Fasting “Great Anger”

I woke up the other morning and read President Trump’s tweet, “The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger.”

“Great anger.”

In that moment I couldn’t help but wonder if my heart would be better off if I allowed my sadness to be replaced with great anger.  If I could blame others, avoid accountability, point fingers, apply apathy, scream at people and ideas I didn’t agree with, defend myself at all costs and offend others with no remorse, would this be a healthier place for my heart? Would “great anger” be better than waking up in the middle of the night with a heavy weight on my chest and a soul that weeps over the discord in our country and the pain in this world? If I could be ruthless rather than repentant, indifferent versus engaged, judgmental instead of merciful, maybe the sadness would turn to vigorous fist pumps and powerful chest beating. After some reflecting I realized that “great anger” is the easy way, the world’s way, and the way that is absent of God’s love. Some nights I can’t sleep and too many mornings than I care to count, I wake up, scroll through my Twitter notifications and cry before I even roll out of bed. I have been so burdened by the polarization in our country, the cruelty and name-calling from people I typically respect, and the hypocrisy (from all sides) that is now magnified due to social media. I’m taxed by the anger I’m constantly shoving down or trying to “pray away” and even when the anger subsides the sadness takes its toll.

Why do I remain plugged in? Why do I continue to scroll? Why am I tuning into CNN and Fox News every day?

I’ve convinced myself that I need to invest time on these media and social outlets so that I can stay well-informed, understand both sides, and have an educated opinion. Recently though, I’ve come to realize that what I’m consuming is so polarizing that regardless of what I’m watching, reading, and/or hearing it’s coming from a place of anger, fear, bias, bitterness, defensiveness, offensiveness, prejudice and so on. These undercurrents are affecting my spirit. Although I do believe it’s important to keep my head out of the sand and get involved when there’s injustice, stand up for the oppressed,  and carry the burdens for others when the weight is too much, I have to find a better way.

I believe God can use me in powerful ways regardless of the news I watch or the social media I scour. I believe The Lord will guide my decisions and purify my thoughts if I turn my gaze towards Him and away from the self-serving perspectives of the world. If I believe this to be true, then why do I feel anxious when I consider deleting Twitter from my phone or abstaining from National news?

Do I fear I’ll miss the immediate opportunity to protest a great injustice? Do I fear someone else will learn something before I do? Do I fear I won’t have the ammunition necessary to make my next political point? Am I searching for others to validate my feelings? Will I miss the anonymity I enjoy when sharing my knee-jerk reactions on Twitter? Do I think my responses, retweets, comments are actually making a difference? Do I believe purging my emotions on the social landscape changes minds? Do I imagine my ability to affect positive change in the world around me will be lost if I can’t express my opinions to the world at a moment’s notice? Do I presume that my thoughts, my opinions, my advice will actually change someone’s position?

Gross!

It’s embarrassing to admit my answers to most of these questions. When I get real with myself about my motivations behind “keeping up,” I’m ashamed. Who do I think I am? My opinion doesn’t matter, but what my heart projects does. Even after I spend time in prayer, asking for God’s heart…His grace, His love, His perspective, as soon as I click those tempting icons on my phone I’m immediately pulled into the chaos and lose sight of His desires for the world. I bombard myself with animosity spewed from people I don’t agree with AND people I do.

The truth is that I can stay informed without delving into bias and partisanship. The truth is even when I consume information on both sides I’m still exposing myself to fanatical responses and antagonistic commentary. The truth is that I can lean in to the Lord and His will and become involved in my community in healthy ways without fighting every fight or making every injustice my calling. The truth is that I can give of myself without thinking that I have to save everyone or anyone for that matter. The truth is that I can continue to use social media to share love and inclusion without absorbing the disgust and anger that seems to be spreading like wildfire straight into my heart and mind.

I’ve decided to protect my heart more carefully. I want to be able to love the way God does…without qualifiers, without conditions, without expectations.

With depression lurking behind every click, I’ve decided I must change how I’m consuming news. I’ve decided to delete Twitter from my phone, stop notifications from Facebook, and fast from ALL major news outlets (specifically CNN and Fox News) for the next 30 days. I’m curious to see how my thought-life will change after I remove myself from the toxicity that is seeping from most news reports and social media reactions I see these days. While I fast, I will pour myself into causes I believe in, such as The Welcome to America Project (https://www.wtap.org/), and I will continue to seek new opportunities for providing hope to those who are hurting. I will seek out non-partisan news sources such as Reuters (www.reuters.com), ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org), AllSides (https://www.allsides.com), PolitiFact (www.politifact.com), FactCheck ( www.factcheck.org), and PBS (www.pbs.org). If I observe opinions instead of facts in the reporting, I will stop engaging with those news sources as well. My goal is to remove myself from limited perspectives and I cannot do this while I’m constantly soaking in the world’s bathtub! I believe I can be well-informed, lovingly active, persistently merciful and proactively thoughtful without the anger, sadness, and fear that is being so loudly projected.

My hopeful prayer is that by severing my constant connection from biased news and hateful rhetoric running rampant on social media, I will be freed from the sadness that has adhered itself to my heart this year. My hopeful prayer is that I will be moved to reach out with love and grace to all people, regardless of politics or religion and give of myself without bias or prejudice. My hopeful prayer is that I will consume facts (free of hate) and determine how to proceed from a place of love in response to those facts. My hopeful prayer is that my emotional health will be protected while I continue to restoratively engage with communities near and far in ways that spread the hope and love of God.

For those interested, I will share any shifts in my spirit worth mentioning.

Here we go:

 

God is Not American

God is not American. God is not Republican or Democrat.

God is Love!

God is not discord and He is not mere tolerance. God is not rash, arrogant or hypocritical. God is not disgust and He is not despair or hopelessness. God is not a wall-builder, a divider, a nationalist or populist. God is neither bitter nor disagreeable. God is not apathetic, harsh, or dishonest. God is not unjust or biased. He is not an enabler and He is not permissive. God is not an ideologue. He is not offensive or defensive. God is neither limited nor narrow-minded. God is not fear, anger, or hate.

God is Love!

