Thursday, December 30, 2010

Resolutions Schmesolutions

Not being one to make New Year's Resolutions, I'd rather count the blessings I've experienced this passing year.  2010 began with life and is ending with another life moving into eternal life.

Our first grandchild, Micaylah, was born in early January.  My Mama's older brother just died Tuesday morning.  His was a life well lived and one with love.  He lived his dash.  Who could ask for more?  Hers is a life that is off to a great start.  Full of love.  She is at the beginning of her dash.  We can look back at his dash and fill it in.  Her dash is a canvas waiting to be painted.  Who can ask for more?

We get to see our daughter be "Mom."  Because we see her doing such a fabulous job, we bask and feel like we did a good job ourselves.  What goes around comes around and we're here to see it.  Who can ask for more?  We also get to witness our son-in-law relish this time with their daughter and his father enjoy his only grandchild.  We see first-hand how this little family lives and loves and if we died today, we'd go knowing it is well with them.  Who can ask for more?

Our son is here!!!!  I had my best Christmas ever this year and my best present was and continues to be the gift of his life...twice given.  I will not go into the details here.  Those who know them understand.  Those who don't can use their imaginations.  God knows (literally...God knows) how abundantly grateful I am to be able to see his face and hear his voice; to see him discovering computer science and making peace with his intelligence and inner nerdiness.  His dash wasn't engraved way too early, but is still there for him to fill in.  Who can dare ask for more?

I can count the blessing of having both my parents, now both 80 years young and getting younger.  Not everyone my age can say that.  They, themselves, couldn't say that.  They had both their children, all 4 grandchildren, and their great-granddaughter for Christmas Day.  They've lived to see turnarounds in lives and doors open that weren't even on the horizon.  They've seen God working in our lives in astounding ways.  As Dr. Seuss would say, they're in good shape for the shape they're in.  Who can ask for more?

Hubby and I celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary in November.  As all couples, we've had our share of ups and downs.  The "ups" carried the day and we've given our children an example that marriages can survive and thrive....even in our time and culture.  It's worth it.  Thirty-one down and more to go.  Who can ask for more?

We both have meaningful callings and support each other.  He's a pharmacist and I'm a Methodist pastor.  God has been surprising and at the same time, God has been faithful.  Through all the changes in our lives, God has been faithful.  Who can pray for more?

And so, here is the tip of my blessing iceberg!  Each day presented blessings and each day held a challenge.  That's life.

And I am grateful.  Here's to 2011!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Climb Every Mountain

On my 35th birthday my brother, who was a mere 32 at the time, looked at me and asked, "How does it feel to be at the top of the mountain looking down?"  I returned the favor and asked him the same thing when he had scaled to the top of his mountain and it has become something of a joke between us ever since.

Based on his math, neither of us are halfway down our mountains yet, but I am grateful to say that we are still descending.  I am particularly grateful that he is still on his mountain!  While descending down his mountain, he took a detour and descended into the hell of crack and dragged his family, especially our parents, into that hell with him.  I am grateful they are both witnessing his ascent from that horrible hell and are able to see him getting his life back on track.  Make that, we are all witnessing miracle after miracle as we see God's hand guiding him as he grows into a transformed man living the life he should have been living all along.  A life making the most of the gifts and graces God endowed him with...and God gave my brother boatloads of intelligence and ability!

Thankfully my brother is very open about his story in the hopes of helping anybody it can help.  I break no confidences in sharing that he suffered a string of losses and bad breaks, then found himself in the "right" place at the "right" time surrounded by the "right" people who wanted to ease his pain.  All those "rights" definitely equaled one big bad wrong.  That first hit of crack lived up to its reputation and then some!  It took away the pain and he felt better than he had in a long time!  He has lived to tell about the other side.  The part all those "right" people failed to mention: you NEVER get that feeling back again, no matter HOW much crack you go through.  NEVER!  You'll sell everything you own and throw away every relationship and steal from anyone you can and take, take, take, ALL for just one more attempt to get that first high back...and you'll NEVER get it!  You'll lose your real friends, family will fall to the wayside, you won't be able to keep a job, you'll lose your house and your possessions, you'll lose your self-respect.  You'll find yourself in places, with people, doing things, you never ever dreamed YOU'D be doing in your worst nightmares.

