Blood, Sweat and Tears (Part 2)

Wood carving

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summers day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” To Kill A Mockingbird

I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in ninth grade, as so many ninth graders do. Something about the first lines of this renowned novel, noted above, captivated my attention immediately. Harper Lee painted such vivid word pictures of the reality of sweat. Her words have lingered in my ears and mind’s eye, much like humidity hangs on the skin and soul on a steamy summer day. I have never forgotten that introduction. The way Lee’s words foreshadowed her book’s strenuous tale of human struggle deeply impacted me. I have thought of these lines often throughout my life. Incidentally, when my best efforts to remain calm and cool are futile and sweat takes over my appearance and attitude, I remember her vivid depiction of southern climate. I’ve never been to Alabama nor Louisiana or even Mississippi. There’s always been something illusive to me about the deep south – the way people have had to manage not only unbearable hot temps but brutal hot topics. As a northern ninth grader, I wondered how people in the midst of such oppressive heat still made a daily effort to press their collars and powder their cheeks, knowing it would all come undone at some point during the day. Sweat seemed an enemy and any effort was fighting a losing battle. Why bother? Yet, as an adult, my perspective on sweat has changed to welcome it as a companion to help me overcome the mundane as well as more serious challenges of life.

Even as recent as the other night while walking along a river path near my house, it was insufferably hot and the sweat quickly formed a shiny sheen on my skin’s surface. I wiped the hair away from my brow more than a few times, which kept sticking to my face like pasted threads. I felt ugly and depressed, but then the wind started gently blowing and I quickly felt amazing. As the wind touched my wet skin, I felt a cooling effect and even had a chill or two. That wind was such a gift, but I also receive sweat as its own gift – wind and sweat work together to cool me down. There are many reasons why we sweat, but it all boils down to our body’s cooling and cathartic attempts to keep us alive and well. Our pores open and release moisture that is evaporated by the air, cooling us down when we get overheated. Hormones can also be included in our sweat, as our body’s method to release and regulate emotional and/or inner-physical intensity. Sweat is a signal for us to understand what is happening inside of us and around us. It’s a metabolic miracle. It certainly doesn’t feel good to sweat; but it can tangibly clue us in to how we definitively don’t feel good inside or that something around us is not okay. It signals for us to respond accordingly, to find ways to either weather the storm or improve conditions.

Sweat can also be the palpable proof that something good is happening in us and around us. When I exercise or perform manual labor, I often sweat a lot (TMI, I know, but it’s reality. Thank God for deodorant, showers and clean clothes!). As sweat pours out of my pores, I feel like it proves I am accomplishing something. I want to believe that hard work pays off – that as I toil day in and day out, my efforts are not in vain. Sweat can offer me the satisfaction that I am working towards something; or at the very least, it offers me an opportunity to evaluate whether or not my work is leading me in a beneficial direction. My body may be telling me that I am exerting too much energy and it is, in fact, time to rest, catch my breath and refresh resources to either carry on the same course or change trajectories altogether. Contemplation is its own worthwhile effort, though it is not easy work. Just as any hot day or labor intensive task exhausts me, so can considering how my efforts are empowering or dis-empowering myself and others. I need help to discern and confirm this process. The Holy Spirit is a sacred wind that restoratively blows across my weary and worn soul, especially when I feel the heat of life’s stressors.

At the end of Jesus’ journey here on earth, He promised that the Holy Spirit would come to “guide us to all truth” (John 16:13). Throughout all Scripture, the Holy spirit is defined as a “Counselor” and “Comforter”. This description is most meaningful to me. As a licensed professional counselor, I and my colleagues often ask “who counsels the counselor?” When I am sweating it out, overwhelmed by difficult or puzzling situations, the Holy Spirit counsels me.  Initially, He simply says “I counsel you…even during the night” (Psalm 16:7). Such declaration quiets my restless soul. During the day or, especially, as I toss and turn at night, He says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a). There are other times when words seem nebulous and He simply grieves with me and places my exhausted heart on secure rock to find rest and joy (Psalm 40:2, Romans 8:26). God, indeed, is my breath of fresh air. Every time I feel the temperature rise, He revives and refreshes me. In my restored state, I am better equipped to help others who are, themselves, in need of refreshment. I can point the fan towards them, and pour them a tall glass of sweet tea to sip while they rest. Many times, they are the ones, inspired by the Spirit, to offer me a rejuvenating cup of cheer. The best is when I can share such sustenance with someone. Then, no matter how oppressive things get, we can lift our glasses together to celebrate that we are alive, loved and not alone.

