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.”

 

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.

Irretrievably Broken Marriage?

Go to my website, donsizemore.org, and check out new video interviews with couples who were on brink of divorce and reconciled! 

These are two video interviews with couples who wanted to tell their story of their decision to pursue marriage counseling and reconciliation. They were part of a two year project in the Fayette County Family Court of Judge Tim Philpot in Lexington, KY.  Judge Philpot, Dr. Wm. Doherty of the University of Minnesota, and myself, introduced measures to help couples pause on the legal superhighway to divorce. The couples' experience is a powerful testimony for that project and Emotionally Focused Therapy, a marriage counseling approach with proven results.

Living into Contemplative Rhythm

"From the beginning, Jesus’s ministry modeled the interplay between prophetic utterance, public theology, and intense spiritual renewal. He launches his three-year ministry from the desert wilderness, a place that will be the home of latter-day desert mothers and fathers. After an intense time of fasting, testing, and submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returns ready to fulfill his calling. These rhythms of activism and contemplation, engagement and withdrawal resonate throughout his life." R. Rohr

Looking to live into this, 3 day retreat of silence and stillness at the Abbey of Gethsemane this weekend.
We need contemplative communities within the evangelical church who practice this rhythm. Most of us are activists who value doing and results.  I wonder if we really trust the Holy Spirit.

Every Tuesday night at my office, 6:30 pm, meditative bible study, period of silence, meditation and listening.

When you pray...

When thou prayest, shut thy door; that is, the door of the senses. Keep them barred and bolted against all phantasms and images. Nothing pleases God more than a mind free from all occupations and distractions. Such a mind is in a manner transformed into God, for it can think of and understand nothing, and love nothing except God. He who penetrates into himself and so transcends himself, ascends truly to God. – Albert Magnus (the “father of Christian mysticism”)

It's Never Too Late

Judge Tim Philpot, Dr. Bill Doherty, and myself (Don Sizemore, LCSW), have worked together for over two years to implement a process whereby couples are given an opportunity to be sure that divorce is their best decision. Three marriages which came to me for the two hour court ordered Discernment Consultations have been reconciled, three families reunited. Families number one and two continue in treatment, going through the therapeutic protocol established by Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT. The third one that chose not to continue therapy is at greater risk for a return to divorce court, although as of this date they are still married and living together and report their relationship has improved. Three families were ready to divorce, standing before Judge Philpot waiting for his signature on the order. They have moved back in together, giving up their separate residences, and their children have one home.

A fourth couple postponed their divorce and attended 13 sessions, including 5 discernment counseling sessions and 8 marriage therapy sessions of EFT with an unsuccessful outcome. This couple has stopped therapy, lives separated but have not proceeded with divorce. One spouse continues to hold out hope but the other is in a position of stonewalling, unable or unwilling to stop self protecting. I do not think this relationship will survive.

The fifth couple, who is chronologically the first couple referred from the legal system by an attorney, not the court, was seen for 32 sessions of EFT. This is not an unsurprising number of sessions when there is a past history of childhood trauma that complicates developing secure attachment. Their therapy concluded over a year ago; they are still married and report their marital relationship is stable.

Do couples really want to divorce? Or more positive, do couples want to stay married? In my experience as a marriage therapist no one that I have seen is happy about their marriage failing from which I conclude no one really wants to divorce, especially those with children. This has not been more evidenced than with the 20 couples I have seen for the court ordered session. None of them were celebrating a failed marriage and the one common denominator was pain either expressed or repressed but still obvious on their faces.

Some might say that the pain on their faces is due to being forced to endure the Discernment Consultation session that has no chance of making a difference in their resolve to divorce and having to pay money to do it. There were two instances that come to mind where one spouse stonewalled their way through the session, not allowing one emotion to seep through, just a cold wall of protection. What impressed me about the other cases was that their certainty of being done with the relationship was based on their experience of emotional deprivation or rejection over an extended period of time. They were emotionally spent, had given up hope that their partner might change, and would not allow themselves to risk the pain of being disappointed again. It was never because they could not tolerate their partner and just wanted out; those kind of cases would likely not find their way to me and any abuse based relationships are ruled out for referral.

The judge, Tim Philpot, who was ordering discernment sessions was applying scientific advancements in the field of marriage and family therapy developed by Dr. Bill Doherty and colleagues from the University of Minnesota, to make a better assessment of the state of a marriage. Is this marriage irretrievably broken? Is reconciliation possible? Is there ambivalence about proceeding with final separation and divorce? Professional therapists who are properly trained now understand how couples gain and maintain a stable emotional connection, how they lose it, and how to repair it. The legal system has not kept up with scientific and therapeutic advancements and divorce is treated as an inevitable outcome when it gets to a lawyer and then to a judge. If this project has demonstrated anything it is that there is another way forward and simply processing a divorce decree because there are no other options is simply not true.

