Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lead, Kindly Light (Feast Day of John Henry Newman)

It's the feast day of John Henry Newman, and I found myself thinking again of the first stanza of his poem/hymn:

"LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me."

And then I read the next couple of lines, and got zinged with their truthfulness:

"I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!"

Wow. "I loved to choose and see my path." Yes, I think most of us do. But sometimes the path isn't entirely clear, is it? And yet we're still called to follow, trusting God with each single step -- "I do not ask to see/The distant scene -- one step enough for me."

This all feels especially pertinent on the heels of yesterday's appointment, where one of the best things dear Dr. P said to me, as he squeezed my hand, was "hang in there...and take it one step at a time." I love my medical team. They were with me yesterday during laughter, tears, and questions. And oh, there were so many questions.

For now, I am off the chemo trial, disqualified because of the new lesions in my brain. But Dr. P is making a persuasive case to try to get me back on, once I get through the radiation and Lord willing, the tumors will be gone. And if not, he has a back up plan -- is already applying for another med. It amazes me how many steps he stays ahead of me, even when my mind is whirring and whirling with thoughts and questions and I am thinking through things with my dear husband and sisters and others as I try to edge my way tentatively forward.

Lead, Kindly Light....lead Dr. P and J and D and Dr. A and Dr B (no kidding!) and my entire medical team. Lead, Kindly Light...lead pastors, mentors, teachers, intercessors, friends, as they pray and help me so much. Lead, Kindly Light...lead me, as I step into the unknown and feel unsure of what direction to go or how. One step enough for me. "Step by step you'll lead me...and I will follow you all of my days." 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Remembering and Waiting

From my morning meditations, unfiltered and honest...
 


From Psalm 106:
9 He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up, *
and he led them through the deep as through a desert.

10 He saved them from the hand of those who hated them *
and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.

11 The waters covered their oppressors; *
not one of them was left.

12 Then they believed his words *
and sang him songs of praise.

13 But they soon forgot his deeds *
and did not wait for his counsel.

Lord, help us not to forget who you are. Why is it so easy to forget? It’s like sin gives us amnesia. It’s easy for us to remember you in the good times. When we are near the good times, near the times when it’s absolutely and without a doubt clear that you have delivered us and given us what we most needed, we are in awe. We praise you! We’re amazed! 

And then we wander off on our own again, safe and secure in your love, and we start to forget. We forget how good you’ve been to us. We forget you were the one who delivered us. Sometimes (on our worst days) I think we even forget how much we needed deliverance. 

How do we do this? We forget your deeds. We don’t wait for your counsel. That’s what the psalmist tells us.

So today, Lord, I ask you – not only for deliverance, though I do indeed ask for that, for I do indeed need it – deliver me, oh Lord, from the hand of the enemy, from the cancer cells which continue to assault my body. But I also ask that in this time when I am still frightened, still pursued by the enemy, totally trusting in you for victory, you will seal that closeness I feel to you and keep that intimacy in the forefront of my heart and mind. In the day of deliverance – total, big deliverance, or small, partial deliverance, either one – do not let me forget that it’s you who has done it. In fact, do not let me forget that there has been plenty of deliverance already, and that I need to keep reminding myself of that again and again. 

Help me to recount your deeds. Let me start now. For my salvation, dear God, I thank you. Let me start there, with the amazing deliverance of my life through the precious blood of your Son, and through the power of his resurrected life. And with countless times of deliverance over the years, again both big and small. Deliverance from evil, deliverance from evil getting a foothold in my life when I sometimes acted selfishly or foolishly. And then on to the amazing deliverance of my physical life in the past year as you’ve halted the cancer in some places already, and provided me with doctors, nurses, intercessors, family, who have kept me going. Quite literally.

