A Light Shining in the Darkness

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." - Genesis 1:1-3 (NIV)

Sometimes life just seems so dark. The light seems to hide behind layer upon layer of pain, grief, illness, and struggle. But it is in this darkness that God so often speaks.

"The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world." - John 1:9 (NIV)

Into the darkness of this savior-less world, God sent his Light. His Son. God spoke his word into the darkness and there was light. There was finally a way for people to receive God’s forgiveness and eternity, through Jesus – the Way, the Truth, The Life. The Light.

It may sound strange but in darkness is my favorite way to come wholeheartedly into the presence of God. It seems that he makes his presence known to me more clearly without all of the distractions that come forth in the light. I know that I am only intimately seen by God in those moments so I can relax and just be me, the person he already knows so deeply.

A few weeks ago after a difficult doctor’s appointment, I pulled into and shut the garage and turned my car off but I wanted to finish listening to the song that was playing. I waited so long that the garage light and car lights went out and it was pitch black. I found myself crying out to God in the darkness. I have never felt his presence so real to me as it was in that moment. I knew that he was in the car with me, within me, holding me and wiping my tears. It’s impossible to explain the deep sense of Holy, but I so long for all of you to experience moments like that!

When I can’t sleep, sometimes I feel a longing to just be with God for awhile. Sure, I can pray in my bed, but I am often distracted by my concern that I’m not sleeping, or…ahem… somebody’s snoring. So, I get up and go to our guest room, close the door, and get on my knees before God. There’s something about that position and the darkness that pushes away the distractions and allows me to be fully real with God. Prior to my illness, it had been ages since I spent time fully engaged with God in that way. It is there in the darkness that I find peace again.

"Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace."

I believe part of the reason God allows us to have times of darkness is so that his presence can be more intensely known. So that we seek him with our entire being in the midst of our suffering. When our world has grown dim behind the shadows of sorrow and pain, it is then that the Light can be more clearly seen. It is then that the shadows can be lifted and the splendor of the love of God can be revealed to our hearts. If we never experienced darkness, we would not fully understand the glory of the Light.

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"This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." - 1 John 1:5 (NIV)

My prayer is for everyone walking in darkness to experience the brilliance of God’s light. He loves each of us more than we are able to understand, but we can better understand that love and light when it shines through our darkness.

Love to you,

~Karina

 

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My Love/Hate Relationship with Vulnerability and Chronic Illness

“If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” – Brené Brown

The emotional side of chronic illness. This topic makes my skin crawl simply out of habit. For most of my life, I’ve had a rock-solid emotional ‘off’ button. Many of you may even be surprised to know that I actually have feelings. I’m only sort of exaggerating about that. As a matter of fact, I feel quite deeply, so much so that it is often painful. I love so fiercely that it hurts. I can look stone cold stoic while my heart is breaking. If you saw me laugh out loud or, heaven forbid, cry, I was most likely a young child. I remember as a teenager occasionally forgetting myself and letting out a belly laugh and then looking around to make sure not too many people had seen it. How sad is that? I’m really not all that sure where this intense need to be in complete control of my emotions came from. But I think maybe it had to do with my painful shyness. I so desperately wanted to keep the attention away from me. Laughing aloud or crying made me feel weak and out of control and I hated that feeling. I’m not even sure I knew I was doing it, but it became such a habit that eventually I couldn’t express myself emotionally at all unless I wrote it down (ahem… perhaps the reason for this blog?). I never said, “I love you” to anyone unless they said it first. So, so painfully shy. And like Brené Brown says, “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” So, I numbed them all.

My first experience with grief was when my grandma passed away when I was in 7th grade. I dearly loved Grandma Kate and considered myself to be most like her in my personality and tastes. Everyone knew how close I was to her so after losing her just 13 days after her cancer diagnosis, I knew I was being watched for a meltdown. But my habit of pushing that ‘off’ button stayed strong and not a public tear did I shed. Instead, I cleaned the house with much fervor. As was the habit by now, I couldn’t allow many private tears either, even though my pain was great. Because of this strange emotional coma I had put myself in, I am not sure I properly grieved for her until many years later.

