Friday, December 28, 2018

Recognize what you have

I wrote this a year and half ago when our sixth anniversary - my first without Dan - was approaching.

One of the best things that Dan and I ever did in our marriage, for our marriage, was to take part in a Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekend. As a result, Dan and I learned to listen to each other, recognize and voice what we loved/appreciated in the other, and to enter into each other's feelings. It changed our marriage.

Dialoguing was a practice that helped transform a good marriage into a great one. Learning how to dialogue helped me discover the great gift that marriage is: a Sacrament.

As a result of Marriage Encounter and our consistently inconsistent practice of dialogue (writing a 10 minute 'love letter' in response to a question/topic), I have 2 years of love letters from Dan. When I was preparing the list of what filled my bucket, I relied nearly completely on those letters.

My reaction to reading them:

1) I can tell when I needed to go to Reconciliation, but I often didn't make time to go regularly. I wonder if we had if we would have felt more secure in both our place with God and each other.

2) I just didn't get it! I didn't know how much Dan loved me, and I didn't REST in his love as a fact. You can tell the moments when I am resting in his love, because I write like it.

3) When I rely on my own feelings, my own understanding of the situation - I am often wrong/off base.

4) I needed to take more opportunities to build up Dan. He needed to hear those words from me, just like I did from him...but I used them as a reward instead of as a life-giving NEED, a requirement. He just needed me to tell him, "You're a good man, Dan." One of the best, Babe.


After a year and a half now of reflecting on these realizations...and listening to my friends struggle through some of the rough points in their marriage, I lovingly plead with you: recognize the gift you have.

I don't say this to guilt you. I promise. I don't say it to be...vindictive or to pour salt into your own wound. Sometimes widows do that, right? We don't give you a chance to feel like you can experience struggles or frustrations with your spouse because "if only xxx was here;" "what I wouldn't give for another minute".... Those statements, while we mean them, can often shut our friends down who are in the middle of real hurt and pain.

I say it because I look back on my time with Dan, my marriage - and I have regrets.

To quote the Garth Brooks' song, my tomorrow never came - and I didn't always try in every way, to show him every day that he's the only one.

So, my regrets come to you as an invitation: love the one you're with. Recognize the gift in the person beside you. Reminisce on the joy you shared; the magic in the story of how you met, dated, grew in love for each other...ponder the quirks they possess that no one else does - and then: TELL THEM. Tell them and don't stop telling them. Tell them even on the days that they are the MOST unlovable; when your respect is wavering - tell them.

...and most of all, stop comparing your marriage and your situation and your family to the ideal you created in your head - or your friends' marriage/situation/family - because that is the surest enemy to resting in the love of your spouse.

Dan was not Ben. Dan was not Jon. Dan was not Joel.
He didn't ask me to pray every morning. He didn't lead me in the study of scripture. Sometimes it felt like pulling teeth to ask. There were parts of our marriage that weren't like other people's.

I was always keeping a measure - trying to make sure that we were "on track;" that we were "okay;" that we were enough like other people. I am sure that Dan felt it. ...and knowing my beloved husband who struggled with feeling like he was enough, already - it hurt him more than he even knew.

Ugh, if I could go back...if I could go back and address my own hurt and feelings of inadequacy - if I could have told him that I didn't feel like I was good enough, that I always felt like I was just a little bit short, that I felt like I was always either too much or not enough...maybe that would have made a difference, sooner.

If I could go back, I would stop needling him to spend less time at the office and throwing himself into that stupid department that would never show him the respect he deserved - I would. I would instead praise him for investing in something that he believed in; in kids who might carry the lessons learned into their next phase. I would voice my respect for his belief in the value of planting seeds - and of doing the hard thing.

What might it change? I suppose it could have the effect that he still spent just as much time at the office (maybe even more now that his wife was proud of him). [and that right there is why you shouldn't use your words of respect to manipulate for YOUR desired/expected outcome]

It would have let him know that I valued him. I valued the effort he put forth for others. I saw him. Maybe no one else saw how much of himself he poured out, but I did. I saw, and I recognized him. I respected him. I loved him.

Dan needed those words like parched ground needs a drink. He didn't just need them every once in a while. He needed them on a regular basis. Our words are life-giving to our spouses. Our time is life-giving. Our service is life-giving. Our gifts are life-giving.

Dan's love language was acts of service. In retrospect, I can look back and see how his devotion to work was a devotion to those whom he taught and supervised and worked for. I can see how much he was thirsty for respect and freedom. I can see how much I was thirsty for affirmation and love.

Marriage Encounter brought us out of our individual bubbles. "Daily" (in quotes because we never quite made it every day - we averaged more of a three times/week practice) dialogues pulled us out of our own experiences, and gave voice to our spouse's feelings. Then, we would just try to identify with the other. (We often tried more to talk about the issue than just focus on identifying what the other person was feeling. We weren't the best - but, I guess, that's not the point. The point is to just do it.)

Marriage Encounter was a start for us. ...but what really clinched it - what really changed my perspective and my practice - was Dan's diagnosis.

Suddenly, not knowing how long I might have Dan in my life caused me to FINALLY drop every part of that comparison/expectation practice. No - Dan wasn't Ben or Jon or Kyle - he wasn't my dad - he wasn't his dad - HE WAS DAN - AND THAT WAS VERY GOOD.

