Monday, May 22, 2017

A Psalm of Lament

I've tried to hold the world for countless years
Assume its pain and take its blows
Punched, bruised, knocked face down
I spit out rocks and teeth
Mud caked and bleeding, I crawl back to you, my God

You ask much
From your servants
You ask much
I've been faithful
Pouring myself out
Until only drops remain

Isn't enough enough?
Hasn't the time arrived for healing and relief?
I wait
I wait
I wait

I wait my turn as those who've never tasted suffering skip around me
They glance my direction, fling accusations
Then dart away

Vindicate your child, my Lord
Vindicate and heal
Pull me from the dirt into your lap
Let me rest there as you set the world in order

I cannot hold the world
Not even my own
My hands are far too small
Teach me what to hold and what to free
Help me be faithful in a world that's just too big
A world that, like a child in pain, fights back

You, oh Mighty Creator, dwarf the world you made
Your majesty envelops and overwhelms
You hold it all
Nothing will slip away

You hold me and I am secure
You encourage and teach
Comfort and restore
You see the blows, wash my wounds, and share my tears

The waiting will one day be forgotten
You will set the world in order
You will vindicate and heal

Until that day
I will always crawl back to you

-MM

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Progress, or Lack Thereof

Some blog posts are definitely more fun to write than others are. This one isn't fun at all. I find, however, that I can't keep ignoring a news story that someone recently posted to Facebook. I've tried, but it won't leave my brain.  

It's a very sad story. Something heartbreaking happened to a family and a 12 year old girl. What happened to her isn't new, however, but has happened before to other young people. In fact, I've written about it. In 2012 I wrote a post I called "Death by Deodorant" about two boys who died ten years apart, both from the toxicity of deodorant fumes. I wrote, "What improved between 1998, when the 16-year-old died and 2008, when the 12-year-old met the same fate? Did the products get safer or did society become more aware of the dangers? It doesn’t appear so. How about 2018? Will things be different then?"

We haven't reached 2018, but the answer to whether things are different in 2017 is apparently "no." A news story from March reports on the sudden death of 12-year-old Paige Daughtry.  A pathologist found that she died from the inhalation of chemicals found in the deodorant she had been using. He stated, "There was no natural disease that has contributed to her death. There was no evidence of heavy use and no direct evidence that there was chronic use." In other words, it appears that she was a healthy girl who died from using a common product for its intended purpose.

It should be noted that the deodorant deaths took place in Europe, where spray formulations are more common than they are in the United States. However, "body sprays" are very common in the United States, and the popularity of spray deodorants is rising. The propellants implicated in Paige's death (butane and isobutane) are the same ones found in Axe and other body sprays.

There are a number of issues raised by these stories, but if nothing else, surely they serve as a stark reminder that the great majority of personal care products in use have never been tested for safety. We can't trust that simply because a product is on the market or is widely used guarantees that it isn't harmful, either to ourselves or those around us. Many, many products may, in fact, be deadly, but tend to kill slowly, by contributing to cancer, heart disease, or other illness.

This story saddens me deeply, in part because it highlights the lack of progress we seem to be making on this vital issue. I can, however, think of at least one way in which things have improved. It's much easier than it used to be to determine the safety of a product by using websites such as EWG (Environmental Working Group)  or by simply doing an internet search. The caveat, however, is that sites are only helpful if people use them. We have to care enough to look for the information, and when we have the information, we have to act on it, by voting with our dollars, purchasing the kind of products we want to see more of on our store shelves.

This is what I wrote in my post about the boys. It still reflects my thoughts. "If anything is going to change, I suspect you and I are going to have to be part of changing it. I believe there are things worth dying for. Deodorant isn't one of them."

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

From my Heart to Yours

On this date three years ago, my husband's heart stopped beating. He was in his 50s, seemingly healthy and robust, and most people were genuinely shocked at his death. I didn't wake up that March morning believing that my husband would die that day, but in a general sense I was less shocked than many others seemed to be. That was partly due to life experiences (my mother died when I was young, so I grew up understanding the unpredictability of death) and partly due to understanding some of his risk factors. 

