The Most Painful Weeks I’ve Ever Had

We looked at our summer calendar at the beginning of 2016 and cringed.  Packed to the brim, it seemed like those months would fly by in a blur.  What did we decide to do in the midst of those crazy, busy, three months?  Take a trip to Washington to see family and friends, of course!  And not just any trip, but a three-week road trip that started and finished with 25-hour drives to our destination.  Did we already mention ‘crazy’?  Yup.

Seemingly endless days with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins stretched out into the late sunset, pushing bedtime further and further back each night.  The county fair.  S’mores.  Bounce houses and water slides.  Baseball games.  BBQs. Swimming.  Blackberry picking.  Sleepovers.  Food, food, and more food.  We soaked in these quintessential, americana-laden moments under the soft summer sun.

It was the best three weeks we’ve spent in Washington in a long time.  It was also the most physically painful three weeks I’ve had in recent memory.  Starting with a wicked sore throat that hit me around midnight on our inaugural night of driving, to the massive cold sores that erupted around my mouth, not to mention the strange prickly, red rash I was recovering from that attached my neck the week before, it all culminated in waking up one morning with a stabbing, stiff pain in the left side of my neck and shoulder.  No stranger to knots in my back, I went about my normal routine of massage and stretching, spending good portions of that day working out the kinks (literally).  After a pre-bed session with a tennis ball and a wall (it works -try it!), I climbed into bed hoping for a great night’s sleep and a sore-but-loose back the next morning.  What I got instead was an immediate lock-up of the muscles on that side of my neck and shoulder, and throbbing pain radiating from my neck, down the side of my scapula and out towards my elbow.  Sleep?  What sleep?  More like measured breathing and deep sighs reminiscent of childbirth.

I tried icing it.  I tried stretching it.  I tried heat, rest, laying down, standing up.  I tried it all.  After about two days I couldn’t take it any more and searched out a massage therapist…and then a chiropractor…and then another visit to the chiropractor.  The pain would not go away.

Sleep was nearly impossible.  I woke up more than I slept.  One night I lay in bed, trying to move as little as possible, breathing deeply and trying to manage the pain.  I turned my thoughts heavenward and asked, “Okay God.  I give up.  What can you teach me through this?”  Almost immediately, an image flashed in my mind.  It looked something like this:

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Lightswitches.  Um…what?!?

I turned my thoughts back into a prayer and asked, “What does that mean?”  As soon as the sentence finished forming in my mind, a story began to unfold.

I am in a big room.  Tall ceilings, lots of space.   A bank of light switches in one corner.  There are lights everywhere but only a few are turned on.  This room represents God’s character.  The absolute fullness of who He is.  Every aspect of His being.  The lights that are turned on symbolize my knowledge of who God is.  God is loving.  God is merciful.  God is forgiving.  Those familiar characteristics that I easily identify and understand.  But what about the lights that were turned off?  And the bank of light switches?  Here is where the pin dropped for me.

Pain and suffering can illuminate an aspect of God’s character that I might have never noticed before.

Does my situation change who God is?  Of course not.  It does provide an opportunity for me to flip a switch, thus pouring light where shadows had previously existed.  His character is made known to me in new ways. He becomes my healer, my redeemer, my strong tower, my warrior, my jealous lover.  He has always been and always will be, but I never needed to know until now.

In my mind’s eye I watched as the light switches were turned on one by one and the room began to glow brighter than ever before.  The questions poured through my mind.  How many switches do I ignore, content to know God in the measurable, limited ways I’ve always known Him?  How often do I run from challenges because I value my comfort more than the expansive illumination of an infinite God?  Will the pain ever be so great that I slam the lights off and leave the room?

Eventually, my shoulder and neck healed.  It took weeks of cautious movements, slowly building strength, for everything to begin to feel normal again.  While I am so thankful to move without pain, I often think back on those three weeks.  Deep gratitude.  Deep revelation.  The lights are on.