References:

  1. Wood carving sculpture in process by Jamie Wasson 2013
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  3. Human Biology by Starr & McMillan
  4. Forgotten God by Francis Chan

Blood, Sweat and Tears (Part 1)

“Reach out your hand if your cup be empty. If your cup be full may it be again. Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men. There is a road, no simple highway. Between the dawn and the dark of night, and if you go no one may follow. That path is for your steps alone.”  The Grateful Dead

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has a one-of-a-kind exhibit that offers a larger than life model of the heart. It’s one of my favorite things at the museum – it invites you to walk through the whole heart, experiencing the inner workings of how blood flows. There are narrow steps that lead you up and down and all around through atriums and ventricles to playfully act out how blood is oxygenated and pumped in and out of the heart to the rest of the body. “The Giant Heart” is one of the features in the vascular exhibit, which is its own grand gallery in the museum. It’s like a romper room of real deal cardio-activities. You can crawl through arteries, or see how blocked arteries do, in fact, inhibit passage because they are filled with various amounts of plaque. It’s quite sobering. You can also step on a giant scale attached to a giant flask that fills with red liquid to display, based on weight, how much blood is coursing through your veins. It’s all so mesmerizing. Blood is a remarkable thing. I’ve stood on that scale more than a few times over the years and watched the flask fill up, topping off at about four and a half liters or so;  and I’ve realized I have little clue about what is really going on inside me at any given moment.

There’s a whole metropolis and countryside underneath my skin’s surface. All sorts of things are moving and grooving along highways, byways and rural roads; and I’m hardly aware of it. My heart is always at work, ensuring vitality from my head to my toes. It occurs involuntarily. It has to. It’s too important for me to be consciously in charge of it. I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. There are times when I do (and need to) become conscious of my heart’s activity. During physical and/or situational stressors, my heart can start racing or pounding the pavement at an unsustainable or arrhythmic pace. I need to voluntarily respond with mindful repose (and possible cardiac consultation) to resume cruise control. My body’s vascular system has miraculous ways of not only clueing me in to step up and take action, but also calming me down to reconsider how to best continue the journey. Deep breaths are the first steps to refuel my heart with fresh perspective to carry on. My lungs assist my heart to do this; however, there are moments when I must metaphorically reach for the oxygen mask dangling in front of me to restore body and soul homeostasis. It’s like there’s this cardio-community inside me (and around me) that is always cheering me on, whether I’m aware of it or not. “Take heart” is more than a cliché to me. It implies that there is a force inside me (around me) that keeps me going, despite how stuck or shut down I feel. Am I willing to accept this reality? How consciously connected I am with this life force inside me (surrounding me) directly influences how intentionally grateful I am to be alive and to cheer others on to love their life as well. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament summed it up similarly in this way:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

A professor in grad school once challenged my class to consider why women seem most attuned and willing to acknowledge heart issues. We speculated about a mother’s need to provide nurturing support for her children. “Think more primitively”, he said. We discussed aspects of birth, then pregnancy and still he shook his head, noting not all women experience such things. He provocatively prompted us to consider every woman’s forced relationship with herself every month. Ironically, a man helped me understand how menstruation is a primitive process that involuntarily volunteers me to attentively and compassionately relate to life. Not just physically but mentally and emotionally, as a woman, I have to consciously contend with waiting, timing, discomfort, catharsis, clean-up and resolution. I don’t mean to be crass in discussing this, but to underscore how life is constantly proving itself to be something that is capable of enduring, overcoming and thriving throughout the journey. Men are not excluded from connecting to life with compassionate notions – although this may be one of the notable reasons why God provided Adam a “suitable helpmate” in designing Eve (Genesis 2:18). Eve was formed from Adam’s rib, a bone closest to the heart (Genesis 2:21). There is a heart-to-heart connection among all of us. If we go deep enough, we will find it. Our internal and external functions do not always run smoothly and, at times, are more dysfunctional than we’d like to admit or deal with. We need help. I recently worked with a birth client who lost a large amount of blood during delivery that caused her blood pressure and platelets to drop to dangerous levels. She received a transfusion of one and a half pints of blood, which help a bit; but soon after that intervention, another transfusion was required to ensure healthy equilibrium. She received an additional two pints, which significantly stabilized her status. The Red Cross diligently facilitates blood drives to ready reserves for just such purposes. Hmmm, I know another cross that provided a much needed soul transfusion to ensure that we could keep living and loving.