I'm going to mark this anniversary by writing about heart disease and talking about some lesser known causes. At some point I'm going to talk about a risk factor or two that I wish Dan would have taken more seriously. I imagine that last sentence put some of you on edge. Believe me, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to write this post, but I decided to do so for multiple reasons, including that I'd like to think that Dan would want me to. 

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control notes that it causes one out of every four American deaths. Risk factors listed by the CDC include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, excess weight, poor diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol use. I believe these are fairly well known by the general population. There are many other risk factors, however, that are less understood.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some of the lesser known contributors to heart disease include the following: 
Air pollution - Air pollution is a broad term, but in general, fine particulates in the air, such as from industrial and traffic fumes, are associated with higher rates of heart disease. The American Heart Association reports research showing increases in death and hospitalizations when there are higher rates of smog. ABC News reports on a study finding that being stuck in traffic more than triples the risk of having a heart attack. 
Non-stick chemicals - As I've noted many times, chemicals in our consumer products are generally not tested for safety, so the health effects often remain unknown. Some, however, have been linked to heart disease, including a family of chemicals used in products such as non-stick pans and stain resistant coatings. A 2012 study found that people who had the highest rates of the chemical PFOA in their blood were twice as likely to experience heart disease, heart attack, or stroke as those with the lowest levels. Because of the bad press, PFOA is being replaced by other similar chemicals, but many health experts warn that there is no reason to believe that the newer versions are any less problematic.
Chemicals found in food and beverage containers - A 2014 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that the chemical BPA, found in many places, including plastic bottles and in the lining of food cans, was associated with heart disease in both acute and chronic low-dose exposure situations. As with PFOA, the bad press about BPA has led to some changes, but a 2016 study found it present in 67% of cans tested. 
Heavy metalsUniversity Health News reports that researchers have implicated at least four heavy metals associated with clogging arteries: lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.  
Mold and other toxins found in water damaged buildings - Water damaged buildings, or those with high indoor humidity levels, tend to be breeding grounds for a multitude of  organisms, including a wide variety of fungi and bacteria.  Exposure can lead to chronic inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease. A study in the Internet Journal of Toxicology found an association between exposure to molds in damp buildings and high cholesterol levels.
Sleep apnea - The American Heart Association notes that sleep apnea is associated with high blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke, and heart failure. I'm almost certain that Dan had sleep apnea, and I wish I had been successful at convincing him to get tested.
Sugar consumption - This is the big one that I worried about for years. Dr. Mark Hyman's summary of the research notes that people with the highest sugar consumption have a 400% higher risk of experiencing a heart attack than those who consume the least. Sugar (in all its various forms) is not just a problem because of its "empty calories," adding to weight without contributing nutrition, but because it is inflammatory and dangerous in and of itself.  
Americans eat a lot of sugar, and the amount continues to climb. A Huffington Post article reports that the American Heart Association recommends that women cap their consumption at six teaspoons a day and men at nine, but that the average American consumes 30 teaspoons daily. There are a number of reasons for this. One is simply that American food manufacturers sweeten almost everything. I remember returning to the United States after living overseas and being astonished to find sugar in canned kidney beans. Dr. Hyman notes, "Most of us don’t know that a serving of tomato sauce has more sugar than a serving of Oreo cookies, or that fruit yogurt has more sugar than a Coke, or that most breakfast cereals — even those made with whole grain — are 75% sugar. That’s not breakfast, it’s dessert!"
Americans also eat a lot of sugar because we're addicted to it. I don't use that term lightly. Sugar affects the same reward centers of the brain that other drugs do, and produces tolerance in the same manner. People find themselves needing more and more of it to satisfy their sweet tooth and may experience withdrawal symptoms when they don't consume it at regular intervals. To quote Dr. Hyman again, " Recent and mounting scientific evidence clearly proves that sugar — and flour, which raises blood sugar even more than table sugar — is biologically addictive. In fact, it’s as much as eight times more addictive than cocaine."  A 2007 rodent study reported that 94% of the animals chose sugar (or an artificial sweetener) over cocaine when given the choice.  
Drug abuse is a serious and growing personal and societal problem that I don't want to trivialize in any way.  An Associated Press article reports that almost 13,000 people died of a heroin overdose in 2015 and prescription painkillers killed over 17,500 people.  A  2015 LA Times story reports another serious statistic: sugary drinks are linked to 25,000 deaths in the United States each year.  
It seems likely that many, if not most Americans are addicted to sugar to some degree. I believe I was, until my health forced me to radically change my diet. I believe Dan was. We talked about it some through the years, and he never quite denied it, but he never quite addressed it, either. About a year before he died, he developed a persistent itchy rash that doctors had trouble diagnosing. At some point I sent him an article which suggested giving up sugar for two weeks in the case of mystery skin ailments. Not long afterwards, he remarked to me that he had decided that he wouldn't cut sugar out completely, but that maybe he would try to cut down.
I remember that conversation clearly. Dan was itchy and miserable, but not fully willing, for a a brief two weeks, to trade sugar for the  possibility of relief. The basic definition of addiction is continuing to engage in a behavior despite negative consequences, and I remember feeling a wave of deep sadness and thinking, "This is a strong addiction. It could kill him."  I thought there was a good possibility that his heart would cause him major problems some day, but I didn't know how soon the day would come. I think my vague thought of what might happen was that he might have a heart attack in his 60s, and that, if we were lucky, he would live through it and then maybe get serious about changing his diet. 
Obviously, I don't know that sugar consumption had anything to do with Dan's sudden death. He had plenty of other risk factors, including genetic ones, and had a period of high work stress in the time period before he died, which could well have been the final straw. I'm also certainly not unaware that my own health limitations added a significant degree of stress to Dan's life. (On the flip side, I think my need to live a low-toxicity life was protective for him in some ways, as well.)  I can't point to sugar and say that I know it killed my husband, but the research is clear that it is, in fact, a killer.

