“Steady My Heart”

Back in 2012, I decided that I desperately needed a guide-dog to further my independence and enrich my travel experience. In August of that year, I was introduced to Natasha—and she has been a joy and delight to me. However, the actual training experience was difficult. I faced challenges with cherished friends, persecution from instructors and students, condescension at the church I attended during that time, severe sleep deprivation, and a constant fear of failure, all of which led to a period of extended melancholy once I returned home.

But I have written about this. Both on Epinions and on this blog, I have exhausted myself and my readers by dissecting everything that ever went wrong at The Training Center. I have wept and whined and whimpered over institutional food, accommodations, and treatment for so long that I had nearly forgotten the many blessings that the T.C. era held. Now, I believe that the Lord has laid it on my heart to elaborate upon all the blessings of that time. This will be the next step in my healing from traumatic memories—from the spiritual crisis of 2006 as well as from the anxiety and depression of 2012. Following, then, is the post I should have written years ago—all that the Lord did, both in great ways and smaller, to fill my heart with love for Him and for His servants during that month at the Training Center. Quite obviously, the blessing of my guide-dog was a great one—everything from learning the fundamentals of guide-work and of situation-specific commands to the laughter she brought during play, bonding, etc. So, all of that goes without saying. I’m actually here to discuss what the Lord did in a purely spiritual sense through and in the midst of the trials—the rainbows following every storm, His peace and promises illuminating my darkest night.

The day before I was to leave, I had dinner at an Italian restaurant. At the time, I could never have guessed that this cuisine would form a motif of sorts while I was in training, coming to represent comfort and consolation. At that evening’s meal, Naomi, Jedidiah, and Hannah busied themselves for a few minutes in taking some last-minute pictures, so I found some worship music to listen to. Actually, “worship music” is an understatement. What I found on my iPod was a seven-minute song in a foreign language—though, shamefully, I do not know exactly which one. I have music in Dutch, German, Afrikaans, Swahili… and without a good reference point, I’m really not sure what I was listening to. I do know that the song was congregational in nature and highly anointed, and that I have never been able to find it since. When you have over ten thousand songs on your iPod and ten thousand more media files besides (sermons, audio Bibles, etc.), some of your content tends to get lost in the SHUFFLE!—pun intended… The Lord will help me to find that song in His plan, His will, and His timing. Meanwhile, I will treasure it as a blessing for that season.

When I arrived at Center headquarters, I was met by a few things that filled my heart with joy. One, and perhaps the simplest, was an enormous, blue, velvet husband pillow with a small pocket for things like a voice recorder—or a remote control, if creativity has forsaken you. Immediately, I saw the potential of this pillow—to hug during homesick times, to use as an enveloper when in times of worship, and as a sound barrier against other students’ chatter and electronics. Just prop it up correctly so you have a wall and a nightstand on one side and a huge chair-back of a pillow on the other and—voila!—sweet, silent dreams. The pillow seemed to have been made for me, so much so that I tracked one down as soon as I got back home and have cherished it ever since. Then, there were the other touches of home. Dove soap in the bathroom, much like the very kind I had brought, baked zitti al forno for dinner that first night, iced tea available on demand… All of these small gestures allowed me to feel at ease and almost served as confirmation that I was at the correct training school.

My dorm room was two doors down from that of one of the instructors. Across from my room was the laundry facility, and many evenings I was treated to the tranquil hum of the dryer as students did their weekly washing. Just a few paces down the hall was the door leading outside–a quick escape during visiting and off-campus hours!, and a less tedious way for Naomi and Hannah to make their way into the building. One afternoon, the school’s director explained that she had actually assigned rooms with much careful thought–one student needed a room with amplification equipment attached to the telephone, another had had several guide-dogs and didn’t need to be so close to an instructor… What no one could have anticipated is that the school’s two wings came to take on more personal characteristics–there was the Quiet Wing and the Social Wing, which often had loud music blaring from one of its rooms. I was at the most silent end of the Quiet Wing. And, no, I do not believe that the arrangements were solely a director’s doing. The director may have known that this would be a good placement for me based on external factors, but only the Lord could have known how much I would come to cherish the silence that that particular placement afforded.
That first evening, we were all presented with our leashes. These are not ordinary leather leashes—you can’t buy them in a pet store. Later, we were given dog booties, feeding bowls and measuring cups, grooming supplies, treat pouches and, of course, our dogs’ individually-constructed harnesses. With each piece of equipment, I felt more and more like a potential graduate, a guide-dog handler, an independent woman, a non-cane traveler. It was like taking so many steps up a steep yet scenic mountain.

