Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling…

From Michelle.  6 January, 2012.

Dear friends and family,

It’s a new year.  While the marking of a fresh beginning may be somewhat artificial, it helps to stop for a moment in time and reassess.  On a beach, in a brief quiet moment at the end of 2011, Steve and I first looked back, and then set our faces toward the future.  Of course, our time line is more accurately measured now in relation to June 2010.  January 2012 then puts us firmly halfway through our second year, post accident.

In the first year, we were surviving.  The searing pain and the manifold adjustments roared to us that we were fiercely alive.  It was an adrenalin-charged scramble, savagely lived and loved.  Somewhere in the second year, the tide changed, the momentum dropped, and we found ourselves washed up on the shore with time to look around.  Finally the living is not forcibly drawn from us in fierce confrontation and in response to the circumstances.  But with that freedom comes a different kind of responsibility.   How the story now evolves is an act of will.  The canvas is less crowded, the lines are more carefully drawn.  Now that we are not fighting for our lives, it would be easy just to float, exhausted, with the current.  We are both privileged and burdened by the choices.

We ended the year with a family vacation.  Vacations are bitter sweet for us now.  Inevitably, when we are freed to have fun, we find that the old ways of having fun are no longer available.  Long walks on the beach, Steve playing silly tunes on the guitar to make the boys laugh, exploration, spontaneity, sheer energy are no longer available to him and therefore to us.  We sleep more and explore less.  The days unfold in more muted tones, and I lug the suitcases.  We still have not gotten used to that.  Without the daily routine there is still more time to look around.  The view is not always easy.

One of our very favorite pastors often cited this quote from CS Lewis: “Crying is all right in its own way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.”  Simple advice but true, and especially poignant in the following.  Events have only just stopped swirling enough for us to grieve a little.  But the purpose of the grieving is solely to follow it to an ending, and after the ending, to a new beginning.  What you resist will persist, another simple but true little adage.  So we cannot bury the losses, at least not until we have identified and acknowledged them.  Only then can we gently lay them down and cover them with dirt.  We want to live, but it takes some courage to bury what is gone and start afresh.  It takes resolve.

Our new year’s resolution, then, is this: to come to terms with the losses and to bid them farewell.  To cry and then to stop and then to move on.  2012 may consequently have some funereal undertones, but it will also be the birthplace of something new.  We cannot wait.

One of the verses that has resounded again and again throughout this long journey has been this one from Ephesians, a simple verse but overflowing with reckless faith and complete trust in a God who is good: “Now to Him who is able to do far more than all that we can ask or imagine, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.”  Every time I imagine that I have reached the end of God’s abundant love, creativity and action in my life, I find there is more.  It is a pattern I can see when looking back, but it takes faith to look expectantly for more in the great void that is the future.  And so another similar doxology comes to mind, this time from Jude: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time, now and forever.”  The words that resound in my spirit, giving strength, are these: “to him who is able to keep you from stumbling,” and “with great joy”.  He will keep us from stumbling as we move forward into the darkness, and into 2012.  And what will always be waiting ahead, is joy.

Happy New Year!

With love from all of us,

Michelle

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to see the hidden glory.

From Michelle.  23 December, 2011.

Dear friends and family,

A friend of mine, a midwife, delivered a baby in a humble home last week.  I have been thinking a lot about that birth.  It was not miraculous, nor was it the woman’s first child. But it was a humble birth, in a single room dwelling in what many might call a slum area, but what is really a fairly normal living arrangement for many Filipinos.  The images of that birth have haunted me this week because they bring into focus the circumstances of God’s birth among us.

Over the years, we have romanticized the tableau of the birth, decorating it with stars and surrounding it with holy visitors.  The sheep and the donkey do not smell.  The manger is clean, with plenty of fresh hay in it.  The virgin Mary is well clothed and beautiful.  But surely, it did not quite look like that.  Surely, it was dirty.  Surely, there was not enough food.  Surely, Mary was weary with travel, and then with labor.  And yet, God was there.

For me, this week, the baby in the barrio and the baby in the manger highlight my blindness to the miraculous in the midst of the ordinary.  While briefly there was a heavenly host leaving us no doubt as to the significance of the babe, mostly there was just a babe, and then a boy growing up in humble circumstances.  And yet he was God walking among us.