I'm very sensitive to "blame the victim" messages and absolutely don't want this to come across that way. This isn't blaming, but warning. It's remembering the events of this day three years ago and deeply and sincerely wanting to spare other people a similar experience. Sometimes people take things more seriously when they know people who have been affected, which is my sole motivation for sharing personal stories.

As I was debating whether or not to write this post, I ran across Leviticus 5:1which says  "If you are called to testify about something you have seen or that you know about, it is sinful to refuse to testify." Yes, it's Old Testament and no, it wasn't written about blog posts, but it convinced me. What I can offer the world these days is limited, but I can testify about things I have seen and know about.

I imagine I've made a lot of people mad by this point. To those who are mad because they loved Dan and are angry that I wrote some negative things about him, I'll simply say that I loved him, too, and miss him greatly. I've cried every day this month so far. I'll also remind you that I wrote a very different sort of post about him three years ago.

To those who are mad because in addition to harping about chemicals, I'm now harping about a very prevalent food choice which is a source of comfort and pleasure, I'll simply say that I get it. Those of us who became addicted to sugar were simply eating the standard American diet or found ourselves eating more sugar because we were avoiding fat and dietary cholesterol like the experts recommended. The sugar industry manipulated studies and public policy just like the chemical industry does today.  It's easy to understand how we ended up in this place, but now that we're here, it's time to accept that there are real consequences.

I write because I care about you. Whether I know you personally or not, you matter to me simply because you've taken the time to read this post. I know other people care about you, too, and we all want your heart to keep beating for a very long time.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Notes from a Webcast Watcher

My health has kept me from attending church for more than a decade and a half now. Over that time I unfortunately haven’t seen much progress in churches addressing toxicity issues. One way in which things have improved, however, is that a greater number of churches are now streaming their services, which, although it certainly isn’t a substitute for attending in person, is a great blessing for those of us who can’t access corporate worship services otherwise. There are enough churches webcasting on Sunday mornings these days that I thought it might be helpful, as someone who watches regularly, to give a bit of feedback on what I most appreciate.

