Thursday, December 31, 2015

Everything happens for a reason NOT


I couldn't have said it better. How I wish I had written this but I didn't--zero credit to me. This is a blog post from John Pavlovitz from August 6, 2015. All credit to John, a man who has the ability to nail it on the head. I particularly love the fact that he uses the phrase "profound suckness." Thank you, John. The original post is at
That phrase.
We’ve all received it personally gift-wrapped by well-meaning friends, caring loved ones, and kind strangers. It usually comes delivered with the most beautiful of intentions; a buffer of hope raised in the face of the unimaginably painful things we sometimes experience in this life.
It’s a close, desperate lifeline thrown out to us when all other words fail: Everything happens for a reason.
I’ve never had a tremendous amount of peace with the sentiment. I think it gives the terrible stuff too much power, too much poetry; as if there must be nobility and purpose within the brutal devastation we may find ourselves sitting in. In our profound distress, this idea forces us to run down dark, twisted rabbit trails, looking for the specific part of The Greater Plan that this suffering all fits into.
It serves as an emotional distraction, one that cheats us out of the full measure of our real-time grief and outrage. We stutter and stop to try and find the why’s of all of the suffering, instead of just admitting that maybe there is no why to be found and that perhaps this all simply sucks on a grand scale. May you feel permission to fully acknowledge that profound suckness.
Any even if somewhere beneath all of it; far below all the dizzying trauma that we experience here there is a fixed, redemptive reason for it all, it’s one that will likely remain well beyond our understanding so long as we inhabit flesh and blood.
Deep within the background operating system of my faith there’s a buried, fiercely protected trust in a God who is good and in an existence that matters. But this core truth doesn’t come with the assumption that all things, (including all the horrors we might encounter here), have a purpose. It doesn’t come with a hidden silver lining always knitted into the fabric somewhere, if only we can uncover it.
To believe that, is to risk painting the picture of a God who is making us suffer for sport; throwing out obstacle and injury and adversity just to see what we’ll do, just to toughen us up or break us down. I find it hard to reconcile that with the perseverant hope in a God who is not out to squash me. 
It’s exhausting enough to endure the dark hours here and not lose our religion, without the addition of a Maker who also makes us bleed. Instead, I prefer to understand God as One who bleeds along with us; Who sits with us in our agony and weeps, not causing us our distress but providing a steady, holy presence in it. This still leaves me with the nagging question of why this God can’t or won’t always remove these burdens from me, but it does allow me to better see the open opportunity provided in tragedy.
There’s an oft-misused excerpt from a pastor’s letter to his faith community found in Scripture, where the author Paul writes:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
This isn’t a Heavenly insurance policy paid with faith and exempting us from anything unpleasant, but the promise that if we choose to respond to all things from a place of love and goodness; that we, not necessarily our circumstances will be better for it.
In this way, I believe in suffering as a sacred space; one where we get to choose.
It’s not a supernatural cause-and-effect experiment from the sky, specifically designed to do something to us or in us, but it is a time and place where we can respond and as we do, we are altered. Our pain does not have a predetermined purpose, (otherwise we would be straddled with the terribly complicated task of figuring it out in a billion small decisions every single day), but that pain will always yield valuable fruit.
As much as I hate to admit it, my times of deepest anguish have almost always been the catalyst for my greatest learning, but I could have easily learned different lessons had I chosen differently. Yes, I certainly grew tremendously in those trying times, but I could have grown in another direction altogether with another choice. In that way, those moments of devastation held no single, microscopic needle-in-the-haystack truth to hunt for while I grieved and struggled, but there was still treasure to be found in the making of my choices and in their ripples.
No I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe there is meaning in how we respond to all things that happen to us, even when they are not at all good things.
Be encouraged as you suffer and choose.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas in prison: A waltz

Christmas Eve, nearly midnight. I was nestled all safe in my bed, thinking about the people I love, searching for gratitude in the light of Christmas. I thought about my brother Mark and how he used to give me a huge hug every Christmas Eve, how I have missed him the past four years. I tried to remember his face and what came to me, like one of Ebenezer Scrooge’s horrific ghosts, was the photo of his face they put up on the big screen in the courtroom during his murder trial. It was his autopsy photograph. I don’t want to remember that, but I do.

