Thursday, July 30, 2020

In the “fight or flight” mode

Last week I told you about the onset of my meltdown in Lomalinda, an out-of-the-way missions center near the equator in South America.

I had yelled at my husband, “We should not have come here. We made a bad mistake. And I’m Not Unpacking One More Thing. We Are Leaving! We Are Going Home!

And then everything went from bad to worse. (Click on that link if you missed it.)

A black panic threatened. I felt caged, unhinged, alone. A sinking, cold sensation overtook me, despite the tropical heat. I struggled even to breathe.

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

When we are under threat,” he 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.”

Dr. Cloud was describing me and yes, I was in the “fight or flight” mode.

In Chapter 8 of Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go, I wrote about the aftermath of the noon-time portion of the meltdown:

That afternoon Dave returned to school, the kids went to play at a friend’s house, and I continued unpacking and praying, Please, God, get me out of here.

I pictured myself hiking over to the hangar and demanding a flight out—but that wouldn’t work. The pilots would make a fuss and report me to somebody and in the end, I’d have created a kerfuffle and would still be stuck in Lomalinda.

I had to find another way. Another way.

Before long, Eureka! I stumbled upon a comforting thought—bizarre but comforting. If all else failed, I did have a way of escape. I could walk away, unnoticed, and keep walking, from Colombia through Central America and Mexico and California and Oregon and Washington and eventually arrive in Seattle. I wasn’t sure how pedestrians crossed the Panama Canal, but there had to be a way.

Oh, but wait—I didn’t have my passport! It was locked in some safe in the Bogotá office. I was trapped.

I’d never found myself in such a panicked state. I didn’t know what to think, what to do, what to pray.

I couldn’t even give myself a pep talk. At a time like that, words didn’t exist.

I can’t recall what I did next but now, years later, I am comforted by Bible verses that tell us: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. . . . The Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. (Romans 8:26-27, NIV)

The New Living Translation words that last part this way: “the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.” That was what I needed so badly when I felt powerless to know what to do.

God didn’t seem distant during those dreadful hours that day. I sensed Him close by me in the room, but He remained silent, standing firm while I whimpered and stumbled around in my distress. I could only groan and reel.

But in the midst of my temporary insanity, somehow—somehow—deep down I comprehended that the Spirit was praying for me, pleading on my behalf with groans my own words couldn’t express. I was rattled and confused and desperate, but He was not.

My crisis reminds me of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32.

God had told him to leave the land he’d lived in for twenty years and return to his home country, so he set out in the direction God’s finger pointed, even though it could put him and his family in grave danger.

Verse  7 says it was a time of “great fear and distress” for Jacob. He must have been worried sick. Stressed almost to the breaking point. Anxious. Maybe in a panic. Desperate.

And it was in that place Jacob wrestled with God all night, despite receiving a wound to the hip. Continuing to fight while injured had to take great strength and steadfastness. He didn’t give up. He persevered, and he came through it—with a limp, yes, but also with God’s blessing and a new name. “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28). The name Israel signified his change in character as well as what God intended to do with and through him.

Similarly, in Lomalinda that day, I feared for my wellbeing and that of my family, even though I’d discerned months earlier that God had given us His blessing to go there.

For several days I’d been grumbling, wrestling with Him and my new surroundings, questioning His wisdom and goodness:

I had prayed: “God, You got this all wrong
when You sent us to this place.

What could You have been thinking?

During those first few days I had felt increasingly broken—perhaps something like Jacob’s wound to the hip. Exhausted and afraid and desperate, I fought, I persevered.

Was it wrong for me to get steamed up and question God’s leading?

Was it sinful to wrestle with Him? 

Joy Smalley writes, “I used to believe that my need to wrestle with God came from a place of distrust and a lack of faith. . . .

There are so many feelings, actions and desires that cause shame but wrestling with God should never be one of those.

“In fact, facing the truth of our perceptions about God, who we believe he is or isn’t and questioning him is an act of faith. It is an act of love. It is an act of trust and courage.