Although I did not have extensive opportunities to use the Center’s amenities, my month-long place of residence did feature a computer room, a library of Braille and audio books—including a teaching series on the New Testament!—a music room, a silence-filled living room that was seldom occupied and featured the most comfortable of sofas, and a coffee machine whose beverages, though not very tasty, warmed my heart on emotionally-chilly mornings. Moments spent in these places felt so much like home away from home and even afforded occasional opportunities for worship.

Neither did I get the chance to spend two, three, and four hours in Bible study and worship as I do now. Nevertheless, I clung to my heavenly Father in every way possible. Part of our daily training took place in a small town forty-five minutes away from the Center’s headquarters. What better way to use an hour and a half than to hold in my heart “In Your Presence, O God” or songs about Communion, or to read Luke and I Corinthians and Revelation? Then, too, there was a lot of waiting involved while other students worked with their dogs—more reading! Many of the students became curious, and few things during that time gave me greater delight than to explain exactly what I was reading—to demonstrate tangibly that these words of Scripture are breath and life to me. Now, most of the instructors were less than thrilled with my reading choice—they indicated to me that they thought my carrying a two-pound book bordered on a waste of that right arm of mine and implied in their conduct toward me that they would have liked it if I had spent those round-trips chatting or listening to their music. But…

Then, there was Student Intern. She was a treasure, a gem, a jewel. In Matthew 10, Jesus said, “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a rightous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is My disciple, assuredly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” Well, part of this intern’s service did include furnishing all of us students with water, coffee, etc., following our work sessions—it was just was just something she and some of the instructors did. But Student Intern was far more than an instructor-in-training. I’ll never forget the days she saw my distress and talked with me about church, about having a gentle heart and being a fruitful tree, about how well Natasha and I were doing—especially on the days I feared we might not graduate, much less that we were actually doing well. Difficult though it may be to imagine, we had no Christian radio stations at this institution—I know this because Student Intern spent a tireless half-hour carefully tuning the radio in my room and listening to everything she found in hopes of presenting me with some glimpse of CCM. In a season in which most of my instructors referred disdainfully to my Bible as “that BOOK!”, Student Intern sometimes retrieved it from my room if I forgot it, usually with a sort of sad compassion in her voice as she said, “Here’s your Bible—I’ll just put it over here…” On days when she saw me frantically typing on one of the Center’s computers, she must have deduced that I was doing something urgent (indeed, I was usually writing E-mails begging for prayer), and on these occasions she would be uncommonly compassionate about pulling me away. “Lunch in five minutes… Are you coming?” Since I knew that this was not really an optional meal, but a training experience and sometimes a time for a mini-lesson, I would accompany her, only to find that she deliberately placed me at a table with other Christians. Cold, refreshing water.

