Thursday, December 22, 2016

Getting free of chronic pain

I’m long-winded, and I feel like my pain story could fill a longish (but very boring) novel. So excuse the length. Feel free to skip any part that bores you.

I’ll start at what I first thought was the beginning and now see was the middle. In January of 2012, my back started to ache as I was training for a February marathon. I’d had lots of trouble with hips and feet (See? It was the middle!) before, so I attributed the pain to running 60 miles a week. That seemed a reasonable explanation. I took it easy for the weeks leading up to the marathon and ran the marathon in February 2012. The marathon started out very well, but by the time I finished, my hips and back felt really awful as, I thought, hips will do after running 26.2 miles. The recovery was slow but, again, not anything alarming until April 2012.

In April I still felt off: sluggish and tired and stiff, down on life in general, so I decided that the solution was to kick myself in the rear a bit. I’d been lazing around for two months, after all. So I went to the track to get back into speed work. My back hurt a bit, but I ignored it. I pushed myself hard. Then I went to power yoga, and my back felt worse. I ignored it. By evening, I was very uncomfortable, and by the next day, I could barely move. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with a “sprained” back and was prescribed physical therapy. It all seemed so reasonable.

I went to physical therapy for 12 weeks (!) and at the end of those 12 weeks was still in pain. The trouble was, the physical therapist had done everything she could think of. I shouldn’t have been in pain anymore. She told me that it was just a matter of time and that I should just be careful as I returned to running. So I was.

By mid-summer, I was running again, still with some pain, but then the sesamoiditis I’d been fighting since 2010 got worse. I had had surgery in 2011 and physical therapy for that as well, but none of it helped. I went to a chiropractor who pointed out the imperfections in my back, and then my back and Foot hurt worse.

I went to a podiatrist who examined me very carefully, kindly, and professionally and (bless him) said that he could not explain my pain because the ultrasound really didn’t look like that of someone with sesamoiditis. He didn’t tell me I wasn’t in pain, but that’s what I heard him say. I was angry. I was in SO MUCH pain. In retrospect, I hear him saying that my problem wasn’t what I had been told it was. He probably didn’t know about TMS.

I took matters into my own hands and tried putting a pad in my shoe to move the pressure over to other bones in my foot and ended up giving myself a stress fracture by running on that pad. In the weeks of healing that ensued, when I had to stop running and move to biking, my back got more and more sore and stiff, and by mid-autumn, both my foot and my back were extremely painful. I couldn’t load my dishwasher. I couldn’t do laundry. I couldn’t exercise. I grew depressed. I grew suicidal. I started counseling for major Depression, but eventually I had to quit that because I couldn’t walk the mile to the therapist and then even when I drove, I couldn’t sit for an hour and talk. The therapist told me I needed to deal with my back issues, so I went to an orthopedist.

The orthopedic doctor said I had some issues with my hips, which didn’t surprise me, after the lifetime I’d already lived, and she ordered an MRI and more physical therapy.

Just before Christmas, I woke up one morning determined to make the best of a bad situation. I was going to very slowly walk for a bit on the treadmill just to get moving. I was terrified of getting really flabby and out of shape. As I was changing my clothes, I sneezed, screamed, and hit the floor. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t move for the pain. I had to be heavily assisted to the car and then the doctor, where I repeatedly nearly passed out from the pain. I was given pain-killers and muscle relaxants. A few days later, the orthopedic doctor called with my MRI results and said I should quit therapy and go to a neurosurgeon immediately. A piece of my L5-S1 disk had broken off and was in my spinal column.

Because we live in the world we live in, I couldn’t get into a neurosurgeon until February, so I spent the rest of January drugged up and lying down, in agony. When I finally saw the neurosurgeon, he cleared his schedule and operated within days. I should have gotten better then, but I didn’t. I was in physical therapy until August, at which time, again, although I was in pain, the therapist declared that she had done what needed to be done, that I was getting stronger and would soon be out of pain. But that was in August of 2013, and by spring of 2016, I was in such pain I sometimes had to crawl around my house. I started to think about death again, which scared me, so I decided to take action.

