Potatoes and Grace

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 103:6

 The year was 2007. In the middle of the produce aisle, I smiled sheepishly at the camera while holding ten bags of potatoes. I wanted to mark this occasion with something tangible. I had just lost one hundred pounds and was the smallest I had ever been in my adult life. Always my willing accomplice, Terry passed me the bags as I held in each hand five ten-pound bags of potatoes.  As the camera clicked, I promised myself I would never again carry these “potatoes”, full of yellow globby fat. But promises to yourself can be broken, and in a few years, ounce by ounce, and later pound by pound, I was carrying those potatoes and more. I don’t remember being aware of gaining weight or when I needed to buy new clothes. I don’t remember ever discussing it with my husband. I just knew that, at one time, I felt thin and then I didn’t. Research has shown that fat cells have memory, and within those yellow fat cells lived years of memories of shame and hopelessness that I didn’t deal with until recently.

Last week, the calendar marked the official start of fall accompanied by a cool breeze blowing in my open windows. Pumpkin Spice has tantalized my taste buds for weeks, and fabric pumpkins and acorns are scattered throughout my home. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know I celebrate each fall with gusto. It is my favorite season where the colors, smells, and sounds combine to form a harmony that makes my world brighter, clearer, and cozier.

 I am in disbelief that 2022 is close to three-quarters of the way done. The year has been a whirlwind of family celebrations: Maggie’s and Will’s wedding with family and friends, birthday parties, and the arrival of a beautiful granddaughter. I can also see some things that I haven’t accomplished. Besides doing research, I have barely touched the memoir I am writing. We still haven’t found a place to move into, which makes my life seem in a holding pattern. I haven’t been spending as much time outside as I had last year. And I haven’t been able to get consistently back into the habits of eating healthy and exercising.

In the past, I’ve discussed the importance of reminding myself I am on a journey and to show myself grace. These are truths that I hold onto and would encourage my friends if they shared similar struggles with me. I have solid reasons as to why some of these things have not been happening. I was consumed with the wedding for the first half of the year. I pushed myself during that season, causing my RA to flare, depleting my energy, and leaving my body struggling to move. I have also been doing a lot of internal work dealing with my past. This has consumed a good portion of my emotional energy. All these reasons are good and plausible explanations.

 But my clothes are tighter, my face is fuller in the mirror, and I am losing some of my strength and flexibility. This reality and my plausible explanations are forcing me to ask myself some hard new questions. When do explanations become excuses, and when does the journey look like I’m turning the wrong direction? When does not recording my food choices and hitting the snooze on my alarm become a sign of avoidance instead of engagement? When does grace look like enabling myself to stay where I am, comfortably eating to soothe myself with hard emotions, and sleeping to avoid doing hard things?

 I’ve learned a lot about myself on this journey to better health. One of the areas I have discovered is that I didn’t have an awareness of my body. I wasn’t aware of the space I took up, often stepping into other’s personal space or bumping into things resulting in unexplained bruises. In the gymnastics unit of PE, I recognized that I couldn’t do anything on the uneven parallel bars. But I wasn’t aware of my awkwardness when channeling my inner “Mary Lou Retton” in the floor exercise routine. For years, I blissfully walked around without any discomfort until my friends pointed out that my socks were sideways on my feet.

After doing some research, I realize this was a result of my childhood. Often when a child experiences trauma, they can cope with the abuse by dissociation. This affects memories, emotional attachment, and, in my case, awareness of your body. I disconnected my mind from my body by not paying attention to signals of pain, discomfort, and fluidity of movement. This coping helped me to not only ignore the painful abuse but also avoid the truth of my morbid obesity.

