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:  “Good News about Injustice”

The list of 5 books that helped me grow up has to include Gary Haugen’s, “Good News about Injustice.”  Reading this book deepened my prayers  and convinced me that  even I could play a small role as a justice advocate for the global poor.

When my first daughter was born David and I were over the moon as we would be for our second daughter’s birth. We received the typical comments of well-wishing and congratulations.  One comment however surprised and alarmed me. “Maybe next time you will get that son.” From that moment forward I would be set on a course of paying attention to the worldwide preference of sons over daughters. The preference of sons over daughters I would learn was shared by women as much as by men.  I grappled with the implications of such a bias and found it hard to understand. As the only child of Dom and Marie I never picked up that a son would have been their first choice. I was never sent a message that my gender precluded me from doing anything I wanted to do and that included staying single if I so desired.  I enjoyed exceptional family acceptance.  Listening to an NPR report a year after my daughter’s first birthday explained this preferential inequality. Interviews of women in the developing world described their desperate need to be validated as a human beings. Producing sons seemed to be their only ticket to enter the human race as worthwhile people. The voices of these women in conjunction with the sociological and economic narrative made sense to me, albeit tragically sad.

When Maria, my oldest daughter, was a freshman she heard Gary Haugen speak at her college. She recommended that I read his book, “Good News about Injustice.” I did and I knew I could no longer be just a whiner about the injustice meted out to girls and women.

I prolonged the impact of my response to the book by leading a women’s study. The book came with a study guide that included biblical justice verses that would build our biblical justice literacy. I downloaded and showed a dateline special that featured Gary Haugen’s social justice ministry, “International Justice Mission” doing what they do best: exposing the evils of sexual and indentured slavery and human trafficking. This particular dateline special would reveal a sting operation that virtually brought down a popular sexual deviant destination in Cambodia that preyed on children.   The young girls who had either been kidnapped, sold or deceived into sexual slavery by a “Madam” and her minions validated the fear that in many places of the world being female was not only an undesirable gender preference but also a liability. They could and were commodities to be exploited.

I found that my prayers were more intentional for those caught in the web of poverty and sexual exploitation.  And, for the first time I was involving myself in political advocacy work. I was taking baby steps. No, I was crawling.  Off and on for the next decade I would meet with congressional staff members to get important anti-trafficking legislation passed, organize a seminar with an IJM staff worker to speak at my church, write letters to politicians, and work with other members in my church who wanted to push forward the cause.

In other words, “Good News about Injustice” helped me to grow up a little bit more into how one participates within the context of Micah 6:8.  “What does God require of you, but to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly before your God.”

Let me be clear.  I am far from being one of those at the forefront of justice movements.  And I don’t know if my meager involvements in the US or Middle East have made a tangible difference.  But I will say this: my conscience had been pricked and continues to be jolted. I take Christ’s example seriously and I am grateful for all those who work to end the terrible exploitation of the vulnerable for greed and lust. Especially, I am grateful for how God uses Gary Haugen and those he has inspired at the International Justice Mission to make a difference.

Gary Haugen recently gave a “Ted Talk”. He explains a new way of looking at poverty and its relationship to everyday violence.  Believe it, this 22-minute video is a must-see.  Once you watch it read Good News about Injustice and Haugen’s latest book, The Locus Effect.

https://www.ted.com/talks/gary_haugen_the_hidden_reason_for_poverty_the_world_needs_to_address_now?language=en

 

Chipmunk Cheeks, redux

Chipmunk Cheeks redux or my most humbling blogging experience

I’ve noticed from viewing my stats on my blog administrator that one of my most viewed posts is “Chipmunk Cheeks”.  I have written over 50-some posts and this one gets the most new hits.

