Pruning the Good

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At the end of each growing season, the vinedresser prunes the branches that were most productive during the season. Rather than have them sap the energy from next season’s fruit by growing the branch, they will cut the branch back drastically. Even though it has been highly productive, perhaps even because it was highly productive, it will be pruned. When the new growing season starts all the energy stored up in the vine is able to find its way to the new fruit rather than the old branch.

When I read this I had an “ah-ha” moment. Finally something made a bit of sense about the last year and a half. You see, while I wasn’t altogether surprised by my move to Chicago, it wasn’t one I was quite ready for. I felt like I still had so much more to do where I was. Not only that but I had people around me that I was able pour into and who poured into me. I had family, impact, and many plans.

Yet God very clearly moved me to the city. I’ve loved living here, don’t get me wrong. As I’ve often mentioned, Chicago is the first place that I’ve truly felt at home. Granted most of that had to do with my internal peace and healing, but still there is something about this city that makes me come alive. The people, the food, the energy, the lake, the opportunities, the diversity, the brokenness, the beauty that arises even out of the worst situations are all things I’ve found in Chicago. This is where I know I’m suppose to be.

Still I feel like my right arm has been cut off. Outside of a small group of people, I’m not involved in the lives of others as I once was. I no longer do life with people who I could call up at a moments notice, who worked side by side with me in my neighborhood, who I was able to disciple and pour into, who discipled and poured into me. For the first year, I attributed it to moving, getting established in my new work and world, and the reality of proximity. But I think there is something more at work. I have a sense that in this second year, there is something that will come out of the pruning of the good.

Rather than bemoan the fact that I’m no longer tightly connected to the people I love so much, I need to see what is right here. Who and what is God raising up in my life right now? What is God about in this moment? If I focus on then and there, here and now will be lost, as will what is to come. I either trust God and let him prune where he sees fit, or I don’t trust him at all. There is no other choice.

God prunes the good for a good reason. Prune away, Master Vinedresser, prune away!

Grief Like a Tide

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Like the ocean which ebbs and flows, so does grief. Those acquainted with grief will know that it can come out of nowhere, hitting either like a gentle wave or a tsunami. The longer the time since the loss the more surprising the tide of grief can be.

For the last few days I have felt a turning of the tide. A gentle sadness hit after I had told my story to someone. Sadness is not often the response I get when I tell my story, but in this case, I was reminded of just how much I had lost and just how much I would never have. Granted “never” is a big word but “never” is how I felt…feel.

The sadness lay dormant until I had a couple of restless nights from a painful injury. Sadness, restless nights and pain are the perfect storm to trigger grief in me. Add to that a dose of reality and a dash of stress from work and I was a goner. Unfortunately I did not realize what was happening until it came crashing over me earlier today. Yesterday I simply felt an intense shyness at the thought of going to a church picnic today with a bunch of strangers and a heightened level of introversion at the prospect of being surrounded by people and unable to avoid small talk. These were tremors that a storm was coming, yet I didn’t recognize it.

God has done so much healing and restoration in my life that I did not expect the grief to be so visceral. In addition, it has been 12 years since I lost everything: church, home, baby, husband and mother. They are not exactly fresh wounds or even unhealed wounds. I have so much in my life now, but still the wounds of the past linger reminding me of what was, what could have been and what never will be.

So today as I sat by the lake staring at the water, the picnic going on behind me, I allowed the tears to flow unchecked. Behind the sunglasses I wept. I grieved.

Once I realized where the tears were coming from, I was able to embrace them, embrace the grief. The worst thing I could do is try to stop my feelings of loss, sorrow, loneliness, and isolation. If I deny or ignore how I feel I cannot move forward. Grief is healthy. Grief is a normal response to loss, no matter how long ago that loss was.

Grief means that we loved, that we cared, that we were and are connected to others. Grief means we can still feel. We are still alive, still human.

Grief like the tide comes in but it also goes out. It brings things with it, but it also uncovers little gems of treasure long-buried. Grief helps us appreciate that which remains.

 

He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
Is 53:3

Many Mothers

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This Mother’s Day weekend could have turned out differently. I could have been, and almost was, hurt and pained at the circumstances of my life that put motherhood and I at odds.

My own mother is gone. She passed away in January 2003. My “only” chance at being a mother died in the fall of 2002 when I miscarried my baby and then my husband left.

I could be bitter. I could be regretful and wishing my life were different. If I hadn’t starting feeling better after a recent illness, I probably would have felt that way. Emotional defenses are always weakened by physical illness, at least for me.

