The Air I Breathe, Part I

A month ago today, I showed up at a scuba shop, picked up my gear, and headed with the rest of my class to a community pool.  We had spent the previous day in the classroom, learning about pressure and nitrogen, jellyfish stings and buoyancy.  The time had come to try out what we learned, though hopefully not the jellyfish stings.  At first, things went fairly well with me.  Along with my group I knelt in the shallow end, practicing breathing underwater while taking my mask off and putting it back on, switching to my back-up air supply, and other basic and safety-related skills.  Though mildly uncomfortable, it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t figure it out and learn to dive.

Then, we moved to the deep end of the pool.  We floated on the surface until everyone was ready, and then our instructor told us to go ahead and let the air out of our buoyancy compensators (bc’s) so we would sink to the bottom.  That’s when the trouble started.  I heard the gurgling of air and water as I breathed through the regulator on the surface, and somewhere my brain must have shouted, “You’re drowning!” because I started to panic.  Even when I finally got under the water, and it appeared to the instructor that I was doing fine, there was a wild fear inside me and I couldn’t get it to go away.  I wanted to cough, feared I’d inhale water, feared that in my panic I’d do something crazy, and so I kicked to the surface.

The instructors were very kind and patient.  One stayed on the surface with me as I grabbed the edge of the pool, gasping for breath.  I told him I felt like there was water in my mask.  He reminded me that I had practiced breathing underwater with no mask in the shallow end.  I told him I was embarrassed (in truth, ashamed) and he said there were all kinds of things I could do at work, without even thinking, with which other people would struggle.  Even in my post-panic state I thought that was funny and ironic, since I commonly wade into people’s anxiety with them, reminding them of the truth and affirming them when they feel embarrassed or ashamed.

After calming down for a while, I tried again two or three times to get to the bottom of the pool and stay there.  I never could get my ears to equalize the pressure, though, and each time kicked back to the surface.  I chalked it up then to sinus congestion leading to the pressure and pain in my ears, but looking back I’m certain every part of me was rigid and fighting with every other part of me; if I’d been able to relax, my ears and I would have been just fine.  I ended up disappointed and spent from all that effort to control my anxiety, myself, what the instructor and my classmates thought of me, and the laws of physics.  Pretty ambitious, pretty silly, and pretty much what I do in non-scuba life much of the time!  That was followed by being the last to complete the swimming test and then failing to swim 50 feet underwater without taking a breath.  I went home that day exhausted, sunburned, and humbled.  The latter was a tough mercy:  a very good thing that really hurt.  It’s one thing to say that trying and failing is good, or that being stripped of false and unhealthy ways of living reveals more of who God means me to be.  It’s another thing to really live in those truths, in the water or out.  I began to learn that day that scuba diving is pretty good therapy for a control freak!  Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

To be continued…

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Three Easter Wonders

God, Author of the greatest surprise ever in the resurrection of Jesus, has surprised, delighted, humbled, and reassured me in this Holy Week.  It’s been a week of wonders, big and small.  Here are three…

I spent some time this week with a person who is celebrating her first Easter as a follower of Christ.  Do you remember what that was like, when you realized for the first time that it’s really true, that Jesus really died for you, and really came out of that tomb on Easter?  I needed to be reminded this week.  All through Lent, I’ve turned over a blog post in my mind called, “Cynicism and Contempt:  Lenten Twins.”  A nice, cheery post, don’t you think?  Throughout Lent I’ve seen my tendency toward those two pits.  I’ve also grieved and been angry, perhaps like the disciples were on Friday night and Saturday of that first Easter weekend.  Seeing the joy and wonder on this new believer’s face was like watching Mary’s face when she realized Jesus was alive.  The new believer even said something like, “I don’t ever want to take this for granted, to not be excited about it like I am now.”  Yes, Lord, me neither.  Thank You for the wonder of a first Easter.