What is so humbling about this? Well, I didn’t write it; someone else did who happened to capture a concept so familiar to many of us that it bore reproducing.  A friend of mine sent me the article after reading a few of my earlier posts that had to do with reactions to my cancer diagnosis. No doubt, she figured from the way I was telling my story that I could use some encouragement. She kindly wanted to share it with me and me in turn with others. Why? Because it was that good.   But those niceties don’t take care of my wounded blogging pride! From now on all my posts will be titled: Chipmunk Cheeks, Part I, Chipmunk Cheeks, Part 2, Chipmunk Cheeks, Part 3, etc… You get the picture.  It will trick folks Googling ‘cute chipmunks’ into reading my insightful posts.

chipmunkApart from the fact that chipmunks are so darn adorable with their puffed-out, nut- bloated cheeks there is a message in this post that is emotionally dead-on for us anxious types. In short this is written for the worriers and the “what if”-ers.  We are folks with incredible imaginations – not particularly creative imaginations unless you count Stephen King as our role model. We are so good at thinking of all the ways things can go wrong – really catastrophically, cosmically wrong. If you are a 6 on the enneagram, like me, then you are fond of justifying the “what if-ing” stuff as the makings of a great troubleshooter. “How can I do my troubleshooting job if I am not fantasizing on all the pitfalls that a trip to Bermuda can entail?,” I say to my husband who just offered to take me on a vacation. (Hurricanes, bringing back bed bugs, killed riding mo-peds on the wrong side of the road.)  When I go off on one of my “but what-if?” jags he likes to say, “Dona, do ever reread any of your blog posts?”  (Read: do you practice what you preach?)  So annoying.  I am a blogger now, and a writer not a reader.


Troubleshooting only works up to a point. After that point, God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles.


This is funny up to a point.  The hard core truth is that this habitual way of viewing the big scary world can quickly become faith-numbing insanity. “Dona,” I say to myself, “where is God in all this worry about the future? What are you fretting about? Who do you believe is really in charge?” Me, apparently.  And I can’t know the future and that is driving my control freakishness to a frantic frenzy.  I continue to talk to myself; reminding myself of the Chipmunk Cheeks article.  Gathering all the trouble shooting ammo for all the troublesome future scenarios I can imagine will not enlist God’s grace now for an unknown future.  Grace is operative for me in the present, however it presents itself.  So, dear readers, read the Chipmunk Cheeks post for the first time or reread it.  I am because I need to remind myself of important truths – not just once but many times.  Our brains and our souls are trained by repetition. That is why the Psalms have the frequent refrain of remembering – reminding us who we are and who God is. Troubleshooting only works up to a point. After that point, God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles.  And that grace is sufficient to carry us through the day.

 

 

 

 

 

One Journey, Two People: Part 3

My two most recent posts set the stage for a conversation with my husband about his baby boomer angst. Read One Journey, Two People: Part 2 and Part 1 before you judge David’s navel gazing (his words, not mine).

Simply put, he described himself as content a few years back, even to a place where he could “leave this life for the next tomorrow without regret.”  Although far from ready to quit and head for the golf course in his twilight years, a life suddenly interrupted would not be one of ‘I-wish-I-had’s’.  He felt satisfied about his contribution and life’s purpose.  He felt at peace.  An even better description would be shalom; a Hebrew word normally translated as peace but meant to be more – a state where everything is where is should be; a whole and complete existence.  We have all had those fleeting moments when our since of joy or contentment was so complete that we could ‘die this very moment happy.’  To my way of thinking that captures the essence of shalom.

My cancer diagnosis wasn’t the catalyst for Dave’s discontent.  Although often a tremendous strain, providing physical and emotional support to someone you love provides tremendous meaning and purpose.  But he has found himself often flummoxed and pained by not being able to reassure a wife whose fear and angst could be impenetrable at times.  His feeling of inadequacy in being my comforter brought out some deeper stuff.

We both knew that something else was going on.  I agreed to do some research on middle life angst but my findings were not very satisfying to him or me. Previous post explains.

Through this process David has done his own work.  He listed the components of the problem in typical bullet point format.  He felt this angst might be brought on by the following:

  • Loss of influence, insider status or being needed. (This is in part due to his age. Younger people are taking the reins of responsibility and leadership as they should.  Another factor is that at this point in our lives we do not stay in one geographical location long enough to built the connections that can make a difference.)
  • The grand adventure might be over. (Throughout his life David has worked hard to place himself in situations where he could generate stories to tell the grandchrisk-takingildren.  And he does have some great stories that he would love to tell you about.  These opportunities are now mostly in the past.)
  • But still busy. To use a David phrase, “I’m in a rat race in the wrong race.”

David realizes these feelings are not as negative as they might indicate on paper. To his mind, most of the time his world is one of satisfaction and opportunity. He is doing a reasonably good job navigating the transition from the back side of a career peak with its mantle of influence and insider status to one that involves more of a support role. But every so often, and these days more often than he wants, he feels those bullet points as forceful shots across the bow.