I still miss what I don’t have, but this morning, as I thought about Mother’s Day, I remembered all the mothers who were a part of my life. I remembered how truly blessed I am and have been by these women.

Collage of MomI remembered that despite all my mom’s faults at actual mothering, I knew that she loved me dearly. I have no question about that, and I do not take her love for granted even now. It is a gift I cherish.

My stepmom, Pat, was and is a God-send to our family. She allowed my brother and I to talk and to be heard as young (and now much older) adults. I remember the first long drive she and I had together when I was almost 19. This was our first time getting to know each other. I seemed to talk non-stop, and she got the sneaky suspicion that I was trying to dissuade her from dating my dad. (I wasn’t). I guess mentioning in graphic detail my dad’s propensity to heat rash raised her eyebrows. Fortunately for me and my dad, my warning about the rash didn’t scare her away. I thank God for Pat. She is an answer to prayer.

My former mother-in-law, Sharon, is a woman of great love and patience. While it has been many years since I have spent time with her, I remember her with great love and pray for her and her family (all of them) often. She was a wonderful mother-in-law while I had her.

My friend, Carol, showed me what it was truly like to have a mother. Our friendship began on trips to Turkey and Greece, strengthened by trips to Egypt and Jordan, but it was when I was able to come alongside her during her own family crisis that our relationship deepened. She was the first person that I freely shared my story with. It was she who broke my silence and allowed my pain to be used for something good. Later she and her husband took me in for six months until I knew the direction God had for me. It was during that time, during a time of sickness, when she cared for me. I remember thinking “so that’s what it’s like to have a mother.” Such a tremendous blessing that I will never forget. Nurturing is universally known as Carol’s gift. I am grateful to have been a beneficiary.

Motherhood is not about blood relations. In fact, the best examples of mothers I know are those who have no blood connection at all. Me with my stepmom and others. My stepmom with my niece, Raechael. Mothers (and fathers) who have adopted children for no other reason than love.

Motherhood is not about bearing one’s own children. Motherhood is about the condition of the heart. Motherhood is about nurturing the lives entrusted to us whether it be as a mentor, friend, peer or relation. Motherhood is about bringing out the best in people and loving them despite their faults. Motherhood is about celebrating the beauty of God’s creation as demonstrated in womankind who are uniquely gifted to bring forth the next generation both physically and spiritually.

On this Mother’s Day, while I miss my own mom and miss my own child, I rejoice in the women who have helped to make me the woman I am today. I am blessed.

Dying Alone

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Max Rakov, Jeannette Zeltzer“I don’t want to die alone.”

These words are spoken with fear and pain by an 81-year-old woman I recently befriended. Alone and isolated, a survivor now and yet a victim still, she spews her anxiety to me. Once she has “vomited” as she likes to call it, she is calmer and less anxious. Knowing that nothing she says, no matter how outrageous or blasphemous, will shock me or make me turn from her is like water in a parched land to her. For the moment she is strengthened and encouraged. Tomorrow the fear will return.

“I will probably die alone.”

These are the words that swam through my head 11 years ago as I watched my mother on Christmas Day 2002, dying of cancer so far spread that we hardly had a diagnosis before she was gone in January. As she slept in that sunless Alaskan hospital, I saw my potential future. It broke my already broken heart. I had just lost my husband and before that my baby, two very different kinds of death. I knew then, even as young as I was, that I would never have a child to sit by my bed keeping watch while I died. Fall and winter 2002/3, as I so clearly remember, was one of fear and great pain for me.

Since meeting and getting to know my 81-year-old friend, these memories have come back. I find, however, that the pain is not there although the fear would like to grab me if given the chance. If I let it, if I succumb to the lies that I believed for so very long – that I wasn’t loved or lovable, by parent or spouse or myself – I would fall into to such a place of fear I’d never be able to pull myself back out. Facing the next 40 years with a lie so toxic would put me in a place of utter desperation, just like my friend. Fortunately, I know the truth. It is this truth that I use to fight the lies of the enemy, within and without.

Over the last year I have been incredibly blessed, not because of a new job or new place to live or new stability in my finances, but because I have come face to face with the truth of who I am and have repented of the lies I believed for most of life. The power in knowing the truth that I am God’s daughter changes everything. Not only am I made in his image, but I also bear his name. I am loved simply by being me. I do not need to try to earn that love or to prove that I’m lovable. I am. Simply am loved. God is my father. God is love. I am loved. There is a sense of power and authority that comes with this. It isn’t a power to abuse but one to surrender and pour out, just as Jesus did. We have the power to love others freely and unconditionally. Our position as God’s children changes everything.

