The Overflow

About a year ago, I felt a stirring in my heart. I sensed that God was suggesting something to me, nudging an idea across my path. It was subtle. Just an idea that kept resurfacing from time to time. It wasn’t overt. It didn’t slap me across the face or grip my heart with intensity. It was more a whisper of, “what if…”

I can still hear the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit planting seeds. “Beck, what if you did something that combined your theological training, your counseling background and your first-hand experiences with suffering?” I would turn it over in my mind from time to time, wondering what the Lord might be suggesting. Start a support group? Return to counseling? Help out more in the Care Ministry at my church? Nothing I tried on seemed to align with what God was bringing up. Then one afternoon God just spoke plainly to me as I was carrying a load of laundry up the stairs.

“Write. Write a book. Write a devotional. A 365-day companion for people who are suffering and walking in a season of darkness.”

I set my basket of laundry down and stood there for a moment. Of course. Of course He would suggest something crazy like this. Something I felt completely unqualified to do. Something so crazy and overwhelming it could only come from Him.

I laughed because I couldn’t help but agree with His vision. I saw a quote by Toni Morrison once that said “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” For years I tried to find a 365 day devotional that would walk me through my suffering. Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman was the closest I could find and it was written in 1925 – even the revised edition I have feels a bit antiquated. Oh how I wished I could have found a companion to walk me through my darkest days and help shape my perspective of suffering. I so desperately needed a new way of looking at my wounds.

What I was looking for didn’t seem to exist. There are 90-day devotionals for those waiting on miracles, 30-day devotionals for people suffering with depression, 50-day reflections for women going through cancer, year-long meditations on hope and a wealth of nonfiction books that offer lots of insight for those who are going through hard times. But there isn’t a book to journey with someone through the long haul of deep suffering. And there needs to be. There needs to be something for the person who is facing more than just a season of difficulty and needs to cling to Jesus for dear life. Something for the Christian that longs to hear of God’s overflowing love for them in the midst of darkness.

I’ve learned that protesting against God’s will doesn’t get you very far. It just delays the inevitable. So I consented, “Yes Lord, I’ll do it. But can you help me every step of the way? Because I will surely make a mess of this without Your guidance.” I didn’t even bother to explain that I have zero writing experience outside of this little blog. I didn’t tell him that I felt unqualified and ill-equipped for such a huge task. He already knows those things and He still asked me to do this. So I obediently surrendered my hesitation and I said yes in faith.

The first step was coming up with topics. 365 of them. Gulp.

I started with a pretty little notebook and I began to jot down ideas whenever inspiration struck. Most of the ideas were born of the overflow of inspiration from the Holy Spirit. Ideas came from every possible place and it every possible way. Sermons, the Bible, books, dreams, quotes and conversations. More than a few times the Holy Spirit would just spontaneously give me an idea on a random Tuesday afternoon. There were entire days when ideas overflowed out of me like a waterfall of divine inspiration that I could not stop.  As I sit here today, exactly 9 months later to the day, I have 365 ideas for topics.

The next step? Write. Trust that the words will come from the overflow, just like the ideas did.

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Immeasurably More

3.5 years ago, I remember sitting in my quiet office working on editing photos and answering emails. It was an unremarkable day, nothing out of the ordinary had happened until I heard a sound. At first I wasn’t even sure what the noise was. The wind? A cat rustling around in a closet? Water?

Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.

I sat still. Held my breath. There is was again. Whoosh. Whoosh. It took a few minutes to realize the sound was coming from inside my own head. Like it was inside my ear or something. Like something was rhythmically whooshing past my ear, or inside my ear. I looked in the mirror to see if my ear looked different or swollen. Nothing. It looked perfectly normal.

A week later, the noise was still there. I saw my doctor and she looked at my eardrum to see if maybe it was a weird ear infection. “Your ear looks perfectly healthy,” she said. “Try a warm compress and ibuprofen,” she said. Ah, if only it had been that easy.

