Author: heykarrieann

On the 10th Anniversary of the Day That Changed Everything

I’ve known it was coming for a few months now. I’ve thought and rethought and thought again how to spend it. Then somehow, time streaked by, and it’s here—and I’m unprepared. I’d wanted to drive down to Dallas and visit one of the sites connected to that weekend. I might do that today. I’d wanted to get a hotel room downtown and just get away from the suburban nightmare for a day, but it was hard to justify the price, so I didn’t book anything. It’s strange to commemorate the anniversary of a tragedy. We know how to celebrate anniversaries of happy things. But awful things … how do we do that?

Some might wonder, “Why would someone even want to commemorate a tragedy?” Anyone wondering that is probably extremely unacquainted with grief or loss. I think anyone with any experience of loss knows that it’s important to remember such anniversaries, even if they can’t quite articulate why to themselves or others. And since articulating is what I do, let me try to answer that question: Because bearing witness to life-changing events and incidents is essential to human dignity. Failing to bear witness is dehumanizing.

Trauma, by its very nature, chips away at the core of the imago Dei in a person’s soul. It takes away their voice, their relationships, and their power. Rehumanization is needed, but sadly, people who experience trauma are often further traumatized when they try to reach out to others for support and are ignored. The dehumanization sinks to new depths as they try to use their voice, but it’s ignored again. They try to build new connections, but they are rejected. They work to start over and rebuild, but their efforts keep being knocked down.

So, to not acknowledge, to not remember, to not honor that day that marks the 24-hour period where life went from life to living death is to feed the living death even more. It’s to dehumanize even further. To acknowledge, to remember, to honor the horror of it all, the anguish and pain, is to take a bold and brave step toward acknowledging our own or others’ humanity, their value, their status as an image bearer of God.

Blessed are those who have such friends. Anguished are those who don’t. If no one will remember it with us, then we must remember it alone, bearing the additional crushing pain of wishing that someone was there beside us, that someone cared enough to know what day it was, to know that it had been coming, and to bear witness that it mattered. That it still matters. That WE matter. That sometimes, in a twisted and ironic way, the only thing of value left in our lives, the only thing that’s precious, is our pain.

And to be honest, it’s actually not that strange when we remember how much that pain has cost us. It’s valuable precisely because it’s taken away so much from us, and in a sense, honoring that pain is really just a back-door way to honor the loss of everything the pain has taken from us. That it took health, opportunities, relationships, rites-of-passages, marriages, children, homes, bank accounts, community, friends, joy, peace, hope, and any kind of sense that the world is safe or good. That it robbed us of life and years and experiences that can’t be restored.

And so, today I will remember. Somehow, in some way, I will remember, even though I do it alone. I will remember what happened to me. I will remember what it felt like. I will remember what it looked like. I will reflect on the trajectory it set me on. That it somehow put me on a path that even ten years later, I can’t find a freeway exit for, but am stuck on this same road, not able to get back to the road of life, the road of hope, the road of opportunity.

And then, as I’ve been trying to do for the past ten years, I will do my best to keep going. I will do my best to not give up. I will do my best to not let the anguish, the rage, and the terror consume me. I will try to care for others in the ways I haven’t been cared for. Where possible, I will shake the dust from my feet and leave the relationships and environments characterized by the superficiality and idolatry of the North Dallas suburbs, where they just don’t even know what they don’t know.

And I will try to plug my ears to Satan and remember Jesus, who said, “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32).

He will bear witness with me.

Love Draws Near

It was my first broken heart. I was a junior in college, dating the person I thought I would marry. But then, instead of a proposal, I was hit head-on with a breakup instead. Reeling from the shock and emotional pain, I called a friend on the day of the breakup. And I’ll never forget what she did.

She came over to my apartment, towing her pale pink sleeping bag under her arm. She walked into my room, laid her sleeping bag on the floor next to my bed, and spent the night so that I wouldn’t be alone. While more than twenty years have gone by since that painful summer night, the memory is forever etched on my mind because of the power of her physical presence. In other words, she was with me. And by being with me in my distress, she reflected the very heart of God … Continue reading on Tabletalk Magazine.

Naomi’s “10-Year Challenge”

At the time of writing, it seems as though the “10-Year Challenge” has resurfaced on social media. If Facebook were a high school classmate, no doubt it would earn the superlative “Most Likely to Tempt to Envy or Depression” by a landslide.

Now we get to see even more of the seemingly wonderful lives of others as they compare the single, childless, apartment-with-roommates life they led a decade ago to the happily married, enough children to fill a Christmas card, homeowner (or graduated to a bigger home) life they find themselves in today. Hashtag “Blessed.”

My intention is not to poo-poo on the sincere expression of gratitude or the attempt to find some pockets of light in a dark world. If someone is confident that participating in the 10-Year Challenge will result in glory to God and will benefit their neighbors who view it, then by all means, post it!

But it did strike a personal chord, since 10 years falls in an interesting place for me. As I thought of what my post would look like, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. By the grace of God, likely both.

Ten years ago, I was young, healthy, active, adventurous. I was living in L.A. with a great job, a great (at the time) support system, a great condo decorated in the spirit of Anthropologie, active in ministry, surrounded with friends. Was it perfect? By no means. But life was, for the most part, happy, good, fruitful, and it made sense.