For eons, the symbolic relevance of the heart has signified an emotional and/or spiritual reality that exists inside us and between us. The true essence of a person has often been believed to dwell in a person’s heart. When renown Scottish medical missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, died in 1873 in Africa, the African nationals buried his heart there before sending his body back to Britain for formal burial. Dr. Livingstone had dedicated his life to serve the African people. They were keenly aware of how much he loved them, so they wanted to keep his heart near them. This may seem gruesome, but it is a tangible tale of how we experience life, specifically love. Whether we will it or not, our hearts are designed to perpetuate life and even love. Our hearts are as scientific as they are sacred. They are part of an essential network, inside and out, that motivates us onward to keep going and even enjoy the ride. And we do not trek this journey alone. I find comfort in being part of this collective effort.

 

References:

  1. The Bloodmobile by They Might Be Giants (video featured at the Franklin Institute)
  2. Ripple by The Grateful Dead
  3. Visit the Franklin Institute Science Museum
  4. Human Biology by Starr & McMillan
  5. Lost Women of the Bible by Carolyn Custis-James
  6. How to donate blood
  7. History of Dr. David Livingstone

Sand Angels

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“It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown so to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free.”  Annie Dillard

Years ago, along the northern coast of California, I laid on the sand in my sweatshirt and jeans. I stared at the sky. I then closed my eyes and inhaled the salt air and listened to the ocean’s roar. It was bliss. Anyone who has been to the west coast knows the majesty of my meaning. I laid quietly for a while, absorbing the moment in all its glory; then shouted to my friend standing nearby.

“Meredith, look at me!” I started dragging my arms and legs back and forth in the sand. “Sand angels!”, I voiced. I slowly got up to examine my imprint, trying not to disturb its form. Little did I know, this self-impression would come to exemplify how I understand myself. I am equal parts dirt and divine. We all are. Being human is nothing less/nothing more than living in the strange superimposed reality of these two distinctive identities co-existing, not as a duo but as a union. We spotlight our focus on one part more than the other at times; but such tunnel vision dismisses the value of how these two unified forces work together to make us truly human.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved being by and in water. My name, Jamie Lynn, is actually Gaelic for “laying by a pond/lake”. I guess I’ve lived up to my name. Creeks, rivers and lakes (and, yes, even chlorine pools) are cherished places to me, but the ocean holds the deepest part of my heart. I have often considered how I relate to God the same way I relate to the ocean. For starters, I respect the ocean with great reverence. I’m a pretty good swimmer, but rarely will I go deeper than my waist or shoulders when swimming amid the surf. I am keenly aware that I am not the dominant species in such domain – maybe I’ve seen Jaws one too many times. I have, however, been caught in a rip tide and it was a frightening experience. The ocean has powers that require respect. The bravest and best of sailors will admit that. The beauty and scandal the ocean possesses compels us to contend with how its waters have empowered us to travel the world around and, yet, surrenders us to the fact that we are not in charge of it. This is so humbling to me. Fortunately, the ocean is as predictable as it is unpredictable. The tides ebb and flow like clockwork. I find solace in this consistency. It is also comforting to me to consider how, despite my inland existence, the tides tick tock do not depend on me to be there to perpetuate their rhythm.

I live by the Atlantic Ocean and have spent countless hours there, but while I lay by the edge of the Pacific, I found myself extra-overwhelmed by its grandeur. After all, the deepest part of the world’s waters is found within the Pacific’s perimeters. Have they ever located the bottom of the Marina Trench? If they have, we are still not capable of personally going there yet. How do I fathom that kind of depth? I become equally overwhelmed with considering God’s omniscience and eternal existence. Sometimes it all feels too far-fetched. My puny brain can’t comprehend it in a way that feels palpable or even personal. Though as I lay in the sand that day in California listening to the waves crash, I heard another sound like gentle rippling water. I later realized the sound was coming from an area along the edge of the tide that hugged an alcove of the beach. I walked over to the shallow water and noticed how the sea softly lapped along the shore. The loud surf resounded only a few yards away from this serene space. It was all the same sea. The ocean has depths I will never fully comprehend but it is accessible just the same – inviting me to enter as I am able. I stepped into the cold Pacific surf and smiled. “God is here”, I thought. He created the grand seascape that humbles me as well as the gentle spirited shore that beckons me to participate in its reality.

