Partnering in Suffering

  Photo Credit: Pixabay

 

I hung up the phone and cried. I wasn’t guilty of my friend’s accusations, and my heart was broken.

At one time or another, we’ve all been unjustly accused, betrayed, abandoned, blamed, rejected, or used. Sometimes the pain seems unbearable. The world seems unjust. Our suffering seems pointless. and we often feel alone.

At times the world seems unjust

and our suffering seems pointless.

We can’t understand others’ anger because we know our words and actions were motivated by love but somehow met by misinterpretation. The result is agonizing. “What’s the point?” we may think.

God’s word promises a purpose in our suffering: to partner in Jesus’ sufferings. In other words, when we suffer, we are also suffering with Jesus.  “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” 1 Peter 4:13 ESV

When we suffer, we are also suffering with Jesus.

Think of it like running a marathon at the side of a friend as an encourager and co-participant. This is one of the greatest purposes of our suffering–standing with Jesus in His suffering. What a privilege!

Jesus experienced pain beyond comprehension and gave His life for me. My perspective as co-sufferer with Jesus changes my attitude when I understand I suffer out of love for and in partnership with Him.

What about you?

Gratitude in Suffering

ShellySickFace

For more than fifteen years, I’ve experienced dizziness, nausea, pain, headaches, weakness, along with dozens of other symptoms. I’ve seen well over fifty doctors in hospitals all over the country. I’ve developed multiple lesions in my brain stem that have rendered me unable to walk, sit up, or stand. This past December I had brain surgery.

Even the doctors at Mayo Clinic declared me to be a neurological puzzle.

This week I received a diagnosis. The emotion was overwhelming.

I couldn’t have made it through these years of frustration without the support of many people.

People who never wavered or stepped away from my side for a moment. People who never questioned the reality of my symptoms. People who didn’t shame me for slowing down and stepping back.

People who sat beside me, wept with me, held my hand, cleaned up my vomit, brought meals, helped with our bills, prayed with us, asked the right questions at the right times and were sensitive enough to know when silence was a gift.

Friends who did not judge, but allowed me and continue to allow me to work through sorrow, grief, confusion, pain, and suffering as a lifetime journey with illness.

  • Thank you to Dan, who supported me every moment and never wavered. You are the most amazing husband in the world.
  • Thank you to my children and their spouses, who loved and supported me unflinchingly.
  • Thank you to my dear friend Wanda, who has helped with household chores, cooking, and sat beside me in the pain.
  • Thank you to those who have sacrificed, given, prayed, cooked, and done so much to support me. Thank you, Blythefield family. I don’t have words to express my gratitude for my church.

This journey has been hard. I have cried many tears, and I’m sure there will be more ahead. At times I have felt abandoned, angry, and confused. Even Jesus cried out to God in His suffering. Faith doesn’t require emotionless stoicism.

God’s goodness still overwhelms me.

My mind will never be able to comprehend His goodness and love. Love so great that He allowed all of humanity–including me–to heap our sins upon His Son. Love so intimate that He is with me snd never leaves my side in my suffering.

I pray I never forget to be grateful, that I never cease to see the Love that envelopes my life, even in sickness, suffering, and pain. And that I never stop pointing people to God’s goodness and greatness.

But gratitude does not come automatically–especially when everything inside us screams out, “Why me?”

  • So I choose my focus.I must stay grounded in the Word of God by choice, not because my emotions lead me there or my body wants to get up earlier in the morning for my devotional time. This choice requires discipline and commitment.
  • I choose my attitude. I check my self-talk and stinkin’ thinking, then repent. I’ve chosen a lifestyle of repentance that is followed by walking in grace. The two are linked in a daily cycle.
  • I choose my words. I’m called to look like Jesus to those around me–the phlebotomist who is trying for the sixth time to place an IV in my painful arm or the telemarketer who woke me up. I also choose the self-talk I allow because my thoughts are the control center of my mind and heart.

 

What about you? How do you find gratitude in suffering? 

