Treasures in Jars of Clay

Okay, sorry for the technical difficulties. Jay must have pushed some old posts. I think he did this to get me to write again!

Well, here it goes. How am I doing? Well it’s kind of surreal to enter some anniversaries: diagnosis, surgery, and start of chemo. This past week we were able to be in Florida on an amazing retreat for families who are dealing with terminal illnesses. Yes, the “T” word, not one I like to say and yet it is what we are dealing with. Do I feel normal? What is normal? Thankfully, God has never given me a concept of normal. Will I feel like I did before diagnosis? No! I count this a blessing from God. He has given me a new song in my heart!

You can see pictures on inheritanceofhope.org

What this means is that I am thankful for each day! My blessings are laundry, cleaning toilets, putting toys away (even little legos that I step on!), and things that are put in my way that may cause me to be frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, I still complain, make mistakes, and yell at my kids from time to time! I just realize that the journey is meant to mold me into a vessel that God can use for His glory!

What does this mean for the Maier family? Well, we are going to talk about death, life without mom, God’s ability to care for them way better than I can, and why God allows things to occur even if we don’t like it! This may seem like too much for our kids to handle, man it’s too much for Jay & I to handle. But God is present in these moments when we cry out to Him. For my Creator knows my doubts, pain, fear, weaknesses, and He still loves me! How can I question His work on me, when I know He is molding me into a vessel that will one day see Him face to face!

Wow, what a year this has been! I can’t express in words how many of you have helped us survive this last year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts! God has provided through his people and He has shown us that His Word walks freely among us.

“And the vessel He was making of clay was spoiled in the Potter’s hand, and He reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the Potter to do.” (Jeremiah 18:4)

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us!” (II Corinthians 4:7)

Inspired

We were 15 year old “men”, dropped off at the end of the sloppy muck field road at plenty past dark. The rain steadily pounded the hood of my raincoat and the brim of his hat. One hundred yards of greasy mud felt like a mile, with each step adding to the weight of our boots. We came to the pasture gate; a simple wire with a hook latch and a yellow, plastic handle to insulate someone from the electric pulse necessary to deter the cattle.

But this night, as I unhooked the latch, my water soaked glove worked perfectly to conduct the electricity that pulsated through the wire, through the water over the plastic handle, now through my body and to the ground, pounding my heels like a ball-peened hammer. I dropped it as anyone would and it fell in a puddle of water. I had a decision.

The last 4 days of our vacation was the Inheritance of Hope retreat. It ended yesterday. What a great thing we were given. The men and women who served us were totally selfless (Jeffrey rocks!) Sixteen families in all. But of particular impact to me were 2. The husbands I admire. Both wives are terminally ill and in a wheel chair, possibly months from the end of their journey. Both men cared deeply for their wives and children, as young as 5 and as old as 20. Just practical, selfless love. I watched and learned.

I bent down and picked up the wet and muddy insulator, and bore the shocks until the latch was secure. Somehow I hope that the Zimmerman’s proving grounds at 15 years old indicate my tendencies for the rest of my life. I will not be deterred from any hard thing that comes my way. When there is a right thing to do, regardless of the pain, I will do it, God help me. And this is not just referring to Cancer. I’m talking marriage, parenting, work, etc. Those 2 guys just inspired me to be better.

A Significant Day in History

I remember it well. I stood with 2 co-workers in the front yard of a customers house and listened to the news. It was the eleventh of September, 2001. A significant day in history. I also remember January 30, 2013. It was one year ago today that Tara was diagnosed with a late stage cancer that threatened her life; and our way of living. That news altered our lives like the toppled towers of steel altered our nation.

It took us getting to the point where we could not survive without help to realize that God is really there. He is not hiding in religion, but is thriving in the lives of people who know and love Him. He is aware of our suffering and may even cause it, knowing the good that will come from it. “What good?” you may ask. Our joy and fulfillment in life. We were all made to give God glory and will always be unsatisfied unless our lives are pointing to Him.

