Monday, March 28, 2016

Good Grief

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.  (John 16:33)

J.I. Packer has written much about what he calls “the losses and crosses” of life. He uses this phrase to describe the “strains, pains, disappointments, traumas, and frustrations of all sorts…”[1] that we deal with in this world. This life is full of trouble, my dear friend, and you and I are in the thick of it.

Just this week I learned devastating news about two young people that I know. One died tragically from alcohol abuse, and the other clings to life as I write this post, having suffered a massive stroke at the age of 24. Another young man I know is struggling to regain his mobility after a terrible skiing accident, and a member of my church, who just became Dad to a brand new baby girl, will soon pass into glory from liver cancer unless the Lord intervenes.

These are all terrible scenarios, and when we think of the ways these families are suffering, it is easy to affirm their devastation and grief. But what about the smaller, less traumatic losses that many of us suffer every day? Most people who deal with chronic pain are not facing imminent death, paralysis, or lifelong disfigurement (though some are). So, what about our aches and pains, intermittent sleepless nights, and disappointments over missed activities? Are these things to be dismissed or brushed over simply because they are not devastating losses? I don’t think so.

Sometimes, in light of the terrible tragedies around us, we may feel ashamed of our tearful responses to the small disappointments and “minor” losses we suffer, so we stuff those feelings of sadness and deny the impact of the loss. For example, I recently had the opportunity to go on a thrift shopping expedition with some friends. This is something I have always enjoyed doing, but I had to pass because it is just too painful for me to spend that much time on my feet. Now, this is a very minor disappointment compared to the devastating circumstances I mentioned at the beginning of this article, but it is still a disappointment, another part of the new normal to which I must adapt.

This missed opportunity was more than just not getting to shop. It was the loss of that sense of camaraderie, togetherness, and shared memories that made it such a disappointment. Maybe you can relate? When things like this happen, I’m reminded once again how different my life is now, and that my friends are moving on without me. At least, that is what my enemy would like me to think about. If I stuff these feelings and deny that this is a real loss, he tries to bring me back to that old “default” thinking pattern that I have fought so hard to defeat.

But here’s the good news: Satan can’t win this one. I’ve come to recognize his tricks, and I see his tactics with new eyes these days. So, as I learned of this shopping trip and chose not to participate, here’s how I fought him off and got to a place of joy and gratitude:

First, I took a moment with the Lord, to tell Him of my sadness in not getting to go. As I talked with Him, he reminded me of all the good things that have come from this journey of pain and mobility problems; the comfort I have received from His Word and His Spirit, and the relationships that He has formed in my life that would never have come to be otherwise. By the time our conversation was over, my heart was full of gratitude and joy over the wonders He has done in my life.

Next, I called a friend who is unable to drive, but loves to go thrift shopping. She too has difficulty standing or walking for long periods of time, but we both agreed we could go to one store together, and maybe get some lunch while we’re out. We followed through with our plan, and it was a wonderful time of mutual encouragement and fun. This was a ministry opportunity for us, as we both experience these small disappointments occasionally, and we were able to encourage one another as we spent time together that day.

Finally, I messaged that group of thrift shopping friends to see if any of them might like to meet up for coffee one day next week, and catch up on one another’s lives. Just because I can’t traipse around to 10 thrift stores all over the city doesn’t mean that I can’t spend time with those friends, sharing life together!

By the time I’d done all these things, I no longer felt the sting of disappointment and exclusion, as I did when I first heard of this outing. But it was not because I denied my sadness or was shamed into the “Get over it, it could be worse” mentality that I am sometimes tempted by when there are such tragedies all around me. No, the reason I had such peace is because of this biblically sound model for dealing with disappointment:

o   Admit that it hurts, and tell God about it.
o   Find a way to redeem the sting, by reaching out to another sufferer.
o   Watch and see how God can give you what you need, even if you don't get what you want.

He is faithful, and will do it. Hallelujah, what a Friend! What a Redeemer! What a Savior!

[1] Packer, Rediscovering Holiness, pg. 249, 254, as quoted in Kelleman, God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, pg. 3

Monday, March 21, 2016

Pain and Sleep

At this rate they were afraid we would soon be driven against the rocks along the shore, so they threw out four anchors from the back of the ship and prayed for daylight. —Acts 27:29

This verse from Acts 27 comes in the midst of Paul’s journey to Rome to stand for Christ before Caesar. The author tells us in verse 27, that this is the 14th night of the storm. If you read the entire chapter (which I highly recommend), you will see that this was a harrowing journey. The text doesn’t state it specifically but I am almost certain that no one had gotten any sleep for two weeks at this point in the story. As I read this, I thought about those of us who live with chronic pain and other health issues, who often endure sleepless nights. Some rarely sleep at all and others must take powerful pain medications to get enough relief even to doze off. So, let’s see how this passage can encourage us.

