Life With Pain – Grief and Lament

Earlier this week I wrote a post about my life with pain – a lamentation for what I lost. Today, I planned on posting a follow-up with “What I Found”. But I can’t go there yet.

The response to my lament was overwhelming. So many of you, like me, have an unmet need to grieve. We have been raised in a culture that doesn’t know how to lament. I would argue that, in the church, we have treated grief and pain as evidence of a lack of faith or, even worse, evidence of sin. What a lie.

Lament isn’t pretty.

It brings to mind wailing widows clothed in black and blotchy, red eyes and runny noses. It brings to mind a man, bloodied and beaten, hanging on a cross.

The image of the suffering Christ on the cross was always associated with the Catholic church, in my mind. Growing up in the Evangelical community, we were encouraged not to focus on the bleeding Christ but on the empty cross, the risen Christ, the empty tomb.

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We miss something when we jump past Christ’s suffering to resurrection day.

We miss the true depth of Christ’s humanity. We miss the fact that he knew pain like us. He was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”. He cried, bled, suffered and mourned, just like us.

There is sweet comfort in the crucified Christ, in the fellowship of his sufferings, in knowing he “keeps track of all our sorrows. He collects all our tears in a bottle. He has recorded each one in his book.” (Psalm 56:8)

So, let’s stay in this place of lament a little longer, pause in this sweet holy space where we acknowledge our pain and our fears and present them to the One who bore them all.

Today, my dear friend, I grieve with you.

I grieve for your pain and suffering. I lament for your loss, for what death has taken from you. I weep for the marriage that has ended, for the betrayal of trust, for the child who has wandered away, for the dream that remains unfulfilled.

If this speaks to your heart, please take time to name and acknowledge your lament and present it to your heavenly Father. He can handle your anger, your questions and your pain. Be still. Feel His presence. Tell Him your story.

And, when you feel overcome with doubt and fear, stubbornly cling to what remains of your faith. You will find Him there.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

Psalm22:1-5

 

Life With Pain – What I Lost

Pain and suffering leave a deep scar.

Even if there’s no outward evidence of the damage, pain leaves a mark on the psyche and the spirit that is permanent. Lately, I’ve been running a mental finger over that scar, reminding myself that I didn’t imagine it all. It wasn’t just a bad dream. Like a tongue seeking out the hole of a missing tooth, I can’t resist exploring that area over and over again.

I want to write a story, a story about how God sustained me, how my faith was strengthened, how I’m better for having suffered, but I’m stuck. Looking back at the endless years of seizures and pain, depression and drugs, I feel so much grief. At times I’ve become frantic, trying to make sense of it all and trying to figure out why all of this happened to me in the first place.

Somehow, I need to come to peace with the fact that I may never know why but I finally realized that I won’t find peace until I acknowledge the grief – until I lament.

So…this is my lamentation. This is what I lost.

I lost memories. I lost time.

Pain robbed me in so many ways. Suffering cheated me out of so many things. It didn’t just cheat me, it cheated the people I love.

A single event or moment in time will stand out and I can easily recall the sounds, smells, and emotions of that time, but the bigger picture of my past is baffling to me. The harder I try to make sense of it all, the more frustrated I become. There are huge gaps and holes, years that are just a fog.

I was forty years old when I lost my license and much of my life to seizures. Sam was 3, Rachel was 5, Ashley was 18. As a grown woman with three children, I became dependent on my parents, my family and my friends. I couldn’t drive my kids to church, couldn’t get to the grocery store on my own. My sense of self disappeared along with my self-confidence.

I have pored over old diaries, medical bills and calendars, to cobble together the timeline of my life. It’s helped jog my memory but there are still gaps of time I can’t account for.

Just writing this makes my eyes sting with tears. Because, in those huge gaps of time, my three amazing kids were living their lives, without a ‘fully present’ mother. I can’t retrieve those years, those sweet childhood moments. This causes me no small amount of pain and anguish. I’ve tried, time and again, to surrender what I can’t pull back, to trust that God was by their side when I was not, to believe that their dad and grandparents and all the other well-meaning and generous adults in their lives, did the best that they could to make sure Ashley and Rachel and Sam were cared for and loved, but it still hurts. I weep for what we lost – for what they lost.