                By inviting God into this weight-loss journey, and with regular exercise, Pilates, and some deep breathing techniques, I am rediscovering my sense of space. I feel like I move differently, step more lightly, and pay more attention how my socks fit on my feet. Although I still get the unexplained bruises, I am fluid when I work out, feeling less awkward and less unsure of how to move. Along with this self-awareness comes the awareness of the weight slowly creeping back on. I feel the weight clinging to my body, feeling more bloated than I did 150 pounds ago. And that’s a good feeling, one that I am grateful for: a good God who loves me enough to address hard things.

 God doesn’t use shame tactics or feelings of contempt to address any areas in my life. Instead, as I draw closer to Him by indulging in the spiritual disciplines, I will be less inclined to indulge in the bowl of caramels sitting on my counter. When I set my alarm at night, I will ask God to be with me when I work out in the morning. As I eat my meals, I will thank God for the good gift of nourishment and pleasure, trying to be aware of feeling full and satisfied. But all these things involve some movement of mine towards Jesus: I draw closer, I set my alarm, I ask God, I thank God and I pay attention. My movement positions me to receive from Him all I need from Him.

Grace is not just about showing myself kindness when things are hard. As Max Lucado says, “Grace is the voice that calls us to change and then gives us the power to pull it off.” My whole life, not just my healthy journey, is positioning myself to receive from Jesus, to be tapped into His spirit, so that I can change and grow.

Trauma Goosebumps

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18

I brushed my fingers across the surface if the pool, the chilly water shooting shivers through my body. The Nebraska sun beat down with the thermometer reading around 98⁰. “Come on Auntie, jump in, we want to splash you!” cried my niece and nephew. I cautiously stepped down the stairs, feeling the coolness of the water against my skin. I knew that once I was in the pool, I would get acclimated and find the water refreshing. So, I took in a deep breath and plunged underneath. As I popped back up, the water felt invigorating. Immediately, I was splashed by my nephew, and an hour of chasing, splashing, and playing ensued.

As an adult, I hesitate before jumping in the pool. I’m usually waist deep when goosebumps cover my body, pausing to take a deep breath. Every single time, I know in my head that my body will acclimate, after all I’m diving into a pool not January’s frigid Lake Michigan. But for some reason, I freeze, not confident that the law of thermodynamics will work. And this moment of hesitation prolongs my uncomfortably, until I take the plunge.

Author and podcast host Jen Hatmaker posted something on Sunday that I have since read to three different people. Two years ago, she went through an unexpected divorce. She posted that its natural to work through your past dysfunctional patterns and to be “hyper-vigilant to relational danger.” But now that she is in a healthy relationship, she posed these questions: “Are you overreacting to something safe because you are remembering something traumatic? Maybe you aren’t in danger anymore. Perhaps you made it to dry land, and you are safe on shore.”

Hyper-vigilance is a place where I have taken up residence in the past year. I recognized some unhealthy patterns in my life, clinging to narratives that kept me in bondage. Messages like “I’m too much”, “I’m not worth the effort”, “it’s my fault when things go wrong”, and “all criticism is valid” have carved deep canyons in my brain. I have been setting up healthy roadblocks in my life, trying to circumvent these patterns. And it’s been hard work. It involves being curious with myself and examining what are the roots of these beliefs. This examination exposes my trauma response, my beliefs about God, and my beliefs about myself. I then create a new path based on the truth of Jesus and who He says I am. My husband has joined me on this journey, doing his own work, rewriting his own messages. But together, we are repairing and restoring our marriage.

But like the twenty-plus pounds that I have found hanging on in the folds of my skin, old habits are hard to change. Sunday, I responded badly to my husband’s simple honest question about pizza. I perceived his question to be full of innuendoes and judgment, and responded viciously, snapping like a rabid dog, attacking his character with the very tone I accused him of using. After taking a step back, acknowledging that I misread his tones, I brokenly asked, “Can you pray with me, I want to stop responding to you with my trauma lens.” Ten minutes later, I saw the Jen Hatmaker post, confirmation that I needed to see things from a different perspective.

