Derailed

We became empty nesters last August. Because I feared boredom and purposelessness – as well as the fact my medications cost an astronomical amount and my employment offers better prescription coverage – I decided to go back to work full-time. Additionally, after shelving my career for 20 years to raise kids, I was excited to get back into nursing – especially psychiatric nursing.

At least that’s what I told people.  

Another truth is this: I had a big ‘ole chip on my shoulder. I was hell-bent on proving that I physically had what it takes to work a fulltime job like any other healthy 53 year old.

And I did it. I showed myself and the world I can work full-time. But I am definitely not healthy.

I also proved I was living in denial.

The truth is I have a lung-sucking disease and working full time has nearly been the death of me. I kept the job afloat, but nothing else. For seven months I’ve basically done two things: work and sleep. With zero energy left after a day of work, and every day home spent sleeping, I soon felt the sting of deteriorating relationships. I didn’t Skype my kids as much as I/they wanted to. I didn’t spend near enough time with my mom – our last living parent – and I missed her. I had no energy for lunch dates with friends or volunteering in our neighborhood.

Although my pulmonologist says exercise is essential for protecting the last bit of healthy lung tissue I have left, I’ve had no energy to do that either. On top of all THAT, I’m now probably damned to hell, too, because I only went to church ONCE that whole time of working so much.

And maybe, just maybe, the worst part was this:  I stopped writing.

SMELLY PEOPLE GOT ME BACK ON TRACK                                                      

I recently scooted in to my neighborhood Dollar Store that’s sandwiched between an Iraqi-owned liquor store and a Psychic Angel who takes walk-ins. I was running late (surprise!) and I sighed in frustration when I got to the counter and was fourth in line. (The Dollar Store is not typically known for it’s speedy checkout, if you didn’t know…) First in line was a toothless woman, smacking her gums, buying a full week’s worth of groceries. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? The next lady sported a good five-day bed-head, wore pink footed pajamas underneath her coat and boots, and was purchasing four 2-liters of Mountain Dew. AT 9:30 IN THE MORNING??? The guy just ahead of me was lugging his oxygen tank, breathing like Darth Vader, and buying cough syrup, cough drops and fever medicine. LORD, PLEASE LET THIS NOT BE CORONA!!!

My three compatriots smelled like cigarettes, booze, bacon, and body odor.

I rolled my eyes and checked my watch. These neighbors of mine who shop at the Dollar Store to meet all their needs were making me (more) late. I was angry and somewhat disgusted with them. Then the old man ahead of me turned around, and with twinkling eyes and a smile said: “Good thing no one’s in a hurry.” His breath was so hideous I nearly fainted. But God used all those smells to reorient me.

A few years ago, when we moved to the city, I chose my new grocery store in an unorthodox manner. There are two lovely stores close to our home – always clean, well-stocked, nice checkout clerks. But just to the north, through the roughest part of our neighborhood, is one of Michigan’s oldest Meijer stores – but it doesn’t smell quite right. There have been murders in the parking lot. With my first visit, I immediately knew this would be my new “home” store.

Paul was inquisitive about this decision and I explained, “We came here for diversity. I don’t want to smell perfume and flowers when I go shopping, I want to smell humanity.”

Standing in line at the Dollar Store I was struck by how derailed I’ve been. THESE three in line ahead of me are my people! These are the people we moved here for! These are the smells I love because it represents REAL people with REAL needs and REAL hurts. I don’t want to live in a fake utopia. I want to live in the real world and be constantly reminded of the reality of suffering. That is why we moved to Grand Rapids – to DO LIFE with these neighbors.

More than anything, we moved to the city so we could encounter people not like us and spend time with them and learn from them. The LAST thing I wanted to be was too busy, too important, or too good to love them! The LAST thing Paul and I ever wanted to be were typical rat-race-suburbanites simply transplanted to the city and subsequently disgusted with the people around us!

I had been derailed! I forgot who I was!

REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE, AND WHOSE YOU ARE

Feeling fairly healthy these last seven years, I’d forgotten a bargain I’d made with God. When I was first diagnosed with LAM, I had told God I’d live my life solely investing in the lives of others if he’d just give me 10 more years to live. But as time progresses and it appears maybe I’ve drawn the long stick with this LAM disease and might even live considerably longer than 10 years, I forgot about living my life with total intentionality. Sure, I can make good money working, but there’s not a damn thing I want in this life that money can buy.

And then – dang – if God didn’t use ZEPHANIAH of all books to speak to me this week: “I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.”

I had made plenty of “silver and gold” during my derailment, but I’m terrified of the thought of my entrails spread out like dung because I had chosen money over matter.

THE BEAUTY OF DERAILMENT

However, the good news is this: derailment does not have to mean train wreck. It doesn’t mean all is lost. It doesn’t mean throw in the towel or burn it all down. The beauty of derailment is that, if we’re willing, it can be corrected.

God never moves, but sometimes we do. His train tracks are eternally secure, we just sometimes veer off them. But he is always patient with us and will wait as long as it takes for us to get back on track.

“Let us examine and probe our ways, and let us return to the Lord.” Lamentations 3:40

“And I am confident of this very thing, that he who begun a good work in you will be faithful to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Phillipians 1:6

So I’m back to volunteering, spending time with friends and family, and taking long walks with Paul while we solve the world’s problems. And I’m back to writing again.

Here we go!

(p.s. If you want to stay informed of my book progress, please sign up with your e-mail address on my website so you can receive my newsletter updates and prayer requests)

How To Find Purpose For Your Pain

This is what the road in front of my house looks like. It’s dirty, disgusting, loud and annoying. And it’s been going on all summer. But I couldn’t be more relieved to have the road crew here.

They are saving my life.

HOW FLINT SAVED GRAND RAPIDS

Before 2014, American’s never concerned themselves with clean water. That’s an African problem, we believed. It took the Flint crisis of 2014 to wake us up to the devastation caused by unclean water. It took the death of 12 people and another 84 people contracting a waterborne illness for us to realize the severity of this issue and finally speak up.

Because the brave people of Flint chose to speak up and fight this atrocity against a system stacked against them, cities across the nation had a wake-up call.

GRAND RAPIDS, TOO?

At the beginning of the summer we were notified our street would be ripped up and under construction for five months due to lead pipes that needed to be changed out. We had zero clue that our drinking water might have been compromised. But Grand Rapids chose to preemptively address a potentially hazardous situation so we wouldn’t become the next FLINT.

The good people of FLINT have suffered for 5 years as they’ve battled for the basic human right of clean water. But BECAUSE OF THEIR SUFFERING, I didn’t have to. Growing children in our neighborhood won’t suffer debilitating effects from lead exposure. Unborn babies on our street won’t have preventable birth defects due to lead their mommas unknowingly ingested. I can’t explain the gratitude I feel toward the whole city of FLINT.

Quite often, our pain and suffering, can be used to bring good to others.

Because maybe sometimes we have to suffer so others don’t have to.

AND HERE’S THE THING: IT’S TRUE FOR ALL OUR SUFFERING!

I was promiscuous in college. It was the darkest, most painful season of my life. But I made it even worse by keeping it a secret for 12 years. It wasn’t until I shared my past with my husband that we were able to work through the pain and suffering and find wholeness and redemption on the other side.

Now, I tell everyone who will listen about that worst season of my life.

WHY? Because it’s the ONLY WAY my pain gets redeemed! If I can help to prevent just one young person from taking the same dangerous path I took, it gives my pain purpose.

No one wants to suffer. And Christians are notorious for trying to convince us we don’t have to. (You know, “Just-follow-Jesus-and-you-will-never-suffer-again). But it’s a lie. Jesus was very clear on the subject: “In this world you will have trouble and suffering, but have courage, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

We will suffer. But the story does NOT have to end there.

