Archive for the ‘Brokenness’ Category

This Brain of Mine

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I had some concerning dizzy spells pop up in December. These persisted for weeks and weeks. The dizziness was so persistent and intense that I stopped driving for a couple of months just to be on the safe side. I went to various doctors and had lots of tests to try to find out what was going on. We finally got to the bottom of it, but December through February were difficult months with all of the dizziness, doctors, and medical appointments.

It was difficult to know what was going on and whether the dizzy spells were anything truly worrisome or just one of the non-life-threatening quirks of being me. Considering my infertility saga, my ongoing issues with depression and anxiety, and my IBS, I seem to have a lot of non-life-threatening quirks of being me.

I’ve had dizzy spells like this in the past and I’ve seen doctors about them in the past and never really got answers about why I was having dizzy spells. All the obvious causes were ruled out. I was healthy–wasn’t that great?! But it’s frustrating to be told that my tests are “normal,” when the dizziness in my head has me feeling really off-kilter. I don’t consider “off-kilter” to be a normally functioning state.

Nobody ever said it, but whenever I got my dizziness checked out in the past, I always felt like the implication of the “normal” test results was, “it’s all in your head.”

In time the dizziness would pass on its own and I would go back to normal functioning, not really clear about how or why I got back there, but grateful that the dizziness was gone. Life would go on for weeks or months at a time before another dizzy spell would come on.

Sometimes the spells would come just once and then be gone and that would be the end of it. Other times, the dizziness would come in spell after spell, over and over, multiple times a day, for days at a time. These times were more rare, but always got my attention in a way that forced my hand to seek medical attention whether I wanted to or not.

It was one of those spell-after-spell, day-after-day times that crept up back in December. I felt this dizzy offensive provoking me to go to my doctor but I resisted it ever as hard as I could. I did not want to go through one more round of tests that would all come back normal. I knew the message I would hear was that this was all in my head.

But, I tell you, there is something wonderful about community, about family, about my dear husband, in particular. He saw the way I was suffering from my dizziness, the way I was barely making it through each day, and he urged me to get it checked out. So I did.

I started with our family medical practice and right away something felt different about the care I was getting. After describing some of my symptoms, I asked the doctor, “Does that make sense?”

“Anything you say makes sense,” he replied. “It doesn’t fit what I know to diagnose, but anything you say makes sense.”

To me, him saying, “Anything you say makes sense,” were the most important words of the entire appointment. It was as if he said to me, “I believe you. What you’re experiencing is real. It’s not just in your head.” Well, that’s what I heard anyway. Those words encouraged me to persevere from there to the Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist (ENT) to which I was referred.

The ENT I saw was also very supportive and encouraging and gave me that same, “I believe you” vibe. I was so very grateful for his approach. He ordered some tests. Those turned out to be normal except for one having to do with my balance system. Nonetheless, the ENT felt strongly that my symptoms indicated a neurological cause, so he referred me to a neurologist.

That’s when things got serious. I mean, I thought I might have an inner ear problem, and now all of a suddenly, we’re talking about my brain!

A lot of doctors will tell you to stay away from the internet. “Don’t google your symptoms,” they say. And I know a lot of folks freak out when they read about diseases on the internet because they imagine the worst.

But I’m not one of those people. The internet is my friend and it’s a very helpful and informative friend at that. I read medical articles with a grain of salt and only look at trusted medical websites.

Reading about symptoms and causes helps me get a better understanding of what I might and might not be dealing with; this gives me peace and helps me take charge of my health instead of just waiting around for my next appointment. So I was thrilled when my ENT offered a couple of possible neurological causes of dizziness and suggested I look them up online.

There are a lot of neurological causes of dizziness. Some of them are pretty serious, even life-threatening. It was good to know about these–even the life-threatening ones. Quickly I realized that a lot of the worst neurological causes of dizziness didn’t fit my symptoms, so that was a relief.

Still, my dizziness remained a bit of a mystery to me.

When I saw the neurologist the first time she keyed in on some really obvious things about my health situation:

  1. I wasn’t getting enough sleep.
  2. I was way over-caffeinated.
  3. I had a history of migraines–since I was 8 years old.

“You’re a migraine sufferer,” she said. “You’ve had migraines since you were…” she looked at my chart, “8 years old,” she looked up and held eye contact with me.

“This is a hand you’ve been dealt in life,” she laid one hand inside the other as if holding a poker hand. “As a migraine sufferer your body is very sensitive to things like sleep habits, and how much caffeine you consume.”

And so she ordered me to get more sleep and wean myself off of all caffeine. Then she prescribed a new medication that is supposed to be really good for treating the dizziness associated with migraines.

