Thursday, October 27, 2016


Before we can blink, November will be here.  Already, blustery days impel us to turn on our furnaces.

A puff of enveloping warmth greets us as we come in the door after a walk with the dog in the park.  Although I always grieve the end of summer--no more flowers, warm feet, birds feasting on the feeders in the backyard--still, there is a splendid coziness to autumn.

Today I have a lovely roast in the crockpot with vegetables, and I baked a country apple cake, chock full of buttery, delectable MacIntosh apple slices surrounded by walnuts, cinnamon and a tender, gluten-free batter.  The house smells divine.  Well, perhaps not divine.  The divine probably smells of fresh air, lilies, soapsuds and crushed ice.  My house smells homey: cinnamon, vanilla and apple with a light undercurrent of roasting meat and savory vegetables.  Warm, crusty brown scents, not fresh, airy white ones.

I sit here in my kitchen on a laptop--not my favorite computer, but a perfectly serviceable one--drinking decaf chai tea and listening to my furry brown dog growl low and menacing at the leaves blowing outside the front door.

I am content.

Sitting on the table next to me is a long list of things to do.  I will do some of them today, some another time, and perhaps there are some I will never tackle.  It's okay.  I am content.

They say that Socrates said, "He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature."

Raffi used to sing, "All I really need is a song in my heart, food in my belly, and love in my family."

When Shawn and I were on a trip back in the spring, we found the incredible comfort of a simple cup of hot tea with a small piece of chocolate.  These are things you can usually procure even when you are far from home.  The warmth of the tea and the sweet richness of the chocolate provide a comfortable sense of being at home, even when you are not, especially if you can find a a nice place to enjoy them, a hotel bed where you sit side-by-side, backs against the headboard, shoulders touching, feet tucked snug under the blankets.

One of my happiest memories from childhood is a strangely simple one.  We were out playing, the neighborhood kids.  I don't know what we were playing, or where the other kids had gone, exactly, but I was left in the row of pine trees between Reifenbergers and Pearsons, stirring mud soup in a plastic bucket.  It was dirt, rocks, water, pine cones and pine needles.  I stirred with a stick, something torn from one of the pine trees and oozing with sticky pine sap.  It was twilight, and the sun was fading, the air cooling as it so often does in Minnesota.  Usually, in the world of children, I was not the one who would get to have control of something as interesting as the stew pot in a game of make believe, so that twilight evening, I felt blessed beyond measure.  Little Timmy Reifenberger may have been bringing me pine cones and rare crushed weeds to thicken the soup, but most of the others had gone off to scale greater heights, climbing tall trees and strategizing battles.

Alone, I knelt over the bucket of mud soup, engrossed with the rhythm of stirring, the texture of the thick, sloppy mixture, the sharp scents of pine and wet dirt and crushed grass. I felt the light dimming around me, yet I continued pumping the branch through the solution, almost in a hypnotic trance, grateful, content, at peace.  Eventually, my arm tired and my fingers chilled, so I went home.  When I think of my childhood, growing up in Anoka, Minnesota, this is always the first memory that pops into my mind, so insignificant, yet so deeply etched.

Contentment.  Gratitude.

November is coming, when I aspire to complete the discipline of celebrating one simple thing for which I am thankful, each day.  November posts are usually short, which is another good discipline to practice:  thankfulness and brevity.

Friday, October 21, 2016

What's coming?

Look at the nations and watch--
     and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
     that you would not believe,
     even if you were told.
               ~Habakkuk 1:5

This is a verse that people often use erroneously, even pastors and missionaries.  They quote it to prove that God is capable of doing amazing things.  They use it as a great encouragement:  "God has wonderful plans!" they exclaim.  "We cannot even imagine what He has in store for us!"  I suspect that sometimes they even feel a little bit proud of themselves for having found such a glorious verse of promise in the Old Testament, in the Minor Prophets of all things, in Habakkuk.

Unfortunately, if they would read even one sentence further, they would see:

"I am raising up the Babylonians," proclaims the Lord, "that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own."

This verse is about impending judgment.  God, who had been patient for generations, was finally executing His promised judgment on Israel (Judah, to be exact), and allowing them to be conquered by an enemy kingdom--Babylon--because of their continual unfaithfulness to Him.  God warned about such a consequence all the way back in Deuteronomy 28, and He had issued many more warnings through the prophets over years and years.  This should not have been a surprise, but God's people were so steeped in their sins, they had lost all sensitivity to their Lord.

At the beginning of chapter 1, Habakkuk cried out against the sins of his people, asking God how long He was going to tolerate all the wrong.  God answered in verses 5-11, explaining that He had a plan, and it wasn't at all what Habakkuk would expect: He was going to send in the ferocious Babylonians to teach His people a lesson.  Habakkuk, in essence, responds to this news in horror, asking, "Really?  Seriously?  The Babylonians?  They're even more evil than we are!"

God judges sin.  Like Israel, our nation may have reached the point where the stench of our sin demands purging.