Those nightmares become your reality.  Your life becomes insignificant and the property of your supplier(s); sleep gives way to always keeping one eye open; the idea of "trust" becomes a lie as nothing and no one can be trusted for good.  You find yourself living in the seamiest conditions among the dregs of society and wonder how you got there.  My brother never planned on this.  Little girls and boys never dream of one day becoming a crack addict.  This wasn't the future our parents envisioned for him when they brought his newborn self home from the hospital.  The journey from hospital nursery to crack took 40 some years, but it happened.  And yet....

God kept his hand on my brother.  Even though he went down into the pit and should never have escaped; there were many times he knew he was as good as dead, he is becoming the "preacher" and wise man among his rehab group.  He's actually the graduate of a court-ordered 18 month tremendous rehab program in the mountains.  He has a job that utilizes his woodworking skills and is working full time!  He's getting his life on track and he now knows, without a doubt, WHO is responsible for all the blessings he is experiencing.  He's coming home for Christmas and I'm looking forward to seeing him and hearing more of his story.

He's also a musician who writes his own lyrics and tunes.  He's got one heck of a musical on his hands.

Age-wise he may be descending his mountain.  Life-wise he is climbing one.

And I am grateful.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tie a Yellow Ribbon

One of Conway's own is coming home today from Afghanistan, but not in the way he last left.  United States of America flags and yellow ribbons will salute him and his family as they come into town.  Gasps of shock and tears of pain and sadness continue to flow; hearts will do more breaking before they start mending.

His dad is a Baptist pastor; a fellow member of the cloth.  His mom is "the preacher's wife."  They are, of course, much more than that, but now their faith journeys and family have taken a sharp turn.  And they can't make a u-turn and get back going like they were; their course forever altered.  A turn they didn't willingly make.  A turn that puts them on the same road with other families who are now traveling a similar path.

This particular soldier used to play basketball with my children in our backyard when we lived across a field from him and his family. After we moved to the other side of town I lost track of him, unfortunately.  My children went to a different school and neither was his age; we went to different churches.  Our paths just didn't cross anymore.  Now he will always be that tow-headed boy with a bball.

His family are people of deep faith.  How will God use this as Rev. McLawhorn pastors and preaches from this day forward?  How will this strengthen his church and this town?  In this Christmas season of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, how will God speak these things into the hearts of his children at this time of their lives?

Many families are going through this and many will follow though they don't know it now.

Show an attitude of gratitude to those who wear our country's uniform and to the families who stand with them.   Pray for them, uphold them, and pray for peace so that the day may come when we can put our yellow ribbons away.

God keep you Cpl. Will McLawhorn, Jr.  Thank you.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Big "C" Is Not "Candy"

God did not bless me with a sweet tooth.  No, God blessed me with an entire mouthful of sweet teeth!  So while I am, ordinarily very thankful for candy and sweets in general, I am grateful for the other big "c."  Melanoma to be exact.  And, I'm grateful for Elizabeth Edwards.

Cancer may sound like a strange thing to be grateful for if you've never heard that word applied to you.  But I know others who have become grateful for it being part of their lives because of the fascinating journey it takes you on and the lessons that are to be learned on that journey.  My lessons are still being learned and they will not look precisely like anybody else's lessons.  I'm grateful for that, too.

I was probably born with that mole.  I don't remember.  I do remember from the time I was in my late teens that my Mom was constantly nagging, and often my Dad too would chime in, and later my husband would join their chant, about this mole that was on my upper left arm.  They didn't like how it looked.  My Mom was the voice of doom and gloom telling me I needed to get it removed because I was going to have trouble with it one day.  I remember being 18 years old saying, "It's just a mole for crying out loud!  It's not going to kill me or anything!  Leave it alone!"

God was at work but I wouldn't listen.  Would I be wearing a compression sleeve and glove now if I had listened then?

I grew up, went to college, got married, had two children, went back to college, was active in church all those years, went through the Candidacy process for ministry in the UMC, began going to Duke Divinity School every July for Course of Study.  My mole tagged along, never giving me any trouble...except for remarks people felt duty-bound to make.  Strangers would ask if I knew I had a tick on my arm.  My parents and husband kept pleading with me to get it removed.  I kept reminding them it was only a mole and it wasn't going to kill me.

Then it started happening.  That darned mole started changing.  I'm not stupid; I knew what that meant.  So I prayed that God would work a miracle and let it shrink or better yet just miraculously take that thing away and be done with it.  God answered that prayer, but not in the way I would have preferred.  I guess I forgot to throw in a few details on how I wanted this episode in my life to play out.

