Monthly Archives: June 2014

Heavenly Immunizations

Heavenly immunizationsWhen my children were young, one of my most dreaded duties of responsible parenthood was taking them in for their immunizations. There was just something about intentionally inflicting undeserved pain on these little innocent beings that made me cringe. But, knowing that a few moments of pain could protect them from serious illness later, I did it anyway. My first experience with this duty was definitely the worst.

Spring and early summer of 1977 was a time of major transition for my husband, Craig, and me. I had been teaching English and reading at the middle school in Napoleon Dynamite’s hometown of Preston, Idaho, while my husband finished his degree at Utah State University. (Go Aggies!) Our first child was due in early April, so I left my teaching position around the middle of March. About the same time, Craig finished his degree and obtained employment with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. I gave birth to our oldest daughter on April 4, and shortly thereafter we moved to Fort Worth, Texas, for six weeks of training and then to Killeen, Texas, where Craig managed a couple of stores on the Fort Hood army base. Because of all the moving around, we missed having a two-month check-up for our daughter. By the time we were finally settled enough to get to a doctor, she was behind on her immunizations. Consequently, she had to have three injections at the same time. Her little blue eyes opened wide, startled, when they gave her the first shot. She started to cry when they administered the second injection. When she saw that third needle coming, she knew what was up and started screaming and trying to get away long before the nurse got close to her. By this time, she wasn’t the only one who was traumatized—Mom was in tears as well.

I’ve often used this story as an example of why God allows us to go through trials, especially those that are not the result of our own choices. Because His perspective is eternal, He sees the tribulations of mortality differently from the way we do. For God, all suffering is intended to be instructional rather than punitive. Often the lesson is that all choices have consequences; we can choose our actions or our consequences, but not both. Other times the lesson to be learned is the development of a God-like quality such as faith, hope, charity, kindness, patience, endurance, or other disposition important to our eternal progression. Thus, although He suffers with us in our suffering, as I did with my daughter, He knows that our pain, which often seems intolerable in the mortal present, is, in the economy of eternity, invaluable.

For me, this story has yet another lesson, one drawn from a series of “heavenly immunizations.” On July 1, 2010, my dad fell head first down a flight of 15 stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury from which he never recovered (“It’s Hard, But That’s Okay,” “Unwanted”); Halloween of 2012 brought a cancer diagnosis for my husband (“Praying for Peter Prostate”); and April 2013 found me in the psych ward of the hospital (“Psych-ick Fruit”). Additionally, in the past year we lost my father-in-law, a nephew, and my dad. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not reciting these trials as a bid for sympathy, just as context for what I am learning.

Sometime in the last couple of months I realized I have been holding my emotional breath for the last year waiting for the next life-changing tribulation to make its unwelcome appearance. And I have been doing so in the company of the ubiquitous pair of fear and trepidation. Before Dad’s fall, my unconscious take on life was that, although we have had our trials, really bad things didn’t happen to my family. I prayed for people who experienced things like traumatic brain injuries and prostate cancer, but the idea that I might be the one needing those prayers simply wasn’t on my radar. I was wrong. Although I don’t comprehend fully God’s purposes in subjecting me and my family to the hardships and duress that we have experienced, I do see positive changes in myself as a result of suffering through these ordeals. Primarily, I better understand that nobody gets out of this life without facing some kind of significant pain and loss along the way. Consequently, I feel like I have more sympathy and empathy for others in their distress, qualities I couldn’t have developed unless I had also undergone these kinds of circumstances.

On the negative side, however, I have also learned to look at life through the lens of fear. There was a kind of innocence in my life before these transforming trials occurred, a sense of immunity from the devastating storms I had seen rage in others’ lives. No more—I often find I no longer feel safe. Most distressing is the feeling that my hope for good things in this life has been taken hostage and is being held captive in some dark corner of the universe, and I have no idea what ransom is required to set it free.

Strangely, I find that the simple recognition that I have been approaching life from a fearful, hopeless perspective actually creates a flicker of hopefulness in my heart. Identifying this distortion in my thinking has given me a sense of strength and defiance. Somewhere in my soul I am no longer willing to submit to the bully called Fear. I am learning to trust God more fully. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but He does. From past experience I know that He will provide the strength and resources I need to get through whatever comes my way.

This lesson is emboldening me to fully accept that God wants my happiness just as much as I do. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer to stepping into the unknown and, like Sarah, “[judging] him faithful who [has] promised” (Hebrews 11:11) and allowing Him to bless me with that which He knows will truly make me happy. In my heart there is an emerging fledgling willingness to release the death grip I have on fear and doubt and cling instead to faith and hope. This is likely not the only lesson God intends me to learn from my immunizing experiences, but it just might be the most important, and, I think, is the price I must be willing to pay to reclaim my hope from its dark prison.

