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The Best and Worst Christmases Ever

images            People love to reminisce of Christmases past. But for me, reflecting on past Christmases will always present a horror: It was Christmas morning, 2016, when we received the call that my youngest sister Heidi was in the hospital. It’s serious, they said. Come right away.

            That may always be our worst Christmas – discovering Heidi had glioblastoma brain cancer and was given a year or two to live. The following Christmas, Heidi made it to the party, but barely. She joined Jesus just two weeks later.

There is simply no JOY in that story. None. How do we as a family keep that memory from stealing our JOY this Christmas and every year to follow? I wasn’t so sure it was possible…

But, in spite of myself, I did some Christmas reflection – searching for Christmases past that would hopefully stir some joy-filled memories. This is what I remembered:

Our first Christmas living in France was life-altering and left a permanent imprint. Since it was our first time living abroad, I was clueless on what to bring from the states and never even considered Christmas decorations. It seemed so frivolous. But as that first Christmas rolled around, we soon realized our house looked sad. We had zero decorations and basically no budget to buy any.

We told the kids to lower their expectations for Christmas that year – things would be VERY different on the east side of the Atlantic. There wouldn’t be multiple family gatherings. There’d be no snow or skiing outings. There’d be no trips to the mall or shopping sprees. And there’d be no drives through wealthy suburbs to look at Christmas lights. In fact, because we used our life’s savings to live in France (which bottomed out quickly from the rapidly declining dollar value), we explained that funds just weren’t available for presents. We prepared them for a simpler Christmas where we’d just focus on Jesus’ birth.

The kids had become so used to things being different from “back home in Michigan” that the news didn’t create much of a stir.

But one day, it was crafty Grace who could take it no more and started making paper-chains. With zero colored paper, she just made one extremely long chain with white computer paper. On her insistence, but to my chagrin, I hung that chain across the long expanse of our family room/dining room. It looked pathetic – like a 4-year-old had made it – because one had.

Christmas was two weeks away and so far we had one lonely white paper-chain draped across the family room like a sagging clothesline. But I swallowed my Christmas pride and told Grace we needed several more paper chains to complete the look. She made eight more and once they were strung up, the whole family room/dining room had a white paper-chain canopy overhead and it looked kind of, well, wintery. It may also have looked like a third-grade classroom in a poor inner-city school district, but hey, it was something.

We couldn’t find a Christmas tree farm to save our provincial butts. So we tracked down a 4-foot potted Scotch pine at a local nursery and plopped it on a table in the corner. It would have given even Charlie Brown grief. However, I sat little Gracie down with more white computer paper strips and she made more paper-chains for the tree. We then strung popped popcorn to make more garland. The following day a family who was moving back to the states stopped over with a box of junk they couldn’t fit in their luggage. At the bottom of the box were two strings of white lights. Jesus loves me, this I know.

Next, I showed the kids how to make paper snowflakes. They plastered them all over our windows and French doors. If there had been Instagram back then my pics would have received many likes. The kids’ excitement was mounting.

Miraculously, we received two unexpected deliveries. First, a huge package in the mail containing gifts from my family in Michigan – one for each of our kids. There would be gifts on Christmas morning after all! Second, a whole suitcase of surprises arrived (carried over by a random Michigan acquaintance). It was sent with love from the Outreach Team at our church. Inside we found all sorts of Christmas wonder: gifts for each of us, Christmas cookie cutters, sprinkles and icing, Christmas movies, wrapping paper and gift bags, wooden ornaments, a rustic-looking table runner, and a wooden angel tree-topper. Adding those decorations to our white winter-wonderland made everything chic and modern-farmhouse-like. I am the OG Joanna Gaines…

On Christmas Day, we started the day with pancakes (because as long as you have flour, eggs, milk and baking soda, they taste the same on every continent), followed by a reading of the Christmas story – slowly this year – to fill the gap left from all the things that usually fill Christmas Day. Next, we opened those precious few gifts – again, much slower than Christmases past – savoring the meaning and thought behind each one.