Let me be clear: I do not think that the USA is or ever has been "God's Chosen Nation."  It seems that many people assume that America is God's nation, and that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are addendums to His Holy Scripture.  I do not agree.  Yes, our nation was founded on Biblical truths and principles, and much of the structure of our government was patterned on Biblical wisdom.  However, God never made any promises specific to America.  Furthermore, the rights claimed in the Declaration of Independence are never guaranteed to anyone in the Bible (seriously: The right to the pursuit of happiness?  When did God ever even make an allusion to anyone having the right to pursue his own happiness?).  Fighting for our rights is an anti-Biblical idea.  Jesus did not teach us to demand our due.  Jesus taught us to give away our coats, to turn the other cheek, and to go the extra mile (Matthew 5:39-42).

The entire teaching of the New Testament encompasses the idea that we are not of this world, we will be hated and persecuted, and those who walk by faith, persevering under trials and persecution, will be rewarded in heaven.

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you."  (Matthew 5:11-12)

"All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved."  (Matthew 10:22, also see Mark 13:13, Luke 21:17)

"If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first . . . I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you . . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also . . . " (from John 15:18-20; the whole passage of John 15:18-27 pertains)

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world."  (John 16:33)

The book of Acts tells the story of the beginning of the church, the people who believed in Jesus and walked lives of faith in God.  Throughout that story, we see persecution.

"The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name." (Acts 5:41)

In Acts 7, Stephen was stoned for preaching the good news of Christ.  Following the stoning of Stephen, we read:

"On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria."  (Acts 8:1)

Paul lived a life of persecution and imprisonment, which he detailed in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33.  His letters contain a steady stream of encouragement for believers undergoing persecution.

"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all," (2 Corinthians 4:17).

"For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him," (Philippians 1:29).

"Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.  All this [how they flourish in spite of persecution] is evidence that God's judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering," (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5).

Peter talks about it, too:  "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trials you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed," (1 Peter 4:12-13).

Suffering is also a major theme of the book of Revelation.  God gave us many words to prepare us and help us stand firm in suffering.  We should expect suffering and persecution.  It is normal, not something strange.

For many years in the USA, we have enjoyed religious freedom and the opportunity to be respected and allowed to assemble, to participate in government, to openly express our beliefs.  I believe that, unfortunately, this freedom has often resulted in a fat, complacent, self-justifying, self-serving, unloving church that is neither pleasing to God nor reflective of His character to those around us.  Because we have the "right" to worship, we also seem to feel that we have the "right" to be accepted by the world, to be mainstream, to be esteemed, to be considered appealing and relevant and trendy.  None of these presumptions can be found in the teachings of Christ.  Jesus never said that we have the right to assemble and worship without fear.  Jesus said that we would be hated for His sake.  When we courageously stand firm for Jesus during oppression, this proves the genuineness of our faith.

It may be time for the Lord to sift, winnow and purify His church.  It may time for Him to teach us what it really means to walk by the Spirit, to abide in Christ, and to love.

Rather than fighting for the right to refuse to sell cupcakes to a homosexual couple, perhaps we should prepare the prettiest, most delicious cupcakes we can fashion, and then offer them at a price where we barely break even.  Maybe showing some radical love would be a better way to fight for the kingdom of God than stubbornly provoking a lawsuit.  Maybe this is what Matthew 5:42 is about.

Rather than fighting for laws to restrict abortion, maybe we should seek ways to love people away from abortion: shower grace on single moms, help parents of children with disabilities, and adopt children who need good homes.  Laws have never helped anyone's heart, anyway.  God already proved that centuries ago; He knew we were utterly unable to obey His law without His Spirit in our hearts (Ezekiel 36:27).  In a democracy, laws are merely a barometer of where the hearts of the people are.  When people's hearts change--through the power of the Holy Spirit--then people will change the laws, or even render them irrelevant.  The other way around simply does not work.  This is an especially hard one, because lives are at stake; but ultimately, to be effective, we must change hearts, and passing laws does not change hearts.

Rather than freaking out about the horrors of the sins that are in the world--sins that other people do, the ones that don't particularly tempt us--maybe we should take a look at the planks in our own eyes.  Someone close to me recently remarked, "They point the finger at homosexuals all the time, but when was the last time you saw people organize to rally against pornography?"

We are called to love, to abide in Christ, to walk by the Spirit.  "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. . . Love does no harm to its neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law," (Romans 13:8, 10).  These are huge things.  If we would actually dig in and work on them, we might not have so much time to go around pointing the finger at other people's sins.  If we figured out how to love as God asks us to, we might have more compassion for people who haven't yet found the remedy for their sin, who are seeking the living water, but drinking sewer water by mistake, a gruesome substitute.  If we approached people with love, compassion, willingness to give and share and sacrifice, maybe more of them would be able to see Jesus in us and respond to Him.

This election, American Christians may lose some of the religious freedoms that have been historically granted to us through our earthly government and man-made Constitution.  Perhaps we deserve to lose them.  Perhaps we have not wielded them well.  Perhaps we have loved our Constitution more than we have loved God's Holy Scripture.  Perhaps we have worshiped freedom more than we have worshiped God, whom the freedom was supposed to enable us to worship.

