[The content of this post was written for the 2019 Lenten devotion for my alma mater, Wesley Theological Seminary. It’s inspired by Psalm 13. And due to the writing parameters for this publication, it is purposefully and uncharacteristically short. Enjoy!]
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
In the world of religion and faith, doubt has traditionally been an unwelcome guest. After all, we typically equate faith with unwavering certainty in an apostolic orthodoxy that stands the test of time. People of faith tend to find a great deal of security in these kinds of immovable absolutes.
Yet doubt, like a constant shadow, never seems to disappear. Etymologically, the word doubt derives from the Latin duo, as in the presence of two things. Doubt is the uncertainty and fear we experience when vacillating between oppositional notions. The author of Psalm 13 was surely at this critical juncture between belief and unbelief, hope and despair, a God who self-reveals and hides, remembers and forgets. How do we navigate this terrible tension?
In the midst of our doubt stands the crucified and risen Jesus. He embodies the paradox of defeat and triumph, the failure of sin and the victory of righteousness, divine perfection and human frailty, loving embrace and hate-filled rejection, all mysteriously conjoined within the balance of his life and death. God has opened the door for the disparate tensions of our lives to find their rest in Jesus, for “…in him, all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
In Christ we find an unconditionally safe, understanding place to wrestle through our doubts and inconsistencies. Eventually, we emerge from the struggle absolutely affirmed by the love and blessing of God, in deeper, far more profound ways. Thus the Crucified One transforms our gravest doubts into lasting wisdom.
Right now I find myself in a deluge of tragic circumstances. Just a few days ago, a 29-year-old woman, a member of my congregation, died from an unknown staph infection leaving behind a bewildered, devastated family and scores of friends. A very good friend admitted his mother dying of cancer into hospice care, and then just a few hours later, she passed away. Another very good friend just told me that his mother is not doing well in her battle against cancer. I have a pretty high number of parishioners also battling cancer, grieving losses, and more.
As a pastor, I try very hard to be fully present with people in pain without shouldering their pain upon myself. I simply have too many people to care for and too many other leadership responsibilities to allow myself to be saddled with all the wounds and sorrows people carry. Yet that’s a fine line to walk, and after almost 20 years of ministry, I can’t always clearly see where that line is because it’s constantly moving. So if there’s a place to err, I’d rather be under the yoke of sorrow rather than hiding behind a shield of emotional distance.
That’s a choice I make, however, and sometimes it comes at a personal cost- one that I’m paying now. So, this post is just as cathartic for me as any chance it may have of being a blessing to someone else. Like most, I’ve had my own seasons of loss and pain along with the lessons I’ve learned. The following are some of my reflections and insights about the nature and redemption of pain.
1) Presence, not words.
When someone is in pain, the knee-jerk response is an urge to “say something to make it better.” That’s natural. We’re human beings. Made in God’s image, we’re creators, builders, and fixers. So when confronted with the inexplicable invasion of pain, our instinctual drives to create, build, and fix kick into high gear. Make the pain go away. Replace it with something else.
There’s one problem, however: pain can’t be undone or circumvented. For example, when someone dies and we’re filled with the pain of grief, no one’s words or any other attempt to fix it, manage it, or mask it can take away the pain from the unalterable fact that a loved one is permanently gone. Any attempt by others to fix, manage, or mask that reality can easily result in the unintended consequence of making the pain worse.
The true act of consolation is presence. When Job lost his children and all he owned, his friends Eliphaz, Bilbad, and Zophar came to visit. They wept with him and sat with him in silence for seven days. (This is the biblical precedence behind the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva”, a period of seven days when Jews in mourning welcome visitors to console them.) After losing my first fiancée Diane, the best consolers I had were those who just sat with me and listened. They said little. They held my hand, gave me hugs, and even shed tears with me. One church woman kept fresh flowers on my desk for several months after Diane’s death. I do remember getting lots of cards and notes from people, but I don’t remember anything the cards said. Their words did nothing to comfort me. But the act of remembering me and reaching out was the true gift of all those cards and notes.
