Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Want to Help Your Sick Friend but Don’t Know How? DO THIS!

And THAT, my friend, is what it looks like to love on a friend or relative (or wife!) with chronic illness. That picture right there. I know it’s hard to get past the adorableness of it to have your attention for any type of explanation, and I’m totally distracted WITH you. But let me try to steal your eyes away for just a minute (meanwhile mine admittedly remain fixated on the ones in the front right).
We’ll be joyfully distracted together.

You see, this picture (providentially) came when I was incredibly heartbroken. Because I had just discovered that I was going to fully miss out on a monumental event.
Yet again.

Let me back it up a bit for you to give you a little context.

Since my health crashed six years ago, missing out has unfortunately become a way of life to somewhat varying degrees. Some years more than others and praise God this year hasn’t been one of the “more” years. But one of the hardest parts about chronic illness is that you can’t do everything you want to do. Sometimes you can’t do ANYthing you want to do.
And painfully, that includes relationally.

When my husband and I were first married, travel was a way of life.
We traveled to see family in NJ, friends in Chicago, friends in Florida and Washington state, family in PA and VA, traveled to friends' weddings in Ohio & Iowa, you name it. There are some incredible people in those places, and it was always a joy for us to go the distance to spend time with them.

That way of life unfortunately came to a complete halt six years ago.
For me entirely, and largely for my husband as well. It felt like one of our greatest joys in life, being with our friends and family, got swept out from under us.
And that’s been incredibly painful.

The loss hasn’t only been felt at great distances.
The same togetherness loss has been felt on the home front even more. When our son started Kindergarten right before I crashed, I assumed I’d be going on all the fun field trips. And be there for all the special programs, competitions, family pumpkin picking. You know, all the usual mom stuff.

My assumption was wrong.

I’ve missed out on a lot as a mom.
And wife.
And friend,
church member.
I’ve wrestled hard with feeling like a crummy friend and family member.

Last year, for example, our niece was graduating from college in PA. First time for us to have a niece or nephew graduate college. Oh, how I wanted to be there. To join in on the party, hand her our gift in person, give our sweet flower girl a big hug of congratulations.
Fortunately, at least there’s technology.

Through tears of nostalgia, I hooted and hollered in my family room as I watched across the miles, and even snagged this great shot thanks to my virtual front row view.

A similar scene occurred last weekend when our nephew graduated from JMU in VA, which meant both a university ceremony plus individual ceremonies for each of the colleges of study. Fortunately, at least my husband was able to go to this one. I’m so glad.

Like with our niece’s graduation, I watched the first ceremony by live stream, heart swelling with pride and nostalgia. (I’m a total sap with a capital S.) The following morning, I rushed to get ready and be in front of the screen by the start of the second ceremony. Yet it wasn’t coming on. After fussing with it for the first five minutes of the ceremony, I discovered that one wasn’t going to be live streamed.
My heart sank lower than low.

This was the ceremony where he would be giving his speech as valedictorian of the entire graduating class!

This was the one where he would be leading the entire processional carrying the large regal performing arts banner. The only banner!

This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment in his life, and I wasn’t going to be a part of it even virtually.

I hopped over to my e-mail, and had a new message from my husband.
This picture is all it said. 

Exactly what I needed.
My sweet family on the way to the ceremony.
He even sent me a picture of my sister’s van in view in front of them, the van of honor with my sister, the graduate, and the rest of the family.
Suddenly, I felt somewhat present again, even in my absence. 

Shortly thereafter, I received a text from my sister (in the back seat above). I told her my heart-breaking discovery, and suddenly my little flip phone started beeping with non-stop messages like a relentless alarm clock.
Blow by blows of what was happening when.
Who was speaking,
when our nephew was recognized,
dictation from the main speaker,
practically notes on when anyone moved or breathed. 

I LOVED it. 

I was desperate to somehow be a part of this experience,
and her texts were a lifeline.

Meanwhile, my husband continued to e-mail me pictures. And I didn’t even care what he captured. Because even his random candids of my bro-in-law setting up his camera and my mom looking at her phone were exactly what I needed to transport me there.

So lean in close as I let you in on a little secret. 
As you think about your friend with chronic illness, or even an elderly relative who’s largely home-bound, want to know the best and easiest way to make a gigantic difference in their life when they’re missing out on a special event? Gigantic?

Take them with you.

Real Time!

Take them with you! 

By camera, by phone, by text. However!

Give them an opportunity to taste the sweetness of the occasion real time by including them on the experience.