That afternoon, we met up with another family and filled over 100 small bags with Christmas candy and a little piece of scripture that shared the good news that Jesus was born and still lives today! Our combined tribe of ten spent the whole afternoon passing out the candy bags to passers-by in the city of Aix. We laughed and sang and danced in the streets. We successfully made most of those serious French people smile! This– this act of love that we never would have had time for on a typical Michigan Christmas Day – this was truly the spreading of Christmas cheer.

Without fail, whenever asked about their favorite Christmas while growing up, all four of our kids will say their Christmas in France. It was the simplest Christmas ever – barely any gifts and no real parties – but the kids unanimously pick it as their favorite. Isn’t that telling?

My revelation has been this: from the worst of Christmases to the best of Christmases, it isn’t about where we are, who we are with, what things look like or taste like, or whether we receive the Fit-bit we asked for. And furthermore, it’s definitely NOT about what crisis we may be in the middle of. Christmas is ALL about Christ stepping IN TO those situations and circumstances and bringing us the same reminder and promise year after year after year – He is with us.

It’s really not the circumstances around us that define whether a Christmas is defined as a “good one” or a “bad one”. Even as I continue to grieve Heidi’s passing and I reminisce over special Christmases spent abroad, all I really need to know (all any of us really need to know!) to have the most JOYous of holidays is so simple (yet so easily missed) – it is the recognition of the power of the name: Immanuel.

Immanuel – God with us. When we know that, believe that, in live in that truth, Christmas is beautiful. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you’re going through, Jesus is our Immanuel. Rejoice!!!

 

 

Then Sings My Soul

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This is us – in France – because I’m determined to live “all-in” until God calls me home.

 

Five years ago today I found out I’m dying. People try to make me feel better by saying: “Aren’t we all?” But five years ago today, they told me I had a lung disease that would most likely take my life many years prematurely.

Since that dreadful pre-Thanksgiving day in 2013, I’ve learned a lot about LAM and so has the medical community at large. We’ve learned that early diagnosis improves prognosis and with increased awareness of this rare disease, we’re starting to diagnose sooner. Since being diagnosed, the FDA has approved a chemo-drug that slows down the progression of the disease. The drug sucks – I get all the side-affects – but I’m still thankful for it because it does seem to have slowed my case of this lung-sucking disease. Many women aren’t so fortunate – it seems younger women get a more progressive case of the disease and some have lost their lives only five years after diagnosis.

When I was first diagnosed, all the literature said 10 years was the average life expectancy with LAM. Now, with our new ass-kicking drug and earlier diagnosis, many are saying prognosis could be much longer – perhaps even 20 – 25 years! It all depends if you get the “fast track” or the “slow track”. I’ve never been very fast at anything, so I’m figuring my odds are good.

Plus, I feel great. I totally live my life with hardly any concessions. I’m more tired than I’d like to be, but that seems to be the pandemic American curse and so I’ll never know if that is LAM or life. I like naps, but who doesn’t? And my other middle-age friends (the honest ones, anyway), say they’ll steal a nap whenever they can, too! I cannot, however, climb too many stairs at a time and our four level home is soon to become an issue. I don’t know what the heck the deal is with stairs – I feel like I could climb a tree, but not stairs. It’s weird.

Five years ago I wrote about my initial reaction to getting LAM.  At the time, I thought I’d be fortunate if I were able to live 10 years. I am more optimistic today, but still look at every new year as a total gift – one God didn’t have to grant me.

Every day, every breath – a gift.

But I’m also reminded almost every day that I am not exactly healthy. The worst – the VERY worst thing about LAM thus far has been the slow revelation that I cannot sing like I used to. Last week in church the worship leader picked out the best, most awe-inspiring worship songs ever and as I tried to belt out the alto part, I lost my breath. A lot. I was gasping for air and had to stop singing. Then came a coughing fit. This now happens every week in church.

