Recurring Nightmare

I keep having this dream.

I’m sitting at my desk, at work, and my phone rings. The caller ID tells me it’s my wife, Rachel. I answer the phone with an upbeat hello and there’s the heavy silence of someone who’s there but cannot speak. After several attempts to collect herself, she says we need to get to our son’s school. There’s been a shooting.

Time jumps, the way it does in dreams, and we’re in the car and we’re trying not to have a wreck and we are a wreck and we’re at the school and students are spread out across the front courtyard, looking lost and confused, and parents are calling out names and searching faces, trying to find that one that is, in those few moments, all they care about and all they know.

We’re parking our car and we’re out of our car and we’re a part of those parents and we’re calling his name and we’re not seeing that face that is partly hers and partly mine and a police officer is walking towards us with one of Harrison’s teachers and the officer will not look away and the teacher cannot look us in the eye.

I wake up in a cold sweat, my heart racing, my eyes wet. I try to take a breath and when it finally comes I remember that my son is asleep in the next room and everyone is safe and my life is good.

It is then that I remember those parents who go from a sleeping nightmare to a waking one, the realization that their child isn’t safe asleep in the next room — their child is gone — and no one seems to care enough to do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

So it happens again, in school after school, and city after city; students that protested the causes of the last school shooting wind up victims of the latest one. My recurring nightmare is our recurring nightmare. We keep saying “Never Again” again and again and again.

I think about how difficult it has become for me to go to sleep, knowing what may await me, and I think about how difficult it must be to go to school, knowing what may await them.

We send our kids to school knowing there might be a monster lurking, locked and loaded and ready to go off. Our politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” ring hollow, but only because they’re offered with the same smile and wink that accompanies a whispered “don’t let the bedbugs bite.” They don’t treat the threat like it’s real. They think it’s only a bad dream. But it is real. And so our thoughts and prayers are real. Thoughts of parents like us, with children like ours, who ought to be asleep in their beds rather than buried in the ground. Prayers for the parents like us, and the children like ours, that the nightmare will stop recurring, and we’ll finally be able to rest in peace before we rest in peace.

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I remember mornings, not so long ago, when I would wake up completely paralyzed from the neck down.

The first time this happened, it felt like being in a nightmare you’d had a thousand times, but knowing you were awake. I panicked. Cried out to Rachel to wake her up. Stayed static as she tugged on my legs, lifted my arms, pushed on my torso, and found that nothing happened. Wondered if this was permanent. Slowly discovered it was not, as movement returned over 15-20 minutes.

Once this morning paralysis became routine, I began taking advantage of it as a time to breathe and pray. In (“Be still and know…”). Out (“…that I am God”). Slow but sure. 15-20 minutes of steady breath prayer to begin the day. Because, what else am I going to do?

Much of my life for 18+ months was dedicated to getting through the day, the hour, the minute. From the bed to the bathroom. From the toilet to the shower. From the shower to the sink. From the sink to the bed. Underwear. Socks. Shirt. Pants. Shoes. Belt. One thing at a time. Present to the present.

It’s been months now since I woke up paralyzed. Two months without a cane. I’m taking regular walks with my family. I’m dancing with my wife. Last week I ran for about 100 feet before my legs said stop, but it felt like I’d do 200 next time. I’ve lost 10 pounds. I’m free to move more easily, more quickly, more efficiently. Free to take things day to day and week to week and month to month, rather than minute to minute.

And, as a result, I’m less present to the present. And more worried about the future.

In the past 3 weeks I’ve had 3 anxiety attacks. During my illness, I didn’t have one.

I want to be careful here not to glorify illness or act as if it didn’t come with more than its share of struggles. My point is simply that it forced me into some habits that were good for my soul. You know that verse in the 23rd Psalm about being made to lie down? Think emphasis on made.

Now I’m free not to lie down. Free to be busy; too busy to pause. Free to fret about the future, rather than taking time to simply sit still and pray and breathe.

I am so grateful to have my health restored that I still have multiple times throughout the day that I see my reflection and laugh at the standing, walking man. I don’t want to go back.

But I also don’t want to go back to being the guy who couldn’t be still. Who couldn’t be present. I want to retain the lessons I learned lying paralyzed in my bed or taking life minute by minute. I want to slow down. I want to breathe. I want to be grateful for the moment I’m in.

