Redemption

“O God, our help in ages past, / Our hope for years to come, / Our shelter from the stormy blast, / And our eternal home!”

It’s been a year.

I started off the year with amnesia. (One of the medications I was given before my hand surgery had the side effect of forward amnesia for ~24 hours. I remember being in the recovery room, then about 15 minutes when I was at home. The next day, I didn’t remember anything else that had happened. Funny way to start out the year.)

Then my next challenge was eating soup with my non-dominant hand. I had to become somewhat ambidextrous quickly.

Like 2017, I spent the first few months of 2018 in rehab, trying to gain back the functioning of one of my joints. However, this recovery was infinitely less difficult than the previous year. Things starting looking up as I finished out my undergrad experience.

Then I got sick. And a few months later, I realized that the issue was here to stay. Thank you, POTS. At the end of 2018, I still feel inadequate in managing these new symptoms of my autonomic nervous system. (It’s hard to control the functions that your body is supposed to perform naturally.)

2019 will not be without its challenges. I’ve seen my shoulder surgeon again to discuss operating on my other shoulder. TBD whether or not this occurs in 2019. And I’m sure I’ll develop new symptoms, as I have each year for the past few years.

But I am truly looking forward to this new year. Here’s why.

As I begin my second semester in my Master of Social Work program, I’ll begin an internship that will continue at this site until I graduate. I can’t wait to start working with the Alabama Head Injury Foundation!

This organization provides services to traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients and acquired brain injury (ABI) patients throughout the state. From AHIF’s website:

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  TBI is caused by a blow or jolt to the
head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the
brain. A rapid acceleration or deceleration of the head, which can force the
brain to move back and forth inside the skull, can also cause TBI. The stress from these rapid movements pull apart nerve fibers and cause damage to the brain tissue.

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI).  ABI is an injury to the brain that has
occurred after birth and is not hereditary, congenital or degenerative. ABI
takes place at the cellular level within the brain; most symptoms of ABIs are
very similar to those of TBIs.

The people I’ll have the privilege of working with have experienced injuries that have altered not only their daily routines but also the courses of their lives. They have most likely experienced grief over the loss of particular abilities and the normalcy of their lives before obtaining injuries. They likely become frustrated each time they desire to perform a task that their bodies prohibit them from performing. They are likely seeking hope in situations that probably feel hopeless.

In addition to getting to know these inspiring men, women, and children, I am excited to work with these patients because of my ability to empathize with parts of their situations. As I learn how to support these individuals, I believe that God will be redeeming my own story.

In my first semester in this grad program, the LORD taught me, through my professors and mentors, that I don’t have to share my own story in order for the LORD to redeem it. Part of the redemption of my story is the absorption of my own story into God’s overarching story of redemption of His people; elements of my own story (i.e. being spiritually disabled, grace enabled) can point to the ultimate hope we have for ultimate redemption, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I can imagine no greater privilege than for my story to be used in this way.

I recently listened to the English translation of an Advent sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached on Luke 21. In verses 27 and 28, Jesus proclaims, “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.  When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Bonhoeffer describes the waiting believers experience until Jesus’ return:

Think of a hospital where a patient lies, suffering from an incurable disease, in agony with indescribable pain, dying slowly and slowly longing for the peace of death to end this plague. And now one day, the doctor comes to the patient and says with confidence, “Today you will be released. Your terminal illness will be healed. Lift up your head, and be delivered from your pain.”

Even if my redemption doesn’t come with complete physical healing in this lifetime, my redemption is coming with Christ, as He enters our realm once more to set an end to death and mourning and crying and pain.

In this coming season, I can’t wait to watch God work all things together for good (Romans 8:28).

 

My Not-Samford Story

With graduation approaching, I’m frequently asked what my future plans are. Not everything is completely worked out yet, but this post is an attempt to explain at least one decision I’ve arrived at.

Especially now that we’re in the second half of my last semester, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned in my time at Samford. To be honest, my transcript actually makes me laugh; the word “eclectic” comes to mind. Although my transcript demonstrates the broad scope of instruction I have received, it does not represent all that I have learned in the past four years.

