Thursday, April 30, 2020

Stress hormones, anxiety, and reacting instead of thinking

“When we’re in a crisis and need help, our brains have instantly changed,” writes Dr. Henry Cloud.

He went on to describe what happened to me and my brain when Glenny darted into my kitchen to show me his boa constrictor. (Click on Have you ever been standing in front of a mirror when you yelled at your kids?)

“When we are under threat,” Dr. Cloud continues, “our higher brain’s ability to think clearly, make judgments, find solutions, solve problems, and calm down is being interrupted by a bath of stress hormones that take us to a ‘fight or flight’ mode.

“We get anxious,” he said, “and can be more prone to reacting than thinking.”

That was precisely what had happened to me. I felt under threat (boa constrictors do kill people, cows, pigs—I have another story to share with you about that). I didn’t think clearly, I made a hasty judgment, and instantly went into “fight or flight” mode.

And within seconds I regretted that. For many years I grieved over screaming at poor little Glenny (he was just entering second grade) and I feared he’d always remember my ugly face yelling down into his.

And he was only trying to welcome me to Lomalinda in the coolest way he could imagine!

But as I told you last week, Glenn has generously forgiven me. I still get emotional over his grace. (Click on Part Two: Standing in front of a mirror and yelling at kids.)

That afternoon, standing in my kitchen in that foreign environment—unpacking, perspiring, exhausted, and sick to my stomach—I had no way of knowing Glenny and his boa were just the beginning of the extraordinary, sometimes-fright-inducing, experiences God had planned for me in Lomalinda!

“God does not change, but He uses changeto change us,” writes Jen Hatmaker.  

“He sends us on journeys that bring us to the end of ourselves,” she continues.

Boy, oh, boy, Jen got that right. That boa constrictor brought me to the end of myself.

“We often feel out of control. . . .”

Yep, she nailed that part, too.

“. . . yet if we embrace His leading, we may find ourselves on the ride of our lives.” (Jen Hatmaker, Interrupted: An Adventure in Relearning the Essentials of Faith)

So true. I was at the very beginning of the ride of my life.

One of my memoir’s reviewers, award-winning author R.M. Kinder, wrote this about my time in Lomalinda: “Adventures and surprises abound.”

But adventures and surprises are not my cup of tea.

Some people thrive on risky undertakings. When they call their names, they answer and plunge right into them. For a reason I struggle to understand, challenges thrill certain people. They handle the ups and down and surprises without flinching.

But not me.

Here’s what I wrote in Chapter 1 of my memoir, “My parents raised a non-daring, non-adventuresome girl—the wrong kind for the mission field. They prepared me to lead a conventional life, and working in Lomalinda was the least traditional existence I could imagine. . . .

“No one would use the words ‘confident’ or ‘risk-taking’ to describe me. If my graduating class had voted on who was most likely to live a middle-of-the-road life with no adventure, no risks, they’d have chosen me.” (Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir).

Yes, I was just beginning the ride of my life.

And along the way,
I would drop into some gaping potholes.

Sometimes I would try to create a detour
that God didn’t want me to take.

Other times I’d fall into mud puddles.

And at least once I would run out of gas.

On that first afternoon, I had no idea what the rest of that first week in Lomalinda held for me. It would stretch me in ways I’d never been stretched before. And much of it I wouldn’t do right. It would be messy.

But by the end of our family’s three years in Lomalinda, despite my initial protestations and ongoing cowardice, I would recognize that going there was the right thing to do.

And I still marvel at God’s grace:

“Lord, Your patience with me
is a source of amazement and contrition.
You accept me as I am,
but You never leave me there.”
(Lloyd John Ogilvie, Quiet Moments with God)

With God at the wheel, I had opportunities few people will ever experience, adventures I could never have dreamed up. Perhaps that’s what George Matheson meant when he prayed, “Show me that my tears have made my rainbows.”

God loved me enough—He pushed me and drove me to tears—because He knew the person I could be if only I’d trust Him. (From Chapter 23, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir)

I had flown into that mission center as a scared, immature, unadventurous, doubting Thomas. God didn’t need me to accomplish His work in Colombia—He could have found someone else to do my job. He did more inside me than He did through me, and I suspect that was His point all along. He knew my faith and I needed to mature.

