Saturday, December 26, 2009

Longing for Light

For the past few weeks, I've been passing through the kitchen periodically and turning our Amaryllis pot a half turn. I didn't think much about it until recently. Every December we receive a bulb, and as it grows, the long stalks lean toward the sunlight coming through the windows. To compensate for the skewed growth, we simply rotate the pot regularly to keep the stems growing straight.

During this same time, I've been doing a lot of contemplative reading through the book "Shattered Dreams." Because the book relates so immediately to my struggles with faith, doubt, God's silence, and unanswered prayer, I have been letting each chapter settle in my mind before moving on to the next. I'm still not done with the book, but the premise behind it is that God sometimes allows our earthly dreams to die in order that we may discover our ultimate dream - to be in intimate relationship with Him.

It sounds like a nice idea, doesn't it? But it glosses over a lot of things - namely, why can't I keep my earthly dreams and have God too? Is it really necessary for faithful followers of God, who already desire to do his will, to be crushed with heartache and have their lives derailed? Is all this stuff about going deeper with God just made up to make us feel better or nobler about suffering - some sort of consolation prize?

I've wrestled with these thoughts as I have read, and to be honest, I have felt both uneasy and comforted with the bluntness that Larry Crabb uses to describe how unresponsive and silent God can be. Yes, I have experienced this, but no, I do not want to believe that God can allow us such pain and long periods of darkness into our lives. I want a God where (to cite the book), when I press the "call nurse" button, he shows up!

The problem is that God does not speak audibly or show up physically, and spiritually he can seem very slow, if not absent. He often refrains from changing circumstances right when we ask, opting for more subtle methods of communication, and it's tempting at times to think he's just not there - or if he is, that he somehow doesn't care.

"It's hard enough to develop a personal relationship with an invisible God, one whose voice I never hear the way I hear a friend's voice over the phone; it's even harder to feel close to an unresponsive God." - pg 21 Shattered Dreams

And when all the unresponsiveness of God hits my soul, where do I turn to get the immediate relief I'm looking for?

That's the question we all must answer at one time or another. When dreams I hold dear shatter devastatingly on this earth, what do I do to cope with the searing pain?

I have developed all kinds of coping mechanisms (some healthier than others), but primarily, I turn to relationships. I want different relationships now than I once did. So many shallow and superfluous things used to matter, but now I desperately want friends who will understand, listen, and comfort. I want to be around people who are good, wise, and kind. I seek people who will last with me loyally through the hard times and not bail because things get (and stay) difficult. And I find myself fiercely hungry for truth - for people to be honest, transparent, sincere. I'm hungry for right-ness and for justice - to see people treated with respect, blessings for good and punishment for evil, relief of suffering. I'm hungry for love - for protective, lasting, perfect love.

And when I realized last week that all these things, for which I'm now passionately longing, are the essence of God's character - lived out through Jesus Christ - it occurred to me that I'm hungrier than ever for the Son of God himself. Everywhere I see a hint of His likeness, I subconsciously flock to it. Because of my trials, I'm now leaning toward His light like an Amaryllis bending and craving the sun. And it just might be that this dark time of shattered dreams actually has unearthed a whole new dream in me after all...growing under the heat of adversity while I was unaware.

I looked up the word "phototropism" the other day, and by definition, it is the growing toward or away from the light. I think we all have this response when hard times hit. We have to grow. It's in our very nature. But which direction do we take? It's either to grow deep into bitterness, addictions, and pain, shunning God and blocking him out, or we stretch more longingly toward God, searching out ways to help others, ways to comfort and be comforted, straining toward any hint of light we can find.

Just like table lamps for plants are a poor substitute for the sun, I often fall for the trap of mistaking people with positive traits or feel-good activities for the ultimate source of light. Trying to substitute for God has left me disappointed, frustrated, and unfulfilled. It's becoming clear that I cannot be fully satisfied by anyone other than Jesus, The Son himself - the one I was created to love and long for. I now recognize that every hint of light I see in people points me to Him. He is the true desire of my soul, and that desire is growing stronger every day of this long trial.

Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me.
Micah 7:8

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Better Plans than Mine

Even after learning my lesson about trusting the crochet pattern over my own faulty reasoning, I still found myself experiencing moments of intense doubt right up to the last day of making this. I worked just to the edge of the wing, and instead of telling me to finish it off, the pattern instructed me to divert and work on another section instead. "That makes absolutely no sense," I thought to myself. "Why would I leave the tip undone when I'm in the position to quickly and easily do it now?"

I continued to doubt the pattern-maker's unorthodox ways, which frequently ran contrary to my own plans, but the directions turned out to be valid and right each and every time. Many steps along the way seemed arbitrary, pointless, needless, or just plain wrong. But as you can see, the One who went before me and designed it all had a very good end in mind!

Lean on, trust in, and be confident in the Lord with all your heart and mind and do not rely on your own insight or understanding.

In all your ways know, recognize, and acknowledge Him, and He will direct and make straight and plain your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6 (Amp)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Pattern-Maker

Just last week, my mom and I ordered our Christmas tree. It's arriving today!

We used to have a lovely artificial tree from my childhood; however, my family and I lost our home and possessions to hidden water damage and toxic mold in 1998. Virtually everything (including the tree) was lost in that catastrophe. Since that time, we've struggled with losses of all shapes and sizes. It's not been an easy road to rebuild a life, to rebuild a home, to rebuild traditions, and most importantly to rebuild our damaged health, especially in the midst of subsequent trials and challenges.

The past several years, we've celebrated Christmas without a tree. I thought that this year we could use a new one to lift our spirits and to try to have some "normal" moments in the midst of abnormal circumstances.

In the process of ordering the new tree, I realized that we did not have an angel to go on top! One of my favorite memories from childhood was placing our little crocheted angel on top of our beautifully decorated tree to finish the job. It was the official start to Christmas.

Since I enjoy crocheting, I looked for a pattern I could use to make a special tree-topper. I found a picture of the perfect little angel on a website and purchased the pattern. The pattern was 8 pages long and the most complicated crochet project I'd ever attempted.

