A Long, Slow Fall Down A Winding Spiral Staircase

When people ask me, “So, how are you doing?”, if it is a safe person and they are really asking, I tell them, “It has been a long slow fall down a winding spiral staircase.”

Although I am describing something of what my last few weeks have looked like with Jeff so sick in the hospital, I am also talking about our last 2 years. That word picture encompasses not only the emotion of the quick decline of Jeff’s health and how it has affected our family, but of our disappointment at not returning overseas, of the sad realization that our lives will look different than we had ever planned, of a difficult move to a new place that was not anywhere on our radar a few years ago, of the grief of several years of loss demanding expression and of my resulting depression.

A long, slow fall down a winding spiral staircase.

Just when I thought we had surely reached bottom, oh no…we weren’t even close. It has just kept going on and on and I have just kept tumbling down and down. The promised end has continued to stretch further and further out of reach until one day, weeks in to our recent experiences, I woke up and thought to myself, “How on earth did we get here?” And tangentially, “Where did all these bruises come from?”

I suspect many personal crises play out in a similar way.

Something happens. Reaction. Survival mode. Denial. Awakening to reality. Periodic gut-wrenching sobs accompanied by bouts of nausea. Asking, “What the heck just happened?”

At least that has been my experience.

In light of all this, a spiritual/theological question is rolling around in my heart these days…(and let me preface this with the full realization that many others have encountered much steeper, much longer and more painful falls than I)

Why the fall?

Sometimes life takes these odd twisting descents that lead us to places we never imagined we would have to go. Sometimes there is quite fall. And sometimes it takes a long time to get the ground back under us.

I say “sometimes”, but if you’ve walked in this world long enough, then I’m sure you have had a season where the road has disappeared. You’ve fallen. And I bet it all took longer than you hoped it would or thought it should. And I bet the sheer distance of the fall not only took your breath away, but it probably left some pretty decent bruises. Probably in some awkward and private places.

Is. 40:4 says, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” The idea of God leveling out the rough ground is common imagery in scripture. (Ps. 26:12, Ps. 143: 10, Is. 26:7, Is. 45:2, Heb. 12:13) And no doubt, Jesus shows up and smiles on each of us with kind mercies, making our way sweeter and more joyful than it could be. He sometimes, but not always, buffers and takes the edge off. But honestly, my experience with God seems to involve quite a bit of rough ground. Leveling? Well, my perspective will be different in a few months, but right now? Not so much.

Because I live in a world where sin and its destructive power have roughed up just about every corner of creation. And Jesus doesn’t always fix things. Not right now, anyway. Not always in the way we had hoped.

The pathway to more of Jesus is often a descent. It can involve a fall through our direst fears, past our greatest weaknesses, filled with loss of the things we were sure we could never live without. It can be bruising. Yet…He goes with us. Making sure we are never alone. Accompanying us as we tumble. Showing us that it isn’t the fall that will kill us. It is a life without Him.  A life ruled by our fears, defined by our weaknesses and filled with shallow imitations of what our hearts truly long for is far more dangerous than anything we might encounter on the way down.

A jarring tumble can be quite eye-opening, showing us things we just cannot see when blinded by good times. And a significant fall can crack open our hearts in a most beautiful way, making room for Him to join us in the dark places inside of us we may not even know are there.

And…I am learning to open myself up to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, He levels a different type of ground than what I expect or prefer. Maybe He isn’t always talking about the ground that makes my shoes so dirty.

Maybe, the level ground He is talking about involves the terrain of the heart. I know He makes the ground my heart walks on very stable indeed, regardless of what is under my feet. How else to describe how people endure horrible, devastating external circumstances, but manage to eventually recover and thrive? Just how DID Paul write so much of the New Testament from prison? How did Corrie Ten Boom survive years in concentration camps and come out loving Jesus even more than before? How do believers today walk with Jesus in some pretty dark places and still sing in worship and gratitude?

Jesus did something amazing in their hearts, that’s how. He healed what was broken. He filled up the holes. He smoothed rough ground. He was with them through the worst seasons of life. And He was enough. Even with the fall. Even with the resulting bruising.

And while I write about those who are much more deeply in love with Jesus, who bear His image so much clearer than I, He has also done this for me.

He has allowed me to glimpse something of how sweet it is to know Him in the midst of the fall.

(Update on Jeff’s condition: Jeff has made an amazing turnaround. He left the ICU this past weekend and is now walking around, eating solid food, smiling and chatting with his family and should come home hopefully this weekend. And for a while there, we weren’t sure he would. The best part of all this? I get more of Jesus…and I get my husband back too. We are so very grateful for the prayers lifted up on his behalf around the world. More of our story to come…please stay tuned!)

How Do You Not Get Emotional? (Being Human pt. 8)

Recently, I was on a tour of the CNN headquarters – a perk of hosting out-of-town guests. I got to spend time in the control room before a segment went live and briefly talk with a director of the news and some of her colleagues. She wasn’t a maker of the news, just an observer, gatekeeper and communicator of it. She has worked at CNN her entire career, doing almost every job behind the camera at one time or another. What a fascinating person! Question-asker that I am, I started with, “What was the biggest breaking story you were ever present for and got to cover?’ That was an interesting discussion, especially as one of her co-workers was present the morning of 9/11.

In light of that, the next question presented itself quite naturally. I asked, “How do you not get emotional doing what you do?”