This next one will seem kind of weird, but you’ll just have to trust me that it’s true.  For several days over the past week, I believed that someone I love had died.  My heart was crushed.  I wept, I yelled at God in frustration and despair, and I walked around with an aching heart.  Then, on Tuesday, I found out that the one I love is ALIVE!  I fell to my knees and wept again, tears of gratitude and remorse and joy.  It took a few minutes for my stunned heart and mind to realize, “Hey, this is EASTER!”  What seemed like despair transformed in a moment to exquisite, even exuberant joy.  It was all I could do not to run out to the lawn by my office and shout, “YES!  (My loved one) is ALIVE!”  Easter, indeed.

Finally, this morning I was looking online to find a sunrise service to attend.  I was startled to see one being offered by a funeral home.  Then I found another offered in a cemetery.  Once again, it took a few moments, but then I thought, “Well, of course!”  I’m still turning that over in my heart.  The first Easter was in a graveyard/garden, so why not celebrate it there in 2012?  Death giving way to life, the power and love of a great and good God, sunrise dispelling darkness – the wonder of it all is just stunning.  Oh, yes…it’s Easter…it’s all really true.  Hallelujah – He is risen, indeed!  Amen.

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Expecting

Last week, at foster parent training, I went to sit with friends I had only seen across the room on the first night of class.  As my friend hugged me she said, “I told him, ‘I’m so excited, it’s like Leanne and I are expecting together!’”  What a cool thing to say!  I’ve thought about it ever since.

Since I wrote the post about Being Marilla, I’ve mostly filled out paperwork, waited, worked on my house and yard, gone to classes, and waited some more.  I’ve wondered if I really have what it takes to be a mom to children who have been wounded or rejected or abandoned by their parents.  So, I’ve prepared, waited, gone to classes, and been a combination of excited and nervous, and at the end of all of this, a child will come live in my house.  Wow, I really am expecting!

Thinking about it also reminded me of finding Psalm 5:3:  “In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”  Almost every time I read that verse my next thought is, “Do I really do that?”  More often I lay my requests before Him and then rush off into the day as though I have to answer my own prayer.  There’s not much expecting in that, and there’s certainly no waiting!

Sara Groves recently contrasted the frenetic work human beings do in their own strength with the work of God in their lives:

“The things that have been substantial in my marriage, in my work, in my parenting, in my friendships, those things have come about like a pregnancy.  I’ve had a sense of God working in my life, doing something bigger than myself, and it’s going to be born if I like it or not – this thing is coming.”

She in turn was commenting on Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 127:1-3.

“If God doesn’t build the house, the builders only build shacks.

If God doesn’t guard the city,
the night watchman might as well nap.
It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late,
and work your worried fingers to the bone.
Don’t you know he enjoys
giving rest to those he loves?”

Ah, yes, rest and waiting.  Both are symptoms of a heart counting on God to come through, on His work on behalf of His child.  He hears my requests.  He is building my house – He already knows the name of the child who will live here soon, and He is preparing my heart and mind.  Yes, Lord, I wait in expectation.  Amen.

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My Brother’s Wedding Ring

My brother and sister-in-law got married just less than a year-and-a-half ago.  It was a perfect day.  We were at the beach, the weather was spectacular, my sister-in-law looked beautiful in her wedding gown, and my brother was exceedingly handsome in his dress blues.  Maybe best of all, our families and friends rejoiced that a long-awaited day had come.  There was no drama, everyone had a fantastic time, and each of the ring-bearers had four legs.

What could better?  It was, surely, a perfect day.

I cried pretty much through the whole ceremony.  Perfect days don’t come along very often, and I was rejoicing right along with everyone else.  And among all the perfect moments, there was one that took my breath away.  After they had exchanged rings, Travis and Jessica walked a few steps to a table prepared for a sand ceremony.  Jessica took a vase of orange sand, and Travis took one with blue sand, and they poured them together into one vase, symbolizing the way their lives were now inseparable.  It was a lovely part of the ceremony, and the pastor talked about Travis traveling to the sands of Iraq and Jessica staying here, until they would meet on the sands of Okinawa after his deployment. 

