Archive | June, 2009

Valley of Hinnom

28 Jun

One of the most interesting sermons I ever heard was on hell – not a topic I particularly wanted to hear about, as I can’t stand the fire and brimstone approach to theology. Instead, I heard a brilliant expose on heaven and hell described as a trajectory of relationship with God. At the bottom end of the spectrum, hell reflects a state of separation from God: the apex of pain, isolation and despair. 

The pastor giving the sermon debunked all my preconceived notions of how theologians perceive hell first by stating that the Hebrew (or Greek) word used in the Bible for hell is Hinnom – an actual valley near Jerusalem where human and animal carcasses were discarded. The horrible stench and squalor of the location became the metaphor for things most foul and thus hell became known as the Valley of Hinnom.

In the sermon, Pastor Ed Noble defined individuals out of trajectory with God as living in hell. Specifically, he described this as alienation and isolation, a state where people either shun God or simply can not grasp what He has to offer. Noble described this state of being as “a smoldering garbage dump of human existence,” and as the product of sin – sin in its true context, which means turning away from God. 

The sermon left an indelible blue print on my heart because as I listened, I knew my mom died in the Valley of Hinnom. Released from jail for a fifth felony DUI, I know without a doubt, my mom felt utterly lost. Despite being a devout Catholic all her life, she couldn’t see Him as a source of redemption and hope. All she saw was financial ruin, not having a driver’s license, her loved ones fed up with her alcoholism and having to start all over again at age 62. And so she despaired. “When I am gone you will not have any more worries or concerns and will be free to carry on your life without any more pain from me,” she wrote to me in a suicide note. She was found dead on the streets from an overdose of amitriptyline, a drug prescribed to her in jail. 

The Pastor’s sermon, brilliant though it was, left me incomplete, as most important probings into the deepest mysteries of our hearts and lives do. Only our belief in God can guide us to any attempt at understanding. And in the caverns of my heart, I search for His hand to pull me from the depths of grief and lack of resolution.

Being around my mom, I feared being sucked into the Valley of Hinnom myself. In the end, I wasn’t the compassionate, gracious presence she needed that may have helped her. But I realize perhaps only God could have redeemed her.

When she died, I was released from a kind of hell. Occasionally, I feel aspects of it – chains I haven’t quite liberated myself from but nothing to the degree I experienced while she was alive. In her death, God did free me. She as well. So my most ardent prayer is that He freed her – took her into His loving arms and soothed her. Gave her comfort – balm in Gilead for her tired soul. The priest who gave the sermon at her memorial service chose Matthew 11:28 for her. “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” 

I believe God spoke to her while she was laying there in the Valley of Hinnom and helped pull her from its stench. Somehow saved her for she never meant to despair – she just couldn’t seem to pull herself out of a self-destructive tide but she was gentle to the bone. As I look at evil in the world around me, I realize she made me good. Her lack of cruelty shaped me, molding me into a being who looks for light not dark; who wants to help others vs. hurt them. 

So Lord, please “provide for those (and for my mother) who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” 

How ironic that my mother once gave me a book called “Beauty for Ashes” hoping God would take from me my despair. My torn garments. My Valley of Hinnom.

Band of Brothers

24 Jun

Bible study aficionado Beth Moore talks about the freedoms that come with a life in Christ. “Breaking free” she coins it. I want to talk about the freedoms that come not only with a life in Christ but a life in companionship with other Christians who genuinely reside in Christ. Specifically, I want to address what it is like to be in relationship (as a woman) with Godly men. I sum it up in one word: “Free.”

For most of my life the opposite sex has represented rough terrain for me. I adored my father, so I’ve always liked men and frankly, I sometimes identify more with men than with women. But I have also carried a certain hyper-vigilance towards men – or at least certain kinds of men – carried over from the past. The conditioned belief is that something will go terribly wrong if I become vulnerable to a man. I can’t necessarily tell you what – but I can tell you something will. So it is better to not get close to men other than those you don’t care about anyway. 

For me, stepping into a Christian community heals and transforms this distortion beyond verbalization, even though it is sometimes still scary. Jesus preached a new way for the sexes to exist with one another; in respect and equality and most important, in unity towards God. Jesus paved the way for I-thou relationships between the sexes vs. I-it relationships, the latter so common when it comes to gender objectification and seduction and betrayal. 

This has helped me enter a new world where I don’t pick up danger on my radar – at least not in the circles I’ve been welcomed into. Being around men who are so solid – so clean in their boundaries and so committed to God and their families – I am beginning to realize – nothing bad is going to happen. At first this is almost confusing and disorienting – but then a HUGE RELIEF.

While this may sound utterly ridiculous to someone who has never had their boundaries violated, it is the ultimate freedom to know that one can be a part of things and that nothing dark or secret or seductive is going to happen. It allows for spontaneity and exuberance and even a healthy vitality often associated with sensuality. In a nutshell, it allows one the safety of a child. In this, I am finding the love and support of a band of brothers vs. a pack of wolves. From this center, I can find me, I can find God and maybe in my own time a partner who first and foremost is my friend.

How I am learning from this group of men; by how they treat women and how they treat me. Words can barely express my gratitude. They are a special brand of brothers made up of some very good men.

Spring Cleaning

21 Jun

I spent yesterday cleaning: a true Spring cleaning – one day prior to summer. I didn’t make the connection about this until after the fact. Nor did I realize I haven’t properly purged my house of “things” since my mom died almost a year ago (the anniversary is July 18th). 

I do however distinctly remember the last time my house truly looked a mess. It was the Monday after the weekend of my mom’s memorial service. After dropping my last relative off at the airport, I arrived home. I had been staying with other people in a house infinitely more aesthetic and spacious than my own, so my living quarters felt as tight and cramped as my heart. Into an already overcrowded space, I carried in plants, the cedar box that had held my mom’s ashes, cards, items from my mom’s apartment and a suitcase. I then sat down and proceeded to cry as I anticipated the love and support that had literarily held me through the week recede like after high tide. I now had to stand alone in grief like a toddler put down after being held too long by her parents. I wanted back “up!” 

Miraculously and creatively, I found places for all the “stuff.” The cedar box that once held my mom’s ashes became the keepsake container for the plethora of cards I received, including my mom’s suicide note that came five days before I received news of her death. I cherish how the box gives me quick access to memories of support and an abundance of love.

Since that time, I have been on a see-saw, bumped between periods of extreme grief or extreme vitality. In-between, cleaning remained off the radar; a low priority until about a month ago when I looked around and noticed (in disgust) the clutter that had accumulated. Piles of books on my desk, couch, floor, laundry basket… stacks of writings and papers about the same – the look of a mad professor or sloth bohemian. Even my kitchen seemed out of whack. Fairly domestic most of my life, I felt ashamed. So, yesterday, it was time to dig in.

The result: A bag of clothes and two boxes of books went to the Good Will along with an unused fax machine and excess strands of Christmas lights. My bulletin board is near empty as are the baskets I keep for magazines and newspapers. The clutter in my head, once an overcrowded waste basket has been taken out to the trash.

Cleaning: it helps us sift through the old, the new, things valued and the junk. It helps us make space for what is to come. Like a pregnant woman, I look forward to the new arrival.

Fathers Be Good To Your Daughters…

11 Jun

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Because Father’s Day is next weekend, I have begun to reflect a little on my dad who died in 2003. Like all little girls, I fell madly in love with my dad because he was the male center of my universe. As John Mayer’s song says about fathers in relations to daughters, “You are the God and the weight of her world…. So fathers be good to your daughters…” 

In many ways, my father was a wonderful dad and in other ways he failed me miserably. But that is a subject for a therapy session not a blog entry. What I do want to say in honor of my father relates to the above photograph taken of he and I when I was in the sixth grade. I was running my first 10k (I don’t remember why he didn’t run it with me) and he was cheering me on for the last stretch of the way. It’s hard to see our faces in this post but if you were to look at the actual photograph, it confirms the adage – “A picture says a thousand words.” In this photo, my father’s face openly communicates his love for me and dispels any doubts that he might not of based on some of his actions.