It was March 2008.  I started wearing tops that had long enough sleeves to hide that mole.  It started out as a bubble at the tip of the mole.  In two weeks the whole mole was raised.  God must have misunderstood my prayers.  I was asking that he remove it, not enlarge it.  Even with my southern accent I should have been understandable!  What was taking God so long?  Finally, in April I promised my husband I'd have a dermatologist look at it and remove it.  The closest ones are over an hour away.  None could see me till September.

I went to Course of Study at Duke that July with a September 28th appointment to see a dermatologist.  The first Wednesday at Duke that mole started bleeding.  At that point I didn't need a doctor to tell me there was cancer in that mole.  I knew it and got myself to Duke Urgent Care that afternoon after class.  A wonderful PA removed the mole and said the tissue underneath looked good.  I breathed a sigh of relief as it was whisked off to a pathology lab.  The tissue looked good.  She removed .4 millimeters of tissue under it.

Thursday of the next week, I was standing in front of Duke Chapel checking my voicemail.  The doctor from Duke Urgent Care had called and told me that the mole had melanoma in it and he had made me an appointment with an oncologist at Duke Medical to "see what we're dealing with".  I picked up my bookbag and found a pew in the Chapel, crying.  I had an appointment with a Duke oncologistME!  That wasn't in my game plan.  The PA had said the tissue looked good.  I wasn't supposed to have anything "to deal with."

God was faithful, even in my stubbornness and stupidity.  He didn't take the melanoma away but he opened doors that I had no idea I even needed opening.  He was with me through tests and procedures I never heard of.  I take that back, he wasn't just with me...he took those tests and procedures for me.  He allowed me to feel the prayers going up for me.  That's a tremendous gift right there.  Have you ever felt prayers that are for you?  The power of those prayers?  That alone was worth it all!  Feeling those prayers gave me strength and hope because I knew that what I had believed about prayer was true in ways I'll never understand.  Pray, people, pray!

My family, friends, and members of the two churches I was pastor of walked with me through two surgeries to remove all the lymph nodes under my left arm.  Turns out, a full millimeter of tissue needs to be removed with a cancerous mole.  The melanoma had spread to my lymph nodes...just the first sentinel node, but that was enough to make me Stage 3B...I think...anyway, it changed my status and put a statistic over my head that I'm 2 years into.  Eight more to go!  Mitch changed many a drainage tube as that lymph fluid did whatever it had to do to continue circulating under that arm with no nodes there.  By November 2008 I had developed lymphedema in my left arm and hand and looked like a balloon that would pop if someone stuck a pin in it.

God opened the door for me to get physical therapy for all of the post-surgery stuff and lymphedema from a certified lymphedema specialist.  It's under control and my sleeve & glove are my best friends for the rest of my life.  I love it when people ask about them because it gives me a chance to tell them my story and tell them to keep a check on their skin and moles.  A mole can bring you down.  Melanoma is the 4th deadliest cancer.

Elizabeth Edwards has been a companion on this journey though she has no idea.  I was in the waiting room for one of my surgical oncologist appointments and she was on the TV talking with Oprah.  Her cancer had returned and I had begun following her story with renewed interest.  She has shown faith, grace, and courage that I more than admire.  She has modeled how to put a positive face on troubling times and persevere.  Thank you, Elizabeth and God bless you!

I'm grateful that my Mom has a huge "I told you so!" hanging over my head and has not used it!  I'm grateful for my husband who never complained, but patiently did whatever needed doing.  I'm grateful God has used my story to get others more aware of their own skin and moles.  I've had people tell me that they begun seeing a dermatologist and others have had moles removed.  I'm grateful God has shown me that I am, indeed, mortal.  I will die one day.  That is so freeing!  And it is so life-changing!  That has changed my attitude toward so much!  I understand, in a way I never did before, just how precious life is!  Everyone's life!  I do mean everyone!  I look at life through the lens of being a cancer patient.  Make that a child of God who melanoma has touched.  That's the lens that is in my glasses.

And I am grateful.

NOTE: In the hours since I posted this, the news has reported Elizabeth Edward's death earlier today.  Rest in Peace and thank you. (And, I learned much later, after reading my own path report for myself, that I had melanoma in two nodes, not just one like I wrote in this post).

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Switching Gears

As I've sat with John the Baptist this week and waffled between being in the crowd and being a Pharisee, I'm grateful for the opportunity to listen, reflect, apply, and grow.

