Sleep Aids & Vitamin JC

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“Sorry, Karen, gotta go take my sleep aid now.”

My sister and I laughed as we hung up the phone after a good long conversation of catching up on jobs, friends, hobbies, recipes, and . . . ailments. Even as I write this, I have to laugh. I never thought it would be me! Sleep aid? Ailments? Really? Even just a few years ago, I’m pretty sure I held a privately derogatory view of anyone who had to use a sleep aid. “Just go swim or do some exercise,” I would critically and silently think.

Still chuckling to myself, I took my sleep aid and began my home physiotherapy regime for the frozen shoulder I’d been experiencing for the past seven months. As I worked through the 20 or so stretches and exercises followed by 15 minutes of icing and heating contrast therapy, I had flashbacks of my dad doing home physical therapy after his double knee replacement. “Oh no,” I thought, “is this just the beginning of a long road of ailments?” And I remembered how it was kind of annoying that he talked about it so much. Just like I was starting to talk about my shoulder. Sigh.

After the hour of physiotherapy, I still was not tired, so I decided to get a jump start on the week. First order of business: restock the weekly pillbox. Medicine for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Vitamin D3, Calcium, Glucosamine, Magnesium, and two extra strength Advil for every morning; more Advil each night. More flashbacks. Mom and Dad had different approaches to daily self-care. Mom’s approach was aspirin, chocolate and coffee. Dad had a drawer full of every imaginable vitamin per the recommendation of Adele Davis – famous health author in the 1970s.

I remembered the daily routine of having to take a spoonful of cod liver oil and then burping it up all morning and experiencing the disgusting taste all over again. I remembered my parents poking holes in Vitamin E pills and squeezing the liquid out onto my sun-poisoned skin. I remembered hearing ad nauseam about the benefits of Vitamin C and how many ailments it cured. I remembered the horrible smell and taste of the many vitamins we had to take to earn our allowance. I looked forward to growing older and moving out so I would not have to deal with vitamins ever again. Now I wish someone would pay for my vitamins.

Since the beginning of time, humankind has strived for eternal life. Often our striving involves a lot of time, resources and attention to techniques to extend our days minimally (both my parents passed away at an average age in their family). As a follower of Jesus Christ, who lived to the ripe old age of 33, I think that perhaps if we learned to number our days as he did, the wisdom gained would lead us to focus on how we live; not how long.

A hard pill to swallow.

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Retreat

Day 2 on the Advent Calendar, but Advent Eve in terms of the Church Calendar.  Today there was a lovely retreat at First Baptist Church at Jasper Avenue and 109 Street in downtown Edmonton.

This is my second year attending this retreat and we read the Story of the Birth of Jesus in Luke 2:1-20.  Every time I read that story, something different pops out.  Today it seemed to me that it was a very disruptive scene.  First of all, I wonder what everyone was doing when the census was called.  How many people had to get up and travel how far to get to their home towns so they could be counted?  What does that look like?  Do they have livelihoods they have to leave?  If this happened today, I would have to get up and make my way to Rome……Rome, New York, that is. If I had the funds, it would only take a few hours.  Otherwise, it would take a LONG time to walk there.

But go to his hometown, Joseph does. And he takes his pregnant girlfriend / fiancee – Mary.  Great timing, eh?  Because it is loads of fun taking a road walking trip while pregnant.  (I doubt Mary complained as much as I would have….but there must have been a time or two.  Oh wait, maybe not seeing as how she was 14 or 15 years old, and you know how mature we are at that age.)

Now, if I had to go to Rome, NY, I’d get on the phone and call my relatives – long-lost or not – to find a place to stay for free.  It would be reunion time as well.  But I guess Joseph’s family must have all moved on to various areas?  Or everyone but him had died somehow?  Because no other family is mentioned at all and yet this is Joseph’s hometown.  I wonder how family stuff worked back then or what the story of his family was?  Or was it because he had a pregnant girlfriend he couldn’t really go to family?

So, they had to check into a motel.  But they arrived just a little bit later than most people, and everything was booked.  There was no room for Joseph in his hometown.  And no room for Mary, who is bursting at the seams with a baby.  I wonder if that was still due to stigma?  Although not everyone is friendly here, I imagine if a woman was in labor, someone (including me) would let her come in and have her baby.  Was there no mercy in the area at all?

Most importantly, there was no room for a Saviour.  I wonder if we, in our busy, harried lives, have room for Him now?

Advent

December 1, 2017.  For . . . ahem . . . many years now, I have experienced this as the first day of Advent.  At least, that is according to the various advent calendars that have made their way into my life.