Those that know me best know how I adore music. It’s always playing in our home, my car, my head. When we built our dream home (that we later sold – to live more simply so others could simply live) I told my husband I wanted central stereo more than I wanted central plumbing! (He graciously granted me both.) I like ALL things musical – instrumental music, piano, orchestra, opera, concerts, musicals AND all genres of singers/bands. On one playlist I have Maroon 5, Queen, the Civil Wars, Lady Antebellum and Mercy Me – no joke. Our last two music concerts were Justin Timberlake and Ben Rector. If it has a musical note attached, I’ll listen. And, despite a ridiculous high probability I’ll get the words wrong, I’ll ALWAYS sing along!!!

The thing is, this past Sunday, when I lost my breath and couldn’t continue singing, we were smack-dab in the middle of Amazing Grace – the place in the song with that bone-tingling crescendo. You know it. No one can help but belt out this line: THEN SINGS MY SOUL, MY SAVIOR GOD TO THEE…

Did you hear that? How amazing is that??? My voice need not sing, because:

THEN SINGS MY SOUL!!!

Oh the joy I felt! My soul can sing! Forever and ever amen – NO DISEASE can ever stop my soul from singing!!

At that moment, I noticed that both my husband (to my left) and my daughter (to my right) were singing at the top of their lungs: THEN SINGS MY SOUL, MY SAVIOR GOD TO THEE…. A row behind us was a rich, full baritone voice harmonizing in the bass clef. Somewhere, very close by, because all I could do was listen at this point, I heard a powerful soprano singing at the top of her lungs. She gave me chills. And the “choir” surrounding me there in church seemed to be encircling me, saying, “No worries, Cindy, we got you covered.” They did not know it, but they were carrying me that day – they helped me feel and know the music and assured me that I always have been, and always will be able to say to my God: How Great Thou Art.

Even though, to us (our entire family), life feels like it may always be a series of loss upon loss upon loss from here on out, miraculously, there also seems to be an invisible net that keeps us from falling – splat – onto the cement bottom of life. With every loss, I truly anticipated the fall – hitting hard pavement – splayed out and bloody with zero chance of recovery.

But it never happened.

Somehow, some supernatural hand grabbed me from my belt loops and snatched me up and carried me back to the functioning world.

Many times I didn’t want to keep functioning. Sometimes I felt the darkness of depression sneaking in and it made me want to scream at people or at the very least, ignore them. Sometimes I wanted to stay in bed all day and pretend Heidi is still alive. Sometimes, still, I want to run and run and run and see if my lungs will explode. Sometimes I want to run far away and move to Aix-en-Provence, France and just pretend the problems of this world aren’t real. But that same supernatural hand that reached down and pulled me from certain pavement splattering, draws me back with supernatural power to life.

He tells me it will all be worth it in the end – that all this pain and suffering is not wasted if I choose to grow from it. He lovingly shows me all the things that make life worth living for – even if I can’t sing anymore. He sweetly reminds me that if I’m still living, then I’m supposed to be here.

Five years later. Another pre-Thanksgiving day – another reminder that my lungs are giving out on me. But it also reminds me that my soul shall never cease the singing of His praises. No one can ever snatch that away from me.

And for that, I can truly be thankful.

THEN SINGS MY SOUL,

MY SAVIOR GOD TO THEE,

HOW GREAT THOU ART,

HOW GREAT THOU ART

 

A View Into the Syrian Refugee Camps

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Is it time? Can I finally share about my experience in the Syrian refugee camps? I’ve patiently waited until the repugnant things surrounding our country’s midterm elections were over. But I was getting impatient…

People are literally dying as the richest and most powerful country in the world spends millions of dollars on campaigning and fighting over leadership roles. Can’t we all just agree that people shouldn’t die violent deaths? Can’t we all just agree that people shouldn’t have to flee their country just to stay alive? Can’t we all just agree that children, orphans, widows, and those being oppressed should be cared for? Even if we don’t agree on who delivers that care, we DO agree they need care, right???

A few weeks ago I went to Lebanon and worked with a medical and dental team to deliver health care to Syrian refugees living in camps in the Baqaa Valley. I’ll be honest, I’m a political junky and watch and read all the things – both left and right – always trying to figure out where I land…   So I can assure you, no one – and I mean NO ONE – was talking about the Syrian refugee crisis for the last two months. The biggest humanitarian crisis of our day and it’s not in the news?

