Friday, December 24, 2010

Silent Night

It's 2:00 in the morning on Christmas Day. I sit in a dark living room basking in the colored, blinking lights of the Christmas tree. Our vintage train set with its more modern snowy village encircles the tree, and piles of presents are haphazardly strewn around the platform, looking enticing and mysterious. "Santa" has paid a visit and bulging stockings with wish-fulfilling presents propped against them are arranged on the couch, waiting for morning when they will be admired and enjoyed. In the dining room the table is set for our anticipated sweet roll breakfast with red, green, and silver dishes and decorations. The house is quiet, except for a ticking clock and an occasional sigh or snore from my sleeping family. I should be asleep too, because tomorrow will be a long and active day of gifts, food, and family. Usually I fall exhausted into bed on Christmas Eve when everything is finally ready for Christmas morning to come, but tonight I just want to enjoy this perfect time between preparing for the big day and diving into the festivities.

It's been a rough year for me with serious health concerns coming thick and fast for the last nine months. Most of it is behind me now and so many results have been positive, but I am worn out from the fight and it took an extra effort to get all of the Christmas preparations done this year. The kids and Ed have put up with enough anxiety about me in the last few months, I didn't want to skimp on any of our traditions or seem unable to celebrate the season with the usual enthusiasm. And anyway, I love Christmas and truly enjoy our traditions, most of which I started and have encouraged over the years. I didn't want to miss any of it. And now I want to stay right here, savoring the perfection of the moment, knowing that whatever happens tomorrow and in the coming months I will have the memory of this time in between preparation and celebration. But sleepiness is overtaking me so I make my way to bed, looking forward to similar Christmases, each with their own unique perfection, for many years to come.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Imagine No Malaria

Testimonial as shared with the Oakland United Methodist Church on Sunday, October 31, 2010

Good morning. We’ve been talking a lot about Malaria recently, and I wanted to share some of my experiences with malaria and why this issue is so close to my heart. Most of you know that I grew up in Africa. My parents were United Methodist medical missionaries in Liberia, which is on the west coast of Africa, and it was our home from when I was 3 until I was 14.

We don’t hear much about malaria in this country, except in conjunction with helping people in other countries, but when I was a kid it was a part of our everyday lives. It was kind of like the flu is here, pretty common and every now and then someone would get it and be sick for awhile, then get better. At least that was the way it was for the missionary families, because we took anti-malaria medicine every week the whole time we were in the country to protect us from a severe case of malaria. The Liberians didn’t have this protection - there wasn’t enough money or resources to deal with the issue - so malaria was much more likely to be deadly for them.

I probably had malaria a few times, but I only remember one, when I was about 8. I just remember a bad headache, body aches, high fever, and a sick stomach (kind of like the flu). But with medicine and the anti-malaria protection I had in my body I got better pretty fast - I was probably only sick for a few days. My sister Sandra wasn’t so lucky. She got malaria when she was about 4 and she kept getting it over and over again. My parents watched Sandra getting paler and thinner each time she got sick, and they had a hard time getting the medicine into her. It was camaquin, this huge yellow pill that had to be cut into quarters for children, so it was crumbly, and bitter, and hard to swallow. They tried it in Coke and in food but she kept choking it back up. I remember my father getting angry with her for spitting it out, and even at my young age I knew that he was only angry because he was afraid of what would happen if they couldn’t get the medicine into her. My mother remembers the two of them going into Sandra’s room when she was asleep and praying over her because they were so afraid that she would die. Well, the cycle finally ended and she got better and stayed well, but it was a frightening time for us all. Sadly, my main recollection of this time was that she kept getting all the paper dolls and coloring books that my mother set aside for us for when we were sick, and I was jealous. Kids!

