Nuggets.

From Michelle.  May 11, 2013.

Dear friends and family,

Three months have passed since my last update.  It is commonly said of the early years with children that the days are long but the years are short, and I find this to be true of life for Steve and I generally.  Each day seems insurmountable and yet in the blink of an eye the path behind us is strewn with such “insurmountable” peaks.  As the years behind grow longer, the benefit of this perspective seems to be to take the sometimes daunting view less seriously and simply keep walking.

I fail to write because the ups and downs related to Steve’s injury have a monotony all their own.  I struggle to describe what does not change.  Even the darker days when he feels he cannot physically cope come and go with unvarying consistency.  My spirit has learned to bend in order not to break.  I tread lightly, knowing that tomorrow will be different.  Just as predictably another day will come where his body seems to rise above itself, to conquer its familiar limitations.  Inevitably, that day too will pass, returning us to what we know, and then to worse.

Steve’s greatest achievement each day is the simple commitment to rise.  At night, with gratitude, he lays his broken instrument down.   Our days are book-ended with this rising and falling.  I was reminded recently of the simplicity of our lives when someone asked what we were doing for fun on a Friday night.  The thought had become strange to me.  Except for weddings and funerals, committee and council meetings, our evenings wind down with uneventful regularity.  If you peered into the windows of our home most evenings after 8:30, you would find one solitary room alight.  Each day is a mountain, and at its end, we are, quite simply spent. In our own private journey little changes now, but the depth of the disciplines and lessons, etched deeper and deeper with each day we simply put our feet to the path, one in front of the other.

Precious detours occur when we align our steps with others.  Thanks to Steve’s line of work, these diversions happen often, lending both purpose and perspective.  What stuns me repeatedly is how much suffering is there.  Every time I think about an elderly gentleman in our church who lost his wife to cancer last week I want to weep.  Every time I see dear elderly members come to church, wrestling bodies addled by age and disease, my heart aches.  Every week I meet with women struggling in their marriages, lonely in their transplanted lives in Manila, wrestling with children who are not thriving, struggling with wretched histories and life-threatening health challenges.  Due to Steve’s accident, we get emails regularly from individuals enduring the overwhelming losses from spinal cord injuries.  This week, we mourn the passing of a former associate pastor, gruesomely murdered in his home in Kuala Lumpur.  As we study the book of Amos as a church, we are looking hard at themes of poverty, human trafficking, greed and injustice.  Examples are easy to find in the city at our doorstep.  Sometimes, as we sing during worship after an Amos sermon, I cover my face with my hair to hide the weeping.

As we navigate these sorrows, I have been looking at Romans 12:9-21 as a guide.  Certain phrases jump out.  ‘Let love be genuine.’  ‘Outdo one another in showing honor.’  ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.’  ‘Bless those who persecute you.’  ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.’  ‘Never be wise in your own sight.’  ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’  ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’  I have been mining these verses like a prospector during a gold rush.  Each day another nugget is tucked away.  When traded into daily life, I am rich.

The journey is hard.  Many days, I walk alongside suffering much worse than mine.  Knowing my own bankruptcy, and that of so many others besides, drives me to look for the nuggets that make these seasons rich.  I am not instantly transformed, nor fixed by what I find.  But these disciplines and lessons are precious, golden.  My unruly heart has come to know their immeasurable worth, the vast treasure that is godly wisdom.  Patience, trust, perseverance, hope, faith.  This compass does not waiver.  One step at a time.  It is all I have to sustain and all I have to offer.  I stake my life on what I cannot see and direct my path on truths that are not my own.  One day, all will be made right.  Until then, we forge on through the mess, trusting that our hope is not in vain, finding nuggets in the dirt.

Some days are easier than others.  The important thing is to keep on walking and not take our view too seriously.  Greater things are at work, eternal things.  Like sand, these countless days and stories pass.  The days are long but the years are fleeting.  As Amos said, “Seek the Lord, and live.”

Love,

Michelle

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In him, it is always Yes.

From Michelle.  8 February, 2013.

Dear friends and family,

We are now approaching three years since Steve’s accident.  I wish I could say that we have settled into a routine, into acceptance, into a familiarity with the new parameters of our life, but instead I feel as if we are still crashing up and down on stormy waves, in unfamiliar territory.  Each day still feels new.  I cannot predict the effects each particular configuration of hours will have on Steve’s body.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the evolution of this process.  Some days ring with triumphal normalcy while others are devastatingly crippling.  The facts do not line up easily.  We rake the details for some noticeable pattern and come up empty handed.

