One thing to do when you’re hurting

“Push into the burning,” I used to tell laboring women when their time to push had come. Some did it naturally, unable to hold back from the powerful forces at work in them. Others, afraid of the burning, tried to pull away from the pain. Eventually they realized that the only way forward was through the pain.

As with birthing a baby, so with any other kind of suffering: in order for it to lead to life, the only way forward is through it.

I’m relearning this lesson myself these days as a trial of a new medication seems to have worsened my POTS symptoms, and those changes have persisted even back on my previous regimen. It’s probably not the fault of the new medication. Rather, I’m told that it’s common to have a spike in POTS symptoms toward the end of the child-bearing years. Though I don’t really know what will happen, that implies that this worse stretch could go on for some time.

It is true that what I have gained in this journey has been far greater than what I have lost. My limitations have pressed me into the arms of Jesus more deeply than my strengths ever have.

It is even true that I would not want to have missed it, so great have been the gifts in living this story. 

It is also true that as I find things worse again and face the possibility that they may be worse for some time, some heavy part of my heart cries, “O God, do we really have to go here again?”

I’m invited to remember what I know:

  • God never wastes suffering.
  • In my weakness, I get to know God’s tender love in a way I can’t experience elsewhere.
  • And this: there’s no healthy way to move around pain, only through it.

I’m called back to the 40% of the psalms which are lament psalms and listen again to how honest the psalmists are with God, all their grief and anguish, questions and disappointment freely poured out to the One who is always listening. And then, hope begins to rise through their pain as they find themselves loved and accompanied even there. 

It’s true that as we face suffering, we’re invited into gratitude. But it’s not gratitude that is pasted on like a band-aid over an abscess. It’s not an invitation to side-step the sadness, but to trust God and let suffering do its work in us. And it’s not gratitude for the suffering, but for God’s faithfulness in it and the work he does in us through it. “Consider it a sheer gift, friends,” James says, “when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4 The Message) If we use thanksgiving to try to avoid the pain, we miss the gifts that can only be given through suffering.

The way to genuine gratitude lies through honest lament, just as the way to the healing of an abscess lies through the draining of it. Jesus wept with the pain of Lazarus’ death, and then moved into thanksgiving, not for Lazarus’ death and his family’s suffering but that Jesus’ Father heard him even in that place. David cried out, “How long, O Lord?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” and then, slowly, as his grief was spilled, and he pled for God’s help in his current situation, he was drawn into remembering God’s faithful care in past pain and his heart found freedom to choose once again, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13, cf. Psalm 22) 

We have a God who does not abandon us in our suffering, but stoops to suffer for us and with us. Here is the comfort that can give us courage to face into the challenges and let suffering do its work in us: we don’t face it alone. So, friends, let’s run into the open arms of the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and, as we pour out the pain, find the grace that we need for whatever we’re facing today (2 Cor. 1:3).

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PS. If you would like more help running into the arms of God in your suffering, check out my two free email courses, The Gifts of Anxiety and An Invitation to Rest, Brian Doerksen’s sung version of Psalm 13, and Michael Card’s book, A Sacred Sorrow.

Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

Looking back to move forward

“For all that has been—thanks.

For all that will be—yes.”

(Dag Hammarskjold)

I stand in the crack between what has been and what will be, scanning the years, gathering courage from past memories and present Presence as I move toward the not yet.
The word “remember” comes 176 times in Scripture, and as I read through the verses containing the word, I realize I’ve just read the whole story told in terms of what God remembers (or doesn’t remember) and what we are commanded to remember.
God remembers his covenant. He remembers our human frailty and has compassion on us. He doesn’t remember our sin.
We are to remember that we were slaves and God brought us into freedom. That He has blessed us not because we deserve it (we don’t!), but just because He loves us. We are to remember how He has led and provided for us all through the years, and are to pay special attention to how God has been toward us in the years of slavery (seeing our misery, hearing our cries, being touched by our need, and coming down to set us free) and in the desert years (tending and caring and providing when we weren’t able to provide for ourselves, and, not for the last time, causing life-giving water to spring from stone and bread to descend from heaven).
Above all, we are to remember the One in whom all this protection and provision, this sin-removing, freedom-bringing, covenant-keeping love is embodied: “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
I skim through my own story, seeing the unmistakeable fingerprints of the same life-saving, freedom-giving God. The right person in the right place at the right time to help me make the impossible decision to leave Afghanistan. The friend who came to set up my apartment when I was too sick to shop for bookshelves and wastebaskets. The right course at the right time all the way through my degree, my path twisting in ways I never anticipated but each turn tenderly, thoughtfully placed by the One who was leading though I couldn’t always see Him.
I see the way this whole story—at times painful, but also beautiful—has been leading me deeper into freedom to trust His love, freedom to be myself—and to be His!—without fear. I see how the most painful places have also been the places He has tended me most gently, and the most terrifying places (the ones where I felt trapped between the Egyptians and the deep red sea) my passage into freedom.
Standing in the present Presence and looking back and remembering, I say with all the others who have stood through the ages and looked back and remembered God’s faithfulness, “For all that has been—thanks.”
And as I remember that this same God who has shaped my past and cared for me in it, leading me toward freedom and providing when I couldn’t care for myself, is going with me into the future, my heart says with Mary and with all who have, like her, opened themselves to the thrilling, painful, miracle of God coming to live and grow in and be born through them, “For all that will be—yes.”