I still pray for God's mercy.  "In wrath remember mercy," I plead, returning to Habakkuk (3:2). Perhaps our Lord will do a miracle.  Maybe He will enable a third party candidate to achieve something that has never before been achieved, and bring decency back to our government.

Or, maybe the Lord will give us a ruler who seems wicked beyond imagination, like the Babylonians, and we will be humbled and purified through persecution.  Take heart, for God directs the heart of a ruler like a watercourse, wherever He pleases (Proverbs 21:1).  If God could accomplish what He accomplished through Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus, He is certainly capable of using anyone who is elected as president of the United States.

No matter what happens, I think we need to stop trying to "spread our faith" by imposing Christian values on non-Christian people through legislation, and start bringing the Kingdom of God through life changing acts of sacrifice and love to individuals, one at a time.  The enemy has no power against love.

We need to stand firm for Jesus, faithful to His name.  He is our hope, and we must trust in Him alone.

"Some trust in horses, and some trust in chariots, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." (Psalm 20:7)

We trust Him not to grant us earthly justice, riches, freedom and happiness.  We trust Him for eternal joy, the opportunity to stand humbly before Him in paradise and hear Him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."


Most of the scripture quotes are NIV, or loose NIV from my memory, where they may be scrambled with KJV.

I do not know how I dare to say what we should be doing, as I am not the least bit accomplished at doing these things.  If ever there was a stay-at-home and don't-dirty-your-hands Christian, it is me.  So the challenges I write are as much to myself as they are to anyone.  We have not arrived, but may Jesus help us, at least to head in the right direction.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Gluten Free Pie Crust

I have developed a gluten free pie crust that I like.  A lot.

Full disclosure: It was delicious yesterday when it was fresh, so good I almost could not stop eating it.  This morning (yes, I eat pie for breakfast; judge me), the crust of the apple pie, which had been stored overnight on the counter, was still very good.  The crust on the pumpkin pie, which had been stored in the refrigerator, had toughened.  It still tasted good, but it had lost its delectable tenderness.  I guess the moral of the story is: eat the whole pumpkin pie the first day.  Shucks, huh?

I think there may be plenty of decent gf pie crusts if you use rice flour.  The crust I developed was a take-off from rice flour recipes.  Rice flour is not my favorite, for a number of reasons, some of which I will spare you (TMI), and also because it is tasteless.  Tasteless.  Textureless.  Nasty.  However, if you happily use rice flour, google Gluten Free Gigi and Amerca's Test Kitchens, and you will find nice pie crust recipes.  Gigi takes out other allergens as well.

In my first attempt, I substituted 2 cups of oat flour for 1 cup of white rice flour and 1 cup of brown rice flour.  The result was actually very pleasant.  It was an apple pie, which I never refrigerated, and the crust held up nicely over the couple of days that the pie lasted.  The flavor was buttery and delectable (I love oats).  The texture sort of went to porridge in one's mouth as one chewed, which I did not find horrifying, but I wondered whether someone else might.  Jonathan told me that he liked it that way, and that he thought it was better than regular crust.  Indeed, it was a very nice crust.  I underbaked the pie, by my standards, and the apples were not as soft as I like them.  I also somehow put in too much nutmeg.  (Why did I put in any nutmeg?  I know I hate nutmeg in apple pie.)  So in the end, the only reason I ate more than one piece of that pie was because I liked the crust.

However, the crust, though tasty, was rather viscous and swollen, in my opinion.  As it baked, the fluting drooped down a bit over the edges of the pie plate.  And the way the texture broke down to a moist, porridgey consistency during chewing indicated that this crust recipe could use something to make it a bit more firm and dry.

(pardon the unedited phone pictures)

I decided to try using 1 and 1/2 cups of oat flour with 1/2 cup of sorghum flour.  This worked better than I ever imagined it would.  Oh.  My  Word.  That was some fabulous pie, out of the oven.

Here's my recipe:

GF Pie Crust

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 & 1/2 cups oat flour
1/2 cup sorghum flour
2/3 cup potato starch
1/3 cup tapioca starch
4 tsp. dry milk powder (you could leave this out; I forgot it the first time when I used 2 c. oats)
1 tsp. powdered psyllium (or 1/2 tsp xantham, but I had the psyllium on hand)
1 Tbsp sugar (if it is a dessert pie, or omit for chicken pot pie)
1 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp ice water
3 Tbsp sour cream
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar

