THAT ONE TIME WHEN I DIDN’T DIE

I love TED Talks! As in anyone-who-says-they-enjoy-TED Talks-is-automatically-my-new-best-friend kind of love. And, no, the poor souls never see it coming. This morning, this 16-minute talk showed up in Twitter and I’ve been excited to share it all day long!!

The title reminded me of my friend who celebrated his first birthday after surviving necrotizing faciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) as his I Didn’t Die birthday. And it reminded me of so many of my fellow survivors in the Aortic Dissection Support Group on Facebook. I hadn’t expected to hear so many of my own thoughts come out of someone else’s mouth.

On the other hand, I wasn’t surprised that someone else had those thoughts. Suleika Jaouad gave voice to an idea that I’ve been pondering. In the years since I survived my ascending aortic dissection, I have noticed that I have as much in common with cancer survivors as I do with dissection survivors. I also have a lot in common with people who have dealt with break-ups, being relieved of job responsibilities and the key to the employee entrance, financial losses, etc. You can add whatever you want to the list.

These are the 9 things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. You are not alone. Everyone has either already endured a struggle or will eventually endure a struggle. No one finishes without at least one, and some people should probably just get their own punch card.
  2. Any loss is still a loss, any pain is still pain, and no one else gets to determine how big, bad or scary your struggle is.
  3. More often than not, you weren’t asked if it was okay with you. No, you didn’t get a vote. Yes, you get to clean up the collateral damage.
  4. Surviving wasn’t necessarily a matter of being a warrior. Let’s face it – it’s intuitive for us to do what we can to not die, and everyone around us from family to physicians is doing everything to help us survive. That being said, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to work your guts out getting to the other side.
  5. These things can change you in ways you may not be able to articulate. In fact, you may not want to share your thoughts at the risk of sounding ungrateful, because…
  6. Your new life might suck. (I’m no angel, but this blog hardly seems the right place for a word that may offend some. So I apologize for any offense, but maintain that this is the most appropriate inappropriate word I can think of.) But honestly, “new normal” is a phrase only used when the change in your life is no picnic, right?
  7. You are not the only one who went through it and came out on the other side a changed person. Your friends and family (and even your coworkers) are now the friends and family (and coworkers) of the person who survived. They have a “new normal” to adjust to as well.
  8. Your recovery doesn’t have to be pretty or polished to be progress.
  9. Finally, the biggest lie you may ever believe is that you’re the only one. Your story, statistics and survival may certainly be unique, but…See #1 again.

That’s it. That’s all I have right now. No confetti, pep talk or words of wisdom to end this post. But while you’re here, feel free to share something you think might help someone else not feel quite so alone.

Oh, you are so loved!

AND STILL I RISE

Getting up can be a much bigger deal than we think, really. Essentially, the physical act of getting up is a matter of defying gravity, isn’t it? When I think of it that way, it seems like a really big deal! We seldom think of it, though, because we do it all day long – we rise from bed, from a chair, from the floor. Toddlers are forever getting back up!

So when do we become conscious of the mechanics of getting up, of rising?

When it gets hard and takes more strength than we think we have – in the way Andra Day sings about in “I’ll Rise Up.”

Age, long hours and illness can make it a physical challenge to get back up. Anxiety, depression, high expectations, loss, and disappointment can make it an emotional challenge.img_4464

But sometimes there is something especially inspirational and profound in getting back up again. Our lives aren’t always as dramatic as a boxer’s, where a win is dependent upon getting up after being knocked down for the count while “Eye of the Tiger” plays in the background, but rising can be just as challenging and every bit as vital. And equally powerful

Our story may not be as beautifully worded as Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise”, but it’s inspiritational just the same. After all, it’s our story!

As I’ve mentioned before, I belong to two different Facebook groups – one for survivors of aortic dissections, which I joined after surviving my own ascending aortic dissection, and one for survivors of CPTSD/PTSD. I’ve been fascinated by how much they overlap. Those in the group dealing with health issues are also dealing with some serious emotional challenges,  and those in the group dealing with emotional issues are also dealing with their share of health issues. What they seem to share most is a sense being alone and feeling quite weary.

So many members of these two groups feel like no one really “gets” their struggle, and they are aware that their recovery, their moving forward, is in fact an individual effort. Others can sympathize, empathize, encourage and support, but the journey of getting back up is ultimately their own.

