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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Does God Smell Like?

Unknown-2

 

It’s been six weeks since Heidi died. I have spent innumerable hours thinking about her in heaven. I like Revelation 7:9-17 best for a descriptive image of what she does with all her time. Without any cancer, suffering, work, eating, sleeping, etc. – just imagine all the time we’ll have for praising God in heaven!

 

But lately, for some odd reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about what things Heidi smells in heaven. I wonder if she now smells the way God smells – and I don’t mean in the sense as to what scent they give off, but how does God’s almighty and perfect olfactory sense work? What smells does He smell when he takes a whiff?

 

What is a pleasing aroma to God? What scents does He fill the heavens with? And therefore, what do the inhabitants of heaven smell when they take a whiff?

 

I have a friend* who has, for as long as I’ve known her, worn the same perfume. She must really like the scent. I think it smells like a hideous combination of mosquito repellent and my grandma’s bathroom spray.  Which I find curious.

 

I have another friend* who has severe haliotosis. I take a (hopefully) subtle small step back whenever we’re in conversation. Not-too-ironically, her husband is somewhat of a close-talker. Not only that, he’s also touchy-feely. He’s always hanging all over her – right up close – smelling that bad breath. Does he not notice? I wonder.

 

I know some other people* whose home smells like a decomposing animal. (We used to have packs of wild dogs roam our neighborhood in Morocco and they would sometimes fight to the death. I know all too well what a rotting dead animal smells like.) These are decent people who have regular jobs and clean their house and do laundry and such. I don’t think they’re hiding anything (taxidermy? Animal sacrifice???). But do they not notice the abhorrent smell of their home? I wonder.

 

All these things have made me wonder about our own human olfactory sense. Because, clearly, God has made us all to smell things differently. What seems abhorrent to one, seems decent, even lovely and pleasant to another. It’s incredible!

 

And so I wonder about God. Since He is GOD and the very CREATOR of the distinctly unique olfactory sense within each one of us, certainly His olfactory sense must be distinctly different from OURS!

 

And, interestingly, the Bible frequently talks about aromas. It is no secret that some are truly pleasing to God and others are not. Genesis 8:21, Leviticus 2:2, Leviticus 6:15, Ephesians 5:2, Ezekial 20:41, Isaiah 5:24, Ezekial 8:17.

 

So how do we know when we’re smelling that which perhaps God finds pleasing? Could it be we’re missing the divine in certain smells because we’re tripped up by our own noses?

 

I recently met a woman new to my neighborhood and she asked where I shop for groceries. I told her whenever I have enough time, I prefer Aldi’s because of the incredible savings. She pulled up her nose and said she refuses to shop there. “It stinks,” she said.

 

I know what she means. Aldi’s has a distinct smell. It smells like busy, haggard single moms trying to make ends meet. It smells like daycare. It smells like tired and worn out dads working two physically laborious jobs. It smells like people forced to view deodorant, shampoo and soap as luxuries. It smells like families who have chosen to eat over getting the washing machine fixed. It smells like humanity – real live people working hard to make it in this life and that includes shopping at Aldi’s. I wondered: What if the Aldi’s scent is a pleasing aroma to God because of all it represents?

 

Does God maybe even prefer the smell of Aldi’s to that of the fancy grocery store on the other side of town that pumps a new-baked cookie smell down every aisle to encourage over-spending and over-consumption?

 

Does God smell those differences and do they represent the differences in humanity to Him?

 

A few years ago, a dear friend and I traveled to Guatemala together. In awe of returning to the country we both love so much, we walked through the airport terminal in silence. When we reached the lobby, we simultaneously set our bags down. In a totally unplanned moment, we both breathed in deep and let the smells of Guatemala fill our nostrils. I said, “I love this smell.” She said, “Me, too.”