So long as I am writing about servants of God, I cannot exempt the housekeeping staff from my pen-and-paper portrait of life at the Center. I met the woman who cleaned most of our rooms once and she was beyond kind. Later, I found that it was she who had placed the husband pillows in our rooms. Every evening, I tend to spread spiritual things out all around me, topping the whole bed with reminders and symbols of His glory. On any typical evening, I might cover myself with some great piece of cloth representing His covering, hold a print Bible in a worn case, keep a Braille Bible lying next to me, and have two or three prayer cloths pinned to various pillows. I carried on that tradition at the Center—the pillows, of course, being housed in my own cases, cases that were more than able to withstand my safety-pinning efforts. No, I never once damaged Center property for the sake of my spiritual reminders. In the early days of training, I used to make an effort to keep everything as tidy as possible—both so the housekeeping staff wouldn’t have to, and so that I could keep personal things in the Lord between myself and Him. One day, though, I ran out of time to perfect my surroundings and just left everything as it was. When I returned that afternoon, I not only found everything put in order, but my Bible and the other things I treasured had been handled with such careful deliberation, yet with such evident joy and artistry, that I almost wondered whether the woman who had been in to clean had known what everything was and felt spiritually about it the way I did. I can’t explain what she did—it was just tiny, almost-imperceptible nuances. For example, I believe in placing Bibles on top of other objects rather than covering them up—no journals on top of a stack of Bibles! This kind woman had stacked everything together, with my Bible on top, just the way I would have done it. Her folding mirrored mine, as did some of her other arrangements. Pillows with prayer cloths affixed to them were placed up-front and center, propped against pillows without handkerchiefs and safety-pins decorating their surfaces—things like that. “She saw this kind of thing,” you will insist. “She saw what you did and she replicated it.” How do you explain, then, the fact that I had never arranged anything like that while I was at the Center, but had kept everything hidden away where she wouldn’t have found it unless she was very, very unethical? And, even if she had found it, how do you explain those specific arrangements, folds, placements? From that point on, I stopped being quite so maniacal about keeping everything in perfect order, taking the housekeeping staff’s services as a blessing from God and something that, really, I had no time to do myself unless I was willing to get up even earlier than I already did—and for what? To prove myself? And every day that I left things in slight disarray, I returned to my room to see the same beautiful arrangements of everything that was precious to me. That child of God knew—she knew.

There was a little Italian restaurant nearby. Its name is irrelevant, but its asparagus-stuffed raviolis, complete with smoked mozarella, are not. Again, we harken back to the Italian food of the evening before I departed. These raviolis came to symbolize everything being right in the world of Ready-Writer. You see, part and parcel of my experience at the Center were the profound feelings of displacement and disorientation. I do not exaggerate when I write that I felt like a person who had been rendered suddenly unconscious, only to wake up in a foreign country—though which one would not become apparent for days. All I knew was that, all around me, a foreign language was being spoken, unusual cuisine—emotional, spiritual, and, if I’m being honest about the institution’s cooking, tangible—had been set before me, alien customs surrounded me, and I had no idea what to do in such an unfamiliar culture. Actually, if I had found myself deported to Germany or Thailand or Kuwait, I might have felt more at home more quickly. Everything at the Center, from the concrete floors to the isolation to the new ways of governing my life with Natasha to the mistreatment of other students that I saw daily was entirely estranged from the way of life I had always known. And so, I did things to center myself and to remind myself of who I still was in Christ Jesus—again, if I’m being honest with myself, I was afraid I would lose that passion for the Gospel. And so, I journaled. I described the bracelet that held spiritual value, talked about the other students and how God could use them, discussed my love for our Lord, filled entire ten-minute recorded journaling sessions with my interpretations of Scripture… And then, there were the minor earthly blessings. I kept hummus in my room, used frankincense-and-myrrh soap, and wore a waist pack with a little cross-shaped keychain dangling from it. I listened, day by day, to the recordings of family members—both those that they sent while I was at the Center and those from much earlier times. When Naomi and Hannah came to do infusions—the Center’s nurse wasn’t licensed to infuse that specific medication!—they always brought along a chai, which I held in my heart and sipped with all possible deliberation just before bed on those precious nights. When I took my meals with the other students, I usually made sure to bring at least one thing from my own supply—I would eat the rubbery spaghetti, but I brought a frapuccino to go with it, or occasionally I simply brought my own full meal. All of this somehow became encompassed in asparagus-and-smoked-mozarella-stuffed raviolis. That dish came to represent all possible gentleness, peace, tranquility, and calm, for I only ordered it when I knew that, somehow, I would survive my travels “abroad”—even if I never really assimilated into the culture.