 

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Pumpkin Bread (with a punch!)


It’s November – bring on the pumpkin!!  I used this recipe as a starting point to add a punch of nutrition to this yummy loaf. Spinach and pumpkin together …in a breakfast bread???


Trust me, it tastes like any other pumpkin bread but with double the nutritional power.


Recipe changes:

  • Instead of blueberries, add up to 1/2 c of pecans, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, or other favorite seeds, nuts, or dried fruit.
  • Replace the banana with 1/2 c pumpkin purée.
  • Bake in a loaf pan instead of muffins, for approximately 35-40 minutes at 325F or until you get a clean knife test.
  • Sprinkle with chia seeds before baking.

Smother with butter, spread some creamy peanut butter, or drizzle with honey. Mmmm…fall!!!

“Let me teach you”

It would be so easy just to dump and run.

To come to Jesus, unload all the things I’ve been carrying, the burdens that I think weigh me down so much, and then vigorously wipe my hands on the seat of my pants, shake the dust from my hair, and with a flick and a spin, prance off towards the horizon lighter, freer, and happier.

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“Thank Jesus!  Really appreciate it!  See you next time when it all gets too much and I just can’t handle it anymore.  Maybe Thursday, four o’clock?  Sound great – bye!”

Yes, it would be easy…but only until it becomes much, much harder.

Jesus told His disciples to come to Him with their burdens, to seek Him when they were exhausted and weary.  He promised rest, and not just for their bodies but for their souls.  That undefinable, fragile part of us.  The anchor of our hope.

Then He tosses out a phrase that seems completely out of place:

“Let me teach you.”

What?

Teach me?

What do I need to learn?

All I need is to unstrap these weights and lighten things up and head on my way.  Teach?  Learn?  Naw, just let me loosen these buckles here and slip these straps off and…yup…aaaahhh!  Much better! <wipes sweat from brow and sighs deeply>


 

Learning something implies change.

It alludes to a lack of knowledge or a gap in understanding.

Teaching means I must be teachable, admitting I might not know and that there might be another way.

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If I treat Jesus as just an unloading zone, just a place to find some relief, just a stop-over along this journey called life, I may find rest for awhile and things might seem better for a bit.

Until it happens again.

Until I find myself choosing those same habit patterns, those same thought cycles, those same harmful relationship rhythms that

weigh

                                                                            me

down.

Why do I tumble headlong into the very thing that caused me so much pain, the route that weighed me down so heavily, if I had just unloaded all of my baggage from that exact same trip?

Have I learned nothing?

No, I haven’t.  Which is exactly what Jesus is saying.

“Let me teach you.”

Learning His ways means changing mine.

Listening to His teaching means quieting all the “You deserve this!”, “No one ever appreciates you!”, and “They were going to hurt you anyways!” that echo in the deepest parts of me.


Coming to Jesus is not touch-and-go.

It’s stay and wait.  He is humble and gentle.  I am proud and pushy.  His way is easy and light.  My way is muck and mire.

I don’t want to dump and run.

I want to pause.

To listen.

To admit I don’t know how to do it better and I need another way.

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The path before me may look a lot like the path behind me.

What I carry with me?  I’m still learning.

All That I Am

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Make that six.

Six attempted or successful break-ins in our immediate neighborhood over the past two months.  It’s almost to the point of hilarity.  I mean, what is it about our tiny street that somehow made it land on someone’s radar of ‘good places to burgle’?  Gah.

After another restless night’s sleep, I woke up with anxiety tiptoeing on the edges of my emotions.  It is so easy to convince myself that if something external changes, then something internal will, too.  If only we had a louder alarm system, a security gate, a 24-hour guard, a safe room, then I would feel safe.  I would be safe.

But I know the truth.

Fear can find me.  Anywhere.

Fear is not stopped by iron bars or security locks.  Fear is a relentless pursuer of fragile hearts.  Especially when those hearts are rattled by the unknown.

