Bouncy prayers, anxiety, and choosing to believe

“Don’t get suspicious,” our 8-year-old daughter said as she casually disclosed her jaw pain. She was prepared for my anxiety. We’ve already buried one daughter and this one had a two-year span of chronic health issues that left me teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. After a mostly problem-free summer, she started with new symptoms weekly for the past few months.

I don’t know how to suppress fear that tastes metallic and releases chemical pheromones through my arm pits that make me smell like a fetid mammal, but I know every time our daughter starts having chronic symptoms, that fear pounces like the demon it is.

I’ve had occasional generalized anxiety, but all my centering and grounding and Scripture-reciting escape me when this kind of fear clutches my chest. I try to hide it from my children, but they can sense the change in my voice and demeanor. It’s as if they watch my body turn to jelly.

Then I feel guilty, because I’m a Believer and I’m supposed to pray prayers of faith, to trust in God’s goodness. But here’s the thing, I don’t trust God to answer my prayers anymore. Not always, anyway. And not the way I want Him too. I only trust that He is with me in whatever lies ahead.

I learned God wasn’t a Wish-King when my 6-year-old self begged Him to bring my Daddy home, but he never came. Or when I begged Him to let my daughter live and she died anyway.

I learned God sometimes answers prayers when my teenaged brother was riding his bicycle and was hit by a car, causing traumatic brain injury and coma. Doctors said if he survived, he would be in a vegetative state his entire life, but instead he’s a college graduate and has a wonderful family and career. I learned God sometimes answers prayer the following year on that same brother’s birthday. Mom was on her bicycle and was hit by a car. She received life-saving pints of her own blood she’d recently donated.

I’m not privy to the naïveté of saying, “It will all work out, we just have to trust God’s best for us,” when my idea of best and His seem vastly different. But I have known His nearness in suffering and His presence in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I pray the prayer of the father in the Gospel of Mark when he asked Jesus if it be possible to heal his son. Jesus said, if it’s possible? All things are possible if you believe. And the father cried, “I believe, Lord help my unbelief.”

Faith doesn’t come natural to me anymore, at least not in the sense of answered prayers. I have to choose to believe. And I can believe, because I know that ultimately I am held. And though I suffer various trials, my faith is being refined into something far more precious than gold. Though I do not always see or feel Him, I love Him.

We sit again in the pediatrician’s office, and the doctor says we might want to run some labs. I hold my little girl as they draw six tubes of blood from her skinny arm. She goes limp. Loses her color. Gets sick. I tell her she’s going to be okay while fear screams suffering and death in my head. I can’t stop the racing thoughts. It’s the same day my Daddy, who came back into my life as a young adult, gets an “aggressive lymphoma” diagnosis. Only two weeks after my 24-year-old cousin died.

I ask others to pray for us because my prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling. I hope for my daughter and weep for my daddy and battle fear that holds me captive. I fight guilt that tells me if I really believed, I wouldn’t be so scared. I am weary. I am tired. I am worn.

When the pediatrician’s phone number shows on my caller ID, I mumble hello around the cotton that seems to fill my mouth.

“How are you,” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say breathlessly, “tell me how I am.”

“You’re good,” she replies. “We’re still waiting on some results, but most of the big scary things have been ruled out.”

There’s evidence of inflammation, but the remaining results we get next week might help guide us to answers. We’ll keep digging. My body feels like jelly again, this time from relief.

Like sinking into my favorite yellow arm chair, I fall into the lap of Perfect Love that casts out fear. This, this is a sensation I want to last. And in the moment, I’m thankful for a faith I can feel.

Double Vision

We’ve had the blessing of healthy children this year. Agents and publishers interested in multiple of my works. I’ve stepped away from my nonprofit and ministry work to homeschool our children. We’re reveling in the delight of longer snuggled mornings, less rigid schedules, and discovering how all elements of life and education are interwoven.

Autumn is kissing the Blue Ridge with a kaleidoscope of oranges, reds, yellows, and browns. We’re loving sweater weather, s’mores, spiced coffee, hot cocoa, cousin sleepovers, fire pits, and friends. Joys and highs and blessings untold.