Personal Medical Update

Second Day of Infusion Therapy

Second Day of Infusion Therapy

THAT WAS THEN

In 1999, after visiting three hospital ERs for nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and tinging in my face, I was diagnosed with a nickel-sized demylenating lesion near and actually in my brain stem. (Nerves are covered with a protective myelin coating, and when that coating comes off, inflammation is produced in the surrounding tissue, causing a “lesion” or spot, which is NOT a tumor.)

My condition was considered inoperable. A number of doctors at various hospitals and finally at Harper Hospital and Detroit Medical Center finally determined that it was a demylenating lesion and treated it with a burst and taper of steroids that shrunk it immensely, giving me back my life (for a time I was unable to walk or care for myself in any way, and my vision was double. I could do nothing but lie still in an effort to avoid unrelenting vomiting.)

The steroid treatment was dangerous but highly successful. For fifteen years, I’ve lived with MS-like symptoms but have managed life quite well, traveling, speaking, consulting, and writing.

THIS IS NOW

Many of you already know that just before Christmas I went to my family doctor because I was experiencing pain and tinging on the left side of my face. It felt to me as if a virus was traveling up my trigeminal nerve in my face. The pain was quite annoying. Actually, it was severe.

My doctor gave me an anti-viral medication but cautioned me that I would probably need to visit the ER for further testing. Within 48 hours, I acted on that advice. I felt truly unwell, and I’d been experiencing extreme fatigue for months, as well as other symptoms that were reminiscent of my episode in 1999 that had landed me in the hospital.

Doctors did, in fact, find another nickel-sized lesion in the identical location in my brain. They diagnosed it as a glioma–a very insidious diagnosis, and scheduled me for a craniotomy and resection in order to remove as much of the lesion as possible for biopsy.

They were able to remove 20% of it–the other 80% was too deeply in the pons of my brain and too dangerous to get to.

Nearly a month later, I’m still without a solid diagnosis. Docs have determined the lesion is demyelinating and NOT a glioma, which is hugely positive. But my biopsy, which was sent to Mayo Clinic, was inclusive for a specific diagnosis–for instance, MS, which is a specific demylelinating disease.

So where does this leave me?

1. My neurologist has referred me to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion.

2. In the meantime, I am undergoing steroid infusion therapy for five days, in an effort to reduct the inflammation and painful trigeminal neuralgia being caused in my face.

3. I am undergoing further tests–a Visually Evoked Potential, a thoracic MRI, and possibly a spinal tap. I am also being referred to a hematologist because of elevated protein in my blood.

4. Waiting on God, as we make preparations for a trip to Mayo Clinic in the dead of winter.

5. We are also juggling my medical trips with Dan’s and Wanda’s which is quite a challenge, given our combined medical challenges.

6. Leaning into the faithfulness of God and his unchanging goodness.

7. Learning new things about grace, pain, stillness, suffering, silence, change, and God’s love in the places we often fear most. He mercies are new every morning. This is not easy, but why would it be? I do not discount the challenge, but I embrace my only HOPE in this place.

What about you? In what ways have you found new mercy and grace in the hard places and suffering?

 

 

 

 

Four Ways the Church Can Teach Compassion for Suffering

  • tear-stained-faceAccording to the CDC, as of 2012, about half of all adults—117 million people—have one or more chronic health conditions.
  • According to the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI), more than 26% or one in four adults over the age of 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. 
  • According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), one out of every six American women has been the victim of a completed or attempted rape in her lifetime and 3% of men.
  • According to a survey by the National Institutes of Justice, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and in 1992 the AMA reported that as many as one in three women will be assaulted by a domestic partner in her lifetime. 85% of domestic violence victims are women.
  • Almost ten percent of the general population is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder–not just returning vets. And the causes of PTSD can be any terrifying experience that overwhelms the brain. Now do the math–how many people does that represent in YOUR church congregation who may be suffering in silence?

