The Last 5,256,000 Minutes

Ten years is kind of a big deal.

Whether it’s a marriage that has lasted a decade or an object that stands the test of time, when something makes it to the ten-year mark, it’s worth celebrating. And that’s precisely what I’m doing tonight. Wayne is out playing a gig with the Peachtree Jazz Edition, and I’m relaxing in our beautiful home. A fire is crackling in my living room, Debussy is playing on the radio, and I’m curled up in my pajamas, cozy as a cat.

Ten years ago, things weren’t quite so copacetic.

On the evening of January 25, 2004, I was writhing in a hospital bed, suffering from a spinal headache I’d gotten from a spinal tap I’d undergone that afternoon. In the throes of that searing pain, my neurologist came in and told me, “You have MS. It’s not the end of the world. You can find more information on the Internet than I could ever tell you. Good night.” I’m not kidding; that’s all I got from him. After he’d left, we asked the nurse to call him and prescribe a pill for my headache. Both Wayne and I had been too shocked to ask when he was there.

A word of advice—NEVER look up a health question on the web. For Gregory House, M.D., everything inexplicable had to be lupus. For the Internet, it’s cancer and certain death.

Well, we did look it up, and we got the absolute worst case scenario for an MS patient. After an hour of scouring the web looking for a scrap of good news and bawling like babies, Wayne slammed the laptop closed and told me, “That’s enough.” That night, I was convinced that I’d never have a normal life ever again. And in some ways, I was right. I’ve not been the same since that day, and that’s a good thing.

The eight year anniversary, which I wrote about here, was a big milestone for me. It seemed like an unreachable date, and now here I am, two years beyond what once seemed impossible. I’ve since learned to use that word sparingly, if at all. Why? Because, as Matthew 19:26 tells us, “with God all things are possible.” He proves that to me on a daily basis.

The MS was just the first body blow in a five-year boxing match with life. I won’t go into the sad details here, but let’s just say that pretty much everything that could go wrong—short of one of us dying—did. But, as the speaker in Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” says, “I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’, / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

The Family at Christmas 2012
The Family at Christmas 2012

Today, life isn’t without challenges, but there’s no cause for complaint. It’s not because I’m a saint; I’ve just learned that every difficulty has a reason. I know it because God has used the last ten years in a mighty way and transformed me into a usable vessel. But no matter what hardships happen, I know I’m far more blessed than I deserve. I have a wonderful husband who I adore, a loving family, a comfortable, safe home, an amazing job, and friends out the wazoo. I also recently became an aunt. (See adorable picture below for visual confirmation of the poo-dubber in question.)

Me with the lovely Miss Beatrix
Me with the lovely Miss Beatrix

I didn’t earn these blessings; they were freely given to me by my God. He has bestowed it all on me with a loving, liberal hand, and my life is marked by his loving-kindness. And tonight, as I sit nestled in my home, I can tell you the words of Isaiah 41:10 are true and trustworthy: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” I can say they’re true because I learned to say it when the prognosis wasn’t as good, when the place I called home was a crummy apartment, and when I basically felt like Job sitting on the ash heap. And if he sees fit to take it all away tomorrow, I can say, “Yes, God is still good.”

I recently watched an episode of the BBC’s Call the Midwife in which the narrator says, “Health is the greatest of God’s gifts, but we take it for granted. It hangs on a thread as fine as a spider’s web, and the smallest thing can make it snap, leaving the strongest of us helpless in an instant. And in that instant, hope is our protector and love our panacea.”

Those words resonated with me because I’ve know what it feels like when that gossamer string snaps and you free fall into the unknown. I know what it is like when your body betrays you and you realize death and decay are eager to strip away what they can with their spiny fingers. However, I choose not to dwell on such things and live a life marked by hope and love instead. I count it all joy.

That’s something God made possible, and that’s the reason why I’m looking forward to the next ten years.

Earning the Taste of Raspberries

I always told my students, “I hate the word deserve.” To me, it is a sophomoric word, one that’s grossly assumptive. When someone says, “I deserve your attention” or “I deserve respect,” all I can think is, “Where did you get that idea?” When a person uses the word, they’re basically saying, “It’s my individual merits, my snowflake-perfect uniqueness that makes me worthy of something. Give it to me.”

I do, however, like the word “earn.” I like it a lot. To “earn” something, a person must be willing to put in the time, to work hard, to plan accordingly, and to make smart choices. To “earn” something means it’s yours free and clear. You owe nothing and no one for it.

Image from thunderclap.it. And we all know freelance writers deserve the best, yes?
Image from thunderclap.it. And we all know freelance writers deserve the best, yes?

For instance, I earned my master’s degree through countless hours of study and writing. I earned my good name by doing the right things and making smart choices. I try to earn job security through consistently performing at a high level. Essentially, I want to earn my peace of mind, know where everything is coming from, and take measures to make gains and prevent losses.

But the older I get, the more I realize just how little I can actually control…and how little I actually earn on my own.

In 1 Corinthians 4:7, the apostle Paul writes, “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”

Image from thequotefactory.com.
Image from thequotefactory.com.

That one scripture undoes everything —“What do you have that you did not receive?” I might have put in the hours in the classroom, but who gave me the brains to earn the degrees? God did. Who made it economically possible for me to go to college in the first place? God did. Who gave me the job I love? God did. Who placed me in a family that taught me what it means to be kind to others? Yep, Him again. Heck, even the very desire to be kind comes from Him, which Romans 3:10-12 makes plain:

“There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands; there is none who seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become useless. There is none who does good. There is not even one.”

And that’s what makes grace, something more valuable than I can explain, so amazing. There is nothing we can do to earn it; we can’t save up good deeds in some celestial piggy bank to cash in when we hit the pearly gates. It is given to us with open, eager hands by a heavenly Father who sent His Son to pay the debt that should have been ours.

Image of Frederick Buechner from buechnerinstitute.org.
Image of Frederick Buechner from buechnerinstitute.org.

Frederick Buechner, as is his way, says it with style. According to him, “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”

Everything I am or ever will be is a gift. I have always been right for loathing the word “deserve,” but I need to be less laudatory of “earn” as well. Neither one should hold pride of place.

Which word do you find yourself using more often? Why do you think that’s your default setting? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter as well as how you explain the meaning of grace to others. Tell me in the comments section below!

Compass the City

Happy 2014! Gotta love that new year smell, eh?

I personally love the a new year because it’s a chance to start some things afresh, to renew my commitment to some things I let slide , and to take stock of what I value. One of the things I put on my “to do list” for the year was to post more on this blog, so I’d like to begin with a piece in In Touch Magazine that I’m rather proud of. It’s my first time being in the January issue, and I had a blast putting this one together. (You’ll see why that’s a horrible pun when you read the piece itself.)

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