Monday, December 22, 2014

The Prince of Peace

Christmas has always meant different things to different people. As  others have so eloquently shared, it is a time of sharing and making fun memories as we celebrate the birth of our Savior. Annual traditions are important, and it tickles me to see some of our family traditions being passed on in my children's families--like our much anticipated Christmas Eve dinner. A tradition that started in my maternal grandmother's family has been passed down through the generations. We fix seafood dishes, and fun finger foods for everyone to enjoy. My maternal great-grandmother was from Scotland, and a love of seafood has been passed onto her posterity. Christmas Eve became a special time of sharing food that was hard to come by in the small Wyoming farming community where my great-grandmother raised her family. She would be happy to know that this tradition is very much alive and well in our clan.

This year, however, it has been more of a struggle to feel the Christmas Spirit. So many of the people I know and love are struggling with difficult trials. My heart goes out to all of them, and I pray daily that somehow, we'll all make it through these trying latter days.

For example, tomorrow there is a funeral in my husband's family. A cousin has passed away after bravely facing a debilitating illness. We learned yesterday, that a dear friend of my mother's passed away after falling and breaking a hip. Two good friends of mine were recently released from the hospital after enduring challenging surgeries. Others are facing financial setbacks, life-threatening health issues, and all kinds of icky trials that I wouldn't wish on anyone. 

For some, it really doesn't seem like Christmas this year. And yet
 . . . if we understand what this time of year means, it should be a season of peace, regardless of what we're facing. (Note to self: pay attention to this message. I was feeling less than peace yesterday.)  

The birth of our Savior brought hope into the world. His arrival meant that eventually, all of us would be able to return and live with our Father in heaven--thanks to the overwhelming sacrifice our Elder Brother would be making on our behalf. He paved the way so families can be reunited when this life is through--something that can bring comfort to those who have lost loved ones.

His example showed us how we are supposed to treat each other while in mortal mode. It would truly be a much better world if we all followed the precedent He set. He also gave us the precious gift of peace. "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:7) To me, this means that when we are going through heartbreaking moments, we need to remember that we're not alone. The precious gift of peace can be ours, if we so choose--a gift freely given by our Elder Brother.

In my own life, when heartache has descended, the gift of the Comforter has eased that inner pain. "I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you . . .  Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." (John 14:18; 27) I have found this to be very true, and inner peace is treasured gift I seek on a regular basis.

How do we discover this gift when our hearts are on the floor, feeling stomped on by life? It truly is the simple things that open the door to peace. Acts of service seem to help the most. Whenever I'm having an extremely bad day, even though I'm not in a great frame of mind, I have found that when I do something for someone else, even if it's just a phone call to check on them, it eases the pain I feel inside.

Going for a walk to clear my head is also helpful. Eventually I spot something that reminds me of the beauty of this world, and the great gift it is to us. An attitude of gratitude inspires peace.

Searching the scriptures has also brought a ton of peace into my life. I can't tell you how many times I have turned to scriptures that have given me a feeling of hope when I've needed it the most.

Prayer. Plain and simple, heartfelt prayer. I always rise from my knees feeling better than I did when I first knelt down.

Those are the main things that help me through when life throws a curve-ball at my midsection. I still get caught off guard periodically, like the inspiring song that cracked through my fragile walls of defense yesterday (music always manages to pierce through to my heart--in part because it has been such a huge part of my life) but when I follow my formula, I can usually pick myself up, dust myself off, and continue on with peace in my heart, compliments of our Savior.

So this year, as Christmas arrives, pause a moment to consider what the birth of our Savior actually means. Ponder the numerous ways our Elder Brother has touched our lives, and remember that the best gifts are those that come from the heart.

One final scripture that has inspired peace in my life: "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . . For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts . . ." (2 Cor. 4:8-9; 6)


Monday, December 8, 2014

Just Keep Swimming

I was all set to write a blog post this morning, when the phone rang. The news was not good at all. In fact it was terrible news, and not a great way to start the day. I'm currently serving in a brand new Relief Society presidency (I taught my final teen Sunday School class last week) and we're still trying to get the hang of things. Today reminds me of a story a friend once told me about how he learned to swim. An older brother threw him into the lake and it was either sink or swim. Today is one of those days. I suddenly find myself submerged in the middle of a deep lake of emotion and I'm doing my best to attempt a weak form of dog paddle. My head is above the water--barely--but there is hope.

That is what comes to mind this morning. There is always hope, no matter how dark the storm around us might seem. I've probably touched on this theme before, but it seems to be an important thing to remember these days. I believe the adversary is pulling out all of the stops, doing his best to fill hearts with discouragement and despair. How do we counter that tendency?