Every year on this day, my mind wends its way back to childhood days, when two or three of us would fight every day over who would open the little window on the one advent calendar we shared in our house.  And that was all before chocolate advent calendars entered the picture!  By the way, we never, ever had a chocolate advent calendar, and as of yet, I still do not desire one.  I desire to open a little window and see a candle, or a cross, or a gift box, or a goose, or any number of little figures we would see each day.

In retrospect, it was the anticipation that was the best part – it made the surprise much more satisfying each day..  And today, as I reflect upon what advent now means to me – the longing of this now much older body, mind and soul, to experience Christ incarnate within in a new and fresh way – though the longing is great, I am determined to savour the anticipation of his coming once again.

Family

sign-1241257-1279x852When I saw the picture, I laughed out loud.  A friend of mine who normally seems a bit on the quiet and reserved side is pictured in a fountain pool, dressed in denim style shorts and a bright yellow cotton sleeveless shirt, she is on her feet with water splashing around her calves, knees slightly bent as she leans forward with outstretched arm toward the photographer and her face contorted to appear like a roaring lioness. Her sister, clearly enjoying the moment and animated with laughter, is sitting on a rock positioned in the water beside my friend.  Gazing at the picture, a wave of pleasant nostalgia washed over me, holding memories of reunions with my own sisters.

There is something about being with the people you grew up with. As we grow up and enter into many different communities – of work, of church, of organizations, etc. – we usually develop a modified persona that is active in those environments. One example of this in my own life is in the area of the use of humour. My family’s love language seems to be a little bit of sarcasm. We sharpen our wit(s) – some of us have one, others more than one – with one another and laugh at ourselves, and each other, in the process. I’ve had to modify that behaviour pattern in me in various environments and groups, as without the safety of shared experiences and the assuredness of no ill intentions, it can be quite damaging to others to be the recipient of a witty or sarcastic comeback or comment.

But when we get together as family, the relief of being able to express ourselves in this way we grew up in is palpable. You know what it is like to tell a joke, only to have to explain it? Most of the humour is lost in that scenario. Well, for me, being amongst family is as if I get dropped into an environment where all of a sudden everyone understands the same language – no explanations necessary!

I remember Christmas get-togethers and other reunion times when Mom, who just like my friend would seem to be a bit on the quiet and reserved side, would pipe up with some outrageous thing, and our laughter was in part because whatever it was seemed contrary to how she appeared. I remember being in the Bahamas with Mom, and my own eyes widening with shock as she was the first one up for parasailing. Who was this person!?

Next month, my sisters and I will be gathering together to honour my brother, Dale, who passed away, and to spend some time together. I had hoped to have a get together with my brother alive.  But although the event bringing this reunion into being is sombre, I look forward to our time where we will likely be somewhat irreverent, sarcastic and gently acerbic together. A good family time.

Pain

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The pain is so different this time. I’ve lived through the pain of receiving news of the deaths of my mother and my father. But the pain on hearing my brother has died is different in an intensely horrific way. The force of anger in me upon hearing the news while driving surprised me. I can’t even estimate the number of times I hit the steering wheel in anger and frustration and feeling somehow satisfied by the pain in my palms felt from their violent contact with the wheel. Screaming at no one and feeling frustrated there was no one nearby to receive my screams. “WHY, GOD, WHY?” I’ve never asked that question more for anything than I have asked that question on behalf of or in regards to my brother Dale. For 40 years, Dale struggled with binge alcoholism. Severe substance abuse was the most recent formal diagnosis. He seemed to experience no relief at all from the abuse or effects of the abuse. He was in prison a number of times – once he even chose prison over trying to make it in a halfway house and program offered by a judge.

Dale was addicted to alcohol from a very young age – my guess would be somewhere between 13 and 15 years of age. He had trouble through high school. Then, directionless upon graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. His addiction grew. He was honorably discharged with disabilities three years after enlisting. He had contracted mono-nucleosis, which led to encephalitis and a Gran Mal seizure. He nearly died. My parents were called to fly out to California from Michigan as they did not expect him to live. But he lived. He moved back home and his addiction continued. I remember helping him get a couple of jobs with friends – one who he helped build decks, and another hired him at a lumber company. Everyone liked Dale. But the jobs never lasted. Alcohol had its corrosive way of destroying whatever good had managed to occur in Dale’s life.

I can’t be sure, sadly enough, but I believe he was married twice and divorced twice. No relationship could withstand Dale’s massive consumption of alcohol. Oh, things would go along well for a short period of time, but then the monster’s ugly head would rear again, and relationships were destroyed. At least one of his marriages produced a child, a girl named Alex, but I have no idea where she is now. Relationships with family members were all strained. I remember dreading holidays, wondering what disastrous drinking events or consequences of those events we would be dealing with each year I traveled home to visit. One year it was picking him up from prison. Another year, he shot a gun in the house late one night when he thought he was protecting one of his sisters. Luckily, I had taken my sisters out of the house that night as I went to pick up my mother from her job. There was always something to worry about with Dale.