There had not been a prophetic voice in Israel in over 400 years!  God had been silent and now, along comes John the Baptist, out in the wilderness along the Jordan River, reminiscent  of their ancestors' being in Egypt in slavery for over 400 years until God called Moses to lead them out, and he's calling the people to repentance!  The Kingdom of God is near (boy is it ever!) and he is also offering the sin-cleansing waters of baptism to those who confess and repent.

We are wired to need to confess our sins; we are wired to need to repent; we are wired to need to receive God's forgiveness.  Is that why the people flock to John and his message, because they recognize God is up to something and offering them hope in a way they haven't had "hope" offered in a mighty long time?  Are they hungry to confess, repent, and be purified from the dirt of life?

What about the Pharisees and Sadducees who are watching all this but don't join the crowd?  John jumps on them and he jumps hard.  These respected religious leaders are banking on the wrong things to keep them right with God.  They're banking on their ancestry traced all the way back to Abraham.  If anything should be able to keep them in right standing with God, it should be their kindred with Abraham!  Who cares how they live?  God cares.  The Pharisees and Sadducees were wired to confess, repent, and receive God's forgiveness just as those in the crowd were...just like we today are.  But they, like many of us, have our wiring shorted out, crossed, or maybe even pulled out completely and thrown away.

Modern medications, therapies, government and faith-based help programs are all wonderful and fill huge needs and usually fill these needs well.  But they cannot handle sin and they cannot offer and give us God's forgiveness.  Courts and the penal system handle punishments but they cannot take our confessions and redeem them like God.  Court-ordered restitution fills a human need for justice but cannot transform a life and situation like God's restoration.  Humans can deal with "dysfunction" and "social ills" but God deals in terms of calling it what it is and it is "sin."  There's not a human system on the face of the earth that can cleanse us and bring us into right relationship with God or that can offer us the hope of redemption and restoration that God does.  That's where the Church, the Body of Christ comes in.

God freely offers us the opportunity and grace to switch gears; to turn from the way we are heading in life and go down his path.  The choice is ours. God has already planted countless "burning bushes," grace-filled people and places, that enable us to hear God's voice calling us along each path we may take.  There are churches all over the landscape; Bibles in stores and online; prayer warriors in every place; Christian radio at the turn of the dial, just to name a few.

There's a voice in the wilderness of each life and He is calling.

And I am grateful.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I've Been Thinking....

Uh-oh!  Watch out for flying debris!  It can be dangerous for me to start thinking!  But that's what I'm grateful for.  I'm thankful to have a brain to think with and a Lord who tells me to use it.

Jesus tells us "And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength" (Mark 12: 30 New Living Translation).

Now compare that to the Shema that Jesus is basing that on. "And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6: 5 NLT).

Jesus adds that we must love the Lord our God with all our mind!  To love with all heart, soul, and strength, while wonderful and important, it is still to follow blindly.  To be spoon fed.  To not think for yourself or reason for yourself what you're getting into or to consider who or what you're worshiping.

It's risky for Jesus to tell us to also love the Lord our God with all our mind because that means we are to truly "count the cost" of discipleship.  That means we can bring our questions, doubts, fears, etc, to God without fear of him zapping us with a lightning bolt as punishment for our impunity.  That means we continue to grow in faith because we do have this freedom to come to God and reason together instead of stagnating because we have to take what is given without question.  It can also mean that sometimes we run into places where we honestly think the church has "it" (whatever the "it" is) wrong.

That's what led to the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther and a couple others believed the Church had "it" wrong on some key doctrines.  They loved the Lord our God with all their minds, which led to them thinking and reasoning.  Dangerous!  It's what led to John Wesley's attempt to reform the Church of England, which led to the Methodist Movement.  It's probably behind every major split in every denomination: thinking & reasoning on Scripture because we are commanded, by Jesus, to love the Lord our God with all our mind!

Does the Church universal and Methodism, in particular, have "it" all right today?  No, and we never will...not on this side of heaven anyway.  I don't have "it" all right, either.  I get much wrong.  But because I love the Lord my God with all my mind, I can keep coming to him in prayer and encountering him in his Living Word and think and reason.  I'm an analytical person, so I thoroughly LOVE being able, no, TOLD, to do this!

And God's big enough and sufficient enough and his grace is more than enough to handle my small thoughts.  My thoughts are not his thoughts anymore than my ways are his ways.  They're getting closer to his, but they'll never complete the journey.  He will always be God and I will always never be God.

And I am grateful.