Uncertainty and Light

I have not written a blog since April of this year. Something about the nature of things, the pandemic, the election, social unrest, family matters, has made me mute. I really have not had much to say, which means I have not been reflective of my life experiences and what they may signify. Maybe my lack of reflection is from being overwhelmed by life. What I have experienced has been too much to process as this pandemic drags on and family changes and challenges mount up. The onslaught of visceral violence we all have witnessed through the media, eroding the life I am used to so that the routines, the rituals, the way of life being so altered that one loses their footing. Not that the loss of footing necessarily means falling, crashing to the ground, but rather a kind of disorientation living in a strange, new world of uncertainty.

Maybe the most impactful uncertainty has been because of the fear of letting others know what I think about ‘the nature of things”. I have become more cautious, even afraid to say what I think or believe, for fear of being attacked or rejected or misunderstood. So I say nothing, and I am subtly impacted with a degree of separation between myself and others that it takes a toll on my well being that is difficult to name and describe. I can think of many instances where I have chosen not to say something for fear of offending or being misunderstood. That is not my nature, to be so cautious. I usually don’t worry about what others think of me, but the continued state of uncertainty that we all are living in seems to have caused an emotional instability in more people, including myself, a sensitivity to differences that risks an eruption of disconnection.

And of course we literally are living more apart and isolated, intentionally distancing ourselves, even from our own family members who may be at risk. We are also living with a fear, either denied, repressed or expressed, of getting infected. Wether we admit it or not, we are more vulnerable, especially those of us who are baby boomers (the beginning of the end of baby boomer dominance). We can’t hug, touch, and be comforted, many are dying alone in a room. It is psychically destabilizing and disorienting, which worsening mental health statistics of depression and suicide substantiate.

And yet, at least for me, it is Christmas, the season of hope and peace, good will to all, a light shining in the darkness. (But even here, I wonder if I am offending those of you who do not celebrate the birth of Christ, risking putting a wall between us, especially those of you who are clients of mine. I hope you know I have no wall between us and that I am treating you with honor and respect, no matter what you profess. Please let me know if you feel otherwise.) And what is this light shining, this hope? It is love, a love that sees no divisions, no enemies, no separation. A love that connects everything and everyone, a love that perhaps brings two planets together again to shine a light that has not been seen in 800 years and it just happens to be 2020, a year of chaos, uncertainty and darkness. Boy, did we need to be reminded of such a light.

Desert Spirituality

“The desert is a place of great undoing.” Ryan Kuja

“The Bible abounds in references to the desert and the wilderness. Encounters with God, both directly and through prophetic voices, took place in scenes of desolation. God spoke on an empty stage, knowing how easily the sound of rivers diverted human attention.” Yi-Fu Tuan

(In case you’re wondering if Yi-Fu Tuan is a Confucius mentor, he is not, he is a Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, and Ryan Kuja is a modern day Christian contemplative, not a Hindu mystic.)

I have been reading and rereading a book on desert and mountain spirituality by a fellow named Belden C. Lane titled The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. I began reading this before the corona virus emerged into our lives. I think I was being prepared for what has come upon us as the virus is our desert experience. It is undoing us and certainly there are many churches with empty stages. This is an opportunity for an encounter with a God we don’t know; maybe he has our attention, and we can avoid being distracted by rivers streaming entertainment.

I don’t know about you, but this excites me, an adventure with a God I don’t know. How comfortable we have become with a known God who works in ways we understand, through books and sermons and pastors that have answers for us; it’s spiritual comfort food. The only path to spiritual growth, or making changes in our personal life, that I have ever experienced is through being undone with what I was already doing. And while having a Mr. Rogers in the Neighborhood is pleasant and comforting, it is insufficient for actual transformation.

The desert makes you look and listen; let’s embrace this moment.

There is much more to say, but I know we are scrolling through pages on Facebook.

Invisible and Unseen Real

It is perhaps significant that our world, the entire world, is confronted with a silent, invisible enemy that can only be confronted, at this point, by social isolation. My wife Carolyn and I had dinner with friends last night, so we did not isolate; there was one child, and six adults, a total of 7 so we were within the 10 person limit. We mostly practiced social distancing but probably made mistakes, like touching our face, or hugging someone, and if any one of us has the virus we likely infected each other.

Carolyn and I also walked to the grocery store yesterday and practiced social distancing and hand washing when we got home, but again if anyone in that store was infected, it is likely we were exposed or that we have already been exposed. We have both been in the grocery store at times when it was very crowded. The virus is here, and we are exposed, and this makes us all vulnerable.