Earthly blessings, those, but provided by God nevertheless. Another string of joys lay in that ubiquitous recorder of mine. I remember wandering the halls one day and hearing the dryer in the laundry room. Immediately, I ran to my own dorm room, retrieved the digital voice recorder from the pocket of that exquisite husband pillow, and made my way as quickly as possible back to the laundry facility, only to find an instructor there. Of course, I then had to explain that to record the dryer was to record themes of purity and wholesomeness… In so doing, a profound connection was established—if only for a time. Then, there were those chimes. They hung near the door of one of the Center’s other training facilities, reminding me of the dancing, singing chimes at home which I had always referred to as the Northern Lights for their beauty. Oh, I saw to it that Student Intern recorded the campus chimes! And when Hannah and Naomi came, as medical necessity dictated, they always had a digital voice recorder with them—Bible passages, songs, prayers, old books… But the recorder wasn’t always merely for recordings. Once, my recorder’s alarm went off while I was in the van and, while I fiddled with the machine in an attempt to silence it, the entire backseat was treated to a minute and a half of Paul Wilbur’s nine-minute rendering of “In Your Presence, O God”. Yes, that recorder was a blessing.

So was the instructor’s radio. Not always—certainly not! I never did develop a passion for the popular and hard-rock music that seemed to run rampant during that time. But there was one day when, while browsing through stations, the instructor accidentally stopped on Christian music. She didn’t keep it there long, but I had heard thirty seconds of Kari Jobe’s “Steady My Heart”, and that was enough. I had not heard Christian music on any radio in weeks; that briefest of intervals helped me to see that I was not alone, not forsaken in a place in which even my church attendance was an anomaly. Then, on 17 August, the day I had received the Holy Spirit ten years earlier, Instructor of Mine decided to listen to country music. When a Christian-oriented song, entitled “I Saw God Today”, played, she made no move to change it. I think it must have been the Holy Spirit keeping her hands on the steering wheel, because her silence and failure to change the station were out-of-character for her. And so, I sat back and let references to the things of the Lord wash over me, filling some of the emptiness I felt and lighting up the darkness around me.

But do you know what might just have been greater than the radio and the recorder? The rain! I was the only student who relished walking in it, who cherished every raindrop and every clap of thunder. One day, when the others decided to seek refuge from the rain, I requested special permission to go out and work with Natasha in the downpour. Instructor of Mine brought an umbrella, under whose shelter I was a very reluctant participant. Personally, I think that getting soaked—not sprinkled upon, but so drenched that you need to change your clothes and wring out your wet outfit—is one of life’s greatest pleasures and never worth missing out on for the sake of convention. As it was, I did need a towel when I arrived back at the Center. You know why this was so special? Because I experience in the rain and snow what most of you experience when you see a rainbow, or a fabulous sunset, or a towering tree, or the moon and stars—I witness God’s majestic creation. So, that rain-walk was a heart-saturating moment for me. As was the time I tripped and fell, believe it or not. I was not paying attention during one of Natasha’s supervised work sessions, and sleep-deprivation caused me to stumble over my own feet. I wasn’t hurt—a tad bit scraped up, perhaps, but not seriously injured. And do you know what I thought even as my shoes-on-asphault contact gave way to knees-on-graveled-dirt? “Oh, yes, kneeling before Him—always the place to be. And this soil, now running through my fingers and down my shins, is yet one more moment of His creation. What a wholesome fall this is!”

From tangibles to God’s creation… what comes next? Do you know, my beloved readers? The things of the Lord!—they are what spring from this journal of joy. You see, He was so close to me during that time. Since I didn’t have hours to read and study His Word, the moments I did have became more precious, and I found myself studying each verse in more minute detail. In a month in which church attendance and especially Communion were rare and elusive, I came to delight in both in a new way. Actually, I take private Communion every evening—then, now, and as long as the Lord convicts me to do so—but grape juice was scarce. Having real Communion elements—grape juice rather than water or sugary grape drink—took on new meaning and significance, as did songs about remaining strong in Jesus, staying true to who He had made me, and even a few worship anthems about Communion itself. John 1:43-50 wrapped itself around my heart then and I have never lost sight of it, even to this day. Like opportunities to take Communion, fellowship with other believers was rare, so I delighted in it all the more when it did happen—all someone had to do was mention that his church had a special outreach ministry, and my heart filled with joy at having found a brother in Christ.