As scary and serious as this was for our family it would have been much worse for a Liberian family - in spite of the medicine the child would probably have died. As a matter of fact, when we were there the mortality rate for children under 5 was 50% - in other words half of the children died before the age of 5, for a multitude of reasons. My father was one of 3 doctors at the mission hospital at the time, and with their limited time and resources they were dealing with more critical diseases like tetanus, cholera, leprosy, small pox and various tropical diseases. Dad spent his first few years there working at the hospital and learning the local dialect. After awhile he realized that he was treating the same diseases again and again, and what he really needed to do was prevent these diseases, so he came back to the states and got his degree in public health. Back in Liberia he spent the next few years traveling into the rural areas to vaccinate children, talk to the chiefs about digging wells for clean water (instead of drinking the water they bathed in and washed their clothes in), set up rural clinics, and teach clean childbirth practices and other prevention techniques. The last few years we were there he worked with the Liberian government to oversee health clinics and hospitals all over Liberia so health care could be more accessible to the people.

Why is his story important to eradicating malaria now? I was talking with Laura Meengs recently - she is the field coordinator for the Imagine No Malaria effort in our conference. When I asked about Liberia she told me that they were targeting Sierre Leone now, but that Liberia was next on the list. I told her about Dad and the clinics and said I thought they were probably all gone because of the long civil war Liberia has had. She said no, they are still there, and Imagine No Malaria was going to use those clinics to distribute medicine, bed nets, and education in the rural areas. So a project funded by the United Methodist Church over 30 years ago is going to be central in the effort to eradicate malaria now.

We were recently told by Dad’s doctor that he will probably only live a few more months. He has had Parkinson’s disease for over 25 years and is now losing weight quickly. But at the end of his life, the work he was called to do for God, and for the Liberian people that he loved so much, is gaining new life. And the clinics that he set up will be instrumental in saving the lives of countless people. The cycle of life continues. There were many missionaries that came before Dad to lay a foundation for his work, and many missionaries and Liberian Christians came and will keep coming after him to provide health care for this struggling people. We can be a part of the progression of this God ordained ministry by supporting the Imagine No Malaria effort, and help remove this huge health obstacle so that the people of Africa can be more productive, creative, and free to energetically serve God and each other.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Blessed Be Your Name

"On the road marked with suffering, though there's pain in the offering, blessed be Your Name"

The last few months have been a medical nightmare for me, not to mention for Ed and the rest of the family. I know I was run down from the stress of moving and adjusting to a new church and community, and of course the frustration of my inability to find a job in a library - my sense of self was severely effected. But come on, this is ridiculous!

It all started with a simple cold, that turned into a sinus infection, that turned into severe hives from an allergy to the antibiotic. After a trip to the emergency room I literally was turning blue from the intensity of the hives, couldn't walk because of the many hives on the soles of my feet, and couldn't bend my fingers - frightening. Steroids helped until I started having crazy side effects like a racing and pounding heart, extreme sensitivity to light and sound, fogginess, shortness of breath etc. In the middle of all this I had a routine appointment with my gynecologist where she found a large cyst on my ovary, which led to an ultrasound, and a recommendation for a hysterectomy because of possible cancer - no way was I jumping into something that serious! Off to Pittsburgh to my former doctor, another ultrasound and other tests, and a recommendation that nothing was seriously wrong and only a follow-up ultrasound was necessary. Whew, I dodged that bullet! So I went for my routine mammogram and lo and behold abnormal readings, a needle biopsy (inconclusive), another possibility of cancer and a surgical biopsy. This also came out negative (praise the Lord, but I was really freaked out at this point) though I am high risk and have to address that. I'm done, right? Wrong! Congestion immediately set in, another trip to the emergency room for a severe headache, exhaustion and lots of meds. Will it ever end? Hopefully the sinusitis will clear up, the followup ultrasound will show that the cyst is gone, and the high risk appointment at the Hillman Cancer Center will give me a good plan of action. But seriously, enough is enough. I've about had it with emergencies, cancer scares, and pain.

Well, the high risk appointment went well. Only a 2% risk of cancer in the next 5 years - I can live with that (no pun intended)! No such luck with the ovary though - it has to come out. But they are sure the cyst is benign so that is good. Things seem to going my way - only an outpatient surgery and all of this craziness is over. Or so I thought. I finally saw an ear, nose, and throat doctor about my constant congestion and sinus infections and got the scariest news so far. A CAT scan showed one sinus cavity is blocked and filled with what might be a tumor. Two surgeries later I am minus one ovary and and most of the tumor and still no cancer. Amazing! But the pituitary tumor is still partially there, fast growing, and will require radiation treatment and a lifetime of monitoring. I don't even know how to respond to this; I feel a combination of numbness and dread and my future is filled with unknowns.

