31 Days with the Savior: Revealed

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Gentle Reader,

Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.'” – John 9:1-3 (NKJV)

I know I’ve referenced this passage more than once on this blog. I can’t help it. This is one of my favorite moments with Jesus. He speaks so many volumes about illness and suffering in one sentence.

Yes, there are things that we do to ourselves that cause us to get sick. That’s why Paul’s words are important: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). We shouldn’t over- or under-eat. We shouldn’t drink excessively. We shouldn’t smoke. We shouldn’t do drugs. We shouldn’t be couch-potatoes. We shouldn’t be controlled by anything other than the Spirit.

Here’s the deal, though: A whole lot of illnesses, physical and mental, just happen. Same thing with deformities. Neither my parents nor I did anything to cause me to be born with partial blindness. It just happened. Part of living in a broken world. I didn’t do anything to cause the problems in my liver. They just happened.

Those who suffer have two options: get bitter or get better. It’s easy to get bitter. It’s easy to spit in God’s face and refuse to see Him at work. But how much greater is it to get better? No, we’re not talking literally, because that doesn’t always happen. Yet illness and suffering can shape us into better people. We can learn to see God. We can allow Him to reveal Himself in, around and through us.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all entries in the Jesus: 31 Days with the Savior series, go here.

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This Post I Don’t Want to Write

Agony

Gentle Reader,

As with all stories, it’s best to begin at the beginning.

I’ve struggled against anxiety for as long as I can remember, and most of the time anxiety has won. I can remember being six years old and flying into panic at the news of a standardized test all the first graders at my school were required to take. Convinced of failure, I couldn’t sleep the night before and broke out in head-to-toe hives. As I grew older, any conflict with a playmate or a teacher sent me spinning.  In my later teen years, I began to have panic attacks and what one ER doctor referred to as a “seizure-like episode.”

You would never know any of this about me if you weren’t directly exposed to it. Anxiety is an intense feeling, arising out of deep sensitivity – a sensitivity that I’ve achieved a Ph.d in masking. This suppression of emotions feeds into the anxiety, perpetuating the cycle and making it all the more difficult to break. I could be about to hyperventilate in terror, and, unless you knew me very, very well, you’d never even see it on my face.

This is, of course, a very simple summary of my life thus far. I’d rather not present you with the nitty-gritty, for that would take a book. What I’d really like to tell you about today is the state of my present existence.

On Good Friday of this year, I sat in the back of my church and had a panic attack, the first I’d had in at least three or four years. How on earth could a Good Friday service make me skip into flight-or-fight mode? How could the candles, the music, the Scripture reading make me feel like I was going to have a heart attack? That’s the thing with anxiety. It knows no rhyme or reason.

I was very frightened by the intensity of the attack. That evening, I unloaded on my husband for hours, not in anger, but in desperation. Something in that Good Friday service triggered a flood within me. All of the anger, the fear, the sorrow and the pain that I had tried to push down for so long came bubbling up to the surface without warning. Chris and I decided that it was important for me to see a counselor and work through some of these issues. I knew that I especially needed to learn better coping skills.

It didn’t take long for my counselor to refer me to a psychiatrist for medication. Her theory after a couple of sessions is that I was, in a sense, “born this way.” She believed that there were physical, chemical imbalances in my brain that had worsened with age and conditioning. Like the dutiful person I am, I made the appointment.

And came out with four diagnoses.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Panic Disorder. Major Depressive Disorder. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

That’s a lot to take in, and the only way I could process it was through dark humor. I told my husband, who was diagnosed with Clinical Depression four years ago and takes medication everyday, that I “won” because he’s only got one mental illness and I have four. So I started on the medication and began working through worksheets to help me think about my thoughts (do you ever do that?) and examine them to see if they were truthful or not.

As of this writing, I’ve been in counseling for two months, been on the first round of medication for almost four weeks and will probably be switched to another, have spent hours staring at the wall in a daze and haven’t wanted to do much but sleep. Then, yesterday, came another blow: My psychiatrist suggested I do some blood tests to see if my hormones were in proper balance, as they play a crucial role in anxiety and depression for women. At 4:50 p.m. on August 1, I spoke with my gynecologist by phone and was told that I needed testosterone cream (which I refer to as “man cream” and wonder if it will give me a beard so I can go make some money on the side by joining the circus – again, the dark humor) and that there is a very good chance I will need fertility drugs if I ever want to get pregnant.

I hate to be cliche, but when it rains, it pours.

Here is what I really want you to know in all of this:

1. I do not want your pity.

That is probably the worst and most insulting thing you can possibly give to someone who is walking through a valley, and I regret ever doing it to others. What someone like me needs is genuine friendship and understanding.

2. I do not need you to fix me.

I have Jesus for that. I have professionals who know and love Him. I covet your prayers and your love, but not your designs or plans.

3. Mental illness is not a lack of faith.

Go ahead and write to me about this. Tell me I need to pray more. Tell me I need to exercise more faith. Go ahead. I will then send you my journal, which contains more gut-wrenching and heartfelt prayers over the course of the last two months than in the last ten years. I can say without hesitation that my faith has never been stronger, that I have never been closer to God.