Right in the middle of that, I focused in on my brother’s hand and saw his wedding ring for the first time.  Wow.  I wasn’t prepared for the jolt of that.  My brother was a husband.  The one I helped dress up as the Incredible Hulk and Luke Skywalker for Halloween, the one who burned his hand on the oven door, the one who raced his friend Ethan to each continent, the one who became my grown-up friend when we were roommates – my brother – was a husband!  It was strange and wonderful and all caught up in seeing his ring.

When we were growing up, our dad, our grandfathers, and one of our uncles never wore a wedding band.  They worked with machines that might use a ring to rip their fingers off, so it was best not to wear one.  I guess because of that, I didn’t pay much attention to wedding rings.  In the difficult years after our parents’ divorce, I didn’t want to pay much attention to wedding rings.  Somehow all of that is caught up, and healed, in seeing my brother’s wedding ring, too.  It was no small thing to get married.  It is no small thing to build a marriage that blends the best of their families and gently sets aside the other parts.  I’m so thankful he’s chosen to wear his ring.

At Christmas time, someone posted a picture of my brother on Facebook.  There was the ring again!  Every time I see it I remember that moment on the beach, during the wedding.  I remember how much I love my sister-in-law.  I remember how very proud I am of the man my brother is and of the commitments he’s made.  At least on the inside, I smile and shake my head at the wonder of this life.  All of that from a tiny piece of gold!  I hope I never get over it.

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Bowed to the Ground

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  –C.S. Lewis

Last May 13th, I rode to the hospital in an ambulance with my grandfather, frightened by how frail he had looked as they loaded him in the back, and wondering if it might be his last day with us.  It turned out to be what we knew as the beginning of a long end, and he passed away last August 13th after three grueling months of fighting and then about 30 seconds of letting go.

Exactly two weeks after Papa’s death, a precious friend got married and left for her new home a few states away.  She is one of those friends who knows all of me and my story and still loves me, and trusts me to love all of her and her story, too.  We walked alongside each other in ministry that was usually not easy.  We prayed and rejoiced as God brought her a husband after His own heart, a new family, and a new ministry.

But then, both my grandfather and my friend were gone.  Through the whole summer, I had known the losses were coming.  I had shaken my head at how the joy and sorrow of life are mixed and inseparable as Papa moved toward Heaven and my friend moved toward her marriage.  I had wept with my family in the moments surrounding Papa’s death.  I danced and laughed and cried with my friends as we celebrated at the wedding.  But then, they were both gone.

What happens to walking alongside, being Sam, when the ones I was walking alongside go where I can’t follow?  Maybe not surprisingly, I found some answers from Sam himself.  Along the way to Mordor, Frodo appears to have been killed.  Sam comes upon Frodo’s body, and is undone.

“Don’t leave me here alone!  It’s your Sam calling.  Don’t go where I can’t follow…

“Then anger surged over him, and he ran about his master’s body in a rage, stabbing the air, and smiting the stones, and shouting challenges…

“And then black despair came down on him, and Sam bowed to the ground, and drew his grey hood over his head, and night came into his heart, and he knew no more.”

When I first went back to read that passage, I was undone.  It so echoes what happened in my heart last summer and in these last six months.  Fear and panic:  I don’t know how to live in a world with no Papa in it.  I’ve never not been a granddaughter.  I say Papa is in Heaven.  Is it really true?  Is Heaven real?  Is Jesus?  Did I miss my friend’s heart before she left?  Can we really still be knit together across states?  Will we just drift apart?  I can’t do this ministry alone.   Anger, too:  Why did You make Papa suffer so long?  I asked You, others asked You, to shorten his suffering and You wouldn’t!  And despair and emptiness, a dark numbness, that made the fall months in some ways a disorienting fog.  Actually, I didn’t even realize how thick the fog was until it began to lift in January.  I found myself like Sam again:

“When at last the blackness passed, Sam looked up and shadows were about him; but for how many minutes or hours the world had gone dragging on he could not tell.  He was still in the same place, and still his master lay beside him dead.  The mountains had not crumbled nor the earth fallen into ruin.

