. For the first time I felt shame. Shame about my story. The very story that I believed God was going to work for good.

I pulled back. After that I rarely told my story and when I did, it was with fear and trembling and so very much shame. And when I did, it was almost always met with silence or disinterest or, worse, condescension (my least favorite reaction on the planet).

Then it happened. It was 1997, I was the mother of 4 children. A couple from church offered to provide a babysitter and take us out to dinner. As we sat down at the table at the restaurant, the husband asked us how we came to know Jesus. I got brave and went first. And told my story. Then our food came. He thanked me for sharing and then he pointed at my food and said emphatically, "And you are going to eat every bite of that food!"

You know how in movies or TV shows and it does that little rewind thing to show what happened earlier, yeah, that. All of the sudden I was no longer the 33 year-old mother of 4 and wife of 9 years. I was the emaciated teenager, angering and exasperating those around me. I was a child. A naughty child, being told what to do. The shame was suffocating.

My past had followed me, but not in the way I had expected. I wouldn't share my story again.

And I didn't for many, many years. Perhaps I didn't because life has thrown me so many, many other stories. Perhaps I didn't because an eating disorder, for me, is a thing of my past, and distant past at that. But mostly I didn't share because of shame.

The reality is that people still don't understand eating disorders like they don't understand most mental illness. But there is something about eating disorders that is even MORE shameful, I think that other mental illness.

I think Christians love stories of guilt and redemption. That is why the druggie biker dude who shared his story the week before I shared mine was applauded for his journey. We have a theological framework for sin, guilt, repentance and redemption. We don't have a theological framework for complex combination of biology, family dynamics, trauma, and cultural messages that produce an eating disorder. Christians don't know how to "fix" that. They don't know what to do when they can't point to a willful sin and shout "REPENT!"

But, for whatever reason, I am wanting to share again. I am wanting to see God use that particular, horrible chapter of my life for good. I'm not sure why, because I only know one person right now with a diagnosed eating disorder. And yet I see so many that I suspect do struggle terribly, even if they may not be classified as such according to the DSM-5.

I think it is easier to hide an eating disorder these days. The cultural obsession with healthy eating and fitness can mask a far from healthy personal obsession. In fact, it is those of us who do not jump on the bandwagon of organic or paleo or vegan who are viewed with skepticism or considered uninformed.

I suppose that what I am trying to say is that if you are struggling with an obsession over what you put in your body or the shape and size of your body, I get it. I've been there. And while I have had what I consider an amazingly healthy attitude toward food for almost 30 years, my body image issues have been a bit slower in healing. Menopause ("when your metabolism slows down but your appetite doesn't") and aging are forcing me face some of my deep-seated beliefs of what gives me value and to let go of the last tidbits of a screwed-up sense of self. I am still a work in progress.

But if you have a tortured relationship with food or your body, please know that I get it and am here. I'm not hiding my story any more. And you don't have to, either.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Gift

All around me I am seeing marriages falling apart or in varying degrees of anguish. So much heartache. So much hard.

I know what I have. I know he is a gift. I know he is something that I never, ever deserved, this husband of mine.

He isn't perfect and Lord know's I'm not. But we are each other's best friend and somehow we are able to work together as business partners without killing each other (so long as he doesn't boss me around, I say).

But I know this is special. And I know the deep pain others may feel when they see us together or interact in playful banter on Facebook. I know that pain because I feel that same pain when I see other relationships that showcase what someone else has and I have not.

Today a friend wrote a long monologue to her grandfather who passed away at the age of 96. Her relationship with him was something that I could never imagine. Other times friends write of their fathers in a way that says they knew and were known and loved and were loved. It is beyond my comprehension. I read stories of close families and cousins and cherished memories and I don't get it because I never had that. And it can hurt.

I think it would hurt less if I knew that people understood just what a blessing a relationship is. What a gift. If, for example, when they post a moving tribute to their dad on Father's Day they acknowledged how rare it is to have someone like that in their life.

So I want to acknowledge something. I want to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, God gave me a tremendous gift. I don't ever want to take what I have for granted or wave it in front of another. I want to cherish what I have and thank God for it. I want to learn from it and give out of its fullness to those who don't have this.

And I want to thank you, Matt Barker, for being there. For being my safe place. I love you. More than you'll ever know.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Go With My Blessing

He left yesterday afternoon, my son did. Left on a 25-hour, 1700 mile trek across the country for a new adventure. It's awesome. I'm a mess. A puddle.

