4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

dandelion

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3

Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.

But how do we experience comfort in suffering?  Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort?  Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests.  Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.

He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.

We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship.  Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.

1:  We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it

We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God.  Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination.  Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.”  Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.

2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful

Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.

3:  Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.

We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want.   We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.

Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”

He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed.  I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family.  At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion.  He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God.  And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’

When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”.  I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course.  In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.

But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering.  I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.  A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.

In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times.  As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things.   I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it.  And isn’t this an imitation of life?  We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble.  We feel like giving up.  But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary.  And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.

5 books that helped me grow up

keep_quiet_and_read_dostoyevsky_tee_shirts-r2f9201f1bfd84e30b672c88f7c7a6b73_8nhdv_324
the_brothers_karamazov_read_it_loved_it_tshirt-r33373f99351b4e7d8b09b8edbc4be85a_8natl_324 t-shirts by zazzle. Wow! I did not realize how hip Dostoevsky was. No t-shirts for me back in 1984

The Brothers Karamazov by Theodore Dostoevsky

In my early 30’s I read a dialogue between  two brothers of Theodore Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov that exposed my secret, buried doubts with such brutal clarity that I had to admit them and face them if my young Christian faith was to be preserved in a meaningful way.

Dostoevsky, a devout Christian after years of what he called “the hell fire of doubt,” wrote a dialogue in “The Brothers Karamazov”  between the brilliant atheistic  brother, Ivan, and his faith-filled, gentle brother, Alyosha.  I would learn later that this parable, called “the Grand Inquisitor,” had and has often been showcased as one of the great literary and theological challenges to faith in God.  Ivan’s hard hitting argument left me angry and crying, “Why God did you make us when you knew we would be so atrocious to each other and especially to children?”  The question haunted me. Ivan had gotten to me.

Being a first time mother of a two-year old daughter made me particularly vulnerable to Ivan’s argument. In the parable,” the Grand Inquisitor”, Ivan builds a case against God by including a story of a young child who was abandoned and left to die. Ivan admits that this argument does not come out of love for others (he admits to not having love) but rather out of a logic and defiance towards Jesus whose humility and sacrifice had apparently made no difference to humankind. Interestingly, Alyosha, the brother who loves God humbly and loves people purely does not counter the argument but rather patiently listens to his brother’s angry rant. He recognizes Ivan’s negative freedom as rebellion towards God and offers sorrow for Ivan while remaining unshakably committed to the goodness of God.

Alyosha’s reaction, or non-reaction, towards this cynical  brother was not satisfying to me at this time in my life.  I wanted hard hitting, iron-clad defenses and apologetics in response to Ivan’s challenge.  Dostoevsky does not offer any, at least not in this passage.  At this point in my faith journey I was left disappointed and emotionally off kilter.  The passage literally brought me to my knees and later to a self-arranged appointment with my pastor to discuss the faith turmoil I was experiencing. I was still a novice in understanding the mystery of love and grace found in Christ. I was growing up in my faith and suffering growing pains. Good! There would be more in life to come that would require a more robust faith than I had then.

For me and millions of others, the brilliance of Dostoevsky was his ability to pull back a corner of the curtain of faith through a grand narrative of humankind’s loveliness and awfulness within the context of the Gospel’s hope of redemption .  I would need to read the entire book in my 30’s and reread it in my 50’s as I continued to give up simplistic views of faith and life and grow up into life’s complexities and God’s immutable ways.  As it turns out gentle Alyosha’s words and more importantly his actions in the novel turn out a beautiful picture of grace that belies iron clad arguments while strongly  “truthifying” truth.  Sweet Alyosha   continues to teach me something about the beauty and  mystery of grace -” how sweet the sound.”

I not only recommend “The Brothers Karamazov” but also “The Gospel in Dostoevsky: Selections from His Books” (introduced by J.I. Packer, Malcolm Muggeridge, & Ernest Gordon).

