Our Copier Celebrates Chanukah and Other Non-Dramas of Life

I am my own office administrator. The secretary. The copier guy.

Such is the economic reality of our congregation and many others.

We wear many hats and gather more all of the time.

So when a new copier company came calling and offered to buy out our old contract, store our current copier for a year then have it returned, give us a sizable donation as a “Welcome Gift” and offered us a better overage rate and freeze the annual increase of the service contract at 2% (getting technical now, sorry)  and throw in a community service representative who would support our food pantry and other community outreach and ministry endeavors (not very technical but unheard of in my 14 years of ministry with copiers), well, we jumped at it. And in truth the new copier makes very pretty copies. Sharp. Like the new hat I would receive for Christmas, but I am getting ahead of myself. You see, as it turns out, the low-toner warning system was specifically designed, I fear, to test the efficacy of my anti-anxiety meds.

Every Advent season, the lead up to Christmas has been fraught with issues for me. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the stress-induced breakdown of my emotional and physical health. Ten years ago in the aftermath of a few hurricanes and trying to oversee repairs to the church’s roof and septic system and economic damage wrought by several cancelled services on a razor thin budget in which we survived week by week, I was left doubled over in pain, my eyes twitching, unable to sleep, edgy and anxious and a mess.  A phone call to our synod’s Emergency Assistance Program Hotline and most of the next year spent in therapy and a number of tests and doctor’s visits and medications helped me get the reflux under control and survive. Afterwards, nearly every Advent I would end up on some form of reflux medication due to a burning churning stomach and too little sleep. And more often than not as other folks tested out new gym memberships after the first of the year I would end up in therapy, trying to arrest the anxiety that would show up as various health issues, here and there. A couple of years ago even traditional therapy couldn’t handle the load, which was great and painful and hurtful as only those in ministry would understand. I couldn’t breathe. Slipped into darkness. Saw no hope.  So for the past six months I have worked with a psychiatrist to find the right kind and dosage of drugs to help me better battle my depression and anxiety. It takes a while, but it has been worth it. And along the way, the auto-immune disease lupus, showed up requiring its own precautions and medications and altering my life completely. How much the stress I have struggled with over these years has contributed to this condition I will never know as the causes of lupus are complex and variable and somewhat mysteriously blamed upon some mixture of environment, genetics, viruses, blah, blah, blah.  Between all of these medications and lupus I am often very tired in the afternoon, and prone to fatigue, headaches, and joint pain. And so let us enter the present…

For Christmas Eve I had to print three bulletins that averages 16 pages each. And a couple of inserts. And then, with a few weeks of vacation looming I also printed the bulletins for the three Sundays that follow. Well, I intended to print them, except the low toner warning message began to flash across the screen somewhere around my 51st copy of the 7:30PM Christmas Eve bulletin. Barely pausing to take a breath, the message changed to “Toner almost out.”  Crap!

No big deal, right? Just get another toner a few days before Christmas Eve.

Our free toner as part of the service contract ships them from Tennessee regular mail. That might be a problem. As a backup I hit the internet. No big box office supply store carries it. Amazon and Ebay research followed and there I found some possibilities with priority shipping. “Click!” And that was done. $50 well spent if it arrived in time for me to finish Christmas Eve bulletins. Plan “C” involved Kinkos, which would be a mess this time of year. And in general the only messes I suffer involve my own deskor sometimes my sock drawer. Back to making copies. Some reminder somewhere declared it the first day of Chanukah. I printed on 25 copies at a time. Just in case the toner ran out. On and on I printed that day. And the next day. Then the phone rang and it was our organist telling me that she has the flu 48 hours before Christmas Eve. I printed on, covers and liturgies and inserts and large print binders. And the next day, too, the “Toner almost out” warning flashing merrily. Still the new toner hadn’t arrived, but volunteers did to stuff and fold.I printed a hundred copies at a time. Screw it. I printed one hundred – twelve page bulletins at a time. And again on the next day, each page crisp and beautiful. Still the toner held out. In my delirium brought on by ignoring the sun encouraged lupus fatigue and my body’s need for a nap nearly the entire week, I printed 125 copies of the 7:30PM Christmas Eve bulletin, twice, and still the toner held on. Then I failed to push the duplex button and an entire batch of inserts was ruined. More Tylenol. More caffeine. I printed on. TONER ALMOST OUT! The copier shouted at me. I printed December 28th bulletins and January 4th bulletins and January 11th bulletins. And inserts. I printed until the last day of Chanukah when I was finished. The last page came out of the copier as crisp and fetching as the new fedora waiting for me to unwrap under the tree.

