Monday, September 19, 2011

Be Still...

I always find it interesting how I can struggle and fight God over certain things for extended periods of time, and then at other times stumble across a different thing that’s quite profound (at least to me). I had a moment like that this weekend.

As the cares of life have piled on over the course of the last few months, I’ve dealt with them in my own special way. This of course, isn’t always the best or most pleasant way for everyone involved. However, this weekend I found myself sitting on the couch of a friend.

Just sitting.

She didn’t push me to talk, and for a while I didn’t want to. All I wanted was to exist somewhere; to sit and be still. It was beautiful. Those were the most peaceful moments I have had in months. She gave me such a gift in providing that, and it was on her couch that I really began to understand God’s commandment to “be still.”

There are a couple of times in the bible God commands his people to “Be still” and “know that I am God,” to “stand in awe” of him, to “wait” for him, and to receive “rest” in him. A lot of times I feel people equate these commands with prayer, that to be still means that one must be in prayer with God (a quiet time, if you will). I don’t think that’s true. I wasn’t praying, but I felt closer to God in just sitting on a coach than I have in a long time.

In fact there are a couple of versus that I believe state just as much in different words. Psalm 37:7 calls us to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him…” Exodus 14:14 tell us “the Lord will fight for you; you have only to be still.” Be still and wait. That is all.

We don’t have to pray while we’re being still. We don’t need to be looking for some divine revelation. There’s no promise that we’ll understand what’s going on anyway, Job never did. We don’t need to be asking for strength; Jesus already promises us that he is our strength.

Now I’m not saying we should never pray when things get hard. I think there are certainly times where a prayer for clarification or wisdom or strength is exactly what’s needed. However, I think sometimes we default on that course of action and forget that there is also a time to just be still and quiet before the Lord. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heaven…” Sure there is a time to pray, but note what vs. 9 says. There is also “a time to be silent.”

This verse could be interpreted in a couple different ways. The context of the verse would seem to point toward physical speech. However, there are many times in the bible where God uses the word “quite” to mean “still.” Personally, I think a case could be made for that interpretation. The point is, don’t quit praying during hard times, but remember there are situations in which we are called to a different course of action, or no action at all.

Psalm 23 talks about how the Lord our shepherd leads us to “still” waters, a place where we can rest without worry. There are other versus that associate stillness and quietness with God’s peace. I think that’s important to note because it shows us that being still is equated with being at rest and peace in God’s presence. Does that mean just sitting still in a room is going to make the pain go away? Of course not, but sometimes it will be the most comforting thing you do. It will be more comforting than anything anyone can say to you, or any prayer you can pray.

I challenge you to try to be still in God’s presence. Just to be still. When you are at a place where you don’t know what to do, when someone asks you how you feel and the only thing you can say is, “I don’t know,” try it.

I came across a psalm that I feel has great application to this idea and I will close with it.

Psalm 46
1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.[c]
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 Come and see what the LORD has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields[d] with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Confession by a soldier's sister

"There’s just something about a man in a uniform." What an overused phrased. It should be permanently retired. For starters, it is cliché and has worn out its welcome. What girl hasn’t heard this phrase in a movie, book, from a stranger’s lips, her friends, or even –god forbid- her own? Could we not try for something more original please? Secondly, the phrase is completely ambiguous. What kind of uniform? What is it about a man in a uniform? Does it make him look different, stand different, talk different? Does it turn him to stone? Does it make him more appealing, terrifying, ugly, powerful, or romantic? And how does a simple uniform change a person? Why not say there’s just something about a man in a fedora? But that’s just me. The truth is no one is going to retire the phrase because it’s so darn true. There is something about a man in a uniform. On Friday night, for me, it was a slap in the face.

I don’t dislike men in uniform. I think a uniform makes a man look respectable and well put together. I come from a family of men in uniform. They are proud, strong, and dependable. I love a man in a uniform. So of all people, I was the last person expecting my reaction that night.

I was attending an awards dinner meant to honor our veteran soldiers. I had just finished up a week of intense political training in Austin Texas with nearly a hundred of my peers. Morale was high despite the general exhaustion. All of us girls primped in front of our mirrors wanting to look our best –some to accept an award, some for a boy, and some because it was an excuse to look nice. I knew there would be wounded veterans present. I had come to this dinner the previous year. I had even sat with the color guard and chatted. I knew exactly what was coming and I was looking forward to it. Then, I stepped off the bus and caught my first flash of blue cloth.

I think it was shock at my own reaction that kept the tears from falling. I hadn’t realized just how much I missed my brother until right at that moment. It’s amazing how one uniform can take a person and turn them 180 degrees. I felt silly for getting choked up and angrily stuffed the tears back where they belonged. I knew I was going to have to come up with a plan or I would end up crying in front of everyone, and I hate crying in front of people.