All through this progression of events I have been really scared, and felt very alone. Ed has been with me every step of the way - every doctor's appointment, treatment, surgery, and symptom - but in the end it is my body that is betraying me and he can really only be my support and advocate. The hugs and loving words of my family have been invaluable but ultimately this is my battle. It reminds me of the old song:

We must walk this lonesome valley,
We have to walk it by ourselves;
Oh, nobody else can walk it for us,
We have to walk it by ourselves.

You would think that during this time I would draw closer to God, spending more time in prayer and leaning on Him through every trial. But instead I feel abandoned by Him - up until now my life has been pretty much filled with blessings and I can't help wondering what I did wrong to cause this avalanche of poor health and why God has withdrawn His blessings from my life. Of course I know, intellectually, that He is still there loving and taking care of me, and so I reach for Him and try to pray, but I just don't feel a connection. And this is where the power of the community of faith comes in.

Through it all one thing has become very clear - I have a great support group! I have been blown away by the way those around me have responded to my troubles. Our new church has been concerned and supportive with meals, cards, rides for Jonathon, calls, and many prayers. Our former church has also rallied around me, with calls, emails, texts, cards, and still more prayers. The library where I worked before the move has been great with emails, phone calls, a group get well card, and a wonderful surprise cookie/chocolate get well basket - I am touched by their generosity, and all I was expecting was prayer. My first surgery happened when we were at Jumonville for CAT Camp and we were surrounded by a loving Christian family with hugs, sympathy, advice, and an outpouring of prayer. And of course my close friends and family have been with us all the way, supporting us in any way they can, including many, many prayers. We are so blessed - I am humbled by the love that has been poured out on our family. Everywhere I look I see the face of God.

You see, by myself I couldn't find a connection to God, so He came to me in person. He has sent literally hundreds of believers to minister to me and my family in ways over and above anything I could imagine. I am so weak, and I still get lonely, depressed, and scared, but the strength of the community of faith is carrying me. Don't tell me God does not appear to us anymore - I know He is here among us because I have seen Him again and again.

"You give and take away, You give and take away, My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be Your Name."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The "C" Word

The "C" word. It's scary to even think about it, let alone say it. It all started with a routine annual mammogram. No anxiety, just get it done and don't think about it for another year. Then I got a phone call to come back for a follow-up mammogram - no big deal, this has happened before and I am in a new, smaller facility this time. The anxiety grew when I was told that there were some suspicious areas on the film and I needed a stereo-tactic biopsy (needle biopsy) - just the word "biopsy" gives me a cold feeling. Anxiety quickly turned to anger - did I really need this hassle, or were they being overly cautious because the facility was smaller and less advanced? Off we went to the best women's care facility in Pittsburgh for a scary, high-tech procedure that left me nervous and sore - this was getting serious! But I really did expect to get the news that all was well and nothing abnormal was found. Wrong again! I got a call from a nurse who (I thought) said that nothing abnormal was found but there was an overgrowth of cells in that area, which had to be taken out so they didn't become cancer (there's that word), and I should see a surgeon. I made the appointment, focusing on the good news - no cancer was found - this was preventative action; but the prospect of surgery was frightening. In spite of my deliberate positive attitude there was doubt lingering in the back of my mind. Isn't the overgrowth of cells the definition of cancer? (that word is starting to come up more often) Back to Pittsburgh for the surgical consult and reality set in - the surgeon clarified that the biopsy was inconclusive and they needed a larger area of tissue to test for cancer (the word has now exploded like a bomb into my world). The odds are in my favor - 80% of these biopsies come out negative - but I only heard 20%. I might have cancer. It's a small chance, and if I do the cancer is in the early stages and very treatable. But I might have cancer.

