Sunday, March 22, 2015

My doctor's theory

Hi Friends,

Top o' the morning to ya. I hope yer feeling cheery and rested. I'm feeling a wee bit Irish today. Not sher if it's because I'm cravin' a bowl o' Lucky Charms (Oh what I'd give fer a bowl o' Lucky Charms), or because I forgot to celebrate St. Patrick's Day last week, or because I have Colin Farrel on the mind, but I suppose it doesn't matter, really.

While we're on the subject o' Colin Farrel, I figure I'll give you a little something special to start your day, ladies (sorry, laddies, the best I can offer you is a bowl o' Lucky Charms from the store down the street. Although it's not a bad offer if I do say so meeself):

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Oh C.F., you and your dark, handsome, intelligent, accent-y ways are a gift to big screens, medium screens, and small screens everywhere. Also, Saving Mr. Banks was a good movie, folks. Worth putting on the Friday night movie list, if you ask me.

Okay. Onto other matters. I have a medical update for all of you who have been praying for wisdom for the doctors trying to diagnose my illness.

On Friday I sat down with a specialist who went over the results of the last few months' medical tests with me. Because my test results were unusual, it's much harder to conclusively diagnose whatever is going on. But he did have some helpful thoughts.

First, he discovered I have way more allergies than I originally thought. Over the years I've gotten many allergy tests revealing scores of significant environmental and food allergies. The doctor's most recent tests revealed I have a lot more allergies than those tests originally indicated. My research indicates that it's not uncommon for people who have had a prolonged infection with the Epstein Barr virus (as I did) to develop new allergies post infection. My recent tests indicated I am allergic to all food except vegetables, turkey, pork and some fruits. So the first piece to this puzzle is knowing that not only has the environment been poisoning my body, but my food has been, too.

The doctor said that he believes there is a close relationship between out-of-control-allergies and autoimmune diseases. He speculated that, given my past with the Epstein Barr virus which causes many autoimmune diseases, it is quite possible that I have an inner ear autoimmune disease. Unfortunately, there is no test to confirm this, nor is there a happy little pill I can take to fix it. Some doctors think that taking chemotherapy or tumor-shrinking drugs is a helpful approach, but I have no desire to go that route, especially as we can't conclusively diagnose this. Thankfully, my doctor doesn't want to go that route either. Instead, he thinks that if I can get my allergies under control with diet changes and weekly allergy shots then my immune system will calm down enough that any autoimmune disease will also be quieted and maybe even resolved.

This makes sense to me. I'm hopeful that he's right and we begin to see improvement with allergy shots and diet changes. I'd love your continued prayers for healing and insight for me and my doctors as we try to resolve this. Because inner ear diseases are so difficult to diagnose, this whole journey is really just a process of elimination — of seeing what treatments work and don't work and then making a diagnosis based on that information. Thank you so much for your faithful prayers and encouragement thus far. You guys are just the greatest.

In the meantime, I had a decent health night last night (two cheers for DECENT!!!!) and was able to go to my friend Laura's birthday party. It was a rip roarin' affair complete with a bonfire in the back yard, a table laden with barbecued delights, forty of my favorite people, a gut-wrenching basketball game, someone getting thrown in the pool, and back rubs to go around.

Laura is running a marathon in a few months so our friend Dan gifted her with a huge box of supplies. This was a very generous gift considering Dan usually gives us each a stick of gum for our birthdays. But I suppose when you're training for a marathon you deserve more than a stick of gum.


Look at all these folks watching the unveiling of the marathon care package:




What a crew.

Here I am with the one and only Bobby Carter. 
I used his phone for these photos. I could've taken 300 photos of me with his phone for him to find later, but I didn't. I leave that sort of thing to him.


I hope you're weekend has been full of good things, my friends.

A very jiggy (in the Irish Riverdance sort of way) Sunday to you all.

Cheering for ya, Skillets.

-Sarah




© by scj

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Seven Minutes

When I was in college my track coach would give me and my teammates seven minutes of rest between especially grueling sets of long sprints. That seven minutes was dreamy. It was full of shade, cold water, and slow breathing. It allowed us to recover just enough that we could run our guts out again.

I got my "seven minutes" last week when God gave me four glorious days of feeling decent. When I feel decent I'm able to rest enough that I can bear all the other really hard health days. It makes this life race possible. Feeling decent means I can be productive — I can run errands, cook meals, and grade piles of papers.

I sure have been loving my home office these days

And it makes it possible to do fun stuff stuff, like cook dinner for a picnic atop a grassy hill overlooking the ocean.


My friend Tiffany picnicked with me. This was my first outing with a friend since all this started and it was everything a first outing should be. Wispy clouds, frothy waves, salty skin, and girl talk. 

It was a victorious week, folks, because I was also able to enjoy not one, but TWO outings with friends. To cap off the week, I cheered my friends on in one of our semi-frequent softball games. Last week we had some long, hot days that felt like summer, and there ain't nothin' better than a little "summer" softball under a banner of blue.


Get a load of that setting sun.

My friend Robert took the above photo. You may know Robert as Photo Bomber Extraordinaire.

My friend Jeremy took the below photos. If you ask him to take a single picture, it is likely he will decide to make a documentary instead. I love that about him. He captures so much real, unposed life.








Gosh, I'm thankful for decent. Last week was my second bout of feeling decent since all this started a few months ago. This time, though, I felt even more decent than the first time, which is encouraging. I'm hopeful that decent will become standard one of these days. And then, maybe, decent will up and turn into good ol' healthy normal.

I have some new prayer requests for those of you who are still praying:

1. Wisdom for my doctors who are still trying to diagnose this.

2. Wisdom for me as I try to decide which tests to have run. They're all so expensive that I have to be strategic.

3. Healing. I really want to keep my life down here but I won't be able to if I don't experience significant improvement in my health.

4. Trust in God's plan; Encouragement when I can't see what he's doing.

Thank you thank you thank you for your prayers! How can I pray for you today? Shoot me an email. I love praying for all of you.

Cheering for you, Skillets.

