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

The God of surprises

Since mid-November when my landlady told me she’d sold the condo in which I was living, I’ve been looking without success for a new place to live. A week ago I saw an apartment that seemed perfect. It was big enough but not too big. The old, tiny kitchen didn’t bother me, and I loved the living space that was separate from the bedroom. The suite was bright, the building was secure and the manager who showed me around treated me like a human being instead of the next head of cattle being herded through and inspected. And, best of all, if you drew a circle between the homes of four of my good friends, it put me right in the middle of the circle, only a few blocks away from each.
I submitted my application. None of my references was called. A follow-up email led eventually to a response that my application has been rejected. The listing remains posted. It has been hard not to feel like I was automatically rejected because my primary source of income is disability insurance. And hard not to think that if I’d still been practicing medicine, I’d likely have been a shoe-in. Except that I probably wouldn’t have been applying at all because I’d own a home rather than needing to rent one. I don’t blame the owners. I recognize in their desire for the most secure option the similar desire that lives in me.
So when I received the email, I cried out (again) to the God who defends those in need and provides for his people. I’m in that graced place where it’s easier than usual to stake all my hope on God because there’s nothing else for me to cling to. I appear to be at the mercy of others, which really means that I’m at the mercy of my kind and gracious God who holds in his hand the hearts of kings and apartment owners and building managers.
I grieved the disappointment. I lamented. And then I turned again to the truth of this fifty-day-long season of Easter in which we’re living. I need every one of these days to remember the reality of resurrection and to practice living in the hope that George Herbert and Malcolm Guite describe in my new favorite Lent devotional, saying: “From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection” (p.174). Jesus has been raised, death has been conquered, and there’s no turning back. The new reality is the unshakeable, forever reality. Here in this season I practice remembering: There is always hope. God is the God of wild and crazy, ridiculous, impossible surprises. The God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts.
I’ll continue the alternating pattern of crying out and returning to hope; of lamenting loss and puzzling over confusion and choosing to trust the God of resurrection. Because as certainly as there is now “just the single, eternal day of resurrection,” in this world we do not yet live the full freedom of that new life. Here and now, resurrection is a taste and a certainty and a hope that holds us through the pain of all our little and big deaths. Resurrection follows each big and little death; it doesn’t prevent them. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus says. “But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul explains, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). We who are joined to Christ in his death experience the pain of our own big and little deaths on our way to living fully and forever united to him in his resurrection.  We groan and cry and lament. And then we turn and see Jesus appear to two confused and grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, call Mary by name in the garden, and cook breakfast on the beach for his closest friends. None of them knew him at first. That didn’t keep him away. And so we can rest again in the certainty that even in the moments when we are blinded by our grief, the smallness of our faith, or the simple fact of our humanity, the risen Jesus still walks among us, quietly working resurrection surprises within us and around us and even through us.
 

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Dust you are: a celebration

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There are still three weeks to go in Lent, three weeks more of intentionally exploring what it means to be fully human followers of Jesus, not living just in our heads but living full-bodied fellowship and followership.

Some days I feel like I’m still digging my way out of an ice-drifted driveway and already my heart is wondering when the journey will be over. (“Are we there yet?”)

Other days it seems right that our word “Lent” is derived from the Old English word meaning “springtime.” Spring fever is in my blood and I’m not just walking toward the cross but running toward resurrection.

Spring calls us to be part of her, draws us into her so we shake the rugs and clean the closets and run outside to feel the sun’s face turned toward us, warm and overflowing with blessing. Spring insists that we join in with our whole bodies. She doesn’t just call, she puts out a hand, two hands, smelling of fresh-turned earth and daffodils, and tugs so we ache to dig in the earth or wish we had a child’s small hand in ours so we could skip down the road without anyone looking at us funny.

The claim of spring on our bones doesn’t always wait for Easter. It can stir even on the way to the cross. I watch Jesus step firmly towards His death, eyes on His bride. A woman kneels and anoints Jesus for burial, their dance tugging her to bend and wipe His feet with her hair. Jesus Himself stoops and lifts the feet of his disciples and washes them clean.

 “All of these bodily postures were postures of risk. They were postures that relinquished the control of a planned response; they were authentic responses to the Spirit working and moving physically in their midst. These physical postures of response reveal a wild God, one who breaks boundaries, etiquette, and our preconceived ideas of responding.” (Celeste Snowber Schroeder, Embodied Prayer, 133)

The sign in my bathroom declares, “I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing” (Hillel). It’s a reminder to this girl who clings to control: the point is not perfection but surrender and wholeness and Him.

I can’t help but grin as I remember this eighty-eight year old bopping her way down the front steps of her house. There are a host of ways to dance and mine won’t look like hers but this I know: I am body as well as soul and learning to let my body be part of my worship is one more step in surrendering my whole self to this wild and passionate Lord of the dance as He leads me out to wash feet, out through the cross and on toward resurrection.

