Looking In

I have been having trouble sleeping lately. I don’t know why. Sleeping through the night just hasn’t been happening this week. Last night, I was so tired that I went to bed at 7. Managed to sleep until 2:30. Six and a half hours—Yay me!
So as I was lying in bed at 2:30 last night (this morning?) I started thinking. My thoughts went to a couple of people who, for different reasons, had my nerves on edge. Their behavior and comments rubbed me the wrong way. A part of me wanted to confront them over it. I didn’t—for the same reason I am not going to be specific about these annoyances today. It’s just not worth the arguing, fighting, and headaches that would result.
But for whatever reason, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Perhaps it was these frustrations that were keeping me from sleep. I still don’t know. But I did the only thing I could thing to do about it at 2:30 in the morning: I took it to God.
As I laid out my grievances to Him, I realized something. The traits that were bothering me about others can easily be found in my life. Does God get just as annoyed with me over these same things? Could it be that I am so annoyed about the actions of others because I am just like them?
I don’t like to make New Year’s Resolutions. They don’t last past January anyway. Who am I kidding? My resolutions often don’t last beyond the first week of January. So this year I am not making any. Instead, I am just working on me. Rather than complaining about the lives others live, I plan to spend time examining my own life.
I want to become the good person I find myself wishing others were. Not to say that I am a bad person! I just know that I have a long way to go before I am the woman God sees me as.

Reading, Writing, Courage

I am addicted…to reading.
I blame it on Mrs. Niedzielski. When she taught my 5th and 6th grade class, she insisted on weekly book reports. That got me into the habit of reading. And boy did I read—a lot. Like many 10- and 11-year-old girls in the late-80s, I read a lot of Sweet Valley High books, a series of books that basically were a teen soap opera in print form. (Hmmm… Perhaps Mrs. N. is to blame for my soap opera affinity as well….) But that is not all I read. Mrs. N. pushed everyone to read more than just the current popular books in our age group. She had a list of Newberry Award winners, and she kept the classroom shelves stocked with a selection of these titles. At one point, she even held a little reading contest, the prize being a book of the winner’s choice. I remember that BINGO board, and working diligently to fill in each square. The copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends that I earned still sits on my bookshelf, one of my most prized possessions.

That reading addiction has served me well over the years, especially in my current course work. As I am learning more about the craft of writing, I am reading a lot more. Some of it is dry and bland (check out some of the essays on writing by Charles Baxter…the man might know a lot about writing, but he does not know how to write about writing in an interesting manner.) Some is very informative in improving my own writing (Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book has been invaluable.) And some is just for fun (because, thanks to Mrs. N.’s influence, I can’t go long without reading a novel!) Most of the novels I’ve been reading lately are in Kindle form. As much as I love the feel and smell of a real, printed book, I’ve found that with the Kindle I can build my book collection without taking up extra shelf space in the house (after all, though I once thought it impossible, using a shelf for sports trophies earned by children really is more important than displaying a vast book collection.) Thanks to Book Bub, I am able to build my Kindle book collection quite inexpensively. I add 2-3 new books to my Kindle each week for free. Most of what I download are Christian novels, because that is what I write. Makes sense to me to keep up with what is being published now so that I have some idea where my work will fit into things.

This week, I have finished reading two of the free novels that are currently on my Kindle. I am about half way through a third. And I have to say that what I am reading is leaving me a little depressed.

Not to sound conceited, but I can write better than this! Of the three books, only one had really deep characters. That book had its drawbacks, but the characters seemed more like real people than the characters in what I am reading now. The current novel features very flat characters, doing really nothing. Halfway through the book, and I am still not really sure what the book is about. I can’t pick out the plot yet. Not only are the characters boring, the author’s description is bland. The book is set in an area of the country that I have never been to. In itself, that’s not a problem. Part of why I read is to experience parts of the world that I am not able to visit in my real life. But the lack of vivid description makes it hard to imagine myself actually being in California’s wine country. I have yet to become so engrossed in this location, in this story to feel like I am anywhere other than curled up on a corner of the couch in my Jackson, Michigan living room. And this book was written by a woman who is not only an author, but also a literary agent and a creative writing instructor!