When it’s Thanksgiving and you want to feel it

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So there it was—Thanksgiving Sunday—and I was doing my best to get into it. I want thanksgiving to characterize my life every day of the year, so it felt especially sad that on this weekend that our Canadian forefathers and mothers set apart to give special thanks, I was full of self-pity. Yuck.

I know sometimes thanksgiving is a sacrifice; we’re to give thanks anyway, even when it feels hard. Often that choice—to give thanks anyway—opens my eyes so I can see again how good God is, and joy creeps in and my thankfulness switches from something I’m doing out of sheer obedience to something I’m doing because God is so big and so good and loves me so much that what’s not to give thanks for?

But there are days—like yesterday—when I want to feel thankful, I try to give thanks anyway, and my eyes stay glued shut and my self curved in and my thanks stays tasting like cardboard. I wondered why.

So I asked.

“God, You are so good—there’s enough in Your character to keep me giving thanks forever. And on top of that you’ve poured out so many other blessings. Why don’t I feel thankful even when I want to, even when I’m trying to give thanks?”

“It’s hard to give thanks for a gift you’ve just pushed away.”

Huh.

I think we’ve been here before, He and I.

I can feel deeply thankful in the middle of illness, in the middle of grief, in the middle of just about anything—as long as I feel loved. And since God’s love for me never changes, when I’m not feeling loved, it’s because I’m pulling away, or pushing him away.

So I ask another question, one that I plan to keep handy for every time thanksgiving fails to open my eyes, “Jesus, where am I pushing away your love?”

A string of questions follows:

  • Am I insisting on carrying burdens that God wants to carry for me?
  • Am I berating myself (perhaps for not feeling thankful enough?) while God is whispering that he loves me and just wants me back in His arms?
  • Am I refusing to receive His love through the hands of a friend? Failing to rest when He invites me to? Prioritizing the do-list over the moment of celebration He has invited me into?

He brings me back once more to a prayer that helps me stop pushing Him away:

“Blessed Trinity,

I receive your love,

your presence

and this day as a gift from you.

I open my heart to you.

Please lead me deeper

into your transforming love

as we live these next hours together.

Amen.”

And as I give thanks for Grace that always welcomes me home and Love that wants me to know I’m loved and parents who listen and a friend who drives, my cardboard thanksgiving catches fire and I wonder if the world will end before I run out of things to give thanks for. And this—this Love in which we find ourselves—is the flame that turns thanksgiving to thanksliving and moves us out to change the world.

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When you don’t feel thankful

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Last year on Thanksgiving we used coffee beans, this year Shreddies, five by each plate and a small bowl in the table’s center to collect our tokens as we took turns offering thanks for God’s goodness. Five Shreddies, five times around the table, five opportunities to express gratefulness.

This year the thanks came slowly. Too slowly. So we took the Shreddies out of the bowl and started again. And again. And gradually our hearts caught up with our hands and our words. “I’m thankful for friends that keep loving in the mess.” “Me too!” “This gift needs two Shreddies!”

Am I alone in this, or do you, too, ever wonder why, when we’re surrounded by blessings, it is so often hard to give thanks?

Sometimes it’s that I don’t see. My eyes are on struggle rather than beauty and I jump in and out of the hot running water, eat the whole plateful of delicious food, and walk by the window’s beautiful view without feeling or tasting or really looking at any of it. Here, giving thanks (whether with Shreddies or a notebook and pen) helps, training me to look and listen, to notice the blessings.

