Tag Archives: death

Face Forward

Lost and Found

 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  Luke 22:31 – 32

The heavy sound of old rusty metal scraped along the ground as the gate opened. The high tone of intersecting locks clinked and harmonized a dissident refrain, as the latch closed the gate behind her. She silently stood there and waited. It was almost noon and the summer sun made no apologies about its heat. Sweat had already formed on her brow.

“Face forward,” the guard instructed. These two words merely informed the prisoner what to do, not who to be. Today was different, though. This phrase had been repeated so often in her ears – years of hearing it instinctually made her react. She turned. But instead of seeing the long narrow hallways of the prison that had led her in and out of her cell block or day room or showers, she saw in front of her a parking lot and the big stone main gatehouse. The highway was accessible just a mile or so from there. She had entered through that gate to where she stood today, eighteen years ago – to remove her from the world as she knew it…or to remove the world as she knew it from her? It was a coin toss. She thought about this irony and smiled slightly, knowing her pockets were empty. She spent her last penny on the outfit she currently wore, which she had bought to wear for her release day.

She sighed, as the flashbacks started to fill her mind. She knew those memories would remain with her as long as she lived. Yet, she was determined to keep learning how not to let them haunt her. Something, indeed, was dead the first time she entered through the gate into the prison compound. She was found guilty for a capital crime that she did not deny committing. She was sentenced to twenty-five years. Her prison time was calculated according to her age and offense. She was tried as an adult; after all she had just turned eighteen. Ironically though, she had felt so childlike, but the courts didn’t care about that. She had no family to care about her either back then; at least, not the healthy kind that could solve problems without making more of a mess. She closed her eyes and sighed again. As she inhaled, she thought about the fresh air she breathed. She heard the swooning sound of the cicadas, and thought about them trying to find their mates to ensure something about them would live to another season. What was this new season for her going to look like? Did it matter that she was free now? She felt so alone. The air she breathed today was the same air that surrounded the prison the day before. The locusts in the trees were the same locusts she had heard yesterday, as she laid in her bunk thinking about how hot it was, just like today’s temp.

Then she opened her eyes and saw a car drive through the main gate and make its way around the perimeter of the parked cars to pull up to the place where she stood. The restless feeling inside her chest eased a bit. She sighed a third time, smiled widely and her eyes began to tear.

“They came,” she thought. Had she doubted? Maybe a little. The triggers were real and heartache would always be part of her life, regardless of whatever side of the prison gate she found herself.  Her parents pulled up a few feet from where she stood. Her dad was driving and put the car in park, leaving the blinkers on. Her mom got out first. These folks were not her birth parents. Her birth parents had died while she was in; though they had abandoned her before she ever went in anyway. The people that came to greet her now had helped give birth to her spirit. They started visiting from the local church a decade and a half ago, and an important connection was made – the kind of love and attention she had never known, always wanted to know. As her “mom” stepped out of the car and walked towards her, she felt a foolish blush come over her, as she thought about her doubt that they would come for her.

Her mom seemed to sense her moment of weakness and smiled as any loving mother would. “Did you think we forgot about you?” her mom noted, less as a question and more as a reassurance that her fears were not un-noticed. “We got stuck in traffic for whatever reason. But here we are!” her mom announced. Her mom embraced her tightly and they lingered in that pose for a few moments. They were allowed to now; since during visitation, quick hugs were mandatory.

Her dad, she had come to appreciate, was the strong silent type. He simply stepped up, put one arm around her, kissed her on the forehead and said, “Let’s go”.

She turned back to look at the guard. It was such a reflex. He nodded and said “Walk on”. Then he added, “God bless”. Her eyes scanned the concrete facade of the correctional facility that had been her home for what seemed a lifetime.

“Yep,” she thought, “what a blessing it’s all been.” She wasn’t just thinking about her parole that she had prayed would come for the past five years, but her entire incarceration experience was its own blessing in disguise. She had arrived there so long ago, dead inside and feeling like she was being buried. She was initially convinced that any sort of “living” was not possible within those walls. But she would soon come to find out what resurrection really meant. Feeling dead, discarded and alone were lies; and she had learned, while she was imprisoned, what it meant to be alive for real, loved unconditionally and acknowledged as something special. She committed her time in to learning how to serve others with the same compassion that was shown to her. How would she show it now? She was still committed to finding the right path to serve best.

She got in the back seat of her God-parents old Buick and belted herself in. Her dad looked at the center rear view mirror at her.

“Ready?” he asked.

She looked at him and then shifted her gaze to look through the windshield towards the gatehouse. “Yes,” she said. She did not look back. This intentional gesture felt significant.

“I think taking the back roads will be best, rather than the highway,” her dad said. “We’ll take the scenic route,” he added, looking back at her via the mirror again.

She faced forward and replied, “Okay”.

References:

  1. Lost and Found; oil painting by Sylvia Martinez 2015
  2. Prodigal God by Tim Keller
  3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  4. Cain’s Redemption by Dennis Shere
  5. Learn about Face Forward Re-entry Program; Volunteers of America

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

A Life Worth Living Again

hope

“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