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Little Wins

I was making my bed recently when I happened to look out the window and noticed a bird huddling in the corner of the ledge outside the window. As I walked over to get a closer look, the bird didn’t move, which I thought was a little unusual. Looking more closely, I realized that my visitor was a baby—there was even what looked like a little bit of down peeking through the feathers. Now, it may have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that this youngling seemed kind of frightened, as if it had somehow landed on my window ledge by accident and didn’t know how to get off. As I watched, I kept wondering how I could rescue it from its predicament. Fortunately, after four or five minutes, the bird stood up, shook out its wings, and launched off the ledge, landing on a branch two or three feet from the window. From there, it flew to another branch a little further out, then a third branch, and finally it flew to another tree.

This little drama brought to mind a phrase I’ve been trying to incorporate into my mindset. I’m not sure where I heard it—I think it was on the radio—nor do I know in what context it was spoken. In fact, as far as I can remember, I wasn’t paying attention to whatever the speaker was talking on about. Although everything else was just noise to keep me company in the car, the phrase “little wins” jumped out at me. Like I said, I don’t know the original context, but to me it communicated the idea that I need to focus on the little wins in life rather than allow myself to be immobilized by worrying about the final outcome of the grand battle of my own human progression.

I’m a habitual grand battle worrier, and it often overwhelms me. Over the last week or so I’ve done an unintentional experiment with this “little wins” concept. For several days after I heard the phrase, I started looking for my little wins. Instead of worrying about completely cutting out playing games on my tablet, I considered it a little win when I played for a shorter time than usual. Instead of accusing myself of having no self-control after having eaten half the bag of my favorite, irresistible dark chocolate covered almonds, I congratulated myself for not eating the entire bag. Instead of beating myself up for staying up too late, I considered it a little win that I got to bed fifteen minutes earlier than usual.

This went strongmanon for two or three days, and I found that I was having fun trying to identify little wins throughout the day. It certainly brightened my perspective on the world. When I noticed one of these small victories, I would say out loud, “Little win!” My husband thought I was a bit goofy, but he’s used to my oddities by now. Saying it aloud was like ringing the bell at the carnival.

For some reason, a couple of days ago I stopped looking for those little wins and again began stewing over my seeming inability to succeed in the conflict over human weakness and imperfection. As you might guess, when my worrying went up, my mood went down. I began to see life as an unending, inevitable series of losses, which always seem to be bigger than the wins. In fact, as is my habit when I’m in battle-perspective, I began to completely discount the little wins as being so small in comparison to the larger struggle that they were not worth noticing, let alone celebrating.

The worst effect of this habit is not that it makes me unhappy, which it does, but rather that it, at best, impedes or, at worst, stops my progression as a human being. What I keep forgetting is that all growth and progression is made up of continual little wins. We learn by flying from ledge to branch to nearby tree; we are not expected to go soaring through the sky doing loop-de-loops on our first forays out of the nest. Rather, life is more like a dot-to-dot picture—we don’t have to know what the whole picture will look like before we begin, we just have to be able to go from one dot to the next.

I have a simple dot-to-dot game on my tablet that my grandchildren like to play. None of the pictures has more than about 15 dots. Once all of the dots are connected, a picture appears inside the “outline” of the connected dots. I put outline in quotations because you have to have a lot of imagination to see a giraffe or whatever using only the shape formed by the connected dots. These pictures have relatively few dots to connect because the game is geared to children who are just learning to count. To create an accurate outline of the picture would require hundreds or even thousands of dots. The more dots, the smoother the lines and the more detailed the picture. But the principle is the same no matter how many dots there are—we don’t have to know the full scope of the picture, we just have to move to the next dot, and the next, and the next.

Even God works this way: “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little. (Isaiah 28:10, italics in original). Each little win is a connection in our quest to become what we are meant to become. I never know where or when the next little win will come or where it will lead me. Paraphrasing Steve Jobs, you can’t see how the dots connect looking forward; you can see the connections only looking backwards. As much as we might wish it to be otherwise, we don’t know what the future will look like. Consequently, this process of connecting the dots, of flying from branch to branch, of progressing from little win to little win, requires faith. Not only must we trust that God knows the end from the beginning, we must also trust that he is leading us to a place that will bring us joy, a place that we will want to be.

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All Means ALL

In the late 1980’s, my husband, Craig, and I spent about a year volunteering at the Utah State Prison. We would go once a month and spend an hour or so just visiting with some of the male inmates. Most of them came from dysfunctional families and, consequently, had no idea what a healthy relationship between a husband and wife looked like. Thus, the primary purpose of our visits was to model the characteristics of a strong, loving marital relationship.

handcuffsWe met with the men in a meeting hall constructed of cold, gray cinderblock. It was an uninviting environment, but I suppose it was better than the alternative of sitting in a cell. One particular incident from our volunteer experience is as immediate to me now as it was when it happened. I was sitting in the middle of the hall visiting with a fairly young man—I would guess he was probably in his late 20’s or early 30’s at the time. I don’t remember why or how, but our conversation had turned to God and his love for his children. The inmate turned his gaze to the floor and said, “God loves everyone but me.” Then he looked up at me for an answer.