I don't know why this is so hard. This isn't my first rodeo. When my oldest left for St. Louis 3.5 years ago, I thought in my heart it was temporary. It wasn't. When my youngest left for Iowa one year ago this week, I thought in my heart it was temporary. It wasn't. I realize that I don't have any such illusions this time. I have to know it could be for good.

People assume the sorrow is because I now have an empty nest...well, sort of. (My nest regularly refills with my 6 year-old granddaughter several times a week.) And no. It isn't that I no longer feel needed. And it isn't so much that I long to have some chick under my feathers to cluck over. I don't cluck. I never have. And my son refused to ever be clucked at. We were a good team that way.

It is just that I feel this absence so keenly. And I don't know why.

I don't know a lot of things these days. In fact I seem to know less than I used to.

But there is one thing I do know. I want my kids to thrive. I want them to go...go...GO out there. Wherever. I want them to go wherever they need to go and do whatever they need to do and be whatever God has called them to be. I don't ever want to hold them back or bring them down because I have some silly emotional need to be close.

I never had that freedom. Yes, I moved away from my home but I never felt that it was really OK for me to do that. It was never OK for me to be where I was or what I was or who I was. I never had the emotional backing from a mother to do my thing and be who God created me to be and not what she so wanted me to be. I refuse to do that to my children.

This is what I want for you, my children. GO, DO, BE. Wherever you need to. You have my blessing. And my love. Always.

.

Tender Spots

I have crappy posture and the neck muscles from hell. Every snippet of tension is stored in my upper back and shoulders. I guess you could say I have a chronic pain in the neck. (Some might say I AM a chronic pain in the neck.😂)
Because neck pain causes head pain, I am having regular visits with a physical therapist to retrain muscles to do something that I can’t explain but sounds reasonable. One is the techniques my PT uses is dry needling. Basically, he pokes these tiny needles directly into my muscle and leaves them there for 10 minutes. No. It’s not fun.
The interwebs say that if the muscle is healthy, it really won’t hurt that much. I can attest to that. Some of the needles don’t hurt that much. And yet others are a different story. Yesterday I went in to PT with increased migraine twinges and a sore upper back. The teeny, tiny needles felt like daggers slicing through my neck and stabbing my nerve endings. I squealed and squirmed and clawed at the vinyl on the table. “Your muscles are really inflamed and reactive today,” he said. No s**t.
I’ve had a really hard couple of weeks.
I am looking a life change in the face as another child sets off on a wonderful new adventure thousands of miles away. I want him to experience the best of life, wherever it may be, but my mother heart still just plain hurts.
The recent publicity regarding sexual abuse with Southern Baptist Churches has brought back to the surface those intense feelings of frustration and anger at those in power who refuse to listen to and protect the vulnerable in their midst. I am thankful that the truth is being told and apologies are being made but furious that it is taking public exposure to goad leadership into doing the right thing.
And, as per the usual, I am sure that this hard has something to do with hormones, too. (Damn, damn, DAMN you, menopause and send chocolate!)
The crux of the matter is that I hurt. Everything hurts. Advice feels like a condescending quick fix. Suggestions feel like a lecture. Silence feels like rejection.
I guess that is the way it is in life. There are times that, like my friggin neck muscles, we are extra inflamed and reactive and everything hurts, even the tiny needles that are meant to do us good.
My PT couldn’t see how inflamed my muscles were. He only knew by the amount of pain I got from the poke. I need to remember this the next time my well intentioned poke causes someone else pain. I need to be aware there may be hurt under the skin I can see.

We all, at times, have tender spots. Poke carefully. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Acknowledge

"What is your word for the year?" This is the first year I think I have hear that question and it seems to be popping up everywhere. I like the concept, actually. I like it much better than New Years resolutions, which are almost always self-improvement based and self-focused in a superficial sort of way and are usually along the lines of weight loss and eating better and exercising more to the end of greater health and youth and beauty.

The word for the year is different. Seven years ago I came close to the concept when I wrote Not a Resolution but a Prayer, about my desire to be able to actually rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourning is really easy for me. Rejoicing with another, especially when I don't have occasion to myself, is a bit of a challenge.

A few years later I had another concept for the year: Listen. It wasn't necessarily something I publicized but more something I tried to do more of. I learned a lot about listening and the truth that, as David Augsburger says, "Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable." Even this past year I heard about another term, vigilant listening, which took my desire to listen to others and for the skill to hear others, to a whole new level.

When the question about the word for the year came up, I rebelled and decided I wouldn't get with the program. I couldn't come up with anything that didn't seem too nebulous. Hope? Peace? Joy? (The fact that joy scares the bejeebers out of me is the subject of a future, perhaps too personal, blogpost.)