I went to a chiropractor who said that the problem was that I was missing most of my L5-S1 disc. It was “bone on bone” pain, he said. He said I should give up running and probably biking too. I grieved a lot about that. He worked on me a few times and then transferred me to the physical therapist in his practice. The therapist was a great guy, and I trust his professionalism and knowledge, but after months of therapy, my strength tests were better, my nerve tests were better, and my pain was not better. It didn’t make sense. So he ordered another MRI and told me to see a neurosurgeon. My pain grew worse and worse as I finished up the school year and waited for my appointment.

The neurosurgeon told me that yes, I do have disc herniations, but they aren’t putting enough pressure on my nerves to be causing me such pain. Surgery wouldn’t fix anything. The pain had to be bone-on-bone pain. I cried, not because this was bad news, exactly, but because there were no answers and I was in real and debilitating pain. He recommended that I see a pain management doctor, so I made an appointment. The doctor was on vacation and then was backed up, so I couldn’t get in for two months.

I was depressed—again—about the fact that at the age of 41, I had come to the point of pain management. What did that mean? And what is “bone-on-bone” pain anyway? A friend invited me to a lake swim where, after only swimming half a mile, my back stiffened up. Why should swimming cause “bone-on-bone” pain? It didn’t make sense. Plus, I had previously been counseled not to get shots in my spinal column, and here I was signing up for a doctor who did that. I was confused. Something was off. Something was missing. I suspected that by going to specialist after specialist, I was missing the forest for the trees. So I decided to use my summer “off” to read everything I could get my hands on about Back Pain and what caused it and what the options were for treatment.

I went to the local library and checked out EVERY book they had related to back pain. I sat down to skim through every single one with the aim of deeply reading the top six. More than once I came across quick references to Dr. Sarno and his book Healing Back Pain. None of the books I read explained quite what Sarno was about, but it came up enough that I was curious. I went home and downloaded Healing Back Pain on my Kindle.

While reading Healing Back Pain, I had several Aha! moments. Dr. Sarno raises some interesting questions about the back pain epidemic. And then he described people who weren’t getting better using traditional methods of treating back pain. Hmm. When he pointed out that doctors aren’t trained in psychology and psychologists aren’t trained in physical disorders and so everyone is missing something, I thought, “Yes! That’s what I thought! We need someone who can see the whole picture!”

When Dr. Sarno described the TMS Personality, it was me! I am intense and passionate but careful about expressing my emotions—cautious and shy since childhood. I am a perfectionist, and I don’t enjoy causing conflict. I am my own worst critic, and I am severe. I am a teacher and mother. I am 41, trying to bring up a middle schooler and grade schooler and 115 high schoolers. My grandma just died. I am in the years of responsibility where TMS really becomes intolerable. Dr. Sarno was describing me! I devoured the rest of the book, putting everything else in my life on hold to finish reading it. Then I read The Divided Mind. Dr. Sarno hypothesizes that TMS is a cradle-to-grave tendency in some people, and I looked back on my life. Growing pains as a kid. Stomach pain every time I went to school for 12 years. A mysterious Leg problem my sophomore year of college that took me out of cross-country. A weird stomach condition my junior year of college. No one could find reasons for these pains, but they were real! As an adult, I’d had a weird floppy leg, where I lost control of one leg when running. I’d had Hip pain. I’d had Plantar Fasciitis. I’d had surgery for sesamoiditis but then foot pain for years afterward. Finally, back pain that didn't go away after surgery. I’d had a lifetime of unexplainable pains and disorders—when one dissolved another would appear. TMS.