Today, I am oldish (dreaded “middle-aged”), chronically ill, living in a room of a house that belongs to someone else, pretty sure I will never be a wife, almost positive I will never be a mother, continually stressed out about ever being able to afford a home to live in, and doing my best to scrape together remnants of friends and a support system. Is it all bad and awful? By no means. But life is, for the most part, sad, regretful, empty, seemingly lost, too late for redemption, and not making sense.

As I pondered these things, I was reminded of a woman who understands. A woman who also would have (and did) find the 10-Year Challenge in her life pretty discouraging. We find this woman in the Old Testament book of Ruth: Naomi. Ten years earlier, by her own account, she left Israel full. She had a husband. She had sons. They were setting out for Moab due to famine in Israel.

While in Moab, she seemed to be getting fuller. Her two sons married. The family was growing. They had food to eat and could support themselves. But then, in a narrative arc that shares similarities with Job, Naomi loses her husband. Difficult to be sure, but at least she had her two adult sons to provide for her. That is, until not just one, but both of them died.

After living in Moab for ten years, Naomi returns to Israel accompanied by her plucky daughter-in-law Ruth. Imagine moving back to a place you’d lived ten years earlier, but with a life that had imploded since you left. I know what that feels like. I was in L.A. for ten years before I had to move back to Texas, the land of my childhood and college years. I didn’t want to see anyone from the previous life I’d led so many years ago. I didn’t want to face the conversations of “What’s been going on with you for the past ten years?” After all, who wants to hear that story? And I certainly didn’t want to tell it.

That’s what Naomi had to do. The “whole town was stirred” by her return, and the women asked, “Is this Naomi?” She told them not to call her Naomi (which means “pleasant”), but Mara (which means “bitter”) because she left Israel full but has now come back empty. And not just by bad luck, but “the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.”

There’s lots that could be said, but my purpose in the post isn’t to do a Bible study on Ruth. The point is, Naomi’s 10-Year Challenge only reminded her of how good life used to be and how awful it was now. She wasn’t growing into fulfillment and fullness as the years of her life passed and time began to write its lines upon her face. She was caught in a spiral of senseless-seeming loss that put her in a financially and relationally vulnerable situation, and life became more of a living death.

What about you? Can you relate to Naomi? Does the thought of the 10-Year Challenge evoke more lament and grief in you than lightheartedness and glee? If you can’t relate to Naomi, do you have friends who can? Brothers and sisters in the body of Christ who can? If no one comes to mind, will you go find them? Because they need you.

To those grieved by the 10-Year Challenge, I have good news for us. If you know how the book of Ruth ends, you know that God’s purpose was to make Naomi full and pleasant once again. Stories like Naomi’s and Job’s can be a double-edged sword in that the ending is partially encouraging, partly discouraging. It’s encouraging because we see the full purposes of God played out and the story has a happy ending that includes temporal blessing. We know that’s true for us spiritually and eschatologically, but we also know it’s not a promise that things will end up full and pleasant during the rest of our earthly lives.

We need patience. And we need hope. The fullness will one day fill the emptiness to overflowing. The bitterness of life will one day give way to pleasantness. Not simply in a disembodied spirit existence in the sky somewhere, but with a real body on a real new earth in the presence of God. The 10-Year Challenge is only discouraging because it’s situated in the middle of the story. But the story isn’t over yet. And I promise, for everyone who loves Jesus and is loved by the triune God, our stories will end just as wonderfully as Naomi’s and Job’s. It’s the Eternity Challenge, and it will be worth the wait.  

A Brief Letter to the Christmas Have-Nots

Dear Friend,

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that the holidays end up reminding you more of the world’s brokenness than its beauty. Or perhaps better said, that your little piece of the world is more brokenness than beauty. I’m sorry that social media just makes you feel more isolated and alone when you see the spouses, children, and homes that you don’t have. Maybe you once had them and lost them; maybe you never had them at all. But either way, it hurts.

I’m sorry that there’s so much injustice and inequity in the world. That doing the right things and making wise choices didn’t always lead to good outcomes for you, while you see those who made poor choices end up with great outcomes. Life in a fallen world doesn’t play by the “rules,” and I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that you’ve hoped and prayed for children for years, but you still don’t have them. I’m sorry that you’ve hoped and prayed for marriage for years, but you still don’t have a spouse. I’m sorry that you work really hard, but you still can’t afford a house. I’m sorry that you long for friends, but they seem really hard to find. I’m sorry if you currently have those things and they bring more pain than joy. I’m sorry that you maybe had those things and lost them, and you wonder if you’ll ever feel ok or be happy again.

You’re not the only one. Truly. I know it feels like you are. And in your immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, you might be the only one. But there are many walking a road similar to yours, even if you don’t know them or see them and social media makes it seem like they’re non-existent.

To the sad, the depressed, the lonely, the confused, the poor, the brokenhearted and heavy-laden, Jesus came. He came to restore shalom to a world destroyed by sin, and in these “dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” He is our only hope, and only in Him are the shattered pieces of creation refashioned into a mosaic of beauty, truth, and goodness. The next time He comes to earth, He’s bringing this kingdom with Him. And all will be made right when He appears. So run to Him, walk to Him, or crawl to Him.

