Wednesday, March 18, 2009

From Out of Rocky Terrain--A Beautiful Soul Grows. Welcome, Patti Hill to Words to Go

Author Patti Hill has a seemingly perfect life—two sons in college. Her hubby’s gardening business has led to his own radio and TV show and, judging from the organic book covers, has certainly informed Patti’s novels. But Patti’s first novel also came with some nearly debilitating news. Today Patti Hill shares her own Greening of the Soul story. Welcome, Patti, to Words to Go!

PATTI: Thank you, Patty!

PATTY: You know we’re going to confuse people.

PATTI: I’m the one with the “I”.

PATTY: None of us ever asks for trouble in life. But sometimes it comes knocking, seemingly out of nowhere, doesn’t it?

PATTI: I’ve avoided reading I Peter, James, and those pesky beginning verses in Romans 5 whenever possible. I don’t like suffering. Pain hurts. Count it all joy? I don’t think so. Not that I didn’t have the doctrine of suffering down. I knew exactly how God used suffering in other people’s lives to refine them, draw them into a new intimacy with His Son, and to clear the dross out of a believer’s soul. So, other than giving birth to two sons and chronic migraines, pain was for people who needed it.

PATTY: If there’s one thing we know, life comes with the good and the bad, doesn’t it?

PATTI: For me, writing my first manuscript and my journey of suffering are a story that must be told together. I quit teaching in the spring of 1999 to answer the call to write that I’d first heard as a teenager. I needed every one of those in-between years to glean skills worthy of the Master. I’d earned an English Literature degree, attended fiction-writing seminars, and most importantly, developed a work ethic.

PATTY: For those emerging writers who visit Words to Go, this is often where the sheep and the goats are separated—the work ethic is ground zero for a pro writer.

PATTI: Once I no longer had 65-hour work weeks to hold me back, it only took a year to garner the courage—isn’t that what research is for?— to type the first words of Like a Watered Garden. I needed a deadline, so I paid for a critique at a writer’s conference. Lauraine Snelling was working as an acquisitions editor for Bethany House at the time. At our meeting, she sent me home to write two more chapters and a proposal. She also gave me the business card of her literary agent and advised me to contact her as well.

PATTY: And go to those writer’s conferences . . .

PATTI: I sweated over those first three chapters and prepared to mail the proposal to Bethany House and the literary agent. I remember sliding the proposal into the envelope, aware that my hands ached. Strange. Since I can read English and had access to the Internet, I diagnosed myself with carpal tunnel syndrome. I also prescribed treatment: two UGLY splints to wear 24/7.

PATTY: My doctor hates it when I self-diagnose.

PATTI: But the pain got worse and spread to my feet. Touching the gas pedal of the car became increasingly painful. I stopped driving and consulted a parade of doctors. Each one shook his head and sent me for one more scan in the MRI machine, six in all. And a spinal tap. And evoked response tests. And nerve conductivity tests. And odd exercises and home traction machines. Electrical current acupuncture was a definite low point. Nothing helped.

PATTY: This was probably when you were beginning to feel that awful loss of control over life, wasn’t it?

PATTI: Yes. Every day, I woke up with pain in my hands and feet that grew increasingly worse through the day, radiating up my arms and legs. By 9:00 AM, I wondered how I was going to make it through the rest of the day. The pain felt like blunt stakes being pressed through my hands and feet, a bittersweet fellowship I shared with our Lord.

PATTY: A beautiful metaphor for a horrible season.

PATTI: I couldn’t touch the dog or fold towels for the pain. It took several days to recover from riding in a car.

PATTY: Yet, your career as a novelist stretched before you.

PATTI:I started praying that Bethany House would reject the novel.

PATTY: For anyone suffering writer’s angst, this speaks highly to your degree of pain you were enduring.

PATTI: Exactly. God answered that prayer, so I stowed the manuscript in a spare closet and wept as if someone dear had died. The agent, however, called several days later to offer representation after reading the proposal. I told her I wasn’t sure I would be writing. After that phone call, I begged God to heal me. “Lord,” I said, “I can’t be a better person than I am right now!”