And help me to wait for your counsel. Oh God, this is hard. So, very very hard. I want to run ahead. I want certainty NOW. I want to know what you are going to do and how you are going to do it and when. I want words of life spoken over me and into me and I want to be sure I have heard them. And those aren’t all bad things, I don’t mean that. But they are not good when they compel me to run ahead of what you’ve given me, or to imagine I am hearing things when I’m not, or to mistake another's voice for yours. Or if I get stuck in impatience and anger or tempted to not hold onto your goodness because I am not hearing what I want to hear when I want to hear it. I need to wait for YOUR COUNSEL. Not the world’s counsel, even though it sometimes sounds pretty good. And sometimes you speak through the many good things and people in your world -- that is part of how you get my attention. But I need discernment. I need your words, your wisdom, your guidance. I need to trust that you’re not going to let me carry too much too soon if I’m not ready to hear it and understand it. (Thank you for that reminder from The Hiding Place.) I need to remember that you are not going to tell me what I don’t need to know, and that in your goodness and wisdom, you truly do know what I need to know and when. Give me ears to hear you, Lord, and help me to wait for your word. 

Give me those ears today as I head back to Hillman to consult with my doctors on the next steps of my healing journey. Everything feels muddled and in a mess after the news I heard Friday; everything is up in the air. But I know, Lord, that you are in charge, and that you reign from the throne room in the great hall of my heart. And I know that even if I feel oppressed and on the run, you are the deliverer. You've done it before, you can do it again. And however you choose to deliver me, in whatever way, will be right and good and in the timing you ordain. Amen. 


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cooking When You Can't Taste

I woke up this morning hungry. That's probably a good thing, given that I don't think I ate again after about 2:30 pm yesterday. My digestive and taste issues continue in various ways, even after being off my chemo trial for eight days (almost half-way through the official break period).

I decided to make a smoothie for breakfast and mentally took stock of my grocery supplies, since I've been stocking up on more gluten free and dairy free options. I've not been sticking to either of the "free" paths completely, but I'm leaning hard in their directions.

I knew I had coconut milk, bananas, and frozen fruit, so I decided to go in that direction. A lot of recipes that call for bananas in smoothies specify frozen ones, and I do sometimes freeze bananas (especially if they're starting get overripe and I don't have time or energy to bake). In fact, I've done this for years. But I've always preferred the taste of fresh bananas to frozen ones honestly, and right now I find chopping anything frozen difficult with my neuropathy affected hands. So I went for fresh banana and some ice cubes.

My concession to "not quite dairy free" came in the form of greek yogurt, because I was hoping for a protein kick. Unfortunately, my plain greek yogurt had a definite very sour smell, which made me think it had started to go bad. Maybe not, but I'm highly sensitive right now to smells and tastes, and I knew if it had even started down that road, it wouldn't be good for either my extra bitter taste buds or my wonky digestive system. So I perused the stuff in the side of the fridge that my husband had bought for his lunches, knowing he wouldn't mind if I picked out a flavored yogurt. I found a dark cherry one, which seemed kind of perfect because I'd already picked frozen dark cherries as my complementary fruit to the banana.

Of course, the flavored greek yogurt had sugar, which mean I wouldn't be entirely sugar free -- something I thought I would do initially by sweetening with stevia or honey. Bur I would only throw in a couple of spoonfuls of the yogurt, so the sugar content wouldn't be much. I decided not to add any other sweetener just in case it was too much.

Was it? Is it? I have no idea. After eyeballing the ingredients (I was only making this for myself, so I didn't bother measuring) I put it all together, blended on low for a few pulses, and poured it out. Years of smoothie making meant I could tell the proportions were good because the texture seemed perfect. So I took a swig...and...I still don't know if it's any good, because my taste right now is so altered.

It must have been at least a little sweet, because right now only really sweet things can get through the terribly bitter filter that my mouth and throat have set up in part because they are dry as the Sahara (and yes, I have been trying many dry mouth remedies). This tasted somewhat bitter, but not hugely, as in "I feel like I'm drinking cough syrup" bitter, like a lot of things do right now (including pure water sometimes). The texture was lovely -- I think the coconut milk must have been pretty creamy, and the ice was broken down nicely as were the cherries. It smelled good. If there was a sour note, and it's incredibly hard for me to tell, I think it came from the yogurt. I think next time I might skip the yogurt entirely and either just add some sweetener and not worry about the protein, or I might throw in a bit of vanilla protein shake stuff I still I have (assuming it's still good...it was mix I used during my chemo about a year ago, so I'd better check it).