“O Christ, save me from the pain of holidays and special days! Lead me, O Lord, through this layered confusion of celebration and lament, of things present, and things past. Let me make of this day a new thing. Though holidays may be hard days, O God, by the movement of your mercies may they also become holy days, teaching me again and again to entrust to you my many griefs, as often as these unavoidable days uncover and reveal them. Indeed let me learn, year by year, O Lord, how this long pain might be transformed into the groanings of a faith actively yearning toward a glorious and certain resurrection.” – Every Moment Holy, Volume 2, pages 287-289.

Human Frailty and Earthly Madness: Reflections on an ER Visit

Life can change in a split second—and often through everyday, mundane activities. That happened to me last week while in the midst of eating dinner, I started choking on a fishbone that got lodged in my throat. It was around 6pm, and I was at the ER by 7pm. I know that going to the ER is no one’s favorite activity, but for me, it’s especially and particularly difficult for a couple of reasons.

One, I’ve been quarantined for the most part for the past two years due to my chronic health issues and concerns over how I would fare with COVID, and going to the ER runs a bit counter to that endeavor. Two, the primary issue with my ongoing chronic mystery illness is what has been not-so-eloquently named Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Or, if you prefer a simpler but far more irritating name, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (which is irritating because of how poorly the name matches the actual experience of it).

The reason that number two is such a big deal is that I am usually winding down by 8pm every night and going to sleep by 9pm. For years. This is my rhythm. This is how I manage to function during the day enough to work a full-time job from home. Staying up past 9pm for me, the best I can describe it, would be like someone waking up a healthy person at 3am by dumping water on them and making them go run three miles. That’s what it feels like.

Of course, it was an unusually busy night at the ER. One woman with her ill daughter, I overheard, waited five hours in the waiting room before she was brought back. And I got there at 7pm. I didn’t know how I was going to make it until the wee hours, but I also knew that choking to death on a fishbone lodged in my throat wasn’t going to work either, so there I sat. For hours. Way past my bedtime.

I think a fair portion of what’s dysfunctional in me is my nervous system, which under severe stress like I was that night will start doing something crazy. My legs start shaking and flopping around out of control. That hasn’t happened in a long time, but that night was quite the show in that regard. Thankfully, though, not until I was brought into a room, though it would have entertained everyone in the lobby, I’m sure.

As I sat there undistracted by my phone (which was almost out of battery and I couldn’t use it), I thought. A lot. For four hours. And then some more. And here’s what I thought about:

1. We as humans are so much weaker than we like to think we are.

It’s kind of ridiculous to think that something that was as thin as a thread and as short as my fingernail could potentially end my life. I’m a lot bigger than a fishbone. But as amazing and adaptive and wonderful a creation as the human body is—as much as it can overcome amazing adversities and odds—it is also still very weak and fragile. It really is only the sovereignty of God as He breathes life into our lungs that gets us through fifteen seconds of one minute of one hour of one day.

2. We as humans are so much more impotent and ignorant than we like to think we are.

I know that there are skilled, wise, compassionate medical professionals out there, but those aren’t the ones I tend to end up with. After four hours, a CT scan, and what I’m sure will be thousands of dollars billed to my insurance company, they really couldn’t do anything other than tell me that it wasn’t going to kill me or obstruct my airway, and that I’d have to go see an ENT because they don’t have the nasopharyngeal scope in the ER. Seriously? That’s another story, but the point is, as much as we have discovered about the human body over thousands of years—and to be sure, many of those discoveries have been amazing, lifesaving, life-advancing discoveries—anyone who is chronically ill or has a mystery illness can easily tell you that for every one thing that medical science knows or has discovered, there’s probably a thousand things they don’t know or have yet to discover. It really is only the omnipotent, omniscient God who comprehensively understands the human bodies and earth that He has made.

3. Life in this world often doesn’t play by the rules.

Among other ideas for my memoir title, I think An Ecclesiastes Girl in a Proverbs World sums up what I feel like a lot of the time. Things just don’t seem to ever go right or according to plan. And sometimes, it just seems flat-out unfair. I try to steward my health by eating salmon, and a stupid little bone gets stuck in my throat and compromises my ability to speak, eat, drink, lay down, and breathe. The ER staff kept affirming that I was a higher priority, yet I kept seeing people who came after me get taken back before me. People who could talk, eat, drink, and weren’t choking. The guy who came in wearing no shirt who burned his stomach frying chicken strips (ostensibly with his shirt off at the time as well, or else I don’t know how he would have burned his stomach) got taken back immediately and was in and out while I sat there in the waiting room. Life doesn’t play by the “rules” in the sense that wise choices don’t always lead to better outcomes. We like to think so because that would give us control and therefore quell the persistent, low-grade anxiety of living in a world gone haywire through sin, but it just doesn’t work that way.