Christmas Eve was a joy. No stress. The kids read and sang and the choir did lovely and the new ukulele trio was amazing and attendance was up for the first time in a number of years and we did not run out of bulletins (I printed extra Christmas Eve just in case and still the copier did not run out of toner). People volunteered often and everywhere and I sat in wonder at it all. These people embodying the love and grace of Jesus. I was bone-tired weary, but no reflux. No twitching eyes. No lost sleep. No drama. I did not know such a thing was possible for a pastor. It has never happened for me. Not in fourteen years of ministry.

So what have I learned through all of this?

That for some folks, anti depression and anti anxiety medications are an absolute necessity and when they work that can change one’s life.

That Christmas does not have to suck just because you are a pastor.

That if you want to know how to beat the flu in 48 hours ask an organist.

That my parish is full of really caring, loving servants of God (I knew this, but it really, really hit home this year when I was in such pain and fatigue)

That miracles still happen (or our copier’s low toner alarm system is broken)

May this season be one of joy and wonder for you and yours and may the New Year bring about decisions in your life that lead to a deeper wholeness.

Blessings, my friends!

I am fine (except when my brain is on fire)

When I was a kid, I was that student that everyone either hated or made fun of. The one who always raised their hand to answer the question. Raised it high. Always. Sometimes waving it if the teacher was foolish enough to seat me in the back of the class since I was a late bloomer in the height department (but unfortunately not in the shoe size department, but that is another story). I loved answering questions. Not simply, of course. Where would the fun be in that? Even at seminary my answers were long and asked additional questions of the professor. Usually in the final minutes of class. My classmates gave me an award at graduation for this practice. I still have the certificate somewhere in that box we all have of silly things that we will never throw away.

But now I get asked “How Are You?” all the time. Asked by caring people who really want to know the answer. And I have answered the question a hundred times. A thousand times. And I still suck at it. Still struggle to finds the right approach. To answer it honestly without sounding dismissive (fine) or robotic (you know, I take it day by day) or the false optimist (Well, good days outnumber the bad). Especially, I don’t want to make it sound worse than it is. In my line of work I minister to people in great suffering. People who are dying or grieving loved ones who have died. People whose marriages have imploded or whose kids fight demons or who struggle to fight off bill collectors determined to shut off their power and power and take food out of the mouths of their children.  My suffering, frankly, isn’t anything compared to theirs. It just is what it is, as they say.

My latest incarnation of an answer goes something like this: I am fine (except when my brain is on fire). That’s what it feels like when the headaches and fatigue are settling in for a quiet but not so cozy afternoon. And the fire moves to my face and even though the house is cold, I turn down the thermostat and my wife puts on another sweater. I have no idea what the experience of menopause is like, but as they say, now I see in a mirror dimly. Hot and cold. Headaches and body aches. Upset stomach. Up at strange hours unable to sleep. Except I have no clue if it is the auto-immune disease playing havoc or the medicine for it playing havoc. Or the sun playing havoc with either the disease or from the sensitivity to the sun that its medicine creates. Or the depression playing havoc or the medicines for that playing havoc. Or just aging. Or something else. No. Bloody. Clue.

Most of the time it seems like there is nothing wrong. Like the doctor made a mistake. Like this is all in my head. Then my head reminds me otherwise. Or my knees or hip or some joint or another. The secret is as I tell the middle schoolers during career day every single year, I have the best job in the world, which helps tremendously. And more importantly, I have the most amazing wife who after 25 years knows me better than I know myself. Every night I lay down beside her and know that however the day may have been, that all is well in my world. And God is there somewhere in the thick of things.  The God who suffered. The God who bears our exotic mix of faith, of belief and unbelief, of questions seeking answers, of hope and trust, of our slow but inevitable journey to mix our sense of awe and wonder with the right amount of humility.

And so my friends, I am fine (except when my brain is on fire). And mostly it isn’t, so there’s that.

And tomorrow is another day.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

My therapist visits have changed in frequency from two to three months, a sign that the medications are doing what they are supposed to do and that I am responding in helpful and healthy ways. I make solid eye contact now and I am not sure that I have ever done this in my life. Tears which once flowed at the drop of a hat come rarely now and then ever briefly.  I am less defensive, less prone to despair and paralyzing anxiety, but still likely to take on too much and forget to ask for help. This is real life after all.

Stress can trigger lupus attacks and my stress level history during the Christmas season is notoriously out of sight high. From stress-induced aggravations of my hiatal hernia that left me at the altar doubled over in pain while others sang “Joy to the World,” to uncontrollable eye-twitching, to insomnia, to being unable to drive a day after Christmas more than a handful of miles of a 300 plus mile vacation journey, the season of Christmas was a nightmare for me physically, emotionally and spiritually. Each year by Christmas morning I had nothing left in the tank for anyone.  My poor family just dealt with it year after year.