-Sarah



© by scj

Monday, March 9, 2015

Flinging Gold

These days I spend lots of time sitting in the sunny backyard eating blackberries. Normally, I inhale my food. This allows me to hit two birds with one stone: I can breathe AND eat in the same breath. I love being efficient and productive, baby. But lately, I've been savoring these blackberries. I close my eyes and chew slowly and I notice what it's like to eat a blackberry. Tangy, then sweet, then a little bit bitter. Firm, then juicy, then summertime syrup. 
 
Eating blackberries in the sunshine helps me live in the present rather than worrying about the future. I'm tempted to think about the future a lot these days. I wonder what's going to happen in my body in the next few months and how that will affect the rest of my life long-term. In the end, my body will be the boss and I will have to do what works for her. This is hard.


Remember how ten days ago I laid on a medical table for a dizziness test? I wore a pair of goggles with a black, plastic sheath covering them and all I could see was inky black. An audiologist sat at my side and stuck alternating hot and cold air in my ears to induce extreme dizziness. The doctor, sensing my anxiety as she stuck the air shooter in my ear, spoke:


"It's okay, Sarah. This dizziness will be over in two minutes. This isn't real."


Later, I wondered at her words. The dizziness was definitely real. A real gust of air really changed the temperature in my real ear canal which really gave me horrible vertigo and really inspired me to try the Lamaze breathing techniques I'd seen on TV.


But I think I know what she meant. As I lay on the table, my reality was a dark void threatening to suck me into its spinning vortex. And that experience was real. But there was a realer real than the one I experienced. The audiologist could see the realer real. She saw a room full of light in which an anxious, goggle-wearing patient laid on a medical table. She knew she was a caring, competent professional in complete control of my dizziness. She knew this would be over in a flash and would soon be a fading memory.


There's this dialogue I've been having with God lately.


"God," I say. "I am tired of being stuck in my body. What could you possibly be thinking by allowing this?"


Sometimes he answers me clearly; sometimes he doesn't. When he doesn't, I imagine how he might respond, based on what I know of him from the Bible.


I usually imagine him saying something like this:


"I want you to know how much I love you. I know it doesn't make sense right now, but your suffering is teaching you my love in ways physical health wouldn't."


"That's really wonderful, God," I respond. "But why don't you just take me to heaven now where I can experience your love in its fullness? Then you could teach me your love AND spare me a lifetime in my body."


His answer is the same every time: "Because there are people who don't know me yet, and I will use your suffering to teach them how much I love them. Courage, dear heart. I'm doing something big that you cannot see."


There's a realer real than one we can see. Our little globe is spinning through the darkness, and sometimes the darkness presses in so thick and close we can't see through it. Sometimes things feel hopeless and out of control. They feel like the realest real. 


But God sees the Realest Real. He sees heaven, bathed in light, and he sees the hosts of heaven peering down at our little planet, waiting with baited breath for the day Jesus will chase away every last ounce of darkness. He knows he is caring and in control, and in the end, this dusty life on earth will be like a fading memory compared to the eternal life he's preparing for followers of Jesus in heaven.


And heaven? In heaven we will feel really, truly known. In heaven all of our dingy facades and tarnished masks will melt away, along with sin's soul scars and stains. We will know what it is to stand before our Creator naked and accepted, and we will know God fully, the way he knows us. And I think, in that moment, it will feel like love and compassion are burning through every inch of us. All at once all of our deepest desires will finally be satisfied. 


What will it be like to hear the voice that spoke the stars into the sky, calls dead men to life, and courses with love say our names...?

Sometimes, when I sit in the sun and eat blackberries, I think I've glimpsed a sliver of heaven's light. And the more I slow down to notice, the more slivers of heaven's light I see. They're everywhere, dancing like fireflies in the darkness. They're especially bright when Christians serve others like Jesus did, with humility and generosity. Jesus said when this happens we're witnessing his children building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Isn't it a miracle? That he'd trust and empower us to build the Realest Real right here?


The poet Rumi once wrote:


"Find the real world, give it endlessly away, grow rich flinging gold to all who ask. Live at the empty heart of paradox. I'll dance there with you — cheek to cheek."


Millions of people haven't heard the good news yet: they don't know that there's a Realer Real than all this earthy madness. They don't know that the darkness doesn't have to have the last word. They don't know that our chaos can be turned into a story of redemption. They don't know that the God of the ages loves them with an undying, unfathomable love. And they need to know. We all need to know.


So we remain faithful in suffering. We keep our hands at the plow, pushing through the hard stuff, because, somehow, God will use it like a megaphone declaring the love of our very Real God who is preparing an eternally glorious home for those who love and serve him. 


Somehow, he'll turn the darkness to gold that we can give away.



Cheering and praying for you today, Skillets,


Sarah




© by scj


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Dragons

It's my seventh grade year and my family has driven up the mountain to our friends' cabin. "Time at their cabin" usually involves very little time at the cabin. Instead, we shimmy up rocks, slide down waterfalls, and roast dinner around a roaring fire.

But we haven't gotten to dinner yet. For now, we're streaking though the forest in our swimwear. Well, 7 of the 8 kids are. I'm wearing sweat pants tucked into socks, and a sweatshirt with the hood pulled over my face. The sky is summer blue, but I am wishing for an umbrella.

It's all Mrs. Payne's fault. Well, hers and whatever baby neuroses were incubating in my adolescent mind just waiting to hatch and grow into something Neurotic, with a capital N.

Mrs. Payne is my homeroom teacher. She has short brown hair that is always perfectly styled and plump lips which regularly sport a nice shade of mauve. She is actually a great teacher. The problem is she has just finished teaching a unit on parasites that has made me terrified of getting a tapeworm. I have officially decided to give up meat. Unbeknownst to me, this vegetarian phase will only last for three months. Because: steak. Also: growth spurts.

I'm also terrified of getting a tick. For this reason, I have vowed to cover as much skin as possible when walking through the brush during tick season. I seem to be doing okay with my sweatsuit ensemble, but an umbrella would provide an extra layer of protection from ticks falling out of trees.

