Monday, August 31, 2009

My husband and I have been living in a desert place for some time now. Three major life changing events have unexpectedly hit our family within the last few years. Staggering through hot, arid land devoid of green hills on the horizon, we try keeping our eyes focused ahead. And yet, God has provided small oases along the way. How else could we continue on?

Surprisingly, my oases have been through hiking and mountain climbing. Each hike has fed my soul’s eye with feasts of beauty beyond my imagining. I see and hear the Creator of the Universe when I am in His creation. I sense His presence. I know and feel His love for me as I sit in an alpine meadow listening to the clear, cool brook beside me or when I struggle through fatigue to reach the pinnacle of a mountain.

Each mount I have summated has taught me something new about life with God.

South Sister, my first climb, is the third tallest mountain in Oregon. (10,358-foot) Fog, sleet and no visibility made this a difficult climb. As the rugged mountain grew steeper and steeper, I kept looking up for a glimpse of the top hoping to see my goal. Only dense whiteness surrounded me. Glancing upward to the apex of a mountain encourages me onward. Picturesque views as I ascend a mountain reward me and yet I could see nothing but the jagged lava land just in front of my feet. I felt the altitude but was amazed at my body’s ability to keep going. Physically I was strong, but it was as if I were climbing blind. Yet, I heard His still, quiet voice encouraging me upward. Reaching the summit brought a sense of accomplishment, joy and of course, good chocolate! South Sister taught me God leads us though we may not be able to see our way. God is guiding me through the desert of darkness.

My second climb was Mt. Shasta (14,162 feet). My brother, the mountain guide, led me up this huge peak in two days. I trusted his expertise and experience as he woke me at 2 AM after spending the night on the mountain. We began to ascend in the pitch black morning with our headlamps lighting the way. We were short roped together with my brother in front. It was a steep ascent up the West Face, but we reached the false summit just as the sun rose. Feeling physically fit helped, but mentally I was challenged as I was a little frightened of the steepness and height.

So, I began reciting a mantra over and over again in my mind. With each step I recited their names: “Gage Dole, Lesly Foster, Joshua Brenneman, Jackson Hill and Amanda King”. Knowing these children have suffered through cancer treatments, knowing how Gage and Lesly are still struggling through their disease and how their parents are looking at "quality of life" now, making memories for as long as they can, empowered me. I thought about Jackson who gave a valiant fight, but passed away at the age of 12 in 2005 from osteosarcoma. I thought about Amanda who was only 18 and died just one month before of Ewings Sarcoma. Their parent’s faces flashed in my mind. This was what moved my feet step by step upward. Once I reached the true summit, I cheered and hollered and then began to cry. It was an emotional release. I wept for Gage, Lesly, Jackson, Amanda and of course, my son, Joshua. I grieved for all the other children fighting or who have fought cancer. I wrote their names in the summit book memorializing their courage, bravery and their lives. Shasta taught me God puts two kinds of people in our lives to lead us. Some have more expertise, more experience; therefore, God asks us to trust them just as I trusted my brother. And by trusting them we trust Him. Second are people who inspire us. Their lives encourage us, enlighten us and help us to see the value of others, giving us a healthy perspective about life, love and suffering.

Mt Adams (12,281 feet) was my latest climb teaching me God puts one more type of person in our lives, the quiet encouragers. I seriously contemplated not climbing this mountain, because I was starting off emotionally spent, extremely stressed and exhausted. However; I knew I needed this time in God’s marvelous design. As we began our ascent I found myself apathetic. I didn’t really seem to care if I completed the climb or just called it “good” when I hit the false summit. When we reached Piker’s Peak (the false summit) I was quite willing to be done. But Susan, one of my “Summit Sisters” very quietly said, “We’ve come this far. Let’s finish. We can’t give up now.” And I realized we can become apathetic in our Christian life, giving up running the race with perseverance and striving to be more like Jesus. It’s easy to just give in when we are weary from the journey. What I liked best about Susan was her calm, gentle coaxing voice filled with deep conviction. She wasn’t pushy or bossy. This is often how God wants to lead us if we would but listen. And I ask myself, "Do I allow silence in my life so I can hear Him?"

