Saturday, August 27, 2016

Twenty - Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

As the plane rose in the sky and the few clouds scattered to make the scene below us visible, Robb promptly drifted off to sleep.  Apparently, planning a massive surprise 20th anniversary vow renewal, reception, and 2nd honeymoon in the middle of a job change while pastoring a church and parenting four kids, followed by four days of beach life can really take it out of a guy.  Who knew?

Alone with my thoughts, I could probably have spent the whole flight going over the trip in my mind, much like I did for the few hours of rest we had after we left the reception.  All I knew then was that I was to pack for four days for a hot beach.  I didn't know where the beach was, but I knew Robb was packing our passports.  It was his last surprise.  The flight would leave early Sunday morning, so we would have just a couple of hours to pack and sleep and then leave the kids in the care of my parents.  I was too overwhelmed to sleep, though, and instead, I spent those few hours going over the perfection of every detail in my mind.  I could not stop smiling.  I think I smiled through the flight from XNA to Atlanta where finally, all the way at the end of the terminal, I saw our destination designated at the gate:  Nassau, Bahamas.

Of course.   Of course he would take me to the Bahamas.  Twenty years ago, he had gone there on his senior trip for college, learning to sail chartered boats around the islands on a grand adventure, while  I was back at home in snowy Pennsylvania.  He bought a handcrafted box with a butterfly on it from the Straw Market there, and used it to hide my engagement ring the night he proposed. Of course he always intended to bring me back there with him.

And it had been perfect.  Just the right mix of adventures and doing nothing.  The water, so clear and blue, the sand so fine and white, the waves smaller and calmer than they are on the Great Lakes.  The all-inclusive hotel provided one delicious meal after another, and enough alcohol to pickle our livers. And the best part, as any other parent of four children could verify, we didn't have to worry about anyone but ourselves.  The lovely Bahamian people have made it their business to make their guests relax and have fun, and they are good at it.

I even got a chance to wear that cute dress I had bought.  It was perfect for our actual anniversary on that Tuesday night, when we followed a delicious dinner of steak and lobster with a moonlit walk on the beach.   We talked about our dreams and hopes for the future, especially as we were about to really start a whole new routine with Robb's new job, working from home, and the kids heading back to school.  I tried again to explain what I was feeling back at the very beginning of this huge surprise... why I asked "Am I dying?"   It was such an odd thing to say. I fumbled for an explanation as we made our way down the soft sand with the beach all to ourselves. 

 "I just feel like I'm due some sadness with all this joy."  

"Why?  We live by grace, Honey, not karma." 

Something about the objectivity of that theological statement settled me, like it often does, and our conversation drifted to other things. 

But, back on the plane on the way home, feelings I didn't quite understand began to build.  My heart pounded as I tried to ascertain what I was seeing below us.  The water was so clear, I could discern what seemed to be shallow water around the edges of land.  But I knew from flipping a jet-ski earlier that morning,  that even though it looked shallow, it was actually quite deep.  As the turquoise turned to dark blue, the vastness of the water frightened me.  What is comforting and relaxing while you curl your toes into the sand -the bigness of the ocean verses the smallness of your problems-  it becomes something entirely different as you fly above it and cannot find the orienting edges of where the water ends and the dry land appears.  I tried to read, but the opening chapters of Dave Egger's book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are nothing short of a parent's nightmare.  The more I tried to calm myself, the more I could feel panic rising.  The thought of waking Robb to tell him I was freaking out seemed too cruel. He had just given me such a perfect could I turn around and tell him I was unhappy in any way?   It seemed like the blood pounding in my ears and the pressure of the air of the plane were both pushing me into a corner of my imagination.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted everything to stop.  I wanted to hide.  I wanted to stop feeling whatever it was that I was feeling.

"God. You have to come get me.  I'm freaking out here."  I prayed.
"I'm serious. Drop whatever you are doing. I need you."


Back at home,  the school year resumed. So much newness.  Not only was Robb really getting in gear for his new job, I started a part-time gig with my friend Stacie and her shop Gingiber, answering customer service questions and helping with other areas of communication.  My ordination paper still unfinished, I observed the days and tried to guess how I might construct them in ways that let me accomplish as much as possible, while running the mom-taxi and keeping this crazy little toddler of ours occupied in ways other than say...coating herself in eyelash glue from her sister's bathroom (Sorry, Mattie).  The air cooled unusually for the weather in August here in Arkansas, and we gulped down each new day like another bite of dessert.

