Saturday, February 25, 2012

March Madness, Extreme Pruning, and Transmutation

It was 75 degrees yesterday. Just a handful of days ago we had a little blast of winter and went to bed with a coating of wet snow on the ground and a 2 hour delay of schools for the next morning. In the South, the end of February through the month of March can bring such swings of weather madness. Days like yesterday are like an alarm going off alerting us to get ready. Spring is coming. March madness is just a few weeks out. The Durham Bulls will be back in town in about 6 weeks. And it is time to start thinking about cleaning off the screened porch and preparing the garden for new growth. It is time for up, pruning, reflecting, remembering, professing, and confessing as we are looking for the coming of all things new after winter's sleep.

I took out the pruners and began a radical work on a bush out of control by our side porch stairs. We had been talking for months about the need to prune back this bush. It had been allowed to grow to the point that it altered one's direction along the short sidewalk from the driveway to the house. It was so huge we felt we needed to ask how and when to prune so it that it had the best chance of recovering with new growth. A gardener from Duke Gardens who had planted several additions to our yard said wait until February and cut it back to about one third it's height. And so it has been done. Will this bush survive?

Lent is a time of such preparations. Sometimes our lives need such radical pruning. Preparing the way for new life requires a conscious decision to prune away the old. It can be rather scary unless we have assured knowledge that there is indeed the promise that after such a radical act there will be something new.

I stepped forward to "receive my ashes", but, just before, my friend and mentor Gloria speaks to me. She declares with confidence like that of a prophet, "Your sins have been transmuted. Christ not only died for the remission of your sins, but he transmutes them. Your sins are not just forgiven, they are transmuted. They will be completely changed and will be as if they never happened." I turned with the glory of this truth all over me and received the mark on my forehead. The pastor spoke these words,"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust", a phrase from the Anglican burial service, used sometimes to denote total finality. It is based on scriptural texts such as "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return" (Genesis 3:19). Even though I die, I shall then live.

So, a few days into this Lenten season, as I turn my face toward Jerusalem and follow Christ, I am trying to hear and reflect on what radical preparations I am asked to make. I have heard the call to confession. Confession for me has become a glorious thing over the years. I have learned and grown to trust in the value of acknowledging, revealing, uncovering, declaring, and announcing. The more I confess, the more I live in the freedom Christ bought for me. Confessing has become more about speaking truths out loud than about my focus on my sins. There are truths about my sins and I declare those but, at the same time, I confess loudly and declare fervently who Christ is and that the blood he shed to the point of death is sufficient to radically transmute my sin, transform my body, and transfer my very life from darkness into light. Into the increasing light I walk.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pancakes to Ashes

I ate my pancakes (2 big blueberry ones) yesterday for Fat Tuesday, the last day of Mardi Gras (which, according to tradition began with Epiphany). I am a fringe observer of the Church Liturgical Calendar, but over the last few years I have been trying to allow the Lectionary readings and the cycles of celebrations to lead me through the year with some order. Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of a 40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting we call Lent and will culminate with the glorious celebration of Christ's resurrection on Easter morning.

There's always talk about what one is going to fast from or give up for Lent .... usually it is something like chocolate or alcohol or something that seems to have a grip on one's life. It is a good discipline and when paired with prayer and mindful submission to Christ can take us a step forward. I am grateful for the season of Lent and the focus that prayer and fasting encourages. But, I am most grateful that I know what comes next: Easter.

I cannot imagine fasting and praying without the knowledge the it will be for a time and that though the journey toward Jerusalem, following Christ through to the crucifixion, is completely devastating, nonetheless, that will not be the end. We know that He endured the cross, despised the shame, and was raised again to new life....the first born from the dead.

So, what will I give up today and for the next 40 days (not counting Sundays)? I may give up my precious red wine. That would be hard. But, I am contemplating that a fast from discouragement, even fear in the face of all forms of death might be a more true fast. I found myself caught up reading the book of Joel just recently and hyper focused on the absolutely complete devastation that the locusts caused. Yet, I was also reminded that death is the portal to new life.

