Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Gardener

I’ve had some very, very dark years. 

Years were I have longed for healthy male relationships, for a strong father figure to lead, to show me the way, to take care of me and my brother and my mom.  And while God has denied this in some aspects so that I can learn to rely on Him, He has also strategically placed incredible men in my life to help jolt me and coach me towards healing.

During my senior year of college, an uncle of mine sat me down and asked me why I was holding on to my anger.  I told him that all of my life, people have congratulated me for being so strong and for handling things so well, but all I’d ever wanted someone to say is, “You’re hurting. Let me sit here next to you and hurt with you.” Inwardly I was crying out for someone to help me. I just wanted someone to see my pain, to see what I was going through, to see what was happening to my family.  

So, my uncle turned to me and asked, “Do you want them to see a bitter, scarred woman, or do you want them to see a woman who has walked through the fire and has come out more refined and more beautiful on the other side?” 

From that day on, my prayers changed from “God, help them to see how much I’m hurting,” to “Please, just take my anger away. I don’t want to live like this anymore.”

It was during that time that I began clinging to John 15 – The Vine and the Branches passage. God describes himself as a gardener who comes and cuts away the branches in us that are not bearing fruit, and prunes those that are bearing fruit so that they can be even more fruitful. 

I remember sitting at a computer in my Creative Writing class at college and our assignment was simply to write. I sat there with a blank screen in front of me, lost and feeling nothing. Suddenly I could see a reflection in my screen of a tree just outside the window behind me. It was winter, and so this tree’s branches were bare, but it was waving gently in the wind. All of its fruits were dried up and gone and yet it still held onto its beauty. And then a poem just began pouring out of me about how I was a tree whose fruit was dried up and gone, and I was a tree that was in its winter season. Dead. 

I didn’t feel like I had any fruit to offer the world because I was so broken inside.  

And yet, God in his goodness, still saw beauty and life in me. 

And so I started praying that God would be the gardener of my tree, and if I looked away, would He come gently and trim away the dead branches in me and prune the ones that still had life in them? 

That fall, while my dad was hospitalized for a severe overdose (Daddy Disclaimer), God came quietly and begin trimming away the anger, the bitterness, the ugliness in me.  It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized I could breathe a little easier and the debilitating anger was not as crippling anymore. 

I think God often does that – He heals when we’re not looking. And I think He does that so that we can’t claim the credit for ourselves. We can’t claim credit for the good work that our loving Father has done in us.

Traces of Beauty

This tree
Waves gently in the wind.
Branches are bare, save a few brown leaves.
But it still holds onto its beauty, this tree.
When all of its life is frozen in time,
When all of its fruits are dried and gone,
This tree holds itself up and waves in grace and beauty.

Oh God,
Sometimes my branches are bare.
Sometimes my fruit is dried up and gone.
And still You see a beauty in me -
A reflection of Your Love and Goodness and Grace.
Apart from You I can bear no fruit.
Apart from You I am a lifeless trunk,
Supporting dead and rotting branches.

And Lord,
Sometimes so many rotting branches cling to me.
They are a part of me and I cannot let them go.
But still You call me Beautiful.
When I am dry and cracked,
When the season of my life is dead for a time,
When my life is spent and I have nothing left to give,
Still even then You call me Beautiful.

Oh God,
I grant You permission to be the Gardener of my tree.
As I look off and away up at You,
Will You quietly come and trim away
The rot that has been killing me?

But God,
I have noticed that as soon as I look back
At the holes where those dead branches were,
they grow back.
How can You ever completely take away my ugliness
When I am so focused on it?
I won’t let You.

So God,
I am going to look away now.
When You are ready,
Come by and gently bleed me
Of the poison that is eating away at my being.

Someday God,
I will look back over the tree that is me and
I will see only the traces of Your beauty.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Daddy Disclaimer

When discussing my father throughout this blog, I use big hairy words like narcotics, addiction and overdose.

Because this isn’t a book where a reader can chronologically follow the story and be privy to all of the battles won and lost, the growth and the healing, I feel the need to provide this “Daddy Disclaimer.”

I’m not airing my dirty laundry here. I’m airing his.

To be sure, my father has made some serious misjudgments throughout his adult life, but he is still a living, breathing creation of God who deserves honor and dignity. After years of living in a drug-induced fog, he has emerged more clear-minded and more knowledgeable of how much he has to apologize for. The healing has begun. 

He has – incredibly – released me to tell my family’s painful story and has done it with a grace, humility and open-handedness that has blown me away.

And so the least that I can do is include this disclaimer when I discuss the harder times so that you will know that whatever the situation I’m recounting, I still love my father and he is still one of the sweetest, most tender men I know.