I don’t want to revisit the pain and admit how much all of this must have affected my children but I long to move beyond this, to redeem the pain in some small way.

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I lost my self.

Because, to my mind’s eye, my scars are so obvious, the change in me so dramatic, it is disconcerting when I meet someone who only knows the new me, the after-pain-changed-me me. What is even more confounding is when someone, who I’ve known since ‘before’, treats me as though I haven’t changed.

Can’t they see that I’m completely altered by the experiences I’ve been through? Surely they see it tattooed on my arm or written on my forehead. How on earth can they miss it?!

In the years since my recovery, I’ve regained my sense of self but I’m not the same as before. I lost the old me.

I lost my faith.

At my lowest moments, God was lost to me.

All my life, I felt His presence. I didn’t always want to feel it, because that presence was, at times, convicting me, pricking my conscience and challenging me. But it was there. He was there.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”

In my three-o’clock-in-the-mornings, God was silent. There was a gaping void where His presence had once been. That void beckoned me in the dark hours of night and sometimes even during the day. I grieved the loss of His presence as I grieved the loss of my health. My depression was a pit that I climbed into. I could smell the musty earth and feel the cool gravel between my fingertips. That dark cavern became comfortable and it was harder and harder to draw me out.

I lost all hope.

This shouldn’t be over-spiritualized. There were physiological factors involved. I was clinically depressed. Pain and heavy medications dramatically altered my brain chemistry.

At one of my lowest points, my dad came by to visit. The timeline of this isn’t clear. But I remember him coming into my darkened bedroom and sitting by my bed. I was in the fetal position and barely responded to his presence. I can’t imagine how that broke my father’s heart, seeing his girl in such physical pain and mental anguish. He stroked my hair and sang softly. After singing for a few minutes, he started praying and I began sobbing.

“He’s abandoned me, dad!” I cried out.

“I can’t pray anymore. I can’t read my Bible. I have nothing left. I’ve failed God.”

He passed me a tissue and waited for my sobbing to subside.

“Karen, you don’t have to pray. Let me pray. Let it go.”

It is a terrible and terrifying thing to lose faith. For someone who was raised from birth to believe, to ‘trust and obey’, it felt like a betrayal of not just my faith but my family, my history, my childhood. Everything that had been firm and certain, was now sinking sand. There was nowhere for me to gain a foothold.

That’s when I rediscovered Job, Jeremiah’s Lamentations and the Psalms of David. I’d read them many times before, but in my previous life, I focused on the Psalms of praise and the Psalms of comfort. Now, I found comfort in the grief of Job and the Psalms of anguish. I felt a kinship with David in his moments of darkest despair. I read his words and wept as I cried out to God.

“Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
    and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
    our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
    rescue us because of your unfailing love.”

These are things I lost. Maybe tomorrow I will recall the things I found.

Guest Post – A Wonderful World (A Response to Terror)

I had something else prepared for today but, once again, the world is rocked by terror. The people of France are dealing with the aftermath of yet another horrific terror attack. Last night, as thousands celebrated Bastille Day in the beautiful seaside town of Nice, men with hate-filled hearts drove a truck through the crowd, shooting and running over innocent people. 

My friend Patricia DeWit, lives in France and just returned from a relaxing holiday in the very spot where this attack took place. Eight months earlier, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks took place near their home in Paris. Pat wrote the following article in response to those attacks. Unfortunately, these words ring true for her and the people of France yet again.

 

 

Terror attack in Nice France

In childhood I truly feared …

Frankenstein coming up the stairs

A werewolf under my bed

A tornado flinging our house into the air

A house fire in the night

War, atomic bombs and nowhere to hide

The Rapture, being left behind

Armageddon

My parents getting divorced, or worse, being killed in an accident

Getting head lice

 

In adulthood I truly fear …

Getting into a horrible car accident

Losing a child

Kidnappers

Losing my husband

Losing my parents or siblings

Getting fat

Getting murdered in the forest

My children getting head lice

 

They say that except for the fear of falling and the fear of snakes, all other fears are learned. In the past year I have seen something. It taught me to be afraid.

