An American Christian Identity Story

I’ve learned a lot in the last few years about losing things that shook my very identity. Losing both of my parents caused me to feel like an orphan, even at 50 years old. I was frightened by the lost sense of security, no longer knowing there was someone on earth who would always take care of me after my mother died. Losing my first-born son this year caused me to feel like a failure as a parent, even though my son was a beautiful, talented, loving adult and father when he died by his own hand. I was shaken by the lack of control I could have over someone I loved so, so dearly. Losing my husband (to divorce, not death) several years ago caused me to feel like a failure as a wife and as a godly woman. I lost my passion in many ways when that relationship failed and still worry that I may never be completely unguarded.

I am in no way fully healed from any of these things. However, I will say that I have some new understandings. I see ways in which I’ve misplaced my anchors. For the most part, the thing that I am holding on to, the little thread that I attach myself to that saves me on most days, is the knowledge that I have an unfolding identity that over-rides all of the ways I identified myself by previously. It isn’t unfolding in the sense that it is being created as much as it is unfolding in the sense that great sculptures are made … in the chipping away of everything that is not “it.”

Luke 9 23

I have to get to know myself in ways I never did before. I am more than my parents’ child. I am more than a loving mother. I am more than a wife or an ex-wife and even more than a woman. We all are so much more than the circumstances to which we are born and live through. I am more than all the ways I’ve failed in so many areas of life and more than all the failures of people I have loved. I have to learn to see myself the way God sees me. Unique. Formed for a purpose. Forgiven. Loved … immensely… and driven to love others in spite of ourselves. If I don’t learn to identify myself in God – in the Christ who rescued me and teaches me to let go of the me I thought I knew – then I will learn to hate. Because when I identify myself by the brokenness I’ve endured and the pain that surrounds me in this world, it’s hard to see or understand love.

So, if you find yourself identifying strongly with cultural symbols or ideas that don’t lead to the narrow way of love, take the time to see if this might be an area of misplaced identity in your own life. Is there eternal value and virtue there? Is God building a kingdom of love through this aspect of your self-built or inherited identity? To whom are you truly loyal? In whom (or what) do you actually place your faith? There is nothing harder that we face in this world than “dying to self” while still walking the earth. But, if you believe Jesus, it’s what we all must do.

When healing doesn’t come

When healing doesn’t come … what do the faithful do?

I think we all have our ideas about how we are supposed to manage our faith. If we have faith in God, then we believe God will do what God promised to do. But, for Jesus followers, did Jesus promise to heal every ailment we pray to have removed? Sometimes, it seems that is exactly what Jesus said: “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Paul might argue the opposite … while Paul pleaded with God to remove “the thorn from his flesh,” God insisted that Paul would experience sufficient grace because God’s strength is made perfect through our weakness.

My mother struggled with healing that did not come for her, as faithful and trusting as she was, and regardless of how many of us agreed in prayer with her for her healing. My son struggled with healing that he was unable to find, regardless of all of the prayers, treatments and lifestyle changes he made. Therein lies the tension that shows up in all things – when do we recognize which direction to adjust our sails? What exactly are we supposed to have faith in if not God’s amazing ability to give us what we ask for, like a magically powerful vending machine?

Many believers crumble under an undue pressure to somehow increase their faith in these times, but the main object of our faith – the target, the goal – is what gets lost. We have to place our faith in God, not in what God can or will or won’t do. We have to trust God in life and in death and in eternity. I’ve never been more wildly or rudely introduced to a concept before in my entire life. We have to trust God in life and in death and in eternity. I think about all three of those statuses often these days, as I attempt to reconcile the life and loss of my son. I prayed so fervently for him … I and many others. I have to trust that God answered our prayers in ways we may never understand while on earth.

As we dig in this spot, let’s ask a deeper, more difficult question: how do Christ-followers uphold faith in the face of mental illness? What is the distinction between our soul and our spirit and how does our spirit maintain a strong connection with God-inside-us (Holy Spirit) when our soul becomes so sick and broken? How do we reconcile death as a result of mental illness as opposed to physical illness, which seems to be more revered – a more honorable way to die? I believe strongly that the Church is faced today with figuring out how to encourage, embrace, pray for and support its members and community members who are struggling with mental illnesses. If the statistics are correct, about 25% of the population is affected by depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder or other personality disorders – which often occur together in the same person. If we’re honest, we know we are surrounded by these hurting, beloved people and we don’t have a clue how to properly support them.

