Sunday, December 9, 2012

Committed, sort of....

One hour once a week. That's my commitment. This sliver of time is dedicated to writing, without excuse.

I don't have a good track record when it comes to commitment. Committing to a simple word like "yes" or "no" creates considerable anxiety and initiates a regiment of avoidance tactics. A complete thought expressed in a sentence takes five minutes. Deciding to keep the sentence and form a paragraph can easily consume an hour. There is no guarantee that the hour's work will remain the following day; an hour of thought that seemed worthy of expression one moment can be determined crap and scraped the next. The hour completely wasted.

Waste is the one pet peeve I've yet to put to sleep. I despise wasting anything - time, money, electricity, energy - words especially. So here I am, not wanting to waste a single minute of the time I've allotted to write something worth reading, it's worthiness entirely subjective, the objective goal a bit vague and presumptuous: help people.

I've chosen my place and time to write, at church during the 11:15 service. I'm not substituting God's word for my own selfish goals. My church has several "campuses." I attend the 9:30 service in North Charleston then cross two bridges to the Longpoint campus. My little one likes the children's program at this "big church" as she calls it, and they have a modern coffee shop and bookstore. That's child care covered, coffee if I need it, and a bookstore to remind me of the book I've yet to complete which should prod me into completing at least a good paragraph.

There's an upside of writing at this church. The service is broadcasted on monitors all over the facility so I can hear snippets of inspiration which may prove serendipitous in whatever it is I'm writing at the moment. Like now, I hear "restoring the spirit" and "function fully" and "update the app." Okay, there's nothing to work with there, but the possibility exists.

Ah, here's one: Philippians 1:6. Application to my moment: I may only be able to commit to an hour a week, but God is committed to the work he started in me and will be faithful to carry it out to completion.

The Unedited Version

As the season of winter draws near, the theme of loss is being written into the story of my life.   In September, the children's minister at my church died unexpectantly. A week later, my colleague mentioned that one of her dear friends passed on.  I learned on Facebook that two lifelong comrades of friends and family died, one a sudden heart attack, the other a suicide.  Over the phone a parent told me that she hasn't been active in the program because of her loss.  Three days later I experienced the same pain.  

Not all loss is created equal; losing my keys is not the same as losing my job.  No longer working can not be compared to no longer living.  Often language can aid in softening the shocking tremors of death.  It sounds more gentle to say "I've experienced a recent loss," rather than "My baby died."  The word "loss" is more mannered, publicly palatable.  The word "death" is graphic, non-negotiable.  Loss is fall in Florida.  Death is a Russian winter.  Death makes everyone feel naked in the snow. 

Such vulnerability is terrifying and can make one feel terribly alone. More so when surrounded by characters who may not respond in a helpful way.  They can say and do things that exacerbate sorrow and pain.  This is why I often choose to remain silent when someone shares their story about how death has touched their lives.  I don't want to say the wrong thing.  Worse, because of my own past, there are times when I have a discomforting automatic response to hearing bad news: inappropriate laughter.  It doesn't always happen, but since I can't predict when it will, I get very uncomfortable when someone includes me in the telling of their pain. 

Sharing my own pain is also risky, especially when that pain is bred from my own weakness.  When I am weak I fear judgement of others, judgements that come as spears in my naked moments, piercing the flesh and releasing what little warmth and consolation might remain. There have been times in my life when I knowingly walked a path that led to death, and when I met the end I refused to reach out for help fearing judgement: 
"She deserved it." 
"What can a sinner expect?"
"It's God's justice." 
To avoid these assaults, I keep to myself when I stray from righteousness.  If I don't tell anyone about the dark spots in my life, I can't be judged about how I live.  I know God will forgive me, but I'm not so sure about others.  Accordingly, with most people I share an outline of what's going on, presenting the Erica that's washed and processed and will not to offend. My grimey mess is hidden in a place where profanity fits better than honey-coated consolations.  I do this while at the same time believing what is written in James: "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed."  I want to be healed, but to whom do I confess?  What characters in my story aren't carrying spears?

If I had to pick a sacrament practiced by Catholics, it would be act of confession. Throwing my dirty laundry in a quick spin cycle the shape of a tall wooden box is rather appealing, and there is something comforting about being known, grunge and all.  But I'm not Catholic, so the reality is a bit more like what my daughter shared with me in a conversation a few months ago.  She succinctly stated what was true for her, but what I understood to be true for me as well: "You don't know me." She went on to use a perfect metaphor for how she and I have come to live: each of our lives is a book that is read by outsiders who, for the most part, skip chapters.  They read the good parts - the parts we want to share - but they don't always have access to the darker side of the story, the part that is essential in every good tale.  Without darkness contrasting light, there is no conflict.  Creative Writing 101: no conflict, no story.  No death, no life.