I am left wondering something—do I need to write badly in order to be published? Does my fiction need to be flat, bland, and boring to grab the attention of agents and publishers? If so, then why am I in school? What is the point of honing my craft, of learning to write engaging fiction if it is this bland drivel that is being published?

Or maybe what is needed is a little courage. I love writing and for the most part I am pleased with my work. But I have this perfection issue—I want my work to be perfect, absolutely perfect before I show it to anyone else. Especially anyone who is in the writing business. But after reading these books and thinking all through them that I could do so much better, I think that needs to change. For years I have said that God gave me this writing talent. He will get it into the hands of those who need to see it. I do believe that. At the same time, I find myself thinking that He might require a little more of me than just writing down the stories.

Perhaps it is time to do a little more work, to try a little harder to get my work noticed by agents and publishers. I know that God will get my work into the right hands. But how will those “right hands” know anything about where to find my work if I am not sending it out?

Praise and Purpose

I’ve been reading Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace In His Presence for over a year now. In case you’ve never heard of this little book, it’s a daily devotional written by Sarah Young. She writes from the perspective of Jesus Christ, as if He were speaking directly to the reader. I can’t even begin to imagine the thoughts that must have gone through her head as she wrote this book, the daily struggles she must have had in thinking of how unworthy she or any human is to take on the voice of Christ. But that is a topic for another time.

I started reading this book in April 2013, after hearing about it from my Uncle Kevin. See, he and his wife were reading this together early that year. Not that either of them bragged about it. Uncle Kevin and Aunt Janet would never brag about their relationship with Christ. They just lived it, every day. It was at Uncle Kevin’s funeral on April 5, 2013 that I first heard about this devotional book, though I had probably seen it in stores before then. One of the last daily readings my uncle had enjoyed was shared during the service.

At the time, I was going through a difficult patch in my relationship with Christ. I was so mad at Him. I was angry about my own health issues. There were things that I should have been able to do that I couldn’t. Chronic pain, a heart condition, nerve damage, and life walking on a cane—all at age 37—were hard for me to deal with, and I was so angry that God was allowing this issues into my life. And then He allowed cancer to take away my uncle. Uncle Kevin, who was always smiling and full of life, died a few months short of his 20th wedding anniversary, leaving behind a wife, two adult children, and three beautiful young grandchildren. He believed in God, lived his life for Christ, asked Him for healing, and yet on Easter Sunday left his family to join Heaven’s choir. One more thing for me to be bitter about.

And I was bitter. For a long time. I’m not proud of it. Uncle Kevin and I were not particularly close. But I was already mad at God, and his death gave me one more reason to be mad. So I used it as an excuse to fuel my anger.

At the same time, I was intrigued by his reading choice. The particular cancer my uncle had was very aggressive. It progressed rapidly. Some say that was a blessing, as Uncle Kevin would not have wanted to be a burden to anyone. I don’t know. I know only that even as he grew more and more physically ill, Uncle Kevin stayed focused on Christ. His spirit never wavered. In the days before his death, he continued with his daily devotions, reading from Jesus Calling with Aunt Janet. Shortly before he passed away, he found the strength to sing the hymn “Have Thine Own Way” with his wife and daughter. Even though I was angry at God about my situation, on some level I craved the clarity, the deep level of faith that Uncle Kevin had.

I’ll admit, I am not always as dedicated in my daily devotional reading as my uncle. But I am trying. And I think that God is trying to talk to me through it.

Yesterday, in the reading for October 20, I read the line, “Do not be anxious about the weakness of your body.” I hadn’t marked that line, but it sure grabbed my attention again this morning. As soon as I opened the book for today’s reading, my eyes fell on it. My body is weak. Some days it is much more so than others. They say you are only as old as you feel, and I feel old, oh so very old some days because of the pain and weakness in my body. The past few days have been like that. And it worries me. I try to give it over to God, but when nothing changes, I wonder if He is listening to me. Holding on to the worry doesn’t change anything. There isn’t much that I can do to strengthen it or bring back what has been lost. It seems like all I have is the worry. And when that is all I have, it’s hard to let it go. Does that make any sense?

