Spoiler Alerts, Triggers, and Hearing from God

Does God speak to his children? I believe he does. I know a lot of people out there think the idea of hearing God speak is just crazy talk; that the thought of sitting down and knowing what God is saying makes one certifiable. And yet I believe.

I’ve never walked a trail and encountered a burning bush that called my name. I’ve never seen the sky open and heard a voice call down to me.  And I’ve never woken to an angel giving me a word of hope or encouragement. But I have felt my heart tremble at a song, and I’ve felt my skin jump up at the end of a prayer. And I’ve cried out to God from the depths of my sorrow when my heart was cracking in two, and I felt his answer seep into the crevice.

So for the last six months or so, you can imagine my despair, when I felt nothing. My prayers were met with stillness. My cries were followed by silence. I was frustrated and felt alone; abandoned. But in the days leading up to my recent trip to New York to teach at a women’s retreat, stories fell together, scriptures made sense, and holes in my work filled in miraculously. I knew that even though I wasn’t hearing God or feeling his comforting presence, he was there. He was there, and he was speaking and working in spite of me. I was praying over and over for him to speak through me; to use my words for good. I begged him to work miracles in the lives of the women I was flying to see because I wanted them to know his love and grace genuinely. So in spite of my inability to understand what he was doing, he did great things anyway.

I had made a terrible habit of avoiding God when I was sad or in pain. My head could tell you that he’s always there and that he would never abandon. My head would quote scripture to remind you of his faithfulness. My head would retell stories from my life when God carried me through the storms. But my heart, as of late, has been falling back into old habits of numbing my emotional pain. As I have battled depression, I have slipped back into a handful of chips here, a bowl of rice there, an extra glass of wine after dinner. I have bought things I didn’t need for myself or things my family didn’t need, but I knew they would love…all for the high of a smile, a thank you, a compliment.

In numbing my pain, I have been avoiding my Jesus, who is the healer of pain. I  cut myself off from he who is capable of cuddling me in my sorrow. And somewhere, in my recovery schooled brain, I knew what I was doing. So I started pushing back the people in my life who are most likely to cause me the most profound pain. Who are the people who can hurt us the worst? Why, the people we love the most, of course. So, I have put certain people at arm’s length, making sure not to feel their intense love, thinking it would protect me from inevitable pain.

Until this weekend, I let my guard down, and I allowed myself feel. And I felt all the feels. I laughed so hard and so loud, and I felt melt-your-heart joy. I felt butterflies in my stomach and sappy love. And then I went to a movie with my husband. We went to see one I’ve been waiting for months to see. One that everyone under the sun is talking about because it stars one of Hollywood’s most handsome and talented men and one of the music industries brightest and most intriguing talents. The movie was about addiction and codependency, and I knew that going in. I had prepared my heart. What I hadn’t steeled myself for was a suicide. A suicide in a garage.

Listen, this movie is very well-written. And it’s a remake…well-written remakes don’t happen every day! The foreshadowing was there and in place, and I knew something awful was going to happen but I didn’t know suicide and I didn’t know in a garage. So as I sat in the movie theater, the tears starting flowing down my face hard and fast. The immediate flashbacks of finding my mom in the garage, even though her suicide method differed from the character in the move, were flashing across my mind in technicolor. Heat rose in my face, and I was terrified to breathe because I didn’t want to blubber out a sob in the theater full of viewers who were managing their tears with dignity and quietness. I could feel the collar of my t-shirt soaking the tears, and I knew I would be a total mess when the lights came on, which they did. And I did. My husband looked at me and said, “How did you not know it would be like that?” I was dumbstruck.

I had read so many reviews. I had read people talking about this movie on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. And yet not one previous viewer share a spoiler. I didn’t know. I was slapped in the face with grief that was so misplaced. The sadness of the movie directly triggered the pain from my past and ripped it from the deepest places of my heart and smeared it all over my face and neck.

And then I got angry. I was so mad at myself for allowing my walls to come down this weekend. I had let myself feel other feelings and taken down so many blocks in my fortress of protection. And when I allowed myself to feel all of the feelings, sadness waltzed in like it was welcome. So I placed an order from my favorite local Mexican restaurant and opened a bottle of wine. Let the numbing commence and the bricks go back up!

But this morning, I had to show up for an online class I’m taking. I had to read about detachment styles, and I had to discuss (openly with a group) how to effectively listen for God’s voice. After the discussion, we took a break for journaling and prayer. I shut off my laptop camera to shut out my group, and I took a deep, cleansing breath. And then he spoke.