 

Guatemala smells like one part exhaust, two parts green chilis, three parts burning rubbish, and four parts body odor. I would imagine many human nostrils would not find it pleasant. But to me, it represents the birthplace of my daughter, the multiple service-learning trips we have taken there and also, some of the most poor, hard-working, and forgotten people on the planet. I love their smell, because it reminds me of them.

 

I wondered – does God love their smell, too? Could it be God loves the smell of Guatemala, Burundi, Haiti, and the Congo (just to name a few) because He is always close to the poor, the broken, the downhearted?

 

I wonder if God is drawn to the funky smells of this earthly home – simply because that’s where the majority of His hurting people are. Slums of Mumbai. Garbage city of Cairo. La Limonada of Guatemala. Under the highway overpass. Mission for the homeless (in your city and in mine). And millions of other places most of us are unaware exist.

 

Our family has lost four beloved family members in just a little more than a year. I have been at the bedside for each one in their last few days here on earth. Repeatedly, in those final days, those of us gathered at the bedside would comment that it felt like our loved one had one foot on earth and one foot in heaven. That space – that liminal space between heaven and earth, life and death, old body and new, is probably the most holy space I’ve ever had the privilege to enter. And there is a distinct smell in that holy of holies. I wonder if that is because they start to smell like heaven.

 

I do not believe heaven will smell like lilacs, Estee Lauder Cinnabar, or lavender fields. Some people might like those things (me), but certainly, there are those who do not!

 

I think heaven has a smell all it’s own and just like most things in heaven – it will surprise us.

 

* In order to protect the innocent, I have changed some vital information so that there is virtually no way anyone could figure out who I am talking about here.  I may or may not have changed the gender of the referred upon.  I may or may not have been referring to more of an acquaintance than a long-time friend.  I may or may not have been referring to someone from my past (or present).  I may or may not have been referring to someone deceased (or alive).  Even Paul, who should know these stories well, could not guess who I was referring to.  So rest easy, all my friends – it’s not you…

 

 

 

We accidentally bought a crack house – and soon found ourselves addicted, too.

There is a spiritual heaviness in our upstairs back porch and all the praying people who walk through the place can feel it.

Our college-aged sons who have done their share of watching “Breaking Bad” and have lived in plenty of sketchy neighborhoods quickly identified the telltale signs of a crack room: excessive amounts of electrical outlets, burn marks and beaker shaped cut-outs on the long built-in counter, and an oddly located, poorly constructed, pad-locked closet. Our next door neighbor says the porch was actually a meth lab. The probation officer who keeps stopping by to find the former renters won’t tell us exactly what went on this house, but obviously, some of it was criminal. So we can’t be sure if it was meth or crack or both – but we’ve affectionately dubbed the porch: the “crack room.”

So now we know what to look for when questioning if a home is being used as a drug dispenser – which is not exactly a resume-building skill…

But even better than learning a few things about the drug trade, buying a crack house in the city, surprisingly, gave us a new appreciation for crack and we, too, are now addicted. Here’s how:

  • At the “crack” of dawn, the Catholic church around the corner rings it’s bell nearly 20 times. It is to remind Christians to pray the Lord’s prayer. And this is done three times a day, all over the world, at most Catholic churches. It reminds our family of Morocco’s call to prayer – and because Morocco still feels like “home”, the church bells help to make us feel more at home here in Grand Rapids. Sadly, there were no Catholic churches in the very-Protestant suburbia we left behind and we never heard church bells.
  • I “crack-up” whenever I hear the lion’s roar from the zoo across the street. Some people get to have horses and hot tubs on their properties. Others have tennis courts,  swimming pools, and lake-front beaches. We get to have lions.
  • Renovating this old house proved to me that plumber’s “crack” is no joke. Neither is electrician’s “crack”, carpenter’s “crack”, dry-wall guy’s “crack” or floor-guy’s “crack”. I mused at the fact that men love to look at the “crack” formed between women’s breasts, yet I found myself totally grossed out by the simple rear-crack of man’s anatomy. I still decided to take a peek every time anyway – purely for retribution…
  • There is a large “crack” in the plaster in our living room that we chose to not fix, but just painted over instead. It’s an every day reminder of my dear friend, Kathy, who painted that wall. And the day she selflessly came and helped me paint was such a beautiful picture of the body of Christ. We were NOT going to make our goal and get the house done before moving in, so all sorts of people with different talents stepped in and helped us and it totally saved the day and our sanity. We were never meant to do this life alone, folks. We are all just parts of the whole – and we really do need each other.
  • We share a driveway with our neighbors. In the “crack” dividing our two lanes, weeds are growing rampant – some nearly knee-high – but neither of us care. And I love it that there is no pressure here in the city to “keep up with the Joneses’”. Seasonal flowers and manicured lawns and fancy cars and new furniture and vacations are all luxuries – and here, we don’t freak out so much if those things don’t happen. We don’t feel judged. It’s very different here than in the burbs – and it simply suits us better.
  • When I sit on my porch and watch people walk by from every race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background, I “crack” a smile. Something about being surrounded by great diversity draws Paul and I closer to God. We see HIM bigger when we are reminded of how BIG his heart is for ALL people.img_2474
  • When I drive anywhere from here, I usually encounter at least one beggar – and my heart “cracks”. But it was our choice to live in that tension. We want to be reminded every day of our blessings – and also to daily ask ourselves what our responsibility is to serve the poor and oppressed.
  • And lastly, renovating this house nearly “cracked” the foundation of our marriage. When things were at an all-time low, when we had spent so much time on the crazy-cycle – you know, the disrespecting, cutting, jabbing, eye-rolling, shouting – that it had somehow become our norm, when we had both reached a point where we wondered if our marriage was going to survive, there was this day – this ONE day…. Paul came home from work and I just happened to be going out the door as he came in, and he “cracked” a little smile, and there was something about the little creases that form in the corner of his eyes when he smiles that reminded me of the 18-year-old that I fell in love with over 34 years ago. That little “crack” of a smile reminded me that life is a journey – and he and I have been on a great one. It reminded me that every great journey requires challenges. Every great story must have obstacles for the heroes and heroines to overcome. Every great life is precipitated by lessons learned through hard times – for it’s only through the hard things that we can be sharpened to greatness. It reminded me that, just like the sun after a storm, or birthing a child after 12 hours of labor, or forgiveness after being wronged, or Jesus Christ’s resurrection after death,  a light always shines brighter against a backdrop of darkness.

His “crack” of a smile was the subtlest of reminders that everything was going to be okay.  We will shine bright again.

Testing our marriage to the very brink of breaking has been the most powerful lesson the “crack house” taught us – because in spite of satan’s attempts to destroy us, we still found God faithful. We still knew, that anchored IN HIM, we were gonna be okay.  And just like our marriage, the “crack house” doesn’t look too shabby anymore:img_2473

So now we wake up every day thankful for this new (to us) home, this new beginning, and new challenges.

In the words of the wise Helen Keller, “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”

Why I’d give booze/drug money to a beggar:

 

n_hudley_homeless500x279

*He was 5 years old when his mother’s boyfriend sodomized him. When he was 7, the people that lived in his house threw a party where everyone got stoned – so stoned, in fact, that they passed the boy around as their sex toy. A year later, he started smoking weed, too, just to escape the pain. When he was 10, he raped an 8 year-old girl because he thought that was normal behavior. When he was 11, his mom’s latest fling prostituted him  for drug money. At 12, the boy sold his first Ziploc baggie of marijuana. The money kept him from being pimped-out that weekend.  It also offered him a way to escape the pain of his beatings from the boyfriend – by remaining high himself. It wasn’t long and cocaine became the drug of choice. Because he knew of no other way to get through a day, he was soon addicted. He ran away from home at 14. He was incarcerated at 15. His repeated drug offenses combined with his tendency to steal money for drugs were more than any of his extended family or friends could take. He had burned every familial bridge and lost every friend he’d ever made by the time he was 16.

