Tuesday, January 23, 2018

“Pass the Bottle” (again) by Jerry L. Smith, Ph.D (aka my dad)

I just couldn’t stop crying. Sometimes, I didn’t even know what I was crying about.  Was I crying for my deceased wife or was I crying for myself?  There was certainly no need to cry for her because she was no longer suffering.  I guess most of the tears were shed because I was feeling sorry for myself…feeling abandoned, and feeling isolated within the prison of my grief. But regardless of the “why” for the tears, they were all collected in God’s bottle. At least that is what is recorded in Psalm 56:8, “You have kept count of my tossing: put my tears in your bottle.” (ESV) King David penned those words while a POW in Gath. A prisoner of the Philistines. And assumably, someone that had leaky eyes too.

I got to the point that I was no longer ashamed of crying in front of people. My eyes frequently looked as if I had just come from a Cheech and Chong concert, but nothing could have been further from the truth.  I was just having a bad day, or a bad week, or a bad month, or even a bad 2 minutes! And according to the Bible, not a single one of those tears were wasted….they were all collected by God. Symbolizing His watchcare over me.
God doesn't just collect our tears, but He is emotionally moved by our tears. One example is when He was confronted by a grieving sister over the loss of her brother.  Mary, in a heap at the feet of Jesus, wailed, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Verse 33 in the narrative of John 11 enlightens us on the reaction of Jesus to his good friend Mary’s terse comment, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”  And two verses later, we read that even “Jesus wept.” So how can crying be so bad?

Jesus wept over the death of His friend Lazarus, He wept over the lostness of the Jews in Jerusalem. He wept when He prayed (Hebrews 5:7).
So why should any of us feel ashamed when our vulnerabilities are exposed through the transparency of our tears? Its just natural. Its an emotional release. And it certainly doesn’t go unobserved by a God that loves us and has empathy for our struggle.

God sees every bird that falls to the ground (Mt 10:29). God knows the number of hairs on our head (Luke 12:7). And God is aware of more than follicles and fowl, He is aware of the depth of the pain that you and I are experiencing when life delivers a “Sucker Punch!” So pour your heart out to Him and allow Him to minister to your spirit through His Word, His people, and His presence.

In Heaven, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”(Rev 21:4)…that will indeed be a great time. But until then, “cast your burden on the Lord and He will sustain you.” (Psalm 55:22) He has certainly sustained me!  The tears are not nearly as frequent as they used to be, but I still need His strength and power to live for Him each day. 

Even in the midst of all that I have gone through in the last 3 years, I am convinced that God is, without a doubt, A GOOD GOD! And I hope that you could believe the same, even though I know that you probably feel as if God’s bottle for you is full and overflowing! He is still there with you. Reach out and trust Him with your pain….He can handle it….I promise. Not because I read a book on it, but because I have lived it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

“Where’s Jerry?” by Jerry L. Smith, Ph.d (my dad)

When our group of cyclists would regroup at an intersection or stop sign, the group-leader would yell out to no one in particular, “Where’s Jerry?”

As one of the slowest in the pack, I was always coming up the rear. And since I was new to the group and didn’t know the routes, I always had someone looking out for me….for which I was thankful because riding with a group was brand new to me.

I had always exercised with Patty. From our early days of swimming before work at the YWCA on State Street in Jackson, we moved on to running and biking.  And other than the years when taking care of kids took most of her time and she couldn’t join me, we never exercised with anyone else….and neither did I until I found several groups of people last year that took me in and were always asking, “Where’s Jerry?"

It wasn’t just cycling groups. It was hunting groups. It was different church groups. It was a group of pastors. It was a group of people that had experienced the same tragedy that I had experienced; and they were all asking, “Where’s Jerry?” The support, encouragement, and prayers of these folks have helped me to find life again. Cause after Patty died, the line in John Cougar Mellencamps’s "Jack and Diane” was something that I was living.  He sang, “Life goes on, long after the living is gone,”….and my life was certainly going on, except now I was just existing instead of living. 