Next blog: second on my list

What snow berms taught me about Holy Week

My husband and our Buffalo city pastor were having a conversation yesterday about the berms of snow finally melting. Steve, the pastor, told David that one thing he had to get used to when he moved from California was all the foulness revealed as the white beautiful snow began to melt. This is not the kind of image that the awakening of spring normally brings to mind. Yes, these berms are filthy right now as they melt away: ugly mounds of black, gritty toxic-looking snow mounds of street debris and animal foulness. They once were white, pristine-looking, snow-covered Olympic mountain range miniatures but now…….

west juneau snow berms_cropped

SRX_berm_city__t470Spring is coming but now there is that awkward in-between stage.  What was white and pristine now is revealing the ugly.

The celebration of the resurrection of Christ is coming.  A celebration of the victory not only over death but a victory over all that is debased, decayed and disgraced.  But the resurrection of Christ means nothing without that painfully tragic and awkward crucifixion.  The Passion Week signaled the end of Jesus’ humble presence on earth with his teaching, empathy, miracles and wonders…snow covered glistening mounds of purity and beauty.   There was great judgment, yes indeed.   Pure white mounds of snow burned away to reveal dark toxins that had been transferred from us to Him.  And then after that awkward, tragic, ugly time came spring in all its glory.  The Resurrection.

What is my part in all this?  I have a choice. I can deny the ugly with well-crafted exteriors of looks, clothes, charm, sharp intellect, sardonic wit and nice helpful manners, or….. I can acknowledge the foulness not just in my world but in me. I don’t have to be timid or offended at such an image or accusation. I can own it, admit it, confess it and look to the crucifixion for my forgiveness and its meaning of love and then finally be greatly relieved and forever thankful at so great a salvation as Christ’s resurrection promise. This life is not all there is. Thank God! I mean it!  For this is great news if this life has disappointed with its hurt, loss and misery which is by far most of this world’s experience.  He is risen indeed. And so what does that mean for me? What does this grand biblical narrative have to do with me? If I believe it to be true historically and spiritually then it means freedom – freedom from having to pretend.children laughing in fields

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,

The sun forbear to shine

But God, Who called me here below,

Will be forever mine.

– Chris Tomlin, Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)W

Power and Tears: Part 2

Reflections on the story in John 11 (read previous post for context)

Why did Jesus cry over the death of Lazarus if he knew he was going to use his power to change the natural order( resurrect Lazarus from death) and restore joy to his friends?tears 2

Simply – He cried because his friends were crying.  He became fully present with their suffering. He was not thinking of their future (what he was going to do for them in the next few minutes) nor was he thinking of his own future which was soon to take a dark painful course.

Nor did He feel a need to defend his actions when Mary, the sisterJesus cried of courseaccused of him of insensitivity or procrastination. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vs. 11). Absent in Jesus was any need to defend his actions even in the midst of laments that if he had come sooner the dire situation would be different. He stayed present.  His friends were grieving and that sadness affected Jesus with empathetic sadness.

Empathy – We may be born with the capacity to empathize but nurture plays a profound role.  We must be taught and modeled the experience of feeling another person’s pain. When people lack empathy we, in the mental health profession, assume, a childhood of abuse and/or neglect or a disorder. We assume that they were never the recipients of empathy nor had it modeled for them by the significant relationships in their lives. We recognize that something is off.

A story of parenting small children:  I was at a playground with my grandsons observing small children and their parents. One man’s daughter fell and cried loudly. The father gently examined her and lovingly reassured her of his presence and his sympathy for her pain.  Another parent noticed the situation and looked on. The child with her tried to reengage her in what he was doing – building a sand castle. I heard the following:  “I will look at what you are doing in a moment but right now I feel sad about that little girl who got hurt so I want to look at her.  Let’s look at her together for a few seconds… (Pause)  She seems comforted; so now show me what you were doing.”

If that intentional modeling continues to be that mother’s practice, the child will catch it and develop capacity for empathy.

