Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives

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The first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas, signals the start of the New Year for the Church. Throughout Advent we consciously await the Nativity, which is then joyously proclaimed through triumphant music, beautiful decorations and pageantry, and renewal of the reverence and faith that accompanies the wonder of the manger scene. Sharing this time together as a church community gives strength to our love for each other and for our shared walk in faith. It is both a fitting and necessary beginning to each new year.

Not everyone is always able to be present at the festivities, however. Many are shut-ins, too ill or disabled to attend. Others may be away from home, serving country and faith in other lands while being homesick, and being equally missed at home. Still others have either abandoned the church, or felt abandoned by it, and will not be a part of this renewal. Christmas is not always a time of joy for many reasons.

Today, Christmas Day 2014, although I had planned to participate in all events at my church home, as well as get-togethers in the homes of friends, I am confined to home on this day. Despite having had two flu vaccinations in the past ten months, I was afflicted with the particular strain of flu that this year’s vaccinations won’t protect against. For once, I was grateful for email and the telephone! Friends and family kept up with me, kept me entertained, and projected the warmth of their personalities into my days, even when they were mad a me for refusing to let them anywhere near me. If nothing else, I was going to make sure that the particular bug that infected me would not infect anyone else!

That still meant a lot of time alone, and time to reflect on present days and past blessiings. As I relived this past year, I recalled so clearly the long days and nights of a year ago when in my pain and illness I begged God to deliver me from this life. He did, but not as I expected. For most of this year my pain has subsided to very manageable levels, and my activity has returned to near normal. My various physical conditions have been identified and treated, and in the New Year I will begin teaching again as an adjunct at a local University. The year 2015, unlike its predecessor, is a year filled with hope and purpose for me.

I am reminded of a similar year, half a lifetime ago, when at the end of my resources and without hope I made a decision that took me on a 33-year journey of challenge, adventure, and great satisfaction in life.   The satisfaction came from knowing that my purpose was to share with others the gift of education that had been given to me, and I have been allowed to do that on two continents.

Now it appears that I have been blessed with a third chance to rise from the shambles of my life, escape the worst effects of chronic pain and illness, and live again. This time, in order to give back, my time and efforts will be made on behalf of that huge segment of our society that lives in chronic pain and is way too often discriminated against by a range of people within their own families and friends, all the way to departments in our state and local governments. Equally distressing, the very physicians who actually do listen and try to help them are also targeted for discrimination, if not actual harassment.

Some progess has been made, but not nearly enough. At some point, we must stop blaming inanimate objects for our social ills and accept the facts that guns, pills, alcohol, cars, computers, cell phones , money and other material things are not at fault for our misuse of them.

Today, I realized anew that the pageantry, decorations, music and companionship are not the real Christmas. The real Christmas is within me, and has filled me with peace and joy on this blessed day.

I humbly pray for the same for all of you. A very blessed Christmas, and renewed peace and joy for the New Year!

 xmas scene

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Death, shadowy lifelong companion

So familiar, so often close as to be almost

A visible presence;

Sometimes longed for,

Too long not feared.


But in the darkest night of death’s lurking essence:

“Do you want to be healed?”

Jesus asks the cripple at the poolside.

Do you want to be healed?

The words echo in my heart,

Reverberate in my soul.


And again:

Do you want to be healed?

I find it hard to say yes!

The Spectre is close to me,

Promising an end to the pain, to the loneliness

Cessation of the everlasting demand to measure up

To life’s demands, to the expectations of others.

Life has been too long, and I am so weary.


Do you want to be healed?

The words won’t go away.

I doubt that I have a choice.

What will be, will be. Right?

Death is close. Accept the inevitable. Go gracefully.

But—“Do you want to be healed?”

Dare I say yes?


What if it is a hoax—a lie offered by a brain

Too old, too confused, too shattered by pain?

“What have you got to lose?” the challenged brain responds.

“Choose Life!”

I don’t think I really have that choice, I respond.

Besides, to choose life means to once again pick up

All those burdens, all those challenges.