“This visual of Jacob on the ground, refusing to release God and demanding that he be blessed . . . reminds me of myself,” Joy continues. “I find myself wrestling in the dirt with God often, demanding that he show himself to me, demanding that he stay with me, questioning his sanity and care.

“Yet this fight isn’t about turning my back on God, it is about facing him, gripping him and refusing to let go.”

Joy has a point.

I wonder if I can extend a little grace to myself.
Can I believe that, like Joy, I wasn’t turning my back on God
but instead, I was facing Him, grabbing Him,
holding on for dear life?

She goes on to say, “Faith in him is an ever-changing, ever-evolving journey that is intimately personal with hills, valleys and deep deserts. But I still hope in him because of how he met with Jacob in the dirt. How he allowed Jacob to man-handle him, to throw him, to grip him and demand of him peace.

“. . . Our God gives us space to question his character, his will, his goodness and his purpose. This is why my feet are still planted in faith because my God wants me to be fully exposed before him without shame. . . .

“This God of yours is inviting you to wrestle and I encourage you to join him for there is peace to be found in the dirt.” (JoySmalley, “Processing God”)

Yes, Joy has given me much to mull over. Did I, like Jacob, come out of the fight with a change of character? Were the battle and perseverance part of the training for what God planned for my future? Did my messy meltdown strengthen my faith and bring me into a more intimate relationship with God?

Getting back to the verses from Romans, above, my heart overflows with gratitude because “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” The next verse tells us, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8:28, NLT).

That’s God’s grace. Mindboggling grace.

He offers it to you, too.
Claim those glorious Bible verses for yourself.
Let God's amazing grace rest on you,
fill you.
Remember: He delights in you!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Maybe you need to hear my story: Fighting to survive the next few minutes

It’s painful to be vulnerable with readers. It can be heart-rending to write about failures.

In fact, it’s often even harder to re-live those experiences in order to write them.

we share our stories for the benefit of others
who might be fighting similar battles.

Maybe you need to hear my story
so you won't feel so alone,
and so you can see how I survived, eventually.

So, I'll tell you about my meltdown
what it looked like, what it sounded like:

I was not happy with the way God was working things out—or, rather, not working things out—in Lomalinda. (See the past few blog posts.)

For several days I’d given my very best to unpack and get myself and our family settled at our remote mission center.

I was fighting the battle of my young life—trying to wrestle down homesickness, culture shock, extreme weather, strong odors, and exhaustion.

But then suddenly it all caught up with me: Something inside broke.

A couple of times in my life I’ve had the air knocked out of me, figuratively speaking, when I had no strength or interest in fighting to make life work. In Lomalinda, though, it wasn’t a blow that knocked the air out of me—it was a slow pummeling.

I returned to the kitchen and stooped toward the suitcase strewn with clothes, towels, tools, and medicines. But the ground lurched. I felt disoriented, topsy-turvy.

I stood and stepped back from the suitcase. After that, I couldn’t move. Undone.

God,” I prayed,

What could You have been thinking?"

I don’t know how long I stood there, feet cemented to the floor, but when Dave walked through the door for lunch, that’s where he found me.

My feet might have been dysfunctional, but my mouth wasn’t. “We should not have come here. We made a bad mistake. And I’m Not Unpacking One More Thing. We Are Leaving! We Are Going Home!”

Dave knew I meant what I said.

Hands on hips, veins in his neck bulging, he thrust out his chest, flared his nostrils, and looked me in the eye. “You are irrational and emotional. I refuse to discuss this until New Year’s Day.”

He paused. “We committed to working here for at least one school year. Leaving now is out of the question. Classes start in a few days. People are counting on me to teach their kids.”

He took a deep breath. “If you really can’t handle living here, we can leave at the end of this school year, but I’m not talking about it until New Year’s.”

I was stunned—Dave refused to discuss my trauma for more than four months!

His dismissal didn’t seem right. A black panic threatened. I felt trapped, unhinged, alone. A sinking, cold sensation overtook me, despite the tropical heat.

My grip was failing. I struggled even to breathe.

I stood at a crossroads.