1.  Cut the butter into small cubes and place on a plate or saucer in the freezer while you proceed with the next steps.
2.  Measure ice water, sour cream and vinegar into a small cup and stir to mix.  Set aside in an ice water bath, or refrigerate, or both.  Also, keep the ice water handy because you may need more.
3.  Place flours, starches, dry milk powder, psyllium, sugar and salt in food processor and pulse until well combined.
4.  Scatter butter over the top of the dry ingredients and pulse until crumbs are uniform, about 25 times.
5.  Add half of cold liquid mixture and pulse 3 times.  Add the rest of the cold liquid and pulse about 20 times, until a ball forms.  If it is not getting clumpy at all, you may need to add more ice water, 1-2 Tbsp at a time. It may not exactly form a ball, but it needs to clump up.
6.  Divide dough into two pieces and form into disks about 5" in diameter.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour or up to 2 days.
7.  If you refrigerated for a longer length of time, you may need to let the dough soften on the counter for 30 minutes before rolling it out.
8.  Roll out between wax paper.  You may want to dust the wax paper with something (this would be a way to use up your nasty rice flour).
9.  I sprinkled some cornmeal in the bottom of the pie plate before laying in the crust.  Bake as directed in your pie recipe.
10.  This makes two one-crust pies, or one double-crust pie.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

So much pain

There is so much pain in the world, sometimes I don't know how we make our way.

This morning, the 25-year-old son of some friends of ours died.

I guess he actually died last week.  He was working, and a concrete wall fell on him, crushing him.  He's been on life support at the hospital, but this morning they removed his ventilator after a certain period of monitoring his brain activity (there wasn't any).

My heart is broken.

It's been a hard autumn.  Today it is raining, which seems fitting, a relief almost.  Perhaps all creation is weeping with those who weep today.

Earlier this month, the 44-year-old brother of a friend of mine died from alcoholism.  His was a long, slow death, and I suppose the death certificate reads something else, like sepsis or kidney failure.  A tragically painful life took its final downturn.  Unrealized hopes and dreams, joys never experienced.  Yet, in this case, a day or two before he departed, he prayed with the hospital chaplain and asked the Lord to forgive him and save him.

God help us all.  God have mercy on us all.  Some days I just repeat this over and over, thankful that I can.  God, Father of mercy, sweet Lord Jesus, please help us all.

Earlier this fall, a young couple from New York lost their baby, their gorgeous 2-year-old baby boy, in a drowning accident.  Face down in an otherwise picturesque pond, their pride and joy.  If it were me, how many times would I relive that day, the hours that led up to the tragedy, thinking through all the details I could have changed, and how any one of them could have prevented the accident?  How many times would I wake up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding?  How many times would I lie in bed trying to push unwelcome thoughts out of my conscious mind, trying to sleep, yet afraid to dream?

There you have it.  In the case of the 2-year-old there is a mirage, a presumption that someone ought to have had control of the situation, but we never have control.  We do not number our own days, nor do we number the days of anyone else.  We love, tend, nurse, wash and feed.  We sing and rock, tickle and groom.  We do our best to protect.  In the end, we simply cannot be there every minute.  We cannot see everything that happens, and we cannot hold back calamity.  This is the truth.

In the case of the 25-year-old, I struggle with my greatest fears, because I have two sons, and one is 25.  The other is 21.  I pray for them every day, but this event reminds me that I have no control.  I am not present to protect them in any way; I am physically removed from the overwhelming majority of their lives.  I must relinquish them to God and trust in Him, however He chooses to number their days.

Dear sweet Jesus, how I recoil from the thought of getting a phone call that tells me, "Your son has been in a bad accident.  Please come quickly."  Oh, dear Jesus.  Please help all the people.  Please help us all.

I know that the holy scriptures tell us that our hope is not in this life.  In this world we will have trouble, He tells us, but take heart, for Jesus has overcome the world.

Dear sweet Jesus, it is so hard for us to take heart.  We are only dust (Psalm 103:14).  Please help us.

Jesus wept, the Bible tells us (John 11:35).  When Lazarus died, and Jesus saw the people mourning, He wept for them, for us, for the pain we experience in the dark brokenness of this world.  He knows all the glory and joy that He has prepared for us in the future, but He understands our pain in the present, and He has compassion on us.

"As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him." (Psalm 103:13 NIV)

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:15-16 NIV)

Jesus Himself faced a trial that seemed too overwhelming.  He faced the cross.  On the night of His death, shortly before He was crucified, Jesus prayed that, if it were possible, His Father would take the cup from Him.  He was in anguish.  He pleaded and sweat drops of blood.  God the Father did not take away the cup, because there was no other way for His purpose to be accomplished.  However, He did send an angel from heaven to help Jesus through the night.

Help us, Lord Jesus.  Please send your ministering angels to help us in our pain.

Jesus died so that we could live.  His death bought us eternal life.  He suffered under our sins so that we could be clothed in His righteousness.

We also suffer so that others can attain eternal life.  We suffer because the world goes on.  The world will be broken until Jesus returns, ushering in the New Heaven and the New Earth.  Once the New Creation comes, all the old things will be gone, passed away.  It will be too late for any more people to repent.  This is why the broken world goes on, with all its pain and sorrow: because after this world is replaced, after all that is broken is fixed, no more people will have an opportunity to turn to the Lord.

The Lord's desire is that all men should come to a saving knowledge of the truth and put their faith in Jesus (1 Timothy 2:3-4).  He is not willing that any should perish, but He waits patiently for people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9).