“’What shall I do, what shall I do?’ he said.  ‘Did I come all this way with him for nothing?’”

There was the question piercing through the fog.  Did I come all this way with (them) for nothing?  Does loving God and people really mean anything?  Is it worth the long ache of grief?  What shall I do?

Today I find myself still in the same place, vaguely aware that the world has gone dragging on, no mountains crumbled or earth fallen away.  Tears have come with these questions, and with the answers a gentle Lord whispers.  “Yes, it means everything.  Yes, I’m real.  Yes, it’s worth it.  Keep being Sam.”

Amen.

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Missing Papa

My grandfather, David Cold

Six months ago this morning, my grandfather, whom I called Papa, took about five short, halting breaths, and then left his cancer-stricken body for Heaven.  The strong, kind, generous man was gone, and we stood around his body, stunned and spent from walking beside him as he fought right to the last breath.  A few minutes later, my step-father called us all outside, to see a beautiful full moon setting over the lake.  “Papa would have loved that,” we said, and then we laughed a little as we realized that Papa died about the time he would have been getting up for coffee.  He got up for much better than coffee that day.

I’ve been putting off this post for weeks, overwhelmed with too much to say and not enough words.  This week, I hope you’ll hang in here with me as I try to wrestle my love for Papa and grief at his passing into words that fit.  For today, this half-anniversary day, here are the thank you’s I read at Papa’s funeral.  For today they’re the only words I have.

Thank you, Papa…

  • for teaching me to bait my own hook.
  • for really believing I could be an astronaut.
  • for giving me a tool set for my birthday, and engraving my initials on each piece.
  • for helping me having a home that I love.
  • for taking me to RV driver’s ed, and teaching me the difference between the gray tank and the black tank.
  • for loving Nana.
  • for buying me bottles of Mr. Pibb when I came to visit at Cold’s Machinery.
  • for letting us hang onto you in the Gulf while you found sand dollars with your toes, and then letting us dive down to get them.
  • for the way you would just barely stick your tongue out when you were thinking…and how some of us picked that up without ever realizing it.
  • for delighting in me…for delighting in all of us.
  • for having lifelong friendships with the McGowans, the Fudges, the Howzes, and so many others.
  • for being there – at ball games, graduations, school openings, weddings, dance recitals, and promotions to Captain.
  • for dozens of breakfasts at the Breakfast Nook, Perkins, Richard’s, Cracker Barrel, Bob Evans, and Nancy’s…and for being kind of disappointed that IHOP was so far away on Dale Mabry.
  • for loving children, dogs, this country, and your in-laws, a combination not always seen.
  • for loving us first.  We loved you back, and we will keep on loving, just like you taught us.

Papa was a gift to my family.  I miss him terribly.

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Being…Marilla?

When I was around 10 years old, my grandparents toured the Maritime Provinces of Canada in their Winnebago.  They returned with many pictures and souvenirs, as always, including a boxed set of the first three Anne of Green Gables books for me.  Like so many others, I was taken with Anne right away.  I imagined myself right along with her as she imagined herself right into all sorts of adventures and mistakes.  I read those books over and over, then bought the next three and read all six over and over, until they actually fell apart.  I even read the first one out loud on a road trip with my brother, though I’ve been careful not to state that publicly ‘til now.  In college, the first two Anne mini-series were released, and I was caught up in Anne’s story all over again.  In my head and heart I wanted to be Anne, complete with a faithful Gilbert coming along to love me and share even more adventures, and hopefully not too many mistakes.

Last year, I turned 40.  The weeks leading up to the day were not fun.  I have enjoyed a rich, full, and abundant life; still, it never occurred to me that 40 would come with no husband and no children.  Some dreams have been lost along the way.

