08/31/16

Throwing Rocks

springriver

I found a new form of meditation this summer.  Meditation with a toddler is not easy to come by; but ironically, it was my toddler’s enthusiasm for this new form which drew me to it in the first place.  This summer, with my toddler in tow, I discovered the meditative qualities of throwing rocks.

As soon as the weather warmed up this spring, I started taking Walter for walks down by the river.  This is not new for me.  The river has been my special place almost since we moved here.  I remember being pregnant with Jack and pushing Thomas in the stroller along the Riverwalk.  Now it is Walter’s turn to be in the stroller.  We usually walk for about a half and hour, and then I let him out of the stroller so we can go down by the water.

There are lots of rocks down on the riverbank.  Walter loves to throw them.  He is has the overhand throw of a future baseball pitcher.  I, however, am the epitome of the phrase “throws like a girl,” and at first I was content to let Walter do most of the throwing.  I would sit and watch him play while I pondered the nebulous causes for the depression and anxiety with which I was struggling.

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Spring turned to summer and my mental state did not noticeably improve.  In fact, my once vague worries became quite focused on a truly possible scenario.  I felt tight and wound up.  My whole body ached.  I wished I could just let go, but I didn’t know how.  I ordered With Open Hands from the  public library.  This is a lovely little volume on prayer written by Henri J. M. Nouwen.  I had read it once before, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to read it through again.

The chapter on “Prayer and Acceptance” is the centerpiece of the book; to pray with acceptance is to pray “with open hands.”   When we open our hands in prayer, we learn to let go. We let go of the guilt God wants to forgive.  We let go, perhaps, of unhealthy habits.  We let go, ultimately, of the illusion of control.  The act of letting go frees us to accept the gifts God wants to give to us and the future He has in store for us.  Nouwen writes:

The person who prays is one who has the courage to stretch out his arms and let himself be led……

When you are still young and not yet adult, you want to hold everything in your own hands, but if you open your hands toward prayer, you are able to stretch out your arms and let yourself be led without knowing where.  You know only the freedom which God’s breath has brought you will lead to new life, even if the cross is the only sign of it you can see. 

But for the one who prays, even that sign has lost its fearful character.

I think about these words down by the river, and I start throwing rocks side-by-side with my son.

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My throws are different from Walter’s.  I throw underhanded, arm outstretched, palm facing up, and my rocks follow a graceful arc before plunging into the water.  I feel my body start to unwind as I try to incorporate this posture in my prayer life as well.

For weeks I pray about the scenario close to my heart.  I try to pray with an openness toward God’s will, but I also do not hesitate to let my desires be known.  Then one day in late July, I am pushing the stroller by the river, and I pray, “If this scenario is to be, then dear God, please just let it be.”  This is the exact opposite of the outcome I desire.  It is, in truth, the exact opposite of the prayer I had prayed only months before.  Even here, in late July, it is not the prayer I set out to pray.  It is the prayer that God in His grace has given me.  It is His gift for me to accept.  I pray it, and for the moment, I am at peace.

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I am at peace.  The tension is gone.  And yet, this is not a post advising that if you just pray hard enough and the right way all your depression and anxiety will disappear.  It doesn’t work that way.  If it did, I would have started praying “the right way” a long time ago.  I don’t really understand depression and anxiety, but I like what Elizabeth Foss has to say about it.  On her blog she writes this about her season of depression:

For the longest time (and it has seemed the longest time), I kept operating under the assumption that there was something I needed to do or say or pray to turn on the light. Slowly, I have begun to recognize that it is better to know that this season isn’t one to be pushed away under my own power and that God is with me in the dark.

There is no certain antidote to depression and no magic prayer to quell anxiety; but if God is with me in the dark, then I will pray to Him.  I will pray because He asks me to:

“Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”  Psalm 50:15

Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. 1  Peter 5:7

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  Matthew 11:28

Prayer is not a prescription.  It is a gift, an invitation, and ultimately a mystery.  This summer, I was prompted to open my hands to that mystery, and now I have a story to tell about it.

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It is late August.  Summer is winding down, and some days I can feel depression and anxiety knocking at the door once again.  It happens that the exact opposite scenario from that which I desired did come to pass.  I may be at peace with it, but it still hurts, and I still pray.  Some days my prayers are much less like that of an accepting adult, and much more like that of a petulant child:  “Dear God, I didn’t mean it.  I don’t care if it is for the best.  I take it back.”

God hears this prayer too, and He sends me another beautiful morning for a walk by the river.  The goldenrod is in full bloom along the riverbank.  Walter and I go down to the water’s edge, and we throw some more rocks.

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splash

Notes

  1. Quote from Henri J. M. Nouwen, With Open Hands (New York: Ave Maria Press, 1972)
  2. Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from northern Virginia.
  3. All Bible verses are taken from the New International Version.

 

 

08/24/16

Songs for Goodbye

I think this summer will be remembered as a summer of goodbye.  My pastor and his family moved away this month, and he is now serving a different congregation in a different state.  The relocation process for a pastor in our church body is necessarily tedious.  It seems like weeks of the summer have been spent just saying goodbye.

imrose

There have been other summers of goodbye.  The summers of my late high school years come to mind.  First, at the end of our junior year, we said goodbye to all the seniors.  This was the summer of our school choir trip to Disney.  I’m not even a Disney fan, but it is admittedly a great place for teenage memories and songs for goodbye.  Our actual choir performance was rained out, but we managed to sing anyway.  We sang “The Rose,” with its wonderful acapella harmonies while sitting in the hot tub, and we sang “Remember When the Music”  while gathered in the hotel lobby.