Images start flowing through my mind: the woman in the waiting room at my first biopsy with a head scarf (chemo? will that be me?), the woman in the wheel chair and the woman in the hospital bed who were also in the waiting room (what horrors were they dealing with? will that be me?) My grandmother died of cancer, one friend was terribly sick from chemo, another was weak and burnt from radiation, and the list goes on. We all have many heart-breaking memories of friends and family who have fought this disease. Have I become one of them? Our church supports a "Relay for Life" program that raises money for cancer research and treatment; it's an amazingly active community effort that culminates in a 24 hour walk/festival/celebration. The highlight is luminaries representing cancer survivors and victims lining the 1/4 mile track and up the bleachers. Will I be included in that glowing tribute next year, and will I be celebrated as a survivor or mourned as a victim? I know that is morbid and counter-productive - I have to stay positive and, after all, the odds are in my favor right? RIGHT?! Could someone please keep telling me that over and over again because I can't seem so focus on that fact!!

No matter what happens I know God will be with me and my family through it all - I felt His strong and comforting presence during my first biopsy, and I felt covered with the prayers of my loved ones. I KNOW He is with me and I will actively draw on his strength through the whole ordeal (it's already an ordeal even though nothing is conclusive). But I am weak. And I am scared. And the "C" word hangs like a cloud over my head, and sits like a lump in my gut.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Movie Madness

I am very picky about the type of movies I choose to watch. I don't like anything too scary, violent, gruesome, profane, or explicitly sexual and that doesn't leave much! Society seems to need a higher and higher level of shock value to really enjoy or be entertained by any type of media and my tastes have been left far behind. Part of the reason for this is my personality - I tend to be very sensitive and thin-skinned about anything and everything in my life - but a greater part is some traumatic experiences I had as a child.

When I was in fourth and fifth grade I attended a Lutheran boarding school in rural Liberia (my parents were medical missionaries), and in most respects it was a good experience in spite of how young I was. But I dreaded Saturday night. Saturday night was movie night and regardless of what was being shown we all went to the nearby college campus to watch - it was probably a nice break for the house parents (Uncle Ron and Aunt Elaine - I have very fond memories of them) and most of the kids had a great time. I don't remember many movie titles but I have clear pictures in my mind of certain scenes from various movies and what I remember is intense and frightening. The one that stands out in my mind was a "cowboys and indians" movie and all I remember is the various ways the indians tortured people to death - I can't give examples because it is still too horrifying for me to put into words. I have hardly ever watched a western movie since then and I can't see a wagon wheel without getting a sick feeling - I told you I was thin-skinned! I tried to get out of going to the movies but the one time I refused to go Aunt Elaine had to stay behind with me, and we were alone in the big dormitory, and I knew it was a huge inconvenience for her. I couldn't bear to ask again.

I have passed this sensitivity to intense images on to my children (sorry guys). One of them had to be taken out of Beauty and the Beast during the wolves scene at age seven, another had to be taken out of Parent Trap during the ear piercing scene (she screamed, he screamed, and we left), and the third had nightmares after seeing Pay it Forward.

All of this is probably the reason that I have such strong feelings about the move The Passion of the Christ. I never actually watched it because I knew that I was not strong enough and would never get the violent images out of my head - I have a hard enough time on Good Friday when that part of the Gospel is read and discussed! But I have read reviews, watched certain scenes, and looked through a book of images from the movie, and I feel like I have seen enough to justify my strong disapproval of the film. The phrase "gratuitous violence" comes to mind and I feel like the violence depicted in the movie far exceeded what was necessary to make the point or even be historically accurate. I have heard medical professionals comment that the blood lost during certain scenes would have caused death before Jesus even got to the cross - are we supposed to believe that he was super-human so he was able to stay alive longer? What about him being "fully human and fully divine," therefore subject to the frailties of any other human? Or do we think that God kept him alive so he could suffer more and longer - what kind of a God do we really believe in? And was it necessary to add the part where Jesus is on the cross and the cross falls forward slamming him into the ground - that is purely a fabrication, and to what end?