The best place to begin this list is with a genuine expression of gratitude to all churches who’ve made the decision to stream their services and all the individuals who make it happen from week to week. It’s very much appreciated. Online sermon archives are helpful and good, but I personally find the ability to watch a live service exponentially more emotionally satisfying. I feel less excluded and more an actual part of the congregation. When I was able to watch the same church my family members attended, we shared a common experience, at least to a degree, and were able to discuss the service over lunch. Thank you for the effort, webcasting churches everywhere. That said, here are some suggestions for optimizing the experience.

1. Identify your audience. Who are you hoping to serve? Is the stream primarily for regular church members who are unable to attend now and then? Is it for people checking out your church before visiting in person? How about folks outside of your geographic location? Your answer to these questions will determine how you handle other issues.

2. If the stream is for people other than church members, make it as easy as possible for them to know that you webcast your services and when and how to access them. I personally haven’t found any sort of central database, at least for the geographical areas I’ve searched. It would be helpful for denominational and interfaith organizations to compile and post that information.

In my quest to digitally visit as many churches as possible in my new geographical area, I’ve spent much more time than anticipated simply trying to identify my options. A simple google search for churches in my city that stream their services yielded a handful of helpful results and a lot of unhelpful ones. I also had mixed results searching the Livestream and Ustream sites. There were many dead links, but one church provided their new streaming address, which was helpful. A surprising number of churches didn’t provide their name anywhere in the video description. Some gave initials, which was at least a clue. I know the search results were incomplete, because I’ve watched services from at least one church on Livestream that didn’t appear in the results list. I’m guessing the church didn’t include the city name in their description.

Searching YouTube's "live" page wasn't very successful, and if there's currently a way to search for churches that use Facebook Live to stream their services, I didn't discover it. I was also unable to search the sites of Streamspot, Sunday Streams, ChurchStreaming, or Churchvu.

All that said, since there doesn’t seem to be any sort of comprehensive database, I suggest you make the information about streaming very clear on your website and/or Facebook page. (I’ve been surprised at how many churches apparently still don’t have either one of those things, but I’m assuming that if they don’t, they aren’t streaming, either.)  If you don’t stream every service, clearly indicate which ones are going to be available. If you want to make things easier for online visitors outside your geographical area, it’s helpful to note what time zone you’re in. Sometimes a webcast works better in one browser than another, or doesn’t work well on a mobile device, which is also helpful for potential watchers to know.

3. Monitor the feed to make sure it works consistently and have someone available to address issues as they arise. Over my years of webcast watching, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide whether, if a stream has consistent problems, it’s better than nothing, or it’s better for that church just not to try at all. I’ve never quite made up my mind. What I do know is that my frustration level was often very, very high when trying to watch services from a church with ongoing webcast issues. I often felt like Charlie Brown. Charlie kept believing that Lucy would hold the football long enough for him to kick it, despite her habit of yanking it away. I kept believing that the webcast problems were fixed, but they kept recurring. During some of those years, I had a way to communicate during the service that there were problems, but most of the time I didn’t. For those of us who are mostly homebound, watching a church service from home feels a bit like watching through a window because the door to church is locked and we don’t have a key. When the webcast stops working, it’s as if the curtains on the window close. The frustration level is lower when we believe someone has noticed that the window is covered and is working to open the curtains again.

4. If there are ongoing problems, look for patterns. I’ve noticed some churches seem to consistently have problems streaming the music, but not the sermon, and the pattern is reversed for other churches. Perhaps it relates to bandwidth or interference as certain equipment is used. I’ve been trying to watch services from one particular church here in town and have found that there are almost always problems near the end of the sermon. I don’t know why that is, but it’s difficult for me to relax when I tune in because I’m always waiting for the moment when the feed will stop working.

