Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I am a wife, mother, pastor…and I have MS

I am a wife.
I am a mother.
I am a daughter, sister, friend.
I am a pastor.
…And I have Multiple Sclerosis.

This is not s secret, but it's always difficult to share with others because "I look so good" (most of the time)…and I am really very healthy, for me.  However, I have a chronic disease and it sucks at times.

This is a modified sermon that has been preached to a few different faith communities.
It is my "coming out" sermon about my disease based on Psalm 46.


Pslam 46 - NRSV

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

8Come, behold the works of the LORD;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10"Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth."
11The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.


Grace and to you and peace, form God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…

I absolutely LOVE the book of Psalms! In the Hebrew Bible the title of the collection is the Book of Praises (which in Hebrew is: sefer tehillim), it is abbreviated to just the word, “Praises” (in Hebrew: tehillim). I’m sure most of you have a favorite psalm or you’re at least familiar with verses from psalm 23 “The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” or “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” from psalm 8. Even our Lord expressed His grief at being separated from His Father on the cross by repeating the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

If you have ever spent any time with the psalms you will find that the psalms speak personally to us…We cannot read very far in the Psalms without drawing the conclusion that the psalmist seems to have been reading our mail or listening in on a private phone call. How is it that after centuries have passed we find a writer who lived in a different time and culture expressing our innermost feelings, fears, and hopes? It seems that wherever we are in our spiritual journey, whatever emotions may be in our hearts may be feeling, whatever struggles we may be going through, we will find a place in the Psalms that resonates and draws us closer to the Lord.
It was Athanasius, an outstanding church leader in the fourth century, who reportedly declared “that the Psalms have a unique place in the Bible because most of the Scripture speaks to us, while the Psalms speak for us.”
Psalms are prayers, poetry, and song…They are our prayers, our words directed to God in petition or praise, they are like beautiful poetry, poetically formulated language, and they are song, they go beyond the mere speaking or even recital of a poem and become music. Psalms are an expression of worship and praise.
From the psalms we can learn how to enhance our Prayer Life and we learn how to develop our Praise and Worship; the psalms encourage us to be Authentic and Transparent before God and Others; and the psalms teach us more about the Character and Person of God. We learn about God’s Goodness, God’s Sovereignty, God’s Holiness, God’s Wrath, God’s Loving kindness, God’s Mercy, God’s Power, God’s Majesty, and God’s Transcendence. And we become more familiar about our Lord Jesus Christ as we see the Messiah in the Psalms.
Martin Luther said of the psalms: “The Psalter is the favorite book of all the saints … [Each person], whatever his circumstances may be, finds in [the book] psalms words which are appropriate to the circumstances in which he finds himself and meet his needs as adequately as if they were composed exclusively for his sake, and in such a way that he himself could not improve on them nor find or desire any better psalms or words.”
And we, as the saints, can find in the psalms any emotion that we need to express…Our psalm for today, psalm 46, is one of protection, deliverance, and victory…and though, I do not have a favorite psalm, per se, this one in particular spoke to me this week. This psalm tells of God’s protection and defense of God’s people, both thousands of years ago and today. In this psalm we are reminded that God is our strength and help when we are in trouble. Though there will be natural disasters and political turmoil, God will not be moved, God will remain constant. God is supreme over all the earth! God is with God’s people and keeps them safe!
The psalms have been re-written and interpreted by different writers, poets, and musicians for years and years…One adaptation of psalm 46 that I found really intriguing comes from a little known Episcopal prayer book that was published last year, called the Hip Hop Prayer Book…Psalm 46 is re-interpreted by Hip Hop artists in the vernacular used by the kids who live in the South Bronx so that they would feel more comfortable in worship.
So, I share with you this translation…
God is our refuge. If troubles test you
He’s who you step to
We kept cool when high tides swept through
And earthquake shakes right and left moves
We bless you!

There’s an estuary, that rests very high
With a river in the middle set by El Shaddai
Kept wet, never dry
Its water runs before the sun hits the sky
And with one little cry…
Heathen schemes seem really weak and
He brings kingdoms to their knees and
Humiliates them
So we praise him, God of Jacob.
Hey kids, ladies gents, attention please
He who plants seeds and keeps the peace
From the West to the East
By break’n weaponry over his chest and knees
Has requested you attention please heed his speech
Stop and see that I preside over every rock and tree.”