I started out one stitch at a time, and by last night, I had begun the intricate design on the skirt. Row after row of spacing and stitching revealed a lovely lace, but when I examined the picture of the finished product, it didn't look the same to me. A sinking feeling crept into my stomach. I started to doubt the pattern, thinking there must be some mistake. I checked and rechecked the rows, but the design still did not seem to match up to what I thought it should look like. I even considered making a modification myself or ripping out the hours of work I'd already done.

Finally, I had to make a decision to trust the pattern and just keep going. It was blind trust. I couldn't see how these rows would all come together to create my ideal angel. I ran the risk of losing more time and effort if I had to rip it out later. I simply had to decide that since the pattern-maker had seen this work from beginning to end, it must be the right path to follow.

A few rows later, it became clear. I saw the pattern forming right before my eyes!

Suddenly, the spiritual parallel hit me. The Bible is the pattern that God wrote for life. If I follow it line by line, book by book, my life will be woven into the best possible design. However, in the midst of following it, things can look confusing, even like there's been some big mistake. Sometimes I might think, "Lord, this doesn't look right. This doesn't look like the kind of life you promised!"

Taking it upon myself to deviate from the pattern of God's word will cause a lot of problems. Trying to correct God's pattern to fit society's ideals, my desires, and to please other people is the biggest mistake I can make. Compromising biblical truth will never give me God's best.

Trust comes when I make the choice to continue in faith step-by-step, stitch-by-stitch, according to God's pattern. Only then will the fabric of my life form and develop in a way pleasing to him. His instructions may sound wrong, or even impossible to follow. Do good to my enemies? Overcome evil with good? Deny myself? Take up my cross? Lay down my life? It's counter-intuitive to follow some of Christ's commands. But when I have faith to rely on The Pattern-Maker who has already seen my life from beginning to end, I don't have to worry. Each Biblical choice built on the next will create the final product I desire - a life that glorifies God.

When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139:15-16

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:2

Sunday, November 29, 2009


In my dream last night, I was climbing.

It took all the strength I had just to hang on. I was sweating. Trying to catch my breath, my fingers curled, knuckles white. I panted as I reached higher, as my legs pushed frantically on falling footholds.

I wasn't just climbing any old rock. I was climbing an almost vertical mountain of sand.

It's funny to me how the brain works sometimes, especially in dreams. We work so hard in real life to organize our reality, to analyze our thoughts, to put everything in neat, labeled baskets. But dreams defy our attempts to categorize. They often reflect the chaos lurking on the inside - all the loose ends that refuse to be tied up. The insecurities, the fears, the desires, the frustrations all lurk in the deep recesses of our brains, like elusive animals only willing to emerge in the darkness of the night.

The funny part about this dream I had was how other people on the sand mountain had somehow climbed right past me. There were those who had reached the summit with ease, while I struggled to keep hanging on. Each time I reached up, my hand slid right back down, and every inch of progress made was an inch lost as the sliding sands gave way. In the dream, every muscle fiber strained to make progress, to move forward, and every ounce of strength was returned null and void as I seemingly went nowhere.

But I just kept trying anyway.

Watching others reach dreams and goals that I treasure in my own heart has been hard for me. I often cry out to God for relief - for the opportunity to have what other people have - people who defy God and don't care to follow him but are blessed anyway. In fact, just this past week I found out that an especially ungodly man I know was blessed with a second child. He has it all - career, family, health, house, hobbies, friends, education, even a dog. And I wonder why it's been so easy for him to scale the obstacles of life in direct defiance of God.

Last night at church, Pastor Rick challenged us with whether we are like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son - you know, the guy who gets ticked that his rebellious brother gets blessed? He's not usually the focus of the story, but his dissatisfaction hit home for me. Am I the one who faithfully tries to serve God hoping I'll get what I want out of him, rather than delighting in being with him? Do I resent it when God blesses other people with things that I long for? Is my goal to please God only so that he'll make my path easier? Obviously, life does not work like that, and I have to reconsider whether this monumental struggle I'm facing might just be a tool to humble me, to test my heart, and to find out why I am really following God after all.

Is God just a means to get MY dreams? Is he just a way to get strength to fulfill MY desires? Do I trust that he wants what is best for me? These are questions I must answer.

This month I plan to read a book called "Shattered Dreams" by Larry Crabb.

On the back, it says:
"Shattered drams," writes Dr. Larry Crabb, "are never random. They are always a piece in a larger puzzle, a chapter in a larger story. The Holy Spirit uses the pain of shattered dreams to help us discover our desire for God, to help us begin dreaming the highest dream."

As I keep climbing and sliding back down, I hope to learn more about why God has me here and the best way to respond to this mountain of sand that he's placed in my path.

Out Of My Hands
The Turning

All my restless heart could do is cry
I stepped on out into the night
The tides turned again and nothing felt right
I searched for truth I sought your light
and all my restless heart could do is cry

Everything I held is out of my hands
Everything you bless is not what I’d planned
Not what I’d seen, not what I’d dreamed

My heart's hope will rise and fall with the wind
A gentle breeze will blow me over again
I’m walking unstable

And all the things I held
Were dragging my heart so far down
And the things I’d dreamed were nothing,
Nothing as they’d seemed
And then I question you
And doubt you as the God I know
But all over again, you saved me from myself

Thursday, November 19, 2009

If You Want Me To

This song slipped into my mind today. When we are walking through the valley with God, there is always the choice to trust him or to draw back in fear. A pastor was on TV late last night, and I was busy on my computer. My attention quickly shifted to the TV when I suddenly heard the pastor say: There is one thing that God is waiting to see from you when you are walking through trial, and it is this: "Will you trust me?"

God, I am humbled as I struggle daily to follow you one step at a time. Please help me to continue to trust you and not draw back in fear when the fire is hot.

"But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved."
Hebrews 10:39

Monday, November 9, 2009

Stented or Stunted?