The summer of our senior year came;  it was our turn to spread our wings and to say goodbye.  At our high school graduation ceremony, we sang the popular “Friends are Friends Forever” by Michael W. Smith.  I think I accompanied on the piano.  We gave hugs.  We exchanged pictures and cassette tapes.  Some of us might have cried, (I didn’t), but no one was really sad.  It was just so exciting to be going out into the world.  We were full of hopes and dreams, and our youthful idealism kept us from being afraid.  I wonder, do Christian teenagers still bring out Michael W. Smith, when it’s time to say goodbye?

Now, in our middle age, the goodbyes are harder.  Over two decades have passed, and we are not the same people we once were.  The youthful idealism is gone, replaced, hopefully, with some degree of wisdom, but also tempered with a good dose of the struggles of adult life.  Hope is still a commodity, but it is harder to find.  Courage is harder to muster.  And it is harder to let go of something that seems so good.

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I came to know my pastor three years and some months ago.  During the season just after Easter, I found myself in the pews of his church.  I had been in a period of wandering from church to church, looking for a home, feeling not unlike the proverbial lost sheep.  That Saturday evening I sat towards the back of the church with my (then) two boys.  It was Good Shepherd weekend.  We sang the hymns based on Psalm 23, we listened to the readings and the sermon, and I knew I had found my shepherd.

During the three years that followed, we moved from the back of the church to the front.  We added another boy to our church pew, and had him baptized.  Nearly every weekend we came and were blessed by the ministrations of our pastor.  He loved my children and encouraged them.  He taught me, fed me, forgave me, and preached to the fears of my soul.  And when I recently traveled through the valley of anxiety and depression, he was there to walk with me.

How to say goodbye to this man?  Where was the song for this difficult farewell?  This time around, Michael W. Smith wasn’t cutting it.

This time around I turned to Mozart, diligently practicing the first movement of Sonata 11.  During the depths of my springtime depression, my pastor had sent me a link to this sonata, suggesting, perhaps, that it might be soothing to my soul.  Little did he know that I had the sheet music in my attic.

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When the news was official that my pastor was leaving, I took my sheet music to the sanctuary.  The church is not air conditioned, and the piano light was so hot, but still I had to play.  I thought about the message Dr. Suzuki had found in the music of Mozart:

All right.  Life is sad. But if there is love, see how beautiful life can be.  The sad life that we all must live – let us go along together and comfort one another.

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I played, the notes of the piano echoing through the empty sanctuary.  Sometimes I played at night, with only a few lights in the sanctuary, and only the sound of the cicadas outside.  Sometimes I played in the silence of the afternoon with the sunlight filtering through the stained glass windows.  Then one rainy morning I played, and in the background there was the telling sound of packing tape.

I stopped in the office on the way out.  “Will you let me play for you before you leave?” I asked.

“I won’t leave town without hearing Sonata 11,” he replied.

Five days before his departure, I played Sonata 11, as my pastor sat listening.  I wasn’t sad.  I was nervous, and by the end I couldn’t play the fast parts very well, but mostly I was just happy that I could play for him.  It was my song for goodbye.

And that was supposed to be the end of this post.  I would to take my boys to the Saturday service and say my final farewell, and that would be it.  The church picnic was to be on Sunday, but I’m not much for church picnics anyway.  I didn’t think I wanted to go.

imbirdhouse

But then another song, and an invitation:  The closing hymn on Sunday was to be “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.”  The organist wanted to do something a little special.  He would play the organ, and he asked me to play the piano.  I was so touched that he would ask.  Here was another person, perhaps feeling a bit like I did, and he was asking me to join with him in another song for goodbye.

I took my boys to the Sunday service.  The older two watched the toddler so I could play the piano.  I was glad I was not singing because it is much easier to play without crying.  “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” is blessedly easier than Sonata 11.   I played loudly, and it felt good.  I was sad, but I was not alone.  I was joined by the organist and by all the other members of our church home.  Together, we were singing and playing our final song for goodbye.

Afterwards we stayed for the picnic.  It was fun!  Yes, it was bittersweet, but I was glad to be in the company of our church family.  The picnic wound down, and I lingered for one last hug before pushing my toddler home in the stroller.

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God be with you till we meet again….with a shepherd’s care enfold you.

Goodbye, dear shepherd.  We will miss you.

May our Good Shepherd guard and keep you and your family until we meet again.

Notes:

  1. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki quote from Nurtured by Love, Alfred Publishing Company, 1983.
  2. No, we did not sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when we sang “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” but our organist recommended the recording to which I linked.
  3. This may be the first and last time I post one of my own recordings on YouTube.  My patient and talented husband, John David Duke Jr, was my recording technician.  All of the pictures were taken at Immanuel Lutheran Church.  Our garden volunteers have been busy this summer!

 

06/8/16

In the Face of Life

He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How. 

applepeels

Over the weekend I read a good portion of Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. This is, of course, a classic work, detailing Frankl’s survival against all odds in a Nazi concentration camp. The basic premise is that Frankl and others like him were able to attach meaning to their lives. Survival was more likely, though far from certain, among those who found a reason to live. The horrific numbers tell the story of those who did not survive, but even among the victims, those with meaning were able to face death with courage.

At one point, Frankl quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” Frankl grasped his why with both hands, and this helped him to survive the how of the concentration camp. His story is noble and inspiring as are the stories of many others who have shown courage in the face of suffering and death.

I have nothing but admiration and respect for those who have lived or are living these stories of courage, but these stories are not mine.

measuringcup

I am living in a comfortable house in a peaceful neighborhood.  I have three beautiful children and a husband who loves me. My why and my how are all right here, and yet I find it hard to have courage even in the face of life. I feel so ungrateful and alone. I read about all these brave and noble people, and I wonder, where are the stories about people like me?