She also ordered blood work, an EEG, and an MRI. She had to rule out all those serious and life-threatening neurological causes of dizziness, you know?

The EEG and MRI were loads of fun. And the price was right too! (Read those two sentences with a heavy dose of sarcasm.)

I felt pretty weary with all the tests I was doing. I had this growing understanding that my migraines were a bigger factor in my overall health than I had ever realized. I was frustrated that the doctors who investigated my dizziness in the past never linked it to my migraines! I was ready to just go with that diagnosis and not have to go through all the tests. But once we had set this neurological testing in motion, I had to see it through.

Finally though, when the blood work, EEG, and MRI results came back, everything was normal. There was nothing life-threatening wrong that we found! And that was great news!

So that meant we could be sure about the “dizziness associated with migraine” diagnosis. It was a relief to finally have a firm diagnosis for my dizziness. And it was a relief to know that if there was something going on with my brain, it was related to a condition of mine of which I am already aware.

Still, there was a part of me that felt embarrassed. Even though it was confirmed by a real medical doctor–a brain specialist even–that the cause of my dizziness wasn’t “all in my head,” the cause was something pretty obvious. I mean, I felt like I should have figured that out! My migraines are the longest-running, non-life-threatening quirk of being me of which I’m aware. Migraines have been part of my life since I was 8 years old!

I felt guilty for all that I put my family through just to find out that I needed to take better care of myself because I had been dealt the “migraine sufferer” hand in life. I actually already knew that in a way. I had done some work on identifying migraine triggers in the past and was really disciplined about those I knew about. I just didn’t realize how much my sleep patterns and over-caffeinating were messing with me. And I didn’t realize that the dizziness was a symptom of my migraines.

It was sobering to realize how out-of-control I had let my health become.

Since I started seeing the neurologist, I’ve worked hard at the changes to my sleep habits and caffeine consumption that the she ordered.

I can be a bit of an absent-minded professor type and forget to eat or sleep when I’m supposed to. I get easily absorbed and hyper-focused on one thing and forget about everything else around me. To get a project done, I would often end up working at late hours and consuming a lot of caffeine to see it through.

I thought this was all just fine, despite the fact that I was tired all the time.

At first, changing this pattern felt like an imposition on myself. I didn’t want to be bothered with a schedule! I’m a free spirit!

It was important to stop thinking about the changes as an imposition and to reframe this work as me learning to love myself (that old song by Whitney Houston, “The Greatest Love of All,” with the lyric about “learning to love yourself,” has been the soundtrack in the back of my mind). I needed to accept the non-life-threatening quirk of my migraines as an integral part of who I am and love myself enough to give myself the care that a migraine sufferer needs.

So I’ve been sleeping more and better and feeling more rested than I have in years. I dutifully weaned myself completely off of caffeine and my neurologist approved me to add back in one thing with caffeine per day. With my sleep habits being better, I don’t even miss the caffeine. I’ve also discovered a whole world of herbal teas that are naturally caffeine-free and simply wonderful.

The dizzy spells are down to once-in-a-while rather than the spell-after-spell, day-after-day, and for that I am truly grateful. And I’m glad that I know now how important my sleep habits are in the overall picture of my health, you know, as a migraine sufferer.

Learning to love myself has also meant lightening up about not figuring this out sooner. Even the neurologist said that the medical community is still learning about dizziness associated with migraine.

It’s hard work, but I’m trying to take care of myself the best I can, non-life-threatening quirks and all. I’m learning to love myself, to love this brain of mine, and to play fair with this migraine-sufferer hand I’ve been dealt.

Are We Bound By a System?

Bound

In Mark 6:14-29, we learn that Herod is haunted by thoughts of John the Baptist because he ordered John’s beheading despite himself. Are the forces that led to Herod making this choice that different from forces still at work in our world today?

Lectionary Thoughts for July 12, 2015
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Text: Mark 6:14-29 (Quotations here are from the NRSV)

“The king was deeply grieved” by his daughter’s request for the head of John the Baptist (v 26) because “he liked to listen to him” (v 20). Up until this point he had protected John the Baptist from his wife’s grudge against him (vs 19-20).

What changed in this incident that he would retract his favor from a man he feared, revered, protected, and liked listening to (v 20)?

“Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her” (vs 23, 26). 

He gave his daughter a wide open promise that she could have anything she asked for (v 23). And he had witnesses to this promise he had made—for he made the promise in front of his guests. Honor was at stake.

If this happened to one of us, we’d probably clarify that we meant “anything within reason,” or “anything *you* want, not what your mother tells you to ask for.” And everyone would understand the limits implied in such a promise.

