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

How to live a healthy rhythm of labor

I woke on Saturday with a sense of dread hanging over me. I was tired, my website was still a mess, the deadline for a writing contest was two days away, and I didn’t yet have an idea for a blog post. The kitchen and bathroom floors have needed washing for weeks. The washing basket was full, and I’d had to eat crackers and peanut-butter for my pre-run snack because the bananas were too green and I hadn’t made it to the store to buy bread.

I didn’t list all those things as I woke. They were just there, a dark cloud of weariness and dread as I entered the day. It was early and I lay there for a bit, telling God how much I hated started a day dreading it. Beyond that I don’t remember how the gift came. It wasn’t something I figured out. It was just there, an understanding and an invitation and another piece of the puzzle being put into place so that the whole image was all of a sudden clearer. 

The understanding: I have choice here. No one is dying. 

The invitation: Live a healthy rhythm of labor. 

I’ve seen women who were for the first time experiencing the burning pressure between their legs push not only with contractions but try to keep pushing in between. In only a few minutes they were exhausted. If, on the other hand, they pushed with contractions, when the uterus was doing a huge part of the work to push the baby down, and rested and breathed when the contraction waned, they could keep up the rhythm of push and rest for much longer, and made much quicker progress in delivering the baby than if they tried to push constantly. Rest and breathing was also important for both mom and baby to get the oxygen that they needed. 

In the hard work of intense labor, the rests are as important as the pushing.

So on Saturday morning, I sensed the invitation to stop and breathe between contractions. More concretely for this introvert who’d been engaging with people all week, the invitation was to keep all social media turned off and not even do my usual quick email check while I ate my snack before I ran. For this self who comes alive with writing and slowly shrivels with trying to figure out too many new technological issues at once, the invitation was also not to look at the website. It was to set all that aside and just be my small self, alone with God, without any of the roles or trappings or obligations. There in his presence, I could finally see things more clearly: nothing on my do-list was truly urgent. It would all still be there in a few hours and no-one would have died for it not having been done sooner. The only thing that hurt a bit was my pride. Who wants the mess of their website or their floors visible to visitors? But God has been doing his slow, patient work in me, and, for that morning at least, the inner freedom to shut out the world and be quiet with God was worth far more than the sting of possibly being misperceived and judged (or correctly perceived in areas I’d rather keep hidden!).

As I saw the invitation to step back into a healthy rhythm of labor, I also saw once more where God was in it all: The Divine Midwife was midwifing me.God had just put a hand on me, helping me sense whether there was a contraction or not, whether his power was in that moment at work in me, encouraging me to add my effort to his, or whether this was a moment to rest and breathe and prepare to work together again shortly.

For me, facing the day with dread is often a sign that I’m trying to keep pushing, relying on my own effort, when I’m being invited first to rest and breathe. 

The exact signs will be different for everyone, but each of us can, over time, learn to recognize when we’re pushing solely in our own effort, and when we’re adding our strength to cooperate with something that God is already doing in us.

I’ve mentioned the understanding and the invitation, but not yet the puzzle piece being put into place so that the whole image became clearer. 

The puzzle piece: I’ve long wondered how all this fits into the time I lived in a little mountain village in Afghanistan, sometimes as the only doctor for 150,000 people. Was that an exception, an impossible situation that couldn’t have been lived in a healthy rhythm? What about my obstetrical training when I had to work 24, 28, and sometimes even 36 hour shifts? Does this invitation to live a healthy rhythm apply only to those who don’t have a busy job or small children or another circumstance that may keep them running for years? 

Certainly there are stretches of our lives when we seem to have little control over our own time. But even then, as I look back once again at my own situation, I see places I could have chosen differently and didn’t, usually because I was afraid of disappointing someone. Yes, there were huge, real constraints on my time and energy. But at least as big a part in my failure to live a healthier rhythm of labor was my over-active sense of responsibility to please everyone.

It takes time to learn to recognize when we’re pushing in our own effort and when we’re cooperating with the Holy Spirit and, as Paul said, “struggling with all [God’s] energy which so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29), but there are hints and promises to help us in the process. I can

  • Begin to notice signs that indicate I’m trying to push when I’m being invited to rest. What happens in my body, my thoughts and emotions, my relationship with God and others when I’m pushing in my own strength vs. when I’m cooperating with God and living a healthier rhythm of pushing along with Him and then resting and then pushing again?
  • Pay attention to the clues we’re given. I’ve found love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 a good starting list for noticing what’s going on in me and what it might mean. I can work hard but with a sense of joy and gentleness, or I can drive myself anxiously and aggressively. In the first case, I’m pushing along with something the Holy Spirit is already doing. In the second, I’m likely trying to bring something to birth in my own effort.
  • Ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in noticing well, in following the nudges to rest, and in letting Jesus heal me in the places I need to be healed so I’m not being driven by fear of what others might think but am responding to God’s nudges.

The wonderfully encouraging news in this process?