2) There are no answers, only realities. Why did this happen?
We human beings hunger for meaning and purpose, and pain is a deafeningly silent force that offers neither of those things. Sitting with the family and friends of the 29-year-old woman who died, so many have asked and will continue to ask, “How could this happen? Why did it have to happen? Why her? How could life (and God!) be so cruel?” I think we ask these questions as a way to gain some kind of power over a pain we did not ask for or deserve. Perhaps if we could understand the pain or explain it in some way, we could gain some mastery over it.
Try as we might, that struggle is an illusion. We’ve heard it said- and it’s very true- that many times we just don’t know. Yet all is not lost. I have learned that peace comes when we accept the wisdom that there are mysteries we do not know and do not need to know. We can find healing and meaning even with unanswered questions. I also came to a practical realization that even if I was able to find an answer to my questions of why?, those answers would not somehow lessen the pain or make it more bearable. That same pain would still be there, even if I possessed all omniscience into the rhyme and reason of my own circumstances.
Instead of answers, there are realities, and these realities bring about hope.
As a disciple of Jesus, I have the realities of God’s presence, God’s faithfulness, the cross, resurrection, healing, and abundant life in the here and now to stake my life on. The presence of pain invites me to claim these realities in a new way to fit a new circumstance. Like lighthouses in treacherous waters or guide rails in a dark hallway, they are there for me to claim as I muddle my way forward. These truths are not mystical antidotes to the pain I carry, but they shepherd me through pain to the healing I seek.
3) Grief is a friend, not an enemy.
Grief is the byproduct of a great loss. Like an unwelcome guest, grief shows up in the place of what or who went missing. During times of loss, I remember at first hating grief, avoiding it, and doing all I could to beat it back. My grief became the great enemy to my happiness, which I felt could only be had if my loss was restored. Yet the losses we suffer can never truly be restored. Once we come to terms with that, then grief becomes our guide to letting go of who or what we lost. Grief guides us through all the necessary places of anger, sorrow, guilt, shock, and denial. Eventually grief leads us into a place of living well even with the pain of loss.
Over time, I have found grief to be a trusted friend. I don’t have control over grief. Grief often arrives unannounced and with no pre-arranged agenda. When grief arrives, however, it takes me where I need to go, and the result is one step closer to wholeness. With grief, wounds become scars. Deep sadness becomes joy. The cross and tomb burst open to the limitless possibilities of resurrection.
4) We can choose what to do with our pain.
This is the most difficult lesson to write about because in no way do I want to suggest that there are definite things to do with pain, or that what one person decides to do with their pain is necessarily better or more admirable than another person’s choices. However, I think it’s safe to claim that we do have the power to decide how to navigate through pain and what we want the legacy of our pain to be.
That said, I’d like to gently suggest one avenue of navigating through pain. We could choose a life in which our places of pain become the very places where others find comfort and healing. People have transformed their pain into advocacy movements, ministries, non-profit organizations, support groups, charitable foundations, books, seminars, music, poetry, and so much more. People have chosen to insert their own sense of meaning and purpose into their pain by using it as the very thing that would bring life and vitality to other people.
I have often said that while I am not at all grateful for the pain I have endured, I am grateful that with God’s help, I could find some wisdom, empathy, faith, love and strength I did not have before. I have allowed God to redeem my pain by deepening me to become a more authentic person and pastor. For all of that, I am eternally grateful. Yet I had to make the choice to do this, and my choices along the way did not always manifest themselves in the most gracious or endearing ways. Working through pain is always a messy process- an intentional slog, at times murky and perilous- but always forward-looking and stubbornly hopeful.
This post is written in loving memory of Meredith Mahr-Edmunds (3/25/88-7/29/17) and Doris Rodbell (10/15/37-7/31/17) and in honor of their loved ones. May God shepherd them through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures of healing.