That being said, I do recognize that anxiety and depression can fuel sin or make certain temptations easier to fall to. So while I don’t need your criticism, I do need your loving questions and a community of accountability.

4. Taking medication is not a sin.

If you had diabetes, you’d probably watch your diet and take insulin shots, right? Would that be wrong, or would you justify that decision by saying that God heals in all sorts of ways? I’m so sick of the hypocrisy in the church when it comes to antidepressants. * Insert Sarcastic Tone Here * Oh, yes, not admitting to problems and not taking medication to help with the physical deficiencies in the brain will just make it all go away.

5. Get help. 

If you know that you have a problem with anxiety or depression, get help. You’re not helping yourself or anyone else by refusing to do so. You’re not a special martyr for Christ by “putting the needs of others above your own.” That’s a twisted understanding of Scripture. God never says that you shouldn’t take care of yourself. If you persist in complaining about problems and refusing to do anything about them, I will very lovingly but very firmly tell you to stop talking if you won’t move forward. I stayed stuck for a long, long time. It’s pointless and, frankly, many of us do it for attention.

6. Childlessness is not a sign of rebellion. 

This last one is probably where I get most hot under the collar. I have never had a desire to be pregnant, and I wonder now if that lack has been a blessing from God. I am not devastated by the news that it may be especially difficult for me to get pregnant. I’ve long had a desire to adopt, and hopefully will be able to do so in the future. Barrenness or chosen childlessness is not a sign of a curse or a sin in every case.

I’d like to conclude this post by having you read Ezra 3:8-13, with special emphasis on 12-13:

Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak,  and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the LORD. Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah, arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God: the sons of Henadad with their sons and their brethren the Levites.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD:

‘For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (NKJV)

The generation coming out of captivity was glad to have a place of worship once again, regardless of its lack of grandeur. The older generation, fewer in number and also coming out of captivity, mourned the lack – but the joy of the larger group drowned out their cries. This is where I stand today. It is plainly and painfully obvious that my life isn’t going to look like any of the lives of the women around me. There might be some who cry out in mourning because I don’t fit the mold – but my joyful embrace of these days that God has so graciously given me will drown them out.

I have surveyed the Valley of the Shadow. I know deep and searing pain. I wear tortuous fear on my back. But I walk, step by slow and deliberate step, with my Savior who lights just enough of the path for this day. I understand what it means to rejoice in suffering, for this intimacy with the King is infinitely precious to me, and I would not have it without this sorrow. He is loosening my chains and teaching me to hold tightly to truth.

And I am unapologetic.

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A Ministry or a Friend?

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Gentle Reader,

This post is going to touch a nerve, but I feel that the topic needs exploring. Before you read any further, please know that it is not directed at any specific person.

I recently heard the phrase, “Most people are a ministry. Some people are friends.” The words were utterly profound to me. Most people are going to require you to pour into them, and that’s okay. You just can’t expect them to pour into you – and so you need to find some who understand the give and the take of a relationship. Being able to discern the difference actually frees you up to love everyone you come into contact with, because you’ll have realistic expectations of who they are.

This is especially significant to me right now as I finally begin to face and admit to the changes that have taken place in my life over the last year I have lived under the cloud of Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. (There is now some suspicion that Fibromyalgia is also involved. I have either been misdiagnosed or there’s a whole lot of messiness going on up in this here body). You would think I would have adjusted to this by now, but I haven’t.

Would you like to know why?

I have spent the last year trying to managing other people’s reactions. There have been shifts in relationships that I haven’t been able to understand. I’ve tried to keep the talk about the sickness to a minimum; many people are uncomfortable being around the chronically ill. I’ve tried to keep on going with life as it always has been, the best that I can.

I realize now that this is just a sneaky form of lying.

I need to be able to talk about being sick and the emotional, spiritual and mental issues that come with that. Most of the time when someone asks how I’m doing, I’ll say, “Sleepy.” While that’s a true statement, it’s not the full truth. Other words roll around in there, like “confused,” “distraught,” “in pain,” “isolated,” and “hurting.” Yet I keep my mouth shut.

I think it’s because I don’t know the difference between someone who is a ministry and someone who is a friend. While I don’t want to be the sort who natters on endlessly about every little bump in the road (I do have interests other than this illness), I do need to be able to be honest. That starts with trusting people, which is rooted in discernment, which is found in God alone.

We all need to belong. We all need friends. We all need that place where it’s okay to take off the mask, where we don’t have to be “on” all the time. Unfortunately, that place isn’t always there. Or it’s not in the location we assume it to be. I do thank God that I always belong with Him. I always fit. I never have to be “on.”

I don’t know if this is making sense to anyone other than myself, but chronic illness leaves scars that people just don’t talk about. The bald truth of it is that people often abandon the sick when the sick need them most. Why is that? Can we not get past our own petty problems (let’s face it: a good deal of our problems really are petty)? Are we utterly incapable of reaching out in compassion? Can we not see past the ends of our own noses? Or is it worse than that – are our relationships really all about us? When we stop getting what we want/need from that other person, are we happily willing to walk away?