We had a therapy session on the calendar already, which Robb had cleverly pushed back a week or two longer than our usual interval, so there was much to talk about. We practiced telling the story of Robb's surprise with our therapist, since we will be telling it for years to come.  Much of the hour was gone by the time I brought up the anxious moments from the plane.

"What is the deal with that?" I asked flippantly, not really expecting any real answer of substance. The time was too short to cover such a big topic.  And besides, obviously, I had so much happiness to live off of, I could push anxiety away by replaying the happy story to myself and other people.   Those hours of being so perfectly loved. So perfectly safe. So perfectly relaxed.  My only job being to feel joy.

I had even described it to Robb as being life-changing.  He had raised an eyebrow to that and teased that I was being a little dramatic.  "No! I'm really not."  I explained.  It was as if my parameters of what was possible had been pushed back to a much wider, more beautiful, more hopeful, space.  Robb's "why not" of grace had cleared back a landscape that I often allow to become overgrown with doubts, mismanaged practicalities, self-imposed limitations and childhood hangups.

 Our therapist cleared his throat.  "Well, it seems to me that anxiety comes up so often for people because we exist in the world as adults the way we learned to exist in the world as children."

I choked down a sob that caught me totally by surprise.

Perhaps you want to read those words again and see how that bit of free therapy I'm passing along affects you. I can only tell you that I suddenly had the image of my own self, at about 7 years old.  In my imagination, I poke my head in, like moms do, to see her playing by herself in her room.  I know what is inside the mom's head. And I know what is inside the girl's head.  So often, when we look back on ourselves, we are condescending; "So dumb!" we think.  But in this moment, I saw that child with compassion, the way I would feel about my own kids.  My eyes followed the unruly curls on her head and observed her easy smile.  She is full of curiosity. Creativity.  Industry.  She is always thinking up a day-dream, a pretty, innocent thing.  She sees the world as basically good and she sees herself as basically strong.

But you know how kids pack for things in ways that seem so silly?  You tell them, "We're going on a trip!" And they pack their favorite stuffed animal and four shirts, and a few toys and no socks or toothbrush or pants?   I imagine myself that way too.  For life, I packed some ridiculous notions.

I packed the expectation that nothing good comes without some string attached.  I learned somehow as a kid to never think that good things just came along without something equally and oppositely bad.
There is no free lunch.
Into every life a little rain must fall.
Don't tempt the gods by being too happy.

I should make the disclaimer that I don't know if anyone was really trying to teach me that or not.  Kids just try to make sense of their worlds the best they can.

The image faded from my mind as I came back to our therapist's office and I heard his voice clarifying his comment:

"We are trying to decipher, is it a benevolent universe, or isn't it?  How are God and my father different?"

"It's Psychology 101" I said.  "I get it."


Back on the plane, my desperate attempt to reach Heaven for an answer had just been sent, and I waited for a reply like an important text.  I snapped photos, trying to look calm when I felt like any second I might start screaming.

And then I heard it.

I don't often hear from God.  Probably because I'm not often poised on the edge of terror.  I can usually find some activity to busy myself and push anxious thoughts away.  But on a few occasions, I have heard that unmistakable voice.  The economy of words is what tips me off.  They speak straight to the real thing.  My own imagination is ...obviously.... wordy in the extreme.

It was not the promise "Nothing bad will happen to you."  or "You are never going to get cancer"  or "You'll always get to have the relationships you want to have."  or even "This plane will land safely."

Instead, the words spoke to the source of my real anxiety.  My panic attack on the plane was born out of the belief that because I had experienced such bliss, I would pay for it.  It would come after me and break my thumbs and demand equal suffering. And it would be soon. Because, as one psychologist explains it, "What fires together, wires together."  If you were having a perfectly nice time and let your guard down and were just having fun, that was the moment that everything would turn south.  The principal would walk in on your dance party in Study Hall.  The family vacation turned into a yelling match. The snake slithered down the creek where you were wading.  So don't be too happy. Don't have too much fun. Don't get too relaxed.