The irony is that we can only connect with one another in a meaningful way when we are vulnerable and we are more vulnerable right now because of an invisible enemy that can only be defeated with social isolation. When we most need each other we cannot readily turn to each other. Virtual connecting through social media or faces on a screen is not actual, face to face in the same space connecting, no matter how we frame (no pun intended) it.

I am a spiritual person, I believe in an unseen reality best known, I believe through Jesus Christ. There are different expressions of a Christian experience of the unseen real, and they all have their benefits and disadvantages in expressing the truth about God. The primary expression includes a vulnerable Jesus who before He overcomes, He succumbs. Americans seem to like focusing on the overcoming not the succumbing part of the story, but the overcoming does not happen without the succumbing. The resurrection does not happen without the crucifixion. We do not have life unless we lose our life. And what life are we to lose?

With Covid-19, the virus that originated in China, our life as we know it has been overturned, upended and disrupted. You could say it has been lost and lost for an uncertain period as we don’t know when it will end. If we are not infected by the virus, we are affected by the virus. The entire world has succumbed to its effects; the silent, invisible and unseen virus has brought the entire world to its knees. And no one fired a shot.

One of the great creeds of the Christian faith is found in Philippians 2:

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
 did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
   by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
 being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
 he humbled himself
 by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
 and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
 to the glory of God the Father.

Maybe we can view this virus as a prophetic reminder that the Christian path is one of succumbing, being on our knees and becoming “nothing”, or, as in other translations, “he emptied himself”; and so we empty and humble ourselves, even unto death. There is little about us that embraces this, but the invisible and unseen has moved us down a path that can lead to deep connection with a God who loves us. When there is nothing left of us, there is only Him.

Different Practices

We want to let all our clients know that Don Sizemore & Associates is offering telehealth services in a very convenient format. We can do all our counseling and many of our OT therapeutics through this format (my wife, Carolyn is an Occupational Therapist and partner). We will be contacting those of you who are active clients to arrange this service. Both Carolyn and I will continue to see clients face to face on a limited case by case basis either in their homes (Carolyn) or at the office (Don). We follow the social distancing and infectious protocols for disinfecting physical surfaces. Please let us know if you have any questions and our prayers are with everyone.

Please do the things that promote immune system functioning: meditation, exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and loving one another. Our spirit, mind, and body need to be made ready to battle whatever comes.

Powerful Presence, Improbable Survival

In my last post I told the story of my miraculous survival of a sudden cardiac arrest. My experience of that event once I regained consciousness is another story of experiencing the powerful presence of God. ( I know not all who read this believe in the Judeo-Christian narrative found in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. I invite you to just “listen” to my experience, as I am likewise willing to listen and respect yours.)

As I came to at some point coming down the trail and while being moved to a stretcher and then loaded onto an ambulance, I knew where I was and that something significant had happened. I felt terrible, like a truck had run over me, and while I was able to answer the paramedic’s questions, it was a struggle to focus. I kept trying to shake the cobwebs loose but they would not go away.

I do not know how long it took the ambulance to arrive at the hospital, but they apparently made a wrong turn coming out of the entrance to the property where we were camping, losing about four minutes. This is according to my friend, Lynn Buckles, who was riding in the front seat of the ambulance. Another factor that likely added to the confusion, is that a truck was on fire on the road near the entrance. This all seems so bizarre, unreal, like something out of a movie: collapsing on a trail, burning truck, wrong turn, riding in an ambulance?

Even the ambulance making it to the property is an amazing story of grace, as the property has no physical address. Earlier in the week someone associated with Crossroads Man Camp figured out how to fool Google Maps into dropping a GPS location pin. Only four people at the Camp knew the “address” and Bryan Carter was one of the four.

Bryan is the Crossroads Community Pastor for the Lexington campus and had a central role in hosting Man Camp. He was a busy man helping shepherd a thousand men through registration and on to their campsites. If he had not been listening to the Spirit he never would have come to the commotion surrounding my collapse. While he heard the cries for a Medic, he assumed someone had turned an ankle or something similar hiking up the trail. So he felt no urgency to investigate until he felt an inner prompting of the Spirit to do so. If he had not been there to take the phone from Basilo Harley who had dialed 911 the ambulance would not have known how to find our location.
And the same goes for Basilo having a cell phone. All of “the campers” had been strongly encouraged to leave our cell phones in our cars and “unplug” for the weekend. According to Basilo, when he saw one of his camping mates leaving his phone in the glove compartment, he had the thought, was prompted?, “maybe I should keep my phone with me in case of an emergency”. I do not know Basilo, he reached out to me through Facebook to tell me his story. I know he is from out of town, likely Ohio, but he had 911 on his phone to give to Bryan who knew the fake address of our location. Crazy, bizarre stuff; God stuff.