He still worked as much as he could - more than he should have, probably; he still chewed tobacco; he still did things that didn't seem as efficient as I might do them - and while I cared - I loved HIM more than those things. I focused on the person - the gift - he was to me - and he knew it. ...and he finally started listening to my ideas for his work. I really think that once he realized that I respected his work, he finally could trust me to make it better - that it wasn't a personal mark on his 'failing.'

I hate that Dan ever felt like a failure. I certainly never saw him that way...but, I can see now that if he already harbored a fear of letting down his family, his friends - me - that any "suggestion" would only come across has a mark of 'not good enough.'

I sometimes forgot that Dan could have insecurities. I just saw him as a whole being. Competent. Confident. Assured. But he was a real being - with fears and insecurities. Marriage Encounter was a key that helped unlock the door for my husband to let me into that room he felt that he needed to shut away from the world. The dialogues helped us establish trust; they connected me to Dan's heart.

While the questions were sometimes dumb, I have an entire collection, in words, about what Dan valued about me - and our marriage. Sometimes, I rolled my eyes at his, "that meal tonight you made was excellent!" for the 'appreciate something about your spouse' part. But showing love isn't always a grand gesture; recognizing love doesn't have to be a sonnet.

However, you must have a heart that is able to receive a line like "that salad was amazing" and recognize it as love.  The world will NOT tell you that love is a a compliment about your salad. Rom-coms are going to brainwash you into thinking it's a grand gesture. My friends, it can be a grand gesture. It can be dancing under the stars in Paris. ...but those are one-time, grand gesture events.

While beautiful, it's the ordinary time love that we miss most. The hug from behind when you're doing dishes; the sigh (followed by a smile) when you are 5 minutes late (again) coming down from the office; the random note that says "I love you! Your Shining Steed;" the comments about your good cooking; the feel of his camel-hair blazer when you're at an event...the feeling of his hand in yours while you're praying at Mass.

So, my friends, if you are lucky enough to be with the one you love today: recognize what you have in a way that manifests to your love how much you love and respect them. Breathe life into them. Don't wait for a diagnosis or a disaster. "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts." While it is still today, act. Love them, respect them with all you've got.

In the end, that's the only thing that matters.

The world will tell you to "live with no regrets." I'm here to tell you that's stupid. Of course you have regrets. You're an imperfect being who is figuring out yourself while trying to also keep others alive and functioning. Give yourself the grace to be imperfect. Give your spouse the grace to be imperfect. Just start small. Work on consistency. Just start. Waiting is the only thing to regret.

No Ragrets No Regrets GIF - NoRagrets NoRegrets GIFs

Monday, December 24, 2018

Finding JOY in Christmas by loosing the tradition

 Earlier this week, my hairdresser asked me if I have any Christmas traditions. ...I couldn't think of any.

There was a time that I felt bound by traditions - that if we didn't do each of the things we had done in the past, then it wouldn't be Christmas. It felt to me, in my twenties, that for Christmas to be Christmas, then it had to be like it was - like it always had been - and thus, forever would be. It felt that I needed to recreate the Christmas of childhoods past; if you could do Christmas like you did then, you'd have Christmas. (Apparently, I hadn't realized  that in the midst of all those years growing up - we were creating traditions; they weren't something that had been etched in stone from the beginning of time.)

I still remember throwing a tantrum as a 28-year-old while on the phone with my mom. For the first time in the 24 years since arriving in the world, my brother would not be spending Christmas with us. He would spend it with his girlfriend's family. I. was. aghast. WHAT? HOW could it be Christmas without Matt? What would we do on Christmas day if we weren't unwrapping presents? We were going to wait until December 27 to open gifts? WHAT. WHAT IS THIS MADNESS? It would just be the three of us? this what the rest of my life will look like? Just me, hanging out with my parents like it's a regular day while Matt is off being in his own family and I'm a 28-year-old spinster with no one to love her? This? This is what my Christmas existence is resigned to be?

Okay; I get it. I'm *a little* dramatic. Even in the moment, I knew that I was being dramatic. But those were my true feelings. I had bought into the Hallmark-version of Christmas. Christmas is family AND LOVE (probably love first) - and traditions - and all the boxes must be checked - or was it actually Christmas?

Christmas became an event. Even though I knew the reason for the season, Christmas was more about me than Jesus. I was longing for love; for the time of fulfillment to come; my life was a big Advent still - I was waiting for the 'event'.

When Dan came into the picture, Christmas became less about the traditions. ...more about us. It was like when Dan came into my life, the time of fulfillment had arrived. Christmas - the Incarnation - Jesus revealing God to us - is the revelation of love. When love came, Christmas wasn't an event anymore. It was more of a state of being.

The incarnation is not an event, but an institution. What Jesus once took up, he never laid down.  ~Father Vincent McNabb

I tend to think of Christmas as an event. Jesus born - it happened; we celebrate the happening of an event. But this...posits an establishment of a new covenant.

The Divine dwelt among us (John 1)...the Divine continues to dwell among us.

Christmas is not simply an event. We are not just celebrating a one-time happening - but a truth revealed. Christmas celebrates the continual revelation of TRUTH to the world. marriage...the wedding may be an event, but it is the establishment of an institution. A family unit, a Sacrament, has just been created. We celebrate not just the happening - but the "Yes" created. Saying "yes" is more than a ring - more than a piece of paper - more than a legal document - more than an addition. It is a creative fusing. A new bond created - a new limb bursting forth - a shoot sprouting. The "Yes" makes way for an entirely new life to exist.

Christmas ushered in a new way to exist! A new way TO LIVE.