ARE YOU KIDDING ME???

So I’d like to attempt to just give us a shot of reality in the arm:

Lebanon, a tiny country along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, with slightly more than 6 million people, now has within its borders over 1.5 million Syrian refugees. That’s one FOURTH of its population. That would be the equivalent of America taking in 81.8 million people (one fourth it’s population of 327.5 million). But, in reality, America has given a dismal 33,000 Syrians a place of refuge. That’s less than one ONE-HUNDREDTH of a percent! Does anyone else see a problem with this?

And whether we hear about it or not, the crisis definitely continues and is far from over. Every morning I would wake up and look east to the mountain range that separates Lebanon from Syria and shudder at the thought of what was happening just beyond my view. That very week, just over that mountain range, the Assad regime was pressing into the Idlib region of Syria with such force and violence that another million people or so were forced to flee.

We didn’t hear the gunfire, smell the fires, or personally feel any danger – but we didn’t need to in order to feel the reality of the tragedy. The traumatized faces of the Syrians gave us all the horrific details we needed to know.

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My first reaction to the refugee camps surprised me. They weren’t quite as bad as I feared they’d be. To be honest, in terms of blatant poverty and extreme living conditions, I’ve seen people in the world who have it worse – but that’s not really saying much. Those sleeping in the streets of La Limonada Guatemala, Egyptians living off their “finds” in Garbage City, and inhabitants of the vile slums of Mumbai would maybe be grateful to live in such “fine” structures as these Syrian refugees.

Make no mistake, this was squalor. But even squalor has an unspoken caste system.

The Syrian’s “fine” structures are self-constructed tents made from government issued tarps (taken from billboards, I presume, because the walls of every home looked somewhat like a Wal-Mart ad) and pieced together by flimsy strips of scrap wood. Doors didn’t exist. Or windows. Or furniture. Nor did I see any kitchens – or anything even resembling a place to cook. Some homes had cement slab flooring; others were dirt. I shuddered to imagine how they survive winters where temps dip down below freezing and snowstorms are common. I never saw a bathroom either, but certain smells from certain areas told me they probably just go “wherever”.

I was also surprised to hear most of these Syrian refugees were actually just squatters – pushing the limits of the “goodwill” of the Lebanese. They didn’t live in government, or UN sanctioned camps (in fact, only about 10% of all refugees do), but instead, they simply erected their little clusters of homes on the perimeter of farmland, along deserted streets, or wherever they could get away with it. Many farmers and landowners charged them rent, and most of the Syrian squatters were paying someone something for either use of land, water or electricity. Paying them with what? I wasn’t sure. These people truly had NOTHING.

I anticipated busting into tears upon seeing their living conditions. Surprisingly, I didn’t. However, what brought me to tears, time and time again, were the stories. We heard innumerable accounts of loss, devastation and unspeakable violence.

After a week of hearing hundreds of stories, there was no doubt that every single family had been traumatically affected by the atrocities of the Assad regime. Every single person we talked to had lost someone: mother, father, brother, sister, child, friend. Everyone knew of devastating loss. Usually by gunshot, burning, or slitting of the throat. Families were usually forced to watch the murders.

Can you imagine if EVERYONE in your community had either seen or heard of a violent death of a loved one? Can you even imagine the PTSD? Can you imagine the stone-cold faces of a whole community who have witnessed such evil? I can. I saw their faces.

An elderly man told us how the regime stormed into his village and led everyone out into the central courtyard. There, they slit the throats and cut off the heads of many leaders in the community. They forced the women and children to watch as they pounded the heads into stakes placing them all around the central square. Then they threw everyone out of their homes and burned the homes down to the ground. This gentleman was now blind from the smoke damage and trauma.

We heard from a young man who clutched his younger brother as he breathed his last breath after being shot by the regime. This happened after he had already lost both parents and two sisters to the violence.

