Hanukkah Heaven or Hell

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher kiddeshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu, lehadlik ner shel Hanukkah.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, she-asah nissim la-avotaynu bayamim ha-hem bazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.

Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season.

On Wednesday, right in the middle of the eight days of Hanukkah, the retirement home (where I live with Mom) had a traditional Hanukkah feast and celebration during the supper hour.  The two blessings above were recited (in both Hebrew and English) as the candles were lit.  It was beautiful, and I was grateful to have been part of the celebration.  The Jewish people here have been very kind about all the Christmas decorations and music—much of which is of a religious nature.  Nan told me: “I’m surprised that you would want to be here for this,” because she knows I’m a Christian missionary, and she also knows that I usually skip the evening meal.  “Well,” I replied, “Hanukkah is the celebration of a miracle.  I believe that we should always celebrate miracles!”  She smiled her agreement.  Nan and some of the other Jewish ladies had shared their recipes with the chef.  The resulting meal was delicious, though he’d had to prepare kugel instead of latkes because he doesn’t have a frying pan.

However this happy day didn’t have a happy start.  Mom and I returned from shopping to find a fire truck, an ambulance, two police cars, and a police department truck marked “Forensic Investigation” in the driveway.  Ambulances are not an uncommon sight here, nor are fire trucks, but the police vehicles are.  When we asked what the police vehicles were about, Jan, a kitchen worker told us: “One of the residents, a young woman wheelchair-bound by MS, had died in the night of an overdose.  They suspect suicide.”  We hadn’t known her, but we were saddened all the same.  She was young (only 42) and she had a fourteen year old daughter.

MS is a terrible, cruel disease that robs the body of strength and paralyzes, leaving the mind intact, eventually killing the person.  One person here actually applauded her for taking her life, and said that when her end is near, she intends to do the same.

I wrestled with the question: if it is kind to put a suffering animal down, why not a suffering human?  When I took this question to God, however, I felt a holy anger rising up within my spirit.  And with it the thought: God is the Author of Life, so killing (even yourself) puts you in league with the author of death—the devil, himself.  And on further thought, I realized that suicide is the ultimate expression of faithlessness, cowardice, and unbelief.

This was a hard realization for me, having lost two people I love to suicide this year: my ex-father-in-law and a dear lifelong family friend.

The last two years of my marriage I suffered severe depression.  The worst symptom—far worse than only sleeping one hour a night—was constant thoughts of suicide.  From the moment I woke until I finally fell asleep, I was bombarded with suicidal thoughts.  I would be in the bathroom and wonder how much of various medications it would take to overdose.  Or I would be in the kitchen and linger over the choice of knives for chopping onions, thinking about which would be the best for cutting my throat.  Or I would look out the window at the barn and wonder if there was a rope I could hang myself with—or a hose I could duct-tape to the muffler and gas myself with.

On and on and on, all day these thoughts tormented me.  I started reading books about positive thinking, but they didn’t help.  My prayers were stillborn, having died before they even started the long journey from my brain to my mouth.  So I mutely searched for God, finding only more misery.  The most innocent and normal things would start the flow of tears: a bird flying by the window or a pretty sunset.  I read and wrote obsessively just to keep the bad thoughts at bay, but they came anyway.  Our landlady’s dog became my dearest companion.  He would sit with me for hours.  I think he sensed the trouble in my spirit.

Our apartment was over the garage, and one day I went down to the garage and put my key in the ignition of our car.  I was going to kill myself and my husband, too (he was busy working on the computer in the room above me).  But instead of turning the key, I pulled the phone out of my pocket and dialed 911.  I told the operator what I was about to do.  He said to go to the County Mental Health Office immediately, and said that they would be waiting for me.  I did, and the doctor there gave me a prescription for Prozac.

When the Prozac finally kicked in, it helped a lot.  I was still in a lot of pain, but instead of raw pain, it was manageable.  The Prozac gave me back a degree of perspective, which helped me to find the strength to leave my abusive marriage.