Once I found love, I began to loose my hold upon tradition. I didn't need to rely on doing things the way they'd always been done to ensure that the event happens the way it was supposed to. (just like the Jews didn't need the law once the Messiah came) When you have love in the flesh - you have everything you need!

I have everything I need. After Dan and I were married, we spent Christmas in Tucson, in California, with strangers, with friends. What mattered was that we were together. The 'one thing' that we always did was Mass. That 'one thing', that is what remains constant for me every Christmas. From the time I was a wee babe until now: Christmas is spent worshipping.

I have everything I need. I am surrounded by love. Moreover, I am inhabited by Love - Love the Holy Spirit; Love the Eucharist. The only Christmas tradition I need now is Love: worshiping God at Mass and being with those I love, my family and friends.

If I watch Elf, great. If I bake some cookies, cool. If I don't - well, I still have everything that actually fills my cup of cheer.

Merry Christmas, dear ones. May you know how deeply, highly, and widely you are loved this Christmas and always.

That first Christmas...

The other day I saw a meme on Facebook about grieving at Christmas with tips about that "first Christmas." I thought...I don't remember anything about that first Christmas without Dan. I had to sift hard through the memory bank to come up with anything.

...and then I remembered.

To take you back there, this is the Christmas letter I wrote on Christmas Eve.

What I remember most about that first year was exhaustion. I don't remember what I bought my family (other than some cool light-up stocking caps for the boys). What I remember most was feeling like living required every ounce of my energy. Just getting through the day required an immense amount of strength. I think every fiber of my being was clenched to keep myself together.

...and I remember sitting in the front pew of Immanuel Lutheran Church listening to O Holy Night - and I cried. I cried and cried and cried. My soul was weary. My heart heavy. My body tired. ...but, I didn't feel a thrill of hope. I didn't know if rejoicing could come.

...and that magical second line drew me into my the arms of my Savior, my Jesus.
"In all our trials born to be our friend. 
He knows our need - to our weakness, (He is) no stranger..."
 That first Christmas wasn't all sadness; no, I am determined to be able to rejoice with others. I determined to be strong, I suppose, to not be a wet blanket upon everyone's joy. ...but, I carried such sadness in my heart, still. I think I can only admit to that heaviness, sorrow, and exhaustion now; now that it is only in retrospect; now that I am not weighed by that burden. But, I don't know that I could have admitted to the depth of it then. It would have overwhelmed me too much. However, Jesus knew my need - my need to be sad, to cry, to be held; with Him, I could release.

In Him, I could find release (and have). For me, it is now my third Christmas without Dan. For my friends grieving this Christmas, know that it is okay to feel your feelings. It is better to feel your feelings than to "put on a happy face." Your body cannot hold onto the trauma you've felt - let it release the tension.

For me, this past year has been a slow maneuver of release. The day Dan died I was told that I had to let him go - which probably triggered a response in me to say: I will not. I will never. I will carry him. I cannot leave him behind. I cannot let go of Dan.

I don't know how else to explain this except that I have physically felt my body holding on. I have muscles that can't seem to unclench. Training for that half-marathon certainly didn't help my body release. I should have treated myself with some gentleness, but instead...I pushed it. This year, I started doing some morning stretches 4-5 days/week. My body is finally releasing - after 3 years of tension.

In October, I started attending a gentle yoga session 1-2 times a week. Through the addition of this practice, I can feel the tension (slowly) letting go. During one week, we were laying on our backs with our legs up the wall - a good stretch to release the hips, where most of my tension is. This pose was then used in our 'shivasana' - the resting pose.

 As I lay there, I could first feel parts of my body tense, and as I pressed into the ground - release. I had an epiphany: I don't have to be the one holding myself together. I don't have to hold myself together. I don't have to carry the tension. I was made to be supported. The world was created to support us...we were not created to be self-supporting or self-sustaining.  We were made one for the other.

In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our needs; our weakness no stranger. 
Behold, your king. Before him lowly bend.

Oh holy night, when the Light of the world put on flesh to be our friend. Oh holy night, when the God who created us became just like us - entering the world just like I did - exiting the world through death - He became like us in every way to form a new way to commune with God. He carried every burden so that we could know we are never alone - in any trial, in any weakness. He experienced frailty, humiliation, loneliness, desolation, hunger, grief - so that we would know there is always HOPE. That HOPE will always spring up even when the darkness seems to be closing in.

 Light cannot be overcome by darkness - and LIGHT can be within us. In Him, our burden can be LIGHT - not dark nor heavy. Through the miracle of Jesus, we can experience joy even in our mourning.

I am living it. Jesus has changed my life. I didn't think it was possible; I thought that I was "good with God" three years ago - but, the emptiness that Dan's death brought has been so consumed with the Light of Jesus Christ that joy is more the cadence of my life as a widow than sorrow. That is resurrection. ...and resurrection is one of those miracle that only exists because of Christmas.

Merry Christmas my friends! May God bless us, every one.

Friday, December 14, 2018


Yesterday's Gospel reading (from Matthew 11) contained a line that caught me:
The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. (verse 12)

Intrigued by that, I set off to read more of Matthew 11 to gain some insight and clarity.

The beginning of Matthew 11 sees John the Baptist's disciples acting as his proxy. He (John) is in prison (by Herod - awaiting his death, but he doesn't know that part yet, but maybe he can sense it). ...and John has a question. John needs ASSURANCE from Jesus that Jesus really is the guy - the One - the Messiah. Are you who you say you are?

"Are you the One who is to come - or should we be looking for another?"