I don’t know if God has someone for me to grow old with. I hope so. I’d be a better person for it, and I think he would be too. But regardless if that is God’s plan or not, I know I will not die alone. This goes beyond my certain knowledge that God, my father, is with me always and forever, which is no small thing. I know that I have friends who are like family to me. Sisters not of blood but of heart and mind and spirit. Sisters I trust with my life. I have family I love dearly and who have my back no matter what. I have other relationships that are growing and developing both family and friends. The future looks full and joyful with these people around me, something I could not say a decade ago.

When I look at my 81-year-old friend who craves relationship yet does not know how to relate even to herself, I see the pain in her heart and see the fear that a Godless life has created. I see what I saw in my mother on that Christmas day, a woman who sought her own way and found herself alone in a frozen wilderness. One day I also hope to see my friend like I saw my mother the day after Christmas, humble and praying to God with a resulting peace overwhelming her face.

I know for a fact I will not die alone whenever that day may come. My mom did not die alone, physically or spiritually. And if I could determine it neither would my friend. However, the real choice is not mine. She needs to choose. Will she be God’s daughter or not? Will she die alone? Or not?

Grief, Loss, Powerlessness

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With an edge of panic in her voice, my friend said, “No! Don’t!”

This was in response to the desire I had been fighting to make something happen in regards to mission and my livelihood. My heart was telling me, Let God make the next move, but my mind was pressuring me to do something. You have to do something, anything! No one is going to do it for you. It’s all up to you.

Of course this is how my life has been since I can remember. I would only get something if I decided to get it. My nature and (lack of) nurture both feed that bias. It is also reinforced by American culture that idolizes self-sufficiency and initiative.

God isn’t wanting to keep me from action per se. He is wanting me to be sensitive to his leading so that the smallest nudge from him would put me into action. Too often in the past God has had to use a spur on me rather than just a pull on the bit. In order to feel that nudge, I need to learn to listen only to him.

This is no easy task for anyone. For me, I’m wired to make things happened. It is part of who I am. God is trying to direct that impulse for his use, though. Once there I’m confident God will do some amazing things. Not because of me but because of his reign (or rein) in my life. I feel like this is so close.

So what do I do in the meantime as I wait for God’s prompting? I need to explore my grief, loss and feelings of powerlessness. At least this is what my prophetic friend has counseled me toward. So far, in her directions, she has not been wrong, and I’ve needed her insight to clear away the noise of my life. I have no reason not to follow her counsel now.

It’s an intriguing thing to consider my grief, loss and powerlessness. They are not things that are fun to think about nor are they things that make for happy days. I’ve already been writing about my story, so I know how exhausting it is to pull up the emotions of 10 years ago. For that is when I start my story.

10 years ago at exactly this time of year the watershed moments of my life began. Over the course of four months, starting September 2002, I lost my church, my home, my baby, my husband and finally my mother in early January 2003. The grief of that time is still real even if this 10 year anniversary does not fill me with dread as one would suppose. This assignment of exploring my grief, loss and powerlessness may change that, however.

As I’ve been writing the point of grief that has pricked me most, so far, is the loss of my baby. I will admit that I thank God that my child does not have my former husband as a father in this world. The confusion and turmoil he represents by his life would be very hard to manage. But still I grieve that I have no child. My heart breaks that I’m not allowed to raise and love my little girl. I always think my baby was a girl with long, curly red hair, my nose and deep brown eyes. She would be nine years old now.

The loss seems clear, yet I know that God has more to uncover. I feel the loss of a mom who was never a mom, a dad who is now present but wasn’t when I was a child, a family that doesn’t speak. In order to heal, it is important to see things as they truly are, talk about them and move forward. Without that, healing will be denied. So I speak of things my family doesn’t or won’t. I allow myself to feel how I feel about situations, knowing that others might feel differently. We need to process our loss in order to regain ourselves.

I do not like being powerless. It is the one thing I have fought my entire life, starting with a vow I made when I was four years old. Relinquishing power and control is not something I like to do, but I am currently embracing my powerlessness so that God can effect the right change in me. In the past I have fought that powerlessness. I am, after all, a fighter by nature. Yet still there are times when we are truly powerless. I was powerless to keep my husband from leaving. I was powerless to keep my baby. I was powerless in keeping my mom from dying. Did I fight? Yes. Did my fight change anything? Yes. It changed me. It honed my desires and my priorities. I knew what was most important in life, yet in the end I lost all of it anyway. I was powerless to keep it.