God is not interested in our rationalizations for treating one another as if His signature is missing from those who don’t match the color of our skin, speak our dialect, share our faith, practice our politics, or perceive the world through the same set of lenses. God is not eager to discover our motivations for marrying our political ideologies, our religious doctrine, our worldly principles, our preferred talking points, or our cultural philosophies over being the reflection of His image on the earth. God is not fascinated with our flimsy justifications for doggedly declaring, “I’m right and you’re wrong” at the expense of loving one another as His unique and lovely creatures.

God is love and He is captivated by His creation. He longs for us to begin looking to Him as our Navigator through this broken world. God is knocking at the door of our hearts and with arms open wide he waits for us to invite him in. God is interested in seeing us love one another, fully and unconditionally, as brothers and sisters. He hungers to witness us ministering life through empathy, joining one another in the mire and sharing the burden of each other’s difficult journeys. He yearns for us to place our identity in Him, which translates into being “for love” and against no one. His deep desire is to watch us spread the good news of the Gospel, the love of Jesus Christ, to every soul we come into contact with, both near and far.

As a lover of Jesus, I have been struggling with many questions. “During this vitriolic time in our country, what is my responsibility?” “How do I stand up for what I believe is right without permitting anger in my heart, irritation on my face and indignation in my tone?” “What am I called to do when I feel The Lord is being misrepresented by those who claim to be Christians?” “How can I effectively advocate for justice from a place of love and grace?” “How can I ‘fight’ for the disadvantaged without fighting?” “How do I stand firm on The Truth without letting the desire to ‘be right’ get in the way?” “How can I protect the persecuted without taking a combative posture?” “How can I be a light in the midst of the darkness?”

I believe the answer is love.

I openly confess that in all my humanness and raw, mortal emotion there are days I witness the events erupting around me and I find myself brimming with resentment, fear, disgust, and a sadness that borders despondency. My blood pressure rises, my heart races, my palms sweat, the tears flow, my voice shakes, my countenance falls and I feel a boiling under the surface that I know is not from The Lord. Before I project my cynicism on social media or detonate my negativity onto my closest circle of influence I occasionally (by the grace of God) stop and pray, and it is only then, that I can hear His voice speak to my soul.

He says, “Be still and know that I am God.”

In this moment, as I ask The Lord to quiet my aching soul, I’m cautioned that hate never delivers the heart to a place of compassion or freedom. I am reminded that although fear may produce a change in behavior, it is not the catalyst our Father uses to break chains and heal wounds. I begin to recognize that as I fill my heart and mind with the world’s perspective I become bogged down in the mire of human capacity and a darkness that can only be shaken off with God’s truth. I hear him calling me to calm my mind, turn off the ideas of this world, and tune into him…resting in His heart. I hear him calling me to boldly confess my short-comings and to rely on Him for transformation.  He calls me to release the heaviness in my heart and the chaos of my mind to Him, because He alone, is big enough to crush the burdens of this world. He calls me to fix my heart on the unveiled Gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of supernatural hope and grace, peace and love. He calls me to surrender my angst to Him because He is God and I am not. He calls me to be brave in my speech of what His GRACE (God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense) has done in my life. He calls me to reject cynicism and follow His lead to a place of unfaltering worthiness, restoration, peace, understanding, inclusion, vulnerability, transparency, forgiveness, and humility. He calls me to divorce the things of this world; the ideas, the politics, the idols, the dogma I have married myself to, and at times, unintentionally worshipped. He calls me to produce fruit at a capacity that only His Spirit living in my heart can yield.

God is Love and the fruits of His Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

There is an innate goodness deposited in us as God’sc reation, yet there is an immense gulf between our limited human range and the boundless embodiment of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that is found in Him alone. Jesus came as a gift from the Father to span this gap and make the impossible possible. He can enable us to love as He loves, which is a perfect love. God is everything we cannot be on our own. He is everything we cannot WILL ourselves to be, but when we draw near to Him, we can more effectively and more consistently bear this fruit.

The fruit of His Spirit is love – A love that cherishes diversity as God’s creative genius and delights in the beauty of His glorious masterpiece we call the human race. A love that breaks through the resistance in our hearts, splitting us wide open to receive and expend radical love and healing transformation. A love that devotedly tends to those whom God weeps for. A love that revolutionizes relationships and builds bridges across the chasms of loneliness. A love that cherishes neighbors near and far and allows a tenderness to flow from our lips, regardless of disparities in position.

The fruit of His Spirit is joy – A joy that calls us to a hopeful expectancy of God’s plan for our lives and fastens our eyes on His light in the most somber hours. A joy that lifts our spirits to pinnacles unseen regardless of the valley our blistered feet trek. A joy that springs from our souls even while clouds hang low and cast shadows across our vision of the present and the future. A joy that delights in The Lord and each other. A joy that is steadfast while the world preaches hopelessness. A joy that incites our hearts to rejoice and our feet to dance without inhibition or justification. A joy that cannot be muted by the roaring chaos around us.

The fruit of His Spirit is peace – A peace that hushes the hurry and calls us to calmly and deeply breathe in the tranquil Spirit of our Father. A peace that quietly visits our inner-most being while the winds howl and life beats on our backs. A peace that enables unity and disables discord. A peace that paints our surroundings with a soft serenity and a mysterious stillness that allows us to hear the voice of our Father. A peace that plays notes of harmony to our souls and songs of contentment to our hearts. A peace that slows the eagerness of reactivity and quickens the passion for proactive love.

The fruit of His Spirit is patience – A patience that envelops us in God’s timing and silences the ticking clock of our mind’s desired agenda. A patience that lifts us beyond the deadlines of this world and embraces us with the beautiful vision of eternity in God’s presence. A patience that restrains our individual motives and humbly seeks God’s purpose for our lives. A patience that steadily waits on the wisdom of the Lord before rushing forward to speak or act. A patience that dauntlessly faces agitators with persevering humility.

The fruit of His Spirit is kindness – A kindness that surpasses common decency and pours out a spirit of charity. A kindness that shines from the eyes and expels warmth before words are ever spoken. A kindness that reminds us that no sin can steal away the beauty of God’s creation. A kindness that urges philanthropic diligence and devoted thoughtfulness towards others. A kindness that passionately flows from our deeds of generosity, fairness, justness, mercifulness, and soft-heartedness. A kindness that compassionately shows others their value in the eyes of the Lord.