Of course, he sees this trap and realizes he must reintegrate himself emotionally into the grand purposes of God.  I say emotionally because he has always put mind and feet to loving God and people.

At this point I have to resist the desire to write something original.  Ego says, “Dazzle David and my readers with my unique insights.”  Common sense says, many wise ones have tread this road before.  If I really want to be helpful then capture their insight.  To quote CS Lewis from Mere Christianity, “Even in literature and art no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will nine times out of ten become original without ever having noticed it.”

So, with that caveat be prepared to hear from a few wise folks who have articulated insights with clarity and spiritual maturity that make sense to David and me.

The Problem:

Tim Keller from his book, “Counterfeit Gods,”

“How can we break our heart’s fixation on doing “some great thing” in order to heal ourselves of our sense of inadequacy in order to give our lives meaning? Only when we see what Jesus, our great suffering servant, has done for us will we finally understand why God’s salvation does not require us to do “some great thing.” We don’t have to do it because Jesus has. Jesus did it all for us and he loves us – that is how we know our existence is justified. When we believe in what he accomplished for us with our minds, and when we are moved by what he did for us in our hearts, it begins to kill off the addiction, the need for success at all costs.

The gospel does not work directly on the emotions or the will. The gospel asks, what is operating in the place of Jesus Christ as your real, functional salvation and Savior? What are you looking to in order to justify yourself? Whatever it is, it is a counterfeit god and to make a change in your life you must identify it and reject it as such.” Tim Keller, page 174 of counterfeit gods.”

The Process

In the book “The Sensation of Being Somebody”, the late Dr. Maurice Wagner, gives a formula for a rock solid self-concept. “God plus me equals a sense of being a somebody.”  He explains that dependence on status, performance and appearance – attributes that many times come out of insecure attachments or over attachments in our childhood – are our default for feeling significant but they end up “biting us in the butt” (Dona’s words).  They are fleeting and unreliable in taking us through life’s challenges and natural aging processes of loss and deficits. They are also dependent on others to justify ourselves as significant. Others, are people like ourselves-imperfect who will eventually die, disappoint or both.

Dr. Wagner gives an explanation for the Trinity that is psychologically unique. From God, the Father we get our sense of belonging as we submit to the Creator of us all; from Jesus Christ we get our sense of acceptance as we embrace the forgiveness he offers and from the Holy Spirit we receive our sense of competence as he leads, teaches, counsels and redirects.  Belonging, Acceptance and Competence are the building blocks of a healthy self-concept and we get them all in relationship with the triune God who is perfect, permanent and predisposed to carry us through all of life’s stages, disappointments and losses into a forever life of ultimate significance and wonder.

So, how do we absorb the above in a tangible way that makes for the closeness with God that we are longing for?  We (David and me) need help to move from intellectual assent and understanding to a heartfelt sense of what truly validates us and makes us feel known and loved by God. Tim Keller tells us what the problem is and what needs to be believed and understood. The late Dr. Wagner tells us the anatomy of true self-worth and significance as found in the trinity.  But, there is another leg to this three legged stool which still needs to be addressed. Part 4 of “One Journey, Two People” is coming next as David and I need to further digest a book by Dr. Curt Thompson called, Anatomy of the Soul.

“I said I was sorry, what more do you want?”

My husband and I had just exhausted an unpleasant argument several years ago when he said something that became a ‘click-moment’ for future apologies.  I have taught it to others-clients and friends.

The argument was unbalanced.  Neither of us were innocent but I knew and he knew that this time I was the over reactor and the unfair wordsmith-er.  (He just now read this part, and says that he has no idea of what I am talking about but is getting mad on principle. He also guessed that the phrase that I am soon to reveal is not, “love is never having to say you are sorry”- made famous by 70’s movie and book, “Love Story”).

Aside:   I’m amazed this phrase actually stuck in our collective consciousness even though none of us have ever believed it.  In fact, I got married about the time that movie was still popular and even I, a love-struck young woman, knew that “love is never having to say you are sorry,” was a bunch of hooey.  In fact, once again, before I leave this teaser, I actually included in my wedding vows something about “needing to forgive and ask for forgiveness” (Those were the days when we thought we were too cool and clever to use the traditional vows and now we are too embarrassed to reread what we actually said to each other.)