Can you tell I am frustrated? I am. No beautiful post today, I'm afraid, simply a frustrated one. I can express gratefulness that I know this smoothie had good things in it and will probably stay in me, or so I hope. But it's so difficult right now to make anything food-wise, for myself or my family, when I can't taste anything accurately. When I cook for D and S, which I've been trying to do at least a couple of times per week, though my energy is not good in the late afternoon and early evening, I've been sticking to recipes I've done a lot before and hoping that the old measurements I wrote down for spices and seasonings were the ones I used to really use. The other night I made them flounder fillets, one of our family's favorite fish dishes, and by the time I got to making my oil, lemon, pepper, and garlic mix to spread on top, I was beginning to deal with nausea. I stuck to the old proportions. Was it good? I asked them later, and they told me it was, so that was good to know. I feel like I should start putting asterisks on recipes whose ingredients list I can trust to get the job done even though the cook no longer has the ability to tell whether or not something is flavored well.

In a week when I am dealing, for the first time in my life, with diminished eyesight (yet another side effect of the drug, and one we don't yet know if it is temporary or permanent) I am missing my taste buds a lot. They've been altered now for about two months, in ways that feel similar though also different to the ways they altered the last time I was in chemo. The difference here may be that it's possible I could be settling into this oral treatment for long-term, hence all the things I'm doing to try to get my body to tolerate it, although it has had a slew of side effects. I felt really hopeful when they first went over the list of effects because I didn't think I would have many (they have to list all the possibilities, after all) and because I knew this was a different kind of medicine that would target the mutation specifically and not blast all cells, regardless of whether or not they were healthy. But it turns out that I've run into quite a lot of the effects, and they are making it hard for me to enjoy a lot of the things I really do enjoy, including cooking, eating, and yes, even reading. But I'll save that one for another post. These effects could be here to stay, if I stay on the drug long-term. And even taking a break from it has not really afforded me complete relief, though at least the digestive issues have lessened in their intensity.

Right now I will continue to sip my smoothie, trying to imagine its flavors, and continue to feel grateful, a bit retroactively, for all the years I took my taste buds for granted.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The Gift of Memory

This morning I woke up feeling grateful for the gift of memory. I think my gratitude is at least two-fold.

On the personal side, there is my utter gladness that my brain surgery last October was successful. I'm not sure there has been a more frightening moment in my healing journey so far than the moment I first learned that the cancer had reached my brain. The struggles I'd been having to find the right word suddenly loomed crystal clear.

It turned out that the tumor that the neuro-surgeon could, thank the Lord, fully remove, was located near my brain's memory center. When I think how close disease came to trying to take the gifts of language and memory, it still can make me catch my breath. Thank you, God, that these gifts are still with me. Help me to treasure them every day and not take them for granted.

On the more communal side, I've been thinking a lot lately about how important memory is to a community or culture. One of the things I think we are seeing in our broken, angry, and anxiety- ridden national culture right now is a lack of appreciation for memory. We either truly forget, or sometimes choose to forget, the very ideals and experiences that have formed us as a culture and a people. Because of that, we sometimes find ourselves making the same mistakes our forbears did (and then some). I think we would often rather forge ahead as innovators, pretending that what we do is the best thing possible and conveniently forgetting that we stand on the shoulders of others who helped to get us where we are, forgetting too the mistakes we've made in the past as well as the good things we've accomplished when we've managed to get our priorities in order. Our lack of compassion for those who are hurting and displaced and our lack of compassion for each others' woundedness seem linked, I think, to the fact that we forget who we are and who we are called to be. "To whom much has been given, much will be required" is something our power-hungry, resource-rich culture seems to have forgotten.

Of course, we're not the only community of people who have ever forgotten our past. In the Scriptures, time and time again, we see the people of God forgetting who they are and whose they are. They forget God's deliverance; they forget they once were slaves; they forget who they were called to be. And so they stumble in the wilderness and lose their way, falling into the trap of idolatry and becoming what the cultures around them want them to become instead of keeping their eyes on God and his bigger, fuller vision for them.