(This post is written in honor of my dear friend and brother in Christ Alvin Dickerson who is in his last stages of terminal brain cancer. Brother Alvin, you have shown me the truth of what I’ve only begun to understand in the words that follow…)
Once in a while I pick up one of those books that is impossible to put down until I’ve plowed through the whole thing at once. In this case, it was Ed Dobson’s Seeing through the Fog: Hope When Your World Falls Apart. Far from a moralistic treatise on how to find hope, the impetus of Dobson’s book is his deeply personal story of being diagnosed and living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It was a stunning, captivating story right from the beginning. A healthy, successful 50-year-old pastor is diagnosed with ALS and effectively given a hideous death sentence of slowly dying to a witheringly painful disease. How does one truly live in the shadow of death? Where is God and what is God up to? How can we honestly pray for healing when we’re all but certain of the inevitable outcome? How can we discover hope and gratitude when each day brings about a further symptom that pushes us closer to death?
Ed Dobson struggles through each of these questions in a humbly convincing way that left me both haunted and closer to the God of life and healing. I want to share and briefly reflect upon a few of my favorite quotes from the book. I hope they are also a blessing to you, too.
…I find there is a vast difference in being grateful for something and being grateful in something. In the midst of my struggle I can still be grateful.
I loved Dobson’s honesty and realism concerning thankfulness. We don’t have to be thankful for crap. Thank God for that!
I once pastored a faithful, godly woman who often said of her terminal cancer, “This really sucks.” It certainly did. Cancer still sucks. (I’ve since found other choice words to describe it, which I’ll withhold from sharing here.) And at the same time, we could laugh and smile over the good things she still enjoyed. Sometimes, that’s enough.
There is nothing noble, high or holy about giving thanks for bad things. But, there is always cause to give thanks in those bad things for the gifts and blessings we do have. That perspective keeps us real about our pain while rescuing us from being victimized by it.
I needed to shift my focus from myself to my creator. And I shouldn’t focus on God’s power to heal me, either; I should focus on the all-around wonder of God and spend more time with Him each day without the goal of receiving healing for my good behavior. I needed to trust Him with my life not because I was sick but because I should trust Him that way always.
Dobson addressed a dangerous strain of unchristian thought that says if I have faith enough and am good enough, God will deliver what I want. Conversely, if I don’t have what I want, it’s because I’m not faithful or good enough. This is theological travesty at its worst. The reality is that the Bible is filled with stories of God blessing people whose faith was lacking at best and in the same breath saying “no” to the most holy, faithful people- the prime example of the later being Jesus.
So rather than egocentric prayers, Dobson learned to focus himself and then fully immerse himself within God’s wonder. That led to trust, assurance, and an affirmed identity of being God’s beloved child, no matter the outcome of his life or death. All of this reminded me that above all other things, you and I were created to be loved by God and to love God with our worship.
The Bible seems to indicate that there is a vast difference between being cured of a disease and being healed of it. It is possible to be cured, but not healed. And it is possible to be healed, but not cured.
The difference between healing and curing may seem like a clever game of Christian semantics. It’s not at all. The Bible describes healing as wholeness, peace, and reconciliation. So yes, a person could be cured of a disease but still need true healing. And a person may never be physically cured of a disease but could die, having been fully healed.
Lastly, here is Dobson’s beautiful definition of healing:
So we see healing is made up of finding peace in three areas of life: with God, with others, and with yourself and your circumstances. This is very similar to the definition of the Hebrew word shalom, which would substitute the word wholeness for peace. Shalom is wholeness with God, with others, and with yourself.
More compelling than Dobson’s definition was his personal story of how he found this healing- between God, between himself and others, with himself and with his painful circumstances. It’s one thing to offer a definition of healing. It’s quite another to illustrate it with his arduous journey into healing.
It’s often been said that the best sermons are stories. I agree. I know I’m not always in the mood to be preached to, most especially when I’m feeling beat up and bedraggled. But an authentic story is always good preaching. For these reasons, I highly recommend Ed Dobson’s book, no matter the season in which you find yourself. There is always more room to live, most especially since we are all effectively terminal. Perhaps it takes a story like this one to encourage us to live, love, persist, and worship more passionately and intentionally.
