Category : Suffering

Philip Kromer / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Faith, Grace, Lent, Life, Passion, Scripture, Spirituality, Suffering
2

How Are You?

Ironically, for as difficult as it is in this time of social distancing, isolation, and quarantine, at least we’re all in it together.

Be reassured: No one knows how to do this. No one knows what they’re doing. We’re all figuring it out together.

In my last two posts, I talked about needing to Reevaluate Lent and my decision to Be Real and Have Hope (with key insights from the story of the Raising of Lazarus). So here’s me being real: I’ve been going through a difficult time and things have been hard.

Here’s Me Being Real

About 9 months ago, I wrote about my son suffering 2nd degree burns. Five weeks later, I wrote one follow-up post. But nothing else because… it was just too much. It was just too hard.

While in the Pediatric ICU, the doctors said 2nd degree burns heal within 2-3 weeks. So, 2-3 weeks is what we mentally geared ourselves up for.

It was actually 3 months of daily wound care and intense restrictions. The most severe 2nd degree burns (“deep partial-thickness”) take longer to heal and leave thick, raised scars, which need another 18 months of care, including wearing compression garments for 23 hours a day. It was a lot. It took a toll on everyone, in every way.

Believe me: I’m not complaining. All you need to do is walk into any floor of Shriner’s Pediatric Burn Hospital to have every possible complaint in your life be put into perspective.

However, this was—and still is—our reality. And quite honestly, it was hard… really, really hard.

How Are You?

When we see people out and about, most of us greet each other with, “Hi! How are you?” Generally, Americans subconsciously intend this to be a surface-level, friendly greeting. Generally, in the aisles of the supermarket, we are not inquiring about the status of a person’s mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. It’s not to say that we don’t actually care about each other. It’s just… usually, if we’re genuinely interested and aware that the standard answers of “good,” “fine,” or “alright,” aren’t actually the expected answer, we’ll lean-in and give permission to be truthful with something akin to, “No, really; how are you?”

For a long time, my honest answer wasn’t, “Good!” It wasn’t even, “Fine,” (which my mother considers to be a four-letter word). For a long time, I was struggling. And my personal integrity was taking a hit by answering with anything less than the truth – because things were just so hard. Eventually, I settled on a non-answer, “Hey! Good to see you!” or with a swivel, “Busy! How about you?”

The lenten promise to Be Real was born out of this struggle. For the sake of my sanity and integrity (aka—mental and spiritual health), I eventually decided I would be real with anyone I knew would want to know… whether they were prepared for it or not. I had a lot of conversations that started with me stumbling over expressing the truth: “Good! No. Actually, I’m not good. Things are hard.”

Speaking Truth

When I started “being real” and speaking the truth, I started to open the door to unexpected love and grace.

No. Wait. Actually, a caveat: Not everyone is entitled to know the truth. And frankly, not everyone can handle the truth.

you-cant-handle-the-truth

No joke. Some people are really bad at this.

But more often than not, I found support, love, and compassion. Sometimes I’d lay out my truth with a voice-quivering, “Things are hard.” Then I’d purse my lips and shake my head—tears might fall—and I’d whisper, “Can’t talk about it. Pray. How are you?”

Speaking truth opened the door to community; I wasn’t so alone.

Yes. This is hard.

We are all struggling with this “new normal” (which is hard), for an undetermined amount of time (which is—speaking from experience here—really, really hard).

It’s been a relief to hear more and more people being real and acknowledging that this is hard.

Acknowledging that this is hard doesn’t mean you’re complaining. Nor does it mean you’re lacking in faith or trust in God.

Take a look at the exchange between Jesus and Peter in Matthew 16, right after the big question “Who do you say that I am?” (v.15) and Peter’s profound confession of faith. This is when Jesus begins to get real with the disciples, predicting the his suffering and death (v.21).

When Jesus speaks these difficult truths, he’s not complaining. He’s not lacking in faith or trust in God.

In fact, it’s Peter who lacks faith and trust in the one whom he just confessed to be the Messiah! Peter refuses to hear the difficult truth and rebukes Jesus: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Mt 16:22).