Terrorism.

Terrorism came like a hardball through the window and rolled to a stop at our café, La Belle Équipe. When terror hits your city, you can’t just hide beneath your bed.

If we slept at all on November 13, 2015, we woke up feeling the aches and pains of survival. We got our coffee as usual but cut our feet on the shards, leaving a bloodied footprint on the cobblestone streets.

I felt small, like sitting where my feet didn’t reach the floor. We called on God and angels and doctors. Each siren’s wail was another raw prayer. With each flatline in an emergency room, someone’s walls collapsed.

When terror comes to your street, for a while you don’t care about any of the places on the map except one dot that says “you are here.” Surviving is painful because it is underlined in the red ink of someone who didn’t.

After terror we wait for tomorrow because they say that time heals all wounds.

So tomorrow comes. Then another. And another. Slowly you don’t feel quite as afraid, not so jumpy. But nonetheless, that day is a sticker on my suitcase that won’t let me forget “I was there when …”

How am I?

If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have answered, “Not fine, thanks.”

Anyways, “fine” is a word that lies.

If you were asking now, I’d have to say I’ve gotten used to a new way. Take today, for example. On my way home, I stopped on the bridge behind Notre Dame, sat on the curb along with many others, and listened to some live musicians. While the guy was singing the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” six fully armed soldiers walked in front of me, with the barrel of their weapons inches from my face.

I know. You want me to be fine, to be filled with faith. And victory. And give God the glory.

I know. You want heroic, or at least missionic-sized fearlessness. (You might remember that I have told you never to see me as a hero for I knew moments like this would come, moments when I’d be unheroic and afraid.)

I have faith. I can imagine a wonderful world again. ONLY I must feel all the feelings first.

After all, isn’t the comfort of God only as great or as deep as our suffering and weakness?

Isn’t His protection felt more acutely in our vulnerability? I admit my weakness and own my vulnerability. I lay my life down for you to witness what happens when God does what only God can do.

Which brings me to The Gospel According to Bob Thiele. He wrote the song that Louis Armstrong made famous in 1967—“What a Wonderful World.” That is quite a hymn; a declaration of faith if ever there was one. You see, at the time the song was written, it wasn’t a wonderful world at all. It was released during the Vietnam War, after the Six-Day War, and it was only six months before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. See what I mean? Not much of a wonderful world.

Was Bob Thiele blind? Naive? A Pollyanna?

I think he had an ability to shift his focus. He started looking for other things. And he found them. He found the beauty on the top shelf, in the things that war and racism could not touch … a baby’s cry, people greeting one another, a rainbow, and the colour of the sky.

So simple.

So victorious.

And then it comes. That moment when you shift focus, and you can imagine (have faith for) a different outcome, and your emotions begin to turn around. First Faith. Then Hope. Then …

You knew it was coming.

Love.

After terror, love makes you a bit hyperactive when it comes to seeing and appreciating little things. After terror, you see mundane things in a brand-new way.

Everything is made new?

Nope.

Circumstances are different?

Nope.

Everything is the same as before, but we make a crucial decision to process things differently.

So this past Sunday I walked to church. I took the long way, through the market, along La Seine, and then crossed the city to the other side. I heard an avocado vendor shouting, “Un euro pour deux.” Two gals dressed as 1950s pin-up girls flirted with their eyebrows as they sang “Clementine.” Children’s chubby fingers sneaked bread samples while parents pretended to scold. I saw grandparents pushing strollers whose handles were heavy with bags of fresh produce and scraggly teddy bears. The man at the crêpe wagon taught his daughter how to make coffee and kept referring to her tenderly as “mon amour.” The bells of Notre Dame rang out much longer than usual, announcing a new “man and wife.”