There were many months that even I didn’t know “where Jerry” was. I was at the hospital when our first grandchild was born 5 months after Patty passed, but I couldn’t find any joy in that moment of celebration. All I could think about was how spoiled she would have made “Baby Hayes."  I took my daughter on the camping trip that Patty and I took each Fall, and we came home early because it just wasn’t the same. I drove to church on Sunday mornings by myself after having my partner in ministry “ride shotgun” for 32 years (except those two churches where we walked to church because we lived in the parsonage…at those churches, I left early so I wouldn’t have to help with the kids! Ha). I had never pastored a church without her, and the only word that could describe how I felt is “weird.”  All of these instances, as well as many more, made me wonder who I was, where I was, and if I would ever be “normal” again.

And that's why I am so blessed! I would NEVER be as far along in this grief process without all those people that have asked,“Where’s Jerry?”
 I find joy in my ministry, friendships, family, and LIFE! None of that could be possible without all the people who cared!

 In the months since Patty’s passing, I have read enough books on “grief” that I should be awarded some kind of a degree! But though I have matriculated in area of life that registers as many dropouts as graduates, I feel that it was the “people” and not the “books” that had the greatest influence. It was the connection that I had with others that gave me strength…not unlike what happens with Sequoia trees.

The General Sherman Tree is the world’s largest living thing. Its’s a Sequoia tree located in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California. The strength of this tree, as well as the other Sequoia trees in the park, is found in the inter-connectedness of their root system. The roots of ALL the trees strengthen one another by intertwining themselves. They share nutrients, hydration, support, and stability. And the same can be true in each of our lives.  If we intertwine our lives with others, especially when they (or we) are struggling with the various issues of life, there will be a strength afforded us to continue to grow, thrive, and most importantly, SURVIVE!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

"Hypocritical Funerals” by Jerry L Smith, Ph.D (my dad)

As I approached the pulpit, I thought, “I am about to reassure this family and all these friends that their loved one is in heaven….and I’m not even sure that I believe in heaven anymore.”

I must have preached 7-8 funerals in the 3 months after my wife’s death.  Each one was as painful as going down a slide of razor blades and landing in a pool of alcohol. I would be doing a little bit better and then I would be thrown back into confronting the issues of life and death. My pain was compounded because now I knew EXACLTY how this family felt in their loss. And after 11 years of pastoring the same church (now 13), I didn’t bury church members, I was burying my friends. When I would get a call that someone had died, I cried all the way to the hospital or their home. When I arrived, I did the best to follow my grandmothers advice after she switched me, “you better straighten up that face or I’ll give you something to cry about!” I knew what lay before these families and my heart grieved for all they would have to endure in the next few days.

They would have to contact family members. Songs and Scriptures would have to be picked out. Pictures would have to be perused to capture the essence of their loved one for the slide show at the funeral home or church. Pallbearers would have to be named, flowers ordered, clothes selected, and a grave dug (which costs $1750.00. Especially ridiculous if u have a church where half the members own backhoes!….but u have to use the cemetery’s gravedigger….which makes sense I suppose). And finally, they would get with me and share some thoughts about their loved one and give me a general idea for the direction of the service…and that direction almost always included their desire to have some comments about heaven.

I love to study. Even if I have preached a particular passage of Scripture before, I always go back and study the verses again as if its the first time that I have ever read them. And that's what I did for all those funerals that I preached.  I studied John 14. I studied 2 Cor 5 and 12. I studied Revelation 20 and 21. I studied Luke 16 and Philippians 1. 

And with each funeral, I was growing more and more convinced that heaven was for real! Not because of anything Todd Burpo said, but because of what the Holy Spirit was doing in my heart each time I deconstructed those verses! If you can visualize how the heart of the Grinch grew exponentially as he raced down the mountain towards Whoville, you can understand my elation when I felt like my heart of faith had been recovered, expanded, and restored! 

