Brian Cole: 'In. Out. Repeat.'
Once again I would like to share a message from Carla Ward. Carla is one of our Crossroads Outreach volunteers, she does jail ministry, and also runs our support group at Crossroads Outreach for the families of addicts. Most of all, Carla is a great friend with a huge heart and is a spectacular writer. Here is her latest message:
“A dear friend is suffering. While serving a life sentence in prison, he has become a very mature Christian. It’s this connecting point that is the sole/soul focus of our friendship. In most of our interactions (phone, mail and an occasional prison visit) he is upbeat and positive, manifesting the blessings of our devoted God. Recently he has fallen into defeat – barren and broken. The desperation precedes his words. The void of laughter reveals his floundering soul. I can hear the reverberating absence of joy. We have prayed and reviewed Scripture together. Today I sensed God whispering to simply share in my friend’s pain by telling him of a previously dark time in my life. I felt He was asking me to just tell a story of personal suffering. My letter follows.”
“My treasured friend, I know that you are struggling and that you are depleted in every way. I wish I had the perfect reply to lift you up and repair the cracks of your wounded soul. What I can offer is the reminder of the promise of a Savior who knows how it feels to be abandoned, to feel alone with very personal pain, and to suffer the separation from his home and most beloved.
I don’t know the depths of your pain and I can’t begin to imagine the endurance required to live each day in prison, year after year without the promise of freedom. But I do understand the dark place of existence described as “Failure to Thrive”. It’s a medical term usually reserved for new born babies who fail, for unknown reasons, to maintain their weight. They are languishing, mal-nourished, breathing just enough to take in the bare minimum of oxygen to sustain them. It’s a real condition often without a medical solution.
At the darkest time of my life, my single focus every day was to remember to breathe. I felt as if my lungs had shrunk and could no longer take in enough air to keep me alive. You know… that slow, low, shallow breathing that allows you to survive being present in the world, hopefully with no one ever noticing that you exist. All I desired was just enough air to seek the next breath, but not enough air to completely fill my lungs. I didn’t want to thrive. I didn’t want to be noticed, tended to, counted or sought after. I didn’t want to die. I just didn’t want to feel alive.
I felt that I was made of a fine, powdery, delicate dust and that any movement of air within or around me would disrupt the particles of my being and that I would disintegrate. I would dissipate into the air and cease to exist. Would anyone even notice? To ensure my survival, I thought that I needed to control my breath – every inhale, every exhale, the pace and the intensity, every day, all day, every moment. It was exhausting to have conversations with others because it required mental energy that I needed to reserve to concentrate on breathing. My life had caved in around me to a point where I did not recognize myself and my only goal was to breathe as imperceptibly, as shallowly as possible. Anything more than that was too much. The world was too much – a forceful pressure that threatened to collapse my lungs from the outside. A corset tied too tightly at the angry hand of a vengeful servant. Laughter wasn’t an option. Tears would have drowned me, then making the need for breathing pointless. It’s not that I wanted to die. It’s that I was afraid to be alive. Afraid of the pain, the fear, the uncertainty. I wanted to live. But I wanted to be unseen, unnoticed, undisrupted. I was crawling on my belly in an existence so puny that my only ambition was to control and diminish my breathing.
Sleep was a two-faced relative. We needed each other, but it was unpredictable and threatening. All I wanted to do was sleep, but it meant giving up control of my breathing. I would have to surrender to the powers of the night and that rarely ended well. Frequently I had dreams that I was suffocating. I was lying at the bottom of a deep well. I could see light through the opening, so I knew there would be air. But no one knew I was there. I dreamed of measuring my breath in case the air in the well ran out. The entire dream was grey – the well, the light, my clothing, my lifeless body not wanting to feel the cool grey concrete below me because it placed me at risk of feeling something. Breathing slow, cool, grey breaths I was safe if no one passing by closed the cover on the well. When the sliver of light from above invariably disappeared, my source of air was being stolen and I would wake up gasping for air.