This morning, I read something else that felt like God talking directly to me. “Remember that all good things—your possessions, your family and friends, your health and abilities, your time—are gifts from Me. Instead of feeling entitled to these blessings, respond to them with gratitude.” Wow. And if that was not enough of a punch, the verse to go along with the reading was Job 1:21—“He said, ‘I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!’”

Not only have I not praised the Lord for what He was taken away from me, I have not praised Him for the things He has given me to replace those things. I don’t think I have fully praised Him or thanked Him for the things He has allowed me to keep. And I am quite certain that I never bothered to praise Him for the things that are gone when I had them. I just sort of took them for granted. I can’t promise never to do that again, but at least for today, I am praising God for the things He has given me, thanking Him for taking away the things I don’t need, and trusting Him to use the things I have left for His glory.

Uncle Kevin was fond of saying, “If you have a pulse, you have a purpose.” His pulse may have stopped, but so long as his life is still touching others, his purpose goes on.

Even If

I left church early today, before the preaching even started. Not because I didn’t want to hear the message. We are in the middle of a series of message based on the book Home Run by Kevin Myers. Wait, that isn’t quite accurate. The messages aren’t based on the book. My pastor is showing a video series of Pastor Myers preaching the messages he used in this book. (We are also reading the book for a leadership series. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it.) I didn’t leave because I have a ton of homework to do. Though I do, and now that I think of it, if I am going to be writing I probably should be writing something about Jane Austen’s word choices in Pride and Prejudice. Good thing I like that book, because with the way I am struggling with that, if I didn’t like it I’d be ready to tear the pages out one by one to use as heating fuel this winter. I didn’t even leave because the temperature was too hot or too cold, because the sound was too loud or too quiet, or even because the people sitting nearest to me were completely annoying. (Considering those people were my husband and son, returning home would not have been the best way to rid myself of the annoyance if they were annoying, which they were not.)

No, I left because my body betrayed me.

I have a lot of physical issues. Over the past 3 years, I’ve talked about them on this blog. Some of them, anyway. Some of the issues are too embarrassing to name out loud. I know I don’t deal with a terminal illness. But I do deal with near constant pain and with issues that, well, are not expected of someone my age. Normally, when one of those issues rears its ugly little head at church, I know it is because there is something in the message that will really affect my life, something I need to hear that is going to have a profound impact on me. That makes me glad my pastor puts his messages on our church website, normally by Monday morning, so I can still listen to it. If satan wants to keep me from hearing what God has to say, I certainly do not want to give him the satisfaction!

There are times, though, when I am so frustrated it is hard to stay upbeat about it. Today I want to cry. My first instinct when I pulled out of the church parking lot was to pull into a fast food drive-thru and order chicken nuggets. I’m upset, and food will take away that feeling, right? Sure, for a moment or two. Until the food is gone, my tummy is aching from being so full, and my family looks at me strangely for not eating a meal with them. And then I step on the scale and see that I’ve gained even more weight. Lost 115 pounds with weight loss surgery 3 ½ years ago; I’ve gained back 60 of that. Part of the gain is because the near constant pain makes it very difficult to exercise. Most, however, is because I still have the emotional eating response. I celebrate with food, and I wallow in food. Neither is a good thing to do. Though my van was pointed toward that grinning redhead and her cue little pigtails, I prayed for strength to avoid pulling into her drive thru. That was the only fast food place directly between the church parking lot and my driveway, though I know me—if the urge is there, I will drive across to satisfy it. I prayed and prayed and prayed that I would not give in to the temptation for food I really did not need. And I thanked God when I got home empty handed.

I don’t know why this has happened to me. It’s not something I think I will ever understand. I’ve prayed for healing. I know others—family, friends, friends of family, family of friends—who have prayed for my healing. And yet God seems to be saying no. He could say yes later. I was going to say, “He could change His mind and say yes later,” but I don’t believe God changes His mind. If in six months I can move pain-free and all the dead and damaged nerves in my back are suddenly fully restored, it’s not because God changed his mind; it’s because He planned from the start for my healing to happen at that moment. I don’t think it’s going to. I think the “healing” He has in mind for me is not a physical one so much as a mental one. I think God wants me to be OK with my life is it, to understand that this is the plan He had for me and to adjust my desires and expectations to match. Not an easy thing, let me tell you. But I believe that is what He has been telling me.