Two things caught my eye here: The sailors took practical steps to address their situation, and they prayed. First, let’s look at the practical steps they took: They bound ropes around the hull to strengthen it, and they lowered the sea anchor to slow the ship down (vs 17); they threw some of the cargo and gear overboard (v 18); they ate to sustain their strength, as they had not eaten anything for two weeks (v 35); and they listened to the one who had listened to God.

So, what’s the application of all this for those of us who are lying awake, desperate for sleep? First, I think we need to ask ourselves whether we’ve done all we can to help ourselves. I believe these practical things are often overlooked when we are feeling desperate. When pain is relentless night after night, we can get caught up in it and forget to do some things that could help. How is your sleep hygiene? Are you following all the rules for a good night’s sleep? I am very grateful that after a few years of intense nighttime pain and many sleepless nights, the Lord has allowed me to sleep pretty well recently. But I have not forgotten how easy it is to get caught up in that cycle of pain, sleeplessness, and frustration, which inevitably leads to more sleeplessness.

One thing the Lord taught me in those years came from Paul again, in Philippians 4:19: But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. The word that jumped out to me here was need. I understood that while I wanted more sleep, the Lord must have determined that more sleep was not a need, because He was not providing it. After that, whenever I couldn’t sleep, I told myself that the Lord would provide all the sleep I needed, and if it wasn’t as much as I’d like then He would sustain me through whatever was coming tomorrow. God knew my needs better than I did, and He would meet them. This freed me from the pressure I would sometimes put on myself: “I’ve got to get to sleep! I will be completely useless tomorrow if I don’t. My pain is always worse when I don’t sleep, and my thoughts are foggy. I need a clear mind tomorrow. I HAVE TO GO TO SLEEP!!” As you know if you’ve struggled like I did, this kind of thinking rarely leads to the restful sleep we crave.

This brings me to the second thing those sailors did: They prayed. The Bible tells us that they prayed for daylight. Daylight would show them how far they were from the shore, and make it easier to navigate the storm. Do you pray as you are lying awake at night? While it wouldn’t be our choice to be so wakeful, it really is an excellent opportunity for prayer, if we will only use it. These quiet hours can provide the time that many of us say we don’t have for prayer. I’ve spent many nights praying for my friends, my family, and other loved ones who don’t know the Lord. During these sleepless nights, we have the luxury of no time limits on our prayers. Often, when I’ve spent this time praying, I find that I fall asleep in the midst of it. There is something about prayer that brings comfort to an aching body.

My dear sister, our God knows our needs, and rest assured (pun intended), He will meet them. You and I must submit to the Lord in this, and allow Him to determine what we need. Once we have done what we can practically do to make the best of our night, we must leave the outcome in His hands. He knows exactly how much sleep we need and he will provide it. Like those sailors, we pray for daylight and anything else the Lord brings to mind, and trust in this simple promise:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.  

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Life You Hoped Would Be

“Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Then wash your face. Trust God. And embrace the life you have.”   John Piper

This quote came across my Face Book news feed recently, and it impacted me deeply. I rarely allow myself to think about the life I’d hoped would be. Since my life has forever been changed, I have thought it quite futile, and perhaps even harmful to think about what might have been. What-if’s and regrets often try to enter my thinking, but I’ve trained myself to resist those things for the most part, and move on.

But, every now and then, the thoughts and feelings come on really strong, and I find that I cannot resist them. So I struggle in my heart and head with how to deal with them. For example, I often see grandparents with their grandkids in the park and at community events, and I see the joy they get from playing with them, showing them the beauties of nature, and just running around together. I wonder sometimes what it will be like when my own children begin to have babies. Will I be able to play with my grandchildren when they get to that park and playground age? Unless something changes dramatically, no. How will this affect my relationship with them? Will they love their other, more capable grandma more than me? Will they want to spend time with me if all I can do is watch them from the park bench? These are the “already-not-yet” kinds of thoughts that can bring me down.

What about you, friend? How are you doing with the loss of the life you’d hoped would be? I wanted to share this quote with you, just in case you are struggling with whether you will ever get over your loss. I love the way John Piper has worded this permission to grieve. I have never believed that we can get completely over any loss, and a life lived in chronic pain or disability is certainly a loss. It is a loss of what could have been, what we’d hoped would be. And it is a loss that is renewed each day. You can’t “move on” from chronic pain and disability when you must face it 24/7/365.