Looking at my Christmas week, there is much that is ordinary.  There is traffic and errands.  There is sickness and struggle.  There is even a funeral service.  But somewhere in the dirt, there lies a glorious truth, a light for all to see, a love burning bright in the darkness.  I squint my eyes and try to catch a glimpse of it through the ordinary hours.

It is the mystery of the birth, that God chose the ordinary to do the extraordinary.  He does it still today: For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.  2 Corinthians 4:6-7

So, friends, may we find in our own hearts the glory of God this Christmas, and may we see in each other the treasure, hidden in the ordinary.

Merry Christmas.

With love from all of us to all of you,

The Ruetschles

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Advent remembering.

From Michelle.  December 12, 2011

Dear friends and family,

As we approach the end of 2011, I am vividly reminded of where we have been and the ground that we have covered.  Perhaps because last Christmas was so very unique, the memory of it is sharp.  As I sit today in shorts, debating whether or not I am hot enough to justify turning on the air conditioner, I remember a house tucked away in Edmonds, Washington, a real pine tree at its center, and a cozy fireplace sheltering us from the winter winds outside.  It was a wheelchair accessible home, and we still needed that then.  Steve could walk from one room to the other with a cane or walker, but he still spent much of his time in a chair, and could not drive himself, or clean himself.  He was not yet independent.  We still hitched up the wagon to the wheelchair for outdoor fun with Papa, a blanket draped over Steve’s legs to keep him warm.  We still had small goals – could he make it around Trader Joe’s?  Would he be wiped out if we tried a bigger store?  Costco’s was still out of the question, last December.

In the Christian faith, thanks in large part to our rich Jewish roots, we are good at remembering.  If we are faithful, we remember the manger at this time of year.  But every part of the year is carved out to remember something, some ancient act of mercy, some rescuing drama, some promise of redemption, some song of hope.  Over and over again, each year, we remember and contemplate God’s goodness throughout history, told in a setting of sorrow and suffering easily mirrored today.  If we are smart, we allow the rituals of remembering to flow over into our own personal histories.  My life, though broken, is marked at frequent intervals by similar though less dramatic godly interventions.  And crowded into the last 18 months are a lifetime of such moments, equally worthy of remembrance.

Christmas is a sentimental season, so I have allowed all of this remembering.  In the Philippines, Christmas begins long before Thanksgiving.  We were on the late side when, the week before Thanksgiving, the Christmas tree went up, along with the pine scented candles, the Advent calendars and the Christmas stories under the tree.  Perhaps because of the overlap, and certainly because of the remembering, this Advent season has been marked for me by thanksgiving.  It is a sweet fruit born of my deliberate meanderings into the past.  It would be easy to look ahead and become discouraged.  But in looking back, I can only give thanks.  For how could one not rejoice over a house with stairs now possible to negotiate, though still difficult?  How could one not bend a knee before a husband working again, though tired?  How could one not weep tears of gratitude over wheelchairs gathering dust, though still waiting in the wings?  I do not have enough Christmas cards to thank all who deserve our gratitude this year.  But each card that I write is more of a thank you card than a nod to the season.

One way to remember, one way to give thanks has been to tell the story.  We do not do it to draw attention to ourselves.  But while it bears fruit for those who hear it, we will gladly tell it, as a monument of thanksgiving to the One who carried us through.  It is our ritual of remembrance that bears the fruit of thanksgiving, and we are glad to share it with anyone hungry for its sweet nourishment.  Two weeks ago, Steve walked onto a stage before a packed stadium to remember again and give thanks.  The blessing came, as it has time and again, through the faith of one person, who believed and followed and made it happen.  We simply allowed ourselves to be carried along on her faith.  And as a result, thousands cheered and clapped and laughed and cried and ultimately praised.  This was our very best Christmas present.

So in this season of remembering the miracle of God come down, of a babe born to heal the nations, and of miracles witnessed by the meek, we too remember God’s good miracle to us.

Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!  Sing to him; sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!  …  Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his presence continually!  Remember the wondrous works that he has done.  1 Chronicles 16:8-9, 11-12

May your season be replete with thanksgiving, remembering His grace.

With love and gratitude,

Michelle, Steve, Aidan, Jude and Zephyr

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The art of no.