But in the midst of it, the year wasn’t rosy at all. It hurt. We broke often. We cried more tears this year than all the previous combined. We slacked on some key parenting issues that we will have to fix later. We all changed so much that we had to re-learn how to get along at times; the same old things didn’t work like they used to. We had some days with sobering news and others with fantastic news. It was a roller coaster of a year.

But as it sits right now, Tara is doing well. We are in Haiti as I write. Our oldest daughter, Micalyn, is with us. It was one place Tara desired to return, so we did it. The work God is doing through the Paulos Group impacted our lives before cancer and the Gauthier’s, McCormick’s and King’s encouraged us during cancer. So now we are trying to return the favor. Our four other kids are waiting for us in Florida where, in a few days, we will get to participate in the Inheritance of Hope retreat that we missed last May due to Tara’s health.

So life goes on. This year is just another, and another will soon pass. And one day, regardless of outcomes, we will look back at it. It will either be well done, or not. We may as well make it count and try do it well.

Belief?

I was beginning to question my belief? A series of events caused doubt and I knew the outcome of this mind-struggle could rock my world. I remember talking to my father and mother about it. Their wisdom had always been valued. They also grew up in a home that believed and had once struggled themselves. I remember the night that eliminated all questions in my mind. My dad tapped me on the shoulder while I was sleeping and I opened my eyes to see his finger over his lips, suggesting that I stay quiet. I sensed something; like maybe a spirit. This feeling was of something kind; full of joy; and….. was that a ho-ho-ho I heard?

Santa was in our living room. He was real. I had no doubt from that point on. I don’t know how he got there or how he left, but my 6 year old eyes saw him late that Christmas Eve, and that was good enough for me.

The lore of a fictitious character that comes down all the chimneys in the world in one night, with gifts, and rides in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer is pretty cool. It is fun for kids to believe in that. It is amazing that they actually buy it. But I long for my family to experience more. And I am not simply talking about the story of baby Jesus being born in a manger with shepherds and wise-men in awe, and a king who wanted to kill him and so on. I am talking about me nudging them to wake them up, and showing them God actually at work in my life and the lives of others. Real work. Miracles. Like sustaining a family with cancer who could have lost hope but instead found more joy and hope than they knew was possible. Like the new birth of a broken and lost man, and watching that new spiritual life grow. Like financial provision (a job) for a family who was at the end of their financial rope. Like watching someone die well. Like hearing the voice of God speak clearly into their life.

These are some of the miracles of Christ this Christmas. I love hearing real-life stories way more than the Santa story (even though the Santa story is pretty cool too). Merry CHRISTmas!

Great is Thy Faithfulness

(From a talk by Tara at Autumn Ridge Church on November 14.)

Life is like a puzzle. There are many pieces, and until they are all in place, we can’t see the full image.  The pieces are our stories.  And just like pieces of a puzzle they connect to each other. Tonight, I will share with you some of the pieces in MY story and hopefully we can start to see part of the image.

I didn’t see her last breath, but I watched my grandmother Esther die at the young age of 59.  I always enjoyed going to her house, spending time with her, and learning how to sew. Okay, if you know me you know that I can’t even thread a needle, much less sew.  Sorry Grandma! But she DID teach me about faith. Not by preaching to me, or reading Bible stories, or helping me praying a special prayer to accept Christ. She taught me about faith by living her whole life committed to serving her family, husband, and friends. To this day I say it was her that led me to the Lord.  In looking back, I realize the main thing she did was suffer well.

My brother was a teenager in the 1970s.  He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was treated here at the Mayo Clinic. Through his sickness my parents’ faith was tested. God spared his life and left lasting change in my family.  God has truly held my parents hands.

“But there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24b) or as I would say, sister. I had the privilege of meeting a girl named Angie when I was still in my mother’s tummy. You see my mom took over her mom’s hospital room right after she was born. She moved next door when we were 4 years old.  We were best friends, neighbors, and college roommates and now we live in the same town. She is the friend that refines me, calls me out when I choose wrongly, prays with me through hard times, and laughs at me when I ask how long to bake rice crispy bars.  For those of you who don’t cook, I hear that you don’t actually bake those.