Often, though, when I’m not feeling thankful, it’s not counting gifts I first need, but lament. Trying to push past pain into thankfulness without space for honest tears shapes only empty words, not a heart full of gratitude. A cry for help, anger at injustice, a tearful “where are you God?!” – many of the psalms begin here. Grace teaches lament, receiving it as holy prayer rather than condemning us for not seeing the always present blessings. And Grace makes lament a pathway to praise. As the poet pours out pain and finds himself welcomed, he discovers honest reason to be thankful. (Isn’t this the best reason to be thankful – that we can come as we are and find ourselves welcomed?!)

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving Day!

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What helps you most when you’re not feeling thankful? What are you most thankful for today?

When God tells you to party

An ice cream sundae? Dancing in your living room? How do you celebrate? And why?

And when was the last time you did?

Recently He smiled the question, “What shall we do to celebrate?” It wasn’t because of a big external accomplishment. No “A” in a course. No new job or promotion. We were celebrating a breakthrough in my understanding.  A receiving of love. And really, isn’t that always the best reason to celebrate?

God parties

God sets the precedent. He celebrates. Sometimes with quiet enjoyment and rest (Gen 2:2-3). Sometimes with vigorous, enthusiastic dancing and singing (Zeph 3:17). Once by replenishing the wine supply when the wedding guests had already had too much to drink (John 2:1-11). But when the reason for celebration is your return home, your creeping a little deeper into his love  (for the first time or the hundredth), then he throws an all out party (Luke 15). And he invites all his friends to celebrate with him. “Rejoice with me! Rejoice with me!” It’s a strong note in this Heartbeat of love.

God made us to party

God created the world overflowing with the most extravagant of decorations: many colored streamers strung across the sky morning and evening, whole hedges of wild roses, buttercups scattered like confetti in the grass. Cherry blossoms hung loosely to fall with the slightest breeze, crowning our hair and making a carpet beneath our feet like the petals scattered before the bride at her wedding. Creation is an extravagant display of a glorious love.

And He made us to enjoy it. We see not only light and darkness but violet and fuscia and periwinkle. We savor the scent of damp earth and lilacs and a pine forest on a summer evening. Touch, taste, hearing, each opens us further to the rich love poured out. (And while we’re on that track, don’t you think the design of our bodies so that laughter decreases stress hormones, strengthens our immune system, and makes us live longer was intentional?) We were made to join in his celebration.

God commands parties

Every time I read it again, this command surprises me. I get so used to thinking of the tithe as something we give away. To God. For His use. And that’s part of it. But in Deuteronomy 12 and 14 the command is different. Summarized, it’s, “Set aside a tenth of your income each year, and use it to party in my presence” (Deut. 14:22-27, cf. 12:6-7).

And in the midst of that command is this one: “See to it that you do all I command you. Do not add to it or take away from it” (Deut 12:32). Don’t omit the gifts for those serving in the temple. Don’t forget about the part that’s to be offered to Me, the blood poured out on the ground and the fatty pieces burned up. And don’t forget to party in my presence. Why? Because God has blessed us (12:7). And so we will learn to revere God (14:23). Celebrating in his presence is one of the best ways to remember who He is: an extravagant, gracious God. And who we are: loved beyond belief. Joining in the party is one of the best ways to receive that love and love him back. (I picture myself in an extravagant party hall and wonder: how often do I show up to this lavish party at which I am one of the honored guests and sit in a corner with my laptop, head down, shushing the other guests, turning away from the host who is leaning in, asking for a dance, and mumbling, “I just have to finish this?”)

Ann Voskamp’s words hit home: “Calendars can con: there are really only as many days left as you actually live. In the end, everyone ends up at the length of their lives – but only a few live the whole width of a life.”

There’s a surprising amount of choice in how we live this celebration, this width of a life (Deut 14:26). The key thing is to celebrate with God, in His presence. And to recognize why.  Sandwiched between the Deuteronomy commands to party is the reminder, “You are a people holy to the LORD your God. . . . The LORD has chosen you to be his treasured possession.” (Deut 14:2) It guides how we party. It also gives us reason to party. We are – YOU are – His treasured possession!

So how will you answer His question, “What shall we do to celebrate today?” His love is reason enough to celebrate all day every day for the rest of our lives!

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P.S. Want to share how you’ll celebrate today in the comments?