Fear is the fault line that runs through the landscape of peace.  When will the big one hit?  Will I be ready?  Will we all be okay?  I can end up in a paralyzed, terrified reality where I defensively cower at the slightest tremor or shiver.

Turning to scripture, I landed on Psalm 62.  David’s words rang through me, high and clear.  Cutting through the fog of worry, I realized that he too struggled with fear.  His enemies saw him as “a broken down wall or a tottering fence,” the picture of insecurity and vulnerability if there ever was one.  I could imagine the thieves roaming our neighborhood, taking stock of broken gates and sagging hinges.  The easiest of easy targets.

Then I read verse five.  “Let all that I am wait quietly before God.”

All?

Like, everything?

You mean, I can’t have a tiny corner of my heart where I tuck away those anxious, worried, fearful thoughts?  Don’t I need those?  Aren’t they what help me stay vigilant and alert?

If I don’t know what fear is, then how will I know how to be safe?

As if my ritual of unpacking those emotions, stroking them one by one, letting scenarios bloom into feature length films in my mind…as if I could control what might happen.  As if my mental loops of possible outcomes somehow makes me more prepared.

Why should all of me wait quietly before Him?  Because He is my fortress where I will not be shaken.

If I really want to be safe.  If I really want confidence in the future.  If I really want freedom from anxiety and fear.

Then run to Him.  With all of me.

Whatever part of me that I withhold can still be shaken.

How much do I value control (or the appearance of control)?  Do I need those hidden pockets of fear in order to convince myself I have a grip on what’s going on?

Or can I release?  Can I truly, all of me, wait quietly before Him?

He is my fortress.  I will not be shaken.

Thinking About My Mind

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What a fascinating book.

The real life story of a neuroanatomist who has a stroke, survives, recovers, and tells all about it.

Apart from the science of how resilient our brain can be in the face of trauma, this book illuminated the biology behind the spiritual truths the Bible teaches.


THOUGHTS

For example, verses like this one in The Message Version found in 1 Corinthians 10:5:

“We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ.”

I’ve read that verse countless times and while I wholeheartedly agree with it, I often find myself with the lingering question of “How?  How do I actually do that?”

Enter science:

There were certain emotions like anger, frustration, or fear felt uncomfortable when they surged through my body.  So I told my brain that I didn’t like that feeling and didn’t want to hook into those neural loops.  I learned that I could use my left mind, through language, to talk directly to my my brain and tell it what I wanted and what I didn’t want….I was adamantly opposed to reactivating old painful emotional circuits…I may not be in total control of what happens to my life, but I certainly am in charge of how I choose to perceive my experience.

The two parts of my brain work in tandem to create responses to what is going on around me.  My left brain defines and categorizes while my right brain experiences and feels.  When I understand the neurology of my mind, I can layer the spiritual truth of “fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into…the life shaped by Christ” on top of that and actually see results.  My brain is subject to my will, and my will is subject to Christ.

The clearer we are about which side of the brain is processing what types of information, the more choice we have in how we think, feel, and behave…


STORIES

I can choose what stories I tell myself.  Proverbs 4 helps me remember:

“Get wisdom; develop good judgement…guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.”

Another translation says it this way:

“Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life.”

My mind is an expert story teller, and I believe almost everything it tells me.  This book helped me see that far from being a weakness, it is an inherent strength that can powerfully influence how I choose to live…if I am aware of how it works:

One of the most prominent characteristics of our left brain is its ability to weave stories…specifically designed to make sense of the world around us…it’s particularly effective at hooking into the circuits of emotion and exhausting all the “what if” possibilities…I need to be very wary of my story-teller’s potential for stirring up drama and trauma.  It has a tendency to be redundant – manifesting loops of thought patterns that reverberated through my mind, over and over again…we find ourselves habitually imagining devastating possibilities.  [We] need to tend carefully to the garden of [our] mind.