From Michelle.  4 November, 2011.

Dear friends and family,

Thirty days have passed since my last update, and the dust continues to settle.  We are more than patient these days, having made peace with the few remaining boxes and piles of detritus that have become fixed elements of our home environment.  We gratefully take on the better lessons and greater tasks of building a life: finding a weekly rhythm, reconnecting with friends, building a realistic therapy schedule for Steve and picking up the books and projects that were buried beneath the details and illnesses that characterized our first two months here.

The weekly rhythm poses some challenges, still.  We think we find the balance and then something is added or taken away, and we find ourselves surprisingly off kilter.  Steve’s flexibility is disabled in more ways than one.  He lives large and then he gets sick.  Not yet adequately attuned to his limits, neither of us is able to anticipate it.  We haven’t found our sea legs yet.

Tony Blair once said, “The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.”  Two people who love the word yes, we are learning the art of no.  It is hard to lay down people and opportunities.  The gains are not always clear.  I struggle to be firm, when we still don’t understand Steve’s limitations.  And we have caught the scent of normal life.  We hunger for it.  No evenings, we say.  But then something special arises.  Can’t we do it just once?  What will the cost be?  Is it too much?  Should I go alone?  Every day the circumstances are different and the choices unique.  We make rules and then we break them.  The conditions do not fit the particulars.

Even vacation poses challenges.  Now we have no clear boundaries and rhythms.  People smirk at Steve as he struggles up some stairs.  They think he is out of shape.  The tour guide is told but does not really absorb the information.  The children are the hardest no.  Steve still cannot say it to them.  We return home and he is sick again.

The gift of no is clarity.  First, there is ontological clarity.  Our humanity is unambiguous.  Our weakness is evident.  We begin to accept what has always been true.  We open our hands more fully to the grace that is there.  We surrender with greater certainty.  Running after the approval of the crowd is less possible when you cannot run.  Second, there is clarity of purpose.  The essential comes into focus.  With smaller rations, we are forced to think more carefully about where we invest our energy.  There is less waste.

No is a costly, valuable lesson.  I give thanks for the discipline, but I still learn imperfectly.  Steve has lost 11 more pounds, too much.  I cannot seem to fatten him up and his appetite is poor.  His gait is still imperfect, and far from what it was.  But the other day he managed 10 sit ups.  I try to read the signs but I don’t have a map.  I’m not sure whether we are headed in the direction of progress or disaster.

But the clarity anchors us.  What is essential is who we choose to be as we stumble in this unknown territory and how we interpret the signs.  Like the disciples tossed on the waves, we look out and find Jesus walking toward us across the waves.  We borrow that quiet certainty amidst the storm.  I do not fear him.  I know that my transparency allows him to shine better.  So much death means more fertile ground for new things to grow.  I actively anticipate what is being planted.  I know it will bear wonderful fruit if I can allow the seed to be planted deep enough.  Opening my heart to the circumstances hurts, but it also gives life.  I am grateful for the voice that invites me to step out into the storm and walk on water.  I need only grasp his hand.

We are daily amazed by your love, support and enduring grace.  We receive your prayers with immeasurable gratitude.

With love and thanks,

Michelle

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Be patient.

From Michelle.  October 5, 2011.

Dear friends and family,

We have now been in the Philippines for two months.  The tide of details that inundated us has now receded.  Directly following my last update a virus took me in its grip and would not loose me for almost four weeks.  Ironically, it provided perspective.  I simply could not accomplish the things that needed to be accomplished and quickly what was necessary became merely optional.  I was miserable and exhausted which quickly led me to the feet of Jesus.  As the illness dragged on, compassion arose for those I know struggling with cancer, old age, and prolonged hospitalization.  I knew myself to be fortunate.  I “practiced the presence” and “put on perspective”.

I was struck by how often I would busy myself and forget that God was there.  Never intrusive, it is easy to shut him out.  When I allowed my imagination to embrace what was real, I knew limitless grace in the room.  And yet even in my pitiful, inconsequential suffering, I rarely availed myself of the riches a mere heartbeat away.  It was the treasure hidden in the trivial, the bread for my hungry hours.  And yet I often did worse than to refuse it; I forgot it.  This humbling realization alone was a gift fashioned from those weary hours.  I am stumbling into a deeper, heartfelt desire for the experience of Brother Lawrence: “There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God.”