I don’t want to solely perceive God as a fierce force, but to also celebrate how He speaks in whispers – beseeching me to lean in close to hear Him. Whether along the Atlantic or the Pacific coast, I love witnessing the splendor of being by the sea and observing how the horizon signifies a vastness all its own; and yet, within my affection of this, I cower at feeling any shared worth. I can easily feel like an insignificant spec of dirt on this big ball of dirt we call Earth. But that’s just it – I’m made of earth as well as ethereal elements. Humanity is a unique blend of both the land we stand on and the God who put us here. When God formed humanity out of soil, He also “breathed” His own essence into such earthen vessel (Genesis 2:7). I am capable of grasping aspects of the Deep because I possess God’s capacity. This synthesis is more than how bio-psychologists define our relationship with the world around us/within us or how Buddhists conceptualize our shared identity with all things; it is a holistic and personal identity. I may be limited by time and space (and even disability) but I am able to respond to/relate to the everlasting and ubiquitous God of the universe. He formed an intertwined connection with me because He fashioned me to reflect His likeness. How He is strong, I can be strong; how He loves, I can love; how He cares, I can care. I can pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) and know He will answer this prayer because He has put heaven inside of me here on earth. He wants me to willingly participate in this reality, in the relationship He has revealed, not just when I’m at the ocean – but anywhere I am.

A few weeks after returning from that California trip, I sat at an outdoor café in the city. Somehow being surrounded by the concrete jungle and not the seascape, God felt less present. Everything I saw was manmade – buildings that stretched skyward, cars and bikes speeding by, the sound of horns and engines, the smells of, well, manmade stuff. I watched people bustle by me, talking on their manmade cell phones. I thought, “God, where are you? How can I hear You here?” I missed the ocean. I found myself staring at an ornamental facade on a building across the street – made from formed concrete. Then I smiled the same way I had at the ocean. Concrete is made from sand. This manmade creation was simply a reflection of God’s capacity to create. I looked at the people around me and realized their sandy angelic existence proves that God was there and still being heard. Anywhere there is a person empowered, God is providing strength; anywhere there is a person loved, God is loving them; and anywhere there is a person taking the time to care, God is caring through them.

References:

  1. Jamie examines the sand and sea, Montara Beach CA; photo by Meredith McGlinchey-Gordon 2007
  2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  3. About Bio-psychology
  4. If You Meet the Buddha On the Road, Kill Him!: The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients by Sheldon Kopp
  5. The Weight of Glory; by C.S. Lewis
  6. Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila

Acorns of Hope

Jesus Meets Zachaeus

“Redwoods reach their incredible height because they grow very close to each other. Redwoods are always surrounded by other redwoods! Because the 100 plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other for their vital nutrients. Only redwoods have the strength to support other redwoods. The root systems of redwoods are very shallow. The roots grow no deeper than about ten feet and yet they support a tree that is the height of a football field. It seems impossible but in reality, the roots of the redwood tree graft and interlock with the systems of the trees surrounding it, creating a vast interlocking root platform. This prevents the toppling of even the tallest and most massive trees when soil layers become fully saturated and soggy during prolonged flooding. Baby redwoods actually sprout from the roots of the parent tree. This is a very common sight in a redwood forest. The baby tree gets its nutrients from the parent tree until its root system has spread and intertwined with the root systems of the trees surrounding it.”  Secrets From Redwoods About Creating Powerful Teams

I walked with my client from the waiting room into the therapy room to start our weekly session. He lay down on the sofa and stretched out on his back. He folded his arms behind his head and stared up at the ceiling in quiet reflection. I sat in a chair across from him.

I asked, “How’s it going?”

“Not good”, he replied.

“What happened?” I inquired.

“My heart hurts”, he answered matter of factly, still staring at the ceiling.

“What do you mean?” I asked, starting to feel like Anna Freud. I should mention that this psycho-analytic moment was occurring with a five year old boy. I had been working with him since he was three. He was referred to me for therapy to help resolve behavioral and emotional difficulties. He was separated, around age three, from his parents due to their difficulties of providing him a safe and supportive home. He had experienced a high level of distress in his few years of life; and though he was in a nurturing foster/adoptive home, he still struggled to make sense of why his birth parents didn’t/couldn’t love him in healthy ways. During my work with him, he had made incredible progress in verbalizing his thoughts and feelings rather than acting them out. This conversation was proof of that progress.

He clarified his statement. “My heart is broke.”

“Broke?” I questioned.

“Yep, broke.” he said.

“Well,” I replied, “You’ve come to the right place because I can help broken hearts feel better.”

“No. You can’t. You can’t fix it. It’s broken forever.” He emphasized.

“Forever? Wow, that’s a long time.” I said. “ Are you sure I can’t help?” I added.

