Thursday
Oct232014

Face-to-face with my true identity

My mama used to cup my face with her small, strong, piano-playing hands, and in her eyes and words I saw my favorite version of myself.  She did not let my being a grown-up stop this childhood practice, and I always knew I was about to receive a life-giving dose of affirmation and adoration when she reached for my face.  

She thought I was simply amazing and astonishing.  With her face pressed in close to mine, she would remind me of who I was, how loved I was, and what great adventures God had for me.  She had a knack for doing this when I needed it most, when my insecurities were telling me the opposite, when I craved rest in the assurance of being her beloved.  

Although my mama would argue this, I know this didn’t happen because I am actually amazing and astonishing.  I get this even more now that I’m a mama myself: she delighted in me because I was hers.  She and Dad and God created me and then worked together to form me into who I am and am continually becoming.

About a year after Mama died, I dreamt about her.  Much to my dismay, this hadn't happened and still doesn't.  Many parts of the dream were chaotic and weird and anxiety-ridden.  I ended up sitting on the beach with death and destruction all around me.  Suddenly my mama, looking vibrant and healthy in her favorite blue sweater, stood in front of me.  I wanted to focus on her, but I was distressed by the awful sights on the beach.  So she bent down, placed her hands on my cheeks and blocked out my view of anything but her beautiful face.  She spoke urgently, firmly, and seriously even though her eyes were smiling. I desperately wish I could remember her exact words, but I know she was drowning out the chaos with words of affirmation, adoration, and delight.  

I carry this image with me.  Mama was showing me how my Savior, Jesus, longs to minister to me.  He told his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love” (John 15:9).  He is inviting me to his embrace, to come close enough that he can place his hands on my face and speak to me about who he sees me to be.  When I remain in this place, then whatever is happening on the beach cannot sweep me out to sea.  I can stay rooted in this true and honest view of myself—the self Jesus thought up, created, and continues to form daily.  The self he delights in and adores. The self he rescued from death.  While missing my mama has left a giant gap in my identity, she reminded me in that dream that she was just being an extension of Jesus in those face-to-face moments.  When I look into his face and hear his words, I can still see my favorite version of myself.  And like Mama, Jesus doesn’t do this because of anything I’ve done.  He loves me because I’m his.

Jesus reminded his followers later on in John 15 that remaining in his love allows us to follow his instruction: “This is my command: Love each other” (verse 17).  When I let Jesus’s face fill my vision, I cannot help seeing others with compassion and love.  At times it is hard to accept Jesus’s love for me—especially when I have messed up or stumble over the same struggle that has been tripping me up for as long as I can remember.  And at times it is hard to truly love others—especially when they act in a way I deem as unloveable.  But I am finding the more I see in Jesus’s eyes that I am his beloved daughter, I am better able to see everyone else with that same love.  Imagine how life-giving this could be?  I want my husband and sons to see their best selves when they see me look at them.  I want my family and friends to know how delighted I am by them when I speak to them.  And I want to see strangers the way Jesus would. 

Today, my prayer is that you will feel embraced by Jesus’s nail scarred hands, that you will let his love fill your vision, that you will see the you he sees—one worth dying for.

Monday
Oct132014

A story and a prayer request

A few weeks ago, I had a full-blown panic attack on the Bay Bridge.  I was driving by myself; the traffic was thick and combative; I was running late for my doctor’s appointment at UCSF despite having left Concord three hours early; I had already been anxious about getting Herceptin after being really sick from the treatment three weeks before; and my phone died right as I got to downtown San Francisco, taking with it my beloved Google maps that had been telling me where to go.

Without warning, right as the screen of my phone went irreversibly black, my rising anxiety turned into a panic I could not control.  Sweat and a waterfall of tears blurred my vision.  I tried to take deep breaths, but they quickly turned into hyperventilation.  My limbs started shaking, making me have to grip the steering wheel with a vice-like hold.  Far back in my mind, I knew this was too big of a reaction to the situation and that is was in fact a dangerous time to fall apart, but those thoughts just fueled the panic and I could not pull myself together.   