That narrative continues in the New Testament too. In my morning readings, in Mark 8, I see how Jesus tries to prod his disciples' memories so that they can manage to keep their eyes on him instead of on the anxieties produced by their seeming lack. They are worried because they don't have enough bread to eat that day, and he has to remind them that, only recently, he provided bread for thousands when there was hardly any bread at all. In fact, he'd done it twice, and he patiently prods them to remember both instances and how many leftovers they had counted when he was done providing for the crowds in the name and the power of the Father.

When Jesus did this, he seemed to be reminding them, not only that he himself was the bread of life and that they could count on him to provide for their needs (and in abundance!) but that life isn't always just about our concerns for what we put into our bodies, as important as they may be, but what we allow into our hearts, minds, and souls. Part of the reason the disciples started fussing about bread in the first place was because they heard Jesus warn them about the leaven (yeast) of the Pharisees and Herodians. He wasn't talking about actual yeast; he was using a metaphor to describe the fast-spreading, fast-acting poisonous ideas floating around them. He didn't want them to give into the definitions of the surrounding culture and how that culture would try to tell them to live. He wanted them to remember who they were and whose they were.

Isn't this why we remember Jesus' life and death every time we go to the communion table? We re-enter the story of who he is and what he did for us in part so we can stay on the path to which he has called us, our eyes firmly fixed on him, the author and finisher of our faith. When we remember who he is and what he is done, we remember too who we are and what we are called to do as we follow in his footsteps as closely as possible. Right now it seems to me that the church is often forgetting that we are primarily citizens of God's kingdom (which beats our allegiance to any earthly realm) and that we are called to be salt and light to the nations. 

These are important things for me to remember right now, especially as I spend a lot of time feeling isolated and frustrated and tired. As I spend more and more time focused on what my body needs (medicines, doctor visits, fluids, special foods, treatment options) and as my body continues to grow more tired and more strange to me as it changes and goes through my ongoing struggle against disease, I am sometimes tempted by the enemy to think all these external changes means there have been internal changes. But I am still who I am, regardless of how I look and feel on the outside. I am still God's beloved daughter, called by him to be and do what he wants me to be and do, called to keep my eyes firmly fixed on Jesus as I walk the road he's asked me to walk. I am called to remember who he is and what he has done.

Memory matters. It matters so much that I think I am about to embark on a couple of memorization projects this month, words I can fix in my mind and meditate on. I'm going to start easily with a short passage of Scripture and also a short poem.  After thinking a while this morning, I decided that I am going to memorize John 14:1-3 (in the ESV translation). I also plan to memorize the poem "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry. In all honesty, I have read both of these so many times for so many years that I have big parts of them well memorized already, but this month I am going to try to focus on them by writing them, reading them, and reciting them often so I can commit them to memory even better.

Want to join me? You can pick your own passages, of course.  Memory is a gift, and remembering who we are and whose we are is one way to keep our equilibrium and our peace in difficult times. And to stay on the path of life, our eyes fixed on the God who made us, loves us, and sustains us, fully committed to doing what we're called to do.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Psalmists' Prayers and Disciples' Confessions



My morning meditation...in all its honesty and messiness.
January 18, 2017 (Confession of St. Peter)

From Psalm 38:

3 There is no health in my flesh,
because of your indignation; *
there is no soundness in my body, because of my sin.

It’s hard to read Psalm 38 when you’re really sick. I read this Psalm and others like it a lot differently than I used to, because I now relate to phrases like “there is no health in my flesh.” I know that sometimes someone can be sick because of their sin (I am thinking here of behavior that someone might participate in that can lead directly to sickness, or over a long period of time, or something someone does that leads them into a dangerous situation in which they are injured or left vulnerable to sickness) but I also sometimes wonder if the psalmist is making an incorrect assumption here that sin is the reason behind why he is ill. 

I say that, not to tiptoe gingerly around the Scriptures, but for a couple of reasons. One is that we have other Scriptures in the New Testament that would seem to indicate that Jesus himself did not believe that sin leads to sickness was the only conclusion we should jump to. Remember the disciples asking him “who sinned, this man or his parents?” when they were confronted with the blind man? And Jesus told them that that was simply not the reason the man was born blind (I realize that’s a birth defect and not an “illness” per se, but I think the theological reasoning holds). The man was born blind in order that his healing could bring God glory. 