He’s on his own journey. So let’s extend him the same grace and forgiveness that we ourselves need every single day.

Peeling Off the Dragon Scales

God literally drew me to a desert soon after (See The Desert Place). Except it wasn’t a desert so much as a tropical island in the middle of the South Pacific.

I spent a year living in Fiji, on a deserted island with no electricity, no roads in or out. And it was a glorious year of refocusing and relearning how to walk with God.

One day I was told by a missionary living on that island to pick up a big rock and carry it with me all day. At the end of the day he asked me if I had had any profound thoughts. And I responded by saying, “You know, in the beginning of the day it was a real nuisance – and so heavy! But now… now I barely notice that it’s there. It’s like it has become a part of me.” 

“Ah,” he said, “and so it is with all of the unnecessary burdens that we carry with us through life.”

Stupid wise man.

And so he made me think through what I was unnecessarily carrying. And when I was ready, I was to place my rock at the foot of a cross he had set up 10 feet away as a symbol of laying down my life burden.

I knew immediately that the burden God was calling me to lay down was the identity that I had formed from being the traumatized daughter of a very sick man (Daddy Disclaimer). I remember visibly shaking as I approached that cross and heard God whisper to my heart, “That is not your identity, dear Gretchen. Lay it down and pick up your true identity in me.” I should have thrown that rock down with all of my might and leaped for joy but instead I hesitated and hesitated, trembling at what it might mean. 

I don’t know how to be anything else, God, I thought. What am I supposed to do with the big gaping hole that will be left when I set down this burden?

In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, there is a story told in the book, Voyage of the Dawn Treader about Eustace. Eustace accidentally turns into a dragon (I know, I know. Who DOES that?) and after many attempts to turn himself back into a boy, he encounters Aslan, a lion who resembles Jesus Christ. Aslan tells Eustice that he must tear the dragon scales off with his big lion claws. Eustace explains, “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off… He peeled the beastly stuff right off… And there I was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch.”

In Fiji, terribly afraid and feeling like my skin was being peeled from my bones, I set down my identity as a victim, and took up my identity as whole, victorious, daughter of the King.

The Desert Place

One day I was listening to Shane and Shane’s “Clean” album and came across a song titled, “Acres of Hope.” I stopped dead in my tracks and thought, “What is this song?” I looked up the lyrics and discovered that the song was based off of Hosea 2:14-20. I listened to the song over and over again, as tears streamed down my face. 

In chapter 2, God is telling Hosea his plan for Hosea’s unfaithful, unloving wife who also happens to be a prostitute.  He says, “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth. And when that happens, she will no longer call me master, she will call me husband.”

Sometimes we find ourselves in the desert of life because of our sin or disobedience. We’ve walked ourselves right into that dry, barren land. But the Bible is full of scriptures on how to walk ourselves out of the desert of our own making. 

But… sometimes God ordains the desert. Not because he’s angry but because he desperately loves us and wants to cut away the thorns, the distractions, the anger, the pain. And in that ordained desert, the only way out is when God deems you ready, and you remember what joy feels like, and you have had such an intimate exchange that you no longer look at God as a disinterested master, but as a lover and as a husband who longs to see you healthy and whole.

God drew me out to the desert and I wandered for years and years, until I reached the end of myself. I was tired, exhausted by the situation with my father and the debilitating anger; I was weak, and almost dead. And then he began to speak tenderly to me, and I listened. And he gave me back my joy. Out there, out where it was dry, I quit calling him master and I started calling him husband. You see, it’s in the struggle and the fight where we finally learn how much he loves us. Where we finally hear him say, “Draw near and listen. I have not abandoned you.”

When Victim Called My Mind Her Home

[Daddy Disclaimer]

There was a knock on the door. Opening it a crack, I saw Victim standing before me, beckoning me with her alluring ability to place blame elsewhere. I swung the door wide open and welcomed her as an old friend.

“Would you care for tea, dear Victim? Or maybe a warm scone instead?” I invited her to the coziest chair of my house.

“Tea would be perfect, my dear. But first, let’s discuss this father of yours,” came the haughty reply of my new guest. “A bit of a letdown isn’t he?” Victim began, watching me closely. “Or maybe disappointment is more appropriate? How about absentee, heart-breaker, aloof, addict, selfish ….” she suggested. My increasingly enthusiastic nods and budding righteous anger only fanning the flame of my indignant friend.

“Yes, yes…” she continued. “It is worse than I thought. You have not realized the fullness of your undeserved pain, little one.  You have not recognized what has been stolen from you – youth, security, innocence, happiness.” She sighed a weary, pitying sigh. Then Victim rose regally from her chair, walked to the foyer and gestured to a large suitcase sitting unnoticed by the front door.