I busied myself with making a strategy, and avoided all uniforms. I got as far as thinking I could excuse myself during the part of the ceremony where the veterans were honored and given medals. I made it no farther because just then a coordinator came up and stuffed a medal in my hand. She explained she’d been looking for me. She needed me to be one of the lucky students who got to put a medal on a veteran. I nearly melted into the floor. I tried to come up with a reasonable explanation for why I didn’t want this honor, but I’m pretty sure it came out weak and unconvincing. Instead of telling me she understood and taking the medal to someone else, she clapped me on the shoulder and said she had confidence in me. I could do it.

I looked at the medal in distaste and shoved it into my purse. I was doomed. I spent the rest of the dinner distracting myself from what was coming. I drank three cups of coffee, trying to screw up my courage. I thought about the previous year. The veterans had been older, that would help. I would just have to picture my grandfather. This was my new plan. I thought it was a good one, considering my options. God, apparently, thought it was funny. As the veterans stood to be introduced, my eyes wandered over their figures. I clapped politely, but the friend beside me wasn’t fooled. She saw the horror that filled me. These veterans weren’t old; they were young, earlier twenties. I almost handed my medal to her right then, thinking back on it now, I probably should have. I stopped myself only because as the introductions continued the grandfatherly veterans appeared.

It was our turn. Each student holding a medal stood. I made a beeline for the oldest looking veteran out there. At least, I tried- which means I wove around the circular tables, dodging chairs as quickly as I could without looking like a terrified animal. By the time I made it to the center of the room I found myself standing in front of no one and all the old guys taken. Slowly moving towards me was a man. He was bent over from the crutches in his hands. His face was proud and determined and young.

I lost it. I knew that face. I’d seen it before in many young men. I’d seen it in my brother. For one terrible moment all I could see was him struggling toward me. It was as if my nightmares had come to life. Then, my brother was gone and it was just me and the wounded veteran.

As he came to a stop in front of me, his comrade pulled out a chair for him to sit in. He looked at it in disgust and frustration. I may not have recognized that there were others in the room anymore, but he certainly did. He was aware of every gaze, every pitying thought. He knew what he looked like dragging his feet after him. He knew. For a moment I wanted to reach out and tell him it would be ok. This injury didn’t define him. But I couldn’t because all of this took only a moment, half of a shaky breath before the look turned to acceptance. His face relaxed. He politely declined it.

By the time he turned forward, I am pretty sure no amount of makeup could have redeemed me. I hated myself for crying. He looked at me with kindness. He was full of strength and peace. He wasn’t angry or frustrated anymore. He would be ok. His eyes said all of that.

I know it’s hard to believe that one look carried that much information. I am a skeptic, after all. So maybe I saw what I wanted to see. But that’s what the smile in the corners of his eyes told me, and I believed it.

I wanted to smile back and tell him how much I respected him for his strength. I didn’t want him to think my tears were for the sorry state he was in. I didn’t want him to think I pitied him. I didn’t. He was a soldier. He had chosen this life. We both knew that. But I couldn’t stop crying.

“I’m sorry.” I told him, and he knew I was referring to the tears. “I’m sorry, it’s just, you remind me of my brother.” I managed.

He smiled up at me, and in that moment I felt as if he were the kindest person I’d ever met. “It’s ok.” He answered. His voice filled with compassion, and I couldn’t help but believe him. How could I not? He understood everything.

I put the medal over his head. My fingers shook, brushing his cropped hair. Not waiting for permission I hugged him tightly. I think we were supposed to shake their hands. If it had been my brother, he’d have been upset with me. Public displays of emotion are discouraged. For once, I didn’t care. I whispered my thanks in his ear and asked him to pass the message on to his family. For all I respect our soldiers, I respect their families just as much.

I left the room quickly after that. I needed to pull myself together. I knew better than to make a spectacle like that. I was supposed to be strong. But I realized all I was at the moment was scared. That’s why I was crying. I was terrified inside and out and had been since my brother had sworn his oath.

I tried a couple of times to explain this to my friends later. They had either asked me what was wrong, or given me a hard time for falling apart. I found as I tried, that I really couldn’t explain it. I wanted to be able to say “he looked like my brother,” and have that explain everything. Only, it doesn’t. And that kind of justification tends to get sympathetic looks in reply. I realized if people were going to understand, I was going to have to come at it differently.

So here’s my confession. I get angry, a lot. I’m angry more than I am sad. I wonder why people think family have to be strong too. I didn’t get to make the choice, my soldier did, but I have to live with it every day. He didn’t ask me if I was ok with it. When I’m not angry I’m scared to death. My days and nights are filled with "what ifs." People always ask if I support our soldiers. What do you think? I have to support my soldier no matter what, how could I not? And while we're on the topic, I don’t need to prove my support by wearing it on my t-shirt or re-posting some stupid message on facebook.