True to form, Jesus doesn't just say, "Yes." Instead, he says:
Tell John what you see and hear: 
the blind see,
the lame walk -
lepers are cleansed (nobody had seen that before) -
the deaf hear -
the dead are raised -
the poor have the good news preached to them;
and blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. 

With this response, Jesus is actually honoring John's intelligence and intuition. How? you wonder. In that response, Jesus directly quotes Isaiah 26, 35, and 61 - all Messianic prophesies. These passages were well-known to the Jews as signs to recognize the coming, the arrival of - the Messiah.

John the Baptist was the first to recognize Jesus (in utero he leapt for joy at the sound of Mary's voice, she pregnant with the baby Messiah). From the womb, John was living his calling of 'preparing the way for the Lord'! His whole life was spent living out this calling. (wouldn't we love that assurance?)

Jesus knew that John knew the Truth - but he just needed some assurance. The cultural expectation was that the Messiah would usher in a time of VICTORY, power, vindication...that the kingdom of the Jews would be redeemed and rise up. (post-Hamilton I can't use this phrase and not think of RISE UP.)

...yet...John finds himself in prison...and Jesus has come. He's the Messiah, right? The Messiah is HERE - IN OUR MIDST - but...I'm in prison? I thought I was going to be his right-hand man? I thought my job was to help usher him in - that together, we would RISE UP... but I'm in prison - and my intuition is giving me a feeling that something foreboding is on my horizon. this...the plan?

Trying to make sense of his current circumstance that seems to be defying all expectations of "the plan" - John sends his disciples. Jesus tells John (via his disciples) via Isaiah:
You know me. You know my mission. You know. You recognized rightly. Rest in your calling and your mission, my friend. You are blessed in my kingdom.

AND THEN - Jesus does something extra. Jesus tells us - the crowd - who John is.

"Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 
All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. 
And if you are willing to accept it,
he is Elijah, the one who is to come. 
Whoever has ears ought to hear."

I find this part so beautiful - and so like God. Sometimes, our deep struggle isn't simply needing assurance about God's character or mission - we need assurance about ourselves, too. 

Have you seen me, God?
Do you see this burden? Is it from you, God?
Should I keep going - or put it down?
Am I who you say I am?
Are you here with me?
Will you continue with me? 
AND THEN - Jesus speaks to the heart of John's confusion:

From the days of John the Baptist until now,
the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence,
and the violent are taking it by force. 
John, my cousin:  My coming isn't like our forefathers' vision. It's not a physical, earthly reign. We aren't building a castle or overthrowing Rome - like that. It's one for the Spirit - the Spirit manifesting itself in humanity - and transforming the physical, earthly realm through all people upon whom my favor rests.
You, my cousin, have been taken by force. They may take your life, but they cannot claim your spirit - or your calling - and they cannot a quench this revolution by taking a life. 
You are Elijah - and you have prepared the way of the Lord! You have fulfilled your calling, done your part.

This is enough for John the Baptist. In John's Gospel - it is noted that the Baptist responds with:
No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said 'I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him.' 
The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens to him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. 
He must increase; I must decrease. 

Week 2 of Advent focuses on Peace. Let us take note of John the Baptist's response to confusion and fear: he simply asked Jesus for clarity. ...and Jesus answered. Today's gospel (also Matthew 11) ends with "Wisdom is vindicated by her works." When we are in need of assurance: true wisdom asks God to 'rise up' - and waits with open eyes and ears to recognize the answer through the messenger God chooses.

I love that this reflection ends with point us to joy. When John received Jesus' message, he received the PEACE of the Holy Spirit. That peace led him to JOY - and greater love. WOW. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The art of accompaniment: Bringing Peace

Today's Lectio Divina reflection comes from yesterday's (Monday, December 10) gospel reading.
Luke 5:17 - 26

One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there, and the power of the Lord was with him for healing. 

And some men brought on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed;
they were trying to bring him in and set him in his presence. 
But not finding a way to bring him in because of the crowd,
they went up on the roof
and lowered him on the stretcher through the tiles
into the middle in front of Jesus. 
When Jesus saw their faith, he said,
"As for you, your sins are forgiven." 

Then the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves,
"Who is this who speaks blasphemies? 
Who but God alone can forgive sins?" 
Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply,
"What are you thinking in your hearts? 
Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,'
or to say, 'Rise and walk'? 
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"–
he said to the one who was paralyzed,
"I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home." 

He stood up immediately before them,
picked up what he had been lying on,
and went home, glorifying God. 
Then astonishment seized them all and they glorified God,
and, struck with awe, they said,
"We have seen incredible things today."

What struck me was the second paragraph: when Jesus saw their faith, he said: as for you, your sins are forgiven.

Their faith. 
     - not the paralyzed dude - 
     - his friends
                  the ones who brought him, picked him up off of whatever surface he was lying on (bed, street - we don't know) - but they definitely picked him up because he was paralyzed
                  the ones who dared to hope for him, to believe for him
                  the ones who refused to give up simply because there was a crowd and the entry was blocked - the ones who persevered and came up with a new way to get their friend to Jesus

Their faith. Their faith demonstrated true phileo love - the love that goes out of the way for another - the love that climbs over another - the love that tears tiles out of a roof - and then trusts that someone inside is going to catch their friend on the stretcher when they lower it...LOVE. Love that demonstrates itself in persevering accompaniment. Love that lifts another out of their current situation and brings them to Jesus. 