Still, I know those feelings aren’t unique to these groups. I don’t think any of us have gotten through life without getting knocked down a time or two. Some of us come from a long line of people who have been knocked down and have fought hard to rise up. Some of us have gone through seasons of challenge in spite of every privilege and benefit the world has afforded us. Difficulty is no respecter of wealth, beauty, education, age, gender or ethnicity.

The apostle Peter knew a bit about difficulties, and yet he passed on this promise:

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.  1 Peter 5:10-11

How could he be so certain of God’s grace? Because he’d experienced it. Jesus still loved him and called him after Peter denied knowing him. Jesus pulled him from the roaring waves the moment Peter cried out for help.

Peter is telling us that, yes, we will suffer. But! By the grace of God, we can rise up…again and again and again.LBG2015Thrill-of-hope-01.jpg

But even before that, Jesus had been born Emmanuel, God with us. That was God’s descent. And how glorious His rising was! In His descent, the weary – like you and me – were given hope. In his rising, we were redeemed. It is by His grace and the strength it affords us that we can always rise again. God has plans for you, fighter. You may be down, but don’t you dare stay down!

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JESUS WEPT…TOO

01abaa8689658eaf373af1ec9b42b72cI was listening to MercyMe’s “Even If”, which gives voice to those times when we suspect that God may not be especially interested in helping us out of whatever trial we’re going through. We know He can. We believe that He is able. He just doesn’t seem willing.

This has always been a challenge for me to process. My example of grace and a willingness to help was not especially positive. Here’s an example: Several years ago, my car caught fire around 2:00 am. First, my step-father woke me up to tell me my car was on fire. When I asked him if he’d called the fire department, he said, “I thought you’d want to do that.” (The man didn’t have enough ambition to even register on the passivity scale!)

Over the next week, my mother was quite emphatic that the car needed to get off the street because it was an eyesore and she was worried about what the neighbors would think – which was ironic because it was likely one of the neighbors who set it on fire in the first place, such was the neighborhood. One day, she told me that one of the men I’d contacted had called to say he was actually interested in taking the eyesore off my hands. My delight was short-lived, however, when she refused to give me his phone number so I could call him to make arrangements. (Don’t ask…my brain is still locked up over that one!)

So, you can imagine how I felt about God when I thought he wasn’t willing to put an end to a bad situation or to give me hope when I felt there was none. I knew He could and believed He was able. The only conclusion for me was, naturally, that God didn’t want to help me. And that put a wedge between us, which left me feeling unlovable, which wasn’t fair to God.

I know better now, as I’ve been a parent for 26 years. If I tell one of my daughters “no”, I have sound, loving reasons.

Still, I think there are plenty of times when we say, as in the song, “it is well” with my soul, but with a hint of disappointment and even resentment in our voice. A sort of “Gee, thanks for nothin’, God.” Because it’s not really as well with my soul as I let on!

A little over five years ago, I survived an emergency eight-hour open-heart surgery to save my life from an ascending aortic dissection. My mind and body haven’t been the same since, and no one really knows why, which means no one knows how to “fix” me. Of all the issues I’ve had, chronic pain has been the most life-changing for me. I hurt most of the time, and it’s completely altered the way I do anything outside the house. So for five years, I’ve been at a loss as to why God left me so very different than I was before the surgery. As grateful as I am that I survived, the condition I’m in frustrates me!

In Pain and Providence, Joni Eareckson Tada wrote: “God uses chronic pain and a146a1b41e18c40cad6493ade0abef21 (1)weakness, along with other afflictions, as his chisel for sculpting our lives. Felt weakness deepens dependency on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away.” Don’t doubt for a moment that I’d prefer to come to the same end without the chronic pain! But she’s right.

Paul came to the same conclusion when he wrote: Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it (the thorn in his side) away from 69628e65940954f9ad4d517b8ca2d026me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10, NIV)

Here’s the thing, though: I forget that at all times, God loves me and wants what’s best for me. I have to remember and be confident that I am the way I am – and not the way I want to be – because God wants me this way right now. I mistakenly assume that because I don’t like it, it’s “wrong” or “bad” or, worse, “punishment.”