The fruit of His Spirit is goodness – A goodness that transcends political policy and religious law and guides our behavior to be a reflection of Jesus, who fed the poor, healed the sick, ate with sinners, and died to forgive those who murdered him. A goodness that separates us from common mores and conduct. A goodness that generously offers grace and practices integrity when no one is watching. A goodness that chooses honesty even at the cost of preserving one’s dignity.

The fruit of His Spirit is faithfulness – A faithfulness that pledges its allegiance to the love of God over country and self. A faithfulness that adheres to the heart of The Lord versus gripping onto ideologies. A faithfulness that goes beyond the ideals held in high regard by this world. A faithfulness dedicated to spreading the light of Jesus to the dark corners of the earth. A faithfulness that is dedicated to God’s calling on our lives, to love Him and love others, living out The Gospel of Jesus Christ. A faithfulness that is earnest in remaining open to the work God wishes to complete in our hearts. A faithfulness that seeks sincere and reverent worship to The One who compels us to recognize our sinful nature and forgives our trespasses.

The fruit of His Spirit is gentleness – A gentleness that tenderly brushes tear-soaked hair away from the face of a widow. A gentleness that sees the pain behind the eyes of a madman. A gentleness that reaches out to rage with a soft touch and affectionate words. A gentleness that carefully weighs the consequences of words and deeds and approaches conflict with loving caution. A gentleness that delicately approaches the enraged while recognizing that behind that hardened façade lays a fragile soul. A gentleness that responds to this harsh world with civility and addresses hurtful campaigns with grace and elegance.

The fruit of His Spirit is self-control – A self-control that enables our minds to remain poised in the midst of a hailstorm of slander. A self-control that calls on God’s mercy before our judgement. A self-control that guides our intentions with an understanding that unrecognized nuances often result in inappropriate conjecture and false conclusions. A self-control that remains dignified when the ugliness of the world unleashes its fury. A self-control that abstains from jumping into conflict with the desire to point fingers and place blame. A self-control that restrains words and deeds with a love that is supernaturally stead-fast.

I have conceded that I cannot wholly bear the Spirit’s fruit without The Gardener. I can try with all my finite fortitude to “be better” and “do better,” but the truth, His Truth, is that I cannot transform my own heart. There is Godliness in me because I was created in His image, but I am marred. I have the capacity to love, give, rejoice, find peace, practice patience, show kindness, display goodness, model faithfulness, demonstrate gentleness, and exhibit self-control, but I also have glaring deficits in relation to all of these fruits. My insufficiencies are not proof that I am contemptible and worthy of shame, but rather a testament to the fact that I’m human and broken. I cannot reflect His perfect image and fully accomplish that which He calls me to do without his endless supply of grace and unwarranted favor. On any given day, in true sinner’s fashion, I may not represent any fruits of His Spirit. My heart only lines up with His, when I die to myself and find freedom in His grace. Sadly, I acknowledge that there are times I don’t even pursue the seeds of His fruit as I lazily allow myself to be spoon-fed the noxious produce of the world. So, I continue to fervently pray:

Dear Heavenly Father,

Please straighten my path and place a longing in my heart to draw nearer to you. When I’ve allowed the noise of the world to penetrate my heart and mind, please silence the clamor and give me a relentless desire to seek an intimate relationship with you. Please transform the areas of my heart that fall short of your glory. Give me the strength to fervently pursue you and the harvest of your heart. Guard me from being swept up in the news of the day only to forget that unwavering hope and eternal life is in you and that your love is the only path to deliverance from the world’s heavy yoke. Help me to be an expression of your love and when I tell my story let it be a story of you.  Give me your heart of forgiveness and teach me how to love those I’ve self-righteously judged as unlovable. Lord, please crush the spirit of judgment that lurks in the recesses of my mind and give me an ability to see your beauty in every living being. Purify my heart so that I will be unwilling and unable to criticize. Fill me with an unlimited ability to express your love under all conditions to all people. Lord, please help me to abide in your presence so that you can produce your fruits in my life and prune the dead branches away. Please help me to accurately and fully represent your compassionate heart. Grow a tireless desire in my soul to escape the shallow grave of human emotion and arrive to a place where you instill your authentic agape love in the very core of my being. Please teach me how to be an example of your unfailing and radical love. Help me to love without qualifiers. Show me the way to you in every situation. Lord, guide me in your will and break me free from the chains of anger and worldly perspectives. Help me to look to you first in all circumstances. Lord, please forgive me for my quick tongue and the need to be right and replace my mortal desires with the passions of your heart. Protect me from the harshness that attempts to penetrate my core on a daily basis. Please soften my heart towards those I don’t understand and show me how to see others, hear others and love others as you do.  Heavenly father give me a heart of tenderness and guide me through rough waters with peace. Help me to be selfless in my love and persistent in my relationship with you, my Navigator, my Gardener, my Father. I love you Lord!

In Jesus’ name,

Amen!

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A Letter to Mormons

Dear Mormon Neighbors,

Having lived in Gilbert for most of my life, we have been visited by many young, passionate, Mormon missionaries throughout the years. Recently they have been offering their help with anything we may need assistance with. These exchanges always include the typical pleasantries where I thank them for their generous offer, and add that, “no, we don’t need help with anything at this time.” After their last visit however, as the young men pedaled away, I realized that I do have a request. A request that has been bubbling beneath the surface, unspoken for quite some time now. A desire that began formulating in my grade school years and has been refined since having children of my own. The next time a Mormon missionary asks if there’s anything they can do for me, I’m going to humbly and vulnerably reply as follows:

  • Please teach your children to be inclusive of my non-mormon children and please guide them to carry that inclusion past grade school, into middle school, and throughout high school.
  • Please encourage your children to sit with mine in the lunchroom.
  • Please permit your kids to invite my kids to their slumber parties, birthday parties, and weekend get togethers even AFTER my child has made it clear that he or she is not interested in attending fireside, seminary, or church with your family.
  • Please allow your teen to go with mine to school dances, athletic events, and group dinners trusting that just like you, my husband and I have done the best we know how to raise a teenager who knows right from wrong.
  • Please welcome my children into your homes and permit your children to visit ours.
  • Please ask your kids to consider how isolating it must be on “Seminary (extra credit) Days” for those kids who do NOT come to school dressed for church.
  • Please reflect on the fact that adolescents spend the majority of their waking hours comparing themselves to their peers, so when they recognize that it would never be “acceptable” to date your son or daughter or be your son or daughter’s best friend, it is, at best, damaging to their delicate self-esteem.
  • Please call to mind your younger years when your primary objective was to be loved and accepted for who you were without having to pretend you were someone else.
  • Please understand that my families faith also emphasizes the importance of loving others, giving of ourselves, forgiving those who have wronged us and seeking forgiveness when we wrong others, doing what is right and turning from evil, seeking a relationship with God, spending time in prayer, and living a life inspired by Jesus.
  • Please support your children in having open, vulnerable, honest, transparent, loving, kind, accepting conversations with my children about what they believe and why. In fact, while our kids are having that “grown-up” conversation, I also hope to enter into this depth of sharing with you…the Mormon parent.
  • Please know that I hold your child in the same regard as any other child who shares my family’s faith or who prescribes to no religion at all. Your child is special, and beautiful, and worthy of my love and caring regardless of doctrine or theology.
  • Please believe that I see our differences as an opportunity for us to grow together in loving-acceptance. God did not call us to “tolerate” our neighbors. He called us to Love. I love and welcome you, your family, and your faith because we are all children of God made in His image. Your faith is a sizable component of who you are, and you are God’s creation with gifts and beauty and a soul that has the ability to positively transform my life with each encounter.

As these hopes for my children spill out, I realize that these are the same yearnings I had when I was too young to express them and they remain yearnings for me now. I would like to know my Mormon neighbors. I would like for us to share our celebrations and mourn our losses together. I would like to enter into deep relationships with you that allow us to celebrate our differences and lift each other up versus silently judging one another from across the street or the backyard fence. I would like us to hug and share dinners, and text jokes, and go to movies, and have pool parties, and discuss politics, and cry and laugh, and live life together. These desires have never been expressed because I never felt important enough to express them, but now that I have children there is nothing more vital than ensuring they have a deep sense of belonging to this village we chose to raise them in.

For decades now I have felt an invisible yet palpable partition between my family and our mormon neighbors…a silent criterion that has said, “we can’t be that close…we can’t walk this life together too often, we can’t be intimate friends unless we share the same faith.” I want to tear down this barricade and abolish this silent destroyer of fellowship. I fear we are forfeiting valuable friendships and life-changing communion with one another as we allow religion to segregate our lives.

We are not that different. Our children are not that different. We are all living in a beautiful yet broken world doing the best we can with what we have. With inclusion and acceptance we can lighten each other’s burdens and love each other through the brokenness. We are all damaged humans, so let’s be damaged together. As our fractured pieces are assembled together, we will transform into a magnificent and vast tapestry of vibrant hues and unity…we can weave our hearts into a community of “us”…dynamic threads of surviving souls stretching out to reach each other, love each other, understand each other….staying true to ourselves while supporting one another. Loved and loving! Fully belonging!

Sincerely,

Renee’ (your hopeful neighbor)

P.S. I am not proposing that Mormons are the only religious group that could receive a request comparable to this one, or that this applies to every Mormon. I’m also not assuming that I wouldn’t, myself, benefit from reading the same words and applying them to my life with regards to another group or an “other,” an “outsider.” I believe every religion and every denomination could benefit from being more inclusive, but I write this letter in relation to my own experiences and memories and the concerns I have for my children. My Jewish/Agnostic husband could write an identical letter, based on his history, and just change the greeting to Dear Christians or Dear Italian Catholics. We can all admit that it feels good to belong to a group, but too often it’s at the expense of living a life void of those who are different from us, and I believe this is a tragedy. It is exhausting to correctly locate and consistently remain in the good graces of the right “club” these days. Race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, political affiliation, socio-economic status, neighborhood, state, coast, country, profession, and the list of ways we etch the invisible line goes on and on. I find that when I try too hard to belong to a particular group I lose sight of God’s vision for my life, which starts with loving “others” the way He loves me. We are created for community, and I believe our lives will always be richer if we truly follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. I pray that God will give us the courage to knock down walls, the strength to build bridges, and the grace to love with out qualifiers. I pray that my children will grow up loved and loving! Fully belonging!

Constellation Baby

To my dear son Isaac Burton,

You met him once in the vastness of heaven and space. His arms reaching for you, no longer stiff, no longer cold. The cosmos faded as he watched you draw near. His eyes smiled, no longer grey, no longer lifeless.

He waited for you in the stars and held you close as you journeyed through the constellations.

He whispered his love for you and kissed you gently before you entered the life from which he had just departed. He shared his ocean blue eyes and startling smile with you – those eyes and that smile that he inconceivably left by the Ty River. You touched his soul, swallowed his essence, embraced his light, and then you EXPLODED into our world.

You met our grief with healing and beauty and powerful, overwhelming life. Your first breath was a cooling and beautiful fog over our scalding trauma – a cleansing of our hearts that had festered with loss and bled with each shattering tear. Your ocean blue eyes opened and we saw him gazing back, searing hope into our souls, connecting life and loss in a circle of complete unity. Both of you permanently branded into our lives forever. Your smile illuminated the room as if he were there, holding us together in his starlight. Your vivacious cry was his voice assuring us that we can hurt and still heal. We can shudder with grief and still laugh. We can die and still live in the hearts of those who loved us and those we meet in heaven’s stars.

In Loving Memory of my brother, Burton James

 

My Testimony

For 34 years, I described my faith as “inherited.” I spent a significant amount of my adult life wrestling with my convictions and whether or not my spiritual life was solely a result of my upbringing. I openly shared with other Christian friends the desire to have a faith that was my own, a faith I experienced first hand, a faith I had heard so many others enthusiastically proclaim from the pulpit after encountering a miracle in the midst of their life’s “rock bottom.” I longed for something to strengthen my spiritual walk…I longed to know The Lord in a way so real that there would be no room for doubt….I longed for a testimony that I couldn’t ignore or explain away. I always sensed deep down that to secure my faith, I would need a moment where everything changed….saved by something supernatural, something undeniably bigger than myself. I spent many years praying for that moment and that it would forever obliterate my lingering uncertainty. I prayed for a testimony that I could share with passion and authenticity.