Back to the argument that taught me what more was needed to be said to mend a broken-hearted fence.

After I came to my humble senses, I confessed to my husband that I knew I was the major provocateur and was sorry.  I even went as far as to say, “Will you forgive me for saying what I said?” He said, “Yes,” and I extended the apology with more words of contrition.  It took me a few minutes, however, to realize that the fence was not mended and it was not because he was still angry with me. He was still smarting and feeling the burden of the offense. Finally, he took a leap of trust and vulnerability and asked me the question that showed me the true nature of the hurt I caused.

“I sense you are sorry but I need to know whether you actually believe what you said about me during the argument.”

My surprised reaction to this question led into a new insight of what it takes sometimes for relationship reparation and healing.  My response was surprisingly a new one for me and possibly a God-inspired one as I witnessed the relief that my sincere words brought to my husband.

“No, I do not believe what I said about you.  I said it because I was angry, hurt and verbally undisciplined. You did not deserve those comments because they are not what I fundamentally believe about you and again I am sorry to have put you through that.”

So, are you wondering what I said that caused the hurt? I am not really sure as it happened awhile I go but I can guess from knowing how thoughtless arguments go among folks that it was probably in the vein of some kind of “you are” character slam like, “You are selfish, or you are thoughtless, or you have to always win or be right, or you are immature,  or you are always judgmental or you always only care about yourself or any number of careless,  lousy communication statements thrown around when disagreements arise among spouses, friends, children, parents, and, more rarely because we don’t take them quite for granted, co-workers and employees.

We have all heard that when we argue we must stay away from the “You are” statements or the “you are always or never” statements and stick with the “I am feeling this or that when you do or say this or that” statements. So, I am not going to bore you with what you already know about good communication practices but maybe don’t always practice!  But I do want to explain why the apology I gave my husband may be necessary for reconciliation.

When we launch a character slam statement something deep and rarely examined is triggered in the offended party and this is so, even if the offended one knows that the statements are over the top and spoken in anger and poor judgment. In every criticism, regardless of its unreasonableness, there is a part of us that thinks there is truth to it.  And you know why? Because there is, even if that truth is only true 1 percent of the time.  None of us are always virtuous all of the time giving unconditional positive regard and love to those we care about.  So, even the one percent truth of the “you are” statement stings and dregs up self-doubt and self-condemnation. The offended one has two hurtles to navigate: one: the unfairness and hurtfulness of the statement, and two: the anger and hurt resulting from a wounded self-worth. An apology that restores respect (“I am sorry, forgive me”) and healing (“you did not deserve that because it is not the big truth about you”) is restorative and therapeutic.

Theological understanding for the offender:

“Don’t judge lest you be judged with the same measure of behavioral standard that you are judging the other “- roughly paraphrased, “For every finger you are pointing at someone there are 3 fingers and a thumb pointing back at you.”(Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7:1-5)

“No one but God is perfect in love and righteous judgment.”  Show respectful humility about who you are and who God is. Muster up empathy and humility to admit that someone did not deserve your harsh judgment. (1 John 1:5-8)

Psychological understanding for the offended – two points and commentary:

When the shame of being exposed by hurtful comments from a loved one arises, wait for the dust to settle and ask for clarification.  (“Is this really what you believe about me?”)

Claw yourself out of self-denial and self-condemnation and humbly realize with gratefulness that true self worth is found in being a forgiven child of God through the sacrifice of Christ not in some attempt to be always well thought of in some feature of appearance, performance or status

Jesus is the perfect one; not me, not you, not anyone.  And after countless generations He is still being loved by many.  He, unlike us, is undaunted by criticism, accusation or even flattery.  He is the perfect self-possessed being and therefore, unlike us, has the only love that “never has to say I’m sorry.”

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

Images and Infusions pointing to spiritual truths

An Image of hope in crisis:

My story:  Half way through chemotherapy I found myself in an acute medical state that would require a rapid response team in the hospital to revive me and three days in the hospital to stabilize me.  Monitoring and intravenous products were needed: antibiotics, hydrating fluids and 3 units of whole blood.