In spite of this insight, my back wasn’t better. I wasn’t one of those people who read the book, recognized herself, and then was well. So I read all the other Sarno books. (TMS personality?) My back didn’t get better. I started journaling every day. My back didn’t get better. I keep reading. I took my books and journal on vacation. My back hurt throughout vacation. We went to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I enjoyed them, of course, but every time we were hiking and my foot slid as I was going down a hill or I stepped in a small hole, pain shot up from the base of my spine to the base of my skull. I would gasp and freeze and cry. My family, used to me being in pain, felt sorry for me and was very solicitous. It’s hard to watch someone suffer.

My husband had asked, before we left for vacation and just after I read Sarno for the first time, if I thought I could go horseback riding and white water rafting. Sarno and the people on the TMS wiki (I had found it by that time) seemed to say that I needed to get out and live my life. So I had told him to sign us up. The day of, we were worried about what it would do to my back, but we went anyway. We rode up and up and up a mountain in Wyoming. It was beyond beautiful. It was bliss. We came to the ridge and a storm blew up on the surrounding ridges, whipping our hats off in the summer wind, sun shining through dark clouds. It was sublime, and I thanked God and Sarno for getting me there. Then we had to ride down.

I am afraid of horses, if I’m honest. I’m afraid of heights. After the week I’d just had, I was afraid of slipping down hills. As we descended, I was terrified and in pain as bad as I can remember. I was holding onto the saddle in a death-grip. I was gasping with every fall of the horse’s foot. My daughter, an eight-year-old, turned in her saddle with tears in her eyes. “Does this hurt you so much, Mommy?” she asked. “Are you OK? What should we do??” And then I decided that I was experiencing TMS. I told myself I was safe. I was safe. And I was in pain because my inner child was terrified and throwing a major fit. “So you are just going to let this happen, OK? You are going to live your life, damn it!” I demanded of myself. “You are safe. And you just need to allow the next hour to happen.” And then, as if by miracle, my pain started to melt away. By the time we got to the bottom of the mountain, I was fine. I had done it! I had used my mind to cure my pain! I had made the connection between my emotions and my body and seen a difference!

The next day, I went white-water rafting. I was fine. This, in spite of the fact that I had been blaming sitting to grade papers as the cause of my pain. Sitting to grade papers was worse than horseback riding and whitewater rafting? Ridiculous! I started an evidence sheet as Alan Gordon suggests and put those two days at the top.

Back home, my pain returned. I canceled my appointment with the pain management doctor, though, and made one with a TMS doctor. My pain got so terrible, however, that I called my friend that I was planning to meet at the NJ shore and told her I couldn’t make it across the country, and I wouldn’t be fun if I could. I was crying. I couldn’t even walk up my stairs. I couldn’t get myself off the couch into a standing position. I was devastated. She told me (bless her!) that all I needed to do was get well enough to make the flight and then I could lie on the couch all weekend. She packed wine and our favorite movies and said my pain didn’t matter. And then my pain got bearable. As soon as she took away its power, it calmed down.

After a long flight, I was in some pain when I arrived on the coast, but not terrible pain. I didn’t go in the ocean the first day, being afraid of having a pain spasm if I stepped in an invisible hole under the water or was knocked over by a wave. But that night I was angry at myself for not living my life. So the next day I went in the water. I was fine. We went for a long walk up and down the beach. I was so very happy to have no responsibilities and to be with my good friend. Then we went in the water again. I was perhaps a little too relaxed because as I was getting out of the water, talking to my friend, a wave knocked me over. I was tumbled under water and onto a sand bar. I had been wearing a hat and sunglasses when I was thrown, and as soon as I regained my footing, I asked about my hat. It wasn’t until I had it back in my hand that I realized that my first response had not been pain. It had been that I needed to get my hat. In fact, I wasn’t in pain at all. I had spent the summer afraid of slipping six inches down a hill or stepping off a curb because of the pain those things caused, and I had been thrown to the grown by a wave and not felt pain! I had very minimal pain for the rest of the weekend. More evidence.

The pain returned on the flight home, but instead of blaming the sitting position I was in all day, I thought that maybe I was stressed about going home. I started to think differently. I think that was when I really believed that it made sense to think psychologically.