We don’t know how to offer hope, because we don’t often feel hopeful for them or we attribute their words and actions to bad character flaws or bad choices – but if we can’t do anything else, we must offer the hope that is found in Jesus. If Jesus only offered one thing to humanity, and if that one thing was hope, then that is all we need. Hope heals. But if that hope doesn’t keep us on earth longer, then that hope in Jesus will take us into our eternity. The Church must be the source that offers the hope of Jesus to our broken members, communities and world. Healing and restoring a broken world is the mission Jesus initiated in His ministry on earth and it is the work He will bring into completion through eternity. That is also our mission and our hope.

Broken pieces 

Another poem from my journey through loss and tragedy:

 

The things that almost killed me

The things from which I’ve run

Could be the things that will fulfill me

Broken pieces joined as one

 

Holding on to the wrong fragments

Digging in to rocky soil

Grows a lost and lonely sadness

That from light and joy recoils

 

My desire is for true wholeness

And my hope is in The Truth

May I speak and sing with boldness,

May I rediscover Youth

 

When joy came with such ease

And worries were but few

When doors flung wide with “please”

And every day felt new

 

Let me not sink in despair

Let me not forget myself

Let me always be aware

And not put love upon a shelf

 

So much I have forgotten

So much from which to hide

Reconciling what’s besotten

With all the things I have denied

 

Now, face to face with nakedness

Nowhere else to run or look

May I see and love the awful mess

That until this point I forsook

 

The things that almost killed me

The things from which I’ve run

May they somehow now fulfill me

Broken pieces joined as one

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (NRSV)

A Story of Death and Dying: Seeing the Unseeable

portalview

You’ve heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This one is worth millions for me.

It (this picture) seems rather ordinary before hearing the story, so I’ll share it. I have told a few people of what I experienced here, but I have not told most people because it’s one of those stories that make people assume you’re more than just a little eccentric. Let’s go ahead and get one important point made: I believe in the in-dwelling Holy Spirit and I live in submission to that Spirit, meaning, sometimes I see or say things that I don’t fully understand. What I’m speaking of is a sense of being overwhelmed by the omniscient Spirit of God who seeks to share tidbits with me when it’s most needed. With that disclaimer, perhaps my experience (and my interpretation of it) will be a little easier for the 21st century mind to digest.

As difficult as it is to properly capture or describe, I have to document this so that the experience is not lost, for it will likely become an anchor for someone else just as it became an anchor for me.

As my mother’s decline from an ALS-related illness known as bulbar palsy went from bad to worse, my siblings and I developed a care-giving schedule that rotated in ways that each of us could manage so that someone could be with her as we figured out the trajectory and our long-term options for her. Being unable to speak or swallow, Mother reached a point where intervention would become necessary for proper nutritional intake, etc. and she decided against that option. So, as painful as it was (for us), she embraced the path that would lead her to her eternal home. “You’re going to have to let me go,” she said as I explained to her what she must do in order to continue living at home.

Please understand, my mother was also a very Spirit-minded believer in Jesus. She also experienced speaking in tongues and seeing things that we aren’t necessarily supposed to see. She couldn’t wait to finally see Jesus face to face and she showed me a picture of my father (who died in 2004) in his earlier years that she believed he would resemble in heaven. She was ready. And we were trying to stop her from boarding her train.

As hospice became engaged in mother’s end-of-life process, we received her medications to help ease her through her transition late on Saturday night. My middle sister stayed up with her, administering meds and calming her as she attempted to get up, disoriented by the realities of the transition from her physical body into her eternal form. I woke up around 5 a.m. in the living room as I slept in a recliner with my son nearby on the sofa. As I oriented myself to the truth and the gravity of where we all were, I went to Mother’s room to relieve my sister in hopes that she could sleep some. It had been a difficult night. (That’s an understatement.)

