Tag Archives: transformation

Transformation

“That must be so difficult,” people often say when they learn I work at a cancer support center.

“It can be,” I reply.

Every day, people tell us of their fears and anxieties, stories of their financial troubles because of the cost of medical care and the difficult decisions they face regarding treatment options.

Where can they get money to relieve their financial troubles? Should they continue with treatment knowing it is only prolonging life for a short time? Should they try an experimental treatment when traditional options have failed?

Dealing with vulnerability can be very challenging and even difficult.

But my work can also be very gratifying.

I get to see fears and anxieties melt away when people feel heard and their concerns validated. I am privileged to watch people support one another and see them move from fear to trust, from despair to hope. Every day, I see transformation.

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During the nine months my friend Jim had brain cancer, I had a few “melt-downs,” moments when my patience ran out or my fears overwhelmed me. Sometimes I yelled. Other times, I collapsed in a heap and sobbed. Afterward, I felt guilty. Here was Jim, facing his death—and there I was, wallowing in self-pity. Remorse and shame engulfed me.

Then one day at the grocery store, I met my neighbor’s daughter who was caring for both her ill husband and aged mother. It must have been just after a melt-down, because I confessed my bad behavior. Delores waved me off. “It happens,” she said.

She went on to tell me how she, too, gets tired and frustrated, and how she, too, has been known to yell or cry.

“It’s normal,” She said. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Before that encounter, I had felt like a terrible person, the only person in the world who would yell at a man dying from brain cancer. Talking with Delores, though, gave me a different perspective and helped me let go of the high expectations I had for myself.

I walked away from that encounter telling myself, “You are not Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” and then realizing that even Mother Teresa probably had melt-downs. We are all human.

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The value of sharing our human fears and weaknesses is not restricted to cancer care.

I have also seen it when adults walked into the literacy center where I worked in Pennsylvania, feeling inadequate and shameful because of their lack of literacy skills—and then meeting other adults are in the same boat.

I experienced it the first time I attended a gathering of adult children of alcoholics and realized I was not alone, that others understood my experience because they had gone through something similar.

Once that understanding of a shared experience happens—whatever the experience—healing can begin.

Admitting my fear, confessing my shame or giving voice to my secret can be cathartic and can lead to greater compassion—for myself and for others.

When has that been true for you?

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Leaning into vulnerability

The day after my neighbor Margaret came to mind while on retreat recently, I walked the labyrinth. At the center, I stopped and prayed for insight: Why had the memory of my pledge to Margaret come to mind?

The words from Psalm 89 came to me: “I have made a covenant with my chosen…”

I walked back through the labyrinth repeating those words.

I have made a covenant with my chosen.

What are you trying to tell me, God?

And then I remembered that when I was fifteen years old, I had said to myself, “One day I am going to write a book about my life, and it will start like this: From the time I was eight years old, I knew God had called me in a special way.

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I didn’t know exactly what it meant that God had called me, how it had happened or why God had picked me, but I knew it is true. God had chosen me when I was eight years old.

At that early age, God had somehow made a covenant with me. And now, on retreat almost sixty years later, God was reminding me of that covenant.

The thing about the pledge I made to Margaret is that it was made with my full knowledge and consent. God’s covenant when I was eight was one-sided; God initiated it. I didn’t fully consent.

For many years, I was noncommittal about God. Having been chosen by God only seemed to make me different and somehow weird—I was the kid who loved going to church.

Church was my refuge. As I inhaled the smell of burning beeswax candles, I also breathed in the mystery of God’s grace. I loved the hushed quiet and the space to retreat into myself.

Inside church, I felt close to God. It was there that I experienced God’s desire to be in a relationship with me, where I heard God asking me to say yes to the covenant God initiated.

Inside church, I could be God’s but once outside, I did not know how to trust that relationship or to live it out.

While my fifteen-year-old self knew that something significant had happened to me when I was eight, my adult self has been clueless as to how that could be of interest. On retreat, God gave me an insight.

I went back to the first piece I posted on this blog more than six years ago. God is doing something new.

Much has changed over these past six years—new home in a new state, working in a near field, new friends.

But the most significant change is being vulnerable enough to share my story—with all its difficulties and traumas. I am learning to move beyond shame and to trust that the sky will not fall if I reveal something long kept secret.

My part of the covenant is to tell how God’s grace has infused my life and transformed pain into compassion, fear into trust.

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See my wounds

While praying with the resurrection stories this week—scripture passages I have read dozens of times, heard preached about every year and thought I knew so well—I had an “aha” moment.

The idea that Jesus’ suffering was not in vain, that his death had a redemptive quality is not new.

This year, though, the image of Jesus showing his wounds to the disciples after his resurrection took on a different meaning for me.

Recently, I have been pondering sharing more of my wounds. I have written pieces that expose parts of my story that have been long kept secret. Although I have been through years of therapy to help me get past the shame, I can still be crippled by it. Don’t tell are two words that reverberate in my mind and prevent me from full disclosure.