Dad and I had a history of running together. In the fifth grade, he started training me to keep up with him on his daily jogs. Never the drill sergeant (even though he taught me songs to sing that he learned in the army reserves), he was a tender coach, always telling me, “You can do it. Keep going. You’re doing great. If you can do this, you can apply the discipline in other areas of your life. You can do it.”

I loved our runs. It gave us time to talk. And it satisfied our mutual natures of intensity that needed a physical release and form of mind/body quiet. I loved the feel of my own sweat (I know that sounds gross), the ache in my legs and the smells in the air depending on whether we ran in the morning or at night; on the beach or along Fuerte Street past a chicken ranch, honey suckle and jasmine. I loved the challenge of going uphill (there were lots in our neighborhood) and the glee of coasting down them. I loved my time with him and the feeling that I was special.

Besides providing quality time with my dad, running with him also fostered within me a healthy relationship with both exercise and my body. My dad ran for fun and for a release. Not because he felt he had to or because he was an exercise freak. He used to say, “A healthy body = a healthy mind. It’s all inter-related.” (He was a bit ahead of the mind/body movement). But even more important than this wisdom, dad taught me to love my body. He never chided me about weight or praised me for being thin. He simply said, “A healthy woman is an attractive woman. Guys like girls who are active and natural.” When I came home crying from school one day because some kid said my chest was as flat as a pancake (still is), my dad said, “Honey, don’t worry about it. Boobs are just two flabs of fat that will grow saggy when you age. Be glad you’re just the way you are. You’re perfect the way you are.” 

To this day I have never cared that my chest is flat as a pancake and have taken my dad’s advice that if one eats healthy and exercises, they don’t have to skip meals and deprive themselves of nourishment. My dad did good in this department. I am one of the only woman I know who doesn’t hate her body and this perception has nothing to do with my actual body; it’s simply because he taught me my body is my soul’s house and it is a gift from God. 

Yes, my dad did some major damage to my heart, but in the ways he was good, he was great. 

“Fathers be good to your daughters, daughters will love like you do…” (John Mayer).

Unplugged

10 Jun

I love it when I’m driving in the car and discover a radio station doing a block of music unplugged. I like the sound of musicians just on the piano or just with a guitar. No fuss. Just the simplicity of one instrument and one great voice. 

This week I discovered I too need to unplug. To get back to the basics. To let go of the extra things in my life inhibiting me from hearing my own voice. My own thoughts. In a nutshell, I need to restore a little harmony. 

In psychology, we encourage people to be curious about their symptoms. In doing this, we invite them to see how their distress serves as a wake up call – a sign that something is wrong and needs attention. Rather than berate the symptom, we explore what it communicates. Harping on the symptom just makes it worse; listening to it brings relief. 

Plain and simple – I’m burnt out. A job hazard in my field and for anyone living in the modern world. I am tired from the day to day grind and from not slowing down. So instead of being annoyed with this, I’m trying to listen to the symptom. What do I need? What does my heart and soul want that has been denied? To sleep? Read a book? Walk on the beach? How can I unplug and get back to sweeter music? What can I off-load in my schedule without being irresponsible? How can I slow down? 

How I love the scripture, “Be still and know God.” 

I love it that my cats mirror back to me when I’m not chill enough. All weekend they acted weird and like they were upset with me every time I went out the door. Finally, now that I’m taking some time to do nothing, they are acting normal again. How is it that an animal knows more about things than a human? Maybe their meows were saying, “Be still and know God. How about a little, Lise unplugged?”

Granny’s Dishes

6 Jun

Last night when I returned home from the end of the day, I discovered a large sized box on my door step-step. I was so tired, I forgot about it and almost left it out for the night. When I did bring it in, my cat Hafiz thought it was a new piece of furniture and promptly spread his body across the top of it. This morning, we took a look at the contents. 

My grandmother told me she would be sending me the box. She also told me what she intended to send – dishes I had asked her about with birds painted on them. Now I don’t believe these dishes are particularly fancy or expensive. Never having been married, I don’t know much about china, silver or crystal, but I do know these particular dishes are every day; they consist of coffee cups and dessert plates that Grandma has used daily for at least forty years whereas the valuable dishes come out at dinner parties and holidays. In fact, I think the bird dishes are no longer a complete set due to overuse and possible chipping. But how I love the bird dishes, which is why I asked if I might someday have them.