I’ll try not to be faithless
It’s He who made us.
God of Jacob.
However, whether the psalm is spoken in Hip Hop or in the language of the King James Bible, it has still been on my heart this week. I know we have all had times in our life where the world seems to be crumbling around us and we have to “Be still,” and know that God is with us. Be still…slow down…and know that God is our refuge and strength.
I can think of quite a few times in my life where things seemed to be falling apart. However, in the past several years, my life seems to crumble a whole lot easier…or rather my body seems to crumble...You see, I have Multiple Sclerosis. Which is not something that is a secret, but it is also something that is hard to share, especially to a new faith community. 

First let me explain a bit about Multiple Sclerosis is a disease that affects the central nervous system.  The synapses, or nerves, spontaneously and without explanation develop scars which leads to the nerves misfiring or not, in some cases not connecting at all, which is what leads to physical symptoms.   - it’s not disease that gets a lot of press, after all there are only about 400,000 diagnosed cases in the United States, compare that to the one million five hundred thousand cases of cancer that are projected to be diagnosed in the United States this year alone. 

But for the 400,000 of us with MS and our friends and family members the diagnosis is a big deal and something that needs constant monitoring, medicine, and care.  

So, my symptoms on a “normal” day consist of significant memory problems, which means that names and numbers are really difficult for me to retain.  I also have problems with directions, as in getting from point A to point B, even if they’re simple.  I struggle with issues with my balance and fatigue on almost a daily basis and I actually have a lot of pain in my joints pretty regularly.  These are symptoms that I have learned to deal with and compensate for, so you very rarely hear me mention that anything is wrong...because even though it is wrong, it’s kind of normal for me, which is strange.

And so, in the midst of my darkness of a chronic illness, I try to be positive. I count my blessings. I am blessed to have a loving supportive husband. I am blessed to have parents, both Chandler’s and mine, who love and care for both of us very much. Then there is the rest of my wonderful family and friends. And of course, I am blessed to be here with this family of faith.
I count my blessings daily, but that doesn’t stop the overwhelming feelings that life is crashing around me at times. So, I take great comfort in the psalms, especially psalms like 46 in which I am reminded that God is a very present help in danger and that God is with me in my struggles and though everything may seem inconsistent, God will be ever consistent and unfailing in loving me.
However, I can’t count how many times I have told people that I have MS and they say, “Oh, well, it’s part of God’s plan,” or “Well, God has given you MS for a reason.” Now, I know these people are trying to be comforting, but when I hear these expressions, I begin to feel this tightness in the pit of my stomach. And I try to say in a reasonable manner, “Well, I don’t really believe that my leg not working is a part of God’s plan.” When, in fact, I want to yell, “NO! This is not part of God’s plan! God did NOT inflict me with this chronic disease! God does not want my family and friends to worry! God does not want me to be in pain!”
I tell you, God does not cause bad things to happen to us. God does not give a person cancer, or fibromyalgia, or diabetes, or crohns, or multiple sclerosis. God doesn’t cause earthquakes or tsunamis, or hurricanes to punish his people. God does not want pain and brokenness to happen to our bodies and our relationships and our environment.
So, why do bad things happen? Why do people get sick? Why do couples get divorced? Why do natural disasters occur? Why? Because…we live outside of the garden. In the beginning God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. And then humankind wanted to be like God and the man and the woman ate of the fruit and then the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked.
We live after Genesis chapter 2, we live after The Fall. We live in a broken world, which was not of God’s choosing, but our own in our attempt to be like God. And because we live in this broken world we all live in an unnatural state…we become imperfect…we become fallible…we become broken and our world becomes broken. We become open to disease and death and bad relationships and natural disasters. We are broken and we are fallen, not because of something God has done, but because of what we have done.
Now, please, do not misunderstand me…WE are broken as a people. Death, illness, accidents, and divorce do not occur because of individual sins. We are all sinners, but my personal sins did not lead to my MS. The fallen nature of creation has allowed sin and brokenness to enter into the world and with that sin and brokenness comes the bad things that happen in our lives.
However, there is hope. We may be broken, but we are not unfixable. We have our hope in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus, who longs to gather us together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings…Jesus, who longs to protect us from harm…Jesus, who gave himself for us and for our salvation. We have hope and salvation in the body and blood of Jesus. Jesus, who despite what you may have heard in the media lately, was bodily resurrected so that we too have the hope of the resurrection on the last day.
We have the hope of a new heaven and a new earth…a holy city…a new Jerusalem where God will reside among human beings. God will live among us, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death will not exist any more – or mourning, or crying, or pain, or cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or car accidents, or hurricanes, or addictions, will be no more. For God will make all things whole. God will make all things new. We have complete victory through Christ. For neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
However, until the time that Christ comes again, we are gifted with the community of Christ to support us; we have the Spirit to guide us; Jesus walks with us; God empowers us; and we have the immediate hope of the forgiveness of sins and promise of the resurrection in Holy Communion.
And until that day when we are joined with Christ we have the hope in the knowledge that God has been with his people in their troubles, God is with us in our troubles, and God will continue to be with us, even in the troubling times ahead.
Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth." The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Non-Mom Club

When was the last time you felt left-out?