Sleep became tortuous. At night the gasping became violent, as if my body was an angry warrior trying to reclaim the oxygen I was depriving it of during the day. All that control I was exercising during the day was backfiring after-hours when I needed to rest. I rarely remember dreams. But these desperate dreams haunt me still, years later. There was one that occurred at a specific place I have driven past hundreds of times since childhood to the present. At the intersection of highways 63 and 2 sits a small trailer park. Never has it stood out for me or ever had any significance. I’ve never spent a minute of time there, other than to pass by. One night however, I woke in a panic, unable to breathe. Gasping and convulsing to fill my lungs, I was startled out of a nightmare that to this day feels real. I had been on a sled – an elongated plastic sled - alone on a snowy path. The colors were grey – grey lighting, grey snow, and the grey absence of other people. Alone again, desperate. I was sliding with force along a slick snowy path, heading downward into an enclosed, tightly packed snow tunnel. I was flat on my back with no room to move and not even enough air for me to scream. No one was around for miles. There I was – failing to thrive – encased in a downward, spiraling snow-tunnel and no one was around to see or help or care. I was progressively having the life sucked out of me in my sleep, in my waking hours, in my every moment day or night.
The irony is that the one thing I was subconsciously trying to control – my breathing – is the very thing that God has intricately, masterfully, perfectly already taken care of. Our bodies naturally intake, process, and expel air. He designed us so that we would breathe without having to think about it. And yet there I was, for a long time, painfully preoccupied with trying to control this process. At that time in my life I did not have a mature relationship with Jesus. I had begun seeking him but didn’t yet understand who He was for me.
My friend, I do not know the depth of your suffering. But I know that it is real. We cannot function when we allow our circumstances to reduce us to the place of fear that keeps us from breathing. I know in your own unique story, that’s where you are. Lifeless, joyless and gasping for air. God may allow us to sit in that desperate and delicate place of fear – of soul-languishing. But it’s not where he wants to keep us. He breathes for you. He sustains you. He wants you to thrive, right where you are. The apostle Paul was the voice of Confident Hope. My confident hope for you is that you can muster the courage each day to endure, and slowly as you are able, to overcome. Courageously breathe – fully, deeply, purposefully. Courageously allow God to cover what He already covers for you. Courageously acknowledge the long suffering, the fear, the desperation. He’s IN IT with you. He’s right there, my brother. One breath at a time, He will sustain you. One day at a time, He will nourish you.
I love you and I care about your dark heart right now. I don’t have easy answers, but I know that you are loved by a God who desires that you THRIVE – in Him, by Him, for Him. When you are this barren, it is not your job to bear fruit. It’s your job to sink your feet into the soil where you are nourished. Abide by the river and He will sustain you and flourish you in His perfect timing. I know the desperation of feeling that Thriving is unattainable. Begin by breathing – it’s the pre-requisite for Flourishing. Be gentle with yourself. Even if you can’t recall a single verse in Scripture or a single promise that God has made to you, commit to allowing Him to guide your breath. We have a God who meets us where we are, even when we’re barely breathing, face down in a dark grey well of desperation.
Jeremiah 29:11 is often used as a message of hope and flourishing. But without the rest of the story around it, it’s an incomplete message. Jeremiah is preparing the exiles for a long stretch of time in Babylon. He is telling them to build, plant, eat, have relationships, grow, increase in numbers, live, breathe, thrive. “Call on me. Seek me. Find me.” He reproaches them for not listening. This is less a chapter about desperation than it is a chapter of endurance. God had plans for them – His timing. And they were told, “It will be a long time”. But he also calls you to do as the exiles and live your life, where you are with what you have while you wait for what has been promised. He wants you to seek peace and prosperity in the “city” where He has carried you. Carried you – the perfect gesture of a loving Father who understands your frailty. He comes to you. And when you don’t have an ounce of strength to reach for Him, focus on your breath and your heartbeat. These are the physical evidences of God in an otherwise spiritually dead body.
Breathe even when it hurts. Don’t do like I did by stifling it. Feel it. Feel what’s burdening you. Fill up your lungs with air and hold it. Then let it go and do it again. You’re an athlete – you know how critical breathing is to fuel the rest of your body. Close your eyes and visualize the next deep, full breath filling you up and sustaining you. Let it go slowly and feel it – really feel it – releasing itself. Breathe. Exhale. Repeat.
Trust God’s authority and plan to take you through this tough, temporary place of suffering right now. It’s a crude existence that cries out for rescue. You know that He’s going to use this place of pain for His good. With or without our permission, He uses our stories and our heartaches! Also trust that He is preparing you and rebuilding you by doing what He does with absolute perfection… breathing new life into you. “
In. Out. Repeat.