My husband’s story:  “When I brought you into the hospital because of a shocking 104 degree temperature, you were conscious, lucid and chatty.  But while the intake nurse took your vitals you suddenly became unresponsive.  The rapid response team was paged over the hospital PA and within a minute a seeming chaos of a dozen or more people gathered around you.  It was like one of those ER movie scenes where the door closes in the face of the panicked family member who is left in the lobby alone and fearing the worst.  Within those lonely powerless moments, I had a God given image: Christ was in the corner of the room with His arm stretched out over you and all those attending to you.  It was reassuring.”

“Lo, I am always with you even to the ends of the age.”  Matthew 28:20b

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Hebrews 13:5b

“Even if it were possible a mother could forget her nursing child, I will never forget you.”    Isaiah 49:15b

An image of restoration:

Back to my story:  Later in the hospital room as I looked up at the IV pole with a unit bag of blood hooked in its place I thought of all the people who gave their blood for future needy unknown recipients. I was grateful.  Much later, I realized that the blessing of my medical emergency was those 3 units of whole blood.  I had not realized how bad I felt during the past two months of chemo.  That whole blood was a ‘miracle’ of rejuvenation.  I could now face the remaining two months of infusions.  And predictable to someone who thinks “Christian-ly”, my thoughts went to the One who gave His blood that we might have life. The New Testament makes it clear that like a blood donor, Christ’s blood was willingly given for life. In some transcendent and mysterious way that death and giving of blood was meant to secure forgiveness, life and hope.   Christ’s ‘blood shed for me’ was always a reality but it was not quite the obscure reality it once was for the ‘new fortified’ (3 units worth) Dona.

David needed an image for comfort in crisis; I got an image for restoration.  They both were God-given, but our knowledge of the promises of God in scripture provided the brush strokes for these pictures.

It’s not always a crisis that proves the reality of God’s love and presence.  But often an intense emotional experience can give us biblical insight into a reality that is bigger than ourselves.  Cosmic truths reach deep into our personal stories and transform them.

What about you?   Could you go back and revisit a crisis or ‘intense period’ in your life?  What biblical metaphor, image or teaching does the crisis highlight that makes the God of the universe relevant to your finite human dilemma?  And, if appropriate, could you share it in the comment section of this post?

Next week’s post will be someone else’s article, an excerpt from J.Todd Billings’ forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, copied with permission).  His cancer story will challenge us with the truth of God’s “engrafting.”  It is a seriously moving and insightful story.

 

It’s not fair

My last post promised theological reflections on the article, “Are you too Good Looking to Get Sick?” This piece bothered me and I suspect that it bothered you as well if you read it.  In summary, a study indicates that the more attractive a person is the higher their good health quotient.  According to the research people considered to be very attractive are statistically shown to have better health, avoiding a host of diseases and disorders.

clothespin-nose-donaWhy does this bother me so much?  Well to put it simply: it just does not seem fair! Before I go any further and find myself accused of hypocrisy, I admit that I want to be considered an attractive 63 year old woman as much as the next woman or man but I don’t want it linked to better health.  Again, it just doesn’t seem fair but then who said life was fair? Right? I mean why do I get cancer and somebody else doesn’t?  Is it because I’m not attractive enough? Why am I being treated with stage 3 breast cancer and the woman sitting next to me has stage 4 (metastatic cancer).  That doesn’t seem fair to her, does it? Who knows? Maybe it’s because I have a small nose and she doesn’t (another positive physical characteristic listed in the article). Wait a minute, I don’t have a small nose.  In fact, when I was 13 years old I tried going to bed with a clothes pin on my nose to stop it from growing any further.  It hurt too much so I didn’t follow through. Maybe if I had followed through I wouldn’t have gotten cancer at 62.  I know that these musings are degenerating into absurdities but some scientific research topics can sometimes be “crazy making”. They can tempt you into believing that it all comes down to whether or not you dodged a bad gene bullet or got more than your share of good genes in the celestial line-up.  As it turns out Life appears not to operate like a functional family full of siblings; each one born into the belief that they have an inherent right to be treated equally.

Theological reflections:

First, the Gospel of Christ actually begins with an understanding that life is not fair. The world is damaged and people are damaged goods; that is why we need a Savior. Everything is out of kilter not “just our face symmetry” (another one of those hallmarks of attractiveness leading to better health). And there is a myriad of ways that that damage is reflected in our DNA, environment, intelligence, upbringing, life choices etc. etc. We are not wired to be perfect.  The Genesis account of our creation assumes our predisposition to mess things up, even though it was not God’s intent in making us that way.

