Brilliant pastor Stephanie Lobdell has written her first book. It will be the first of many, I have no doubt, because she writes with eloquence and grace, as one who has both traveled a difficult road and found God faithful in surprising ways along the journey.
Signs of Life: Resurrecting Hope Out of Ordinary Losses is the kind of book that will make you put it down and say, “YES. THIS.” A book that is rich with Scripture, illuminated with illustrations, and filled with profoundly practical wisdom. She’s also really funny (just wait until you read about her crab-claw hands).
Stephanie was gracious enough to share this excerpt exclusively with you, dear readers (with permission from her publisher, Herald Press). And because this book is so lovely I hope each and every one of you can read it, I’m giving away a free copy. Just leave a comment below telling me you’re interested and I’ll enter you in the drawing!
Without further ado, let’s hear from Stephanie herself in an excerpt from Chapter 8, “The Death of Invincibility.”
Signs of Life: Resurrecting Hope Out of Ordinary Losses
by Stephanie Lobdell
Our family of four pulled into the preschool, ready to take in the glorious art projects produced by our two-year-old and five-year-old. My husband had injured his foot playing some raucous game at youth group the night before, so he limped into the building like a wounded dog.
I dutifully propped the kids up next to their art for a barrage of pictures and tried to ignore the churning in my gut. My stomach had felt unsettled ever since eating that slightly off kale salad earlier in the afternoon. I told myself that I was fine, and just feeling rushed from a harried hospital visit—a failed one at that, since the patient had been soundly asleep. The gurgling had continued all afternoon, but with the kids’ long- awaited preschool art show that night and a sermon to finish, what’s a mama to do? Gurgle, gurgle, my stomach reminded me, slightly more insistent. What a pair we were, this dynamic duo of ailing parents.
After the art show, we attempted a celebratory dinner at the local Mexican restaurant. But the celebration was dampened by our toddler’s screeches and chip throwing, my husband’s pale, pained face, and my increasingly flushed, sweaty one.
We made it through the evening and crawled our way through bedtime. By now, the gurgling in my stomach had morphed into an angry thrashing, punishing me for refusing it attention by cramping my stomach, doubling me over. Did that stop me from making school lunches? Please. Did I say to myself, “Hey, self, you’re not feeling great. How about you don’t worry about following up with that parishioner’s texts right this very second?” Of course not. Because the world does not stop for an upset stomach!
I finally made it to our bed, where I wrestled with the gurgling for a couple of hours. I attempted to watch a movie with Tommy, pretending it was interesting enough to distract me from the dire situation in my stomach. When I finally admit- ted defeat and gave in to the desperate need to throw up, I felt instantaneously better. See, it wasn’t that bad. Now I could get some sleep and get up for that early morning writing session and workout I had planned.
Oh, the lies I tell myself.
Later that night, our daughter woke up crying, scared by some unsettling dream. My husband, who still had the bum ankle issue and was groggy from pain medication, groaned. “Oh, I got it,” I said, standing up. “I’m fine now.”
Walk up the stairs to her room: no big deal. Calmly address crying child: easy-peasy. Experience slight wave of nausea: oh
please, you got this. Bursts of heat, instantaneous flood of sweat from every pore, blurred vision: okay, might have a problem.
Josephine was still crying, not satisfied by my gentle assurances, and I was going down, and fast. I stumbled to the bath- room and collapsed. There is that horrible moment right before you get sick, when your entire body pulses with internal fire, throbbing as it prepares to purge its system. It is usually just a brief moment—a flash, really—before that merciful post-sick relief. But I was trapped there, somehow, in the sweaty, gasping stage. My hands were stuck in a weird cramped position, and my head moved in slow motion, refusing to follow any of my commands.
My daughter had followed me and was frightened. My pathetic attempts to comfort her fell on deaf ears. My head was reeling, and my limbs were refusing to follow any direction at all. What is this? I don’t do this! I am stronger than this. I muscle through tummy aches to attend art shows and finish sermons. I have a fever in the evening and still get up at five-thirty the next morning to write and work out. I am invincible.
Through the fog of my fever, I heard a slow thump, thump, thump as my hop-a-long husband climbed the stairs to investigate, a peg-legged pirate coming to my rescue. At the sight of my cramped-crab hands, vacant eyes, and sweat-covered body, he yelled what he always yells when I’m sick: “See! I told you to drink some water!” (Really? Water? That’s what you’re going to go with right now?)
I tried to stand but failed, so down he bent, wrapping my arm around his neck. With his arm around my waist, he half carried, half dragged my limp body down the hall, around the corner, and down the flight of steps to our room, all on that swollen ankle.
It was like a scene from a made-for-television movie. The ta- gline would capture channel surfers’ attention: “A devoted husband with a dramatically swollen ankle carries violently ill wife to safety . . . but will their daughter be traumatized forever?” (Answer: almost certainly.)
I lay on the bed and decided that it was nice here, facedown on the bed, and that I would, in fact, like to spend the rest of my days in this position. Commotion flooded the monitor as my husband tried to assure our terrified daughter. I was power- less to do anything.