I prayed, in between gulping breaths, the Holy Spirit would lead me to the hospital.  I told the Holy Spirit I knew he could do it; I promised to tell the story to everyone who would listen: “The Holy Spirit led me through downtown San Francisco in rush hour traffic to exactly where I needed to be.”  I could already see how my momentary pain would strengthen my faith and bless others.  

And yet, as I gulped and cried and shook and still drove, I just kept feeling more lost.  Each road sign seemed vaguely familiar, and yet each turn led to more and more unfamiliar places.  Traffic was not letting up, and people were angry with my hesitation, so I finally pulled over.  Some people walked by.  I rolled down the window and asked desperately for directions.  It could have been my splotchy, crazy eyes that made the woman say (in English), “I don’t live here, and I don’t speak English.”  I rolled up my window, buried my head in my hands and cried and cried.  

Even though in that moment I knew that God’s plans are always better than my own, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why didn’t you just show me where to go?  This seemed like it would have been a good story.  And I really REALLY believed you could do it.”  I felt defeated and alone and so ridiculous for not being able to stop myself from falling apart.

I looked up to survey my surroundings and saw a man watching me from across the street.  He was looking at me with such pity, love, and understanding I got the feeling he had been watching for awhile.  When I made eye contact, he hesitated for a moment and then dashed across the street in the one gap in traffic I had seen that morning.  I rolled down the window, and he asked, “Where do you need to go?”

This is one of my favorite moments I have ever experienced.  He did not ask me if I was lost, because obviously I was.  He just saw my distress, looked on me with compassion, and ran toward me to show me the way.  I’m sure he thought it was no big deal, but it was a REALLY big deal to me in that moment when I felt so completely lost and alone.  

When I asked for directions to UCSF, he chuckled a little and said, “You’re almost there.  Just a few more blocks down from us and you’ll reach it.”  

I thanked him, trying to infuse those two words with more gratitude than they could actually hold, and I drove to the hospital, which truly was just a few more blocks down the same road and in the same direction I was driving when I decided to pull over.

The thing is, God was answering my prayer in multiple ways right when I decided to ask him why he wasn’t answering my prayer.  He was leading me in the right direction and he was providing a compassionate stranger to guide me the rest of the way.  This illustrates the lesson I have been learning in so many ways since we have moved down to the Bay Area: God is always working in my life; it just rarely is in the way that I would predict.  He doesn’t write my story the way I think is best.  He writes it best because he is best, he knows best, and his endings are always best.  It is when I try to take the pencil away from the author (as Pastor Jer from our new church said in a sermon recently), that I get confused, lost and panicked.  

With this conviction, I want to ask for prayer for my sweet little Everett.  I have hesitated to put this out on social media in order to not make it a bigger deal than it is, but then I realized that everything to do with my sons is such a big deal to me that I covet as many prayers as people are willing to pray.

Tomorrow Everett is getting an MRI of his brain.  There has been concern around his head from the time he was a wee one, and we have had a few doctors ask us to consider a precautionary MRI for various reasons.  Until now, we have prayerfully decided to wait, because Everett behaves like a healthy little guy without too many obvious reasons for concern.  Recently, he has started to have intense headaches that are localized in one spot.  He screams and cries because he thinks he has hit his head behind his right ear, but he hasn’t.  Our pediatrician here wants us to get an MRI, and after praying about it, we agree.  This means he will have to go under anesthesia, which we are not excited about, but I believe will be just fine.

Over the last few days, and especially today, I have had people reaching out to me to let me know they are praying for me.  Many of these people know about the MRI, but many of them do not.  I have felt like I am back in that moment in my car when I looked up and realized the man was just waiting for the opportunity to help me.  I'm tempted to forget all of the trust and relationship building God has done through my own medical journey when anything potentially scary rises up with my sons.  I can easily find myself in full-blown panic mode, letting my mind careen toward an imagined future where Everett is sick. Through people's prayers and generous care-taking, God is showing me--once again--that he is already answering these prayers even though I cannot yet see how.  He is writing a story in Everett’s life that will truly be the best even though I wish I could spare him the chapter about this test.