The promise: We’re not on our own in this process of learning to listen and live a healthy rhythm of labor. We have an ever-present Midwife who knows us and is always with us and in us, midwifing the birth of our lives more deeply into God’s, and of God’s life in and through us into the world.

“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s withinus. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Rom 8:22-28, The Message)

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Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

Comfort when life is messy

Welcome! Pull up a chair. If you’re reading this online rather than via email, you’ll notice that I’ve been working this week to transfer my blog to a new home to better welcome you, and the move is still in process. If you can’t see the search button or the list of topics, that’s because I haven’t unpacked them yet. The pictures aren’t hung and nothing is quite in its right place, but I’m so glad you’ve come anyway. The kettle’s on and we’ll pause in the midst of the mess to notice that God is here too.

The fact is, sometimes I hear God’s heartbeat most clearly when I haven’t managed to tidy everything up. Maybe it’s because then I most need to hear his heartbeat reminding me that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and that the Holy Spirit delights to hover over formless chaos and from it shape ruby-throated hummingbirds and the milky ribbon of stars in a clear winter sky and the sun glinting on the tips of salty ocean waves.

Creation is like that. We see a newborn baby or the first green shoot of spring peeking up from the ground and it awakens within us hope, and tenderness, and a desire to protect the new little life. The mystery is great, and the awe, and the hope. But also the mess. Someone got dirt under their fingernails planting those bulbs. Someone made space within herself and carried that baby-in-formation through three-quarters of a year of nausea and back pain, heartburn and mood swings, weariness and the little guest tucking himself up under her ribs or kicking her bladder or doing aerobics when she was trying to sleep. Someone breathed through the pains, and soaked the carpet when the water broke, and wondered if she could do it, and gave all her strength to push this new bit of life out into the world, slippery with fluid and blood and caked with white vernix. The coming of new life is messy.

That’s one of the reasons that the Psalmist’s understanding of God as midwife so delights me. People who choose to make their life’s work caring for women and the life coming into being through them aren’t generally afraid of the mess. Nor of the unpredictability of the process. And so in the messiest and most dangerous moments in his life, the Psalmist cries out to the divine Midwife.

In Psalm 71:6, when the Psalmist’s life is threatened by enemies, he prays, “It was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” The Hebrew text reads, “It was you who cut me from my mother’s womb,” picturing God as the midwife cutting the psalmist’s umbilical cord at his birth.

In another of the most painful times of his life, when his sense of being abandoned by God was accompanied by physical illness and exhaustion and desertion by friends, David finds hope in the reminder that the same God who was present at his physical birth, guarding his life, still tends him: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb. You kept me safe on my mother’s breast” (Ps 22:9) The Hebrew literally says, “Yet it was you who pulled me out of the womb. . . ,” picturing a midwife helping a baby be born.

It is quite possible that Jesus himself turned for comfort to the image of God as Midwife. From the cross, his raw back rubbing rough wood with each word, Jesus cries the first words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and the writer of Hebrews quotes Jesus as speaking v. 22 in the context of his suffering (Hebrews 2:12). As a Jewish boy, Jesus would have memorized large portions of Scripture, and in his agony, this entire psalm may well have become his prayer, its poetry wrapping up all the outer details and inner wrestlings of those hours leading to his death, holding open space for trust during his excruciating birthing of us, “a people yet unborn” (v. 31), into the inner life of the Trinity. Every part of him burned: his pierced hands and feet, his dislocated joints; Jesus, along with the psalmist, may have cried that his heart had melted within him (v. 14). He was being torn apart, as though by “roaring lions that tear their prey” (v. 13). If Jesus was indeed praying this whole psalm on the cross, then for help in the tearing, burning intensity of his labor, he turned to the divine Midwife: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God” (v. 9-10) “In you our ancestors trusted . . . and you delivered them,” he reminded himself (v. 4). Into the skilled and gentle hands that had delivered him and thousands before him he could commit his body and spirit.

I’m intrigued that David and likely Jesus as well (both men!) found comfort in the image of God as Midwife. In Galatians 4:19, the apostle Paul addresses the recipients of his letter, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . .” He paints a startling picture in which all Christian believers (women and men!) are pregnant and Christ is the baby growing inside of us.

It’s an incredible privilege to carry Jesus within us. But I also know from my experience as an obstetrician walking with women through their pregnancies that as much as they might love the child being formed within them, pregnancy can be frightening. Spiritual pregnancy—Christ being formed in me—can feel scary and out of my control too—particularly knowing that this One being formed in me isn’t afraid of calling me to come and die on my way into new life. When fear rises, or I’m aware of my messiness, there’s comfort in knowing I’m in good hands, being cared for by the same skilled Midwife who was there at my own birth, unseen but present and wise and tender. That midwife is still guarding my life and skillfully working to safely deliver the life that is coming into being in and through me.

How is it for you to consider that strong and gentle hands are holding you and all that concerns you, even in the times you might not feel those hands?