In some ways, it would be easier to have a dependable list, a bold line, a static set of variables with which to work.  Decisions would be easier.  We could bury hope and set about the work of acquiescence.  We could develop routine.  Instead the shifts come daily and sometimes hourly, the breakdowns in unlikely places, unpredictable movements, surprising victories.

This week has been replete with breakdowns.  This week, the boys are getting used to me asking them to give Papa goodnight kisses in his bed because getting up to administer the customary prayers and cuddles and tuckings in is simply too much for him at the end of these particular days.  Why now and for how long we cannot say.  What did he eat, what did he do, how long did he stand, how did he sleep?  We are like scientists isolating and assessing every factor, every day, and yet no pattern emerges and permanent solutions are elusive.

It is the perfect faith-building storm.  Prolonged and mysterious, we can garner no security from any humanly constructed shelters.  The sand beneath the waves shifts continually.  A very close friend recently asked me how I manage to achieve such calm through it all.  She is not wrong to perceive a thread of tranquility throughout the seismic shifts in well-being.  I cannot attribute it to myself.  There is a shelter that seems to guard us from the worst of the wind and rain.

I cling to the Lord differently each day, but I run for his presence more hungrily than ever, knowing with ever growing certainty that the truths I find there do not move, whatever the storm is doing outside.  Slightly rebellious for most of my youth, I have developed a new love for the law.  No casual appreciation here; I have come to adore it.  I am still a lover of adventure, and yet my prayers ring with gratitude for what does not change, for what is certain.  I find rest in scriptures such as this one, that previously rang hollow: The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. (Psalm 19:7)  Like the apostle James, I rejoice that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).  The immutability of God, the enduring, everlasting steadfastness no longer seems threatening, nor boring, nor frighteningly rigid.  Now this constancy brings relief, brings assurance, brings rest.  No matter how I come, he does not change.  Indeed, I am learning with increasing joy that in him it is always Yes (2 Corinthians 1:19).

With love and gratitude,

Michelle

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Christmas Letter 2012

From Michelle.  23 December, 2012

Dearest friends and family,

There has been much loss surrounding this Advent.  The usual rush of Christmas parties were equally scattered with farewell parties.  Steve helped facilitate the memorial services of two dear members of our church who passed on.  A friend’s son and fellow quadriplegic died at a young age just days ago.  We know many friends who are lonely or struggling.  We miss our families.  And of course, the tragic stories coming from Sandy Hook Elementary School have overwhelmed us all.

I keep thinking about God’s power made perfect in weakness.  I imagine the fragility of that babe in the manger.  I remember how, when my own children were newborns, I would lie awake at night barely breathing in order to listen for their quiet breaths.  Their little souls were wrapped in a most delicate packaging, nearly blind and deaf, barely able to move, utterly reliant.  Their grip on life seemed tenuous at best.

There is a kind of hushed awe that surrounds a newborn babe.  Their fragility elicits tenderness.  It is miraculous that they live and breathe at all.  We are amazed that so large a future can be housed in such small, defenseless form.  I imagine God willingly wrapping himself into such frail flesh, the God of the universe reduced to an armful of tender, piteous reliance.  And yet a host of angels attended his birth, proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  Here, and later in the image of the cross, the two most celebrated stories in all christianity herald glory and peace through utter weakness.

There is a window here into the holy, if only we can peak through it.  The window is clouded with our breaths and yet we see vaguely something unspeakably precious through the glass.  We do not understand why love comes this way, or why we are saved like this.  Love so great stoops so low we cannot with our small hearts fully comprehend it.

God knows fragility.  He knows helplessness.  He knows suffering.  And somewhere in the choice to love us this way, to freely enter into our human condition and bear every wrong, there is great strength.  We can borrow from that loving strength to carry on.  Just before the bible speaks of power made perfect in weakness, it speaks of grace that is enough.  This is the part we can practice.  This is the roadmap we can follow, coming alongside loss, no matter our own depravity and weakness.  We can dispense grace liberally, extravagantly, as it was liberally and extravagantly given to us.

So this Christmas, even amidst weakness, even amidst sadness and loss, may you know love and hope, practiced in grace.  And may you find his strength to carry on.

With love from all of us,

The Ruetschles

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Happy Thanksgiving

From Michelle.  November 22, 2012.

Dear friends and family,

My soul has lightened in recent days.  I cannot explain why.  Our circumstances have not changed, nor is there any particular movement on the horizon.  Nevertheless, my soul looks up, expectant, like a small creature, perched on hind legs, sniffing the wind.  Perhaps it knows something that I do not?  Regardless, hope stirs against all reason, and moves in the air surrounding.  It is a good place to be on Thanksgiving morning.

