Out of the Cistern

I love the season of Fall! The crisp and cool temperatures combined with the beautiful foliage make for a serene and beautiful time each year. Perhaps I am biased as well because September is the month of my birth, and by the time my birthday rolls around, the leaves are changing color and falling to the ground. I always looked to the Fall with anticipation… until everything changed.

In the Fall of 2017, it wasn’t just the leaves that were changing colors; it was my entire life that was on the cusp of change. I had just entered into an agreement to record my album and excitement was at an all-time high. I was in on a creative high; songs were spilling from my piano and pen with suddenness that stunned me. The season ahead looked promising, and I basked in the idea of all that was ahead.

On September 16, 2017, I was out grocery shopping with a friend when I saw a streaky, floating spot migrate across my line of vision. It looked like a narrow, dark, smoke-like intrusion and it immediately rattled me. In fact, I stopped in the Wal-Mart parking lot and simply froze. “What was that?” I think I said out loud. It happened a few hours later after I had returned home that evening as I prepared dinner in the kitchen. Again, I froze in my bright kitchen, knowing this second occurrence couldn’t be just my imagination.

Over the next ten days, I got really good at pushing all warning signs aside. I was deep into album planning, songwriting, arranging songs and coordinating practices for OneVoice, and preparing for a work trip. I saw the smoke-like floaters everywhere— against the pale yellow walls in my bathroom, against the sky as I biked to and from work, against the stark white of my computer screen and tablet. I saw shimmery spots in the dark too; every time I turned my head in the darkness of my bedroom, it looked like Christmas lights were twinkling in the corner of my sighted eye. On my work trip, things got worse; I began to squint against the sudden unbearable brightness. I was so light-sensitive in fact that I was always seeing spots as if I had been staring at a spotlight or toward the sun too long. Looking at the PowerPoint presentations was nearly impossible.

And then as the plane took off for home, I knew for sure that something was wrong. Everything became a blur, and the bottom corner of vision was completely gone with only a shadow left in its place. I found myself tilting my head to look past that shadow, but I still couldn’t focus because everything was a bright blur around me. The best way to describe it was that it was like looking at a neon-white blizzard in the middle of winter. Occasionally, some color would spring into my vision, but those colors were neon too.

When I landed at the airport, I knew I needed to make an appointment to be seen by my ophthalmologist, but we were heading into Sunday, and I had a job to do: leading worship at church. I played that morning on autopilot, trying to look away from the drummer because his turquoise-blue shirt looked like one of those highlighter markers I used in school when I was young.

By the time I managed to make an appointment, the fear was real. For two days, I tried to focus on work and follow-up from the conference I had attended. My musical creativity stalled as I waited for the inevitable bad news. There was no optimism whatsoever because I knew deep down that there was no ignoring my symptoms. Google seemed to imply that I had a retina detachment, but I didn’t want to believe it even though it was probably bad no matter the diagnosis. By the way, NEVER, and I mean, NEVER use Google to self-diagnose. What you read can be SCARY!

But on Tuesday, September 26, the doctors confirmed what I had been dreading. It looked like a retina detachment. I was immediately scheduled for surgery, and 24 hours later, I found myself in the operating room. I woke up in the late evening of September 27 to complete and utter darkness. My sighted eye was patched after the surgery, and since I am already blind in my right eye, I couldn’t see anything. It was disorienting and terrifying. True, my visual impairment has prepared me to navigate to some degree in a sighted world, but I wasn’t prepared for this!

The next three weeks or so were challenging to say the least. My vision was dark and murky at first. When they removed the patch that first day, I was nervous about what I would see, or rather, what I wouldn’t be able to see. In fact, I wouldn’t let the nurse remove my patch until my parents were beside me. I had been prepared for all scenarios, one of which was that the doctors had not been able to save my vision. But we were hopeful that they had been successful, and that I would at least be able to see light and color.

When the patch came off, the light was blinding! I immediately closed my eyes against the intrusion. But the nurse encouraged me to try again, and when I attempted to open my eyes once more, I saw the blurry but oh-so-welcome emblem on my mom’s shirt: the logo and green and gold of the Green Bay Packers.

That first blurry glimpse gave me hope, although at times my courage wavered. The antibiotic drops compromised my vision even more, and the other meds burned when they were administered. I stumbled around, my depth perception and balance severely impacted. I carried my cane everywhere— even at my parents’ house and at my own home. I spilled my food and knocked over the juice glass right beside me. I cried more than I probably have in all of my life. The doctors were hopeful for a steady recovery, but I was despairing because I wanted to see clearly sooner rather than later.

Now, I know I’m not the first to experience pain and suffering, nor will I be the last to endure such hardship. All around me, I have witnessed cancer, divorce, death, financial struggle, and so much more. In fact, I would go so far as to point out that I’m not the only person to have a disability and the challenges that come along with it. Disability doesn’t necessarily mean a life of suffering, but it certainly means adapting one’s life to accommodate altered circumstances. In the two years since my retina detachment, I have come to a deeper and wider view of God’s goodness in the midst of suffering, and lately, I can’t help but find comparison in the Biblical story of Joseph.