The ones known are bad enough;

What about the unknown suffering that might come?

Can I bear it?


“Choose Life!”

No longer imperative, now seductive.

“Think of all that tomorrow brings of joys, and blessings!

Would you not love to see what happens?

Would you not enjoy the adrenaline rush of a new challenge?

Would you not treasure the companionship of new friends?”


Yes, but—what about the ever worsening pain?

What about the continued failings of an aging body and brain?

What about…..

“Choose Life!”

This time the words come encased in humor, then laughter.

I think I am beginning to understand.


To be healed IS to choose life,

But it is not defined by the healing of a worn-out, diseased body,

“What we are is God’s Gift to us, What we Become is Our Gift to God,”

I have written.

Winston Churchill said “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It is courage that counts.”


Perhaps God is not finished with me yet, even though I feel finished with me.

And just perhaps, another day, another year, even another decade

May find me laughing at Death’s scary faces and threats

While walking with the confidence of Gratitude

For a life wherein I have been, as C.S. Lewis states:

“Surprised by Joy.”


Even in the pain, the possibility of making a contribution may be real;

Even in the fear, the possibility of Joy may be real.

If I choose Life, the possibility of Life may be real.


I choose life.





I admitted to no fears.

I depended only on myself; trusted only myself.

It may have been said about me that

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

But I was no fool—or so I thought.


I did not expect much from life

So when abundance of life was given to me

I was deliriously happy, savoring each day

And each moment.

Until that became more and more difficult to do.


Described by one as “rabidly independent,”

I did not have to risk facing the pain that others suffered:



…loss (if it can’t be replaced, I probably don’t need it)

Even though practicing this meant giving up intimacy, trust and companionship.


I justified elimination of those elements by telling myself

I had already suffered these, and survived.

I don’t have to do this again.

I can live without them.

I am not afraid.


And then I experienced FEAR.  I was afraid.

Deeply, paralyzingly, mind-numbingly afraid.

The deepest betrayal of all had happened

And allowed fear into my life.

I had been betrayed by my own body, my own mind.


I could no longer take care of myself.

My mind no longer submitted to my bidding, my body knew nothing but pain.

I prayed for death, but it did not come.

I would not implement my own demise–

Not out of courage, but out of fear.

Not fear of death, but fear of coming face to face with a

Creator who had not summoned me, had not released me

From realizing my worst fears.


For it was now that I learned that I was not fearless at all,

I had simply managed to avoid those things I feared.

Now that Fear had been allowed

I found myself trembling with all kinds of fears.


Almost daily I had to face things I had never consciously feared before,

But now I did fear them.

Regularly, I was challenged by fear of things I had heretofore managed to avoid

So as not to admit my fears.

But I no longer trusted myself.


Friends stood by me, encouraged me, cared for me.

Physicians patiently addressed my symptoms, diseases and pain

Until I began a long journey back to manageable pain, manageable chronic illness.

My body restored to a state with which I could cope,

My mind began to function again.


I dared to share my fears with another, who touched my heart with care and said

Don’t fret. It will be OK.

I dared to believe.

I dared to trust.


I have today, and I can deal with it.

I am not dominated by fear of tomorrow, just as I truly have never feared death.

It is inevitable. It just is.

I will deal with tomorrow, tomorrow.

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

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The Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa, once home to the beautiful and graceful little San people (aka Bushmen), can be a place of miracles. Springtime, for example, brings an explosion of beauty and color as far as the eye can see, in the form of a multi-colored blanket of cosmos flowers. It is breathtaking. All too soon, though, the landscape returns to the scrub and sand vista that appears hostile to life itself.

Twenty-five years ago, in the first months of my dissertation research, I was privileged to witness another Kalahari event. That is, it did take place in the Kalahari, and the desert contributed its own flavor to the experience. But it was actually more of a cosmic phenomenon with a profound impact that resounded within my personal universe–whih still resonates with the memory.