All these and more (much more!) were pictures my husband sent me real time during our nephew's graduation. And these graduations, of course, aren't about me. Yet my family found ways to take me along. And each contact made -- each text, each picture, each call -- was a sacred gift they placed in my heart.
Real time. Real easy.

One final thought.
A super fun way to pull it off? 

Let ‘em eavesdrop! 

That’s right. Dial them in and put them on mute!
My always-thoughtful mom did this for my other sister one time. My sister's son was having a concert but my sister’s chronic illness kept her home. So when my folks went to the concert, my mom pulled out her cell phone and dialed my sister so she could listen in. It was second-hand audio, so I'm sure it was low quality. My mom knew that didn't matter. She knew it would be the most beautiful music to my sister’s longing ears. 

It’s really that simple. And I can tell you from the receiving end,
it is really that profound of a gift.

So please, think about some special occasions coming up. 
Who might you take along real time? 

Congratulations again, Abigail and Ryan.
Your Proud Aunt Tanya

Thursday, March 31, 2016

I matter.

One word. That's all it took.
All it took to reach a deep and distant need I didn't even know I had. One two-syllable word to sooth a throbbing place in my soul.

If words are ever music to the ears then this was a symphony. A long and pleasing ballad played by an exquisite hundred-piece orchestra in the round. My heart seated right in the center, embracing all the depth and richness of a myriad of notes all infused into two simple syllables. The healing word he spoke?
Simply, my first name.

Called across a crowd.
Called out, despite my back to him.

I was walking down the row to make my way out of the worship center, so he had to call out to me if he wanted to speak with me. And he did. He could have dismissed it, but apparently it was important enough for him to pursue.
I was important enough.

With an about face I was greeted by the warm smile of an old friend. Yep, that old Young Marrieds class strikes again. We'd started that class with good friends many years ago, with hearts anxious to serve, anxious to encourage, and anxious to provide a nourishing place for these couples to call home during their new season of life. 13 years later that's exactly what God is offering MY heart through many of them.

He called out to me because he wanted to celebrate with me. Apparently, every time he and his wife see me in church, they are so encouraged with and for us. Six years since my initial health crash and they still recognize that it remains a monumental victory for me to be at church on a Sunday morning. Life moves pretty quickly and people lose track, but somehow they've remained in tune with our ongoing reality.

Which is pretty amazing in and of itself because how DO you stay in tune when you only see somebody sporadically at best, let alone rarely have a conversation opportunity to stay current?

You guys, it felt like somebody had just drenched refreshing, cool water on my parched and weary soul living in a hot, dry desert. Drenched. You know, like when NFL players pour the drink cooler over the coach in celebration of victory. That drenched.

The part that soaked me most was simply when he initially called out to me from across the aisles. It's been so long since another adult called out my name to get my attention that I can't even recall the last time it happened. I hear my name, Mommy, called out plenty. Sacred music to my ears.
But Tanya? No, that's not one I hear.

Amidst a long season of feeling isolated from our church family, and therefore, wrestling with my value in the Body of Christ, this friend's simple choice to reach out to me that Sunday morning was a profound gift from God.

And God's a generous God, isn't He?

Because after our church's Christmas program days later, I was talking to somebody in the lobby and heard my name again! A friend actually came back in specifically to seek me out and hug me. (Me!!)
Christmas hadn't even arrived, and my heart was tearin' into the presents like no tomorrow.

A month or two prior, a different friend made her way across the worship center to say hi and catch up. You guys (yes, I'm from Chicago), that may sound like an incredibly ordinary scene and sentence:
"My friend made her way across the worship center to say hi and catch up."

Likely doesn't sound terribly significant, does it? I understand. So here's a little excerpt from Accepting the Sidelines to give you some context:
Whenever you haven’t seen somebody for a considerably long time, there’s an enthusiastic reunion, right? And the typical catch-up questions come naturally. Then on the opposite side of the spectrum, when you see somebody frequently, like every Sunday morning, you get to go beyond those surface questions to dig into the day-to-day grind, and walk through life with them.

But my husband and I, we’re in this awkward frequency of the in between.
We’re not seeing these folks regularly. But it’s not like it’s been 5-10 years since we’ve seen them, either.

It's awkward for most. Understandably. Yet those friends I just mentioned?
They came

And THAT's what's significant.
Their genuine interest in our friendship prevented awkward from cultivating, which let love grow instead of distance.

Remember the women's gathering I told you about recently? Boy was that night ever tangible evidence that joy and sorrow aren't mutually exclusive. Because while it ended on a sobering note, it began with much sweet celebration in my soul.