This morning I was making gluten-free, sugar-free, apple cider pancakes for the “whys” in my life. It is my own special recipe. The “how” of it is not difficult for me; and yet, as I was standing at the kitchen counter measuring all the different gluten free flours, I experienced the familiar dread of anxiety welling up inside of me. I willed myself to go on, not even caring that the toddler was throwing rice from his sensory bin all over the kitchen floor. At least he was not whining….

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walterrice1

I was listening to my Pandora station, trying to perhaps suppress my anxiety with the distraction of music, and “Her Morning Elegance” by Oren Lavie started playing. I stirred the flours, the baking powder, the salt, and the cinnamon as I listened:

And she fights for her life as she puts on her coat.  And she fights for her life on the train.  She looks at the rain as it pours.  And she fights for her life as she goes in the store.  With a thought she has caught by a thread.  She pays for the bread and she goes.  Nobody knows…

This is my story. Here is a perfectly ordinary woman: she has flowers, she has a cello, she has a job, she has money for bread, but still she is fighting for her life.  (I only just watched the video today when I was looking for a link, and I don’t have any comment except that apparently a woman can be gorgeous and still “fighting for her life.” It was the music and the lyrics that appealed to me.) Her life seems so pleasant, and yet inside there is a hidden torment that nobody sees.

I never thought I’d find consolation in a pop song. It is not a song about courage in the face of death. It is a song about continuing on in the face of life. It tells a story to which I can relate. I don’t take the train to work.  I stay home, change diapers, cook meals, and correct math problems, but that hidden torment is still there. I don’t know why I am so anxious, so lonely, so depressed, but I am.

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I am not doing anything noteworthy or courageous; I am just here fighting for my one little life. I am playing the piano, taking walks with the baby, saying my prayers, teaching the boys, and some days it is so hard. Not many people know or understand that it is hard, but there are a few who do, and they do their best to support me. One of my steadfast supporters sent me this quote from Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

I suppose it is true.  If I believe in God, and I do, then it must be true. I think of it in terms of the words of St. Paul:

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.  Romans 8:28

All shall be well because God is in charge. He is working all things, even my depression and anxiety, for the good.

Today the good is that I have connected with a song and a story. I finish listening, and I sweep up the rice on the floor. As I cook the pancakes, instead of washing dishes, I snap pictures and write these words in my head. The exercise attaches some purpose to my anxiety, if only for today, and as I continue the composition in my head, the tension dissipates, perhaps just a little.

I will keep fighting for my one little life. I may not be brave, but I will continue on in the face of this life that God has given me. In truth, my life is full of blessing. I may not be aware of any grand meaning, but I do know that I have a family to love, and I will trust God to take care of the rest. For today, I have a story to share. I have found that I am not alone, and if you are reading, perhaps you have found that you are not alone either.

pancakes

 

 

 

 

 

05/11/16

Present vs. Efficient

From toddler to teen, my children are teaching me what it means to be present.

walterrocks

Toddlers, especially, are good at teaching this lesson. For the past few nights, Walter has been overtired, and his bedtime routine has looked rather like a crash and burn event. We have been necessarily efficient, but that is usually not the case. Ordinarily bedtime looks more like a gradual unwinding of the day.  We put all the lids away, and then I go with him to his bedroom. We close the door, and he plays for a bit while I watch. Only after this playtime do we get to putting on pajamas, nursing, reading books, singing lullabies, and saying our prayers. It’s a long process, as anyone with a toddler knows. During this process, it’s my job not to rush, but to be present for each step before Walter finally puts his head on his pillow, ready to sleep. It’s not very efficient.

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It’s also not very efficient to linger on the river bank for a half an hour looking for what may or may not be “sea glass.” (It looked a little more like regular glass to me, but again, this was a lesson in presence, not correct terminology, so I let it be sea glass.) A brisk walk without pause would have been much more efficient, and I probably would have gotten more exercise. But what we would have missed! I love the river, and I love these two boys.  There was no better way for us to spend that time than by being present together.

With teenagers, being present sometimes looks more like holding a space. A few weeks ago, Thomas had to make a rather large decision.  At least five adults were waiting on his answer so that we could move on with our plans, and it was tempting to rush the process. It would have been more efficient just to make the decision for him, but instead, we gave him counsel, and then let him alone for a whole day. We let him putter around in his workshop, giving him space while he processed, and by the next morning he had made a mature decision suited to his needs.

Our family lifestyle lends itself to this kind of presence. We have time to put Walter to bed slowly, we have time to spend down by the river, and we have time to let our kids putter and process and decide for themselves. Homeschooling plays a large part in affording us this time. We have whole days to spend together. We don’t have to rush, and we don’t have to structure our time to meet an institutional agenda. I think it would be more efficient to put my school age children on a big yellow bus and have them sit in class with their same age peers, but efficiency is not one of my goals for their childhood or for their education.

There are plenty of parents who do send their children to school and are still present for them when class is dismissed. Some might even find that being present is easier this way. The theory of quality versus quantity comes into play here. Perhaps it is actually easier to be present for your children if you haven’t been dealing with their noise and their messes all day long. As someone who sometimes checks out or at least takes a break, I can understand how this might be the case. It is also possible to not be present even if you are homeschooling. Pushing through curricula, scheduling too many activities, and parental burnout all come to mind here.

Presence is ultimately a state of being. Homeschooling parents can be present, or not. Parents who send their kids to school can be present, or not. Presence is also a bit of a balancing act, because efficiency is not essentially bad. Indeed, there are times when efficiency is helpful and even necessary.  If we want to get to a scheduled activity on time, we may have to be efficient in our preparations.  If the toddler is whining because he is hungry, we may want to be efficient in getting food on the table. A degree of efficiency is a good thing, and how much of a degree depends largely on the situation and the people involved. There are some people who would be driven crazy by the degree of inefficiency in my household. In fact, I think I am sometimes driven crazy by the degree of inefficiency in my household! It’s all about finding the right balance.

jackriver

I am learning to hold the balance between presence and efficiency. My particular balance leans more towards presence because this is what works for me and my family. I am taking my cues from my children. They are good teachers.