“My sweet girl, you live your whole life in fear of abandonment anymore. You carry around assumptions that the people you love the most will hurt you, or worse, leave you. You tell children God is always with them and loves them forever. You tell women that they have no secrets from God, no places he can’t love. Your head knows it to be true for you, but your heart is struggling to trust me. Won’t you make a habit of sitting quietly with me? Won’t you let me fill your aches with my love so you won’t feel the need to numb yourself? Please don’t distract yourself from your pain. Let me stroke your pain with my hand of gentleness until you know my healing in the deepest part of your soul. I long for our relationship to be filled with your trust.”

So, I guess the journey continues. I continue down the path of learning and listening. This life of following God isn’t easy. I wish I could bring you along with me with such a promise, but I can’t do that to you. I can’t lie. Turning over my hurts and habits have never been easy. Allowing God in to heal my places is not as simple as it sounds. But he will never force me back; he will never coerce me. He doesn’t want to put a leash on me and train me. No, my God loves me so much, and he has given me the free will to love him back. He wants me to want him. Sometimes I drift away, and he lets me. And when I drift, I feel the longing to be comforted and healed but I have spent so much of my life trying to fill that longing with other people and other things. They never satisfy. Never.

I hope that the spoilers and triggers of this weekend, the voice I heard from him this morning will draw me back into his arms. I want to lay in his lap and feel his arms around me. And I want you to know that he doesn’t just want this from me. He has placed the same holes and same desires in you. He calls for us both; us all.

Psalm 138:8

“The Lord will fulfill (his purpose) for me; Your love, O Lord, endures forever – You do not abandon the works of Your hands.”

The Thorns of Suffering

I snuggle up on my couch last night with my laptop in lap. My kids were doing homework, Charlie Lexow was reading, and I needed to edit a piece I’ve been working on that I will present in a few weeks. I had turned the television on, mostly for noise, but I tend to be particular about my noise. I searched the TV Guide, looking for an old movie that I’d seen enough times not to need to follow along but pleasant enough that I could look up occasionally and enjoy a scene. I stopped on The Green Mile.

The Green Mile is a movie released in 1999, based on a Stephen King novel, and is one of those movies you have to watch to understand. Michael Clarke Duncan (God Rest His Soul) plays John Coffey. He always says, “Like the drink but spelled different.” John is on death row for raping and killing two little girls, and while I certainly feel the window for spoiler alerts closes long before 20 years, I won’t tell you how it turns out. I will say, however, that John has a miraculous gift which he uses to change the prison guards who care for him, in addition to many others. When faced with what to do in the end, the guards are trying to offer John a way out.  He tells them this gift that is bringing so much beauty to others, but it is like glass in his head. He says the shards of glass cause him hurt and he’s ready to be done.

As I watched the scene last night, one I’ve seen a hundred times before, tears started to roll down my face. I understand what it feels like to want the pain to stop. I’ve been there, and I’ve fought that demon many times before.

I saw a post on Instagram this week about depression. September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day and as I was scrolling through all the posts encouraging us to reach out to the sad and hurting around us. I was caught by one post, in particular, that spoke an impressive amount of truth about depression. I wish I had saved it so I would know who to credit. I wish I had said it myself so I could take credit because the words are so on point. She said that when you see a commercial on television for anti-depressant medication, the general theme is about sadness. The people are sad, they hold up smiley faces to cover their frown, and they talk about an overwhelming sadness. For the general public, who might not understand depression, they think that if their friends don’t act sad, they aren’t suffering from depression. The truth is that most people suffering from depression do not show their sadness to the world. They may not show it to more than one or two people if any. This is why the suicides of Robin Williams and Kate Spade were so shocking to so many. They were people who appeared to have it all together; they were funny, bubbly, successful. We only learned after their deaths of the people who saw what they were hiding from the rest of the world.

Even when we know someone is battling depression, we may not know the extent of it or how it plays out in their life. The person posting on Instagram said that depression often looks like doing the next thing. You might want to insert the word “hard” to that description, but usually, the next thing isn’t something most would consider hard. For me, when I am in the throws of the battle and depression is wearing me down hard, the next thing might be as simple as getting in the shower. Or after a shower, the next thing might be putting on clothes for the day. Sometimes the next thing is putting a stamp on the envelope that needs mailing. It’s sitting on the counter and I have the stamp, I just can’t make myself do the thing. I might go to work all day and smile at my coworkers and be entirely productive but go home and not be able to do the dishes. It’s too much. I may be able to cook dinner for my kids and help them with homework but not be able to change out of my day clothes before falling into bed. It’s shaming for someone who can function so well in most areas of life to feel so paralyzed in other areas.