They brought their friend to Jesus for his healing - not for their own. As true friends they were not seeking anything for themselves...and so, Jesus speaks to them first.

Jesus immediately recognized their actions. The One who is Love recognizes love moving through faith. As for you, you who are acting as my disciples, I want you to know, your sins are forgiven. As he says to Zaccheus, Today the Lord has come to your house. 

[And then of course the Pharisees get all up in arms - who is this Jesus to forgive sins? Does he think he's GOD? "Uh, yes, actually. ...and I don't think it, I AM."]

I think it's because of that exchange that I've always connected the "your sins are forgiven" to the paralyzed man - and not to his friends. ...but yesterday while listening, immediately, the Holy Spirit keyed me into they and their.

Week 2 of Advent is the theme of Peace. When reading this Gospel, it's easier to see hope and joy to me than peace. ...Finding the peace requires a deeper reflection.

What is the purpose of forgiving sins? 
:removing the infinite barrier between us and God (done by Jesus' death on the cross) 
:removing the physical, emotional, spiritual barriers between us and God, and us and others
to make way for - the subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit - the peace of God

What is the purpose of [supernaturally] healing the body?
:demonstrating the love of God (Father) through the power of God (Holy Spirit) for the purpose of bringing about a movement of greater faith in the world
       ....and those of you who have ever experienced a life-altering illness know the frustration,  confusion, abandonment that can accompany those...what PEACE that man must have felt (in addition to the joy, obvi) when he stood up for the first time.

Who in my life does God want me to walk beside? Who in my life is feeling abandoned - and in need of friendship? Who is frustrated and confused? May I be a friend like these men...and may I be so full of love that I don't keep shouldering their burdens onto my own shoulders trying to fix them myself (guilty): may I love them so fiercely that I tear through a ceiling to get them to Jesus.

Come Holy Spirit, embodiment of Peace.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Planning for the future: Hope

On the first week of Advent may true love gave to me....

For those unaware, Advent is the 4(ish) week time period before Christmas. Advent (for Catholics) is a time for fasting and preparing our hearts (not just our homes) for the Christmas miracle: God becoming man. Divine nature becoming human. For me, I am embracing lectio divina of the daily Scripture readings.

This first week of Advent centers on the theme of HOPE. As I read through today's readings, I kept this theme of HOPE in mind. Of those words, what communicated HOPE to me? Today, what spoke to me is this verse from Psalm 122:

Because of the house of the LORD our God, I will pray for your good. 

What follows is my morning meditation on this line. (Everything that is indented and italicized represents God's voice; italics that are not intended represent my own thoughts in this dialogue.)

 Because of the house of the LORD our God, I will pray for your good. 

Behold, the plans I have for you:  
 plans to give you hope and a future, plans to prosper and not harm... 
(Jeremiah 29:11 - from memory - so may not be entirely accurate)

I always thought I wanted to know God's plan for my life.

Like, could you just show me the blueprint? It would sure make it a lot easier to trust, you God. 
Ok, then - what about just the big one? Will I get married? Will a boy *finally* love me? 

...and naturally, if I knew "the big one" then I'd *obviously* know I'd be a mom. ...and none of the other things in my future would matter.

Isn't that the beauty of a calling? God speaks a truth to our hearts - one just for us: "this is the way; walk in it." In response, we look over our shoulder for clarification, "Uh, this way? This way, God? Ya sure? ...ok, so this way..."

I know the plans I have for you. Plans for hope - plans for a future - for your good. Listen. I will tell you the way you should go, whether to the right or left. Just listen.

Um, ok God. But I really don't want to screw this up.

I know.
But I think it would be a lot easier if you'd just let me in on the plan. Dontcha think? Then I won't screw it up....

Jessica. (I raise my head, but don't make eye contact)
Jessica. Look at me. (I look up, and the drop my gaze)
Look at me. I know the plans I have for you. Plans for a future - of hope. You know the plan I want most for you, though? Besides the doing and the achieving and the rushing around ... I want  you to know you are loved. You have worth because of who you are; because you are mine. I want you to know how good I am; the hope I bring; the peace that settles into your bones from being in my presence; the security of a future where I am. 
What you will do - where you will live - who you will marry - who you will influence: those feel like the big things - I know - but, (look at me) they really are secondary.
I know. It's sort of mind blowing, isn't it?
Yeah, yeah. I know society makes your think blah-blah-blah...I know. I've been upending societal norms for a while now....
(I digress) Back to the reality: Seek me first.
Seek me first and all these other things, they will come. In time, in due course - in a way you won't expect - don't fix your eyes - or your hope - there. Just keep your gaze on me. Tune your ears to listen to my voice. You're in for the ride of your life, trust me. I am praying for your good. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

My heart still breaks

I don't know any other way to say this then to say it how it is: my heart still breaks when other people die. ...and it always will, I think. ...and that is a good thing, I think.

Nearly three weeks ago, I had news that one of my former students' wife died - at 26 - of a rare cancer. Two and half weeks ago, my dear friend and roommate lost a close friend of 22 years. Last night, a friend of my brother's passed away, at 30 (ish), of cancer with a wife and young son. In the summer, a friend from high school passed away after years of battling brain cancer, leaving his wife and two children.

...and I type my condolences and when I say, "I am so sorry," I literally mean: I. AM. SO. SORRY. I can't type those words on your facebook page without tears filling my eyes. I. AM. SO. SORRY.

I am so sorry...that you have to say good-bye to someone who has been a bedrock to your life; who has occupied your heart; you has become the voice in your head. I am so sorry that your person is no longer physically present to you...and now you have to navigate life without them.