God said to me: "I made this for you."

"I made this for you. "

"I made this for you."

There is no other shoe to drop.

You don't have to pay for sunrises.  They just happen. Everyday.  You don't have to earn leaves changing colors. It just happens.  We don't work for waves. They just happen.  A daily, reliable, tangible gift.  Love. Goodness. Beauty.  Grace.  The deep water we don't always understand. The islands of calm.  The colors. The air.  The vastness. All of it.  It's right there in front of you.

My heart stopped pounding and took Robb's hand and went home to my beautiful life.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Twenty - Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

When we were 21 years old, we accepted that a wedding reception involved a nicely decorated church fellowship hall or gym,
punch and cake,
church-approved background music,
and if you were really on the cutting edge....a picture slideshow.
And not much else.
Back then there were plenty of relatives and friends to hug.  We got almost nothing to eat while visiting with everyone and woke up in the middle of the night at a bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere starving to death.  I deeply regretted not having more formal photos taken of the groom's side of the family that had assembled from parts unknown across the country. There is a photo of Robb fake-dancing with my Mom.  We had fun....I mean...we had pulled off the wedding part and were very relieved. But it was a buttoned-down affair, reflective of our theology at the time.

Fast forward 20 years and we found ourselves once again in a church.  But this time, there was no question about having fun.  This was a party. And Robb had thought of everything.  For him, God is in the details.

He hired Fayetteville's poet laureate, Clayton Scott,  turned food-truck-chef of Best Frickin' Chicken to cater with chicken and waffles on the menu.  Their secret maple cream gravy is no longer available on the menu, but Robb got him to make me my own delicious batch because he knew how much I love it!  Long-time friend Derek from Core Brewery brought kegs of delicious local beer.  Samantha, who is one of the single most interesting and beautiful people I have ever met in my life, created the cake with a nod to our original wedding cake, with gorgeous flowers on top and candied rose petals on the cupcakes.  Scott was emcee and spun the tunes ...a masterful mix that included personal favorites and crowdsourced dance-tunes...while his exquisite Julie arranged all the flowers, including the bouquets and boutonnieres...using daisies and roses, our original flowers.  The whole thing smacked of thoughtful planning, generosity, joy, collaboration, inclusion, and un-self-conscious celebration.

Our friends Derek and Natalie spoke words of blessing over us in the form of toasts. Their words reminded us again that the love we have for each other, the life we are building, isn't just for ourselves, but instead, brings good to our community, both in and out of our church.

Somewhere in all of this, I was getting bits and pieces about the secret Facebook Event Page where the collaboration had run wild since March.  That's right...for almost five months, this joyous scheming had been simmering away.  There had been a moment when I glimpsed the page open on Robb's computer and I saw the picture at the top of the page from our wedding day, and I asked him what it was, and he had fumbled for an answer.  I chalked it up to "the surprise" and didn't think much else about it.  Little did I know of the playlist suggestions, group-thinking, and clandestine virtual high-fives that were going on under my nose as each piece of the puzzle fell into place.

What I did know was that something wonderful was becoming obvious:  My husband, who finds it so difficult at times to be vulnerable, had dropped all masks while planning this event with everyone. He was telling the truth when he wrote on the event page: "If you ruin this surprise, I will never speak to you again."  But he was also bringing people along on a grand adventure. Instead of acting as a lone wolf, he shared the whole project, inviting everyone in on the fun.  Creativity IS leadership, and he was building trust and bonds with our children and with everyone involved with the event.  Who does something like this unless they are an extraordinary person?  He believes deeply in the comedy and the fairy tale of the gospel and he has a gift for keeping child-like wonder alive for people who sometimes drift out of Narnia and think they've outgrown it.  That is what fuels him.  That is the consistent, stubborn, nearly insane assertion he has been rock-steady about since I met him: this belief in God's grace as the transformational element above and beyond all we could ask or imagine. So why not throw a perfect party for the love of his wife?  Why not pastor a church tirelessly with a full time job as well? Why not help a stranger in need?  Why not welcome all to the communion table? Why not attempt to wade the water of politics with love in your heart for everyone?  Why not believe the Cleveland Browns could win the Super Bowl?   All is grace.