I’ve been very convicted about this myself. As someone who knows the pain that chronic illness brings, I should be very willing to reach out to those who are suffering – and yet I’m often not.

Who is a ministry? Who is a friend?

I know I need to learn to tell the difference.

My journey to faith. (15)

In Every Way

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Gentle Reader,

Hebrews 4:15 says that:

We do not have a High Priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet He did not sin. (NKJV)

Let’s talk about that today. Let’s put all the cards on the table and get real.

Jesus was tempted to gossip. He was tempted to overeat. He was tempted to lose His temper. He was tempted to say mean things. He was tempted to physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually abuse others. He was tempted to sleep around. He was tempted to look at pornography (it did exist back then). He was tempted to get drunk. He was tempted to use whatever drugs were available at the time. He was tempted to be disrespectful. He was tempted to be prideful. He was tempted to punch the high priest who handed Him over to death in the face. He was tempted to walk into the palaces in Rome and throw Caesar out. He was tempted to lie. Steal. Cheat. Kidnap.  Rape. Kill. Objectify other people in order to satisfy His own needs and desires.

If we can’t be honest about the things that we struggle with and believe that Jesus was tempted in that area, then we will never understand the awesome nature of what Jesus did for us. We will never learn to implement His example of total dependence on the Father. Some of you might object, thinking that we can never be victorious over sin the way that Jesus was. He was God, you say. Yes, He was. But He was also human – just like you and me.

I find this both intensely comforting and intensely confrontational today. Never before had I considered the possibility of Jesus having been sick during His time on earth. It seems offensive to think that the Savior ever vomited, that He ever had a fever, that He ever suffered terrible migraines, that His skin broke out in rashes. It’s safer, somehow, to think that He never dealt with any of that.

He did. He had to. He wasn’t immune to the effects of living in a world under a curse. While people don’t always wind up ill because of personal sin, it’s a truth to bank on that everyone gets sick because of corporate sin. Because the world doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. So Jesus got the flu. He had sinus infections, bronchitis, boils and sores. Maybe He even struggled with a chronic illness.

While there is no way to know exactly what sort of physical issues Jesus might have dealt with, it is safe to say that, in this, He was also tempted. Ongoing illness and pain opens the black doors of despair and doubt. There is always a question of why God has not brought healing along when He has done it for others. Those who suffer daily with physical failure cycle through the same sorts of questions and sins. In this, He was tempted.

Jesus knows what it is to beg God for mercy when the pain just won’t go away or when the nausea won’t subside – but He also set the example in saying, “Your will, not mine.” He never once gave in to the crippling emotional and mental strongholds that so closely associate themselves with illness.

I have no idea why I have never thought of this before, but today Jesus takes on a whole new dimension for me. He was sick. He knows what it is to stare at the ceiling through glassy eyes. He knows what it is to toss and turn. The fact that He never once despaired makes Him even more of a hero to me.

You might find thinking about Jesus being ill disrespectful. Again, I say that, if we cannot face up fully to our own incomplete humanness, we will never even begin to understand who He is. He is the Savior of the man in jail for raping a woman – He was tempted to do the same thing. He is the Savior of the mother who thinks of killing her kids – He was tempted to harm children. He is the Savior of the ill who fear they will never be better – He was on that sickbed.

Jesus is real. He didn’t live here on this earth wearing some sort of ridiculous mask like we all do (although I am sure that He was tempted in that as well).

If we are to live like Christ, if we are to follow Him intimately, then we must learn to do more than obey commands and give Sunday school answers. At the first sign of struggle, we must throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord. This is exactly what Jesus did. This is exactly how He overcame the temptation that smacked Him in the face, every day, in every way. We’ve got to say, “God, I want to cheat on my husband.” “God, I want to run that coworker over with my car.” “God, I want to talk about her so that everyone is on my side.”

Whatever it is, Jesus knows it. He was tempted by it and He took it onto Himself on the cross. Our High Priest understands intimately and in ways that we cannot even begin to understand ourselves. Turning to Him in repentance or weakness isn’t our punishment – it is our right and privilege, secured by His finished work!

There is victory for us, my friend. More importantly – there is freedom. The Spirit of Him who raised Christ from the dead lives within those of us who believe (Romans 8:11), and is available to any who would call on Him in faith. Let me repeat that: the Spirit of Him who raised Christ from the dead lives in us. You really think that you can’t get free from that terrible burden when you have access to a power that RAISED A MAN FROM THE DEAD?

We’ve got to stop being so stupidly stubborn, stop pretending that we are anything other than total messes in need of rich, extravagant grace. We can’t fix ourselves. Other people can’t fix us – we’ve got to stop expecting them to. Moreover, we need to believe that there is no depth that any of us has gone that God’s arm is not deeper still. There is no thing under the sun that surprises Him.

I want to emulate the example of my High Priest who took every step in the shadow of the Almighty. I want to hold so tight to my Daddy’s hand that His finger’s turn blue. I don’t care if that’s “acceptable” in our culture, in or outside of church. I want that kind of security and freedom. He knows my junk and He knows how to set me free.

He knows how to set you free, too.

My journey to faith. (15)