Jesus has no tolerance for telling himself (and others) a lie that will make everybody feel better. Because although the pain and suffering of the Passion and Death will be hard, that is not the end of the story. (More on that another day.)

We’re all in this together

There is tremendous grace in hearing others being real and speaking truth. We’re reminded that we’re not alone. We’re reminded that we’re not doing it wrong. And in the broken Body of Christ, we’re reminded that our Savior is with us in our suffering, present to us through one another.

  • Is there someone you can call (old-school phone or Zoom) and be real about the things you’re finding most difficult right now?
  • Really. How are you?

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Raising of Lazarus Van Gogh via flickr
Divine Providence, Evil, Grace, Hope, Lent, Passion, Scripture, Suffering, Transformation
1

Being Real, Having Hope, and Lazarus

The other day, I talked about the need to reevaluate lent. The lenten practice that I’ve found really helpful, especially in this time of pandemic, is both being real and having hope, understanding that it’s important to do both together. It’s a practice that the Scripture story of the “Raising of Lazarus” has really helped me understand and practice.

Being Real and Having Hope

By “be real,” I mean to courageously acknowledge the truth of what is going on – in the world, in my community, and in my home – which includes honestly accounting for feelings, whether anxiety and sadness or laughter and love. Therein, it’s the humility to be real with both joys and sorrows… with both success and struggle… with both death and Resurrection… with myself, with others (including my kids) and with God.

By “have hope,” I mean to continually have faith in the transforming power of God in the Paschal Mystery. To hope is to both trust in God and to actively cooperate with God’s grace. Hope is a bit of an elusive virtue for many of us. We tend to take it to one of two unhelpful extremes, with either too much reliance on self (while lacking trust in God) or too much professed reliance on God (without bothering to discern how God may be calling us to cooperate with grace).

Hope Virtue with Extremes

I need to, I want to, and I have to do both: be real and have hope. To only focus on one without the other leads to more unhealthy extremes: negativity-and-panic… or saccharine-sweet-rainbow-unicorns. (Read more about the virtue of hope here.)

The Raising of Lazarus

The Gospel for the 5th Sunday in Lent, the Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45), speaks to both “being real” and “having hope.”

Jesus receives word from his good friends, Martha and Mary that their brother Lazarus is ill. But instead of rushing off, Jesus curiously stays where he is for two more days. By the time they arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. First Martha (v.21) and then Mary (v.32) each greet Jesus by, saying If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

How many times have we similarly lamented, “Why? Why didn’t God do something to stop this?” Even now, amid the Coronavirus pandemic, how many of us have wondered “Why has God allowed this to happen?!”

In The Passion and the Cross, Ronald Rolheiser, OMI redirects our “Whys?” simply and succinctly: Because our God is a fellow-sufferer and a Redeemer, not a Rescuer.

“God doesn’t ordinarily intervene to save us from humiliation, pain, and death; rather, he redeems humiliation, pain, and death after the fact” (38).

Honestly articulating our questions and struggles directly to Jesus is being real, but Martha and Mary don’t stop there. They don’t just speak their sorrow. Immediately following her lament, “If you had been here…” Martha models having hope: “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you” (John 11:22).

And Jesus. Even though he knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, we find Jesus deeply troubled by the reality of the situation. It’s here that we read the shortest verse in all of Scripture, “And Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Talk about being real with emotion!

Having hope in a God who Redeems (not rescues) means that things might not unfold as we would expect. Things certainly didn’t unfold the way Martha and Mary expected. Nor did things unfold the way the disciples expected following the Crucifixion.

Having hope in a God who Redeems means we are open to goodness and grace – especially when we least expect it!

(More on that in the next post!)

  • Are you able to be real and have hope about your joys and sorrows in the midst of all that is going on? (Or do you find yourself going to unhelpful extremes?)
  • Do you expect God to be a rescuer?

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Houston, TX, September 21, 2005- Traffic jammed the freeways as Houstonians fled the on-coming hurricane.   Recent memories of Hurricane Katrina sent people scrambling to prepare for Hurricane Rita.  Photo by Ed Edahl/FEMA
Faith, Suffering, Transformation
2

You are still on the fastest route.

When first I started commuting into town, Google Maps guided me with directions.  After a few days, the routine was ingrained, and I began to appreciate her insight on traffic.