This is just one of many fears I have developed this year. It has been an unparalleled year in the fear department. Must be the hormones. Shortly before the parasite unit, Mrs. Payne brought in an acupuncturist to demonstrate the process of sticking very long needles into people's bodies. There was a lot of lecturing — Chinese medicine, qi, meridians, etc. — and then we all watched while she allowed the doctor to stick a needle in her head. HER HEAD. The very top, where the scalp is very hard and very thick, and very hard and very thick.

Enter: Oh sweet Moses, I will never, ever, ever do acupuncture ever. I do not even need to write this in my 7th grade diary because I know I will never forget my commitment to needle safety and general sanity.

But here is the way life often works: I was the only child that fateful day on the mountain who got a tick, and fast forward 18 years to today, and I've just spent some time on a doctor's table with eight needles in my head. EIGHT, people. In MY VERY HARD AND VERY THICK HEAD.

And here's what I have to say about it: I would much rather have a needle in my head than a tick in my back.

Amen and amen.

I have decided to try acupuncture with the hope that it will alleviate my dizziness, nausea and tinnitus. The doctor said it will take a few sessions before I can tell if the acupuncture is working for me, but I've worked out a tentative verdict:

This stuff is not a bunch of hooey balooey. When done by a skilled practitioner, it can accomplish good, healthy things in the body. It hasn't lessened my dizziness and nausea yet, BUT my tinnitus is a bit better already and my neck, which has felt like it's been full of gravel for several years, feels like it's been emptied of gravel and oiled up with some serious WD-40. I'm hopeful acupuncture will do for my vertigo what it's done for my neck.

I drove home from the acupuncturist with the windows down and country music crooning. When I pulled into my aunt and uncle's neighborhood, a gust of jasmine perfume blew through the car. I breathed it in and turned up the music. And then, to celebrate today, I took another lap around the block, occasionally popping my head out the window into the oncoming, fragrant breeze like an eager puppy. Because it's not everyday you get to slay a 7th grade acupuncture dragon.

If I had a Humans of New York-type blog, I'd rally up all your seventh grade dragons along with stories about the times you've slayed them. I'd like reading through those stories. You should tell me sometime. 


Cheering for you, and hugs, and G'night.


-SJ


P.S. Still working on slaying the tick dragon, but I can happily report that on my last traipse through the brush I didn't even bother to tuck my pants into my socks. So, two steps forward, baby.



© by scj

Monday, March 2, 2015

Dun dada dun: Exciting News!

Friends,

So I have exciting news.

I GOT ACCEPTED INTO A PH.D. PROGRAM!

Here is what my table looked like when I was done with the program application:









What you cannot see in the photo above is the row of 30 library books sitting against the wall. I had to churn out a writing sample for the application since I've been out of the world of academia for so long, and my house very quickly filled up with books and papers. I was a loopy loopster when I was done with all the writing.

Here are the program details:

The school: Talbot Theological Seminary

The program: Educational Studies

The research goal: To explore the role of imagination in our spiritual formation, giving special attention to the intersection of myth and theology. This is the broad view of the direction I'd take my research. I have some ideas for the particulars that I'm still working out.

The hope: to get healthy enough that I can start in the fall or spring of the next school year.


Pretty fun, huh?!

Cheering for you this Monday, skillets,

Sarah



© by scj

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fireflies

This week has been a three steps back kind of week. I'd thought I'd identified the things that were causing my health problems, fixed them, and then experienced corresponding healing last week, but my symptoms have returned this week, putting me back at phase one of the diagnostic journey. This has tested my mental, emotional and physical stamina in massive ways. It has been the grindiest grind.

Most days this week I've wondered how I would make it through the day. "God," I say, "I need your strength to do this because I do not have any left." Then I burst into a rousing mental rendition of, "You can do it, Cinderelli!" which doesn't usually help much, so I give myself quiet little pep talks.

A number of times, I've caught myself using affectionate nicknames for myself during these talks. Last week it was "Darlin'"; this week it's "Girlfreeen!" One of the gifts of the illness of the last several years is it's taught me to like myself. I called myself lots of names before I got sick, but they were rarely kind. Hardship is a big anvil bearing down on shoulders of flesh, but somehow, miraculously, God uses it to teach us to love ourselves. I'm glad for that.

Last night I lay on a doctor's table clenching the vinyl that poofed out of both sides of the table. I wore a set of snorkel-like goggles that weighed about as much as a child's bowling ball. The goggles contained video cameras that taped the movement of my eyes during a series of tests assessing the balance organ in each of my ears.

For the last set of tests, the goggles were covered with a black plastic sheath so I couldn't see a thing. If I had to imagine what it feels like to be sealed in a coffin, I would use this blacked-out goggle experience as inspiration. I wish I could say that I just had to lie there and watch blinking lights inside the goggles, but there were no blinking lights. Instead, the doctor had to induce extreme dizziness four times in a row by shooting alternating hot and cold air in my ear. "Breathe, Sarah," she said each time she stuck her dizziness-inducer in my ears. "Don't forget to breathe."

When the tests were over, the news wasn't great. The good news is it's highly unlikely I have a brain tumor. The bad news is only 2% of cases look like mine and the doctor doesn't know what could be causing this. This week she'll comb the results of my tests and compile a report that she'll send to another doctor who will look over them. I'm praying the Holy Spirit drenches them with insight as they try to figure out what my next steps should be in this diagnostic process.

The picture of me clenching the table and wearing the blacked out goggles on my head is a good metaphor for life sometimes, isn't it? Sometimes things are dark and we can't see very far in front of us. We breathe through the hard stuff.

There's one thing I've learned about the darkness: there are always fireflies darting through it. Often, these fireflies flit nearer and nearer till they're hovering in front of us, close enough to reach out and grab.

This week I discovered that my mechanic, smudged with black grease and smelling like fuel, loves roses. He hopes to have a garden one day, and in the meantime he stops to smell every rose he sees.

He, with his unexpected love of roses, is a fleck of light in this hard week. He's a firefly.

Today I made a new friend on my afternoon walk:


I must have been delicious because he licked my hand and forearm for a solid ten minutes.


It tickled and made me chortle with glee, and when I pulled away, he pawed at the fence. He wanted more of salty little me.

"More, I want moooooore!"

So I gave him more. I'll have to bring a carrot with me on my next evening walk.