That’s not to say I am giving up on the physical healing. I won’t stop asking. And if God offers it, I doubt that I will say no! But if that physical healing doesn’t happen, I am going to love Him anyway. Because I know He loves me.

 

Guidance

I’ve been fighting some monster writer’s block lately. Part of it, I freely admit, is laziness. I am in the midst of an English language class, master’s level, in which I must write a 15 page paper analyzing the linguistic choices of Jane Austen. I chose to study Austen because I enjoy her writing. What romantic heart wouldn’t enjoy her work? The thought that her stories were written over 200 years ago and are still in print is mind boggling. Why is that? What is it about her linguistic choices, her writing style, the composition of the novels that have made them so enduring? While reading Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park and even the biographic information that I have been able to find about Jane Austen is utterly enjoyable, writing the paper itself isn’t. Whether I sit in front of a blank computer screen or a blank piece of paper, I can’t seem to get any words to come out. There are so many facts in my head. I just can’t get them to form an intelligible paper. At this point, one intelligible paragraph, even just one sentence on the subject would be helpful. Instead, all that I can think of when I try to work on this paper are the words of James 4:17—Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.

OK, Lord. What is it that You are telling me I ought to do? This classwork is important. I thought this was what You wanted. And I still feel that earning this degree is the right thing. But is there something more? Over the summer, You gave me some ideas that I worked on. Is one of those what I am supposed to be doing? Lord, I know I need to complete this assignment, but I do not want to fail YOU. Please, guide me. If there is something more important that You need me to write, if there is something more urgent that You need me to share this morning, point me in that direction. Help me to write and share those words. I want to glorify You.

I love You, Lord. And I want my words and actions to show that. Today. Tomorrow. Always.

Thorny Flesh

I am having back issues again. Not that again is really the most accurate term for it. The issues have never really gone away. The surgery I had in 2011 to repair a severely herniated disc in my lower back relieved a lot of pain but did not clear up everything. I’ve dealt with balance problems, nerve damage, and pain that comes and goes.

This summer the pain has come and forgotten to go away. It has gotten progressively worse, to the point where I have an appointment with my back surgeon in 7 days.

Now, back surgery is not something I am particularly looking forward to. Though I do remember how immediate the relief was last time. Sure my skin and muscle tissue hurt where it had been cut apart and sewn back together, but that was nothing compared to what I’d felt before. That almost instant relief sounds so good at times. At the same time I remember how difficult the recovery was. The physical therapy. The driving restrictions. The weeks of being homebound, except church and doctor appointments. The relying on others to help with just about everything while I recovered. The no chore restriction-oh wait I actually enjoyed that one! My point is I’m not very sure that I want to have another back surgery. I only know I want this intense back pain to go away. If my surgeon thinks surgery will be the best way for that to happen than OK. God brought me through the last one and I have faith He will carry me through this one as well.

For the last 2½ years I’ve dealt with nerve damage caused by that herniated disc. While praying over the current situation, I asked God again, as I have a few times since those nerves were damaged to please heal them. “Lord,” I prayed, “I know the doctors say nothing can be done and that that this latest problem has nothing to do with the nerves that don’t work right. But could You do something for me? If I do need surgery to repair the disc, could You somehow regenerate those nerves? Can You please wake them up so they can work correctly and the problems they have caused just go away?””

Shortly after my prayer, I opened my Bible study book to a section about health. I read there the following words from the apostle Paul: “I was given a thorn in my flesh…. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said ‘my grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

I said I asked God to heal those nerves, but as I read over the conversation, it sure sounds a lot more like begging than simply requesting. And I know this was much more than just the third time I brought it up. Has God flat-out refused to heal me? I don’t think so. There is always a chance that He will restore complete use of the lower portions of my body. For now, though He is asking me to lean on Him, to trust in His grace, to believe that what the world sees as my weakness could be a beautiful conduit for His power.

I don’t know if the physical healing I desire will ever come. But do you know what is even better than physical healing? The spiritual healing I am experiencing. Day by day my hunger for God is satisfied as my thirst for Him intensifies. If it takes a thorn in my flesh- or a handful of damaged nerve in my back-in order for me to experience that, I gladly embrace it!