It occurred when I was driving south along a straight highway through the desert one late afternoon, still far from my destination and already hours on the road for the day. The landscape, flat to the horizon in every direction, was monotonous to the point of being mesmerizing. At first it was like being in an infinity pool, where one goes through the effort of forward motion but nothing changes. Then it started to feel like a still life painting, with car and driver captured in place at a moment in time.

As I drove, I was completely absorbed by radio reports of one of the most violent days in the country since my arrival. In future months I would never be able to reach the point of sublimating my response to the violence –“violence” being euphemistically referred to by South African press as “unrest”—and this early in my visit each occurrence was a fresh wound to my soul. My arrival in the country had almost coincided with P.W. Botha’s stroke, which would ultimately allow his cabinet to oust him from power. Long-term leadership of the nation was as yet unresolved; the population seemed to alternate between holding its breath in fear of–or in anticipation of–the future, and ever-worsening violent responses to the present.

The juxtaposition of areas of abject poverty literally in the shadow of diamond and gold mine infrastructures mirrored evidence of immense wealth, surrounded by acres and acres of homelands and townships where children were often malnourished and undereducated (if educated at all) and water supplies insufficient and far between. Yet within these extremes, and despite the rising violence, life went on. The sun set, the moon rose, and another cycle of life would begin. Children laughed and played when they could. In the cities, people shopped, went to the theatre, danced, and met in each other’s homes for meals. Except when it got too risky for a time, then they could not.scan24
This photo, taken not long after my desert experience, recalls a day of escape into a kind of normality. I refer to my “Margaret Mead mode” when showing it. We were near a village in the mountains on the Swaziland border where the World Vision team had taken me to view one of their projects.

There was much laughter, exchange of ideas, and purpose to that day, unlike the day that I drove all alone through the desert and violence erupted in a world I could not at that point see. Now, even in writing, I feel the jarring effect of pulling out of my thoughts about the seemingly insurmountable troubles of South Africa, to look outward at the bleak, unchanging, flat and seemingly unending desert before me, where I was racing down the road on autopilot.

I was forced out of my thoughts when out of nowhere a huge 18-wheeler blared past me, going much faster than the 120kph speed limit I was observing. At first, the tractor trailer’s speed and noise seemed to emphasize my sense of immobility; of standing still in an unchanging environment. Then the car rocked in the afterwash of air from the truck, and I snapped out of my fugue state to look around me. What I saw was exquisite, awe-inspiring and unforgettable.

Out of my right window I saw a huge ball of sun just beginning to reach for the horizon. The colors of sunset were still to come, but the sky had darkened just enough to make the sight memorably impressive by itself.

sunset over desert

Then I looked to the left, where a huge, bright “super moon” had just cleared the eastern horizon at virtually the same height as the opposite sun.

 desert moon

I stopped the car and got out with my camera, which to my eternal frustration would remain useless. This was one photo that would not come together; I could not capture in one frame the inexplicable coincidence of sun and moon, seemingly of equal size and brightness, facing one another across a flat, featureless desert.

I stretched out each arm in the direction of a heavenly body. I looked first east, then west, and back again. I slowly turned all the way around, absorbing the sight with eyes and heart; then I did it again. I actually pinched myself, to make sure I had not fallen asleep, or worse, had some psychotic break. I am rarely rendered speechless, but I still simply do not have words to describe this surreal experience, and its effect on me. I was alone beside the highway in the middle of a desert in a strange land, and I was embraced by both sun and moon, awash in natural brightness and awed by the vastness of a reality I could not begin to take in and could not even record.

Eventually, of course, the sun met the horizon and the splendid hues of sunset began to stain the western sky, while the moon, becoming smaller with passing time, rose higher in the eastern sky. I returned to the car and headed on toward my destination, humbled yet comforted by the reminder of my minuscule presence in the universe. Later, others would affirm the reality of this rare phenomenon but I met no one else who had actually experienced it.