And earlier that evening I had a Pandora Christmas station playing and I heard the simple, bittersweet John Prine song Christmas in Prison. It inspired me to get out my banjo and play all the John Prine songs I know. And Christmas in Prison was still stuck in my brain when I thought about my little brother Mark and cursed the horrible man who murdered him. At least the Maryland justice system has put the murderer in prison for many years. He spent another Christmas in prison, but my family spent another Christmas without my brother. The empty place will always be empty. And I hummed the John Prine song, a beautiful waltz, and revised the lyrics. I don’t know if my anger will ever go away. I don’t know if I can ever completely forgive the man who took my brother’s life. I don’t even try any longer—I just figure it’s between him and God. I’m glad at least he had another Christmas in prison.
Christmas in Prison: A Waltz (with a plea to the genius songwriter John Prine for indulgence)
It was Christmas in prison
As you sat in your cell
Living a nightmare
Rotting in hell
May you dream of him always
Even when you don't dream
May his memory haunt you
And his death make you scream.
Wait, just wait for eternity
Pray that God's mercy will soon set you free
Pray to Him
Plead with Him
Fall to your knees
His mercy
The goodness
Of God

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Santa and me: The Christmas terror

Take a close look at this child’s face. Does she look like someone who truly loves Christmas? Funny, but 60-some years later and I believe I have the same look on my face every year as Christmas approaches.

Is it any wonder? I’m sure we had to be at some “downtown” department store because that’s all there was in Washington, DC, in 1950. There was only the Tick-Tock bar in our neighborhood. There was no bus service, no 7-11, and certainly no mall. I probably rode downtown in the car (just a free-range toddler without a car seat, of course) and my parents handed me over to this creepy big man with a fake beard. Notice the big fat man in the big chair in the big city is groping me. It was my first encounter with a masher. He was probably on parole for child abuse, hence the number on the side of his chair. Even now I hate his silly striped chair and the fake Christmas tree—back then they certainly could have pulled in a real tree instead of that Ricky Ricardo Copa Cabana tree. That alone horrifies me. Notice my innocent little hand trying to pull his big hairy paw off my parts that would be under a swimsuit. I wonder if there’s a statute of limitations.

The Masher Santa was sufficient to ruin Christmas for me for a lifetime. But wait—there’s more. One year when I was old enough to believe in Santa and young enough to trust everything an adult told me, I was cruelly deceived by an old woman who was a friend of my grandmother’s. It was Christmas Eve and I was at my grandparents’ house, staring sleepily at the lights on the Christmas tree, when Mrs. Ritter announced she had heard a bulletin on the radio. Mrs. Ritter told me that Santa Claus’s sleigh (and his eight tiny reindeer) had been caught in foul weather and there would be no Christmas that year. I should have been relieved that the child molester was not going to sneak into my house at night.

Even then, I was a rather intense child. So on Christmas Eve every year from then on I had a stomach ache from the stress of worrying about Santa Claus. I would pace the floors when my family was sleeping. I would climb into bed with my mother because I was so worked up with anticipation and concern that I needed extreme comfort. I heard Santa and the reindeer on the roof. I swear I did. I distinctly remember quivering in bed with my mother, hearing footsteps on the roof, lying frozen with my head under the blankets for fear that Santa would know I was awake. Remember he knows when you’re awake. I believed it all; nothing could sway me from my belief.

I still believe. Even though I had to be Santa when my children were little, I still believe. Even though I now live alone and no one fills my empty Christmas stocking, I believe. So this Christmas Eve I’ll be lying awake in my bed in fear and anticipation, nauseated, waiting for Santa Claus. And I’ll have that look on my face.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Barbed wire

Photo from

The peaceful conversations we had in that period of time were rare. But once in that ugly, angry time between separation and divorce, John and I were sitting at a table somewhere and he asked me how I saw him.

“I see you as an incredibly bright, funny, fiercely protective, loving man, surrounded by a coil of barbed wire,” I replied after about a minute of thought.

He smiled wryly and looked away. “That’s pretty accurate,” he said.

Last week on a long drive from west Texas to Austin, I travelled over a stretch of highway to the east of Marathon where there had been a freezing rain overnight. The grass along the highway, the limbs of the trees, everything was coated in a thin sheet of glistening ice. Even the barbed wired fences shone in their coats of ice. The monochromatic beauty was stunning and odd. I thought of John. 