Is there anything you’d like to say to your divine Midwife right now?

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Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash

One way to dive deeper into God's love

As I was pondering and praying about this blog post last evening, I felt like I was standing on the end of a high diving board—as though I’ve been climbing a very tall ladder for a very long time and once I take this next step, there’s no turning back. As I pictured myself standing there, toes curled over the edge of the board, a song from twenty years ago that I still have on my exercise playlist came to mind:
The long awaited rains
Have fallen hard upon the thirsty ground
And carved their way to where
The wild and rushing river can be found
And like the rains
I have been carried to where the river flows, yeah
My heart is racing, and my feet are weak
As I walk to the edge
I know there is no turing back
Once my feet have left the ledge
And in the rush I hear a voice
That’s telling me to take a leap of faith
So here I go
I’m diving in, I’m going deep, in over my head I want to be
Caught in the rush, lost in the flow, in over my head I want to go
The river’s deep, the river’s wide, the river’s water is alive
So sink or swim, I’m diving in. . . (Steven Curtis Chapman, “Dive”)

It’s strange to think that when that song was released in 1999, I was partway through my first year of obstetrics specialty training. Five years of that residency training, four and a half years in Afghanistan, and ten years recovering and discovering God’s love from a whole different vantage point—I’ve done a lot of diving into new situations in those years. (And yes, sometimes finding myself in over my head!)
When I completed medical school and began obstetrical specialty training, I had no idea that I’d only get to witness and assist the birthing of new physical life for ten years—five years of training, and five of practice as an obstetrician. Nor did I know either the pain or the (even bigger) gift that would follow.
While I was working as an obstetrician, though I did glimpse the holiness of the process, my focus was on managing the situation, keeping mom and baby safe, and trying to stay more or less (preferably more) in control of an often uncontrollable process.
Then when my body could no longer handle the stress of being, for a time, the only doctor for 150,000 people in a little mountain village in central Afghanistan, I was forced to face head-on the reality that I am not in control. I couldn’t even manage my own body, let alone anyone else’s. I could barely sit up for a meal, and one long night it took two tries to drag myself, crawling on hands and knees, to the outhouse to empty the little bucket for which I had become increasingly grateful. It has been a long journey back to some semblance of health—much longer than the week it took me to get home, stopping en route to rest for a while and then be flown business class the rest of the way because I was too sick to sit up.
Why am I telling you all this now? Because one of the loveliest gifts of these past ten years has been the surprise that just as I stepped out of practicing obstetrics, I unknowingly stepped into experiencing obstetrics in a whole different way, from a variety of different angles.
I’ve discovered that I’m the baby, carried safely in the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). I’ve lived and pondered the privilege that we have of carrying Jesus within us and bearing his life into the world. I’ve experienced God midwifing me wisely and gently through the whole process.
As I’ve pondered these roles, it has been impossible for me to avoid the sense that God’s love is so big and his desire to draw us into it so great that no single metaphor is sufficient to communicate that love. God circles and doubles back, revealing himself in Scripture in all the different roles in the obstetrical drama: as mother, father, husband, midwife, even baby whom we, along with Mary, are graced to carry. Each of these roles has offered me comfort and encouragement and help in understanding many aspects of our relationship to God as we live this holy, mysterious, and sometimes painful life with him.
I’ve shared a few bits of this here over the years, but mostly I’ve written about other things on this blog while I’ve been completing a theology degree and spiritual director training and writing a book about learning to trust God’s love as illustrated by the story I’ve just told you in brief above. The book hasn’t yet been published, but in the meantime I’m bursting to share some of what the professor who supervised my book-writing termed “obstetrical theology,” and it seems now is the right time to share it. In case the mention of theology frightens you, don’t worry. There’s nothing abstract or dry about the way God has revealed himself in the birth drama. We’re all carried and born, after all, and in revealing himself in these roles that we can all in some way relate to, God offers us the kind of practical, tangible comfort I suspect we all need when life feels a bit out of control. So will you join me over the coming weeks as we dive a little deeper into the love of God as he has revealed it to us through all the different roles in the birth drama? I’m excited to share this with you!

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FOR REFLECTION:
When you relate to God, do you relate to him more often as your father, your mother, your husband, your baby, or your midwife?
Do any of the roles seem strange or uncomfortable to you? Do you have any sense why that might be?
Is there anything you’d like to say to God about all this as we dive in?

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If you’re excited about this series and haven’t yet subscribed to receive my weekly blog posts by email, would you consider doing so? That helps me serve you in multiple ways: you won’t miss any of these posts, you’ll have access to the extra little surprises I’m preparing for those on my email list, and you’ll help me get the book I’ve written for you published. (Not surprisingly, potential publishers want to know people are interested in reading an author’s words!)
My sincere thanks to so many of you who share the posts you find helpful with others who might be interested. I can write these words, but only you can get them to that friend of yours who might be helped by them today.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash