What comes next is better

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! The last three months of the year, I need all the energy I can muster. Now this!

“That tooth has to come out,” my dentist had said.

Since last winter, I’d had more health issues than I cared to recount: sinuses, eyes, lungs, shingles, fibromyalgia, even depression from all the problems. As soon as one ailment lessened, another surfaced. And now dental work. Maybe that tooth would just supernaturally fall from my mouth.

My first experience with the supernatural was probably around age five. Mother took me to see an old man (probably in his 50s) who prayed warts away. The ugly knobs lined my fingers and fell across my knuckles. They were gross even at my age and short of seeing a doctor, I’d have done anything to be rid of them. My peers assured me I’d gotten them from frogs, although I had no proclivity for amphibians. Since my brother did, I figured I’d gotten them by some sort of relational osmosis.

Mother and I drove to Toler, Kentucky, a bend in the road, and a short jaunt from where we lived. I didn’t know the wart healer, though I’d heard of him. Mother explained the details so I’d be excited, not nervous: “He’ll pray a special prayer and the warts will slowly disappear over time.”

The warts didn’t fall off in front of me as I’d secretly hoped, but over the next couple of weeks, everything she said happened. No doctor, no grandma mixing weird, foul-smelling concoctions. Just Brother Whachamacallem praying.

I wished things could happen that easily today. Now, it seemed I needed restorative spackle, superglue, and duct tape for all the appointments, tests, and procedures I had with my eleven doctors. I was beginning to feel like the Israelites in the desert, following the cloud of the Lord. Except, unlike the Israelites, it didn’t feel like a guiding cloud—it was a dark cloud and it was trailing me.

So, my dentist made me an appointment with an oral surgeon because the back tooth somewhat hooded the tooth to be removed. The day of the extraction, I met the surgeon and was immediately put to sleep. He didn’t know me, didn’t mention that it may be a difficult extraction. Afterwards, he sent me home with eight pills, standard instructions, and a couple of stitches over a big hole. 

When the anesthesia wore off, pain raced into my neck, my teeth, and inside my mouth. My back tooth had an intense ache that medication and no amount of instruction could fix. About 6 PM, distraught and teary, I called the oral surgeon’s answering service and was put through to him.

If he was terse, I was pathetic. Hazy in my thoughts and ill-composed questions. I asked if the back tooth, which hurt to even touch, might be diseased. Why did my upper mouth feel like it had been raked. Was infection spreading? I’d never had pain like this.

“I’m not giving you any more pain medication!” he said emphatically.

I was blindsided. I hadn’t asked for pain meds though the two pills I’d taken weren’t working. I was more concerned about infection and if an Emergency Room visit was imminent.

I would be better in the morning, he assured me, when he could see me.

I hung up completely unraveled. He had shown no compassion and little concern for my well-being. And he treated me as if I was an addict. Surely there are easier ways to get drugs! But, addiction was a problem in West Virginia and he didn’t know me.

The rest of that evening and late into the night, the pain escalated and I cried myriad prayers. “Lord, help me to be resilient, and kind. Because frankly I don’t feel kind.” Then, “Lord, just heal me. Jesus died so I can be healed.” Finally, “Forgive me, Lord. Pain makes us empathetic, strong. Jesus endured. Help me to do the same.” My prayers ran the gamut.

I had resigned myself to two extremes—I would deal with the pain or the pain just might kill me—when an exceedingly manipulative, self-absorbed notion ran through my head: “If you really loved me, Lord, you’d heal me.”

I wished I could take it back. It wasn’t even how I felt. But, at that moment, having whispered the most contrived prayer of the night, I received grace. My pain went from 10 to 0, instantly! Beautiful Grace. Thank God for the mysteries of heaven and what Jesus did at the cross. As to my tiny role—I had spouted a litany of affected, nonsensical prayers, sprinkled with some faith.

Sobbing with relief, I thanked God and woke Alan to share the good news. It was 2:30 AM.

I’d like to say that’s the end of the story, but later that day a mild pain kicked in. The extraction horror—the unbearable pain—was miraculously gone! The socket pain, however, was pushing full throttle.

Befuddled, I prayed: “Lord, why heal me half-way? Why heal one pain and not the other?” And, “What was that pain-free night all about?”

I questioned God the way I did when, in my teens and twenties, I pushed Him away. Yet He never gave up on the five-year old who believed warts would vanish. Then and now, I expected Him to be predictable, like a mother, not considering the Bible, which pretty much establishes His un-predictability!

It was just hard to comprehend a partial move of God considering the time I’d poured boiling water over my hand (see Angels Amongst Us) and He’d completely healed me thirty dreadful minutes and two prayers later. From removing warts to finding Alan and me a new home (see House of Grace) many of my past appeals had been answered. Thoroughly. I expected more of the same.

I expected the expected.

I got the unexpected. He went off on a tangent. From Isaiah 43:19. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

God showed me this scripture, this principle, through a sermon by Pastor Steven Furtick that I knew was meant for me, and really, for us all. Our expectation of God mustn’t rely on our history with Him: we can’t look back to clarify the present. And while we’re at it, we can’t second-guess God today.

Our relationship is ever evolving.

I’ve asked God for many things—haven’t you? Asked Him to shape me, guide me, make me  more like His Son. Maybe this incomplete healing wasn’t incomplete at all. Maybe it would help accomplish exactly what I’d prayed for. He’d still performed a miracle. Not exactly how I’d envisioned, but the worst pain had vanished. God had blessed me in this wilderness!

Consider St. Paul’s declaration in 2nd Corinthians: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Unlike St. Paul, I don’t welcome adversity. I’m too 21st Century reliant on comfort, which may be why blind eyes and graves seldom open anymore. But I can, when I’m weak, let God take over.

It’s an extraordinary thing when God intervenes. You know in your “knower” that the Divine has touched you. Sometimes it evens translates through a warm glow, tingles, or a presence. But, with physical pain, at least in my two cases, pain just left my body. All at once. That’s pretty spectacular, too.

Must I  question the ‘why’ or even the ‘how’ when I know Who?

I realized I’d been looking at the cloud that was trailing me the wrong way. I’d seen a threat, when really, it was akin to the cloud of God’s glory that blessed the Israelites. They didn’t always see their blessing either. They grumbled even when they’d seen a feast of miracles. Yet everything they needed was in that cloud: water, food, shoes and clothes that never wore out. Military supremacy. I too had endured some pretty tough enemies. I too had grumbled. Still, God had brought me through.

Dental pain might be a stretch for many to see the hand of God at work, but dental pain, which kicked in my fibromyalgia, was a nightmare. (With thanks to my dentist for helping me through) I declare it my final trial in the succession of misfortunes that have loomed over me for months. I am grabbing hold of God’s promise in Hebrews 10:23. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”

Yes, “He is faithful.” Yet, He doesn’t relate to me like he did my five-year-old self, or even the woman I was last year. He wants—no! He expects me/us to grow. What’s in front of us will always take us to greater heights if we’ll let Him work through us. God’s faithfulness is shown through a litany of saints—from Abraham, King David, and Queen Esther to Ruth and Naomi and St. Paul.

So it went with them, so it goes with us: What comes next is better!

Sure, they all went through the wilderness, and we will too. Just remember St. Paul’s “When I am weak, then I am strong” declaration. Lean on God. I mean, give it up. Press!

My best days are still in front of me. Even at my age, I believe that. Just because I can’t see, touch, or even understand what He’s doing at times, doesn’t mean—has never meant—He isn’t ever-present. His methods may change, but I anticipate, with joy and gladness, with awe and conviction, what God will do in my future. And I will remember His past faithfulness and His promises—to me and to the saints who went before me. I will stand on His Word with prayer and thanksgiving, knowing His promises are true. And believing with certainty Roman 8:18. “What we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory He will reveal to us.”

This Thanksgiving, as we reflect on the past and look to the future, as we see the fruit of our labor and the goodness of God, let us consider that our thankfulness and faithfulness have been and will be rewarded. Now and in the world to come.

I am so thankful for the blessings God bestows. I know you are too.

Be blessed and Happy Thanksgiving!


The day I learned fear

There’s a scream that if you hear it, you’ll never forget it. Afraid that whatever caused it may be coming for you. I was a child when I heard a scream like that and it paralyzed me. Pain and terror sounded across our small corner of the world like a war-time siren that caused me to hush breathing. I can’t describe it. The best I can do is tell you what I remember, as close as I can.