Things I Have Learned That Are Not on my Transcript

  1. How to be ambidextrous. I’ve learned how to adapt–in some occasions, seamlessly–to physical challenges that arise unexpectedly. Before coming to Samford, I had only dealt with chronic pain in one joint. By the end of today, I will have applied some form of preventative care or treatment to five joints (and also my spine). But today’s a pretty normal day. I’ve had to adopt a new framework for normalcy. Not gonna lie, I am pretty proud of my ability to start off this semester ambidextrous after hand surgery.
  2. How to advocate for myself in a doctor’s office. At the beginning of my Samford career, I had probably reached a level of comfort in doctors’ offices. But especially in the past few months, I’ve gained the confidence to approach my medical professionals–who have completed many more years of schooling than I have–and tell them what I need. For instance, soon after surgery on my right hand, the instability in my left hand increased drastically. While my brilliant surgeon was focused on getting my right hand fully recovered, I had to speak up for myself and ask for a physical therapy script for my left hand. Because I advocated for myself, and because of my wonderfully competent physical therapist, the stability in my left hand has returned. I was able to identify what I needed because I’ve learned…
  3. How to listen to my body. I took an Anatomy & Physiology class last summer. Probably the most useful concept I learned was that of proprioception. This is a term for awareness of body positioning. Within the past few months, I truly felt that I could tell where my most unstable joints were at all times; I was able to sense when they were on the verge of dislocating and able to prevent full dislocations by activating specific muscles. As of right now, I can’t verbally explain the specifics of this process (or which muscles I’m activating at particular times), but I have some sort of grasp on the concept. I am now more attune to all of my skeletal muscles, and I pay special attention to muscles experiencing fatigue. When I catch this fatigue early on, I can prevent further injury.
  4. How to walk with friends through mental illness. Changing topics (and not revealing specifics): Samford is a very difficult environment to struggle with mental illness. “The Bubble” can become intoxicating when people expect you to at least act like you have your life together. I’ve witnessed the harm that people experience from overexposure to the filters we often place on our lives, our attempts to hide our struggles. I’ve had the privilege of sitting beside friends who were not okay and telling them, “It’s okay to not be okay.” I’ve learned the value of an assuring, non-judgmental presence.
  5. How to recognize my limitations. In light of these scenarios, I’ve also hit certain points when I realized that I was not the right person to be dealing with a situation. Just as I’ve learned to recognize when my muscles have been pushed too far, I’m beginning to realize when I’m being stretched too thin, emotionally. I’ve begun to learn the value of setting healthy boundaries and recognizing the need to refer people to professional help. Although one friendship has been lost through boundary setting, all others have grown much deeper as a result.
  6. How to recognize my purpose. Speaking of lost friendships, I did lose another friend who struggled with mental illness, and sadly we lost this friend to suicide. This tragedy brought about the element of emotional maturation that was most needed–the realization that I am not the only human being on the planet who experiences pain. To this day, I distinctly remember the sound of this friend’s loved ones expressing the pain they felt at her loss. That was the day I realized that this world is bigger than me and the pain I feel. As horrific as her death was to all those who were privileged to know her in this lifetime, it motivated me to listen for the similar sound of others hurting.
  7. How to grieve. After I witnessed the grief of this friend’s loved ones, I both witnessed and experienced grief over both of my dad’s parents. Soon after, I had reason to grieve the loss of my ability to perform music. I also grieved over my change of major and the friendships I had established within the Division of Music. I spent all of my junior year grieving these things. And I’ve learned that grief was justifiable and necessary before fully embracing my place in the Religion Department. (More on that in a later post.)
  8. How to organize my life so that I feel like I have some control. I’ve learned tactics to help me stay on top of physical and emotional pain. For instance, I’ve decided to set my limit on physical therapy time (outside of the clinic) to about 35 minutes–the length of a playlist I made to accompany my exercises. This playlist consists only of worship songs that help me center my life on the grace of God, as I try to center my joints. Multitasking by addressing physical and spiritual needs at the same time has been truly effective.
  9. How to relate to people through vulnerability. The concept of being vulnerable about my struggles is now fairly second nature to me, outside of the workplace. (Vulnerability has its appropriate settings–also more on that in a later post.) Vulnerability has opened the door to so many deep friendships that I cherish. It’s so freeing to not feel the need to fake my way into friendships. Vulnerability before God has also had countless benefits.