“Please, dear, would you show me to my room?” Victim said sweetly as she started towards the stairs. I rushed to carry her heavy load and followed her as she led the way to my bedroom. Never questioning her right to be there, I swiftly filled my arms with my belongings and settled into the sparse, spare bedroom down the hall.

“Oh, and I’ll take my tea while I bathe!” she rang out. I watched her cross to the master bathroom wrapped in my robe.

Victim had moved in. And it appeared she planned to stay awhile. 


Don't worry. I'm not ending the story there. But this was a reality in my life for a long, long time. When you're handed a trial and not given the choice to "opt out," it's incredibly easy to begin taking on this victim persona. And I played right into her hands for too many years. 

Through God's goodness, I discovered who Victim really was and what I had let her do to me. And I decided to reclaim my master bedroom (because that bed is just TOO good to give up to anyone).

So, I fought and I dug and I yelled and I kicked and I punched and I sobbed and I prayed. Oh, how I prayed…

Until I made my way out of the trenches that Victim had meticulously buried me in.

And I wanted healing. And new life. And hope. I wanted those things more than I wanted to fill my lungs with breath.

But then I looked down over me and was horrified to find the shell that was left. 

(Don't worry, the story doesn't end there either).

Somewhere Between a Labrador and Barnacle

When it comes to her need for affection, Elizabeth Gilbert, in her bestseller Eat Pray Love, describes herself as a cross between a Labrador and a barnacle. 

I love that. 

I love that so much I choked when I read it. 

Because it’s true of me too. So, if you’d be so kind as to share it, Ms. Gilbert, I shall claim that description for myself. 

I have this insatiable need to be touched. It doesn’t matter if you offer to hug me, snuggle with me, sit next to me, pat my head or simply breathe on me – I’ll take it. And forever love you for it.  

And yes, for those of you who are wondering, I’m a 28 year old woman who still wants to crawl into her mother’s lap. Mom doesn’t often let me do it, but when she does… oh the glorious snuggling there is to be had!

(PS – I’m horrified that I just admitted that). 

Featured here is a blissfully ignorant whale who is being attacked by barnacles. Can you see them? Those little dots clinging to his underbelly? Yup, that's me.

This is Me

So, I'm new to this blogging thing. Like, really new. And when my friend Bethany introduced me to the blog-o-sphere so that I could begin publicly recording what I hope to eventually publish in a book, I became slightly overwhelmed. Okay, so REALLY overwhelmed. I mean, there are people who actually, seriously write on these things. Every. Day.

I eventually rose above my overwhelm-edness and got to creating. But then I took a serious turn for the worse when I had to fill out the "This is Me" portion on my side column. Even though I paired it down to "I'm a writer, professional communicator and obsessive organizer who once was harassed by modern-day pirates in the South Pacific," my original version went something like this:

I'm a writer, professional communicator and obsessive organizer who once was harassed by modern-day pirates in the South Pacific. And can't stand still while brushing her teeth. And owns an original piece of art painted by a leper. And firmly believes singer/songwriter Sara Groves was sent to this earth just for her. And has accidentally swum with alligators and sharks. Many times. And believes her tears tell her about the condition of her soul. And loves people but sometimes imperfectly. And collects old books and leather trunks. And has seen God perform a miracle right in front of her. And loves to explore mountains and forests. And new countries. And life under the sea. And people's hearts. And knows that life has made her strong but God has made her tender. And longs to be known and loved in that knowing. Oh, and who will accept peanut butter and chocolate in any form.

Seriously?  How does anyone expect me explain who I am in 10 words? Impossible, I say!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pearls of a Great Price

I have never put much stock in the meaning of my name. I could never find name cards in those convenient store racks, or gas station key chains that sported the eight letters that made me, me. In the rare moment when some little trinket did bear my name, I immediately bought it, thrilled that someone, somewhere, had heard the name “Gretchen” before.

Both of my parents were teachers and so had eye-twitching associations with most kid names that only those who attempt to teach twenty-eight squirmy and irritable children all day long can have. My parents tell me I’m named after a family acquaintance. But they always include the caveat that neither of them had a student named Gretchen and they simply liked the sound of it. Most people are proud of the meaning of their monikers and to some extent live up to them, as if names hold latent powers over their bearers.

I love learning the meaning of names:

Joshua – “God rescues” 

Abigail – “Joy of her father”

Bethany – “Daughter of the Lord”

But my name? Well, it always kind-of struck me as funny and shallow. “A pearl.” No meaning that invokes power. No name that speaks of God’s love, compassion, or even judgment. Just a small, imperfectly-rounded, not quite white ball. Awesome.