When I was a senior in high school, that ‘C’ word came barreling back into our lives when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. And what did I do? I cleaned the house with much fervor. Instead of being grateful to the wonderful food-bearing friends, I was angry. You see, my only experience with anyone bringing us food was when my grandma died. I wanted to shout at these lovely people, “My mom is NOT dead!” But instead, I cleaned. I felt I had to be busy and strong for this incredibly strong woman whose resemblance I bear. My hero. She would come home after chemo and declare, “I got poisoned today”, and go right on cooking dinner for her family. Talk about taking life as it comes. And that is what I thought I was doing. Except I wasn’t taking control of any life circumstances. I was simply tightening that emotional ‘off’ button. We celebrate mom being cancer-free for 14 years now (YEAH!!), but I will never forget that time in our lives.

Fast forward past college and grad school to the first job of my Social Work career. Remember how deeply I feel? Compassion and empathy are wonderful things, except when you don’t know where to put them. I listened to and witnessed terrible things in the lives of broken families. I thought I would be a great therapist because my emotional ‘off’ button was so strong. But I didn’t realize the necessity of being able to release those feelings at some point in some way. All I did was internalize every intense emotion I felt because, of course, I couldn’t scream or cry while leading a therapy session. I also was afraid to let out the intense emotions at home. Sometimes I would go days without talking to my roommate because I thought if I let one tear fall, the dam would break. It takes a very special person to know how to grieve with hurting people while still maintaining a professional distance, and I was not that person. I was a miserable, ticking time-bomb of pent-up emotion. To top everything, during those two years, all three of my surviving grandparents passed away. I felt that since I didn’t cry when my first grandparent passed away, I shouldn’t cry when the others did. I also used work as an excuse to stay busy and not grieve. Even if we took time off, the work still had to get done, just in fewer hours, so I would take the calls that they had passed away and go straight back into whatever meeting I was in at the time. I would take very quick trips to Pennsylvania for the funerals and straight back to work. The one time my ‘off’ button almost failed was when the family was saying our final goodbye after our last grandpa’s funeral. I watched as what I had always perceived as the less emotional side of my family just fall apart. It was almost my undoing. But I mostly held back the tears and headed back to Tennessee.

That’s the day it all went down. I was exactly halfway between my two homes in the middle of nowhere West Virginia when I had my first panic attack. I remember thinking maybe I just needed to eat something so I stopped and tried to stomach a couple chicken nuggets before throwing the rest away. I kept driving but felt like I might have a heart attack or pass out. I remember trying to find the nearest hospital but I couldn’t find it and driving around was making the feeling worse. I was shaking uncontrollably and I truly thought my heart could stop at any moment. I stopped at a gas station and asked the attendant for the address so I could call an ambulance for myself. Riding alone in an ambulance to an unfamiliar hospital where no one I knew was waiting for me is something I never want to experience again. They told me I was having a panic attack and prescribed Xanax, but told me I couldn’t take it and drive. A kind nurse drove me back to my car and my wonderful friends talked to me on the phone as a distraction for the four more hours until I was home. After continuing to numb my emotions with medication, I went back to work the next day.

Later, I tried to describe the feeling of my continued panic attacks in a song called Replenish, that you can listen to here. It always amazes me just how often in my life I have needed the songs God has given me. He always knows best!

"Lord, what is happening to me?
Sometimes I feel I can't even breathe
Shaken to the core til I can shake no more
I close the lid on my heart.

Won't you come and break my seal?
Expose me so that I can heal
Anoint the altar of my shattered dreams
And replenish my supply with you.

The question's always, 'how are you?'
Why can't I tell them the truth?
A simple, 'I'm just fine'
Though I'm dying inside
Tightening the lid on my heart

Won't you come and break my seal?
Expose me so that I can feel
Anoint the altar of my shattered dreams
And replenish my supply with you.

Afraid to overflow, I keep pushing it down
My breath is running out as I start to drown
God, please pour me on the altar of my shattered dreams
Accept these broken pieces as my offering
Please breathe new life into me
And hold me in your arms til I can shake no more
And replenish my supply with you
I am healed by only you."