The key, I’m learning, is to get on board with God’s new game plan for me. The best thing I can do is to trust that God loves me and will give me the grace and strength to get through whatever situation He chooses to leave me in. It would help if I could resist the temptation to label my situation as “good” or “bad”. And it would serve me well to to just roll with it and be open to God’s guidance. It’s that surrender, that acquiescence, that God wants.

It’s important for us to remember that Jesus understands this anxiety and frustration f6769b615b03aefe414a06588ec985d5that we often have with a situation we’d like to change. He wept when he felt deep compassion for those who loved Lazarus and had buried him. It pained him to know that it had been necessary for Him to allow for that grief in order that He demonstrate His power by bringing him back to life. And certainly, he cried desperately for God to find another way to redeem humanity that would be so much less painful than crucifixion on the cross and bearing the weight of so many sins. But we know that God did not permit that cup to pass from Him.

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God knows and Jesus understands. It’s up to us to trust, accept and allow God to use us for His kingdom the way He chooses to.

“The truth is, in this world it’s a 100 percent guarantee that we will suffer. But at the same time, Jesus Christ is 100 percent certain to meet us, encourage us, comfort us, grace us with strength and perseverance, and yes, even restore joy in our lives. Your Savior is 100 percent certain to be with you through every challenge.” 

― Joni Eareckson Tada, A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God’s Sovereignty

LET’S BE HONEST

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I’m beginning to think that whoever came up with the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” was never required to put that confidence to the test. In fact, I’d be willing to bet they knew the guy who first said, “Buck up, little camper!”

Don’t get me wrong. I know adversity can lead to great strength. The Bible is full of examples of that – Paul, Job, Joseph. Tough lives created tough guys. And historically, some of our greatest entrepreneurs, leaders and athletes have risen from the ashes of adversity. I’m confident that each of us have that same potential. I know we each have that opportunity.

However, I also believe that life can really kick you in the butt and wear you down to nothing first. But the nice thing about being that low is that there’s nowhere to go but up, right? Very few successful people are transparent about the times they were down for the count; the moments right before they started to get back up.

One of my favorite quotes about being knocked down is from J. K. Rowling:

“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

As I’ve mentioned before here and there, I belong to two wonderful Facebook groups. One is for survivors of C/PTSD and the other is for survivors of Aortic Dissections. More and more, the line between the two – one emotional and psychological, the other primarily physical – is beginning to blur for me.

I have one friend who survived necrotizing faciitis (flesh-eating disease) and another who survived a staph infection that was so rare his doctor told the intern to not even bother taking notes on it because they’d probably never see it again. When I gave birth to my first daughter at 28 weeks gestation, weighing one-and-a-half pounds, measuring 13 inches, I stayed at a Ronald McDonald House, where families were staying to be close to their very sick children. Some knew their child was going to die. Others were hoping their child would live. Watch the news and you’ll witness people losing everything they have to natural disasters.

And…?

And I’ve come to the conclusion that there are whole lot of us out here who have been through “stuff”!

And I’m noticing some common denominators:

We’re dealing with something that happened to us. Most fiction is about man vs. man or man vs. nature. Sometimes, what happens is a result of our own sequence of choices, although for the sake of this post I’m not going to address that.

We didn’t ask for it to happen to us. So whether you’ve faced the possibility that you’ll lose your life to cancer or had a fender bender with a rotten driver; whether you’ve lost a child or lost your job; spent most of your life under the dehumanizing  abuse of a  parent or been treated as “less than” because of your size, your gender or the amount of pigmentation in your skin, no one asked if you’d be OK with it. And yet, like the family whose home and all their belongings have been destroyed by a tornado, it’s left to you to clear the debris.

We think we’re alone. Either shame or misinformation has isolated us into thinking no one would understand. And you’d be partially right. If you’ve been raped, not even another rape victim can understand how you translated and processed your own violation. If your spouse tells you they think you’re unlovable, no one else has the same life as you to enable them to truly empathize with your sense of unlovability. (It’s a word now.)

And, finally, we aren’t handed manuals or PowerPoint presentations to tell us what to do next. You, my friend, are on your own. Your friends, family and therapists can support you, but ultimately the true work is up to you.

Now there are plenty of scriptures to address everything I just said, and a few sermons that could be preached about challenges. And, yes, I will insist that God loves us and will never leave us or forsake us. I know that I can cast all my care on Him because He loves me. I believe He will make a way when there seems to be no way. And I am confident that he is able “to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20) However, since this post is already around 1,000 words long, I’ll save these for other posts.