Is it too much of a stretch to consider all of it as a sacrifice of praise, a collective and very flesh-wrapped sighing of relief in the ears of God? I like to think that for God (who told us He collects human tears), a quickened heartbeat is a standing ovation. In my expression of faith, every time people think to themselves, It’s a wonderful world, terror is defeated and God gets glory. In the midst of this fear and terrorism, the presence of God, the gospel, is the answer and our hope. That is why God has called us here—to show that with God, it can truly be a wonderful world.

(This article originally appeared in the Testimony Magazine. Reprinted with permission from the author.)

Patricia DeWit and her husband, Peter, are PAOC global workers in France. Learn more at https://paoc.org/donate/PeterDeWit.

Who Is My Neighbor?

She was sprawled on the sidewalk, her head flung back and her mouth wide open – a real life rendition of The Scream. I couldn’t hear her cries from inside my car but it was clear she was in great distress. I noticed her as I drove out of the hospital parking lot. It was Sunday morning and I was on my way back to church after visiting a friend.

I said a quick prayer under my breath and continued on my way. It was still early and I figured I could catch the tail end of the sermon. We were in the middle of a series about Neighboring.

That’s when it hit me.

Go back! Your neighbor’s there on the sidewalk. Church is here!

I made a quick U-turn and pulled over. As I approached, I could hear her howling, the sound like an animal stuck in a steel trap.

In front of me was the figure of a woman in obvious agony. My presence barely registered with her. Her creased leathery skin was toasted a deep brown from years spent living out in the California sun. Her long auburn hair was tinged with streaks of gray. With every wail, she brushed the back of her sleeve across her dripping nose and into the tangled mess.

Bending down, I assessed her physical appearance to see if she was injured. She slumped to the side, leaning against a large white plastic bag filled with clothes.

“Are you okay?” She shook her head and wailed even louder.

As I looked closer, I changed my initial opinion of her. Her nails were freshly polished with a deep purple lacquer and there were beautiful silver rings on her fingers. Her brown leather sandals were new. She wore a pretty lavender cardigan that matched her nails and, with the exception of the snot smeared on the sleeves, it was clean.

Her plastic wristband and bright white scrub pants indicated she had just come from the hospital. She was a paradox.

I sat down beside her and touched her gently on the shoulder. “Are you in pain?” She whipped her head up and down in affirmation. “Do you need to go back to the hospital?”

Her swollen, hooded eyelids popped open at that question and she spit out the words. “NO! They kicked me out!” Her mouth contained a line of rotted, stained teeth.

I need to mention at this point – the most distinct thing about her appearance. The smell. She looked clean and bathed but her whole person reeked as if she had been pickled in a vat of whiskey. The alcohol seeped out her pores and the odor emanating from her was palpable. I could taste the alcohol in the air and long after I left, the sensory memory of it burned at the back of my throat.

I plied her with questions and she shared her sad story between gasps and tears. “I have cancer. I’m dying! There’s nothing they can do for me so they kicked me out.” This triggered a fresh round of tears.

During this time, I kept my hand on her shoulder and tried to console her but I finally decided a firmer hand was needed and said, “You have to stop crying now. I want to help you but we can’t talk if you’re sobbing. Take a deep breath and let me help you.”

She hiccuped and breathed deeply. When she regained some composure I asked her name. “Patterann,” she mumbled.

“Pat or Ann?”

“No. Patterann. Ina Baptist preacher.” She spoke as if her mouth was filled with marbles.

“I don’t understand. Is your name Ann?”

She lifted up her head and looked me squarely in the eye. “Ann*. Ann! Angela! My name is Angela and ina Batist preacher! They call me PASTOR ANN!

With every word, the volume and intensity increased until she was spitting out the words like bullets.

“Okay, Ann. It’s okay. My name’s Karen. I’m here to help you.”

At this, she slumped her head forward and lay down in my lap with another flood of tears. Suddenly, something in her clicked and she bolted upright, screaming and ranting and clutching at her necklace. She grappled with the beads, struggling to turn them around. I saw the cross that had been hanging down the back of her neck. She yanked the necklace off and threw it to the ground.