He spent most of the last 10 to 15 years as a homeless veteran. He received disability pay from the military that mostly got used to purchase alcohol or purchase protection from others by buying them alcohol. The homeless liked my brother, too, as he often bought others their drinks. But he was also very vulnerable as the alcohol had taken a toll on his body and he became immobile as he drank. So, Dale was beaten up more than once. My parents had to face unbelievable emotional pain as they attempted to deal with Dale over the years. I remember when they sent him to rehab in Rochester, New York, which didn’t work. I remember when they dropped him off at a shelter in Pontiac, Michigan. I remember when they kicked him out of the house and he decided to live in the field by our house, and because he was threatening to do himself and others harm, they called the police who came and arrested him on an old warrant.

In all the years, I was never able to see Dale’s pain. I saw only the pain he brought to us and others. But a few years ago, I began working with sexually exploited and addicted individuals and reading current material around addictions like the work of Gabor Mate, author of In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction. And I have come to a new understanding of addiction. Knowing what I know now, I believe Dale experienced significant trauma as a child. And that trauma planted a seed inside of Dale that was watered by the alcohol that most of us try when we are teens. He had further traumas while in the Marine Corps, and further alleviated the pain of those traumas with more alcohol. And as he began to experience the pain of rejection all around him, in his family, friends, workplaces, etc., he tried to drown out the pain of rejection and isolation with more and more alcohol. It is not a thought-out process, but rather an instinctive pull.

About 12 weeks ago, my brother was transported once again to the VA Hospital after being found drunk and living in his own filth in an apartment provided by the VA’s HUD/VASH program – its mandate is to put vets in homes. He told one of my sisters to lock him up for two years because “I can’t do this anymore.” HUD/VASH proceeded to discharge him from their program as their clients must be able to take care of themselves in an independent home in order to qualify for their program. After he sobered up, the VA Hospital wanted to discharge him as well – into homelessness. As his sisters, we began advocating for him with the hospital, but we seemed under constant pressure or threat of discharge. Dale had been suicidal, so they put him in their psych ward. They claimed, however, that he really didn’t belong there. How they could know that without a comprehensive mental health assessment, I have no idea. We managed to get him kept in there for nearly eight weeks as we frantically searched for both long-term and short-term solutions for Dale. During that time, three VA rehab facilities rejected his application to enter their program. We have asked why that occurred, but have not yet received a satisfactory answer. And no long-term solutions (i.e., long-term veteran’s housing) or even discussions about solutions ever came our way.

We worked to get him accepted at a private rehab facility, and he indeed showed up there to enter their program. However, they refused to let him smoke and asked him to cut his beard, so he was rejected once again and left. He went to live under a bridge according to my sister who is the last one to have contact with him. In his last conversation with her, he tearfully told her he appreciated everything we had done for him. Within a week, he was found dead behind some trees near a trail with many homeless encampments on it in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dale was 53 years old.

I am sharing my pain with you today because I believe that, as Johann Hari suggests in his book Chasing The Scream, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety…the opposite of addiction is connection. My brother was a U.S. Veteran. Though he did not serve overseas, he experienced trauma where he was stationed in California. He was proud of his service in the Marine Corps, for which he received at least one award, and proud to be a part of the community of veterans. The community that seemed to deem him unworthy of connection in the end.

Easter 2017 Musings

What an interesting week this has been leading up to Easter tomorrow.  I am attending First Baptist Church in Edmonton, a church that has a “liturgical” format: we follow the church calendar, we stand up and sit down periodically during the service, we have a choir and sing hymns, we have prayers of confession and assurance written by congregation members and lay leaders, and we recite the Lord’s prayer together as well. There is a lot of concerted effort that goes into our services.

Now, having been “reborn” into the Pentecostal realm of faith over a decade ago, I would not claim that I naturally gravitate toward a liturgical style of worship.  But I feel drawn to First Baptist in this season for a number of reasons which I will not recant here, save for one: there is an appreciation for the reflection, contemplation and other practices associated with spiritual formation.

This is my reflection having read and heard the Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday scriptures this year.  This bit of writing is not based on a heavily studied reading of the text, but simply a reflection of the thoughts that have come my way.

Matthew 26:17- 29

The Last Supper

17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

18 He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.

20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.21 And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”

23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered, “You have said so.”