Jesus knows all of our troubles.  Jesus knows the right time to act.  Jesus knows the perfect time to act.  Jesus never makes mistakes.  Someday, when we get to heaven, we will see how all these dark, painful circumstances weave into the tapestry of God's plan to create beauty and joy.  He promises that He works all things for good (Romans 8:28).  Such a difficult promise to grasp, when so many things are ugly and awful.

Please, Lord Jesus, help us when the pain clouds our vision and the darkness threatens our faith.

"Today you shall be with me in paradise," said Jesus to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43).  He is the Savior of the world, pouring out abundant grace on all who will receive it, waiting and watching and calling for His children to come home to Him.

It doesn't matter what you've done, or what's been done to you, or where you've been, or how long you've been away.  You can even come to Him the day or the minute before you die (although you lose out on a lot of peace and joy if you wait).  All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.  He will bring us home.

"Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them.  They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and will be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."  (Revelation 21:3-4 NIV)

Help us, Lord God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Healer and Deliverer.  Help us to hope, to believe, to walk in faith until the day when we see You in Your unveiled glory, facing us. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Chickenpox (part 3, the aftermath)

 * * * This story started here and continues here * * *

After the chickenpox, none of us had any immunities.  Clearly.  Throughout the ensuing months, we experienced frequent and relentless episodes of the stomach flu.

It's just a blur.  I remember that long winter as a dark but sleepless stretch of vomiting and scrubbing up vomit, the mingled odors of sickness and Lysol surrounding us as the washing machine churned out load after load and we bought gingerale and saltines every time we went to Wegman's.

I remember feeling extremely cross while getting ready for bed, angry about the futility of bothering to put on pajamas when I knew I wasn't going to get to sleep.  I remember Shannon, poor little Shannon who slept alone on the first floor.  On multiple occasions she vomited up the stairs into the berber carpet as she came trying to tell me that she wasn't feeling well.  I remember little David, barely more than a baby himself, vomiting down the hall on the first floor, and me sopping it up with an armful of clean towels I'd just folded, then desperately pouring out half a bottle of full strength Lysol directly onto the wood floor where the vomit had been.  I ended by pouring the same full strength Lysol over my hands and forearms in a Hail Mary attempt to eradicate the germs, but got sick a day later anyway.

It seemed as though we had the flu bi-weekly.  When I got it, I usually threw up about twenty times over the course of about five hours before it settled into slightly less violent manifestations.

Of course, I understood that Shawn had to go to work to make a living for us.  I understood that nobody could come and help us when we were all contagious with pernicious viruses.   However, understanding the truth of the situation didn't help me soldier up under my distress.  I cried a lot, probably every day.

Later, I read a book by Jean Fleming called A Mother's Heart (it's a fantastic book; everyone should read it).  She wrote about their family being sick with a stomach virus.  They had been missionaries to China, but this sickness struck when they were in the USA.  She wrote of gathering her children into bed with her and leading them in a prayer of thanks for plentiful ice, and clean drinking water, and beautiful, modern bathrooms with flush toilets. I confess, even at the time I first read it (long after we'd been through our trying winter), I struggled to admit that I'd had anything to be thankful for when we were sick.  Sometimes conviction dawns slowly.

Eventually, the bouts of flu began to hit less frequently.  We went a month, and then six weeks.  In April, around Easter, I got sick again.  I think I was the only one that time.  I remember because my back went into spasm before I started throwing up, and the only position that brought relief from the back pain was to lie flat on my back, but that was not an option with the upset stomach and nausea I was experiencing.  It was an uncharacteristic 80 degrees, and must have either been Saturday or a holiday, because Shawn put baby Laura into the backpack carrier and went out to do spring clean-up on the yard.  I writhed in bed, alone, inconsolably miserable, dehydrated from loss of bodily fluids and the unseasonable heat, my fingertips wrinkled up like raisins.

The sickness would have been easier to deal with had it not been for the depression.  I didn't know I was depressed, and I don't think Shawn had any idea what was going on or what to do.  Anyone who has been depressed would resonate to my description of feeling utterly hopeless, hurting so badly in my spirit that, literally, breathing was painful.  Each day, I awoke to three little people already overflowing with their childhood needs, and their demands shattered against my skull, the things I had to do, no matter how I felt, and I felt completely drained and unable.  I felt alone, unworthy, forgotten, abandoned, unloved, rejected and ugly.

Yet here again was the Lord's silent, unappreciated presence.  I had no gratitude to Him for the way He enabled me--unable as I was--to rise from bed and make oatmeal, spoon it into small mouths, wipe off sticky faces, change soggy diapers and wash dirty clothes.  I sat on the sofa, nursed the baby, read story books, picked up blocks, put socks back on little feet, cut skin off apples and crusts off peanut butter sandwiches.  It was the grace of God, but I had no idea.