Never has a firefly made me so slobbery and full of laughter.

Last week, one of my best friends came over to take a walk with me. I hadn't seen her in six weeks and relished every minute with her. When it was time for her to go, she curled up on my bed with me and prayed for me. When she was done, tears were running down her cheeks.

I have a friend on the east coast who is battling cancer. He's been praying for me daily and sending me encouraging scriptural references as he undergoes chemotherapy. Two weeks ago I asked how I could pray for him. "I've been dreaming about the day I get to walk out of this hospital for good," he said, "but I don't want to miss what God is doing in me in the meantime. Please pray I'd be attentive to his work."

The prayers of these people are my fireflies. They're glowing pockets of grace.

I don't want to let these fireflies flit away unnoticed. I want to catch them and keep them somewhere safe. This week I imagine myself gently sliding my fireflies into a mason jar with nail holes in the lid. When life's darkness feels too thick and heavy, I pull out that mason jar and set it on the table.

Then I sit quietly and watch it glow, moonish and mesmerizing.


I covet your prayers this week, especially as doctors pour over my recent test results looking for clues as to what's going on.


Cheering for you, Skillets.

-Sarah




© by scj

Friday, February 20, 2015

Victory Lap

After another week of dancing the cha-cha, I decided that the cha-cha was much too lovely a metaphor for the last few weeks. I have not been dipping and twirling in a little black dress; I have been atop a frantic bull that is trying to buck me to infinity and beyond. The bull, unlike most rodeo bulls, has not been in a rodeo pen. It has been locked in a tilt-a-whirl.

But my friends: Three days ago the tilt-a-whirl slowed to a halt and the bull (and I) hopped off the ride. It wasn't long before he spotted a patch of daisies under a nearby oak tree that looked yummy so he stopped for a snack. This gave me an opportunity to slip off his back and stretch out on the fresh grass under a swath of winter sky.

Oh the relief.

I can't even tell you how good this feels. The world is fresh-faced and hope-filled all over again.

Yesterday I drove up the Orange County coast with my windows rolled down and Taylor Swift crooning her sassy love songs. Every few hundred meters I found myself murmuring thank you to God. Thank you for the for sparkling turquoise coves and the sun kissing my left forearm and the wind whipping my hair into dreadlocks. Thank you for all these people who are healthy enough to be out driving to important places to do world-changing things like sell ice cream and landscape gardens. Thank you for green grass, the sizzling kebabs that are cooking in the restaurant kitchen atop the bluff, and the health you've given me to enjoy this day.

Had I driven any longer Taylor Swift would have probably gone hoarse, but lucky for her I decided to park at Salt Creek Beach and get out of my car.

A verdant hill stretched before me, and beyond it, the ocean undulated lazily toward the shore.


I breathed in deeply, five seconds in, five seconds out, the way I do when I meditate. And then, just because I could, I noticed for the 100th time that day that I felt almost normal — almost, but not quite. But absolutely normal enough to enjoy this hill. So I ran down it with my arms open, like a giant, lunatic pelican taking off for flight. I think I must have been trying to give the world a big hug because right then she felt so darn huggable.

The thing about hugging the world is it's never satisfying. I can drink in her jasmine perfume, bathe in her sea breeze, and stuff my pockets full of her sunshine, but it's not enough. I always want more and more and more. No matter how wide I spread my arms, I just can't seem to fill up with enough of her beauty.

I suppose God made it this way on purpose. Our insatiable hunger for beauty is the tide that pulls us back to him, again and again. He is the most Beautiful One, and his hugs are the only ones that can satisfy. I've been imagining hugging Jesus a lot lately. I've also been making an effort to lie on my back with my arms spread wide while I pray. I'm learning that it's important for me to pray with my heart, mind and body. I wonder if this kind of prayer is kind of like giving Jesus a real hug. It feels like it.

Back at the house I noticed the sky was covered with cotton ball clouds. I think we all know that cotton ball skies are the best skies to dance under, along with clear blue skies, stormy skies, and sunset skies. So I headed to the basketball court in the backyard and I danced like it was my last dance: Popping and locking that made me look like a gangly, spandex-clad octopus; and footwork that looked suspiciously like hurdle warm-up drills. I can't say the neighbors on the hilltop overlooking the court felt comfortable with it all, but I know Leslie Knope would have been proud.

I still don't know the exact causes of all my symptoms the last two months, but my doctors and I have assembled some theories that include mold exposure, grief from some hard life stuff, a jammed neck joint affecting the occipital nerve, and stress. It was a perfect storm of sorts. I'm still not totally back to normal, and I'm still in problem-solving mode about a few things, but I have been leading a normal life the last few days, doing normal things with normal energy levels. This feels glorious. I'm feeling quite hopeful that all will soon be resolved.

In the meantime, I'm doing the things that life is too short to not do. Tonight, during my walk, I stopped at a local park and hopped on a swing. I pumped my legs like my mom taught me when I was a little girl, and I swung in and out of the breezy sunset. To my right, a middle-aged woman played ball with her three sons, and a hunched man guided his fluffy, prancy white dog across the grass. I tilted my head back and felt my pony tail whipping in the wind. It reminded me of a tradition my female teammates and I had in college.

Every Wednesday, toward the end of the dreaded 300 workout — after we'd puked at least once and narrowly escaped blacking out — we'd walk up to the starting line to run our last repetition of the 300-meter sprint. Before we looked to our coach for his signal to run, we'd pull our hair loose from the ponytail holders that kept stray hairs from sticking to our sweaty faces. We shook our hair till it tumbled around our shoulders and then we put our game faces on. This would be our hardest lap yet but we'd make it our fastest, our hair streaming behind us like victory flags.

I pumped harder and swung toward the tips of some naked tree branches, wondering at the things my body has allowed me to do over the years. Sunset shadows crept across the grass and the songbirds' symphony quieted. Pollen floated across the sky, small flecks of fluffy light. And I reached back, pulled my hair out of its ponytail holder and let the wind send it flying.





© by scj

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Magic (and Cheering for you, Skillets)

My friends,

It's Saturday. Here we are.

