Thursday, October 30, 2014

Breaking Down

Much of this year has been focused on training for my half marathon and mission trip to Guatemala. I cannot do many things well at one time so I tend to pile all of my efforts into just a few. It became a lot harder for me to save images on my computer, and my husband inadvertently switched my blogging password. All of a sudden it just became a real hassle to even think about getting a blog post together. I tried a few times, but could not give it the time and energy that it requires. It took me the better part of a week to get the password reset and this picture placed at the top of the page, but I'm finally good to go. Lord willing, hopefully it'll be easier for the next post.

We are two-thirds of the way into the Fall Hiking Spree. The air is turning crisp and leaves are changing, falling, and crunching underfoot. The trails invite me to rediscover them in their more simplistic, stripped down form. The leaf canopies have been replaced by bare limbs and unobstructed views of the sky. There are no splashes of color from wildflowers to grab my attention, which affords me the opportunity to enjoy that which is sometimes overlooked. Things like moss, dirt, bark, rocks, and mushrooms.

Mushrooms. I came upon these toward the end of our hike and knew they were a blog post in the making. I stopped, absorbing the thoughts that began flying at me. I walked over to them, bending low for a closer look. My fingers stretched out to feel their smooth, springy flesh. My family moved on without me, but I continued my examination, piecing together all that I was hearing from my Father. Finally, I snapped a few pictures and walked away... unburdened.

I had been wrestling with some things all week about the Guatemala mission trip. Mainly, I was beating myself up because I had experienced what had felt like a relapse while there. I had gone into the trip feeling strong. I had labored an entire year to rid myself of emotionally destructive tendencies. I had felt confident and sure as I boarded my plane. Unbeknownst to me, I had more ground to cover.

I've recently shared about that first little incident that the enemy had a field day with, but I will recount the story here for those who may not be familiar with it. I had been working the "Bucket Brigade" as our team helped build the villagers a church. I had worked so hard passing those unbelievably heavy buckets of dirt. I had joyed in the physicality of our task since I was in the best shape of my life. I had completed my first half marathon two weeks prior and had risen early that very morning to run up and down a mountain in heat and humidity that I was unaccustomed to. I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Then I overheard a team member worriedly speaking to our pastor about the likelihood of our work continuing at the same level the next day. We had a huge task ahead of us and he just could not see it happening with the bodies we had to accomplish it. He had specifically mentioned my name with a few others, proclaiming, "There's no way they are going to be able to keep doing this stuff." To say that I wilted is an understatement! I let him know that I was fine and would do the work, but that turned out to be untrue. I wasn't fine. Just that one little sentence had caused me to believe so much less in my ability to contribute anything of worth. It was not the same from that point on. When I passed buckets I imagined that the guys were expecting me to be weak. If it was a particularly hefty bucket I felt pressure to not let on how heavy it felt to me. If I lost my footing in the loose soil I imagined that they were thinking I couldn't handle the work. It seemed like the guys were holding on to the buckets just a little longer than necessary when they passed them to me to make sure I could handle it and wasn't going to drop it. If, in fact, that was the case it seems like a kind thing to me now - but then it made me feel like a loser.

But even this experience was not the end of me. I fought against the lies that the enemy was throwing at me. I continued to work hard, squashing down the negative self talk. Making the best of it, I publicly made light of it and joked about our team member thinking I was such a wimp. It helped. I was overcoming. And then I got sick.

And then I got sick. Just writing it in italics cannot convey everything that that one little sentence means. I worked all of my third day ill. They needed some of us to come to the school to paint and I jumped at the chance for some easy work. Our team mate had viewed me as weak and now I truly was weak. The enemy pounced on his opportunity to drive that point home to me. I was weak. I was. And that physical weakness wore away at me until I began experiencing emotional weakness. Upon arriving at the school, we were surprised to see a huge pile of dirt in the middle of the surface that we were supposed to paint. Construction was in progress and there was no way for us to paint that day. The respite that I thought would soon be mine was not to be - so back to the Bucket Brigade I went. I did not want to do it, didn't think I could with how I was feeling, but there were too many empty spots. I was needed.

We use clocks and minutes to measure our time, but that all stopped for me as I took my place in line. I could think of nothing else but the next bucketful. I passed bucket after bucket and it became the way I calculated time. No longer was it 10:00 or 12:00. Now it was "one bucket closer to being done". I prayed. Oh, did I pray! I reminded myself over and over that God was my strength. And I did the work. Even in such a weakened state I had seen the day's task through to completion. I fell into my seat in the van and promptly burst into thankful tears. I had never in my life so truly experienced God being my strength. We read that in the Word and believe it to be true, but going through something like that makes it so real.