Their cries hit me like an alarm clock.  I responded the way one responds to an alarm clock: a surge of adrenaline, a surge of despair, the labored heaving of a tired body in a necessary direction.  I had little compassion, stunted affection.  I only knew what I had to do, and by the mysterious grace of God, I did it.  In my conscious mind, I thought, "I have made a terrible mistake.  I thought I wanted to be a mother, but I am a terrible mother.  I am no good at this at all.  I need to sleep.  I need some rest.  I need a break.  I'm going to die if I don't get some rest."  But I didn't get rest, and I didn't die, I just got the flu again.  And again.

My children were gut-wrenchingly beautiful.  I knew that.  They were beautiful and funny and smart and amazing.  I was aware, aware enough to be frustrated that I couldn't properly appreciate it.  "I am the only one who even sees how amazing they are," I thought.  "It's just them and me.  Nobody else knows.  And I can't appreciate them because I am sick.  Oh the waste, waste, waste. Who will appreciate them?  I have made a terrible mistake.  I shouldn't be their mother.  I shouldn't be trusted with them.  I can't do this.  Who will love my children?"  I wanted to die, but not really.  I didn't want to go to hell, but even heaven sounded far too exhausting.  I wanted to die like a dog, and just be buried in the loamy earth where I could finally be at rest, feel nothing, hear nothing, know nothing.  I wanted nothingness, forever.

"I want to die," I told God.  "I can't do this anymore.  I can't do it, do you hear me?  I want to die, but I don't want to go to heaven.  I want to sleep, in the earth, and decompose and be nothing."

The Lord who (unbeknownst) had been holding me together all this time, patiently empowering me to care for my family, finally had enough.  In the moment when I expressed those thoughts consciously to Him, I was aware of a sensation not unlike what you would imagine a toddler might feel if you picked him up by the back straps of his Osh-Kosh overalls and then rotated him around to look you in the face.  The Lord got in my face, and He said (not audibly, but with words), "That is not death.  When you die, you will come face-to-face with Me, and I will require you to answer for yourself."  After an initial blow-to-the-gut speechless moment, I was tempted to whine back at Him, to say that wasn't the way I wanted it to be.  However, something about His palpable presence gave me an extra measure of self-control.  I'd been given a healthy, divine check, and it did me some good.

Over the summer, things leveled a bit, for which I am truly grateful.   However, when autumn arrived again, with maple leaves turning the same saturated oranges and golds which had surrounded Laura's birth, with the days shortening into dark evenings long before Shawn returned home from work, I had a relapse of the depression.  This is one of the ways I know now that it was depression.  I began to feel a dread that deepened into a panic and spilled over in tears and angry words and clenching anxiety.

Undiagnosed, untreated depression is a terrible thing.  The Lord brought me through mine, but it was a very lengthy process, difficult, and it left scars.  I have so many regrets.  Depression leads to sin, which leads to deeper depression.  It is a terrible cycle.  Thanks be to God for His infinite grace and constant abiding presence and patient healing over time.

At the risk of sounding like I am whining, or blame shifting, I would just like to say that it would be helpful if people could understand that a truly depressed person is not capable of fixing herself.  In fact, she is not even capable of figuring out what is wrong and what might be done about it, let alone implementing a solution.  It seems to me that obstetricians hand out leaflets about postpartum depression to new mothers.  Maybe it's different now, but that is a completely useless thing to do.  The depressed person, if she is truly depressed enough to need help, is almost never going to be able to ask for help, herself.  Somebody else needs to step up and help, advocate, support, seek treatment for the one in need.

I think it would be helpful if families and churches could be educated about how to watch for people who are undergoing difficult times of stress, and how to intervene to help before utter despair and depression set in.  Sometimes we actually should be responsible for others.  Sometimes it is right to get involved, take action, demonstrate sacrificial love.

Instead, I've noticed a trend among church people who seem to feel that it is a virtue to say no.  "I'm teaching myself to say no," they piously proclaim, as though they were actually guilty of always doing everything they were ever asked to do.  While it is certainly of value to weigh one's commitments and, with God's guidance, choose the highest priorities when setting one's schedule, I don't think telling a desperate person, "No, I can't help you," is very often a virtuous move.

The Lord worked in my life through physical illness, exhaustion and depression.  I learned that He could hold me together.  I first-hand experienced that He did not leave me nor forsake me.  He used His voice to speak truth into my mind when my mind was bending in wrong directions.  This was ultimately good for me.  However, I would be wrong to extrapolate from my experience that when another isolated young mother is having a difficult time, I ought to leave her to drown and thus discover God's grace as I did.  When Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, God used it for good to prepare provision for Israel many years later when famine came.  However, that does not justify the cruel acts of hatred perpetrated by Joseph's brothers.  Just because God works good out of sin, it doesn't make sin acceptable.  And just because God brings growth out of pain, it doesn't mean we should stand back and let pain run its course in the lives of people around us.