4. Being God’s child doesn’t lessen the suffering we experience.

All of these four truths can be hard to swallow (pun twistedly intended), but this one may be the hardest perhaps. And that’s the truth that being God’s child really doesn’t lessen the suffering we experience. It doesn’t soften the blows. It doesn’t tone down the intensity of the storms. Sometimes, whether stated or implied, it seems like there’s a belief floating around that being God’s child grants us the equivalent of a Disneyland Fast Pass for earthly travails. To be sure, I prayed a lot that night. I prayed and asked God that I would be seen quickly and wouldn’t have to wait given my health issues. But that didn’t really happen. I waited as long as everyone else. I prayed that I’d have really wise and compassionate care. To be fair, I’d say that somewhat happened. But the point is, from a temporal perspective, God didn’t push me through the waiting room faster because I’m His child and the other people aren’t. I didn’t get VIP treatment from God in my suffering. What I did have was the conviction by faith that He would strengthen me to endure, that I wasn’t abandoned even though I wasn’t temporally favored, and that death or life, no matter which one, would ultimately lead me to life eternal.

I was tempted to add a number 5 on the topic of the dehumanization that often occurs within the context of severe illness or injury in the medical system, but that’s another topic for another time. And if anyone’s curious, I’m doing better now, chewing very carefully, and a bit hesitant to ever eat salmon again.

Entitlement: When Grace Isn’t Grace

Few people would disagree that a sense of entitlement permeates our culture. But as the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). While shifts in worldview over the past few decades may have poured gasoline on the fire, a sinful sense of entitlement was sparked for the first time in the garden of Eden, and since that day, this tendency to sinful entitlement has been embedded in our fallen DNA. Click here to keep reading at Tabletalkmagazine.com…

Are You “Godlier” Than God?

They’re subtle. They’re just biblical enough to sound right. But the greatest deceptions are the ones that contain the most truth. As I reflect on things I’ve seen and heard among Christians over the years, sometimes I have to wonder: Are we trying to be godlier than God?

As humans, we tend toward extremes rather than hitting the balance. We don’t take things far enough, or we take them way too far. It’s easy to do. But when it comes to spiritual things, the results can be damaging, even devastating, when truth is bloated and applied beyond the bounds of what God Himself has prescribed. And when these quasi-truths are paraded as truth, people can be damaged and led away from the heart of God Himself.

I’m sure there are many examples, but I’ll speak to a couple that burden my heart the most.

One way Christians sometimes seem to be godlier than God is in the area of grief. The truth is that death stinks. Death, in and of itself, is bad. Which is why the concept of turning funerals into “celebrations of life” can so easily miss the mark. To be clear, I know there are times when someone’s death can in some ways bring relief to family and friends. When someone has been suffering long with pain, it’s a relief for the person to be released from their pain and their soul soar to God. But even then, death is still separation, and separation is still bad. It is still wrong. It still hurts. We weren’t created to be separated from the people and things we love.

Therefore, attempting to mask over the grief with celebration can potentially be harmful, because people need to grieve. Grieving is normal. In fact, it’s kind of abnormal to NOT grieve in the face of death or separation or loss. Consider this, if you want your funeral to be a celebration of life—your funeral is not for you. Your funeral is for those whom you leave behind. You won’t need to grieve, but they will. And perhaps a celebration isn’t in their best interest (then again, perhaps it is. Again, I’m not saying that’s wrong to do. Just pointing out it’s not necessarily godlier or better to do so in all situations).

I’ll often hear people laud the fact that the widow of a man who died was smiling and singing and praising God at his funeral. And of course, that’s well and good if that’s what is in her heart and is helpful to her. But it troubles me that Christians see rejoicing in the face of death as the only appropriate expression of strong faith, the only response worthy of emulation. Can strong faith not cry, grieve, and mourn at the funeral? And for days, weeks, and months after? If not, then Jesus certainly wasn’t an example of strong faith when He wept over dead Lazarus.

Strong faith cries. Strong faith grieves. Let’s not try to be godlier than God when death comes, and let’s certainly not impose on others an ethic that’s more stoic than biblical. While Christians should absolutely be the ones with the most hope in the face of death, they should also be the ones who see and feel the profound horrors of death the most.

As R.C. Sproul notes in his teaching series “Surprised by Suffering”:

“One of the things that distresses me in the Christian community is that somehow this idea has gotten around that it is wrong for Christians to grieve or mourn. And that when we go to a Christian funeral, we should see those who have just lost a loved one rejoicing and grinning and smiling and having toast unto the glory of God because their child or husband or wife has now simply passed onto glory, and isn’t it a wonderful thing to go from this world to heaven. Well yes, it’s a wonderful thing to go from this world to heaven. But when Jesus went to Lazarus’ funeral, He cried because He entered into the pain of the situation that comes from separation. Yes I can rejoice that my loved ones have gone to a better place, but I and those who are left behind have to face the enormous burden of living life without the presence here of someone that we love. And that’s an occasion for grief and mourning. We need to learn how to mourn and to allow people to express their grief.”

Or to put “godlier than God” another way, let’s not try to be more “spiritual” than the earthy humans God created us to be and wants us to be.

Another way it seems Christians sometimes seek to be godlier than God is in the area of rewards. The Bible speaks often and plainly about storing up treasure in heaven. It speaks clearly that those who have given up certain worldly treasures will have treasure in heaven to recompense what they gave up. It strongly suggests that those who suffer more in this life will receive greater reward in the eternal state. For those who suffer in this life, it can be a great motivator.

But some Christians want to cry “foul” at this notion. To them, it seems dirty. They argue that Jesus is the reward being spoken of (contrary to what the text literally says), and any Christian who would want rewards other than Jesus is an opportunistic spiritual gold-digger.