This year has also come with death, five significant people in my life since May, spanning from aged to young. Two vernal loved ones are being treated for ugly heartrending diagnoses and another young-to-me is being tested for words I can’t make myself utter. Beyond my immediate circle of family and friends, there’s even more suffering, parents scream-praying for children to live, children reeling without parents. End of treatment. No more clinical trials. Hopelessness that prompts unthinkable actions. Familial, social, political, and spiritual unrest.

My anxiety resurfaced, forcing recognition in the form of physical symptoms, more medical tests, and eventually, treatment for the root cause. Grief, sorrows, and depths of despair.

Driving home from church the other night, I turned on my Rich Mullins playlist, hoping his folksy voice and thought-provoking lyrics would quicken my heart for things eternal. First to play was, “Here in America,” where Mullins describes God’s creativity in natural beauty around the world. Tucked in the chorus are the words, there’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see, But everywhere I go I’m looking…”

That’s what I need, I thought, more eyes to see more beauty.

But if I had extra eyes to see more beauty, wouldn’t I also witness that much more suffering?

Living with our hearts and eyes wide open means truly seeing the beautiful and the ugly, indescribable joy and unimaginable sorrow.

I can’t carry it all, I cried. I never intended you to, I heard.

 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 NASB.

I settle into the truth of these words and pray for grace to release my grasp on all I cannot hold. I wrestle with the paradox of being a believer in Absolute Truth who lives with questions. One who hopes against hope to avoid suffering, while knowing the presence and peace of God in the midst of it.

God uses the words of Ann Voskamp to remind me that “Those who long to see miracles, see everyday miracles everywhere.”

“Live like God is a genie in a bottle, and we become like angry drunks.

Live like God is king on a throne, and we become intoxicated with awe,” Voskamp writes.

Again, Rich Mullins sings prayers I cannot speak. “…hold me Jesus cause I’m shaking like a leaf. You have been King of my glory. Won’t You be my Prince of Peace.”

Whether beholding beauty I cannot describe or suffering I cannot utter, a warm blanket of Grace is there to envelop. Abiding Peace that IN all things, God never leaves, never forsakes, never abandons. And if my arms are raised, praising or questioning, my head bowed in reverence or sorrow, my body shaking in joy or rage, I’m held in His Everlasting Arms.

Be THOU my vision, oh Lord of my heart.

Abortion, Death, And A Call To Love

“Paula” was raised in a conservative church. When she wound up pregnant out of wedlock, fear of judgment from the church drove her to a dark secret place where her baby was killed and discarded as medical waste. Paula is a Christian and can share the love of God with everyone else, but struggles to forgive herself.

“Betty” was raised in a prestigious home, so becoming pregnant as a teenager was a “stain” on the family’s image. Her parents forced her to have an abortion. Betty is now a Christian and can share the love of God with everyone else, but struggles to forgive herself.

“Carly” became pregnant after being raped by a trusted family member. Her parents forced her to have an abortion. They were leaders in their faith community and regardless of how the pregnancy came to be, a pregnant teenager would not reflect well on their image. After turning to substance abuse and years of shame, Carly is now clean, makes a daily choice to forgive herself, and works to help others heal from trauma.

“Barbara” was surprised to find out she was pregnant. Although she was married, they hadn’t necessarily planned on having more children. She’d had several miscarriages early on, a stillbirth, and a preemie. When she went to the doctor for her first prenatal appointment he said, “You don’t have to go through with this you know.” She refused to see that doctor again and delivered another preemie, who today is a thriving beautiful child.

“Joy” had a miscarriage at six weeks pregnant. She grieved her baby’s death as deeply as I’ve ever seen anyone grieve their child. Her doctor said miscarriages happen all the time and made her feel like her grief wasn’t vaild. Her family and friends struggled to relate to the depth of her loss.