Second, read the Gospels in the New Testament and you quickly meet a Jesus who has a preference for the poor, marginalized, vulnerable, abused and sick.  He says that he “came for the sick, not the well” which it turns out to be all of us in one way or another. Many would disagree with such a grim assessment of human nature but that is how I read the Gospels and the experience of history and the present realities of human affairs.

Third, there is no mention by the gospel writers of Jesus’ physical appearance in spite of the fact that we have had a feast for the eyes for centuries of a beautiful Jesus who is tall, Nordic, symmetrical, with eyes big and blue as the sky. (Thankfully, in recent decades we have had art and media depictions of Jesus with Middle Eastern good looks- not anymore helpful- but at least less racially biased.)   So, why no mention of Jesus’ appearance in the Gospels or the Epistles of the NT? There is a lot of speculation.  I’ll weigh in on this : it is irrelevant and a distraction to the gospel message.  God in Christ has come to be with us, all of us.  And  maybe those in the world who don’t have good health, good looks or good standing and prosperity are better positioned to the kind of humility that brings souls to the fact that they are in desperate need of the Jesus who says,

“I am the bread of life” (the one who wants to feed the emptiness in souls)

“I am the Good Shepherd” who is willing to leave the flock to look for the one lost sheep. The one who is always with us through whatever circumstances we encounter.

“I am the light of the world” whose light exposes the darkness around us and within us and then shines hope and forgiveness, revealing the way back home to Himself.

The Gospel of John is the place in the New Testament that Jesus pronounces the “I am” statements like the three mentioned above. There are others. At different times in my life at least one of the “I am” statements have met a need; each one profound, personal, hopeful and able to penetrate the walls of resistance to His love, healing and grace. Not always but enough over the years to build a relationship of trust that is not dependent on beauty, health, admiration or even fairness.

Comic postscript:  My husband, David, wonders when there is going to be a study on the health of people like himself who think they are good looking but really are not; but then again that would have to be a study that would take in a lot of the world’s male population. Ah, if we women could only have the confidence of boys!

The Storyteller

It is gratifying to tell a story to a sensitive 4-year old. The stories don’t have to be particularly interesting with complicated plots, characters or climaxes. They sometimes don’t even have to be stories at all – just mere observations told with some real or feigned flair. But nonetheless they are received with appreciation and interest.
“Oh, look Marlon (my grandson), there’s a guy smoking a pipe. You don’t see that much anymore.” “Why,” said Marlon. “I don’t know. But my dad used to smoke a pipe but then he stopped smoking it when he learned from the doctor that it was bad for his health.” Health and/or moral lessons can be sneakily introduced this way. That story got retold to his parents later on when I wasn’t there. Too bad, because Marlon got the story understandably mixed up as he thought that I said his dad had smoked a pipe. My son-in-law had to tell him that ” Nonna was mistaken”. Shucks! I had to retell the story with emphasis on my dad, not his. By that time, Marlon was hardly interested in the retelling of a story that only included a change in proper names.

Sometimes my stories generate sympathy and compassion for almost nothing. “Hey Marlon, yesterday, I saw a guy carelessly throw trash out of his car onto the street. Boy, that wasn’t nice, was it?” “Why”, said Marlon. “Well, because we all need to work together to make our roads and communities clean and nice places to live.” Later, Marlon said, “Nonna, I’m sorry that you had to see someone litter from their car.” I was impressed that my non-story had such an impact even while feeling a tad guilty that my litter story had not nearly the emotional impact on me as my grandson assumed it had. Shame on me.

Storytelling is hot at the moment
There are books, seminars and workshops on Storytelling. It appears that we are all desperately in need of hearing a good story or, better yet, to be able to tell one. The goal is to create stories that are interesting, arresting, and even life changing. Libraries, clubs and shows advertise upcoming storytelling events. Good communication and sermons must include stories to hold the interests of its audience. That audience can sometimes be just one person like your spouse or child. This current trend has a way of making Storytelling sound like it’s the newest tool for good communication. It is almost as if before now, we were only communicating in treatises and legalese or worst yet, in grunts, texts and tweets. But Storytelling is hardly new. We have been telling stories ever since we humans have been sitting around camp fires rotisseriz-ing our wild drumsticks. We are hardwired for stories. Oral storytelling has been the ancient way of entertaining and efficiently teaching the younger generation of what was important for group cohesiveness and how to stay alive in a world rife with dangers.

