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.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Cleansing Temples

I participate in a weekly Bible Study by phone with a group of chemically ill friends, and we were recently asked to write our thoughts on John’s account of the cleansing of the temple. We all see the world through the lens of our personal experiences, and my experiences with chemical illness affect how I view scripture, as well. Here’s what I wrote.

***
Although there was segregation built into the design, the temple was intended to be a place of worship for everyone, both Jew and Gentile. In the Mark account, Jesus specifically says that it was to be a house of prayer for all nations. I understand, however, that the money changers and animal vendors had taken up residence in the court of the Gentiles. What was it like to attempt to worship there? 

Were there many Gentiles who worshipped Jehovah in those days?  Did they keep coming and trying to participate, even after the court was repurposed?  Or did they just give up?

How many of the Jewish worshippers realized there was a problem?  Did they not see the issue, not care, or just not think there was anything they could do?  Did they shut their eyes to the plight of their Gentile neighbors because of the convenience of having easy access to money changers and the ability to quickly purchase what they needed? 

I feel the plight of the Gentile would-be worshippers deeply. Those of us with chemical illness know what it’s like to be shut out of worship. We know what it’s like when people in charge prioritize things other than the ability of everyone to access a worship space. We know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in, longing for what so many people take for granted.

I love Jesus’s passion for the issue. I love that he cared so much that he made a whip and used it. I love that he’s on the side of the marginalized, ignored, and shut out.

What’s the counterpart for today?  There are so many temples that need to be cleansed of chemical barriers to worship. Lord, please open the eyes of people who can make the changes. Please help those who can freely worship in communal spaces care about those of us who can’t. Thank you for the reminder of how much you yourself feel our pain.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Sickness, Disaster, Death and Satan

Leap year day is approaching. The elusive day, which appears once every four years, brings with it some intense memories. Almost 20 years ago, on February 29, 1996, I was living and working in Peru when a friend and co-worker lost her life in an airplane accident. She had been in my city, working with me on a strategy study team, and was returning to her home in another part of the country. I waved, said “See you next month,” and she got on a plane and died.

Lynn’s death didn’t affect my daily life to the extent that other losses have, but on a purely emotional level, it packed an enormous punch. I’ve never, before or after, experienced denial the way I did when Lynn lost her life. When I was told that the plane was missing, my immediate thought was “That’s ridiculous.”  I had a dream where Lynn appeared to tell me the news of her death was a mistake and I replied, “I knew it was.”

There were two main reasons that Lynn’s death affected me so deeply. One was that she left behind three children whose gender and ages were similar to mine and my siblings’ when our own mother died. The second reason is that her death came at a time when our missionary family had already experienced much heartbreak and loss. The month that ended with Lynn’s death began with an automobile crash that left four members of one family gravely injured, with one still in a coma and not expected to live.

Christians in the United States have widely differing views of Satan and his influence in the world. Most Christians I’ve known overseas, however, and most missionaries, have no doubt that we fight a powerful and relentless adversary. Those of us serving with my mission board in Peru believed we were engaged in spiritual warfare. Others believed that, too. Baptist Press wrote an article entitled "Missionaries in Peru Pursue Harvest Amid Satan's Attacks." The article listed some (but not all) of the challenges we had been experiencing and attributed them to demonic opposition to the move of God’s spirit in the country.

Many of the challenges listed in the article involved physical illnesses or injuries. This raises questions about whether or not Satan can make people sick and what else he may or may not be able to do. What does the Bible say?

In the Old Testament book of Job, the source of Job’s illness is made very clear. Job 2:7 says that “Satan left and caused painful sores to break out all over Job’s body—from head to toe.” (CEV) There are also many New Testament instances of illnesses or disabilities being associated with demonic interference. Luke 13:11 refers to a woman “who had been crippled by an evil spirit for eighteen years.”  Matthew 9:32-33 relates the story of a man “who could not talk because a demon was in him.” How about injuries and other sorts of disasters? The book of Job tells us that Satan was behind an attack by a gang of thieves, a fire, and a windstorm that collapsed a house, killing Job’s children.

The Bible also speaks about illnesses, disabilities and injuries coming from angels or directly from God. In contrast to the mute man of Matthew 9, we have the mute man (Zechariah) of Luke 1. When Zechariah apparently doubted the word of the angel Gabriel, who brought him news that he would have a son, Zechariah was struck mute until the child’s birth. Job’s skin disease came from Satan, but the skin diseases that struck King Azariah in 2 Kings 15 and Miriam in Numbers 12 came from God. Genesis 32 tells us of Jacob wrestling with God and being left with a limp.

Of course, many illnesses, injuries and other disasters can be attributed to the simple fact that suffering exists in the world because it is fallen and imperfect. In John 16:33 Jesus says, “While you are in the world, you will have to suffer.”  There are some who argue that sickness is somehow different from all other types of suffering, but I certainly don’t think the Bible teaches that. I’ll save that discussion for another time. I also don’t think there’s generally a one-on-one relationship between suffering and the personal sin of the sufferer, but I’ll save that discussion, too, except to mention the words of Jesus in Luke 13. He responded to questions about a tragedy by saying, “Do you think that these people were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee just because of what happened to them? Not at all!”

So what can we attribute to Satan, what to God, and what to simply living in a fallen world?  I don’t have an easy rule of thumb to share. I do think it’s probably not quite as easy as attributing the suffering of others to God’s judgment and our own suffering to spiritual warfare, a tendency I’ve noted.

There’s a mysterious interplay between God’s will and Satan’s power. Satan had to ask permission before he could torment Job. Matthew 4:1 tells us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness so that the devil could test him. Satan’s reach is limited and temporal, but his desire and ability to cause harm is real.

In this season of memories, it’s helpful for me to remind myself that I don’t confront the challenges of this world as effectively as I could when I forget I have an enemy who “is like a roaring lion, sneaking around to find someone to attack” (1 Peter 5:8). When I get angry at people in power who put profits above human health, I need to remember Ephesians 6:12, which notes,“We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world.”  I’ll try to remember these things when I pray for the world and when I pray for you, my friends, and I hope you’ll remember them as well when you pray for me.