What resulted from the whooshing in my ear was months of CT scans, MRIs, cancer scares, MRVs, blood tests, hearing tests, neurologists and ultimately a diagnosis of Superior Canal Dehiscence Syndrome. SCDS is essentially when a small balance canal under your brain, the Superior Canal, wears away or develops a hole in it and begins to cause you all sorts of issues. In time, more symptoms developed; chronic vertigo, extreme sensitivity to sound, ear pain/fullness, imbalance, coordination issues, brain fog and eventually brain surgery out at UCLA. The vertigo and imbalance were by far the most debilitating symptoms. They made dealing with a little whooshing in my ear seem like a piece of cake. I remember waking up from surgery and immediately noticing that the vertigo was gone (Hallelujah!) but the pulsing in my ear was still there. bc347-10646965_10206248574315767_3820058040828197190_n

Weeks after surgery, my surgeon told me that the pulsing was just due to swelling and that it would certainly go away since the surgery was successful. After all, surgery resolved all of my other symptoms, it should resolve the whooshing too. I waited and I waited. Months went by and the noise remained. Years went by and the noise remained. This summer, the noise got so loud that I began to lose my hearing and go deaf in my right ear.

Eventually I saw my local neurotologist again and asked to read over my CT and MRIs again to see if anything had been missed. Indeed something had been missed. A tiny bone called the Sigmoid Sinus Plate was missing. Worn away, just like the Superior Canal bone had. There is a large vein right next to the Sigmoid Sinus plate so the noise I was hearing was blood flowing through my vein. We knew this meant another surgery was in my future. David and I went out to UCLA to confer with my first surgeon and he agreed that the Sigmoid Sinus plate was a potential cause for the noise that I continued to hear. He urged me to move forward with surgery.

Surgery was last Tuesday and I got to stay in Colorado this time, yay! In the weeks before surgery, I was calm and confident. On the morning of surgery, that all went flying out the window. Fear and anxiety crept up and pestered me the entire time I was in pre-op. I made David pray a dozen times over me and we continually read Scripture together which was my only source of comfort. My primary fear was that this second surgery might interfere with the first. That it would knock loose my bone graft and I would wake up with vertigo all over again. Thankfully the anesthesiologist swooped in and doped me up before I had a chance to back out and run to the car. 😉

Surgery commenced and before I knew it, I was in the post-op recovery room. I sat still for a long time and just listened. There was absolutely nothing to listen to. There was no pulsing, no noise, no whooshing. Quiet. Peace. Silence.

Before I had surgery, I heard that noise for 1,191 days. That’s 123 million times that I heard the whoosh in my ear. 123 million! It’s amazing I didn’t go insane.

I have now gone 1 full week without hearing anything in my ear other than fluid due to swelling and inflammation. It has been utterly quiet and utterly wonderful. Happy doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel. I am absolutely overjoyed. God is so good.

My recovery has been a breeze this time around. Even though I still had a craniotomy, they didn’t mess with my balance canals so my balance is great, my thinking and cognition is clear, I can concentrate and focus (it’s amazing what your brain can do when it isn’t subjected to hearing it’s own heartbeat all day long) and my energy is coming back. The only thing I’m struggling with is pain and my ear being suuuuper clogged. It gets worse as evening approaches but it’s getting a bit better as the days go by. I should be back to driving soon and living my normal daily life.

I am so SO glad that I didn’t allow fear to stop me from having this surgery. It was so tempting to think “I’ve come this far, I don’t want to push my luck” and back out of surgery. That fear could have prevented me from knowing the beautiful silence I know right now.