It Could Have Been Me

 

Robin Williams played Genie in my favorite ever Disney film, Aladdin

Robin Williams played Genie in my favorite ever Disney film, Aladdin

Robin Williams died yesterday.

When I heard the news, I was at a wedding reception. My immediate reaction was to make light of it. Not because I found even a shred of humor in his death, but because of where I was. I did not want anything to dim the newlyweds’ joy. Yet the happiness of the young couple was not the only reason I tried to shrug off the sadness of Mr. Williams’ death. I just did not want to admit, even to myself right then, how deeply the news was affecting me. I did not want to make room for the thought pushing to the front of my mind.

“That could have been me.”

Every newscast talks about the addictions he battled throughout his life. Most talk about the deep, consuming depression that marked the final months of his life. Some even suggested that Robin Williams was able to use the humor that entertained fans for decades to hide the depth of his family and friends.

I’ve been there. I don’t have the acting chops or comedic timing of Mr. Williams. But I have faced depression and addiction, even suicidal thoughts. I’ve hidden these things from my family and friends. Sometimes I’ve been very successful at hiding, sometimes I haven’t. For years I have lived with the fear that these demons would be the end of me. Even now, when it may appear to others that I have my life together and my issues under control, I am scared that one of those monsters might jump out and grab hold of me.

My addiction is what concerns me most. I don’t do any illegal drugs and I very rarely drink. My drug of choice is food. I am an emotional eater, using food to celebrate victories or mourn losses. Sometimes I crave sweet and creamy; sometimes I crave salty and crunchy. The problem with food addiction is that I can’t stop eating. God designed my body to require food in order to survive. The types and amounts that I shovel into my mouth, though, are not a requirement. Even knowing that, I can’t make myself stop. And that depresses me more. Which makes me reach for more food I should not eat. Which adds to depression. Which….

You get the picture.

I am relatively sure that depression won’t “get me.” Difficult as it has been, I have accepted that this depression is a part of who I am and the treatment for it will always be a part of my life. Those closet to me have learned the signs of an untreated me- because I have made the choices in the past to stop treatment. They know what to look for and for the most part they know what to say to make me choose to get back to treatment. At this point, in time, I feel confident that depression will not bring an end to my life.

I can’t say the same about food.

Robin WIlliams as Peter Pan in Hook in my second favorite of his films.

Robin WIlliams as Peter Pan in Hook in my second favorite of his films.

My sons like the movie Spaceballs. There is a scene where a newscaster says Pizza the Hut got locked in a car and ate himself to death. Now, I don’t think I will literally eat myself to death, but I worry about y food choices could be doing to my body. 1 Corinthians 6:19 says that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. I am not hurting only me, I am hurting God when I allow my addiction to control me.

 

Yesterday, the dual demons of addiction and depression ended the life of Robin Williams. His legacy of laughter will live on through films and internet clips, though the laughter might be a little bittersweet as the world mourns his loss. Today, I vow to fight those same demons in my life. I don’t know yet what my legacy will be or how many lives I may touch. But with God’s help, I won’t let mental issues keep me from finding out.

Rest in peace, Robin. Enjoy Neverland.

Get Your Praise On!!

Because of a reaction to the medication for my back pain, I had to miss church this week. We were able to set up a Skype link (a rather temperamental one) so I could still be a part of the morning worship service. What I experienced moved me to tears.

Normally, being moved to tears during a worship service is a good thing. There is nothing quite like the spine-tingling thrill of feeling  God move through a group of believers. But it wasn’t His movement that caused my tears. These tears were brought on by a broken heart.

The worship portion of the service consisted of four wonderful, upbeat songs about what God has done for us–Hello My Name Is, I Am Free, God’s Not Dead and Oh Happy Day . Despite my pain I was taping my feet and clapping, dancing as much as I was able, as I smiled and sang along.   Halfway through God’s Not Dead, I looked at the Skype window. No one else was dancing or swaying. I saw no evidence of clapping or foot tapping. Since my view was from the back, I don’t know if anyone was smiling. The only singing I could hear, though, came from the praise and the worship track and our worship team. It broke my heart to think my church didn’t care about the words they were singing. I wanted to shout at them through my computer, “God’s not dead- but you sure look like you are!”