It wasn’t until I was 26 that I started awakening to the meaning of my name and began to see God’s hand in the eight letters that define me.  God had been working with me on Matthew 7: 6’s challenge – “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” I too quickly spill “pearls” to anyone who’ll listen, anyone who’ll make me feel valued by sitting across the table and hearing my story. But God has been quietly whispering to my heart to guard what is precious and unique, and to save my innermost thoughts and feelings for Him… and for those who’ll protect and hold gingerly what I give them.

When I starting getting to know a guy in February of 2008, I wanted to douse him with all of the nuances, quirks, heart-wrenching moments, mountain-top experiences and adventures that make up me. But the recent Matthew 7:6 lesson gave me the restraint I needed to prevent the smothering process. I later explained to him that the Lord was teaching me to hold on to my pearls and to reveal them only as I felt the release - and the trust - to do so. Soon, “pearl” became a common term for us when we began sharing more personal things, or when we weren’t ready to divulge something the other person was asking about. It wasn’t until a few months into using this coined term that I re-remembered the meaning of my name. I was a pearl. I was a pearl that the Lord didn’t want to share with just anyone. Only with someone special who wouldn’t trample me underfoot. A man who would hold the precious parts of me with all the tenderness of someone who knew my value and unique qualities.

I happened across Joni Eareckson Tada’s devotional, Pearls of Great Price one day, ironically while I was out looking for devotionals with the same guy. “I think this is the one,” he said and handed me the gold, pearlescent-looking book. The first page stopped me dead in my tracks. What I read touched me so deeply and threw me headlong into a journey to finally embrace my God-given name—and my God-given meaning.

Pearls of Great Price – Joni Eareckson Tada

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.
When he found one of great value,
he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
Matthew 13:45-46

“Dad Tada explained how a pearl is produced. A tiny bit of sand lodges in the flesh of an oyster and becomes an irritating intrusion. Unable to expel it, the oyster covers the particle with layer after layer of milky secretion until the irritation has become smooth, round, and acceptable. It also, inadvertently, becomes a precious gem.

“Some jewels may be made from rocks and crystals; other jewels might be mined out of the earth, but not so pearls. Unlike other gems, pearls are drawn from something that’s alive. Pearls are produced by a life that has overcome affliction, that has overcome suffering. Little wonder they are so valuable!

“Jesus is the Pearl of Great Price. He is unlike any other. Our Savior is the precious gem set apart from the rest. He lives in such a way that he overcame suffering and affliction… Jesus overcame the working of death. He is superior because his love poured forth from a life wounded by pain. He has become our example. And he has bound us with other believers who value his priceless friendship.

“I have experienced more than a few irritants in my life… But God continues to give layer after layer of life-transforming grace; he has made each irritation smooth and acceptable. All because of his help and hope. What was once an intrusion – debilitating pain – has become a precious gem… It is worth everything – absolutely everything – to be his friend.”

Months later, as I was reading The Shack I came across this passage as Jesus speaks to Mack, a man who has faced seemingly insurmountable loss.

“Well Mack, our final destiny is not the picture of Heaven that you have stuck in your head – you know, the image of pearly gates and streets of gold. Instead, it’s a new cleansing of this universe, so it will indeed look a lot like here.”

“Then what’s with the pearly gates and gold stuff?”

“That stuff, my brother,” Jesus began, lying back on the dock and closing his eyes against the warmth and brightness of the day, “Is the picture of me and the woman I’m in love with.”

Mack looked at him to see if he was joking, but it was obvious he wasn’t.

“It is a picture of my bride, the Church: individuals who together form a spiritual city with a living river flowing through the middle, and on both shores trees growing with fruit that will heal the hurt and sorrows of the nations. And this city is always open, and each gate into it is made of a single pearl…” He opened one eye and looked at Mack. “That would be me!” He saw Mack’s question and explained, “Pearls, Mack. The only precious stone made by pain, suffering and – finally – death.”

Starting day one of life, it seems as if I was meant to experience suffering and affliction in a deeper way than most of my friends. It feels that way to me at least. For years I asked “why?” as I looked around at friends who’s lives had been handed to them on silver platters. I so clearly remember my junior high youth pastor’s wife telling me, after I had revealed yet another painful trial I was experiencing, “The Lord must be preparing you for something huge in your life.” I lived in fear of what that might mean until the Lord released me from it ten years later in the jungles of Fiji. It was quite the journey – one that I’m still on, I might add – to realize how much the Lord must love me to allow me to go through such sorrow, bringing me closer to Him. As I continue to learn about pearls – my precious namesake – I more eagerly embrace my moniker, my value, my story.