Joseph’s story is well-known to many, most likely thanks to the musical starring Donny Osmond. Every time I have watched this drama play out, I am gripped by the highs and lows, but especially the lows. If I close my eyes, I can still see Joseph standing in the jail cell, singing his heart out with the haunting sound of the children’s voices adding a feeling of absolute despair to the scene. “Bar all the windows and shut out the light,” is a lyric that I can’t get out of my head as “Close every Door” plays on… But not even the barred walls and darkness can completely shut out the light. The ending refrain speaks of promise, and candlelight is visible just outside the cell.

I wonder what Joseph must have been thinking and feeling when he was imprisoned— innocent of all wrong-doing. He had been betrayed and wrongfully accused, and yet, this wasn’t the first time he had been thrown in a pit. It all began when his brothers became envious of his dreams and favoritism, and they threw him into a cistern, only to lift him out of the pit later to sell him into slavery. In the jail cell—in the cistern— I’m sure he questioned God a time or two. Really, God, what now? What did I do to deserve this? What about my dreams? Sold into slavery at the age of seventeen, he became successful in Potiphar’s house, only to be cast out by Potiphar’s wife when he rejected her advances.

A glimmer of hope arrives on the horizon when Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer are thrown into prison with Joseph, and Pharaoh’s servants eventually have dreams that need interpretation. In the end, Joseph rightfully interprets each of their dreams, and the cupbearer is restored to his position of honor while the baker is killed. Joseph had asked the baker and cupbearer to remember him in prison, but it would be two years before Pharaoh would have a dream as well and seek out interpretation. Finally, the cupbearer remembers Joseph and he is brought out of prison in order to meet with Pharaoh.

As the story goes, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and he is eventually promoted to serve as governor over Egypt. Inevitably, his dreams come true, for his brothers in coming to buy grain in Egypt, bow down before him. There is a lot to consider as Joseph’s story draws to a close. I can only imagine the healing that had to take place in that family— the forgiveness that needed to be extended and then accepted, trust that needed to be established, and the restoration within pre-existing relationships and the hope visible in the birth of Joseph’s sons.

I was struck profoundly this week as I read the account of Joseph’s story in Genesis. For the past few months, our pastor has been walking us through the book of Genesis at our Sunday morning services. I was planning ahead for worship and music, and digging deep into the text when I realized something. After Joseph interpreted the dreams of the cupbearer and baker, he remained in prison for two years until Pharaoh called for him. Two years… wow… that was kind of ironic because…

It has been two years since my emergency retina surgery. It has been two years of healing and gradual visual improvement. It has been two years of fear and doubt. Every floater or flash of light has filled me with dread and terror, making me think that a detachment is happening all over again. My sighted eye has played tricks on me, drawing me into full-blown panic mode. I have spent most of the past two years simply afraid. I can’t stand to be in overly bright environments nor in the complete darkness. At night, there is always a light on somewhere in the house or at least the glow of the TV. Sunglasses have become my new best friend, although I am trying not to wear them as often now.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I have spent the past two years imprisoned in fear. Yes, there have been some beautiful moments over the past 24 months. My album was released exactly a year to the day when I landed at home, knowing I would need to seek medical attention. I have received positive reports from the doctors and the assurance of clear ultrasounds. My work at the church, although halted briefly by my recovery, has resumed, and just like two years ago at this time, my creativity abounds. I have met some incredible people and created beautiful music with others. If it weren’t for the past two years, I wouldn’t have the experience to color my current situation. By no means do I want to go through any of that pain and suffering again, but I know somehow, some way, there was a purpose for it.

Again, I am not the first, nor am I the last to experience trials in this life. Just look at Joseph if you want an example. He was literally thrown into a cistern— into a jail cell— while some of us are experiencing pain, anger, deception, betrayal, grief, fear, feeling as if we’re beat up, alone, and left to die. Our pastor encouraged us to look for God in the midst of Joseph’s story, because if we know the ending, we know that the jail cell and cistern are not the end of his existence. That cistern was probably 30-40 feet deep, used to store rainwater, so this was not something Joseph could have gotten out of on his own. Imagine his momentary relief when his brothers lifted him out of the cistern, only to sell him into slavery. Could it get any worse for Joseph? As our Pastor said, sometimes when it rains, it pours. Joseph’s dreams were a long way from coming true as he waited in the cistern and later waited again in prison.

I didn’t realize it until now, but I’ve been waiting in the cistern too, but my imprisonment is of my own creation. The truth is, I can see and have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. My vision was restored— with some deficits, yes— but restored nonetheless. I should be celebrating God’s goodness and glorying in the beauty of color and light. But somehow, I’ve been afraid that it will all be stolen away. In trying to move forward with my life, I was actually stepping back into the prison cell. Little by little, I am finding freedom, learning to adapt to my circumstances and recognizing my panic and anxiety for what it is— the devil’s schemes to derail me. I have spent two years in the cistern, but it’s time to be lifted out.

“I called on your name, LORD,
from the depths of the pit.
You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears
to my cry for relief.”
You came near when I called you,
and you said, “Do not fear.”
You, Lord, took up my case;
you redeemed my life.” Lamentations 3:55-58

If you’re looking for a way out of your cistern today, read the whole chapter of Lamentations 3. A great deal of this passage inspired my album, The Dawn. Hold your head up, friends. I may not know your struggle, but if you are in the pit, know that God is lifting you and leading you to the light.

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