I wish I could say that was the end of my pain, but it wasn’t. The school year started and my pain grew progressively worse, and sometimes it grew weirder. It started to attack me when I put my left foot down while walking, and then it would buckle the left side of my back and would make me almost fall. One day, it was doing that and then attacked my left eye. I was trying to teach while stumbling, gasping, and pressing on half of my face with tears streaming out from under my hand. It was so ridiculous I had to laugh.

In September I saw the TMS doctor. It was anticlimactic. He listened to my story and then asked me what I thought. “Do you think you have TMS?” he asked. I said I thought I maybe did. He said he thought so too. The fact that he didn’t say he knew I did was hard on me. He also said, though, that the idea that the cure would be immediate didn’t play out in his experience. People don’t go to see a TMS doctor if they get better from reading the book, he said, but he’s seen people get better. He told me that I needed to set the goal of getting back to running. And then I went home. But I wasn’t better.

Over the next month, everything got worse. TMS, instead of a ray of hope, was one more thing to do. It was one more thing to beat myself up about. Why couldn’t I fix it? When was I going to find time, amid my 80-hour work week and my two busy children, to journal and meditate and exercise? My pain got worse, as did my depression and anxiety.

I wish I could explain the turning point. I cannot. Maybe it was the day I took off work to sleep and take care of myself and saw my pain reduce in the span of 24 hours. Maybe it was reading Mindfulness and starting daily meditation. I think there were a few people on the TMSwiki that made a big impression on me with their counseling towards self-compassion. I can’t say for sure because I still have days or weeks when I don’t get any sleep or exercise, when I’m stressed and busy and in lots of pain. But now when the pain comes, I don’t despair because I no longer believe the medical explanation that I’ve ruined my back and will be in increasing amounts of pain for the rest of my life. I know that my back hurts and that that means that I’m not taking enough care of myself. When I was first diagnosed with TMS, thinking that was itself a stressor: it’s my fault I can’t get out of pain! I don’t have time to meditate! I don’t have time to journal! I don’t have time to sleep! I suck at taking care of myself! Now, though, I know that I have turned my pain around before. I know that as soon as I get a day or two to rest and take care of myself, my pain will decrease. I know I can do it.

This Christmas holiday, I have been getting lots of sleep. I’ve been meditating every day. I have eaten good food and indulged in some good wine. I’ve been going to exercise classes but being gentle with myself while there. I joined a yoga studio, and I’ve been allowing myself to be unable to do most of the asanas. I do what I can and I am grateful for what little I can do. Yesterday I went for “run,” but I walked for a minute after every three minutes of running. (I couldn’t have done even that much this fall!) This morning I went for a swim, and I didn’t beat myself up for being out of shape and slow. I swam 2000m and didn’t cramp up! This afternoon I realized that I wasn’t in pain. At all. I looked at my husband and kids and declared, in amazement, that my back didn’t hurt! It’s amazing how different all of life feels when one is not in chronic pain.

My back is the same as it was a few months ago. I am certain that I still have disc herniations. I still have two vertebrae that are “bone-on-bone.” Those things are permanent. They don’t heal themselves. But Dr. Sarno said that the same can be said for most adults, and most people are not in the kind of pain I’ve been in. Clearly, there was, all along, something else going on because here I am, sitting and writing my very long story and not feeling bone-on-bone pain. Here I am, one more moving-toward-success story!

Thank you, Dr. Sarno and Alan Gordon and TMS Beloved Grand Eagles and therapists and all of the people who have helped me see the connection between my mind and my pain. It’s good work you are doing in the world, and I am (for the rest of my life!) grateful.

If you, reader, have had multiple, weird chronic-pain ordeals, please do yourself a favor and check out Dr. Sarno's work.