Each peak also revealed the same lessons as I thought about the descents. After reaching the summit and reveling in the high of realizing my goal, coming down was much more difficult. My knees hurt, my feet ached and fatigue thoroughly set into my muscles and bones. Isn’t this like life? After reaching our sought after goals or after the climax of achieving something we’ve been striving for we hit a low point. Perhaps it’s even a wonderful spiritual victory or event. The descent will be the hardest part of conquering a mountain or the toughest place in the voyage of life. The “coming down” is dangerous, just as the exhaustion of life sets in, or when battle after battle assaults you and you struggle to keep your footing. This is what the desert has been. Assault after assault. It feels as if there is no end. This is when I must keep focused and yet it’s the most difficult time to focus.

Getting off track happens easily on the decline as well. This happened on Mt Adams. We discovered we had missed the correct path as we looked to our left and saw the trail we should have been traveling. Again, Susan was our guide as she began pushing her way through the trees and shrubs. We crossed over two ridges full of rocks and deep gullies until we found the correct course. God gives us people in our lives that bring us back to His pathway just as He led us to the safety of our cars before nightfall at the base of Mt. Adams.

I love ascending mountains and I eagerly look forward to my next adventure, Middle Sister (10,047 feet). I wonder what God has in store for me. Though my husband and I seem to be in a desert, I cherish each oasis moment of experience in His wisdom of His beauty.

Mountains in the Desert…

“Fair-weather faith is no faith.” C.H. Spurgeon

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Praising God no matter what...

I cringe when I read or hear people praising God for answered prayers or when life is going well.
Does that shock you?

It’s so easy to say “God is good” when wonderful events are happening, when prayers seem to be answered just as we’ve wanted. But what about when that child we’ve been praying for dies? What about that friend in the middle of cancer treatment who asks for prayer to be well enough to attend his annual family camping trip actually goes camping for one day only to end up back in the hospital discovering the cancer has spread and within 2 weeks he’s gone? Why don’t we say “Praise God” then? Why don’t we hear the rousing, “God is good!”?

I cringe, because it feels as if we are bragging about answered prayers, we are saying, “See how much God loves US”. “He listens to US. He answers our prayers”, as if we have some special connection with God no one else has. But what about that faith-filled family who believed with all their hearts God was going to heal their daughter of cancer only to have her die suddenly in the PICU from pneumonia? Where is the “Hallelujah!” then?

Is God still good even when our prayers aren’t’ answered? Is He still powerful? Is He still loving and kind and all the other “feel good” words we use to describe Him? The answer to all these questions is YES!

When I found myself in a hospital room with my four year old son in the wee hours of a Friday morning, holding him in my arms while he slept fitfully after x-rays and a CAT scan revealed a tumor in his neck, I found myself praying. I was scared and I knew this was something BIG, but all I could think to pray was, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.” Why?

It wasn’t because I was happy or grateful my little boy had cancer, it was because I knew God was sovereign. I knew He was all powerful and in control and there with us spiritually. I knew His presence was all around me. Foundationally, I had been taught 1 Thessalonians 5: 17, 18 “pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” God’s desire for me was to pray and give thanks no matter what and so I did. Somehow my response was instinctual.

My journey through childhood cancer hasn’t always been filled with gratefulness. I’ve felt every emotion along the rollercoaster ride of treatment, medical procedures and side effects and haven’t always responded in a righteous manner. But still God wants me to give Him glory to lift up His name. I find this easy to do when it’s a “happily ever after ending”, but I plan to continue praising Him and thanking Him even when there is tragedy and heartache and pain.

Let’s be quick to praise Him when life seems good and when it’s not so good.