 

By the age of 18, he was a homeless, drug-addicted, high-school dropout with a record of two felonies and five misdemeanors. He couldn’t find a job to save his life.

 

At 19, after a failed suicide attempt, he was admitted to the psych-hospital where I work. It was his third attempt in three weeks. He was diagnosed with “Severe Depressive Disorder, Drug Abuse Associated.” He was done. He wanted out of this hell-hole that many of the rest of us like to call “the good life.”*

 

After he was discharged from the psych-hospital, I saw him begging on the corner of US-131 and Wealthy Street on a frigid, snowy Saturday. I was pretty sure if I gave him money, he’d use it for drugs.  Drug-abuse is the only effective coping skill he’s ever known. It’s what keeps him from attempting suicide EVERY day. I knew that seeing him alive meant he was numbing his pain with drugs – otherwise he’d surely be dead.

 

I gave him money.

 

But it didn’t make me feel good about myself. I felt a pit in my stomach. It’s such a cheap way out of helping the poor, the needy, or hurting. It’s so freakin’ easy to roll down the window and throw someone some cash, isn’t it? Or maybe we’ll opt to take the even easier path and keep the window rolled up tightly, lock the doors, and tell the kids in the backseat, “You see those beggars? They’re scammers. They just use that money for drugs and alcohol. You shouldn’t give money to beggars because they never use it for food or rent. I even read somewhere that sometimes beggars make more per year than daddy does!”

 

We are a busy people – we American Christians – with a million things to do just today.  So instead of parking the car, walking over to him, shaking his dirty hand, and offering the beginning of a nurturing relationship by taking him out for lunch – we either snub him or flip him a few quarters.

 

Getting out of the car and hearing his story will take time. It will take energy. It will take enormous emotional capital. And it will probably take a hellava lot of money (more than a few quarters) to help this guy. Investing in him may take years. Maybe the rest of your life. You will get dirty, tired and frustrated. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s probably the ONLY way you’ll make a difference in this boy’s life and – I’m just guessing here – it’s probably what Jesus would do.

One life at a time.  That’s how we can make a difference.  Just one at a time.  We get out of the car and make a difference.

 

There is simply NO POSSIBLE WAY that we can know a beggars situation simply by observing them on the street corner. There is NO WAY we can know what hell their life has been to bring them to this place. Why is it so easy to assume they are taking advantage of us (we who are sitting in our warm cars) instead of assuming life has beat them into this state of desperation? And when we drive by and refuse them any help at all because of the possibility they are taking advantage of us, we are passing sweeping judgments on all beggars.

 

But today, as I see my friend begging on the overpass, I’m in too much of a hurry. I don’t have time to park my car and chat with him. I wish I did. Because THAT is the only way to truly know and understand his circumstances. It’s the only way to have any hope of offering real, practical, and sustainable help.

 

So on this day, if I refuse to park my car and go talk to the young man, I must choose between the two lesser options: do nothing and drive on by risking that without drugs or alcohol to numb his pain he’ll try to take his life again, or give him money that I know he will use to buy drugs.

 

I’m going to choose to support his drug habit today. And I pray that I will continue simplifying my life to free up time, money and energy so I can actually INVEST in hurting people. I want to be the kind of person that doesn’t put a band-aid on problems (giving money), but chooses to dig deep, work hard, and sacrifice much in order to find lasting solutions.

 

I want to be the one who parks the car and strolls on over for a conversation.

 

 

*This is a fictitious person – made from a composite of people’s stories I’ve heard over the years. Any resemblance to an actual person is entirely coincidental.   But people just like this boy really do exist in my city, in your city, in every city.  And they frequently show up at my psych hospital as suicidal.  Sadly, I’ve even heard more horrendous stories than this one.  Last Saturday, however, I really did give money to a beggar I personally knew at the highway overpass in Grand Rapids.