Thank you for those of you who are already praying, and thank you for those of you who will pray.  Here are a few specific requests surrounding tomorrow:

  • I pray tomorrow will go smoothly and Everett will not be anxious.  
  • I pray Everett will tolerate the anesthesia well.
  • Ultimately, I pray this is nothing and all they see is a super healthy brain.  I pray that God is directing us and the doctors in this so we can have peace of mind about our little guy’s head.
  • I pray, personally, I resist the urge to despair over a future that is not my reality in this moment.  I don’t want to imagine a world with a sick little Everett, and right now I should not do this.  But it’s hard not to go there.  
  • I pray we can bless the doctors and techs we encounter tomorrow.  (Although, I know this one is a given, because Everett blesses everyone he’s around:-)

Today I pray for those of you who are feeling lost, alone, and panicked.  I pray God will direct you down the right road, and that he will use people to come and show you compassion.  And I pray that today you get a glimpse of the beautiful story God is writing with your life.

 

Sunday
Aug242014

Lake Tahoe and lots of love

This weekend we went to a cabin near Lake Tahoe with some of our dearest friends, the Roberts.  Beauty permeated the whole weekend.  It was beautiful to get prolonged time to laugh, play, and talk for hours with Lauren and Stephen.  It was beautiful to watch our boys adore their baby boy.  This morning as they were packing to go, Everett announced, “This is my baby Finn!”  It was beautiful to witness my boys getting caught up in their grandiose surroundings.  And each time they got swept up in the moment, they directed their delight at me.

You see, all three of my boys do something so incredibly special when they are overwhelmed by beauty and love: they direct all their feelings at me.  I have noticed and loved their tendency to do this before, each in his own way, but this weekend they were so effusive in light of the beauty surrounding us that it pushed me to love better and with more abandon.

Yesterday we were driving back to the cabin after a full day of swimming and exploring.  The boys fell asleep for awhile, and Ryan and I were deep in thoughtful, inspiring conversation about faith and vocation and adventure.  It was a lovely, sleepy end to our day.  When we pulled up to the cabin, Liam sat up and declared from the backseat, “I need to hug and kiss you, Mama!  I’m just so happy for you!  I’m just so happy for you being my mama.  I need to hug and kiss you!”  Even though Liam is excellent at expressing himself, I could tell he couldn’t find the words for this moment.  He couldn’t tell me that everything good and beautiful about our family and creation seemed to have worked together to give us this day and this quiet night.  He just felt “happy for me” and needed to hug and kiss me.

This afternoon, after an adventurous hike over boulders and through tree groves, we all dove into the pristine waters of Silver Lake.  The icy-fresh water, the towering cliffs, the squeals and giggles as my boys prodded each other to go deeper, Harper’s excited splashes as she bounded all around us—all of it and more than I could even grasp—took my breath away.  Sawyer turned to me, and I could see in his sparking eyes that he felt all this too, this as-close-to-Heaven-on-earth-as-we-can-get moment.  Through blue lips and chattering teeth, he sputtered a litany of almost nonsensical love declarations: “I love you, Mama…love you…LOVE YOU…that you’re my mama…LOVE you…swimming mama!”  I laughed and told him that I love him too and that I agree this is a magical, God-filled moment.

Finally, as I held a soaked-through Everett on the walk back to the car, he looked over my shoulder at the lake and said, “It’s so pretty, I just hold you.”

I have written a lot about finding the joy in tough stuff and on dark roads.  But I hope that when I experience those purely joyful moments and pain is the last thing on my mind, I will respond like my boys.  I want to hug and kiss and hold my loved ones and declare my love, even in nonsensical ways, to my Heavenly Father who is behind and in and through it all.

My prayer for all of you will always be that joy will be part of your every day lives, even when it’s hard to find.  But today, I pray joy will be all around you in such a breath-taking way that the only way to respond is with love.

"Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory in the heavens. 

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,

What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.

You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet:

all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (Psalm 8).