If you’re interested, you can also listen to the song I wrote as a tribute to my grandparents called Grandma’s Chair and Grandpa’s Song.

Even though, as the song says, I longed for God to break me open so I could let some of these feelings out, I still couldn’t allow him to do so. I was too afraid. I continued with the emotion-numbing medication throughout the rest of that job. I never spoke openly about my emotions bottled up from that job and my grandparents, or really any other emotion in my life….

Until I met Jason. Something about this man made me feel free to open the vault of my heart. He was so understanding, allowing me to cry in his arms. I suddenly wanted to share the depths of my soul with someone, the good and the bad! I was so grateful to finally have a bit of an outlet, but I was still hiding from everyone else. It’s a die-hard habit.

And then my illness hit. My doctor told me this week that many autoimmune diseases are triggered by some type of trauma. He says the body tries to fight off your emotional stress but there’s nothing to fight off so it attacks itself. I’m not saying that to be true for everyone, but for me, the timing is exactly right.

Life after those two stressful years was awesome. I had a job that I loved, I was living in my favorite town, and I met and married my amazing husband. But I was still stuffing my emotions with the sheer force of my will. Until my physical self broke. Once the thing you can still use to hide your emotions wears out, the ‘off’ button doesn’t work quite so well anymore. I’ve spent so much energy fighting my physical body that I no longer have enough energy to fight off the emotions.

Christmas of last year is when the dam broke. If you’ve ever seen the third Hunger Games movie, I felt just like that scene where they light explosives, the dam crumbles, and the water spews out with enough force to drown or severely maim those in its path. We tried to travel to Pennsylvania to spend Christmas with my family. I haven’t been well enough to go there in ages. I don’t know what I was thinking. Of course I couldn’t do it, but we tried anyway. That’s when we found out that not only was I very sick, but our dog gets carsick. We got an hour away and had to come back. Since we planned to be gone, we didn’t have any food in the house. I knew I had to go get groceries before completely falling apart so I tried to immediately go back out the door. I didn’t realize that our dog had been so traumatized by the day’s events that she tried to follow me out and I almost shut her in the door when she yelped in pain. I knew I hadn’t really hurt her badly, but that was the last straw. Something inside me snapped, shattered, collapsed, burst. I fell on the floor next to her wailing that I was so sorry, and then I moved from that to yelling that I hated myself and my body. I was so tired of being sick and couldn’t take it anymore. I screamed at the top of my lungs that I wanted to die and I hated God for doing this to me. I recoil at this picture of myself and I’m still shaking as I type this. Who knows if I’ll have the guts to actually publish this. I tried to get to the bedroom so my husband wouldn’t see me like that but both he and the dog followed me, mostly so she could hide in her crate while momma had a complete meltdown. I sobbed and wailed and yelled at God so much my throat hurt and I thought I might pass out. Jason was amazing. I thought perhaps a trip to the psych hospital or concern for the neighbors crossed his mind, but he just held me and prayed over me. Eventually my dog came out of hiding and licked my tears.

My emotional ‘off’ button hasn’t quite been the same since then. Years of habit and fear of vulnerability still cause me to try and hold back the feelings, but I’m too tired. And now I have a love/hate relationship with vulnerability. I have discovered the wonderful gifts that come with sharing the deepest corners of my heart with people. I deeply love. It’s impossible to tell someone you love them without being vulnerable. And vulnerability leads to an even deeper mutual love. Illness has forced the protective shell around my heart to shatter and it feels better each day. It’s incredibly scary and I hate it but I love it. The old me still tries to rebuild the protective walls while the new me and God work to tear them down. The namesake of this blog, “Beautiful Rubble”, comes from a song God gave me called, “Brick by Brick“.

"Brick by brick, I was building up my cold, hard walls
Brick by brick, you chipped away and watched them fall
I once stood in the beautiful rubble 
Of my own cold and heartless walls
Too afraid to leave them that way 
Too afraid of the pain it might cause
So brick by brick, I lay them as you tear down.