Over the past quarter of a century and several spiritual desert experiences later, there have been times when I was reminded of that event. Sometimes the memory returns on its own at appropriate moments, to revitalize my energies when I am both immobilized by failure to make forward progress in a bleak environment and spiritually wounded by events of the day. Other times I have needed the equivalent of a speeding 18-wheeler blasting by to snap me out of my preoccupation with the woes of the present, and restore my equilibrium. In either case, while regaining my perspective I have had to absorb the experience, learn from it, and begin to move forward. But I have treasured those occasions when I have revisited that Kalahari experience, when awe of the beauty and vastness of the universe restored calm and peace to my soul.

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My life journey has taken me to the new world. I have accepted this new world, my new reality.  I am going to do my very best to be a productive and healthy person in this new reality.  BUT – WHO IS THIS NEW PERSON?   And how do I understand the new “normal” for this person?

We have good reason to ask “What is normal?”   We go through our days in the midst of family, community, nation and world having some idea of what to expect from those around us.   That is, until some monumental event shakes up our world and our expectations and we are forced to accommodate a new reality. Even when we are merely the observers, adjustments must be made that vary in the degree of their intensity according to our degree of attachment to the former situation.

We watch a documentary recording the life of a wounded warrior, struggling to make sense of his changed body and mind and find new meaning in his life. We are touched, reminded of our own frailty, and perhaps even determined to engage in some effort to assist the many such members of our society. But what if that warrior is my spouse, parent, or sibling? The change in my own life must accommodate the changes in the life of the warrior in many ways. There is a grieving process that must take second place to the need to care for the wounded loved one, and to learn how to maximize the benefits of our new life together. The changes are emotional, physical, and social. They are economic. They are time consuming, demanding, and often frustrating. The family, individually and as a unit, must “reinvent” itself to achieve a new wholeness. For too many, this is like putting Humpty Dumpty together again. The fractured selves are unable to withstand the challenges, and wholeness becomes elusive.

In all of the outwardly evident necessity for communal adjustment, the psyche of the wounded themselves may require more support than the medical and family community is able to provide. Patients are subject to unwritten rules and expectations that include: 1) A willingness to get well; 2) Compliance with medical treatment and with family expectations of same; 3) A positive attitude about life and their new place in it; and 4) They should not suffer too loudly, or too often. There is more, but of course each wounded person and each family will be both unique and yet have much in common with others in similar situations. Each person within the family unit also brings their own personality to the situation, for better or worse. But what about the wounded warrior him- or herself?

At this point, let us enlarge our wounded warrior status to include, as we have, members of the family and community. These are wounded warriors whose injuries did not occur on the battlefield, and whose wounds may not be visible. Yet individually, they share much in common. There are also others: The stroke survivor. The cancer patient. Those who have lost limbs, or have lost mobility due to accidents or disease processes. Those who have given all that they have in their vocations, or to their families or community, and have simply burned out. Those who struggle with addiction. The point I am getting to is that while we may understand and sympathize with the outwardly evident wounds of these pain warriors, we understand too little of the inward journey they are making. The physical needs, including the social environment, are so great that the patient is often left to figure out on their own how to be a whole person within, having lost so much of the external evidence of wholeness. If we address this at all, we tend to say (as I already have) they are “reinventing” themselves, which may be a problematic term.

Some commonalities exist: With physical loss, there may have been an event where the patient was in one place when it occurred, and returned to consciousness in a completely different and possibly strange place, already both physically and mentally changed. Or, disease processes may over time become too overwhelming for both body and mind, and there is a loss of ability, loss of productivity, loss of independence, loss of financial status, loss of mental acuity—too many losses to support the former persona. Too many losses to grieve, to accept, to overcome easily in the effort to restore a sense of self, of worthiness, of place in a different world.

Some wounded never return to us as independent, self-sufficient persons. Depending on the degree of injury to both body and mind, they may daily suffer a constant state of mental and/or physical pain that precludes outward focus. But many do return to some degree of personhood and productivity, and it is these who may be most painfully subjected to society’s rules for patients as outlined above. As the ability to cope increases, so do the expectations of society, family, and medical caretakers. The huge problem of “Who am I going to be, now that I have lost who I always used to be?” remains unrecognized, and if actually voiced, bulldozed over by the well-meaning advice that boils down to GOIAMO.   Get over it, and move on.

