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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Glimpse of Heaven on Turtle Lake

Photo by US Fish & Wildlife Service
My parents live on a small, quiet lake in northern Indiana. It’s perfect for fishing and pontooning and watching the riot of birds and other creatures who make its water and shores their home or rest stop.
Some years ago, long before husband and kids, and fresh off a trip to Australia with newly acquired scuba skills, I decided to practice snorkeling and free-diving at my folks’ lake.
I found out that despite its many charms, it’s not really a super place for underwater sightseeing.
Duckweed floats on the surface, swirled about by a meandering current from the river that enters at one corner of the shore and exits another. Reeds and lily pads and thick tangles of water flora rise and fall everywhere around the edge, a paradise of swamp and shadow and feeding-field for insects and amphibians, fish and reptiles.
The floor of the lake swallows your feet and sucks at your ankles if you venture to walk on it. My youngest daughter met her first leech this week after a wade next to Grandpa’s pier. I’m impressed she pulled it off herself. Made of stern stuff, that girl is.
Unlike the Great Barrier Reef’s yards of crystal blue transparency, my parents’ lake offers swimmers just a few inches of brownish fog. A turtle and I came centimeters from bumping noses before either of us saw the other. I think he might’ve soiled himself in his haste to flee, but it’s hard to say, given the general ambiance of the depths.
In the unclouded ocean off Australia’s coast you’ll see man-sized turtles and clamshells; sharks plenty big enough to make a snack of you if they decide you look worth chewing through metal air tanks and neoprene; warm rills of golden sand sprinkled with sea cucumbers; coral forests of hues that make watercolorists salivate; and fish as varied and decorated as a tropical garden sprung magically to life.
The lake holds forests of pondweed and algae, tasty bluegill and perch, frogs and snakes, and an occasional beaver or mink. But you’re unlikely to see much of the flora and fauna on a swim. Your best bet is to sit quietly in a shallow spot, on the dock or in a boat, and wait for something interesting to wander by.
One recent morning I drank my coffee on the pier under a pink and orange sunrise. A turtle, about the size of my hand, surfaced for breath a few feet away.
I felt a bit sorry for the little guy.
If he could swim once in the sparkling, diaphanous seas of a sunny ocean reef, he’d never again be satisfied with murky waters, I thought. Paddling around in a lake can’t hold a candle to exploring the ocean.
I’d like to tell that turtle, “There’s a place, a wide-open expanse, with colors you’ve never seen and creatures you can’t imagine. It’s bright and warm there, and you can see for miles. It’s beautiful, little turtle. You’d love it.”
I suspect my shelled friend would tell me there’s no such thing. He’s seen the world, and this is it. That I’ve fallen for a dream, or a lie. And even if this thing called “ocean” actually exists, lake dwellers can’t live in salt water anyway, so what’s the use knowing about it?
Maybe he has a point. If you’ve never seen the one, the other is all you know, and all you have, and all you live for.
Earth and heaven.
Shadow and light.
The pretty-nice and the perfect.
When you don’t know any different, how could you know the difference? And why should you even want to?
But for those of us who know, who’ve seen the real thing, these shadows, these minor chords and pale reflections serve to remind us: there is more. Earth is just a hazy apparition; heaven is the real deal. That’s where we’re going, and that’s what whispers into our dreams and our hopes and our souls.
Then we can’t help but pity those who’ve never seen it, don’t suspect it, and aren’t interested.
Because we’ve glimpsed it, and it’s breathtaking.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Praying 101: How to Get Exactly What You Want from God