I’m in a safe place with my husband. But like the pool, the waters of safety and trust sometimes feel cold, relieving trauma goosebumps of decades old hurt. I hesitate diving in, holding onto patterns that make me want to escape and not swim. But if I remove the trauma lens and dive into the pool, I can move towards my husband with my whole heart.

Maybe this post doesn’t resonate with you, sounding like therapeutic verbiage with esoteric concepts of safety, trauma, and patterns. Four years ago, I would have said the same thing. But current research indicates that trauma affects the brain, that parental attachment affects all future relationships, and how these patterns distort your way of seeing the world. This research is changing how healthy Christian churches are responding to each other as a body of believers and to our neighbors.

In essence, this research affirms how the gospel changes us. Jesus came to save those lost in dysfunctional patterns of sin leading to death. I may not have caused the trauma or wounding, but I am responsible for how I treat others based on that wounding. This salvation costs me nothing, it is a gift offering me freedom and an inheritance. He’s inviting me into a new way of thinking that sets me free. I no longer believe I’m not enough, or its always my fault. Instead, as I identify with my heavenly Father, I can see myself as He sees me.

Summer is over, and warm days by the pool have come to an end. But those memories of playing in the pool remind me that trauma goosebumps don’t have -to last forever. I no longer need to be “hyper-vigilant” in my relationship with God or my marriage. Instead, I can dive into a place of joy and peace. And that’s how the gospel changes everything!

Past, Present, and Future

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” 2 Corinthians 4:16

I have always seen my grandparents as old. Maybe it was the weathered skin from years of working on a farm, or the age spots from sun exposure. Maybe it was the thinning hair or the fact that they had a grandfather clock. But from the time I was a child, they seemed ancient. They both have since passed, but in doing the math, I am older, now, than my grandmother was when I was born, and only a year younger than my grandfather was. Does this make me old? It does, according to one cheeky young student in our church who guessed my age to be six years older than I am.

Age is an interesting paradox in our society. We seem to gravitate towards wood and metal furniture with the patina of age, giving a piece a curated, aged history. Yet, store beauty aisles are filled with serums and moisturizers promising to eliminate wrinkles, giving our skin the supple glow of youth. We honor the elders who are active contributors to our society but stop visiting those who are in the latter stages of dementia. Some of us seem to fight aging by hanging on to our youth, while others embrace it by closing our minds and hearts to the world around us, slowly waiting for death.

I wrestle in the middle space of wanting to stay active and still embrace aging. How do I keep my mind and body active while aging gracefully? How do I embrace my history, stay in the present, and look to the future when my life is probably half over? I found clarity in the lives of three remarkable people who lived into their eighties and beyond. All three have died, recently, and it’s in their later years that I have found inspiration.

David McCullough signing my book!

In early August, I sadly sent out a text to my family reporting that historian and author David McCullough died. This “National Treasure” as some have labeled him, had written thirteen books, inspiring generations about the American spirit through its innovation, leadership, and courage. I have read all his books, some of which have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I even attended one of his book signings and heard him speak about the Wright brothers. McCullough purposefully chose subjects and persons that contributed positively to society. Once he started doing research on Picasso but found his life reprehensible and couldn’t continue in good conscience. Remarkably, McCullough completed six books since he was sixty-eight years old. These were done by engaging in hours of research, typing drafts on his old Royal typewriter, and editing with the help of his wife. History was his passion because he believed it “is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” In knowing my history, I have a better understanding of who I am and why I respond the way I do. This allows me to move forward with clarity and purpose, unhindered by messages of the past.