When I arrived and entered the room, I spotted another old friend from that Young Marrieds class. She was in the middle of a conversation, but her eyes about popped out of her head when she saw me. In other words, she got it. She got that it was a big deal for me to show up.

Shortly after bumping into her, another dear friend had the same reaction, only add to it her hands over her mouth in shock. (Truly, I wish I could share the awesome picture of her in my mind. Hands over her mouth and all. The cutie above's the best I could do.)
Between the two of them, I felt like a celebrity. I really did.

And it's not about feeling like a celebrity, of course. But let me tell ya, where there is pain and isolation and doubts about your value, there is great need for healing and grace. Lots of it. The Lord blessed me with both that evening. And each of the other times the other friends called out to me.

It was as if the Lord was saying through Bob when he called out to me across the church aisles,
"Tanya, you still matter here."

As if He were saying through Sandy when she made her way over to me that Sunday morning,
"Tanya, you don't have to contribute to be enjoyed."

And saying through Shannon over Christmastime,
"Tanya, Who I am IN you is ministry. You DO minister."

And through Kristen's wide eyes,
"Don't ever minimize 'simply' showing up, Tanya. It is NOT trivial for your journey. Your presence alone is enough."

And through Melissa's hand over gaping mouth, I believe He wanted me to hear,
"THIS, Child. This is how beyond delighted I am every. single. time. you draw near."

Each a gift I unwrapped from the Lord, reminding me that I am still consequential,
That I still matter at church,
That although we have not been involved,
we also have not been forgotten.

We are still valued,
still loved.
And even celebrated!

Healing salve for my soul.

Monday, February 15, 2016

When Healing Hurts

Her words of kindness, they cut like a knife.
Pain has a way of taking your heart to peculiar places like that.

They’d passed a pad of paper around the table, and when it came to me, I read the headings at the top of each column I was supposed to fill in:
Name. E-mail address. Small Group.

Sounds like a simple sign in. But that last column, it came as a punch in the gut. It’s so loaded for me. Because we’re not in a small group, and we long to be a part of one again like we used to be, but we can’t right now. Haven’t been able to for six years. Six years . . . And we feel the loss. We grieve it deeply, as I shared in Accepting the Sidelines.

I’ll spare you the details except to say that since my health crash, simple things have become monumental achievements for me, including going to church. In fact, at a dentist appointment last month, I needed the hygienist to help me simply walk down the hall. My body’s not what it used to be. And sadly, neither is our church involvement.

Seeing the list of every name with a small group home for their heart listed, I deliberated as to what to write. Nope, not N/A. And no, I didn’t want to leave it blank. So I wrote my honest answer just like everybody else did. Only mine looked quite different:
Can’t wait to be able to be a part of one again!

We continued to hear the hearts of the women from the panel, and attempted to make our way around the table to share our own stories. We listened, we encouraged, we, uh, accidentally started a fire when a piece of paper got too close to the tea light so our quick-on-her-feet table hostess quickly put it out while our table disrupted those around us with all our loud snickering from the corner of the room.

[Note: Peaceful picture above pre-pyromania]

It’s the stuff memories are made of. I only spent two hours with these women, but I felt as if we’d been hangin’ out together for a long, long time. There was just something about that table in the corner.

Shortly thereafter, the evening came to a close. And the sweetest table hostess you’ll ever meet offered me a brochure listing all our church’s small groups. Assuming she offered it in response to my sign-in comment, she was likely confused when I declined, but I told her I knew all the info was online, and that I had an invisible illness that limited me. Not always my favorite ice-breaker when meeting new people, but my strange reality is that it's not a lack of information that stands between me and a small group.

Amidst all the dismissal activity, a sweet new gal two seats down likely didn’t hear my response because she followed up by sharing which small group she’s a part of and how much she loves it. (The friend sitting between the two of us had been in that young marrieds group we led a while ago, so she was the only one at the table familiar with our family’s journey.) I turned to the new gal and replied,
“We LOVE small groups. But we don’t have one.
Because I have illness instead.”

I turned to my friend next to me, said how much we’ve missed it, and unexpectedly, the flood gates of tears opened and opened wide. And let me tell ya, they weren’t closin’ anytime soon.

A thoughtful invitation to be part of community unearthed my deep pain of not having been able to be a part of one for a long, long time. So there I sat, a sobbing mess in my friend’s arm while everybody got their coats on and exchanged pleasant good-byes.

This friend, she wasn’t intimidated by my pain. Her tender heart spoke words of comfort and words of hope into my hurting soul. The freedom she offered me to freely grieve was a rare gift. Thank You, God. For Your hands and feet through her.