One of the most astonishing experiences for me was who showed up along the way. At almost every juncture, beginning in the ER, there was someone I knew taking care of me, all of them former clients of mine. These are people that knew me and that I knew. I did not always immediately recognize them but they let me know and of course I remembered. In the interest of confidentiality I cannot give specifics but it was stunning how often in the course of my treatment, five specific instances, former clients were taking care of me or associated with someone caring for me. It was incredibly humbling. It was like God was saying to me “Don, you are known and loved.”

I know some might dismiss this as incredulous, but I received comfort and encouragement seeing these folks, reinforcing to me the intimate connection there is in the body of Christ. It was as if the Spirit was saying to me “your life matters, and the work you do matters”, not as an ego thing, but as comforting, encouraging, and reassuring.

This experience, from the moment I collapsed and my heart stopped and all through treatment and open heart surgery manifested as a deep experience of connection that runs through everything and everyone, that there really is no separation, just connection. Separation is the illusion, connection is reality. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Romans 8:35.

I can only assume that God wants me to know this in an intimate and powerful way that only experience can impart. This is not an idea or an insight; it is a lived experience that has made a huge impression on me and one that I am trying to sort through its meaning. How do I now live in a world where there is no separation but everything and everyone is connected? Maybe this is what the mystics call union with God.

One of the things that almost without exception people comment on, those who have seen me in the hospital and out, either medical personnel or friends and family, is how well I seem and look. And my experience is the same. Somehow “I came back to myself” in the ER at St. Joe East after my heart catheterization. It is as if everything cleared up and I felt like myself, no worse for the wear. Maybe the sedation from the heart catheterization relaxed me, helped my anxiety, I really don’t know. I just know I felt fully present and not worried, even though my diagnosis was serious coronary artery disease requiring open heart bypass surgery. Holy cow, where did that come from? I have asymptomatic coronary heart disease meaning I did not present with symptoms commonly associated with heard disease. No one saw this coming.

How quickly life can change. I went from putting a pack on my back to being transported to St. Joe Main for open heart bypass surgery, and yet I felt nothing but peace and energy. There was such an experience of the presence of God that were it not for the sober realization that I was going to have my chest split open, my heart stopped for about four hours, my body put on life support, and then my heart started again, it was an exhilarating spiritual experience. And really it was both, overwhelming loss of control and exhilarating sense of the presence of God.

I want to make it clear that I have also had experiences, and still do, where I felt the absence of God, periods of confusion and doubt, where prayers were not answered. I have experienced suffering and pain with struggles that could not be overcome and that taught me as much, and maybe more, about God than have overcoming experiences. Learning to trust God in the dark, when you can’t see a way forward, grows faith in ways that miracles or other experiences of the power of God never can. Hebrews 5:8: “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”

One of my favorite passages in Scripture is 2 Corinthians 1, specifically verses 3-11. Whether you are a believer in Jesus or not, this is beautiful literature that will speak to a deep place in your soul. And these words seem especially pertinent to my recent experience of an improbable survival. Paul speaks of a deep and abiding connection with the life of Christ and our life, with His sufferings, my sufferings, and your sufferings; with His comfort, my comfort, and your comfort. This is the passage from the New American Standard Bible:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in [b]any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are [c]ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; 7 and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.
And Paul then references specific afflictions they experienced in Asia in verses 8-11, as well as the deliverance from those afflictions that God provided:
8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in [d]Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 [e]indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, [f]He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.
When I listen to the stories of the men who were around me on that trail in Madison County, who jumped into action and saved my life with CPR and prayer, it is a similar story to Paul’s. The sentence of death (verse 9) was within me, my heart had stopped and they all saw it and felt it, this sentence of death. They felt the despair and fear that comes with death. And they experienced the joy and relief that comes from life arising in the face of death, “so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”

 

Grateful for the Miracle of Life

It is Thanksgiving morning, around 5 am. I woke up early having gone to bed early the night before. I am less than two weeks out from quadruple bypass surgery. I actually feel pretty well and have clients scheduled for next week, so not too much disruption from having your chest opened, your heart stopped for four hours while it gets a plumbing job of rerouting arteries around blockages. I really have not paid attention to the details of the surgery, but my surgeon told me if I did not have the surgery I would be dead, again, within a month. There were precious few physical symptoms to indicate that I had such serious coronary heart disease. I take care of myself physically and I go to the doctor for annual physicals.