Letter to the Readers

So, I'm writing this book.

And as I write and wait to see if it's God's will to publish my writings, I blog.

Below is what I imagine I'll open my book with, but I think it's good for you to read too. Because it explains everything. Everything. It explains why I began writing years ago, and it explains why I write now.

My father has been sick my entire life.  He has several, painful, auto-immune, degenerative diseases which affect his joints, muscles and bones. When he was diagnosed 28 years ago, one of the only effective treatments at that time for his level of pain was narcotics. And so like most people who are prescribed daily doses of narcotics, my father developed a need for them and began making choices based upon that need. As the strength of narcotics increased, so did my dad’s desire. By the time I was in high school, my father had chosen to retire on disability, was totally withdrawn from life, in bed 24/7 and had a diminishing relationship with his family (Daddy Disclaimer). 

My story – and my pain- is not derived from the fact that my father is ill, has legitimate diseases. It is centered around my father’s extreme need for his pain medicine and the fact that for the majority of my life, he consistently chose those medications over me, over my family.

Letter to the Readers

Two pictures hang above the desk in my office.  The one on the left is of a kayaker braving the tumultuous white waters of an angry river.  The kayak is vertical in the water; half submerged, half buoyant. Both arms of the kayaker are raised; fingers grasp tightly to the horizontal paddle. It is a picture of strength, of determination, of an iron will. Many who look at it comment that it’s an awesome picture of victory.  I look at it knowing the kayaker is terrified. Knowing the battle isn’t half fought.

The picture on the right is also of a man in a kayak.  His paddle is horizontal as well, but it’s resting on his lap. And the state of the water? It’s what the ocean offers in its early-morning tranquility. The man’s gaze is fixed somewhere in the distance, and at first glance you’d believe the viewer is not supposed to know where. But then you see it. Through the fog lifting from the water, there is a far-off shore. Some believe the picture is boring compared to its companion. In my heart I know this second picture offers far more life than its counterpart ever could.

I’ve struggled, dear reader, in knowing how to tell my painful story without drowning you in sorrow. Am I capable of weaving the story with beauty, truth and hope?

The difficulty of reliving the story in order to tell it is immeasurable. So why? Why do I feel the need to disclose it? 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”

I tell my story in order to possibly bring encouragement and healing for the trials you’ve endured. I also tell it because writing is one of the key gifts God has given me to process, to heal, to move on.  And so – with a weight on my heart I cannot describe – I present this to you.

There have been some ugly, ugly times. Though it would be easier to forget them, they remind me of the white hot fire that I’ve walked through and the beauty of the reconciliation I experience now.

With freedom and understanding and grace that has been missing for far too long, my father released me this summer (2010) to impart my journey. My entire journey. With family and friends. With readers. And I’ve a lot to tell. “It’s a story you need to share,” he explained as I chatted with him on the phone. “A story you need to work through by writing, like you always have. Who am I to stand in your way and tell you that you cannot process in the way that’s best for you?” But I’m getting ahead of myself. It took a long time to get to that point.

Before I left town for the week to hide in nature and begin seriously recording this journey, I glanced through thoughts for the book I’d jotted down years ago. I was shocked – appalled even – at my book dedication ideas. “To the men who stepped up.” “To the men who took the time to meet me in my pain.” “To my Heavenly Father who fulfills the shortcomings of my earthly one.”  My heart sank. I’ve come from such deep pain and depression. Such anger. But I no longer want to dedicate the book to the men who were in stark contrast to my father – although they have played a vital role. I no longer want this book to expose my father, to showcase his failings and the “undeserved pain” I’ve walked through.

When I began writing years ago, it was out of a need to tell someone – anyone – what was really going on. How I was so broken deep inside. The writing it produced reflected the condition of my being – it was raw and angry and broken and ugly. I still want to show that. Because it’s honest. And it’s a place every human goes.

 But it’s not the point of the story anymore.

God has changed all of that. Just like Job’s life, and Mary and Martha’s loss, and Israel’s wanderings, and Jesus’ death are not the point of the Bible. They are the tools that tell the much greater story of Christ’s resurrection. The story of a God who loved his broken ones so much that He became one of them. Experienced their pain. Wept through trials. Begged for release. And suffered immeasurably. So that He could understand His children. So that He could offer us new life. Oh, and He has. He has!

This is a story about God’s redemption and my restoration. Peace to you as you walk through my journey and hopefully bring healing to your own.

Perfect submission
All is at rest
I, in my Savior, am happy and blessed
Watching and waiting
Looking above
Filled with His goodness
Lost in His love
This is my story