Yes!!!  My mind frolics through ‘what if’s,’ picking one after the other and tossing them to and fro with ease.  They are never nice ‘what if’s,’ creating a world of peace and joy and calm.  Nope – they are loops of fear, anger, intimidation, victim-hood, or self-pity.  All the drama and trauma my mind can muster speeding through the neural pathways of my mind.  Am I aware of the tendency towards gloom and doom that my left-brain has?  How can it be redeemed?  Am I tending the garden of my mind, or allowing weeds and thorns to take over?  My left brain loves stories, so let it tell stories.  Stories of life, truth, love, victory, overcoming, what is true and right and pure.


EMOTIONS

Of course there will be times when emotions flare and I find myself riding the rapids of fear or anger or shame.  Is that okay?  Did I just sin?  What just happened???!!!  How do emotions and a ‘Spirit filled life’ work together?  Does the needle never budge and I stay ‘ooooooommmmmm’ through every circumstance?  Or is there another way?  Here’s a snapshot of what actually happens in my brain:

it takes less than 90 seconds for one of the [emotional, limbic] programs to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream.  My anger response, for example, is a programmed response that can be set off automatically…if, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run…The healthiest way I know how to move through an emotion effectively is to surrender completely to that emotion when its loop of physiology comes over me…let it run its course for 90 seconds…over time, the intensity and frequency of these circuits usually abate…I believe it is vital to our health that we pay very close attention to how much time we spend hooked into the circuitry of anger, or the depths of despair.

How much time I spend feeling angry, overwhelmed, abandoned, or fearful is my choice.  Those first 90 seconds are free – my brain is doing what it’s created to do and doing it well.  I’m thankful that does work so well because it gives me a chance to respond in the right way.  Am I feeling fearful?  Is it because a car is racing out of control towards me on the freeway, or is it because I just saw someone who reminded me of the bully who tormented me fifth grade?  The same emotional programming will trigger in my brain, but I have the choice in how I respond.  Car barreling towards me – use that fear to snap to attention and save my life.  Dude looks like Johnny Bully – realize the story my brain is telling me and tell my mind the truth, choosing peace instead of anxiety.

The flip side also rings true.  Those moments of joy, peace, or exhilarating calm are mine to choose to prolong.  I can keep agreeing with them, and allow that circuit to continue to run its course through my body.


 

I often feel like I am in a wrestling match with my mind.  Why can’t it just do the things I want it to?  Now I realize it’s doing the exactly what it was created to do, and doing it very, very well.

I am not a slave to sin but free in Christ, to use the miraculous tool of my mind towards wholeness, freedom, and healing.

all quotes from My Stroke of Insight by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

On Fear & Love

Over the past two weeks, two houses on our street have been broken into during the night.  One of those houses was our neighbors.  The ones we share a fence, wall, and sidewalk with.  The robbers took their television and laptop.  At the other house, they were scared off by the residents before anything was taken.

Fear.  That slippery, sticky, constricting force that squeezes into the cracks labeled “What if?” in my heart and mind, expanding with each pounding heartbeat and ragged breath.  The flickering images that flash through my thoughts like an old movie reel, playing out possible scenarios that might happen.  Our possessions are just stuff and our house is just a place.  Yet the violation of the norms and boundaries of society – especially when it happens right outside my front door – rattles something loose deep inside me that causes me to tremble at my core.

I checked on the kids last night.  Twice.

I woke up to way too many bumps in the night.

In the freshness of the morning light, my heart is skipping a beat quicker, anxiety rising to the surface to pull me back down to its depth.

My Bible fell open to the well-worn pages of chapter 8 of the book of Romans.  I’ve been stuck on this passage for the past two weeks, unable to untangle myself from the paradigm shifting truth-bombs Paul drops in every sentence.  Today, it was this:

…nothing can ever separate us from God’s love…neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow…

How can God’s love coexist with fear?  “Perfect love casts out all fear,” right?  If I’m afraid or fearful or anxious or worried or uncertain or, or, or…then that means I’ve said yes to fear and no to love and there’s no way I can have one with the other.  Like polar opposites – no matter how hard I try to push them into the same space, the opposing force is so strong that eventually only one will win out.