I was 12 weeks pregnant with our first baby and it was 7am on Mother’s Day when my phone rang. I saw that it was my sister-in-law and immediately assumed she was calling to wish me my first “Happy Mother’s Day.” I answered the phone and cheerfully said, “Happy Mother’s Day Nicole,” but in a distant and shaky voice she responded by asking if I was with my husband and if she could speak to him instead. As my husband held the phone, I thought I heard her whisper, “Burt’s dead.” My mind immediately began rejecting the sights and sounds around me as I watched the color drain from my husband’s face and listened to him vehemently repeat, “that’s not funny….stop…why are you saying that?” He left the room and I watched the walls close in around me as the world disappeared. I somehow summoned the courage and the strength to walk from my bedroom to the living room as my husband returned from the porch and somehow conveyed to me that my brother had died in a tragic accident. Reality ripped through me like a jagged knife and I my heart was left severed…barely beating. Soul shattering pain has a sound. It’s deafening silence is filled with cries so raw they don’t sound human. Grief has a taste and a texture. It is sharp and unforgiving. It is bitter but necessary to survive. Tragedy alters your senses forever. I began trembling in an effort to reject the truth as I begged, “you must’ve misunderstood…that could not have happened…he’s probably hurt and in the hospital, but he’s not dead!” I insisted that my husband call the chaplain to get the correct information…information I could live with. I was absolutely convinced there had been a horrible mistake…an incomprehensible misunderstanding and that another phone call would clear up all of the confusion, loss, and darkness. With another call it was confirmed that we were now facing the most harrowing weeks of our lives. I fell to my knees in the middle of the floor, crying out in a voice I didn’t recognize, shaking and rocking as if my body was incapable of absorbing another breath. My husband placed a blanket around my shoulders as if my trembling could be rectified with physical warmth. Screams escaped the deepest part of my being, “not my family! This doesn’t happen to us! This doesn’t happen to us!! What about my mom!? Where’s my mom?! It’s Mother’s Day! Not us! Not us! Not my brother! My mom! Where’s my mom?!” Even 3 years later, when I think back to that horrifying day it’s as if I’m separated from it all and watching from a dark detached place. From afar I can see my mom at my front door trembling with disbelief. I watch my little brother kick open the front door, throw his hat across the room and embrace my mom and I with arms that would never hug our brother in this world again. The sorrow is tangible. The pain audible. I used to hear stories of loss or watch tragedy on the news and say, “I can’t imagine!” and I was right…I truly could never have imagined how horrific unexpected grief would be. Even now that I’ve lived through something traumatic, there’s a barrier my soul has created to protect me from fully re-imagining the devastation. When I let my mind wander, I still cannot conceive surviving the kind of loss my family has already survived. It’s as if what we endured that day was from a separate life…a life once removed and even though we made it to the other side I cannot fathom weathering another tragedy like the loss of my brother.

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My brother and his beautiful family

Five months after Burt’s passing, my little brother (Ryan) and I flew to Seattle to tour where our older brother had spent the last year of his life. We ate his favorite food at his favorite restaurants, took his favorite hikes, and visited where he had very happily worked for the year before we lost him.

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Ryan and I on Burt’s favorite hike

It was a beautiful and gut-wrenching trip. As we waited in the airport for our flight home we reminisced about the emotional yet healing trip we had just encountered. I was flooded with emotion when I finally worked up the nerve to ask Ryan, “How do you know Burt is ok? How do you know God is real? How do you KNOW that you know?” Void of judgment, my younger brother shared with me that he knew Burt was ok because he knows The Lord is real and that his personal relationship with God our Father has made his faith strong. With the few tears I had left, I admitted to Ryan that I didn’t have this faith but that I had longed for it for years. I confessed, “I don’t know that The Lord is real. I don’t know that Burt is ok or that there’s a heaven. I have so much doubt and I want to have peace. I have no peace and I’m scared.” Ryan and I had a powerfully honest and vulnerable conversation and he promised he would be praying that I would find the assurance and peace I was seeking. There was no way for me to imagine the turn my life would take, the challenges I would face, the fear that would soon flood my heart and mind.

Shortly after our trip I became completely debilitated with a chronic migraine that stole my life for months. I wasn’t just weak or weary…I was profoundly incapacitated. After having our son, Isaac Burton, we moved in with my parents. I was unable to work, unable to drive, unable to run a simple errand or clean my house. I was unable to do most of the things we take for granted every day. The loss I experienced from no longer being able to participate in everyday tasks didn’t hold a candle to the grief I felt due to not being able to care for my one and only newborn baby boy. I couldn’t provide the basic things a mother gives her child. I couldn’t feed my son, I couldn’t bathe him or play with him or even laugh with him. I couldn’t comfort my son when he cried. I was soon on 10 different medications whose side effects made me so ill I lost 40lb in less than 2 months. I saw multiple chiropractors, acupuncturists, reflexologists, massage therapists, dentists, endodontists, 6 different neurologists, visited the ER 3 times and was finally hospitalized for infusion therapy for 3 days with zero progress. It was after this hospitalization that my husband drove his spiritless wife back to her parent’s house while she was swallowed by a dark abyss.

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How I spent most of my days for 5 months

A day or two after my hospitalization my brother and sister-in-law brought dinner over for the whole family. My pain was too extreme and the multiple meds I was on made me too sick to eat, so I retreated to my parents room and laid down on their bed. My brother soon followed to offer me a head and shoulder massage in the hopes that he could give me a little relief from the constant pain I had been living with for months. My brother began praying over me and although I don’t remember his words, I do remember the tears of desperation and hoping with all of my being that the power of his prayer would lead to that miraculous testimony I had been longing for. I was imploring the Lord for a miracle.