Photo Credit Allessia Pierdomenico via Shutterstock

My second remarkable person, Queen Elizabeth II, died last week. The beloved queen lived to be ninety-six years old, making her the longest reigning monarch ever. Some would say that Elizabeth was born into privilege, but she recognized that with this privilege came a lot of responsibility. She faithfully carried out her duties with grace and purpose, exemplified by her meeting with the new prime minister two days before her death. She clearly understood her place in history, but it was in the daily living where Queen Elizabeth II shone. She traveled to many different countries on behalf of her subjects, adapted to the new world in which she lived, and chose to live an honorable life. Yes, she wore beautiful jewels and resided in incredible palaces. But she understood that her life was to serve her country and leave it a better place. She once said, “I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else—I can give my heart and my devotion…” I may not have crowns to wear, but like Queen Elizabeth II, I can choose to serve those around me with my whole heart and devotion. I can choose to be represent well the God I serve by sincerely modeling the life and teachings of Jesus.

This portrait of Herbert Kohler was painted by George Weymouth. Terry and I saw it at the Brandywine Art Museum in Pennsylvania a few years ago.

The last person, Herbert Kohler, might only be recognizable to you if you look at the label of your bathroom fixtures. For me, “Herbie” Kohler was a local celebrity in Sheboygan County where I grew up. He died almost two weeks at age eighty-three. Kohler became the president of his father’s bathroom fixture company at young age. He immediately set out to grow his company by focusing on design, rebranding Kohler to be synonymous with high-end bathroom fixtures. This love for design carried over in remodeling the immigrant housing unit in Kohler into a luxury hotel, the American Club. He then developed two world-class golf courses making Sheboygan County one of the top golfing destinations in the world, hosting several major golf tournaments. A writer at the Chicago Tribune commented that only Herb Kohler could turn “rural farmland into a golf mecca and a toilet into a work of art.” His vision was revolutionary and met with a lot of opposition. But Kohler continued to press forward, making his dreams come true. His vision has added economic value to the place I grew up, but more importantly, Kohler has been generous to the community, including supporting the arts, scholarships and helping the needy. He looked to building the future of his company and community by enriching their lives. His example of vision casting is important. It’s not enough for me to know my history and live well today. I need to be helping future generations by enriching their lives through my contributions.

Maybe you’re not a historian, an anglophile, or care about golf in Sheboygan County, but I believe that if you study these three lives, it can inspire you to end your life well. Some might say they were their most productive in the latter half of their lives, continuing to find ways to be contribute to their communities right until the very end. For me, aging is not something I can stop and with that fact, it’s very possible that my grandson and soon-to-arrive granddaughter will always see me as old. But I find comfort in 2 Corinthians 4:16 where Paul says, “So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” I will never win a Pulitzer Prize, be crowned queen, or have my name on a scholarship. Instead, I am woman who is seeking God to learn from my past, to serve well today, and to help build a place where my grandchildren will thrive and grow. The only way I know how to do this well, is to daily come to Jesus and allow His spirit to renew me. This daily renewal will help me age gracefully!

Reconstruction: Phase Two

“And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong… And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;…” Isaiah 58:11-12

On a regular basis, we passed by the white cottage on the corner, overgrown with shrubbery. The house looked tired and weary: chipped paint, loose chimney bricks, a sunken roof, and a dilapidated porch. Even when we drove by at night, the yellow light inside illuminated the flaws, atmospheric of a bygone era. Yet, I found the house appealing. With a fresh coat of paint, window boxes, and new landscaping, I imagined the house would look inviting and cheerful. I loved the house and secretly hoped that someday I would have the opportunity to buy it.

Three weeks ago, my husband startled me with a warning as we headed out for ice cream, “Sherry, I forgot to tell you. The house you loved is gone.” As we approached the house, he went on to explain that construction trucks had demolished the entire house, including the overgrown foliage. He later saw the entire foundation being filled in with a pile of dirt. Although the dream had been retired because we are planning on moving to a different community, sadness still flooded over me. Today, the land has been staked out for a new house.

I don’t know why the house was destroyed. Maybe its foundation was beyond repair, or the inside was full of mold. Maybe, the new owners liked the location and preferred new construction over restoration. Whatever the case, the demolition crew destroyed the house completely, erasing the very footprint of the house. There was no need for caution as they knocked the walls down, lifting the debris into a truck. Nothing was worth salvaging.