And I mean the utter left-outness that one feels in elementary/middle school – picked last for the kick-ball team, not being asked to dance, not being invited to the party – totally left-out. 

It can be gut wrenching, that left-out feeling.  Being left-out leaves one feeling alone and isolated and sometimes un-loved.

Now, I haven’t taken any official polls, nor do I have any scientific data to back this up, but my guess is that every young woman of a certain age who does not have children has felt that left-outness in a very profound way at some point in her life.

Truly, I know what that feels like, because up until mid-December, I was a woman of a certain age without children. 

And let me be clear – I have a wonderful husband, parents, sister, in-laws, friends (both near and far), and dog.  I have a pretty great job/vocation as a Lutheran Pastor serving a wonderful congregation.  I have a lot of fun, with all of the above-mentioned people in my life and in my work.  So, one would think, my life was pretty fantabulously awesome – and I assure you, it was and is – however, there was one thing missing for me, a child.

Our family decision to have our child and the way we chose to do that is just that, a family decision, and though it was filled with it’s ups and downs, I am glad that I have been married to my best friend for so long prior to joyfully welcoming a child into our family. 

My husband and I have fun together…lots of fun together!  We travel, go to concerts, go to movies, stay up late eating junk food, spend time with family, and generally have a blast where-ever we go and whatever we do.  This is not to say that I was of the mind set that we “had to” do these things before kids, but I am practical in realizing having kids will change how we continue to do these things…as a family.  I am also practical in realizing that someday, the nest will be empty, and I want a firm foundation with my husband prior to that dreaded empty nest. 

Please, don’t misunderstand, I am not being critical of couples who chose to have children sooner rather than later in their relationship.  I am just stating part of the how and why I ended up in that infamous “non-mom club” for so long. 

Ahhhh…the “non-mom club.” 

And here’s where we get to the left-outness of it all.

It still seems to be the natural order of things, that a young couple falls in love, gets married, and soon after starts having children (I intentionally did not say “start a family” because I have always thought that me and my husband, with the family dog, are a wonderful family).  Of course, studies continue to show that couples are waiting longer to get married (if they choose to get married at all) and then waiting longer in the relationships to have children. 

It’s tough to live in a world where women still feel judged by whether they are mothers or not.  I know we have come a long way as a society, but there is still a judgment about such things…and I know this is true by how many times I have been asked in the 8+ years I have been married “when are you going to have children?” which to me implies that I should or must have children to have a fulfilling life/be a complete woman.

And then there comes the time in every young woman’s life where her peer group starts having babies.  Some women will never know the complete and utter heartbreak it is to be in the “non-mom club” because things seem to go well in their reproductive lives (however, I am well aware that every reproductive story has at least some measure of heartbreak in it). 

Being in the “non-mom club” truly becomes like a club.  Women who don’t even know each other who are a part of the club can be in a room with other women who are mothers, and all those in the “non-mom club” have to do is simply just make eye contact with each other.  It’s like wearing a special ring or tattoo or wristband, but it’s deeper than that.  Many of those in the “non-mom club” wear that sorority in their hearts and only other members see it in their eyes.

In my fairly long tenure in the “non-mom club” there were certainly times where I was the only club member in a room full of mothers…who are dear friends of mine, but still mothers.  Mothers have a way of understanding the joys and gripes of motherhood that those in the “non-mom club” not only cannot understand, but also can feel resentful about. 

How many times have I heard from friends and other loved-ones in my life, “at least you can get a good night’s sleep” or “it’s great that you’re so free to go to concerts whenever you want” or “I wish I could just go to the grocery store without the kids, like you do.”

I think it is human nature to at times gripe and to self deprecate because when we gripe, complain, or undervalue ourselves and our lives, it can be a form of trying to be humble or downplay a really good situation in our lives.  (I also realize that many times mothers are complaining about the tough moments because those moments are on their hearts.)

However, this is not what a member of the club hears when they hear complaints about motherhood.  A complaint about motherhood can still be a vicious smack in the face reminding the “non-mom club” member that they are not mothers. 