The next day, as I was taking a shower, fear hopelessness and suffering poured out of me in angry and desperate cries. This moment became the darkest and most isolating time I have ever experienced. The minor physical relief I felt while in the shower magnified the emotional pain of knowing that this relief was only temporary and that my quality of life would once again disintegrate as soon as I stepped out of the shower. I began to sob so uncontrollably that my mom and dad heard me from the living room. My mom opened the bathroom door and hesitantly asked me if I was ok and I could barely choke out a “no.” She offered me an over-sized fresh towel, but I was well beyond physical comforts. Soon, my husband came into the bathroom. He pulled back the curtain and said, “Renee’ talk to me.” All I could utter, over and over and over as I held myself in the fetal position on the shower floor, was

I can’t go on….I’m giving up…I can’t go on….I’m giving up…I can’t go on…I’m giving up.”

I explained that if this was living, then I did NOT want to live and that Isaac deserved a mommy who could care for him, play with him, laugh with him. I told him that the only future my mind’s eye held was one where I lied in a bed watching Isaac grow up while he watched me whither into nothingness. I had come to believe that I if I went on living I would do so without being a part of my son’s life and that I couldn’t bare the thought of deteriorating in front of him. I can say without any dramatization that in that moment I wanted to die and I was ready to go…begging The Lord to take me and my suffering and the suffering I was causing and would continue to cause to those who loved me. With fear and determination in his eyes, Pete said, “I will not listen to you talk like this! I will not let you give up or let go. You’re going to get dressed and we’re going for a walk right now.” We took that walk while I barely had the strength to hold myself upright but I could not be convinced there was hope so I continued to repeat,

I can’t go on….I’m giving up.”

Before my hospitalization I had been gifted a massage with a therapist who travelled to her client’s houses. Having had no improvement from the help of some of the most prominent neurologists in the country there was nothing to lose so I called the therapist and made an appointment shortly after my discharge. Just a few hours after I had proclaimed I was giving up and could not go on, the therapist (Valerie) arrived at my parents house and we met for the first time. She set up her table in my parents room and then asked permission to pray with Pete and I. The three of us stood together in unity and Valerie prayed that the massage would be physically and most importantly emotionally healing. My eyes were almost swollen shut from crying as I laid down on her table. Thirty minutes into the massage Valerie whispered, “I’m going to say something that will probably sound really strange and I hope that’s ok. I’ve never had anything like this happen before, but I feel like I need to share something with you.” Not knowing what to think or expect I tentatively responded, “ok?”

I feel your brother here and he’s saying that you have to keep going and you can’t give up. You have to keep going! You cannot give up! Have you been thinking of giving up?”

In that instant, I was released from the claws of darkness that had extinguished my hope. In that moment the belief that all was lost was replaced with a promise for the future. In that breath my faith was set in concrete and my doubt was destroyed. Without any knowledge that just hours before I had uttered those exact words, Valerie spoke Truth to my shattered heart. As tears soaked my face, I soaked in the certainty that I would see my brother again and that I would one day be an active and healthy mother to my son. Valerie continued, “Burt and The Lord want you to know that this is just for now. It is not forever. This trial will equip you to be there for others in a way that you would not have been able to without this experience. The Lord is preparing you to be a witness for others…to give hope to others. This is just for now. It is not forever.” She then asked me a question I never would’ve considered. She asked if I had believed the lies of hopelessness…if I had let the spirit of suicide into my thoughts. When I confirmed that I had been consumed by fear and despair she offered me the chance to repent. I had never before thought of the need to repent, but I realized then that I had spent months choosing to believe words from the enemy instead of the promises from My Father. Valerie lead me through a prayer asking for His forgiveness and for His strength and grace to keep my eyes on Him no matter how long my pain lingered. We prayed that I would never again enter that place of desolation and that He would make his plan for my life come alive.

I need to be clear that this supernatural experience didn’t come with physical healing. My pain did not go away. I did not start taking care of my son. I did not go back to work. This was a mental, spiritual, and emotional healing that could be physically felt by those around me. My mom later shared that after my massage she felt a dark cloud lift from our home. My husband agreed that he felt a peace in me he hadn’t had a glimpse of in months. I was a new woman inside. I had a gripping faith. My heart and mind were filled with radiant hope. I had experienced the Lord in a way I never had before and I knew I would one day be whole again. I knew my brother was with our Lord and that he was with me…with us and that one day I would see him, laugh with him, embrace him again.

Shortly after this life-changing event I shared my story with a dear friend. We both cried as I recounted the supernatural change that had taken place in me and then she told me something that made my encounter with The Lord even more genuine and powerful. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had been at my parent’s house the night my brother prayed over me. She had stopped by to drop off groceries and was told I was in my parent’s room laying down. I recalled someone had been holding my hand while my brother prayed and at the time I assumed it was my mother. My friend shared with me that when she walked into the room there was a wall of suffocating darkness and that it felt like she had walked into my funeral. She said the oppression was palpable and in that moment she knew I was fighting a spiritual battle as well as a physical one. When she left the house she told her husband, “we have to pray for Renee’. She is in a fight for her life.” That night, my friend sensed the destruction I was succumbing to. She had a glimpse of my desire to give up. As she told me her experience I was overcome with awe at the realization that her visit that night and the desperate prayers that followed were a spiritual intervention that literally lifted me from the cold shadows my heart and mind had staggered through for months. It was the very next day that my life was changed forever and I was saved from fear, wariness, and death. When I didn’t have the fortitude to pray there were so many others interceding for me and I will always be grateful for their faithfulness because it was their belief that saved me from my disbelief. It was their conviction that lifted me up to meet and know my God and Savior in a way that transformed me from the inside out.