 

rosary crucifix

I didn’t know what to do. She was deeply intoxicated and in such emotional turmoil that I just stroked her back and began to pray. I reminded Ann (and God) that she was His precious child. There was nothing she had done or could do to be separated from that love. I prayed for peace. I prayed for strength.

I ran out of words and just repeated a solitary name.

“Jesus.”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus.”

I chanted that sweet, holy name and prayed that in it she would find some small measure of comfort.

Finally, the tension released in her shoulders. I asked if she wanted me to get someone from the hospital. She did not. I asked where she was going. She said she was homeless and lived in Huntington Beach.

“I just want to go home.”

“To Huntington Beach?”

“Yes. I need to go there.”

“Do you have any family? Any way to get there?”

At this question, she sat up and the faintest shadow of a smile crossed her face.

“Tom. My son. Tommy!”

“Do you want me to call him?”

“Yes!”

She gave me his number and after a few rings, a deep voice answered. “Hello.”

“Hi. My name is Karen and I’m here with your mother. I…”

“Is she conscious or unconscious?”

His words were a blow. The deeper meaning behind them was clear. This was not the first time he received this type of call. He spoke slowly with a heaviness that revealed a weary heart. I choked back the tears as I imagined my own sweet son being placed in this position – the child as the parent, unable to help, yet called on time and time again to do so.

I reassured him that she was okay but in distress – explained where we were and asked if he could come take her home.

“Let me talk to her.”

I passed the phone to Ann. Her words were incomprehensible as she sobbed and whimpered her story to her son. I understood one word that she repeated over and over again – “Mommy”. She referred to herself in the third person – “Mommy is…” and used the endearment as though this word would somehow lessen the impact of what was happening or bring her son a measure of comfort.

She finally passed the phone back to me and Tom, apologizing, told me that he was at work until 4. “There’s really no way I can leave. Are you able to help her?”

I reassured him that I would. My mama’s heart wanted to say something to comfort his fractured spirit but all I could offer was the assurance that I would find a way to get his mama back to Huntington Beach.

As I hung up the phone, I noticed a bus drive by. “Do you take the bus? Do you want to go back home?” She nodded yes.

I grabbed her bag of clothes and helped her as she stumbled to her feet. When we got to the corner, she waved wildly at the bus driving past. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and waited for us to cross the street.

We climbed in and I asked if he was going to the Huntington Beach Pier. Pam’s condition was obvious to the driver and everyone else yet he treated her with respect and spoke with kindness when he said, “No. It doesn’t, but there’s a transfer.”

“I can help her get her transfer,” said a voice a few rows back.

“I’ll make sure the other driver gets her where she needs to go,” reassured the gentleman behind the wheel. “We’ll take care of her ma’am. She’s in good hands now. God bless you.”

I gave him her fare, stepped back out of the bus and looked through the window at Ann’s tear-streaked face. She waved at me and yelled “Thank you!” over and over again as the bus pulled away.

As I walked back to my car, I saw it lying there among the flowers – her necklace – a rosary with a string of black beads and a solid black cross. I picked it up and ran it between my fingers. This will be my reminder to pray, I thought to myself – the first Catholic rosary I’ve ever owned, probably given to Ann the Baptist Preacher by someone else along the way, attempting to bring comfort to her troubled spirit.

That’s it. No happy ending.

I called her son and let him know his mom was heading back home – ‘home’ being a park bench somewhere down by the pier. He thanked me softly and told me he would see her on Monday at the Starbucks where they usually meet.

I drove back home and hugged my own son a little bit tighter than usual.

I recorded this narrative a few months back and have been troubled ever since, with the nagging feeling that I should have done more. What could I do?

Since that day, I’ve begun working with the homeless in my own city and the more I become involved, the more conflicted I become – the more I feel as though it’s not enough or that we’re putting bandaids on gaping wounds.

The rate of homelessness in Orange County is climbing with every passing year. The causes of homelessness are complex and include overpriced housing, insufficient shelters, low wages, drug addiction and mental illness. But it seems to me there’s an even deeper cause that statistics don’t show. A lack of connection and deep-seated loneliness. So, how do we cure that?