Ecclesiastes 3 (ESV)

A Time for Everything

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

The God-Given Task

What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live;13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

From Dust to Dust

16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

With all of these things in mind, I’m happy to report one way in which God is redeeming the journey I’ve been on for the past four years. With all of these life lessons learned outside the classroom setting, it’s time to advance my knowledge in these areas inside the classroom. That classroom is found at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In the fall, I will begin their Master of Clinical/Medical Social Work program, with the hopes of working in both medical (hospital) settings and private clinical practice, in the long-term.

I included the entire chapter of Ecclesiastes 3 because I’ve often quoted verse 11 by itself. In context, I appreciate it even more. God has made my periods of mourning and healing and weeping and laughing and silence and vulnerability beautiful by providing purpose, although I cannot fathom what marvelous plans He has had in store for me from beginning to end. With this in mind, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” I am only one person in this world God has created. I am only one person whose influence is limited to this brief lifetime. Everything I have gone through and everything I might ever do will hold no significance at the end of my life; the glory of the LORD will outlast me.

So, as Qoheleth suggests, I’m pursuing a career path that I believe I will enjoy in my brief lifetime. My Health Psychology class this semester is probably the closest I will come to encountering my graduate school courses before beginning grad school, and I am utterly fascinated by the course content. (If you didn’t know already, I’m a nerd.) And I hope to apply what I learn in grad school to provide mental health services to those facing new physical challenges, which, I believe, will also bring fulfillment to me. My not-Samford story will equip me to glorify the Author of this story I could never come up with on my own–I’m not that creative.

New Song in my Mouth

What a year. Somehow I completed my junior year of college, on top of a debilitating surgery/recovery process. I don’t think I’ve gotten over the fact that I actually survived.

So surgery…yeah…not something I can talk about easily. It’s been the most humbling experience of my life. I’m pretty sure middle school was the last time I had to ask for rides as often as I did this semester. I thought I had mastered the art of doing laundry during my freshman year; I didn’t think I’d have to ask for help with laundry anymore. Most notably, I didn’t think I would have to go to class on the same days that I needed [prescribed] pain medication, in order to get me through the torture of range-of-motion exercises at PT. But that became the norm–twice a week, every week of the semester. So that was fun.

In addition to the physical changes of this year, the academic/social changes of this year were [almost] equally challenging. I went from spending most of my time practicing or thinking about practicing or complaining about practicing in the music building basically all my waking hours, to…I don’t even know. I love being a religion major, but I still don’t have an answer when people ask what I do. Not to say it’s easier; it’s not. Both a pro and con of being a religion major–not having a specific curriculum required of every religion major. Pro: I get to graduate on time. Con: I don’t see the same people in the same building during all my waking hours. Huge change from the last two years.

Confession: I cried more this semester over my inability to play flute than I did over my pain levels. Grief over my loss of performing ability really kicked in this semester, now that I’m not constantly anxious about joints potentially going out of place. This grief manifested itself when my schedule allowed me more free time than I had as a music major, when I listened to music that I was once able to play, and when I heard my friends successfully perform to the best of their ability.

The grief on top of the constant excruciating pain felt like a “pit of destruction.” But as an answered prayer, “He put a new song in my mouth.”

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 40:1-3

Part of this new song is declaring God’s goodness in challenging circumstances. Here’s how He revealed His goodness to me this semester:

  • Community

During one very talented friend’s senior recital, I thought about the “what-ifs” of my music career. The nostalgia over positive performing experiences became overwhelming. I missed the days when conductors would tell the entire ensemble to play at a softer volume so that my solo could be heard. I missed being heard.