Along this journey of chronic illness and family sorrows, I've had plenty of chances to feel angry. People whom I thought would be there for me have deeply disappointed me. People I trusted have broken trust. Relationships I relied on have failed. And I've been left confused, broken, bruised.

A bruise is a great way to describe the pain of loss because it just aches mildly all the time, until someone touches it with a comment or a reminder, causing the old pain to flare up again.

It's been a challenge for me especially to forgive my father. This past week, even deeper sin and deceit were uncovered, pouring fresh pain into our lives again. His actions not only hurt me, but I have repeatedly had to see him hurt my mom, someone I love so much. It's a re-opening of old wounds that can never seem to heal.

Pastor Charles Stanley did a series on handling anger earlier in the summer, and his shows were repeated on TV recently. I watched them again, trying to soak in the secret of forgiveness - that elusive yet all-important action that is the foundation of following Christ (along with faith and love).

There were a lot of important points he made in the teaching series, but the one that stuck with me the most was that forgiveness is for my own benefit, not for the person who hurt me.

Because really, when I think about whom my anger affects the most, that person is me. I'm the one who meditates on the wrong done. I'm the one who desires justice and things to be made right. I'm the one who feels the pain and lets it ruin my joy and happiness. Anger can even affect my attitude toward people who have nothing to do with the offense. Basically, unchecked anger and unforgiveness can make me bitter. Slowly, surreptitiously, creeping like deadly plaque building up in coronary arteries, anger builds up in my soul, restricting my ability to love. God can't flow through me if my heart is clogged up with hatred. Instead, I'm imprisoned by my desire to make the other person pay.

It can happen to anyone. I read a Bible verse yesterday that reminded me even Moses fell for the trap of anger -

They angered him at the waters of Meribah,
and it went ill with Moses on their account,
for they made his spirit bitter,
and he spoke rashly with his lips.
Psalm 106:32-33

That bitterness of spirit cost Moses the privilege of entering the Promised Land. He's the one who suffered because he let anger get the best of him. Because his heart was clogged with unforgiveness, God couldn't use him in that important moment.

Bitterness in my spirit will cost me dearly too.

This verse reminds me how easy it is to fall - how easy it is to let the sin of others influence me and cause me to lose my peace. I can miss God's best for my life if I don't reach out to Jesus and ask him to teach me how to forgive as he forgave - being nailed to the cross and yet forgiving his murderers as they were crucifying him. That is amazing love.

I'm not capable of forgiving on my own - especially deep and chronic wounds caused by repeated offense. I need the help of Christ daily to walk in forgiveness. But when I ask Jesus, he is faithful and will help me with the emotions of anger and pain that seem to rear up again and again.

Just like blocked arteries can be carefully reopened and stented by a skilled physician, God is the Great Physician for my spirit, and he can reopen my diseased, unforgiving heart in order for his love and life to flow.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Earning Love

When I was in junior high, my friend Dana and I would always laugh about a song by Billy Joel called "The Entertainer." Our favorite line was "I learned to dance with a hand in my pants." It never failed to send us into fits of giggles. Because we listened to it more than a few times, I picked up some of the other lyrics too. It was about a performer who had to keep producing in order to stay on top of the charts and be successful in his career. Part of the song went like this:

Ah, you've seen me in the papers,
I've been in the magazines.
But if I go cold,
I won't get sold.
I'll get put in the back
In the discount rack,
Like another can of beans.

I thought of the "can of beans" song this week as I recovered from the grueling experience of getting my H1N1 shot. I was very sick from the experience of waiting for 4 hours, and the shot probably didn't help me recover any faster. I was just a blob in bed for several days. Muscle aches, overwhelming, extraordinary fatigue, dizziness, and "brain fog" kept me from doing all I wanted to do. This posed a problem for my part-time job. I typically spend a few hours each day on the computer doing work for my company. This past week, I couldn't accomplish anything substantial. It was extremely frustrating, and because of my lack of production, I wasn't feeling very good about myself. As I worried about falling behind and losing my job, I thought, "I'm going to be put on the discount rack!"

This isn't just a work-related issue. In relationships, I desire to earn people's approval as well. I often find myself feeling like "damaged goods" when I can't be at an important event or meet a perceived expectation because of my illness. I feel like I disappoint people in my life when I have to repeatedly cancel plans. Occasionally I have even wondered, "why are they still friends with me?" Looking at the situation objectively, I realize this is ridiculous. I know that I don't judge my friends based on what they can or can't do for me. But still, the emotional toll of chronic illness is not always logical. It's very easy for chronic illness to make me feel like I'm less valuable than when I was healthy - like a dented can of beans on the "discount rack."

It's a sad fact that the world often does base our worth on our performance, appearance, and abilities. Stars and celebrities are valued for what they can do, how well they sing or act compared to others. All this comparison can seep into our own souls, causing us to look around and place ourselves on a sliding scale of "better than her" but "not as good as her." This constant see-saw of inferiority to sometimes superiority can be agonizing. It's a good thing that God's constant, unconditional love is not about what WE do or who WE are, it's about who HE is and what HE did!

It's a tremendous blessing in life when a person truly loves us without any strings attached. We could yell, scream, or cry. We could smell. We could complain. We could just lie in 1 position without moving, but that person's love for us never wavers or changes.

God's love goes even farther than that. We can sin against him repeatedly, and God loves us no less than the day he gave us life. His love endures forever. He loved us so much that he gave us the life of his only Son, so that he would bear our just punishment, in order that we may be spared.

The message of this world is that we can somehow earn God's love or earn our way into heaven, but that couldn't be further from the truth. After all, how may "good works" are enough? When we do something wrong, how many "points" does that take off our account? To whom will we be compared when we first stand at the pearly gates? Who is the standard? Will it be enough to be "better" than the woman next door? These questions don't have any satisfactory answers. The fact is, there is no need to earn God's love because we already have it. All we have to do is accept it by believing in the One he sent to save us.