I realize this makes zero sense to you if you’ve never been on the front line with this demon. You might even be thinking, “No. This is when you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do what needs to be done.” Oh, how I wish it was that simple. Depression can be suffocating and it can be paralyzing, and it’s way past time for us to stop hiding from the conversation. There are people in this world with gifts and talents so big and so grand that we think they would want to show the whole world when, in actuality, they feel like they have shards of glass in their head. And while medication and therapy are both great tools, they are tools that take time. Neither one is an overnight fix or solution. Depression is a disease. No one would expect a cancer cure in a week. No one would ask a person with diabetes why they can’t just feel better or smile more. When someone has suffered a significant trauma or illness and the chemicals in their brain are out of balance, depression happens. Is it curable? For some people. Can it be managed if not cured? For some people. Is the same treatment plan good for everyone? No way.

For me, when I am suffering, I feel like a hedge of thorns has surrounded me. In almost the same way the thorns rose around Sleeping Beauty’s castle when she fell into her sleep, I feel them begin to grow and rise. Sometimes I catch them quickly, and they don’t cover me. How do I do that? I have to be on alert at all times. I have to watch what I eat, how much alcohol I’m consuming, the music I’m listening to, the sleep I’m getting or not getting. And then I have to reach out to someone to hold me accountable for repenting. I call my sponsor, my therapist, and a tiny handful of trusted friends, all people who will not judge me but help talk me through the steps of recovery. And I have to take my medication consistently. That means never missing a dose. When I catch it, I like to imagine myself wielding a sharp sword, swiping my way through the thorns.

When I don’t catch it, I wake up and feel the thorns covering me; smothering me. I may lay under them for days before calling for help. But when I do, my people swarm around me with swords of truth. They bring the Word of God swiftly and unapologetically to help me battle the lies of Satan; the lies he whispers in my ears when I’m trapped.

 

God loves us so much that He sent His one and only Son. He promises that whoever believes in Him will not perish (John 3:16). I believe. I believe that depression is genuine and I believe that I serve a God is so much greater. He is the King who comes in the end with the gleaming sword and saves the whole world. He’s the one who will slice away the thorns and take me home to live with Him where there will be no more tears, no more shame, and no more disease. I long for that day so much. But until we get there, I will keep beating this drum and putting my words out there in hopes of helping one person. I will keep typing and talking and shouting for people to take notice and get help.

A Saturday to Grieve

Several years ago, maybe 12 or so, I stood before the students at my church and gave my testimony. There was probably 100 people in the room; a mix of middle school and high school students along with adult leaders. I spoke with a timid heart and a quivering voice. Speaking in front of crowds was still a new and uncomfortable venture for me and the subject matter was rough. I told them of the heartache I endured when my dad left. I shared the pain of watching my mom descend into depression. And my tears fell hot as I told them of her suicide.

But I also told them of God’s faithfulness. I told them how the tears still fell sometimes and that there were days when the pain was so heavy that I wasn’t sure I could take a breath under the weight of it all but that God would remind me how to breathe. I told them that I believed there is no pain in life so great that God hadn’t felt; that he understood grief on the deepest level because he watched his own son take on the sin of the world as he hung on the cross.

While telling my story was hard, I had a burning in me to make people understand that it was more than a sad story. It was a story of healing, ongoing as it may be. It was a story of hope because God didn’t let me die in my grief and abandonment.

When I finished I was met by kids and adult who hugged me, assuring me that telling my story was the right thing to do. They thanked me and reminded me that  God wasn’t finished with me yet.

And then there was one. A lady from the back of the room waited for the crowd to disperse a bit. Her face was tight and she had a forced half smile. She walked up to me and took my hands and told me that I needed more faith. She told me my tears showed my unbelief and that if I could only find it within myself to trust in God he would take away my grief. She said that if I really believed my mom was a Christian then I should be rejoicing that she’s in heaven and no longer suffering from the mental illness that Satan put upon her when my dad left.

And it is only because I stood there with my church employee name tag declaring me Tamara Lexow – Student Ministry that I didn’t claw her eyes out.

Along with other areas of healing, God has worked on my anger since then.

I think about that woman a lot. I especially think about her on days like today. This morning marks twenty years since my mom died. Twenty years is a long time to hurt and it’s a long time to heal and yet here I am, doing both.

This week has been particularly hard, with this anniversary falling on Holy Week, a week that generally wrecks my heart anyway. But this morning I can not help but think about those followers of Jesus. The men and women who had been faithful believers that he was really was the Son of God followed him for three years. They’d hung on his every word, allowed his touch to heal their bodies and their souls, and witnessed miracles like they’d never seen or imagined before. They listened to his stories, learned how to pray, and shared God’s promises coming to fruition before their very eyes.