Jesus was a master at asking questions. His questions always had a specific purpose: inviting someone to take that pivotal, next step forward in their journey of faith. That step was to a place they had not yet been, or more often, to places that had been badly neglected and doggedly avoided.
Those are never easy questions for me. They’re intimidating and often painful. Questions like that ask me to call out those inner demons, name those lifelong fears, and push me into shadowy valleys I had been deathly afraid to even acknowledge. Through Scripture, through prayer, through his working in others, Jesus has invited me to confront my nagging need for approval, my fears of abandonment, my tendency to defiantly go it alone as the misunderstood kid on the playground, my impulsiveness, and my tendency towards addictions. Those are a few of my biggies. So one day, Jesus is in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival and goes to a place within the city called the Pool of Bethesda. John records that at this pool, people who had paralysis, the blind, and others with crippling disabilities gathered to find healing. Bethesda means “house of mercy.”
When I imagine this scene of so many broken people in this one place, I think of the many nursing homes I have visited. It’s a pretty agonizing prospect for me to visit a nursing home. I do it, but not without a lot of personal preparation. To see people bound to wheelchairs, beds, and walkers, in various mental and emotional states, many neglected and alone, some visibly pained, others staring lost and confused. And the smells… Nevertheless, it’s that one smile or that one hand I hold of a fellow human being deeply blessed that another fellow human being took the time to sit and listen that makes my visit well worth the while. Jesus is there.
And Jesus approached a man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been an invalid for 38 years. 38 years! (Yes, that’s my lifetime.) Who knows how long he had been lying there before Jesus walked along. Any time is too long, isn’t it?
Every time I read this passage and think of those nursing homes I have visited, Jesus’ opening question to the man strikes me as insensitive and out of place to the extreme. “Do you want to get well?” he asks. C’mon, Jesus. That would be akin to walking up to you, slapping you on the back after your 40-day fast in the desert, and with a beaming smile shout, “Hey Jesus, are you hungry?”
But then I remember that Jesus’ questions are never careless. There’s a purpose behind his question. He must have seen something in the man that needed to see the light of day. The man is lying by the pool to find healing, but does he really want to be well?
The man’s response is quite telling. He doesn’t respond with a simple, “Yes!!” Instead, he responds with a litany of self-pity which he had undoubtedly rehearsed many times in his mind. “No one is here to help me,” he complains. “On top of that, everytime I do try to get in to those healing waters, someone shoves in ahead of me.” He decried the injustice of his life and his loneliness, but notice that he did not directly answer Jesus’ question.
What did the man really want? Did he want pity or did he want to get well? Did he want self-justification or to be truly whole?
Let’s bring this man’s story home for a little bit. On some level, all of us express some degree of dissatisfaction with the way life is right now. Some of us will live for years in a chronic repetition of pain and sorrow without knowing how to enter life any differently.
Granted there are things we can influence and things we have no control over. Wisdom and sanity is knowing the difference and choosing to take responsibility for what we can control. Much of what we can control has to do with the way we react to things, how we view and understand things, our attitudes, our actions, our will.
Yet often it’s much easier to remain within our patterns of life as they are now and justify them, no matter how painful, than to step outside of those patterns to live a different way. What we know seems safer, more familiar and comfortable and less fearful than the “new thing” we don’t know. So very often, people will remain where they are for its false sense of comfort and security than to venture into the unknown of something new, even if that new thing is the better life they have always wanted. We get burned and cynical at false promises and shallow hopes. We’ve been hurt before trying to get to something better. We don’t want to make that mistake again, even if our way of life now is slowly killing us. Better the devil we know…
Maybe that disabled man had some semblance of that fearful, self-pity when he responded to Jesus. Wellness? He had grown far too cynical to believe in some foolish notion of being made well. All he could do is wallow in his own afflictions.
