The Vacant Lot: Crisis and Story

November 3rd, 2011
This article is featured in the Rites of Passage (Nov/Dec/Jan 2011-12) issue of Circuit Rider

It all began with walking aimlessly around a vacant lot. Each day, I would shuffle through dirt, kick an occasional aluminum can, and side step mud puddles that transformed the barren lot into “moon craters.” Although I was uncharacteristically out of breath during this blind ritual, I kept circling what had been the footprint of Tyler’s Restaurant like I was walking a labyrinth.

At the time, circling the vacant lot seemed like a good way to mourn the loss of my favorite restaurant. I suppose that wandering was my way of “acting out” the emotions that I did not have the words to express. It never occurred to me that something as unassuming as saying goodbye to a favorite place would quickly progress into saying goodbye to life as I knew it. Struggling to accept that my favorite restaurant had been leveled to make way for a new building, I would soon discover that this vacant lot would become the key to unlocking the mystery of what was being leveled within me.

I continued to have experiences with shortness of breath and went to the doctor to see what was wrong. To my surprise, I was told that I was suffering from end-stage kidney disease due to undiagnosed high blood pressure. Unprepared for this diagnosis, I tried to come to terms with the devastating news that felt a lot like a death sentence. My life had been leveled into a vacant lot and I could no longer make sense of things. And before I could explore this emerging new story, three painful events sent me on an emotional rollercoaster: I immediately began home dialysis ten hours per night; my marriage fell apart and eventually ended in a painful separation and divorce; and my mother was diagnosed with liver cancer and died six months later.

Each one of these crises could have easily crippled a person; but going through all three at once was a triple whammy and would be enough to cause a person to lose faith. I was no different. My faith was crumbling, and it felt as if I were in exile away from God. In the past, I would face a crisis with a “suck it up and move on” attitude. This old way of dealing with a crisis would no longer work, however, and its magnitude caused my “God-box,” the framework and worldview that was filled with bits of scriptural wisdom and assumptions about God’s nature, to burst at the seams. Similarly, my way of seeing God as “protector” no longer fit, and I was forced to find a new God image. Images and stories of God as a nurturing and guiding presence during experiences of alienation, displacement, and exile provided comfort to me during this time. Relating to the great biblical stories of human crises helped make my transition, from good health to living with kidney disease, a purposeful event, so that I could eventually rewrite my story.

During every life transition, we are invited to connect the stories of our lives to a larger story of meaning and purpose. My experience of grieving the loss of Tyler’s in a vacant lot was similar to the Old Testament patriarch Abraham’s story of leaving a comfortable life for a venture of faith into the unknown. My story and Abraham’s story were examples of the letting go phase of transition where we must relinquish control of an outcome. Amidst this letting-go phase, I was invited to accept that my body was sick and that I needed to let go of the notion that I was “well” before I could move any further. This was a painful process to sort through, and I got stuck. I did not know who I was anymore or whether I would ever be healthy again.

Being stuck and “not knowing” are characteristics of the enduring limbo phase, which, during a transition, is filled with confusion, fear, and uncertainty. The diagnosis of kidney disease required me to suffer through limbo where I desperately tried to recapture my sense of what it meant to be healthy again. At first, I thought my story was similar to Job’s story of struggling with physical, emotional, and spiritual calamity and his friends’ notion that sickness was a sign of God’s punishment. But instead of falling into the trap of making rational arguments and proclaiming spiritual truths to support the misguided notion that sickness was God’s punishment, my failed kidneys forced me to search for a more fundamental story that focused on bringing order out of chaos—chaos being the name for the way we experience the unknown and unpredictable.

I stumbled upon the Exodus story and when reading it through the lens of my kidney disease, I began to intuitively connect my wandering in the vacant lot with the Israelite’s exodus from Egyptian captivity to freedom. During this time in limbo, I found it helpful to reframe my vacant lot experience with the wilderness metaphor of God leading the people, though in a roundabout way, out of the wilderness. According to the story, the band of fugitive slaves had left behind the secure, familiar, but oppressive Egypt. But before they were finally able to cross the river into the new country of promise, they meandered through “no-place,” travelling in frustrated circles, wandering in the wilderness, a huge vacant lot, for forty years! Somehow this state of wandering was necessary for the people to discover who they were as God’s people. I also had to wander and wonder through the wilderness of kidney disease to discover a story of “new beginning,” which enabled me to emerge from this major life transition with a new understanding of God’s nature and ways of working in the world.

Moving through this major life transition required me to mark my deep life changes so that I could understand where I had been and where I was going. Looking back on my wanderings through the vacant lot, I now see how I was unknowingly following the pattern of the exodus like a makeshift “ritual of transition,” or a rite of passage. Often religious or sacred in nature, rituals of transitions help mark when a person reaches a new and significant change in his or her life, and involve a physical acting out of what a person is emotionally experiencing during a transition.

Following my own modern-day exodus ritual of transition, being sidetracked and wandering in circles toward my own version of God’s Promised Land, I was looking for hope to relieve my suffering. In order to get to the Promised Land, I had to let go of my old “Egypt-systems thinking,” represented by the life that I was accustomed to before getting sick. I discovered that I was not wandering alone in the vacant lot; God was walking beside me, guiding me, just as God had done with the people of Israel. This experience became a “living metaphor” and I had a first-hand experience of what the people of the exodus learned: God can be discovered and trusted in the midst of wilderness wandering. I carried this new insight with me through dialysis, transplantation, and transplant rejection; and I currently carry it during my return to dialysis as I await a second kidney transplant. From this, the new beginning phase of transition, I have emerged with a renewed faith in God, who faithfully walks with us through the wilderness experiences of life.

As I discovered that every ritual of transition, whether performed consciously or stumbled upon, involves metanoia, and helps us to investigate our feelings, assumptions, beliefs, and fears. Metanoia, the Greek word translated in the Bible as “repentance,” literally means “to go beyond our present way of thinking.” It implies a redefining or turning of our whole selves, including our faults, strengths, and everything else in-between, toward God’s grace to rewrite our stories. Depending on where we are in the transition process, we will encounter several stories along the way. Remembering our stories in the light of God’s story during a transition invites us to make sense of our life experiences in light of God’s powerful work in human history.

The lot is no longer vacant, as a bank was built on it a few years ago. Occasionally, I still walk through the parking lot reminiscing about how the vacant lot provided a means to help me embody a difficult transition. Over the course of my transition, my story was transformed several times. My faith was shaken, stirred, and poured out again in a new shape. The physical and emotional ordeals helped remove the burden of worrying about health challenges that I did not ask for. I emerged from my wilderness wanderings as a modern-day person of the exodus, filled with a renewed faith in God, who walks alongside us to transform our painful transitions into something sacred.

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