It was a victory for me, and I was overcoming. But the enemy wasn't gonna give up that easy. My sickness continued to progress to the point where I knew I needed nothing but water and sleep. Retiring to bed at 5:15, I skipped dinner and devotions that night. Fever had set in and I could not get warm. I took the hottest shower I could stand and put warm clothes on. I pulled my jacket's hood over my head, put socks on my hands and a thick folded up towel over my head, and settled in to sleep with three blankets. I felt defeated. I had successfully fought against the urge to withdraw when I felt hurt two days earlier, but now I had no choice but to physically separate myself. I did not want to be alone. I desperately wanted to be with the others - to be one of them even though I always feel so different. Instead I lay in my bed isolated from them and feeling every bit as tainted as the enemy wanted me to feel. I was sad. I missed my family.

Thankfully I awoke in the night in a pool of sweat. Praise God, my fever had broken. I got up and showered again to rid myself of the evidence of my weakness. I was back in business! Or at least I thought I was. Just because I felt so much better did not mean that the others would understand that. A few team members were very sensitive about germs and made it very plain to me. Here I thought that my time of being alone would be over. I can't explain the depth of my disappointment when I realized that I would still have to keep my distance in order to make others feel more at ease. It seemed like a cruel joke to finally be able to join them only to continue being alone. Loneliness is a very powerful emotion and it really broke me down. Lacking the community I craved effectively shut me down. I was away from everything normal in my life and that which would have afforded comfort was just beyond the reach of my fingertips. I felt like I had lost in so many ways.

Having said all of that, I don't want to make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I have no doubt that I was supposed to go to Guatemala and that the Lord accomplished things through me being there. We helped those people. God enlarged our hearts toward one another and toward our Guatemalan friends. He marched us right up to the edge of a cliff and asked us to fling ourselves into His arms, surrendering all control to Him. We did that and He showed us over and over again that it wasn't about us. That it was about Him in every way.

When I came upon these mushrooms during our hike, I could distinctly sense that He was telling me something. I began searching my mind for all of the fungi facts that I had filed away over the years. I recalled that they often attach themselves to things that are dying. They feed on their hosts and break them down. My trip to Guatemala popped into my head. What of it, Lord? Hmmm... I had been surprised that I wasn't as strong as I had believed I was. I realized that I still had plenty of work to do. I had become down on myself and impatient with my journey. Why couldn't I just shake this stuff off and move on? I desire to be whole, and had actively worked towards it, so why was the enemy able to shake me as he had on the trip?

The Lord spoke to me about those unwanted things that had attached themselves to me while there. I thought of those mushrooms sucking the life force out of the tree stump they were affixed to. I could relate. I remembered how I had experienced that same draining of things that brought life to me. I had once again come face to face with my fears and had come out feeling like they had been the winners. But the Lord persisted. Don't you realize that I knew you would get sick? Don't you believe that it was part of My plan for you? Can you see no way that I can use that experience for good? Did you really think that it was all about you and what you wanted? What of what I want? Oh, my. Well, of course it could be used! I had sort of lost sight of that. I had lost focus. It wasn't about me and everything that is wrong with me. It was about Him and what He wanted to do in me and through me. And, obviously, that included me being sick and feeling alone. It had shown me that I was still susceptible to believing the worst about myself. It had shown me that I need to keep filling my head with His Truth and not give an inch to the enemy's lies.

I was fixated on the fact that the fears about my worth still had some power over me. Why couldn't I just win the victory already? But God, in His goodness, encouraged me. Those mushrooms have attached themselves to something that is dying. Yes, you had things fastened to you on your trip. You may not have wanted them to be there, but you were a perfect host because so many things are dying in you. WHAT?!!! You are making progress. Don't you forget what role those mushrooms play. Yes, they are often parasitic in nature. You know what that feels like. But don't forget that they are decomposers, breaking down the wood of that stump. The wood will not be the same in the end. Instead, it will have transformed into rich, life-giving soil. Tamra, you are being broken down in the same way. You will be changed! No, you are not there yet. That's okay. You will get there. I am making you into something that I can use to nourish and promote life in others. You keep telling others about what I am doing in you. You will get there. Just make sure you're honest about the journey. 