I admire others who get past shame and tell all and am amazed by those who seem to have escaped shame all together.

But I have not been able to shake off shame. I still cringe whenever I reveal a detail of my past, when I speak of something I have been warned not to tell.

Reading the resurrection stories this year and imagining the scene of Jesus standing with his fearful disciples sparked a new insight.

Jesus got his wounds in a shameful fashion. He was mistreated by his own religious leaders and crucified as a common criminal.

The disciples scattered rather than stand at the foot of the cross and watch the man they respected be humiliated and disgraced. He had been their leader, but now he was broken—not powerful at all, but humbly submitting to ridicule, abuse and death.  

And yet, just days later, there he was, standing in their midst and inviting them to look at his wounds.

For Jesus, they were not marks of shame, but rather signs of victory. He was proud to show the marks of his suffering.

The disciples had been cowering in a locked room when Jesus appeared and invited them to look at his wounds.

What was clearer to me this year is that if Jesus could endure humiliation and overcome shame, so could his disciples. He was inviting them (and me) to shake off shame, to convert what looked like weakness into power, to break free of the bonds that kept them in hiding, behind locked doors.

Jesus broke through their fears and invited them to spread the word that humiliating treatment did not define or limit him, but rather he converted that treatment into true freedom.

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Fear drives people to abuse power and victimize vulnerable people.

By showing his wounds as signs of triumph over the fears of others, Jesus was offering the ultimate freedom. He did not let what had happened to him to limit or define him, and he invites me to do the same.

Showing his wounds was the exclamation point on his message that fear is useless and that trust in God leads to freedom.     

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New life

Holy Saturday is a day of quiet anticipation, a kind of limbo, when we are suspended between death and life.

It is a day that invites me to remember times when I have lived in that liminal space between death and life. Those are usually times when I have failed at something and have taken a step back to regroup—or have been so devastated by disappointment that I am incapable of moving forward and need to pause to pull myself together.

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The Holy Saturday experience is a model for living in trust, believing that all those pauses in my life—those times of disappointment and loss—are really stepping stones to something new and different.

Richard Rohr, in Everything Belongs, uses the image of Jonah inside the whale to describe that pause.

We must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call.

Rohr’s words remind me to ponder those times of transition, when I was suspended between death and new life, and how they turned out to be springboards for a deeper understanding of my call.

The story of Jonah has always been a favorite because I relate to his attempts to escape his call, thinking he could outrun God. I, too, tried to outrun God. But even as a young woman, I imagined Jonah shaking his head at me and saying, “Learn from me. You can’t outrun God.”  

Surrender is the word I associate with Jonah, but I was taught never give up. Like Jonah, giving in to God was a hard lesson for me to learn.

Over the years, though, I have had quite a few experiences of being inside the belly of the whale, suspended between what was and what will be— opportunities to throw my hands up in surrender and admit that God holds all the cards, to accept life as it is instead of how I wanted it to be.

Actually, I am in one of those times right now. The nonprofit where I work recently merged with a larger organization and we are assuming a new name and new identity. What has been will be no more—and what will be has yet to be revealed.

We are in transition.

Letting go of what was can be a challenge, especially for those who have a long history with our organization and feel invested in what we have built. Disappointment at losing what was and fear of the unknown future can create anxiety.

Accepting change and adjusting our expectations is a process that takes time.

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Holy Saturday extends the invitation to enter into that process of transformation from death to new life—looking back with gratitude for what has been, letting go of expectations connected with the past, accepting what is and looking forward to what will be.

I pray for the grace to let go of the past so that I can welcome new life.

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Formed by God

This word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Rise up, be off to the potter’s house…I went down to the potter’s house and there he was, working at the wheel. Whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do to you…as this potter has done?…Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand…” Jeremiah 18:1-6

I love pottery and started buying it when I was twenty. My collection grew quite large until a friend who was helping me pack for one of my many moves said, “New rule: no more pottery.”God-vulnerability-prayerThe uniqueness of each piece of hand-thrown pottery fascinates me.

It is understandable then that the image of the potter at his wheel in Jeremiah has always caught my attention. How I would love for God to tell me to go to a potter’s house!

I can easily imagine a lump of clay being shaped and reshaped. I imagine that some of the form comes from the potter and some of the form from the clay. It is a partnership—the potter’s concept and the clay’s malleability.

That, perhaps, is where using the potter and clay to analogize my relationship with God hits a snag. Am I as pliable as clay? Am I completely open to being shaped and reshaped? Unfortunately, I think not.

As I read these words of Scripture the other day, I tried to imagine how God would reshape me at this point in my life. What would I look like if I dropped all of my defenses and allowed myself to fall into a vulnerable heap? How would God remake me?

I have some sense of that level of vulnerability and defenselessness from times in my life when my hopes and expectations were not met (crushed, really), and I had to accept that I was not in charge. Those times of raising my arms in surrender, of giving myself completely to God, were freeing and also terrifying. Accepting my vulnerability and admitting I have no control is so very difficult for me.God-vulnerability-prayerAnd yet, I do know that God holds all the cards.