I am going to get "my ashes" tonight and will begin my conscious journey through Lent. Hopefully my small effort to surrender my grip on my fear of death in all its shapes and forms will allow me to be freed to participate in the truest forms of fasting.

Isaiah 58

New International Version (NIV)

Isaiah 58

True Fasting
 1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
   Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
   and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
   they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
   and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
   and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
   ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
   and you have not noticed?’    “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
   and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
   and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
   and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
   only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
   and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
   a day acceptable to the LORD?
 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
   and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
   and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
   and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
   and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
   and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
   you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
   “If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
   with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
   and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
   he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
   and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
   like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
   and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
   Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
 13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
   and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
   and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
   and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the LORD,
   and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
   and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
            For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Friday, February 17, 2012

There is a Time for Everything

It has been more than 9 months since my last post. Long enough to conceive, gestate, and deliver a baby. I'd like to say to say that that is what I have been doing, at least in a spiritual sense. I sense the time for labor and delivery is coming.

To use another image, the last 9 months have been spent in a cocoon of sorts. I felt tightly bound and there was little movement. My protective case was tough and my experience of all that surrounded me was muffled and diffused. Thinking about this image and the image of gestation is somewhat comforting to me now and allows me to experience some hopefulness that the long months without a voice and confined to a small and limiting space emotionally and spiritually will yield newness.

I entered my cocoon out of necessity back in March of 2011. I needed the protection. I needed a safe place, a place where newness would have a chance to incubate. I was spent, used up, exhausted. I needed to limit my energy so as to focus my energy. The previous 2 years had been depleting. (Little did I know what was to come.)

My father was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer in January, 2009. Soon we began our family journey through the land of chemo, radiation, and intimate visits with my Daddy to see his wonderful oncologist and her compassionate technicians. At the same time this journey began, the store I had worked at for 10 years and managed for 5 of those years, closed and I was moved to another store 45 minutes away. Life took a another turn. I felt I was in a perpetual state of loss or preparing to lose. When that store closed just months after I arrived, I was sent to manage a third store, I felt the roller coaster had picked up speed and I was just hanging on.

The summer and fall of 2009 brought a bit of a reprieve. Daddy had finished his treatments and was feeling better and gaining back his strength. I spent every other weekend with him and my step-mother. Those were sweet and simple times of just being together, sharing meals, watching movies, and sitting on the deck. I drove up one day to find him out mowing the grass. My husband, brother, and son joined him for a couple of rounds of golf. That wonderful foursome gave extended life to "Grandaddy's rules of golf". Those days were filled with simple gifts.

I felt pretty good myself and got in a lot time on my road bike and competed in a couple of triathlons during the summer and a metric Century ride in the fall. But, as we approached Christmas we all knew the cancer was back and it was confirmed in January. The next months were hard. The winter was cold and dark and the knowledge that my Daddy's life was ebbing was my constant companion, though a silent one. We watched a lot of basketball and a lot of movies. We sat at the table and prayed and ate. Routine was a blessing.

Just prior to Easter of 2010, Daddy died. My sisters and I spent more than a week with our step-mother moving as one unit with the rest of the family through those first days without him. We buried Daddy under the Cherry trees that were in full bloom and 45 family members gathered at our lake house to celebrate his life and ours.

The work of grieving through that spring and summer and on into early autumn took a toll on my body as a heavy layer of lethargy descended on me physically, mentally, and emotionally. Just moving through each day and taking care of the basics left me depleted. The grieving was complicated by a challenge in my workplace that burst the bubble of naive ideology concerning my job. To realize one's situation is really not at all perfect, but instead tainted by weakness, poor communication, pride, arrogance, and lack of compassion was disheartening. I just wanted to quit and go mow grass for a living. I wanted to avoid the messiness of the pressure I was feeling. I wanted to not feel disappointed. 