“Tara” called me when she had her first miscarriage, unable to flush the obvious baby who was unrecognized by the medical community as a “life” so therefore didn’t have the right to ritual and burial. Together we were able to secure a proper resting place for the baby she loved deeply. She had several more miscarriages to follow before going on to have surviving children. With each loss, the pain and bitterness and anger grew because so few people recognized her losses as real babies.

“Tammy” was told her baby had a lethal diagnosis and would never survive outside of the womb. Even while desparately wanting her baby, she chose to terminate. She carries her baby’s memory and the “what ifs” with her every day.

“Sue’s” baby was terminally diagnosed during pregnancy, but she chose to continue to carry. While her child has special needs and life hasn’t been easy for them, this beautiful soul is now a young adult and has taught all of us much more about the meaing of life than any formal education ever could.

And during a stillbirth I attended, I tapped out the following message on my phone to ask a few friends for prayer.

“It is sacred and peaceful in this space now. After the initial shock of the silent ultrasound machine, the doctors saying there’s no heartbeat, and as compassionately and matter-of-factly as possible, plans made to induce labor at just less than 5 months pregnant.

We’ve sat through hours of intake process at the hospital, nurses coming and going, the IV specialist searching for a suitable vein. There was even another ultrasound just to be sure…

No silence screams louder than a quiet monitor from that big machine that confirms for us hope and life or stillness and death.

Now, now we are waiting for the doctor to induce her, but in this space, husband and wife have both moved beyond exhaustion and surrendered to some moments of sleep. My heart breaks, hurts so deeply for their pain, for the unanswered questions, for the ways they feel abandoned by God.

Lines from a favorite song keep replaying in my mind. “One day soon we’ll see his face. And every tear he’ll wipe away. No more pain and suffering. Oh praise him for the mercy tree. Death has died, love has won. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Jesus Christ has overcome. He has risen from the dead.”

But here, there are tears. Lots of tears. Suffering beyond the ability to articulate. Words seem wasted trying to describe the intensity of the pain. There is fear. Fear of physical pain and knowing that after the physical pain is the most intense heart pain. To know this physical pain when there is hope for new life makes everything bearable. To know this physical pain will just bring you closer to the reality of death, for that, there are no words.

There is anger. Anger that this dream would “dangle in front of them” just to be jerked away. Anger for bodies that seem to fail us. Anger that a God who is good and for whom nothing is impossible still allowed death to call once more.

These emotions are normal. They are a part of the questions and grief. Yet God is still good. He is the bestower of peace and comfort in the midst of our hardest hard. He is the kind and gentle Shepherd, loving in spite of questions, fear, anger, and pain. 

The hardest pain is yet to come. The pain of delivery and the anguish of a quiet birthing room. The physical pain of empty arms that hang heavy by your side when every part of your body is reminding you that your arms should be cradling hope, new life, joy.

We need your prayers. We need your petitions that God would be our very present help in this time of trouble. May the presence of Jesus, the risen Christ, be with us in this time. While for us, death still holds a sting, may we cling to the hope of the Mercy Tree where death has died and LOVE has won. May we hold with a steadfast hope, the promise that our present suffering cannot be compared to the eternal glory that awaits us. Amen.”

These are all women I know personally. Theirs and many other personal stories I could share about abortion, pregnancy loss, family and community reactions, society’s view of the unborn and the challenges that creates for those grieving pregnancy and early infant loss.

Our own firstborn daughter was a dwarf, a “little person.” During our appointments with the prenatal specialists they offered to “terminate” the pregnancy even though there was no indication that her diagnosis was lethal and there was never any concern that hers or my life was in danger. My husband and I could not even entertain the thought of intentionally ending the life of our baby that had such a vibrant personailty in my womb. She died nearly seventeen hours after birth, but I wouldn’t trade those precious hours for anything. Ever.

Years earlier though, I was in a toxic relationship and thought I was pregnant. (Turned out I wasn’t.) While I had always wanted children, I was ashamed, horrified, and surprised at how quickly the thought of abortion entered my mind out of fear for myself, the baby, and judgement from family and church. I didn’t have to wrestle further, because I wasn’t pregnant, but it humbled me to think of the women who truly face that situation.

