Thursday, February 26, 2015


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.


© 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 into 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,


© 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,


© 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,


© 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.