When people make fun of my soldier’s job or his branch I want to yell at them. What do they know? Instead, I hold my tongue and pick my chin up a little higher. When wives of soldiers express their loneliness and terror, I want to scream. They aren’t the only person in the family who feels that way. When people ask where my soldier is stationed and the answer is not Afghanistan, Iran, or Iraq I feel guilty for being afraid. I pretend like it doesn’t bother me, but I think about my soldier all the time. I wear his old shirts for comfort, and read his letters over and over. All I want is to see him again. I hate telling people how much I miss him, because I don’t want people to think I’m being silly. I already think that myself.

So, no, I don’t want to thank a wounded veteran for his sacrifice because all I can think is that might be my brother one day. And that thought scares me to death.

I know it might be easy to get the wrong idea from what I’ve said. So I’ll say this too, I am proud of my brother. I am happy that he is doing something he loves. He looks good in that uniform. There’s just something about it. But sometimes when I see a uniform and it’s not him, it’s like a slap in the face.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

To Fear Heaven.

What a strange title, isn’t it? I think so too and I wrote it! Normally one would expect a fear of something to include spiders, or heights, or snakes, or water, but heaven? Who in their right mind would be afraid of heaven? After all, heaven is heaven. It is bliss in every meaning of the word. It is freedom from pain, from suffering, from tears, from evil, from sin, from burden, from guilt, from life, from death. In heaven a person gets to live forever. Not only do we get to live forever, we get to spend that time with Jesus, standing in the presence of God. In the presence of God, and letting his love and grace and mercy and righteousness and holiness and peace just wash over us. What is there to fear in that? Any rational person would say there wasn’t, right?

That’s just the problem. There are people who, for various reasons, have a very real fear of heaven. Yet, no one ever talks about it because the majority view even the mere thought of such a fear occurring as ridiculous. Because of this view, those who do suffer are afraid to say anything at the risk of being seen as foolish. Their silence on the subject only entrenches in others minds the belief that a fear of heaven is absurd, simply because they’ve never met someone who was. Suddenly we find ourselves back at the beginning of the vicious circle.

So what would you do if you were afraid of heaven? Who would you turn to and ask for help? Who could you talk to that wouldn’t look at you strangely and wonder if you were alright in the head? As you contemplate these questions, I’d like you to consider it from all angles, not just at your current age, but also from when you were much younger as well. I can honestly say from a very young age that my greatest fear was indeed dying and going to heaven. I was terrified of the idea. I would have panic attacks simply by thinking about, or hearing the word. Panic attacks that I, of course, hid from others with a vengeance. For years this fear haunted me. For years I strove to overcome it, finally giving up and trying to stifle it as best I could.

It wasn’t until much later that I finally had one of the most important realizations of my life. My epiphany boiled down to understanding that there really was no reason to fear heaven. An ideal already firmly believed by many, and which up until that moment in time I could not even comprehend without having a mini heart-attack. Perhaps my story and others will help to shed a little light, and understanding, on a subject that severely needs to be dusted off and examined.

My Story

For as long as I can remember (which sometimes isn’t as far back as I would like) I have been terrified of one thing, heaven. However, no matter how scared I got, I never said anything to anyone because I knew that my fear was wrong. Instead of realizing that there were loving people around me who could probably help me through this, at the wee age of five or six, I could not comprehend how anyone could possibly understand my fear. I rationalized with my young logic that I would most likely be ostracized if I told even my parents. There of course, was no basis for this rationalization. I lived in a loving home, and have always been a part of a loving church. Despite these facts, this was where I found myself, not yet able to comprehend the beauty of what God had planned, but old enough to twist it around to where it terrified me. It was at this young age that I began the task of concealing my fear.

I vaguely remember waking up from dreams, terrified, because I had dreamed I’d died and gone to heaven. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I was finally able to realize why I was afraid. This didn’t help, rather, it accentuated the matter. Now I could be tormented by very direct thoughts and ideas, rather than vague ones. What I realized, and I do not remember at what age, was that I was petrified of the idea of living forever. The idea of going on, and on, and on, and on, and never, ever, ending. That one sentence, spoken or thought, was enough to send me into a squirming fit. I could not rationalize this idea, and that terrified me. How could there not be an end? There was always an end to everything.

So I got older, and I shoved the fear deeper down inside me. Strangely enough, or perhaps not, this didn’t seem to help. In fact it made my fear worse. The more I avoided it, the bigger it got. The more grasp it had on me, the harder it got to think about. It reached a point to where if I heard someone speaking about heaven, I would immediately put all of my effort into thinking about something else, anything else. Eventually, I would stop hyperventilating enough to carry on with whatever I was doing beforehand. No matter what I did though, the fear was there, waiting to paralyze me.