Steve and I have both pressed deeply into God these months.  Yesterday, our worst fears were confirmed when a physical therapist noted that Steve’s walking ability has deteriorated.  As if to punctuate this discovery, Steve suffered his first real fall that evening.  The children and I were hiding and giggling, planning to surprise him as he walked through the door, only to hear a thud and find him lying on the floor.  Fortunately, he was not badly injured, but such falls present a real danger.  Steve is unable to catch himself the way an able-bodied person would, and so he falls with great weight and little protection.  An injury would present a significant setback as it would hamper deeply needed therapy.

In ways both large and small, we are living the verses Steve will be preaching in coming weeks: “Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.  See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.  You also be patient, for the coming of the Lord is at hand…  As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.  Behold, we consider those blessed who remain steadfast.  You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”  James 5:7-8, 10-11.

Among still unpacked boxes, when my illness dragged on, and most notably in Steve’s setbacks, I have heard the whisper: be patient.  It is spoken with all compassion.  It is spoken with promise.  It emanates from love and light.  And yet it requires something of me.  To surrender to the moment, though I want it to pass.  To trust for healing, though healing is unreasonable.  To hope for the future, though hope might hurt.  To still my soul though it clamors for resolution.  Be patient.

The wheelchair still sits in the driveway.  We have often debated getting rid of it.  But the reality is that we have not yet been able to rule out the possibility that Steve will need it again one day.  I do not believe this to be so.  And yet it is a fresh and daily reminder of our need, as well as of his mercy.  The verse commands patience.  It applauds steadfastness in suffering.  But it ends this way: “The Lord is compassionate and merciful.”  Grace and love are always here.  Water pours out unendingly to quench our thirst.  If only we can pause long enough to drink.

An old hymn says it best:

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Love,

Michelle

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When the miracle slows…

September 1, 2011

Dear friends and family,

We are back in a life at once familiar and strange.  We were greeted at the airport by a bevy of beaming faces, which have since multiplied into an astounding river of warmth and welcome.  The joy has been mutual.

Slowly, we are rebuilding the semblance of a new life.  The profusion of boxes from Seattle and the Union Church basement mirror the disorder within, as we merge two seemingly disparate existences.  Each day reveals the extent to which we are both changed and still the same.  Boxes contain the shrapnel of a former life, many of the contents strange to me.  There is an odd sense of dislocation to this unpacking of things not seen since our lives turned.  God is calling us to make it new.  Nothing is the same.  We live in a new city, among new people, in unfamiliar streets.  I drive clutching a map.

I had not expected it to be so difficult, especially amidst the true joy of reunion.  And I am, after all, the champion of all movers.  Seven homes and two countries in nine years.  Thirty homes and seven countries in forty years.  Every few years my feet itch.

I have not written because I have been ashamed to say it: the details have done me in.  How is it possible that the inconsequential – the television cable, the appropriately voltage-d appliances, the acquisition of cell phones and uniforms, the paperwork, the visa applications, the birth certificates, the curtain measurements, the bookshelves, the filing, the local bank accounts, the memberships, the interviews of helpers and drivers, the random lost and missing pieces – how is it possible that these silly statistics, these sheer configurations of circumstances and arrangements of objects would do me in?!

There is unending misery not too far from my doorstep.  Even in my own life I have negotiated far rougher terrain.  So much more, the insult to my pride and the wounding of my heart that such Sisyphean activity be my undoing.  While I am well-versed in the complications of two-thirds world living, somehow this time the challenges loom more mountainous and steadfast in their purpose to disarm me of my fortitude.  I am exhausted by it.  While hardship reliably pushes me deep into God, these mountains of minutiae have often obscured Him from view.  In the past three weeks I have found myself more frequently on my knees, more commonly tearful, more significantly irritable and more generally graceless than perhaps I can ever remember.

Steve, in turn, quietly struggles with his new body.  He too must swim hard to stay afloat of the mess, but with far fewer reserves.  He watches me work with anguish.  Months of laying aside therapy in service to transition mean that we have no real measurement for progress.  Honestly, we do not see it.  Each day brings some new form of frustration.  Today the masterpiece: Steve was turned down for medical insurance.  What we thought was a mere formality of paperwork turned out to be another road block, another exercise in patience, in faith.