LESSONS FROM A WOUND

As a nurse, I’ve learned the only way a deep wound can heal is with debridements – frequent and consistent cleanings with removal of infectious tissue. Deep wounds require light, air, and debridements. If you cover them up and leave an infectious deep wound alone, the infection will spread and kill you.

The same is true for the painful, dark parts of our lives.

We can always choose to cover those parts up – refusing to expose them to light and cleansing – but that’s how they’ll slowly kill us.

THANK-YOU FLINT PEOPLE!

Can you imagine if the crisis in FLINT was covered up and never exposed? As someone on immunosupressants, it wouldn’t be long before lead ingestion would have made me terribly sick. And probably all across America people would be unknowingly drinking dirty water.

Likewise, if I never shared with my kids the pain and suffering I caused in our marriage because of the terrible choices I made in college, my own kids might have suffered the same fate. How tragic!!! I refused to let that happen!!! So I put the fear of God in my kids regarding premarital sex – hoping and praying they could hold off until marriage. I may have carried it wee bit too far when my daughter recently confided, “Mom, You were so anti-boys and dating, I was honestly terrified of my first kiss!”

Anyway, my point is this: Do NOT hide your pain and suffering. Share it at the appropriate times, in the appropriate places, and with the appropriate people so that others may learn from your pain and, if possible, avoid it themselves.

It’s such a tangible way to spread LOVE to our brothers and sisters on this planet.

“Suffering ceases to be suffering when we find meaning for it” Viktor Frankl

God of the City

IMG_6254Last week our car had its front window shot out (yes, as in, with a gun) while parked in the street in front of our house. At least 10 other neighbors had their cars hit as well and we had to call the police and fill out police reports and we were all late for our morning commitments.

No houses or people were hit, so that’s good. And just four hours and fifty dollars later, we had a new window put in.

It’s the city. These things happen.

 

What is God’s Country?

I grew up in rural west Michigan and figured I had no choice but to live in a rural setting forever. Afterall, everyone called it “God’s country” and I certainly didn’t want to live anywhere God wasn’t.

A thousand twists and turns later and Paul and I find ourselves living in the heart of Grand Rapids. Not the worst neighborhood of our city, but (clearly) not the best either.

I realize that if one has the resources to choose where they live, debating over which locale is best (city, suburbs, country) is completely arbitrary because it’s purely personal preference. We didn’t have to move to the city. We could have stayed in the burbs and we could have stayed at our “big dream house” that we had built in the country. We chose city life.

And now, we have found a spiritual-ness to city life that proves God dwells powerfully here, too.

 

10 Ways We See God in the City:

1 – In the city, we have met people from all kinds of different race, religion, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds from our own. Whenever I hear someone (usually caucasian) ranting about issues/problems with blacks, gays, Muslims, the poor, immigrants, pro-choice, pro-life, atheists, Democrats, Republicans, etc. I will ask them, “Do you know any? Like, do you HANG OUT with anyone from (that particular people group)?” If they reply “Well, not exactly”, I won’t listen any further. If we do not know people who are different from us, we do not have the right to talk about what “they” are like, what “they” do or think or feel. When we made close friends with many Muslims in Morocco, our entire view shifted from what we previously thought or believed about Islam. It is imperative to truly KNOW the “other” before commenting (or worse, ranting) about them and their perceived impact on your own existence. I believe we’re extremely misguided to derive our opinions from Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow.

 

2 – In the city, we drive down bumpy, neglected roads as we take in broken street lights, graffiti, and panhandlers. These serve as a constant reminder that the world is not a perfect place and no matter how hard we strive to curate perfection in our lives (whether by beautifully perfect homes, perfectly edited Instagram feeds, perfectly manicured lawns, etc. ) the truth is, PERFECTION is for heaven and this world is broken. Most of the world suffers unspeakable pain, hurt, loss and brokenness and we MUST NOT forget that truth. For me, I need the daily reminder the city offers.