It is not that easy. Yes, I have completed the grieving process. Yes, I have accepted that this is my new world, my new reality. Yes, I am going to do my very best to be a productive and healthy person in this new reality. BUT – WHO IS THIS NEW PERSON?

The emphasis on “new” comes from the phrase “reinventing one’s self.” That can appear as a completely overwhelming task for the recently wounded soul. And it is a task that for the most part begins alone. Later, as the self becomes more certain, relationships with others of varying significance will be vital to the restoration process. First, however, there is that incredibly lonely, often painful, often frighteningly introspective search. And at first, it is likely to be a search backwards “for the self that I used to be.”

That focus in the past is healing, but eventually may be stunting to the growth process. It is healing, in that common, continuous threads of the personality and the life of the patient become evident. I am not completely new, after all. There is much of my personality that is still usable and strong. But retrospection becomes stunting when the focus remains lost in the past, and the wounded one begins once again to grieve for what has been lost.

In the end, if we persevere, we begin to focus on the future, and what we will bring to it. That is all that is really unpredictably new, and in reality, it always has been. It may not be the future we have intended, and for some of us that is truly an entirely new concept and challenge. More of us, though, have had to live and adjust to Plans B, C and even D already in our lives, and have the experience to make this latest adjustment. We just may have bigger hurdles to jump in order to do that.

Whether the life changing wounds are our own, or those of a loved one, the change is both an outward and inward journey. It might help if we adjusted our expectations of how people should react to their woundedness, and how we should react to our own woundedness. In either case we need to make room for potential wholeness in a changed future.



What we are
Is God’s gift to us.
What we become
Is our gift to God.

My mom embroidered this little sampler for me when I was a young newlywed. Today, it hangs on the wall of my bedroom as a constant reminder of her love for me and the things that she taught me. On occasion, perhaps when hanging the sampler on a new wall in yet another house, another city, another time in my life, I have wondered what I have accomplished with what I have been given.

My thoughts today are somewhat different. Always before, I have considered “gifts” as the good things in life, as personal talents and abilities, as great opportunities. It followed, then, that my “gift to God” would be what I did with those abilities and opportunities. But what about the aspects of our lives that we consider impediments, inabilities, or even character flaws? Are they not part of “what we are?” What role do they play in what we become?

Bill and Gloria Gaither wrote a wonderful children’s song entitled “I am a promise.” What a pleasure it is to watch the videos of children singing “I am a promise…a possibility…a potentiality.” These words counteract the hurtful words too often heard from authority figures who tell the young not to be stupid, lazy, liars, fat – the list goes on, and the words said often enough and in ways that become self-fulfilling prophesies internalized by the hearers. Our brains are much more likely to reinforce negative ideas than positive ones, and to act (or fail to act) because of them.

So what happens to all that potentiality? We become adults who are still bound by those negative beliefs, and may repeat them into the next generation. The actual impediments of our lives are added to these negative beliefs, and inhibit our ability to “become” the fulfillment of our potential. Or at least that might be what we believe happens.

Why do we tend to focus on only one aspect of potential? What if our potential lies not only in youth, and not just in talents and abilities, but also in all the other aspects of who we are – physically, as well as emotionally, or psychologically. For example, there is a man in our church who is in his 90’s who is a constant source of encouragement to me. I am told that before I knew him he had spent a long time in a wheelchair, but now he walks again. His body is bent and weakened, but his eyes are still filled with laughter and intelligence. His stories are always interesting and often funny. You know that he suffers, physically, but that is only part of who he is. Last week he mentioned that he was no longer of any use, yet we know that his smile alone lights up the room, and just to spend some time with him causes us to reclaim our sense of the value of life. Who he is impacts an entire congregation, every week. And he has the potential to continue to embrace us, encourage us, and inspire us to cherish not only who he is, but who we might become.

Now that is a gift.