Bruised and battered, my heart once shattered 
As tears flowed from another's eyes
Through visions of this aching world, wept until the tears ran dry
Longing for comfort, I cling to the lie that pain can't touch a calloused heart
The mortar of my jaded emotions filled up the cracks of my stone.

Brick by brick, I'm building up my cold, hard walls
Brick by brick, you chip away and watch them fall
I once stood in the beautiful rubble 
Of my own cold and heartless walls
Too afraid to leave them that way
Too afraid of the pain it might cause
So brick by brick, I lay them as you tear down.

This unfeeling stone has been here too long
I'm not even sure I can feel anymore
Numb from the pain I see all around
I wonder how long til the bricks tumble down
Break my heart once again for the pain that breaks yours
Replace the cold stone with your living warmth
Use the hammer that nailed you to that tree
Til my heart is alive once again.

Brick by brick, I was building up my cold, hard walls
Brick by brick, you chipped away and watched them fall
Now I'm standing here in the beautiful rubble of my own cold and heartless walls
I want to see with your selfless eyes and feel with your tender heart
So brick by brick, I lay them at your feet
Pierce my heart with the nails that caused you such pain
I lay it at your feet
I lay the bricks and my heart at your feet."

Tears still spring to my eyes when I think of the awful things I said to God but he already knew my feelings and he knows how deeply sorry I am. Even when I was beating up on him on the floor of our bedroom, he was holding me and loving me. I am relieved and overjoyed to stop hiding from him and others. I want people to know how I feel about them. I love hugs and saying, “I love you”, but I’ve always been too afraid to initiate them. How sad! The people that I love so fiercely need to know! I am slowly learning to let my emotions come out. It’s not easy. It’s terrifying and sometimes still makes me feel weak. But when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). Another great quote from Brené Brown, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” Vulnerability is just another gift my illness is giving me. Thanks be to God.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brené Brown

I lay the bricks and my heart at Your feet. Amen.

 

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Food, Fellowship, and the Isolation of Chronic Illness

My relationship with food is tenuous at best. To me, food is more of a stress and hassle than it is an enjoyment. I have never liked to cook. In fact, I pretty much hate it with a passion, second only to grocery shopping which, unfortunately, is required for cooking. A form of torture for me is navigating the grocery store aisles under the dizzying fluorescent lights through the faces of people I should probably recognize but can’t put my finger on, and THEN lugging 20 bags of groceries up the stairs at home (all in one trip, ideally!), putting them away and then having to decide what to cook for dinner and actually cook it. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

Oh, the irony of my life. Chronic illness and food sensitivities require a lot more time in grocery stores and the kitchen. I know that I am severely wheat intolerant so I have been gluten-free for about a year and a half. Thankfully, the universe is becoming more respectful to those of us with this particular sensitivity and many food labels say ‘gluten-free’. Such a blessing. However, I am also currently dairy-free while I try to get my stomach lining to heal. At one time I also had egg and corn sensitivities so I try to stay away from those as much as possible. Much to my dismay, I believe I have discovered that chocolate makes me itch. So subtracting all of these things from my diet doesn’t leave me with the means to throw together easy meals. I’m so inflamed that at any point I could react to any food, no matter how healthy, even just eating a vegetable. Putting anything in my mouth at any moment is a complete gamble. Hence, my growing fear and hatred of food. It’s not a very healthy attitude, but really, what can be expected?

Even more irony in the lives of those with chronic illnesses is that we are often too tired to cook but healthy cooking requires so much more thought, planning, and effort. I’m so thankful we have very tall kitchen chairs because when it gets really exhausting I can sit in front of the stove. We also cook almost every meal as opposed to being able to go out. Going out means risking not being able to find anything free of our particular problem foods on the menu, or cross-contamination with those foods. Going to someone’s house for dinner means risking our host not understanding that she/he cannot put our food on the same surface as bread, or not knowing that things like soy sauce and tomato soup actually have wheat in them. It’s so much easier just to stay home.