Most of us get along fine skipping chapters of each other's lives.  We are satisfied with the edited version.  When it comes to what's really going on in another person's story, "People are too selfish to care," as my mother once said. They're too busy writing their own stories, which is fair.  Who has time to read between the lines of the exchanges that happen in most daily interactions? The common version is edited to be more concise and convenient:
"Hey, how you doin'?"
"Great, you?"
"Can't complain."
"That's good. It's nice to see you."
"You too, take care."
Both parties go their separate ways, moving on to act out the truth in the real story being written, chapters that are skipped during polite conversation.  Three months ago, a chapter was written in my life that I tried to share, but grief from loss and fear of judgement kept me from confessing.  So when people asked me how I was doing, I gave them the edited version.  If I had been more honest, however, the interaction would have read something like this:
“Hey, how you doin’?”
“Miserable actually."
"I just had a miscarriage."
“What!!  Wait...what'd I miss?”
“I had unprotected sex with a man I haven't married yet.  I didn't tell anyone because I was ashamed.  I knew I’d be judged because at age 42, ‘You should know better.'  And I certainly didn’t want to go to the church."
"I hate spears. Anyway, I decided not to tell anyone, except those I trusted wouldn’t judge me and those who really needed to know, like my youngest child and my fiance. I didn’t want to have the baby, but I didn’t want to have an abortion either; I didn’t want to add to my shame. My fiance responded well and actually convinced me that having his baby would be a good thing so I got attached to the idea.  A day before my second visit to the OBGYN, I started cramping and bleeding.  I was getting ready to leave work to go see the doctor when the fetus fell out of my body."
"Oh, my God!"

"Yeh, that fucked me up."

"What'd you do?"

"I stepped carefully into the bathroom, removed my undergarments but she wasn’t there - she was stuck.  So I had to remove her myself.  I called the doctor, they told me to bring “it” in.  I wrapped “it” up in paper towels.  Got into my car, set “it” in my daughter’s car seat and drove myself to the doctor’s office.  Once there, they told me to leave “it” with the lab.  I did.  I cried.  They did an ultrasound.  My womb was empty.  I texted my fiance and told him, ‘It’s gone.  We lost it.”

"I'm so sorry.  Is there anything I can do?"

"No, I'll be okay.  I took a couple days off.  On the second day I told my youngest child.  She cried.  We cried.  I took her out to dinner and while waiting for our meal, I got a call from DSS; they had a three-year-old foster child, a girl needed a home.  I said yes.  My child and I were both happy, relieved of our sadness. 
"Well, that's noble."

"Not really. After further discussion with concerned characters I realized I was trying to avoid my grief by diverting my attention to the care of a child who needed me, though in reality I needed her.  So I called DSS back and told them, 'Sorry, but now is not a good time.'  After I hung up, I felt like shit.  They came a got her the next day.  My child cried.  I grew cold.   So, that’s how I am now.  Sad and cold.  How are you?”


Needless to say, I think most folks would rather skip this version.  And the drama of this particular chapter doesn't end there.  My fiance decided it was a good time to revisit something he had mentioned when we first met.  I didn't take him seriously then, it was so unbelievable I thought he was joking. Turns out he was completely serious.  He believes he is being stalked by members of a fraternal organization.  He knows when they've visited because they leave paper clips behind.  It gets worse.  He believes that I've been a part of this torment, whether I knew about it or not.  Accordingly, he will never be able to trust me.  There's more, but I can't go into detail - my facebook is being watched. This chapter ends with me breaking off the engagement.  I didn't have a choice; it was either lose the relationship or lose my sanity.  I've gone crazy before.  Not fun.

People who I consider close friends and family may read this and wonder “Why didn’t she tell me?”  A better question is, how would knowing change things?  For what purpose do we share things like this?   I suppose the intimacy of knowing such details makes people closer.  Though this may be true, retelling a story over and over makes it seem distant.  The details less real.  It becomes just a story.  It’s not mine anymore.  It belongs to everyone I’ve told. 

This could be a good thing.  Maybe it’s me who is being selfish by not sharing.  Maybe I don’t give people enough credit; perhaps they really do care and genuinely want to know how I’m doing.  That sounds great and I hope it's true, but quite frankly, sharing is draining.  In the end I just feel empty inside.  That emptiness gets cold quick.  

Two numbers pop up in my life that always catch my attention, 3 and 7.  I haven't actually documented when they appear, but they seem to show up when I'm feeling lost or confused, hurting or just needing some encouragement.  I was feeling all of the above this past season, which is why it took so long to write about it.  It took even longer to share.  I kept my grief close, between me and God.  He's been guiding me through this.  Sometimes I know He's there.  There are other times, however, I feel so alone it physically hurts.  During one of these times, I looked at a copy of the ultrasound that pictured the dark spot in my womb, an imprint of where the baby was.  I noticed the time on the picture: 10:37:07 seconds.  Probably just a coincidence.

One thing is certain, God's speaks and moves through others. Those who don’t judge me by the mistakes I make but by the darkness I overcome.  Friends and family who are not only interested in reading my story, but want to be active characters in it.  In all honesty, I would not have been able to walk through this valley without these characters working cooperatively to give me the time and space I needed to process my grief.