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant,which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Okay, I really tried to place myself in the scene as one of Jesus’s followers.  I’d been travelling around with Jesus for years, hearing his teachings, trying to understand the stories.  Jesus had given little hints about what was coming up, but nothing too dramatic had happened in that regard at this point.  But now, Jesus starts talking about someone betraying him.  And to top it all off, he gives me a piece of bread, telling me it is his body, along with a cup of wine that is his blood.  Hmmm.

I wonder if they were shooting each other glances with eyebrows raised?  I could imagine that. Were they thinking, “What is he up to now?”

Matthew 26:36-45

Gethsemane

36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.

On this reading, I immediately thought, “I bet this wasn’t the first time Jesus found his disciples sleeping as he was “working”!  I’ve always had this sense that to his disciples, Jesus was kind of like a rock star, a charismatic leader.  Like a driven rock star and his groupies travelling around on a bus, the star might stay up all night practicing riffs or writing songs, while the rest of the gang sleeps.

If you read the account in Luke, verse 22:39 reads, “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives…”  As usual.  Maybe the disciples who went with him thought, “Here we go again.”  In light of what we know, we read it very dramatically.  But I think for the disciples, who didn’t understand most of the teachings of Jesus at the time, ever confused by various parables (some of which we do not know the meaning of even today), and coming from an interesting Last Supper experience, it could have been more of a “here we go again” moment.

These guys travelled with Jesus for years, but their faith wavered throughout that time. (This gives me comfort as my faith wavers as well.)  One minute could find one walking on water, and the next minute nearly drowning in it.  It seems to me that every single disciple had disbelief and/or doubt.  After all, in between the accounts of The Last Supper and Gethsemane, Jesus predicts they all will fall away (Matthew 26:31).

Well, though they may have slept through all the praying, I’m sure they woke up pretty quickly as Jesus was arrested and brought before the religious and legal leaders.  The scene was getting ugly quickly.

Sure enough, the disciples all fall away…but I am sure still observe the beatings, the mockery, the crucifixion.  “Is he God? Or is he not?”  The women observed it all as well (Matthew 267: 55-56).

How awful it must have been to see their friend crucified – killed in such a horrific fashion.  “I know he was a little strange, but he was innocent.  How could they humiliate and kill him like that??”  But though he had told various people he would rise in three days, no one but his enemies seemed to take note of that or treat it with any seriousness. In fact, only one of the criminals and perhaps a centurion and/or some guards really seemed to believe that Jesus was who he said he was.  Everyone went back to their business of living.  Even the women went and prepared the spices for his burial, but not on the Sabbath – this really indicates they believed there would be a body to deal with, not an empty tomb.

Virtually everyone simply went forward with their lives.

Until he rose and appeared to them.  And they still (understandably) had doubts and disbelief (Luke 24:37-40).

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:45)

Will we recognize Jesus as he appears in our midst?  Will we invite and allow Jesus to open our minds to understand the Scriptures?  Or will we simply go forward with our daily lives?  The disciples got very busy and birthed the church when they realized Jesus rose after three days as he said he would.  How will the resurrection impact the church and his disciples today?

Ash Wednesday

ash-wednesday

Ash Wednesday.  I wish I had gone to the service at my church over the noon hour, as I have never been to an Ash Wednesday service.  But it was not to be.  And so I find myself tonight longing to enter into the season of Lent in such a way as to know that I am walking alongside Jesus.  What does it all mean?  How can little ole me in my comfy, busy (perhaps manic), self-absorbed life understand and relate to Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, where he fasted and faced the temptations Satan was only too eager to throw his way.

I should have prepared more.  Looking up things about Lent tonight, I realized that in some scenarios, the feast from Panda Hut Express we had at our employee lunch today would have been a big no-no on this Ash Wednesday.  It would have been totally appropriate yesterday, on Shrove Tuesday.  Feasting on the day before the fast is to begin is the way to go.  But as per usual, I am behind the 8-ball!

Looking into the scriptures from the Revised Common Lectionary for this week, I dug into Joel 2:12-13 and found redemption:

Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
     and rend your hearts and not your garments.” 

Yes, fasting is important.  But on a simple reading of this scripture, it would seem the Lord’s top priority for me is to rend my heart, allow my heart to be torn open for his purposes, rather than for me to rend my garments, which would be more symbolic of rituals that represent brokenness to others.  For sure there are holy rituals and holy ceremonies and these are precious and valuable and honourable.

But what I hear the Lord saying to me is:

“How’s your heart?  Are you going to focus on a failure to rend your clothes?  Or are you going to focus on following me?  Return to me with all your heart.  Fast with me.  Weep with me.  Mourn with me.  We are going to go through something special together.  Don’t beat yourself up about the rituals you miss.  Follow me.”

N.T. Wright’s book The Day The Revolution Began is a great read for Lent as he reminds us of the true purposes of the cross.