It was a typical Sunday. Daddy was home, the only day of the week we usually saw him for more than an hour or so, and we had company. It was sunny and bright, a beautiful day. We were on the patio behind our house in Hardy, Kentucky. A couple and their young son visiting.

I don’t remember if they were staying for dinner, I really don’t remember them much at all. People came and went when I was growing up and it’s difficult to put faces and families together sometimes. Yet, I loved our revolving door of company. This day, I remember my mom and dad and the other couple talking and laughing, while I listened. I remember their young son tagging along after my brother and both boys avoiding me. No problem. I was a couple of years older and enjoyed the adults.

The boy was younger than my brother Ric (Ricky) by a year or so, I’d guess. Probably no more than three-years-old. The two had wandered up the hillside behind the house, not out of sight, probably looking for rocks and stuff, as boys sometimes do. No one paid much attention. Dad had cleared and planted much of the hill and we considered it part of our yard. Ricky and I were always roaming that mountain.

The two youngsters, I suspect, were headed back down and Ricky must’ve been in front, the younger boy perhaps dawdling behind. The turn of events that began this nightmare unfolded in less time than it took to write this sentence, in the time it takes to skim a rock across a lake. It lasted over a period of probably ten or fifteen minutes. Yet, even in my remembrance, it feels like hours. That ordinary, peaceful day that turned into tragedy.

If the boy fell, no one saw it, we only guessed it much later. Our first attention to him was the scream. We turned and watched him upright, trying to fight something off, watched him fall to the ground his arms flailing, his little legs kicking. He tried to get up, screaming, nightmarish cries, like something horrible had a hold on him. I can’t remember where Ricky was, but our dad and his dad were already racing up the mountain.

Adults can process things faster than children and maybe from their taller perspective they could just see better. But, the two men seemed to know what was happening. By the time they reached him, the boy had given up the fight to his invisible antagonists.

My dad scooped him up, his tiny arms now mostly limp. About halfway down the mountain I heard the buzzing, saw the halo of yellow jackets swarming. They were mostly on the boy, moving in that vibrating stop and go motion that makes them seem more animated than real. But, they were on the men too. Angry bees still fighting for their ground nest the youngster had obviously fallen or stepped into. The women were now screaming, concern for the boy, not because yellow jackets invaded.

Someone yelled, “Turn on the shower,” as the men dashed across the hilly slope and toward the patio. Mother ran into the house as the boy’s mother cried through terrified tears. I think I was crying too.

The adults rushed into the house and Ricky and I fell in behind them, but yellow jackets buzzed here and there and we stopped at the kitchen hallway. We could hear the running water, hear his mother crying, hear the men loudly talking.

Scared and curious, I finally made my way down the hall and peered into the bathroom. The two dads stood fully-clothed in the tub, shower water drenching them all, picking bees off the boy. Swearing occasionally. The boy’s mother talked to him, adding her tears to the cascading water as she reached through the downpour to pet him. Dead bees floated and live bees tussled in the tub and on the puddle-flooded floor where the open shower water splashed as the men struggled to save innocence from anger. And where bees still flew about. The men were as soaked as the boy. Their eyes as determined and stunned as they were fearful.

Until that day, I’d never seen terror in my father’s eyes, never heard fear in his voice. Until that day, I’d never felt such fear. Mother, I think, was on the telephone to the hospital.

I don’t remember hearing the boy make another sound. I just remember the men dripping as they ran through the hallway and kitchen as though a deadline was imminent. The boy’s dad holding him to his chest. The two men and the boy, along with his mother, then got into the car and peeled out of the driveway.

Mostly, for us, it was over.

Mother was left to deal with Ricky and me, her two traumatized children, a house strewn with water, and full of dead and angry yellow jackets.

How fast things can change.

I don’t remember praying that awful day. My brain, I think, stopped. Stunned. I’d like to think I’d asked Jesus to comfort and heal the boy. A tiny prayer is all I could’ve mustered at about six or so years of age in that state.