Immediately, she and at least three different people in the control room answered emphatically, “Oh, we do!” Then, the director went on to point out something in the room I had missed. Boxes of tissue. Everywhere. She said they don’t get to look away from all the horrible things of this world. The child murders, natural disasters, injustice, tragedies… Yet they still have a job to do. Observing, gatekeeping and communicating stories. Often with tears rolling down their faces.

I’m getting a little emotional myself while writing this because…over the years I’ve ended up talking with a lot of young women. And some not-so-young. About stuff. Life. Their stories. Their pain. I wish I knew exactly how it happens. It isn’t that I want to stop this. Obviously it is a part of who I am – meeting people right where they are and walking with them a bit till they get where they are going. Wherever that is. But sometimes my life sort of feels like I’m in a great big control room, and all these screens are displaying what is going on in the world. And like the employees of CNN, I can’t look away.  I have to stay engaged, involved in the stories being played out not just before me, but in the lives of people I know and care about. And, like the employees of CNN, I am coming to the conclusion that not getting emotional isn’t an option. I just have to keep tissue nearby and handy.

Because I’m not unaffected by what I see.

I sometimes meet Vulcans out there – those people who try to disengage from their feelings. They have all sorts of reasons why their life-strategy is best: controlling their emotions lest they control them, leaning into rational analysis, embracing logic and rejecting the inner world of the heart, both in themselves and others. There most certainly is a place for some of this – and I’m speaking as a recovering Vulcan myself.

Yet…

Our humanity, where God chooses to meet us, is intricately connected to our emotions. Yes, it is messy. Yes, it is at times uncontrollable. Yes, it can make us vulnerable to pain, to the whims of others…to our human-ness. But to deny our inner world is to deny a basic part of our humanity… which denies Jesus a powerful place to meet us. 

Like the CNN employees, I am coming to realize that not getting emotional is not an option. Not a healthy one anyway.

Marriage Predictors pt. 7 – Surviving the “Oh My God, Who Are You And What Did You Do With My Spouse?” Moment

I think there comes a moment in everyone’s marriage – usually early on for those with good communication skills, and later on for those who are better at hiding what is actually going on in their heart (my category, by the way) – where you look at your spouse and wonder, “Oh my God, who are you and what did you do with the person I married?”

I’m not talking about the “you squeeze the toothpaste from the middle” argument, or the classic, “Toilet paper should spin from the top, not the bottom of the roll” disagreement that every newlywed has. I’m talking bigger things today. Like:

When they really lose their temper in front of you for the first time and it makes you afraid. When you realize that thing that didn’t really bother you while you were dating really does bother you now that you live with it, and you awaken to the fact that it isn’t going to change. When you catch them using porn on the internet. When you realize what you thought was a bad habit is actually an addiction. When you get that credit card bill for that thing you can’t afford, didn’t want and now are on the hook for. When something from their past pops up that they didn’t disclose to you before the marriage, or you didn’t fully grasp its ability to affect you, and now it is sitting in your lap. When the emotional baggage from their past won’t be suppressed anymore and you begin to realize just how broken by sin they are, and now they are evolving into someone right before your eyes that you aren’t even sure you recognize. When they make a really stupid or selfish mistake and do something, say something that hurts you so badly, different words enter your vocabulary – like betrayal, abandonment and regret. When you start entertaining those thoughts on “What if…”, when you swore you never would.

(This is a discussion where it is really important to realize that if you are pointing a finger at your spouse, you are also pointing three fingers back at yourself. If you are thinking any of these things, I’m pretty sure your partner is having the similar thoughts about you.)

It is usually at that moment, when the new reality begins to set in, that most people begin thinking “Is this marriage thing really permanent?”

When you marry, in front of God and your family and friends, you make unbreakable vows to each other for this very reason. Because if people could get out of marriage, at some time or another, almost everyone would. Sure, people divorce and move on all the time. But make no mistake, when you break your marriage vows, you also break the people who made them.

The marriage predictor I am talking about today (the character qualities, behavior patterns and practices that bend a relational trajectory towards a loving, stable relationship – or not) is your decision to stand and work and fight for your marriage and not run when this first happens. And I’m pretty sure this moment happens to everyone. Because most of us have bought into the lie that marriage is about making us happy – and when it doesn’t, we begin thinking about how to bail. At some point in the relationship, most likely you will be faced with the temptation to leave – either physically or emotionally. And when you decide to honor your vows, to stay, even when everything in you is screaming, “Get me out of here!”, you set your relationship on a trajectory that leads to a very promising place. 

Learning to do this, early in the marriage, to stay in, all in, both emotionally and physically, is a learned skill. And learning to do it from the get-go…I can’t really think of a stronger predictor of one’s ability to do it later, when the stakes just might get exponentially higher. Committing to the energy it requires to work through those “Oh my God…” moments early on in your marriage teaches you that you can survive them, and that you can work together through whatever will come up later. And just a bit of truth for all the young couples out there…there is always something else that will come up later. And later, it is almost always something much more complicated (which is code for ‘painful’).

So young couples – talk to each other about this. Make it part of your relational vocabulary. And decide together that you both will survive these early challenges and come out on the other side, more invested in and more committed to the success of your marriage than before.

Here is a link to an interview from the world’s oldest living couple, married over 85 years!

(This post isn’t meant as a critique of anyone’s marriage, broken or damaged – it is meant as a springboard for discussion and prayer. I’ve heard from some of my readers that this series has been painful to read. Please know, I totally get how tough marriage is and can be. I am writing from a place of great compassion for you.)