 

04/12/16

Too Boring for a Bullet Journal?

Have you seen all the posts and pins about bullet journals? These journals are the newest system for planning and reflecting all in one, and they are everywhere I look on the internet. Some of them are colorful and well-organized, while others are even quite artistic, and I must admit they have caught my eye. For months I have been on the sidelines, merely looking at other people’s journals but not really keeping one of my own. I mean really, do I need a lovely decorated page in a notebook to tell me that on Monday I’m going to roast two chickens, do a load of laundry, and pay the bills? The simple answer is, no I do not. All of these things are foregone conclusions, and I will probably get them done whether I write them down or not. I guess I’m just not much of a planner, and there’s really not that much going on in my life that I need to plan. I think that really, I am just too boring to keep a bullet journal.

I may or may not be boring, but regardless, the siren call of the internet is too hard to resist, and so I have started a new journal.  I don’t think what I have started can truly be called a bullet journal because I am terrible at following anyone else’s directions for doing pretty much anything. (I rarely follow lesson plans when I teach or recipes when I cook.) I prefer to think of my new notebook as “bullet journal inspired.” It’s basically a place to keep anything I need to record, complete with a handy index.

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I’ve been using my journal as a calendar and a place for things like the boys’ spelling lists since January, but this month I’m adding another element that I call my “Daily Pages.”  I have a place to list tasks (like roasting the chickens), a place to keep track of my anxiety triggers, a place to keep track of joys and thanksgivings, and a place for general reflection.  These four items cover a two-page spread each day.  In the end, I don’t think the question will be whether I need to remind myself in writing to roast the chickens, but rather whether writing about my day helps me to be more intentional and fulfilled, or whether it instead makes me hopelessly narcissistic.

It’s too soon to answer that question, but I do know what is helpful: making the “Daily Pages” my habit for April is helping me to actually get them done.  Thomas and Jack are completing the “Daily Pages” habit with me.  This is the second month we have worked on a habit together.  There are numerous books on habit out there, but I read (most of) this short little volume from Charlotte Mason and decided to give it at try.  During the month of March we worked on the habit of cleaning up after ourselves.  Our efforts made me wonder if Charlotte Mason ever encountered boys like mine, but in the end I think we did get a little neater!  The April “Daily Pages” habit has been somewhat easier to enforce.

The boys’ pages are different from mine.  On one side of their two page spread they have a task/assignment list written by me that they need to follow.  On the other side, they are to write a paragraph about the events of their day.   I am hoping this will help us incorporate a little more structure and accountability in our home school days.  My inspiration for their “Daily Pages” came from this post on spiral notebooks, and also from this article about Montessori journals for elementary students.  I have long aspired to follow the Montessori principle of “freedom with responsibility,”  but this is not always easy to do.  We did try to follow the Montessori idea of recording times and activities completed in list fashion, but it did not work for us because our loosely structured home school day does not really have a definite beginning or end.  If my kids are “learning all the time,” it would follow that they would be listing activities all day long, and that gets a bit tedious.  Instead, we’re just catching the highlights with a paragraph at the end of the day.  So far, our combination of task list and summary paragraph seems to be working well.

Flowers from Trader Joe's. Another internet idea I couldn't resist!

Flowers from Trader Joe’s. Another internet idea I couldn’t resist!

We’ll keep up our “Daily Pages” habit for the month of April and see how it goes.  If we really like it, I may report back with an update.  For now, I can check “blog post” off my daily task list.  The next thing on my list is the laundry….

 

 

 

04/3/16

Easter Sunday: Resurrection, Music, and Psychology

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.  And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic,“Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.  John 20:11-18

The story of Mary Magdalene is comforting to me.  She was tormented by all those demons, and it must have made her crazy, but Jesus loved her in spite of all that.  He loved her enough to rescue her from the demons, to die for her sins, and then, like icing on the cake, to appear to her personally after His resurrection.  I am tormented sometimes by anxiety and depression, and sometimes it makes me crazy, but Jesus loves me too.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Matthew 5:8

I don’t really think that “crazy” and “pure in heart” are the same thing, but through His death and resurrection, Jesus purifies my heart, and some day I will see Him face to face just like Mary Magdalene.

I’m sure Mary Magdalene was in my subconscious as Easter approached.  She was there along with many other thoughts, some of which make me very anxious each time a holiday approaches.

I attended both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services and kept my composure, which I view as a small victory. Easter Sunday arrived, and I was anxious, but still everything was pretty much under control.  Thomas and Jack were playing for the service, and that always makes a mother a little nervous, but they were well prepared, and there was really no reason for concern.

We had prepared two pieces of pre-service music.  Jack was to go first, and Thomas was to follow.  The instruments were all tuned, and the boys were in their places.  About thirty seconds before Jack was to begin, another young boy entered the sanctuary.  He was high on the excitement of life, chocolate, the Easter Bunny, and perhaps even the Tooth Fairy, and he came running across the front of the church smack dab into Jack’s cello.  The cello fell with a clatter onto its bridge.  In an instant, my carefully guarded composure disappeared.

The tension that was simmering under the surface welled up into panic.  I started to scold.  “Jack!  I told you to hold onto your cello!”

“Deborah.”  I turned around, and there was my pastor all in his white alb and chasuble.  He said something to the effect that it wasn’t Jack’s fault.  Thomas re-tuned the cello, and really the worst of the outcome was that we started five minutes late.  Still, I was shaken.  By the time we got home from the service, I was exhausted.