This is a subject I'm all too familiar with. My entire family felt like we were dropped off in the middle of an ocean of pain when my father died. None of us knew how to swim through the intense emotions of losing a loved one to suicide, but with God's help, we all found a way to do just that.

In the beginning, we learned to take life one day at a time. Sometimes we had to break that down into smaller increments, and coped minute by minute, or hour by hour. It was a basic survival strategy, but it worked. My mother would start her day by thinking, "All I have to do right now, is to get into the shower." Then after that it was, "Now I just have to get dressed." Followed by: "I should probably eat something for breakfast," so on and so forth. And eventually, the difficult day passed by, then the difficult week, month, year, etc.

The advice a beloved bishop told us truly was a life-saver: "Keep busy!" At first, we looked at him and furrowed our collective brows, but there was wisdom in that counsel. Keeping busy helped us get through extremely difficult days. For example, my mother went back to school and earned a degree as a dental assistant. Her busy days of schooling, and then working in a dental office kept her going. We all found varying ways to follow her example.

I stumbled onto the fact that each time I did an act of service for someone else, it chipped away at the the pain I carried inside my heart. It was like a soothing balm. So on really bad days, I looked for ways to help other people, and it helped to get me through that grieving process.

And on the nights I couldn't sleep, I would grab some paper and write out everything I was feeling. Then I shredded those pages into the garbage. I didn't know it, but I found out later on that this is an important form of healing therapy. When my brother majored in psychology in college, he learned that this is a major way to work through a traumatic incident.

It also helped to get together on holidays, and keep things light. One year we basically did an impromptu karaoke concert, dressing up to make fun of the silly songs we selected. We filmed most of our performances that day and that tape has been the source of multiple laughs through the years.

We learned that there were items we had to avoid for a while. For a long time, I couldn't deal with Father's Day programs, music, or talks. The days I tried to endure such things, usually led to crying sessions in the women's restroom, and a massive headache. So on those days, we sometimes gathered as a family (there is strength in numbers) or went for a scenic drive. Eventually that day became easier to tolerate--I even spoke in church on that day a few years later and it was okay. But at first, when the emotional wounds are raw, we don't have to dump salt into them. 

I'm a water person, (ironically) and on bad days, it often helped to simply sit beside a calming creek, river, lake, waterfall, etc. and let the sound of the water soothe my inner pain. I would often make silent mental lists of the good things happening in my life to counter the ugly pain that often surfaced as I sat, doing my best to relax. This form of calming meditation always worked to help me survive.

Physical activity was also important. I would often go for long walks, or get together with a good friend to play racquetball. Activities like these helped to release the angry frustration that goes along with this healing process. I took out the anger I was feeling on that racquetball, or burned it out by walking briskly in the fresh air.It always helped to clear out the mental cobwebs that were forming.

I also had to realize that tears were another important release when dealing with an intense grieving process. I hate crying. It makes my nose run, usually gives me a headache, and makes my eyelids look all puffy. But it serves a purpose. It helps to release some of those intense emotions--it's a safety vent, like on my pressure cooker. That inner steam has to flush out to help us work through the healing process. Tears are an important part of that process. I learned the hard way that keeping everything tucked deep inside is just asking for trouble. Eventually, those tears would come, usually in a public format which was less than desirable, at least for me. I'd rather do my crying in the privacy of my home, not out in front of everybody. ;)

Something a good friend is fond of saying, also comes to mind: "Just keep swimming." Or in other words, never give up! We all have icky days on occasion. It seems to be part of the test of this life. I have found that on those really bad days, it is important to just keep pushing through, knowing that the following day will be better. Because I grew up in a musical family, songs would often pop into mind that sometimes gave me the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other. One in particular, sung by Maureen McGovern, was a favorite boost (The Morning After):

There's got to be a morning after
If we can hold on through the night
We have a chance to find the sunshine
Let's keep on lookin' for the light
Oh, can't you see the morning after
It's waiting right outside the storm
Why don't we cross the bridge together
And find a place that's safe and warm
It's not too late, we should be giving
Only with love can we climb
It's not too late, not while we're living
Let's put our hands out in time
There's got to be a morning after
We're moving closer to the shore
I know we'll be there by tomorrow
And we'll escape the darkness
We won't be searchin' any more

The words to that song, and others, would often pop into my head, lending a much needed emotional balm, just when I needed it most.Was it all coincidence, I don't think so. That's something else to remember, we're never as alone as we sometimes think we are. Heavenly help is all around us, on both sides of the veil. We saw too many miracles in my family to ever think we were on our own. Too many things fell into place for us to ever doubt that we are watched over and helped when we needed it most.

So . . . when we find ourselves flung into deep water--instead of flailing about in a panicked state, or sinking to the bottom, simply take a deep breath (of air) and strive to keep swimming. Eventually we'll reach the shore of peace that we each are seeking. The important thing is to never give up.