I was chatting with a new friend at church Sunday. Our fellowship has started hosting chapel at a local mission once a month in an effort to give people who go through rehab a place to belong once they graduate. We’ve learned when someone hits rock bottom, ends up on the streets, and enters a program to get their life back on track they have no place to go once they’ve recovered. Old friends can drag them back into addiction or destructive patterns, and many churches don’t want “people like that” to sully their pews. It’s sad, but it’s true. I’ve certainly experienced it in the past. As a teen and young woman, I was undesirable and judged harshly in certain congregations. I got fed up and dropped out of church culture for a number of years.
But this day, as we are chatting I look around the room. If you were casually looking at this group, you might jump to the conclusion that this is a bunch of average middle class people getting together. See that group of men standing by the coffee? Recovered alcoholics discussing on how to start a twelve step program here. See that woman talking with a visitor? She was homeless and her life has been restored. See that young man talking to the middle aged woman? Both recovered drug users. The woman sitting in my seat? She was a steaming hot mess. When you ask me my story, I don’t even know where to start. But my life has been transformed. In fits and starts, I am very different from who I started out as.
Healing has come in layers, but it started decades ago when my heart cried out to God and He gave me a vision of what was being closed off (hell) and what was being opened up (eternity - bright, mysterious, and beautiful). I was actually in the back seat of a mainline denomination preacher’s car and knew better than to tell anyone I was having a vision. Most likely he would have pulled over to the side of the road and performed an exorcism. Strange how some Christians believe more in the power of evil to cloud your mind than of a good God to give beauty for ashes but, there you go. It was years before I found a group of people I could tell about the visions and foreknowledge of certain things, and now I’m much bolder.
I may not look like much at first glance, but you would be mistaken to underestimate me. I have “Property of the King” stamped on my forehead and Jesus is rewriting my story with His blood.
But Jonah got up and fled from the Lord…. (Jonah 1:3a International Standard Version)
Jonah is not the poster child of what we should aim for in our relationship with God, but I have to admit ... I relate to him. I currently find myself in a position that I would like to flee.
A couple weeks ago, my mother-in-law was reaching for something that was j u s t out of reach. She tried to extend her arm a bit more and something went ‘pop’. Long story short, she tore a bicep. Due to the medications she’s on, it started bleeding and her entire arm was swollen and the color of an eggplant. Eventually, she landed in the hospital.
After being there for almost a week, she has been transferred to a rehab unit. Through all of this, I’ve been there, being an advocate, being sure things are being communicated effectively, making sure the doctors have the correct information on meds and conditions, and dealing with my father-in-law who has beginning to mid-stages of dementia. Being out of her normal routine makes mom a little fuzzy, too, so it’s important for me to stay on top of everything.
It’s the same in rehab. Dad is confused and convinced we’ve placed mom someplace to die and breaks into sobs. I’m trying to comfort him, make sure the staff knows to keep mom’s arm elevated every time they re-position her after therapy to make sure she has her balance and strengthens her legs. In the meantime, mom is plotting how to get out of there and not have to do therapy anymore. “It’s dumb,” she tells me. She wants to go home and have the in-house physical therapy work with her. I know from past experience that if we do that, she’ll cancel it and just sit on the couch.
I’m the mean enforcer. All of this takes me back to the time I was caring for my mother as she was losing to Alzheimer’s. It was one long battle, day after day, to keep her safe and cared for. She didn’t want to be cared for. I was the mean enforcer then, too. All kinds of emotions are being stirred up these last two weeks, and none of them good.
Lying in bed one morning, I was thinking, “Just shoot me now.” My life was once again shrinking down to nothing but caregiving. No art. No writing. No time for friends. I’ve quit working out due to time and energy. Just get up, pick up Dad, go to rehab, oversee Mom’s care, talk with staff, notify the family on the latest developments, and then take Dad home. Repeat. Next week I have to add work into the mix. I’ve been through this before, and while I love my in-laws more than I can say, I want to jump on a boat and go the other way.