Oh, the joy! When I couldn’t read the Word due to time constraints, I read memoirs like DANCING WITH MAX, an excellent book about grace in which the author describes the joys and blessings of raising a son on the autism spectrum—more a Christian devotional about patience and love, though, than a typical disability/parenting memoir. Or that book called CELEBRATE JESUS, relating the stories behind many common praise and worship choruses. Not for one moment, not for one millisecond, did the Lord ever forsake me—I always knew His presence, His nearness. And in it all, even during the worst of trials, there was joy, joy, joy! Joy so great and extensive that people always asked me why I was in such an unrestrainedly enthusiastic mood. Joy that elevated simple pleasures to lofty heights. Joy that caused me to cry out, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” at every turn. “Hosanna” in both senses of the word—”hallelujah, praise Him”, yes, but also, “O, save!” Keep me safe, for You are able…

Then, there were His gifts. You know, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are always given according to God’s will, and often distributed according to need. There may be more need for the gift of healing in a place of illness, for example, than for a person to only pray in the Spirit—but there may be more need for the gift of tongues than healing in, say, a country that has never heard the Gospel, if some of the inhabitants are to hear God’s Word proclaimed in a language that they can understand (see Acts II). The same thing applies to the gift of discernment—or, as I Corinthians XII calls it, “the discerning of spirits”. All I know is that, halfway through most meals, I often sensed that there was something spiritually amiss in my surroundings, and particularly as it pertained to a specific faculty member. There was a profound sense of oppression, and it was often at these times that I felt I needed to pray more fervently or to leave the premises. Later, I learned a bit more about some of the circumstances surrounding this faculty member and, sure enough, it included condescention and emotional mistreatment of another student, as well as some spiritual confusion. God had been protecting me and showing me how to pray. Discernment in action!—and I was so very grateful for it. But, you know, that gift isn’t given only to protect us from spiritually-compromising situations—it can sometimes be used to help us see our brothers and sisters in Christ, or to simply see things a little more clearly through His eyes. During the third week of training, all of us traveled to the state’s largest and most populated city. While strolling sidewalks and making my way under the overhangs of various shops, I inhaled the fragrance of spices and leather goods, exotic foods and beautifully unique knickknacks and suddenly began to imagine the people behind all those doors. I prayed for many of them, rejoiced at the thought of those who knew of our wonderful Lord, and really prayed for the Lord to sustain and fill those whom I thought might be feeling empty or despondent. Time and again, I found myself thinking, “Oh, you behind that metal-and-glass frame, whoever you are, Jesus loves you so much!” It was a glorious experience, and one I am actually hard-pressed to describe adequately. More of His grace.

And His holiness! I remember one day being given exquisite, glorious news from Hannah and Naomi. Then, due to a very minor injury that nevertheless precluded Natasha and I working together, I was given the day off. Off, to rest and sleep more deeply than I had in weeks. Off, to allow worship music to float through my heart. Off, to take a meal in semi-solitude. And especially, as all of this was going on, to find that Isaiah ch. Vi, was penetrating all those barriers I had established and melting my heart—every word about the seraphim and their cries of “Holy!” That time of having Isaiah’s awesome vision impressed upon my heart stayed with me, even until I arrived home, and during those first few days of re-orienting myself to home life, I found worship music that bespoke His holiness. Without it, you know, I could never have survived…

What am I saying? I’m saying that God has the power, and the love, mercy, compassion, and faithfulness, to truly work all things together for good for those who love Him. I’m saying that, despite the anguish that prevailed during and after my time at the Center, God never did abandon me—and He will never abandon you either, no matter what you may be going through. “Even when it hurts,/ Even when it’s hard, / Even when it all just falls apart…” Then we all must run to Him, the Binder of our wounds and “healer of [our] scars”, trusting in His protection and provision even when we neither see His face nor hear His voice nor feel His presence. His love endures forever—after many long years of wondering why my time at the Center had to culminate in so prolonged a period of heartache, I know that He was, is, and always will be my Rock, my Deliverer, my place of refuge, my strength, my song, and my salvation. “And that my soul knows very well…”

Addendum: Although I have been creating a whirlwind of worship music that must resemble a mixed metaphor to some of you, the title for this piece is taken from that thirty-second clip of a song with which the Lord so richly blessed me. Find Kari Jobe’s “Steady My Heart” on the album THE ACOUSTIC SESSIONS.

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