What’s interesting here is that God Himself is the one who has chosen to provide motivation to His people in this very “earthy” way. He knows who we are. He knows our frailties. After all, He’s the one who made us, so He’s the one who knows best how to motivate us, especially in our fallen state.

And so if God Himself is offering rewards as a motivator for godly living, how can we be “godlier” than that by spiritualizing all the references to rewards and calling them dirty? Could the pursuit of rewards go off in a bad direction? Of course… anything can. Could people be motivated to please God for the wrong reasons? Of course. We do it all the time. The point is, we can’t reduce or alter what God has said because we’re afraid that people might take it in a bad direction. We need to let the truth stand as God has delivered it without trying to doctor it. When it comes to rewards, we can’t try to be godlier than God.

On this topic, R.C. Sproul says the following:

“There are degrees of reward given in heaven. I’m surprised that this answer surprises so many people… We owe much of this confusion to the Protestant emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We hammer away at that doctrine, teaching emphatically that a person does not get to heaven through his good works. We emphasize this doctrine to the extent that people conclude good works are insignificant and have no bearing at all upon the Christian’s future life… Again, it may be surprising to people, but I’d say there are at least twenty-five occasions where the New Testament clearly teaches that we will be granted rewards according to our works. Jesus frequently holds out the reward motif as the carrot in front of the horse—’great will be your reward in heaven’ if you do this or that. We are called to work, to store up treasures for ourselves in heaven.” (Now, That’s a Good Question! pp. 287-289)

All to say, just because something sounds very spiritual doesn’t mean that it is. Just because something seems very spiritual doesn’t mean that it’s what God wants or what He says in His Word. The problem with culture, even Christian culture, is that when it’s the air we breathe every day, we can become blind to where we get off track. It can be difficult to have clear eyes and ask good questions when we just assume that what we’ve heard is right without really exercising critical thinking and discernment to test everything, and after that, to hold fast to what is good.

 

Prose & Poetry

Words give voice—voice to what has been, what is, what could be. Voice to what has been gained, lost, or never obtained. Voice to facts, and voice to feelings. Words are the content, but content needs form—a vehicle.

Often, prose can get the job done (and get it done pretty well). Often, prose is strong enough to carry the heavy weight of feeling and emotion. But sometimes, it’s just not. Sometimes we need something else. Sometimes we need poetry.

When the weight of profound beauty is too ethereal and transcendent and eludes our grasp, prose will not do. We need poetry.

When the pain is too brutal and raw and crushing and disorienting, prose will not do. We need poetry.

When our souls encounter what pushes against the bounds of temporal existence, and see things that are beyond what the eye can see, and feel what isn’t altogether understood within the confines of the material world, prose will not do. We need poetry.

When our hearts can’t be restrained by formalism and need the freedom of hungry, searching linguistic exploration, prose will not do. We need poetry.

My Life Fell Apart 5 Years Ago Today

Note: This was actually written almost two years ago, but I never posted it. So you can do some basic math and add two years to whatever you read for an accurate timeline. I was recently inspired to post after speaking with an acquaintance I knew in Los Angeles, and it helped me remember that although very few of us know what it’s like to experience what I’ve written below, there are a few people out there who know exactly what I mean. And so…this one’s for him and everyone else who can relate to our stories.

Five years ago today, I lay on the floor of a stranger’s house in Austin, unable to speak or move. What was supposed to be a fun weekend, unbeknownst to be, became a hinge upon which my entire life would swing. After being rushed to the first ER, and subsequently released because they couldn’t find anything wrong (despite the fact I had to be carried out of the ER because I couldn’t even walk), I was driven back to Dallas and promptly re-admitted to my second ER.

Some illnesses are merely a mild blip on the radar for some people, so it’s sometimes hard for others to imagine what a horrible case of mono can do to a person. It’s difficult to even know what to say in this post, because volumes could be written. I could talk about all of the horrifying symptoms I experienced for months, which eventually led to other health issues that have completely derailed normal adult life for the past 5 years. But I won’t, at least not today. What I will say is that I had no idea, before this happened, how sick it was possible to feel, or how utterly helpless one feels when the medical establishment has no insight whatsoever regarding how you can get better. You’re all alone, because doctors can’t help you, you are too weak and unknowledgeable to help yourself, and you’re not wealthy enough to find someone who might actually be able to help.

But believe it or not, being sick really hasn’t been the worst part of the last five years by a longshot—it’s everything else that I’ve lost (partly due to the sickness, partly due to other factors). I struggle for the perfect metaphor, and I’m not sure I have one, but the best I can do is the image of an earthquake—a big one. Imagine being in your home when “the big one” strikes (Californians will understand me here). Imagine seeing, one by one, in violently rapid procession, all of your most treasured possessions falling to the floor and shattering, one after the other, as you stand there helpless, watching your world literally crashing before your very eyes. You are helpless to stop it. When the earth stops shaking, you survey the damage and realize that nothing of the life you knew is left intact. You are surrounded by brokenness that cannot be restored or put back together, and something inside your own soul breaks in response.

