I’ve really only had one, true social work job, but it was my dream job. As I lay down to bed on the day that I applied to be a case manager with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, I could not go to sleep – so giddy was I. The only thing that compared were those last few nights before Christmas, when I would sleep on the top bunk in my brother, Patrick’s room, the glow of Christmas lights reflecting on the ceiling. Being a case manager was just exactly what I wanted to do. I loved the holistic nature of social work and delighted in the idea of sitting down and setting goals with my clients and advocating on their behalf as needed. Somehow that role seemed to pair my scientific, analytical mind with my heart of compassion. While I was not the 45-year-old married black woman with kids my supervisor was hoping I would be, I was very motivated. However, one of my least favorite responsibilities as case manager, was having to check the apartments of the ladies in our program. It was a transitional housing program for homeless women and children, and each week I had to enter each apartment and go through a list of items to make sure everything was being kept up. On one such afternoon, I stood, clip-board in hand, and cast my gaze about the living room and kitchen, being eyed by the lady of the house who did not seem pleased. I came to learn that she did not appreciate my use of the clip-board, it was a “trigger” for her. The truth is, I scoffed at that. I really need the clipboard if I’m going to write on the paper, I thought. What’s the big deal? Let’s just say that learning about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) triggers was all new to me. I had the, “get over it,” attitude. That was, until I entered the bathroom of a tall building downtown one day, on my way to a meeting. As I opened the door to the bathroom, I was caught off guard by a smell I could not place, but immediately seemed delightful to me. I was smiling and I didn’t know why. I sat on the toilet trying to place the smell. It wasn’t actually a particularly nice smell, but so unbelievably familiar I realized. And then it hit me – it was the exact smell of my Nana, well not her so much as whatever powder she used. And that is when I realized that I had gifts I have never calculated. How many times have little things “triggered” joyous memories in my life? Something as small as the sound of a chain saw – that brings me delight like I can’t tell you. That is the sound of my growing up with my dad in the back yard cutting wood. For me that is an entirely wonderful memory and I still to this day repeatedly derive joy from that sound that causes memories to come flooding back. What I soon realized, is that for many of the women in our program, their life was replete with awful memories and a whole series of triggers that brought the terror of past days, flooding back with vengeance. For this particular woman, I was not the case manager holding the clip board checking her apartment, I was the husband that beat her and abused her so viciously that she had fled for her life with her son, as far away as she could get – she hadn’t cleaned their home well enough, and she was going to pay.
In the case of PTSD, a traumatic event or events occur which elicit powerful physiological and emotional responses. These responses are often appropriate given the event. However, once the traumatic situation has passed, there may still be “triggers” associated with the trauma that elicit a similar intense response, only now these responses hinder a person’s ability to live life. A person’s response to the trigger is automatic – there is no thinking through the situation and how to respond, there is only instantaneous reaction. So I’m clearly no expert in PTSD, but I have come to see that whether or not I have any official diagnosis, there are things that just set me off, and I just respond in a predictable way, There are roads I have traveled so often, they are gouged out with deep ruts. There are ways that I respond that have been repeated so many times, that there has become an entrenched pattern. My response is not thought out and carefully considered, it is automatic. I liken it to a freeway. A big wide smooth road has been laid out which allows you to go really fast. Or it is the drive home from work that you’ve driven so many times, you sometimes wonder how you got there – you were not even conscious of making the turns – having set out, you simply arrived at your destination. I’m guessing there are both psychological and neural/brain science reasons for this phenomenon, but I see in myself too, sinful patterns. There are ways that I think about things or respond to things that are deeply entrenched in me. Some people defend themselves the millisecond you begin to bring something up. Some people immediately shut down in a group setting. Some people are quick to blame others, and some people are quick to heap the blame on themselves.
A powerful pattern in my own life is perfectionism and self-sufficiency. Nearly every single thing I approach, is looked at, both consciously and unconsciously, from the view that what must be done, must be done with absolute excellence and additionally, I should be able to accomplish that. So was it my parent’s fault for instilling a good work ethic in me? Was it my 9th grade geometry teacher, Mr. Stroud, who would lean on the over-head projector, big glasses at the tip of his nose, and repeated, “Strive for Excellence.” Is it the sin of pride? What I know, is that I am made in the image of the One True God and am thus deemed glorious and I am a fallen, broken, sinful creature. The good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly, are all mixed up and intertwined. My tendency toward perfectionism and self-sufficiency has accomplished a lot of wonderful, really great things in my life and comes in handy every single day. It is also my undoing. It is also the source of my absolute raging angst and unrest. At my core, I still believe I should be able to do everything and I should be able to do everything really, well. And when all my efforts fail and are insufficient, I am just straight-up mad. I mean I tried really hard, and it still didn’t work! I distinctly remember as a teenager, thinking that surely if I just kept trying every angle to convince my parents to let me do something, it would work. If I just kept pushing, I could make my way through. perseverance, strategizing – they can be great things, but sometimes they are obnoxious and sometimes it’s really just manipulation. Sometimes seeing the big picture and a hundred steps down the road will get you a really great paying job at a big company and sometimes it is the very “strength,” that becomes your weakness because a poopy diaper equals the death of your child.