But what about those who have been deprived of empathy at vulnerable stages of development? There is hope.  God’s gift of community – godly loving spaces for transformation interfacing with malleable brains is one such place of hope. Brains can be rewired over time through strong emotional connections to develop empathy. The church with all its warts and imperfections is still the functional body of Christ.  It provides opportunities for loving interactions with others that include  listening with empathy  to people’s messed up stories.  According to Curt Thompson, author of Anatomy of the Soul, it is within this context that people who have been formerly deprived of loving attachments begin to sense what an attachment to God feels like thereby understanding God’s grace for them and for others.

Andy (a man in his early 40’s) was a child that had to raise himself.  Without going into detail, anybody hearing his story would label his childhood as harsh and neglectful. Attachments to stable caregivers were absent; normally the harbinger of a distrustful adult. However, there were times when he took advantage of caring interactions. He described living for a brief time in a neighborhood where buses destined for Vacation Bible School and church services would pick up children who wanted to go.  He was one of them. There was a kind neighbor who noticed his loneliness and neglect.  Andy began to sense there was a God who loved.  “I would hear stories in church and something exploded in me about God and it was beautiful.”  However later,  Andy would go down a path as a teenager and young adult that would lead to drug addiction and a stint in jail.

Andy told me, “When released from jail, I did not know what to do with my life. Eventually, I took a woman’s advice and enrolled in a Christian program called ‘Teen Challenge’ (a ministry dedicated to the transformation of young people with substance abuse.) Through their accountability and structured program of prayer, chapel, work, prayer, chapel, prayer, fellowship, counseling, I found myself wanting to know as much as I could about God.”

Andy attended a bible college for a period and did mission work in Asia.  Today he serves others through an urban ministry.  A man full of empathy and warmth, Andy humbly says, “Sometimes being a Christian is the best thing, sometimes it is the hardest thing, but it is the only thing for me.”

Jesus cried. Of course he did.  This powerful empathic being carried empathy where no man or woman has ever taken it – to a cross of suffering for us. Many before and after him have spoken “truth to power”; but He and only He spoke “God’s power into God’s Love.”

Post script:  Tears are filled with the presence of stress chemicals and hormones.

Post script: Tears are a functional way of getting cortisol and other stress hormones from inside us to outside us.  Have you ever wondered why you have felt slightly better after having a good cry? God blesses tears on this side of heaven but there will come a time when he will wipe every one of them away. Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.”

end of times

Power and Tears-Part 1

Have you ever wondered why Jesus cried?

tears 2

The account of Jesus crying can be found in the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John and worth your time to read.   I will summarize: Jesus had some dear friends named Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They were adult siblings who were very close to each other and to Jesus. (Yes, Jesus loves everyone but the gospel story makes it clear that these siblings had a special closeness and attachment to Jesus and he to them.)  As it turns out Lazarus had been ill.  Jesus had been petitioned by his friends to come to Lazarus quickly and possibly heal him. But Jesus did not come quickly. In fact, he seemed to take a leisurely pace to their home in Bethany.  By the time Jesus reached Bethany, Lazarus had been dead 4 days. As Jesus neared the home he was accosted by the overwhelming grief and disappointment of Lazarus’ sisters.

Next comes the shortest sentence in the English translated Bible: “Jesus cried.”  We don’t know for how long. The biblical text does not say.  But stop and imagine that Jesus cried for ten minutes or longer. Stay with that image (Jesus crying) for a while before you move on to the climax of the story and take notice of your feelings and thoughts.