But notice that Jesus’ compassion for this man was far greater than the man’s doubt and self-pity. Jesus was too concerned for him to leave him there. That’s why Jesus breaks through the mire of this man’s heart to say, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Somewhere within the man, there had to have been a spark of faith to respond with obedience. The light of faith had not entirely gone out because he did indeed get up and walk. He was an invalid no more thanks to Jesus whose living words are greater than our faithlessness and brokenness. How beautiful is that??
That’s all the more reason for me to keep trusting Jesus when I find myself in my own self-imposed funks or during those times when it seems that life beats me up and tears me down too much. I can keep going by trusting something else Jesus said in this same chapter,
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” John 5:24-25
This is not a mere religious affirmation of Christianity. Rather, it is a clarion call from Jesus himself, openly telling me and everyone else that if we really want to step out, step up and live, now and into the ages, we can listen for the word of Jesus, trust in his word and in God who sent him. That trust raises us up out of the mire and into the heights of eternal life. That’s where I want to be. It’s scary, sometimes. Sometimes it’s easier to settle for the familiar-far-less that I already have, no matter how innefectual it’s proven to be so far.
But Jesus is better… far better. It’s time to stop being afraid of the life he offers. It’s time to get busy living!
Today marks one year from January 26, 2011, the day I donated a kidney to my recipient Ann. I’ve thought for a while of what I would say (if anything!) on this day, and the one sentiment that keeps coming to me is thank God for the gift of life. That is not at all an underhanded self-congratulatory statement– not at all! Stranded together in that word “life” are many integral threads, my left kidney being only one of them. The life I’m celebrating today has every bit to do with the journey we have taken leading up to and proceeding the donation surgery itself.
Dave and Ann Meixner, Chris and Blairlee Owens
In the late Spring of 2010 as I considered being a possible donor for Ann, I didn’t have much of a clue about what would truly lie ahead. We never do. We sign up for things in good faith, and then plod on ahead a day at a time in faith, taking whatever comes to us, come what may, good or bad.
For me, one of the first revelations in the extensive evaluation process was that I desperately needed to lose some weight. I’ve always been one of those lucky people with a slower metabolism that leaves me struggling with my weight. But in order to be a donor, I needed to drop some significant pounds. There was a minimal amount and an ideal maximum. Figuring that the lighter I was, the easier all of this would be on the surgeon and on me, I went for the ideal maximum and dropped about 65 lbs.
But the weight was only part of the picture. Ann’s husband Dave kept telling me, “Well, if for nothing else you’ll be getting yourself one heck of a physical.” He was right. Multiple blood tests, a chest x-ray, a CT scan, an EKG, and a full comprehensive physical later, I had gotten more in touch with the make-up and health of my body than I ever had before.
So, the first strand of God’s gift of life was an even greater appreciation for my health and the imperative to get healthier. This is a gift that keeps on giving, too. Now living with only one kidney, I have every bit of motivation needed to keep my weight and all those other critical levels in check!
Then came the day of surgery itself and the days that followed. Looking back, those were some exciting, beautiful times. Yes, there was a lot pain involved, especially in the first couple of days. And there were those minor details of general anesthesia and major surgery for Ann and me. Thank goodness for pain medication that both alleviated much the pain and a bunch of my memories, too.
But two distinct memories stand out from surgery day and the day following: Waking up I first remember asking about Ann. How was she? Did she do alright? The first thing I remember being told was that she was okay and that her new kidney (my old one!) was already at work producing urine. Wow…
Then on the next day after my catheter was removed, they got me up to do some walking and my first walk was down to Ann’s room. Having had my gut cut open and contents removed just the day before, that was a slow, ginger walk. But there was Ann in her room, reporting that already she was beginning to feel better. Her new kidney was hard at work removing the toxins from her body that had debilitated her for years now, and even after her own major surgery, she could feel the difference. Believe me, that was a powerfully humbling, even flattening thing to behold.