Hence the isolation. Food is often associated with fellowship. I dare you to find a gathering of people without some sort of food involved. If we get together with friends, it’s likely over a meal. I don’t often go out to dinner with people because it’s expensive to eat just a bowl of lettuce and I’m usually too sick to go anyway. I do not go to anyone’s house because I don’t trust that they know enough about hidden wheat (and why should they, really?). I don’t have people over because cooking is so difficult for me and entertaining is so exhausting. I’ve declined enough invitations that the few people who ever asked have stopped. I truly cannot remember the last time I just hung out with someone other than my husband. I pushed people away. Some pushed back (for which I am eternally grateful), but most didn’t. Sometimes I feel like people are just waiting until I get better without realizing how much time has passed and that I may never get better.

Food is almost as much about relationships as sustenance. Even Communion is a different experience for me. I confuse the server every Sunday at church when I only take the juice and not the bread (I either take the gluten-free stuff provided, bring my own, or only take the juice). And while the style of going forward to dip the bread in the juice is a beautiful practice, I cannot participate. I’m truly not complaining. I like to watch and I would never want to take away from anyone else’s worship experience. It simply is what it is.

My illness has strained some of my closest relationships and I fully admit that some of this is my own doing. While I am slowly learning to be more vulnerable, there was a time that I hated it with every fiber of my being. I also dare you to find anyone ‘prior illness’ who ever saw me cry. When my illness started to affect my everyday life, I didn’t want to admit that I needed my friends. I didn’t want to bring them down with my woes, and I was also having a big-ole pity party. Now, I’ve decided to take the risk of saying all of these things ‘out loud’ so that perhaps others who feel the same way will not have to take the same risk. If I’m painfully honest, with the exception of a very few all-weather friends, I feel mostly forgotten.

On the other hand… oh, the beauty of the other hand! The treasured relationships I have found through my illness have been life-giving to my soul. A new friend of mine calls these gifts “friends in sorrows”. I LOVE that sentiment. There is something about a shared difficulty that forms a much deeper bond.  Because of my own struggles, my heart feels so much more attached to those who have their own struggles. I promise I would take every ounce of pain from them if I could, because I know. I understand. And my heart hurts so deeply for them. If I could go back to a time before my illness began, but have to give back these ‘friends in sorrows’, I would not do it. They are much too precious to me.

So what is the point of my long food lament? I guess I just want to give voice to the world of food allergies and chronic illness and the isolation that often accompanies them. My message on behalf of those of us who suffer from illness is this.

– We’re still here. God hasn’t called us home yet so please don’t forget us. We understand that ‘regular’ life goes on, but we already miss out on so much. Don’t make us miss you too.
– Although the thought is sometimes unbearable, we may never get better. So please stop waiting for that day to be a part of our lives. We need you NOW.
– We may not be able to eat with you. But that’s not the only form of fellowship available. A text/message in the middle of the day letting us know we’re in your thoughts and prayers means infinitely more to us than an elaborate meal.
– We may try to push you away because we’re afraid you will break our hearts by running away. And yes, we realize the irony of this but that doesn’t make it any less true. We also may be afraid to be vulnerable or look weak so it’s easier to hide.
– Our illness has likely made us fragile in many ways. Please try to understand when we are moody. It is very likely just re-directed pain. We don’t mean it and quite often beat ourselves up later for being such storm clouds.
– You don’t have to be afraid to talk to us about your struggles just because you perceive ours as greater. It’s not a contest and your pain is just as important.
– At the same time, we are exhausted from fighting our own battles so we need you to offer us the same courtesy of lifting our burdens. We are not strong enough to carry both yours and ours unless you help.
– Nothing means more to us than hearing that you love us, you are thinking of us, and you have taken our struggles to the Lord. Nothing. Hearing someone pray for us is more life-giving than we can put into words.
– Please be our friend in sorrows. For that is when the deepest bonds can form.

1 John 1:7 says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son, purifies us from all sin” (NIV). Notice it doesn’t say anything about food being a requirement for fellowship. God may change the way we fellowship, and that’s OK. I’m not so much a fan of food anymore. It’s not important to me. My true, life-giving soul-sustenance is the fellowship of those who walk alongside me in the light. Love and blessings to all of you.

“A friend loves at all times” – Proverbs 17:17a (NIV).
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