The Biblical writer was understandably excited to move on to the real action, the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus’ display of sadness gave way to an unearthly power that shook the grip of sin and death right out of the grave of immutable realities.  A shouted command by Jesus was all it took for Lazarus to be resurrected from the dead.  Lazarus was made alive. Stunned joy and amazement was not the reaction of all the bystanders, however. The narrative explains that some would believe in Jesus by this supernatural miracle but others in power would feel threatened. (The powerful can feel threatened by the more powerful.  Our human history exposes us humans as naturally being guarded and fearful, predisposed to self-defense and self-interest.  Embedded in empathy is vulnerability – the capacity and willingness to be hurt; a risk that the powerful generally don’t take.)  Jesus’ display of power provoked by love would be costly to him.  He would pay for it with his life as seeds of sedition began to take root around him as some would begin a plot to have him killed.  The next chapters of this story would reveal a Jesus who would consciously constrain his power in favor of the ultimate sacrificial display of love, empathy and vulnerability.

But why did Jesus cry?

Read next week’s blog post.

Suffering Through Christmas

Many of you will have heard of Kay Warren’s article by now that was originally posted on her Facebook page and then sent on to Christianity Today. By the way, Kay Warren is the wife of Rick Warren, pastor and author of Purpose Driven Life.  Here is the link.

For those of you who have not heard of the article here is the summary: Kay Warren’s 27-year old son died by suicide over a year ago. She reacted to the “cheery Christmas cards” sent to her and wrote about her strong reactions. Read the article as it not only serves as a needed chastisement but it also gives us important suggestions on how to “do” Christmas greetings for the hurting.

I have not suffered the catastrophic loss of a child so I won’t even attempt to venture into the “understanding how you feel” territory except to say that I have had bereaved parents as clients throughout the years. I have humbly listened to the excruciating rough terrain of grief processing- not just one year out from the loss but many years out from that life defining and altering moment of heartbreak.  I usually don’t have clients seeking me out until they feel their friends are no longer available or capable of understanding that they, ”can’t just move on.”  Kay Warren’s article will help you understand how unbelievably hurtful and even shameful it is to sense from others that you should be further along than they are.

The point of this post is to highlight some of Kay Warren’s suggestions while adding a few of my own; but not before I give reflections on two approaches to the Christmas season.

Children and Christmas

Keep it magical, as far as it is possible within your control to do so.  There are monstrous troubles in this world and frankly the Christmas story was not written for children which is apparent by the events surrounding the birth of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s gospel. A sanitized version to tell children is quite appropriate.  Safety is a primary need of children and I just don’t mean physical safety which is obvious but there is a profound need for children to feel safe for psychological and neurological health.  Children are not developmentally capable to understand that the world is not always a safe place and really never has been. Safety was not part of the baby Jesus story and certainly was not for all the children under two who were killed by a crazed paranoid despot named Herod the Great.  As my pastor said last Sunday, “there is not a single Christmas carol that makes mention of a baby boy genocide or of the refugee status of the Holy family as they fled to Egypt to escape the murderous Herod.”  But these grim realities are all part of the Christmas story as recorded in the gospel of Matthew.

Children don’t need to know of the awfulness that filled the world then and fills the world now (children massacred in a school in Pakistan, just reported) .   Our job is to protect children as long as we can and do our best to fulfill their magical thinking of gifts, sweets, festive decorations and songs.  “Away in the manger no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head la, la, la…” And “Jolly ole St. Nicholas, . . . “.   I want to sing these songs to my grandchildren and tell sweet baby Jesus stories and build excitement over the festive culmination of gift giving even if it does not quite jive with the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth in its entirety.  I would hope that all children could be transported into a world of glee and cheer throughout the Christmas season but tragically that will not be for so many.

My hope and prayer is best described in Psalm 10:17-18

O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Adults and Christmas

The un-sanitized version of Matthew 2:13-23 gives us some clues on how we need to be communicating with other adults during the Christmas season.