I have heard many stories recently from Christians who have been called by God into something, and follow with both obedience and anticipation only to encounter unexpected hardship and a puzzling sense of God’s absence.  They endure in a state of confusion and longing for the certainty they once felt.  The same drama has played out in my own life countless times.  A favorite quote from The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis never fails to encourage me in such moments.  Screwtape, a junior devil mentors a still more lowly apprentice and counsels him on how best to tempt a new believer away from the faith.  In one of his letters to Wormwood, he writes:

“He (God) wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our (the Devil’s) cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Favorable circumstances and warm feeling are not exclusive evidence of God’s goodness.  As a photograph from a hospital ward in Ethiopia reminds me, God is good all the time.  I rest, not always feeling, but always knowing this to be true.  Whether Steve heals more or not.  Whether we obtain insurance or not.  Whether circumstances begin to flow or whether they continue to obstinately thwart.

Church has been a sweet reprieve and a reminder of His overwhelming grace and provision.  To know by our very presence God’s faithfulness in accomplishing the impossible, is to find the food my soul seeks.  Each week we are humbled and amazed by the stories of prayers spoken over us for months, answered now.  It is no mistake that as a church we are studying the book of James.  I have been reminded in the last few weeks to consider trials joy, to persevere and also to remember God’s good character in the midst of hardship.  Yet again the community of faith both upholds and instructs.

Time and again, I find the pathways out of darkness are the twofold disciplines of gratitude and service.  While immersed in the details, I can give thanks.  Once freed from them, I can serve.  In all things, I can hope.

I continue to feel beckoned toward hope.  It is not always easy to hope when the evidence is lacking, when the miracle slows.  But my spirit does not yet let me rest in acceptance.  The limb of faith grows ever more precarious as we teeter beyond what is reasonable.  The spirit, like the body, fatigues as we move beyond the halfway point of the two year recovery period.

Please pray with us for Steve’s continued recovery, for patience in the details and for endurance in this new phase.

With love, perseverance and hope,

Michelle

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Running the race.

From Michelle.  28 July, 2011.

Dear friends and family,

I have been trying to weave together a coherent whole out of the many disparate parts of the last six weeks with little success.  Truthfully, we have bounced around both outwardly and inwardly, state to state, friend to friend, emotion to emotion, home to home.  There are moments when I am able to hold it all, but frankly, I have been living a biblical truth out of necessity: do not worry about tomorrow for each day has enough trouble of its own.

Steve has, also out of necessity, departed from his strict regimen of exercise and stretching for the first time.  The absence of regular maintenance and rest makes for creaky joints and tight muscles and slow progress.  I sometimes imagine the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, unable to move without Dorothy’s frequent administrations of oil.  At times his movements are stiffer than I have seen in months: a rigidly awkward gait, his wave an unnatural curve of fingers that cannot flow and stretch, middle fingers always at half mast.  His sensation remains obstinately absent, his nerves a confused tangle.  The mundane, belabored tasks of moving – lifting boxes, shifting furniture – elude him.  At other times, however, Steve manages some crucial element of life so heroically – packing a suitcase, shepherding the children around a park, driving – that he seems almost normal.  Even I have not yet adequately been able to assimilate these disparate realities into anything approaching a rational whole.  Yes, we are still getting used to things as they are.

Our forced attempt to live normally only further impresses upon us both the very inability to do just that.  The parameters of life are different.  We want to say yes to so many things.  We still do.  And we pay.  At some point the cost will impress itself more firmly upon us and we will draw more definite boundaries.  We will say no more often, and with less regret.  A new form will emerge, a new life.  But we are not giving up the old configuration without some stubbornness, some unwillingness to let it go too easily, some faith.

We are, after all, only just past the halfway mark of our marathon.  We commemorated that halfway point with a visit to the site of the accident and the hospital where Steve first clung to life.  It was sweetly anticlimactic, an awkward attempt to fasten some meaning to a mere location, when in reality, every meaningful event has occurred in our hearts, and not in the dirt where Steve lay.  Still, we paused for a moment to hold hands and remember and pray and mark a year’s passing, amidst the clamoring needs of a three year old, and the ever pressing demands of time and space.  The discovery of an old water bottle, probably Steve’s from the accident, served as an unlikely talisman, the marker of the place life changed forever.