Even with my heart and soul altered forever I was still living with constant pain and In mid-February, I received a dreaded call from my employer telling me that if I didn’t return to work in 1 week then my job would no longer be protected. As I heard those words from HR, I had 2 thoughts: “This is it, the life I’ve known is over” and then, “Renee’, this is it, God has a plan for your life and you are not in control.” I don’t memorize Bible verses, but my massage therapist later quoted Jeremiah 29:11, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that verse came alive for me and was branded on my soul the split second I heard that I was days away from losing my job. I finally embraced the realization that if I could will myself well it would’ve happened months ago. I acknowledged that I was not in control of what life doled out, but that I could choose how I reacted to the hand I was dealt. I had a choice…I could crumble, lose all hope once again, and accept that the life I dreamed of was over, or I could let it all go, step away from the helm and TRUST that God had a plan for my life and that His plan is always good. Again I felt that supernatural peace and strength wash over me. I realized during that phone call that I truly had no authority over how my life would proceed, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was surrounded by love, and that no matter what happened to my health or my job, The Lord had a plan and he would give me the strength and grace to see that plan through. I felt this truth (Jeremiah 29:11) in my inner core…a truth that gave me a peace so real that I can only describe it as being from God. I spent the rest of the day struggling with how I would tell my husband that I would most likely be unemployed soon, but when I finally gained the courage to say the words out loud, he also sensed that same inexplicable, “crazy” peace. We just KNEW that we KNEW that we would be okay. My husband and I decided that I would attempt to go back to work the following week and we remained prepared to accept that this probably would not be a successful endeavor. The day before my return was like every other day had been. I had the same level of pain and found it difficult to imagine that the next day of waking up early, getting ready, driving myself into work and starting a brand new job would be any degree of manageable. The night before, I took my regular handful of sedating drugs and my nightly bath, but then something different happened. I went to bed with more peace than I had felt in 5 months. As I fell asleep I said a prayer of gratitude. I was thankful that I no longer felt the urge to control what happened to me and that I could unreservedly rest in The Lord and His plans for my life. I could see that He had used my brokenness for something good. He had used this chapter in my life to deliver me from the prison of worry and fear. Releasing apprehension and anxiety from my daily routine was a freedom I had never had in my life. Roman 5:3-4 says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” I was nowhere near rejoicing, but I could finally see how He was using this time in my life to transform me, and I could finally lean into my faith with confidence, because He had made himself so real to me through this trial. The weight of worry had been lifted and I felt lighter.

When I woke up the next morning I was pain free for the first time in 159 days!

I arrived at my new job and although the familiar pain visited me throughout the day, it never came close to what I had withstood day in and day out for 5 months. February 28th, 2014 was the day I finally saw a glimpse of the goodness God had in store for me and I believed God wasn’t just going to give me the strength to live through the pain…He was going to see me through to the other side, and all the while I would be made stronger through the journey. On my way home that day I called the same friend who had been my prayer warrior for so many months and I cried as soon as I heard her voice. I was so overwhelmed with disbelief that I could barely get the words out, “it’s a miracle! There’s no other way to explain it. It’s a miracle! My pain level is manageable! I’m going to be ok! I worked….I can’t believe it…I worked! God is so faithful!” It had been so long since I had been capable of functioning at this level, that I couldn’t stop repeating, “I can’t believe this!” When I walked through my parent’s front door I saw them standing in the foyer anxiously waiting for me to return. I don’t think I was able to get a word out before we were tightly holding onto each other. I realize now that they were there because they knew I would either be ready to celebrate or in urgent need of comforting. I was finally able to tell my parents that I had turned a corner and that one day I would be myself again. The gratefulness, relief and joy we all felt stunned us into silence. The following 7-8 months, I continued to have significant daily pain, but NEVER resembling those previous distressing months. I continued with medications that made me feel terrible and injections in my head to help control the pain, but none of that weighed me down because I was ecstatic to be living again and to be walking with The Lord. We moved back home and began to see our little family develop the way we had always envisioned. I felt nothing but gratitude on the days I would work long hours and then arrive home to take care of my son, because this was far more life than I thought I would ever be capable of living. Even with chronic pain, I was finally in a place where I could be a mother, I could spend time with my family and friends, I could work again!

 

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Home from work and enjoying time with my son!

With several years passing it has become easier to forget how far I’ve come and how much has changed. I must remember what I’ve survived. In 2017 and for every year hereafter, it is my desire to use these lessons in life to shift my perspective to what really matters and avoid complaining about the things that don’t. I also want to use these lessons to remain mindful of the many priceless yet mundane experiences that make up this crazy life. I want to BE PRESENT. I must always remember that right here, right now is precious and beautiful and should never be taken for granted. And, when dark times visit again (which they most certainly will in this damaged world), I must remember that no matter how torn I feel or how dark the clouds around me, The Lord has a plan for my life and it is always good. I am thankful for a testimony I can share with passion and authenticity!

View More: http://sonshinegirlsphotography.pass.us/baby-sonoma

It is amazing how much can change in 3 years. God has blessed me with this beautiful family and I am forever grateful for His goodness!

Packing Light

I had recently escaped a job that felt like a 1-year marathon. I crossed the finish line thirsty for a healthy environment, hungry for a boss with no relation to Satan, and pissing myself from relief that I was finally done! I was fortunate to be moving on to my first Supervisory position, and I was determined to make a good impression and lock in a positive reputation from the very beginning. With that being said, I was thrilled when the department’s VP gave me the chance to travel out-of-town (with my husband) to attend a formal dinner alongside senior leadership. This was a rare opportunity for exposure to a group of people I wouldn’t otherwise interact with, and I certainly wanted to make it count!

The day of the dinner, my husband and I did some sight-seeing, and then realizing he didn’t pack his tie, we swung by Target and bought him a new one. After a relaxing day, we returned to the hotel, and I started to primp and prep for the important night ahead. An hour before we had to leave I began encouraging (otherwise known as nagging) my husband to get ready. He was adamant that as a man he could be ready in a measly 15 minutes. Once the show he was watching (about surround-sound systems, or 4-wheeling, or Italian cars, or Grateful Dead, or sex, or all of the above) had ended, he finally made his way into the shower. As he shaved, I filled him in on the people who would be at the event and what positions they held. We were hard-core “first impression” prepping. Then, 5 minutes before we had to leave, my dear, intelligent, capable husband turned to me and said,

Where are my pants?”

I remember thinking…”please be referring to your underwear. We can do commando and have a great story to tell later. You’ll shake hands with important people while experiencing total floppy freedom…it will be liberating.” But, no…he meant the pants that you wear over your underwear. Pants are such a given requirement that even the signs about “No service” only mention shoes and shirts.