That’s right, dead again. Those words do not even look real. I have no idea I died Friday November 15 around 4 pm. I just remember collapsing on the trail and coming to as I was being transported down the trail. I had a sudden cardiac arrest while backpacking up a steep slope. I was participating in a Crossroads Church retreat for men called Man Camp. There were approximately 1000 men attending a weekend camping retreat near Richmond, Ky above the Kentucky River. I experienced what is called a ventricular fibrillation in the lower left chamber of my heart that vibrates so fast it can’t pump blood. It was not a heart attack; it was an electrical malfunction where the heart stops and there is no pulse. Only around 10 percent survive, and most of those are in health care settings.

I would not have survived if I were not hiking with two men who knew what to do and immediately sprang into action performing CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation, Eric Curvin and Shane Porter. Eric is an anesthesiologist and Shane is an Iraq veteran. They kept my heart and brain alive for at least 15 minutes until the camp “Medics” (volunteer medical personnel serving at Man Camp) arrived with an AED to shock my heart back into rhythm. I was then transported to a hospital.

I would not have survived but for the grace of God. I am told that men immediately surrounded me and began praying out loud, calling on the name of Jesus. One of my best friends, Lynn Buckles, tells me my skin was ashen and my eyes where open staring, like a dead man. I was a dead man and he pleaded with God to raise me from the dead, as did others. Another friend, Bryan Carter said, “I have seen dead people before” so he knew what a lifeless body looked liked. I can’t imagine what that was like for them, had to be traumatic; both of them have their own stories of dealing with death and near death.

So I am thankful this Thanksgiving, as are my wife, Carolyn, and children Seth, Danielle, and Isaac. As is my brother, Trip, who flew from North Carolina to be with us during surgery. His family is thankful for the gift of my life, as is my sister, and Carolyn’s family members, her sister, brother-in- law, mother, and father. As are the many people, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who responded with love, prayers, and now gratitude.

The gift of my life, to survive this, is a mystery. I could have just as easily died, as most do. I will die, someday, but why God allowed this is something to prayerfully and respectfully consider. There is more to this story, so many connections that cannot be explained as happenstance, and the telling of it will continue.

Rewire Your Brain

Meditation and mindfulness are increasingly popular practices for managing and overcoming anxiety, depression, PTSD and other mental health struggles, including addictions. As counselors we a have better understanding of the brain, the way it works and how to change it. Neuroscientists and therapists like Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz https://jeffreymschwartz.com/ have shown us that we are not our brain; in other words, we do not have to live under the tyranny of our thoughts and sensations. Counselors who teach the practice of meditation and mindfulness help their clients understand that they are not their anxious or depressed thoughts, that their best self identity is something other than what thoughts or sensations are saying they are. There is physical evidence from brain scans that this is so and that we literally can create new neural pathways that rewire the brain to work more effectively and change behavior. This is amazing stuff and I see the fruit of it in my counseling practice all the time.

It is obviously challenging to create new neural pathways and rewire our brain. It is not as if we can do away with thoughts we have had for years; I am still going to have the thought at times to eat more, a sensation of hunger even though my body really does not need more food. My body and brain are deceiving me into believing I am really hungry, or maybe for you it’s needing a drink, or a smoke, or to watch porn. But I, and you, do not have to respond to this deception because there is a part of us that is aware of these thoughts and sensations. Mindfulness helps me stop living on automatic pilot, to start paying attention. Meditation helps me grow the muscle to observe so I am more aware that I have choice in how I respond to my thoughts and sensations. I have a better self, a better me that realizes these thoughts are not “me” and I can choose another course, not only to not eat more, but as Dr Schwarz says, to refocus my attention on another behavior, doing something else like talking to a friend, reading a book, going for a walk, entering into prayer, any number of behaviors that rewire my brain and make it easier to stop eating more than I need.

These practices of mindfulness and meditation are nothing new. They have been practiced for thousands of years, mostly in spiritual traditions which were the only “self improvement programs” available until sciences like psychology developed. We are not at the mercy of our thoughts and sensations; it just takes disciplined practice and a lot of grace to overcome them. Listen to your better self, that voice or whisper you hear in moments of reflection that says, “things don’t have to be this way, I am created for more.”