And so, as John Piper so graciously says, we must occasionally “weep deeply over the life we hoped would be.” It’s OK to think about the fun you would have had, the functional body you would have enjoyed, and the simple pleasure of just being comfortable—pleasures that now, without a miracle, will never be yours this side of heaven.  And when you think about it, it is OK to cry, and to cry hard. You absolutely must grieve when grief comes too fast to outrun. And so, as you cry over your loss, God collects your tears in His bottle. He does not forget your pain, your loss, or your sadness.

Why does Piper say, “Wash your face?” I had to think about that a little bit. After crying hard, it does feel good just to soak a washcloth in hot water and lay it over your face. This does two things—it brings comfort, because it feels really good; and it gives you a moment between crying over the loss of what you wanted, and returning to what you have. A moment to pray; a moment to thank God for His comfort; a moment to grow in your faith as you learn to trust Him.

And then what? “Embrace the life you have.” Notice he doesn’t just say, “Accept the life you have.” There is a big difference between embracing and accepting. Accepting says, “Oh well, it is what it is. I’ll have to make the best of it.” Accepting means I will do my best to keep doing as much as I can, but some things will have to go. Accepting implies defeat.

Embracing, on the other hand, says, “This was not in my plans, but it obviously was in God’s, so I will trust Him for the outcome.” Embracing a loss requires a decision on my part. I must decide in my heart that I believe God when He says He knows what’s best for me (Jeremiah 29:11), and that He will see me through it (Proverbs 3:5-6).  I must decide to follow and obey Him no matter what is going on with my body.  Embracing implies welcoming God’s provision; his plan for making me more like His precious son. I have seen many good things come from my own loss, as I’ve shared with you here a few times. Christ is a redeemer, and He redeems not just our souls, but our lives. There is no loss you have suffered that Christ cannot replace and then some, if you are willing to embrace His plan and look for His purpose in it.

My dear sister, whatever loss you are facing today, I hope you will join me (and John Piper) in grieving it honestly, trusting God fully, and embracing the good things you are sure to gain. He is faithful, and He loves you. Watch and see the glory He will bring from your loss. And when you see it, praise Him! Hallelujah! What a Redeemer! What a Savior!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


Are you in trouble today, my friend? Does your pain seem to be more than you can bear? Are the bills piling up, but the paychecks running dry? Do you see a mountain of responsibilities before you, yet feel you haven’t an ounce of strength to begin to do any of them?

Sometimes, we just want to run away from it all. Our flesh fails us, and we think that there is no escape from the pressures of needing to get things done in a body that refuses to cooperate. I don’t know what the source of your pain is, my friend, or how disabled you are today. But as for me, there are a few things I do know.

I know that the Lord will help me.  Psalm 46:1 says that God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Read that carefully. It doesn’t say He will send help. It says that He Himself is our help! Imagine that. The Almighty God of the Universe is our help! How can we possibly fail? If He has called us to do something, He will enable us to do it! When we want to run away and hide, He Himself is our refuge, and He bids us come! So, when I need help, I run to my Savior in prayer, enjoy His sweet and loving embrace for a moment, and go and do the next thing, as He enables me.

I know that the Lord never changes, even when I can’t depend on my own strength.  Psalm 46:2 says that no matter what changes, even if the earth crumbles under my feet while a tidal wave washes over me, I don’t have to be afraid. Think of that. Imagine the mountains slipping into the sea and the earth quaking violently. That is a scary picture! But, in the same breath, my Lord tells me I have nothing to fear! Now, look at your pain and disability from that perspective. Though pain can be a fearful thing, and thoughts of our future can at times leave us trembling, our God is rock solid. He has been with us up to now, and will stay with us forever.

I know that the Lord loves me and sustains my faith, even when doubt creeps in. Psalm 94: 1 says, “I cried out, 'I am slipping!' but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer." If I’m honest, I have to admit that I sometimes have doubts. Satan loves to put doubts in our minds, and He often uses our physical incapacity to raise the volume of those doubts. I believe he is the source of the thought that comes to my mind at times that says, “God couldn’t possibly have called you to ministry. If He had, He certainly wouldn’t have allowed such a setback! Your physical limitations are a sign that your calling wasn’t real, and God won’t use you.” When doubts like these enter my mind, this Psalm is a lifeline. God’s unfailing love supports me, and His comfort gives me new hope. I know that He can use me, in whatever physical condition I’m in, in whatever way He wants to! As long as my heart is in line with His, my body will do all that He calls me to do!

My dear friend, are you discouraged today? Take heart! If God wants something done, He will make a way! I can’t imagine a better closing argument for trusting God than this one, from Psalm 91:

He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High
Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress;
My God, in Him I will trust.”