We still do it.

I unfortunately got the “tell scary life stories gene” in spades as my daughters can testify. They are able to retell every, “once there was this person, and they did something and then something really horrible happened to them so watch out” story I ever told them. I am working on suppressing this anxious gene expression for the sake of my grandchildren. In fact, I am hoping to be able to tell them some of Jesus’ stories in winsome and engaging ways. And hopefully, like Jesus, I won’t do my Aesop’s fable-lesson- type-thing at the end of the story to make sure they get the point. Rather I hope to let Jesus’ parables do their own mysterious workings in my grandchildren’s hearts and minds; informing their understanding of God’s love and what He wants of them.

I have been attending to the parables of Jesus for several decades. I am often surprised how freshly they communicate God’s ways and wisdom. ” The prodigal son” (Luke 15) is a personal  favorite  when I am tempted to feel that God  doles out love and acceptance based on performance rather than faith in His love and sacrifice. My latest appreciation of this parable follows, thanks to Kenneth Bailey.

A very incomplete recap of Jesus’ story of the “Prodigal Son”
The story begins with a young adult son or teen who asks for his share of the family inheritance – a request that was unheard of in first century Palestine. The request amounts to a “you are taking too long to die so give me my inheritance now.” Jesus’ audience would have perked up immediately with this story’s beginning as it would have belied the cultural norms right from the get- go. A son behaving in such a way would have been punished but surprisingly the father grants his request and off the son goes to a “faraway place where he proceeds to squander his inheritance on wild riotous living.” Jesus then describes the son’s descent into self-inflicted poverty. Alone and starving the son remembers the stability and comforts of home and decides to take a chance and return. He, too, knows his culture’s expectations of how to treat such a flagrantly disobedient son. But he is desperate.

Jesus’ first century listeners would have assumed the ending to this morality drama. The father who is also a wealthy landowner and by implication a leader and one of the guardians of the community’s stability  would have the son killed, banished or, if inclined to show mercy, treated as an hired servant with no claim to a son’s status or affection. The latter is what the son is hoping for as we listen to his internal dialogue being practiced on his journey back home.: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son: make me like one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15:18-19)

And why not? There needed to be an ending that would help keep the community intact. After all, youth listening to a story like this would need to know that if you break the community’s rules , you could expect to be an outcast. How else would the long held traditions of elder respect and compliance be upheld? How else was a community going to be protected from chaos, corruption, and possible extinction unless the father or community elder did not exact the rules of tribal community survival?  Bringing the erring son to justice was certainly what the Jesus-listeners would have expected.. But no, this is not how this story would end. Jesus, no doubt, surprised his listeners with an ending of unimaginable love, forgiveness, and humility. “But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

I like imagining the father hiking up his long robe to run ( older men in the Middle East don’t run. it is beneath them and invites shame) all the while thinking, “Who cares what the village thinks of me. Let the community be disgusted with my disregard to the village’s rules and let them think I am no longer worthy of their esteemed opinion and respect. I only care that I have my son back and I am going to throw a party!” To add more intrigue to this story, Jesus introduces a third character. The self-righteous follow-the-rules older brother who upon hearing of his loser brother returning and being thrown a party by their father is abhorred and resentful. He complains bitterly to his father for what he sees as an injustice of indulgence and favoritism. The father tries to woo the older son with love, as well. “Don’t you see? You had the benefit of always being with me and enjoying the comforts of home, while your brother was playing the fool and ended up almost starving to death, you had a stable life with friends and beef steak anytime you wanted it.”

Bailey, a theologian and Middle Eastern scholar who I credit for elucidating Jesus’ parables with exciting insights, calls this parable and other parables, metaphoric and deeply theological representations of God’s, “costly demonstration of extravagant and unexpected love.” He states says that this kind of love that only God can offer is for “the law breaker (younger son) as well as for the law keeper (older son in the story).” They both need it and so do we regardless of which brother we identify with.

Read, ”Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes,” by Kenneth Bailey.

Personal application
Is a story told to first century Palestine relevant for us? Well, it depends if you feel a need to be accepted and loved beyond your capacity to be deserving of such love. And it depends on whether or not you believe in a God whom you have let down no matter how little or hard you have tried to be good and self-justified. If you feel such a need as I do then this parable is a tear jerk-er of good news. And for sure it is much better and has more emotional impact than stories of people smoking pipes or even of litter bugs.