We would not have to worry about disgrace for refusing the girl’s request. But that was exactly what Herod was facing. Refusing the request would have been to disgrace himself and to disgrace his guests. How could they ever trust his word thereafter?

I imagine he got considerably more careful about the promises he made after that. But this one, he had to keep.

He just had to.

Even though Herod liked to listen to John’s teaching…

He just had to go through with it.

He was bound by the system of which he was a part. In Herod’s case it was the system of honor and shame. He would not go back on his word; the honor and shame system required him to keep his word in order to keep his honor and to maintain the honor of his guests.

Who of us can do better when we remain bound to systems that conflict with our values?

It is easy for us as outsiders looking into the honor and shame system to say we wouldn’t do that. We can see a different path because we are not bound to that system in the same way. We critique it from a safe distance.

But are we so scrupulous, so savvy about the systems to which we are bound?

Do we even recognize them?

Dylan Roof sat for an hour in Bible study. He almost didn’t go through with his plan.

But he just had to.

Even though the group was so nice…

He just had to go through with it.

He too was bound by a system—some system in which he had only one choice that made any sense to him.

That system of thought rose up among us, on our soil, in our land.

It’s harder when it’s so close to home to see ourselves as bound to a system that would extinguish life in order to preserve the system.

Do we even recognize it?

Why Bad News Sells

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News travels fast in our world these days. And bad news travels fastest of all. And as quickly as we hear the bad news we’re ready to anathematize whoever is responsible!

It’s handy, you know. We can look at the perpetrator of some heinous crime and say how horrible he or she is, advocate for the most strict penalty, and go back to our regularly scheduled lives feeling better about ourselves.

“I would never do that!” we insist, whatever “that” may be.

Another white person unleashes unspeakable harm against a person of color? “We’re past racism in America.” “It’s an isolated incident.” “I have plenty of friends of other races than my own.”

Another celebrity pastor ‘falls from grace’ in an affair? “Those Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites anyway.” “I never trusted a word that preacher said.”

There’s always something about the ‘newsworthy’ cases that makes the villain clearly in another whole category–perhaps having mental problems, maybe less than human, or maybe evil incarnate.

But none of the evil-doing in our world happens in a vacuum.

An act of racial terrorism doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Somebody doesn’t just wake up one day and suddenly decide that people of a certain color need to be eliminated. There’s a history in how the person’s ideas about race have been shaped over time in both conscious and unconscious ways.

A marriage doesn’t get broken in a day. Clothes don’t just fall off by surprise, and people don’t just happen to wind up in bed together. There can be any number of vulnerabilities in a person’s life or in a marriage that contribute to the ease with which a partner becomes unfaithful.

In a way, I wish that categories of “good” and “evil” could be so simple as just to say “I’m good and that guy over there who did that heinous thing is evil.”

I mean, I spit-shine my halo every day. Don’t you see how good I am?

But it’s a lie.

The people of our world aren’t so easily divided into good and bad.

You know the country that raised up that racial terrorist? I live there too and so do 315-million or so other people.

The vulnerabilities that contribute to the temptation to look in the wrong places for love? I am not exempt from those. Nobody is.

Any other evil you want to mention? It would be folly for any of us to say we wouldn’t, couldn’t ever even so much as think about it.

But it’s worse than folly. It’s actually counter-productive, potentially destructive even.

If I claimed to be above anything even remotely racist, then I would be absolved from ever taking responsibility to bridge racial divides. If I pretended to be holier than thou with respect to marriage, I would not see the need to take the very concrete steps I do take to protect my marriage.

When we distance ourselves from evil, as if we’re above it, and we anathemetize those we think of as “evil-doers” we give evil greater chance to take root in our hearts and minds.

But looking more squarely at subtler forms of evil and recognizing a downward spiral before it starts can be tremendous opportunities for growth for ourselves, our relationships, and the communities of which we are a part.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just pretend to be good. I want to submit myself to scrutiny so that I can confess what in me is not affirming love and life. It is only in that honesty that I am truly open to becoming more fully loving.

It’s risky to have that kind of honesty–to admit that I’m not all good, that I don’t actually have a halo. But to me it is a far better thing to examine what in me is amiss rather than look to anathematize that guy on the news. Maybe then, I can be part of the solutions for our world rather than contribute to the problems.

It may not make the headline news to live this way. But being in the news is a precarious place anyway.