Now, as I wait on God, I embrace my powerlessness. I embrace the fact that any door I knock on will be the door God puts before me. It isn’t a weakening feeling. It is a feeling of ultimate power because God, the author and creator of the universe, is the one making things happen. It is his supreme power that is at work. I trust that. His power is and always will be greater than mine. Since I am his child, that power becomes mine as well. So by embracing my human powerlessness, I open the door for God’s ultimate power.

Grief, loss and powerlessness are only doorways to healing, restoration and immense power when given over to God. Those are doors well worth waiting for.

For Granted: The Big Picture

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I’m constantly being reminded of how much we take things and people for granted. I’ve paid heavily for that sin in the past. Be assured I have learned that particular lesson, but too often I find that I have fallen into it unawares. It is so easy to do. We expect certain things to be constant in our lives, to be “no brainers.” We become comfortable and lazy. We lose our first love. We lose the passion that first drove us. We lose. Period.

This is the first Thanksgiving in six years that I have spent with my family in Iowa. The last time was 2004. I made it through that Thanksgiving, but since that emotional upheaval, I have made plans to be elsewhere for Thanksgiving, preferably in England with my friends the Smylie’s. It’s not because I don’t want to spend time with my family, I do. But in 2002 Thanksgiving in Iowa served as a watershed in a long series of events, which I call my “mini Job period.” How I made it in 2003 is still unknown, but 2004 was horrid. Leading up to that week, I couldn’t figure out why I was always crying. It made no sense. Then I remembered 2002. It then became crystal clear why I was grieving.

In September 2002 my husband resigned from his position as youth pastor, a decision I knew was necessary even if I didn’t know just how necessary it was at the time. Immediately after that I found out I was pregnant for the first time in our 11 year marriage. In October my husband arranged to have a friend buy our house. At that same time I learned that my mother who was living in Alaska had broken her collarbone for no apparent reason. Shortly after that, I miscarried my baby. The day after Thanksgiving my mother had a biopsy. The Saturday of Thanksgiving my husband called me in Iowa to tell me he had left and that there were divorce papers waiting for me. He also left his wedding ring for me. A week after my mom’s biopsy, we were told it was cancer. The next Wednesday I discovered she was in the hospital and that the cancer was in her kidney, bones, liver and lungs. That Friday, on December 13,  I flew to Fairbanks, Alaska to take care of her. On December 27, I prayed with my mother to receive Christ. On January 4, 2003 my mother died.  So in the space of four months I lost my church, my home, my baby, my husband and my mother. This is why it has taken six years to come home for Thanksgiving.

Let me close out that part of the story. Because I would not sign my husband’s divorce papers, he finally went to court, two days before our twelfth anniversary, on August 29, 2003 where a judge rubber stamped it. I never signed a thing. I know for a fact that God told me to let him go, to let him have what he wanted. God knew what I would only learn years later. But that is someone else’s story to tell, not mine.

At times I didn’t know how I could be alive. It felt like I no longer had any lungs or heart; my chest was a void, hollow and empty. Virtually everything of real value was stripped away. What remained was God. He was the source and foundation of my life before I ever met my husband, and he is still the source and foundation of my life. While I lost all those other people and things, I also received the greatest gift of all: I lost my sin of pride.

To be freed from sin is the greatest gift of all. The yoke of sin that bore down on me had been there so long that I didn’t realize the weight until it was lifted. Such utter freedom! I had taken so much for granted, expecting it to be there no matter what. Yet we can take nothing in this life for granted. I remember sitting by my mother’s hospital bed in the dark of an Alaskan December knowing that I would probably never have a child of my own to sit by my bedside when I die. Yet what God showed me through my trial is that I would never be alone. In those times when I couldn’t understand how I was alive, God revealed himself. I remember him surrounding me, breathing for me, making my blood move through me. I had taken even God for granted. Yet I found him not just waiting for me, but actively moving to bring me fully back to life in him. I was as one dead but was raised to new life. My pride was dead yet I was alive!

My life is truly not my own. Over the last eight years God has brought me to the place where I can really live that out. I get to live out his life for me. The purpose he created for me. Some may think that my sojourn in mission since it is here in suburban America is fleeting or an experiment. This is no experiment. This is my life and my future. I have personally invested in this mission, God’s mission, using what little retirement I have built up.  This is God’s life and I’m living it. I’m still learning what that fully means, but there is no question or doubt in my mind. My life is not my own; it is His.