With these realities in mind, our churches must be mindful of the suffering of those sitting in our pews. Every form of suffering we read about and see on the news is affecting our churches and homes as Christians.

Our kids our suffering.

Our marriages our suffering.

As men and women, we are often silently suffering.

And too many churches are preaching a theology that doesn’t allow us to talk openly about hurt, pain, and the realities of our lives. We’re taught to be “happy all the time”? But why?

We’re afraid we’ll give God or Jesus a bad rap. So we teach a shallow, false view of Christianity.

But Jesus was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Scripture is filled with tough questions, lament, frustrated believers challenging God, and deep, authentic grief and sorrow.

So how can the church do a better job of teaching compassion?

1. Let us learn from authentic struggle. I’m grateful for my church, where most sermons are followed by an “application” time where members (as well as pastors and leaders) talk openly about how they’ve struggled through issues as wide-ranging as marital discord, battles with porn or other addictions, forgiveness, identity struggles, or other tough issues. We immediately recognize that, while truth is clearly taught in Scripture, church is a place where everyone is in the battle together.

2. Teach the importance and integration of mental and physical health. Too many Christians falsely believe that addressing health issues stops at the neck. The brain is an organ that operates under the same created biochemical principles as the rest of the body. Mental illness is real and needs to be respected. We need to stop shaming Christians for taking medications and seeking medical solutions. Of COURSE God is our healer–he’s my healer just as much when I go to a non believing cardiologist for medication and surgery as when I take a needed anti-depressant for chemical imbalance.

3. Make compassion ministries a priority. Teach about grief and suffering from the pulpit. Offer care groups. Hire a parish nurse. Create a health ministry or partner with other churches that are already doing these things. Yes, partner with OTHER churches and promote their health ministries to your congregation if you’re unable to create one yourself. Partner with inner city ministries to widen your perspective on compassion and community ministry.

4. Create a culture of transparency, accountability, and humility that flows from the top down. Compassion will seldom flow through a local body of believers if it is not modeled first by leadership. As a speaker and consultant, I am often horrified by the “rock star” attitude conveyed by some pastors. Look for pastors who speak openly about their struggles and create safe places for people to seek healing, comfort, and growth. Churches should be safe havens for the hurting.

What about YOU? How has the church ministered compassion to you in your suffering?

Giving Up My “Umbrella Theology”: Why Christians Should Be Prepared to Suffer

tsunamiJapanEvery Christian should be equipped with a theology of suffering. They should be prepared for the day when the unthinkable  happens to THEM.

Let’s face it. Life can be pretty awful. We live in a world surrounded by violence, illness, political uncertainty, war, revenge, and rage (I don’t live in LA, but I drive the LA streets and highways frequently, where I’ve seen the realities of “road rage” that kills people).

One day you sill lose your job. Someone will betray you. Your beloved family member will face devastating illness. And unfortunately, in those moments, many of us begin to doubt the goodness of God.

We didn’t doubt him or get angry when our neighbor got cancer. We didn’t doubt him when we read devastating news about a disaster in a developing nation. But the moment suffering hits US where it hurts, we can begin to question our faith.

I call this “Umbrella Theology”: our often unspoken belief that the crappy stuff in life should happen to other people and not us.

Because I don’t deserve it. Because I’m special to God and his child. Because I’m scared and I couldn’t take it. Because I’m really better than those other people somehow (yes, we do think this, we just don’t want to admit it).

Well, the storms of life have collapsed my umbrella theology, and I’ve been blessed to receive Special Education in Suffering through my experiences with illness, loss of loved ones, and other painful STUFF THAT IS NOT FUN. But I’m not anyone special. You’ve experienced these things too, and if you haven’t yet, you will.