5. Start streaming on time, or, better yet, a little bit before the service actually starts. When I tune in at the projected start time and nothing is happening, I never know whether the church no longer streams its services, there are technical problems that day, or they’re just getting started late. I don’t know whether to bail out and find another service to watch or to stick with the one I’m attempting to access for a while. To compound the problem, I’ve found that for some streaming programs, if I tune in and nothing is happening, the video stream won’t automatically start on my end when the church begins the webcast. It will still show no feed until I refresh the page. That’s a very unfortunate system, especially for watchers who have no way to know they need to keep refreshing if they want to know when the service has actually begun.

6. If you have any interest in reaching people other than your regular church members, don’t ask us to create an account and log in to simply watch a Sunday service. It’s an unnecessary barrier and just doesn’t feel very welcoming. This doesn’t appear to be a common situation, but I’ve encountered it.

7. Give people who are considering visiting your church as much information through your webcasts as possible. If you have both a traditional and a contemporary service, for example, consider streaming both. Even if you have multiple services that follow the same pattern, it’s helpful to stream them all. This gives viewers options for choosing what best fits their schedule, and provides other information as well. Hope springs eternal, and I haven’t given up hope of being able to attend church in person someday. I find it helpful when the camera pans out and I can see where I might be able to sit and have potentially clean air. I also notice what people wear. Sometimes people dress up more for one service than another, which often correlates with more perfume use, a health and barrier issue for me. Other viewers may be interested in things like how many children are in the service, or if the aisles are wide enough for easy wheelchair access.

8. Make it easier for people watching at home to sing along with the congregation by providing us with the song lyrics. The easiest way to do that is to simply point the camera at the projector screens in the sanctuary when lyrics are being projected. I’ve watched webcasts from churches who project lyrics over the shots of the praise team, which is a good option for churches with the capability. One church in town has consistently wonderful music that always touches me deeply, but the camera tends to pan from the worship leader to the choir to the praise team and only occasionally gives a shot of the projector screens. I can worship with the congregation when I happen to know the song, but am left simply watching when I don’t. I was spoiled for many years by a worship leader husband who gave me a copy of all the music that was going to be used in the service that day. It’s very odd for me, since his death, to find myself in the position of not knowing many of the songs being sung, but it’s safe to assume that most webcast watchers aren’t married to the worship pastor and are in a similar position. For multiple reasons, I've often thought it would be helpful for churches to post their bulletins or order of service on their websites.  This would be especially helpful for churches that don't provide song lyrics during the webcast, because if I know what songs are going to be sung, I can look up the lyrics online.

9. It’s nice to be acknowledged. I know one pastor (my brother-in-law actually) who walks up to the camera at the end of the service and talks directly to those of us watching, telling us he’s glad we were able to join the congregation that day. I love that. It’s a small gesture that means a lot.

Again, many thanks to all churches who stream their services. Those of us watching at home certainly don’t expect perfection, and we know this is relatively new technology that requires some learning and experimentation. My suggestions are simply meant to spur thought and point out some things you might not have considered. May your efforts bear much fruit for the kingdom of God.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Connection Conundrum

Moving is never an easy process, but for those who are significantly limited by toxic illness, the challenges are magnified exponentially. How do you even begin to build a life when you’re shut out of most public places?  How do you meet people?  How do you find your tribe, your support, your place of service and belonging?

My goal has been to get my construction project completed, and then to turn my attention to trying to answer those questions. One thing I’ve been doing already, however, is watching as many webcasts as possible from churches in the area. I need the spiritual nourishment, of course, but I’m also trying to get a feel for what the church options are on the remote chance that I can somehow find a way to be connected to one.

This blog post is prompted by a survey I took for an area church a couple of weeks ago (which was open to guests and to people watching online) and by the sermon I heard yesterday from another. The theme of both was connection, and why people aren’t as connected to the church as the leaders would like them to be.

I don’t remember all the details of the survey. I do remember that there were questions about church attendance, small group attendance, and ministry participation. I seem to remember that one or two questions had a fill-in-the-blank type option, but most were multiple choice.