PATTY: Never pay that.

PATTI: He disagreed.

PATTY: But you responded in a healthy way.

PATTI: I was desperate. I spent my days reading every story of healing in the Bible, looking for a pattern, hoping for a surefire litany of sorts to compel God to heal me. There are no patterns and certainly no magic words. Healing is as individual as snowflakes, a demonstration of the Lord’s compassion and sovereignty. My goal was to cling to the hem of His garment. The pain had flayed me. The doctors had no answers. Jesus was my one and only hope.

PATTY: But if writing was painful, then . . .

PATTI: I could only read for short snippets of time. The rest of the day was spent on the floor, flat on my back, listening to worship songs like Just Give Me Jesus and I Am. I set the timer for 30 minutes because my PT wanted me to keep moving. I walked from the living room to the bedroom where I kept a stack of index cards with the names of my family members written on each one. I shuffled the deck and prayed for the person on the top card, before returning to the sunbeam and stereo. My world grew smaller and smaller.

PATTY: I’m sure you saw your dream slipping away as you struggled through each painful second.

PATTI: The months ticked away. My symptoms worsened. I became weaker and weaker. I taped instructions for my funeral to the inside cover of my Bible and told my husband to remarry—anyone but a woman named Bambi.

PATTY: This is a good idea. Note to self.

PATTI: My ministry during this time was twofold. First, I forgave well-meaning people who asked me if I harbored unconfessed sin in my life.

PATTY: Job’s friends. I’ve had a few too.

PATTI: You can bet I took care of that early on. I wanted so badly to live in faith during this time, but I didn’t know what that looked like. Would I stop going to doctors? Would I shred my exercise instructions? Honestly, I couldn’t picture what faith looked like with chronic pain that left me feeling raw and useless.And then I came across the story of Jesus taking the disciples across the lake after a particularly exhausting day of healings and teaching. In Luke 8 Jesus says, “Let’s go to the other side of the lake.” A vacation? The disciples jumped aboard, and remember, seven of them were fishermen. They knew boats. Jesus soon fell asleep on a bed of nets. His dreaming continued even when a squall swamped the boat. The disciples woke him saying, “We’re going to drown!”

PATTY: I’ve said that a few times, if I’m going to be honest.

PATTI: My throat tightened as I read this account. I knew just how those poor disciples felt. I’d followed Jesus for thirty years, and now, when I finally stood at the threshold of my calling, my life was being drained away by undiagnosed pain, and soon, if a majority of the doctors were right, I would be dead. I felt betrayed.

PATTY: But for every story I’ve heard like this, there is always that crisis of faith.

PATTI: The Bible story continues. Jesus wastes no time. He rebukes the wind and raging waters, and “all was calm.” “Calm my storm, Lord!” was my response. “Please, Lord, please.” But after calming the storm, Jesus turned to the disciples and asked, “Where is your faith?”How could he be so cruel? Didn’t he understand the fragility of humanity? The boat was sinking. I was getting weaker and weaker, the pain intractable. Have a heart, Jesus!

PATTY: Thankfully, he does.

PATTI: It took me a few days, maybe more, to ask Him this: If the disciples’ reaction to a real threat on their lives demonstrated a lack of faith, then what is faith supposed to look like when a boat is sinking? Would I have to stop baling, also known as hunting the Internet for a cure? Would I have to stop clinging to the mast, my way of living in fear? Should I rebuke the waves, take command over my malady? What?

PATTY: It’s true. My first response is to reach for the high road, for the character to do the right thing. But when the right thing is a muddle of multiple choice responses, all we can do is just stand.

PATTI: Yes! He responded. “I want you to lie on the nets with Me and take a nap.” “I drowning here,” I replied. “I told you we were going to the other side of the lake. Have I ever lied to you before?”“Never.”“Then rest with Me.”“Can I still go to my doctor’s appointments?”“Sure.”“How about my sleeping pills?”“I’m delivering you to the far shore. What happens between now and then matters very much to Me, but rest with Me for the journey.”