In the fall of 1989, there was a cute blonde haired, free-spirited boy who captured my heart and became my soul mate. We met at Bethel and he decided to transfer to the University of Missouri to finish his degree in Forestry. It took him leaving to realize how much I loved him. After 3 years of being apart we decided that we simply couldn’t be apart any longer! Juli Fischer would confirm our desire to not be apart as she was with him in Africa for 10 days.  Evidently he talked about “wanting” me a lot. This man had the hardest job this past year as he cared for me, our family, and ran our business! He completes me and is truly refining me daily. I cannot express in words the depth of love I have for him today!

In college I had the privilege of rooming with a girl named Kris Peterson.  In 2010, after a 3 1/2 year battle with breast cancer, Kris passed away.  I was able to be with Kris on her last days and it was amazing to see how God gave her peace with the knowledge of imminent death. She was not one to complain or have pity on her situation, even with leaving a husband and two-year old son. It inspired me to watch her suffer well.

During thanksgiving this past year we had a great opportunity to visit our friends in Haiti. This was the best vacation we had ever had! The Lord showed us how to live with little and opened our eyes to the larger body of Christ. I was blessed to meet an amazing mother there named Ma Jill. I’ve been told that I’m the first American she has ever met that has “problems!” There are many prayers lifted up from Haiti.  How amazing is that?

Each of these are little, individual stories.  They are pieces.  I show you these pieces because they are all part of my puzzle.  God has the puzzle-box and He knows how it is supposed to look at the end He is just giving me a few pieces at a time.  This last year, however, I found where a lot of the pieces fit and the image is becoming more clear.

On January 3rd and 4th of this year, Jay and I spent a weekend at the Elizabeth . We thought we were planning for our next few years.  Instead, god was preparing us for the months that lay ahead.

Within a month of our time at the lodge, on January 30th, my story climaxed.  I was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer.  I remember vividly that day in the doctor’s office.  The news was horrible.  But even then, God provided a friend from church, who was our nurse that day, and she held us up in prayer and encouragement.

My cancer was diagnosed as stage 4 because it had already spread through my lymph system and into my lung.  I intentionally did not look online to learn more about this cancer, but I am told, based on statistics, that my chance of survival for more than 5 years is about 15%.  Boy, I sure wish I could get out of this part of the story.

Jay and I couldn’t believe it.  This kind of thing happens to other people, not us.  We lay in bed for the first few nights and just stared at each other.  We didn’t even know what to say.  I honestly don’t remember much about that now.  I think I was just in survival mode.  My belly was stuffed full of fluid and I just laid in bed.

Surgery happened on February 8.  I was opened up from sternum to pelvis.  They removed bulky tumors, 8 liters of fluid from the cancer, a few organs that I didn’t need and some of my girl parts.  The skill of the surgeons was on display as they remove small tumors from small spaces in my abdomen, including some behind my aorta.  They ended up going into my thoracic cavity from my abdomen to get the tumors on and around my lungs.  I mean, who does that?  They are heroes.

For weeks after, I laid in bed, either in the hospital or at home.  I remember not feeling part of the family. The kids asked someone else for the things they used to ask of me. Our parents took care of the things I used to do myself.  I physically couldn’t be there and daily felt like I was failing.  And that was true for the next 6 weeks.  In the midst of all that, I became more broken.  That brokenness led to dependence on God, and to my surprise, resulted in peace, contentment and joy.  We can talk about the miracles that happened around the surgery, but the greatest miracle of this entire journey was the peace, contentment and joy that God gave me.