Wednesday afternoon found me in my  therapist’s office for a regularly scheduled appointment.  I recounted the events of Easter Sunday, and I mused that it was really a bit of a relief to panic out in the open.  If the cello had not clattered to the floor, no one would have seen my anxiety simmering below the surface.  I would have been left to wrestle with it alone.  Instead it was witnessed by someone who cared.

I told my therapist how comforting it was to hear my name.  Thinking back on the service I cannot even recall the Gospel account. (It wasn’t from John).  What I remember the most is the sound of my name being spoken.  “It’s really kind of silly,” I admitted.

“No, it’s not silly,” my therapist countered.  He explained that what I had experienced was called anchoring.  When I was upset before church, the sound of my name spoken in a caring manner served to anchor me.

Mary was upset in the garden on that first Easter morning.  Then she heard Jesus speak her name, “Mary.”  In that moment, I think she must have felt anchored.  I know John wrote the account as a witness to the resurrection and not as a psychology lesson, but really, who could anchor someone more than Jesus?

 “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. Isaiah 43:1

Jesus has redeemed me, and through my baptism, He calls me by name.  I am anchored in my place as a child of God.  It is a true blessing when God sends people to care for me, but even when I am alone and tormented, I can rest secure in the knowledge of my baptism.  As Martin Luther states in his Large Catechism:

When our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say: Nevertheless I am baptized; but if I am baptized, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.

My pastor is not always standing behind me, and my therapist will soon be retiring, but I am anchored in my baptism.  I have the promise of life and salvation, and that promise is always and forever.


 

 

 

 

 

03/23/16

Crucified with Christ

My husband, the Biblical scholar, told me that I hate God.

I didn’t want to believe him, but the evidence was quite clear:

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of the evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.  Luke 6:45

My words, from the abundance of my heart, had been hateful.  Worry and despair had filled its chambers, leaving little room for hope or gratitude.  I tried to hope.  I prayed, asking for peace, for joy, and for the ability to trust.  I went to Bible study every Tuesday, seeking for solace, for something to slow the panicked rhythm of my heart.  My pastor handed out little prayer cards with a picture of Jesus on the front.  One of the lines of the prayer is, “Thank you for my life.”  I do not pray that line.  I am thankful that I am alive and healthy so that I can take care of my family, but there are many days when depression and anxiety make me wish I had never been born.

prayercard

I may not have said, “I hate God,”  but I have certainly said “I hate myself,” and I also have said, “I wish I were dead.” I have effectively said that I hate what God has made and what He has given me.  And when my rage boils over, I can find hateful words for my family as well.  I cannot be filled with such anger and loathing and think that I don’t hate God, my Creator and the One who sustains my very existence.

Of course, I have always known that I am a sinner.  I could even, if hard pressed, say that I am an “enemy of God.”

 While we were still sinners, Christ died for us…. Romans 5:8

For if, when we were God’s enemies……Romans 5:10

It’s just easier to think of these things in the abstract, especially come Good Friday.  Come Good Friday, it’s okay to think of myself as one of the women looking on.  I especially love Mary Magdalene.  Her Lord had saved her from seven demons, and now she is watching, heartbroken, as He dies for her sins.   If not Mary Magdalene,then perhaps one of the disciples.  The disciples fall asleep when they should stay awake, they desert Jesus when they should stick by his side, and deny Him after claiming to be brave.  The disciples are sinful, and Jesus dies for them too.  Yet, somehow their failings seem understandable from my human point of view.  At least they weren’t part of the angry mob, the ones who rage against God, crying “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!”  But this is exactly where I find myself.  I find myself bloodthirsty and hateful, calling out for the death of God, wishing that I didn’t exist and that He didn’t either.

How can I live with myself, knowing this is where I belong in the story?  How can I come to God in prayer after thirsting for His blood?  My husband tells me that it all for a purpose, not that it is okay, but that it is for a purpose.  But what purpose could be served by my bloodthirsty rage?

I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  Galatians 2:20

I don’t have to wish I were dead!  My sinful self with all its worry and despair has already been put to death.  I do not consider myself to be suicidal, but as someone who has at least entertained thoughts of my own death, I find this so comforting.*  When I cry out for the death of God, I also cry out for the death of my own wretchedness, and God, in His mercy, delivers me!

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  2 Corinthians 5:17

My worry, my despair, my rage, have all passed away.  It will not be realized in full on this side of heaven, but even here on earth, I am a new creation.

And what of my bloodthirsty cry?  God uses that too.  He gives me the gift of His body and blood, and every time I eat and drink, I know the promise of sins forgiven.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks My blood remains in me, and I in them.  John 6:56

My sins are great.  My mental health is a contributing factor, but it is not an excuse.  I decide to confess.  Private confession is not a common practice at my church, but it is offered, and so I go.  I hear that I am forgiven, and I hear that I am not alone.  I decide I need to write so that perhaps someone else will know she is not alone either.

The days here on earth will always have darkness.  As long as we are here, we will always have one foot in Good Friday.  But we also have a claim on Easter Sunday.  Jesus has already risen.  We cry for His death, but He gives us new life.  We are in Him, and He is in us, and He will help us get through this Good Friday world.   We are already a new creation.  And when we get to heaven, it will always be Easter Sunday.  Our cries will not be of rage and despair, but of love and praise for the One who created and redeemed us, and we will celebrate the new creation in full.

eastertable

*Disclaimer:  I am not a mental health professional. I wrote that I did not want others to feel alone.  I also wrote that I do not consider myself suicidal.  If you do feel alone, and if you do feel suicidal, please get help.  Please call your therapist, or your doctor, or a friend, or your pastor, or a crisis hotline.  If need be, go to the emergency room.  You are not alone, and I hope my words give you hope.