If he had a twin, separated from him at birth, it would be Natalie.  They are wired so similarly and appear so differently.  So it is no wonder that my beautiful friend was intricately involved in the whole thing, I couldn't possibly explain all that she did, except perhaps that she "got it."  She knew what he was shooting for and worked to make it all happen.

 We never learned to dance.  It was "not done" at weddings by most in our circles and there are no dances at Christian schools, either.  I would fumble badly through even the Chicken Dance.  It is kind of a metaphor, really, for how we learned to be in the world: some unfortunate mix of my personality type, circumstances and lousy theology had kept me for years under the impression that emotions must always be expressed neatly and tidily and our bodies aren't to be trusted as a medium of tidy emotional expression.  But looking around, I was easily reminded that everyone was here for joy and not one person in the room would judge us. We could dance like David and there would be no snooty Michal to ruin the fun.  So we danced the night away.   Which suited my parents just fine, because my parents are nothing but smooth and elegant on the dance floor and Robb was sure to include "their song" in the playlist.

Our Charleigh was born for dancing.  I asked her where she learned to dance like she does and she turned her chin and said, "I just make it up."   Her athleticism and fully-committed attitude had us in stitches.  I tried to keep up with her once and ended up with burning thigh muscles and a river of sweat running down my back.  But how we laughed!  And our friends!  I knew I could count on them to keep that party swinging. I could watch them dance for hours and my sides burned from laughing.

At the end of the evening,  our friends whisked us out the door without letting us help clean up.  Their send off was a sweet detail:  At our wedding, I dreamed of being sent away under a shower of rose petals, of course captured iconically by the photographer.  But our florist forgot the rose petals, and instead, I have a photo of 300 people outside a church that always reminds me of the frankly awkward scene in the Sound of Music when the partygoers wave to the children and echo their "Goodnight."  It always bothered me.   (the movie and the omission of the rose petals. Equally.)

So of course, my husband remembered the rose petals.  Of course he did.   And Nikki captured it all.

And then he said,
"Are you ready for one more surprise?"

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Twenty - Part 2

Part 1

I'm told that one of the most delightful members of our flock at Vintage Fellowship, while getting ready for this event, commented to his wife, "I don't really get why they are doing this. I mean, it's nice and all, but I don't know if I get it."

I confess, as my mind yawned to take in all the dear faces, the incredibly beautiful setting, the surprise of my parents being there....I wondered "Is this too much?"

I mean, we've hit a few rocky patches, but I have never thought a single time about hitting the "eject button." And I knew Robb hadn't either.  I am just as committed to him as I was the day I stood at the back of the church with the veil draped over my face, praying, "Please, God, let me be a good wife."  And here were all our friends, baking in the August heat, part of this enormous scheme (and there was so much I still didn't know);  I couldn't help wondering, "Really?" I was perhaps most surprised that Robb wanted to do this, as I don't recall us ever talking about a vow renewal.

Eight years ago, we had just moved to Arkansas. Robb had finally step-stoned his way into a good-paying job in no way related to his Bible college and Seminary education.  On his lunch break, he wandered down the curvy drive to St. Catherine's, eventually learning the story behind the beautiful stone chapel that seemed to have opened a dimension to another time and country. He made it a habit to go there on his lunch break as often as he could, nourishing his soul while learning to straddle the two worlds he now found himself part of as a bi-vocational pastor.  Our marriage was being stretched at that time, still staggering under the weight of the house we couldn't sell in Michigan, finances all askew, fledgling church in near-constant upheaval, and three little ones needing plenty of attention. I blogged more faithfully back then.  You can read all about it in the archives.  He decided that someday, when we hit a big milestone, we would renew our vows there in that sacred space.

We reached the doors of the chapel, where Aaron stood waiting for us.  I took a moment to appreciate the depth of the meaning of his being there.  Maybe better than anyone else, Aaron could witness to the arc of our relationship.  As Robb's best friend and roommate back in college, he had been there since the beginning. He was there during the breakups (oh, there was more than one!)  He stood by as Robb's best man. He was the reason we had come to make our home in Arkansas.  And because life and relationships are always complex, he and I have not always seen eye to eye.  There have been some really broken moments...even years...between us.  But they have been healed.  With time and grace and love covering a multitude of (my) sins.  There is no one else on earth I would rather have seen at the end of that aisle than Aaron.