Friday, July 8, 2016

If I could be the world's mom

To me, it feels like the world is throwing a huge high-stakes temper tantrum turned into schoolyard brawl. No, noone I know has shot anyone--yet--but apparently it’s only a matter of time. We are posting mean things about each other’s ideas, each other’s fears, and each other’s priorities and passions and griefs. We are watching human tragedy unfold and our response is name calling and blaming and casting around anger and scorn and despair. I don’t like it. It’s inappropriate and injurious, and it’s beneath us. If you are doing this, I am heart-broken at your behavior. But here’s the thing: I have claimed you as my own. I love you. I love you even if you are being mean to the other kids, but I also don’t want to let that go on. I believe you can do better, and I show you less love by letting you be a little jerk because that’s just who you are. You don’t need to be the mean kid. Eventually, a world filled with people who behave meanly in small ways fuels the fire that consumes us in large ways. I want to make this world a better place, and the only way I know how is to be a mother.

I want to do this: I want to be the mother for a little while. I want to pull the world into a huge, restraining hug.  I want to let the world scream into my stomach and smear snot and tears on my shoulder and even punch me and struggle against my embrace until it gets tired, until it begins to settle down. Then I want to send the world to its room--not as punishment but because I think some of us have not yet learned how to be civil in the presence of someone with whom we do not agree. Name calling isn’t the answer in elementary school, and it isn’t now. Shoving and punching were not the answer then, and they aren’t now. Sometimes the best course of action is to, metaphorically, take a time out. Even for adults, that might mean stepping away from the social media for a little while. If something makes you gloat, if it feels like it’s going to really smack down your “enemies,” leave it alone until you can consider that maybe the schoolyard is full of other kids, not enemies. Maybe smacking is the precursor to things more violent. Maybe “they” are a part of “us.”

But a time-out is temporary.  If we all walk away and sit in our rooms forever, that doesn’t solve the world’s problems.  When the world is ready to discuss rationally, as the world’s mom, I want to sit down and discuss what is a helpful way of talking to others. How should you deal with people who want to draw rainbows when you want to draw trucks? How should you deal with the girl who always insists upon being line leader even though she was line leader every day this week? What might be happening in her life to make that so important to her? Can you let her? Can you? How do you deal with the kid who, when he loses at soccer, body checks his opponent when contact could have been avoided? How do you deal with the kid who won and is rubbing it in? How should you deal with someone who rides a bike on the trail when you want to run on it or vice versa? How can you talk to someone who passionately believes in owning a gun when you passionately believe they should not? Is it ever EVER going to help you or them to ridicule and name call and taunt? What is really going to happen if you do that? Do you think making someone an enemy is going to win him or her over to your way of thinking?  I don’t think it will. What could you do instead? How could you tell that girl or that boy that you disagree with him/her but still care about his/her well-being? How can you tell him or her that you are hurting in a way that makes him or her reconsider rather than lash back? If you go at someone with knives, might they not use knives to defend themselves? Before speaking and acting, let’s think about the kind of world we want to live in, and then let’s show others how to make that world real.

I’m sorry life is hard, world, but it is. I’m sorry people disagree, world, but they do. I’m sorry people mess up, but they do (and so will you. Remember that.) But think about if you really want to be the mean, selfish, self-righteous kid before that’s who you become. You can be angry and hurt and confused. I am. But try to make the world a better place rather a worse one. Just try. Then try again tomorrow. I’ll try too. And I’ll have this talk with you again tomorrow if you need it.

Go get a drink of water. Then go do better today than you did yesterday. I know you can.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A few things I'm not doing, and a few things I am