It was in this frame of mind, while in prayer, God directed me to I Samuel 15 and 16. This is the passage that relates what happened when David’s son tried to take over the kingdom. David fled with his entire household – most likely to avoid a siege and the destruction of the city – and encountered some who wanted to help and others who wanted to curse him. One man was throwing rocks and dirt on him screaming invectives and gloating that God was paying David back for perceived evil. One of David’s warriors got fed up and offered to kill the man. Here is the part that spoke to me that day – David told him that God was in control. Perhaps the Lord was telling this man to curse, or the Lord would hear these curses and restore him to his kingship. Either way, he was going to trust God knew what He was doing, and was doing it.
While I’m about the same age David was when he went through that trial, I am not in a position where I am responsible for hundreds of people on the run with me. I am merely caring for two elderly people. God is in control and has something for me in this. He also has something for my husband and his parents in this as well. When He is ready, He will either restore me to a life of art, or He will take it away. In either scenario, He is in charge and He is good. I have a history that proves it.
Last week was a week rich in friendship. Frankly, I’m still in awe.
First, I visited Don and his daughter Dawn. We had breakfast together, then went to Jan’s former studio for more sorting and donating. It was a productive day and at the end, Don gave me one of Jan’s journals/sketchbooks. It was one that documented some of our painting trips together. Waterfall hunting in the UP and Drummond Island. I was deeply touched and enjoyed reading her notes. Then I pulled out my own journals from those trips and had a quiet evening reminiscing our friendship.
The following day was a gathering of my martial arts family to celebrate our teacher and to break bread together. We put on a mean potluck, I must say, but I had to leave early because I was meeting a friend I hadn’t seen since college. We had reconnected through Facebook – sometimes a very handy tool.
She and I met at our former campus and then spent the rest of the afternoon catching up and strolling through Frederick Meijer Gardens. It was a day of great joy and I was wistful as she got into her car to start the four hour drive back to her home.
After a weekend like that, it couldn’t get much better, could it? It did.
Monday, I had plans with another friend to take her to a coworker’s hosta garden. This garden is amazing and is on bus stops for garden tours. Gayle wanted to see it, so I made arrangements for our visit. I drove to her house because we had planned to have breakfast together first. She said we’d be eating outside, so she led the way. My first thought was that she must had had a small group over the night before and wanted to reuse the table setting. It was beautiful and there was room for 10 people.
Then, I saw a group of women hiding around the corner. Still, I was confused. These were women from different areas of my life who didn’t know one another. How were they all there at the same time and for what? By now you, dear reader, know that it was a surprise party. I, however, am not the brightest bulb in the pack. I was trying to reconcile everything that was happening, while they were all laughing at me. Truly, it was successful in the surprise department. Especially, since it wasn’t my birthday, yet.
Nicholas Sparks said, that love, in a nutshell was about giving not receiving. But if you don’t receive love that is given, you rob yourself and you rob the others who are giving it. Because of my background, I often struggle to believe I am cared for. By friends, by family, or by God… it is just hard for me to receive and believe love. That false belief was seriously challenged after a week like this and I am seriously glad.
Another Mother’s Day is past, thankfully. While I enjoyed celebrating my mother-in-law and spending the day together, I’m just not a fan of that particular holiday. It stirs up a lot inside that I’d rather ignore. It’s better than it was in my youth, but reading all the schmaltzy posts on Facebook about how great mothers are gets tiring.
Author Anne Lamott wrote a piece for Salon in 2010 on Mother’s Day which really nailed it for me. (You can read the entire piece at: http://www.salon.com/2010/05/08/hate_mothers_day_anne_lamott/) She wrote: “But Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.”
If you’ve read much of my blog, you know my mother did not parent well. That’s just the way it is. She wasn’t even a “good enough” parent. She just couldn’t do it. In a rare moment of honesty she told me that she thought that since Grandma had been such a good mother, she’d naturally be one, too, and was surprised at how those maternal instincts never kicked in.
But lest the reader thinks my mother was the personification of evil, I should set the record straight. Mom was damaged by her own home life and her marriage, and just couldn’t recover. I was collateral damage, but it wasn’t intentional. She did her best to provide for me by working full time at Sears in the bookkeeping department and she was also very aware of the potential of sexual child abuse. Paranoid about it, actually. I only met one man she dated when I was in my teens. The rest she kept away. The one I met was a peach, but I think he knew that mom was not marriage material and moved on. I remember him fondly.
Our relationship broke down so much that for over ten years mom didn’t even speak to me. Our story is not dissimilar to the story Jesus told about the prodigal son, except she’s the one who left and I’m the one who forgave and welcomed her back. It took Alzheimer’s to get her to the place to ask for forgiveness. Not a small thing for her to do.