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Photo by Tricia Herera

 

Taking it deeper:

Try it. Dance. (Yes, you. I dare you.)

If you’re itching to get started, please stop reading and go for it! If you have hesitations like I’ve had, maybe these few thoughts and practices that have helped me will help you ease into this practice too:

  • Too embarrassed? Close the blinds and give yourself space to dance alone. Or if that’s still too much, try dancing in your imagination. What posture might express what your whole self wants to say to God right now? The point is not to force ourselves into something unnatural but to stop shushing our bodies and learn to welcome them as they cry to be part of our worship.
  • Too down? Try dancing this lament. Let your body be part of expressing the cry of your soul.
  • Too sick? May I whisper a secret? This hard place might just be one of the best places to learn to dance as we let the impossible weight of our body surrender to the strength of Jesus’ arms and discover ourselves carried into the dance. And, as I discovered last week, sometimes joining in the dance doesn’t even mean moving from your chair but uncrossing your legs and opening your hands and listening to the music with your feet and knees as well as your ears.
  • No time? Who says I can’t wield that toilet brush or broom with a little rhythm as I surrender to the joy or longing of the worship music playing in the background and let my whole self open a little wider to God?
  • Guys—having seen you cheering for a goal, not just arms but whole bodies in the air, shouts erupting, I’m pretty sure your body is also eager to be part of worship. I’m also pretty sure you’ll have your own unique way of expressing it. Thoughts? What might it look like for you to let your body be part of worship?

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This is the fifth in a series of Lenten posts exploring what it might look like to live fully alive to God with our bodies as well as our souls. Click on the links to read the first four:

Dust you are: an invitation

Dust you are: a call to pay attention

Dust you are: love in the desert

Dust you are: Living the mystery together

The hidden King

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We sat, last Sunday, on the wooden pew near the back of the little country church. The unexpected sun filtered through the rain-stained windows. The priest, in his white robe of celebration, reminded us that it was the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year.

When we’d planned those few days away, I’d forgotten that they fell between the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next, between the celebration of Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent.

In the calendar it’s only one week a year; off the page it can feel like more. Isn’t this where we live large chunks of our lives, clinging with both hands to the promise that Christ is King while being plunged into the reality of how this King comes, the God-man so small and silent that in those first days of his coming among us even the woman carrying him couldn’t discern his presence?

The priest raised the wafer and reminded us of the words of this King, “This is my body, broken for you.” Such a strange king he is, this King who conquers his enemies with love and nourishes his children with His own bruised and broken body.

I think of the senseless violence and another new widow and I need to remember that this King who wore our flesh and sweated our blood and cried our tears will tenderly hold a reed that’s bent double with grief. And that this King who comes quietly among us will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.

He comes into our violent, grieving humanness, this King, entering and owning it, living it and lifting it to a place where it is no longer a barrier to entering His presence but the very place where He comes closest.

I weave crosses in red and gold for the empty tree and sing along with Handel’s Messiah, finding here the words I need to receive and sing and live all over again.

“Comfort ye my people.” The voice is gentle and low, and comes with His promise: “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill made low, the rough ground shall be made level and the rugged places a plain and the glory of the LORD shall appear and all mankind shall see it together.”

And the baby comes—this one who is Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God and Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. I need to hang out here and savour each of those names that our world needs, that I need.

The angels sing “Glory to God” and “Peace” and it’s only a few short years later that the angels watch and grieve with the whole universe to see Him bringing that peace, bent and broken under the weight of our pain: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The mocking is excruciating—“He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him if he delights in him”—but it’s the silence of unanswered prayer that is heartbreaking: “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart. . . . See if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” The music slows and lets me linger there a while before it moves me on with that three letter word that can speak hope into the most desperate of situations. “BUT Thou didst not leave his soul in hell.”

The nations rage on but the King has risen and the choir sings “Hallelujah, for the LORD God omnipotent reigneth” and who can help but stand and join in as the Hallelujah continues? “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. KING OF KINGS, LORD OF LORDS.”

The story turns back to us and we’re raised along with Him. “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I see a widow running to her husband—and another reunion, and another—a mother to her daughter and a son to his mother and a brother to his brother.

And while we wait, groaning, for that day, the soprano sings of Christ sitting at the right hand of God making intercession for us and, oh, don’t we need to know He’s still with us in our trouble, bringing us to His Father? Seeing him there, His people together cry “Worthy!”

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. . . . Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever!”

The amen rolls from the bass up to the tenor and on up through the alto to the soprano and they pass it back and forth, never letting it drop, the whole of creation caught up in echoing the praise of this slain Lamb, this hidden King who will one day be hidden no longer.

I’ll be singing my way through this drama over and over as we wait for His coming. I need to remember who it is that is coming, growing in small and hidden ways, strange and strong and mysterious ways, active within me and within the world long before I can sense His presence.

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Related:

Handel’s Messiah performance

Handel’s Messiah text with Scripture references

Isaiah 42

When advent feels empty

Free to be human without fear

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?