And so I try to do that. I think of the friend with sensory issues who was grossed out by the bumpy texture in this picture. She said that she would have wanted to scrape them all off to make it smooth. Don't we often do the same thing in life? Don't we instinctively try to avoid those things that make us uncomfortable? Speaking for myself, I can say that I have been tempted to long for less bumps along the way. But if I truly believe that He is in control I can rejoice even in those parts that are not as I would have preferred. He is going somewhere with every bit of it. I am so grateful for that.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Thing of Beauty

What comes to mind when you think of a spring wildflower? Perhaps something pastel in color and delicately shaped? When I look at the Skunk Cabbage pictured above, a different sort of description comes to mind. I think of words like hardy, stout, unconventional, or prickly. Believe it or not, sitting here looking at this picture reminds me of a worker I encountered at Walmart recently.

I came upon her as I made my way to the housewares aisle. She was hoisting an over-sized box up near her head like it was nothing. I took a few seconds to notice a few things about her. She had a harshness about her. She was burly. Not very feminine in appearance. She seemed preoccupied by more than her work. Underlying her gruff exterior I sensed a certain vulnerability. My heart went out to her.

I was in a hurry, but I paused for just a second before her and said, "Watch it, now! You be careful lifting stuff up like that." The hardness crumbled just a bit and I smiled at her. It wasn't much, but a change came over her. Was it because someone cared about her? She visibly softened, returned my smile, and offered a thank you. And that was that.

I continued to think about her on the drive home. Not being much of a beauty myself in a worldly way, I wondered what she might believe about herself. Did she buy into the whole erroneous idea of what it means to be beautiful in our society? Did she realize her value? That she was lovingly made with a purpose?

As I've aged, my concept of beauty has broadened. It's been my experience that it is a rare occasion when youth has eyes to see beauty in all of its different forms. The flower at the top of this page is beautiful in its own way. Certainly not dainty, I'd describe it more along the lines of "earthy". Among the first flowers to burst forth in the spring, to me, it is always a glorious sight for sore eyes. The confining days of winter are drawing to an end and I know that the dying season is over - at least for a time. I appreciate the skunk cabbage's bold splashes of color. And that spiky ball at its center reminds me that some people guard their hearts with prickly exteriors in an effort to keep others at arm's length where they can't hurt them as easily.

Father, I lift up this beautiful young woman to You. I don't know much about her, not even her name, but You do. I wonder if she knows You? If not, would You please draw her lovingly to Yourself by Your Spirit? If she does know You, I pray that You would draw her even nearer to Your heart. Chase away any darkness in her - anything and everything that is not of You. Lord, would You help her to realize Your love for her? Cause that knowledge to permeate her thought processes and take root deep down in her heart, transforming her. Let Your unshakable love overcome her to Your glory. In the beautiful name of Jesus I pray, Amen. 

Bind Us Together

Aren't our bodies remarkable things? I look at this picture and marvel at how they have been created to heal themselves. Taken three months ago, the break that begins at the third screw and extends down through the fourth screw is no longer visible. It has totally regrown. I read once that bone, once it's healed, is actually stronger than it was to begin with. That's what I'm counting on in more ways than one. You see, I look at this image and it really isn't my husband's ankle post surgery. It's my marriage.

Today is our 22nd wedding anniversary. Beyond that, we began dating on this day the year before. Twenty-three years. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into! He had baggage, I had baggage. I think I remember Beth Moore saying, "Baggage attracts baggage." Well, I guess so. Really, we were such broken individuals. And God, in His wisdom, thought it'd be a good idea for us to be together. I smile as I write that, but it has been so very hard.

With brokenness comes a lot of unhealthy behaviors. It hasn't been pretty, but God Himself has fought for us over the years. And here we are. Soon after my husband's accident, it became apparent to me that the Lord was doing something in us. It seemed that He was not content to have us continue on with a survival mindset. Our thoughts are not like His thoughts, but I really do think that He wanted to move us beyond that to a place of thriving. In order to do that, though, He needed to perform surgery on us.

Sure, we had made attempts over the years to heal. Despite our best efforts, the progress was minimal at best. Something a bit more drastic must be done. And so our Physician orchestrated events in such a way that we would undergo the knife. With scalpel in hand, He got to work. It was His good pleasure to open us up... go in and clean out the junk and debris... skillfully join the separated parts back together... add reinforcement... and stitch us together. Sounds wonderful, but in reality the healing process hurts. That kind of pain can make you desperate... and He does some of His best work with us when we are in that sort of place.

