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 who is for us

On this Canadian Thanksgiving day, all the other things I’m grateful for are finding their proper, smaller place next to this:
All three persons of the Triune God stand turned toward us in love and blessing, extending grace and peace. 

Grace and peace to you from the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come; from the sevenfold Spirit before his throne; and from Jesus Christ. He is the faithful witness to these things, the first to rise from the dead, and the ruler of all the kings of the world. (Rev 1:4-5 NLT)

The trees lift their arms in celebration, calling us to join in the worship of this God who loves us more deeply than we can imagine.

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.”

The truth about learning to fly

dsc_0990I’m out running at dawn on this Canadian Thanksgiving Day. The gulls are wailing like the end of the world is near.
Words from yesterday return to mind, other birds touching our human story:

“In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste.
He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye,
like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young,
that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.
The LORD alone led him; no foreign god was with him.” (Deut 32:10-12)

I’ve always pictured “stirring up its nest” as pushing the eaglet out, albeit while hovering ready to scoop underneath and catch it and lift it again if it becomes clear the eaglet hasn’t yet gotten the knack of flying. But as I read about eagles, it seems like preparation for the first flight is a more gentle, though still firm, process, with mom hovering over the nest to show what wings are for, and baby practicing leaps and jumps to gradually strengthen its wings; with, some sources say, mom gradually bringing less food so the baby’s desire grows and weight drops, letting it be more easily lifted by the wind. It’s less a pushing than a coaxing, and babies may leave the nest several days or more apart, as each is ready. Sometimes eaglets fall to the ground, and parents feed them there, or lure them back to the nest.
Even with this gentler process I wonder whether eaglets ever feel like their world is ending as they’re coaxed out of their comfortable home? Do they sense the excitement of growth, or do they just feel the pangs of hunger and desire as the parent flies past with prey but doesn’t drop it in the nest, the confusion of apparent rejection by the one who had always fed them before? Do they feel the terror of falling as they leave the nest or are they so lured by desire that fear is left behind?
This might be the thing I’m most grateful for on this particular Thanksgiving Day: that, whether we feel it or not, the same Parent who coaxes us out of our comfortable nest is also hovering over us as the Spirit hovered over the waters, continuing the creation of our fullest, free-est selves. And all the discomfort of the process is part of the bigger truth of being shielded and cared for and guarded, and helped to grow into the selves we were meant to be.
The sky is lightening and the gulls are still crying but I see them wheel and turn toward the light.
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How ungratitude can heal your heart

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“For what moment today am I most grateful?” and “For what moment today am I least grateful?” Most nights lately I’ve been asking these two questions from the Linn’s marvelous little book, Sleeping with Bread. Practicing gratitude isn’t new to me. Practicing ungratitude is. I’ve been startled to discover that the second question is drawing me even more deeply into God’s love than the first.
The first time I asked myself that second question I cried. I didn’t even have to answer it; it was enough to be sitting quietly in my Father’s love hearing Him ask not just “What was the nicest thing that happened to you today?”—a very good and important question—but also “What hurt you today? What made you feel sad, or angry, or helpless?” He cares. He wants to be with me in whatever life holds, however lovely or painful, small or large. There is room in God’s love for all of me.
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“You belong to Me. You live in my world. And I give myself to you.” The preacher spoke the words, a paraphrase of God’s final words in Ezekiel 34, over us at the end of yesterday’s service.
Earlier in the service we had sung “This is my Father’s world,” and I’d remembered the hours I’d spent ten or so years ago arranging pictures from my little village in Afghanistan to that song. I’d needed to remember, in the middle of my years there, that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” I’ve needed to remember again recently, as I’ve watched, from a distance, a hospital going up in flames, staff and patients victim to a series of impossible-to-understand bombs dropped by people who are supposed to be trying to help.
There is so much beauty in the world, and courage and life. And there is so much wrong.
In the world.
In my country.
In my own heart.
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I pulled out my Freedom Journal last night, that place where I write things I need to bring to Jesus and leave with him. I’m using a journal a friend gave me in high school, one which has sat, empty, on my shelf for twenty-five years. I’ve never loved it. It was too dark, too stark; I wanted pretty. Now I can’t imagine another journal that could speak the strong, gentle truth more perfectly. It’s a somber black with threads of gold woven through it, defying the darkness. Its unlined pages haven’t provided enough structure for my perfectionism, but they offer plenty of grace-filled space for the messiness of life. A flap folds over to cover the raw edges of the pages, and a gold cord, long enough to wrap around it three complete turns, closes it.
I opened it last night. I had a list to bring to Jesus.
And when I’d finished writing, I turned again to the front, to the words I wrote when I first used the journal: “I leave this process with you and will soon close the book, letting this process be enfolded in your embrace and wrapped around with the glorious love of the Trinity. Where could this process, this journey toward freedom that matters so much to me be any safer?” The words sometimes change: in the moments when I feel like I’m trying to choose not the best candidate but the least bad one, “where could this country that I love be any safer?” Where but enfolded in the embrace of the Trinity could this friendship, this project, this world, be any safer?
We belong to Him. We live in His world. And He, daily, offers Himself to us.
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“For what moment today are you most grateful? Least grateful?” The two questions are blurring, becoming one. As I become honest in God’s presence about the things that hurt and find myself once again loved—I God’s, and He mine—that tender moment of lovedness becomes the moment in the day for which I am most grateful.