Editor’s note: This post was previously titled “The Measure by Which We Anathematize”

When it Rains it Floods…and Makes Lightening

 

Scripture doodle art by Jennifer Clark Tinker

Scripture doodle art by Jennifer Clark Tinker

Living in Texas has had its ups and downs for me. I’ve had the joy of getting better acquainted with my in-laws, and the honor of being with my mother-in-law in her dying days. I’ve enjoyed spending time outdoors more days out of the year. But I’ve also had the worry of drought, and the terror of lightening striking my house.

Lately we’ve had massive rains and severe flooding near us and my worry and terror leftover from past calamities have crept back up on me.

We were in Houston the other night with flash-flood warnings blaring from smart phones all night. The power at my father-in-law’s house went way down low–I guess you call it a brown-out–but it never went out completely. It was an eery and restless night.

The next morning, interstates and schools were closed all over the metropolis. I was supposed to go to a conference, but I was prevented from making the trip.

We were able to return home safely, and sleep in our own beds the next night. But more rains came that night too. And there were more flash-flood warnings. And there was lightening–violent outbursts of shocking, white light filling the sky, penetrating the darkness of my bedroom.

The lightening that Tuesday night took me back to that night of the lightening striking my house. My breath felt shallow, my heart was in panic mode. I got out of bed–sleep was not even an option at that point–and tried to outsmart the flashes interrupting the darkness by lighting a candle, and I sang and played on my ukulele until the sun showed up Wednesday morning.

The next few days remained edgy for me. The next couple of nights I defied the wet of rains and floods by lighting a fire in my backyard. This was my own little way of trying to take back some measure of control over elements that are actually far beyond my reach.

Saturday came and I needed to pull myself together to prepare a sermon. I had read and re-read the Gospel appointed for Sunday, and had given some thought to my message. But I needed to get to it for real, so I sat down and read all four of the scriptures that were appointed.

[Sidebar: The Lutheran tradition of which I am a part generally uses a 3-year cycle of scripture readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. Each Sunday has four readings appointed; ordinarily these include an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament epistle (or letter), and a New Testament Gospel.]

And I tell you, I know that no cycle of readings can be perfect, but I am so grateful for the tradition of having a lectionary. It helps tremendously to stretch me to read parts of the Bible that I might otherwise overlook. I mean, favorites are favorites for a reason and worth reading and re-reading, so that’s often what I do when I approach scripture on my own.

But Saturday was a shining example of  how my faith, my life, are enhanced by having a lectionary. I would not have happened upon Psalm 29 by chance. But it was appointed for this past Sunday. And the words of that Psalm washed over me with peace and comfort.

Here are some nuggets:

“The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.” –Psalm 29:3-4

“The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.” –Psalm 29:7

“The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” –Psalm 29:10-11

These words spoke to me in my uneasiness about the weather. For all of the out-of-control I feel, God is bigger yet than those flashes of flooding and of lightening. And I laugh at myself trying to defy the elements, lighting my candles and fires, for God is even above my vanity, my folly, my fires.

I don’t know exactly what it means that God is above all these things. I shudder when some attribute vengeance to God, suggesting that God sent floods to discipline God’s created people. I don’t perceive God as working that way.

For me comfort comes from knowing that God is steadfast. God is not shaken by even the most aggressive tempests. God’s love is a constant on which I can rely–rain or shine.

I am in awe of the work of brothers and sisters in the faith who have woven together lectionaries. I am thankful for this Psalm that spoke to me in the middle of the rain. And I am relaxing into the peace that comes from knowing that God is enthroned over the floods and lightening.

(Another) One Fallen Too Soon

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Last week my cousin died. Her name was Melissa Zygadlo Thomas. She was 40 years old and leaves behind a dear husband and two young children.

Cancer.

Damn cancer.

I was glad I got to return home to Ohio to be at Melissa’s funeral. It was good to be there, to be with the family.

This was the first death in my generation on my dad’s side of the family. My cousins Michael and Phillip, who both died in their twenties, were on my mom’s side of the family.

So it was important to be there with and for my dad and brother and the others.

“It’s good to see you,” everyone always says at funerals, and we mean it more dearly than ever for the present loss magnifies how precious we are to one another, “but I wish it was under different circumstances,” we are always quick to add.

Different circumstances…I wish the circumstances were different–that our restoration to one another was not at Melissa’s expense.

I hate death.

I feel no need to cancel out or console this hatred of death. My grief will not be undone by some supposed higher consciousness of “death as part of life.” No, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth–real, and raw, and painful–because death is the end of life as we know it. And life as we (I) know it is all I know in any tangible way.