In reading about marathons, one article noted something about a concentration of will, a focus.  Our latest transition, the details, the goodbyes and the echoes of the empty house in which our lives still rang out somewhat morbidly these last two weeks have briefly distracted us.  Without the intention to finish foremost in our minds, we find ourselves simply running.

Strangely, the words that have beckoned my spirit these last weeks have been Paul’s: “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”  Perhaps it is his simple certainty that my soul longs to remember.  Paul’s focus is clear and unwavering, even as he writes from prison.  His center is Christ, whether in life or in death.  Certainly, no physical discomforts or emotional dislocations could distract him from his first love, God revealed in Christ.  I find myself longing for solitude amidst the clamor of these days.  I long to gaze long into the face of Grace and lay anchor there.  I know these other details to be charlatans, laying claim on my time and purpose.  Surely, the blessing of this discipline, this last year’s race, has been to focus our attention on the finish.  To complete is not just to run but to run with purpose and toward a goal.  And while the goal of physical healing remains deeply important, we both know there must be more that keeps us running.

We are forced to take some pause by the ocean this week amidst family.  And as I sought an anchor, I came across this prayer, possibly by St. Aidan, my son’s namesake.  It echoes my own heart, beating in the gap between two worlds, and two sides of the ocean:

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.

As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,

Make me an island, set apart,
 alone with you, God, holy to you.


Then with the turning of the tide

prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,

the world that rushes in on me
 till the waters come again and fold me back to you.

Love,

Michelle

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Love never ends.

From Michelle.  25 June, 2011.

Dear friends and family,

Breathe.  I look back over that last entry and am reminded again and again of the need to stand fast amidst the chaos and simply take in air and push it out.

We have packed up our house and shipped it off to Manila.  Breathe.  We have renewed our vows, celebrated birthdays, helped Steve’s parents renew their vows, traveled to Ohio and New York, house-hunted from a distance and made countless decisions.  Breathe.  For two months we will live out of three suitcases in five cities.  Then we will plant ourselves anew in Manila.  Breathe.

I breathe best when I am looking up.  But I breathe almost as easily when I look at Steve and he looks back at me; such is our story bound up with the One who first breathed into us.  Who can explain the ways that we have become enmeshed?  So that, when I look at him, I am almost looking at a reflection.  So that, when I am with him it is as easy as if I were by myself.  So that, when we are apart for even a few hours, I miss him.  So that, when he was hurt, it was as if it were happening to me.  The old Genesis verse rings true: Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24)  Ephesians takes it further, adding: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32)  Indeed, Steve’s spirit does not yet live in me as Christ’s spirit does, and yet with each passing year, it is more deeply entrenched.  Our interests become more deeply entwined, our identities more closely tied.  Just as I want more of Him and less of me, so also my desires for Steve’s well being grow as my desires for myself diminish.  Ten years together have worn one steady path which now only occasionally diverts into two.

Celebrating my 40th birthday in New York.

On Monday, May 23rd, Steve asked me to marry him again.  The amazing photographers who joined us created a sacred space, and decided to tell more than just the moment through the photographs they took.  Through a day, they told the year.  Through a lens, they told a marriage.  This is what they did:

Yesterday, Steve married his parents again, a renewal of vows after fifty years.  I tremble at the thought that we would be allowed to share our lives for that long.  I hope that if we did, we would not only deepen in oneness, but reflect more brilliantly the mystery our union embodies, Christ and the church.  If my love for Steve is but a dim reflection of the love that remains in God, then I will gladly give myself over to it.  The hackneyed verses of 1 Corinthians 13 bear repeating, despite their timeworn familiarity:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Love never ends.  I am clear that marriage is an imperfect mirror, a finite image of an infinite truth.  Our lives will end, as will our union.  We will fail one another.  Our paths will diverge.  Nevertheless, when we bear and hope and endure together, we dip our toes into the eternal.  In New York, we watched a film that touched on that truth: “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

While breathing delivers a moment, love delivers a life.

Today, I give thanks for Love.