Six weeks ago, I met a man whose father passed away in a tragic accident (before his very eyes) about 6 weeks prior. He (John) was assisting me in a cover letter workshop for my class. For some reason, we were talking about something...maybe how I got to MSU - and, I am now at the point in my life where I weigh whether or not to include that I came to MSU because of my husband and my husband is dead now. I know now that not everyone can handle the information - and I know now that whenever I say something about Dan dying...I am met with, "I'm sorry."

When I shared whatever I was saying, John then told me about his dad. ...and I said the obligatory, "I'm sorry" (and laughed - it wasn't out of context; it was the type of conversation we were having; trust me it wasn't a weird heartless thing). He laughed, too - and said, "Yes! You'll notice I didn't say that to you - because people have been saying that to me this whole time...and I know now how fake/insincere it comes across. ....and I used to be that guy. I used to say that all the time to people."

...and it's true. I can count on one hand the number of people who haven't said, "I'm sorry," when I mention something about losing Dan. At first it was weird, and then I came to expect something because everybody says it. You just expect that when you're telling the story about how you came to MSU that when you mention Dan passed away that there will be this interruption in your story (I'm sorry), that you have to acknowledge.

...there will be this interruption in your story...

...that you have to acknowledge....

That is why I write it to these people: to my student, to the childhood friend, to the widow I've never met  -- because I know this loss that they've experienced. I know it. I know it so deeply that sometimes I forget the wound. It seems impossible that you could forget the depth of the loss...but healing really does exist. It really does come...

...but, my heart still breaks. heart breaks that these young people - these people whose lives and love I've watched grow and blossom - that they must also share in this deep grief, this heart-shattering, world-rocking loss.

...and you know what? my heart breaks at the unfairness that these beautiful people didn't get to live out their dreams.

With today's loss, there is just so much parallel between Dan and Chasen's stories. They were not the same - but there are so many parallels. ...and you know what? I'm so mad that these two were taken in the prime of their life. That these two men with dreams and goals and abilities to make them realities instead were given a cup to drink that included cancer and dying too early... and I'm just broken about it.

I'm so mad that Dan didn't get to live out his life. He finally made it home. He finally made it to a place that appreciated his work, effort, and truly valued him... and he didn't even get a year. and the year that he did get was filled with chemo appointments, sickness, pneumonia, and back pain ...and the unfairness of it all is so...upsetting to me, today.

He would have been so good at his job. When he had to make the call in late December 2015 to not field a team for 2016 - that broke his heart. He loved working. I am so sad that he never got to fulfill his dream.

...and sometimes the unfairness that instead I'm left behind to try to decipher his dream and his goal and see it become life - or to make something that remains that tells the world of Dan Kiesling - I just feel so inadequate to that task, sometimes. I was ready to support his dreams, be his cheerleader - I didn't have the career ambition, he did. Why am I the one left?

I know this post is wandering today. I just want you to know, I guess, that my heart still breaks at the injustice of death. Even when I know that healing can come - that God can be closer to our hearts in grief than we can even imagine to be possible - that God can make beauty from ashes...I still wish that this weren't the case. ...and I wish to God that these beautiful lives were not whisked away so early or that we had to try to make sense of life without them.

Emma, Chasen, Brian, Shay, Dan - they were golden like the sunset.

...and I am so sorry that we have to learn how to live without their physical presence...

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Overcoming: the diagnosis, the death, the darkness

Toward the beginning of October, I'd said that I would write when little things prompted. Apparently, for the last three weeks, I've not been prompted by much. ;) Or, rather...the words didn't just flood my mind.

This morning, though, the words came with this little headline: "Dear Christians, please stop saying everything happens for a reason...."

Yes, please do. 

Sometimes the reason things happen is because they are the consequences of a series of stupid decisions. Sometimes the reason things happen is because they are the consequences of a series of sacrificial choices in the moment in the hopes of a better outcome down the road - and then, they are. Sometimes the reason things happen is because of sin, brokenness, hurt, and death. Sometimes the reason things happen is because in this life, we will have trouble. (because of those aforementioned)

In this life, you will have trouble....

Jesus himself told us so. In this life, we will have trouble. For some reason, I thought that if God was really good, though, He would exempt me from this. If God were really good, if God really loved me - then, He would demonstrate his love for me in this: Jessica would not know suffering. 

So, when Dan would repeatedly get sick, and after every single judging trip come home sick and be sick for a week...and doctors just kept saying it was a sinus infection because he "worked in a petri dish" trust in God waivered. ...and by waiver, I mean, I put a strong-arm up to keep God from getting too close. I still practiced my faith, still sought him...but at a reasonable distance. 

Why? Why would I do that? was a natural response to fear. 

When we are afraid, we put up a defense. We build a wall. We hunker down. 

...but why were you afraid of God, Jessica? I thought you loved him. 

I thought I did, too. ...but, I think I was more in love with the idea of God than the reality. ...and, I put parameters on God's goodness. 

(and, to be honest, I'd been doing this since I was in college. My response to someone challenging my prayer request for a farmer-husband: 'what if God doesn't want that for you?' "Well, of course, he does - God loves me!" ...eventually, I worked through that one) 
Because I'd worked through one parameter, I thought I was done. I thought I'd entered into the pasture of my rest.