This is something I have learned to say over the years because it's something I can always say truthfully. Here we are. Even if your burgeoning garden is overrun with weevils, or your jeans are so tight you can't zip them, or you accidentally poured orange juice in your bowl of cereal, and even if work was a disaster this week, or your best friendship is in shambles, or your finances are in ruins: we are here. We are here, and this is worth something, isn't it? Because even though "here" may be reverberating with dissonance and littered with disappointments, it is still teeming with little gifts. This what I discovered, for the ten thousandth time, when I took my camera with me on a walk a few days ago.

Cameras are magical things. They have a way have stripping the here and now of its dull familiarity to reveal unexpected bursts of color and patches of light, microcosms of intricate detail. If you ever tire of the world and feel your wonder at it waning, grab your camera and start snapping. Take pictures right where you are in the living room that is littered with toddler toys. Or, better yet, escape the stuffy house and go romping through the neighborhood. You'll be surprised what you notice.

You will notice, for example, a purple plant sitting in a patch of weeds. You will notice it because it looks like the plant your dad bought you a few years ago when you first tried your hand at gardening. You tenderly cared for that plant because it reminded you of your dad and it attracted dozens of beautiful butterflies. You remember how they'd sip the plant's nectar and then flutter off to tell their friends that you'd opened a neighborhood sweet shop just south of the rose bushes. Your purple sweet shop became the talk of the butterfly town.



You can't remember the plant's official name, but you remember it smells different to different people. Cherry, vanilla, and root beer, depending on who you are. It strikes you as the type of plant you'd find at the nursery at Hogwarts School of Magic, so you call it the Harry Potter Plant.

Upon sniffing the Harry Potter Plant you realize it does not smell like cherry, vanilla, or root beer, and must not be a Harry Potter Plant after all. It is the Not Harry Potter Plant. Just then, a bee photo bombs your shot.



You notice that his torso looks much more dangerous than his fuzzy wuzzy head. He's part teddy bear, part torpedo, and he is hungry. Better not bother him.

You watch him stick his head into a particularly nectarous cup and wonder if that is how you look when you eat Ben and Jerry's. Probably. Bless it.

You can't help but wonder what flavor that nectar is. Peanut butter cookie dough? Strawberry ripple? Whatever it is, it must be delicious.

Ah, look at those papery wings reflecting the light. They remind you of the time you were eight and you made paper human-sized wings. It was blustery outside and you connected them to your back and ran down the street as fast as you could, hoping for lift off. It never happened. Making paper wings that actually fly is very tricky.


 
Up the street from the not Harry Potter Plant, you find the most beautiful blossom tree.

You could take pictures of blossom trees until the cows come home, which is likely never, given the amount of schmacon in the Jackson family fridge.

Blossom trees remind you of your childhood. They also make you want to quote poetry, so you google this poem by E.E. Cummings:

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
                                                     
i fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)




Around the corner from the blossom tree you find a patch of daisies.



Their centers look like galaxies. Who knew. There's a patch of silent galaxies just down the street from you. You've driven past it a thousand times without noticing, and now it's making you exhale deep and slow. Woooooow. Wow. Wowowowowow.


Eventually, your grumbling stomach will alert you that it's time for lunch. You will sling your camera over your shoulder and walk back down the hill, which is a very short trek. You've only walked 300 feet in one hour.

As you walk, you will notice the sun shining on your back. You'll breathe in the sharp smell of freshly cut grass and you'll wonder what it would be like to take a bath in the breeze. And then you'll notice you are humming, quietly. Here you are, and you are here, and now you know why the birds are singing.



A friend texted me this last week: "Cheering for you, skillet." It is my new favorite closing greeting, and I will use it forever and ever, you home skillets of mine.

So here we go: Happy Valentine's Day AND Cheering for you, Skillets.

-Sarah J.





© by scj

Monday, February 9, 2015

Schmacon, Marshmallow Heads, and Book Club: a Monday List

1.  My students and I are doing a unit on fairy tales right now. I love analyzing fairy tales with my students because their themes are fodder for so much deep class discussion. My students make meaningful observations about the pictures of human flourishing that they find in the fairy tales, and, together, we compare them to biblical pictures of human flourishing. This allows for fruitful application.

Our discussions are often punctuated by my attempts to draw pictures and diagrams which illustrate our discoveries and, hopefully, aid the visual learners. After today's class, however, I'm not sure how much aiding my visuals are actually doing:

Can you tell what the bulky figure in the center is?


Here, let me zoom:


Now can you tell?

It's the Beast from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast." Oooooobviously. 

Upon stepping back and looking at Beast's head, I admitted it looked more like a ghost, or a giant, lopsided marshmallow. But in a spirit of generosity, my students went ahead and drew their own marshmallow Beasts in their notes, which made me feel better:


Solidarity. It's a wonderful thing. 



2. The light at my aunt and uncle's house is so inviting. I love watching it bend and shift as the morning unfolds. 




3. I am so thankful for my aunt and uncle and I love them very much. They have cooked the most fabulous food, given the most bestest hugs, and prayed the most caring prayers while I've been healing. And there's this: a few days ago my uncle came home carrying ten pounds of bacon. 


Oh hello, happiness. 

Actually, it's schmacon, which is sizzling, crispy, and delicious beef bacon. I think the pigs of the nation must have rallied, conspired, and overthrown a bacon factory in Chicago awhile back, and now: voila! schmacon is rolling out of the factory and becoming the next big thing. 



4. My family is continuing our weekly book club in which we discuss Timothy Keller's book Prayer. These outings are still one of the highlights of my week because laughing with my family is one of my favorite things ever. 






5. I have 20,810 photos on my computer that have slowed my hard drive to an almost-halt. I'd guess 1/5 of those photos are sunset shots like this one I snapped at work awhile back.


Oh sweet heavens. I'll put up with a slow hard drive any day if it means remembering and enjoying a few thousand of these bad boys.


Hey, come enjoy one with me, Jack.

And then go eat a big ol' steak with sides of garlic mashed potatoes and schmacon-wrapped brussel sprouts. Because it's Monday.

Hugs, and over and out,


Sarah




© by scj

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Cha-Cha

Friends! Are you doing Sundayish things like having a big ol' sausage breakfast, going to church and spending time with family? I hope so. 