I wish I would make myself write every day.  I am happier when I write every day. However, I also believe that the level of chronic sleep-deprivation in which I exist is not healthy, so I should average more than five hours of sleep a night.  I also wish I could/would exercise more.  Who in a million years would have thought I would fail to exercise enough?  It’s true, though. And I wish I cooked more healthy meals and ate less sugar. So there are a number of things I wish I would differently, but the truth is that I am sincerely, honestly doing the best I can. Every day. And I’m not yet where I hope to go.
That said, in the last couple of days, there has been some evidence that while I’m failing on a number of fronts, I’m not failing all of the time. Since my self-talk tendency is to beat myself up about not being all that I know I should be, I should keep track of those victories and pull them out when the failures become too overwhelming.
Maybe Victory #1: The best victories are probably the ones that felt all along like failures.  Physical therapy has felt like a failure.  At least one morning a week my back and hips hurt so much that I can barely function. So much that I dread living. It’s not the sort of pain that makes me scream; it’s not sharp.  It’s just so darn debilitating. And it ruins my quality of life.  It’s why I went to Dr. Turner’s office in the first place. And since it always was mysterious and not every morning, it didn’t seem to be getting much better.  In fact, Tuesday morning was bad. So I went into my reevaluation on Wednesday but very sleep deprived and pessimistic.
The results of the reevaluation, however, showed that my strength in key moves has become much more balanced and much closer to what it would need to be for me to successfully run at all. There is clear, numerical data that shows that I have improved.  On top of that information, though, my physical therapist really heard me when I said my pain wasn’t gone.
Tuesday night, though, I had tested the alignment of my hips as my PT had showed me. They were really off.  So I did the exercise I am supposed to do in the morning to align them. I woke up feeling better.  I’ve been doing it every night, and I haven’t had a really bad morning since. Hmm. Maybe I’ve finally found the “thing” that will make my life less painful.
Victory #2: Thursday morning was the Breakfast of Champions.  It was televised, and I was oddly nervous. I don’t even like to leave messages on answering machines and voice mail systems. Oh well.  I presented one of my students as student of the month for the English department, and she was thrilled.  When I had told her (the week before spring break) that I was nominating her as the student of the month from the English department, not only did her face light up (I think that might be literal), I had the impression that she also lifted off the floor.  She was so elated. That's what counts and why I got up at 4am and talked on TV.  
Afterwards, her mom told her to tell me what she's decided to be professionally.  She was shy about it.  She wants to be an English teacher.  I didn't know that.  So I asked where she wants to go for training, and she said that if she can get scholarships (which she knows is how I went there,) she wants to go to Illinois Wesleyan.  
I had been dragging myself through the week without direction or sleep.  It was a rough one. Hearing, though, that one of my students has been inspired to not just major in English but want to teach it makes it all worth it. I am pleased with my rating on my evaluation this year, but even so, I think that maybe one measure of how I am doing is how many of my students decide that they are going to major in English and/or become English teachers.  My count is pretty good.  I actually learned this year that a student who I had at WWS as a freshman, whose mom called me out of nowhere to say that I had ignited her daughter's enthusiasm for school, became an English teacher and teaches at a middle school in the same district where I teach.
Given that my job is the reason I’m not doing all of the things I mentioned in the first paragraph that would mean I was living life as I believe I should almost exclusively because of my job, I’m not sure whether or not I’m doing my students a service in making them all want to do what I do.  On the other hand, there are some powerful rewards associated with the job as well: for example, inspiring young people to because English teachers.
Victory #3: Wednesday was the first meeting of the literature circle project my honors students are going to undertake. They had decided on the books the week before spring break, and their assignment was to obtain the book.  That’s it.  Just get it. On Wednesday they were going to come up with a reading schedule. In many groups, no one had obtained the book.  This by itself is somewhat annoying, but they are teenagers and to some extent that behavior isn’t shocking. What was shocking, however, was that I repeatedly had conversations with students that led me to believe that they do not know how to use public libraries.  Some of the books the students needed were in our school LRC. (As a side note, I did find it annoying that students claimed to have no access to the books that they then found in the LRC after a five-minute search. They were clearly not trying.) Some books were not in the LRC, however, or there were not enough copies. In addition, some had also already been checked out from the public library. It did not occur to those students to request additional copies through inter-library loan. My students seemed unaware that such a thing existed. I left school (to go to the PT reevaluation I was dreading) believing that most of my students do not ever go to libraries. Ugh.
The third quarter SSR projects were due on Friday, and given the weird resistance I had been encountering all week, I was not looking forward to that due date.  When it came, however, the projects that were turned in (which is not all that should have been) were really well done. The answers are thoughtful and make me believe that at least many of my students actually read and enjoyed a book! In addition, in the short reports they wrote about them, their grammar seemed to have improved.  Either I am an awesome teacher and I have changed my students or there is something about the less formal task that allowed them to just write, and it turns out they can!! It feels like a victory on two fronts. Maybe their grammar improved because they had been reading?
Take-away: I should continue to assign such independent reading projects.  I should do one every quarter.
Just a funny story: My last story from the week is neither a victory nor (I don’t think) a defeat. I cannot remember quite how it started. My memory of it begins with me telling Gary that I don’t know what I like in a wine.  I just know that there are some I like and some I don’t like. Gary asked where I live and invited me to a wine tasting on Sunday, but I cannot go. I also said I wouldn’t know what I was doing at a tasting and I certainly couldn’t drink very much but wouldn’t enjoy spitting.  Gary, our nominee for Kane County Teacher of the Year, determined to teach me. I think Gary maybe believes he can teach anyone anything, and he may not be wrong. An important factor, however, might be context.
In this case, Gary decided that we would practice tasting wine with some flat ginger ale sitting on the counter in the English department.  He poured us both a few swallows of the old pop in big red plastic cups also left over from the meeting. He demonstrated the sniffing, the swirling, and a rather disgusting-sounding process of swishing the “wine” around in the mouth. I refused to do that, so he said I could swish it more quietly and with my mouth closed. I did. He asked me where in my mouth I “felt” it.  (I think he said “felt,” but I’m not sure if this is the right terminology. See earlier comment about context.) I said it was in the front of my mouth, and Gary said that was correct!  I was surprised I was right, but pleased.  “Where else is it?” asked Gary. I said it was on the insides of my teeth. Right again!
Then the questions got harder. Apparently a good wine has balance of fruit, body and acidity, so Gary wanted me to assess each quality of the ginger ale. I did not do so well.  I was instructed to take another sip and this time really swish it around, chew it, breath it, and try again. As I was in the process of doing this, and as Gary was pontificating about these three qualities, my evaluating administrator walked in the door. I was facing him, as I swished ginger ale around my mouth, but Gary’s back was to him.  So he kept talking about how to taste and talk about wine.  He kept talking. Gary is a difficult many to interrupt or derail, and so the administrator stood behind him listening and waiting for him to move. So yes, he saw and heard me doing a “wine” tasting in the English office, as instructed by Gary. Someone, I think, assured him it was ginger ale.
So, yeah. That happened. There is some fun in my life.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Badness Makes Friday Good