I think sometimes suffering can give us a bit of PTSD and we become quite risk-adverse. We don’t want to push our luck, take a risk or go out on a limb. Because what if that limb breaks? What if we fall to the ground? Those what-ifs can sideline us. Here’s the thing though – – – hard things are going to happen regardless. I could hit my head tomorrow and have my vertigo and the whooshing noise return instantly. We can’t insulate ourselves, stay away from all risk and hope that nothing bad happens to us. That’s almost a guarantee that something bad will happen! God isn’t going to reward us for playing it safe all the time. So every now and then we have to shake off the fear and step into the unknown. Who knows what blessings await! God is able to do immeasurably more than we can think, dream or imagine.Photo Nov 13, 10 32 15 AM

 

The River

I decided to post the first paper I wrote this semester to my blog. Not because I think it’s amazing or worthy of public appreciation (ha!), but because it describes so well the place where I currently am and I want to remember this place. The paper was to be a personal spiritual journey reflection paper. We were to identify an obstacle (ha! I have like 14 and I couldn’t choose so I rolled them all into one and just called it “suffering”) in our spiritual journeys and the steps we are taking to overcome it. Alongside that, we were to develop a word picture or analogy for this obstacle. These things have been floating around in my brain since oh….2009 and I feel like I am starting to finally make some progress with marrying the ideas of God’s love and the role of suffering in life. 

So here is my first paper affectionately titled, “The River.”


When I started my first day of school at Denver Seminary, my husband David was in the hospital with two large blood clots in his lungs. I quietly slipped out of his hospital room at 4:45am after a restless night’s sleep listening to him struggling to breathe and fighting through pain that his morphine drip was not helping. I walked through empty hallways with my books in hand, passing nurses in the cardiac wing who looked at me quizzically. Little did they know, I had a long drive ahead of me to a very important class that I refused to be late for. My husband is probably the only person who truly understood how important it was that I make it to class, despite, or perhaps in light, of his tenuous condition. 

My husband’s health crisis which kept him in the hospital for a week due to complications occurred six months after I endured three painful and mostly unsuccessful spinal taps, which were three months after I had brain surgery to repair a rare and degenerative vestibular condition. Brain surgery was on the heels of my husband’s job loss, which was on the heels of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy which almost cost me my life and resulted in the loss of our only child. The loss of our pregnancy came after three years of infertility testing and treatments which have brought us no closer to parenthood six years later. Suffice it to say, I have become acquainted with suffering.
Despite the brevity, I do not recount this grim list of events casually. Each one has made a deep and distinguishing impact on not only my day-to-day life, but my spiritual life as well. I share these events as a way to set the scene for describing the subsequent spiritual wrestling match that has taken place in my heart. 

Through the vast majority of the trials I have experienced, my faith in God and my enthusiastic pursuit of Him have not wavered. I have clung tightly to Him as David and I have weathered the storms that have come our way. I have continually sought the Lord through prayer, worship, Scripture, godly counsel, church, spiritual direction and a simple but deep longing in my heart to know and experience Him more. Along the way, however, a shift occurred in my perception as I unknowingly began to view God’s intentions for me with trepidation. My belief that God was good held firm, I just did not believe His intentions for me were good. I knew God was loving, He just did not love me quite as much. Subsequently, the door to my heart began to slowly close as I rationalized my way through why God would intend such hardship for me. I still sought after His wisdom, comfort, peace, guidance, presence, grace and forgiveness, but my pursuits ended there. 

During a guided retreat in November for CF606 which I was auditing at the time, I was made painfully aware of the impervious state of my heart. One of the retreat exercises entailed reading through various verses and writings about God’s love. Aggravated, I regarded this exercise as futile because of my conviction that God did not actually love me. Why spend an afternoon reading through things that did not even apply to me? It was in these moments when the Holy Spirit confronted me with my deeply errant view of God and His love. Does God’s love automatically equate with blessings or a lack of problems? Does the Lord’s goodness mean one never suffers or experiences hardship? Should the natural response to trials be closing one’s heart off to God in an attempt to self-protect? I was overwhelmed by how far astray my assumptions about God’s nature, which is characterized completely by love, had gone.