“No one can help. It’s too broken.” he said.

This may all seem a bit melodramatic; but any five year old is a pro at seeing things in all or nothing terms. Especially when the majority of those formative years were fraught with chaos and discord, it can seem impossible to understand what wholeness is.

So being a good art therapist, I asked him to draw a picture of his heart to show me how it was broken. He drew an outline of a heart, one line connected to form the shape. This is information to me that there is a sense of wholeness inside him; we just needed to work together to highlight it more consciously. He scribbled inside the interior of the outline for a while, emoting his energy in a seemingly controlled manner. I was proud of him at how he was expressing himself. Then suddenly he became agitated and started ripping the picture up into small pieces and tossing them hap-hazzardly on the floor.

“Oh my”, I thought.

“See!” he exclaimed, “It’s all broken. It can’t be fixed!”

We both stared at the pieces of paper on the floor. I asked him what he wanted to do with them and he said he didn’t know. He stood in the midst of the torn pieces (the pieces of his broken heart), as they lay on the floor. He started crying and was visibly very upset. I asked him if he wanted his “mom” (foster mom) to join us in the room to help figure things out. He nodded. She joined us and noticed the pieces of paper on the floor. She asked what happened, in a tone that was quite consoling. He explained the situation; then immediately after his report, he scrambled under the desk in the room and hid. He said nothing, but reached his arm out and grabbed a few of the pieces nearby the desk. His foster mom gave me a concerned glance and I responded with a reassuring smile. I gently told my client to come out when he was ready and assured him that his mom and I would wait. He grabbed a few more pieces and pulled them into his hiding place. After a few moments, he poked his head out from underneath the desk and asked for a pen. His mom handed him a marker and he retreated back under the desk. After a few more moments, he emerged and handed his mom one of the pieces and stared at her. She responded to his gesture by looking him in the eyes and saying, “I love you, too”. He had written “I love you” on the piece of paper. She held the little note in her hand and then held him in her lap and he was visibly peaceful and calm.

I looked at the two of them. At first glance, I saw her hold the torn scrap and heard her re-read it aloud a few times. I watched the boy, whose life felt so broken, smile and rest his head against her. I then thought about how the shred of paper was like a seed. Yes, his heart was experiencing fractured reality and he was desperately trying to make sense of his world, his own worth; and yet, in that brokenness, there was wholeness in the most profound way. The words he wrote on that torn piece of paper (his broken piece of heart) define a relationship.

We are designed for relationships because our Designer fashioned us after “their” likeness (Genesis 1:26). Though God also instructed Moses to teach that “The Lord our God is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). That Oneness is not singular exclusivity. Rather, God is to be understood as a united whole. We possess that same wholeness because of God’s design, God’s identity in us. Our awareness of feeling broken suggests that we are aware that something is, indeed, wrong. Even five year olds can understand that. However, regardless of what feels broken (and is broken), we still possess the imprint of that wholeness on every broken piece. The reality of community lives in a single seed and can be planted to reveal it. Such seedling is dependent, in kind, on other seeds that have been planted to form an intertwined network of community – a crop of interdependent relationships. Those three words my client wrote on that piece of paper embodied a holistic declaration of his attempt to connect with something/someone as much as it symbolized the reflection of what God declares to all of us. We are created for community because we were made by community.

I love holding a newborn. I often refer to them as “acorns of hope”. They possess the reality of what God intended. They represent our humanity so humbly. They need the nurturance of a social system to survive and thrive – and I think we need them to remind us that we all began in such form. Life requires times of reforming and transforming our awareness to reconnect to this original purpose. It’s hard, but we have a lifetime to figure it all out. And we can figure it out together. We have to or we truly fall apart and miss out on experiencing what it is to be truly human.

References:

  1. Zacchaeus Meets Jesus; drawing by Jamie Wasson 1983 (age 6)
  2. Secrets From Redwoods About Creating Powerful Teams: Dr. Karen Wolfe
  3. Art Psycho-therapy by Harriet Wadeson
  1. Life of the Beloved; Henri Nouwen
  1. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life by Catherine Lacugna