And then they watched him die.

 

Did anyone walk up to them and tell them that if they’d only had a little more faith he wouldn’t have had to die? Did they question all they knew; all they had seen? I can only imagine the pain, the frustration, the exhaustion they felt on that Saturday between. The abandonment, the confusion, the loss was surely hanging over them like a wet, wool blanket. He had told them he would rise but did they get it? On that Saturday, as they sat in their pain, did they have faith?

What I wanted to say to that woman that morning that I couldn’t say because my anger was choking me was that it is only because of my faith that I was standing before her, allowing her condescending words to pierce me. It was only because God’s love for me was so great that I could stand up and tell of his goodness and his healing. It was only because His Spirit would sometimes whisper, “Breathe, Tamara” that I could take my next breath when ignorant people like her wanted to tell me what my faith should look like.

On that Saturday, one day after they watched him die and yet one day before they would realize that death could not hold him, Jesus’ friends had to have a glimmer of hope. They might not have called it hope but there was something there. They couldn’t have known what it would look like but so many of them had a tiny seed of faith that he really was who he said he was. How would he pull through?

I have days when I feel grief overwhelm me (yes, even after all these years) and I draw strength from that same glimmer of hope. That same hope that lived within the friends of Jesus lives in me.

There has to be more.

This can’t be it.

One day I will see my mom again. One day I’ll hold her hand and touch her face. One day I’ll introduce her to my children. One day there will be no more pain, no more suffering. One day we will all be together and no one will decide to leave. One day Jesus will take his followers and we will not ever shed another tear.

I can have that hope because of what his friends didn’t fully grasp that  Saturday. They didn’t know that he was taking the sin of the world to the pit of hell and dropping it at the door. They didn’t know that his body was being restored and that they would see him again in all his beauty. They didn’t understand how soon they would see him again. And yet they hoped.

Today I hope, too.

 

Half of 38 is 19

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Last week I was helping my son with a word problem on his math homework. Y’all 4th grade math is just about my limit. After this grade, I pay for tutoring. Word problems can be so lame though. Like I need to know that Jenny loves pancakes to  add her apples and bananas together. And who buys bananas in singles? Whatever. I was sitting with him, talking him through the rationalization of the problem and I said, “Okay, dude. We just have to figure out how many times 2 goes into 38.”

This is where my spaghetti brain unraveled. 38. I’m 38. Half of 38 is 19. Wait. What? Half of 38 is 19.

I was nineteen when my mom died. That means this year, my 38th year, she will have been gone from my life for an equal amount of time as she was in my life. We were mother/daughter for 19 1/2 years before her suicide.  I’ve had almost 19 years without her. Had I known how hard adulting would be or how much I’d miss her I surely would’ve soaked up more wisdom from her before I knew I was out of time. Like how to rip out a septic tank or make gravy.  So maybe not the septic tank thing. I don’t have one. But she did that. For sure gravy though. I suck at gravy. Time is something you rarely appreciate until it is gone. Just like gravy.

Huh.

I was nineteen when Princess Diana died. Mother Theresa, too. Not that either one of those people meant a great deal to me but I sobbed like I was a member of the royal family twice removed. I’m sure because of the grief I was already trudging through, but frankly, watching those young boys march behind their mother’s casket wagon just about did me in for a week. That was half a lifetime ago.

I was nineteen when I got my first bank loan. I was on my own. Adulting was hard. But I pulled up my bootstraps and did what needed to be done. I was so scared. I’d like to go back and give that girl a hug.

I was nineteen when I first learned that family doesn’t have to be blood. My mom’s best friend scooped me up that year and cared for me in ways I will never be able to fully grasp. She loved me in reach-out-and-touch-it ways. She got me a job and then bought me work clothes. She grabbed my boot straps when I didn’t have the strength.

I was nineteen when I went on my first date with Charlie. We were both nineteen and the world seemed big and crazy and full of opportunity. It also seemed scary and hard and cold and I was so glad I found him. We made terrible decisions together and apart but we learned and made better ones the next time. That’s what nineteen is for. Bounding and learning and growing. I knew immediately he was worth holding onto though and I did…for dear life. Sometimes I held so tightly that he couldn’t even breath. I probably smothered him more than I care to admit that year. He kept coming back though and it was for my gravy.

The funny thing my spaghetti brain realized in that post-math problem moment was that as I count the years I have been without my mom I wrack up years with the love of my life. Grief and love collided in big ways that year. We are adding birthdays and holidays and Tuesdays…more together than apart. I love that. We’ve had so many good times, times of laughter and joy. We’ve had so many opportunities for growth, situations that have been hard learned lessons. We’ve sang and we’ve danced and we’ve screamed and we’ve cried.  That’s a lot for nineteen years but I want more.