Up until last fall, when I heard the phrase, “a gentle and quiet spirit,” my initial gut response was always, “No thank you!” For me that phrase was equivalent to all the weak, push-over, meek, church ladies I had ever known. You know the ones who still wear the giant glasses, no makeup and spray their bangs up? The skinny ones wearing calico dresses and are the pastor’s wives? The ladies who think lace and mauve are the best? Gross, just totally repugnant to me. I was a tom boy. I’m the one who carried the 50 pound box of nails up the hill, over and over again on our mission trip in Papua New Guinea. I might not have the best hair but I know not to do that to my bangs. And I am not going to sit back and never speak up. At my core I believe in, “buck up!” I relish my Irish heritage and brawling, partying loud mouths make sense to me. But you know God, He likes to sneak things up on you. I think He just relishes making you want somethings you said you’d never want. He’s done this to me before. I moved to California, became a Resident Director and married a younger guy – three things I had emphatically proclaimed would never be. And so it was that last fall the Lord planted those words, “a gentle and quiet spirit,” in my heart. I found, mysteriously, that I actually wanted that. But the Lord was opening my eyes to the beauty of those words. He began to show me that gentleness was an outflowing of a person who had been broken – who had come to truly know their fallenness, their sinfulness, their finiteness. They themselves had come to be in a position of needing to be dealt with gently, compassionately, so broken were they by things out of their control and by their own failings. And perhaps the quietness of spirit too, comes from that same brokenness, that same deep-seated utter awareness that I am human, and I really do need God. I am in desperate need of God because I see how utterly wretched my sin really, really is. I am in desperate need of God because I have seen that I am not in control of my circumstances. There is a way in which the words of scripture become known, not by the mind as with memorization, but with the gut, with the core, with the fundamental innards of who we are.
On the night I wrote the last post, I cried out to God. “Lord, you HAVE to help me!” Yes, I am fully aware of finiteness, my sinfulness, my weakness, my insufficiencies and I see you Lord as the One in control, as good, as loving, as merciful.” I do embrace the truths of who the Bible says I am and who God is and both my need for Him and His generous, gracious meeting of my need in Christ. I know a whole lot of Bible verses and I actually believe them, and it is not enough. “Lord, show me in practical, tangible ways how to live out the truths of your Word I hold so dear. “Father, please create in me a quiet heart, help me to truly rest in You. Help me to learn the practice of incorporating the hope of your promises into the tangible activities of my life. Lord, how do I do that? I know it is by your Spirit being at work in me, but show me, show me how to rest. I cannot go on this way, in this raging swirl of anger and sorrow.”
It was 1:30 in the morning and I lay in bed with the lights on. I was blasted tired. But for some reason I thought that would be a good time to pick up the stapled papers a friend had sent in the mail. I’d had the papers for probably a week and a half and had opened them, noting they were some sort of Bible stuff that I’d have to look at a time when I was in the mood. I wasn’t so sure I was in the mood, but picked them up anyway. “Peace, be still”:Learning Psalm 131 by Heart,” is the title, an excerpt from David Powlison’s book,”Seeing With New Eyes.” “Peace, be still,” seemed a good start. I began reading, “This person (David who wrote Psalm 131), is quiet on the inside because he has learned the only true and lasting composure. He shares the details of what the peace that passes understanding is like. Amazingly, this man isn’t noisy inside. He isn’t busy-busy-busy. Not obsessed. Not on edge. The to-do list and pressures to achieve don’t consume him. Ambition doesn’t churn inside. Failure and despair don’t haunt him. Anxiety isn’t spinning him into free fall. He isn’t preoccupied with thinking up the next thing he wants to say. Regrets don’t corrode his inner experience. Irritation and dissatisfaction don’t devour him. He’s not stumbling through the mind field of blind longings and fears. He’s quiet.”
At that point I laughed out loud. “Really God? You’re funny.” I had just minutes before specifically asked for tangible help learning how to live life with a quiet spirit and right in front of me was a description of a wound-up person that sounded a lot like my noisy, raging heart. Right there was something to begin the process of learning to rest in the Lord. Thank you God for hearing my plea. The next paragraph reads, “Are you quiet inside? Is Psalm 131 your experience too? When your answer is No, it naturally invites follow-up questions. What is the “noise” going on inside you? Where does it come from? How do you get busy and preoccupied? Why? Do you lose your composure? When do you get worried, irritable, wearied, or hopeless? How can you learn to regain composure? Do you need to learn it for the first time? We’ll get to these questions, because they are what Psalm 131 answers.”