Joseph was the victim of sins committed knowingly and maliciously against him.  Sins of commission.  If I was the victim of any sin, it would have been sin of omission: people who maybe had an inkling that they could have stepped up to better support me, but found that their schedules and priorities prohibited it.  If such is the case, I have no choice but to forgive freely and eagerly, for I myself have committed more sins of omission than I could ever count.  I have failed to reach out, failed to support, failed to love.  I must not be bitter against those who have only neglected to do for me what I also have neglected to do for others.  Besides, whatever I may have suffered as a result of anyone's inaction, God ultimately used it to drive me deeper into Him, and there is no better place for me to be.

Yet, I must also use my experiences to teach me how to support others. I must allow my heart to be tender toward the hurting young mother, and others who are weak and in pain or despair.  I must guard against thinking, "She needs to toughen up.  She needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps.  She is being a big baby and she needs to gut it out and learn what she is made of."  Those are unrighteous thoughts, not humble, not compassionate, not loving, and certainly not Christ-like.

Trials are hard.  Loneliness can be brutal.  Depression is real, and comes in the aftermath of difficulties, when a person's confidence and security have been shattered.

God is real, powerful and present.  He works in mysterious ways.  He carries us through our most overwhelming floods.  He cares for us and comforts us so that we also can care for and comfort others.

Time moves slowly sometimes, and the hand of God is not always visible, although it is always here.  We, as God's people, can be His visible hands to those who are hurting, when they could not otherwise see His work in their situations.

May we embrace the grace of God as He pours it out on us, and may we recognize His good work in our lives.  May we share His grace with those around us, according to their need.  May we trust the Lord to give us all that we need to give to those in need, because His mercies are infinite.

May our hearts be filled with gratitude and love.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Chickenpox (part 2, the crest)

If you read my last post, we had arrived at the point where Shannon came down with the chickenpox.

Let me tell you, at that point I was really feeling sorry for myself.  However will I stop bleeding now? I wondered, supposing that I was at my wit's end.

Shannon had a fairly bad case of the chickenpox, with red spots spattered approximately every two to three inches apart, over all of her.  I treated her with Aveeno oatmeal baths for the itching and Tylenol for the fever, while doing my best to distract her from scratching and scarring herself.  This, while continuing to deal with thrush and bleed heavily, along with the regular care and feeding of a new baby and an eighteen-month-old.  I'm not solid on the dates, but it was shortly past Shannon's third birthday.  Perhaps it was right at Halloween time.  That would seem appropriate.

Shannon was always a trooper, and this was no exception.  Her chickenpox fever broke and the spots began to fade, just as the gentian violet began to do its good work on Laura's thrush.  I thought maybe things were looking up.  I took this picture for our 1992 Christmas card:
If you look closely, you can see that there are some faded spots on Shannon's face, 
and Laura's lips are purple from gentian violet.

Perhaps a day or two after I took that picture, I was in the shower.  I think it was a Saturday, and Shawn was at home, which would explain why I was able to enjoy a shower.  Leaning back into the hot water, I rubbed the bar of soap in my hands and then spread lather across my shoulders and upper chest.  Near my left shoulder bone, through the slippery soap, I felt a bump on my skin.  Rinsing and investigating, I saw a small red dot.  Leaning forward and looking through the steam, I scanned from left to right across my chest and found a whole crop of red spots.

I had the chickenpox.  And so did David and Laura.  I'd thought Shannon's pox had been a solid spread, but David, Laura and I had chickenpox on top of chickenpox on top of chickenpox.  They were on our eyelids, inside our noses and under our fingernails.  Can I just say, it is a nightmare to try to nurse a new baby when both of you are covered head to toe and in every intimate place with itching, oozing, crusting pox.  Oh, and Shawn had used up every vacation day and personal business day on his work calendar by then, so I was on my own to deal with it.

There is something called PPD, or postpartum depression.  I am not sure if that is exactly what I had, but I had something bad.  I am not sure how I survived the deep, flooding despair and hopelessness I felt in those days.  Something like hiccups, or sobbing, or desperate anger existed around the surface of my consciousness, and I felt--alongside the chills of the fever--like I was going to snap, except that I actually was snapping, bit by bit, a snap here and a snap there, and as I snapped, brittle and broken, I kept functioning.  The grace of God is astounding, and so is our frequent blindness to it.

I flapped, too.  I remember wearing loose clothing and flapping my shirt violently to keep from scratching.  I flapped, pulled my hair and ran up and down the stairs doing laundry because it gave me something to think about, something to do with my hands and body to overcome the urge to scratch.  I washed dishes, too.  Fed the kids.  Wiped off the kitchen table and counters.  Changed the diapers.  Adrenaline coursed through my body, and I shook, trembled, spilled tears, swallowed air and breathed panic, but I kept functioning.  By the grace of God, I took care of them.  The fear in my head said, "I can't do this.  I can not do this."  But I did do it.  By the grace of God, and nothing else, I did.  I don't know how, except that somehow He was silently holding me together.