I am also reminded that this is really not my story.  It never was.  It’s God’s story and it started long before I was born and will continue after I die.  I must be vulnerable enough to let Him write His way through each action played, day after day.  Through the darkness His light can shine.  Thus, I will publish this story as testimony.  To what? I have no idea.  I’ll leave that up to the readers.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Minding the Thorns

"...For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do...For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." Romans 7:14-19

Why did God create man and woman with potent passions and desires, and then call us to control their power?  It seems we have been set up to fail.  “Behold! I give you an appetite you can’t satisfy.”  Why would a loving God torture his beloved so?  Seeking a biblical perspective, I learned that “self-control” is not used often in the bible.  Righteousness, however, is found over 400 times.  Self-control is a requirement for righteousness.  Practicing self-control is like a granddaddy's childhood memory of walking to school, barefoot, day after day, mile by mile, through the snow going uphill both ways.  

A righteous person is identified by her willingness to control herself.    Assessing my own identity, I find that I am very willing.  Able? Not so much.  If I had a dollar for every time I was willing to control myself, I could have retired years ago.  If I had a dime for every time I was able to control myself, my debt would match what I owe in college loans. 

In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul talks about a thorn in his flesh against which he must struggle. In my lifetime, I have stepped on my share of thorns.  Alcohol was one of them; drunkenness sharpened the others.  I knew I needed to stop drinking.  More than willing, I was desperate to quit.  I would succeed for a season, but my resistance didn’t last. In time I failed. I hated myself for failing. I hated being a slave to my sin.  On my own, I was powerless to win my freedom.

Our little independent selves cannot maintain righteousness for long, not by our own strength.  We may do well for months, even years, but eventually we will get tired, we will have bad days, and the enemy is patient.  So why wouldn’t God provide thicker skin to protect our soles from stepping on those wicked thorns?  The answer is found in another question: Why would man need God if he could do everything himself?  

Through Christ I was able to withdraw my most life-threatening thorn. The hole remains open, sensitive to the irritations of life, but the wound doesn't control me. Still, the devil never sleeps; if it's not one thorn it's another.  Though some thorns are lodged deeper than others, it's those little ones that can be harder to dig out.  Worry and anxiety.  Anger.  Sugar.  

Self-control may be last on the list of spiritual fruits, but this character attribute is the seed that produces the preceding holy bunch.  We cannot ripen in love, joy, peace and such if we cannot first master self-control.  But we can’t do it alone.  Fortunately, His power is made perfect in our weakness.

"Lord, you give power to the weak and strength to the powerless.  Forgive me for thinking I can live righteously by my power alone.  Thank you for your grace that covers me when I fail.   Strengthen me when I am weak and continue your work in me." Amen

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dancing with Trouble

The word suffering usually brings to mind an extended period of pain or other unpleasant sensation. It’s the feeling associated with a bad situation, some sort of trouble, trial or challenge.  Not many of us would be willing to open the front door of our lives to suffering.  I know if I see trouble walking close by my first instinct is to bolt the door, close the blinds and pray it keeps on walkin’.  I had a pastor once who suggested that his congregation could use a little more trouble in life.   I was already going through it.  Recently divorced and struggling as a single parent, more trouble to be the last thing I needed. 

It’s not just the external situation that causes suffering but also the internal conversation that talks to the trouble, attacking my self-esteem.  The negative voices in my head play louder than the bass rattling the trunks of some of those cars in the hood. Fear of failure and self-doubt free-style a off-beat rap that pinches the nerves in my shoulders and makes my spirit slouch.  It’s difficult to see the benefit that comes from keeping step with trouble.   

There are two biblical promises that I’ve come to count on; one helps me deal with the other.  Jesus promises that we will experience trouble in this world.  It’s guaranteed.  But here’s the deal: the promise that covers this guarantee is God’s love for us.  Because of God’s love “all things  [yes, even that ugly “thing” hidden in the closet] work together for good to them that love the Lord.” (Romans 8:28)  Because of God’s love, Peter reckoned that “the suffering of this present moment is not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) 

When trouble is done with us, we are left stronger, glorious.  We are stiff and sore from the work-out, but the exercise has served its purpose.  Great suffering creates a lean, mean fightin’ machine and if we’re armed with God’s Word, we’re ready and able to “rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope.” (Romans 5:3)  I’m not saying I’m going to dress up and go looking for a night out on the town with trouble, but with God’s love, I’ll be ready to tango when trouble finds me. 

Reflection Questions:
1. How does self-esteem help or hinder your ability to persevere?
2. Consider the times you have suffered in life.   How did these experiences make you better?  How does the past suffering prepare you for the troubles ahead?

“Lord, you are the potter and I am the clay. Forgive me for thinking I know what’s best for my life.  You know what is needed to shape me into the image of your Son, Jesus Christ. I surrender my suffering to you to use for your purposes.  You are my hope.” Amen