As we neared closer and closer to Dan's diagnosis, the fear was overwhelming. Not only were we about to have breakthrough - we were also moving 2000 miles - "home". The day that we received Dan's official diagnosis, the same day that our house was loaded onto a moving truck, I finally broke. In the car, driving to Dan's appointment (where we were late because of the whole house being packed up, thing), I broke. 

At Mayo, you can't be more than 10 minutes late. If you are, then, you are rescheduled. Well, we couldn't be rescheduled. We were leaving the state - that day - (by original plans) - and it was literally impossible that we would make it anywhere near a 10-minute mark. It would be at least 30. 

We were screwed. At that realization, (while driving), I yelled and remember hitting an empty, plastic water bottle against the steering wheel at the injustice of it all.

But - 

In that moment of sheer anger and fear, I yelled to God that HE ALONE had to fix this. He HAD to do something. This was absolutely impossible for us to remedy. I could do nothing else. Nothing. I could do nothing. I was powerless...He alone was the only one who could open a door - a window - anything. He alone was the only one who could take the wheel, and lead us forward.

take heart! I have overcome the world. 

Miraculously, when Dan called Mayo back (he had already called once when he was told about the ten-minute rule leading to Jessica's breakdown)...they told him that the doctor would see us whenever we arrived. Whenever - we - arrived. Whenever.

(Maybe I should have taken that as a sign things were serious?) 

In that moment, I knew that I had crossed over the threshold. The walls were broken down. The Light had come. God heard my prayer. God saw me. God was not distance. He was here. 
He was really for us. 

That was the moment that my life changed. Yes, I had been walking with God my whole life, really. Yes, at the age of 20, the Holy Spirit "turned on the light" and I knew that Jesus loved me - and I understood what it meant to "be in relationship" with him; to love him meant to live for him. I understood it. I lived it to the best of my ability. ...but, I had only let God in so far. 

There was still so much about him that I didn't understand - but could only be learned through entering more fully into His presence...which meant allowing Him to enter more fully into my heart. To come into the rooms that I didn't really want him to know about; to shine light into the corners. 
Being accepted has always been the deepest cry of my heart, and I was convinced that if Jesus were to really see the depths, there'd be no hope for me.

But, in that moment, I knew: Jesus was is my only hope.

In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.  (John 16:33)

It would be absolutely ridiculous at this point to say, "Well, Jessica, there is your reason. Dan got cancer so that you could come closer to Jesus. See? Everything does happen for a reason." What sort of backward world do you live in? What sort of cruel God is this? Who causes cancer just so we can get outside our petty selves for a moment to see the bigger picture? 


Cancer, evil, sickness, disease, death - these are not created by God who because of His nature of goodness can only create what aligns with himself. 

Instead, when we allow God into a situation, He can work those events together for good. (Romans 8:28) 

When we allow God into a situation, He can bring good from it - because He is all Goodness. 

When we allow God into the darkness, He always brings light - because He is Light. When we allow God in, He brings His full nature. 

When God enters into a situation, He redeems it. Because Jesus himself suffered, suffering can be redemptive for us...but, it is dependent upon us. We have been given free will, and we can choose in our moments of suffering, doubt, darkness, temptation, fear, grief - if we are going to allow God to cross the threshold or not. Even when He has entered, it is still entirely dependent upon us whether we show him around the place and let ourselves be seen, known, and accepted as we truly are - or whether we just keep him to the safe spaces.

God will not push you. He will wait in the sitting room for you. He will wait in the alley. He will throw rocks at your window. He will hold a boombox over his shoulders. He will let you rail against him and hit a water bottle on the steering wheel: but when you lift up your tearful eyes, and give him permission to come close - he will. 

While he might be thinking, "what took you so long?" He'll wait to say it until you know that you are loved, cared for, and held. ...and then whisper with a twinkle in his eyes, "I've always been here. I've just been waiting for your, 'yes.'" 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Remembering - what grief feels like

Hindsight is 20/20. Only in the rear view can we really see what we just lived through. When we have emerged from the fog, we can begin to see the crisp lines, the hard edges become clearer - for before they were just blurred edges. The reality dulled by the grief and disbelief. 

Two years ago today, I posted this: 

At that time, I was nearing the 3-month mark. Three months of learning that Dan was dying, and then Dan dying, and then...walking through a fog trying to find life.

Last week, a friend and mentor celebrated her "retirement" from the university. Two years ago, our other full-time advisor announced his sudden retirement - and I was the only one for 500 undergrads. I was the only one for 500 undergrads with only a year at this place under my belt. I was the only one for 500 undergrads with only a year at this place, teaching 3 classes (one had 2 sections). I was the only one for 500 undergrads with only a year at this place, teaching 3 classes, and drowning in grief.

I didn't know I was drowning in grief. I thought I was doing pretty well, really. ...and I was. But I was also drowning. 

You don't know how exhausting just living is until you have had the life drained out of you...and no one to replenish. That's what that first year was like for me. I was in the deep end, treading water, doing my best to shout encouraging words to everybody else, holding the hands of the students who needed it, trying to keep them afloat...while slowing going down.

I didn't realize how much Dan's presence and his love had buoyed me. He helped anchor me. He rooted me. ...and now, where was I? who was I? 

Image may contain: textThese were the questions that sat at the back of my mind - though I didn't acknowledge them. I'm not even sure I heard them. If I did, I did my best to ignore them - to just get through this day - because dang it, I CAN. Susan didn't know how much just her presence in the office gave me a lift. It was a reminder that someone else was helping. Someone else could shoulder what I couldn't carry. I didn't actually have to do it alone.