Oh, yes, there is the here-after, there is the resurrection of the dead, and there are all of the great promises of something else, more, better in the time to come. These promises run through the scriptures I cling to, the faith I hold dear. Yet these promises are of little consolation in the actual here-and-now of living this life as we know it without Melissa as we knew her…or Elaine as we knew her…or Phillip as we knew him…or Michael as we knew him…or grandparents and great-grandparents and Amos & Opal as we knew them…

I think I feel this inconsolable sense of loss–this hatred of death–most keenly with these cousins of mine–Melissa, Phillip, and Michael–because they died so young. I think of these as untimely deaths.

But, truth be told, I wasn’t ready for any of them. The world doesn’t make sense anymore since Elaine died and she was in her 80s–not so very young, but still she is gone too soon.

And Opal…I have not written nearly enough about Opal…her passing was far, far too soon.

Opal too died of cancer.

Damn cancer.

I still hate that Opal is gone from this life as I know it…that loss was decades ago…but even all these years later, there is still an Opal-shaped hole in my heart, my life.

Opal and her husband, Amos, were like grandparents to me in a time when my grandparents and great-grandparents had either passed away already or lived too far away. I could ride my bike to Opal & Amos’s house…my brother and I would go there and play checkers with Opal and drink Coca-Cola, poured from glass bottles into Tupperware tumblers–nearly as tall as the bottles themselves–which we first filled with crushed ice from the mystical phenomenon of a freezer with an external ice-dispenser!

And I don’t remember stories about Opal so much as just the unconditional love that radiated from her. My heart knows who she was to me and that memory of her is so deeply a part of me. But I don’t know if I can ever, ever capture her importance in words.

This is the hole that death leaves. Ones so dear, yet nothing we can say or recall–even if we had kept detailed journals of their lives as we knew them–nothing can resubstantiate who and what they were.

I’m still in my mind and in my heart pondering the stories I want to tell about Melissa. If I’m counting right, she was closest to me in age of all my cousins (on both sides of my family)–Melissa was closer to me in age than even my own brother who is only two years older than I am.

There were “girly” toys we played with together–things my brother turned his nose up at. There were chats about school, and boys, and make-up. There was this extended family that we shared that we tried together to make sense of.

When we were both grown and had become mothers, we had a few occasions to talk about parenting. I admired how at-ease Melissa was in her role as a mother. With my son a few years older than her firstborn, I was still trying to recalibrate life as a mom, but she was a natural. She told me once that she didn’t see much use for a lot of parenting books, but that she would just trust her instincts. But oh, how I myself had poured over so many books!

Yet, Melissa’s instincts and all of who she was as we knew her are laid to rest.

And even as I try to remember what I need to remember about her, the memory of her is all there is.

I know there is something else, more, better for Melissa, Elaine, Michael, Phillip, Opal…

As the appointed leader of a congregation, I have had occasion to conduct two funeral services for members of the church where I’m serving. And in these times, it is my job to point the people to the life that really is life that is promised to us in Christ Jesus. And I believe it full well. It’s just that I’m not afraid of the hope and grief commingling–neither diminishes the other.

Hope isn’t some salve we put on our grief to make it go away. True hope in the God of the universe doesn’t fill in the grief-shaped hole. The hole remains. Hope doesn’t need to fill in the hole in order to function.

And the hole has plenty of its own work to do and is not at all interested in swallowing hope.

Really, if anything, the hole–holding that loved-one-shaped place in our hearts–can be for us a well, reflecting back to us the glimmer of light and life and love of the one we’ve lost.

I just wish it were under different circumstances.

Still, it is something–even if not tangible.

And even cancer and death cannot take away the glimmer–even if our words fail us to do justice to the life of the ones we have lost–the glimmer of their memory is as real as breathing.

Oddly, it is in hating death–in feeling it so hard and true and real and deep–in despising death I can begin to love life harder and truer and realer and deeper.

I hate death because it takes what is precious–life–the lives of those we love.

I despise these circumstances because I love life.

And if life is worth loving, and worth living, if lives are worth remembering (and they are!) it is because the Author of Life–the Creator of all things in heaven and earth has made life good.

And the Author of Life knows every story that I’m forgetting–and even those I never knew–about Melissa, and Opal, and Elaine, and Phillip, and Michael.

I may not have Melissa’s motherly instincts in which to trust, but I do trust in God–my God, the Lord of Life. And my hope in the Lord of Life abides alongside my grief.

I trust that Jesus is greater than anything we can experience in our living, in our loving, or even in our losing and dying. It is as Jesus promises, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Oh God, into your hands I commit life as I knew it, life as I know it now, and life as I can’t imagine in the yet-to-come. Into your hands I commend the lives of those I have loved and lost too soon.