Love,

Michelle

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Breathe

From Michelle.  1 June, 2011.

Dear friends and family,

Steve and I forget that we cannot do things as we did before.  This month, we got recklessly hungry for life, and we crammed our mouths full with it.  The crowded schedule was a red flag we ignored and off we ran, high on the speed and the goodness of it all, until we looked at each other and realized that we are slower now.  I imagine aging this way, our eternal spirits forced to make peace with the physical limitations conferred upon them by time. Steve is reminded in his body.  My spirit is still tired and nudges me more quietly.  Perhaps some space would be good.  A dash of silence.   A bit more prayer.  I notice the breathlessness and realize that in all of the fine acrobatic maneuvering it took to get through our calendar, I forgot to breathe.

Tricked by all of the progress, we forget.  I watch Steve glowing on the stage, preaching, a tireless ball of passion and energy.  At night he is still illuminated by it, energized and inspired.  It is a convincing mirage of what once was.  The next day, however, his body reminds us both, nerves crackling and muscles aching.  Slowing down is a discipline we are still learning.


While the injury is Steve’s the whole family must adjust to this unhurried pace.  It takes awhile for stiffened fingers to fish keys out of a pocket, no matter how quickly the rest of us are tumbling toward the car, children jumping up and down, prematurely tugging on the locked door handles, and me a whirlwind of motherly hunting and gathering.  No matter how late we are, we now amble up to our destination with a dignified gait.

Slowing down might be profitable.  Remembering to breathe is beneficial.  Steve once did a silent retreat for a month.  He could not read, and aside from a brief morning interaction with his spiritual mentor, he spent his time in silence in a cabin in the woods.  One day his assignment was that every time he breathed he should remember the Holy Spirit.  For an entire day, Steve breathed and remembered the Holy Spirit.  It changed him.

I try to remember this as I reign in the desire to rush through this transition.  The details are not yet ready to be harvested: plane tickets, moving companies, housing plans.  Restless, unfinished checklist in hand, I might forget to breathe.  Looking up the word breath in my concordance, I discover that the very last verse in the psalms is: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord!”  (Psalm 150:6)  Indeed, there is much to praise with this breath of mine, if I can but remember.  Steve walking without a cane, Steve preaching, Steve holding my hand with evermore pliant fingers, the tears of friends and strangers as he tells the story.  And I know in my heart that there is more to come.

During the early stages of Steve’s paralysis, he could not breathe easily.  The nerves did not fire up his belly and chest muscles, and his breath was shallow.  Respiratory therapists gave him exercises and trained me to help him cough, something he was unable to do on his own.  It was an almost violent gesture, not unlike a Heimlich maneuver, that forced enough air from his lungs for a good strong breath.  Unlike Steve, I take breathing for granted.  I run too fast and get breathless, as I did this month.  Alternately, I treat the details of my life more like heavy stones of great significance than like a breath, here today and gone tomorrow.  The details will come.  The healing will come.  In the meantime, I have to breathe and remember the Holy Spirit.

Remembering, I look up a verse from Steve’s favorite psalm, psalm 46.  In verse 10, there is the famous verse: “be still and know that I am God.”  The Message translates it this way: “Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.”  I look and I breathe and I know.

Thank you, God.

Love,

Michelle

PS  Thanks so much to all those who continually ask for prayer requests.  First, we give thanks that Steve again managed (with delight!) a full day of preaching at First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue.  You can see his sermon at: www.belpres.org.  Our greatest hope and prayer continues to be for full healing for Steve, which includes healing in his hands, strength in his legs, an absence of nerve pain, and returned sensation to his body.  We pray with hope but also with the deepest gratitude for all that we have already received.  We would also be so grateful for prayers for our return to Manila.  Every detail has yet to unfold in a short amount of time, and amidst our own travel to see family and friends one last time.  Please pray for our congregation in Manila as they too prepare their hearts and minds for this transition.  As always, your prayers are deeply treasured by us.  Thank you!

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Surrender to the gift.

From Michelle. 28 April, 2011.

Dearest friends and family,

Happy Easter! Although we have been silent, our lives have not been quiet. On the contrary, we have been orchestrating the profusion of activities to be accomplished in the slim numbering of days between now and August first, when we are tentatively hoping to touch down once again in our beloved Manila.