Truth be told, amidst the pain, there was likely a heaping portion of pride in the mix as well. Because I wrestle constantly with thinking that my value is in what I do, rather than in Who He is in me. And that includes my part in the body of Christ. So since I’m not able to be involved in formalized ministry, I constantly battle voices that question my worth – because I’m not contributing. I may be a leg in the body of Christ, but I feel like a broken one that’s not doing its part. I get loving Jesus mixed up with performance so easily and so often.

And small groups that meet on Sunday mornings? Well I’ve been going to Sunday School since before I was born, so to have somebody “reach out to me,” well, my pride felt on the wrong end of that conversation. I’m used to being the reacher outer, not the one being reached out to. So I felt misunderstood. Because deep down, I wanted to be thought of more highly. I want to be perceived as the active, valuable member of the Body, not the uninvolved one who needs reaching out to. I guess not all that different from wanting to be one of the cool kids in school, huh?

It’s a humbling journey these nuances of chronic, invisible illness. Quite an awakening to all that lurks in the heart. And I wrestled with whether or not to even publicize this pain. Reliving the pain by getting it on paper made for another difficult day emotionally, and it left me asking, “What’s the point? Why not just talk about the good stuff? The joy?”
I was tempted, yet again, to stuff.

Then I went back and read the comments on Accepting the Sidelines. And I rediscovered several comments from folks saying I was describing their struggle, that they were facing the same pain. I remembered my mission here, and realized I needed to write it for them. For Tina, for Lizzy, for the rest of you who are facing the same painful isolation. This piece is for you – to remind you that there is somebody out there who truly understands. Who cares. And who feels your pain with you.
You are not alone, my fellow sojourners. You are not alone.

The other reason I struggled with whether or not to share this was because I’m concerned about the prospect of those sweet new friends stumbling across this piece and feeling badly when they have nothing to feel badly about, nothing they did wrong.

What those two precious souls don’t know is that the Lord has been lovingly leading me along a journey the past couple months as it relates to my pain on the sidelines of church. I’ve discovered that during this long journey, I’ve primarily been stuffing my pain the entire time with the intent of protecting my beloved church family. Or rather, protecting myself. Protecting myself from the relational temptations that can accompany pain. In other words, I love my church family far too much to open a door to a temptation to be bitter, and so I’ve pretty much closed the door to my feelings in that arena of life.

Not necessarily the best way to manage pain. So God’s giving me permission. Permission to acknowledge my pain in that context even though it doesn’t feel pretty or churchy or appropriate. The freedom to grieve our relational losses because I’m (finally!) learning that it’s healthier even to grieve than to stuff.

Our pastor reminded us just yesterday morning that Jesus has the authority to change our identity, and I believe that’s exactly what He’s doing in my emotional being these days. I believe He’s changing my identity from that of a stuffer to that of one who lets her heart feel, who lets her heart beat. Because even in the painful feelings like grief and loss, it’s in our allowing ourselves to feel that keeps our feelings alive, keeps our souls alive.

There's a strange sense of encouragement hidden in my grieving the other night. Evidence of emotional health and healing. That night, God offered me the opportunity to tell my heart to beat again.
With heavy tears, I said yes. 

Image complements of
Women of Providence Baptist Church

Monday, February 8, 2016

Defiant Joy

(or "I Wasn't Planning on Writing About my Senior Prom")

It’s how Bono described U2’s half-time performance at the Super Bowl just months after 9/11.
Defiant joy.

In other words, the collision of pain and celebration.
In fact, the conscious choice to instigate their collision.

It was a more-than-delicate commission. Providing “entertainment” in one of the most widely-watched TV events of the year after the heart of the nation had just been ripped apart.

As my husband and I were watching this look back on 50 years of super bowl halftime shows we happened upon, I was drawn to Bono’s notion of defiant joy. Of course I had to over-analyze it, too, namely because the good girl in me feels a bit uncomfortable with the word, defiant. Compliant has always been the style I’ve worn, although don’t worry. God’s starting to show me that it doesn’t suit my soul well.

And so the over-analyzing ensued:
hat's that mean, defiant joy?
What's it look like from a heart stand-point?
Who or what would I be defiant against amidst pain?
And is that okay?? . . .

I know in my head that joy and sorrow aren’t mutually exclusive, at least I have since my old pastor enlightened me several years ago. (Phenomenal message, by the way. Listen to it!) But I don’t do it well, the whole joy-while-grieving thing. I tend to eeyore my pain, at least internally. Not to mention it feels fake and contrived. Even dishonest because it’s not an accurate reflection of my feelings.