One woman who had just given birth to her thirteenth child was sitting next to her 18 yr. old daughter who was also holding a new baby of her own, and she told us: “We must have lots of children, to replace all those we lost in Syria.”

We met a young man who had been ruthlessly beaten about a month prior because he had decided to follow Jesus. His jaw had taken so many blows, he could no longer fully open his mouth, chew or swallow. Our dentists assessed him, but could not provide the oral surgery he needed. He wept as we encircled him and prayed for him. He said, “I still chose Jesus over the religion that told Assad to kill so many.”

Our medical team treated many people with typically non-serious health issues like lice, scabies, high-blood pressure, asthma, diarrhea and bronchitis. However, with lack of proper treatment, hygiene, and follow-up, we knew many of these problems would keep coming back. It broke our hearts that we were unable to give them more than a months worth of medication. What happens after that month is up? I am personally on strong chemo-like medication that is keeping me alive. These Syrians? When their month is up… what then? We could only pray another medical team would come next month.

We gave a Syrian doctor medication for his high blood pressure. He said he couldn’t work in Lebanon because they would not recognize his Syrian medical license. He also had no equipment, medicine, or money and so he couldn’t even help the people who lived in the camps around him. He helplessly reached out his hand and thankfully accepted the months worth of free medication we could supply. His eyes were all watery.

We saw two young children with hydrocephalus, an easily treatable disorder where water accumulates around the brain. However, with no money and no hospital that will offer treatment like that for Syrians, the children suffer with heads about four times their normal size.

Our two dentists saw around 30 patients each per day. They have learned over the years that it’s too time consuming and futile to fill cavities, do root canals or place crowns. Most in the camps aren’t brushing their teeth – which could be from lack of toothbrushes and toothpaste, or just ignorance in some instances. I believe it is out of exhaustion and desperation that they’re simply allowing their kids to eat candy all day long. These were largely educated people (they were NOT stupid!) who knew about proper dental care and prophylaxis – but they were to the end of themselves. And they didn’t even care anymore about saving their teeth. A few months of severe tooth pain and you don’t care what kind of gaping smile you’ll have, you just want that tooth gone. So, primarily, our dentists pulled teeth. All day long. By evening, their arm muscles were twitching from the exertion.

Our medical team saw between 100 – 150 people per day. The Lebanese team we partnered with had developed a fairly advanced notification system where the clinic sends out just enough SMS texts into the camps to let them know exactly how many patients will be seen in any given day, hoping that only a couple hundred more than that would show up. Our team would triage the patients in the lower level of the church to determine who would, in fact, be seen that day and who had to be asked to leave. Most of the people said they waited about six hours before being seen – often outside in the hot sun. We did our best – but it was never enough. One day we sent away over 100 people. There was no way our team of 9 medical/dental people could meet the needs of all the refugees of the surrounding area in Zahle, Lebanon in the Beqaa Valley.

Our week was over quickly and we had to leave before everyone was seen or healed.

I never thought about it before, but Jesus, too, must have felt sick to his stomach whenever he left a city – leaving behind so many sick and hurting, lost and lonely, giving up hope. Many just desperate to just touch the hem of his cloak.

Desperation. That’s the thing we felt the most in Lebanon. Desperation veering into hopelessness. I knew we could offer some medical attention to a lot of people, but I had no idea how we’d extend hope. We listened to their stories whenever we had the chance and, I think, that was sometimes better than the medication we handed out.

For seven years this complex, devastating, and dehumanizing civil war has raged on in Syria. Many of these refugees have just been sitting for seven years. Sitting and waiting. For years they have waited, hoping their country would simmer down and they could return home. Their wait turns to boredom and desperation. They have depleted all their life’s savings and they are skunk poor. Many Syrians do try to seek work in Lebanon. Most are rejected. Due to historical ill will between the two countries, the Lebanese are not very welcoming or loving to the Syrians. Some will, however, be fortunate to find hard field labor the Lebanese don’t want to do. Sometimes they get paid, sometimes they don’t. Some of the luckiest Syrians find work in the towns, but they never get paid enough. They will gladly work all day for a half-days wage just to work. But there just isn’t enough work to go around.

