Monday, August 27, 2012

God in the Undertow

When I was 10, my family vacationed on a beach near Panama City, FL. I loved going out and riding the waves in to shore with my Dad and brother; jumping and floating on top of the water until I got so close to shore that my belly was rubbing sand. Every day I looked forward to our time in the water. It was joy and freedom for me.

On our last day there my Dad and I were walking and paddling out to catch the last wave of our vacation when something unexpected happened. I put my feet down to walk, but almost immediately they were jerked out from under me.

Confused, I tried to put them back down, but the current beneath the surface not only pushed my legs off the bottom, it began dragging me away from shore.

Dad knew immediately what was happening. He grabbed my hands and said, “Hold on tight and don’t let go.” For the next 20 minutes, it was Daddy and me against the entire Gulf of Mexico. When a wave pulled us toward shore, I paddled and he held my arm and pushed toward shore. As soon as the current began to drag me back out to sea, he planted his feet firmly in the sand and held my hands tightly. I would bob wildly on the surface of the water like a fishing bobber. All I could do was stare into his face and watch his sternly-set jaw as he fought for our lives. I had never heard the word “undertow,” but I knew we were in trouble.
I was petrified, so I held on. Slowly, a step at a time, we made our way to shore. I’ve never forgotten the strength of the water that day, or my father’s determination to save us, or the relief when I finally fell down on the sand, safe once more.

I have felt similar forces in my life other times. These times it wasn’t an ocean of water pulling on me. At times life has reached out and tried its best to drag me under. Three months ago I lost my elderly mother to dementia and heart failure. Since May 17th the undertow has returned to drag on my soul. Learning how to live without her has been a tough struggle.

The pain and heartache of the first weeks hit me emotionally much as that undertow hit physically. Most days I’m OK; the waves of pain and of missing her just lap at my heart. Then, without warning, a wave of heartache, confusion, and devastation hits, and it becomes so hard to keep my feet grounded. All I can do is plant myself firmly in the God I can still feel and let the entire emotional ocean of force wash over me. Eventually it subsides, and I begin plodding through life’s waves again.

Life, I have decided, is like that. Sometimes you are strong and you make great strides against things that hold you back. Other times you just have to hang on. You stare with determination into the face of God and let Him hold you tightly. You bob wildly back and forth…just as I did that terrifying childhood day in the salty water off the coast of Florida. Eventually, you find yourself relaxing because the struggle has died down. The God that held you so faithfully during the storm is there, still loving you, and ready to walk with you once more.

May I never, ever face the forces of this world outside of His firm grasp.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Time to Plant...

My Daddy lives with us now. That one sentence says so much to me, but if you’ve never moved a mentally fragile parent into your home, it can’t possibly say enough. We all have pretty much settled in, I think. He does not remember things from moment to moment, or recent history, but he is very amiable and happy and loves being around his grandchildren and Evie, his 4-year-old great-granddaughter.

When he first moved in, I was so excited at the prospect of providing opportunities for him to do things he would enjoy, and to build happy memories of his last years. When I asked him if he would like to visit anywhere, he said, “Bio.” That’s the community he grew up in in northeast Georgia, about 8 miles from Hartwell.

So one Saturday he and I drove up there and met one of my cousins for lunch. We drove out to where my Dad’s family’s home place had stood. We visited the church he attended as a child, and where my grandparents are buried. We even hiked out into a field to a thicket of woods and visited the old family cemetery where his ancestors on his mother’s side of the family have been buried since the Civil War.

He had such a wonderful time! He told story after story of his years in Bio, and pointed out house after house, naming who lived there all those years ago. I had not seen him that animated or smile that much since my parents moved out of their house last December. It was like he came alive again.

Two days later Daddy remarked, “You know, I sure would like to visit Bio some time.” I was shocked. He had absolutely no recollection of the day we’d spent there. I realized at that point that it was too late for him to make new memories. It totally changed how I looked at his time with us.

Since then I have taken him to church, grocery shopping, and to WalMart. My husband walks around the neighborhood with him every evening and the two of them took an afternoon trip to Dahlonega. He has smiled and laughed and played with Evie practically every Sunday.