PATTY: This sounds familiar.

PATTI: Metaphors are my stock and trade, so I asked, “Where is this far shore? Is it like a shoreline where my pain ends and health begins, or is it the other side of the Jordan River? That could be thirty-five years from now, maybe longer.”

PATTY: It’s often the desire for control that he’s asking us to relinquish.

PATTI: “Whether you arrive at the far shore tomorrow or many years from now, I want you to rest with Me.” So, faith looks like a nap on fishing nets. I laid in the sunbeam, picturing myself on a swamping boat. The roiling sea pounded the deck with wave after wave as I clung to the mast.

PATTY: I think we were clinging to the mast in yesterday’s interview too. There’s a lot of that going around.

PATTI: Going to rest with Jesus meant letting go of the mast and walking toward a small door to the hull. Even in my imagination, I made false starts, only to cling to the mast that offered only superficial safety. When I finally opened that door and stepped down the ladder, Jesus raised his arm, inviting me to lay with him like two spoons in a drawer. I accepted his invitation for three nanoseconds. On subsequent tries, I tarried longer and longer. I had my picture of faith on stormy seas. What a gift!

PATTY: Sweet surrender.

PATTI: At fifteen months, I had surgery to fuse C-5 and C-6 with two screws and a titanium plate. For all those months, a ruptured disc had been rubbing against the sacral sack of my spinal cord whenever I tilted my head forward as to read or eat. The pain didn’t go away instantly. In fact, I still face limitations, especially when it comes to typing.

PATTY: My friend Terri Blackstock has had to endure a similar life of writing in pain. New writers take heed and take care of your body. Start that yoga class now.

PATTI: It’s all done by God’s grace. Six months after surgery, I could type half a page, and a couple of months later, I was pounding out a page a day. Within a year, I was typing three pages a day. I’m sure Like a Watered Garden and my subsequent offerings have been more honest about the human condition and the struggle to believe in the dark places more, all thanks to His work in me during my journey of suffering. In fact, although I’m likely to be found clinging to the mast on any given day, I see evidence of His refining grace in every facet of my life. And I am so grateful.

PATTY: The big debate among fellow sufferers who are also believers is how they come out of it trusting or not trusting in God's sovereignty--or redefining it. Gerry Sittser says, "The terror of randomness is enveloped by the mysterious purposes of God. . .Loss may appear to be random, but that does not mean that it is. It may fit into a scheme that surpasses even what our imaginations dare to think." Patti, has your view of God's sovereignty been redefined?

PATTI: I’m not a theologian. Truthfully, I don’t care why I suffered. Whether God pointed His finger at me or He chose to use a random injury to demonstrate His faithfulness doesn’t change the result. Others will put it more eloquently, but suffering has humbled me.

PATTY: Simplicity is eloquent.

PATTI: I can say “Thy will be done” and mean it. I’m only passing through, and while my passing through has been amazingly sweet on the whole, I definitely live for the far shore. I’m more aware of my homesick heart. I long to drink from the wedding cup in Jesus’ presence, to see the little mansion He’s prepared for me, and to join the throng in worship. And when I see Him face to face, I will kiss each palm with gratitude.

PATTY: It’s that eternal perspective that Steph and I were talking about yesterday. Interesting that each week, similar themes connect all of our stories into one big eternal story—God is in charge and we are not! Patti, thank you so much for stopping by and giving us a Word to Go. God has certainly greened the garden of your beautiful soul.

PATTI: Thanks for having me, Patti. I would like to leave you all with some presents from my garden.

PATTY: Please say books.

PATTI: My entire library. Like a Watered Garden, Always Green, In Every Flower, and The Queen of Sleepy Eye.

PATTY: You totally rock, girlfriend. Readers, just leave your feedback today and every day and your name will be entered in the Big Straw Hat for a tremendous garden of books to be given away Saturday! Thanks, Patti Hill for stopping by our front porch. That’s all for today at Words to Go!

Tomorrow join Patty as she chats with novelist Amy Wallace who shares another great "Greening of the Soul" story!