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

When life takes a detour

As I was biking this morning—my own ongoing rehab exercise which I’ll need to do for the rest of my life—I was praying for someone else who has encountered a detour on his path. He followed God into a new job for which he seems so clearly gifted, and then encountered unexpected illness which, at the moment, is making that role impossible for him. I pray for him because I know how desperately difficult it was for me to go from being the carer to the cared for. I wonder if it’s hard for him too.

As I pray, I remember the pain of that process, but also the grace of a Sunday morning a few months after my return from Afghanistan. I was still too sick to go with my family to church, and lying there in my bed, wrestling with how thing seemed to be turning out, I sensed God say to me, “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.”

I’d followed God, and when the route he took me looked different than I expected—passing through the wilderness of illness instead of travelling longer in the mountainous desert of Afghanistan—I needed to be reminded that the different route didn’t mean I wasn’t being led, or that I hadn’t heard right or followed well. It just meant Jesus knows the way and my job is not to map out the route but to trust his love and cling close to him wherever that takes me.

We’re each led into particular ministries and roles and opportunities, and some of them are difficult enough that we need to feel that specific call quite strongly to stick it out. Part of faithfulness is persevering in the task we’ve been given for as long as it’s entrusted to us. But this is important: Our ultimate calling is never to a role, but to a Person. The role may change; the Person, and the call to cling close to Him, will not. 

I’ve thought often of God’s invitation to me that Sunday morning. But until this morning I’ve mostly thought of it in relation to that big and obvious shift in my life. This morning I realized that it relates every bit as much to the blog post that I don’t have words for as to the lines of patients needing a doctor: “Cling not to the call, but to the One who called, not to the dream, but to Me.” 

How do I know when I’m clinging to the call rather than the One who calls? Most often it takes me a while to realize it. I find myself feeling anxious and unsettled, or tired and dry and pressured. I realize I’m trying to control an outcome. Saturday, for example, I felt this heaviness: “I still have no words and Monday is blog day and what am I going to write?” It’s a choice to plant my few mustard-seed grains of faith, to let go of expectations and receive the reminder that it would be fine to repost an older piece of writing this time. And as I pause and sit in stillness with Jesus, soaking in the goodness of being his and he mine, loved regardless of what I accomplish, I realize that the yoke has stopped chafing and the burden become lighter. Then and only then, I realize I’d yoked myself once again to the call rather than the One who calls, and that He has graciously helped me once again remove the heavy yoke of my self-imposed expectations that come with clinging to the call and take up, instead, the easy yoke of walking and working in step with the One who calls to me in love.

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P.S. In case you missed it last week, here’s a link to a free five-day contemplative course offering you space to reflect more deeply on Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28-30 to come to him in our weariness and find rest, trading in the yoke that chafes us for his that fits perfectly.

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

Walking on water, or swinging along a high bar?

Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them?

The question wrote itself in my mind as yesterday’s preacher spoke from Acts 2, focussing on the little phrase, “. . . as the Spirit enabled them” (v.4). The Spirit’s enabling is the secret to how we can live a life that matters because, as Jesus reminded us, without him we can do nothing (John 15:5).  The Spirit empowered the gathered disciples to speak coherently in languages they’d never learned, overcoming their natural human limitations.

But just fifteen minutes before the service began, I’d been talking about learning to respect my limitations. Sometimes I still find my limitations frustrating. Often I see them as gifts. (And it’s quite possible for them to be both at the same time!) They have made space for me to know that God loves and wants me, not just my work. They help guide me into the work God has for me to do, and to say no to what is not mine to do. And, often, my limitations are what God uses to help me understand and love someone else well in the midst of their own limitations.

So which is it? Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them, giving us grace to live well within them?

As I ponder and pray, I’m realizing three things:

  1. God’s ways are higher than mine, and just because I can’t tidily explain how two things fit together doesn’t mean they aren’t both true. Take free will and predestination, or Jesus’ complete humanity and divinity. Our minds struggle to hold them together, yet if one is separated from the other, we slip into a belief that is so one-sided it is no longer true. 
  2. When heaven invades earth, it doesn’t obliterate it. Jesus’ divinity didn’t override his humanity. He remained fully human and limited, needing to eat and sleep, becoming weary, and remaining susceptible to the ultimate limitation: death. He wasn’t superhuman so much as the perfect human.
  3. God doesn’t promise to empower me for everything I want to do, or even everything I think I should be able to do. He will, however, enable me for the work He has prepared for me to do.