Though still not yet the worst part, many other things have been worse than sickness: leaving a career and ministry that I loved, that in many ways was my life, in a complicated mess of miscommunication and hurt that has taken years to recover from. Jumping from that into another ministry position that turned out to be one of the worst experiences of my life, only to be ended abruptly with no advance notice, and leaving me without any recourse or resources with which to continue life in California. A new job didn’t come fast enough, and my body and soul were so worn out by that point, I spent weeks having to sell the majority of my belongings—furniture, clothing, housewares, and everything I had accumulated over 10 years of adult life—and reluctantly returned to Texas empty, literally and figuratively, where things have only been exponentially worse. Within a week of returning, when I finally stopped running on stress and adrenaline from the previous two excruciating years, my body went all-out crazy on me and completely broke down on every level. But again, that was not even the worst part.

The few belongings I could take with me have been sitting in a storage unit for almost three years now—three years. And to be honest, I relate more to my things in storage than I can relate to any friend or acquaintance. We both sit in a cramped, small, and dark holding cell, having the ability to be used and to be useful, yet being trapped in a state of impotence and isolation. Partly due to physical limitations, and partly due to who knows what, I’ve almost reached three years of unemployment. Not that I don’t have part-time jobs here or there, but I am utterly incapable of providing for myself. I don’t understand how it’s possible to be unemployed for three years. I am a hustler, not known for laziness, and no matter how many higher degrees I have or how much experience I have, I have been trapped, careerless, with no way to simply even provide for my own needs, despite desperately wanting to do so. Literally hundreds of resumes have gone out with no calls coming back. It simply makes no sense.

As a writer, my mind has thought of various books and articles that could be written, that should be written, by somebody, and one of them would be titled When God Wastes Your Life. We’re all familiar with the popular concept of not wasting your life, which is actually a pretty exciting thought, as we imagine challenging mission trips or ministries or risks we might take. But to tell the truth, that’s a whole lot easier than desperately wanting to live and not waste your life, yet it seems that God is content to let you languish for years in a storage unit, while time goes on and the world spins on without you, and even if you ever do get out, maybe it will just all be too late to start over and live again. And of course I speak from the human perspective. Somehow in a way that makes no sense to me, if the Bible is true and God is true, it can’t be a waste, despite a mountain of circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

Though in some ways the book of Job does not comfort me, since it seemed that his ordeal was over in a matter of months, and it’s hard to relate when your own story goes from months to years (are people right when they keep calling this a “season” of my life? What if it’s just the rest of my life?), he does say some things that I’m glad he said, because I’ve said them, too. It’s nice to know that someone else has felt that way, and communicated it in the exact words and mental pictures that I would have used. These are words that make the Pollyanna-esque squirm, but words that I am utterly grateful for:

“I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow.” Ps. 88

“He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths. He has stripped me from my glory and taken the crown from my head. He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, and my hope has he pulled up like a tree.” Job 19

So no, having had life-changing illness has not been the worst part at all. It’s also not the worst part to have had your life as you know it—your career, your friends, your ministry, your home—completely uprooted and destroyed, and to literally go back to square one at the beginning of your thirties.

The worst part by far is wanting desperately to start over, to accept the losses of the past and courageously press on to create a new life, yet to be forced to live in the essence of a prison from which you can’t escape, a refugee camp from which you can’t progress, or a hallway in which every single door remains locked, no matter how hard you knock or how much you push. This inability to financially provide for myself has forced me to live in a very difficult and isolated location, far removed from the city, culture, diversity, or opportunity, stuck in a remote suburb where the unmarried are viewed as an odd cultural artifact, and life revolves around family and children and lots of money. Before there was a whole big exciting world to explore; now my world has shrunk to existing in a 10’x10′ room in another’s home. Not having a job means not being able to pay rent and live on my own, which means having to live as a strange hybrid of a child and an 85 year old and not like an independent adult. Living the life of an 85 year old must be bad enough when you’re 85, but when you’re 35, that’s a whole different story. It’s dehumanizing in a way that’s hard for others to understand.

This is what is unbearable and completely inscrutable—why is God seeming to waste what are supposedly the best and strongest years of my life? The years I’m supposed to be getting married, having a family, advancing in my career, or serving in ministry? And even if this does turn out to be a “season,” though a long one, will it be too late to live again once it’s over? Will it be too late for marriage, family, career, or ministry? The rest of the world hasn’t stopped, and time hasn’t stopped, while I’ve been stuck. In our twenties, life feels like a rising firework…shooting up and up and up….we’re not sure where we’re going, but we expect that something will blossom and we’ll explode into a beautiful display of light and color as we accomplish our goals, whether it’s marriage, having a family, developing a successful career, or involvement in ministry. But what happens when you shoot up and up and up, and then you just disappear with no explosion, just like the dud firework, as all that seeming rising potential just vanishes into nothing?

I haven’t blogged in a very long time. For the past year and a half, it’s just been too dark to say anything. Despite my ability to use words, sometimes there just aren’t words, or at least any that should be spoken, so I’ve said nothing. I don’t know why I’m saying them now, except maybe for two reasons: one, to remind myself and others that I still exist, that I’m still alive, that I’m still a person, and in some small way, connect to living people even if only through technology; second, to encourage anyone out there who resonates with any of this in any small way. Because everything I’ve experienced and am experiencing is just too bad to not have some small good come from it, and if that small good is encouraging someone else, then so be it.