The retreat was a catalyst for reshaping my perspective. How I viewed suffering, trials and pain in light of my renewed sense of God’s love began to change. Conversely, how I viewed God’s love in light of suffering, trials and pain also began to change. As I opened the crack to the door to my heart wider and wider, my mindset began to shift and I have been more welcoming of God’s love in its various forms. Much of the Old Testament has been particularly transformative, allowing me to gain insight into the relationship between God’s love and the suffering of His people. One section of Hosea 6 has brought me considerable enlightenment in regards to God’s love and His intentions in suffering.
Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us 
down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise 
us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going 
out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the 
earth (Hos 6:1-3 ESV). 
Isaiah 30, which speaks of eating the bread of affliction and drinking the water of adversity (Is 30:20 ESV), is a perfect description of the nourishment I have become familiar with and has given me considerable great insight into the Lord’s recognition of suffering and what He intends for it. 

The purpose for my suffering remains partially veiled. I do not believe the Lord has fully revealed His design for it in my life, nor do I believe my heart could bear the full weight of such purpose at this time. However, as I look back over the years, I survey remarkable maturity and growth that only suffering could produce. As gold is refined in a fire, so has my heart been refined by the trials. I cling to James’ words in the hopes that the perseverance produced by these trials might one day be made complete so that I would be fully “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas 1:4 NIV).

If I were to further speculate, I might estimate that the suffering I have experienced serves, in addition to developing a mature faith, as a precursor to ministerial calling, whether that be in the realm of chaplaincy, spiritual direction or simply helping friends who need companionship while walking a difficult road of their own. Despite my blindness regarding the reason, I intend to continue in my pursuit of vulnerability before God. No longer will the door to my heart receiving and reciprocating God’s love remain closed. That is not a state to which I wish to return and so I will remain unflinching in my reception of His love, whatever form it may manifest itself. This includes intentionally remaining open in prayer during subsequent hardships, such as my husband’s recent hospitalization. The temptation certainly existed to adhere to past faulty beliefs the second we walked into the emergency room. As a result it takes extra intentionality to refute past convictions and continue forward in my simple but transforming belief that God is indeed good in my life, He is indeed for me and He does indeed love me.

As I have begun to explore the relationship between God’s unconditional love and His purpose in suffering, I have been led to a word picture of a river. A river is a wild and unbridled force that cuts through rock, plummets as a waterfall over cliffs, frequently floods low-lying areas, forms steep canyon walls, carves paths through impenetrable terrain and on occasion, injures the occasional recreational enthusiast. 

A river also shapes trade routes, provides irrigation water for fields and farms, nourishes surrounding flora, provides drinking water for wildlife and people alike, allows for spectacular scenery, fly fishing, rafting and outdoor relaxation. Rivers are wild and scary but they are also life-giving and peaceful. They are a vivid juxtaposition of wonder, life, necessity and goodness with rampant power, torrential rawness and a hint of danger.

If I wish to lead others to the water of this mighty River, then I myself cannot be afraid of it. I must be willing to submerse myself in these mysterious and often painful Waters. It is not enough to sit on the River’s edge and remark on its beauty, take photos and urge others to jump in while I stand at a safe distance, afraid to get wet. If I aim to attend to others along this river of God’s love, I must be a guide who is not hesitant to get in the boat and face the rapids head on. I cannot walk the shoreline shouting instructions at those who were willing to enter a boat, I must enter the River myself.

To draw the picture of a rafting guide out further, if my boat were to capsize with myself and crew in it, I cannot swim to shore, set up camp and count my bumps and bruises for the subsequent few months. There is no progress in rehashing old wounds while maintaining a victim mentality. If my boat were to snag on a log in the River and the air began to escape from it, I cannot wave my white flag and decide to walk the rest of the journey. The River goes places that cannot be traversed on foot. 