Yet this verse says fear can not separate me from God’s love.  Well, then.  That changes my entire theology just a smidgen.

At its core, fear is a lie.  It’s based on what has or what could happen.  If something is happening to me then it’s no longer fear.  It crosses the line from fear to something tangible and concrete like abuse, pain, violation, loss, or some other form of actual damage.  Fear thrives on the unknown.

The good news?  God is all knowing.  There is no fear in Him because He is omniscient.  When I choose to fear, it doesn’t change who God is.  It’s not like God sees a warning sign of “FEAR” blinking in bright neon lights and says, “Whoah, hold on there.  Yeah…I’m gonna have to ask you to turn off that fear before we go any further here.”

The enemy tries to trick me into believing that the punishment of fear is still coming my way.  The terror, the doubt, the unhinging feeling of drifting into the unknown, sinking in worry.  The anger towards God and blaming of whoever I can get to first – myself, others, or anyone else within my reach.

…God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving us His Son as a sacrifice for our sins…

The truth?

Sin has no control over me.

That’s why it can never separate me from God.  Because Jesus took that separation, once and for all, and suffered it on the cross for me.  Fear hawks its wares like the roadside vender, waving and yelling and bargaining, promising it’s worth whatever I’m willing to hand over.  Here’s the catch, though, – the price has already been paid.  Not for fear, but towards love.

…nothing will be ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I still battle with fear.  Even after we spent the evening installing a security system on our doors and windows, I felt my heart do a flip-flop as I settled into bed last night.  Fear is a relentless one, for sure.  My Savior?

Even more so.

Fallen trees, ocean waves, and new ideas

In 1950, a biologist named Joseph Connell traveled to Australia to study biological diversity – nature’s ability sustain creative, innovative, and new growth.  He had realized that some stretches of ocean or swathes of forest were home to hundreds of plants and animal species, and then just a few steps away those same ecological systems dwindled to one or two dominant plants that covered the area.  He wanted to know why.

After much research and experimentation, he discovered that a natural disturbance was the catalyst for diversification.  In the forest, he realized that a fallen, decayed tree was usually present in the areas where vibrant and varied growth was occurring.  In the ocean, the stretches of water that most frequently were hit with storms or strong wave patterns produced the biggest variety of sea life.

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Those ‘gaps’ – whether by falling tree or crashing waves – gave space for other species to take root where dominant species might have taken over.  The beams of sunlight that could shine through the hole in the forest canopy brought seeds and organisms to life that heretofore lay dormant.  Swirling undercurrents stirred the sands and mixed the sea to promote a wide range of coral, seaweed, and other ocean life.

 

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His conclusion?

Nature relies on disturbances to fuel creative growth.

It has to be the right kind of disturbance, though.  A clear cut, burned forest traumatizes the ecosystem and nothing grows.  A violent hurricane destroys the delicate balance of life under the water’s surface.  The disturbances couldn’t be too big or small, but just right to shake up the biological status quo and allow for new things to literally take root.

This summary comes from Charles Duhigg’s new book Smarter Faster Better and when I read it I simultaneously cringed and gasped.  I love routine.  I swoon at the sight of a well executed plan.  Checklists make me smile.  However, there’s something to be said for the value of the new thing.  No matter how much I fight it, I see that new ideas, new ways, new concepts, new strategies shake things up enough to move us forward.

“When strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so thoroughly that alternatives can’t prosper.  So sometimes the best way to spark creativity is by disturbing things just enough to let some light through.”

When things seem to be crashing down around me, or the current sweeps me under, I don’t need to panic or try to escape.  It may not be the end of the world.  It might just be the beginning of something great.

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Thanks to Charles Duhigg for the quality writing and inspiration for this post.