That is a harsh thing to say about anyone, I know, especially my own church family. I know these people, and I know how they love Jesus. But would a visitor know that? What I witnessed on Sunday was not a warm, welcoming worship service. It was not the kind of thing that would make a person think, “These people know and worship a living God who set them free.”

If it had been my first service, if I didn’t know the people in those seats, I cannot honestly say I would be back.

The Bible tells us to sing praises to God. In Psalms, we are told to come together to sing praises. Psalm 149:1 says, “Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing his praises in the assembly of the faithful.” Psalm 100:1 tells us to “Shout with joy to the Lord.” There are at least two places in Psalms where we are told to “Praise His name with dancing” (149:3 and 150:4.)

I know that worship, true worship, comes from the heart in a different way for each person. And it is God we should be striving to please as we worship. Yet we are also called to reach others for Him. What does it say to the unchurched traveler when our songs speak the joy of the freedom found in life with a God who is not dead while our body language suggests we are preparing for a funeral?

I can’t change the actions of everyone in the church. In fact, I can’t change the actions of anyone in the church– except me. When the music plays next Sunday morning, I plan to let it move me. I pray that the spirit of God washes over me in ways I can’t contain and the Pentecostal girl inside of me that has been silent for years comes out in full force!

I have prayed that my church would be set on fire for Jesus. If I can be the spark that starts that fire, I say “Bring it!”

Dear Tori

Dear Tori,

I heard a song this morning that reminded me of you. After I woke up singing Strong Enough, I thought Matthew West would be the perfect soundtrack to my writing. After selecting his playlist on my iPod, I settled into my chair to get to work. It’s not new music to me. I don’t know how many times I have heard it before. But today, the words meant something different. One song in particular, a song called To Me, caught my attention. The moment I heard him sing the words, “Well it breaks my heart every time I see the world break yours in two,” the story I wanted to write flew out of my head. All I could think about was my beautiful niece and how rough life has been on you lately.

I kept listening to the song, paying very close attention to each word. Maybe all of it isn’t about you. OK, so I suppose it is fair to say Mr. West probably didn’t have you in mind at all when he wrote the lyrics to this song. But there is so much in it that is just so YOU. If I were to write something about just how special you are (which I suppose I am doing with this letter) I couldn’t do much better than he did.

Your laughter really is one of my favorite sounds. You were the first baby I got to live with and see every day. I used to love coming home from work or school to hear you laughing as you played with your parents or grandparents. No matter how bad my day was, it was hard to be sad or upset with such a happy little girl in the house.

Ever since you were tiny, you have had a beautiful smile. Your smile fills up your whole face. It adds a special sparkle to your eyes. It has always shown the joy in your heart, the joy you find in life. Do you remember when my Rylee went to Heaven? I didn’t think I would smile ever again. But you kept smiling when you said, “Aunt Lynn, don’t be sad. Your baby is with Jesus. And you will always have me to play with.” Your smile helped to bring my smile back.

Now you are 17. Playing with your crazy aunt isn’t nearly as important as hanging out with your friends or boyfriend. And that’s OK. I know you had to grow up sooner or later. (Later would have been better for me….) You have grown into an absolutely beautiful young lady, both inside and out. How can I not be proud of that?

I know you have had your heart broken recently. More than once. I’ve cried right along with you. You probably want to hear that it will never happen again, that the next time you give your heart away it will be to the boy who will protect and treasure it the way your heart deserves to be protected and treasured. Oh how I wish I could promise you that. But I can’t see the future. And I can’t protect you from the pain and heartbreak that it might bring. If I could, I would. I’d happily take all of those bumps and bruises for you—without complaint—if that would keep the smile on your face and the laughter in your heart.

Some day you will find the right special someone for you. I don’t know when or where it will happen, or who that someone might be. But I have faith that it will happen.

Until then, I hope you realize how wonderful and very special you are. The world is a much more beautiful place because you are in it. I can’t say it any better than Matthew West did, so I will close this letter with the words from his song:

            To me you are

Heaven’s finest invention by far

So much brighter

Than the brightest star

What I’d give to make you see

Who you are to me

I love you, Miss Tori.

All my love forever,

Aunt Lynn