If you are struggling with feeling inferior or like less of a person because of illness, because of failures, or for any reason, remember that God's love does not operate on a performance-based system like the world does. We can (and will) screw up royally, but God has no "discount rack." You are valued and deeply loved in his sight. Trust in his son Jesus. He did all the work for you so that you can rest in his grace.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Worth a "Shot"

On Tuesday, free H1N1 vaccines were offered for the first time in my community at a local church. Admittedly, I was originally planning to just tough out this flu season without any shots as I always do. However, within the past week, at least 11-12 people that I knew of had come down with the flu, some of those cases turning into pneumonia. I have asthma, and the very real risk of such a contagious flu hitting me hard caused me to look into getting the vaccine.

When I showed up to the church Tuesday afternoon, I was very nervous. I was wondering how long I'd have to wait, if there would be enough vaccines, but most of all I was wondering what kind of reaction my body would have. Would I pass out? Would I simply feel sick? Would I be too sick to drive myself home? My system was flowing with adrenaline as I approached the busy church parking lot. Suddenly, a song came on the radio that filled me with peace. (It's the top song on my playlist to the right, "Everlasting God.")

I pulled into the church over 1/2 hour before the shots were scheduled to start. As I approached the line that streamed out the back entrance, down the sidewalk, and wrapped back and forth over the blacktop, I realized just how quickly I needed to move to secure my place in line. When I finally got into place behind the last person, 2 women came by counting. I was in between number 960 and 970!

This is what it looked like when I walked up to the line at 3:30 p.m.

I almost turned around right there and went back to my car.

However, the counting women proceeded to give more information. There were 1500 live nasal mists available and close to 800 shots. I was not able to receive a nasal mist because of my chronic health issues, but I had a chance at receiving a shot. All I had to do was wait and see.

The line started to move in spurts, and I was feeling unusually good that day. The weather was pleasant and dry. I had water with me to remain hydrated. This local church was the only place around that offered H1N1 vaccines, and so I reasoned this was my best chance at preventing the flu as well as the secondary complications that so often occur due to my asthma and chronic illness.

The line moved along, and I began to survey the people around me. Many obviously pregnant women were there to protect themselves and their unborn children. There were also parents there with their kids, trying to keep them occupied, fed, and quiet on blankets and in strollers. There were also people there with chronic health conditions like mine. As more and more people streamed into the parking lot and the line snaked around 3, then 4, then 5 times, I considered what great lengths we were all going through to protect our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

After waiting for over 2 hours in the line, I began to feel very sick, even with breaks to squat down and rest. I had begun to talk with the other people in the line, and the one woman ahead of me could see I was having considerable trouble - swaying back and forth like a tree in a windstorm. She urged me to sit on the sidewalk while she held my place in line. It was the only way I made it through without fainting. I later learned that she had health issues very similar to mine and also was a Christian. I imagine that the chance of us being next to one another in this long line of people was not "chance" but blessing.

It was a mental and physical battle to remain in that line. I was dizzy, exhausted, and pushing far past my physical limitations. So many times we heard discouraging rumors - that they would run out of vaccine early, that they would close before we reached the church, that they wouldn't have enough of the shots, only the mist would be left. Each time, we had to make the choice to stay in the line and not give up and go home. I almost did go home about half-way through. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of being very sick this winter and wishing I had stuck it out to the end.

The restrictions for who could receive a vaccine were fairly strict. We were pre-screened, and each person had to qualify in the 1st tier (or high-risk category) of pregnant women, children, or those with very specific health conditions. The woman behind me must not have qualified because although she had immune system issues, she was screened and told she had to leave after 2 hours of waiting.

What makes people endure a line such as this one without giving up in despair?

The hope of life.

Many times during those long hours, I just looked around marveling at how many people were enduring this Russian-breadline wait in order to get into this church. They literally wanted to save their lives and the lives of their children. That's what made the wait worthwhile. This highly-contagious virus could knock these vulnerable people into the hospital within days. The thoughts of that kept them standing, kept them sitting, kept them inching forward along with me toward that life-protective vaccine.

Seeing the church steeple up ahead, I thought about the hope of eternal life that Christ offers. I thought of how, like the vaccine, his forgiveness is free. It's offered for a limited time while we're alive on earth, and without him, no one is immune from the inevitable effects of sin and death. We all need Jesus. We desperately need him more than any H1N1 vaccine. We need him because we are infected with sin. He is the only one who can save us, not from a temporary virus, but from Hell itself. Jesus is the true hope of life.

After I had endured the total 4 hours of waiting, I finally sat down in the seat at the end and had a quick, simple, anticlimactic shot of vaccine. I stood up and walked out a few seconds later. As I crossed the grass in the back lot, I could hear, and faintly see in the dark, families still in line outside the building. It was cold and well after sunset, but that shot was worth it to them.

When I got home and realized the battle I had won over despair, I thought of the lengths that the devil will go to to discourage us from waiting in faith and receiving the crown of life. Overcoming those potent obstacles of fear, exhaustion, and false ideas, and persevering to the end is what it takes to receive victory in this life and the next.

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
James 1:12

Monday, October 26, 2009

"I'm Sticking with God"

Found this verse when clearing out my email inbox -

Lamentations 3:24-26 (MSG) says: I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over). He’s all I’ve got left. God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits, to the woman who diligently seeks. It’s a good thing to quietly hope, quietly hope for help from God.

Wherever you are today, whatever you face, don't give up. Day after day of the same problems and the same unanswered questions can wear us down, but sticking with God and quietly hoping in him will give us victory in the end.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

In Awe

Have you ever thought about the word "awesome"?

Inspiring awe.

Inspiring reverence, respect, dread, and wonder.

But you know, I've called pizza awesome. In fact, if anything is even remotely positive, I have a tendency to throw around the word awesome. I blame the 1980s.

I realized in church a while ago, when singing songs about God being "good," that I really have no words in my vocabulary anymore that are reserved for something better than pizza. By casually throwing words like "great," "good," and "awesome" around as slang, I've allowed their power to be diminished.