But I DO have a word. It is a concept that hit home with me a couple of months ago. According to Google....

Acknowledge: 1.) accept or admit the existence or truth of. 2.) recognize the fact or importance or quality of. 

Everybody wants to know that their presence on the planet isn't an accident, or worse, a mistake. Everybody wants to know they matter.

To acknowledge someone says this:
I see you. You matter. Your ideas matter. Your experiences. Your wisdom. Your hard work. Your gifts. Your generosity. Your ingenuity. Your kindness. Your heart. Your heart matters. 
I see you. You matter. Your suffering matters. Your confusion. Your frustration. Your anger. Your disappointment. Your loneliness. Your pain. Your grief. Your broken heart. It matters. 
You are not invisible to me. You matter. You matter in this world. You matter in God's plan. 
To acknowledge someone does not mean that you have to agree with them or become their very best friend. And it certainly doesn't mean that you have to fix whatever it is that is weighing them down or tearing them apart. It just means that you see them and you are there with them and they matter.

You can acknowledge someone by finding the person outside the group and striking up a conversation. By going out of your way to say hello. By finding something you have in common. Asking questions and their opinion. By listening, yes, listening, to their ideas without the need to argue and set them straight.

You can acknowledge a person by responding to them. Reply to their message or text or phone call or email. Nothing tells a person that they don't matter like complete silence on the other end. Sometimes the silence conveys disapproval. At to other times dismissal. It always conveys the idea that you just don't care. In fact, my husband wants to start a new hashtag #nocrickets, to encourage people to respond, even if it is just to say, "I got your message. Let me think about it." Acknowledge the message and you acknowledge the person.

Pastors, you can do a great deal of good by just acknowledging specific types of suffering in the sermons. It tells your people that you see them. You know their pain. And you are with them in their suffering. Ignoring pain doesn't make it go away. Speaking of it gives it meaning and connection. No fixes needed. Just acknowledgement and understanding.

I am not trying to lecture anybody else as much as to remind myself just how important this is. I know I have failed at this so many times. I acknowledge even that. We can do that. We can acknowledge where we have failed and hurt people.

So, here is to 2019. The year to acknowledge.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

Comparing Pain

I got my bubble burst last week. I have always been enamored with natural disasters. Maybe because I love severe weather. Maybe because I love the excitement. Maybe because I a bit of an adrenaline junky. Maybe because I love to see a shakeup in the status quo. But mostly because of the way people are when a collective disaster strikes.Walls come down. Differences fade. Community develops. The little things just don't matter so much. I long for that. I thought that was the way it always was.

Last week I was reading Richard Lloyd Parry's chronicle of the earthquake and the tsunami that hit rural northern Japan in 2011, Ghosts of the Tsunami. He particularly focuses on one village and one school. There were just over 100 students in this K-5 school. After the earthquake, several parents came and took their children home. leaving 78 children at the school when the unexpected happened and the tsunami hit. Of those 78 children, only four survived.

The immediate aftermath of the tsunami brought about what we have all come to expect: kindness, compassion, camaraderie, a pulling together to survive. But after the initial shock wore off and life began to take shape again and families had to move forward, a rift developed. It developed between the families that had lost children and those that had not. Between the families that had lost all their children and those that had at least one left. Then a rift between the families that were able to find and bury the bodies of their children and those who could not. It is absolutely heartbreaking that in a scenario of such horrific loss each person was so completely absorbed in their own brand of loss, in their own story, that they could not see that their stories were more alike than different. Pain, suffering, loss, grief....they do that, I guess.

We all do it. We compare. We compare our pain to somebody else's. Other people compare our pain to somebody else's. And chide us. "At least he isn't hitting you. Look at Sandra's husband. Now I feel sorry for her." "At least it wasn't rape. It can't have been that bad." "Quit whining, you have a roof over your head. Look at those poor people in India." We expect that quantity and quality are the same thing.

Quantity of suffering does matter. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study shows that with each ACE comes a large percentage increase in physical and mental health issues well into adulthood. And yet even with the ACE, there are mitigating factors. So quality of suffering matters, too. A child with more resilience will have fewer negative effects with a higher score than a child with less resilience. So a child with no social or emotional support will suffer just as much or more over an adverse experience as a child with better support but more experiences.

I saw a meme this morning that said that you can drown in 8 feet of water just as easily at 20 feet of water. The quantity of water doesn't matter.

We can't compare suffering. We just can't. Abuse is abuse. Betrayal is betrayal. Loss is loss. Pain is pain. How can we come alongside each other, alike in our suffering though perhaps different in our circumstances? What are your ideas?