For some years I did work I should not have been able to do with my medical condition. Was I walking on water by the Spirit’s enabling, or was I keeping myself from sinking by desperately pulling myself along, hand-over-hand along a high bar, wondering when my arms would give way and I would drop into the water waiting below?

Perhaps some of both.

Definitely a lot of the second. 

Limits are a good and important part of our humanity, reminding us of the profound grace that we are not God, and keeping us close to the One who loves us and is able to do what we can’t. 

Sometimes God empowers us to do what would otherwise be humanly impossible: speak in languages we haven’t learned, love people we can’t otherwise love, and thrive in situations that seem impossible. Sometimes we’re given the ability, for a moment, to walk on water.

Many other times, God works through our limitations, rather than taking them away. He says to us what he said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Slowly I’m learning to recognize when I’m walking on water, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and when I’m pulling myself along above the water in my own strength. One of the markers, I think, is Jesus’ promise in Matthew 11:28-30 that his yoke is easy and his burden light. If I feel like I’m pulling myself hand-over-hand through my exhaustion, there’s a good chance I am.

There’s hard work which results in weariness but is also marked by peace and joy and hope—signs of the Spirit at work (Gal 5:22-23)—and there’s hard work that just drains away more and more life. Can we allow ourselves, in that place, to let go into Jesus’ strong arms, trusting that his strength will catch and hold and help us in my weakness? 


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

What to do with your wounds

It was a gorgeous Saturday morning, a few weeks back, and I was on my usual morning run. I was breathing deeply the crisp air and looking up at the brilliant red trees and missed seeing the uneven pavement stone. In less than a second, blood was dripping from both palms, my face hurt where my glasses had twisted against it, and, though I couldn’t see my knee beneath my leggings, I could tell it had felt the blow as well.

We all have wounds. It’s part of living in this creation with uneven pavement stones and dogs that bite and parents and teachers and friends who, like us, have their own wounds.

We can’t escape the wounds. But we can learn how to tend them so that even the most painful of wounds, while not chosen, can be stepping stones leading us into gift.
So how? How do we tend them so they’ll heal rather than fester? How do we care for them so a small problem doesn’t turn into a bigger one?
One thing I know: it doesn’t help to keep picking at them. And it doesn’t help to beat myself up about having them. There’s already enough of me hurting without adding more bruises.
So when the same old wound catches me off-guard and I find myself feeling like a failure, this is the question that helps me most: “I wonder how Jesus sees my wounds?” I may see them as failure, but he doesn’t. He sees them as wounds—something that I didn’t choose (though I can choose now what to do with them)—and something that I can no more heal than I could heal the weeping wounds on my hands after I fell. I can tend them—protect them, keep them clean as best I can—but I can’t make them heal. Only God can do that.
But there’s more. Not only does Jesus see my persistent triggers not as failure but as wounds, he also sees them as a place of connection.
During a recent series of challenging conversations, over and over I sensed the invitation, “Press your wounds into Mine.” The still-tender parts of my palms were a daily reminder of the invitation, and I pictured myself again and again with my palms pressed against Jesus’ palms, my eyes looking into his, into that place where I always find myself seen and known and loved. And somehow, there, the pain decreased. It turns out a lot of the pain of wounds is the loneliness beneath—the fear of failure and the rejection we’re sure will accompany it.
It’s a very intimate act, this pressing of wounds together, this mingling of blood—a bit like young girls who prick their fingers and let their blood mix in an act of declaration that they are now “blood sisters,” something deeper than friends, connected and committed forever. But Jesus is more than a playground friend. This is God who takes on flesh so he can share my blood. This is God who goes much farther than pricking his fingers to let his new-made blood mingle with mine in a symbolic act of security and belonging. No needles here, but nails piercing his wrists, a sword his side. No symbolic act but a real sealing of my security with his life.
His hands still carry the scars, an eternal invitation to press my wounds into his and there remember that nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. For, mystery of mysteries, His blood now runs in my veins and mine in his.
 

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“His blood now runs in my veins and mine in his.” For further meditation on this thought, see 2 Cor 5:21, Is 53:5, 1 Cor 10:16 and 12:27, Col 1:18-20 and 2:9-13. What feelings surface as you read that statement? What might it mean for you to know this is true?
Photos (in order) by me, Brian Patrick Tagalog on Unsplash, and Milada Vigerova on Unsplash.

For the moments you’re weary

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens.”
The invitation has never been rescinded.