 

3 – In the city, we see people. People are seen out walking, hanging out at bus stops or street corners, or just visiting one another on their front porches. People in the city don’t drive their cars into their houses (as once described to me by a little Moroccan boy who couldn’t fathom the phenomenon of “garages”), but instead, we park on the street and SEE one another with every coming and going. When Paul and I were younger we sought to escape others, now we seek them and the city just works better for that.

 

4 – We hear church bells in the city.

 

5 – I can hear my neighbors conversations if both our homes have the windows open. Living in the city means you watch your language more carefully. It’s like having a built-in accountability partner.

 

6 – We have nuns playing soccer with the students across the street during Catholic-school recess. I don’t care who you are – if you’re having a bad day, watching nuns play soccer with little kids will just make you happy. It’s like having Julie Andrews out your front window.

 

7 – We may get our cars shot at once and awhile, but you know what? It brought us all out onto the street that morning and we learned the names of a few neighbors we hadn’t met and we all banded together with common loss and concern and empathy. It’s through the hardships that we truly bond with one another. I don’t believe in seeking hardships, but I also don’t think cocooning ourselves in an attempt to avoid life’s hardships is the life God desires for us either.

 

8 – Living amongst those from a lower socio-economic status serves as a daily reminder to not become lovers of money. It’s so dang easy for us to believe we need more, more, more. But when I am surrounded by those who have less, I have to really wrestle with my spending habits and discern if I really need those new throw pillows more than Julie down the street needs diapers for her children.

 

9 – Living in the city you do not need to waste your money on marijuana. If the situation calls for it, you can just stroll over to the park and inhale a big enough whiff to get a little buzz for free.

 

10 – In the city, you can get REAL tacos from little hole-in-the-wall taco stands that serve REAL corn-flour tortilla shells. You’ll never be able to eat a flour tortilla shell again (Gross. Just gross.)

 

But is it SAFE?

 

I don’t particularly care for people driving down my street shooting at our cars (or shooting at anything, for that matter), but I LOVE what Mrs. Beaver said to Lucy in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” when Lucy asked if Aslan was safe:

 

She said, “Of course He isn’t safe, child, but He is good.”

 

 

 

 

On Dying Slowly

IMG_4907.jpgOne of the lowest, crappiest things well-intentioned people say to you when they find out you have a terminal illness is this: “Well, you know, we’re all dying really.”

Of course we are. Nobody believes these bodies will last forever. But sometimes it just stinks to be me because someone gave me a TIME LINE. I feel like I have an expiration date written on my forehead of which healthy people know nothing about. When we’re healthy (I still remember those days fondly) we don’t really think about dying. In fact, we live as if we’re immortal. While disease free, I’m not sure it’s even possible to wrap our minds around the fact that someday IT will happen to ME…

At least I didn’t. I was living like I’d live forever. Eating shit. Wasting time. Worrying about stupid stuff. Having petty fights. Chasing things. Praying only when life got hard.

These were all things I was going to work on, “Someday”.

“Someday” came crashing down hard on me when “Someone” gave me that lifetime-timeline with an “approximate” end-date. Of course, no one knows EXACTLY when that end-date will be. But, more than likely, my life will be truncated dramatically by this stupid disease.

 

HOWEVER….

 

(In any story worth telling, there should always be a big HOWEVER, right?)

HOWEVER…. With only a few years since my diagnosis and the subsequent slowing down of my life, I’ve learned about a million new things that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

 

1) Dying slowly provides opportunities to do some life editing.

When people die suddenly (at least those who are past their prime) we humans like to console one another and say stupid stuff like: “Well, at least he didn’t have to suffer”, or “What a wonderful way to go –one moment on earth, the next moment with Jesus.”

I get why they say that stuff. Truth is, no one knows what to say to the dying or the grieving. We all just clamor for a few words and they always come out sounding stupid.

What I do know from my own experience is that when you find out your life may be cut short by an illness, but not immediately, you are left with a lot of time to think.