So, how should we do this? Carefully! There is suffering in many of our friends and families’ lives during this season. Maybe it’s not the horrific kind of fleeing refugees or that of Kay and Rick Warren but there are heart aches and heart breaks in spades coming from all sort of sources.  Christmas cheer has a way of making suffering folks feel like losers or at least wistful as they wonder why God has not blessed them in the way that so many “seem” to be blessed.  Kay Warren makes the suggestion that before we send out our perfunctory Christmas cards or newsletters of family togetherness and achievement we need to take the time to painstakingly question ourselves about each person ‘s reality who is on our Christmas card/newsletter list. If we know that there has been a great loss or hardship in a particular person’s life then forgo the newsletter and write something emphatically kind on a card that reflects our knowledge of their pain during this time.  If we don’t know what is going on because we are not super close friends with people  on our list anymore well, then err on the side of caution and write something personal asking how things have been going for them.  If we know that our friends’ lives are going well then by all means send the pictures and newsy newsletters.   I am a grateful privileged person who is two months out of excellent cancer treatment and feeling great and have a family that is doing well.  My friends know this so I am thrilled to get their newsletters and lovely cards with their families’ pictures on it.  I love hearing about their lives and seeing what everyone looks like.   But, I also pray that I am forgiven by those with whom i have not been so careful with in the past.  Kay Warren’s article is a good lesson in paying attention to the suffering around us and making sure we are not adding to it.

The Longest Night service

One of the things that I appreciate about my church in Juneau, Alaska is that for years they have recognized that the Christmas holiday season can be a time of sadness for many.  On the longest night of the year, December 21st (which by the way is really, really long at 58 degrees north latitude) there is a service which mostly includes scripture readings and prayers within in a dimly lit chapel culminating with each person lighting a candle representing their private grief laid before God.

The Balanced Christmas

Let’s set Christmas apart for children, making it as wonderful as we can for as many children as we can.   But at the same time let’s be more gospel minded and set Christmas apart for the broken hearted with its reminders of the hope that is found in a baby named, “God is with us.” More of Him with reverence and worship that serves to condition our hearts to be more about others –a paraphrase of the two greatest commandments – Love God and Love others.

read this-its inspiring

In my last post I promised an article by Todd Billings which inspired the telling of my mild story in comparison.  The following is the article with the link.

Inhttp://www.christianitytoday.com/behemoth/2014/issue-10/deadly-healing-medicine.html?utm_source=gallireport&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_term=13341127&utm_content=319474811&utm_campaign=2013

Incurable cancer.

I could hardly believe it when I heard the diagnosis. My wife and I had just celebrated our tenth anniversary, and our lives were spinning in joyful commotion with one- and three- year-olds at home. Initial testing brought back some worrying results. I had researched the possibilities, and I didn’t sound like a likely prospect for this cancer. The average diagnosis age is about 70; I had just turned 39. But here it was: an active cancer that had already been eroding the bones in my skull, arm, and hip.

With the Psalmist I cried out, “Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love” (Ps. 6:2b–4).

What was this “healing” for my bones and soul? The cancer has no cure, but it can be fought with special treatment. This treatment to extend my lifespan was not going to come through a gentle pill. Ready or not, I was in the midst of a battle. I needed strong medicine for healing to come. Within a week I was on a chemotherapy and steroid treatment as part of a five-month preparation for this strong medicine: a stem cell transplant.

I soon discovered this was not a regular transplant—replacing a sick organ with a healthy organ, or infusing health-filled medicines into my body. Quite the opposite. Receiving this “medicine” involved taking a lethal poison. First I had stem cells gathered from my blood. Next I received an intense form of chemotherapy derived from mustard gas, a World War I chemical weapon. These toxins attacked both healthy and cancerous cells in my bone marrow; they would definitely have killed me if there were not a way to revive me. My white blood count dropped close to zero, leaving me with virtually no resistance to infection. You can’t live like that. And yet, the only way to heal was to infuse this poison into my blood.

In the third step, the healthy stem cells taken earlier were infused back into my body. At first, they just float around, but the doctors hope that after a number of days, “engrafting” will take place: the healthy stem cells start helping the body produce an immune system again. Because this procedure so compromises the immune system, I would remain hospitalized for a month at a cancer lodge designed for avoiding infection, followed by several more months of quarantine.