I need some STRATEGERIE! When I was a kid I read a book about Pocahontas and the thing I remember most was the morning ritual the people had where they would greet the sunrise. I have always wondered, “Lord, how, from the moment my eyes open, do I orient my heart and my day to You?” Because I know, if I don’t address the direction of my heart and thoughts immediately, they are simply off and running. Within 5 seconds of beginning my day, I am already pacing through my list of things to do and strategizing how I am going to accomplish everything and be everywhere I need to go, on time. Again, this pattern of mine, has enabled me to accomplish a lot in my life. But it’s also robbed a lot from me. This pattern also is saturated in worry, and pressure. I expect a lot of myself, and I don’t have a lot of grace for failure. When I fail, I should have tried harder. I hold myself to an impossible standard. The saddest part of it all is that it not only hurts me, it hurts the people around me. I remember absolutely bellowing at Allistaire last winter when she decided to take the long way down the hill to the car rather than the more direct stairs. “We’re late!” I lashed as I hurriedly and roughly forced her into the car seat, and for the next five minutes, preached on the virtues of speed and the importance of not being late, blah, blah, blah. And for the next 20 minutes I seethed that we were late again and seethed that I was such a wretch and Allistaire cried in the back seat. Her path, versus my preferred path to the car, might have a 30-60 second time delay. So you see, it’s not just cancer that has me all wound up. Cancer just amps up my already underlying issues. My reactions in the face of cancer are exponentialized versions of my normal patterns. It is all just makes me sick to my stomach and just heaps on more guilt and more despair and I am desperate for the Lord to show me another way to live. How do I live the life of rest in my spirit that I know you have for me? How do the truths of your word more deeply and thoroughly direct my heart and actions? There are so many evidences in my life of how far the Lord has brought me, but boy am I often overwhelmed at how far I have to go, at how entrenched are my patterns of sin.
So ultimately, the answer to Romans 7 is, “wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” I take great joy in the hope of knowing Christ, but I was still asking the Lord for some tangibles. “But what do I do, Lord?” There is a lot to contemplate in Psalm 131 but the thing that stuck out to me that night was this, “Lord, my heart is not proud, and my eyes are not haughty, and I do not go after things too great and too difficult for me.” Those words just burst off the page to me, “I do not go after things too great and too difficult for me.” I have been trying to keep Allistaire alive! Too great and Too difficult for me! Now, I know rationally that I have no ability to determine if Allistaire lives or dies, but I live out my daily responsibilities with the absolute weight of life and death. Why am I so angry with Allistaire when she doesn’t eat? Because it is all tied up with the fundamentals of keeping her alive. Every single responsibility gets directly linked to the weight of her possible death. I get it, I get it, I know I just need to calm down, but how? The Lord showed me that He will help me to see what are the responsibilities He has given me. He said He would help me sort through what is my task and that of the doctors, and what is His. Rather than approaching meal time with the weight of her life, or the even lesser, but still awful weight of potentially needing a feeding tube, the Lord can show me what He has entrusted to me. My responsibility is really as simple as purchasing and storing good food, preparing it for her, providing a reasonable amount of time to consume the food and encouragement to do so. That’s it! I can’t make Allistaire eat! What a novel idea. In that moment the Lord freed me up to choose to look only at what He’s given me. When the diarrhea comes or she throws up after an hour and a half of eating dinner, what is mine? What has the Lord given to me to do? I rub her back and speak kindly to her as her entire dinner falls into the trash. I clean her up and give her a new diaper. I make sure I put on diaper cream so her little bottom won’t get raw. I make a note of how frequently she vomits or poops and in what circumstances. I am faithful to convey the information to the doctors. They determine what to do with the reality at hand. It’s not my responsibility to determine if this is GVHD or a lingering virus. It’s not my responsibility to weigh the pros and cons of immune suppressing steroids. It’s not mine to determine if this cancer will take her life or not.
For the past four days I have not yelled at Allistaire. Really, I haven’t, I mean at all. And this, is literally, a miracle, an act of God working through His Spirit in my heart. This one tangible step is helping me to practice the truths of scripture. It is a beginning. It is a gift. The last four days have been quite lovely with Allistaire and I have felt much more light-hearted. My spirit’s angst has been smoothed down. I’m going to keep asking Him to reveal to me those practical ways that will help form new patterns and paths in my heart and mind. My flesh over the years has ground down deep ruts – habits of heart and habits of actions. I am weary, sick to death, of those destructive paths. I want to go the way of the Lord. I want to know, in practice, what it is to walk with Christ. How I long for the day, when it can be sincerely said, Jai is a woman with a quiet and gentle heart. That would be no less of a miracle than Allistaire being cured of cancer. Lord hear my prayer.