This year is the first time I have seen any sense in calling Good Friday “good.” Of course Good Friday isn’t good without Easter, but this year I see that Easter would not be the good news it really is without Good Friday.  I used to think Jesus could still die for us and arise from the grave if we did not kill him, and I suppose this is true, but the fact that the people Jesus loved were so bad is the reason Good Friday is so good.

The Good Friday sermon this year was arguably one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. It rocked my theological world. It was a sermon designed for a literature nerd, making connections between all sorts of verses from all over the Bible, but the part that really has changed my thinking is the translation of Jesus’ last words, “It is finished,” followed by his last action, “He gave up his spirit.” According to Pastor Darr, “It is finished” is not a phrase of despair; it’s not what you say when you throw in the towel and admit defeat. It’s not what you say when your team is eliminated from the end-of-year tournament. The three words are a translation of one word that is the kind of word you would say when you cross the finish line of a marathon, the kind of word you would use when you defend your doctoral dissertation, the kind of word you use when you finish grading 110 final exams and leave for the summer. It’s a word that means, “Yes! I did it!” In the context of the crucifixion, it means that Jesus has accomplished his mission.  And what is his mission? To reveal to humanity the extent of God’s love. Then, “he gave up his spirit” translates more like “he handed over his spirit.” It wasn’t defeat; it was choice.  If it had been Jesus’ will to overpower the soldiers, he tells his disciples, he could have called down an army of angels.  No, he accomplishes his mission through his death on the cross.  I never left a Good Friday service feeling so beloved and hopeful, but it was the next night and on Easter morning that the full impact of Good Friday hit me.