I have held his hand during church. I have listened to him tear up when asking the blessing over dinner at night. I have stood beside him and taken Communion with him as I silently prayed for both of us. I have answered his knock at 1:00 AM and told him for the 1,000th time that it’s OK…I have his checkbook. I can say with all certainty that I will never forget a moment.

Last night Daddy asked if we would mind if he called “his daughter to check on his wife.” He is slipping so much faster than we expected, which makes this season of him living with us so much more precious to me. As we weave him into our lives, we make precious memories for those of us around him. For Daddy, we create precious moments.

My son John tilled a large plot in our backyard so that we could plant a vegetable garden. Daddy grew up on a farm, and though college-educated and white-collared for most of his adult years, is happiest now when he’s working in the soil. The next day, Daddy and I went out to inspect the plot. We decided it needed to have the dead weeds and grass raked out of it, but we only had one rake. The next thing I knew, Daddy took the wheelbarrow and rake and happily spent an hour and a half raking the dirt clean and smooth and wheeling the weeds back to the back of the yard.

I kept an eye on him out the kitchen window to make sure he was OK. When he finished he came in and said that he hoped no one would find out just how much fun an old man could have doing that. He was so happy! I think that the garden is going to be 1) a wonderful thing for him and 2) the best-groomed and tended garden in the south.

I am also excited about the garden because my daughter-in-law Ame and granddaughter Evie are helping us with it. Ame is very excited. Evie is, too; she helped us measure the ground for tilling. She doesn’t really grasp what we’re planning very well, but she is always good for an adventure, and this is a great adventure. And as with everything else that happens in our house these days, in the midst of this adventure will be my father; “GranGramps” to Evie.

And that is huge. Evie will remember him because he lives with us now. She will get to garden with him; to plant plants and water them and pull weeds and (maybe?) pick vegetables with him.

That is a very sobering thought; that my father may not be around to pick the vegetables we plant this weekend. But we plant them anyway. For Tim, and Cat, and Kelly, and John, and Ame, and me…and especially for Evie…we plant for tomorrow.

For Daddy, we plant for today.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lessons From a Snake (Part 1)

God often teaches me lessons using unexpected things. This is definitely the case with snakes. It still amazes me what He’s taught me through the most cursed creature in the Bible.

My first serpentine lesson came 24 years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. That’s when I discovered Luke, Chapter 11, verses 11-13. They read: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (New International Version)

I found this passage shortly after deciding to make my Scripture reading easier. I would take the most obvious (to me) meaning to be true unless God showed me otherwise. When I read this passage in that light, it seemed to say that God didn’t give His children snakes. It may look like a snake, it may bite like a snake, but if it was brought into my life, God let it in and it couldn’t be a snake.

Simplistic, I know. But, looking back, it was the perfect way for me to interpret that Scripture. I realize now that the early years of my life were driven mostly by fear. So many things frightened me: rejection, failure, embarrassment…I spent a lot of time and energy avoiding anything that brought the least discomfort or pain. To me, everything looked like a snake. I saw bared fangs everywhere, ready to strike!

I also thought anything that caused me discomfort was bad or wrong. After all,
life’s much more pleasant when it doesn’t hurt or cause discomfort, right? So all you have to do is decide that anything that disrupts your pleasure or comfort is bad and should be avoided!

I learned the technique of using fear to guide my life’s actions from a great teacher: my mother. Her life was always full of snakes. Driven by fear, she saw snakes at every turn. Fear of rejection, fear of loss, fear of failure…you name a fear, and it probably manifested itself in her life. I watched her avoid as much unpleasantness as she could by labeling almost everything a “SNAKE!” I learned how to see the world from her.

I came across this Bible passage, which contradicted all that, just as I began a brand new phase of life. During my first pregnancy my husband worked a job that required a lot of travel. About a month before my son was born, my husband left on what was to be a simple one-week trip. But one problem led to another and that one week trip turned into a 3-week nightmare for him…and for me.