Last Lent, I found that my illness was at its peak (though I didn’t know that at the time). The pain was worse, the tremors were worse, the lack of movement was worse. I experienced Lent as a time of true suffering. I couldn’t find the physical strength to attend an Ash Wednesday service, but I didn’t need reminding that I was dust. I couldn’t find the emotional strength to attend a Maundy Thursday service because I knew I’d receive a foot-washing while being unable to reciprocate. It wasn’t a reminder I wanted.

This Lent, I am grateful for the reminder that though I’m well, I’m no less dust than I was a year ago. I’ll be grateful to attend a Maundy Thursday service and hope not to forget that I’ve still received more than I can ever possibly give. I’ve put down certain things for Lent, but I’ve also taken up practices that put me back where I was last year, things like beginning each day by lying still in my bed and breathing in…and out. Trying to be present to the present. Trying not to fret about the future. Trying to remember the lessons I’ve learned. Trying to be aware. Trying to be grateful. Trying to take it slowly but surely. Trying to be free to be still and know that God is God.

Trayvon (2/15/95-2/26/12)

Written in 2014, after the grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer for the death of Eric Garner. Shared today on the anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin.

The thing about crucifixion is, it isn’t the nails that kill you.

The nails are there to hold a person in place, positioned so that their body is suspended by their arms. In this position, it is difficult to exhale; the victim is forced to take shallow breaths, and must eventually push themselves up in order to take a full one. But the pain of pushing up eventually becomes too much to bear, and the person slumps down, once again, and struggles for air.

Victims of crucifixion don’t die of blood loss, they die of suffocation.

When we gather on Sunday to share the Lord’s Supper, there are many profound things happening at once. We mourn the cross and celebrate the resurrection. We reflect upon the past and look forward to the future. We experience Christ’s presence in the present, his Spirit moves within his body, the Church. We share Communion with one another and with God. We give thanks for his amazing grace.

And, according to the apostle Paul, as often as we share this supper together, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes, “In the raising and exaltation of Christ, God has chosen the one whom the moral and political powers of this world rejected – the poor, humiliated, suffering and forsaken Christ. God identified himself with him and made him Lord of the new world.” God became human so the dehumanized might have their humanity restored. We become truly human in the community of the incarnate, the suffering and loving and human God. “The God who creates justice for those who suffer violence, the God who exalts the humiliated and executed Christ – that is the God of hope for the new world of righteousness and justice and peace.”

When we gather this Sunday to share the Lord’s Supper, we remember the one and only Son who died for all of our dead sons. When we take this body broken, we mourn for all the broken bodies, from Brussels to Birmingham to Buchenwald. When we covenant to share in his suffering, we also covenant to share in the suffering of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. We acknowledge the Communion that we share with this victim of violence and, through him, with every victim of violence. We draw close to the One who was nailed to the cross, slowly suffocating, and hear him crying out to all of us, “I can’t breathe…I can’t breathe…I can’t breathe.”

Prayer Post No. 4: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

Prayer Post No. 3: from LORD, Teach Me To Seek Thee

Lord, teach me to seek Thee, and reveal Thyself to me when I seek Thee. For I cannot seek Thee except Thou teach me, nor find Thee except Thou reveal Thyself. Let me seek Thee in longing, let me long for Thee in seeking: let me find Thee in love and love Thee in finding. Lord, I acknowledge and I thank Thee that Thou hast created me in this Thine image, in order that I may be mindful of Thee and love Thee: but that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices and obscured by the smoke of wrong-doing that it cannot achieve that for which it was made, except Thou renew it and create it anew.

— St. Anselm

Prayer Post No. 2: Fire of the Spirit

Fire of the Spirit, life of the lives of creatures,
spiral of sanctity, bond of all natures,
glow of charity, lights of clarity, taste
of sweetness to sinners, be with us and hear us…

Composer of all things, light of all the risen,
key of salvation, release from the dark prison,
hope of all unions, scope of chastities, joy
in the glory, strong honor, be with us and hear us.