The jig was up.
Naaman sat down for the evening meal with his family. He had just returned from yet another successful military campaign. Surrounding him were symbols of his prestige: wealth, royal endorsements, and slaves, many of whom were captured from opposing enemy nations. Naaman breathed a sigh of contentment as they brought out the abundant evening meal. As he leisurely enjoyed the food, he recounted the tale of his latest conquest to those gathered around him. Under his leadership, the armies of Aram seemed unassailable. Naaman himself, who consistently led the charge, carried about him the undeniable air of invincibility. Naaman lay down to rest on the soft pillow of his victories.
How strange, then, to be awakened so suddenly, and by no visible enemy. Naaman awoke to painful cracking, a splitting of
the skin around his elbows. It was as if all moisture had been soaked up in an instant by the desert sun, but under cover of night while he slept. He silently scurried to the kitchen tent, trying not to disturb any pots or bowls as he searched for the olive oil. Perhaps the oil would quell the pain, and the fear rising up within him.
By morning the deep splitting had done its work, creating deep ravines around various joints. Surely it was a reaction to last night’s unusually rich meal. He would mention it to the cook and command simple meals from now on. For now, his robes would cover the lesions, hiding the mysterious condition from his family, his friends, his soldiers, the king. The liquid fear rose in his chest again, almost making him gag. What if it is—no. He would not entertain such absurd thoughts. He was Naaman, mighty conqueror of enemy armies, honored by kings and gods alike. No scourge would dare come near his tent.
But come near it did. In fact, the scourge slipped right in the tent and made itself at home. Weeks passed, and the cracks deepened, bleeding at inopportune times. Even as he carefully attended to the open wounds, washing them and oiling them, the deepest sores became infected and gave off a distinct odor— the odor of death. As violently as he resisted the realization, Naaman became increasingly aware of reduced sensation in his fingers and toes. The paralyzing fear was now a constant companion. How had it come to this?
His condition was no longer a secret. His wife had been the first to see the wounds. The dismay and horror on her face upon seeing the wounds had nearly stripped him of all courage. She had recovered quickly, insisting it must be a mere rash, one that would fade with time. But the mask had slipped, and he knew she shared his fears: leprosy. A confirmed diagnosis of leprosy from the king’s physicians would sound the death knell for their family and their current prestige. Naaman would be exiled from his community, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves.1
It did not take long for word about Naaman’s mysterious illness to spread. Only his mighty victories in battle and his social collateral protected him from a life exiled to the fringe of society. And even that currency would eventually run out. With a deep sigh, Naaman acknowledged what he had long since denied: he, too, was human, and not the invincible warrior he had believed himself to be.
For the next twenty-four hours I was quarantined to the base- ment. At one point my husband tossed a water bottle and some crackers down the stairs. And the things that couldn’t be tossed, like ramen noodles, he handed to me gingerly, making sure to only touch me with a tissue-covered hand, then immediately running to the sink to scrub down like a surgeon before an appendectomy.
Everybody gets sick at some point. It is par for the course of the human experience. We are mortal, fragile creatures easily brought low by microscopic organisms like flu bugs. Why, then, do I feel shocked and betrayed when my body refuses to cooper- ate, if only for a day? Why do I think I merit an exemption from this human experience? Why do I spiral into such an irrational space every time I’m sick, convinced this is the end for sure?
In my more rational moments (read: not sick ones), I recognize the absurdity of my frustration and despair. I understand that bodies get tired and sick. Bodies catch bugs, fight them off, and usually recover. Even the healthiest person in the world can find herself on her back from a turned kale salad. Cognition and acceptance are not always fast friends.
As I lay in my bed, dutifully sipping water through a bendy straw at the command of my still-limping husband, I paid attention to what was churning inside me, and this time it wasn’t Mexican food from the night before. Why was I so distressed about getting sick? Yes, I was miserable and still shaken by the experience of having been out of control of my body. That had been foreign and unsettling, no doubt. Yet the angst I was feeling had very little to do with the physical sensation of illness. I was angry, angry that I could not muscle my way back to productivity, angry that my indefatigable drive to work, to achieve, to be on task, had been thwarted. I felt betrayed by my body that had refused to cooperate with my aggressive agenda of working tirelessly and tending to my family unceasingly. The bitter taste of disappointment and unmet expectations filled my mouth.
Bound to my bed by the nausea and dizziness, I felt reality step in and make itself known. I had attempted to live a life of invincibility only to be informed by my flesh that this way of living was an unsustainable façade. It was a deep deception, fueled by my pride.
No work was being done with my dehydrated crab-claw hands. I could not so much as fill a sippy cup with milk for my son, much less read a commentary on the gospel of John for sermon prep. There would be no writing session today, no
insightful blog post. There was nothing to do but be still and face the death at hand—not my death (I’m not quite that dramatic), but the death of the illusion of invincibility.
This excerpt from Chapter 8 shared with permission from Herald Press.