Henry Blackaby would say that I had a “crisis of faith.” I saw it as a crossroads for my future. I knew that if I couldn’t trust the Bible on what it said about heaven, then how could I trust it on any other topic/theme? And I have too much integrity to preach anything out of the Bible that I don’t first believe in my heart. I’m not saying that I have to completely understand everything in the Bible, but I certainly need to believe it….or else I’m out of job and my life has lost its rudder.

I don’t preach “Hypocritical Funerals” any more.  Now, when I say that the soul of a Christ-follower has transitioned up to heaven, I say it with the same conviction reflected in the words of Jesus when He declared to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Sucker Punched" by Jerry L. Smith, Ph.D aka my dad

When a reporter asked Mike Tyson whether he was worried about Evander Holyfield and his fight plan,Tyson responded, “Everyone has a fight plan until they get punched in the mouth!” Unexpected wisdom from someone that tattooed his face! But still a good life lesson.

My wife and I had a plan of serving God in the local church, having kids, and growing old together. But cancer “punched us in the mouth!” And it wasn’t even a legal punch….it was a “sucker punch!”  A sucker punch is defined as a punch without warning.  The Urban Dictionary calls it a “bitch punch.” A blow made without warning with disastrous results. 

After 32 years of marriage, my partner in theological education at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary where I received both Masters and Doctor of Philosophy degrees, my partner in child-rearing, pastoring churches, exercising in Spin class, lap swimming, and running Half Marathons, was diagnosed with Stage 3C Ovarian Cancer. She was in Heaven 14 months later.

We had a plan until we got “punched in the mouth.” The plan was to serve Jesus in a local congregation, travel, grow old together, serve in mission endeavors, and spend as much time camping, running, and mountain biking and we could fit into our schedules….and hopefully have grandkids! Patty adored kids! She adored her kids, your kids, and kids in general! For example, when I needed someone to teach a Team Kid Bible Study in our mission church, Patty was the first to volunteer. She worked with the son of our mission pastor, Zach Davis, who helped her to keep these kids who were not “church broke” calm and organized so they could hear the Word of God.  Patty always made sure that she carried Zach a supper plate from the Wednesday night supper at our church (where she worked in the kitchen). She and this big, football playing, blue-eyed, curly haired brunette told a group of African-American kids about Jesus every Wednesday night. 

Patty was devastated when she heard that Zach had died in a one car accident on a Friday morning during his Senior year of High School. I will never forget standing with his parents in the hospital, Floyd and Kay Davis, as we identified Zach’s body. As I preached  his funeral, all I could see was kids filling the sanctuary and flooding into the streets outside of the church. He was a deeply religious young man who served the Lord and helped my wife as they shared the gospel as a team at New Hope Baptist Church.

I share this story to communicate how much she loved kids and how my family is not the only one that feels “sucker punched” from time to time. If we live long enough, every one of us will get popped in the mouth and sent to the mat. Some of us pop back up as if we weren’t even hit…too embarrassed for getting struck and hoping no one saw. These are the ones that act like the punch didn’t hurt and try to cover their pain with either pious platitudes or complete silence (if we don’t talk about it then maybe it didn’t really happen).

 On the other hand, some of us lay there as the ten-second count echoes  in our heads while we are trying to decide if its even worth it to try and stand up again. And though I got back on my feet (eventually), I often wondered if I should have just stayed down.

In future posts, I will share with you why I am glad that I didn’t stay on the mat, as well as some of the things that  have helped me to “live to fight another day."  The thought of the devil strutting around the ring with his gloves in the air claiming victory was something that I just coudn't allow to happen. I basically said the same thing that Patty and I said in the first 2 years of our marriage when we were contemplating divorce.

After struggling with our relationship in the early days of matrimony, we discussed divorce.  And the only thing that kept us together was our commitment to God.  Not so much to one another, but our commitment to God who we felt had brought us together. We just couldn’t dissolve our union and break His heart. It was our love for God that kept us together…..not our love for one another. So we started going to counseling, praying together, compromising, and working on our relationship with the help of the Holy Spirit. And throughout our 32 years of marriage, we often talked about what a mistake it would have been if we had not determined to honor God through our vows and allow Him to work in our hearts. We often thanked God in our prayer time together that He has given us such a “one flesh” relationship. 