I want more snuggles on the couch in front of the fire with funny movies on the television. I want more bike rides. I want more floating afternoons in the pool with Bon Jovi blaring on the outdoor speakers. I want more pots of chili with pans of thick cornbread. That’s what 38 is for. And 42. And 68. And 77. And…

Time is tricky. Some days it lulls you into thinking you have plenty while other days you look back and wonder where it all went.  I know lots of you will attest to that. I can attest to that. That’s another lesson I learned at 19. And then again at 38. And I imagine I’ll keep learning it for the rest of my life.

Oh, and Jenny had 19 bananas.

Extravagance from a Barn

“Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” – C.S. Lewis

I became an orphan after my mom’s suicide. There were lots of reasons for this and truthfully, most could never be fully explained. It just happened and I was alone. The peace I have come to, however, after  almost 19 years, is that pointing fingers gets you nowhere. Every soul grieves in it’s own way and even within family we don’t always agree on what the way should be. People need space to process, to understand, to breathe. Each heart touched by tragedy has it’s own cracks, it’s own scars. We all experience the story from a different seat and judging the point of view you can’t see from your angle is madness. It’s a waste of time. It serves no greater good.

This weekend I experienced nothing short of a miracle. I prayed a simple prayer for over 18 years.

“God, show me where I came from.”

My previous knowledge of my family had come from a child’s view; the stories I knew by heart heard through the ears of a small girl. I wanted to look into eyes that were my eyes. I wanted to touch skin that was my skin. My heart learned to identify itself with a heavenly father. I made peace with a wrestling that tied me to an eternal home and an angelic clan. Yet even still, I wanted flesh and bones to cling to.

“God, show me where I came from.”

This yearning is the fertile soil that a passion for family ministry grew from. It’s the place I tilled and planted and cared for my  husband and my own children. I wanted, no needed, people to call my own.

My husband’s family scooped me up and adopted me as one of their clan. They call me daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin, niece. I love them every minute of every day for the gracious ways they have loved me. They have loved me well. Yet I still prayed.

“God, show me where I came from.”

I wanted the connection again. I wanted to walk in a yard where generations had gone before me. I wanted to sit under a blanket stitched with loving hands that looked like mine. I wanted the recipes. I wanted to laugh at the inside jokes. I wanted the knowing glances and the finished sentences.

And then the call came.

A weekend gathering. A meal. A barn. My people. They called me and invited me home.

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We ate and we laughed and I sat with Grand Daddy, who at 97 is sharper than many people half his age. He patted my hand and said he was so sorry for wasted years, time lost, decisions made in anger. Aren’t we all? My  kids snuggled in hay with other great-grandchildren and surrounded him. All of them were only slightly aware of the history, the stories, the joy and the pain. They smiled, not all-together sure how the DNA connected them, how their eyes matched.

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His children sat with him, smiling, missing two. One because of work, one because of death. They, the carriers of the stories, smiling through pain and gladness, survivors of their own right, moving forward; letting go.

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“God, show me where I came from.”

God answered. And as  he is accustomed to doing, he answered in the biggest and grandest of ways. There was a barn and a fire and a swing. There were stumps to sit on and turkey to eat. There was laughter and tears and hugging and clinging. There were questions and answers and knowing. There was healing. There was so much healing in that barn. I heard stories with fresh ears. I learned new pieces of history, pieces a child couldn’t have known. I leaned in and was embraced. I realized I was never an orphan, only a missing child. I have been found.

It was when I finally made peace with being without that God surprised me with a gift. I never gave up on asking but had come to be okay with the answer being negative. God is so faithful. He is so loving and he is so good. He is extravagant in the gifts he gives. As we enter this season of Advent, this time of waiting, I think about the people who prayed for hundreds of years for a word from God; an answer. They prayed to be connected. And then there was a barn where He displayed extravagance. This God of love couldn’t stand his people being separated from him by sin and they needed a Savior. He sent his one and only Son, not as a mighty warrior in a palace, but as a baby who needed a family. The one who would save the world came as a helpless child; a baby w ho needed touch and skin and love. A baby born into family.

I pray that you would hear the story fresh this year; that your heart would be fertile soil for beauty to grow. I pray that you would not give up on asking God for new revelation, new connections, and new perspective. I pray that you would see wounds heal and scars fade. I pray that you would know where you came from and know how to move forward. I pray you too, will experience extravagance from a barn.