I mean traffic. No one likes it; everyone hates it. But if you’re going to drive, you have to deal with it… much like the reality of suffering in life.

Google Maps helps me deal with insufferable traffic.

Google Maps

I appreciate knowing how long the delay will last and whether or not there are any better alternatives. When she says, “There is an accident ahead; you can save 20 minutes by taking an another route,” I will always click ACCEPT! Who wouldn’t?

Who wants to suffer through traffic, when they don’t have to?

However, sometimes there aren’t any better alternatives. “You are in a 13-minute delay. You are still on the fastest route.

You are still on the fastest route. Hear that affirmation. Release the angst. Stop wasting energy trying to find another way around it.

You are still on the fastest route. Thank you, Google Maps. I’ll claim the confidence that there’s nothing I can do differently—that I am doing the best I can. And with that, I can patiently wait.

Occasionally, when I doubt her wisdom, when I just can’t stand it any longer, convinced I know better, I try some back roads. More often than not, that fails. Nothing is gained, and sometimes my impatience even costs more time.

Suffering is a lot like that. Sometimes there is an alternative and we should take it. (I mean – within reason. Google Maps won’t suggest illicit maneuvers, after all!) But other times — like when you unexpectedly lose a job or a loved one, or a traumatic illness or accident leads to months of care — there’s nothing you can do differently. It just takes time. You are still on the fastest route. Just keep inching forward. Trust. And be patient.

Our God is a Redeemer who takes our pain and suffering – no matter how long, no matter how hard – and redeems them. It just takes time. You are still on the fastest route. Just keep inching forward. Trust. And be patient.

Also, when the backseat passengers start with the unsolicited advice to take those back roads (bless their hearts – they don’t know), tell them Google Maps said “You are still on the fastest route.

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Mama Bear kragenbar-2448071
Grace, Prayer, Spirituality, Suffering
0

Courage, Grace, and Mama Bear

Today marks 5 weeks and 4 days since Alex was burned by boiling water at Scout Camp. His healing process has been remarkable; he’s now off all medications and continues to clean and care for his wounds at home. The next healing benchmark that we’re working towards is permission to swim (and enjoy a postponed 13th birthday pool party). There are a few more stories about tremendous experiences of grace that I have wanted to write about, but haven’t yet.

And then today, Alex boiled water to make pasta for himself and Max for lunch, for the first time since the accident.

“Were you nervous?” I asked.

“Yes!” Both Alex and Max intoned together.

Yes, they were. But they did it anyway. The virtue of courage isn’t being fearless; it’s following through with responsible action despite acknowledging fears.

So. It’s difficult for me to tell this story, but inspired by my courageous 13 year-old and 11 1/2 year-old sons, I’m going to do it anyway.

Five weeks ago today we had Alex’s first outpatient wound care appointment, called the “Tub Room.”

Cleaning the burns is critical to the healing process, and it’s just as excruciating as it sounds. For this reason, great attention is given to pain management. I followed the instructions I was given: to bring the prescription bottle of Vicodin along with us and await the medical staff’s instructions to take it precisely 30 minutes before the Tub Room appointment was to begin.

I remembered this process from my sister’s experience. It was called the Tank Room, and it happened 28 years ago, but it remains as the yardstick against which I measure excruciating pain.

As I reached out to my friends and family for prayer support, I petitioned Mary the Mother of God to give me the strength to stand by my son through this. I imagined her watching her Son carrying his Cross.

Mary 4th Station

Mother Mary, give me the strength.

First, we met with the Clinic (outpatient care team) who checked on Alex’s pain management. In addition to explaining the procedure, they identified the pain management options Alex had available to him should he need. Informed and grateful, we headed down to the PICU floor, and waited for his turn. We followed everything we were told to do; Alex took his Vicodin exactly when directed, and we entered the Tub Room.

Alex lay on the table – or “Tub,” which was a metal table with sides that folded up. As the tech took his dressings off and we got our first look at the healing wounds, the air hitting his skin started to hurt. A lot. It felt better to have the warm water running over them, so as I was allowed to assist, I maneuvered the water best I could.

Mary, give me the strength to stand with my son, as you stood with yours.