Restoring a house is a completely different process. Typically, the owner looks over the property, decides what is valuable and demolishes what they don’t want. This might mean keeping the beautiful wooden banister of the staircase but getting rid of the paneled walls. It might mean replacing a popcorn ceiling with a vaulted ceiling and wooden beams. It might mean gutting the kitchen and changing the layout of the living room. It’s a process full of costs and analysis, carefully studied and implemented.

The reconstructive journey of my faith commenced on a similar pattern. My foundation was shaky, but still centered on this faith experience I had. I started examining my foundation, replacing any loose stones with truth found in God’s word. My basic doctrine stood strong during this examination, but I felt more structurally sound in what I believed. I kept the commandments of God but vaulted it with mercy and grace. When obedience was combined with mercy and grace, it gave me space to really hear others. I still had principles on which I lived my life, but I changed my response to others. No longer was I focusing on trying to convince people that I was right but instead listened to their stories with curiosity. I also made the choice to be more active in hearing views outside of my small circle of influence. It opened me up to understanding and compassion.

Photo Credit William Diller

For me, the root of all this spiritual reconstruction started at the intersection of suffering and humility. I couldn’t fix my life with the old patterns of applying spiritual Band-Aids to my problems. Instead, I gutted out my agenda and need for control, seeking God in true humility. Rebuilding my faith on humility led to knowledge, but not in the sense of being on expert. Instead, it put me at the feet of Jesus as a student. It is a position I remind myself of regularly because my own way never leads to abundant living.

It is also interesting to me that this spiritual awakening of storytelling, vulnerability, and curiosity happened during a divisive period: a global pandemic, racial strife, political upheaval and the #metoo movement within the church. In times past I would have probably echoed some of the political perspectives, adding to the noise and confusion of this period. Instead, I practiced listening to all sides of the debates, asked questions, and prayed about my responses. I sometimes even shut down the noise by choosing to curate my social media feed, minimizing the algorithms that are meant to entice you.

Maybe interesting isn’t the right word. Maybe it is how Jesus wants me to respond. Didn’t he clothe himself in flesh during a time when the religious elite were demanding a political response? Didn’t he do exactly the opposite of what they expected the Messiah to do? They expected a battle to rid them of their oppressors, but instead Jesus communed with the truly oppressed, listened to their stories, and led them to wholeness.

This journey started with losing weight. As I lost weight, I got rid of the clothes that no longer fit, finding freedom in new sizes. I feel like my reconstruction faith journey has been similar. I am ridding myself of all the patterns I used that didn’t align themselves with God and His character. Instead, by engaging in spiritual disciplines, I am discovering who God is and how He wants me to live. I truly have found freedom in this posture.

Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” These verses remind me that my foundation is Jesus Christ only. I need to be careful how I build upon this foundation. It is important to be part of a body of believers that inspire, encourage, and challenge me in my thinking and conclusions. But ultimately, I am responsible for what I believe. And I need to remain in the position of a humble student, not an expert, at the feet of Jesus.

The house I once loved is gone. But the faith on which my life has stood still stands firm, even if it looks different than it did a few years ago. It’s a journey that I didn’t want to take because it started in a place of suffering, vulnerability, and pride. But as writer Rachel Held Evans said in her book Search for Sunday, “sometimes we are closer to truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties.”

This concludes my four-part series on vulnerability. If this is the first one you have read, I encourage you to go back and read the rest. More importantly, I hope it encourages you to be find a safe place to be brave, to share your mistakes, and to be vulnerable enough to grow in your faith. Please feel free to share this post and comment below.

Reconstruction: Phase One

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

I found the story captivating and the characters compelling. I empathized with the mother’s desperation to find a cure for her daughter. I marveled at the sister’s bravery in defending herself. In the last chapter, I was hoping for a satisfying ending when the author, Jodi Picoult, did the unexpected. As my eyes and brain connected with the words on the page, a guttural sound emerged from me as I threw the paperback across the room. I had the urge to step on the book, stamping out the betrayal I felt. Jodi Picoult had lost me with her ending!