So I find myself wondering if the psalmist is not jumping to a bumbling, false-guilt sort of assumption, the way the disciples were prone to do. One reason I love God’s word so much is that there are parts in it that I think are there, not just to show us Jesus, but to give us a peek into how we goof it up sometimes. There are other moments in the Psalms, for instance, when the one praying is talking about wreaking vengeance (which we know belongs only to God) and wanting to bash people’s heads in and banish the name of his enemy off the face of the planet, etc., which we know are not Godly choices. But I think the Lord lets them stand in the prayer book contained within his word because they are authentic, human feelings and emotions that need to be prayed through sometimes and placed at his feet. And the Psalms give us that model. Not everything in the Psalms, that is, is necessarily God’s perspective on a situation. They are honest cries that come from the lips of those who suffer or who are angry. Those praying the words can’t always see the forest for the trees. They feel trapped and caught and frustrated. They bring all this to God and he transforms it…something, by the way, that we see even here in Psalm 38, when the Psalmist is so sure that he is sick by reason of his own foolishness and sin…

4 For my iniquities overwhelm me; *
like a heavy burden they are too much for me to bear.

5 My wounds stink and fester *
by reason of my foolishness.
14 I have become like one who does not hear *
and from whose mouth comes no defense.

15 For in you, O Lord, have I fixed my hope; *
you will answer me, O Lord my God.
17 Truly, I am on the verge of falling, *
and my pain is always with me.

18 I will confess my iniquity *
and be sorry for my sin.

I love the way this Psalm turns because we see that even in the midst of his guilt – and perhaps, as I said, he is praying honestly, and somehow does know that his pain is directly connected to his iniquity – the psalmist turns to God. He fixes his hope in God. He trusts him. He tells him exactly how he is feeling and what he is worried about. And he confesses his sin, trusting in the Lord’s forgiveness.

I confess I do struggle sometimes, even knowing that my doctors have told me that there is no evidence that anything I did brought on this cancer (I never smoked, for instance) – that it is, in fact, a rare and strange series of mutations – I still struggle. I think that perhaps it was stuff I ate over a long period of time, or not taking my health seriously enough or exercising the way I should. But most of the time, I find myself more in the place of the blind man I talked about above. I wonder if God did not allow this sickness to happen (I do not believe he purposefully gave it to me, but I do sense he allowed it) in order to bring him glory. In order to do something in my life that otherwise he couldn’t have done, to bring me into deeper intimacy with him, and to let me walk the road of suffering in ways that help others and bring them into deeper intimacy with Jesus too.
Lots of wrestling here, with just a few verses this morning, but there is a lot going on in my heart and mind. 

And I do feel grateful for the honest prayers of the Psalmist and the bumbling, stumbling, sometimes rather dense disciples and their place in God’s story, which helps me to find mine.

And speaking of stumbling disciples…how I love that today we celebrate Peter’s confession! It is a wonderful confession from a man who dearly loved Jesus and who was prone to blurt out the first thing that came into his heart and mind. Sometimes that means he really goofed it up. But sometimes…oh sometimes! He just hit it out of the park. I have a feeling Peter made Jesus smile (and occasionally inwardly groan as well as outwardly rebuke!) and this must have been one of those joy filled moments for our Lord, when he saw that Peter truly GOT IT. Peter understood, deep down, who Jesus was. Which means he was on the path to true life and peace, rooted in reality and ready to become a vessel for Jesus’ love to pour into and spill out over the world. What a wonderful place to be and stand. This reminds me too of Martha’s confession, another wonderful one we hear in the gospels. Neither Peter nor Martha got everything right, as the stories about them show us. But when it came down to the most important thing, they certainly did. They looked into Jesus’ eyes and they saw their Lord, their Savior, the Son of God, the resurrection and the life, the perfect imprint of the Father. Oh Lord, give us eyes like their eyes, I pray. Amen.