It's been hard, but I've lately been making an effort to reserve the word "awesome" only for references to God (and God's work). Though it's not easy to avoid my slang-awesome habit (awesome slang habit?), I am trying to convey to God that I truly consider him and his works to be utterly incomparable.

A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege and the energy to get outside for a few hours and take some pictures of the fall foliage. The colors of the leaves were breathtaking. Everywhere I turned, there was a new view of color bursting from an unexpected place. It filled me with giddy excitement and a fresh awareness of how beautiful and creative God is.

Last night, I took some time to read about the mitral valve in the heart. It's constructed in 2 cusps, forming a crescent moon shape. It's designed specifically with the pressure in the heart to only open in one direction at perfectly timed intervals. Then, it securely fastens shut in order for blood to pump into the body without any leaks. As I read about the precision and the genius of this one little valve and how it keeps working every beat of our lives, I was filled with a fresh awareness of how incredibly smart and wise God is.

Tonight, I looked at Hubble telescope pictures of the Helix nebula, the Andromeda galaxy, and Saturn, to name a few. I thought about how far away the stars must be, how it takes light millions of years to travel the immense distance between star and earth. I was filled with a fresh awareness of how inconceivably big and powerful God is.

Even with these whispers of God's awesome creation, it's still easy for me to take God for granted. Just as our modern city lights wash out the visual impact of the night sky and cause brilliant stars to appear dim, sometimes my overwhelming problems obscure my view of God's greatness.

I imagined tonight how the stars must have appeared before "light pollution" was ever a problem. How amazing must the view of the night sky have been for the psalmist as he wrote this?

"When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?" (Psalm 8:3-4)

As I read these words of worship tonight, I was reminded that God's power never diminishes, weakens, or changes. Like the stars, he always shines bright with power, holiness, and love. My view of him can sometimes dim though - due to my casual language, my busyness, or simply failing to stop and reflect before I pray. In hard times, when I come to him in prayer repeatedly, the burden of my unanswered questions can weigh me down to the point where I forget to look up... up into the face of my Father... up to the throne of my King. When my eyes catch a glimpse of how truly awe inspiring God is, then my perspective is changed. I see that he is big enough to fill the universe, old enough to outlast time, and victorious Savior of my soul.

My heart is strengthened when I see anew that our God is an awesome God.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Walk By Faith

This song encouraged and empowered me yesterday. As you journey with God, I hope this song prompts you to continue with the Lord today, one step at a time.

Walk By Faith (on my player at right)
by Jeremy Camp

Will I believe you when you say
Your hand will guide my every way
Will I receive the words You say
Every moment of every day

Well I will walk by faith
Even when I cannot see
Well because this broken road
Prepares Your will for me

Help me to rid my endless fears
You've been so faithful for all my years
With one breath You make me new
Your grace covers all I do

Well I'm broken- but I still see Your face
Well You've spoken- pouring Your words of grace

Well hallelujah, hallelu
(I will walk by faith)
Well hallelujah, hallelu
(I will walk by faith)

I will walk, I will walk, I will walk by faith
I will, I will, I will walk by faith

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Secret of Being Content

This morning is the first morning in quite a while where 2 things haven't happened:
1) I don't have hours of work to do.
2) I don't feel really sick.

To celebrate my free time, I've been indulging my habit of clicking around the internet. I love to sit at my computer in the quietness of the morning, to hear the wind blowing outside, a cup of hot cocoa (and marshmallows) next to me, and to poke around at news stories, blogs, and anything else that satisfies my never ending curiosity.

On my typical trip to the AOL homepage, I clicked on a Today Show story which eventually led me to other Today Show stories. I learned about research in life after death, a woman who claims she got pregnant again while currently being pregnant (!), and then this story...

"What Makes Women Happy?"

Interesting question.

The economists on the segment had polled women in America and Europe and gained a sense of declining happiness from women over the last 30 years or so. It's interesting to me that as women have started to do more in society - to take on more responsibilities and roles, that stress has increased and happiness has decreased. One panelist on the segment suggested a few differences between women who were happy and those who weren't. He said that women who were unhappy tended to "juggle" their responsibilities in life. The main aspect of juggling? He said it's throwing. There is never enough time to savor the moments in life that invigorate us and make us really happy. It's interesting to me because he also said that trying to maintain "balance" was an enemy of happiness. He said the truly happy women find things that satisfy them and lean into doing those things.

When I heard this, I immediately thought of my pastor's blog entry from a while back about how we should live unbalanced lives. Shocking? It was for me. Since high school, I had been trying to find "balance" in my life, which I defined as "doing it all." I scheduled art classes along with chemistry. After school tennis and early morning Bible study. Band instead of lunch. Foreign language as well as tutoring English. If there was a time slot to slide something else in, I filled it. I felt it was my job as a follower of Christ to maximize my time by doing everything I was capable of doing...

That myth of needing to be the woman who "does it all" (and does it well) continued to grow in me as I went through college. I tried to maintain social commitments, extracurriculars, volunteering, work, and school, while commuting daily and also remaining committed to God and my family. The result? I was always running on empty, not able to do anything with my full strength and joy. My health was failing at the time. I was being spread too thin. I thought my genuine heart to do right by everyone would miraculously give me the health and strength to keep going forever, but I was wrong. I burned out.

At the height of my quest to do everything, I remember being asked to go to a movie with someone, and I didn't want to go. It was a late movie, and it was far away. I needed to just go home and relax. However, because I had no prior commitment, I felt that I had to say yes. It was an open time slot. I was worried I would make the person feel bad if I opted for staying home instead of going out with them. It was a turning point for me when I said "no" to that invitation. I remember it clearly. It was just the beginning of learning to set boundaries and to toss this idea of "doing it all" out the window.