I'm still at my aunt and uncle's house where I am feeling much better than I did last weekend, although I'm still mending. It's a slower process than I'd like as my health has been taking two steps forward and then one step back this week. I'm thankful to be taking so many steps forward, but that one little step backward sure has a way of messing with me.

I tell myself that I shouldn't be so discouraged by the two steps forward and one step back because, hello, that is how you dance the cha-cha AND YOU LOVE THE CHA-CHA, SARAH. Then I pull out my imaginary cheer leading pom poms and I wave them in my face and I say, "Rah rah shish-ka-bah, let's dooooo this cha-cha!"

Actually, my most natural response is to pull out my finger, wag it in my face and say things like, "You should be better at this whole life thing, and you should not feel so discouraged, disappointed and afraid of the future right now."

We all have a little kid inside of us that gets scared sometimes. My inner little girl is really scared of getting chronically ill again. Whenever she experiences any long-lasting sickness with mysterious symptoms she becomes very afraid that it will never go away and she melts into a puddle of tears. My counselor says this is normal and okay and I shouldn't be judge-y with myself.

So when I'm tempted to wag the finger at my little girl I try to instead say, "It's okay, you've had a hard journey. It makes sense that you're scared; go ahead and have a good cry." And then sometimes, if it's appropriate, I pull out the pom-poms and my little girl and I have a good laugh because trying to figure out what to do with pom poms is pretty funny. I find that being kind to my little girl is far more effective in calming her than the finger-wagging approach.

Being kind with my little girl does loads of good, but it doesn't always help me dance the cha-cha with grace. Because it turns out I only love the cha-cha when it is on my terms. I like the cha-cha when I take two steps forward toward a big bowl of ice cream, and then one step backward because I realize I left the whipped cream sitting back on the counter. But other than that? No thanks. I prefer the cha-cha when it's fun, lighthearted, and is choreographed to fit inside the plans I've drawn up for my life.

But in this cha-cha dance of life, God is my partner and he often has very different plans for me than I do. And sometimes, after a particularly long grind, I do not feel like I have enough spunk for any more back steps.

Yesterday, a friend reminded me of a Gospel truth that goes something like this: when you do not have any spunk left for more cha-cha back steps, then God's strength will show up on the dance floor, shining through your weakness in brilliant, jaw-dropping ways. [Paraphrased from the SCJ Standard Version].

I've been praying through the Lord's prayer a lot the last few days. I ask God for daily bread which, this week, means asking him for daily strength. A funny thing happens, though, when I get to the "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" part of the prayer. I hesitate. And then I pray it in a sort of wishy washy way because deep down there is some part of me that doesn't really mean it. There is some part of me that is resisting God's will because if I surrender to it then he just might guide me into more back steps. And this week, I just.can't.even. do more back steps.

This is the crux of the issue whenever I tire of the cha-cha: either I trust that God is guiding me well on the dance floor, or I don't. Either I give him my life as a living sacrifice, or I don't. And here's the thing: my feelings don't get to decide this for me. They're way too capricious to be reliable life guides.

This morning, I was sitting out by the pool with my hot lemon water listening to the birds and talking to God. I haven't heard him say much this week, but this morning he started preaching, and boooy, can he preach. His sermon went something like this:

"If you were married and tired because things were hard, you'd dig deep and keep on loving your man, come what may, no matter how you felt. And you know what? That's when you would really learn true love. Love isn't easy. Love is hard. It's hard like the wood of a cross and the steel of nails. When you die to the things you want and love most, you discover Love itself. So now is your chance, Sarah. You are in a marriage covenant with me and you are tired, and things have been hard, and you are wondering what the future will be like. Now is your chance to really learn to love me."





It was the most persuasive sermon I've heard in a long while, and within minutes, I was on my feet, determined to surrender to his leading in the cha-cha, back steps and all. I decided that I needed to make my body mirror the posture I wanted to take in my spirit, so I went into my room, laid on my back on the floor, and spread my arms wide open.

And then I prayed the Lord's prayer again, and when I got to the hard part I presented myself to him: "Here I am Lord," I said. "I am here and I am yours." And then I told God I wanted his will to be done in my life, whether I wanted it or not. I told him I choose his will even though I didn't feel super jazzed about it in the moment and even though it might mean more hard things in my future. I choose it, because he chose me.

And then I stood up and assumed the power pose my sister's doctor taught her. I widened my stance and raised my hands, and I spoke true things about each person of the Trinity into the silence with about as much vigor and conviction as I could muster.

I thanked the Spirit for residing in me and lifting me up to the Father in prayer. I thanked him for searching God's heart and then mine and then praying for me based on what he finds in our hearts.

I thanked the Son for being my advocate in the throne room of heaven, and for wrapping me tight in a hug that won't ever end.

And I thanked the Father for delighting in me, protecting me, and preparing good works for me to do.

When I was done, something wonderful happened: I felt gratitude wash over me because yes, life is one big cha-cha, but you know what? I get to dance it with Jesus. My married friends tell me that's what marriage is like: sometimes you choose to give your whole self to your spouse even when you don't feel like it, and then, by God's grace, the feelings of affection follow. I don't know if it always works like this, but I know it's a special Holy Spirit grace when it does.

It's a grace that made me want to celebrate, so I promptly drove to the farmer's market and bought a new pet cactus. Her name is Mela.


Isn't she the cutest little thang?

Mela, you shall be mine and I shall be yours and we shall have a better run than George and I did, okay?

When Mella and I were done grocery shopping, we went back to the house. And then I turned on Stevie Wonder, and God and I, we danced.

Sometimes, instead of thinking about possible back steps, you've just gotta get up and shake a tail feather.



Thanks for your continued prayers, my friends. I continue to pray for you, too. Shoot me an email with your prayer requests.


Forward and backward, and forward with Him,

Sarah



© by scj

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tuesday (and Monday and Sunday)

You all are just so wonderful. Thank you for the notes of encouragement you've sent me this week. I've read and re-read all of them. Getting them made Sunday bearable somehow. I'm still working on getting back to all of you since I'm not in tip-top emailing shape, but I will.