Here’s my theology of suffering in a nutshell:

  • As a Christian, I should expect suffering. The Bible tells me to.Read what Paul says in Romans 8:18: …For I consider that the sufferings of this present time (this present life) are not worth being compared with the glory that is about to be revealed to us and in us and for us and conferred on us!
  • The Bible tells me that God wants to make me like Jesus. I’m called to “take up my cross” and learn from him. I’m called to become like him, so I will go through painful trials.
  • Suffering connects me to a hurting world. Suffering gives me cred among other people who suffer–which is pretty much my neighborhood, my community, my nation, and the world at large. That’s one thing that’s so amazing about Jesus–knowing that a perfect Savior suffered rejection (his own family wanted him to shut up about his ministry), isolation, physical pain and illness. He KNOWS my pain because he experienced it. That’s the kind of comforter we look for in other people.
  • Suffering proves the essence of my faith. I need a God who is big enough for the worst of the worst. I don’t have a faith worth offering the world if my God is only sufficient for broken  toes, flat tires, and traffic jams. The way we suffer THROUGH trials shows the world who our God is and if he can be trusted or not.
  • Suffering demonstrates that I trust God when I don’t understand. A lot about this world just plain stinks, but the truth is that God created perfection and beauty, and humans create the stink, then blame God for not stopping them for their choices. Suffering means that I trust a God who knows more than I know. If my God doesn’t know more than I know, then he’s not worth trusting anyway.
  • Suffering gives me a platform. We all want to hear from overcomes, and as Christians, we are promised that our faith overcomes the world. My faith swallows fear and doubt. My God is just too good–even if circumstances are devastating.
  • Suffering draws me closer to God. Easy times sure don’t–they keep me focused on the superficial. Suffering reminds me that I wasn’t created for a broken world, but living in the presence of Jesus in a world that’s restored. Suffering reminds me of the bigger picture and how my story is one thread in God’s eternal story.

For further reading, I’d suggest my books Love Letters from the Edge (Kregel Publications), The Silent Seduction of Self-Talk (Moody Publishers) and Precious Lord, Take My Hand (Discovery House Publishers), as well as Why? The Question That Never Goes Away by Phillip Yancey.

Lament: The Caregiver’s Chorus Book

Lament

Guest posting by Dave Beach, author, licensed counselor, ordained chaplain, and spirituality coach. You can find more information about Dave at Soul Seasons. Dave is co-author of The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms

When I was a boy, I learned so many nice choruses in Sunday school. One started something like this: “I’m in-right, out-right, up-right, down-right happy all the time.” Another went similarly, “I’m H-A-P-P-Y happy all the T-I-M-E time.” For most of the first 30 years of my life, I believed I should, would, and could be happy all the time.

So when my first wife was diagnosed with stage-four lymphoma, I kept trying to practice happiness all the T-I-M-E time. Finally, after six long years of caregiving and feeling powerless to stop the onslaught of disease, I began to feel keenly the need for a different chorus book in my heart.

At night, sitting in the St. John’s transplant house near a Mayo Clinic hospital in Rochester, MN, I met an old “new” chorus book – the Psalter. For the first time in my life, I felt my desperate need for new “songs,” songs that “give sorrow words,” as Shakespeare wrote so long ago. Words far more ancient than Shakespeare, words that have voiced the sufferings of the faithful for millenniums.

The language of lament.

Language of protest and faith together.

Language filled with questions that press through and grab a hold of God and pull.

“Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Ps. 10:1 (NIV)

“Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Ps. 88:14 (NIV)

These laments pushed my faith out into the deep, which felt congruent with my soul. And there I met the man of sorrows acquainted with grief; he’d been waiting for me there for a long time.

After my wife did not survive the bone-marrow-transplant process, I needed them even more.
I keep looking for collections of songs for caregivers. Collections that balance so appropriately lament with praise, like the Psalter. We need faithful people who have traveled the paths to the ICUs and cemeteries to write new songs, songs congruent with the suffering faithful, songs voicing the questions, the grapplings, the “whys” and “how longs.”

I can’t sing those old choruses anymore; I have an affinity for the blues at times. I often wonder, where is lament in worship; where are lament’s questions given voice in our churches today? I’ll keep looking, listening, hoping, and waiting. And I’ll keep following the man of sorrows, singing his songs.