Let’s praise Him no matter what…

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Discovering cable TV...

After 27 years of marriage my husband just had cable installed in our home! He said we need it to save money on our phone and computers. I wasn’t too happy about it, because I want our children “doing” instead of watching. We’ve never been big TV viewers, though we enjoy movies. I knew we’d have to set boundaries especially for Josh and the Disney channel, which increases our parental work load, but I discovered a whole new world!

I found myself alone for a few days, because most of my family was at Camp Agape, and some were working their summer jobs. (Camp Agape is a free family camp for kids who have or have had cancer run by the Greek Orthodox Church) Being alone in a quiet house I decided to check out this “new to me” cable. As I flipped through channels I found Discovery Health. I was instantly hooked. Here were dramatic stories from the ER, mystery diseases and strange abnormalities. Though often gruesome, I thought it all fascinating as it depicted real people, families, and children fighting, living, thriving and suffering through HUGE medical difficulties.
One story fascinated me so much; I was up until 1 AM when it concluded. It was about a family in Florida, whose second child, a daughter, was born with a very rare, genetic disability. She literally had no face. It was an incredible story of LOVE. Her father impressed me as he commented that when he was finally able to see her for the first time, she pulled out her intubation tube. He knew then, she was intelligent, strong and had an attitude. The very qualities she would need to survive. This mother and father took their baby home and cared for her, loved her giving her the best life they could. She’s now 5 years old and has had 29 surgeries trying to make her face functional. At first I struggled to even look at this precious child. Her disfigurement so severe it was heart wrenching. Yet, as I watched, her personality, her loving spirit, the essence of whom she was shone brightly through. Her older sister was incredibly loving and accepting of her. Her parents gave their unconditional love. Her father was a military man and the mother often had to go through the many surgeries with their daughter on her own. She’s been mainstreamed into the public school. And the kindergartners have accepted her. As time goes on, though, she will begin to really understand her deformity and children can be cruel. Her parents worry about her future, but do their best for her now.

I was disappointed to realize Discovery Health was interrupted with commercials, so I would flip the channel and I started viewing an entertainment type show featuring the wedding of a Playboy Bunny to the “love of her life”. The couple was definitely in the “beautiful people” category. Thousands of dollars were being extravagantly spent on this wedding. They showed clips from the bride’s bachelorette party, complete with male strippers and lots of talk about sex and sexual jokes. The bachelor party was surprisingly serious and emotional as the groom and his buddies seemed more bonded than the bride did with her bridesmaids. Interesting, I thought. He gave each groomsman a watch with their nicknames engraved on the back. One of the groomsmen actually began to tear up

They were surrounded by beautiful people; everywhere you looked were perfect people with their entire fixation on self: cosmetic surgeries, perfect teeth, perfect hair and skin, breast implants, nose jobs. The wedding day was filled with airbrush make-up artists, hair dressers and people hired to dress everyone. At one point the bride commented, “We are just “real people” living our dream.” I literally laughed out loud! Here was “plastic world” at its best filled with the shallowness that only Hollywood can bring. Here was the perfect example of image and outside appearances trumping character and substance. There was no depth, no truth, no genuineness only a superficial surface for show. Marveling at the stark contrast between these two shows, these two worlds, I continued flipping channels between them.

A couple days later, I drove up to Camp Agape to join in on the last night. I enjoyed the traditional Greek dinner they serve and the Greek dancing afterward. But the last campfire is what I treasure most. Family after family steps forward willing to share from their heart what camp means to them as they toss a stick in the fire. Many newly diagnosed cancer families were present, as well as families we’ve bonded with over the last 5 years. Some families are still fighting this terrible disease and as they stood before us open, vulnerable able to share their tears, their dreams, their hopes; their depth of spirit was revealed. This was real life filled with real people. There was no shallowness here.

What a dichotomy these two cable shows portrayed. Give me real life; give me real people in challenging situations with depth of character and substance any day.

Discovering cable TV…