The Waiting Room

I have a friend who was quoting an elderly relative to me once. The relative lived in a nursing home. The quote went something like this: “Sometimes I imagine that while I am living here I am in one of heaven’s waiting rooms.” I think we would all have to admit that she had to be one of the most positive and optimistic women we have ever heard. There are a lot of ways that this post could thematically be approached based on that one comment but I want to talk about waiting rooms.

The nature of waiting rooms
I usually do not mind waiting rooms if I am not hurry to be somewhere else after the appointment. Being a people watcher and communicator waiting rooms afford me many possibilities of entertainment. Admitting however that cell phones have changed the human interaction potential in waiting rooms, I still find the scene unusual enough to be interesting. I imagine myself sitting like an obedient dog with tail wagging and tongue hanging out hoping some human will pay attention to me and rub me behind my ear. I don’t just start talking to anyone. I look around, size up the mood of the waiting room crowd and wait for an opening and then off to the races I go. It is amazing what you can learn from people’s stories or opinions. And if you know me, you know that I am not short of my own.

The Phlebotomy waiting room
Last week I walked into the Phlebotomy waiting room to have blood drawn. It was crowded. Every seat was taken but there was one left for me. I sized up the mood. It was grim and motivated me to send up a quick prayer on behalf of my fellow cancer patients who needed what I needed – encouragement – before seeing their oncologist, surgeon, or oncology radiologist. All ages were represented but everyone looked old. You know how not smiling or talking makes the lines around our mouth droop down so we either look sad or mad? Well, if you did not know that – you know it now. If you are over 50 and don’t want to look 70 then smile more often. It makes everyone look younger. I ought to know. I have had deep laugh lines since realizing I wasn’t going to be young forever. My children and even my husband would say at times, “What are you mad about?” This was not fair as my only fault was that I was not smiling and not smiling apparently made me look like I was mad when I was just feeling and looking neutral, or so I thought. I have defended myself enough that I no longer get those comments.

Well, anyway, back to the scene in the phlebotomy waiting room where I was among the most isolated looking and silent group of individuals I had seen yet in a waiting room since my cancer diagnosis. 15 minutes into my silent wait something changed and it happened so quickly and dramatically that I had to ask a woman later on in the day who had been there whether she noticed what I noticed. She didn’t hesitate to agree that something odd was at work. Here is what happened: A woman walked into the waiting room and the man next to me noticed that there was nowhere for her to sit. He got up out of his seat and said for her to sit down in his seat. She was several feet from him so the interaction was heard and witnessed by all of us. She said, “That is alright, I have been traveling in a car to get here for two hours and don’t mind standing”. This older gentleman was having none of it. He insisted and she capitulated. The moment she sat down, the gentleman’s name was called to have his blood drawn. And it was at that moment that the entire waiting room burst into laughter. Why? I am not sure. Maybe these folks and I included were unsuspectingly waiting for an uplifting moment to bring us out of ourselves. The sweet irony of this man’s good deed seemed to earn him a surprising reward or a dispensation of grace- He no longer had to wait. He was called and in!  Ok, that was cool enough for this sad looking group but it wasn’t the end of the story. As soon as the laughter died out, strangers started talking to each other. I mean everyone was talking except for one cell phone engrossed person. People were talking to those next to them and to those across from them and the conversations were animated and prolonged. The buzz in the room solicited a comment from the receptionist: “Hey, is there a party going on in there?” she yelled from a room close by. I remained detached for a short while as I tried to understand this phenomena objectively. Questions of psychological and spiritual nature were being raised but before long I, too, wanted to be a part of these human connections.

What to make of the waiting room transformation
“And God said, Let us make humanity in our image. God made man and then announced that it was not good for man to be alone, so he made a helper suited to the man and he made them male and female; both made in the image of God.” God, Himself, is community, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and apparently does not want us to be alone. We are wired to belong to each other. A spark of the Holy Spirit is what I believed happened in that waiting room. Isolation gave way to community and we were all better off for it. Encouraged, uplifted and hopeful is what we experienced and all of that without one of us having yet to see or hear from our doctors. God bless our doctors and what they do but at that moment we didn’t need them.