Aaron's words guided us through a beautiful ceremony of celebration, reflection and recommitment. Each of our children shared precious words, showing us a glimpse of what our marriage provides them from their unique perspectives.  We laughed.   Gratitude for this rare glimpse into their hearts welled up and spilled out from our eyes.  Our hearts felt like they might explode as they presented their authentic, brave, funny hearts to us all. 

On the front row, Whimsy settled into a chair next to my parents and tooted with reverberations that left the people around her helpless with laughter. 

 A few weeks prior, we had a friend over, helping her plan her upcoming wedding.  It was a natural bridge to thinking about our own wedding, and I pulled out albums and Memory books in search of some of the details that had grown fuzzy.  We had written our original vows ourselves back then. Robb had written his the day OF the wedding, in fact.  But we couldn't find those folded up sheets of paper.  I knew they were somewhere, but I couldn't think where.  I was so curious about what we had promised back then.  But those words were not to be found.

Instead, Robb spoke new words. He summed me up:  He said that I am an agent with a mission to make things better.  Homes, churches, broken things. It's true that sometimes, to make something better, I have to blow it up.  He reminded me of a thousand of our stories with those few words.  And, knowing all this about me, He committed himself again with the words, "I am all in."  

And then it was my turn.  Like most people, I fear speaking in front of a crowd with no preparation. But I thought of a snippet of conversation we had had in the car, brought to the surface by a tune that was playing. 

"You are the only person I ever met who could keep up with me."   I'm dissatisfied with the inadequacy of those words, but I knew Robb knew what I meant.  I've never had to make myself smaller to be with Robb. I've never had to slow down the growth of my soul or my mind to accommodate him.  I've never had to do less of what intrigued me to babysit his comfort.  If I said I wanted to learn something, he went out and got me the tools.  If I was afraid of where a path might lead me, he reminded me that he believed in me.  When I threw out smokescreens and deceptions to hide my insecurities, he called my bluffs and reminded me I was loved.  He is the only one who knows exactly when to laugh at my tirades and when to take them seriously.  He calls me on my bullshit, but does it so rarely, I always take it seriously.  He knows the truth about me.  What unhinges me. What pulls me back together.  He holds all my secrets.  How could I promise anything else to someone so generous but this:  "I am all in, too." 

 We visited 1 Corinthians 13 with Aaron before reciting the traditional vows we had not used the first time around:  Sickness, health, richer, poorer, forever. And we exchanged beautiful watches, a symbol of the time we have behind us and the time we have ahead.  

 My friend commented later that those words mean something so much more when you all know what they mean from real life experience.  Real sickness. Real health.  Real riches. Real poorness.  Couples in the crowd held hands. Our questioning friend turned to his wife and conceded, "Ok. I get it. If you wanted to do something like this, that would ok with me."   

One concept, more than anything else rose to the surface in my mind:  I am so loved.  

This love, 
this fairy-tale, 
this impractical, hold-nothing-back, big, wild, reckless, unguarded, who-cares-what-anyone-else-thinks, just want to convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt in case you ever wonder...

this is what God's love is like. 

Because no husband (or wife) could out-love God. 

Our marriage from the beginning, has never been solely for our benefit.  It was a "milestone in redemptive history" from the start.  (see also).  Robb and I have found comfort and shelter in one another; we have indeed healed each other's wounds.  We are an unlikely match according to personality theories, but because God is in us, God is found in the way we love each other.  This over-the-top display of love, orchestrated by my husband, executed by our dear friends and family, is also the way God is among us.  You may not have this kind of love in a marriage, but this Love is trying to surprise you. It's in the beauty of the world. In the kindness of strangers. It's in the comfort of a friendship. It's in the surprise. It is in the party. God is love. I know this because of the way my husband loves me. And I'm trying to tell you.  

You are so loved.

"If we go on
we'll shine our light upon 
a world that badly needs to know
a human soul
can love another human soul."  - Michael Card, Poiema

"And there's more..."

Blogging tips