And the same is true now in my situation.  I want to honor God and allow Him to work through this catastrophic event that has come uninvited into my life. And even though I have been “sucker punched” by cancer, I refuse to allow the death of my wife to define me or destroy me. I guess you could say that I am becoming a Phoenix!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

But, how do you live life sober?

I have butterflies in my stomach as I type this. I'm about to share something so very personal in the hopes of it helping someone else.

I am a drug addict. I am an alcoholic. I spent 79 days in treatment getting sober and learning (and continuously learning) how to live life on life's terms. It was hard. It was messy. I was ungrateful, entitled, spoiled and humbled. COPAC saved my life. This is how...

In 2014 I began taking some medication to help ease the stress of wedding planning. Once my marriage fell apart, so did my sanity. The alcohol increased and so did the medication. They were "legally and lawfully" mine (as I liked to say), so how could I have a problem if my name was on them? *I had a problem*

In 2015 my mom got sick. I fell apart. I pretended I wasn't crumbling, but I was. So quickly. I began taking my medication, my mom's medication and anyone else's medication I could scramble.

In 2016 my mom died. My whole world shattered. I didn't care if I lived or died. I had no husband. I had no mother. I thought I had no purpose. I wanted to die. I tried to do that several times, but each time I'd wake up and think "damn it... still here."

By 2017 you'd think after over dosing alone in my apartment a few times would scare me enough into reaching out for help. It didn't. I would have days or weeks I just blacked out on. I didn't remember conversations with my friends and family and soon it caught up to me. I lost my job because of my addiction. Keep in mind, I didn't think I had a problem. I didn't even realize I was blacking out. The holes in my memory were forgotten as soon as I remembered they were there.

I fell into such a deep depression I didn't leave my house. I had food delivered. I made up excuses as to why I couldn't see people or do things with anyone. I had become physically dependent on the drugs and was taking them in such large amounts that when I did not take anything, I became sick.

On July 11th I had a job interview... an important job interview. One I really wanted. So, I did not take any Xanax that day. Unfortunately, my body was so used to it, I had a seizure in the middle of my job interview, because I was going through withdrawals. It's safe to say I didn't get the job.

I can remember being in the ER at Baptist Hospital and my dad just so angry with me. He's been angry with my in the past, but he was ANGRY. He made several phone calls, said I was coming home with him and to go get my dogs. I was too scared to talk back and too selfish to see how scared he was.

I woke up the next morning and my dad was just getting back home from driving out to COPAC in Brandon. He gently, ever so cautiously, asked if I would consider going to treatment for 30 days. I had nothing left to lose. I agreed.

For the first 21 days I was at COPAC I was on detox meds. Usually you detox for a few days or a week. I had so much Xanax in my system it took me a little longer...

At first I didn't mind being there... I was also high on detox meds so that helped. When my 30 day mark was coming up, I had not made enough progress to get to go home. As much as I talk, I keep anything and everything serious inside my own head. I cried. I sobbed. I yelled. I pitched a fit only an entitled brat could. I embarrassed myself and later apologized to my counselor for doing so.

When I got to the 60 day mark, I had made more progress, but not enough. I realized I resented my mom for dying. I was angry at my dad for not making her go to the doctor sooner. I was jealous of my sister for having her life more together than me. This is when it got really good. I realized I didn't want to die. I understood that my dad already buried my mom and he didn't want to bury me too.

I was getting close to 80 days and my counselor- Bobbie Love-Johnson- said we would talk on Monday about my discharge plans. I prayed all day Sunday about what it was God wanted me to do. What he wanted my next step to be. I had a peace with whatever Mrs. Bobbie said I needed to do, I was going to do.

The next day, Mrs. Bobbie came in and said "how about Austin, TX?" I said yes. My dad came and picked me up 3 days later and drove me straight here.