That figurative coil of barbed wire kept people at a distance from John. Who could not fear his explosive anger, the scorpion’s sting? But it also kept him ensnarled, unable to be loved for what he was. He paid a huge price for the painful protection. 

I have spent a good part of my life trying to untangle the source of his anger. He struggled with depression and anxiety. He had physical pain from a deteriorating hip and various other injuries. He felt that when he was growing up his family placed unreasonable pressure on him to succeed—he was the one in his Irish Catholic family of modest means who was going to make them proud. All of these things made him angry. All of these things he carried on his back like a sack of rocks his entire life.

He spent much of his adult life in therapy, analyzing all of these things, trying to find medication that would treat the symptoms. Yet I wonder if the real path of healing for him might have been found in forgiveness. Could he have found some peace with his body that caused him pain? Could he have forgiven his parents, the priests and nuns who taught him, his brother who bullied him, the legal profession that squeezed the life out of him? Could forgiveness have brought him some peace before his untimely death from brain cancer?

And more than anyone else in my life, I need to forgive John. What does this teach me? How does seeing his life in this perspective alter the way I respond to the memory of him? I don’t want to see the barbed wire transferred to our children. I can’t transfer the barbed wire to encase myself. Forgiveness.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Closed doors

Only through hard experience am I learning to trust God’s hand in my life. Time and time again, when doors have been slammed shut in my face, in the final analysis I accept that my plans, my will, my schemes and dreams, were not what God had in mind.

And so here I am in a season of closed doors, seemingly a long hallway where I keep walking, getting weary, jiggling the locks, and nothing seems to work out. Guess it’s time for a remedial lesson in patience. Again.

In less than a week, a few of the frustrations, large and small:

(1) I thought I might build a little gramma cottage on my daughter’s property in Austin for longer visits with my family and with a vision for living there permanently in the future. But when I saw a potential plan for the cottage I realized it wasn’t big enough for me to do what I wanted to do—collect and paint furniture to fill it and have friends come to stay with me. With that option off the table, I’m saying “What next? What am I going to do?”

(2) My life felt lonely without a pet. My cat died almost a year ago. I thought I could not go through the grief again of losing my dear companion, but eventually the emptiness was worse than the fear. So I started the animal adoption process. I liked a pretty little orange tabby who continued to be available while I got approved and while I was out of town. And within hours of my finalizing the process she was adopted by someone else. Then I considered another cat that looked very much like my dearly departed cat Eva. Sadly, this sweet animal had been abandoned by her family and she didn’t have Eva’s trusting and affectionate nature.

(3) Feeling frustrated and alone, I realized I need a project. So I decided to paint my powder room—easy distraction. Wait—not so easy. Before I got started I realized there is mushy place in the drywall where the ceiling meets the wall. Water. Blasted free-range water coming from the bathroom above perhaps. So I issued myself a stop-work order and sent an e-mail to my contractor to come investigate when he can.

Experience has shown me that the Lord is not slamming doors shut; He isn’t gratuitously making life frustrating for me. Frustrations strung together like beads can feel like an instrument of torture.

“Shut up!” I just screamed silently to myself. Blah, blah, blah. I sound like a histrionic crazy old cat woman. (In preparation for the cat that I didn’t get, I went to the grocery store this morning and bought cat litter, a bag of cat treats, and a cheese croissant. On the way to the quick check-out lane, I looked in my cart and wondered if I should just buy a fresh pack of razor blades so I can slit my wrists if this is the sum total of my life.) Big deal—I’m frustrated, right on schedule for the winter depression to set in, and I’ve had a cruddy week. Stop your sniveling, you stupid old woman, do what you have to do, and move forward.

I told you before that this blog is my therapy. So I just did a Gestalt therapy on myself and saw how ridiculous I can be. Yes, God closes doors. But He opens doors that are more wonderful, perhaps much more surprising, than the doors He closes. I’m waiting. Impatiently.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Reluctant rebel

Today I was telling an old friend of mine the story of how I got thrown out of the Junior League of Washington. She laughed, thought it was an asset, and asked why I had never written about this on my blog. Hmmm. . . . I thought I had written about it at some point. Voila! Found an essay that is in my dusty old unpublished book. Instant gratification. Here's the story . . .