When Dad came home later that night, he had redness and swelling, but refused comfort or care. Doctors were with the boy, he assured us, his voice quavering. They thought he’d be alright. I’m pretty sure that last part was for Ricky and me. Apparently, there was a critical period and he wasn’t past that yet. When he passed it, he’d be out of the woods, a terrible analogy.

That very night, Daddy sped up that hill with a wide, determined stride, clenching a can of kerosene. I cried, not wanting him to go, afraid he’d be attacked. But he went. Poured toxic oil straight down into the yellow jacket’s nest. He didn’t say much afterwards, but he was visibly shaken, and I’m pretty sure he cursed a few bees.

I know my parents prayed for the boy because that’s what we did. Not outwardly for my dad, but my mother and her mother next door. I feel sure they prayed for my brother and me, too, so thankful we’d been spared.

After that day, I changed. Probably forever. Certainly, the way I looked at that mountain was altered. Until then, I’d had no reverence for it or the critters it might hold. Until then, I was pretty much fearless.

Yet, God was with us. As the events unfolded that tragic day, they seemed choreographed. Everyone had a purpose and role, except for Ricky and me. Certainly, we saw the power and love of God revealed. Two dads putting aside fear, plucking the boy from atop a yellow jacket’s nest, having wisdom about choices, being repeatedly stung, yet not flinching or complaining. Fearless to my way of thinking. Heroic.

I’m fuzzy on the part that came after that day, but here’s my vague recollection: Mother, I think, called daily to check on the boy, even as we went about our everyday routine. And then one day, he was okay. He’d survived. We were thrilled. He was “as good as new” she said, or some such cliché Mother’s use to reassure children.

All was right in my world again, except that I’d learned fear. Learned that a footstep could compromise my family. That my playground wasn’t quite safe. That parents can’t always protect children. That children can die . . . Fear teaches many things.

As I’ve aged, I’ve put that fear to both good and bad use. Certainly, there’s a healthy fear–that keeps us from engaging in certain behaviors, that alerts us to screams. However, for me, the comment that most helped put fear into perspective was spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt at the start of World War II. He said: “There is nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

Living is dangerous. Ask the person with a broken leg or a broken heart. Makes no difference.

Some people hide from life, addicted to  comfort. Afraid of failure, of losing a position, of emotional pain, of bees. They fear the reality and the philosophy of life and living and God. They’re tuned into the “What about me” and “I deserve what I want” mantra that plays in every theatre and venue across our nation.

The Lord knows I’m a prime offender. Some of my excuses: My fibromyalgia might flair, I’m too old, I can’t travel that far, people are cruel. What if I fail? “Do not lose heart,” St. Paul says in 2nd Corinthians, “even though the outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.”

Sure, I could step into a yellow jacket’s nest, yet if I don’t take that chance, I’ll never play on the mountain. And I’m not ready to quit hunting wild flowers and dancing in the rain, though I act it at times.

In 2nd Timothy we read, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Let’s take God at His word! No, He doesn’t protect us from all the world’s ills, but He is there with earthly and heavenly angels, gathering us to Himself. Just like He did with that little boy. Never leaving or forsaking, never putting more on us than we can bear. He gives us what we need to show the dedication, obedience, and fearlessness of His Son. Sometimes in the worst of circumstances.

I want to be a person who runs to help.

As Christians, our life is not our own. It was bought with a price. We are God’s change agents in this world. Let’s get out of our recliners and start acting like we believe His Word and His promises. 1st John states: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love cast out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” Perhaps, more than at any time in history, God needs us to put fear aside, to show the world the love, the passion, the hands of Jesus Christ.

I only have one life, and I’ve seen how fast it can end. In church we sing, “When we all get to Heaven what a day of rejoicing that will be,” and then wail when it’s our turn to go. Living isn’t just about the here and now. It isn’t so much about yellow jackets or even heartbreak. I know this sounds harsh. But, it’s about preparing our hearts for eternity. A very long time compared to this life.

We are spiritual, ever-lasting beings, not made for this world, but for the world to come. If we really believed God’s Word, wouldn’t we be more forgiving, more giving of our time, our money, and our heart? We may not know what tomorrow holds, but we know who holds tomorrow. It was heart-wrenching watching that little boy suffer the yellow jacket’s stings, but, oh, how much worse the tragedy, if he stopped climbing mountains.