I'm alive not because I wanted to be, but because I have a family that loves me and a counselor who didn't give up on me. Mrs. Bobbie told me she would be my life jacket until I realized I could swim. She helped save me when I didn't even know if I wanted to be saved.

I share this in the hopes of helping someone else struggling. I've been SO embarrassed. (I mean, I disappeared for almost 3 months. Did anyone miss me??) But today, I had a nudging feeling to write a quick recap of the last few months and years. I don't wish the pain I went through on anyone. But, if you happen to find yourself feeling that pain, I can relate. I understand. I am forever changed because of it.

Life is precious, life is sweet. I am 146 days clean. My family is PROUD of me again. I have a job. I have friends who love and support me. I have Oliver at the foot of my bed snoring and a God who gave his only Son for me. He didn't allow me to die, when I so badly wanted to and tried to. I'm not sure what His purpose is for my life, but I plan on to continue seeking Him to find it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Even If You Don't My Hope Is You Alone

I have such a heavy heart today. Actually, if I'm being honest, I've had such a heavy heart for weeks, months and now it's coming up on years. With each new coping mechanism I try, medication, exercise (which lasted all of a week), to professional therapy the result is the same. I'm sad. So now I'm learning to live with the grief and hoping happiness will make its way into my life again. I long for the day I can say "it is well with my soul". It just does not seem like that day is coming anytime soon. I have recently related to and obsessed over this new MercyMe song shared to me by my best friend Emily.

They say sometimes you win some
Sometimes you lose some
And right now, right now I'm losing bad
I've stood on this stage night after night
Reminding the broken it'll be alright
But right now, oh right now I just can't

It's easy to sing
When there's nothing to bring me down
But what will I say
When I'm held to the flame
Like I am right now

I know You're able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone

They say it only takes a little faith
To move a mountain
Well, good thing
A little faith is all I have right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul

I know You're able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt
Would all go away if You'd just say the word
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone

You've been faithful, You've been good
All of my days
Jesus, I will cling to You
Come what may
‘Cause I know You're able
I know You can

I know You're able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt
Would all go away if You'd just say the word
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone

It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

Why does God keep allowing the pain of loss? It's so easy for Him to just say "enough" let this child have a break. My therapist asked me what I would do in a hypothetical situation that would be seen as yet another trauma, I laughed and said, "add it to the list". Apparently, humor is not the best coping mechanism. Whatever. I find it fine for now... I'm working on that.

It is my job to work closely with families here at the hospital, and today I had the opportunity to meet a family who lost their child last year. They raised a substantial amount of money for the particular hospital center that treated him. I can't help but be in awe of their strength because the last thing I want to do is go to St. Dominic's cancer center. It makes me physically ill to think about going in that infusion room again... much less raise money.

I've recently thought about how to answer people when they ask "how are we doing?" when I honestly want to be like "how do you think I'm doing?" But, I refrain, and politely say "ok". But the more articles I read on grief and how to grieve and the "proper" way to grieve the more I realize, I'll always grieve. It's just learning to live with it. How do you learn to live with such a hole in your heart? I don't know but again, I long for the day I can honestly say "it is well with my soul". Watching those parents today give so joyfully made me really think and stop throwing such a pity party for myself. Yeah, life is hard. Dying is easy. But, for some reason, I'm still here and there's gotta be a reason.

I've had the opportunity to help place a cavalier in his forever home a few weeks ago. The joy that opportunity alone gave me shown all over my face. Even if it is helping to rescue these crazy pups my mom so dearly loved, that's something.

April is going to be a hard month. For all of us. I miss my mom so much it hurts. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. I can't wait to see her again. I make sure there are flowers on her grave- even though she isn't even there. It's something small I can do... actually, it's so people know we love her. She would probably laugh and say don't you dare waste money on flowers. But I can't be seen as not caring, can I? ;) I still don't know how to grieve, but I'll let you know when I figure that out- if ever.