Through situations, experiences—sometimes derailing, other times almost imperceptible—God expanded my heart and soul and mind and revolutionized the way I would look at life and Him for the rest of my days. (From chapter 42, Please,God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir) 

But I didn’t know that then, 
not on my first day in Lomalinda.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Part Two: Standing in front of a mirror and yelling at kids

If you have, you were startled at what you saw. And ashamed. The things we do to our faces when we get mad and scream—well, they’re frightful. Mean. Ugly.

We should never, never inflict that on kids, yet that’s what my face looked like to our new little neighbor, Glenny, on our first day in Lomalinda.

You see, he had surprised me by darting into my kitchen and holding a snake within six inches of my face and hollering, “Ya wanna see a real, live boa constrictor?

Somewhere deep in my brain, I connected “boa constrictor” with “danger” and I was so scared I couldn’t breathe.

I bent down and glowered into Glenny’s sweaty, freckled, beaming little face and—when I could finally gulp in air—I yelled, “No. Get out!” pointing toward the door.

I’ve never forgotten how his bright smiling face dimmed, he blinked, caught his breath, turned, and sprinted down the hall. (Click here to read about that.)

Immediately I knew I’d done a bad thing. I grabbed my camera and ran after him, calling out, “Wait, Glenny, let me take your picture!” 

For all these years, I’ve been heartsick for the memories Glenny must have of me yelling into his little face. I’m sure I looked cross and dreadful and horrid.

Here’s where Part Two of this story comes in.

A year ago, Dave and I were at our granddaughter’s track meet and I snapped a picture of her. Then I noticed a man to the right of her. I stepped closer—it was Glenn! Forty years had passed since I’d last seen him, yet I’d have recognized his dear face anywhere.

Our granddaughter in red on left; Glenn on right in black.

I walked over to him. “Are you Glenn Gardner?”

“Yes,” he smiled, studying my face, trying to place who I was.

“I’m Linda Thomas, your neighbor in Lomalinda.” Both of us burst out laughing and gave each other hugs. During our visit, we met his adorable daughter and lovely wife and learned they live in a nearby town. His daughter was on the middle school team competing against my granddaughter’s team.

Dave, Glenn, and Linda

As we visited at the track that day, I reminded Glenn of the boa constrictor incident, and he admitted he remembered it—of course any child would—so I apologized and asked his forgiveness.

He was quick to assure me, wearing his great smile,
that he’d forgiven me.

That was one of the most important moments of my life.
For more than half of my lifetime 
I’ve grieved over what I did to Glenn.

After my memoir was published in June, I sent Glenn a copy and soon he sent me this:

“I received your memoir and am reading it. So glad you wrote this.

“As for the snake, rest assured I always enjoyed spending time in your home. I have very fond memories of you in your kitchen listening to the Carpenters, so much so that I bought all the Carpenters’ CDs once I got married and played them in our car, in our kitchen, etc., all the while being reminded of those wonderful years you were our neighbors. . . .

“Forever grateful for you, and this book has been and will be healing.” *

I wrote back to Glenn, saying I still felt bad he’d had to look at my ugly, screaming face. “THAT face is what you had to look at. THAT face is still in your memory. That’s why I’m overwhelmed at your forgiving spirit and your grace. THANK YOU.”

Glenn replied (and this still chokes me up), 

Consider yourself loved and cherished. 
THE only face of Linda Thomas I know 
is one of love and comfort, 
so look in the mirror and smile. 
THAT face is in my memory.”

What grace! What forgiveness! His words still make me cry in gratitude.

I could write much more about experiences of receiving grace and forgiveness from God and others but instead, let me leave you with these words from Frederick Buechner:

“To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, “You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. . . . However, although I make no guarantee that I will be able to forget what you’ve done, and though we may both carry scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.

“To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven. . . .”
“When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience.

“When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.

“For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.”  (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking)   

All I can say is “Amen.”

And “Thank you.”

*About eighteen months after our family returned to the States, Glenn’s brother-in-law, Chet Bitterman, was kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas and murdered. You can read more about it in my memoir, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Have you ever been standing in front of a mirror when you yelled at your kids?