My POTS (chronic illness) has been worse these past couple of months than it has been for years—maybe because, despite much help from friends and movers, I pushed past my limits in moving homes a couple of months ago.  It’s hard to be back here. It’s frustrating and discouraging and unpleasant to be lightheaded more of the time.
I find myself chafing at accomplishing so little, and realize that my sense of worth is still far too tied up with what I can do.  And in that place I hear once more Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens” and I realize that my burden is far more about my expectations of myself than God’s expectations of me. John Milton’s beautiful poem comes to mind once more, and with it the realization that it’s my heart’s posture of willingness toward God, not my ability to do what others can, that can make me a faithful servant.

On His Blindness (John Milton)
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly* ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.” (italics mine)
(*fondly = foolishly)


God meets me in the story of another man, too, a mighty prophet who, just after the mightiest demonstration of God’s power in his life, found himself so weary and weak that he was unable to go on and took himself off to the desert to lie down under a tree and pray for death (1 Kings 19). I’ve noticed before God’s tenderness in caring for him. God didn’t forget that Elijah was dust. He let him sleep, then woke him to the scent of fresh-baked bread. After he ate, he let him sleep again, then woke him in time for the next meal.
But this time it’s what comes next that grabs my attention. Elijah has now been strengthened enough by the care for his body that he has been able to travel to “the mountain of God.” There, he goes into a cave for the night. And God meets him in the cave. He asks Elijah to tell Him what’s going on for him. (Is this always the first part of healing—accepting God’s invitation to tell Him our fears and frustrations?) And then—I love this—God tells Elijah to go out on the mountain where God is about to pass by.
But it’s not the God Elijah was expecting.
Backing up for a moment, it’s clear that Elijah knows about God’s power. It’s not long since he single-handedly faced off against 450 prophets of the idol Baal and saw God send fire to consume a giant offering, thoroughly drenched with water to make the task as difficult as possible. The fire swallowed not only the bull and the wood, but the stones and the soil, too, and lapped up the water in the surrounding trench. Then, Elijah found himself empowered to outrun Ahab’s chariot all the way to Jezreel. Elijah knows about God’s power, knows how to call upon it and trust it and feel it in himself. But might it be harder for him to relate to the gentle, mothering side of God, the God who wakes him from a nap with the scent of fresh-baked bread and whispers words of comfort? Can he let himself be vulnerable enough to trust this God in his weakness and weariness and despair?
In the days between the show-down with the prophets of Baal and his arrival at the mountain of God, he had no other choice. Wearied beyond his ability to drag himself out of his fatigue, he accepted the rest and the food. But now that he has become a bit stronger and has been able to walk from his hiding place in the desert to the mountain of God, will Elijah go back to experiencing God primarily as the God of power? And will God go back to revealing himself in that way, as the one who not only sends down fire, showing Himself powerful, but also empowers His servants to outrun chariots?
At God’s invitation, Elijah goes out on the mountain. There is a great and powerful wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. God is not there either. Then fire. Surely here! Elijah knows God’s power descends in fire! But no. It’s almost as though God is parading these sights and sounds of power before Elijah to bring to his attention the way he usually, maybe subconsciously, thinks of God. And then Elijah hears a gentle whisper. And here, finally, Elijah recognizes the presence of God. Here in the place Elijah least expected him, God comes, correcting Elijah’s lop-sided view with a truer, or at least more complete, view of who God is and what God is like. Tender as well as strong. A mother as well as a mighty warrior (cf. Is 42:13-16, Is. 49:15, 25-26).
This God who sympathizes with our weaknesses doesn’t give Elijah another assignment in which he is one man standing against several hundred, nor does God strengthen him again to outrun the king’s chariot. He assigns him now to anoint others to front-line leadership. A king over Aram, a king over Israel, and Elisha, a prophet to come alongside Elijah and succeed him.
Once upon a time, God empowered him in his weakness, giving him supernatural strength to carry on. Now he asks him to live more strictly within his human limits and learn another side of God, the God who is tender as well as strong, who respects his human limitations and loves him in them and gives him work that he can do, work that is less flashy but is still important work, God’s work. Sometimes God assigns us to outrun chariots, sometimes to stand (or sit, or lie) and wait in readiness. And sometimes he invites us to sleep and eat.
Might weakness be the only place we learn the tenderness of God? And might it be the place we discover our incorrect, or at best, lop-sided, views of what God is like, and the place where God corrects those views?

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The invitation has never been rescinded, only echoed through poems and prophets and our own lived experience of hearing God’s gentle whisper and finding him feeding us with the bread of his own body, then giving us work to do that fits.
“Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you”—many things, I think, but certainly who He is and what He is like and how we can live well in weakness as well as in strength—”because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt 11:28-30 NLT)

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Photos (in order) by Hernan SanchezKinga CichewiczRob ByeLily Banse, and Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.