With New York’s newest laws passed and a bill introduced and tabled in my own state regarding third trimester abortion, these conversations have become front and center on social media, in our homes, Bible studies, and especially among our child-loss support group.

There is no question internally where I stand on the issue of sanctity of life for the unborn, but my heart simultaneously hurts for those who already live in judgement and regret. While there might certainly be those who’ve chosen abortion without carrying their judgment, I don’t personally know one single woman whose post-abortive regret and sorrow hasn’t consumed her in one way or another. As the church, we must provide space for these women, and men, to grieve, to talk, to call on the grace of our Savior whose kindness leads us to repentance and healing. (Romans 2:4)

As righteous indignation rises up in me regarding these bills, I have been repeatedly challenged by the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13.

As radical as it sounds, I keep thinking, “If I post my oppositon to this legistalture with memes and Scripture, but have not love, I am nothing. If I protest at the local, state, and national level, but have not love, I am nothing. Even if I gave my own body for the sake of the unborn for which I profoundly and fundamentally believe are sacred and worthy of that level of my commitment, but have not love, I have gained nothing.”

Love doesn’t mean inaction. Love doesn’t mean silence. Love doesn’t mean not standing up for the most vulnerable among us. But Love does call us to operate in a spirit of love. 

Colossians 4:2-6 says to pray steadfastly, that God may open the door for us to declare the mysteries of Christ, to walk in wisdom toward those who do not believe. That our speech be gracious so that we might know how to answer everyone. (Paraphrased.)

It is from this perspective that I prayerfully measure my words toward all. What if I could sit with those who propose and support these bills I oppose? Would they hear me as a individual, or chalk me up as one more obscure number to defeat? What approach might help them listen? I will call. I will advocate. But I will also offer the invitation for conversation, praying that God might open a door for me to share the mysteries (and love) of Christ. Because only when hearts are opened to the Truth, can lasting change occur.

Lovingly signed, a mother of four including one in heaven and one by adoption.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals. 

 

 

 

 

Potpourri: I Ran Out of Words, Holy Week, and Treasured Moments

I ran out of words this week, to say, to speak, but not to write.

We are wrapping up a brutally busy, gloriously wonderful Holy Week including, worship and work and friend and family time.

I am one who is often confused as an extrovert because of my love for people and my professions, but I’m much more of an introvert then most realize. Without sufficient alone time I become cranky and intolerable, and alone time this week has been zilch. (And yes, I’ve been cranky and intolerable.)

The children are on spring break from school so they’ve been hanging out with me most of the time.

I worked at the Sadie Rose House Monday. We have our biggest fundraiser of the year coming up, our annual 5K, and I’m immersed in the crazy that leads up to this wonderful event. P.S. There’s still time to register and you can do so here!

The children had piano lessons Monday evening, and my supper was a big flop! I grated potatoes and fried them, but they were way too starchy and turned into a big pile of ugly gray (but tasty) goo. No one else would try them.

It was a wonderful surprise to have my dad visit Monday night and Tuesday. I had extra family here that day to spend time with him. They consumed a triple batch of buttermilk pancakes, a crock pot of vegetable beef stew, almost a full pan of rolls, and a pan of peanut butter bars.

Wednesday, our women’s Bible study group prepared and served lunch for a community Lenten luncheon. I made vegetable barley soup for the soup and sandwich buffet.

Thursday I worked at the Sadie Rose House and Thursday evening we had our traditional foot-washing and communion service at church. During a time of silent confession I was repenting for my cranky intolerable attitude. I decided to refocus and fully engage in the meaningful experience of reenacting the Last Supper. I thought, “Wow, what a week it’s been!” And immediately it was as though Jesus reminded me, “Yeah, what a week it was!”

Leaving that beautiful Maundy Thursday service, I felt like I had run out of words. My verbal allotment was drained for the week, yet all I wanted to do was write. I thought of the quote by author Ernest Hemingway: “The writer must write what he has to say, not speak it.” But alas, I was too tired even to write.