Some people, upon learning their days are numbered, might run out and get busy, busy, busy – doing all the things they’ve always wanted to do and seeing all the people they’ve ever known. Not me. I’ve SLOWED way down. I’m sleeping more (a holy activity, if you ask me), I’m praying more, watching nature more, sitting quietly on my porch and just thinking more, and doing LESS of the things that people generally ascribe importance to in their lives: work, entertainment, social engagements, etc.

Some days, every breath feels so incredibly holy that I just want to sit in silence and savor it. I want to thank God for every inhale and exhale and I don’t want to miss that opportunity by being busy. Dying has put God right in my face and being busy makes me feel like a shmuck because I can so easily ignore Him.

And so I think God gave me the opportunity to die slowly in order to ditch some baggage and edit my life down to a quieter, slower, better version of myself.

 

2) Dying slowly gave me new eyes to see things I’d previously overlook.

The tree outside my office window (the reclaimed crack-room) had small buds for leaves one day, and on the VERY NEXT DAY they grew an INCH! Yes, I measured!!! An INCH, my friends, in less than 24 hours!!! Do not tell me there is no God.

Squirrels can actually mate on the run. It’s true. I watch them do it on the regular from my little crack-room-office.

Whenever Yulisa is excited or has exciting news to share with me her right eyebrow pops up just a little higher than her left one. If her emotion is better described as happiness, then her eyebrows stay even.

There is a very disheveled man who meanders through the parking ramp of my downtown market every Tuesday and begs people for money. Only on Tuesdays. And he smells like homelessness and his shoes have holes in them. The first time I stopped, looked him in the eye, and told him I’d buy him some bread and apples, he looked directly back and me and said, “Thank-you. And Thank-you for noticing me.”

 

3) Dying slowly gives you time to say all the things you’ve meant to say, or should have said, or simply haven’t said well in the past, to all the people you love the most. 

I’ve got some work to do on this yet – but I’m glad I still have more time to do it. I’ve tried to reach out to all the people I knew I had hurt or at least fell short on my end of the relationship responsibilities and I’ve asked for forgiveness. I know there’s more out there, and I hope I can talk to them all eventually.

My sister Heidi had 13 months from diagnosis ‘til heaven – and she was very sick and battling fiercely the entire time. She was robbed of the chance to leave much of a written “love letter” for her family regarding their futures. I’m still mad at God for that. So I’m trying to write down all the things I’d most likely say to my kids when I’m in my 60’s, 70’s, 80’s – just in case I don’t see those decades. I also want to address my future sons-in-law and future grandchildren in case I never get to meet them.

 

 

I think if I spent a little more time on my porch quietly thinking I could expand this list to at least 25 things – because OF COURSE there are more than THREE things that dying slowly has taught me. But they say blogs should never be more than 1000 words…. Whoever “they” are must know that you, the reader, are losing interest right about now….

I’ll just say this: Dying sucks always. Dying immediately like my cousin Zac at 23 in a tragic car accident, or my friend’s father by heart attack, or the lady down the street who’s husband passed in his sleep leaving her with 10 kids – those situations suck WAY worse than mine. I have found some solace in dying slowly and I’m trying to make the most of it. 

Do not feel sorry for me. But instead, thank God for all the ways He uses evil in this world to draw others toward HIM!!! I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tale of Two Porches

The Impressive White Wrap-Around Porch:

I was thrilled when I was dreamed into life. Every component of the home knows there are two of us that carry the most weight and significance: the kitchen table – where our people gather to share, grow, and learn to love; and the front porch – where our people interact and love on the world around them.

Being an exceptionally beautiful, deep, wrap-around porch, I had some serious expectations from my family. Since they had four children, I envisioned them using me for playing games on summer evenings, for catching fireflies, for playing guitar and singing songs, and rocking their babies to sleep on my rocking chairs. But they never did any of those things.

The Mrs. decorated me for every season and for every holiday. I was a stunner. She spared no expense. I didn’t mind – but it’s not what I was made for. It was like being all dressed up with nowhere to go. With each passing year, I hoped the family would slow down enough to enjoy me. I hoped they would see how vital it is to be out in the front of the home, to wave to cars passing by, to chat with the neighbors, and to just sit for a spell and enjoy each other. But they never did.