This is why I left David’s hospital room that Wednesday morning. Since that retreat in November, which opened my eyes not only to my own errant ways of thinking but also to the conviction that I was being called to begin the Christian Formation and Soul Care program at Denver Seminary, I have been utterly convinced that hardship should not hold me back from exploring more of God’s love for me. It probably would have been much easier to skip class, defer my studies for a semester and ruminate over yet another hardship that we have endured. I love my husband deeply and wanted to care for and support him in any way I could, but we both also were highly aware of the significance of not letting another health crisis impede the journey towards further spiritual growth and development. So I tiptoed out of his hospital room and back into the River.

Upheaval

Honestly, I thought my next post would be about how grad school is going or how the move out of our house went. I never imagined that I would be writing about what it’s like to operate in crisis mode 24/7 or what it’s like to watch your husband not be able to breath or how many times I prayed that God would spare David’s life.

Believe me, I wish I was being dramatic. We have had a scary ride these last 10 days or so. Probably the scariest in my life. I haven’t really even begun to process what has transpired. Too much has happened. Too many tears. Too many nights without sleep. Too much disruption.

It has been a total upheaval.

Writing is usually my first step to processing something the Lord is doing in my life and so this blog post is more for my own heart to begin to make sense of things than for your reading enjoyment. No offense 😉 The days have blurred together and I know that if I don’t get something down, it will be harder and harder for me to remember or be able to piece together.

I mentioned in my last post that the buyers of our home had moved up our closing date to February 1st. It was a tight timeline but we knew we could get our house fully packed and moved by then. I had rented a POD to store our furniture and we were steadily chipping away and packing boxes. I left David in charge of the heavy stuff so he spent last Saturday lifting and carrying heavy boxes. Towards the end of the day he mentioned that the side of his ribcage was hurting. We chalked it up to a pulled muscle and continued with our progress.

On Sunday the pain was making him wince every now and then. When he stood up or sat down, he’d close his eyes and say “man! this really hurts.” Again, we chalked it up to a pulled muscle. A few times he was doubled over in pain and I suggested going to an UrgentCare. “They’re just going to give me some Advil and tell me to take it easy” David said. Monday was no better, though he did finally see an in-house doctor at his work who confirmed that it was likely a pulled muscle. She literally gave him Advil and told him to just take it easy.

Tuesday I woke up to David struggling to breathe. He couldn’t talk or move. His eyes were shut tight and he had tears running down his cheeks. I did my best to put some clothes on him and rushed him to the ER which we thankfully lived 3 minutes away from.

At first, the ER doctors thought it was some minor complication from a cold he had the week before. They seemed genuinely unconcerned. They ordered an EKG and a chest x-ray which came back clear. But when a triple dose of Morphine didn’t take away David’s pain, I saw a change in the ER physician’s demeanor. He looked at the lab results and noticed a test for blood coagulation came back abnormal. He ordered a CT scan and they immediately took David out of the room.

When the doctor came back, it looked like he wanted to cry and apologize at the same time for not taking us seriously from the start. “You guys, I am so glad that you came in. David has two large blood clots in an artery of each of his lungs. If you had waited to come in, or tried to push through the pain any longer….. this would have ended very….. very badly.” In 25% of people who have pulmonary embolisms (blood clots in the lung), sudden death is the very first symptom. Ultimately, it kills 1 out of every 3 patients who have it.

He was immediately admitted to the cardiac unit and given all sorts of shots and pills and drips of IV medicine. The first 2 days were pretty bad. His pain was out of control and he really struggled to breathe if he moved even the slightest bit. Morphine + hydrocodone truly did nothing for his pain. It was so hard watching him be in such sustained pain. David is a tough guy, he’s had all sorts of broken bones and injuries- in 13 years, I have never seen him in such physical distress.

We had some really beautiful sunsets out David’s windows. Every night was a treat to watch.

It was only once they introduced a very strong anti-inflamitory pain medication called Toredal that things started to finally turn around. His chest pain lessened, his breathing was easier and his spirits lifted. Praise God!