I don’t have a conclusion here—I’m still trapped in the middle. To me, there’s nothing worse than treating the harsh realities of life like a T.V. sitcom that has the inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion shoved into a convenient 30 minute package. Life doesn’t work that way, at least most of the time, and this blog post reflects that reality. There’s not an ending, just a hanging and suspended pause, because I don’t know what comes next. I’m just metaphorically sweeping up all the pieces from the earthquake into a pile before your reading eyes—examining them, reflecting upon them, mourning over them, pained by them, but not in a place to make any conclusions or wrap them up with a tidy bow. I suppose the best that any of us can do is simply to look at all those broken pieces, which make our hearts feel so broken and our lives feel so broken, and with the tiniest speck of trust that we can muster, believe that God knows how to make a mosaic out of them if He wants to.

 

The 10 People Who Impacted Me Most in 2018

As I tried to think about the positive aspects of 2018 and how to categorize and convey them, I realized that for me, it wasn’t so much about great stuff that happened, but rather, the people whose lives and actions had the most profound impact on my life. It was really good to spend time thinking about these people who have been shining stars against a dark night sky. So here you have it: the 10 people who impacted my life the most in 2018.

This is not in order of importance, but mostly in order of when I met them or had the experience with them that stamped itself upon my mind:

  1. Joe

I barely know Joe and do not even know his last name. We only ever had one or two conversations. But Joe was my neighbor at the apartment complex when I was back in California. I was making my amazing gluten-, dairy-, sugar-free pumpkin pie, and in the middle of the process, I realized I didn’t have baking powder. Since I’d met him once and he was a genuinely nice guy with no whiff of creepy, I thought I’d stop by to see if he had any. He didn’t, but when I got home after work the next day, there was a can of baking powder on my doorstep. The simple kindness of a stranger. So I left a card on his door for Christmas. He in turn left a card on my door for New Year’s. We never even saw each other again, but it was one of those situations where you meet someone who is genuinely kind and thoughtful to strangers. You never know how much little things can mean to someone. We tend to think that we have to do something huge to impact another person, but Joe showed that that’s not the case. More often than not, it just means choosing to take a little bit of time and a little bit of money and a little bit of “inconvenience” to bless someone else a lot by doing something really kind and unexpected.

2. Taylor

Taylor and I have been friends for about 5 years now, and she’s a treasure who is really good at keeping up long-distance friendships. But how she most impacted me in 2018 was during the tailbone incident mentioned in the previous post. She was the one who took off work, got groceries, helped me with doctor appointments, and slept on an airbed in my living room and helped me until my dad flew in from Texas. She was there when I was completely unable to do anything for myself for three days and was so terrified. She is the friend that you want beside you in the trenches, and I am so honored that she would be friends with me. The story of Taylor shows that a large part of the time, impacting someone else has to do with presence. It’s about showing up and being there. The power of presence cannot be underestimated.

3. The Staff at Grace to You

In addition to Taylor, other colleagues at Grace to You impacted me with their service on my behalf during the tailbone incident. Jessica came with Taylor and me to appointments, she ran errands all over town, and she did all of that despite the fact that we hadn’t known each other for very long or very well. Cameron and John moved a mattress on a truck back and forth from Taylor’s to my place so that my dad would have somewhere to sleep when he arrived. And my wonderful boss Steve was, per usual, completely supportive and always caring just as much about my personal life as my professional life. Grace to You is an amazing place filled with amazing people, and I’m so thankful for my time there. And again, the recurrent theme here is presence and practical help. It’s great to tell people you’re praying for them. But if you live anywhere near them, they might rather have some practical help and have you be the ANSWER to their prayers, if you know what I mean.

4. Dr. Zieser

When I returned to Texas, I had a premonition about a month before the neurological incident that I should sign up to be a patient of Dr. Z. This was a bit of a sacrifice financially, but I was intrigued by the model of his practice where you pay a flat monthly fee for as much access to him as you need via text, phone, email, and in-person appointments. He’s a Christian, and he truly wants to help people, which is why he moved away from the prevailing medical model to this one, where he can spend unhurried time with his patients. And while he hasn’t been able to diagnose or “fix” anything, he’ll never know how much it means to me that he actually cares. He listens, he respects my medical knowledge and wishes, and he always does everything that he can to help without making my life harder by having to fight with my doctor. I feel better going to see him even if he can’t fix anything, because in a sense, I believe he DOES help my body and soul through his genuine care and compassion. If only every doctor had Dr. Z’s heart, I truly think that the medical world would be transformed for the better.

5. Christina

I had been interviewing for a job in June when the whole neurological incident went down. That put me in a really weird situation when I got offered the job. I wasn’t sure whether or not to tell them what was going on, but I was pretty sure that I just wasn’t going to be able to make it to the office in the morning because of the CFS, apart from whether or not I had MS. Problem was, I don’t have someone else providing for me, and I desperately needed a job to pay my bills, so I felt stuck between what seemed like doing what was best for me versus doing what was best for others. But I firmly believe that integrity demands honesty and seeking not to disadvantage others, even if that means that I get put in a really bad situation myself. Sometimes we are rewarded in this life for our integrity, and sometimes we’re not (e.g., Joseph landing in prison despite his integrity in the situation with Potiphar’s wife). You never know which way it’s going to work out for you, but true integrity knows that it doesn’t matter…what’s right is right. I knew there was no way they’d give me a deal to work from home in the morning and come into the office in the afternoon. I was SHOCKED when they did. This was primarily due to my boss Christina, who chose to see all of my strengths and the good things I had to offer instead of simply the fact that I can’t get my body to the office early in the morning. And during all these past months that I’ve gotten to know Christina, I’ve seen her to be an incredible woman. She is an amazing boss, and the more I learn about her story and everything she does for her family, I’m amazed by her courage, strength, compassion, and love. If only everyone could have a boss, and a friend, like her. She truly cares about her employees as people and is flexible and understanding when “life happens.” I love working for and with her. I really think she is Wonder Woman undercover, which I’ve told her on numerous occasions.