I was upset for him and all the stressful things that kept cropping up in his travels, but I was frightened and full of pity for myself. He was miserable on the road, but I was becoming more and more miserable handling everything at home. Every night I would hear frustration in his voice. Everywhere I looked, all I could see were masses of wriggling snakes.

It made no sense that God would allow all the things that kept happening to him on the trip. But what really was impacting me were all the things that kept lengthening his stay away from home. After all, everything that kept him away made my life more frightening and all I could do was yell, ”Snake!” Every time a flight was cancelled, every time a client’s system crashed, I kept remembering this passage and thinking, “It looks like a snake, but it CAN’T be a snake.” Every time I couldn’t sleep because of fearful dreams about my unborn child. Every time I had to clean another part of the house exhausted from carrying a growing baby inside, God reminded me of these verses. I can admit now that it was certainly not what I wanted to hear from Him!

Of course my husband eventually returned home safe and sound. Looking back on the situation now, I see just how minor the things that happened to us were. His trip did help him learn to cope with stressful, unexpected situations better. And I learned to get through things without him by my side. Those skills carried me through lots of nights alone with a sick child.

At the time I certainly wouldn’t have chosen this situation, but looking back I was right when I realized that it wasn’t a snake. It was just God, in His grace, teaching us both how to move from being self-absorbed to being child-absorbed.

Since then, I often remind myself that I can’t learn the lessons God has for me if I call everything a snake and run away. If I don’t hold my feet firm when life looks like a pit of snakes, I prevent His power from finding its way into my life.

I don’t know how many times since that first experience so long ago I’ve looked at life and said, “It sure feels like a snake, and hurts like snake, but it CAN’T be a snake!” It’s helped me get through so many tough times. I trust God to be my loving Father, just like the verse says. I’m going to take His word at face value. If God hands something to me, it CAN’T be a snake.

Later on in life, I was quite surprised to find that He’d gotten me to the point where He would actually tell me when it really WAS a snake. Like the picture at the top of this page; it's not a snake, it's a caterpillar.

But that’s another “Lesson From a Snake…”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Value-Added Humans

I moved my parents, together, into the Alzheimer wing of a nice assisted living facility the first week of December 2011. Daddy’s mind is still together enough to hold a conversation, but my Mom’s ability to converse is all but gone. It was the right thing to do, but as anyone who has been through this knows, it is a very, very difficult thing to do.

On a cold night three days before the end of the year, I found myself alone in their turn-of-the-20th-century house in a small town about an hour from Atlanta. It was my first visit back since the move, and I was overwhelmed by so much; the sense of emptiness that filled the house; the volume of possessions I was tasked with sorting through; the spaghetti bowl of affairs left to untangle.

Within 30 seconds of turning the heat on to battle against the 48-degree temperature inside the house, I smelled gas. I turned the temperature down as low as it would go to make the system cut back off and called 911. Within 5 minutes I was told that the local gas company only came out to turn pilot lights back on if they had turned the gas service off to begin with.

I tried to turn the system totally off, but there were no switches on the thermostat. I could turn the thermostat down to 42, but when the house cooled off only 6 more degrees, the system was going to turn on and stay on no matter what I did.

I called 911 again and told the operator (in what I remember as civil tones) that, as I saw it, the gas company folks had two choices: They could either come out then, or they could come out later after the house exploded.

Within 10 minutes (it was now about 10:45 PM), there was a knock at the back door. Greg from the gas company crawled up under the house, checked the gas lines, and declared them functional. The pilot light was still lit. His theory was that fumes had built up in the two weeks the system was not used, and that that’s what I had smelled.

All of this was stressful and fairly shocking, but what I will always remember the most was what Greg told me. “When I heard this was Mr. Mathis’ house, I decided it didn’t matter; I’d do whatever it took,” he said. “I’d do anything for Mr. Mathis.”

I did not grow up in this town. My parents moved there in 1986, years after I graduated high school and even a few years after I married. My father retired there and enjoyed 25 years of relishing retired life with my Mom. A huge part of his enjoyment, for many Decembers, was playing Santa to pretty much any group that needed him. For a few of those years, my mother donned pince-nez glasses and her own red dress and played Mrs. to his Santa. I knew all that. But it was not until that cold, lonely December night, I began learning what that really meant.