Thank you, also, for your offers of help (those of you who live near) and for your prayers. I can tell I have a big ol' crew of you propping me up with your prayers. On Sunday night, a Peace settled in my spirit and its been my steady companion all week.

I'm staying at my aunt and uncle's house this week. One of my doctors wonders if there's mold in my little bungalow on the ridge top causing some of my health problems, so this temporary move is an experiment to see if my symptoms subside in a different environment.

The timing is perfect. I don't know how I could have made it through this week alone, mold or not. It's nice to know there are people just a room away if something goes terribly awry. And it's nice to have an aunt who cuts some serious dance moves in the kitchen and an uncle who mans the grill like a boss. It's also nice to have people to give you healing hugs (oh hello, oxytocin) and pray with you when the world is swimming and gravity feels like a sumo wrestler who has pinned you to the couch.

And then there's this little perk I found sitting on the floor when I opened my bedroom door yesterday morning:


I've been in major strategy mode lately. Strategy 1: stay in bed all day and then you'll have stored up enough energy to go to the grocery store. Strategy 2: Make that two days and you can cook yourself a casserole. Strategy 3: Stay in bed for five days and you'll have enough strength to teach for three hours. They are precise and carefully crafted ratios that keep my body fed and my bills paid.

This week, however, my rest to work ratio hasn't worked, and when I went to bed Sunday night I had no idea how I'd make it through an afternoon of teaching the next day.

But then, on Monday morning, I opened my door and found T. Swift inviting me to "Shake it Off" on the car ride to work. As my friend J says, T. Swift is an example of common grace theology.

Speak it sister.

T. Swift's music has a way of fluffing the spirit which probably makes the brain release happy chemicals (oh hello, dopamine) which probably heals illnesses. It's a theory I'm willing to test all week. And I don't know how much T. Swift helped, but I know I felt the Holy Spirit carrying me through a very grueling afternoon. But man, my students made my afternoon a lot better, too. They're delightful.

The last few days have been full of so many other little gifts: my family praying for me over Google video chat; sitting in the sun in my aunt and uncle's quiet backyard; and the brussel sprouts and salmon we had for dinner last night. BRUSSEL SPROUTS, you guys. They're my favorite food in the world and my aunt didn't even know but God did and I think he was like, "Hey, Auntie K, I'm trying to show my girl some extra lovin' this week. Why don't you get her some brussel sprouts?"

Since Sunday, my vertigo has lessened a bit which has brought some physical relief and made it possible to enjoy the week's gifts a little bit more. I think my brain was so. stinking. tired. of trying to keep my body upright in addition to fighting whatever else is going on in my body, that it was either about to melt into a puddle of ooz, explode into a pile of shrapnel, or curl up and take a long winter's nap. I know a lot of you have been praying for physical relief, so thank you. I'm really grateful that God has allowed this bit of relief on the vertigo front.

If you're up to it, I'd love continued prayer for continued peace and insight from my doctors and the tests they're running so that we can figure out the cause of all this and address it promptly and properly.

I know a lot of you deal with chronic pain and illness, and I've been praying for you a lot this week. I imagine there are lots of you suffering whom I don't know, and I'd love to pray for you, too, if you feel like emailing me. We sickies gots tah stick together.

Okay, I'm propped up on some pillows and the bed is begging me to slide into a more horizontal position. I must obey her.

Keep on keepin' on,

SJ



© by scj

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Reflections on Suffering

Two months ago, I had December and January all planned out. December would be a string of twinkling, festive outings with the people I love, punctuated by large piles of grading and invigorating runs in the brisk winter air. It would be full of family excursions, reunions with old friends, and last minute Christmas shopping. I'd welcome 2015 on the dance floor with my friends, and then spend the rest of the month tutoring my high school students, writing thousands upon thousands of words for my Ph.D. application, and checking off little boxes on stacks of color-coded lists. I had grand plans to be PRODUCTIVE and SPONTANEOUS and AWESOME which would make me HAPPY. 

But I have not been productive, spontaneous, or awesome like I'd hoped I would be, and it has been very, very hard.

If you've followed my blog for long, then you know I spent several years struggling with chronic illness and its accompanying limitations, and you know that this fall I experienced what felt like total healing. For three glorious months I felt normal and did normal things and it was word-defying wonderful.

My body is full of surprises though, and I've spent the better part of last two months in bed. I don't know if this is connected to the virus that affected me for so many years, but whatever is happening is causing a host of hard symptoms, including incapacitating fatigue and dizziness. 

The fatigue has made simple tasks like standing to make breakfast really difficult, and the dizziness makes me disoriented and off balance. If I were a cow and you were into cow tipping, I'd probably be your cow of choice. This is one of the few things about which I can boast this month, and I have learned that when you're chronically ill you take every victory you can get, so I am so claiming this. (Moooooo).

Back in the fall, when I was feeling miraculously healthy, a friend noted I'd have to start thinking like a healthy person again.When you're sick, you have to think like a sick person. It's a survival technique. Don't exert yourself, don't make plans for tomorrow, don't eat that, don't do that, don't don't don't. But when you're healthy? You just live, without all that cautionary thinking. I liked saying goodbye to the cautionary thinking last fall.

So it has been deeply discouraging and bitterly disappointing to be back in this place of mysterious sickness and cautionary thinking. I'm tired of bed; I'm tired of doctors visits; I'm tired of medical bills; I'm tired of being cooped up alone; and I am tired of feeling like rot. The hardest part of all this, though, is the punctured hope.

When you think like a sick person you realize that dreaming about the future is unhelpful. So you tell yourself not to dream anymore. Don't dream about the possibility of working full-time, or going to school, or traveling, or getting married, or having kids. Just work on pulling yourself up out of bed, feeding yourself and maybe, if you're really feeling full of energy, showering. The dreams are replaced by really small, moment-by-moment goals.

It takes a long time to suffocate dreams you've spent years nurturing, but it's possible. I think, though, that if you get a second chance at dreaming — if you get to revive your dreams — they grow twice as fast and strong. And as is true of all dreams, with time, they begin to feel like living, breathing parts of you. And when you have to watch them unexpectedly die again it feels like some part of you has died. 

