Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Pervasive Sadness

Okay, I think I need to be a little bit transparent and confess. I've been struggling the past few weeks.

It's been a whirlwind. I think that most of the people reading this are aware of my dad's 9-year struggle with Alzheimers, and the fact that he died on December 30. His death capped a two-year marathon of caring for him. Then two weeks ago I took his ashes to Alabama, and along with my two brothers and my aunt (my mom's sister, who was a missionary to northern Africa for 45 years), and with some of my dad's friends back in his hometown where he had laid my mom to rest, we buried his ashes next to her plot in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery.

We had an enjoyable time of fellowship that week. I put 1600 miles on a rental car and drove Aunt Dorothy back to her home in Sebring, Florida, then up to Atlanta for a four-day business conference. Then home again, and immediately back to work.

It felt nonstop and I had this weird pervasive sense of numbness and tiredness when I got home. It didn't help that I'd had the flu for an entire two weeks before I left for Alabama. But as I began to try and get readjusted I couldn't shake this pervading sense of what seemed like sadness. I wondered if it was just the physical effects of the workload, the flu, the stress of a busy few weeks.

Last Monday night I had a speaking engagement in Bothell, about 90 minutes north of where I live. I had received an e-mail 8 or 9 months earlier from a woman representing the Northwest Christian Writer's Association asking me to speak about "writing opportunities for nonprofits" at one of their meetings. My sense was that it was a smallish group, a fairly informal meeting, perhaps speaking for 20 or 30 minutes in general terms then sitting and just chatting. We e-mailed back and forth a few times during the summer then I didn't hear any more.

Of course, in the intervening 8 months the economic landscape has changed dramatically. Now I could answer the question, "What are opportunities for Christian writers at nonprofits right now?" in about one minute. (Or however long it takes to say, "Sorry, there really are no opportunities right now.") So I was having a hard time thinking about what to speak on for 20 or 30 minutes. I began to feel a little nervous about the event. The week after I returned from Alabama I e-mailed my contact and asked for more information. What kind of people (and how many) were attending the meeting? What were their expectations and how best could I help? How long did she want me to speak, and what was the format like? How should I dress? Etc.

The Monday of the event rolled in and I hadn't heard back from her, and hadn't done any real preparation yet. I half suspected perhaps the event had been cancelled and they had just forgotten to tell me. I spent most of Monday fiddling with my thoughts, trying to put together an outline for various types of formats and lengths of time. But I had a really hard time coming up with anything substantive. I threw together a very small and informal PowerPoint presentation. Put pictures of my family on it, and stuff like that. I felt like I had the equivalent of "writer's block" (speakers block?), mostly because I wasn't sure what to expect.

Thus, the time arrived for me to make the 90 minute drive north. I tried to eat a small dinner but I just wasn't hungry. I started out two hours before my scheduled arrival time just because I wasn't sure about traffic. And as I began to drive north, my stress level began to climb. My stomach ached and my throat felt weird. I felt suddenly feverish and thought I must be getting sick again. At one point I pulled off the freeway and stopped at a gas station, not because I really needed fuel, but mainly because I thought I might throw up and wanted to be near a bathroom. I felt a growing sense of dread as I approached Bothell.

I arrived at an enormous church 20 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to start. I saw some lights on in some classrooms, but they were vacant and I couldn't find anyone there. Finally I found a janitor who told me I was on the wrong side of the very large church complex.

As I approached the right side of the church, I realized how wrong I had been. I walked into an enormous meeting room, filled with what looked like 150-200 people sitting at tables. At the entrance to the room, people were lined up, checkbooks out, paying to get in. As I walked up, people turned and looked at me. They recognized me. I recalled that I had e-mailed them my picture for their newsletter. I glanced up at the enormous stage, and the screen behind it that gave my name as the keynote speaker.

I tried not to swoon as they greeted me and pinned a namebadge on me. "How long am I speaking for?" I croaked. They told me I was on at 8:05 and would be speaking until 8:45, then I should leave 15 minutes for questions. I excused myself to go "wash up."

By the time I got back to the car tears were streaming down my face and I was gasping for breath. I felt like I was having a panic attack. The urge to start the engine and just drive off into the night was powerful. I was thankful I had left my laptop back in the room, so I couldn't really leave. So instead I dialed Darlene. When she answered she said, "What's wrong?"

"I just walked into a room full of at least a hundred writers. They are paying to get in. I found out I'm the keynote speaker and I have 40 minutes to give a formal presentation. And I really have no idea what I'm going to say."

Darlene was her usual, calm self. "Forty minutes should be no problem for you," she chuckled. "You're a good storyteller. Just tell stories and tie them to your main point. Smile. Laugh at yourself. You'll do fine." She assured me she would call some of our friends and ask them to pray. After we were done, I prayed a desperate man's prayer for help, crying out to Jesus in that car in a dark parking lot with its steamed up windows for 10 or 15 minutes, then mopped my face, plucked up my courage as best I could, and returned to the meeting room.

I had 15 minutes before I was on. I noticed the PowerPoint presentations that everyone was using were about 10 times more elegant than mine. So I wasted 14 of those 15 minutes polishing mine up a bit, then handed it on a jump drive to the technician. "I'm sorry," he told me honestly, "I don't think I have time to put this in now. You're on in one minute."

"That's okay," I assured him. "The Lord is in control. Do what you can." He put the jump drive in his pocket. He was dealing with another problem.

I was being introduced. A minute later, I walked up and wired myself into the wireless mike. I still had no idea what I was going to say for 40 minutes. "Lord," I prayed silently. "I don't care as much about looking like a fool as I care about wasting these good people's time. Please help me. Speak through me."

I remembered my wife's advice. I started by sharing stories of how the Lord developed me as a writer, some of my writing experiences, coming to World Vision, and what a great organization World Vision is, and why. I spoke about how we used freelance and contract writers. I had chatted with Jim, a very nice fellow who is a communications vice president for Crista Ministries, earlier in the day, and shared some of his thoughts with the group. I talked a bit about my recent experience with the radio team and working on World Vision's social networking technologies, and how much promise those held for the way we as writers communicate. I just talked.

It felt discombobulated, but people seemed interested enough. When I started question and answers, I was relieved that there were a few questions I could sink my teeth into.

Afterward, there was a line of people waiting to talk with me. I chatted with folks for an hour. I was so blessed by the people I talked with, they were so kind and gracious and genuine. But best of all, there was this beautiful, sweet, small elderly woman who had been sitting next to me. She now held my hand unashamedly. She was disabled to some extent, and shared how she had struggled for years with bouts of brain cancer and treatment for it. She showed me a notebook full of beautiful illustrations which she had done. They took my breath away.

Yes, my struggles were real, and painful, and challenging. But sitting next to this woman, this saint, this hand of Jesus who reached and and took mine and wouldn't let it go, somehow put it all into perspective. Her challenges were enormous, way too large for her small frame, but not too large for God. Her attitude, her sense of joy, spilled over from her onto me.

She reminded me of that hero of heaven in C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce -- Sarah, a woman who nobody knew on earth but who was celebrated by a procession of bright spirits due to the way she allowed God's love to spill over from her onto all she came in contact with. I found myself not wanting to leave that room when a scant two hours before it had been all I could do not to bolt for the door.

I don't know whether she or anyone else was really blessed by what I had to say that night. They probably thought, "Oh brother, he didn't prepare, did he?" But no matter. I am trusting that the God who wanted me to be there spoke through me, somehow, despite my weakness, my pervasive sadness and tiredness and numbness.

I know that he could do so, because he used others who had refused to succumb to the battle, to speak to me.