As is often the case, the anticipation of turning 40 was much worse than the actual fact of turning 40.  My family and friends lavished me with love and the disappointments faded a bit.  In my favorite present of all, my brother and sister-in-law gave me the Anne movies on DVD.  It had been a long time since I’d visited Anne’s world via VHS, and the fact that my brother picked the perfect gift helped me feel all the more loved.

I settled in to watch the movies with anticipation and delight.  Somewhere in the middle, it hit me:  Wait a minute…what if I’m supposed to be Marilla, not Anne?  I struggle to translate the workings of my heart in that moment into words.  Part of me heard the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit whisper, “Yes,” and answered Him with, “Amen.”  Another part of me protested – No, I’m Anne, the one with the imagination, who has adventures and deeply delights in all the bits of life, who grieves deeply because she loves much!  The whisper, though, was louder than the protest.

Marilla and her brother Matthew adopted Anne, a thrown-away orphan given to long monologues and wails from the “depths of despair.”  Marilla is described this way before Anne:

“Marilla [was] always slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible a thing for a world which was meant to be taken seriously…She looked like a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience, which she was; but there was a saving something about her mouth which, if it had been ever so slightly developed, might have been considered indicative of a sense of humor.”

She is described this way after several years with Anne:

“…her expression was very different; the something about the mouth which had hinted at a sense of humor had developed wonderfully; her eyes were gentler and milder, her smile more frequent and tender…Marilla felt that out of her sixty years she had lived only the nine that had followed the advent of Anne.”

So you can see, perhaps, why I wasn’t all that excited about being Marilla.  Some of those beginning words describe more how I fear being than how I actually am.  And yet, the longer the picture of Marilla has been before me this past year, the more taken with the idea I’ve become.  Marilla loved Anne, and made all her fantastical, tragical adventures possible to some extent.  What developed in Marilla was there all along, and used for the good of a girl who needed a home.

There’s a lot more to the story of how a gracious God has been slowly working all this out since that jolting “what if” last spring.  But, like Marilla, I find myself rather quickly preparing to welcome a child into my home.  For right now that means paperwork and classes and health inspections, so an agency will know that a foster child will be safe here.  It also means much prayer – rarely have I so clearly sensed my dependence on God and my need for His grace and wisdom.  Sometimes, after all, I still feel like Anne, like I’ve been playing at being a grown-up and someone is bound to find out the truth as I stumble into some misadventure.  Somewhere tonight, though, there is a little boy or girl who needs a Marilla.  I’m honored, humbled, terrified, delighted, to try on that name.  Amen.

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Being Sam

Several weeks ago, I sat with a friend and talked over the direction of my work.  As many of my clients do, I saved one of the most important statements ‘til almost the very end of our time together.

“One thing I know for sure is that I’m Sam.  I’m not Frodo.”

Among other things I love about this friend is that she got that statement and took it seriously.  The more we talked about it, and the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I understood that we were talking about way more than the direction of my work.  I think it’s a summary of who God meant me to be.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sam is a hobbit, accompanying Frodo Baggins on his adventure to save Middle Earth.  He’s the gardener, swept up in another’s journey and struggle.  The journey is not mainly his, but he walks alongside Frodo faithfully and stubbornly.  He’s like Aaron holding up Moses’ arms when Moses got tired, or Jonathan helping David find strength in God when David was hiding out in a cave.  He’s like Ruth, faithfully and stubbornly sticking with Naomi.  He’s like John, taking Mary the mother of Jesus into his home, even as they both grieved Jesus’ death on the cross.  He’s like Timothy, bringing Paul’s coat to him in Rome before winter.  All of them are supporting characters, serving the purpose of the Author of the story, and something in me resonates with each one of them.  I don’t always know what it looks like, and I surely don’t always do it well, but I know that I know that I know the Author of my faith means for me to “be Sam.”

In this year ahead, I hope this blog will be a place to wrestle through what being Sam means.  I hope it will encourage other hearts along the way.  I imagine it will be full of Scripture and stories and struggles (that may, however, be the last hint of alliteration).  Here’s to the journey!

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