Friday, two dear friends brought their children to the park where I served chili, rolls, chips, and popcorn cake. (Check out my popcorn cake recipe here.)

Other friends stopped by after the park, and the children spent the night at a friend’s house, so my husband and I went to dinner. We tried watching a movie, but I slept the whole way through.

I got up early this morning to write an article for our church newsletter. I wrote about the power of living hope, (1 Peter 1:3) then picked up the children and headed straight to church for an Easter egg hunt. We had a wonderful turn-out and a lovely time.

I’m selfishly hoping I don’t have to speak the rest of the day, but I’ll be writing in my head all evening. Surely a poem will form as I ruminate.

We still have Community sunrise service and breakfast, Easter service, and a meal with family tomorrow. In all this, I am reminded of how wonderfully blessed I am, not because of all I have; love, family, friends, work, food, for which I am truly grateful, but because of who loves me. He’s not only the reason for the Christmas season, but for the Easter season, dry seasons, rainy seasons, and all of life as well and He loves you, too.

Happy Resurrection Day to all.

Just Think!

My mom, with her sister/brother quartet, used to sing this poem in slow doleful harmony. A young girl on her lap, I would shiver at the very thought of Robert’s words as mom softly crooned in her low alto. I hum this to myself often, especially when death arrives yet again as it has so suddenly in our tight-knit community this week. It’s a sobering thought.

Just Think!

BY ROBERT W. SERVICE

Just think! some night the stars will gleam

Upon a cold, grey stone,

And trace a name with silver beam,

And lo! ’twill be your own.

That night is speeding on to greet

Your epitaphic rhyme.

Your life is but a little beat

Within the heart of Time.

A little gain, a little pain,

A laugh, lest you may moan;

A little blame, a little fame,

A star-gleam on a stone.

May the God of all comfort be with those who are facing this reality tonight.

Poetry, Family, Creation Care

A few weeks before Christmas, I took Our 9 and 6 year-old on a walk through the basement of our house. The goal was to find ten items that I would eventually write a poem about. We play the “describing game” all the time where one person defines something without naming it, and everyone else guesses. This time, we described without defining and took it to a whole new level of fun for us!

Here’s the list of items we found: Globe, Horseshoe, Maracas, Christmas lights, Toys, Nativity, Clock, Presents, Coat, Glasses. I had no agenda for what the poem might become. The end result as words flowed from me, was a poem about Creation Care.

I snapped those pictures from some of my favorite places with my phone. I love the way God uses Creation to speak to me.

Treasure

By Regina Cyzick Harlow

Sphere rumbles, rhythmic

Marchers, move toward eternal

Tired, worn out, used up sphere

Capitulating to misuse and consumerism

Wilds waning

Countryside yawning

Cities bursting

Beneath the pounding beat

Blind marchers march

Caught in the flow

Ever consuming

Ever using

Impetuous, heedless, injudicious

The stage set

A junction, once in periphery, becomes clearer

Marchers arrive at the hour of decision

Hope, born into their world

Salvation, Eternal Gift

Birthed from darkness

Offering joy

Pointing beyond time

Gate of Perfection

Marchers, every tongue and tribe and nation

Gathered in orbs of jasper, ruby, emerald,

Emanating from the One True Light

Basking in the warmth of One True Love

Sight returns

Vision restored

A New Heaven and a New Earth

Finally the Marchers treasure the gift

Holy airs versus holy heirs

She became a holy heir because she drank from the living water offered through Jesus Christ. No doubt there were many with holy airs scoffing at the idea that she would ever amount to anything good.

I’ve been ruminating holiness. What does God’s holiness look like through humanity.

Growing up in the faith tradition of my childhood and youth, one’s level of holiness was determined by the severity of one’s plainness and cooperation to follow the church rules. As an adult, I know there are true authentic believers in that faith tradition, as well as those for whom it is a way of life more than religion. There are also those who hide dark secrets behind their facades of piety. (It’s that way in many forms of strictness and piety, I’ve learned.)