This Thanksgiving, I am giving thanks for limitations.  There is blessing to be found in the non-movement, in the smallness, in embracing the ordinary.  It takes a quiet spirit and a presence of mind to note the soul’s progress.  Today we stop moving so much, and pause, away from the crowd.  With little movement happening on the outside, there will be time to appreciate the movements of the inner life.  Steve worked late two nights this week, already more than his body can handle.  So we have said no to precious invitations for Thanksgiving feasts with friends, and we are hunkering down as a family.

We have often, over the last two years, pressed against the borders of our newfound limitations, trying to expand our territory.  These past two months, we have done this to the point of exhaustion.  The reality remains, however, that we have been called during this period to live smaller.  As the boundaries of life have narrowed significantly through Steve’s condition, we are learning to look more closely at the seemingly insignificant, reading the small signs and the quiet signals. This evening we will practice that call by celebrating together, just the five of us.  Today, we give thanks by embracing the boundaries, and looking closely at what has been given.

This practice, as yet so imperfectly observed by me, reminds me of Saint Therese of Lisieux, the little flower, whose frequent illnesses caused her to celebrate the smallest details of love and service to Christ with all simplicity.  In contemplating her humble place in the order of things, she said: “The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of it’s scent nor the daisy of its simple charm.  If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.”

Perhaps some of my recent peace has been in appreciating the simple gifts.  Lately, I have been delighting in my children, in delicious meals, in the fond looks that Steve showers on me daily.  We all know these are the richest of gifts, but I, at least, am often too busy to notice them.  A visitor from the United States has been appreciating the view from our lanai every morning, overlooking a small pool ringed by palm trees and tropical bushes, and with her eyes I see the simple beauty of our residential neighborhood with fresh eyes.

There is still much letting go to be done.  I still cling to the idea that in order to fully live, life must be full.   I say yes far too much.  But reminders come fast and furious that for Steve, things simply take more time.  If I want to walk beside him, I must also slow my pace.  During a precious vacation in a remote part of the Philippines this month, Steve fell on some coral trying to catch Zephyr and cut his feet and wrist.  Coral is alive and highly infectious, never an easy wound to heal.  For Steve, however, it took three weeks and three rounds of strong oral antibiotics before the redness, swelling and puss even began to dissipate.  Four weeks later, I am still watching the redness around his toes.  While visiting someone in the hospital last week, we discovered the room was on the third floor and there were no elevators.  By the time we had finished the visit and were standing in the hallway talking to a relative, Steve could barely stand, leaning against the wall for support.  It has been a busy week, and yesterday Steve could barely climb the stairs in our house just once.

Limitations can be a gift.  The proportions of our world are set right when we step off center stage.  One is never indispensable.  There is a transparency of spirit that occurs when we no longer force our own importance on a situation.  When forced to acknowledge our smallness, there is room for God to be big.  God is given room to show up, to provide.  Others have an opportunity to shine.  This gift of limitations is especially precious in the life of ministry, where the myth of one’s indispensability is especially treacherous.

This week, Steve’s body hurts more than usual.  While there is much he cannot feel, eventually he knows when he has done too much.  I am reminded again of the lessons of Dr. Paul Brand on the gift of pain.  Without pain, his leprosy patients caused themselves enormous harm.  Pain lets us know when something is wrong.  It gives us appropriate and healthy boundaries for how we treat our bodies.  It  is a precious limitation.  Without it, we press too hard, and injure ourselves.  So instead of lamenting the pain, today we will welcome it as an invitation to rest, to lie down, to stop and look around.

Tonight, around the dinner table, I plan to slow down and look closely at the gift of my precious family.  Zephyr will be cracking jokes and delighting the most in his own sense of humor.  Jude will be zany and grateful, a fountain of energy, appreciation and affection.  Aidan will be constant and kind, equal parts thoughtful and light, sensitive and observant of the dynamics around the table.  As we do every night, we will each share what we are thankful for.  As he does every night, Zephyr will insist on going first.  And as it is every day, without fail, none of us will have any trouble finding things to be thankful for.

Whether or not a rainstorm is indeed gathering on the horizon, we will celebrate the common gifts, the violets and the daisies, enough food on our table, enough life and love to fill our hearts to overflowing.  May your arms be equally full of gratitude today.

With love,

Michelle

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Perseverance beyond the finish line.

From Michelle.  September 27, 2012.