A Life Worth Living Again

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“The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”  Helen Keller
I recently witnessed a baby emerge from his mother’s womb. I am a birth doula, which is a fancy term for a professional support person who cheers on women and their families through the labor and delivery process and offers informational, emotional and physical support. I have assisted in dozens of births over the past four years and I never cease to be awestruck when a baby is born. As I watch such a momentous event take place, there are always at least a few tears that fill my eyes. I believe every birth is a miracle, no matter what the surrounding circumstances are; and I feel incredibly privileged to have a front row seat to see it occur. In fact, there are a few times when something so obviously synchronistic captivates me during the experience that I could easily start sobbing with overwhelming awe. My pre-emptive emotional gush could certainly be due to my extreme exhaustion, since some labors last a very long time and I get very little sleep…or it could also be the result of the residual hormonal release of o oxytocin that helps cultivate euphoria…but I’d like to believe that it is mostly an acute divine awareness that activates and compels me to acknowledge and celebrate the reality of life in all its beauty and scandal. This is how I have come to define resurrection, which is the best way of living that I can imagine. This most recent birth experience revealed this to me in a new way.

Resurrection is, indeed, a beautiful and scandalous experience. This provocative reality requires death in order for life to be re-born. Considering Jesus’ death and resurrection is certainly controversial; yet, I believe it is essential in making sense of life as well as enduring life with meaningful and triumphant purpose. I’m not going to attempt here to define or resolve the problem of pain (or why we die) in any over-simplified or sophisticated explanation. People have been doing this for millennia. Suffice to say, I am part of a long tradition of people trying to make sense of “why” and “why not”. Why does God allow pain to exist? Why not take it all away if God really is all-powerful? A beneficial book by Phillip Yancey explores the reality of pain and sums up the best question on the topic in its title: Where Is God When It Hurts? Such a desperate intrigue begs an answer, not from an existential perspective persay, but from a relational vantage point.

A similar question was asked and an explanation offered twenty five hundred years ago when Israel’s King David poetically penned Psalm 23. The first line defines God as a personal guide: “The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23:1). From the start, a relationship is established. The identity and function of David’s Shepherd unfolds line by line to describe an ever-present and benevolent support. I am persuaded that any belief or description of God as anything less than good is not worth considering, let alone consulting. I must, from all starting points of understanding any part of life (its highs and lows), begin with the acknowledgment and acceptance that God is eternally good. Otherwise, I’m better off not believing in any such entity because it will only result in the worse kind of disappointment and disconnection. Death is the most disappointing and disconnecting experience. That is why God incarnated through Jesus came to earth. He lived a life not unlike our own – He was born, lived and even died, so that we never need say we are on our own. His resurrection is the everlasting reality that As a Good Shepherd, He walks with us through every aspect of our existence. His resurrection provides us the hope of life on the other side of obstacles as well as life after life – whether figuratively or literally. We can always overcome.

Pregnancy and birth are often used as metaphoric models of describing aspects of life’s journey. We wait. We mature. We suffer. We keep going. We think we won’t make it. We can’t take it anymore and then we turn the corner and we greet what we were waiting for. I have yet to birth my own children, but I have birthed a few life-transforming moments that came out of long suffering labors. A pastor told me in my twenties during a difficult phase of my life that “God does not waste pain”. I have come to embrace this promise, believing that God is good and He meant it when He created life and declared it to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). I have sat on my couch, heart broken and beaten down by life’s disappointments and challenges, and have said aloud that “something good will be birthed out of this pain”. I take deep breaths and focus on that hope. That hope is its own healing – the expectancy of resurrection brings me peace to endure and press on.

During this most recent birth, the mama shared my faith in Jesus as something/someone special – a good Shepherd to help her along her journey. She selected a playlist of her favorite sacred songs to provide a sound track for her labor. Throughout her labor, they set a nice tone to the room and mindset with both peaceful or peppy melodies and lyrics like “You are my strength” and “I’ll never leave you alone” etc. At times, I would point out a line of a song to offer her encouragement. She smiled and sighed; and such sentiment seemed to resonate with her, as she notably had a peaceful resolve in her stature and movements. However, I did not anticipate how these songs would cycle during the delivery process to significantly offer encouragement to keep pushing onward. As each contraction surged and the baby began to emerge, she begged for relief. All she could really utter was “it hurts so much!” The doctor offered a few relief options, though she emphasized the most important option to consider was to just keep pushing because the baby would be born in a matter of minutes. So the mama kept pushing. Her husband placed the music by her head to see if that would offer reprieve. I’m not sure if she heard the song playing as she birthed her baby boy, since her efforts were very much focused on her task at hand. But I heard the song. It was an Easter themed song about resurrection, about Christ overcoming the grave and about how we, too, can live and thrive  because “He is alive”. I watched the mother in her agonizing attempts to birth her baby and heard her repeatedly cry “why does it hurt so much?” She also repeated that she couldn’t push anymore. As the song melody swelled to a climax and the lyrics reiterated the reality “He is alive”, I found myself in tune with both the mother’s longing for her labor to be over and the reality of how God endured pain to empower us to survive the valley and reach the mountain moment. I looked into that mother’s eyes and told her that not only was her husband, the staff, I and even her baby were with her to help her cross the finish line but most significantly that  God was with her. After a pause, I told her God purposefully brought her to this moment and placed the strength inside her to see it through to the other side. She took a deep breath and seemed to reach deep within to access that strength. She lifted her head and tucked her chin to her chest for a few final pushes and then the doctor placed her baby boy on her chest. The resurrection song played a few final measures and I thought I might start crying uncontrollably.