Photo by Andre Vandal
I’m not a theologian, but I’ve played one on stage.
I’ve also been a praying woman for a certain span of decades, the number of which I’m not going to share. But I’ve discovered the secret to getting my prayers answered the way I want.
It’s simple. It’s effective. And it works every time.
Were I a money-grubbing pseudo-journalist who just wants your revenue-generating clicks, I’d make this a stop-motion, waiting-for-ad-#62-to-load, 40-image slideshow with eight more frames between my questionably topical teaser and part one of 15 of a likely disappointing answer.
But I’m not. So here it is, the magic formula, red-phone-to-God recipe for success in prayer:
Start wanting what God wants.
Yes friends, it’s just that easy.
When Jesus said, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it,”1 he was serious. You either believe him or you don’t. It’s a pass/fail class.
The lynchpin, however, is that little three-word phrase right in the middle: “in my name”.
Eeyow. What’s that even mean?
Only that if you ask in Jesus’ name, it’s got to be something Jesus can get behind. If you’re not sure what qualifies, run your request past the Lord’s prayer2, which was Jesus’ syllabus for Praying 101 when his disciples asked him how to do it. Here’s the fast and dirty cheat sheet:
Does my request glorify God?
Would it make earth more like heaven?
Is it an actual physical necessity I have or someone else has?
Do I need to forgive anyone or get forgiveness for something before approaching God?
Would fulfillment of this request align me with God or with Satan?
One time I heard a sports commentator mock Tim Tebow before a game, because he thought Tim was praying for his team to win.
Holy infantile inferences, Batman. Any person who subjects himself to public ridicule for his faith already possesses entirely too much spiritual maturity to pray that kind of puerile nonsense. I can think of five things, right off the top of my un-athletic little head, that Tim Tebow might have been on his knees about before a televised football game:
Thank you, God, for the privilege of getting to earn a living doing what I love.
Help me do my best to honor you and my team today.
Protect every player on the field, and let no one come to harm during this game.
Let all of us be positive role models to the kids watching us and hoping to one day be professional athletes too.
Bless every person who came out to watch us today, and bring them into a closer relationship with you.
God has a will, and he actually does want us to participate in it. But we need to be on the same side of the tug-of-war rope, pulling in God’s direction with him, instead of against him, if we want to participate in that will.
We may be momentarily dispirited, however, when we acknowledge that although results to this prayer strategy do not vary—God’s will will be done—we may or may not get to see those results unfold. Sometimes God slaps an unequivocal “Yes and Amen!” onto our request before we’ve even finished speaking it; other times he seems to be working on geological time while we’re running a squeaky hamster wheel, cardio at 270 beats per minute.
But be assured, he is working. And he loves our prayers when they’re asking him to do the very thing he wants to do. (He’d really like for us to calm our frantic selves down and trust him.)
So friend, whatever you’ve got going on today, God’s as close as a whisper in your ear. You may know exactly what to ask for, but if you don’t, then just ask that: “God, what’s your will in this?”
He will tell you, if you really want to know.

1 John 14:14 (ESV)

2 Matthew 6:9-13 (ESV)

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Postpartum Depression: Into and Out of the Abyss

Depression by Mary Lock

     On my run this morning, half-way through my playlist, two songs took me back ten years, to the aftermath of my second child’s birth, and the aftermath of that aftermath. Monster, by Skillet, could’ve been the theme song to my pilgrimage through postpartum depression; Third Day’s Saved is my refrain about the ascent out of that hell.
I think it’s finally far enough behind me that I can talk about it.