Dear friends and family,

Each time I sit down to write to you, I wonder how to put more words to the same thing.  The landscape looks the same as it did last month and the month before that.  There is no rain on the horizon, and the sun beats down on the desert floor.  I wonder, are they not as tired as I am of this place?  Surely, every rock has been examined, every patch of shade explored.  What more is there to say?

A change has come upon me lately, however, a weariness unlike what I have felt before.  It has only recently dawned on me that this shift coincides with the end of our two year marathon.  The shift has come almost exactly 26 months after Steve’s accident.  What I am finding as I cross the finish line is that our marathon is far from over.  In fact, my time frame was all wrong.  Months cannot frame this journey, but rather years.  I stumble through my artificial ending and look out over the seemingly endless road ahead, and just like that, in year three, two years, two months and two weeks after the accident, I run out of steam.  I have come to the end of myself.  And it looks different than it did before. What do you do when you come to the end of a race that has taken your all and find you must keep running?

We are in such a rush to get well.  But the eternal timeframe requires more patience than comes naturally to us, who dwell so viscerally in months and days and hours.  The bible, however, is rife with waiting.  Moses and the Israelites wandered around the same patch of dry and inhospitable earth for forty years before reaching the promised land.  Sarah waited ninety years to conceive.  Jacob waited fourteen years to marry Rachel.  The book of Hebrews praises Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who waited until the end of their days and never saw the fulfillment of what was promised.

Even in our modern context, we are reminded of the imperative of time.  Steve and I have been obsessed lately with a documentary series about the American presidents, all of whom faced and surmounted incredible hardship.  Of course, the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt was especially personal and moving.  FDR took six years off following his paralysis before stepping back into public life. In a four day counseling intensive last year, the counselor said to us, “Of course, it will be ten years before you can make any sense out of this.”

There are many comforting words in the Bible, many verses about love and compassion and rest.  But there are other metaphors.  Words like “battle” and “armor” are also used to describe our earthly passage.  As I have sat with God, I have sensed equal parts comfort and exhortation.  The verses that mark this section of road are not the ones I want to see as I stumble past the finish line.  They say, “persist.”  They say, “keep going.”  They say, “do not give up.”  My sign posts are as follows:

Galatians 6:9-10: Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Romans 5:2-5: And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Habbakuk 3:17-19: Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.  The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.

To be honest, I am not comforted.  My soft spiritual muscles resist this training.  I am, however, obedient.  So, on days when I have nothing left, I reach down into the dryness of my spirit and offer up my dust and ashes, my rocks and even sometimes only my dirty, empty hands.  The Lord receives my paltry offerings with tenderness.  He reiterates his promises.  He extends his mighty hand.  But ultimately, what there is for me to do is steel my shoulders and keep running.

Years can overwhelm.  There is a better way to manage the seemingly endless road.  It seems, in our broken and temporal state, that we are best equipped to manage the long stretch of years day by day.  Do not worry about tomorrow, we are cautioned, for tomorrow will take care of itself.  For the Israelites wandering in the desert, provision was measured in daily increments.  Each morning the manna came.  Whatever was kept beyond 24 hours rotted.  Waking and sleeping are the natural brackets to what we can handle.  Slow down, my soul.  Endure this hour and the next.  Run only this short distance.

Some days I am impatient.  I do not wait quietly.  On those days, this verse from John 16:33 swims up into my spirit: In this world, you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world. It is the long view.  It is the faith perspective that stretches beyond what we can grasp into the leaping heart of hope.  Every now and then, it pays to lift the eyes beyond the daily portion and gaze into that limitless expanse.  Both awe and humility can be powerful motivators.

These many scriptures are my manna.  Daily I take them in.  I put them on like gym clothes and stretch my spirit to their injunctions.  At times, I cry out petulantly for rescue and relief.  And it will come.  In the meantime, however, there is work to be done.  Some days, I need to be a soldier, not a child.

In Lamentations 3, David writes an endless list of complaints.  He is hard pressed on every side.  He is weary beyond reckoning.  And yet he ends his lament this way:  Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”  The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Love,

Michelle

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Trusting him.

From Michelle.  August 23, 2012.

Dear friends and family,

Much time has passed.  We spent eight long weeks in the United States (Steve joined us for five), across five states, and in six different homes.  We had countless conversations, engaged in countless experiences, built countless memories.  And yet there is little to say.  The true message, what is really happening, is so simple, and so repetitive, that I am shy to repeat it.  Time passes but I keep circling over the same narrow ground.  The lesson is this: trust me.