I look at this picture and notice that ten screws were used to fasten the plate in place. I've been pondering those ten screws the last month or so. What things has God been using to bind us securely together during this time of healing? Hmmm...

1. Prayer. So many prayers. We prayed alone, together, with others. Once, during an excruciating bout with withdrawal, John asked me to e-mail a prayer plea to some friends NOW. He needed back up for what he was going through. We got uncomfortably honest with a handful of people about how hard it was. What we were really going through. Believe me when I say that it got very bad.

2. Time. There are usually not too many quick fixes. We had to give it time despite our many frustrations and wishes that we could just be healed already. Just like bone takes time to regrow after a break, so does marital healing.

3. Courage. Wow, did I have to be courageous. If we had any hope of ever getting better, some things needed to be said and done. I came to learn that our codependency was off the charts. How had I never known what codependency was up to that point? I needed to learn to love in healthy ways. It was a whole new world for us. Definitely not a walk in the park, it was enough to make me want to give up several times. But love, real love, does what is best for the other. Not what is most convenient and not what will stir up the waters the least.

4. Forgive. I don't think this needs much explanation. Forgiveness is that thing that we all know we need to do, but do we really do it? I had to examine my heart and remember that forgiveness is a choice.

5. Draw close in physical intimacy rather than push one another away. Yes, I said it.

6. Follow doctor's orders. My stubborn husband was not icing his ankle like he was supposed to and it was not helping. In the same way, God gives us instructions in His Word that will promote healing... if we'd just listen.

7. Thankfulness. One of the first things I did after the accident was begin a list of things that I was thankful for. It helped to keep me positive and was my way of living out Philippians 4:8 - "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things."

8. Affirmations. The ground seemed so uneven beneath our weary feet in the early phases. I noticed that it seemed that we didn't much believe one another when we said, "I love you." We needed to affirm our level of love and commitment to one another. One small thing we began implementing to combat this tendency was to answer one another's "I love you's" with, "Yes, you do." It might seem silly, but we needed all the help we could get. And I do think that it helped.

9. Persevere in communicating. I never thought that communication was our strong suit, but it became painfully obvious to me that it was even worse than I had imagined. We couldn't get it right even when we made very concentrated efforts. Oh, was it discouraging! We began reading The Love Dare together, which helped to break things down into very detailed and manageable pieces. It was a great opportunity for us to educate ourselves in what the other might be thinking, fearing, or needing. And it urged us to act on it in meaningful ways.

10. Trust the heart of God. In the darkest times when things seemed most futile, I needed to remind myself that He was doing something. It wasn't for nothing! He had a plan. He would redeem and restore. Most importantly, He would be glorified.

Father, on this 22nd wedding anniversary, I just want to give You praise. You are the God of the universe, full of power and might, and You still care enough to perform surgery on us. You are so wise and know the perfect timing for everything. You knew just when we would be most vulnerable and when You'd be able to work most effectively. You are our Great Physician, God. You have made us fearfully and wonderfully - You know us! Having made us, You also know what we need. More than anything, we need You. Cause us to love You above all other things. Draw us close to Yourself in a greater intimacy than we've ever known. And, please, continue Your healing work in our lives that You would receive much glory. In the strong name of Jesus I pray, Amen.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Where are you Looking? Part 2

I have been procrastinating long enough about writing this post! It had seemed like such a great idea at the time, but I now find myself dragging my feet for one reason or another. Had I not announced in the last one that I would be writing a part two, I am pretty sure that this post wouldn't have come about. At least not this soon. Since I like to do what I say I'm gonna do in a timely manner, it looks like I'd better find some words in a hurry. 

Lord, help me to express those things that will bless someone who reads this. You know what needs to be said... and how... and for whom. You also know how terrifying it is to share on this kind of level. Do Your thing! In the name of Jesus I pray, amen.

When I left off I had just recounted how the Lord had spoken to me during the process of looking back over my life. Because He doesn't do anything halfway, He had much more to speak to me about where I was looking. Specifically about what I was and was not looking for in my relationships. It started with me finding myself in a place where I had absolutely no recollection of something my husband had said during a conversation we had with a friend. I have a pretty great memory (a blessing and a curse), and I was surprised by this lapse in my cognitive abilities. I had been right there and hadn't the slightest remembrance of that entire part of the conversation? What in the world? I am thankful that the friend had enough guts to call me on it and offer some words of wisdom. He shared how a friend had told him that "we will find in others what we are looking for." In my case, I hadn't heard something that I wasn't listening for. You see, it was beginning to dawn on me that I had an agenda.