I’m a confirmed mutant.  BRCA 1 is a gene mutation that my family carries.  I sure wish I had known that I had the possibility of having it.  It predisposes us to ovarian and breast cancer.  Like 25 times more likely.  I have other family members who have died, like Grandmother Esther and others who are battling it now.  I wish I had been told.  The information was available.  But what would I have done if I had known?  Would I have had all 5 children?  Would I have lived in constant fear?  But could I have avoided this cancer?   These questions I wrestle hard with.  But it boiled down to one question that I had to answer, “Is – God – Sovereign?”

Sometimes I feel like saying an “S” word.  Now I want to leave you with 6 “S” words.  The first is story.  That is what I have been telling you.  Pieces of my puzzle.

 My second “S” word is Suffering.  I honestly don’t think I had really suffered before this.  There have been trials in my life, but suffering?…I don’t think so.  Facing death is hard.  The main suffering I endured is realizing that I may not grow old with my husband, or see my kids get married one day or be a grandmother; stuff like that.  The physical suffering wasn’t easy either.  I remember Jay having to read to me because I couldn’t even do that myself, much less anything else.  I couldn’t do many things that I wanted to do.

But it wasn’t all bad.  My feelings weren’t of depression or hopelessness.  In fact quite the opposite.  I realized I was being refined.  And in fact, just like Grandmother Esther, who led me to The Lord by suffering well, I have the chance to do the same for my children.  I am so thankful I was able to see that, through all of the physical pain I was going through.  That was a blessing from God.

The lyrics of a song describe it best.  I played and sang this song over and over through the trial and it gave me tremendous perspective.  It is called “Blessings” by Laura Story.

My third “S” word is scripture.  Strangely enough, I started praying regularly for steadfastness in the year previous to my diagnosis. My friends thought it was strange and I didn’t even comprehend at the time. I thought it was just because we were starting to parent teenagers.  But God knew that I needed to rest in His Word. “Therefore having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not loose heart!” (II. Corinthians 4:1) Oddly enough, I’m memorizing this chapter in my bible study this year!

My whole life I’ve counted on God’s Word to change my heart, give me wisdom, and help my fears.  I have studied it and it has been part of my daily routine for years.  But I have never NEEDED his Word for mere survival.  This suffering left me with no hope other than what God’s words offered.  It was my food day and night.  The words came alive to both Jay and I and things we had read for years took on new meaning.

I remember moving here to Rochester in 2000 with a 2-month old and living in the country. I can now look back at those years of complete isolation with the little ones as training time to be in His Word! It was what I clinged to then and what I wished I had committed to memory. His Spirit had captured me and enticed me to daily put my trust in Him.

My fourth “S” word is stillness.  Okay there’s a reason I chose stillness and not quietness; mainly because it starts with an S.  But also it seemed more attainable in our house of 7.  I remember many days just locking the door in my bathroom to get some well-deserved alone time. So finding time to be still was nearly impossible. After surgery though there was a lot of time to just be still whether I liked it or not. It was in these times that I was able to remove myself from the situation at hand and rest in His loving arms.  Sometimes this stillness brought about action with a clear mind. Other times, it was a removal of pity that had easily crept in.

“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; “(Psalm 37:5-7)

My fifth “S” word is sanctify.  The day of surgery was one of the hardest days of my life. I really did not know what the outcome was going to be. I had said my goodbyes to my children in as much as they could grasp and it was now time to be present before The Lord. I knew I was not worthy to have this encounter and I became very restless.  In fact that was my prayer the night before.  “Father, sanctify me…”

Thankfully, I was surrounded by pray-ers on surgery day. My husband had solicited his brother and a couple of friends to fast and pray for the day.  And a couple girlfriends prayed over me before they took me into the surgery room. One physician friend stayed in touch with Jay throughout the day to update him and interpret all the surgical procedures as they occurred. What a blessing this was to my husband and family.  Another friends’ husband was in an adjacent room performing surgery and told me that he prayed as he felt led to do so.  Even a meal was brought to my family in the waiting room. The Lord provides through His people.