I feel he is taking a tool and etching those same words deeper and deeper into my heart: trust me, trust me, trust me.  It might bore me to receive the same words over and over again, except that it looks different every time, every second I approach it.  The same words echo in unfamiliar tones against the shifting patterns of each unique circumstance.  There are always a million ways to be, a thousand possible responses, an infinite number of emotional reactions, a multitude of choices.  Again and again, when I finally incline my ear, the message is fresh.  Trust me.  Something new is required of me every time I yield.  I wash a dish: trust me.  I wave my kids away on the school bus: trust me.  I look at the future and cannot see: trust me.  I wake up with a knot of despair in my stomach: trust me.  I drink in the sounds of my children laughing together: trust me.  I sit down before a crowded email inbox: trust me.  I say goodbye to those I love: trust me.  I hear yet another tale of suffering: trust me.  I look into the eyes of someone I do not understand: trust me.  Over and over and over again, deep and barely audible, it sounds out in my spirit, always the same yet ever-changing: trust me.

What do we gain from trusting God?  Trust does not change the fragility of our circumstances.  It does not bring them into obedience.  It is not a fair exchange, nor does it deliver to us our desires.  The etching hurts, as most true things do, in a way that is both sweet and terrible.  In my stubbornness, in my ignorance, in my laziness, I allow myself to be distracted from the discipline of it.  I play at control and forget the deeper wisdom.  Yet in God’s mercy, in his infinite grace, he brings me back again and again, often gently, sometimes sternly, always lovingly to this: trust me. It requires surrender, and surrender is difficult.  Yet on the other side is peace.  Yet on the other side He is.

Steve and I are, in essence, only doing, only learning this one thing: trusting him.  The details change but the lesson is the same.  Though his body aches, though he battles constant fatigue, though progress is excruciatingly slow, though he endures numerous set backs, though nothing may change, I watch him practice this one thing, over and over again: trust him.  Steve’s practice is more visceral, consuming body as well as soul.  Mine is purely faith.  Trust him.  Trust his promise.  Trust his goodness.  Trust that he is enough.  Trust and rest in him.  At times it defies reason.  But its fruit is always beautiful, incontrovertible.  Peace.  Freedom.  Love.  Him.

Behind me lies the evidence, the many times he has proven trustworthy.  Still, I cannot see what lies ahead.  I cannot predict how and where the promises land, nor how much suffering awaits.  The circumstances will surely prove unreliable.  The rains will come again, as they have relentlessly, this month in Manila, washing away what seems dependable.  Trust will ask something new of me, as it will of you.  I will never know exactly how to do it.  But every time I do, the spirit breathes and sighs and settles into place, and I know I was created for this, to trust a good and perfect God.

Love,

Michelle

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The good desert.

From Michelle.  12 June, 2011.

Dear friends and family,

Today is a good day, my birthday.  Greetings have arrived from around the world.  I feel loved.  Tomorrow we celebrate my son and my brother.  The week will be capped off with the two year anniversary of Steve’s accident.  It is a week, in other words, to take stock, to count blessings, to look back at a two year journey.

Two years is an artificial line to draw.  The experience is, of course, folded into an entire life.  For me, the journey began several years prior, in what I came to call my “good desert”.  The desert has been less the location of my testing, and more the story of a God who has proven faithful.  Because even deserts can be good with God, precious even, if we can embrace what they have to offer.  In a sense, I began training years before.  A wise friend sent my own words back to me the other day, words I wrote describing the beginning of that desert road.  They still apply today:

“The soul, too, has a long list of travels, cultures, homes.  I call it the “good desert”, this latest place I have been wandering for several years now, prior to the accident.  It is a desert because the Lord has been working on my weaknesses.  This is not an easy flourishing but a hard and determined growth in a dry soil.  I have just enough water, but never too much.  Friends leave fast, so that I must rely on him.  My strengths don’t help me here.  I have to exercise the weaker muscles, those neglected because I did not need them where I flourished.

In this patch of parched earth, I am getting stronger.  Mostly, my strength is not my own.  So, I call it good because I have to lean hard and push deep.  My soul’s roots spread wider, plummet depths hitherto unknown to find water.  I am happy with a few precious drops.  I learn to obey in order to survive.  I am disciplined by the absence of ease.

Perhaps I was training for now.  Well acquainted with the ends of my own reserves and the beginning of his, it is all too familiar to open my hands and simply receive.  I am not running in circles of worry, trying too hard, tiring myself out.  I am doing what I can.  He will do the rest.  I am prepared for a long journey.  I do not expect an oasis.  But I know there will be enough water for the trip.