Of course every reproductive journey is different (including those who choose not to have children, those who have difficulty having biological children, those who choose to adopt, etc), and I would be a fool to state that every woman without a child wants one desperately.  I would also be a fool to state that every woman needs to have a child to feel complete.  I certainly do not think either of these things are true.  But, my guess is that many women who are members of the club have had to wrestle with what that means and many women in the club have had a tough time with it at one point or another.

I can now say, because I now fully understand from experience, that becoming a mother dramatically changes my priorities.  It dramatically changes how I view my family and the world because I now have to think not only for my husband and myself, but also my child.  Becoming a mother has dramatically changed how much mental space is taken up for the sake of my child – from daily schedules to how much I worry and how much I love him.  And so it is very understandable and natural to want to share all of that with all of my friends and it is very understandable and natural for me to start to gravitate to other friends in my life who are mothers. 

But I love my friends who are members of the “non-mom club” too and I always will.

So, now that I am no longer a member of the club -  
-       may I never talk endlessly about my child to women in the club.
-       may I never share my complaints about motherhood in the presence of a “non mom club” member.
-       may I never only post things about my child on social media sites, forgetting that there are other parts of my life that can be shared.
-       may I always be mindful of those in the “non-mom club” and not spout unsolicited advice or “I remember how it felt” because once a woman is out of the club, she’s OUT!  (It doesn’t matter how long woman spent in the club or what kind of heartache she endured while in the club, once a woman becomes a mother she is no longer a member of the club, that’s it.  She cannot comment on her time in the club to members who are in the club ever again…unless she is genuinely asked by a “non-mom club” member to share her story.)
-       may I never pull away from my friends who are members of the “non-mom club” because I am no longer a member myself.
-       may I always continue to be me.

And last, but not least, may I always work harder to maintain those wonderful relationships with those women friends of mine who are in the club.  My friends who are members of the “non-mom club” should never feel like they have to work harder to maintain a relationship with me.  It is my life that has changed, not theirs, which means I need to work harder to maintain my friendships with them in ways that are respectful and fun for all involved.

My time in the “non-mom club” was not in vain even though at times it was isolating, lonely, and difficult.  It taught me a lot about love – how to give it and how to receive it – from my husband, family, and friends.  It taught me a lot about how to maintain friendships and develop new friendships (or let some friendships go).  It taught me new levels of snark and sarcasm.  Though I am no longer a part of the club anymore, may I always be aware that there will women in my life who I love who will be in club and may I always treat them as the true friends that they are.  

(super special Thank You to Dana Blouch-Hansen and another wonderful friend for helping me develop this post.)

Friday, February 7, 2014

How Can You Love A Child You Didn't Give Birth To?

I met my son on November 1, 2013. 

He moved in on December 20, 2013. 

To be clear, I met my son and roughly seven weeks later, he moved into our home and into our lives forever.

(Our son was in foster care in an adjacent county.  Agencies working within the United States try to provide a period of transition for older children being moved into new homes, this is not always the case, but it was for us.) 

And so it was that my husband and I met a sweet, bouncy, two year old, in a stuffy room of a county Children and Youth Services building.  The room had no windows, one table with several chairs around it, and a very small sitting area.  When we met our son, the room was packed with the two of us, our case worker, three case workers from my son's county, his foster mother, his foster sister, and him…giggly, wiggly, and constantly moving, though there was very limited space for him to do so. 

We spent over an hour in that tight space…watching him, asking questions about him, tentatively playing with him, and watching him some more. 

Following the meeting, my husband and I had the opportunity to think and pray about inviting this child into our lives forever.  However, as we drove the hour home, we both spoke out loud what we had both been thinking during the meeting - that we had just met our son.  It was this amazing, beautiful, and terrifying realization.  We had met our son. 

Upon looking back on it, I knew he was mine the minute I saw him.  In the week leading up to the meeting, I had the butterflies of excitement in my stomach because I thought he was probably my boy, but when I saw him, I knew…and I fell in love. 

I understand that it may not make sense that I love a child I did not give birth to.  It's totally unexplainable to people who have never been through the adoption process.  To those who do not have children or those who only have biological children, it's not something that can be summed up in words.  So I won't even try, because then it would just become senseless babble.  Just believe me.  It's true.  I love him so much my heart feels like it will burst…and there is no doubt in my mind that he is mine.  I am his mommy and my husband is his daddy.  Forever and ever and ever and ever and ever.