I admit, there are moments I wish I could go back to the time before I noticed, before I cared. But now I see it. Now I care. What do I do?

What would you do?

 

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Want to read more about the issues of homelessness in Orange County and beyond?

http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/SOH2016

The Simple Beauty of Uncertainty – Making Room for Mystery and Wonder

I’m right and you’re wrong. Period. End of story. End of discussion.  

 

Whether it’s how to raise children, how to deal with the homeless, whether the toilet roll should go over or under, which candidate is sending us down the road to mayhem and destruction or what the government should do about ISIS – or healthcare, or immigration or… you get the point. I know what’s right and why you’re wrong.

This is the tone that currently dominates all avenues of media.

Those of us in the religious community are particularly susceptible to stating our claims with a stubborn dogmatism.  But this attitude isn’t evident in religious opinions alone.  Every day, as I read and engage with friends on-line, firmly entrenched points of view are presented on every subject imaginable, ranging from the current political climate to health issues and, of course, the raging debates among mommy bloggers about an infinite variety of parenting topics!

There is little room for doubt or uncertainty.  And if you do doubt, we certainly know what that means.

You’re weak or stupid.

Let me admit something to you today.  As I get older, I’m uncertain about most things – judge me how you will.  

The stubborn, entrenched stance that I used to take on EVERY SINGLE ISSUE now happens less and less.  

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a strong-willed person and am not known to shy away from voicing my opinion (just ask my family).  Most of my life, I expressed those opinions with absolute certainty but lately…I just don’t know.

After raising three children, I am bereft of parenting advice. The candidate choices we are left with are…confusing at best and my opinions about how to deal with ISIS, immigration and healthcare are, more often than not, lacking in conviction.

Thirty-five years in and I don’t know what the key is to a lasting marriage.

I have more questions than answers regarding pain and suffering and bigotry and hate and mental illness. I don’t know why these things even exist.  

Here’s the thing. Being uncertain has allowed me to listen with respect to what others are saying and has forced me to dig deeper into the wisdom of God’s Word.  

Certainty doesn’t allow for wonder.  It dismisses mystery.  It denies paradox.  It doesn’t leave room for growth or learning or listening. It traps God in a very small box.  And that box cannot possibly contain Him.  

But, I’m coming to peace with the not-knowing because this is what I DO know.

Wonder encourages empathy. Mystery invites creativity. Paradox stimulates conversation and insight. Doubt forces us to ask bigger questions. And God is big enough to handle that.

What do you think? Does the unknown terrify you? Does being uncertain rock your world?

For I am convinced [and continue to be convinced—beyond any doubt] that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present and threatening, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the [unlimited] love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 AMP

I’m A Rock. I’m A Puddle.

I’m a Rock.

I’m solid and strong.

Reliable.

Calm.

Composed.

I’m not worried.  I’m at peace.

I’m holding it all together remarkably well. Don’t you think?

I’m juggling all the balls – mom, volunteer, breadwinner, friend, grandma, wife, business owner, employee.

 Look at me!  I’m doing a bang-up job!

 

Puddle

 

I’m a Puddle.

I’m a soggy mess.

Blithering.

Exhausted.

Incompetent.

I’m worried and fearful.

I don’t ‘get it’.  I don’t even know what ‘it’ is.

I could cry for a week and sleep for a month.  I feel a sense of panic over the thought that I don’t have time to do either.

Those balls I was juggling yesterday? They have become the weight of the world and they are resting on my shoulders.

My body and my blood pressure are in complete rebellion. The peace that I felt last week is eluding me now.

 

I am Clay.

I’m not solid.  I’m not liquid.  I am moldable, pliable clay.

I’m not as strong as I pretend to be nor as weak as I fear I am.

I’m clay in the hands of my Maker who is forming me daily into a vessel fit for his use.  

He knows where my strengths lie and where my fears hide.  I can’t do this alone.

 

I surrender.

 

“Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  

Isaiah 64:8

How are you feeling today, dear friend? Are you a bit of a puddle, trying to become clay? I pray that this day, you will find peace in surrendering to the One who holds you so tenderly in His hands.