 

12/10/15

Broken for Grace

“How would your life be different without Jesus?”  This was the question put to us at our Tuesday morning Bible study.  I was not in a good mood, feeling anxious and a bit recalcitrant as I thought glumly, if it weren’t for Jesus, I could be a pharmacist and making a lot of money by now.  Such a profane answer was not expected, I was certain, and so I sat quietly, keeping my thoughts to myself.

It made me angry that I would have such an answer.  I was angry at myself for thinking such things in the middle of Bible study.  And I was just a little angry with God for not leading me to choose the path of a well-paid pharmacist in the first place.

Other people had more appropriate answers.  Growing up in Michigan, the person sitting next to me had been a sullen child and a failure in school.  Participation in church was the one bright spot for this troubled child, and it literally became a saving grace.  I may have grown up in Michigan too, but just 100 miles to the north, my childhood and adolescence played out quite differently.  Except for that A- in algebra, I was a straight A student, and I was a good girl, too.  I knew the rules, and I played by them.  I didn’t need the saving grace of the Church.  Of course, I went to church.  (That was one of the rules, after all.)  Of course, I knew that I was a sinner and saved solely by God’s grace and Jesus’ death on the cross.  Beyond that, I was pretty self-sufficient.  I trust in God, but I still need to study.  That was my motto, as I was all about those marks on my report card, and I must say, it seemed to serve me quite well.

I became proud.  I didn’t see it in myself, but my friend did.  She would become so exasperated with me that we wouldn’t speak for months.  Now I understand why.

1988

trophies

Throughout my high school years, I continued to worship at the altar of perfectionism, and when graduation came, I had a variety of options available to me.  My mom wanted me to become a pharmacist.  Perhaps this was a sensible choice, but all of those chapel services during my parochial grade school years had left an impression.  I had become convinced that I needed to tell children about Jesus, and so I became a parochial school teacher.  Not only did I become a parochial teacher, but I also married a seminarian-would-be-pastor.  Surely a good girl like myself would make a fine pastor’s wife.

My husband and I embarked on our journey into adulthood with all the idealism of youth.  I’m pretty sure I felt that I was doing God a favor with the path I had chosen, but that path was not without its challenges.  I found my job as a teacher to be very stressful, but I soldiered on, still relying on my own self-sufficiency.  I had no grace for myself and no grace for my husband.  I was relieved when he took a position at a church and I could become a stay-home mom.

Relief was short-lived.  A life built on perfectionism and self-sufficiency can easily crumble, and that’s exactly what happened.  In 2005, my second son was born with a birth defect.  His tethered spinal cord was surgically corrected, but my emotions had come undone.  During this time, my husband was also struggling in his ministry.  We began to unravel, and I began a steep descent into depression and anxiety.  I felt as though I were drowning.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.  Isaiah 43:2

I was not burned, but I was broken.  My facade of perfectionism and self-sufficiency shattered to pieces.

brokenpieces

 I went to the hospital for a total of four weeks in the course of eight months, and other people took care of my children.  Recovery was not complete, nor was it immediate, but I believe God used those years in the waters and fire to refine me.  He used those years to humble me, and to make me trust in Him for more than an A on a test.

candle

I come to Tuesday morning Bible study not as one doing God a favor, but as one begging for grace, hoping to learn to better trust in the One who gives it.  How would your life be different without Jesus?  All at once I am thinking back to my days of perfectionism, wishing to be self-sufficient, rather than praying for a posture of humility and trust.

I am still broken.

There is a little more discussion, and then we prepare to take the Lord’s Supper.  The pastor travels around our little circle offering us Christ’s body and blood.  “The body of Christ, broken for you.”  His body, broken for me.  God knew that I was broken, that I would be broken, that I am broken, and He gave his Son to be broken for me.  By His brokenness I am made whole.

cross

Without Jesus, I would still be relying on myself.  With Him, I can rely upon grace.  It is not easy to humbly trust, and I do not do it well, but the grace is there.  God is always there, even in my weakness, ready to bless me with His undeserved love.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

As I am leaving to go home, I am stopped by another member of the group.  She gives me a Christmas card.  Inside there is a check to use for my family just because “God placed me on her heart.”  As if Jesus’ very body and blood were not enough, I am now reminded that God is taking care of my earthly needs as well.  I have more than enough.  I have been given grace upon grace.  I never really wanted to be a pharmacist anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

12/31/13

It’s Not “All Right”

One morning in November, I woke up compelled write a post that had been percolating for a year and a half.  On that day, much  to their delight, I left the boys to their own devices, and I sat down with my laptop.  By evening, “The Introverted Speaker” was complete.  (If you haven’t read that post, you might wish to do so now.)  I clicked publish, sent the link to people who might care, and thought I was done with the whole process.

I was not done.  Instead, the floodgates of emotion were opened even wider.  Granted, my emotional flood control infrastructure is not all that impressive.  I probably need the Army Corps of Engineers to shore things up a bit.  Sometimes, though, I think it’s a good idea to let the current take me where it will.  That’s what I did back in November, and I wrote down, in rough form, what I discovered. Now I find myself on the fifth day of Christmas, in that peaceful lull before the new year begins.  The presents have been unwrapped, the miles between here and Grandma and Grandpa have been traveled, the Lego has been assembled, and the house has been tidied.  I can sit near the glow of the Christmas tree, and edit the words that tumbled into a word document in the days before Advent.

niagaraicicle1

 

niagaraicicle2

In “The Introverted Speaker,” I reminisce about the morning I became convinced that my speech was no good.  As I wrote that paragraph back in November, I tried to picture myself in the classroom across the hall from the cafeteria, and I tried to remember how I felt:  I was sitting in the corner farthest from the door that morning, away from the couch and the overstuffed chair.  This was back before the internet, and we were working with these tangible things called newspaper clippings.  The assignment was to cut them, paste them, and turn them into a broadcast of sorts.  Extemporaneous speaking was not my forte, but on a typical morning, I could have pulled it off.  That morning was different.  My eyes were on the newspaper clippings, but my mind was on my already written and rehearsed speech.  This was the speech I would take to competitions all semester, and the one I had decided was doomed to fail.  I remember that sometime during that class period, I started to cry, and tears tend to smudge up newspaper clippings.  What I remember most though, is feeling paralyzed.