Later, only much later, I realized that God had held onto me and, if I’d been able to listen, I’d have heard from Him, “Your world has been beyond your control for a while, but now you can do something that is in your control.”

At the time, although I didn’t exactly hear Him say that, down deep in some wild and desperate way, I perceived it.

And I had a strong sense of hearing Him say, “Fix lunch for Dave and the kids.”

Feeding my family—that was something I knew how to do. And I was so ready to stay home instead of hiking the hills to the dining hall beneath that cruel sun. Fixing lunch would help me survive the next few minutes.

I could stop fussing about the future and instead, focus on one easy, familiar task.

With dreams of making good ol’ homemade sandwiches, I reached for the bread I’d bought at the commissary, but when I untwisted the wrapper, an ugly odor poofed out—rancid lard and something else.

I examined the loaf. It looked like bread, but it sure didn’t smell like bread. It was far from fresh, yet I could find no spoilage.

I started to slice a piece off the end, but it crumbled apart. I sliced again with the same result.

We needed eight pieces of bread for four sandwiches, and every stinking slice fell apart.

So, there you have it,
my ugly, bad-tempered meltdown
well, just the first segment of it.

Next week I’ll tell you how the rest of that afternoon went.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

I share my story because we’re together in this thing called life

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve struggled to write about my big ugly meltdown a few days after arriving in Lomalinda, a remote mission center in rural Colombia, South America.

Last week I got started on the story, but so far you’ve heard only part of it. Sometimes writing about the hard stuff hurts too much.

But I also believe, and teach in my memoir classes,
that as Christians, we share our stories
for the benefit of others
who might be fighting similar kinds of battles.

Our stories can encourage others
to keep fighting the good fight with hopeful hearts
 because, as David said in the Old Testament,
Weeping may last through the night,
but joy comes with the morning.”
(Psalm 30:5B, NLT)

David continued, telling his story
of how that happened:
“I cried out to you, Lord. . . .
Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me.
Help me, O Lord.”

And then David wrote that, indeed, God
had turned his weeping into joy:
“You [God] have turned my mourning
into joyful dancing.
You have taken away my clothes of mourning
and clothed me with joy. . . .”
(Psalm 30:8-11, NLT)

There’s a reason the Bible is full of stories. There’s a reason Jesus told parables. There’s a reason the Bible teaches us to tell others what we’ve seen God do (see 1 Chronicles 16:24, Deuteronomy 4:9, Psalm 66:16, and Luke 8:39). God uses the stories of David and others in the Bible to train us, to encourage us, and strengthen us in our faith—and in the same way, you and I share our stories with others, doing what Paul wrote about: mutually encouraging each other’s faith (Romans 1:12). Yes, your stories and mine are important.

But for most of us, usually writing the painful stuff is not easy.

“If we’re going to write about personal experiences, everything pivots around our vulnerability,” writes prolific Christian author and writing coach, Cecil Murphey.

So if God’s going to use our stories to bless others, Cecil continues with something we need to understand: “Readers identify with failure and find hope in rising above mistakes.”

My writer friend, Sharon Lippincott, author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, said to me:

“Easier to say than do, but Amen to this. . . .
Be brave, y’all. Write the real story.”

Sharon’s right. It’s painful to be vulnerable with our readers. It can be heart-rending to write about our blunders and failures.

In fact, it’s often even harder to re-live those experiences in order to write them.

But that’s where the gold is.
That’s where we discover
we’ve grown from the experience, we’ve matured,
we’ve become different, better, people,
strengthened in our faith.
And that’s what readers want—and need—
to learn from us.

You see, memoir is all about transformation.

And so, we write our stories,
asking God to use us to inspire others
who have also failed and long to transform—
who hope that they, too, can grow and mature
and live as different, better people,
maturing in their faith.

We’re all in this together.

Come back next week and I’ll tell you the rest of the story about my dreadful meltdown a few days after arriving at our mission center.

I’ll tell you that my weeping endured
for more than one night.

But I also want to tell you that
even before the joy comes in the morning
(which can take a long time),
even within the weeping,
God is working to bring blessings out of our messes.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

I could only gasp, “Please, God, get me out of here”

Bent over the open suitcase, I was fighting the battle of my young life.