The sixth and final “S” word is sovereignty.  God is good, all the time, in every situation, and even in my situation. I look back at the pieces and see that God had prepared me along the way for such a time as this.  God was faithful to give me what I needed then and will continue to do so as time goes on.  I’ve come to realize that my desire for comfort, order, and happiness is not what God intended for my life. He cares too much for me to allow me to be self-sufficient and not lean on Him every moment of the day.

I’m not going to say that I have it all figured out on how to suffer well, or that I’ve been given any extra wisdom in this area.   I simply wanted to share my story.  And this story included many people. So what am I trying to say?  We all are called to suffer.  But God will not leave us alone for He Himself suffered and knows what we need before the trial comes.

I remember the generosity of his people and the care they displayed for me and my family this past year. I cannot express in words how much this helped.  From the beginning, I’ve known that this momentary affliction was not about me but about God’s faithfulness through His people.

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  James 1:2-4

Even if it Hurts

He stood opposed to me with his sword in hand; eyes locked on mine with muscles twitching ready to respond to any movement I made. Any mistake would be costly. I struck high and my sword glanced off of his. Then I brought it down with force in an attempt to overpower him and potentially catch a shoulder or pectoral muscle. His right foot was swift and caught me off guard as it struck my inner thigh, nearly a deadly shot. I staggered but was still able to strike hard enough to cause him to drop his sword. He stood in shock, and fear overcame him as I stood tall with my sword still in hand. I had him.

The ensuing conversation spoke volumes to us both. “Son, you have a decision. Lose, or endure pain to win.” “Can you not get me, Dad?” “Son, I’m going to smoke you with this plastic light saber. You can choose to take the shot and cower, or take the shot as you come in to smoke me back.” “But what if I get hurt?” “You’re gonna get hurt either way.” Before I knew it he launched himself at me, with fists and knees. He risked the pain to win. And pain he got, right before he delivered some pain of his own……and won.

We often live our lives simply to avoid the uncomfortable; the pain. We miss out on the promised land because we don’t want the desert. We compromise our values because we don’t want to be outcast. We miss out on business opportunity because we don’t want to risk the money. We miss out on the joy of dependence because we don’t want to endure the suffering it takes to get there. This is just crazy to me. Is not life more than simply the avoidance of pain?

Many of the good things of our life have come in the midst of suffering. We would have never chosen it, but man am I glad it happens when it does. I wish we would choose that course more often. I hope we can teach our kids in the little lessons of life to endure pain if needed, and go for it even if it hurts.

Lessons Learned, Twice

I don’t know why we dared ourselves to do it, but we did it, for the sake of the dare. The depth of the water was unknown and the backwater-like area was dotted with garbage and old branches. In the center was on old concrete bridge piling; the ice melting around the base of it. Our goal was to get to the isolated piling about 30 feet from the edge, and just hang out on it. It was a recipe for disaster but an adventure we took.

As we crept out on the ice, the cracking we heard and felt only caused a slowing of our progress. We had no plan for what we would do if the ice broke. We just pressed on. It was ridiculous and I pray my children never read this, and if they do I hope they realize how bad of an idea this was. We never fell through and the lesson was not fully learned.

Ten years later, on Lake Valentine late one December evening, I walked the ice, pondering life and love. Twenty yards from shore I heard a crack that I recognized, but again ignored. In a flash my feet fell though and my life flashed before my eyes. Bitter cold sucked the air out of my lungs. To my surprise the water only came up to my belly button. Again, I dodged danger, but this time the lesson was learned and I now have a healthy fear of ice.

How many lessons will I have to learn twice? Or is the better question “How many times will it take to learn the lesson once?” I have paid tuition at the school of hard knocks many times over. A more diligent student would get his degree much quicker. So here I am again, with a great gift of a lesson that I want to learn this one time. Life has given us another chance to get it right. And the tendency is to go right back to where we were. Being too busy. Not treasuring my wife and children enough, etc. It wasn’t bad there but it could be much better. We have a new beginning. What will we do with it?