Today, the thing I want you to understand is this: None of us are the only ones and we are not c553a748a7656e370d73d8dab054b6f0alone! I may not have gone through what my friend Jeff endured, but I’ve had my own “stuff”. You may not have had a mother who punished you by not acknowledging your existence for 2-3 days like I did, but I know you’ve had your own “stuff”. Can we agree on that much? Can we be compassionate and patient with each other without judging who’s had the worst “stuff”?

So if someone tells you that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or “You were given this life because you were strong enough to live it.” don’t feel bad if you think it’s hot air. Don’t let those words shame you into thinking you should be doing better than you are doing. We may become strong from our trials, but I don’t believe that God is sitting on a heavenly throne passing out painful things and saying, “Yeah, give it to him. He can take it.” I think those statements, while being well meaning, actually invalidate your pain.

When I started this blog, I wanted to share things that would give others a sort of permission to embrace their own challenges and pain, as well as to provide some encouragement and validation. I’ve come to believe that one of the things people need to move on or move through their struggle is to have someone look at you and say, “I see you! What you went through was rough. You didn’t do anything to deserve it. But it can be better than this.”

It’s time we shared our stories.5734bd36c0aa8d7f59f5d6e7cc395e25

 

JANIS IAN, VEGGIETALES & EPHESIANS

I have a teenaged daughter who is becoming an amazing young woman. It seems like she’s constantly changing. She reminds me of what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (Except she’s not becoming a man. Just so we’re clear on that! This isn’t “that blog.” 🙂 )

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AT SEVENTEEN – JANIS IAN

Some of the struggles Maggie has are so much like those I had at her age – you know, the Janis Ian kind; other struggles are unique to her generation. For example, I didn’t have to worry about how people from all over the world might judge my words or my looks or my choices on social media. I had enough trouble with the people in my school, in my neighborhood.  Then, again, I had to wait for America’s Top 40 so I could press Play and Record at just the right time in order to tape my favorite song. I had to buy an entire album to get my favorite song, and she has iTunes! (The struggle was real then, too.)

Growing up, Maggie’s favorite video was VeggieTales’ Jonah. She loved the idea that the God she was getting to know for herself was the God of second chances. And she understood that those second chances were not only for her, but for everyone else, too. This taught her mercy for others, as well as grace for herself.

 

It also taught her that second chances were unlimited with God. All He asks is that we repent. Ideally, repentance would be a one-time thing. I say I’m sorry and promise to change my ways – forever. But it seldom works that way, does it? We ask forgiveness again because we originally didn’t do it with the right heart.

Or maybe we didn’t really understand what it was that we needed forgiveness for – for getting caught, for making someone mad, or because we have a deeper matter that keeps pushing the wrong behavior to the surface. Or maybe there are some deeply founded beliefs that keep us returning to the same behavior; thoughts that need to be addressed before change can occur. Or maybe we didn’t really fathom how important the matter was to God. In any event, it seems we could easily exhaust God’s grace. And yet we don’t.

I think that’s the nature of repentance – co9ec67cd3ebeb832c3e7dfdef617888ffnstantly starting over and moving forward but with a new mindset. Again. And again. And yet again.

Now, it would be nice to sit back and enjoy God’s grace for ourselves while we remembered – again and again and yet again – all the grievances we suffered at the hands of others, right? Not so fast!

As Paul wrote: As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:1-6

This is more than Rodney King’s plea that we “all just get along.” (Google it.) As Christians, we are a part of one body and one Spirit. It’s imperative that we get along, or nothing will get done! And because we’re a part of one body and one Spirit, this isn’t just about us and we’re not in this alone. Essentially, we’re children of God – princes and princesses. We need to straighten our crowns, adjust our attitudes and act like it. (Doesn’t leave a lot of room for being offended, does it?)

Will it be easy? Considering that the third word in the first verse is “prisoner”, I wouldn’t count on it – at  least not until we fully fathom that we are a prisoner to Him who loves and is love, again and again and again.