Watching treasured, sparkling parts of me die all over again has been a fresh grief. And losing these parts of me has made my soul feel very naked. Because without these ambitious and exciting hopes for the future, I don't have anything to prop me up, cover me up, or make my life meaningful. It's just me, God, a half-eaten avocado on the counter top, and a bunch of empty water bottles on the table.

There’s a truth I cling to when I feel naked like this: it’s when the best parts of us are stripped away that we discover who we really are. It's when we lose the life we love and long for that we begin to learn our identity in Christ. It's an identity that isn't propped up by filmy figments of the imagination or masked by adventurous ambitions and grand accomplishments. Because when our souls are stripped bare in the presence of God, we discover that even our naked selves evoke his adoration: I accept you, love you, protect you, and sing over you; and you are WORTH DYING FOR.

And then God sets to work using the flames of suffering to refine our souls, removing the dross and making them more beautiful, good, and loving, like his.

This is the glorious paradox of the Gospel for all Christians: when we lose our selves, we discover who we really are: naked souls, loved by a God who clothes us in his righteousness. 

Paradox is like a coin with two sides. Weakness, loss and death are etched onto one side of the coin; and strength, gain and life are engraved on the other. We're all well acquainted with the side of the coin depicting weakness, loss and death. We see it everyday. Sometimes, though, it can take years before we clearly see the sparkling side of the coin boasting unimaginable gain. Sometimes we don’t see it at all this side of heaven. In the meantime, it's hard to trust the things we cannot see. So what do we do while we're waiting for the unseen to become seen? 

It's the question I've been whispering into the silence lately as the days slowly tick by and my body feels progressively worse. What do I do when the paradoxical promises of the Gospels seem far-off?

Today my body let me go for a slow walk in the sunshine. It was a treat after this bed-ridden, horrible week, but it didn't feel like one. I was dizzy and imbalanced and veered all over the road, fighting back tears every fifty feet. A few times, I practiced the discipline of noticing things the way I'd learned to when I first got sick. I noticed the smell of blooming jasmine and I smiled when I walked past a trampoline full of giggling girls singing Taylor Swift's "Shake if Off.” I thanked God for the moments of grace, but it did not make my life seem like a gift or my future seem more hopeful. It did not cultivate perseverance.

Abraham knew what it was like to await the fulfillment of God’s promises without ever seeing them. So did Sarah, Jacob, Noah, David, and a host of other ancients listed in Hebrews 11. I think they must have often whispered into the silence, “How do I wait patiently for the things I cannot see?”

The writer of Hebrews tells us: they remembered they weren't citizens of this world and they set their sights on their permanent Heaven Home. 

I’ve been trying to imagine my Heaven Home this week. I imagine streets of gold, mansions, and the crown of life. I imagine racing up waterfalls, dancing across the Milky Way, and swimming through the sunset. I imagine sitting down at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb and savoring a juicy steak with garlic potatoes, crème brule, and bacon — obviously. But these images aren’t helping me much with the present suffering. Not this week, anyway.

I think this is because the best part of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb will not be the steak or the crème brule. It will be Jesus, sitting at that table with me, looking into my eyes while he tells me how he laughed fit to kill that time my siblings and I put on an impromptu puppet show for my mom when we were kids. Swimming through the sunset and racing up waterfalls will only make all this hardship on earth worth it because Jesus will be doing it with me.

Jesus is the Christian’s reward for our earthly endurance. Without him, there’s no point in persevering through hardship. Perseverance won’t matter jacksquat if the rewards of the afterlife are rivers of wine, virgins, or another shot at life on earth, as some religions boast. The only prize that absolutely, positively rewards a life of faith in hardship is Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

There are lots of reasons I’m a Christian. One of them is that Jesus assures us we don’t have to wait until heaven to get God, our greatest reward. He gives himself to us now, in every circumstance if we ask. If the smell of jasmine, the sound of singing neighbor girls, and even a health body add any meaning to life, it is only because they are tastes of the goodness of God. They are like morsels of food from the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. The best part about them, is we can enjoy them with God. They are not our happiness; Christ is. And he's the kind of God that wraps his arm around a dizzy daughter and pulls her close as she veers down the road, stopping to smile with her as she breathes in that jasmine.

So here's the prayer I’ve been speaking into the silence today, alongside my confused and desperate questions about suffering: God give me more of you right now. Give me enough of an awareness of your presence that I can endure this mess in this moment. Reveal the protection of the Father, the compassion of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

As I pray, I remember the story of Job, a righteous man who loved God. I remember how God gave Satan permission to destroy Job’s family, wealth and health. I remember how Job wept in the aftermath, scraping his boils with the shard of a pot while his prideful friends offered their pompous advice to Job about the reason for his suffering.

And then, after chapters of the friends’ pontificating, God appears and he reminds Job of his holiness— his otherness, his set apartness from humanity and his tendency to do things differently than we do. And when God has finished talking, Job speaks: "I've heard rumors about you, God, but now I've seen you with my own eyes, and I repent for ever having lived according to the rumors."

It doesn’t matter that God didn’t explain the reasons for Job’s suffering. He could have said, “Hey Job, Satan wanted to prove that you’d turn away from me but I knew you wouldn’t so I let him test you. And oh yeah, billions of people are going to read your story in the Bible one day, and it will encourage them to remain faithful to me." But he didn't. Job did not get the answers to his questions about the reasons for his suffering, but he did see God’s face, and that was enough. God's face was the answer to all of his questions.

I don’t know how to make sense of all the suffering in the world this side of heaven. I just don’t. But I do know that when we see God face-to-face it’s not going to matter anymore. And in the meantime, while we wait to see the fulfillment of his paradoxical promises, he gives us glimpses of his face and assurances of his love. So I’m pressing into him in prayer, my hands cupped open and my eyes peeled wide as I wait for the reward he's promised he'll give us in this moment: more of his good and glorious self, oceans of his unending love. I’m praying the same for you today.

I covet your prayers as I try to get healthy, my friends. Please let me know how I can pray for you by posting a comment or emailing me.

In Christ,

Sarah J.