— St. Hildegarde

Prayer Post No. 1: St. Patrick’s Breastplate

I’ve decided, this year, to fill this blog with prayer. Some prayers will be written by me, many will be borrowed from poets and psalmists and songwriters and the like. We begin with a prayer that hangs on my mirror as a daily reminder, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”

I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever,
by power of faith, Christ’s incarnation,
his baptism in the Jordan river,
his death on cross for my salvation,
his bursting from the spiced tomb,
his riding up the heavenly way,
his coming at the day of doom,
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea
around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
God’s eye to watch, God’s might to stay,
God’s ear to hearken to my need,
the wisdom of my God to teach,
God’s hand to guide, God’s shield to ward,
the word of God to give me speech,
God’s heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the name,
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three,
of whom all nature has creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the Lord of my salvation;
salvation is of Christ the Lord!

It Can’t Hurt To Ask (except it can)

I was having a conversation, this past weekend, with a friend who suffers from ongoing headaches that are something like the worst migraine you’ve ever had if that migraine almost never let up. When we get together, one of the regular subjects of our conversations is pain and suffering and finding God and meaning in both.

This go around, we were talking about the prayer gathering that Rach and I invited together on the heels of our “stuck” diagnosis from the Mayo Clinic. He asked if that came from some renewed confidence in the power of healing and I said (rather sheepishly) that it was more a combination of defiance (an FU to the head of neurology’s “there’s nothing else you can do”) and understanding that I wasn’t going to get through “stuck” alone. I intended to pray for patience and persistence and perspective and to solicit similar prayers from others. The idea that I might walk again was, honestly, a rather out there idea. I was certainly open to it, but I wasn’t counting on it.

He asked me, now that I seem to have experienced a miraculous healing, whether my perspective on this approach had changed. Did I see myself as an evangelist for the power of healing prayer? Did I think that folks like he and other friends who were suffering from sickness and/or pain should pray with an expectation of healing?

My response was a sort of “Yes…maybe…but.”

Yes, one of the things I’ve learned from this experience (months before my health started taking a turn for the better) is that prayer is powerful. It draws us closer to God and to others, it gives shape to our suffering, it helps us perceive reality more fully.

Maybe it can even lead to healing. I truly believe it has, in my case. I don’t understand why in my case and not in others. I don’t believe it is because I was more worthy or faithful or desperate or deserving. And I’d go back to a wheelchair in a heartbeat if it meant one child with cancer would get well. But that takes a sort of “there’s only so much to go around” approach to God’s power that I don’t believe in either. Still, I do believe in the power of prayer, even to help bring about miraculous healing and I think those who find themselves stuck in a sorry situation should pray for God’s help getting out.

But I don’t believe that getting out always (or even usually) looks like miraculous healing. And that’s the sticking point. I’ve mentioned before, on this blog, a conversation that Rach and I had on the promise that “hope does not disappoint us.” The promise of course, is regarding our ultimate hope in Christ and his Kingdom coming and I am confident that our hope in Christ and his coming Kingdom is not misplaced. But in the day to day (and more epic) struggles of life, hope disappoints us all the time.

As my friend and I were talking I said that part of my initial approach to a more intentional commitment to prayer was, “It can’t hurt to ask.” Except it can. Of course it can. It hurts to ask a loving God for something you’re sure a loving God would give and then not receive what it is you’ve asked for. It hurts enough to stop asking, maybe to stop believing altogether. I get that. I really do. Some days I think the prayer I’ve prayed most consistently, throughout my life, is “I believe, help my unbelief.” But, more recently, it’s in close competition with, “Thank you.” Not just “thank you” for the lessened pain and increased strength in my legs, but thank you for all the months before that in which I learned some humility and patience and dependence and gratitude. Thank you for teaching me how to say “thank you” more than I used to.

And that’s the reason to keep praying, keep persisting, keep reaching out, keep asking. Not because every prayer gets answered just as we’d hoped, but because God is present in prayer and even when God’s presence feels like an absence, it’s often a kind of absence that deepens the mystery in a way that draws us deeper into God. It can be a frustrating process, at least as frustrating as the physical pain and suffering itself, but one that I think is worth it. I’m not ready to say that a prayer for healing will always bring healing, at least not in the way we might imagine. But I am prepared to promise that prayer opens the door for God to do more than we might ask or imagine, to shape our suffering into something that not only blesses us, but those around us. That draws us deeper into who God is and who we were created to be.