But wait! There’s more. Paul goes on to say that the ultimate goal of our life in Christ, as one body and one Spirit comes down to this: Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (14-16)

We will not always be that awkward, insecure, shy 17-year-old. We will become wise and strong and loving! Can we be honest with others when they hurt us? Yes. But with love instead of bitterness. Because of Christ, we are better than we are without Him.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (29-32)

Now, there wasn’t an asterisk by this verse, so apparently social media wasn’t a concern then. All I can say is that whatever method they used for communication gave them much more opportunity to carefully consider their words than keyboarding does today. Even those stupid “footballs” that my classmates fashioned their notes into mandated more time for reconsideration than we have now. And we often wrote “Do not show to anyone” on the outside of it.

Paul later tells us that we will be armed with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17), allowing us to divide the righteous from the unrighteous. But a sword isn’t something you let a child play with. It’s a piece of the armor of God that should be wielded with training and responsibility. And I think there will be plenty of times that we’ll be called to put the sword at our side and extend an empty hand in greeting to show there is no threat to another. No threat, because we have forgiven as we’ve been forgiven and shown compassion as we’ve been shown compassion by our Father through the sacrificial death of His Son.

Things have changed a lot since I was Maggie’s age, but we can be assured that God never changes. His word is steadfast. His expectations of us are solid. His love for us is never-ending. We are part of the mighty body of Christ, designed to do amazing things for the kingdom of God. And I am excited to see what our children grow up to do for Him!

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LET IT GO!

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Of all the four seasons, I enjoy Autumn most of all because it’s the season that welcomes everyone back into their home to spend longer evenings with family, friends or a good book.

Hal Borland was an American author, journalist and naturalist. (No, he’s is not the brother of Al Borland from “Tool Time.”) I like to think of him as a “season specialist.” He found a way of finding wonder and wisdom in the different seasons and the constant transformation of nature.

Now that we’re officially in Autumn, trees have been in a glorious survival mode for a few weeks already. But what a amazing show before Autumn is done!

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Did you know that leaves don’t just fall off? Growing up, I assumed they did – I mean, it is FALL after all. Leaves, in fact, are actually pushed off by the tree. It’s the only way the tree will survive the winter. We could learn a lot from trees.

Right now, trees are letting go of anything that would make survival during winter harder. If they were to keep their leaves, the added weight of the snow would break their branches.

We don’t know what Winter will be like here in Minnesota this year – when it will start to snow, how much it will snow, how much snow will melt in between snowfalls, or when it will stop snowing for the season. That’s how seasons often are – we have some idea of what to expect, but we can never be certain, can we? The only two things we can be certain of is that Winter will begin and Winter will end. Although that sounds simplistic to the point of being condescending, we often seem surprised by its arrival and disappointed that it’s not over soon enough.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1 NIV

8f0ca2121e047e9f93401eea082fd846We each have seasons in our lives, as well – some easy, some challenging; some pleasant, some painful. I believe there are a few truths of seasons, whether in nature or in our personal lives.

They’re inevitable.

They’re temporary.

They’re transformational.

But most of all, they’re transitional. Just as Autumn is sandwiched in between Summer and Winter, the season you’re going through will pass in time. (True, it might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass!)

The key to surviving your particular season is to let go of anything that doesn’t help you through it. What are you holding onto that you need to let go of in order to survive the challenging season ahead – a season of financial change, a season of poor health, a season of grief, a season of busyness, a season of disappointment?

Let go of habits that are robbing you of your time and energy. Release people from your unforgiveness. Delegate responsibility. Ask for help. Free yourself from unrealistic expectations. Use paper plates! (Not all changes need to be grand and philosophical, you know.)

Take time to find beauty in your season. It’s there somewhere! Even in the midst of death in Autumn, trees look like blazing flames atop a match, the leaves change color and fall to carpet the Earth in gold, red and orange.

Autumn also provides a new view. Hal Borland recognized that “October is the fallen leaf, but it is also a wider horizon more clearly seen. It is the distant hills once more in sight, and the enduring constellations above them once again.” The season in which everything seems to die also allows us to see everything that was obscured by foliage during the summer!

So while seasons are an inevitable part of nature and our lives, they can be survived. Beauty can be found in those changes. And, ultimately, what lies dormant will bring forth life in its time. All we need to do is prepare for it, be patient as we move through it and trust that this season may just be what we need to see God’s faithfulness in the next season.

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“One day you will look back on this season and know that you are truly blessed, and not because things were perfect but because you found perfect grace in the worst of it.”

~Morgan Harper Nichols