Grief is some, but not all.

Grief is some, but not all. | erikaspitler.com

If you've stopped by since I last wrote, you know my family received jarring news this spring. It pains me to say it, but my dad chose to leave us and his marriage for something new. And as he did, a decade's worth of carefully stowed brokenness was made visible. On March 1st, our family crossed into some formidable land—a land where many others live but few of us feel free to mention. (Especially us church folks, darnit.) The consequences of sin and its many ugly sidekicks have been emotionally flattening.

In 7 months, this burden has multiplied in weight and complexity, which I know isn't what you want to hear when you ask, are things getting better yet? I wish, friend. I wish I could say I'm leaping over hills of forgiveness, free from anger and trauma and the HOWCOULDYOU?! Would you be horrified to know some days, I've thought about huddling with bitterness on my doorstep forever? Thankfully, God snaps me out of it. I'm committed to forgiveness because it's right and I won't back away. You can be sure I'll need the Holy Spirit to give me courage on every inch of that gravel-filled road, but perhaps that's the point. It's too much on my own. 

Also, this spring, my grandmother unexpectedly died. I couldn't make the trip north for her funeral, so all I had to hold onto was an online obituary, the Hallmark cards I'd saved in her blue, swirly writing, and the distant memory of her voice. Emotions for me were at a standstill. Just this weekend, my cousin texted photos of our grandmother's things, asking what I might want to keep. I requested three juice glasses to remember her by, kitchenware I've likely never seen but will now have to myself.

My dad's and grandmother's absence both happened suddenly. The family framework I'd always known snapped in two months and while I successfully functioned on autopilot at first, my physiological response was eventually clinical depression. I call it the summer of darkness—the one where I lost all interests, struggled to converse or socially engage, spent my off-hours sleeping or taking 6 hours to pull off the covers, couldn't make meals or carry through with obligations, and only whispered (or screamed) a prayer with microscopic faith once in awhile. Life was two-dimensional.

After the diagnosis, my therapist and I started an important conversation on medication and what that could look like. Upfront, neither of us wanted to rush me to the pharmacy counter but as the weeks plodded along, the help of a pill seemed more necessary. I couldn't recognize the girl I'd become in this low-functioning state and condemned myself for the nothingness lingering inside. Being a follower of Jesus and dealing with mental illness are not mutually exclusive and I knew that full well. But the remains of old, faulty theology showed itself and let's just say it: shame is a beast.

All these months, I'd been working at a school for students with severe physical disabilities. My interview was the morning of March 1st, mere hours before I sat weeping with my mom and sister. This was no accident. Later I would thank God over and over for his timing—even the timing of very, very bad news. He gave me the peace to accept my dream position after 15 months of unemployment. He knew the joy of being with those kids would be the only motivation to get out of bed. 

On my second morning of work, I'll never forget driving under a rainbow. That image has stayed with me—a moment I realized beauty and sorrow can occupy space together. It's been a gritty (rhyme with an offensive word if it's your style) year so far and we're still recovering. Yet grief is not the whole of it. When my boss took a chance on me, God showed me the kind of work which livens up my soul right in the middle of death, loss, and depression. This August, with no medication, color miraculously returned to my world. My therapist and I were astonished, knowing God didn't have to lift it. He did, though. I could begin giving real feet to my grief, consciously walking through the effects of trauma. The fall came, and I started to study again after 7 years. One of the course modules is focused on a theology of suffering. Timely, right? I hear stories from around the world of people gripping onto hope through illness and disability and societal wounds... and I get to join in. There's one more I'd add, but it requires a post of its own. God's kindness is all over my family's messiest year. Beauty, sorrow.

These prolonged periods of pain are awfully uncomfortable. I might pay to find a fast forward button on suffering one day. But till then, I'm taking today's moment, which is all I have, and believing in a God who wastes not one thing.

My faith is a tiny, tiny sprout.
However, it's there, and I think he can work with that.

- - -

* This post was updated 10/19 to provide further clarity.

Christ's coming.

Christ's coming by Erika Spitler

This time of year as a child was characterized by a different world. I practically breathed in Tchaikovsky's famous score while rehearsing hour after hour for my studio's ballet performances of The Nutcracker. Step, arabesque, and pas de bourrée meant everything to the young girls who danced as Clara. When I was 11, I got to dance that very choreography. It was my favourite Sunday in December (or ever, possibly).

Back then, the holiday season began with that frenzy of hairspray and false eyelashes and bouquets. To me, Christmastime was cousins in town, coordinating outfits for family photos, wish-lists curated from AmericanGirl catalogs, presents made by hand, church on the 24th, and Kenny G on the speakers as we giggled over boxes and bows and Barbies the next morning. We sang happy birthday to Jesus and it felt like the most wonderful time. It felt like something merry and bright.

We're four days away from Christmas and I've not sent out cards or seen the lights or sung carols and hymns or put up decorations. In commitment to our yearly tradition, my dad, siblings, and I did pick out a tree together. It's rugged and so tall it's unbalanced. It fits us well.