Paralysis is what I lived with, not in the literal sense, I could still move, I could still speak, but I was paralyzed in my mind. I could be consumed by this fear at any moment. I wouldn’t be able to put a coherent thought together until I had, somehow, shoved it aside.

Finally, I could take it no longer, I was desperate. After weeks of working up the courage, I sat down and emailed my pastor. The answer is one that I saved for years, and lost in the coughing and wheezing fit of my (now retired) dying computer. Still, I remember what was said, having re-read it a few times when panic made its move. My pastor asked me what it was I feared, and when I told him, he didn’t laugh and he was not condescending, as I had convinced myself for most of my young life that he (or any adult) would be. Instead he began to work with me. He asked me since I didn’t want to live forever, how long would I like to spend in heaven? I didn’t know, I didn’t care, just so long as there was an end. So he suggested a hundred years. That sounded good to me. That was one lifetime, a little more than I would spend on earth, but a lifetime none the less. So a hundred years it was. Then he began to describe a scenario for me.

I was in heaven. It was beautiful. I was happy. Happier than I had ever been, I was enjoying life and others, basking in God’s glory. Suddenly, I was informed that my time was up. I had to go, but I wasn’t ready. I wanted to stay. Too bad, the end had come. It was over, I had no choice.

This was my scenario. This, my pastor informed me, was what I wanted. This was what I was describing to him, whether I realized it or not. I was shocked by the information. I understood completely. I wanted there to be an end, but what if, when the time came, I wasn’t ready. How horrible would it be? What torture.

I kindly thanked my pastor, and proceeded to live my life. For a long time, that conversation held at bay the paralyzing fear I had lived with. Then suddenly, one day, it was no longer enough. I did not know what had caused an imbalance in my life once more, but I found myself again, terrified. The email conversation no longer helped. The nightmares returned. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to my pastor again. I was afraid. Afraid that he would think I was weak. He’d solved my problem once, what was wrong with me now? So I began once again to bury the fear deep within me. I was back to living with my paralyzing fear.

Then one day, everything changed. Years had passed by. My life had become a whirlpool of chaos. I had experienced the grief of loss, and the black hole of despair that followed. It had been a year and some since then, but it still ate away at me. That day, the day that it all changed, I was sitting in my car after driving home from work. The radio had been on, I hadn’t really been listening. A song began to play as I parked by the driveway. It snatched my attention, and tears filled my eyes. Suddenly I knew, suddenly I understood.

The song was “There will be a Day” by Jeremy Camp.

"I try to hold on to this world with everything I have
But I feel the weight of what it brings, and the hurt that tries to grab
The many trials that seem to never end, His word declares this truth,
that we will enter in this rest with wonders anew

But I hold on to this hope and the promise that He brings

That there will be a place with no more suffering

There will be a day with no more tears, no more pain, and no more fears

There will be a day when the burdens of this place, will be no more, we’ll see Jesus face to face
But until that day, we’ll hold on to you always

I know the journey seems so long

You feel you’re walking on your own
But there has never been a step
Where you’ve walked out all alone

Troubled soul don’t lose your heart

Cause joy and peace he brings
And the beauty that’s in store
Outweighs the hurt of life’s sting

I can’t wait until that day where the very one I’ve lived for always will wipe away the sorrow that I’ve faced

To touch the scars that rescued me from a life of shame and misery this is why this is why I sing….

There will be a day with no more tears, no more pain, and no more fears

There will be a day when the burdens of this place, will be no more, we’ll see Jesus face to face

There will be a day, He’ll wipe away the stains, He’ll wipe away the tears, He’ll wipe away the tears…..there will be a day.”

These lyrics, this song made it all very clear to me. The words that had been said to me time and time again, “there is no pain in heaven, no death, no suffering”, finally had meaning to me. Now I understood. Heaven terrified me because I had been weighing my personal picture of heaven against my own personal life’s experience. Unconsciously I knew that I had never known real pain, real loss, thus I had imagined heaven as an extension of Earth. So, sure life was great on Earth, and so heaven must also, but I certainly didn’t want to live there forever. Up to that point in my life, my fear had far outweighed anything I had experienced. Now however, now my life, my loss, far outweighed any fear I had.

This realization was liberating, but it also made me concerned. How many others were in the position I had been in? How many others were terrified because of an image that they had created? How many others were petrified of something they could not understand? How many were scared simply because they had yet to experience something that outweighed their fear? How many believed they were alone, with no one to talk to?

So I'm here to say, you are not alone. This is nothing to be ashamed of. People will not think you are crazy. Talk to someone, it will help.