The thing that I've learned since then is: I can't do it all. No one can. Not a single person can do everything they want, along with everything expected of them, and do it all well. It just doesn't work. Something has to give, whether its the quality of your work, the enjoyment of your social life, the intimacy of your closest relationships, the amount of sleep each night, or (in my case) your health. There are sacrifices for striving for balance. I think satisfaction in life is the first to go. The stress of added commitments can be like a python, slowly squeezing the joy out of life.

Illness is a quick way to identify priorities. If you've never heard of The Spoon Theory, I recommend you read it. It basically says that illness limits the amount of energy in any given day (represented by a fist full of spoons). Each activity we do in a day requires we give up a spoon (showering, driving, talking, preparing a meal). There comes a point with chronic illness where I run out of spoons for the day, and if I "push" to do an important activity, I may end up borrowing all my spoons for the next day, or even the next week, leaving me sick and unable to function after the event is over. (I did this over a week ago, and I'm just now starting to feel more like myself.) My point is that I have learned only to put my valuable energy (my spoons) into things that really matter: relationships that are quality, a hobby or two that I really enjoy, work I feel God has given me to do, and even resting purposefully.

What I've learned from my pastor, from trials, and from illness is a whole new perspective and appreciation for "unbalance." (If you only knew what a 180 it is for me to write this!) I've found that I serve God better and have more joy when I focus on pouring myself passionately into only what He has called me to do. Not what society tells me I should do. Not what my inner expectations tell me. Not even what seems "good." Even "good" things like service projects can snag me into being spread too thin. Just like I can't send money to every worthwhile charity, I can't spend my energy on every worthwhile activity. I need to listen for the voice of God, and when I hear him speak, I need to do what he's asked, as long as he asks, with everything I have. Sometimes, God asks me to go through things I don't feel strong enough to endure. Sometimes, God asks me to completely rest, which can be just as hard (if not harder) to obey.

Learning to live unbalanced and focus solely on those things that please God can be a tricky business. I still feel the pressure of "doing" and "accomplishing" when I rest. I fight guilt when I say no. I worry when I can't get emails and phone calls returned quickly. I struggle to block responsibilities and distractions out of my mind when I pray or read the Bible. But it also brings a miraculous sense of peace when I finally let go of trying to do everything. Resting in the grace of Christ while passionately devoting myself to his work is the key to gaining the joy that Christ died to give me. Jesus said:

The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it overflows).
John 10:10

This enjoyment that he talks about is not transient happiness from the good seasons in our life. It's a sustainable joy that resides deep in our hearts no matter the storms that may rage all around. When Paul says in Philippians 4 that he has learned the secret of being content in any and all situations, it's because he had this special brand of enjoyment in Christ. If we look at Paul's life, he didn't have everything in balance. He was a man of extreme passion, to the point of persecuting Christians before he met Christ. But then, after his encounter with Jesus, his passion was for telling others the truth of the gospel no matter the obstacles, danger, jail time, or harm he faced. He wrote:

"I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

When he said he can do "everything," it didn't mean he could do all activities he wanted with moderation - it meant he could face any extreme circumstance through Christ's strength. When I face extreme circumstances, as I do currently, asking Christ for strength has been my secret weapon. When I keep my focus not on living a balanced life, but on loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind, he gives me peace that passes understanding and the strength to press on.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trusting While Not Understanding

My grandmother is a beautiful woman, inside and out.

She has the smoothest skin of any 88-year-old I've ever seen. Her voice is a precious sound. As a child, I remember its melodies echoing through her house as the smell of fresh-baked cookies would fill the air. She was a sharp dresser, had a big laugh, and always had a hug and a kiss for me.

When I was a child, I remember tea parties in the bathtub, having her put pretty ribbons in my hair, and always planning new projects that we could make for Mom and Dad. She taught me how to knit, sew a pair of shorts, and quilt. I would watch her in amazement as she put together stunning flower arrangements from her own garden and twist ribbon to wrap packages in a way Santa's elves would envy.

She was full of wisdom, generosity, creativity, and love.

My grandma had a stroke 2 years ago and has had several more since then (we recently found out). She had always been very independent and lived on her own until her first stroke, but since that time, she has had to live with us. My mom is her full-time caregiver, and I help when I can too.

Strokes can affect different parts of the brain to cause disability. The part of my grandma's brain that was affected was her ability to process speech and her personality. Communicating with her can be very difficult, complicated by the fact that she is also hard of hearing. Only some words get in, and those words can often be easily mixed up. An example:

Me: "I need a vacation."
Grammy: "You need a big table? I'll clear this one off."

Misunderstandings like that can be amusing and harmless, but they can also cause a lot of problems.

Just like anyone else, Grammy values her independence fiercely. She is reluctant to accept help now when she needs it the most. For instance, when it comes to bathing, she is unsteady, weak, and needs help ordering and completing the tasks required to wash. For her own safety, we have to be there to assist her. Unfortunately, she does not agree and can become quite agitated when we try to help her ("GET OUT!"). It can escalate into a full blown war if not handled delicately. Bath time is not always a very happy time.

After many encounters with washing Grammy, some good, some not-so-good-at-all (accusing my Mom, who was bent down washing her feet, of being "not Christian!"), I've realized 2 primary things that make it hard for her:

1) She feels out of control.
2) She doesn't understand why she needs to do what we ask.

I can relate so well to these feelings, personally, and when I keep reassuring her that she needs to trust me and that I'm trying to help her, I become suddenly aware of the spiritual parallel.

I don't always understand what God is doing. It isn't always easy or comfortable. And it certainly doesn't always make sense. But God is working on washing me clean on the inside, promising that "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6) This process is an incredible gift from God by his Spirit. The Bible promises that through faith in Christ, we "are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:18) Another Bible translation says our inner change is "from one degree of glory to another." I like the King James version best that says we are changed into his image "from glory to glory." Each trial with God is an opportunity for him to make us one degree of glory more like Him. The choice is up to us if we plan to resist Him or to trust Him in faith.