I love the bird dishes because when I look at one it’s like looking into a crystal ball of memories of the summers I spent with my grandparents in Wisconsin when I was young. Immediately, I’m five years old again, transported to my grandma’s kitchen table while she asks me if I want eggs and bacon for breakfast or toast and raspberries. I see Grandpa look up from his newspaper and reach out his arms to hug me. Or, I’m a little older, helping Grandma clean the bird baths and put suet out for the birds. I look at the dishes and see myself as a young woman, sitting in Grandma’s dining room while on college break. I’m there with a cup of coffee and journal writing, as I look out at the flower beds. The dishes help me reclaim some of the happiest and most meaningful memories of my life.

At 89.5 years old, Grandma is by no means on her deathbed but she has not been in denial at all about her own mortality. She typed up a list of most of the major objects in her home and has asked family members to mark what they would like to have when she is gone so that no one fights about things or feels deprived of something that holds sentimental value. You have no idea what a touching gesture this is to me, for it is not about the things – it is about the memories. It also moves me because in her own way, she is providing an open dialogue and awareness of the passage of life and time.

I’m only forty but have lost both of my parents. My mom took her own life – with that there was no preparation for her departure. My father’s death came with more warning as he had pancreatic cancer, but he was not emotionally capable of verbalizing about his death. He never said what I meant to him or spoke of our fourteen year estrangement, and he only once alluded to the fact that he was going to die. Unlike Granny, he did not prepare his children for loss even practically. I made all the funeral arrangements and ended up contributing to the expenses. 

So when Granny asks me, “what would you like to have?” I don’t find it morbid. I find it deeply touching. In it, I see that Grandma cares that I remember my family heritage. Over the last five years, she has sent me photographs of myself as a baby – photos my parents lost in the chaos of their lives – and my parents’ wedding pictures. She has sent me some of my favorite art in her house and a beloved photograph that used to hang in my father’s law office that he had given her a copy of too. When I look at this photograph, I see my dad at his desk. I see myself as a child coloring or playing secretary while he worked and then the two of us going down the street to Anthony’s and the harbor for dinner. I look at that photograph and remember car trips to the Big Sur and Carmel where the photograph was taken and purchased. The only item I have from when my father died is a photography book called “Steinbeck Country” by Steve Crouch which depicts the same landscape and connects me to my father’s love of it. But out of everything I could have inherited, this means more to me than anything of material value because we read the book together on a regular basis.

I rent a very tiny place to live – the curse of being single in an expensive city I guess. The other day I was in my friend’s kitchen and realized it was the size of my living room. And because my house is small, it is getting kind of cluttered. I have more than outgrown the space although I love the quiet and sweetness of my neighborhood. So the more things my grandmother sends me, the more objects fill the shelves, but it is a clutter I gladly welcome. May as our lives evolve, the treasures of our hearts grow and be preserved. And may I someday pass onto another human being not only granny’s dishes, but all the things she has taught and given me.

A Role Well Played

2 Jun

Sunday I went to a memorial service for a friend of mine who passed away very suddenly. (See post – “Beloved Christiane.”) 

Christiane was a film maker and writer. She directed a few short films, worked as a script supervisor for both t.v. and film and wrote scripts, although she never sold any. It was her life dream to write and direct a film about dolphins, as she was the first female dolphin trainer in San Diego. 

A recurring theme at the memorial service was that Christiane died before making this dream a reality. And indeed it is tragic that she died young, denying the world further creative gifts. But did she fail in her destiny? I don’t think so. 

Recently, my pastor defined destiny as “that which we’re becoming” as opposed to what we do or accomplish. In this sense, Christiane more than fulfilled her destiny for she was constantly growing, connecting, inspiring and reaching out to others. She died impacting numerous people’s lives with her essence – let alone her art. Case in point, I am not the same person after knowing Christiane. Now that is destiny.

It’s ironic that Christiane wanted to make this film about a girl and dolphins. Her script may be beautiful and yet her life is equally script worthy. Her story cinematic. From training dolphins at age 18, to influencing others, to having her ashes scattered with the dolphins in Maui, she left her own legacy. A role very well played.

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