If you know someone grieving, just be their community. Listen to them when they start to share their heart about what is burdening them. We, the grieving, each have "an impossible task" - the one thing that seems impossible to us. Listen to us describe it to you. Don't give us advice. Don't offer to carry it for us. Just listen. That's the thing - we who are grieving and have lost our person - we are far emptier than you can begin to fathom. 

We don't need advice. We need you to listen. Hear us - because we feel a bit like no one does. (Even when we know God hears us; we need a human, too) We need you to tell us that it is okay for us to take a grief day (if we are the type who need both permission and are trying to manage it all on our own)...and, we might just need you to say, "Let's go sit outside in the sunshine." "Let's go for a walk," if we haven't left the house in a while. 

Let's be still, together. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Thankful Thursday: lessons in the midst of illness

Well, I think it's about Day 11. Here are thoughts I've had over the last several days:

God did not cause this illness - but He is allowing it to happen. If he is allowing it, then it must be for my overall good. If it is for my good, I will accept it and seek Him to (understand) it, through it, and for it.

1) I am so glad that I took ANS 270 19 years ago and learned proper handwashing technique. Get the water nice and hot (but not scalding), wet your hands, lather up while singing Happy Birthday - or the ABCs - or counting to 20 (the long way "one-one thousand, two one-thousand"), rinse.

Since the only way to effectively prevent the spread of crypto is good hygiene practices, I'm glad that FC made this part of his class. ...and also that our group did such a horrible job in putting together or presentation on it that the shame for doing so poorly really engrained the concept to my long-term knowledge.

2) Fasting improves my spiritual faculties.
Huh. You'd think that might be part of a good spiritual practice or something....

See that? It's the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the clouds...

3) Spend as much time as you can in the sunshine.
Starting last Tuesday, I have spent time nearly every day just being in the sun. It's the one thing I miss when I'm in the office all day long.

4) Nigel is wise; listen to him.

5) If it is to be - it is not necessarily up to me. I do not have to do it all; I do not have to be it all.
It's okay for me to say no and disappoint others. Those who care about me will understand, and those who don't understand need to learn some adaptability lessons, and I get to teach them! :)

6) You can let others pick the grapes so the birds don't eat them.

At the start of last week, I still had 25% of my arbor abundant with grapes. I intended to pick them for a couple friends. ...finally by Friday, I had to recognize that I wasn't going to have the strength to do it - nor was it probably a good idea for me to pick them for other people. A friend and her mom did come pick grapes - but they had been mostly picked over by the birds. (this lesson also relates to #5)

7) Getting stressed about not being at work is not going to help me get better.
This relates back to #5.
Last week and this week was supposed to be "resume review" week for my class of 60 students. I honestly love this time, but it takes a lot out of me - even when healthy - because it's 15 minute appointments x 60. This year, I thought I'd be smart and spread it out over 2 weeks. It was smart...but, then crypto.  On Monday, I was really getting worried about how I could implement this part of the course without being there.

8) My best ideas come from prayer. 
So, on Monday, as I was upset about still being sick, and concerned about "how to do it all without being there" - I prayed about it. ...and God showed me this great idea to share the burden, but also empower students to be critical and support each other. While I miss out on the opportunity of getting to know my students individually, they can still get the support they need and we can still progress forward.

9) I am basically a cat.
AKA - give your body the rest it needs. See post #3 (being in the sunshine) plus I have taken a nap every day. Each afternoon, I have taken a nap. I'm a napper that needs to be covered up. I love wrapping up in a blanket and sleeping.

10) Essential oils are amazing. Valor, Lavender, Peace & Calming, Stress Away, DiGize...they are really helping buoy me.

11) My circle! 
Leslie (my roommate) has ran errands for the past two weeks picking up loaves of bread, rice, bottled water, coconut water, bananas. Tuesday, I was reaching a breaking point - running out of foods, tired of the BRAT diet for the past week...yesterday, Leslie went to Kroger and bought me some exotic foods: Gingerberry Kombucha (from Synergy - I cannot get enough of the BUBBBLES), English muffins instead of bread, Refresh tea (because Zen was out) and even though it's $4.69: Sweet & Spicy GoodEarth tea (my favorite!). 

I replaced my toothbrush. Well, Leslie did and she picked out a FANCY one. This is the old one. Take no chances.

Dean & Linda have delivered homemade applesauce (I only had one bag from my mom) and chicken noodle soup. ...and some saltines and Vernor's ginger ale yesterday (again, I needed to "spice it up"). ...and maybe some chicken & dumplings soon....

Alex & Charles mowed my lawn on Tuesday in less than 45 minutes. It takes me 2 hours to push mow it; they brought in their rider and took care of business. SO thankful that I no longer have to worry about being the blight in the neighborhood.

Tim fixed my sink and garbage disposal. ...I knew that the disposal wasn't working well...but I didn't realize that the sink was leaking. Saturday morning I discovered that the sink had leaked, water was sitting in a bag of replacement towels - which were now covered in mold...and promptly disposed of.
But now it's all better.

12) Video chats:  My dad helped me fix my toilet on Saturday night (seriously, how many plumbing issues can you discover in a day?) using Facebook video messenger. I think that sucker had been running for a month (resulting in a larger water bill) - and now it's not. Plus, having a broken toilet and cryptosporidium do NOT go together.

13) Joy is a non-negotiable. You can find it every day in every place in every circumstance.
Do not stop until you find it. It's your birthright.

This is my favorite view. My backyard is huge...but I just love the REST that this picture evokes.