These memories are so painful that it has taken me nearly a week to write about all this.  In the meantime there was the shooting of twenty school children in Connecticut.  The rampage ended as many of these do, with the suicide of the shooter—proving the diabolical link with suicide.  This was difficult to write, but now that I’ve done it I feel better.  Although suicide would have instantly ended my misery, it would have just started the misery for all the people who love me.  In the midst of depression it’s difficult to see that people actually love you.

To anyone feeling depressed and/or suicidal I say: be strong and courageous.  Get help.  And no matter how bad today is, tomorrow will be better.  Hang on!  God is good!

My Troublesome Self

Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.  1 Peter 4:12-13

Greetings from Asheville, North Carolina!

Asheville is up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Bellavista, Mom’s retirement residence, is built into the side of a hill.  Because of its placement in the hillside, parking is frequently an issue, especially during holidays when family members come to visit.

When I’m in the US, I live here at Bellavista with Mom, which is a very good arrangement for both of us.  There are a lot of nice people at Bellavista.  In fact, the majority of the people here are very nice, indeed, and Mom and I are friends with almost all of them.  But there are also a few cranks.

One in particular is always crabbing at me for this or that.  Yesterday he accosted me in the dining room and told me: “You parked in my parking place!  You’re young and healthy, and you should park at the top of the hill and leave these parking places for the people who don’t get around so well.”

The management has said again and again that there are no assigned parking spaces here, and of course, I hadn’t parked in a handicapped space.  I often drive Mom’s car, but I never park in a handicapped space if she is not in the car with me.  Plus this man walks without assistance, not even a cane, so mobility is not the real issue for him.  But rather than point that out to him, I just said, “Sorry, I didn’t know that it was your space.”

This man’s crankiness is famous throughout Bellavista.  Mom and another friend sat at a table by the fireplace in the dining room once, and he told her: “We always sit here.”  Knowing that there are no assigned tables, Mom smiled and said, “Well, have a seat!”  That, of course, made him furious and he went to sit at another table

When I told her about the parking thing, Mom went and asked the director for clarification.  The director confirmed that there are no assigned parking spaces, but that priority goes to residents—of which I am one.  Mom turned to me and said: “We’re not moving the car!”  So the car stayed where it was, close to the front door, overnight.

When I woke up this morning, my spirit spoke to me about what Jesus would do in this situation.  I knew:  Jesus would have parked at the top of the hill to begin with, being always considerate of others.  But I don’t want it to look like I’m catering to his bossy demands.  I knew that I should immediately move the car, but I didn’t want him to get that parking spot, hoping that someone else would get it, instead.

As I struggled with myself, I realized that the problem isn’t the cranky old man.  The problem is me.  Two years ago when I was back in Milan after a three year absence, I quickly became reacquainted with how rude people in the big city can be.  In particular, it seemed like more and more people were pushing to get onto buses and subway cars, without first letting passengers get off.  So I started gently pushing people out of my way when they tried to get on while I was getting off, grumbling to myself all the while.  Then the Holy Spirit told me: “It’s not your job to teach people manners.  You need to be an Ambassador of Christ, even in these situations.”

Remembering that lesson from Milan, I realized that it’s also not my job to teach manners to this man, but to be an Ambassador of Christ.  And what that means is to die to self.  The trouble with self is that I’ve lived with myself for such a long time.  I like myself.  I like getting my own way.  But getting my own way is often in direct conflict with obedience.

Obedience requires that I die to myself, pick up my cross daily and follow Jesus Christ.  I’ve been a Christian for 45 years, and I still struggle with selfish desires.  After all these years, I know that self dies hard.  Self dies one of those opera deaths—you know, the kind that keeps singing for another ten minutes, flopping and flailing about on the stage.  And just when you think it’s really dead, it comes back for an encore and another ten minute song.