In that out-of-the-way place in South America, life offered me little that felt normal. I had no sense of belonging. And I was fatigued after traveling for a month to get there. And although day one of our new life in Lomalinda had gotten off to a great start (click on that link), and although outwardly I was putting on a brave face, inside I was struggling.

After eating lunch in the dining hall at the center of our mission outpost, Dave and the kids and I had set out walking toward our house, about half a mile away.

But the heat! The heat! Hiking without hats or umbrellas under equatorial sun, we had labored up hills, around curves, down hills, across a softball field, up a slight incline, and into the house we’d been assigned.

Exhausted by that cruel sun and feeling sick, we rested on our beds for a few minutes, but soon Dave headed to the school—he was excited to check out his classroom and get ready for the new year. The kids meandered outside to get acquainted with the yard while I began unpacking suitcases, footlocker, duffle bag, and boxes.

Six-year-old Matt had met a neighbor boy, Glenn Gardner. They looked like brothers, blue-eyed, freckle-faced blonds. Another boy, Ray Rising, Jr., joined them, and the two boys showed Matt the wonders of his new neighborhood.

The weather made the house hot and humid. Someone told us it was the hottest day of the year, and we didn’t have air conditioning, not even a fan. My sweat-drenched clothes clung to my front and back and armpits.

Through open windows and doors, an odor drifted in—milky, warm, sugary, loamy, spicy, damp. Sharp, verdant. Together, the heat and smells made my stomach lurch.

I stood in the kitchen—unpacking, perspiring, and feeling sick to my stomach—when Matt’s new little friend, Glenny, darted into the house, giggling and wiggling.

He smacked his two feet on the floor in front of mine, raised his two hands within inches of my nose—between them he stretched out something dark and thin—and with an enormous grin, he hollered, “Ya wanna see a real, live boa constrictor?

Glenny had brought a snake into my house.

A snake!

In my house!

I glared down into his sweaty, freckled, beaming little face and—when I could finally gulp in air—I yelled, “No. Get out!” pointing toward the door.

I’ve never forgotten how his glowing face dimmed, he blinked, caught his breath, turned, and sprinted down the hall.

Right away I knew I’d made a mistake.

The kid just wanted to welcome me to Lomalinda
with the coolest thing he could imagine.

Ashamed, I told myself, You have to do something. But what?

I grabbed my camera and dashed out the door behind him. “Wait, Glenny, let me take your picture.”

They stood in a line—Karen, Glenny and his baby boa, Matt, and Ray. I clicked the camera, turned, and willed my knees to carry me back to the kitchen, realizing only then that dear Glenny probably didn’t know that prim, proper women from upscale suburbs don’t like snakes in their homes.

I’m still so ashamed that I yelled into Glenny’s face, especially since he thought he was offering me something beyond amazing.  

A friend once asked me and a group of our friends, “Have you ever been standing in front of a mirror when you yelled at your kids?

Some of us chortled, but she said, “I’m serious. The other day I was standing in front of the mirror when I yelled at my kids, and I was horrified at what I saw. I looked mean and angry and ugly. The worst part is that’s what I look like every time I yell at them. And they will never forget that hideous look on my face.” She was shaken.

My heart breaks:
For all these years (forty-four now)
what Glenny remembers of meeting me
is that I looked down into his grinning little face and screamed at him
—and I’m sure my face looked mean and angry and ugly.
And I ordered him out of my house.

And all he wanted was to welcome me to Lomalinda
with the coolest thing he could imagine.

I’m so terribly sorry.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Cross-cultural living helped prepare me for the coronavirus pandemic

Although I didn’t realize it until now, adjusting—or, rather, struggling to adjust—to living in South America gave me skills and perspective for coping during this coronavirus pandemic. (It’s always good to look for the silver lining, isn’t it?)

The numbness I feel during this pandemic reminds me that by the time I got off the plane in our remote mission center, Lomalinda, I was already numb—optimistic, but a little dazed. I wouldn’t have remembered that if I weren’t now experiencing the way my body and mind react to stress, uncertainty, and a new way of doing life.

While the morning and noon of Day One in Lomalinda had gotten off to a great start (click on that link), I was in for an unwelcome surprise.