My Mr. and Mrs. were busy people. Their cars flew up and down the driveway many, many times a day. I never understood what they were so busy chasing, but they were chasing something for sure. I thought the kids looked tired, but Mr. and Mrs. kept a fast pace nevertheless. I never knew where the kids were much of the time – but I often saw the Mr. and Mrs. working hard in their yard. They mowed that huge lawn every few days – hours and hours and hours of mowing. They were always vacuuming the pool, tending the landscaping, washing cars, waxing the boat, etc. The kids had four-wheelers, bikes, golf carts, motorcycles – basically anything they asked for. But to me, it just seemed like the more things they bought, the more they had to take care of and the less time they had to relax and enjoy me. I thought they’d eventually exhaust themselves and sit on my rockers for a moment with a cold lemonade or beer. But they never did.

My owners lived in my big white house for nine years and I don’t ever remember them enjoying my beautiful view and just relaxing with me. Not ever. Not once.

One day, an old college friend stopped by to see my Mr. and Mrs. Immediately upon exiting his car, he condescendingly said, “Wow, now that’s an impressive home!” The Mrs., completely oblivious to his patronizing tone, said, “It is pretty, isn’t it?”

Suddenly I knew. She didn’t get it. She never did. The Mrs. never wanted a big wrap-around porch like me for the vital role I’m supposed to play in the home. She wanted me because I’d be impressive. That, I suppose, I did fairly well, too.

 

* * * * * *

 

The Old Rickety Porch:

I am over a hundred years old and I am tired. I am sagging on one end and many of the brick pavers of my floor are missing. The siding around my front door is peeled back and flaps in the wind. But I do not care about any of that and I will not complain – because I am a porch and I am doing the thing I was created for! I am the bridge between the inside of the home and the world outside. My owners LOVE to spend time out on their porch rockers and watch the world – the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world of the west side of Grand Rapids. It’s like they’ve never had a porch before – they can’t get enough of me! Even though they’re incredibly busy with careers and kids and aging parents and sickness and death, they come out here almost every evening, weather permitting.

Being a porch, I am privy to many interesting conversations. My Mr. and Mrs. have chatted out here with people from all over the world, discussing everything from immigration to gun violence to Jesus to the best wine. They must have lived in different countries, too, because they also talk about how stubborn they must be that in order to truly understand that people are more important than things God had to yank them half-way around the globe. They talk about how they used to live compared to how they live now and how they’ll never go back, even though they could easily afford it. I’ve overheard their remorseful accounts of all the years they wasted mowing lawns, vacuuming pools, washing cars and cleaning boats. I don’t know what they’re talking about – because they don’t do any of those things now.

Their kids – the marrieds and the singles – love to hang out with me, too. Sometimes, they’ll all reminisce about the “old days” when they had a great big wrap-around porch they never used. They’re able to laugh about it now. I’ve heard the Mr. and Mrs. thank God that their kids didn’t give up on them. I’ve heard them say how grateful they are to have learned before it was too late that spending time with their kids was more important than giving them stuff.

As soon as the snow disappeared, my Mr. and Mrs. were back out on my rocking chairs. Some evenings, the laughter from the high-spirited rugby game in the park across the street beckons them outside (even though they clearly cannot figure out rugby rules to save their lives). They love to talk to ALL the passersby – to pet the dogs, talk to the babies in strollers, or just offer a friendly “Hello – Have a great day!” They’ve befriended the college kids up the street, the older, slower gentleman who collects empty pop cans so he can buy Legos, the politician on the corner, and the homeless guy on his bike. They love to sit out here and talk to other neighbors sitting out on their porches; and because our homes are so close, it’s like we’re one big block-long porch anyway.

I’m thankful my Mr. and Mrs. get it. They understand the two most important parts of any home are the table for gathering the family to teach it how to grow in love; and the front porch, where the family extends that love to the world.

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