I survived that night, and the next day I called the local heating and air company. Gary came out to check the heating system, and after five minutes informed me that he was going to have to permanently shut it down. “The heat exchange is melted through in three places,” he said. “Great,” I thought. Another surprise…of the unpleasant kind.

But then he said, “You know, I remember sitting on your father’s lap when I was a kid.” A kid? This grown man standing in front of me? “I’d do anything for Mr. Mathis. He’s the coolest guy. I think so much of him.”  His words were eerily similar to Greg’s.

A few days later it was the local auto mechanic’s turn. Mom and Dad’s checkbook showed that he had worked on their cars for at least the last 10 years. So we tasked him with telling us what it would take to get their 10-year-old Mazda sedan in dependable enough driving condition to put our 16-year-old in it if we bought it.

“We have so many pictures of my kids on your father’s lap,” he said with a smile. “My son insisted on going by the bank and sitting on Santa’s lap even after he was really too old.” And, for a third time, I heard, “I think so much of your Dad. I’d do anything for him.”

When we picked up the car, his wife came along to meet us. I unsuccessfully fought déjà vu as I heard her say, “Your parents were always so great. We never had a Mrs. Santa before!”

Everywhere I went in around town, I was told how much everyone thought of my Dad. The first time I heard it, I thought, “Small-towners. Everyone’s a big fish in a small pond.” The second time I heard it, I thought, “Wow, he sure saw a lot of kids over 25 years.” By the third time, I could no longer avoid thinking more deeply about it. They saw my parents as such a treasure. I mean, so did I…but most of these people only saw Daddy occasionally. It made me start noticing the people I only saw occasionally, and to begin wondering: Do I treasure others as much as these people treasure my folks?

Greg had crawled under a house in the middle of a freezing, dark night. The mechanic had spent 30 minutes in my parent’s backyard tracking down a broken, stuck belt that made it impossible for me to drive the car to his shop and drove it there himself. And Gary worked with me on the replacement of that melted heating unit.

They chose to put their heart and their actions behind their words and they chose to value my parents. All of a sudden the “short-timers” in my life began to take on much more significance in my mind and heart. Where had these folks found that weight and value?

So many people come in and out of our lives as we go about our day-to-day business. With so many short interactions with so many people, it’s easy to blow off each as insignificant. But if the people I'd encountered  had done that, I doubt I would’ve had help with a dangerous situation on a cold winter night. The next day, I would have paid a tow truck to tow a car 2 miles. And who knows how much a new heating system would’ve cost.

Being treasured by those “short-timers” in my parents’ lives made me look twice at the person who waits on me at Starbucks; the bank teller I had to wait 5 minutes in line to get to that then has to send me to a customer service person; the guy who dries my car off at the car wash but won’t look me in the eye. All of a sudden it became important to me that they remember me in a good way, whether they remembered me for long or not.

I wasn’t just banking positive influence for days ahead when I might need a favor from them. Being held as precious by so many who had never met made it clear to me that, no matter how anonymous my life’s “short-timers” may seem, they are precious souls with entire lives that I have no clue about. They are more than a face and a comment or two; they have challenges and strengths and weaknesses just as I do. Just because it’s easy to dismiss them does not mean that I should.

Much more often now than before, I choose to respond in a way that lets these souls know that  they have worth just because they are who they are. The more value I give them in my heart, the more difficult it is to toss them aside.

And now that I’m not the only one filling up my life, I’ve found it feels fuller and more vibrant. I find smiles and “thank yous” coming my way; I see faces relax when someone is treated with kindness. Bringing joy to others helps bring peace and fulfillment to my day. When I’m enjoying everyone’s smiles and joy, instead of just my own, there is so much more to enjoy!