In most cases the couples I interviewed had not received couples counseling and if they had, it was ineffective. There are only a few research documented marital therapies that have efficacy and one of them is EFT with a 73% success rate. The others that I am aware of are Imago Therapy and the approach developed out of the John Gottman Institute. None of the couples had received counseling based on these approaches and the results were predictable. Many marriages that are in distress can be helped but too easily find their way onto the divorce track where the legal system offers no side track to slow the train down. This is tragic. It is as if we have accepted the inevitability of divorce. And worse, somehow divorce has become a right rather than an option of last resort. But what I have noticed in my sessions with desperate relationships (not just court ordered couples) is that more often than not if they can be shown a way, the couple will follow it to save their relationship.

Another benefit of connecting couples with the therapeutic community of counselors, is that in two other of my cases one of the spouses has continued to seek treatment. They wanted help making the transition through divorce for themselves and their children, how to best interact with their ex-spouse, and hopefully glean how not make the same mistakes again in their next relationship. It is well documented, and common sense, that patterns of behavior continue to repeat unless challenged by a thorough self examination such as that available with a trained therapist or wise mentor.

This experience has been an eye opening one. It is obvious we can affect in a positive direction seemingly hopeless and terminal relationships. Asking the question “Are you sure this divorce is best for you?” is not oppressive, it is compassionate and the just thing to do. To become numb and accept the inevitability of fractured marriages and families is to lose hope for ourselves.

Created for Connection

Created for Connection
The “Hold Me Tight” Guide for Christian Couples
Leader: Don Sizemore, LCSW

Join us for an 8 week journey to learn the skills and experience the joy of a connected love relationship. We are created in the image of God to love and to be one with God and one another. This is especially true for our marriages and when you feel distant or separate from your spouse, or just desire greater intimacy, you need to know how to form a secure, safe, loving connection.

Crossroads Andover, Lexington, Ky.
Wednesday Evenings 6:30-8:30 pm
September 6th-October 25th, 2017

Call Crossroads Andover at 859-263-4633 or Don Sizemore at 859-224-0265 for more information.http://www.drsuejohnson.com/books/created-for-connection-the-hold-me-tight-guide-for-christian-couples/

Convergence

There is a fascinating convergence with neuroscience and tradition rich spiritual practices. Neuroscience, the study of how the brain works, is confirming what contemplatives (those who meditate and seek solitude and silence) have known for centuries, the mind can shape the physical structure of the brain. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity, something they denied was possible as little as 10 years ago and yet every one that prays, counsels, preaches, and teaches knew that transformation was and is possible; we can literally reshape the neural pathways of the brain, even significant mental health disorders like OCD. Healing happens and science is agreeing with spiritual traditions; how cool is that!

This is fascinating on several levels. I would recommend you listen to any of Dr. Jeffery Schwartz’s M.D. You Tube videos. Here is a link to one: https://youtu.be/S0-NmxR3Lcg. Dr. Schwartz is part of the exploding Mindfulness movement, a secular version of contemplative practices, especially meditation. He is also a believer in Jesus and got there from a Jewish heritage, to practicing Zen Buddhism, to following Jesus. I don't know the details of his spiritual journey, but the exciting and encouraging thing is that there is language developing that crosses all spiritual, secular, and scientific lines. If we look rightly, we can see how everything is connected, just like Jesus prayed in John 17:21: “May they all be one as you (God) and I are one.”

What is this language of connection? For those who practice meditation they know there is a presence that is not physical that shapes the physical brain. Believers in Jesus call it by many names, the Holy Spirit, the helper, the counselor, the comforter. I think it is our spirit working with His Spirit (Romans 8:16). Scientists call it the mind, focused awareness, other spiritual traditions call it enlightenment. There is significant healing going on with these practices and it is not just in Christian circles. God’s healing is not limited to Christian belief. He is a compassionate and loving God who brings His Love to all of us.

I believe something powerful is happening in all of this and we need to look “with eyes that see and ears that hear” to understand. Do not let your belief system get in your way of seeing and hearing what is going on; be open and trust, God is bigger than our fear.

Everything is Connected

I have had two major surgeries in thirteen months, a hip and knee replacement. Both were more involved and challenging than I expected, but in different ways. Sixteen months into this structural makeover has made me aware of a few things but primarily a reminder that we never really know what is going to happen next. And yet the paradox is that we live mostly as if everything will remain the same or at least consistently similar. And most of the time it probably does, until it doesn’t.

This reminds me of a quote by John Muir (naturalist, responsible for the existence of national parks like Yellowstone) who said something like: “When you tug at a single thing in the universe you find it is attached to everything else.” You change the alignment of a body with a new knee and hip and it affects everything else and the consequences are not predictable. You literally are not the same person because you are faced with different challenges, some good, some not so good. The point is you are affected by tugging at a single thing.

I think this is why events like divorce are not good. In my spiritual framework, in Malachi 2:16 a book in the Old Testament, it is said that God hates divorce because it does violence. We often moralize about divorce or same sex marriage which only serves to alienate and separate us into tribal camps, but if we begin to understand that everything is connected, all of us, and that we never really do anything that affects only ourselves, we begin to have wisdom that how we live our lives are not isolated events and these events might do violence to one another. Love one another because everything is connected.