So often I am suspicious of God. I don't say it like that in my head, but when things get too difficult in life, I feel doubts that he really has good plans for me. Scripture clearly says that he has my very best interest in his heart, but I think to myself, "This surely isn't good for me." My view, narrowed by the frail human mind, is all that I can see, and when I start to feel out of control, I instantly bristle and resist as my first line of defense. Though my grandma's resistance is due to physical illness, my resistance is based in the spiritual illness of sin. I like to think that I'm an expert in what is right for me and when it is right, and, to quote my grandma, "This is NOT RIGHT for me!"

It's been very eye opening for me to see how willfulness, lack of understanding, and failing to trust can cause harm and consequences in the future. My grandma doesn't want to make life harder for my mom or for me, but due to her illness, she can sure bring consequences for all of us when she doesn't trust our guidance. Spiritually, I can suffer consequences by not trusting God's guidance.

How much must I hurt God and make life more difficult when I resist him and say, "I know better than you what should be happening here."?

Does the clay say to the potter, 'What are you making?'
Isaiah 45:9

How much better instead to say: "Father, I know you want what's best for me. Even though I don't understand and wish I felt more in control, I will submit and trust you."

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6

Monday, September 14, 2009

Is God Fair and Just?

I was just browsing through an online discussion entitled, "What attribute of God is hardest for you to grasp?" Attributes such as: Holy, Eternal, All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and Fair & Just.

After reading through 3 pages of responses, it seemed to me that most people struggled with God being fair and just. It's not hard to see why.

We see unfair things happen around us every day. We, ourselves, experience unfairness to various degrees. Loved ones die. We get cut off in traffic. Friends suddenly betray us. Dreams are shattered. And of course, the list goes on and on. Each of us instinctively recognizes when life is not fair. It's not a thought you think, it's a feeling you get - deep down in your gut - like a fire. That outrage burns and rises up inside, testifying to the brutal mismatch of right versus wrong. "This is not how it SHOULD be," we think. Why doesn't God change this circumstance to make it RIGHT?

Just to be clear, I recognize that occasionally my sense of unfairness is just a fancy excuse for selfishness. There are times I need to share the bathroom, to do the dishes even though I'm not in the mood, and to deal with not getting my own way all the time. But what I'm talking about here is not selfishness or a demand for God to grant my every wish. I'm talking about the truly WRONG things that happen to people - the things that make others cry out in unison on behalf of the offended party - the drunk driver whose car hits a family, a woman neglected in a nursing home and receiving no basic care for days, a man who feels it's his right to abuse his wife, an orphan dying of HIV/AIDS. Those are some things that unite us in wondering, "Is God really just and fair?"

Judging simply by our experience on earth, it's intelligent to say that life is not fair. From birth to death, if we saw nothing else, it would be easy to conclude that an all-powerful God is not bringing consistent justice to anyone - even his followers.

Granted, some people seem to get justice here and there, but that kind of justice is incomplete and not always what it seems. Just because a criminal gets prison time, a cheater gets caught, or a charitable person gets a promotion, that is not always God enacting his justice - no more than we could claim a natural disaster was a judgment on all of those wounded or killed. It's easy to look for patterns in life to try to eek out a semblance of justice wherever we can, but we are like children looking for flowers in a bed of weeds and settling for dandelions. It doesn't quench our desire for fairness because this world was never meant to do so.

My personal journey over the last 10 years has been fraught with what I would call unfair circumstances, not just for me, but for my loved ones as well. Seeing old photos or videos of better times (like I did today) just drives home the tremendous losses and victimization we have had to sustain, for seemingly no purpose, no obvious reason. I can ask why? why? why? about the losses and about the persecution, but the sense of unfairness lingers. I can push it deep down. I can cover it up with Christian language, saying it's all working for good. And I can tell people that God has grown me as a person because of it. And all those may be true things, but it does not change the inherent unfairness. I still cry out inside for God to make things RIGHT!

I think it's really freeing to call out unjust circumstances for what they are. It's sometimes scary to tell God that something is unjust or unfair - as if we are talking back to Him and being disrespectful. But God built my sense of right and wrong into my soul, and I firmly believe that I can humbly tell him how strongly I feel about injustice. Job sure did. The psalmists did. In fact, God will often agree with our laments and feel our same sense of anguish and pain. It's God himself who says, "For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity." (Isaiah 61:8) So the logical question that comes to my mind next is:

If God loves justice so much, and he is all-powerful, then why don't we see him righting all the wrongs?

It comes down to the title of my blog. Qavah. Waiting.

Wait for the LORD
and keep his way.
He will exalt you to inherit the land;
when the wicked are cut off, you will see it.
Psalm 37:34

All of Psalm 37 is about waiting on the Lord for justice and not losing hope when evil appears to succeed. The Bible is very clear that wickedness will appear to succeed for a while. But we who believe in God are to qavah for the LORD. The Strong's translation of the Hebrew word qavah is: "to wait" and adds, "This word stresses the straining of the mind in a certain direction with an expectant attitude - a forward look with assurance."

To me, that idea of qavah in Psalm 37 is the key to seeing God as he is - completely just and fair. When I am unfairly hurt, God sees it. God knows it's wrong. God has a plan and is doing something about it on my behalf. I will someday see the results of his work. It's just that the waiting is often so hard to bear. Ultimately, I must wait for the day when God will right all of the wrongs, when justice will truly be like flowers in a garden, and when I will see the Lord face-to-face in THE place designed to quench our thirst for what is right - Heaven.

But why does the Lord delay justice? Is that harsh or unfair in itself? Why does he make us wait?

I can't claim to understand why God delays justice, but in a fallen world where humans have free will and can choose to sin, God has chosen not to reverse our decisions. Instead, he prepares a place for us that is not fallen or sick with sin - He will give us comfort, reward us, and heal us completely in Heaven. And as we endure here on earth, he has enabled us, through faith, to suffer trials without bitterness (in fact, even with joy) because we have the goal and purpose to share the message of Heaven with those who are searching for the same kind of fairness.