Many years ago, I had a very distinctive opportunity to make joy and pain collide – or not. During the spring of my senior year in high school, just a day or two before my Senior Prom, my Pop-pop passed away. His funeral? Prom Day.


That spring, I had accepted an invitation from my good friend to go to Prom with him. Yet my grandfather’s death left me feeling so torn inside. How could I put on my black dress of grieving only to come home, whip it off, and put on a party dress and dance the night away? In my pain, I was entirely averse to the prospect.

So I carried my pain into the stark high school cafeteria, found my friend, and told him what had happened. I think I asked if it would be all right with him if I didn’t go, but honestly, I don’t remember because sadly, I wasn’t really asking. I was just being polite. (Or so I thought at the time.) And in return for my self-absorption, my friend was incredibly gracious and sympathetic.

And you know, with as much as I still wrestle over this notion of inserting joy into the mix of sorrow, I wish I would have known one thing then that at least I DO know now.
That is, it’s not about me.

I wish I would have thought more about my friend when making that decision, rather than just selfishly thinking about my grieving. Because it’s not as if thinking beyond myself would have dismissed my grieving. If anything, it held potential for healing. It always does.

I’m embarrassed at how little I thought, at the time, of what it would be like to be in his shoes. How was my decision going to impact him? I made him miss his Senior Prom, for pete’s sakes. That’s not a loss he can recover. And I know, I know – it’s only high school, Tanya. We’re not talkin’ about the big rocks in life. I know that. Yet I also know that there are some pretty cherished memories I carry to this day from my high school years, back to my years at Laramie Jr. High, and all the way back to my elementary school years.  
Memories matter.

Ann describes this turn toward joy amidst life’s gut-wrenching pain as simply letting yourself be loved:
This swallowing the richness of living,
it comes in letting yourself be blessed.

Letting yourself be loved.

Of course that conveniently appeases the good girl in me because when you put it like that, it’s not so defiant, after all! Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not lookin’ to continue appeasing her because she’s got a lot of growing up to do. That being said, our Father, the Creator and Embodiment of perfect parental love – at times, He accommodates. And even coddles. (Still shocks me.) So apparently, there’s grace enough for the good girl who still lingers.

Interestingly enough, a cousin of mine and I went to high school together. In fact, we were in the same grade. Which means, she faced the same choice I did when Pop-pop died: to go to Prom, or not go to Prom. My cousin chose differently and went to our Senior Prom that night. I was supportive of her decision, but for the life of me, I couldn’t get my 18-year-old brain around it. I couldn’t figure out how she was pulling that off.

You know, 20 plus years later, I still don’t have it figured out, but I think she was onto something. I think at 18 years old, she had a better feel for this Defiant Joy stuff than I do at 40-something. So I’ll keep scratching my head, I’ll keep asking the questions, I’ll likely keep over-analyzing, and I’ll hopefully let my hindsight serve me well along the way.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

When Trusting God Seems Foolish

Dare I admit that? That although I’ve walked with God for nearly 30 years and found Him to be consistently faithful, we’re facing circumstances where the gravity to which we’re having to trust Him has left this question whispering in my ear:
Are we being completely foolish to trust Him – THIS much?!? . . .

My prayers are outrageous. My trust feels irresponsible. 
And remember, I’m the responsible one. The older brother.

I read somewhere that faith is trusting God so much that if He didn’t come through, you’d fall flat on your face. Lately, we’ve been in a circumstantial free fall, and we see the ground merely inches away in time.

We’ve sought to be good stewards by checking all options to prevent destruction. Because we don’t want to be like the guy sitting on top of a roof in a flooded land watching boats go by and asking God why He didn’t rescue him. We’ve looked for the boats as we’ve simultaneously trusted Him. And our view from the rooftop shows we have no other choice but only to trust Him. (At which point I’ll add a little levity to say that you know you’re a mom of a 5th grader when you pray to the Lord with all sincerity of heart yet a little smirk on your face saying, “Help me, Lord. You’re my only hope.”)

I know what’s true. I take God at His word when He says that He’s able to do immeasurably more than anything I could ever ask, or even imagine. Yet when the usually-calm Red Sea is suddenly violently splashing at your legs and you can feel the sweat of the soldiers as their advance breathes down your neck, trusting God feels foolish.
If that’s where you are today, I want you to know you’re not alone.
And He can handle our raw honesty, friend. Our humanity. In fact, He welcomes it.

(Image above: Scene from ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ 20th Century Fox)
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