The second strand of life was Ann’s new life. To date, this is the most difficult part of the experience to fathom and even talk about. Most all off us have an inner compulsion to help other people. Most of us would describe ourselves somewhere in the tension of being people who give of themselves while also consciously aware that we could always do better. I donated a kidney to Ann, a member of my church, because it was an opportunity I had to help. Until then, I had never even considered something like this. I didn’t do it to “make a huge sacrifice” or to be a hero.
Ann needed a kidney and like many recipients, she was having a hard time finding one. I was healthy and compatible enough with Ann to participate. That’s it. Some gifts we give make a small, meaningful difference. Others make a drastic, meaningful difference. Sometimes we’re tasked to walk an old woman across the street. Sometimes, we’re tasked to save a life. Either way, it’s all about being available to meet the need, however great or small. Along those lines, I hate to think that I donated a kidney, but failed to take ten minutes to listen to someone who just really needed to talk. Both are equally important tasks. Both give life.
Then, the day after coming home from this hospital, I had to go straight back in. As my bowels woke up from the sleep of general anesthesia, I developed a serious case of GI bleeding. From all the blood loss, I passed out in the hospital, fell and hit my head pretty hard, leaving me with a concussion. Two units of blood, a CAT scan, an endoscopy and colonoscopy, and “Meckel” scan later, I came home again. I don’t remember how many nights I was in the hospital. This time, I was recovering from major blood loss and a concussion in addition to surgery.
Ann had her share of complications, too. Her surgery site got infected and took a long time to properly heal. At one point she experienced some very mild rejection, both instances having put her back into the hospital, too.
What can I say?? We were challenging patients!
For me, the extended recovery and ensuing symptoms left me weaker and more physically and psychologically vulnerable than I realized. Getting back into the swing of things took much, much longer than I had anticipated. And for all their excellent care, the doctors’ predictions about healing times and returning to work were far too rosy. But I wasn’t a textbook case, as my donation coordinator reminded me.
I was suffering memory loss and emotional imbalances from the concussion. Frustration with myself led to a lot of outward and inner anger. I still feel both incredibly grateful but a tinge guilty for all Blairlee, my kids, and those close to me had to endure. This person they had always known just wasn’t himself and couldn’t come to grips with that. Their patience, forgiveness, and unconditional love was yet another gracious gift in this experience.
Finally, by late Spring of last year, all this frustration and anger amassed into a serious depression. Combine that with all the physiological changes my body endured during the year along with my own inherited propensity for depression, and I found myself in a new season of illness and healing I never would have predicted. Just when I thought that physically I was getting in better shape, my mind and spirit needed healing.
Once again I found myself at the mercy and in the care of my family, close friends, and the medical community. And once again, I found myself humbled by everyone’s graciousness and unconditional love. And what did I do to deserve all this??
The third stand of life was the care, support, and gracious love of those closest to me. All told, I have not been an easy person to live with and work with this year. (Some might argue that’s always the case. It was just particularly difficult in 2011.) As a husband, a father, a pastor, and a friend, I have been used to taking care of other people. I was the support and the caregiver. I’m used to living out my life to serve and give to others.
But this time, I couldn’t do much of that. In fact, others have had to do for me what I couldn’t do myself. I know that there have been folks who have felt let down or even angry that I fell down on the job. They told me so. Yet in the midst of all that, I learned how dispensable we all are. Our lives are a gift to others, yes, but we are not indispensable fountains of salvation. The world can carry on without us or even in spite of us. As it does, I learned to allow others to care for me, to forgive me, and to love me even when I wasn’t very lovable. No one does that better than my wife Blairlee. Here I was, giving away one of my organs, only to find myself a needy recipient.
That has truly been the most profoundly beautiful, humbling thread of this cord of life I’ve been talking about here.
So, here’s to a journey that began close to to two years ago and continues on today. We are all donors and recipients of life. It’s just a question of graciously making ourselves available to give what we have to those who need it and to gladly, graciously receive the gifts others grant us. All this is God’s gift of life, seen most perfectly in Jesus, incarnated in us whenever we lovingly give and whenever we humbly receive.