The doctors referred to the final bottoming out of white cells as “the valley.”

During my transplant process, I was kept under close watch by doctors and nurses as my white blood cell count plummeted. The heavy toxins were infused into my body from dark bags labeled “hazardous drug” and “high risk med.” As my white counts fell, I experienced bouts of sharp pain, nausea, heavy fatigue, and discouragement. The doctors referred to the final bottoming out of white cells as “the valley.” During this time, I was walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4, ESV). The doctors brought me down the path of death, for the path of death was the only way to healing.

Thankfully, engraftment eventually started to occur; slowly the healthy blood cells joined my body in recreating my immune system.

No Engraftment = No Life

Engraftment is a horticultural practice: uniting a branch to a plant in such a way that the branch is incorporated into the plant, becoming a part of the plant itself. In my case, before the stem cell transplant, I had to sign a consent form indicating my understanding that if engraftment did not occur, I could die. Because of the death-dealing powers of the chemo, the consent form probably could have used a simpler formula: no engraftment means no life.

Engraftment evokes biblical imagery, of course. In Romans 11:13–24, Paul uses rich horticultural imagery from the Old Testament to speak about how Gentile believers have been graciously grafted into the people of God. In the Gospel of John, Christ himself speaks about how he is the vine and his disciples are the branches, who can bear fruit only by abiding in him (15:1–8). For “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5, ESV). No engraftment means no life.

As I lived through my ordeal, my eyes were opened anew to what it means for sinners like us to receive deep healing from God. We don’t just need a vitamin; we don’t just need a bandage to cover a flesh wound. We need strong medicine—we need death and new life united to Christ in order to be healed. Far too often, I have acted as if the gospel were a self-improvement plan to strengthen a muscle, to heal a small wound, to enhance my success. But the gospel is about losing our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ, tasting death to the old self in order to experience true life and healing. “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Our hope is not in ourselves, but in our engraftment—our union with Christ. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).

There is no way to healing apart from death. This is a reality for all of us. God’s gospel medicine is not a light massage or an energizing pill. We cannot have only resurrection, skipping over our union with Christ in his death, our death to the old self. We desperately need healing. And the Great Physician provides this in mysterious ways.

As Martin Luther notes, even our “spiritual trials, sorrow, grief, and anguish of heart” are “the medicines with which God purges away sin.” This purging actually restores true human health. This medicine may feel like poison, and it does involve a kind of death, but it is actually coming to life in Christ. For when we cry out for “healing” we are crying out to a crucified and risen Lord who brings us life by uniting us to both his death and his life. That is strong medicine, indeed.

J. Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. This article has been adapted from his forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, February 2015), with permission.

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Also in this Issue

Living the New Normal

I finished cancer treatment over two weeks ago and have returned to my home in Juneau, Alaska.

I left Alaska in January of this year with a vision of myself as a healthy woman with exciting plans of seeing family and friends on the east coast and then a two month ministry in the Middle East; a routine that has gone uninterrupted for the last 8 years.  On February 26th those plans were profoundly interrupted with a sudden diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer. For those of you who have walked this path or cared for someone who has, you know the common expressions: “Everything changed in a moment’s time.  The rug was suddenly pulled out from under me.  I went from living a life to surviving for a life, and etc…”

David, who likes the country western star Alan Jackson, shared the lyrics from the song Jackson wrote and recorded for Denise, his wife of 33 years, after she had completed her cancer treatment:

Ain’t it funny how one minute your whole life’s looking fine

And a short few words later it all just comes untied?

You can’t believe you’re looking at what was always someone else,

Now it’s staring right there at you, yesterday you couldn’t tell. (1) 

Once the shock was processed then came the emotions: some sadness, some anxiety and some frustration, guilt and worry.

Then the anger starts to surface, lookin’ up, askin’ why

Then you realize He (God) probably wants the best the same as I.