I am mostly mellow; God bless the twin wonders of pharmacology and psychiatry. And I am often tired as I learn to live into the new normal of lupus and the headaches and body aches and bone-weary exhaustion that strike without warning and seemingly out of thin air. Even when I have been “good” by wearing my sun-proof get up and sunscreen and getting adequate sleep. Some days just suck despite every precaution. Not a day goes by without someone asking me how I am doing or telling me that they are praying for me. All sorts of people. It amazes me and humbles me and would have left the old me in a puddle of appreciative tears until my eyes would have burned from the salt. I say “thank you” and mean it and do not fall apart. On the great checklist of life I will count this in the “plus” column.

I have come to appreciate even more deeply the care and concern capacity of the people of the congregation in which I am privileged to serve. This flock has embraced my struggles and used the opportunity to offer me abiding prayer and encouragement. They anoint me on healing Sundays and pray over me and declare God shall make me well. I am tempted to re-purpose the prayer shawl they gave me into a stole. My honesty about my diseases and medications has led to numerous conversations. One is never alone in such struggles; not me and not others who once thought they were.

This Christmas won’t return to the innocent wonder of my childhood when a stocking filled with chocolate coins and a balsa wood airplane magically appeared at the foot of my bed early in the morning before all awoke and together we would behold the tree and what awaited beneath. Nor, do I think I will be dragging my anxiety and exhaustion wracked body from fitful slumber to the couch and pasting a smile upon my face and trying to say all of the right things.  The ghost of Christmas Present has not yet arrived to show me what is, but I have gotten a head start on a heart full of gratitude and for now that is enough.

Lemon-Flavored Fish Oil and the Death of Creativity

Things have quiet on the “In A Mirror Darkly” BLOG.

I almost had something to write a number of times over the past month or so. Each time it was right there – on the edge of consciousness. Then it faded, another ephemera in my life, lost except for a cool title.  There is always a cool title.  Something about the turn of the season and lemon-flavored fish oil. Or Jesus and lemon-flavored fish oil. I don’t remember which. But it was cool. Trust me.

Every now and then when I sat down to write and the paper remained blank I had this idea that somehow in fighting lupus and the anxiety and depression that danced alongside it that the medications leveling out my emotional highs and lows had walled off that place where words come from; words and ideas and dreams and poetry and passion.  So I did what most people sitting at a computer keyboard would do: I googled it.

And this is what I discovered: A lot of people are concerned about the impact of anti-depressants on creativity.  Fearful, even. Forum after forum on depression and anti depressant medications are filled with  concerned posts of people who based upon their personal experience fear the loss of their creativity.  Of course one person’s experience does not a general conclusion make.  For example, I began taking fish oil at the suggestion of my rheumatologist last month.  A little research revealed that people who take fish oil as a supplement have a number of choices. You can buy capsules with or without a special coating.  The special coating makes the capsule dissolve in your intestine instead of stomach. Why should this matter, you ask? (Please do). Because a large number of people taking fish oil supplements notice that they start to smell.  And by smell I mean bad. Like you forgot to use deodorant for a week bad. Except in this case you are using deodorant and suddenly start wondering what that awful smell is and then you realize that it is you.  And I was determined that you would not be me so I went all-in and bought myself lemon-flavored fish oil.  “But!” you say, “There are no taste buds in the intestines!” And you would be wrong. Sort of.  Read this article.

OK, so what does taking lemon-flavored fish oil supplements have to do with whether or not anti-depressants have the potential to rob us of our creativity? Bear with me for a few more words on fish oil and body odor. I do not smell any worse, not fishy, oily or lemony. Therefore, I could say that everyone who takes fish oil shouldn’t smell stinky. But they do.  Google it. There is so much anecdotal evidence that there should be a warning on the bottles:  “People who take this supplement may have an increased risk of stinking so bad that even their dog will not lick them.”  [This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA in any way, shape or form].  We think about all of the mad creative genius people and say to ourselves that maybe there is a thing to mental disorders and creativity. Thus, anti depressants whose job it is to level us out and reign in the anxiety and cast light in the deep dark well in which we often find ourselves living work against such creativity.

Imagine such a choice: Creativity or a life of paralyzing anxiety and hopelessness?

Of course we are talking about brain chemistry and nothing about brain chemistry is that simple. A bunch of people think they are less creative on anti-depressant medication, whether they are or not is a different thing altogether.  It is a question I hope to bring to my psychiatrist next visit. He loves those sorts of questions. Like the time I asked him if the anti-depressants alter my brain chemistry don’t they make me a different person?  Short answer: Great question. Then we spent an hour dissecting it.

Or I could ask him if he would like to debate the possibility that his intestines have taste buds.

It is, as they say, my nickel.