I know that "shock value" is often necessary to get us to really think about things we have long taken for granted, but I still think this movie goes overboard. It's almost as if we are supposed to revel in the agony of Christ, and to me that is sacrilege. How many people watch the movie and get pleasure from watching the gruesome scenes, just like those who enjoyed watching lions attacking Christians in ancient Rome, public executions in medieval Europe, and horror movies in modern times?Just knowing that Christ was crucified is enough to convey the horrific nature of the sacrifice he made for our salvation - the Bible tells us what we need to know, we don't have to live through it vicariously by watching Mel Gibson's version.

That brings me to another point of contention - who is telling this story and why? Mel Gibson has long been known for his inclination for violence; we see this in The Patriot and Braveheart, but he really took it to new heights in The Passion and apparently went even farther into the "dark side" in Apocalypto, his movie that followed The Passion. This is a man who when he was stopped for drunk driving made anti-semetic remarks to the police, a man who left his wife of twenty-some years and mother of his 7 children for his pregnant girlfriend. Nobody is perfect but this is not the kind of person I want to represent such an important aspect of my faith.

The Christian community has enthusiastically embraced this film so I am definitely in the minority with this opinion. Many family members and friends have watched The Passion and were moved by it. When I express my vehement disapproval of the film they don't agree, but they listen politely and sometimes smile indulgently (Susan's on another of her tirades). That's annoying but I do know that I am over-sensitive about movie violence, and I do tend to get riled up about certain issues and subject those around me to my strong opinions. But I still think my opinion about The Passion has some merit. I don't think we should dwell on the agony of the crucifixion but on the awesomeness of the resurrection and I don't need to see Christ suffer to know that he sacrificed more than I can imagine for me.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


"It's a quarter after one, I'm all alone and I need you now"

Everything seems worse in the middle of the night. During the day we are busy with our routines and responsibilities and the sometimes overwhelming details of our lives get drowned out by our adrenaline charged activities. The problems are there but they seem manageable or we can push them to the back of our minds. But in the middle of the night it is quiet and there is nothing to distract us from seeing the magnitude of the situations we are facing; we are worn out and don't have any energy left for solving problems. Everything is out of proportion and discouragement looms over us like a dark cloud. Lady Antebellum's song "I Need You Now" is referring to a romantic relationship, but that's not what I hear - when the stresses of life keep me awake and threaten to overwhelm me with despair only turning to God can give me comfort and perspective. When we read or remember the strong and timeless promises in the Bible we can see the bigger picture and trust that God has an ultimate plan for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Trust, that's really the key, and it's not easy!

It's human nature to want to control and plan every detail of our lives, it seems like the only responsible way to live. If we work hard enough this works pretty well most of the time, but then we somehow end up in a situation that is completely out of our control. Sometimes there is just no good solution to a problem, no obvious direction to go in, and every decision seems like the wrong one. We can expend a lot of energy struggling to regain control or we can take a step back, "let go and let God". We can't always see beyond the next step so we just have to pray, trust God's guidance, and step into the unknown. This reminds me of the Four Spiritual Laws that I learned as a child - we were supposed to learn them so we could easily witness to non-Christians and would always know the right thing to say. At one point I knew them all (though I don't ever remember using them to witness in any way) but now I only remember the first one: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. That is a pretty powerful statement to base your life on! He has a plan - it's not all up to us! So those overwhelming problems that we just can't figure out how to solve - hand them over to God and wait for guidance because his plans are so much better than we can ever imagine. It will take patience and it will take trust, but in the end it is the better way and often the only way. And that despair that threatens to overwhelm us? Gone!

Monday, March 8, 2010


How did I get here? I'm in way over my head and I'm floundering. A year ago I was in a comfortable routine of work and home. I love my family and my church, but with three kids and a husband busy with an active church life could be chaotic! My job at the library was a welcome haven for me. I was confident in my abilities and loved the challenges of the reference desk and developing and maintaining my collections. The library was well run, the bar was set high for quality service and productivity, and my colleagues were responsible, competent, friendly, and fun-loving. I really couldn't have asked for a better work environment! And then we moved.