A year ago, I heard Jodi Picoult talk about her ending to “My Sister’s Keeper” on a podcast. She shared that even her son had had a strong reaction saying, “You! You did this, how could you!” But Picoult explained her ending in a way that finally made sense. The family had to have something tragic happen to change their world. This moved them towards reconstructing what a family should be.

Four years ago, I woke with a persistent thought, “It’s time.” I recognized God’s voice, not with a harsh condemning tone, but with a tone full of compassion and encouragement. It was time for me to start addressing some hard things in my life, starting with my weight. I was tipping close to four hundred pounds, finding it more challenging to move around. A year previously, I felt the utter humiliation of my surgeon’s concern about whether I would fit in the MRI machine. Additionally, my blood pressure was out of control, filling me with constant fear of dying young. I knew that I wanted to live, and to do so, I had to address my health. Little did I know that my “It’s time” moment had so much more to do with my spiritual life, not just my physical health.

Pounds started dropping regularly as I made better choices both in food and exercise. But within a few months, my world started crashing, revealing that my professed Christianity was built on a shaky foundation. In the past, I ate bagels and bars to soothe hard emotions. I hid the shame of my morbid obesity by being an over-achiever in church work. I prided myself on the principled, family-oriented life I had constructed. But when this was all stripped away, I felt naked and ashamed. And I no longer understood who God really was in my life or how to move forward. For the first time in my adult life, I felt lost, alone, and unsure. And for the second time in my life, I came to God in utter need, completely broken.

The first time I was broken was in my mid-teens. I had just reported the abuse to a counselor, an arrest was made, and I was navigating life while dealing with post-traumatic stress. Soon afterward, I had a life-changing experience with God, where I was ushered into this faith journey as a Christian. A holy peace transformed my life, giving me hope where I had felt none. It was my starting point, and in my latest crisis, I couldn’t explain away that initial experience.  A recent article* I read included a quote from J.J Packer.  He says in Fundamentalism and the Word of God, “Faith first, sight afterwards, is God’s order, not vice versa, and the proof of the sincerity of our faith is our willingness to have it so.” The faith in my experience, in the integrity of God was the center, and I knew I had to build upon that place.

For the next few years, I started to unpack my beliefs. I discovered my shaky foundation had been supported by structures that emphasized the law of God, ignoring His mercy and grace. I believed in a distant God, who did love me but was more interested in my performance not my relationship. I was afraid to tell God and others that I felt lonely, sad, and angry. I didn’t live the abundant life, and joy manifested as a fake smile to convince God and others that I was content. I equated my political leanings with faith, intertwining conservative thinking with the truths of the Bible.

So many of my beliefs contradicted what I was learning about God. But describing this experience was tricky. Many evangelicals are leaving their faith through a process they call deconstruction. I sometimes wondered if that’s what I was doing, but this trendy hashtag didn’t seem to fit my experience because the one thing I was sure of was a faith in God. A friend of mine connected the dots when she shared about her “journey of reconstructing her faith.” She was rebuilding her foundation by examining God, dealing with trauma and truth together.

 Reconstruction resonated with me.  And I realize this was God’s plan all along. In 1 Peter 5:10, Peter says, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace…will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” Like Jodi Picoult’s ending, this crashing of my world, this persistent urging to deal with hard issues, and this questioning of my faith was to reconstruct my faith. That was the purpose of God’s gentle voice, gently nudging me to wholeness.

 I plan to share with you some more thoughts I have on this reconstruction process in next week’s post. It’s been a journey of discovery, curiosity, and examination. And it is leading me deeper into wholeness and healing.

*The link to the article is included. It is a book review written by Brittany Shields, based on the book Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church.  I have not read the book but will soon.  The article is a good read and helped solidify my position on reconstruction.