Jean Vanier's Jesus

This past Lent session I worked through John Vanier’s The Gospel of John The Gospel of Relationship. It was and is a transformative experience. He presented a vision of Jesus that my soul longed for and literally gave me a way forward with faith. “Who do you say I am?”, Who is Jesus? The short answer is He is the Son of God, the Messiah, and Savior. John Vanier unpacked that answer with a kind of spirituality of attachment, that Jesus is joined with the human race in love: “The Word of God, who is God, who is one with God, becomes one of us: a fragile, vulnerable human being.”

This morning I read about a promising UK golfer who has been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. His coach said this: “Cullan (Brown) has always been full of faith, and hope and enthusiasm with everything in his life. He and God are going to whip this thing over the next year and it is going to be one sweet victory.” I am praying that is so for this young man, what a battle he is facing to overcome and it appears he has the full support of the UK community and its resources, medical and otherwise. We all want to see Cullan victorious, having the opportunity to live a long, full life where he can realize his potential. Dear Jesus, I pray that you heal Cullan.

This would be the kind of story many love to tell to encourage the faithful and spur the seeker to accept Jesus. It is the kind of story I needed to hear at one time in my life, to believe in the overcoming power of Jesus. And yet, Jesus became one of us, fragile and vulnerable. Who do you say we are? Mostly we say that we are strong and powerful, or want to be. But Jesus joined us in our fragility and vulnerability, and Jean Vanier’s life experiences and studies taught him that it is in our fragility and vulnerability that we know and meet Jesus, and each other.

Jean Vanier reminded me that believing in Jesus is not always about victory and overcoming, a theme many of the evangelical churches and groups I have been associated with promote. I don’t think they mean to do this, but it risks setting up an individualistic perspective that Jesus is like a kind of religious Me Too movement that leaves us empowered but not fully connected and whole. And then when Jesus doesn’t deliver the victory we pray for, all hell of confusion breaks out and we’re doing theological contortions to explain it, or just ignore it, passing it over as some kind of aberration. And some just give up believing.

Jean Vanier, Saint Francis and others, provide an alternative. Stop self protecting; enter into relationships and embrace situations where you are powerless; accept your fragility and vulnerability; that is where you find Jesus.

Self Protection, Not Better Communication, Is the Problem

The primary struggles that most couples have who come for marriage counseling are caused by fear and self protection. Most couples think they are having a communication problem and if they could only learn how to better express themselves to each other their relationship would get better. On the surface this is hard to argue with except that research demonstrates that teaching better communication skills to married couples who are struggling rarely helps. What helps is marriage counseling that focuses on creating a better, closer emotional connection. The struggle that couples have is because they do not feel emotionally safe with one another, there is a fear factor that causes them to self protect. Marriage counselors who understand this dance of disconnection can help couples repair and restore it.

Most couples I see for marriage counseling do not think of being “afraid” of their partner yet during therapy they become aware of how often they self protect and how they self protect. When men lose safe emotional connection with their spouse they typically self protect by withdrawing, creating emotional distance. Women are most often pursuers when this connection is lost, pushing for a different and more engaged emotional response from their husband. When a couple is dancing out of emotional sync with one another, it triggers this self protective response and a couple loses safe emotional connection. Marriage counselors who understand this dance of disconnection can help couples repair and restore it. Once a couple is dancing in emotional sync with one another they are no longer missing the emotional cues their partner is sending for understanding, comfort and acceptance and there is no “fear”, no need to self protect, then a couple has to opportunity to draw closer to one another.

Considering Marriage Counseling or Divorce?

When you are considering who to see as a therapist, counselor, or marriage counselor it is one of the most important decisions you can make. There have been many instances where clients have experienced frustration and disappointment with previous counseling experiences. I am often amazed that they are willing to try counseling again. This is especially true with marriage counseling. Please make sure the counselor you choose has the experience, training, and track record that reassures you of a good counseling outcome.

If you are considering divorce and you decide to try marriage counseling before making a final decision there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all some statistics show that only about 10% of divorcing couples seek marriage counseling before ending their marriage. Couples are making one of the most life changing decisions that affects their children and entire families without consulting a professionally trained marital therapist or counselor. We don't hesitate to consult our car mechanic and even pay them hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to keep our car running. I recently had to replace a clutch in my Subaru for $1800 just before Christmas! Merry Christmas to me!
Please consult an experienced and trained marriage counselor or couples therapist before deciding on divorce. One caveat, beware if your counselor recommends divorce, it probably means they do not know what they are doing. Competent therapists and counselors know how to allow their clients to make their own decisions.