Mary way-of-the-cross-2654403_1920

As the tech began to wipe down his burns, Alex arched his back and turned red as he screamed in pain.

Immediately, he stuttered a request for the “lollipop” of Fentanyl (morphine) that the Clinic had offered us.

Immediately, the tech stopped…

But somehow, there was a miscommunication.

Instead of having immediate access to the painkiller, an order for the prescription had to be placed… and we needed to wait. Instead of the lollipop taking effect immediately, we were told it would take another 30 minutes to work… and we needed to wait.

The pain of the air hitting the newly forming skin had Alex screaming for water to be run over his legs. The tech was telling Alex, “You need to calm down…” again and again.

At first I argued logically; “This wasn’t what they told us to expect.”

“That’s not the way it works. You need to calm down.”

“Please, just cover my burns…” My child was red-faced, pleading, screaming in pain, and waiting was only prolonging it.

I don’t entirely know how much time passed, but eventually I went “Mama-Bear.” But instead of biting her head off, I pulled on the courage of Mother Mary, grasped at every ounce of grace, and firmly demanded: “Just. Finish. Cover his wounds like he’s asking.”

I held his head and his hands as he screamed. And I didn’t lose it.

I stood by my son.

Eventually it was over. He was rebandaged, and we scheduled our next Tub Room appointment three days later, on Friday.

Horrific.

That was the only word I could use to describe our experience.

As we drove home, we talked. Unthinkable pain for Alex – worse than the day of the accident itself. Undoubtedly the worst day of either of our lives.

The reality was that we had to do it again in three days. And he was scared. As was I.

“I promise you it will be different. You will never have that kind of experience that again. Not only will you have the proper amounts of pain-killer, that tech won’t be anywhere near us ever again.” (Mama-bear, indeed.)

Rewind back to the day after the accident, while we were still in the PICU, Alex initially gave a polite “no thanks” to my offer of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

“It’s not just asking for the grace of physical healing from Jesus, Anointing of the Sick also offers a spiritual strengthening for the journey ahead.”

“Yeah, I know. No thanks.”

Fast forward to the car ride home from that first Tub Room appointment, stopped at the light, waiting to turn on to the highway, I asked again.

“Yes,” he replied, without hesitation. And then he drifted off to sleep.

After we got home, I called my pastor and arranged for Alex to receive Anointing before his next Tub Room appointment. I also called the hospital and spoke to the managers of two different departments, and by the grace of God managed to communicate clearly without becoming completely unglued. I was listened to… I felt heard… and by the end of the second phone call, I felt less anxious and more confident.

It would have been very easy to yell and scream under the guise of “Mama-Bear,” aptly named because it’s recognized as that instinctive force that takes over a mother protecting her child.  Apparently the intercession of Mary makes it possible to Mama-Bear with grace. I have renewed respect for Mary and a deep appreciation for the strength, courage, and grace it must have taken for Mary to stand by her Son.

The next day, both Max and I were able to join Fr. Wencil in praying over Alex as he was Anointed – on his forehead and hands. And as promised, that Sacramental grace along with my Mama-Bear phone calls managed to render a better medicated Tub Room experience that looked more like a sleepy spa day.

Alex Tub Room 2

Though there isn’t a sacrament to anoint the Mothers of the Sick, Mary is always available for intercession. There are also tearful hugs with friends (and wine and chocolate)… all of which I also took full advantage.

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Barren tree in field
Calling, Faith, Spirituality, Suffering
0

Depression and Spirituality

I struggle with depression.

It’s hard to talk about this –this depression thing– because a lot of assumptions, judgments, silence, and well-meaning-but-misguided comments can be really damaging to a person who is already fragile and broken and overly-sensitive from fighting depression.

Right now, I’m doing really well.  Right now, the depression is under control and manageable.  So in some ways, right now is a good time for me to talk about it… because I’m not feeling so fragile.

More importantly, for the third time in the past year, I have been confidentially approached by a friend who struggles with this same life-sucking-beast… Each of these friends sheepishly ask if they are properly reading between the lines; do I struggle?  And each time, I cry with them as I say yes.  And I’m so sorry.  Because it sucks so bad.