 


 


Tuesday
Aug122014

Backpacks, Cancer Treatment, and Metaphors

My dad recently wrote me a beautiful metaphor describing his prayer for me.  He wrote, “I do not want cancer to be this massive backpack that weighs you down and keeps you from the adventures you enjoy. What I'm praying for is a small day pack that allows you to go and do everything you want to and often forget about carrying.”

I have been grappling with how to process the most recent development in my health journey, and this sweet prayer has helped me to clarify my approach.  For my “day pack” has been packed by my Savior and has everything I could need for the adventures he has for me. 

When my new doctor told me that I needed to have a new port placed and to begin receiving infusions of Herceptin every three weeks for the rest of my life, I was pretty daunted and disappointed.  I drove home that day feeling weighed down with the enormity of it all.  Another surgery?!  Treatment for the REST OF MY LIFE?! Figuring out what to do with my three boys every three weeks while I drive into San Francisco?!  And Lord, what if it still makes me sick for 24 hours like it used to?! My prayers were a staccato of worry and frustration…and relief.  As much as I didn’t want to do any of it, there was enormous relief in the knowledge that I would be doing everything medically possible to keep me from having to face cancer again.  None of us are guaranteed tomorrow, but this would give me my best chance.  

My cancer backpack definitely felt massive that day; underneath the worry, frustration, and relief was a heaviness at the knowledge that once again cancer, or preventing cancer, was going to dictate my schedule, my life, my abilities.  

But then I started really researching Herceptin (it’s a beautiful miracle of science), and I’m once again reminded how completely God is working all things together for my good.  You see, just like my dad’s metaphor, what Herceptin does in my body is also a beautiful metaphor for what the Holy Spirit does in my soul.  Breast cancer is, after all, part of me.  With an original diagnosis like mine, my disease is presently considered managed, but never in remission.  My breast cancer cells are my cells just like my healthy cells are.  Cancer is unique in that it is not a disease I’ve caught from an outside source.  It’s my own cells doing the wrong thing and taking over the cells that are doing the right thing, and my rare and aggressive kind of breast cancer cells are incredibly good at reproducing and killing my good cells.  Herceptin finds those breast cancer cells, attaches itself to them, and signals my immunity cells to come attack them while simultaneously blocking the cancer cells’ ability to communicate with other cells and reproduce.  Herceptin is taking down any breast cancer cells that try to show their faces, therefore allowing my healthy cells to flourish and my immunity cells to do their job with heightened effectiveness.  

The Holy Spirit is doing the same work in my soul.  He is finding all of the pieces of me that are not working right—fear, doubt, worry, anxiety, impatience, selfishness—and he is signaling the other parts of me to take those out and block them from reproducing and taking over the supernatural parts of me—faith, patience, selflessness, love, peace, joy. 

I am not perfect.  I never will be.  The Holy Spirit will not stop working on my soul.  At this point, it also looks like I’ll never be completely done with cancer treatment while I’m on this earth.  But that’s really ok, because I am believing Philippians 1:6 for my soul and my body: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

Thank you, Daddy, for your beautiful prayer.  My cancer day pack has come to hold peace, joy, love, faith, and strength that are not dependent on my circumstances.  It is not heavy or massive; it is a sign that God has prepared me for a longer journey, in this life or the next.

My prayer for all of you is that you can see the gifts that come from what is weighing you down.  May your struggles prepare you for the work God has for you.  May you embrace the truth of Isaiah 40:31: “But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”    

 

Wednesday
Jun042014

Lies

Satan has a few favorite lies he likes to tell me, because he knows they will work.  They are especially successful at grabbing hold of my mind when I am physically diminished.  And they are frustratingly hard for me to fight, particularly because they are so familiar.  They start out as quiet little whispers inside my thoughts and grow until they are louder than most of the reality around me:

 

You are small.  You are worthless.  You are ugly.  You are damaged.  Your losses are too great for you to recover. Who are you now that they've chipped away more of your body and your identity?