If someone had peeked in my window, they wouldn’t have recognized my internal struggles. I’d have looked like a young woman unpacking luggage in the middle of the kitchen floor—sorting through a confusion of dishes and socks and pots and pans and dresses and books and plastic drinking glasses and shoes and a pressure cooker.

I knew where to put the clothing and books, but I struggled to arrange the kitchen items just right.

I simply had to get our family settled.
Keenly aware of my need to persist
in the face of obstacles, I told myself,
Focus. Focus.”

And then—then!—a man arrived at our door saying I had to empty the kitchen so he could spray for insects. I was furious but, I hope, I kept that to myself, removing the contents from every cupboard and drawer and piling them in the living room.

After the man left, I restocked the cupboards and resumed unpacking, shuffling around the house in slow-motion, confused about where to put things, and not caring anyway.

I longed for familiar faces, familiar voices, and especially familiar smells. But instead, only that strange odor wafted through our windows—that thick, pungent, sweet, moist stink. Was it decay?

That sticky, moldering smell radiated out of the earth and crawled in the air and forced its way into our house and our noses and clung to our clothes and bedding and furniture. For days it had made my stomach sick and left me light-headed. I hadn’t experienced anything similar since being pregnant.

The dense, damp reeking of the place threatened to overpower me. I slumped into a chair, my head in my hands, exhausted from trying to make that house our home. Push through it, I told myself. You have to push through it.

And the heat, the heat! Would I ever get used to wearing sweat-drenched clothes day and night?

Fading, I wandered down the hall. You’re such a failure.

And then anger hit like a chubasco storm. I was angry we had to take cold showers, angry at mosquitoes that dive-bombed us all night, angry we had to carry groceries home under a scorching equatorial sun, leaving us sick. Angry at odors. Angry at my ineptitude.

My anger was a sign of my crushed spirit, and “who can bear a crushed spirit?” (Proverbs 18:14, NET Bible)

I suppose in some dark, wrinkled back corner of my mind I knew God knew about my struggles, about my deep fatigue after traveling for a month with little kids, and about my immaturity—I had just turned 29.

Now I know that He knew, but that reality hadn’t made its way from my brain to my heart and my everyday life. If I had calmed down, I might have remembered that the Lord hovers close to those crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

But I was stuck—stuck in culture shock,
stuck in foreignness, stress, and discouragement,
and distracted from quieting myself in His presence.

I could only gasp, Please, God, get me out of here.

A couple of times in my lifetime I’ve had the air knocked out of me, figuratively speaking, when I had no strength or interest in fighting to make life work. In Lomalinda, though, it wasn’t a blow that knocked the air out of me—it was a slow pummeling.

I returned to the kitchen and stooped toward the suitcase strewn with towels, address book, tools, shortwave radio, cookware, toothpaste, spices, and reading glasses—but the ground lurched. I felt disoriented, topsy-turvy.

I stepped back from the suitcase.

“How long, O Lord? How long? 
What if life doesn’t return to normal 
in months, or years, or even ever . . . ? 
What if things get worse? 
What if everything will not be okay?” 

After that, I couldn’t move. Undone.

God,” I prayed,
You got this all wrong
when You sent us to this place.

What could You have been thinking?
(From Chapter 8, 

My meltdown—
my unexpected,
regrettable shut-down—
had only just begun.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Sometimes writing about the hard stuff is too much

I'm struggling to write today's post.

I can’t find words to write about painful memories—about my failure, about discouragement, desperate emotions, and the meltdown I had a few days after arriving in Lomalinda.

And so I will wait for the words to come. I’ll wait for wisdom and perspective to make their way into my heart and mind.

I’ll wait for clarity on lessons I learned.

I’ll wait for a message to share with you.

C’mon back next week because 
I want to encourage you 
for the days when you experience your own failure, 
discouragement, emotions, and meltdowns.

Noticing the good stuff, finding the joy

I began to notice more good stuff going on in Lomalinda .     God was offeri ng me new opportunities. He was offering me a new perspectiv...