During that same recital, I also thought about the opportunities I’ve had over the past year to hear–to hear what is going on in other people’s lives, to hear from God’s Word–more so than I had as a music major.

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
    but you have given me an open ear.

Psalm 40:6a

One of the greatest gifts God bestowed upon me this semester was an open ear. I can’t take credit for the drastic increase in desire to listen to others this semester. I believe God gave me this increased desire to be a coping mechanism for everything I went through this semester. It’s comforting to know that others don’t completely have their lives together, which creates common ground for us to collectively recognize our need for a Savior. To quote a friend who teaches me what community looks like long-distance: “It’s depending on those in a gospel-centered community that points us to our utmost need for a relationship with Christ.”

God has been good to me by providing people to love with His love and providing people who reciprocated His love.

  • The ability to finish the semester strong–literally

Like I already said, it seems so surreal that I actually finished the semester at all. In my own power, I would not have been able to finish. Although I’m not prepared to begin bench-pressing 250 (or even 2.5 lbs), I’ve gained a lot of strength back over the past five months–considering the fact that I had 0 strength when I began this semester.

I’ve come a long way physically, and I’ve improved academically as well. Within my first four weeks into the semester, I had three papers due. (Shorter papers, but still. I had one hand with which to type and one brain trying to process both words and pain medication.) The goodness of God was present in my schedule for this semester; I had many assignments due at the beginning of the semester, so I was able to focus more on recovery for the remainder of the semester.

  • Affirmation that I’m where I need to be

Following the academic transition to a religion major, I had no idea what the rest of my college career would look like. People who knew the extent of the difficulties surrounding surgery and recovery occasionally asked me if I ever considered transferring and moving back home. I honestly didn’t want to. But the suggestion did make practical sense. However, one of the greatest aspects of my small, Christian school is the ability to be known and cared for by the faculty. Two weeks ago, I was awarded a scholarship based on the verse Luke 2:52 (“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man”). This award recognized the hard work that the Lord enabled me to apply to find balance in my life, on top of overwhelming health concerns. This experience gave me the peace that surpasses understanding, knowing that I’m exactly where God has placed me: When I’ve felt like many do not understand the difficulty of finding balance with chronic health problems, the faculty of my school demonstrated to me that they understand and care. Wow, God is good to provide financial support and emotional support, resulting from the abilities He also gave me.

May the act of singing this new song lead me to honestly confess,

I have told the glad news of deliverance
    in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
    as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    from the great congregation.

Psalm 40:9-10

But may all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
    say continually, “Great is the Lord!”
17 As for me, I am poor and needy,
    but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
    do not delay, O my God!

Psalm 40:16-17

This new song in my mouth is the antithesis of my previous self-absorbed song. By singing this new song, I can expose my human limitations and give praise to my limitless God.

Counting the Cost

I’m currently watching the Olympics as I try to recover from my most recent injury–an injury that is now becoming normal. In the past four weeks, I have dislocated my left shoulder three times. The causes of these dislocations include leaning over to pull a cord, lifting sheets of paper, and waking up. So in other words, rugby is not a hobby I should take up.

Speaking of hobbies, playing flute and piano is pretty difficult when your shoulder is out of socket. Or even after it’s back in. Because my tendons are overstretched, my muscles are also affected, making it pretty much impossible to hold a flute. Piano will not be impossible to play, but there is no way, realistically speaking, that I can play at the same level I did last semester.

Which brings me to the title of this post: “Counting the Cost.” I don’t typically use this phrase to refer to decisions I make for my well-being, but it’s certainly a concept I’m familiar with. Every potential activity requires an assessment when I “count the cost;” either I can do this activity and spend more time with people, or I can do what I need to do to take care of myself so I can spend less time with people at optimal functioning.

With my latest phenomenon of shoulder dislocations, it’s time to count the cost of continuing my music degree.

As I’ve thought about how big of an adjustment that a change of major would be, I’ve reflected on the wonderful experiences I’ve had as a music major.