This is the gift of the wilderness, finding the end of yourself and the beginning of him.  When I am riding on my strengths, when life is plentiful and abundant, I am quick to forget who carries me, who provides.  Even as the landscape grows harsh, it takes time before I kneel to ask for help.  But I have been wandering for awhile.  My eyes have grown accustomed to the sharp reality of my weakness, his strength. I can live off of him for a long time.  Forever.”

Today, as I take stock, I give thanks for the blessings of the wilderness.  I am reminded of the value of the training, the preciousness of my thirst, the evolution of my trust.  Without the desert, I would not know the presence in absence and the abundance in scarcity.  I would not know with equal depth the eternal yes holding steady no matter the landscape.

I have been blown away lately by the reflections of A.W. Tozer in The Pursuit of God (free for your Kindle).  In it there is a prayer that is well suited to the dry conditions of the desert, to thirst.  It is my birthday wish.  It goes like this:

O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and left me thirsty for more.  I am painfully conscious of my need of further grace.  I am ashamed of my lack of desire.  O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still.  Show me Thy glory, I pray Thee, that so I may know Thee indeed.  Begin in mercy a new work of love within me.  Say to my soul, “Rise up, my love, my fair one, come away.”  Then give me grace to rise and follow Thee up from this misty lowland where I have wandered so long.  In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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Steps.

From Michelle.  11 May, 2012.

Dear friends and family,

You may have noticed that I have been at a loss for words.  Sometimes, the journey offers little that seems remarkable.  One merely sets one’s face forward and keeps walking.  My own character is tested the most when there is neither exhilarating progress nor troubling setback to cause an adrenaline-induced response.  Each day is, rather, a resolute choice to keep moving.  In the absence of circumstances that force a reaction, there is an unsettling silence, a broad range of possible avenues creating an awkwardly open space.  At times I find myself merely sitting, staring at the wide horizon.  To choose a direction in the absence of any emergent circumstances or clarifying conditions simply takes too much energy.  Like drawing the first line on a blank canvas, there is a rashness, a courage, a creative flush of hope in the finished product that is required.  Like any artist, I am brewing in the silence, waiting for that flash of folly or inspiration to drive me up into action and life.

Ironically, this silence, this open space directly follows exactly the kind of comforting clarity-of-purpose, circumstance-driven adrenaline rush that I now realize I crave.  March and April brought waves of activity to our family, with much coming and going. I had the privilege of attending the Hillsong Women’s Conference in Sydney, Australia called Colour, three days of amazing living water for any thirsty soul.  Steve and I spent a rich four days in Chiang Mai, Thailand together exploring themes of loss with a couple who are both therapists and friends.  I took my mother and stepfather along with the three children to Borneo in Malaysia for a wonderful few days on the beach.  Finally, Steve traveled to the United States to attend the West Coast Presbyterian Pastor’s Conference, and spend some valuable time with the excellent physical therapists at Project Walk, one of the foremost spinal cord injury rehabilitation facilities in the country.  There was an obvious schedule to follow, and numerous circumstances to either experience, enjoy or overcome.  Whether we liked it or not, the path forward was clear.  The disruption of our daily routines served only to amplify God’s presence and voice, as strange surroundings offered new spaces to listen, new voices to hear, and new lessons to absorb.  While our bodies were weary with all of the travel, our souls were deeply refreshed and enlivened.

After so much noise, the silence that has followed has been especially glaring, the daily routine especially dreary.  How does one translate the emotional highs created by those experiences into lasting progress in the daily drudge?  Without the driving circumstances, what direction will I choose?  Sometimes, the answer is simply to get up and walk.  Just as it takes courage to draw the first line, it takes courage to take the first step.  But if the path I forge does not appear fruitful, I can always turn to the right or left, or retrace my steps.  The open space cannot be known until I explore it.  What seems a predictable direction may in fact lead to some amazing adventure or result around the next corner.  In the meantime, faith may mean simply putting one foot in front of the other.

Here is what I do know about what lies ahead.  I do know that I am committed to believing that Steve can heal further.  Project Walk has given Steve an excellent routine that gives weight to that belief, grounded in a daily regimen, one day after the other, building toward a future hope.  I also know that at this time, there is no further progress in Steve’s ability to feel from the shoulders down.  I know that hot and cold are still entirely absent sensations throughout most of his body.  I know that he cannot yet rise early and walk the children to the bus, or play the guitar, or throw a basketball.  The variations of hope and acceptance, progress and setbacks, miracle and reality, desire and despair are infinite.  But the image is not yet set.  The road behind us is still short and fresh, and the possibilities ahead are endless.  When the infinite variations get overwhelming and I don’t know where to go, I’m going to take just one step into the day.