I will whole heartedly admit that I went into full crazy-wife freak out mode with thoughts of homicide and divorce in no particular order. I was halfway through painting my toenails, but didn’t have time to finish as we sprinted to the car and map-quested the nearest Target. (Side note: I am a social worker and my husband is a therapist, so we did not map-quest Nordstrom). We had 15 minutes to buy my husband a pair of pants and get to the resort for dinner. At Target, my husband bought a sturdy pair of black, stain-resistant, 100% cotton, Cherokee pants that paired with his silk Calvin Klein jacket and shiny Calvin Klein shoes in that classic beatnik (I don’t care what you think of me) way we were both hoping for. While he drove like a bat out of hell, I tried to keep my shaking hands from strangling him and attempted to finish embellishing my toes. While parked in the car, my husband threw his seat back and put on his brand new Cherokees that were a charming inch and a half too short. We half-walked, half ran into the resort’s lobby while I imagined how we might sneak in 20 minutes late without being noticed, and how we could sell our disheveled look as the new modern Zoolander “Derelict” fashion trend. As we hurried towards the conference room I heard someone yell out my name. We turned around to find my Vice President leisurely sipping a drink at the bar. When we joined him, he explained that the time on the invitation was incorrect and that the dinner didn’t actually start for another 40 minutes.

We were 40 minutes early!

We were 40 minutes early, yet my toes looked like a 2-year-old had caught me sock-less in my sleep and my husband was dressed like he stole pants from a 16-year-old Boston Market employee. Thank God I already HAD this job!

The next day, my husband (who spends $300-$500 on new speakers every 3 days) returned the tie and pants for a whopping $22 refund. He is now convinced that there is no need to pack for trips because he can buy what he needs once he gets there and return it when he’s done.

I can honestly say (and maybe you know someone like this too), that my husband is the luckiest person I know. He can make the biggest bonehead mistakes and it literally always works out for him. If the tables were turned and I had forgotten my dress, I can guarantee you that Target would’ve been out of all sizes except XS, my boss would’ve caught me changing in the car, one of my heels would’ve snapped off as we hurried through the parking lot, and when we arrived at the resort we would’ve been informed that the dinner was actually the night before. My husband’s good fortune in these circumstances is the reason I haven’t throttled him yet. However, everyone’s luck runs out eventually, so in the interim I’m working on increasing my hand strength…preparation is key.

Marriage has taught me that many of the moments we feel disappointed or frustrated with our significant other can instead be perceived as adventures….pant-less adventures. When I look back on that night I realize that it was always going to be a funny story…even if we had ended up being late. Maybe the hiccups in life are meant for us to hold our breath till they pass, and enjoy a good laugh afterwards!

The Importance of Being Ourselves

Have you ever admired someone so much that you trip over your words, behave in strange ways, and ultimately embarrass yourself while trying to be the person you THINK they want you to be? Have you ever looked up to someone with such reverence that you actually avoided being around them because you were afraid you might make a bad impression? Maybe you’ve tried too hard and walked away feeling inauthentic and even silly? If not, how lovely for you! 🙂 If so, then I want to tell you that you’re not alone and I want to encourage us all to be true to who we are regardless of our proximity to those we’ve placed on a pedestal.

My neurologist is a brilliant and lovely woman in her 30’s. Being her patient has me believing that I still have the opportunity to make something of myself, and that if I spend enough time with her I will acquire some of her success through osmosis. Early on in my treatment I was confident that one day we would tour the nation sharing her knowledge and my story while dramatically changing lives. (In an effort to be completely transparent about the level of my delusional day-dreaming, I must admit that I also believe if I ever met Steve Nash, Jewel, Brene’ Brown, or Jen Hatmaker, we would be BFFs).

Shortly after my future touring partner had her first baby, I went in for a quarterly appointment and had a bit of a cough. I spent the entire appointment feeling guilty that I was exposing her to my cold. I worried that my germs would be carried home to her newborn, and that in turn, the rapport we needed to establish prior to traveling the country with our transformative message would be hindered. The appointment was brief, and as she walked me out and shook my hand, I left her with this sound advice, “make sure you wash your hands!” Like a Jewish mother frantically calling her adult son on a Saturday afternoon insisting that he floss immediately because gum disease runs in the family or a Christian father telling his 30-something divorced daughter that no man will buy the cow if he can get the milk for free, I unnecessarily and unabashedly advised my doctor to wash her hands!

Whatever would she do without me and my sageness?

I was so embarrassed by my unnecessary counsel that at the next appointment (weeks later) I brought up the exchange and apologized for being thoughtlessly overbearing. Then, with all the accountability I could muster, I blamed my bossiness on my childhood. I explained, (in my defense) that I was the only girl of 4 children, and with 2 brothers 11 and 13 years older than me, I grew up with a lot of disciplinarians at home. Consequently, I turned to “leading” (or what others might unkindly and more accurately call bossing) the neighborhood kids. I’m told that I would direct everyone to sit in a line and then proceed to “teach” them. I can only imagine that these lessons included tips on how to avoid spankings, how to secretly feed your vegetables to the dog, and what to do when your parents threaten to “pull over the car!” After my sincere apology and lengthy justification, she assured me that she didn’t think a thing of it. Of course I knew the truth…I was convinced she had gone home that night and laughed with her husband about her “astute” patient who brilliantly encouraged her to wash her hands. I imagine their conversation snowballed into, “What would I have done without her keen instruction? I bet she counsels her pastor to pray, directs her therapist to meditate, and cautions her personal trainer to stay hydrated!”

As I received my treatment, I thought long and hard about how I could make light of our last encounter and “totally redeem myself!” This time, as my lovely doctor walked me out and shook my hand, I let my wit loose on her and said in what I think might’ve been an overly sultry voice, “and you can do whatever you want with your hands.”

In an effort to vindicate myself, I managed to unintentionally hit on my neurologist. Who does that!? Well….I do, obviously!

This is a light-hearted example, but what I’ve learned is that it rarely plays out well when we try to live up to the self-inflicted pressures of fitting in, impressing others, or trying to belong. We can avoid a lot of discomfort by resting in who we are and loving who we were made to be. As I allow myself to be the quirky, “helpful,” and sometimes sultry (ha) person that I am, I will build a community with people who appreciate those traits and allow me to lean in while fully belonging.

You are uniquely made and made to be you. You will experience true fellowship when you stop striving and start being. The impression you leave with your authentic self is so much more beautiful than the image you create when trying to impress.

Be you! You are enough!