While I try to be absolutely honest in my recollections about my life, here’s something I don’t want you to miss. While my mother was a deeply flawed person, she did ask for forgiveness and I did forgive her. Through forgiveness, I learned much more about faith, life and love. I’m still on a journey of healing, but caring for mom through Alzheimer’s took me much further down that road than if I had hardened myself to her and refused to let her back into my life.
If there is someone in your life who has failed you in a major way, do not hang on to unforgiveness. It only hurts yourself. Jesus pointed out when He was teaching the disciples to pray that we are in God’s debt and need to forgive as freely as He did. We like to skip over the part of the disciple’s prayer (aka the Lord’s Prayer) that says “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We love being forgiven…it’s just letting other people off the hook that’s so hard.
But remember...it’s a biblical principle that we will be treated as we treat others.
Note: If you have been abandoned by a parent, you may want to pick up Leslie Leyland Fields’ book Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers. It’s about finding freedom from hurt and hate and written with Dr. Jill Hubbard.
Still waters really do run deeper – shallow pools ripple at the slightest whisper of movement. As a young woman, my prayer was that I would be as a still pool where people could find peace, comfort and refreshment. I mentioned this to a friend who was a psychologist. He rolled his eyes and said, “Be careful what you pray for!” He was a few years older than me and knew that a prayer like that would lead through deeply painful times that would eventually bring depth.
But I wasn’t interested in shallowness and thought it would be worth the price. With the arrogance of youth, I figured I could weather any storm and come out the other end wise and wonderful.
Ah, the overconfidence of youth! Even so, God is very aware of my limits. Françios de Fenelon (17th century French Archbishop) observed, “God never makes you suffer unnecessarily. He intends for your suffering to heal and purify you. The hand of God hurts you a little as it can.”
I have to say that when suffering comes my way, I enter into it kicking and screaming. In my fantasy life, I handle everything with grace and faith. In reality – not so much. Again, Fenelon knew what people were like and said, “Usually you bargain with God to set a limit on your suffering. The same inward waywardness that makes the work of the cross necessary in your life is what will try to push the cross away. God has to start over with you every time you push Him away.” Somewhere along the line, I realized I kept getting the same lessons over and over. Instead of pushing the cross away and having to start back at the beginning, I’m trying to cooperate with the Lord more. I do not want to waste my suffering.
I’m still a work in process. But progress has been made.
On the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Ancestory.com made their database available to the public to research World War II veterans. That is how I found out that my father had been dead for over ten years.
If you've read any of my previous blog posts, you'll be aware that my father was absent for most of my life. He and my mother separated when I was three years old and divorced when I was four, in an era when divorce was not common. When I was a young adult, my mother told me he had visited once, when I was around six. She had asked him not to tell me he was my father because she feared (rightly so, it turned out) that he would never visit again.
It must have been a good visit, because at one point I put my arms around his neck and said to her, “I really like this man.” Try as I might, I cannot dredge up that memory, nor do I have any photos of him. He's a complete stranger to me.
Since he had nothing to do with my upbringing (on top of all his other sins, he was a deadbeat as well), you would think that learning about his death would have little impact. You would be wrong.
There's something deep inside us that longs to know who we belong to. Even though I was a middle aged adult, there was a faint hope in my heart that someday – someday – I would get a change to meet him. What I hoped to get out of that meeting, I couldn't tell you.
The pragmatic side of me figured he'd probably hit me up for money I didn't have, or perhaps an organ donation after a lifetime of dissipation. Was this a road I really wanted to go down? But the abandoned child in me was hoping for a daddy. I grew up with an orphaned spirit.
Please understand that I am not comparing myself to children in third world countries who are completely destitute. I am well aware I was blessed to have a grandmother who cared for me. I was fed and clothed. Nor am I saying that I am a victim; I am not playing the fatherless card. But I had been abandoned by the most important figures in my life – my parents. Because of that, the idea of relating to God as a Father has been a challenge throughout my life.
It’s not that God hasn’t been demonstrating or speaking of His love to me. Rather, it’s that I haven’t been able to receive it. Trust was damaged, and once broken it is very difficult to repair. Nonetheless, God is persistent. Over the years, through countless situations, He has revealed Himself to really care about even the smallest areas of my life. Proving that someone, indeed, claimed me for His own. I wasn’t orphaned, I was adopted…by the best Dad in the world.