I know that I am not without sin and that my heart can deceive me. Still, I've got to be honest that I was disturbed by this. I highly value honesty and all of a sudden I was faced with the knowledge that I was deceiving myself. Ugh! I purposed to tackle it head on and see what the Lord might show me. From that point on I became keenly aware of what was happening/being said around me and how I was filtering each thing. Sure enough, I caught myself several times seeing things in a skewed way. Not surprisingly, I found myself doing this a lot with my husband. It may sound silly, but on any given day I have myself convinced that he totally despises me. I began to suspect that this probably wasn't the case, and that I should consciously look for evidence to the contrary. 

Two examples immediately spring to the forefront of my mind, the first being John's practice of backing in the car in for me. Knowing that I am a nervous driver and even passenger, he thoughtfully goes out of his way to do certain things to ensure that any trips I have to make will go smoothly. Besides backing in the car, he often programs the address into the GPS and mounts it, warms up the car, cleans the windows, makes sure I have gas, etc. All of this sounds great, right? How do I see it? Well, I get in the car (that I can now pull straight out of the driveway in!) and am overtaken by negative thoughts. Surely he must think that I possess inadequate driving skills and am incapable of driving well! His attempt to love me is totally blocked by my uncanny ability to flip it around into something that it isn't. Can't have anyone loving me, now can I?

Similarly, I caught myself misreading an exchange we had about skydiving. I had shared a desire to do so and had been met by his outright refusal. He pointed out that it seemed safe because more and more people were doing it, but that people were bound to start having fatal accidents. He had then said, "And you are way too valuable to our family." Seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? That's not at all what I heard. I heard, "You are never allowed to have any fun. I will control what you can and cannot do, however, I can do whatever I please." Unbelievable! It took me about a day to catch what I was doing, which was deflecting any possibility of him caring. To me, there was no way that it could have anything to do with him loving me, so I needed to turn it into him desiring to control me. Sigh! Why do I do this?!!!

I began realizing that I have a tendency to hyper focus on things that will "prove" that I am not loved. Personal failures on the part of anyone I come into contact with can somehow become evidence that I do not deserve love. I have became a pro at seeing what I want to see. Bit by bit I have stocked my own little arsenal of weapons. If someone gets too close, I need only pull one out to create a little space. I do this with my husband, family, friends, just about anyone. As much as I welcome intimacy, I have really begun to see how I project things upon people in accordance with the way I am sure they must feel about me. It all boils down to me, once again, not believing what my Father says about me.

It is almost like scales have been falling from my eyes. When I really began looking for ways that John and others were loving me I was overwhelmed. I was seeing love everywhere and it had always been there! Subconsciously, I have always believed that I am not worthy of love. I have carefully built my case to support it and have deliberately used weapons to protect that belief. And now I have to ask myself what am I so afraid of? 

The pictures I am using for this post are of the spring wildflower Star-of-Bethlehem. Wishing to find it, I was surprised when I discovered it in our backyard. Really hoping it was the real thing, I had run in the house and retrieved my field guide. Everything seemed to line up just so, but I was still looking for that one thing that might cement my ID. I read on and discovered that there is a green stripe going down the center of the underside of the petal. How exciting! I couldn't wait to flip over a petal to see if the stripe was there. If you look back at the top picture you will notice that the stripe is not visible. It would take some looking to see it. And so I am discovering that if I want to be everything that God is calling me to be, I will have to start consciously looking for love from those He places my life.

I love You, Father. You love me... and, wonder of wonders, other people love me. I am sitting here allowing those truths to sink in. You have painstakingly dealt with me in this area for what seems like forever, Lord! You are so very patient with me. Though I find myself slipping into my old ways of thinking from time to time, I really have felt that I have made vast improvements as far as believing Your love for me. That was a start, but it seems that You desired to carry that over into my other relationships. Did You think it was time to shake things up because I was finally feeling more secure in Your love? Whatever the case, I am so grateful that You are always building me. Thank You for this reminder to look for the love that I so often refuse to see. I confess that I have blinded myself from seeing healthy expressions of love from those You've placed in my life. Forgive me, please. Since You are the Great Physician, I pray that You will align my vision. As I seek to obey You in this, would You please help it to come more naturally for me? I want to live in a way that pleases You. In the name of Jesus I pray, amen.