Saturday night we were dealing with the very eleven-year-old-boyness of our eleven-year-old boy. My sister reminded me today that he is a wonderful person, and I do know this, but yesterday he was doing his very best to be as maximally annoying and difficult as he could, and he’s pretty good at being annoying and difficult. By dinnertime, even his extremely patient father had had enough and sent him up to his room during dinner. I believe in dinner together, so although I went along with the punishment for a while, I wanted reconciliation to happen while we were still around the table. I went up to his room to talk to him. The first thing out of my mouth, by the grace of God, was, “I love you. There’s not much you could do to make me not love you because you are my boy.” My point was going to be that his behavior isn’t about me but about who he intends to be and how he intends to interact with the rest of the world, but as the words came out of my mouth, they started to vibrate the Good Friday strings that had recently been plucked.

The following morning, Easter morning, is usually my favorite morning of the year. This year, though, I was grumpy because our house, even at its best, is never picked up. I sometimes think I should quit my job so I can stay home while everyone is gone and throw away all of their stuff. I am angry pretty much every moment I spend at home and not either sleeping or eating. I feel, consequently, like a terrible parent and spouse. This morning our Easter egg hunt, inside because of the weather, started in the living room. While the kids were ecstatically finding eggs, I was busy being angry that the telescope the kids received for CHRISTMAS was still in the LIVING ROOM. Lord help me, that seemed like the worst thing in the world this morning, especially when combined with all the piles of stuff we don’t need that have become the constant state of our dining room and the piles of Christmas and birthday presents in our family room.  It was Easter morning, and I was angry, as I am always angry lately. Then I was angry at myself for being angry on Easter and for being angry so often and not being a joyful mother or person. Ugh. To intensify my lack of joy, I decided, as I often do, that I am a horrible person and not worthy of anyone’s love. Fortunately for me, my son displayed a bit of annoying and selfish behavior, and when I flashed back to our conversation the night before, suddenly the pieces fell into place. Easter means that even when I am angry, petty, stupid, negative, and self-centered, God will still come back. Every Easter. Every day. There is nothing I can say or do or be that will make God not love me. I could torture and kill him, and he would love me. It is finished. Jesus showed me that before I said, “I love you. There’s not much you could do to make me not love you because you are my boy,” God had said that to me. My behavior might affect how I feel and how I get along with others, but there is no amount of grumpiness or perfectionism or pettiness that will drive away God.

That is the good news of Easter. It’s not just about conquering death. Jesus could have accidentally fallen off a cliff and conquered death. Jesus could have been hunted down by the Roman army while all of his friends and fellow Jews fought to the death to defend him; Jesus could then have defeated death in a triumphant in-your-face sort of act, but that is not how it happened. Instead, his religious leaders resented him, his followers betrayed and denied him, and his people told Pilate that they did not call him their king and wanted Barabas released instead of Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to defeat the Romans; he came to prove God’s undefeatable love for us. The good news of Jesus is not that he came back from death; it’s that he came back from death to us, the angry, the resentful, the petty, the selfish, the annoying, the stubborn, the weak, the frightened, and the stupid. In the last few months of his life, he saw the very worst that humanity has to offer, and he managed to hand over his spirit and say, “It is finished”--I did it. I have shown them that God loves them no matter what. Now they will know that there is nothing they can do that could make me not love them. Bam.

If humans can kill Jesus on a cross, and he will still come back and love and comfort them, surely he forgives me for all of the darkness in my heart too. It is proven. It is finished. Amen. Hallelujah. Good.

31What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39.)