It is difficult for me, even now, to separate pious and practiced “human holiness” from one who lives a life of holiness in service to God and others. By indoctrinated instinct, I “see” holiness in the way a person dresses. But as one who as devoted my life to God’s work and who is occasionally directly and indirectly snubbed (and sometimes outright chided) by the very people my childhood self understands as holy, I have been ruminating on what being holy actually looks like lived out.

Holiness: the state of being holy.

“a life of holiness and total devotion to God”

It is one thing to put on holy airs, presenting a pristine and sterilized image of God’s Kingdom through dress and piety. It is another thing entirely to become a holy heir of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ where He meets you right in your mess and changes you from the inside out.

Scripture has a lot to say about people who look good on the outside, those who take pride in their strictness and humility while at the same time discriminating the work of God in the lives of others when it doesn’t look like their understanding of who God can use and how God can work.

Matthew 23:25-28 NLT “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

Certainly Scripture also gives instructions for how a believer should live and present themselves.

II Corinthians 6:14-18 NLT “Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said: “I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord. Don’t touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you. And I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty. ””

As I’ve contemplated and observed holiness in action, (a life of total devotion to God,) I’m reminded of the broken flawed people (and donkeys) God used for the good of His Kingdom. While there are many examples in Scripture, none speaks more personally to me than the woman at the well whose life was a mess, she met Jesus, her life was changed, and she went and told everyone what happened so that the whole town believed. (John 4:1-42) She became a holy heir because she drank from the living water offered through Jesus Christ. No doubt there were many with holy airs scoffing at the idea that she would ever amount to anything good.

I’ve seen holiness in the couple that showed up with frozen spaghetti and a long-adored musical instrument. For you, they said, as I grieved my daughter. I’ve seen holiness in the support they provide for the most vulnerable in our community and literally around the world, without ever making it about themselves.

I’ve observed holiness in the couple who befriended a homeless man and gave him work, helped him find shelter, and have stood by him even as life knocks him down again and again.

I’ve heard of holiness in the successful business owner who collects cardboard boxes and gives them to children for recycling so they can earn money for field trips, building character and confidence and helping them take ownership in their efforts.

I’ve been the recipient of holiness through the actions and kindnesses of my childhood faith community as they supported my family in countless ways, especially when my brother and Mom were recovering from life-threatening accidents. I’ve heard holiness in the songs and acapella harmony hymns of my childhood and felt holiness in the anguished cry for help as an adult.

I’ve tasted holiness in the meals provided after the deaths of our loved ones by those whose only motives were simply to provide basic nourishment to grieving bodies. In the Italian sausage and cherry Coke I shared with a homeless women when I found her after she spent a night violent weather. In the bread I break with the bereaved.

I’ve witnessed holiness in the tattooed, pierced, skull-cap wearing farmer who takes time to eat school lunches with his numerous nieces and nephews and who goes on field trips with his “little brother” through the Big Brothers Big Sisters Organization. This person who gives his time to the little ones and who makes a larger-than-life impact as he shares the heart of God with them.

These are only a few small stories of big generosity. These and so many more give of their time, talents, and resources silently, anonymously, without expectation. They embody holiness in thrift-store jeans and “Jesus sandals,” farm boots, and homemade aproned dresses, with casseroles and carpenter’s tools. They live beautiful broken authentic lives, and would resist attention to what I’m sharing.

They are heirs of the Kingdom of God refusing to put on airs. They know it is not of their own righteousness or goodness, but only God’s grace and mercy that accomplishes any good through them. I am reminded of the prayer of Hannah who rejoices in the Lord, who recognizes there is no one holy like the Lord, and who understands it is the Lord who judges our actions.

I Samuel 2:1-3 NLT “Then Hannah prayed: “My heart rejoices in the Lord! The Lord has made me strong. Now I have an answer for my enemies; I rejoice because you rescued me. No one is holy like the Lord! There is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. “Stop acting so proud and haughty! Don’t speak with such arrogance! For the Lord is a God who knows what you have done; he will judge your actions.”

May we live as holy heirs without putting on holy airs.