I hadn’t remembered that before.  I hadn’t thought about feeling paralyzed one morning during my senior year of high school.  When the memory of paralysis flooded my senses back  in November, the feeling was all too familiar.  I recognized that paralysis as something I have been experiencing for much of my adult life.  I will be thirty-nine on Thursday.  The past decade of my life has been marked by anxiety and depression.  These two conditions, taken together, cause paralysis, an inability to function.  This has been my experience and my struggle.

My condition is improving, and I have reason to hope that my next decade will be better.  Even so, this memory of paralysis causes emotion to well up inside me.  It is a new link between my teenage years and my recent past.  It is part of my story, and it puts words to what I have been feeling.  I can say, “Look.  This is how I have been feeling, except now there is no one to tell me it will be all right.”

That’s what they told me.  I don’t remember the exact words, but Tracy and my coach told me that my speech would be fine and everything would be all right.  I believed them because I could.  I was a teenager living in a lovely small town, attending a good school, and getting good grades.  My worries consisted of whether or not my speech would take me all the way to the state finals.

I don’t believe them anymore.

niagaraicicle3

When your baby is born with a hole in his back, it’s not “all right.”  When you spend four weeks in the mental ward of the hospital because you really just wish you did not exist, it’s not “all right.”  When your relative is diagnosed with cancer, it’s not “all right.”  When wars are raging, people are starving, and little girls are sold into slavery, it’s not “all right.”

In The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’Engle refers to the not-all-right of the world as the “battlefields and slums and insane asylums.”  These are the result of the fall of humanity.  Indeed, there has been much that is not-all-right since our fall into sin.

Certain things can be made “all right.”  A scraped knee can be kissed, a teenager can be consoled, and even the hole in a baby’s back can be fixed by the skilled hands of a neurosurgeon.  What about the other things?  What about the “battlefields and slums and insane asylums”?  What will make these all right?

Christmas.

babyjesus

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Isaiah 40:1

In the midst of our mess and despair, a baby was born.  God came.  He saw that we were not all right, and He came to save us.  He was born in a dank, dark, dirty stable.  His earthly parents fled with Him to Egypt so that He would not be killed along with all the other Hebrew baby boys.  He grew up, He began His ministry, and He was executed on a cross.  It was not “all right.”

It was not “all right,” and yet,  we are comforted, because on that cross He took all our sins, all our mess, all our despair upon Himself, and He washed them away.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  Isaiah 40:2

Jesus paid for our sins on the cross, and rose victorious on Easter morning.  Our hope is in the resurrection, when we know that everything truly will be “all right.”

Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth…I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more….The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.  Isaiah 65:17, 19, 25

In the meantime, we struggle with everything that is not-all-right.  It is part of our human condition.  We struggle, but we have peace.  We know we have a God who loves us enough to give the gift of His Son, and we share that love and peace with others.  We console the teenager, we kiss the scraped knee, and we use our talents for the benefit of those around us.

Never tire of doing what is right.  2 Thessalonians 3:13 

Tracy and my coach did what was right, and in doing so, they made a day a little more “all right” for a teenager in a small town high school.  We do the same, and even in our sinful human condition, we can make things a little more “all right” in our fallen world.

frankenmuthriver

Then we can go to bed and night, and pray, certainly in the words of the apostles and prophets, but also with the words of Harry Connick Jr:

I pray one day my heart will see

The light of God’s eternity

And know that Jesus died for me.

Now close, my eyes

So I may rise

At blessed dawn of Christmas day.

babyjesusoutside

 Notes:

1. Quote from Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: The Seabury Press, 1977)

2. All Bible verses from the New International Version

3. Lyrics by Harry Connick Jr. “The Blessed Dawn of Christmas Day” (EMI Music Publishing)

4. Nativity photos by John David Duke Jr.

5. Nighttime photo also by John David Duke Jr.  The miles between here and Grandma and Grandpa’s house are the same miles between here and the lovely small town of Frankenmuth, Michigan.  While we were there, we were able to visit with my speech coach and his wife.  After a happy visit, we braved the Michigan cold to snap this picture down by the Cass River.

 

 

 

 

 

 

11/15/13

The Introverted Speaker

It has been almost a year and a half since I finished Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  The book piqued my interest, and I wrote a post about it.  I went so far as to think that introversion would have been a good high school speech topic.  Although I was a bit dismayed to come up with this topic about twenty years too late, the irony of the idea did not escape me.  Why was I, a shy, highly sensitive, introvert, thinking fondly of my time on the high school speech team?  I thought I should write some more about that.

Those were my intentions back in June of 2012.  The lavender and roses were blooming, and I took pictures in the garden.  Then life went on, winter came, and spring.  The lavender and roses bloomed again.  Now they are snug under their blanket of fall leaves, and I really should be blogging about “How to Roast Brussels Sprout for Thanksgiving Dinner” or something like that.  But no, today, I am blogging about an introvert on a high school speech team.

How does an introvert participate successfully on the high school speech team?

lavender

Many introverts are able to give effective speeches.  Susan Cain is a prime example.  Her introversion drove her to write a book on the subject, and to date her related TED talk has elicited over 5 million views.  How is this possible?