Completing the survey was exceptionally frustrating. Generally, the questions were something like “How often do you do x or y, and if it’s not very often, why not?” The possible answers rarely fit my circumstances and I don’t remember a single answer that acknowledged health limitations. The possibilities seemed to generally assume either a lack of knowledge or a lack of desire.

By far the most frustrating question for me was about participation in mission projects. None of the possible answers fit at all, so I finally settled on the last option given: “I don’t know.” That’s a fairly blatant lie. Of course I know why I don’t participate in mission projects. It’s because at some point in my life, most probably after I had been appointed as a missionary, and while I was studying at the Missionary Learning Center, I was infected with Lyme disease and not diagnosed. It’s because I got sicker and sicker as I served overseas. It’s because doctors didn’t take me seriously and the toxins overwhelmed my genetically weak detoxification system to the point that I could eventually no longer serve as a missionary, no longer enter most public places, including churches, and no longer participate in mission projects without accommodation, which people don’t generally seem willing to give. That’s why.

The sermon I heard yesterday, from a very different type of church, was entirely about small groups. The preacher spent time talking about the importance of Christian fellowship, then listed the reasons he imagined for people not participating in small group ministries. The reasons he proposed included being too busy, fearing vulnerability, and being unwilling to engage with people different from ourselves. At one point he mentioned “getting in our own way.” Again there was no acknowledgement that some of us need some of you to make changes if we’re going to be able to study, pray, and worship together.

I’m not sure I can explain what these sorts of messages, which are constant, feel like to those of us who are shut out of the broader church community. Maybe the spiritual and emotional hunger can be compared to the need for physical nourishment. Imagine (or remember, if you’ve experienced it) not having access to a steady source of food for years at a time. You’re constantly thinking about and looking for options, and you spend a great deal of time and energy focusing on how to feed yourself enough that you can stay upright and not pass out. On a regular basis, while hunger pains knot your stomach and you’re wondering where to find your next meal, well-fed people come and lecture you about the importance of eating right. “Eating is very important,” they tell you. “You should really eat more and not sabotage yourself.” They say you should come and eat with them, but the door to the room that holds the food is locked, and although many people appear to have a key, you don't. When you mention the problem, you’re told that unlocking the door would be too difficult, or you’re simply ignored.

It’s hard to be locked out. It’s also hard to be implicitly blamed for the inability to access longed-for resources. Reading and hearing church and small group slogans is often hard. When I hear something like “There’s a place for you,” my automatic mental response is “I seriously doubt it.”   

Won’t you consider letting us in?  Won’t you consider keeping toxicity in mind when making decisions about building materials, cleaning and pest control methods, and personal care products?  Please unlock the door. We’re very hungry.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Finished

I’m currently engaged in a building project, trying to cobble together a new home for myself on the altered landscape of my life. Almost every day, someone -- a friend, family member, or delivery driver, asks some version of the same question. “Are you finished?”

This isn’t a post about my suite, so I’ll spare you the details, but the short answer to the question is no. I paid for the basics and am completing the rest myself, which I knew would be a long process. I did expect the rough-in to be finished less than 6 months after the estimated completion date, and I didn’t expect the electrician’s work to fail multiple inspections, requiring a series of long waits for him to return. But I digress.

Finished. The word has been echoing in my head. No, my suite isn’t finished, but many other things are, or at least appear to be.

The married-to-Dan phase of my life is finished. Obviously, it ended the day he died, but I was surprised at the extent to which the moving process reawakened the grief. I left the last home I will have ever shared with him; a house that was full of memories which swirled around me and kept me hanging on to the ethereal threads of the relationship. There’s a stark finality to moving. This is new. The old is gone.

The reawakened grief of widowhood in turn reawakened grief for lost dreams. As years of illness followed one after the other, I gradually released the idea of returning to mission work full time, but I still clung to the hope of someday accompanying Dan on his yearly trips back to Peru. Will I ever minister overseas again?  Will I minister outside my own home at all?  Is that phase of my life finished?