Healing has been slow. It’s taken decades and I’m not completely whole even now. There have been powerful Divine encounters that completely blew the lid off of everything I thought I knew. There have been quiet moments that affirmed His love. It begs the question – why doesn’t He just do one big healing, set me straight and get it all over with?
I really don’t know.
There is a saying that goes, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” It's been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but turns out he never said that. The closest thing he said was something about how Franciscans should follow their preaching.
The book of James teaches this same principle in the first chapter. Starting in verse 22, James says “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do."
Do what it says. Why is this important? Because you never know who is watching your life. I'm always surprised to find out that someone has been observing my actions. I see myself as an ordinary woman. I'm not very exciting. So when someone tells me they've seen God in action in my life, I'm always left a bit awestruck at the idea.
When I was taking care of my mother, I went over every day. Day in, day out. I felt invisible to the rest of the world.
One day when I went over, I found her with small, wadded up paper towels cleaning the door sill by her entryway. As soon as she saw me, she started screaming that this place I moved her to was filthy, and that it wasn't cleaned before she moved in.
That simply wasn’t true. Moreover, her house had been a cesspool when I moved her – it was covered in filth of cats with no cat litter available, and the smell had been overwhelming. But because her outburst came at me seemingly out of nowhere, against all reason I replied, “This is dirt you tracked in from gardening.” That was a big mistake. It sent her on a tirade of how she's only been there a few days, she never went out and it couldn't be her. Because I'm a slow learner, I replied, “A few days? You've been here two months!” That really set her off, and she screamed that I was lying and the cycle was in full swing.
Later, I met Mike for lunch and it was clear that I was not doing well and he was frightened for me. I told him about mom's continual self-pity and how she was always complaining that her old life was so much better and now it's all gone. My life was gone as well and I was grieving that. I shared that with Mike and remarked that I'm not any different from my mother.
He was incredulous. “Not any different? Not any different??? That's totally unrealistic! Donna, it's awful of me, I know, but if I'd gotten that letter, I would not have answered it. You've shown me a new level of the Christian walk I've never seen. That woman has never been kind to you. She's always been unpleasant and, God forgive me, I would have thrown that letter away. But you walked in forgiveness. You're taking care of everything on your own, and you know if the situation had been reversed you would have been abandoned.”
I looked at him in wonder. God bless that man. He gave me a new perspective and he spoke truth. It helped me keep going. It also showed me that someone was watching my life and was being affected by it. Over the years of caring for her, more than one person remarked on watching me when I was totally oblivious of the fact.
So keep in mind the quote misattributed to St. Francis. Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words. Your life is your message.
Note: the letter my husband was referring to was Mom’s, when she contacted me to ask forgiveness and to ask for help. See the post titled, “Beginnings.”
I think God has an excellent sense of humor, but I often find I'm the only one laughing. Voltaire (a French author from the 18th century) said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” Why is that? I think people have this image of God as someone really angry, ready to drop the hammer on anyone who screws up. This in spite of the fact that over and over again, God uses relational language in scripture to illustrate that He is a loving Father who wants only our best.
A better picture of God was given to me by Tim Cosby. Tim has been an associate pastor and now is a personal coach. He talked about God as a father with a two year old, bending over and gently coaxing the child saying, “Come, come, come.” A good father doesn't blame a two year old for being imperfect. A good father encourages, directs and gently corrects. A good father has a sense of humor.
An example of God's humor is this blog. Never have I dreamed of being a writer, nor would I have imagined I'd have anything worthwhile to share with a large audience. I know writers with a capital 'W'. Writers that are published, that have regular columns in weighty literary magazines. Writers of substance. Me? I have always struggled with words and been painfully aware of their limitations. You think you have expressed something clearly, yet you find instead there has been miscommunication and misunderstanding. Words have often frustrated me. I'm a painter. That's my medium.
So God thought He'd give me a compelling story. A story that needed to be told, not painted. I tried to explain to Him that I'm not a writer and that I couldn't do it. He reminded me that He delights in using the weak and the foolish. “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” I Corinthians 1:26-29.
Weak and foolish? Well, I certainly qualify for that!
God and I laughed.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.