I don’t want to be the poster child for depression, in part because everyone’s experience is so very different…  In part because declaring this to the nameless-faceless internet world makes me vulnerable in a way that I don’t particularly enjoy…

But my heart aches for those who suffer in silence and solitude.  I do want to share some “wisdom” I have gained along the way, and if it offers you hope, then it’s worth the risk.

For people that don’t understand depression, the first thing they want to know is why?  Why are you sad?  What’s wrong?  Clinical depression means that there is no good reason.

There are times in my life when a real crisis has prompted depression – sometimes there is a reason.  I’ve heard that called “situational depression.”  But the most confusing part for me was the time in my life when everything was beyond-my-wildest-dreams good, but I was not happy.  I had actually transitioned from a not-great situation into a phenomenal one.

I had two babies under two in an area with no family, little community, and hardly any close friends.  Then my husband got a new job with a great relocation package to an area that was a reasonable drive to my family.  We sold our home in 10 days for full asking price.  I landed a job working from home, writing for a textbook publisher.  After looking at 45 homes in 4 days, we chose one that was a perfect fit for our family and had a lot more space at a lot less cost than our last one.  A mere 6 weeks after we moved in, Hurricane Ike hit.  We were in the mandatory evacuation zone, but with my family in Austin, we had a free place to stay, and the 60 foot pine tree fell away from the house.  Upon returning from evacuation, I started writing and had the world’s greatest part-time nanny.  Instead of contributing a couple of features to the textbook series, I developed the prototype for the teacher’s editions and went on to be a primary author.  My husband was loving, supportive, and helpful in real, concrete ways.  I joined a MOMS Club and befriended a great group of women and their children.  My life was full of goodness.

And instead of being happy, the stress broke me.

You know that expression, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle?”  Well, I broke.  It was just too much stress, and I spiraled into the deep, dark negativity of depression.  In my depression, I believed every negative thought that crossed my mind.

  • No one likes you.  They’re just being “nice.” 
  • Every time you lose your temper and yell at these beautiful kids, you prove what a horrible mother you are.  
  • Your husband is going to get sick of your [stuff]. 
  • Pretty soon the textbook publisher is going to realize what a fraud you are.
  • Everything is out of control, and it’s all your fault because you can’t handle it.

That’s the thing about depression; it lies to you about what an awful, inadequate person you are.  And you believe it.

I was just empty – except all the frustration I felt at every little thing, especially myself.  My life was devoid of joy, while I was the mother to two loving, excited, exuberant, exhausting little boys, which made me feel even worse about myself.  My marriage suffered when I finally admitted how I felt and just lay on the couch.  After meeting deadlines and taking care of the kids’ basic needs, I didn’t even have the energy.  For anything.

The depression impacted my spirituality in ways that are hard to explain.  I used to feel connected to God, but in the midst of depression, nothing I did in prayer or worship helped… nothing was connecting for me.  It all felt like going through the motions.  When your job is to write about faith–when your profession is “religious educator”–and you’re not feeling connected to God at all, it’s kind of a problem.

In my book, Continuing the Journey, Chapter 11 is about “Spiritual Crisis.”  What constitutes a spiritual crisis –much like depression– is different for different people.  Essentially, a spiritual crisis is when you are going through a rough patch spiritually.  From “Why is this happening God?!” to “Where are you God!?” and everything in-between.  It’s the desert experiences in the landscape of spirituality… It’s when we earnestly pray, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Psalm 22:1).   Not everyone who goes through a spiritual darkness is in a depression, but for me, there was definitely overlap.  In my book, I noted that several well-known and influential people in the Christian tradition have struggled with this spiritual darkness, or what is often called “the dark night of the soul.”