I keep circling back over old lessons, taking them in more deeply.  Repetition, while frustrating, is necessary.  And so the verses that sink ever deeper into my soul are those I often quote from 2 Corinthians: So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. The eternal weight of glory is the certain end to which my every step will lead.  While the variations are infinite, the end is sure.

Such truths do not unfold in spectacular ways, but rather quietly, etched over and over, ever more deeply into the heart.  As its reality unfolds, the question becomes not so much which direction to take, but where to look.  As for me, I will set my eyes to the horizon, broad enough to catch every path or circumstance, no matter how far astray it will lead.

With love,
Michelle

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Few things remain.

From Michelle.  March 1, 2012.

Dear friends and family,

If January was a month of hope and of some reprieve, February was a challenge to those fragile gains.  As soon as I noted improvements in Steve’s gait, it seemed, he began to limp again.  As soon as I noted stability in his weight, he caught a stomach bug and lost several pounds.  As soon as we thought we had found a good therapy routine, a regular therapist announced pregnancy related sick leave.  These convolutions come as no surprise.  No path in life is truly straight, even when the general momentum is moving forward.  In a marriage course that Steve and I are facilitating, the instructors talk about the myth of the day when there will be more time.  Much the same, there is the equally alluring myth of a life where everything goes smoothly.  While such periods do occur and are sweetly precious, they cannot last.  The truth is, while we all long for that stretch of straight and level road, we are equally in need of the discipline of the unforeseen bend, the uphill climb or the downhill rush.  We shed more weight and gain more strength as we bend and scramble and sprint.  We dig deeper and find new reserves.  We lean harder and find God to be greater.  A good story always has an unexpected twist and a good dose of dramatic tension.  We all journey this way.

As we navigate the twists and turns, digging deeper over the miles, I find myself longing to shed more baggage.  The discipline of a long hike involves choosing carefully what to bring.  The longer and harder the trek, the more carefully we inspect the list of contents on our backs.  Each additional pound is costly.  I still have a great deal of flaccid weight and unformed muscle.  There is an urgency to both materially and spiritually simplify, to grow lean.  In an effort to mark the inner work, I create silly rituals of simplification.  For each item of clothing I gain, I must give away two.  I sort through the jumble of plastic bits and pieces among the children’s toys and throw things away.  Several containers overflow with other things I will not miss.  These seemingly trivial tangible actions function almost liturgically to also cleanse the spirit.  There too, I am sorting through the trash and discovering what is truly essential.  I can shed, little by little, pleasing people.  I can leave behind a few books and entertainments that don’t edify and a mass of parental guilt and a few pounds of looking good.  In my backpack I now have more room for prayer.  It doesn’t weigh anything.  I can breathe more easily.

I think back on our early days in Seattle, after the accident.  We arrived with two suitcases.  It was a gift to start fresh.  We did not miss our things.  There was a lovely spare quality to life.  The essentials had space to breathe, uncluttered by all of the extra toys and furniture, the empty entertainments and the unnecessary worries.  We even shed a house.  It was all too easy, however, to accumulate again and clutter up that freedom.  These lessons come slow.  First, we took on material things.  Later we added responsibilities, activities.  As Steve became more able, we grew less discerning of our commitments.  We grew more careless with our time and resources.  The gift of the uphill stretches is that they alert me that my pack has grown too heavy.  I must shed a few things to make it to the top.

And so, February’s gift has been that gentle reminder to simplify.  To shed a few things and enjoy a more nimble response to the next unexpected turn.  To make room in my pack for what matters and sustains.  As I get older, fewer things remain.  And in the end, only one thing: Christ.

After listing in great detail the tremendous faith of many of the protagonists in the bible across the centuries, the author of Hebrews notes that, “all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised.”   No path of ease, no neatly delineated earthly passage lives among this list of saints.  The author continues: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run the race which was set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  We are asked to shed the weight and run, looking not for an easy finish but with the example of Christ before our eyes, who suffered greatly for our sakes.  The promise of ease does not arise in this life but in the next.  But what we can do is shed every weight and sin, so that we may run with joy.

I do this imperfectly.  My pack is always too full.  My hands are never consistently open.  My mind is easily cluttered.  I take comfort in the list of saints.  Their lives are flawed, their paths often circuitous.  And yet, by grace, they finished the race, running in the shadow of the cross.  And we, by grace, will do the same.