Interestingly though, after he started this medication, he mentioned having a touch of a headache (Note to Self: if you’re ever on opoid prescription pain killers and still have a touch of a headache, it’s likely more than just a headache). That was just before he threw up. Even more interesting, the doctors and nurses didn’t find any of this the least bit troubling and decided to discharge him after a 3 day stay.

He came back to his parent’s house after being discharged. Within hours, the pain in his head grew worse.

What happened after that was a blur of 2 ER visits, stabbing pain, worried doctors, relentless nausea and vomiting, MRIs, blood tests and CT scans. There were talks of bleeding in his brain due to blood thinners, talks of severe reactions to the blood thinners, talks of spinal taps and of stroke risk. For a while they thought perhaps the clots in his lungs had traveled to his brain. There were lots of tears, prayers, Morphine, Dilaudid and Zofran. And then a readmittance into the hospital for a 2nd time.

I didn’t sleep for a span of 48 hours. I couldn’t take my eyes off of David, watching each breath he breathed and thanking God for allowing him to be alive.

He was admitted to the neurology floor where neurologists worked to figure out what in the heck was going on. While they tested out theories and prescribed various treatments over the next 2 days, David was in a state of utter torture. His pain was what the hospital staff referred to as “unmanageable” meaning, no medications helped. Even the strongest of the strong, Dilaudid (about 3x stronger than Morphine) would only touch his pain for a brief moment. His nausea was also unmanageable and the only way David got any relief was literally by being unconscious. One particular drug called Phenergan was very helpful for just knocking him out and giving him a little reprieve from the agony.

During these days, I got a strong sense that this thing was bigger than ourselves or the doctors’ abilities to help. I stopped being able to pray intelligible prayers and simply began begging the Spirit to intercede on our behalf. I called upon the name of Jesus more times than I can count. We had a revolving door of support come through. David needed complete darkness and silence, so much of the intercessory prayer happened outside of his room but that didn’t make it any less powerful! I’ve only had a few times in my life where I could literally feel myself being carried by the prayers of others, this was one of those times.

After 2 and a half very long days, eventually the neurologists gave us explanation for what David was experiencing. He had a condition called status migrainosus which is characterized by 72+ hours of relentless and unmanageable pain, vomiting and nausea. They confirmed he had no blood clots in his brain and no bleeding in his brain. This condition put him at a heightened risk for stroke and began evaluating him several times each day for stroke signs. But ultimately, they believed there were no abnormalities in his brain and that he would be ok.  I truly believe God spared him from a multitude of worse-case scenarios.

They finally put him on a steroid protocol with a mix of IV medications which aimed at breaking his pain. After about 14 hours, he slowly moved into a more coherent state of mind as the pain began to dissipate. The next morning, he ate a few bites of food. He smiled. He kept his eyes open. He spoke in full sentences. He began to slowly turn the corner. The steroids helped him so much and really brought him back to reality again…a reality with much less pain, confusion and torment.

Terrified to be discharged prematurely again, David and I decided it would be best for him to see how he did without any pain or nausea meds in his system before we agreed to be discharged. We stayed long past when we needed to, just to make sure. He had so many ups and downs over the week, we didn’t want to go home only to have him relapse yet again. But after 12 hours of reduced pain and no nausea, he seemed to still be doing well so we cautiously went home.

He has since been on the mend and recovering well. The blood clots are still there. They will probably stay in his lungs for the next few months, but the doctors feel confident that they will not get bigger and they should dissipate with time while he is on blood thinners. We still have some testing to do in the months to come to see if the blood clots are due to a coagulation disorder.

He seems to have recovered fully from the pain and nausea, which is a big blessing. His body is handling the blood thinners well and aside from not being able to mountain bike, shave with a razor or really do anything that could cause bleeding, the blood thinners don’t seem to be too much of a problem.

Somewhere in all of this, we moved out of our house and into my in-law’s home. We sold our home. And I started grad school. But those are different posts for a different day.

For now, I will simply thank God for His favor and protection over my sweet husband. And I will continue to smile and stare at him as I watch him breathe 🙂