One of my favorite things about being part of this process with moms and families is watching the transformation on the mother’s face from before to after delivery. This birth was no different – I watched the mom’s face shift from intense distress and furrowed brow to a blissful glow of joy with softened lines and gaze. She sweetly greeted her little guy with gentle whispers of giddiness. Not unlike Mary did, as she stood outside Jesus’ grave that first Easter morning. The tomb became a womb and birthed a whole new reality for us to live life with renewed focus.  Resurrection keeps telling a story for me and is truly my inspiration to serve others – I love cheering people on to live like they are loved and are able to love deeply and can bring life into the world with joy that overflows and surpasses any and all grief.

Reference:

  1. Hope; pastel painting by Jamie Wasson 2010
  2. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
  3. About Birth Doulas: DONA International
  4. Where is God when it Hurts? By Phillip Yancey
  5. Song: Forever by Kari Jobe 2014

My Beautiful Vision

joy

“It is only with the heart that one sees rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The Little Prince

Once upon a time in my early thirties, I visited the Camden Aquarium in New Jersey with my then three year old nephew. We stood in front of the expansive glass walled aquarium that housed and showcased numerous sea creatures. Watching them swim and swirl before my eyes, I pressed my hands and forehead against the glass to get as close as I could to look. So did my nephew. And soon I realized other children stood in solidarity with me in the same pose to see the majesty of what swam on the other side of the aquarium window. I also soon realized that I was the only grown up in this line up of awe struck admirers. I glanced over my shoulder and saw adults a few yards away milling around, presumably parents and/or caregivers of the children standing next to me. The adults kept their distance while keeping a close eye on their kids, who unabashedly smushed their faces against aquarium glass. I instantly felt a foolish blush, as I considered what a goofball I looked like, the only adult with such obvious wide eyed wonderment amongst giggling youngsters. So I stepped back. Though as soon as I did, my feeling of foolishness shifted to sadness. Truth be told, I’m legally blind.  Thus, I often position myself in such apparent poses to see things. Because I want to see – I really want to see. And yet, even in my efforts to ‘see’ something as it is, my observations are still limited to blurry glimpses, undefined detail and even misinterpretations. However, such shrouded encounters seem to offer a more enlightened perspective of what, how and why imagination is so essential to any of us really ‘seeing’ anything.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus emphatically proclaimed that the Kingdom of God belongs to children, that we must have faith like a child and that anyone who hurts a child is better off sleeping with the fishes (Luke 18:16, Matthew 18:3, Matthew 18:6). What do children possess that we as adults must not lose in our maturation process? How does being childlike help us understand God? Why are children always asking why?! I think the answers to these questions are less about infantilizing ourselves by discussing the value of vulnerability or the importance of remaining innocent and even being naive. I think Jesus is referencing imagination as an essential method to truly ‘seeing’ ourselves the way God sees us and, more significantly, seeing God as God really is. At the very least, imagination seems to be about trying to see beyond what is right in front of us. According to the dictionary, the concept of imagination is “the ability to form new images and ideas that are not perceived through sight, hearing, etc.”. In other words, imagination is that sixth sense of making sense of things. According to Jesus, imagination is not about pretending. It is about expanding our ability to perceive {to see} the big picture. Jesus’ descriptions of God’s kingdom throughout the Gospels invite us to look past the dust and rust of what surrounds us and be part of transforming ourselves into something divinely everlasting. This process requires imagination. Imagination requires risk in creating and re-creating, considering and reconsidering – looking at something in a new way. In practical Christian terms, this is referred to as the redemption process.