To me, depression always meant sadness. Lethargy. “I’m so blue I just want to lie on the couch and sleep all day.”
Depressed people cry. They eat a lot, or don’t eat at all. They stare out the window into the rain and ruminate on their heartaches.
I didn’t know that depression can manifest as anger.
My two-year-old son spills some Cheerios on the table. I pick up his bowl, milk and all, and hurl it against the wall as rage erupts from my body through my vocal cords.
Postpartum depression took me down slowly and systematically, over several months.
Awakened yet again in the middle of the night by a child’s crying, I scream, “Why won’t you let me sleep?!?”, my fists wrapped in shaking desperation around the crib slats. “Be quiet and go to sleep!” I yell at my infant.
I yell. At my infant.
Not knowing any better I put my two children on opposite schedules: the baby napped from ten to noon, the toddler from noon to two, the baby again from two to four, which left me a block of six hours in the middle of every day with no break and no time alone, and no way to leave the house.
During my screaming tirade one evening a knock sounds at the door. I look out to see our neighbor, and terror washes through me. “She’s concerned, and is going to call someone about me.” When I open the door, she says their car was broken into the night before, and asks me to keep an eye out.
I’m relieved. “I have to stop this,” I tell myself.
Messed-up hormones certainly played their part in my collapse.
My husband comes home many evenings to find the children locked in their bedrooms, crying, and me in our bed, in the dark, covers pulled over my head, also sobbing. “I can’t do this anymore,” I tell him. “I have to kill myself, because I can’t keep doing this one more day.”
Our already unhealthy marriage started to fall apart. We fought more than we talked. Resentment and rancor colored all our conversations.
I sink onto the floor and huddle against the washing machine as I weep. My mind sorts through all the ways one can commit suicide, searching for the easiest and least painful.
“No, I can’t kill myself,” I say, more to the washing machine than to myself or God. “I can’t let my children grow up thinking their mommy didn’t love them enough to stick around.”
One of the insidious things about mental illness is that the sufferer often can’t see the sickness for the symptoms. I really didn’t know anything was wrong. That help existed. That I wasn’t just a failure at life.
Then one afternoon, miraculously, I got a short break when both children napped at the same time. I sat in the chair where I used to read and write and have my quiet time, and I complained to God.
“I hate everything I do all day,” I cried. “I hate clothing them, and bathing them, and feeding them, and reading to them, and taking them places with me. I hate it all!”
As soon as those words came out, into the air, and into my own ears, I realized: It wasn’t always like this.
When my son—my first—was born, I loved caring for him. Picking out his clothes felt like dressing my own perfect little baby doll. Going for an outing brought me such delight when people fussed over him, or I got to show him things and places he’d never seen before. I’d sing You Are My Sunshine while I washed his hair, and play Peek-a-Boo behind the bathtub curtain.
I’d once enjoyed mothering.
I pulled out my copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and turned to the chapter on postpartum depression. It read like a biography of me:
Irritability or anger. Anxiety. Mood swings. Sleep problems. Appetite changes. Suicidal thoughts. Lack of interest in the baby. Feeling disconnected from the baby. Thoughts of harming the baby. Sluggishness. Exhaustion. Memory loss. Sense of guilt or shame. Sense of doom. Scary or odd thoughts that repeat in your mind. (List from
I called my OB.
I got medicated.
I saw a psychiatrist.
And over the next twelve months, I got better.
We get in the car after too long a visit with friends. It’s late, past the children’s bedtime, and we’re still 45 minutes from home. Normally I’d be a melodramatically neurotic wreck, beside myself with stress that they still needed baths and feedings, and we should’ve left for home earlier, and now everyone’s getting to bed late and I’m going to be exhausted tomorrow and why does it always have to be this way?!?
But the antidepressant has mellowed me. I think, “I guess I’ll feed one while he bathes the other, then we’ll switch. Everyone will be tired and tomorrow will be hard, but oh well.”
Later I tell my mother-in-law about my uncustomarily placid and rational thought process. “Is that how normal people think?” I ask her. She smiles, a little sadly, and puts her hand on my arm. “Maria, that’s how healthy people think.”
 I spent my medicated year as emotionally charged as Mr. Spock after a cigar and a couple of Harvey Wallbangers. I felt neither miserable, nor especially happy, but calm. I looked around. At my children. At my life. At myself.
For the first time I recognized the authoritative place I’d allowed anger to occupy in my life.
“I will not pass this on to my children,” I resolved. “It ends with me. It ends now.”
I paid attention to how I dealt with stressors and problems and accidents. “I want to behave this way when I’m no longer medicated. This is who I want to be. Not the other woman.”
One of the children knocks over a glass of juice. It soaks into the tablecloth and runs down onto the floor. “It’s all right,” I say, as I go to the kitchen for a rag. I clean it up, throw the soaked linens into the hamper, get out a new tablecloth, and refill the glass. “There you go. All better,” I tell the child. The cleanup took less than three minutes. And my heartbeat, blood pressure, anxiety level never changed.
And my child never cried.
The doctor weaned me off the medication. The emotions came back, both good and bad. But they no longer controlled me. They took their proper places in my life, as nothing more than flags to get my attention: “Hey, this is a great thing! More, more!” or “Hmm. We need to do something about this.”
I learned how to prioritize: People are more important than things. Patience and peace need not be at odds with teaching and discipline. Sometimes love means cleaning up someone else’s mess without uttering a single word.
I reach into the refrigerator and knock over a glass of grape juice someone left inside. It spills and splashes and runs over the top shelf, and the second shelf, and onto the bottom shelf. Grape juice is everywhere.
I sigh and begin to take bottles and bags and jars out of the refrigerator, rinsing each one under the faucet. “That was bound to happen eventually,” I say, given how often people leave their leftover drinks in the fridge.
My breath catches in my throat.
Not even a hint of anger rose up in me. I didn’t have to struggle against my natural disposition, or fight to control myself so I didn’t yell or throw something or slam the side of my fist against the wall.
And I’m years off the medication.
Thank you, God. Oh, thank you.
My battle with postpartum depression consumed some of the most traumatic months of my life. I would never ask to go through it again. I would not wish it on anyone.
     But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.