Refreshment and Encouragement

Five men, five horses, beautiful mountains, and a search for elk. I am home from 5 days with my brother, a good friend and 2 guides. Our bodies were tired and our souls refreshed. Rocky Mountain Outfitters’ Kevin Meland and Marc Erickson taught us how to navigate the land, find the elk and be men.

Our conversations often turned to our families. Each of us have a wife and children that we love and missed. I thought a lot about how I can be a better husband and dad. My perspective was quite different from the other men, but our challenges are the same. I gained refreshment and a renewal of purpose.

Tara held down the fort by herself while I was away. My brother’s wife came for the week to provide encouragement, help and friendship while I was away. Tara is feeling better each day and we are thankful to God for that. Her challenge is to have energy in the daily grind. But her spirits are up.

God has been faithful to us in refreshing our souls and putting people in our lives who encourage and challenge us.

Looker-Forward Looking Back

I have never been a very reflective person. Tara either. We are bad with family pictures, scrapbooks, kid videos and more. The good side of this is that we are always looking forward, planning and purposeful in our steps. The bad side is that we don’t appreciate what we have and savor the good things of life.

Since February, I have been remembering much more through blogging. And I like it. It has been a treat for me to live in that world for a while. But over time I am being drawn back to what is more innate. That is looking forward. And once again missing out on the joys and benefits of reflection.

We sat in Dr. Bible’s office yesterday while he and a new oncology fellow spat out their medical jargon about what has gone on. It was like they forgot we were there and spoke in their own language for a brief moment. They spoke things like “The small left pleural effusion and mild associated pleural nodularity have resolved, including the left anterior pleural nodule. The small pericarial effusion present 1/29/2013 has decreased. Anterior mediastinal, left supraclavicular, and bilateral internal mammary lymphadenopathy has resolved.” And it went on and on.

Somehow we understood all that was said. It was like they were speaking clearly the miracles of God and we knew it. The short version of the findings; the CA125 is undetectable, the pockets of fluid are decreasing in all areas (around heart, in abdomen), there are no tumors, white and red blood cells are close to normal, there is no numbness in the extremities (which evidently is common with extended chemo), there are no internal problems remaining from the surgery, and this goes on and on.

We don’t pretend to put God in a box to say that the only way he can show his power is through healing. But we believe for the present time, he could be showing his power this way. Far more often his power is shown through unexplainable hope in the midst of trials. Through survival when destruction seems imminent. Through using a situation like this to build faith. He has been doing miracles all along for us.

Yesterday was a great day. It won’t be hard to reflect on that day often. now three more months until the next appointment. There I go looking ahead again.

Recounting

I wasn’t with her, but she called it surreal. It’s been over a month since her last clinic visit, and closer to two since her last poke. She vividly recounts the months of visits before, many times in a wheelchair. She recalled being looked at with pity. She recalled the needle-pricked veins. The weakness. The routine. She was never really fond of it all but it grew to be normal. Now, a short time later, it is only a memory. Going back reminded her that she doesn’t want to be there again.

We laid in bed last night as she describe this. I watched her talking as she laid on her back and looked up. I was caught off guard by the tear that rolled from the outer corner of her eye toward her ear. This clinic visit was emotional for her and I just figured that out. It dawned on me that I never experienced her side of it. I may have been pushing the wheelchair and holding her hand in some of the moments, but she was there every time. It was her. Her veins. Her frailty. Her pain. Her nausea. Her goals gone. Her body broken. As the tears continued she said, “I don’t think I could go through that again.”

She went on to describe the encounters with others who were going through what she went through. She knew what they were feeling. She found some purpose in her experience as she related to them and spoke encouragement to them.

We don’t get professional interpretation of the results until September 13, but her blood work shows that the CA125 number is down even lower than the last time she had it checked a month ago. Her white blood cell count and hemoglobin are also down which is not great. Ironically today she got sick with a low grade fever and feeling like crap.

This new phase takes some extra faith. We look back and see the hard road we traveled and wonder how we got to here. God was faithful to sustain us all along.