As I read these words from Jeremiah, I remembered my spiritual director’s suggestion that I start with a clean sheet and imagine my life. I actually did the exercise, which in itself is a sign of how God has reshaped me—all of my past spiritual directors can attest to my resistance to these types of suggestions. And, like other times when I have moved against my resistance, this exercise was very insightful.

Perhaps I need to start each day visualizing myself as an unshapen lump of clay, and ask God to shape me into a vessel that will be most useful to carry out God’s will on this day and.in this place.God-vulnerability-prayer

 

 

 

 

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Wonder

“You are a wonder,” Julia Roberts declares to her son in the movie Wonder. I gasped when I heard those words, because those same words were spoken to me just a month earlier.

Part of the group work for the Mind Body Skills sessions at the Cancer Caregivers workshop was a genogram exercise. I shared my family history, including the abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and suicides.resilience-God-ACEs

“How did you survive?” someone asked.

“The grace of God,” I replied.

“You are a wonder,” our group leader declared.

Ever since I was eight years old, I knew that God had called me in some special way and that God protected me.

Perhaps I was not physically safe, but my person—my essence, my spirit and soul, the parts of me that mattered most—were safe. God snatched me up and held me.

As a child, I felt as if I lived two lives—one inside my body and the other outside of it—and I felt both visible and invisible. I seemed to go unnoticed and my needs unattended to (invisible) but trauma happened to me (visible). I could not solve the mystery of this paradox; my only hope was in God.

I had good reason to trust God, because I knew what God had done for Jesus. I related to Jesus as an innocent victim and rejoiced in God’s intervention.

It took a lot of time (and some intense therapy) to get over the confusing messages of my childhood. At some point I realized I was always going to be broken and in need of healing; I would always be healing but never healed.

The introduction of a twelve-step program for adult children of alcoholics was a game-changer for me. Here were my people, others who had similar childhoods, who understood the paradoxes, who asked similar questions. We spoke the same language and shared knowing looks. I had come home.

One thing I did not share, though, was my having been called by God when I was eight. Like other paradoxes, this one made no sense. Why would God choose me? I was clearly damaged. I was not going to become a saint—or any kind of holy person. I was always going to be in need of healing, always seeking wholeness.

I recently read The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D. about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Toward the end of the book, Dr. Harris concludes that not all people who experienced childhood trauma are suffering. “In some people, adversity can foster perseverance, deepen empathy, strengthen the resolve to protect, and spark mini-superpowers, but in all people, it gets under our skin and into our DNA, and it becomes an important part of who we are.” (Page 218)

I am one of those whose early misfortune was transformed into gift. I can see the blessing in the curse and know that everything is possible with God, even bringing wholeness to a family tree with snapped branches.

It is a wonder.resilience-God-ACEs

 

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Hope transformed

Spirituality was the topic of one of the presentations at the recent cancer caregivers workshop I attended. About two-thirds of the way through her talk, the speaker told the story of a family member who had been in treatment for cancer. When the doctor told them there were no more treatment options, the presenter said, “We gave up hope.”

Gave up hope? How could they give up hope? Without hope, we despair.hope-cancer-GodHer words were so jarring to me that I had difficulty listening to the rest of her talk. I wanted to stand up and shout, “Go back to that part about giving up hope.” But I didn’t.

Instead, after the talk, I composed my thoughts and shared with her how upsetting her words had been to me.

I suggested that hope is not restricted to life versus death, that it is not a one and done kind of thing. Hope can be transformed; it is malleable, adaptable.

I told her that when my friend Jim was diagnosed with a very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer, I had no hope he would survive it and accepted that he was going to die. His neurosurgeon was quite clear and definitive—short of a miracle, there was no way that Jim would survive Glioblastoma.

Some people grabbed onto that hope of a miracle and were convinced Jim would be miraculously cured.

I chose to accept the neurosurgeon’s prognosis; I am actually better when I accept the reality of a situation. Ambiguity and abstraction can make me anxious; facts steady me.

If a miracle had happened, I would have been absolutely ok with that; but, in the face of scientific fact, my hope went in a different direction.

I hoped Jim would survive surgery and live long enough to understand what was happening to him. I hoped he would have the strength and grace to accept his condition and to make peace with himself and God. I hoped he would be able to look back on his life with gratitude. I hoped that he would die peacefully.

I also hoped that I would be able to step up to the challenge of caring for him and helping him to live out the rest of his life as fully as possible. I hoped I would see God’s invitation to me and be able to respond.

I believe that in the cancer journey, hope must be transformed—again and again—to meet the challenges of the roller coaster ride of cancer. Giving up hope means giving in to despair.

Correlating hope with cure can put so much focus on the future that the present is overlooked. All of the goodness and blessings that are happening right now can go unnoticed.

For me, accepting the reality of Jim’s situation helped me to focus on the present and live in the moment. I knew every day might have been his last, and so I tried to make every day our best.

Death is inevitable; hope brings life.hope-cancer-God