But, tragically, most Syrians just continue to sit and wait…. Wait in their tents made out of advertising tarps. Wait while drinking contaminated water and watching their children die from preventable diseases. Wait for the dental team to arrive so they can get their rotten teeth pulled. Wait for the UN or some generous NGO to bring in food supplies. Wait for the local church to open up their clothing warehouse so they can clothe their kids. Wait, huddled around an indoor fire in the middle of a tent while the snow flies outside. Wait while their old people die of diabetes and other treatable illnesses. Wait while dad gets older and weaker, mom grows grey and tired, and while their children grow up without toys, without birthday parties, without ice cream, without parks or museums, without books, without an education, without hope.

Wait, wait, wait…

Whenever I had the chance, I would ask the Syrians, “What do you want us, as visiting Americans, to learn? What do you want us to take away from this encounter with you?”

Without exception, they would answer, “Tell your people, tell TRUMP and tell everyone you know that they must do whatever it takes to stop this war! We just want to go home! We are desperate. Please, Miss, please. Tell everyone. We just want to go home.”

I’m well aware how the enemy of our souls has attempted to create an impassable chasm between the worlds’ religions. It is from the pit of hell when people of differing religions chose hate as their default instead of a posture of humility, love, and a longing to understand. I personally feel it is entirely irrelevant that the Syrian crisis largely involves Muslims. Did you know, incidentally, many Christians are refugees, too? Approx. 85% of the Syrian population is Muslim, 12% Christian and 3% Druze. The bottom line is this: There are humans – image bearers of the one true God – suffering unspeakable atrocities as we sit here in America and spend countless hours gripped by unwinnable social media debates, ridiculous political posturing and antics of a leadership that has become the laughing stock of the world.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, the Screwtape Letters, the demon Uncle Screwtape is coaching his demon nephew, Wormwood, on the subversive art of keeping Christians from being and doing good in the world. A paraphrase of Screwtape’s message is this: “If you can’t get them (Christians) to sin, then just keep them busy and preoccupied. No matter how petty the preoccupation, distraction is the best tool to ward off participation. This will keep them from doing that which the enemy (God, in this case) has called them to do.”

Dare I suggest we’re more distracted by ridiculousness than ever before in history?

So what is God up to, calling us to, inviting us into, that Satan would work such long and hard hours to keep us from seeing???

Syrian refugees anyone???

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If you desire to learn more, I strongly suggest the reading of these two books:

“We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria” – by Wendy Pearlman

https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062654618/we-crossed-a-bridge-and-it-trembled/

“A Hope More Powerful than the Sea” – by Melissa Flemming

https://www.amazon.com/Hope-More-Powerful-Than-Sea/dp/1250105994

 

And if you feel so led to donate to the ongoing work of the medical/dental teams that continue to serve in Lebanon four times a year, you can give here:  Global – Living With Power

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Does God Smell Like?

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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…

 

 

 

A lament for Heidi

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After a long 24 hour bedside vigil, I was finally able to come home, change my clothes and shower. But it’s not over. I’ll go back to her bedside shortly, and breathe in her precious smell until she smells like heaven.

I know how this goes. My youngest sister will be the fourth beloved, precious family member we will lose in just over a year.

Oh, Lord, I just don’t understand. What is going on here???

Last year, on Christmas morning no less, we first learned Heidi had a brain tumor. Later that same week we were informed it was glioblastoma – the fastest growing, most deadly and ruthless form of brain cancer with an average prognosis of 12 – 14 months Screaming into Nothingness (when God disappears). Here we are, in month 13 and she is days (maybe hours?) away from dying. Heidi is anything but average, but in death, her numbers will align fairly well with the statistics.

She will leave behind a husband, Chad, who has been her best friend since forever. They were married 23 years. Chad and Heidi have two children – Ashley, 17, a high school senior, and Nate, 14, an eighth grader. Don’t tell me they’ll be okay. They won’t – at least not yet. Their momma is about to die.