For the most part, we have been meeting with folks. Since June we have lived an insulated existence, dictated by the fullness of daily life, but also by the emotional demands of recovery. Tragedy engenders a protective response. The instinct is to curl up, fetus-like, and hide the tender parts. To willfully unfurl and offer up the raw, the harmed, the fleshy scars, is an act of profound trust. To reengage is an act of faith. As those scars heal, however, we are reemerging, eyes blinking in the light of friendships long neglected, absorbing the warm rays of good conversation and blessed relationship, tiptoeing back into responsibilities laid aside for such a time as this. Is it coincidental that this reemergence mirrors the season, our heads peeking up along with the flowers in our garden?

As I look around with fresh eyes, a new appreciation evolves. Every week there is more reason to give thanks: a kind word, a card, an act of service, a donation, a meal, a child we have never met still offering daily prayers for Steve’s healing, a family passing on their basketball hoop to the boys, the countless professionals who weekly offer their skills to Steve for free, the ongoing concern for our story amidst a thousand other heartaches. The wave of kindness is so large, so continuous, that I am at times quite literally overwhelmed by it. As a new transition approaches, I lay awake at night asking myself, how can we ever adequately thank for what went before?

Somewhere in that question, alongside the almost giddy gratitude that bubbles up is a bewildered sense of inadequacy. How in the world did we come to deserve all of this extravagant goodwill? Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And yet so much of our faith revolves around the initial act of receiving, receiving the outrageous gift of a son by a father, so that we too might be called children of God (John 1:12). Isn’t it outrageous? Isn’t it utterly scandalous? Doesn’t it fly in the face of every karmic philosophy this world has ever designed? Who among us would ever pay that price? When I come to the Good Friday moment and kneel in front of that absurd and lavish love, I am quite simply carried away by the wave. I’d drown just to be thrown up on that distant shore, the Easter promise that lies beyond the death of me. In stretching out my hand to receive the gift, I acknowledge my need. And the love that ensues from the gift received is sometimes reckless and wild, and it carries me to a strange and unknown destination. As I am carried into the mystery, I surrender to Love itself. At its core, my faith requires me to receive. In my outstretched palm lies my surrender. So when the wave of generosity and kindness comes and threatens to overwhelm, and I want to grab a life vest and do something to earn it all, I imagine the grace that works in me only when my hands are open, and I surrender to the wave, whispering in my heart, “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Thank you.

Steve continues to work hard, making steady progress. Among his current challenges, he is watching the children in order to allow me to go to a retreat in the Colorado mountains with one of my closest friends, while he simultaneously prepares and delivers a sermon at five services this Sunday at UPC. It is just like Steve to leap this way, powered by a generous desire for my fulfillment. I am once again riding the wave, this time away from him and into the mountains, into reflection and nature and God, wanting so much to help and yet called to acknowledge my need and receive. I worry about how frustrating it will be to change a diaper with his stiff fingers, or how tired he’ll be staying up after the boys go to bed in order to load the dishwasher, but he will do it and that is a miracle in and of itself. Mostly, selfishly, I wish I were sitting in the pews to hear him preach. Other progress trickles in like a leaky faucet, slow but steady drips into the chasm of what remains. Perhaps his fingers move with a little bit more fluidity. Perhaps he can walk a little bit further. We hold out our cup, thirsty, and wait impatiently for it to fill. Sensation remains elusive. The other day Steve managed to maneuver himself into the bath tub, a first. His reward upon landing in the steaming hot water, however, was a sensation of mild coolness. It was only when his hands entered the water that he realized the heat.

On Easter, I stood in front of three services and said this: “I choose to believe that God’s work in us through this affliction carries a deeper weight than the affliction itself. And that God is doing a work in our hearts that will last far beyond our bodies, if we can continue to look up. To me, that is the resurrection life.” A bold statement of faith. We wait, sometimes frustrated, sometimes patient, with our physical reality a pitiable half empty cup. But then there is the ocean of gratitude, love on a cross, the Easter promise of resurrection life. What will last for always? What matters for an eternity? We lift our eyes and for a moment we sense the promise, and for a second we receive the gift. Today, I will try to surrender to the wave.

With love and thanks,

Michelle

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