As my sister went to join her husband and get some form of rest, I stood in my mother’s bathroom to gaze out of the window. It was pre-dawn, so it was quite dark outside. The view was clear as I looked across the Albemarle Sound. My heart was sad and my mind was numb as I had never experienced death so up-close-and-personal. As I stared across the water, in a prayerful state of mind, yet not conjuring any words, I became aware of a change in one of the lights I was seeing from the other shore. Street lights from the Edenton side had a pinkish-orange hue and were lined up fairly neatly. But one light began to change and grow. It grew into a large circular shape and appeared to be coming toward me as if coming across the water. As it approached and I could see it more clearly (all the while rubbing my eyes and blinking, because surely this was some sort of odd effect I could rinse away), I could see what appeared to be three circles inside the larger light circle, which I interpreted as heads, along with several wings – again, to my best ability in interpreting what I was seeing. I remained locked in to the view, while remaining keenly aware of my mother’s breathing and other noises and slight movements she was making. As I stared at this object, I asked (silently to myself) if it/they were coming inside. The response I sensed was that it/they were not coming any closer but that I should understand that they were very close by. With that, I reached my capacity for spiritual encounters and retreated into my mother’s bedroom to stare at her and cry about my own senses of loss and bewilderment.

As the sun rose and I walked back to the window, wondering if there would be some remnant of the earlier sighting, I couldn’t help but notice a pair of binoculars resting there on the ledge. I wondered then if Mother had at some point seen something similar to what I witnessed.

Mother’s death came within 27 hours of this experience. When she passed, I was overcome by the Holy Spirit and mourned and wailed in that “heavenly language” for what seemed like many minutes, but was probably only a few. While it was powerful and emotional, it was also peaceful and affirming for me because I was so aware of Holiness and eternity in that experience. The takeaway for me was a new sense of death and dying that is more exhilarating and less fearful than I previously imagined. The pain from physical loss on this side can be excruciating, but there is definitely something to look forward to on the other side where Jesus has “prepared a place.”

I’m thinking about keeping a pair of binoculars in my own bathroom window, just as a reminder.

When the most unlikely thing happens

I place a certain amount of faith in numbers. I think we all do, consciously or subconsciously. But sometimes, seemingly out of the blue, all of the odds, all of the polls, all of the numbers let us down. The most unlikely thing sometimes does happen. And the sails drop and our jaws drop and we are stunned, leaving us momentarily useless.

I rather like that feeling while I’m watching Sherlock on Masterpiece Theater. You know, he calculates probability in a seemingly supernatural way, predicting (accurately) two weeks in advance where his partner John will be and with whom at a particular time on a particular day. But the rest of us are surprised – surprised at the accuracy of Sherlock’s ability and surprised by our own inability to make a similarly calculated prediction. But even Sherlock has to regain his balance when the unpredictable, unlikely thing happens.sherlock

We might feel empowered when the unlikely thing happens for good … such as hitting the Powerball numbers perfectly. Or dodging a tragic accident by a hair. And power is a drug like no other. So, finding empowerment through lucky chance is, well, far more often disappointing than empowering.

Typically, we either thank God or blame God for these unlikely events. When those of us who claim to have faith in God are shaken by the failure of the odds or the polls, we are shaken more likely by the fact that God didn’t outweigh the odds or the polls to restore order and balance in our suddenly-chaotic universe. And that shows up as fear and anger. (It shows up as fear and anger in those who do not claim any faith, too. That’s just the human default.) If we aren’t careful, we take on the role of the victim. You see it on social media all the time – the scrappy victim who defies everything the “other side” stands for in articles and memes, but who does nothing to be a proactive champion of what is good and right in the world. We all see what victims are against, but never what they are for.

So, what do you do when the most unlikely things happen? I mean, after you get over the stunned phase. After you recover and realize that some things remain predictable after the unpredictable thing shook your confidence. What do you do?

The way you answer that question has everything to do with where your faith lies.

And everyone has faith in something.

Ironic loss: an ALS story

I’ve  said that I “lost my voice” on several occasions, usually related to overuse, allergy symptoms or an infection. But, when I say my mother “lost her voice,” I’m describing something much more sacred, more real, much more permanent than the common way I’ve used that phrase in the past.

My mother has been a singer and musician most of her life. She was a self-taught pianist who got her first position as church pianist at the ripe old age of 10. She served as music director in church most of her life and still to this day plays piano at church when she can attend. But, more than a pianist, my mom is well-known for her beautiful, emotional, belting voice and the songs she has written. She thinks about music and lyrics all day long, every day. But not any and all kinds of music – just Christian worship. All Jesus, all the time. The music she wrote and recorded (plus some songs that never were recorded) is a testimony of her faith in Jesus.