With love,

Michelle

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Relying on God

From Michelle.  1 February, 2012.

Dear friends and family,

January has been kind to us, a soft opening to a new year.  Outside my window, a blue sky and faintly rustling palm trees echo the sweetness of the season, climatically the coolest and most gentle time of year in the Philippines.  Though Steve still struggles with a weak left leg, overall numbness and general discomfort and fatigue, I have not seen that odd, stiff limp that had begun to creep into his walk in late 2010.  His weight has stabilized.  He has worked hard and somehow managed.  We continue to be the recipients of many thoughtful acts of kindness.  We are amazed by the ongoing fervent prayers on our behalf.  In short, we are counting our blessings and feeling very fortunate indeed.

Lately, Steve has been reflecting on 2 Corinthians, Chapter 1.  Among other things, it says the following: “…We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.  But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

It seems that I cannot learn this lesson often enough, nor can I ever fully grasp the depth of God’s faithfulness to me in my weakness.  Thankfully, I have had many reminders.  Though somewhat rueful about this at times, I say this with genuine thanksgiving.  Life’s design repeatedly prompts me toward these two all-too-familiar truths: (1) I truly cannot do this on my own, and (2) God really is faithful to sustain me.  At its core, the interplay of these result in the sweetest cure for isolation.  I know an everlasting companionship whose depths I can never plummet.  The joy of this friendship runs deeper with each trial, so that it is less and less easily disturbed by the vagrancies of life.

I finished a book recently that underscored this truth.  In it, a young missionary lives out her faith in the darkest of circumstances: a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia during the Second World War.  For three years, she endures constant hunger and privation, separation from and eventual death of her beloved husband in a distant camp, and at the end of the war, near starvation, torture and months in an isolated cell with no human contact.  Somehow, God’s presence and faithfulness is apparent to her in every circumstance.  He neither removes the hardship nor shelters her from the worst of punishments.  Rather, she finds his fingerprint in the smallest and most intimate of signs, and in the sweetest of whispers in her heart.  There is a dance between her prayers and his responses that is real, bearing fruit in her weakness, bringing light to her fellow prisoners as well as to her Japanese oppressors, and elevating her to a position of leadership within the camp.  The mystery is that real life happens through that juxtaposition of weakness and strength, and her faith grows without water and light of an earthly kind, fed only by the tender promises and constant companionship of the Most High, both Father and Friend.  It confounds reason, that her heart remained soft, that hope survived, and that life grew in that wretched, blood-drenched earth.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that 2012 would be a year to grieve, not for the purpose of grieving itself, but in order to move forward toward a new beginning.  A dilemma occurs in this process, however, because hope must somehow hold its place alongside mourning.  It will be a long time before we fully know our losses.  I still believe further healing lies in our future.  Life is far too fluid to be easily measured exclusively in sorrow or happiness.  We remain unbelievably fortunate as well as deeply challenged.  In the end, what we are doing is less like burying and more like releasing.  What is released may or may not return.  With no assurance, we choose nevertheless to relax into a posture of trust.  In our open hands, in our self-declared weakness, and in the acknowledgement of what is momentarily or permanently lost, we trust that strength will continue to flow and that new depths of faithfulness will be discovered.  Life has grown and will continue to grow even here.  It confounds reason.  It requires faith.

Some of the things we are releasing are: guitar playing, running after the boys, soccer/basketball/tennis and other sports, long walks on the beach, our favorite hikes, late nights, tickling, intimacy, tireless energy, rugged adventures, heavy lifting, quick transitions, long days, hard seats, and bounding up stairs.  Friends, it stretches our faith to lay these things down, but from experience I know that God is truly faithful to answer our weakness with his strength.  In so doing, we may or may not gain our best wishes.  Our greatest desires will not magically materialize as a reward for our compliance.  But we rely on a God who is faithful through the direst of circumstances, and who brings abundant love and companionship for every step of the journey.

Last night we sat around our dining room table, singing a silly song Steve taught the boys this week.  The chorus repeats: “every single cell in my body is happy, every single cell in my body is well.”  As he sings, the boys are laughing and trying to follow the motions.  No one feels the least bit of irony in the radiant words sung with stiff hands and weak arms.  As we go around the table in our nightly ritual of thanksgiving, words of thanks come easily to us all.  We are abounding in love, we are rich with each other and with Christ.

Elsewhere in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 1 it says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”

We have been greatly comforted by your faith and love, and hope that you too may know comfort through our own.

With love and thanksgiving,

Michelle

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