After decades of illness and living a mostly home-bound life, it’s easy to wonder what my purpose is. It’s easy to feel worthless. The voices of the culture and in my own head whisper that I, myself, am simply finished.

It’s a lie. I remind myself of that. I’m still alive, so I’m not finished. God may call me home in 30 years or 30 minutes, but in this present moment, there’s a purpose to my life. My mind knows that. My heart tries to believe.

As I ponder these thoughts while I work on my suite, it occurs to me that “finish” has multiple meanings. I put a finish on the floor. I use finishing nails to apply trim.

When used in this way, the word does mean that one phase of a project has been completed. It’s completed, though, so that the item can fulfill its intended purpose. It’s a completion that marks a beginning.

Among the tangled jumble of thoughts that the word “finish” prompts, three simple truths float to the surface.

1.  Earthly experiences will eventually end. Joyful things end, but painful things also run their course. Sometimes they run their course here on earth, and sometimes our relief will arrive in the age to come. God says in Revelation 21 that in the day when God’s home will be among his people, death, sorrow, crying, and pain will all disappear forever.

2.   Some things have no end. God has no end and our relationship with him surpasses time. Among the things that the Bible tells us last forever are God’s presence with us (Hebrews 13:5), his plans and purposes (Psalm 33:11), and his love (Psalm 136:1). 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that faith, hope, and love will endure when other things, which seem important now, fade away.

3.  Painful experiences, which are often related to unwelcome endings, can make us feel finished, used up, and discarded. Maybe, though, they are part of the process of putting a “finish” on us which can beautify us and make us more useful for service. An ending can help equip us for a new beginning.

God, please give us your peace as we navigate painful endings and accept human limitations. Help us to remember the difference between things that are temporal and things that are eternal and to focus our time and energy on the things that will endure. Use us in whatever way you choose, and apply whatever “finish” you need to apply to better equip us for the tasks you've prepared for us. Help us to be strong, so that one day, we can say, as Paul did in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”


Monday, May 2, 2016

The Problem with Honesty

“How are you?” It’s a question that people with chronic illness often don’t know how to answer. “Fine” or “OK” are safe choices, and generally true, to a degree. When we say we’re OK, we mean that life is challenging, but we’re handling things. We don’t mean our symptoms have suddenly disappeared or that we no longer grieve for all we’ve lost.

Sometimes we’re less OK than at other times. Sometimes when people ask how we are we wonder if “OK” or “fine” are the truest responses. We long for someone to understand us and acknowledge our pain, but we hesitate to be fully honest. We’ve learned that expressing our distress can sometimes make things worse.

When we’re honest, we risk scaring people away. When we’re honest, we open ourselves up to being gossiped about. Mostly, however, we’ve learned that when we’re honest, we may get blamed somehow for our own distress.

There’s a seemingly limitless list of subtle and blatant accusations that are leveled at those whose illnesses do not quickly resolve. Of course, there are the classic “lack of faith” or “hidden sin” explanations. In addition, people are said to be focusing on their problems too much, not focusing on them enough, not handling stress, not eating right, not thinking right, not using traditional medicine, not using alternative medicine, not using the right supplements, not using the right brands, being too needy, not asking for help, not praying enough, not praying in the right way, not pushing enough, not resting enough, and on and on it goes.

This is evidently not a new phenomenon. In the biblical book of Job, Job’s friends initially responded to his suffering by coming to visit him and sitting with him in silence for a week. Once Job began to express his thoughts and feelings, however, the support began to deteriorate.

The book of Job is a treasure trove, with depths to mine in every verse. For this exercise, I decided to summarize and paraphrase the conversation between Job and his friends.  I picked a few representative sentences from each chapter and excluded the dialogue between Job and God. I find it amazing how much the conversation mirrors those that still occur regularly (or at least reflects things that people want to say, but often don’t).  I used the New Living Translation, and chapter numbers are in parentheses.