I couldn't feel it at the time.  I didn't know He was there.  I felt completely and utterly abandoned.  I had no awareness that it was a miracle that I was able to get out of bed and take care of my children each day through that time.  I only knew what I wanted, and I was not getting what I wanted.  I wanted a kind, gracious, gentle, comforting woman to come into my home and take care of me.  I wanted her to speak kind words to me and confidently gather up my children in her arms and make them happy.  I wanted her to put me to bed and bring me tea and homemade soup.  I wanted her to care for my children and clean my home the way I wished I were able to do it, better than I could do it.  And while she was there, I wanted to fall into a long, deep, peaceful, restful sleep and wake up healed.  That is what I wanted, and that is what I did not get.  That is not real life, but I didn't understand.  I thought it was what I needed and that a person should get what she needs.  I didn't know that Jesus was enough, and He was there.  I couldn't see it until I looked back, and that is why I need to look back.

On two separate days, women from my church came over to help me.  One came one day and another came another day.  Bless their hearts, there was no way they could have lived up to my unrealistic hopes.  They didn't have deep relationships with me or my children.  They didn't know what my kids liked to eat, or how I folded the laundry a specific way so it would fit into the drawers, or that I was obsessive-compulsive about organizing the kids' sets of toys when picking up after a play session.  Bless their hearts, they tried.  They did their best.  They were kind, and they reached out, and to this day I remember them with fond gratitude mixed with shame over the way I was unable to accept their help, unable to rest or relax or trust while they were in my home.  The adrenaline continued to surge, screaming, "Hyper-alert!  Hyper-alert!"  I cried with anger after they left, because they were not the perfect lady in my imagination.  I don't know what you are supposed to do when you are so broken to bits that you have nothing, no self-awareness even, when you're no more than a shell of bitter despair.  It is incomprehensible grace the way Jesus holds onto us when we are unable to hold onto Him.

Chickenpox is a particularly humiliating thing to experience as an adult.  You feel so sick, so weak and feverish and drained.  Then you walk past a mirror and see the Swamp Monster that is you, and you can hardly grasp that you look even far worse than you feel.  Most people don't get the chickenpox when they are a 26-year-old-mother-of-three.  Do you know, when I called the pediatrician's office to ask what I should do for my eight-week-old baby with the chickenpox, they told me, "A baby that young cannot get chickenpox.  She will have immunities from you, from the breastmilk she is drinking."  But my breastmilk didn't have any immunities to pass on, because I didn't have any immunities myself.  And so my children suffered with me.

One night, after many sleepless nights, Shawn and I decided that he would sleep in our bed upstairs, and take care of David in the nursery across the hall, while I would take Laura down to the guest room and sleep on the futon with her.  I remember lying on the futon in the darkness after struggling through a poxy feeding, and realizing that my bleeding had finally, somehow, tapered off.  I thought, I should be thankful.  And anyway, I thought, itching is bad, but it isn't as bad as nausea.  I was nauseated for nine months while I was pregnant.  Now I just itch.  I should be thankful.  I fell asleep.  Ironically, I woke up a few hours later with my stomach stretched tight as a rubber band, so in the end, I found myself vomiting after all.

I understood why the people from our church needed to stay at arm's length.  I understood that if I were in their position, I would not myself go into someone's house that was rife with chickenpox germs and risk bringing chickenpox back to my own children (it was a small church of virtually all young families with little children).  I understood, and it made sense, and I didn't blame anyone.  Still, it hurt when they'd drop off a meal with a ding-dong-ditch punch at the doorbell, so all I'd find upon opening the door was a box of food on the step.  I was thankful for the food.  It's just that I wanted that perfect, nurturing woman to be there, to hug me and carry the box of food into the house, to tell me that I'd feel better soon.  "Just hang on," I wanted her to say. "You will be okay, and I'll be here for you until you're okay again." 

As Thanksgiving drew near, the church wanted to help, tried to reach out.  They called and asked if they could buy us a premade Thanksgiving dinner from Wegman's.  I said no.  I was so shattered, so messed up.  I was mad because I wasn't getting what I wanted.  I wanted love and support and community.  I wanted relief from feelings of loneliness, abandonment and isolation.  I did not want an impersonal, boxed Thanksgiving from a grocery store.  So I said no thank you.

Chickenpox hits like a mace, but it leaves gradually.  First the fever and chills abate, and then the itching slowly subsides.  After that, there is the long process of healing for the skin: gradually the spots fade from dark red to lighter red to pink to pale pink.  Some of the spots scab and scar, leaving memories that will linger indefinitely or virtually forever.

I'd like to say that the story ended shortly thereafter, that the spots faded away and life went on, improving day-by-day.  That's not quite what happened.  For one thing, PPD.  It's taken me years, perhaps decades, to work out that PPD was involved.  Maybe it wasn't exactly postpartum depression, but it was depression, and postpartum hormone swings were certainly involved.  For another thing, a bad case of chickenpox in the fall can wreck your immune system for winter.  I was warned about this by one of the women who had spent a day helping me.  She'd had chickenpox as an adult herself, and she knew.  I remember her telling me, "Be careful when you get through this.  Don't try to get back to full speed too fast.  Your immune system will be weakened."  I remember listening and nodding.

But I had no idea what she really meant.

--to be continued--