One of the biggest contributors to my improvement was a masterclass in which I demonstrated that I had no idea what I was doing. But afterwards, I knew what I wanted to sound like, and I was driven by a specific goal.

One of the biggest confidence-boosters I experienced was the repetition of the direction, “Play louder, Emily,” during my solos in ensemble rehearsals. Although I was frustrated at myself for not being where my professors wanted me to be, I was, and still am, grateful that they saw more potential in me than I did.

One of my favorite performance memories was having to wait on the Secret Service dogs to search our instruments on stage before a prelude performance to Laura Bush. I felt like a pretty big deal.

One of my favorite comments I received from both my flute and piano teachers is that I made the flute sound masculine, and I played piano like a man. It made me feel like I’m more than a twig.

One of my easiest classes was a class based on ear training. Thanks to the Lord’s gift of perfect pitch, I made a 100 in the class without any extra credit. Let’s just all take a moment to acknowledge that this will never happen again in my educational experience.

One of my hardest classes was a class based on piano improvisation. The assignments that were the easiest to everyone else were actually the hardest to me. I realized how much I rely on having an explicit plan for everything. But I think that the uncomfortable situations in the class helped eliminate the fear of unprepared performances for the rest of my life.

One of the best lessons I learned was how to manage time. I became an expert on determining what I can accomplish in my 23.5 minutes between classes. I learned how to plan ahead like never before.

One of the most rewarding experiences to my hard work was walking by a practice room and hearing other music majors practicing their parts for pieces I had written. It was incredibly satisfying to hear others try to understand what had gone on in my head during the composition process.

One of my favorite ways to interact with other music majors was simply by going to the tech lab. A lot of things happen in that lab: doing homework, talking about doing homework, watching YouTube videos to procrastinate doing homework, crying about the culmination of assignments because we were busy watching YouTube videos. But no matter we did or didn’t do, there was always a sense of community.

At the same time, a “church answer” I never implemented into my life was giving God the glory after a performance. Even though I knew that I can do nothing without Him, I still didn’t think He deserved the credit for performing pieces that I spent hours upon hours practicing. Watching so many Olympians in the past week give glory to God has made me feel guilty that I never did the same.

As I reflect on the past two years of my life, I have to count the cost: Is creating more memories, that may or may not compete with the memories I already have, worth further injuring myself? If I feel like God is calling me to full-time ministry, how much longer should I keep pursuing a dream that will end up hurting me, short-term and long-term? What’s the purpose of being goal-oriented if my goals keep me from giving God the glory He deserves?

The funny thing about my condition is that I’m overly flexible. And “flexible” is exactly what I have to be, in regards to my future. I’m not a quitter; I’m an adjuster. My mind doesn’t keep changing; my connective tissue keeps changing.

As a result, I’ve decided to change to a Religion major with a Music minor. Although I obviously would have loved to continue my music degree, I am equally excited about what the Lord has to teach me in the Religion department.

If my identity was solely found in my abilities, then my current condition would cripple me beyond physical means. On the other hand, if my identity was solely found in my disabilities, the same result would occur. Praise the Lord for the new identity He gave me with the gift of salvation!

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

“But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

Just as I counted the cost of following my dreams, I must continue to count the cost of following Jesus. In Luke 14, Jesus addresses the crowd and declares, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” In order to follow Christ, I have to give up my identity as a musician, and as a victim of chronic pain, to receive my new identity as a child of God. After counting the cost of following Jesus, I share the response of Peter: “Lord, there is no one else that we can go to! Your words give eternal life” (John 6:68 CEV).

Paul, in the book of Philippians, expresses similar desires in knowing Christ.

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.”

Philippians 3:7-14, 20-21 (ESV)

I’ve counted up the cost, and now I press on. For His words that give everlasting life are worth more to me than a music degree. More than a predictable future. More than my own life, for He has made me His own. Rather than waiting for my own plans to come about, I await a Savior Who has a better plan for healing than I could ever imagine. I wait for Him, Who will, one day, make my body perfect and complete like His own.