Job: I wish I could die. (3)

Friend: You’re weak. Resentment and jealousy destroy people and if I were you, I’d turn to God. (4-5)

Job:  I have a right to complain. People complain about all sorts of things, like unsalted food. I’m out of strength and have nothing to live for. I wish God would let me die. You should be kind to me, but you accuse me instead. Stop assuming my guilt. (6)

Friend: If you pray and live a good life you’ll be restored. (8)

Job: It sounds good in theory, but God is God and can do what he wants. (9)

Friend: God is undoubtedly punishing you less than you deserve. Pray, repent, and work on your heart and your life will be bright. (11)

Job: You think you know everything. I’m not as stupid as you think I am. All of you are worthless quacks as doctors. The wisest thing you could do would be to shut up. (12-13)

Friend: You’re a sinful windbag. What do you know that we don’t? 
(15)

Job: Why do you keep talking? You’re miserable comforters. If the roles were reversed, I could find plenty to criticize, too, but I would encourage you and try to take away your grief. As it is, I suffer if I speak and try to defend myself and I suffer if I don’t. (16)

Friend: Speak sense. Remember that the wicked fall into their own pits. (18)

Job: How long will you torture me? How long will you crush me with your words? You’ve insulted me ten times already and should be ashamed. You think you’re so much better than I am. Relatives and friends have turned against me and forgotten me. Please have mercy on me. Haven’t you chewed me up enough? (19)

Friend: Your words disturb me. God gives the wicked what they deserve. (20)

Job: Please listen closely to me. That’s one thing you could do to help. After I speak you can resume your mocking. I don’t know if I should say this, but I will. I see the wicked prosper all around me. They don’t acknowledge God, but they don’t suffer. How can your clich├ęs comfort me?  Your explanations are lies. (21)

Friend: There’s no limit to your sins. You were probably greedy and didn’t help the less fortunate. Submit to God and things will go well. Clean up your life. Give up your lust for money and God will hear your prayers. (22)

Job: I’m trying hard not to groan out loud. I’ve stayed on God’s paths. I’ve treasured his words, but I’m surrounded by darkness. Why doesn’t God punish the wicked? Why doesn’t he come to the aid of the godly? Can anyone prove that isn’t true? (23-24)

Friend: No one is innocent.  God is much higher than man. (25)

Job: Thanks for enlightening me with your wisdom. That was certainly helpful advice for someone powerless and weak. I understand and respect God’s power.

I’ll continue to defend my integrity and will never concede that you’re right. My conscience is clear. You say all these useless things to me. Wisdom and understanding are more valuable than gold, but are hidden from humans. God alone understands.

I long for my former life. I miss being respected and honored. I was honest and gave generously to the poor. I assumed I would live a long, good life and die surrounded by my family. But now I’m mocked, even by people younger than I am. My honor has blown away. I’m depressed and my pain is relentless. I’ve tried to live with integrity. If only someone would listen to me. (26-31)

Friend: I haven’t spoken until now because you’re older than I am, but age doesn’t always mean wisdom. I speak the truth. God treats people like they deserve. You’ve rejected him and deserve the maximum penalty for the wicked way you’ve talked. You’ve added rebellion to your list of sins. 

The wicked are afflicted and the innocent are exalted.  If people are caught up in pride, God will get their attention and demand they turn from evil. If they listen, they’ll prosper and if they don’t, they’ll die. God is using your suffering to lead you from danger. Turn from your evil. Pay attention. (32-37)

The conversation between Job and his friends comes to an end, but the book continues, with God telling the friends in chapter 42 that he’s angry with them. He asks them to bring a sacrifice and have Job offer a prayer on their behalf. He says that if they do, he won’t treat them as they deserve.

Once again, I find consolation and encouragement in Job's story. It reminds me that although I deeply long to be understood and not blamed for my own distress, it’s not unusual for us as fallible humans to respond to each other that way. Being honest with people sometimes feels dangerous, but I can always be honest with God. He gets me.