First, there are some introverts who are not necessarily afraid of public speaking.  I think I might be one of these.  Giving a prepared speech is much different than say, mingling at a party.  There are clear roles for a speaker and an audience.  You stand and speak.  They sit and listen.  When you are done, the audience (hopefully) applauds.  You smile, thank the audience, and sit down.  This seems much safer, to me at least, than mingling at a party.

Second, although many introverts and even a number of extroverts are afraid of public speaking, they can train themselves or receive training to overcome this fear.  They are probably still nervous, but the fear is not debilitating.  They can speak effectively on a subject that is important to them if they have had time to prepare.  This training and support is helpful even if debilitating fear is not an issue.  Susan Cain suggests that it is especially helpful for introverts to get the training they need to make public speaking easier.   It is this training, I believe, that made my high school elocution success possible and my high school years something I can think of fondly.

My training came in the form of a coach.  I woke up this morning thinking of him, and that is why I am writing today about introversion and high school instead of Brussels sprouts and Thanksgiving.

My high school coach sought me out at the end of my freshman year.  He wanted me to sign up for debate in the fall.  It seems that academically minded students do well on debate teams, and I fit into this category.   The only problem is that in a debate you have to speak and you have to make eye contact while you do this.

I signed up for debate beginning in the fall of my sophomore year.  It changed the course of my high school career.  Oh, I probably would have earned the same grades, but I wouldn’t have had the same experience.  It was definitely a change for the better.

At the beginning of tenth grade, I wasn’t really scared about speaking in public, but I wasn’t good at it either.  Picture a shy, awkward, underclassman.  That was me.  Now picture a high school teacher and coach willing to spend time helping this shy, awkward, underclassman because he believed in her.  Picture this coach simply talking to the student after school to encourage her to look him in the eye.  That was my coach and teacher.   Now picture a classroom, across the hall from the cafeteria, with an old couch and an overstuffed chair and all the desks pushed askew, as a safe place for like-minded students to congregate and feel accepted.  That was his classroom.

I loved that classroom, and I spent many hours there over the next three years.  I came to it early in the morning for “zero hour” debate and speech classes.  I usually returned to eat my lunch there with friends.  After school, I would often come back to practice before going home.  My high school was relatively small, five hundred students in all, and almost everyone on the debate team was also on the speech team and maybe in theater as well.  During the fall semesters, I participated in debate alongside my dependable partner and childhood friend, during the spring semesters, I gave informative speeches, and when the opportunity arose, I dabbled in theater.  I made good friends, and I had fun.  My speaking abilities improved, and I started bringing home trophies and contributing to our team victories.  I had an identity, and I liked it.

Concordia University, 1994 My high school dabbling allowed me to play the part of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe during college.

Concordia University, 1994
My high school dabbling led me to play the part of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe during college.

My teammates, my coach, and I were not all alone in the high school world.  We had our assistant coach, Tracy, who was as capable as she was kind.  We had our parents, and mine were certainly supportive.  My parents let me drive the second car so I could go to school early and come home late, often picking up or dropping off a friend along the way.  My mom helped me fine tune my writing, and my dad helped me make my visual aids.  We had other teachers.   The small school phenomenon meant that students who were in debate, speech, and theater, were also likely in the performing arts group if they were musically inclined.  Our eleventh grade English teacher was also our performing arts director.  He provided us with meaningful opportunities and inspired us to do our best.

If you, Dear Reader, were a member of this high school support group, thank you.

Dinner Theater 1992 Speech and performing arts often overlapped.

Dinner Theater 1992
Speech and performing arts often overlapped.

Most of the trophies I brought home are gone now.  Those that are left are somewhere in the attic.  But tucked in my jewelry box next to a lock of my firstborn’s hair, I have something better:  One day, after an event, our coach sat down with a legal pad and wrote little notes to everyone who had participated.  My note said Deb-nice job again.  The fact is, I hadn’t given a particularly stellar performance at this event.  I hadn’t brought home an award.  It didn’t matter.  I still got a note.  My coach still believed in me.  I kept that note in the pocket of the skirt I was wearing that day until I “grew out of” my teenage clothes.  It is well-worn and wrinkled, and now it is safely tucked away with my keepsakes, much like the lavender bushes are tucked away under the fall leaves.

nicejob

Encouragement is a valuable commodity, and encouragement given to a teenager is especially precious.  One morning during the winter of my senior year, I arrived for our zero hour class in particular need of this precious commodity:  I was convinced that the speech I had worked so hard on was no good.  We were given an in-class assignment that day and uncharacteristically,  I couldn’t do it.  I just sat there, teary-eyed,  paralyzed with self-doubt.  My coach kept me after class, and he and Tracy asked what was up.  They told me everything would be all right and sent me on to my first hour class in a somewhat better frame of mind.  I never did quite as well as I hoped to with that speech, but my coach and Tracy were still right.  I did well enough, and the world did not end when I didn’t make it to the final round of the state tournament.  Everything was still all right because I was part of something bigger.  I was part of a team, and I was valued and accepted, imperfections and all.

In retrospect, my early morning breakdown was perhaps a foreshadowing of the depression and anxiety that would descend during part of my adulthood.  For a few years that paralyzed feeling became all too common.  Perhaps, if as an adult,  I could have continued my visits to the classroom across from the cafeteria, I would have fared better. . . .   That, of course, is fantasy.  The high school is far from my current home.  It has been remodeled, and the classroom, as it was, is no longer there.  My teacher and coach has retired and is hopefully fishing in relative peace and anonymity.

I miss him.

He took a shy, introverted student, and he taught her to make eye contact and deliver a speech.  More than that, he gifted her with confidence and a sense of self.  He gave her a place in the high school world.  This thank-you is probably far too public for someone trying to go fishing in relative peace and anonymity, but I couldn’t help myself.  I wanted to share this part of my story.  It is much more interesting than Brussels sprouts.