That’s why this disease that has overtaken her seems so ironically cruel. Her tongue – the one that confessed Jesus so consistently throughout her life – has now betrayed her. The particular form of ALS she has been diagnosed with has robbed her of the ability to speak or sing. Swallowing is typically a traumatic ordeal, too. Yet, as she lies in bed in-between naps and bitter attempts to take in nourishment, song recordings in her former voice play constantly at her bedside, singing out a message of hope for a better future in heaven. Healed and restored. Whole again in the presence of Jesus and loved ones who have died before us.

If you have a few minutes, please listen to her sing just a few of the many songs she wrote: Angels, It Was For This, Forever His.

My sister gave her a whiteboard to help us (my siblings and I) communicate more easily since it’s nearly impossible to understand her anymore. Rather than using it to speak to us, this is what she wrote: ”

 

With everything she has left to give, she means it.

JanS

For supernatural mercy and grace in the days my mom has remaining here, God, I pray. And for the courage to follow her example and use what we are given to testify to Your love and greatness in all our days – the best and the worst – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, our Triune God, we pray.

 

To listen to and purchase Sandy’s music, visit her music page here.

Tuning in to God

Some things are hard to describe – like the smell of a thrift store. (I just smelled that particular smell while walking down a long hallway at the hospital where I work. I recognized it right away, but I’m still trying to figure out why the otherwise empty hallway smelled that way…)

How about the sound your tires make as they’re wearing down to the no-tread zone? A faint roar? (Or a loud roar, depending on just how worn they are.) If you’re not prone to procrastinate or else take a trip to the land of denial, then you will recognize and respond to the sound pretty quickly, however you feel it or describe it.

My son and I have been on a bit of a Star Wars kick since we saw Episode 7: The Force Awakens over the holidays. Since then, we’ve re-watched episodes 1-3 and now we’re finishing up 4-6 (the oldest ones.) Episode 5 (The Empire Strikes Back) is the one where Darth Vader famously corrects Luke that he’s Luke’s father. (Luke’s reaction at 2:20) After several death-defying slips and falls, Luke speaks to Leia telepathically or through “the force,” and she hears him, just in time to rescue him from certain death. (Click here to see the scene. You know you want to see the whole movie again now.) Sorry, I am digressing …

Whether through certain smells, or sounds, or through other clear-yet-difficult-to-explain messages we receive in our head, I think we have all experienced a sense of recognizing something that is relatively hard to describe. It’s important for us to recognize the normal nature of this when we begin thinking about the notion of hearing from God. Does God still speak to us today? Well, I have to say, “YES!” As a matter of fact, I wonder about the person/people who ever started the nasty rumor that God doesn’t speak to humans any more … (I suppose “if it doesn’t happen to me specifically, then it doesn’t happen to anyone?” I’m sure we all can think of several hundred ways that line of thinking has played out in history. Ex: “Racism doesn’t exist any more …”, “Everyone has access to jobs and food!” Get it? It’s called “bias.” And it wrecks your perspective when you don’t weigh your bias against the experiences of other people.) And I digressed again ..

tunerI believe the question of how to hear from God is less about whether or not God is speaking and more about how well we are tuned in. We could be so distracted that we simply don’t sense God (the way some people don’t smell or hear what another person smells or hears until it’s pointed out.) We may get a message that we don’t like or don’t trust, so we just dismiss it. (When you do that very many times, dismissal becomes your default mode.) The fact that we miss it does not mean that communication was not attempted. It merely means we’re not listening.

I am currently on a journey – along with the members of the church where I serve – of very intentional discernment of what God is saying we should be and do. Spiritual discernment comes when we engage in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, study of scriptures, silence and reflection – both individually and collectively. These disciplines are life-changing not because of what we are doing but because of what GOD DOES through us in this process of opening ourselves up to the Spirit.

If you have been seeking to hear from God, I assure you, God is speaking. Take the time to quiet your mind and get away from the distractions that would deafen, mislead and blind you. The Spirit of God is very much at work in these days and times. The message God sends is recognizable because it is always – ALWAYS – based on genuine, sincere love and a desire to lead others into that knowledge and experience.

The Spirit of God never contradicts the teachings of Jesus but instead reminds us of what Jesus modeled. If someone hates his or her neighbor and claims to be following Jesus, then you can know you’re dealing with a confused person – not someone to follow on your journey toward faith in God lived out in the context of your world.

Practice listening for God. You might “hear” that voice in unexpected ways. The more you listen, the more you will recognize the voice of God in contrast to the screaming, contradictory voices that vie for your attention on a daily basis. Once you get tuned in, you won’t want to ever change the dial …