When December 1st rolled around, I made a list of things I wanted to do this season. It turns out, nostalgia isn't reason enough to carry out plans or activities. I did, however, manage to do one thing off that list, and that was borrow Russ Ramsey's Behold the Lamb of God. Let me tell you, getting to read through this book the last 21 days has entirely reshaped my perspective on Christmas. It has helped me see and appreciate the beauty of Advent in a way I haven't before. I am seeing the grand narrative from Genesis to Revelation, understanding a tad more of this "already, but not yet" tension. Oh, how I feel it.

In today's reading, day 21, Jesus was born at last. This moment—His appearance on earth—was one I'd waited all month to read. I love wondering what it must have been like, all those years ago, when "God pushed into the world the long-expected Prophet, Priest, and King" as Kevin DeYoung writes. As I remember Christ's first coming, I find my heart simultaneously leaning in—expecting, waiting, and longing for His promised return.

This December is not the same kind of wonderful I knew as a girl and gosh! I'm finding that's okay. Heartache certainly doesn't pause so we can be all holly jolly. Some of you are like me, feeling unable to lay aside your grief, confusion, and disappointment. It's exhausting, isn't it? Especially when you feel demanded to evoke feelings of warmth and cheer, because hello, it's Christmas.

I sat across from my counselor on Monday, wanting to deal with the emotional triggers I've had the last month. Her soft eyes welled with tears, giving me the permission to break and cry. This process of moving toward healing is unrehearsed. I stumble and fall, saying things I never wish to say in anger, feeling ashamed for situations beyond my control, confessing where I've gone wrong, and yet oddly holding onto hope all at once.

Before I leave her office, we close in prayer. She thanks God for His son Jesus, and I do, too. We know we wouldn't be there, clinging to an eternal hope this season if it wasn't for our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Like our tree, I'm a bit rugged and off-center this Advent season. But I'll keep leaning, awaiting His glorious return. That's all I know to do.

There's no cure. I see hope.

A few days ago, my dad and I discussed treatment plans and the decisions surrounding it. These conversations are unpleasant for me. I'm weary of reevaluating my health status so often. I don't want to be reminded of how painful these last few months (or years, even) have been. Yet to ignore this topic would be foolish.

Can we still afford treatment?
How much longer will you give it a try?
Is this even working?

When I resigned from my job and began this particular protocol in December, I imagined by mid-2016, I would see progress. I marked out a timeline for myself—fairly certain by the end of June I would be healthier. Just in time for my birthday.

Early this morning, I began to look at this situation rather plainly. It's necessary to grab views detached from my emotions. I can't deny the facts about this disease. It is what it is. Regardless of what my body or a medical report reveals, I pray I will cling to God's truth.

The facts say there is no cure for chronic Lyme Disease. And once treated, over 63% of people could still face debilitating symptoms. No one can promise me I will feel better on this side of heaven. Not by June 2016, and not in 20 years.

I've heard this before, but I guess I was hoping for a different story.

This road could be a lot longer than I ever expected. I could still be asked, "are you feeling better yet?" in five years. Or maybe by then, the question will be stale and hardly a topic for discussion.

In my efforts to rush ahead, I put terms and conditions before God. 

Lord, if this treatment works, I could focus on You more.
Lord, once I feel better, I will serve You in many ways. 
Lord, it would be amazing to be miraculously healed.
Then wouldn't others wonder at Your goodness?

Do your prayers ever sound like mine? As humans, we love to have the ideals portioned out like they're baking ingredients. We've got recipes in mind and measurements memorized. Our prayers often uncover whether we've put God to a timer, expecting Him to whip up a treat for us when we see fit.

June is approaching. My self-made timer wants to count down the days.

But this is what I know. The abundance of life (John 10:10) is not going to be found in regaining my health. Or the community I once had. Or money in my bank account. Or living on my own again. Or traveling overseas. If true life could be found in any of those ideals, I would be left out of something God has promised, making Him a liar. And He cannot lie.

David says in Psalm 25:15,

"My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net."

Turning my vision away from myself and off the calendar, God helps me see differently. He reminds me of the eternal life I have now (John 17:3) and of the future glory to come (Romans 8:18). He leads me into truth—guiding me through life's interruptions with no fear in His step.

I don't have to count down the days until a desired date, because I can start counting up right now. I count up God's goodness. I marvel at how He can accomplish much in this frail body of mine. His Spirit does the work, renewing me (2 Corinthians 4:16) and giving me the doses of daily strength I need. Unlike my bottles of treatment, He will never run out.

There doesn't need to be a healing visible to the eyes for me to prove or believe He is good. Hope is alive inside me despite the pain and the losses—how incredible is that? How incredible is HE?

The facts about Lyme Disease are real. I have studied them, and I know them. But I also know a truth which sets me free from those fearful facts.

When I look to the the cross of Christ, I see that my dream life doesn't begin once circumstances align to my liking. He is eternal life, and I know Him now.

Lord, help me keep focused on You today.
I will seek after You. I will serve You. I will see that You are good.

Seeing differently