Off to find someone to smile at…

Monday, January 2, 2012

God Rays

It was a beautiful, misty morning in the mountains of North Georgia. With walking stick in hand, I placed one foot in front of the other as I hiked a section of the Appalachian trail. I was celebrating the end of a weekend all by myself in a mountain cabin. It was a wonderful tradition that we had begun with the high school graduation of my first child 6 years earlier: When one graduates, Mom gets a weekend to herself. It was kind of a nod to all that a Mom puts into the 18 years leading up to that milestone, and it was certainly a tradition I had encouraged.

I love hiking mountain trails. I love the beauty and the feeling that, with only a stick to aid me, I can travel from one place to another miles away. I love the solitude and the feeling of God’s protection that the towering peaks give me. And I’ve found that, with the noise of my normal life silenced, I can often hear God speaking much more clearly.

I was certainly speaking to Him that beautiful May morning last spring. There were so many questions in my life! Questions about friends; about work; about relationships; about direction; about ministry. I just felt that if I could see God and His will for my life more clearly, I would be more settled. I didn’t mind following God anywhere; I just didn’t know where He wanted me to go! I wanted Him closer. “Why can’t I see you better, Lord?” I asked as I rounded yet another switchback on my way up to yet another mountaintop.
My next step brought a blazing attack of light that made me recoil. I turned my head and shielded my eyes with my hands. Rounding that last switchback had turned me toward blinding and sudden sunlight. I stood still, totally preoccupied with avoiding damage to my sight by the brilliant light that filled every inch of air around me.

When turning my head didn’t work, I took a stumbling step forward. Suddenly the light dimmed to a soft glow. Removing my hands from my forehead, I slowly turned my eyes toward the source of the light. What had been blinding a split second ago was now gorgeous. My one step had put a tree in between my eyes and the sun, and it made all the difference in the world. The sunlight that had caused pain just a breath ago was now split on each side of the tree trunk, shining in distinct and muted rays from top to bottom.

And in one of those moments that keep me coming back to the mountains, I heard God reply. “I don’t show you more of me because it would blind you. I show you just enough.”

I stood in the dappled sunlight, almost breathless from the beauty of the sun’s rays shimmering in the mist and the brilliant greens revealed in the thousands of leaves gently swaying in the quiet breeze. How beautiful the light was when filtered perfectly for my eyes! 

In that moment I found peace about what was to come. I didn’t find answers to all my questions, but I found an answer to the most important one; one that I hadn’t even asked: God, can I trust you? Just as I could trust Him to reveal Himself with timing planned just for me, I could trust that each revelation from Him would lead me to answers in His time, which is perfect. Yes, I would have to take steps before the answers came. Yes, those steps might look frightening. But if I just trusted Him to light my path, step by step, He would show me what I needed to see.

I learned later that photographers call those rays of sunlight “God rays.”  I love that name. It perfectly describes what I saw that day. Not “blinding, burning God light.” Not “Blackest night with not a hair of God in sight.” What a wonderful place to stand.

Of course, I didn’t get to keep standing in those God rays. I had to continue on that mountain path, and eventually I had to return to my hectic, cluttered and sometimes confusing life back at home. But no matter how clearly or dimly the light of God seemed as I walked through the seasons that followed, I knew that the amazing light of His presence was always there. It was somehow easier working to stay on His path for my life knowing that those God rays would shine perfectly; even when they didn’t seem bright enough in my eyes.
I believe passionately that God wants to speak to each of us. I believe that, if we learn to hear and discern His voice, He can live and breathe in our lives daily. But it is not simple to learn how to “tune in” to His presence. So much stands in our way; the voices of this world that call us in the opposite direction; the pulling away from what is best for us that comes from within ourselves.

God Rays don’t just shine on one person. They spread and illuminate a wide area. So I want to help overcome the clamor of all the other voices in life by sharing “God Rays” with as many people as I can. I believe that if we help each other see Him, He will come into focus more quickly.

Don’t misunderstand me; there’s absolutely no substitute for each one of praying to Him and reading His word. If you aren’t doing both of those on a regular basis, His voice is going to be incredibly hard to hear. But in His perfect efficiency, I believe that He can use each of us to help each other step along life’s path.
So grab your walking stick and join me as we look for the next “God Ray”.