Reluctant Rebel

One day in my senior year of high school, while in Latin 4 class, there was an announcement over the PA system, “Miss Xander to the office please.”
Oh no, I thought, what have I done now? I jumped out of my seat and headed to the vice principal’s office. I could see the outline of Mother St. Eugenia, the vice principal, through the wavy opaque glass. When I entered her office, she stood and shook a piece of paper at me, saying “You! You!”
I racked my brain for what possible offense I could have committed. I hadn’t been smoking. I hadn’t done anything with boys, much to my dismay. I hadn’t skipped school since junior year when I was punished excessively for a single day’s fall from grace.
“You! Look at these SAT scores!”
I took the piece of paper from her hand—the scores were good, apparently much better than the scores of many of my classmates. I am sure the corners of my mouth began to creep up slightly before she explained the source of her displeasure. “If you can do this, why haven’t you performed better here at Regina High School?”
Although I did care about learning and wanted to go to college, I was just not cut from their mold and didn’t feel like playing by their silly rules. Besides, there seemed to be little opportunity for me other than going to my local state college, so why work really hard?
My parents were like counter-culture parents compared to the others. While my friends’ parents were pushing their daughters to get good grades so they could apply to private Catholic out-of-state colleges, my parents didn’t encourage me to go to college at all. My parents urged me to bleach my hair and thought that I could improve myself by being more “flashy”. I wore black tights, listened to jazz, and had books by beat poets, but my parents probably would have preferred it if I had been a Hooters girl. I never saw myself as rebellious—I simply didn’t want for myself what either the school administration or my parents wanted for me.
Much to my surprise, I won a full scholarship to my state college. But I had to live at home and it felt like an extension of high school to me. After a year in college, I fell in love and soon left school to support my husband who was in law school.
Several years into married life I tried to move up in social status. Big mistake. You can take a girl out of PG County, but you can’t take the PG County out of the girl. Since I was married to a Washington lawyer, I thought I should do what I could to be connected, to help his career. What a crock! I had a couple of friends who were members of the Washington Junior League, a large group of socially connected young women who ostensibly did charity work in the community. I had never belonged to a sorority and Junior League felt to me like what it must have been like to be in a sorority, except the women were mostly married and we didn’t live together. It was a very old-school social order—all the married women were listed in the directories by their husbands’ names, so I was Mrs. John L. Burke, Jr.
In order to be admitted, we had to submit letters of support, be accepted, go through a training period, and as an active member had to perform a required number of service hours. I volunteered to work at the Junior League Shop, a second-hand clothing store whose profits supported the charity work of the organization. My main duty at the shop was to change the window displays on a weekly basis. The shop was on a main street in the trendy Georgetown section of Washington. I developed some sort of theme (based on holiday, a local event, or a color scheme) and selected clothes and created displays in the store windows. Actually, it was fun, quite a hip job for a suburban mom with a station wagon, because I got to do display work at one of the most prominent locations in Georgetown.
So I did it for a couple of years, regularly went to meetings, and paid my dues. Then the board of directors announced that they were increasing the dues. I had witnessed how the board spent the League’s money and I was perturbed. The board had administrative offices above the shop in Georgetown. They had regular board luncheons and hired a cook to work for them. Had they completely lost sight of the fact that the expressed purpose of the organization was to serve the community? Why were they spending money having someone cater their lunches when they could have brought sandwiches from home and used the money to buy books for inner city kids?
I refused to pay the dues increase. They told me that if I wanted to resign in good standing, that I would have to pay the annual dues and then resign. So I resigned not in good standing. What a slut! I didn’t see my little protest activities against the Junior League as rebellious either—I simply thought what they were doing was wrong and I didn’t want to support them any longer.
So I’ve got some big blots on my permanent record—I was an underachiever in high school and I resigned from the Junior League of Washington not in good standing. You combine that with the fact that I joined SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, a leftist student activist group that protested the war in Vietnam) in 1965, and guess I’m more firmly in the counter culture than I ever realized. It’s a wonder that the Junior League didn’t do a background check and find out about my lack of ambition and my SDS affiliation and bar me from membership. Slacker, thrown out of Junior League, former member of SDS, and a banjo player? Couldn’t get any lower than that unless I had been a waitress at Hooters. I wonder if Hooters is hiring? Maybe I’ll make my parents proud after all.