6. Quentin

Quentin wanted to be anonymous in his impact. But Amazon blew his cover. After seeing the podiatrist and buying the boot and that not working out, I needed a knee scooter. But they are not cheap, and I’d already spent a lot at this point in the foot fiasco. I asked some people if they knew of any I could borrow and asked them to pray that I could find one. A few days later, a monster-sized Amazon box appeared on the doorstep with my name on it. Inside was a brand-new knee scooter. But I had no idea who sent it to me. I was, of course, blown away by this act of kindness and dying to know who it was so I could properly thank them. I thought it would remain a mystery. But when I went on Amazon to write a thank you card, it generated a template that said “Dear Quentin.” Ratted out by Amazon. A colleague of mine at work and a member of my team, I’d only known Quentin for two months when he so graciously bought and sent this incredible gift to me. Since we work together, I know he doesn’t make a ton of money either, so I imagine this was a sacrifice for him. I am amazed at the generosity of rare, special people like Quentin and know that one day, he’ll be richly rewarded.

7. Dr. Bearman and Richard

Dr. Bearman is a doctor in Los Angeles who specializes in medical cannabis, and Richard is a well known herbalist and teacher in New York. I’d become familiar with their work through two different health docuseries that I’d seen. And since I’ve had to learn to be my own medical advocate and take action, I got their information and sent personal emails to both of them. Dr. Bearman promptly, kindly, and thoroughly answered all of my questions regardless of the fact that I’m not one of his patients and wasn’t paying him anything. When I reached out to Richard, he told me his normal fee for a two hour consult with recommendations, but then he also said that he would accept any amount I can afford, and if I can’t pay anything, he’d do a consult with me anyways. As someone who’s been to many doctors who only take excessive amounts of money, offer no help at all, and just seem annoyed when I ask questions as they run out the door, these two men stood out as bright stars. Practitioners who truly want to help people and make that clear through their actions. I’m profoundly grateful for both of them, the important work they do, and the many people they help.

8. Yoojin

I met Yoojin at an event for working women at the church I’d been visiting since August. We only met briefly and didn’t talk to each other during the event. But a few days later, she emailed me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to get together. This is the kind of initiative that every single Christian needs to have for others, especially new people. I’m honestly not sure why so many people seem so blind to this reality, but I could see that Yoojin clearly “got” it. Within seconds of our meeting at a coffee shop, we were chatting away like old friends as we delved into some similar life circumstances we were both facing. And she’s been so faithful to text, hang out, and just be a true friend. She is beautiful inside and out. She has a husband and family, works as a nurse, and is dealing with her own mystery health issues that are difficult, yet she’s always making time to help and serve others. If everyone in the church were like her, it would absolutely blow the world away.

9. Kimberlee

Sometimes you know pretty quickly when you’re going to be friends with someone. I met Kimberlee at the Saturday morning women’s Bible study that I went to this fall, and she was the group leader. We chatted a bit after my first time there and decided to get lunch the following week. We launched into our life stories at Panera, and I knew we would be friends because we share a particular trait (as do Yoojin and Susan): we are both super honest and transparent about ourselves and our lives. There aren’t any masks or “images” or trying to look and sound better than we are. We both just tell it like it is, and I love that about her. In a few short months, she’s become a treasured friend, and she’s someone that I can truly count on. I’m so glad we found each other in these North Dallas suburbs, both fish out of water in the culture but totally on the same page with each other. She really understands and lives out how to love others.

10. Susan

I also met Susan at the working women’s event, and we were in a discussion group together. I could tell by our discussion that she wasn’t one of those people to just plaster Bible verse platitudes over the painful realities of life, and I remember thinking, “I like this woman.” After the event, she reached out to me as well, and over the past two months, we’ve gotten to know each other as I’m going through my health issues and she’s just gone through an extensive and difficult ankle reconstruction surgery. Like Kimberlee and Yoojin, she’s been an example of what all believers should be about: actively taking initiative and reaching out to others to build relationships. Despite her vast professional accomplishments, she’s so humble and always ready to learn from others. I’m so thankful to have met her and for the ways that she’s been a flicker of light in the dark sky of this year.

If you have some time, I totally encourage you to think about the people who impacted you most in 2018 and why. Once you do that, reach out to them and let them know. They’ll never know unless you tell them, and I promise you it will encourage them.

And then, maybe take some more time to think about the ways that you might leave an impression on others’ lives in 2019. It really just boils down to looking outside yourself to others, trying to put yourself in their shoes, and remembering that Jesus wasn’t joking when He said, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).