To this day I am shocked by what came out of my mouth in reply. I remember looking him in the eye and saying, “So what makes you so special?” I was tempted to look around the room to see who had said those words; it certainly wasn’t me. I continued, “If God says he loves all of his children, what makes you so special that you are an exception to his word?” I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but that question, “What makes you so special?” has remained with me in an almost haunting way. One of the reasons that memory is so strong, I believe, is that it was, without question, the Lord speaking through me. There is something both sacred and searing when you realize you have been a direct instrument in God’s hands.

Another reason that memory is so vivid, I suspect, is that the question wasn’t directed only to the inmate with whom I was speaking, it was also directed to me. In fact, it might be the case that this experience was more for my enlightenment than for the inmate’s understanding. You see, that young man verbalized a perception that had been floating around in my thoughts but that I hadn’t actually voiced. This incident occurred during the years when I was going through the worst of my depression, and, as I’ve written before (see “The Hole in My Soul”), one of the most difficult aspects of this trial is the inability to feel God’s love. Although I could see evidence of his love all around me, I couldn’t feel his love. Thus, the only logical assumption in my mind, despite God’s assurance to the contrary, was that I was neither loved nor lovable.

I wish I could say that I have completely overcome this kind of destructive distortion in my thinking. I have made progress, but I’m still not free from muddy mindedness. I have had experiences through which God’s love for me has been made known to me in ways that I can’t question. I still don’t feel that love all the time, but I am learning to be content with the memories of those moments when I have felt his love. However, even though I have made peace, though sometimes an uneasy one, with the reality of God’s love for me, I still find myself on the doubting end of some of God’s other promises.

My latest spiritual peevishness isn’t that God loves everybody but me, but rather that he answers everybody’s prayers but mine. Now I know that is a distorted thought; I have way too much evidence, such as a cancer-free husband, proving me wrong. I think my problem is that in my human impatience I want to see the burning bush rather than simply sense the fleeting whisper of the spirit. I want all of the problems I pray about to be resolved NOW. I want to know the details of the entire story of my life rather than be surprised by unexpected plot twists and turns. Thus, because I’m not seeing the answers I want when I want them, then God must not be answering, right? Uh, no.

Although it sometimes frustrates me, I know that God blesses me according to his eternal perspective rather than my mortal viewpoint. I do believe my prayers are being answered—in God’s own way and time. I was reminded of this kind oSkyler eating 2f long-term perspective the other day while I was taking care of my 11-month-old granddaughter. I was feeding her lunch—a bottle of green beans, peas, and asparagus (which she actually quite likes) and another of apple and pumpkin. When it comes to mealtime, she’s usually in moving-target mode. She’s good for about two bites before she gives the “all done” signal in sign language. I know what she thinks she wants, but I also know, from my broader perspective, that giving her what she wants is not what is best for her. Consequently, I try to keep the spoonful of food close enough to her mouth that I can slip it in at the merest opening of her lips. Even when I can get the spoon in her mouth, there is always a certain amount of food that ends up on her face. Additionally, if I’m not paying attention, she sometimes grabs the spoon itself, getting food on her hands. From there it ends up on (and sometimes in) her nose, in her hair and eyebrows, and anything else she touches before I can wipe her hands clean.

I realize I am doing the same thing to the Lord that my granddaughter does to me—I’m making it really hard for him to bless me with the things that will truly benefit me. Because he is patient and long-suffering, God keeps those blessings available to me and slips them in the moment I open my heart. Blessing me is often an emotionally messy process as I sometimes inexplicably refuse to willingly accept what he is offering. As a result, I receive only a portion of the blessings he is so eager to bestow upon me and all of his children.

Today’s baby food presents some pretty odd mixtures. One that my granddaughter likes is beets, pears, and pomegranates (I’m not kidding!). Likewise, sometimes the Lord uses some strange combinations to teach us lessons—like, say, a conversation with a prison inmate and the feeding of a granddaughter. I can learn the lesson the easy way by willingly opening my heart and trusting that when the Lord says he blesses all of those who love him, he truly means all; or I can learn the messy way by allowing doubt and fear to make it difficult for his love and blessings to nourish my soul. Fortunately, since I often opt for the messy process, God offers his forgiveness with which I can cleanse my soul. Since I’m human, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point where I don’t need a bib when I dine at the Lord’s table, but maybe someday I will need only the swipe of a damp spiritual wash cloth instead of a full bath when I’m done.

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