  • “St. John of the Cross is credited with the expression “dark night of the soul.”  In 1577, John was abducted, imprisoned, and tortured for his part in working on reforms to the Carmelite Order.  While in prison, John composed the poem Dark Night of the Soul.
  • St. Teresa of Ávila was a close friend and contemporary of St. John of the Cross.  After unexpectedly healing from a serious illness and professing great devotion to St. Joseph, Teresa began struggling so deeply with spiritual darkness that she stopped praying for nearly two years.
  • C.S. Lewis wrote about his spiritual darkness in A Grief Observed.  After years as an author, theologian, and expert in Christian apologetics, Lewis married his longtime friend Joy, who died of cancer only four years after they wed.
  • Mother Teresa experienced a spiritual darkness that lasted for decades, which began shortly after she founded the Missionaries of Charity and started her work with the poor.” (Continuing the Journey, 47)

Reflecting on the idea that saints and holy people alike have struggled with the dark night of the soul gave me tremendous hope.  If they struggled with this emptiness, maybe it wasn’t a sign of my inadequacy and weakness… but rather maybe it was just a part of my story.

So getting back to my story: with the help of a really good therapist, the right anti-depressant, spiritual direction… and a lot of patience, and I came through it.

It took a few tries to get the right anti-depressant.  The first one numbed me… it was better that I wasn’t feeling so negative, but I also wasn’t feeling joy.  The second one worked for a bit… until it didn’t.  The third one was the charm.  While I worked with a psychiatrist to tinker with the right dosage of the right medication to get the chemicals in my brain to behave, I took the opportunity to work with a great counselor.  She helped me differentiate between what was real and what was my skewed interpretation of things courtesy of depression.

Depression lies.  It makes you not trust your own judgment.  It makes you feel like you deserve the negativity and emptiness.  Counselors can help you wade through this before, during and after the medication takes effect.

Counselors can also help you identify the warning signs of depression.  And triggers.  For me, stress triggers depression.

Last spring and summer, I worked my tail off to finish writing and publish my book.  Without money for childcare, I wrote about half of the book after the boys finished their school year.  That was extremely stressful.  And the depression came back.

As difficult as it was to admit that the depression was back, as difficult as it was to manage the stress, as difficult as it was to function, this time there were a few differences.

We had houseguests–a very special family of houseguests–in late-May.  As per my depression, everything annoys and frustrates me.   In this case, I had been annoyed and frustrated that one of these very special houseguests (“H”) was blowing off quality time visiting.  Now I knew that H struggles with anxiety and depression, but I hadn’t realized that when H would leave for large chunks of time to “go on a walk,” it was to work out the extra energy that accompanied the anxiety.  I was humbled.  And impressed by how insightful and courageous it was for H to prioritize self-care.  Because in the end, doing so made H a better parent, spouse, sibling, and friend.  And an awesome one, at that.

H and the family of very special houseguests extended their stay by a day because we were having such a wonderful visit.  After they left, I reflected on H’s insight, courage, and commitment to manage the anxiety and depression.  And I made an appointment to see my doctor about getting back on the anti-depressant.

Here’s what the anti-depressant does: it helps me be a little more in control of my spiraling emotions, which decreases the negativity just enough.

In the midst of all of this, I was also working on a retreat with an amazing group of women.  I felt that God was calling me to honestly share my struggle with depression, but I had no idea what to say.  Or why.  I actually got a little angry with God about this point.  After spending hours trying to figure out what to write, I sat back in my chair, leaned away from my laptop, raked my hands through my hair, looked up and yelled, “You want me to talk about this?  Then tell me what to say!  Because I don’t get it.  I’m done.”  It was nearly midnight and I was now frustrated and annoyed with God, so I walked away from the computer and went to bed.

The theme of the retreat came from Matthew 28:20  “I am with you always.”

Jesus walking on a path

At 5:51 am, I awoke with tremendous clarity, feeling fully refreshed.

I realized that in the midst of the darkness of depression, God never stopped whispering: “I am with you always.”

From the timing of the very special Houseguests, to my friends, to the community of women I shared my retreat with, to my husband, to my boys, God never stopped whispering his love.

Instead of accepting the lie of self-doubt and loneliness that depression brings, I began to see–and try to feel–the adoration of God.  As I sat at my desk that morning, trying to put into words how God whispers “I am with you always” to me, my 8-year-old son came bounding in to my home office just to give me a hug and kiss and tell me, “I love you, Mommy.”

That’s how I came to see and experience spirituality in depression: I surrendered to undeserved love.  And through the arms of my child, God hugged me.

For all the negativity I feel in the depression, God still manages to remind me I am with you always and I adore you.


This called my home by Daniel Wehner licensed under CC BY 2.0

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