Oppressive tropical heat and immersion in a foreign culture left me off-balance, but it would get worse. On that first afternoon, I was about to experience alarm and fright and anger and exhaustion.

Similarly, today’s pandemic can thrust us into alarm, fright, anger, and exhaustion—emotional and mental chaos: 
  • I know and love people who work on the front lines, heroes every one of them. Their lives are in extreme danger day by day by day.
  • I know and love people who are hooked up to ventilators, people who might have only hours to live.
  • Who else might come down with the coronavirus? My husband? Son? Daughter? My grandkids? My mother-in-law? Brothers? Dear friends?
  • I can’t even begin to grasp the economic impact on my family, town, nation, and the world.

Life as my family and I have known it has changed drastically. And it will probably never return to our previous “normal.” Similarly, there in that out-of-the-way place in South America, life offered me little that I'd always known as “normal.”

We humans do confusing things at such times. Our brains dysfunction, at least partially, and we must work so hard to think rationally and make decisions.

And the old adage, “It’ll get worse before it gets better,” is likely as true now as it ever was.

How do we cope?
How do we take care of ourselves
and our families?
How do we carry out our duties?
How do we keep putting one foot in front of the other?

In Lomalinda, I would eventually discover answers to those questions, but it wasn’t a pretty process.

For years I thought about that raw experience and was able to write this in Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go:

God knows all about change and hard things,
about adjusting and stretching.
He knows the unfolding, the modifying,
straightening, widening, flexing, enlarging,
altering, and polishing.
He sees the big picture,
His ultimate goal for each of us.
He knows our destination and knows we need to change
before we can arrive there.
In Lomalinda, God wanted me to learn that
it’s okay to live life one day at a time,
even one hour at a time.

And He wanted to teach me that sometimes
courage wasn’t what I’d always assumed.

Now I look back and recognize that the trauma, the unanswered questions and unanswered prayers, the grief, the confusion, the ongoing battles—all of it prepared me for the future, including for this coronavirus pandemic.

Let’s talk about this more next week. For now, I’ll leave you with this benediction:

May the God of hope
fill you with all joy and peace
as you trust in him,
so that you may overflow with hope
by the power of the Holy Spirit.
(Romans 15:13)

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Coronavirus: Colombia’s 16th century indigenous peoples’ wisdom about surviving pandemics

Sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadores brought diseases to what is now Colombia, South America, destroying much of the indigenous population. Those who survived fled deep into the most hidden, inhospitable regions—places few would or could follow them. (from Chapter 15, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir)

Nowadays many people think of indigenous groups as ignorant but, in many ways, they were and still are wise. During our coronavirus pandemic, we can and must learn from them.

John Lundin, an American, is quarantined on a mountaintop in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains where he has lived for nine years among the Kogi and Arhuaco indigenous people. When my family and I lived in Colombia, we knew and worked with linguists and Bible translators working among both of those groups.

“My indigenous friends [in the Sierra Nevada, Colombia] recount from memory, a memory passed on from generation to generation for more than five hundred years, the stories of how the white  man arrived on the shores of Colombia, in ships with wings of cloth, bearing with them the white man’s disease, a pandemic that eventually wiped out the cultures of the Maya and Inca. . . .

“How did the indigenous peoples deal with it then? The cultures that survived did so with ‘social distancing’—isolating themselves from the infected Europeans.

“The Kogi and the Arhuaco fled to the high mountains, burning bridges behind them, and eventually settling into a new life that separated them from the harm that eventually came to the Maya and Inca and others.”

As I said, those sixteenth-century indigenous folks were very smart! And many, perhaps most, of those indigenous people groups have survived over these five hundred years. When we lived in Colombia, our Bible translator friends worked among some thirty-five of those groups.

I want to address another important bit of wisdom
ancient indigenous peoples understood:
They recognized the importance
of passing down stories from generation to generation.

Your stories are important.

There’s a reason people read great books.
There’s a reason the Bible is full of stories.

Stories teach us how best to live our lives.
Stories can help us avoid mistakes others have made.

Stories can tell us how to survive:

“Tell the story of the mountain you climbed.
Your words could become a page in someone else’s survival guide.”

You have stories only you can tell.
Your children, grandchildren, and great-grands
need to know them.

Make sure your family’s generational stories
get passed on to future generations.

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