As I slowly eased myself out of my job, distributing my duties to various staff, I kept feeling like I was erasing myself from the library. Little by little I removed myself until I was gone. I told myself that surely I would be able to find a library job in our new rural home, but after nine months of job hunting nothing has turned up. And I feel lost. Every professional possibility that has appeared has been completely out of my comfort zone, and even those opportunities have been few and far between. So I'm contemplating applying to be an adjunct professor of Library Science at a nearby college. But every time I come close to applying I think "you haven't been in an academic setting in 25 years" and "what makes you think you can teach?" and "what about all the new databases you've never used?" Paralysis sets in and I don't call. Where did that confident professional go?

I'm volunteering at the local public library because I can't stay away from libraries - I love it so much I will work for free! Then the director suggested that I work on a grant proposal to update the health resources - great, I can do that, it's something I can really sink my teeth into! We met with a few community leaders and suddenly the project becomes about teaching youth how to evaluate the collection and choose new material - what the heck? This new direction makes no sense to me and I really don't want to work with a bunch of kids (not my strength). The director is vague on how to carry this out but keeps adding new people to the mix. Since when is collection development a group activity? But by now I am in too deep and I am committed (I should be committed!) So I am in way over my head. Where is my beloved career and my confidence? Gone. And there is a huge void. And I don't want to get up in the morning.

(Part 2 will be about how to snap out of it and trust God)

Friday, January 29, 2010


Facebook is an amazing phenomenon. At first I wasn't very interested in it; Megan created a page for me when she went to college so I could keep up with what she was doing and see her pictures, and I figured that I would check it once a week or so to see what she was up to. I quickly found out that facebook (or FB as we veterans refer to it) is not just for kids! New people were finding me and friending me every day, not only Megan's friends but my friends from various areas of my life - work, church, family, old friends, and new acquaintances - who knew I had so many "friends"!

I struggle with the idea of friendship. I am blessed to have many good friends but I don't know if I am a very good friend to have. Most of my childhood was spent in Africa as a missionaries' kid, and while this was a great experience in many ways, it meant that the friends I had were only in my life for one or two years at a time, not really enough time to form any kind of lasting relationships. By the time I hit high school in New Hampshire the list of friends made and lost was pretty long and I shied away from friendship of any kind. I did have one good friend in high school (thanks to her friendliness and persistence) and going to college together made the adjustment easier for both of us. College was a whirl of new friends and social activities for me, and I remember my senior year being a culmination of great experiences and relationships, but in the back of my mind I knew I would soon lose it all. A popular song at that time was from Michael W. Smith with this chorus:

And friends are friends forever
If the Lord's the Lord of them
And a friend will not say never
'Cause the welcome will not end
Though it's hard to let you go
In the Father's hands we know
That a lifetime's not too long to live as friends

I tried to believe it but in my experience once your friends are gone they are out of your life forever. And for awhile that was true.

Once I was out of the secure college environment I again struggled with finding and making friends - I tend to keep everyone at arm's length and I find it difficult to connect with anyone on more than just a surface level. I prefer to be in the background, watching the social interactions going on around me - I am naturally a shy, quiet person (publicly anyway - my family has had a different experience) which causes social awkwardness, which makes me more reticent... well you can see how this becomes a vicious cycle. I love the idea of being a "fly on the wall" - observing the social interaction around me but not having to participate in it - I'm a people watcher!

Which brings me back to Facebook. What a perfect social environment for someone like me! You can see what's going on in your friends' lives, observe the interactions with their friends and family, and you can choose to participate or not. It's fun to look at their photo albums, check out their interests and opinions, and read their status updates. And you know all of those friends that I lost track of over the years? I have re-connected with many of them, including friends from college, high school, the international school in Liberia (ACS), and even the Lutheran boarding school I attended in 4th and 5th grades in "up-country" Liberia (Phebe). We recently moved and Ed is serving a new church, and although it has been hard to leave friends and colleagues behind I can keep up with some of them on Facebook, and at the same time get to know some of my new church family in the same way! It truly represents a cross-section of my life, spanning the years of my life, places I have lived, and people I have known. Of course I still have to live in the real world and strive to develop and nurture friendships in person, but Facebook has added a whole new social dimension to my life and that can only be a good thing.