But there were two other emotions that couldn’t be laid to rest.  They would show up in unexpected ways and times.  Gratefulness and humbleness were two friends that would visit uninvited so I began looking for them in unexpected places and, seeing them often, would greet them by name.  Calling a thing by its name whether that thing is a person or abstraction carries its own blessing and power.  Why are we embarrassed when we can’t Grateful humble_revremember someone’s name when we see that person?  It’s because we intuitively know that saying the name out loud will validate that person as significant and valuable in relation to us. “Oh wow, you remembered my name!” Of course I did because you made an impression on me and I gave you enough care and consideration to file your name away.  Unspoken thoughts perhaps, but none the less operating to create meaningful relationship.  Well, it happens much the same way with abstractions.  You name an abstraction in relationship to yourself enough times you will begin to feel its connection and power in your life: love, kindness, endurance, thankfulness, to name a few. The New Testament has a list and refers to them as the fruits of the Spirit.  (Galatians 5: 22-23, Colossians 3:2-17)  If you have read even a few of my previous blog posts you will see these two not-so-now-abstract feelings pop up a lot.

More Alan Jackson:

And the seconds turn to minutes, and minutes wouldn’t last

And the hours, days, and weeks and months, seem endless and too fast

And the blessin’s poured from Heaven, like the rain on that first spring.

But now, there is a new challenge in my life.

The treatment protocol for my particular cancer is complete.  Now there are new thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  I’m learning to live “the new normal.”  I like to compare this state with how I felt when I had my first baby.  Lots of attention from medical staff during pregnancy, delivery, birth and the few days in hospital and then, “voila”, the release into the world with my new human responsibility to figure out how to do this thing of living with baby without the hand holding.

Now, I don’t want to overdo this analogy because in reality there is support after birth and there is support after cancer treatment.  After all, there are the checkups and the knowledge that if anything goes haywire I can pick up the phone and say, “help,” and I will get it.[2]

But since being home I have experienced some trepidation of my future health possibilities, some crankiness and anxiousness reserved for the person who deserves it the least.  (You husbands out there will be happy to know that he doesn’t take it lying down.  He emailed me one of my own past blog posts the other day as a reminder of, hmm… I am not sure but I think it was a clever way to say, “Hey, be nice” or “be true to your blog post”.  Fair enough.)   Now, all of the above reactions are not uncommon for cancer patients and survivors.  There are plenty of studies out there to point to an handholding revincrease of depression in cancer patients after treatment so it does not surprise me that I may be having a few ups and downs since being done with treatment and realizing my cancer care providers are a couple thousand miles away. But, I am now having to learn to live this “new normal” and start fine tuning my radar for gratefulness and humbleness in many different places and circumstances and when finding it, start naming it.  I need these and other “fruits of the spirit” to wash over, overwhelm and subdue the fearful musings and emotions about an unknown future.   The hand holding treatment days may have come to an end for now but the Spirit didn’t go away.  The Holy Spirit is with me reminding me that there is a boatload of gratefulness to be named out loud.

So, I’m going hunting in new territory and I won’t be alone.

 

(1) ‘When I Saw You Leaving’

Writer: Alan Jackson
Copyright: Tri-angels Music, Emi April Music Inc

[2] Help for those of us of the middle class, that is.  It should be like that for everyone but sadly we know it isn’t. And that is not because no one is willing to help. In many places there are those willing to lend a hand.  The problem many times is that the marginalized have a lack of confidence and trust in the system to get what is needed. But then again there are many places in this world where those willing to help are few and far apart. This is all grist for future postings.

 

The scales were tipped and I was feeling guilty

Party

I just got home from a party given by friends, Kyeonghi and Bernard, of the Buffalo church we attend.

Thirty-five people showed up, many wearing hilarious wigs in honor of my (still) hairless days. It was a blast. Most are young and full of “we are hard-wired for fun!”

Later

I sat in the dark of my apartment explaining to David that I was having some internal dissonance.  (Poor guy – he has to endure therapist phrases and he probably just wants to say, “Can we simply call it confused feelings?”)