If you have ever spent more than ten minutes with a child, you may have observed their capacity to not simply tell a story but accentuating aspects of a story to create quite an interesting tale.  As an art therapist who has worked with children for over twelve years, I have no short list of such observations. Yet at times as an adult, I confess I respond to their ‘wild imaginations’ with patronizing aloofness – as if fantasy doesn’t play any role in developing a healthy sense of self and society. While pop psychology has veered away from any strict ‘study of the soul’ to pursue a more strategic neuro-scientific research approach, the practice of imagination cannot occur without body and soul working together. This cohesive relationship is reflected in the most primitive sense when a baby is born and placed on their mother’s breast. The baby can smell, taste, see, hear and feel their mother. Amidst these physical sensations begins the bonding process. Attachment theory experts suggest that within that embrace, imagination ignites for both mother and baby. The mother imagines whether or not she can be a ‘good enough’ mother. The baby imagines whether or not this source of care outside the womb is trustworthy. In this imaginative reciprocity, time seems to be a significant factor in not only determining the reality of reliability but also what makes such bond worth developing beyond childhood. In our spiritual development or redemptive process, imagination can help us maintain or even deepen the bliss we experienced when we were born again.

When God created mankind, let alone the whole world, imagination seemed to be both the cause of creation as well as the effect. In the book The Creators, the reality of mankind being made in God’s image is extensively reviewed. The creative genius of God is that He made us creative. God imagined a world, a relationship with mankind, that could be wildly experienced while always being good, never anything less than good. After the Fall of mankind, our imagination was altered to look away rather than stand in awe of God, fear rather than hope and deny rather than believe. But God never stopped imagining something good. Jesus, being both creative God and creative man, redeemed the power of imagination to be used for good and not for evil. Who would have imagined that being born in a barn, washing feet, dying and being buried in a stranger’s grave would be sequential elements in revealing the best idea ever imagined – resurrection. Jesus prepared his disciples ahead of time that such imaginative means to an end was coming But only after the fact did his disciples and followers begin to grasp the epic meaning. Some ideas are just too mind blowing to visualize all at once. They take time to sink in. Jesus’ follower Mary stood outside an empty tomb, overcome with grief not only because her beloved teacher was dead but now his body was missing. Did she ever imagine the alternative? Standing by his gravesite, she heard him say her name, turned and saw him. Then, she fully embraced the idea and ran to tell others. Wheels of re-imagining the world started spinning a new revolution. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and history ever since seem to be the unfolding revelation of God inspiring us to see everything with a new pair of glasses. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us to do so. God’s Spirit in us, with us, is our lens by which we can truly make sense of what we see – what God sees.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what the Lord has prepared. But by His Spirit, he has revealed His plans to those who love Him” (1 Corinthians. 2:9)

Paul was reiterating encouragement from the prophet Isaiah, written and recorded in the Old Testament (Isaiah 64:4). Overtime, imagination bridges the gap between what is seen and unseen. Time, as does redemption, offer us the opportunity to engage with the reality of God’s idea being realized.  Like a craftsman uses blueprints to construct an object, the Holy Spirit uses revelation as evidence of what was imagined. Are we eager to see what the Lord is building? Are we willing to be part of that construction? The thing about children is that you do not have to press them to imagine. They do it so naturally, maybe supernaturally. There is an instinctual sense of non-pretense when it comes to their ideas about things. They also are uninhibited about wrangling you into figuring it out with them. They ask why. A relationship is established, maybe even expected in order to create meaning.

Paul also wrote to the Corinthians that love is the most important mechanism by which we live out our imaginative efforts of making sense of things (1 Corinthians 13:13). Loving God is the first step in the pursuit of seeing. Paul noted that at this time “we see through a glass darkly” but he reassured that “in time, we will fully see” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our ability to imagine becomes an essential part of our life span and redemptive process. The power of imagination children possess seems to be what Jesus prompts us to never lose as we become adults. The practice and protection of imagination become a spiritual discipline. As we mature, it may be useful for us to become more sophisticated in articulating what we are trying to imagine; but what is more advantageous is that we increase our care in creating something worthy of being called ‘a reflection of our Creator’s reality’. May I not be ashamed to press my face against the proverbial glass to see as much as I can. And what I cannot see, may I be inspired to take part in the creative process of revealing a new creation – in me and around me.

 

References:

  1. Joy: pastel painting by Jamie Wasson 2003
  2. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  3. Definition of “Imagination” – Google word search
  4. The Creators by Daniel Boorstin
  5. Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn by Penny Simkin
  6. Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: A Comprehensive, Developmental Approach to Assessment and Intervention by Stanley Greenspan
  7. Diary of A Baby; by Daniel Stern
  8. Childhood and Society; by Erik Erikson

Enjoy the ride.