With the birth of my grand daughter in the fall of 2010, a gathering of all my children and grandchildren in one place, and the hope of a revitalization of a longtime friendship in the fall of 2010, I could feel a shift. The heaviness was not so heavy. I slowly began to rise up out of the miry clay. I once again felt some creative energy. I thought, "Okay, maybe life is worth living, not just enduring". We as a family had a wonderful work weekend at our lakehouse and then another gathering for Thanksgiving with many "grands" to play with the old Fisher Price toys brought down from the attic. My store recorded its best Christmas season on record. My staff infused life into my weary soul. I had almost forgotten the summer's sorrow. I felt the beginnings of  rebirth. But, it was just a short time of R and R. 2011 would prove to be another ride on the roller coaster.

In the middle of what had been a record cold and seemingly darker than normal winter, my brother was diagnosed with a grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor. Within a week he was in the operating room at Duke Medical Center and we all found our places in the waiting room again. The surgery was a "success" according to his brilliant surgeon, but we had all begun our homework and discovered a tumor of this sort has many unseen and resistant characteristics. Treatment would involve a radical change in my brother's life ... and ours. My husband and I opened up our house for the rest of the winter and into the early Spring as my brother and his wife "moved in" as part of our household while Rick received radiation and Chemo more than half of each week. We burned alot of firewood and logged many hours of communal laptop, ipad, and iphone lab work while eating meal after meal dropped off by loving friends from our church family. We were practicing what we had learned through Daddy's cancer treatments ... to lean on one another and anyone that was willing to draw near.

Miles away in Boston, my brother-in-law was living his last days of life with colon cancer and in Annapolis my mother-in-law's life began waning as her body could not produce red blood cells as a result of being plagued by myelodisplastic syndrome. My husband began making the trip to Annapolis from Durham and back every other week. He spent a lot of time talking with his brother who desired to die well. We got in a rhythm of waiting and watching. We knew we likely were not going to have either of these with us by the end of the year. Right in the middle of our waiting, the favorite Uncle in the family died suddenly.  In March Bill Stuntz died. In September, Our Mumu died  just before our son Mark got married in Grand Rapids.The weekend following that fabulous, yet exhausting wedding, we were in Annapolis with 40+ family members to remember and celebrate Mumu's life. She was indeed the hub of the Stuntz clan.

After a spring and summer of longing to carry a lighter load and needing to create some boundaries, I chose to give up my Store Manager role. A new manager came in and I backed up into the assistants role. It was a timely and necessary move for me. Even though the choice was a good one, I was quickly reminded that  anytime you give up something you have had for a long time and hand it to someone else you have to grieve. Change is always a form of dying to what was and allowing for the new to grow out of that. I didn't anticipate it would be difficult for me and yet it has been, but even more so for my staff. I have taken up the mantra, "Change is good. THIS change is good." And it is and it will be.

In October, 2011 after several "clean" MRI's my brother's glioblastoma tumor cells showed up again in an inoperable location deep in the center of his brain. After much soul searching and consideration of options they came back to Duke Medical Center and back to our house for a week Gamma Knife Radiosurgery sessions. Then they went home to wait. It takes 2 months before you can know the results of this type of procedure. The results they received in December were excellent but we know these tumor cells have a way of mutating and adapting, growing resistant to the drugs and traveling unseen to other areas in the brain. So, Rick was not allowed to go home and recoup. He went home with the chemotherapy regiment of 3 weeks on and one week off and every 2 weeks receiving an infusion of Avastin, a drug so powerful and so hard on the body that they save it for when all the other options fail. Another MRI will be administered next week. Another step....another chapter, in his forever altered life.

We have been blessed and bathed in grace these last years. With the gift of hindsight, you can recognize things you can't see along the way or when you are in your safe cocoon. We have received much and given up much. We have rejoiced and we have grieved. We are learning the lessons that only waiting can teach. We are learning about hope. We have known life and death. And even as I emerge from my cocoon and face this "next life" of many life-death-life cycles within my one,  I long for the day when we will all be done with the troubles of the world.