“Maybe it wasn’t all so bad after all (my cancer treatment).  I’m kind of feeling that I may have made a big deal about nothing so terrible.”

David’s response was straightforward, “Yes, it was a big deal; trust me.”

Maybe I am going through something like the aftermath of child bearing. The relief of new life causes a kind of amnesia of the pain you thought you would never get over.

But then again, I wasn’t satisfied with that analogy. Something else was going on. I stared at the basket of cards from friends from Juneau and other places.  I looked at the books and gifts sent and reminded myself of the countless phone calls from family and friends and the many emails even from David’s clients and colleagues who had never met me but wanted to encourage me.  People read my blog and were unbelievably kind in their responses. Friends traveled to visit me or house me.

The kindnesses that I received from my health providers and just random folks I would meet in the hospital – all of these memories were flooding me with that “internal dissonance” thing. The level of kindness far exceeded the level of suffering.

Because I was feeling unworthy of this amount of kindness crazy thoughts were entering my head in an effort to make sense of it. “I must have communicated to everyone that it was worse than it was. Did I tell them I was dying?  Did I let on like I was bedridden and hospitalized most of the time?  Did I say that my head was in a bucket 24-7 during chemo?  Did I intimate that surgery had complications or that radiation could only be endured with drugs, prescription and recreational?  In short, did I exaggerate this whole thing in spite of the fact that my doctors were telling me I had a high risk disease and treatment would be intense?”

I thought of the support of my sweet daughters, their husbands and my grand boys and my courageous 88-year old mother who looks after my 91-year old father.  It was beginning to feel like too much.

Too much support.

Too much love.

Too much guilt from all that love and support.

Too much God – is that even possible?

The scale was tipped in favor of love – far outweighing the trials of cancer treatment.  I was overwhelmed with undeserved love.

Of course it was undeserved.  Christianity 101 tells me that.  None of us get what we deserve.  God help us if we do. It just can’t be about deserving. I don’t even want it to be.  It gets back to that fair thing I talked about in my last post.  After all, do I deserve all this support and some other person in a hostile dangerous place who is being horribly persecuted for their religious belief or ethnic heritage deserves being alone, feeling forgotten and wondering why God is silent.  Does she or he deserve that treatment while I am showered with love and support from friends and family?  Of course, not.

What to do with all this

There is something else going on.  What are we ultimately meant to be thankful for? Please don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful for the support of friends, family, and health care providers who, in part, sustained me through this ordeal. But I know that right now at this moment countless people of Christian faith and other minorities in faraway places and prisons are suffering, even dying, alone and unnoticed.  What sustains them?  It can’t be, “God loves me this I know for I have so many friends and family telling me so!” Equating God’s grace and blessings to family and friends and medical support just do not cut it for the multitudes deprived of basic human rights.  I once read John Stott, the late theologian and vicar of All Soul’s Church in London, say something to the effect that he could not worship a God who had not suffered pain, abandonment humiliation and forsakenness. Thank God we have that God in Jesus Christ. His suffering appropriated something profound, cosmic and eternal for which anyone of us can be blessed, whomever and wherever we are. Now, I am venturing into territory that I cannot speak authoritatively.  But someone can and has.  His name is Ziya Merkal.  I read an article of his in Christianity Today back in 2008.  I printed off a copy, put in a manila folder and over the years have reread it many times.  Here are the links to two articles by Ziya Merkal , “Bearing the Silence of God” ( the one I carry around) and “Standing with the Desolate” (recently read this on line). Please read them.

After listening to my angst in the darkness of our apartment after the lovely party thrown in honor of my end-of-treatment.  My husband said, “Dona, just be thankful.”  Good words spoken by the champion of support, love and perspective during one of the toughest 9 months of my life.  But David was quick to point out that the apostle Paul said it better in I Thessalonians 5:18,

“For this is the will of God, that you be thankful.”