Oh, Lord, I just don’t understand.

It’s NOT okay to lose your momma when you’re a teenager. I have analyzed this situation from every angle and I can find nothing that makes sense or eases the pain. And I think I could punch someone in the face right now who tries to tell any of us how God works all things together for the good.

There is no way this can be good. No way.

Unless, perhaps…. Unless I don’t understand what “good” really is….

As a family we have all wrestled with mortality and God and His plan throughout Heidi’s illness. But one night, while in a long nighttime wrestling match with God, I suddenly wondered if His idea of good is simply not the same as ours. Maybe He doesn’t have a Webster’s. Maybe when He Google’s “good”, He doesn’t read of the things we typically think of (health, wealth, prosperity, fitting into your size 6 jeans, sipping wine along the Cour Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence, France…)

If God is good, and I have NO DOUBT He is, then His definition of good CANNOT be the same as ours.

Because, Oh, Lord, I just don’t understand you otherwise.

It’s interesting, but in my experience, the things that we typically think of as “good” and as our “blessings” are often the things that create a separation between God and us. They are things that, often unintentionally and often subversively, lead us to believe we don’t need a God. Things like enough money (or too much), enough food (or too much), enough vacation (or too much), enough or too much of everything, as well as the absence of disease and absence of trials.

Conversely, it is the sufferings of this life that bring us to our knees and to the place where we find our desperate need of a Savior.  And I believe that more than anything God longs to draw us closer to Him. He wants nothing more for all to come to know him and accept the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as Savior.

So what if maybe, just MAYBE…., in God’s dictionary, “health” is not the absence of disease, but, instead, one who knows he/she is nothing apart from Christ, and that we live and breathe and have our being in Him alone.  Since God IS good, and longs to give us good things, MAYBE, “health” has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

Maybe, in God’s dictionary, “wealthy” does not refer to one who has a hefty savings and retirement account, drives a fancy car, and owns all manner of material possessions. Maybe being wealthy actually means to understand that friends, family and a purpose in life are some of the richest gifts offered to us. Maybe we’re rich when we realize how little we actually need “things” and start living more simply – when we have more time for people instead of accumulating and maintaining our “things”. Maybe wealth is the opposite of what we always thought.

Maybe, in God’s dictionary, a “blessing” isn’t a concept we can actually get our heads around. Maybe, saying we’re “blessed” when referring to health, wealth, jobs, children and good fortune causes great pain to those struggling with cancer, infertility, unemployment, a prodigal son/daughter, rape, poverty, oppression, rejection, loneliness, etc. because it implies God has withheld His blessings from those people.  ESPECIALLY – oh especially – when we Christians suggest it is the LACK of faith that produces suffering in this life are we guilty of serious theological malpractice!

Are suffering people NOT blessed???  Are we able to escape all trouble and heartache if our faith is simply strong enough??? When people suffer from the evils in this world is it a reflection of their lack of faith???

Hell no.

It just can’t be. Or God is not good. God must have a different definition of “blessed” then we do.

Otherwise, God, I just don’t understand.

So, I decided to start reading God’s dictionary. I cannot make sense of Heidi’s passing any other way. I need a God who IS GOOD. One whom I can trust even when I’m angry at Him. One who IS PRESENT everywhere. One who doesn’t pick and choose favorites and grant the rich, the beautiful, and those born into first-world countries more “blessings” than the rest.

This is what I found in God’s dictionary:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn – for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek – for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful – for they shall be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart – for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers – for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5: 3 – 10

So as I resume this bedside vigil there are TWO things I can know for sure: Chad and family will be comforted. And Heidi, well, she shall soon see God, for she is truly pure in heart.

This precious family does not have the “blessings” that most people think of – they are in the valley of the shadow of death and this is an impossibly sad and difficult place. But, I’ve just GOT to believe that according to God’s dictionary, they are blessed indeed.

Otherwise, Lord, I just don’t understand. You just don’t make any sense to me.

And then the Lord said to me:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5