 

My frustration over these lies is multi-faceted.  I hate how self-focused they are.  I despise the inward direction, because they distract me from the wonderful people right in front of me.  They create in me a sort-of twisted vanity, because I am thinking of myself (albeit unkindly) more than I am thinking of others, therefore making it much less likely that I will reach out to someone when they need it.  I also hate that their familiarity doesn't immediately help me recognize their falsehood.  Shouldn't I be able to disregard them immediately since I've battled them so many times before?  There are times when I am better at the fight.  When I am reading scripture, communing with other believers, and spending my time in service to others and God, I truly am less likely to even hear the lies much less believe them.  But when I am, say, recovering from surgery and my contribution to society consists of taking pain meds and resting a lot, the lies find their home in my heart rather easily.

 

Fortunately, I am not alone in this battle.  While I wish I was quicker to remember this each time, the Holy Spirit's presence in my soul does help me to recognize these lies for what they are.  In fact, over the past two years, I believe he has given me some reliable weapons against them.

 

I use the weapon of gratitude to combat self-pity.  When I feel broken or crushed by my losses, I count my blessings.  This sounds cliche', but it is vital to not slipping into despair.  My husband, my boys, my family, my friends, my students, my salvation, my health, my passions, my love of nature and books and food and movies all far outweigh any of my complaints.  And even if all of my list disappeared (which I cannot even fathom), I know that my salvation from eternal death and promise of eternal life would still be enough to cause me to praise God.  For even after Paul lost EVERYTHING, he said, "to live is Christ, to die is gain" (Phil. 1.21).

 

I use the weapons of joy and truth to combat insecurity and self-doubt.  The truth is that even on my darkest days, God gives me at least one moment when my heart overflows with joy.  When I woke up from this last surgery, I was in intense pain.  The nurses were working hard to find the right combo of pain meds to give me relief, and Ryan was holding my hand and trying to distract me.  It wasn't until around 2:00am the next morning that I started to feel a break from the pain, but during those long hours, I had to keep telling Ryan to stop making me laugh because it hurt.  My sweet husband's sense of humor has given every trial we've been through a level of light-heartedness that has often baffled the medical professionals around us. In those hours before I felt relief, this filled me with joy and reminded me that joy is God's gift to me because he loves me. How can I doubt myself when the God of the universe gives me such beautiful gifts during storms of pain?

 

And the truth I have been using to fight my insecurity is fairly new.  As I stand in front of the mirror and examine my new and very intense scars, I have stopped seeing my body as mangled.  Instead, I see the map of survival.  My body has made it through NINE surgeries these last two years!  That is so impressive.  God has brought me back to health NINE times!  So even though I have been discouraged by how slow this new recovery has gone, I can see the proof in my older scars that I will heal.  And how can I not see the beauty in my body, when every gash is a testimony to God's healing?  Even my not-flat-enough stomach is evidence that God has blessed me with the ability to carry three boys into this world.  I have started to see the strength represented in each stitch and stretch instead of the "damage."

 

Finally, I use the weapon of what the Bible says about who God is to combat all the other lies.  The truth is, the first lie is not a lie at all.  I really am small.  When Job finally gives into his friends and asks God why all of this turmoil has befallen him, God doesn't really answer his question.  Instead, God gives Job a glimpse of His power and workings in the universe (Job 39-41 are a truly awe-inpsiring read).  Job answers, "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted...Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know" (Job 42:2-3).  I am really small in the big picture of God's power and his plan for the universe, but I have gotten to benefit from the most beautiful part of his plan: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).  While I am small, I am not worthless.  In fact, God deemed that I was worth Jesus' life.  

 

In light of Satan's most recent attack on my heart, I have realized a new weapon: preparedness.  I know that Satan is going to come for me when I am weak and tired, and so I can prepare myself with scripture, communing with fellow believers, and spending my time in service to others and God.  I can ask forgiveness for not clinging to gratitude, joy, truth, and what the Bible says about God at the first hint of these lies and move forward in the light of those gifts from the God who loves me and would never lie to me.

 

May God protect you from the lies that easily find their way in your heart.  May you cling to gratitude, joy, truth, and scripture.  And may you see yourselves as beautiful, vitally important children of God.