If you believe in Jesus, as I do, we can continue to run the race marked out for us - sharing with others about what Jesus has done and pressing on toward the finish line of reward, restoration, and recompense in Heaven.

If you don't yet believe, consider the mercy of God's patience as he continues to reach out to you the true lifeline of relationship with Jesus Christ and the priceless gift of complete forgiveness. Jesus willingly suffered incomprehensible injustice on earth so that we could have this gift. By simply believing, we are promised eternity in a world where all that was wrong will finally be made fully and completely right.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Reminder of Our Refuge

See anything?What about now?
What's that?
There's a turkey in that tree!
With something under its wing...
A closer look...

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:4

Monday, August 31, 2009

Secrets of Invisible Illness

30 Things About My Invisible Illness You May Not Know

1. The illness I live with is: POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) which is a specific form of dysautonomia (dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system). In addition, I have MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity), IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), postural diastolic hypotension, non-24-hour circadian rhythm disorder, Raynaud's, asthma, and allergies.

2. I was diagnosed with it in the year: 2005 (POTS) - earlier for others.

3. But I had symptoms since: 1998

4. The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is: Giving up a lot of independence.

5. Most people assume: I'm much healthier than I am when I am able to go out socially.

6. The hardest part about mornings is: Waiting for the muscle aches, malaise, and fatigue to ease, though that doesn't always happen.

7. My favorite medical TV show is: Mystery Diagnosis.

8. A gadget I couldn’t live without is: My laptop. It's how I work part-time and do much of my socializing.

9. The hardest part about nights is: Being awake alone and knowing I will need to sleep all day.

10. Each day I take 2 to 3 pills & vitamins. (I tend to have uncommon reactions and side effects, so I'm not on many medications.)

11. Regarding alternative treatments I: Can even have severe reactions to "natural" remedies. One such attempt sent me to the ER.

12. If I had to choose between an invisible illness or visible I would choose: Invisible. Prior to and during my diagnosis, it was extraordinarily difficult to cope with not being believed, but now that I have validation and a diagnosis, I'm grateful to still look like my old self.

13. Regarding working and career: I had no idea how much self-esteem and worth I gained from my career. Losing it was one of the hardest grieving processes I've ever had to go through. I felt lost and worthless. Readjusting the way I view myself, my work, and allowing God to impart my value as a person has been a challenging and humbling road.

14. People would be surprised to know: How sick I can be on "bad days" when no one sees me but my family.

15. The hardest thing to accept about my new reality has been: Losing my "old life," job, friends, freedoms, and feeling that people and opportunities pass me by.

16. Something I never thought I could do with my illness that I did was: Find satisfying and flexible part-time work from home.

17. The commercials about my illness: Don't exist. Though many people (especially young women) suffer from dysautonomia, there is very little public awareness about it. The closest it came to being public was when a member of "The Wiggles" had it and had to quit the group.

18. Something I really miss doing since I was diagnosed is: Playing music in an ensemble.

19. It was really hard to have to give up: My career and driving. Though now, after years of healing, I can do some driving.

20. A new hobby I have taken up since my diagnosis is: Pilates. I have also had more time to read and crochet, which I had enjoyed before but never had time to do.

21. If I could have one day of feeling normal again I would: Travel on an airplane and spend all day outside in hot weather biking, hiking, playing tennis, and being active.

22. My illness has taught me: That when dreams are shattered and I am weak, Christ is my Rock, my true friend, ready to help bear my burdens and strengthen me.

23. Want to know a secret? One thing people say that gets under my skin is: "Hope you feel better." or "Let me know if I can help." Those are usually polite ways for people to disengage.

24. But I love it when people: Keep in contact with me through email and maintain friendship with me even when I can't attend events, return phone calls, or have to turn down repeated invitations.

25. My favorite motto, scripture, quote that gets me through tough times is: "Wait and hope for and expect the Lord; be brave and of good courage and let your heart be stout and enduring. Yes, wait for and hope for and expect the Lord." -Psalm 27:14 (Amp)

"My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."
- Psalm 73:26

26. When someone is diagnosed I’d like to tell them: Learning to live positively within your limitations is the key to enjoying life with dysautonomia.

27. Something that has surprised me about living with an illness is: How much relief came when there was no more professional and personal pressure to "do it all" and achieve.

28. The nicest thing someone did for me when I wasn’t feeling well was: Bring me food, a game/movie, and offer genuine friendship with lots of laughter.

29. I’m involved with Invisible Illness Week because: The psychological impact of not being believed was excruciatingly painful for me before I was diagnosed. I felt like a failure, and many people looked at me as if I was a "slacker" because I suddenly couldn't physically keep up with expectations.

30. The fact that you read this list makes me feel: Encouraged that you learned something about my experience with dysautonomia, how faith in Christ has anchored me, and that chronic invisible illness is more complex and difficult than it appears.

My friend Rachel completed this list of 30 things on her blog, and so I thought it would be fun to do it too. It was started by Lisa Copen of Rest Ministries in honor of Invisible Illness Week, which is coming up soon!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Battle Plan

It's funny how songs can get stuck in my head. I don't know why or how it happens, but sometimes one line of melody, one lyric that I happen to hear, gets caught up in my brain and plays on loop for a while. Has that ever happened to you?

It happened to me a couple weeks ago. I was reliving my high school days by looking up some 80s Russian pop music. "Luckily" I found the album and played all the songs. Unfortunately, one of those songs stuck around for a while and overstayed its welcome in my head. I'd just be sitting there and this nonsense Russian lyric kept repeating, round and round. I wanted to scream!

Fast forward to yesterday, and I was searching YouTube for a new concept I saw on the news called "literal videos." Apparently, people take wacky old music videos and redo the vocals to make the lyrics reflect the visuals exactly. A pretty humorous concept on the surface. I had a good time with some of the more innocent videos, giggling at some clever lines. But because the music is secular and the videos are sometimes dark and creepy, a few of the lyrics verged on unpleasant. No big deal right? Just some harmless fun. Well, it wasn't until I was lying in bed and the melody of one of those off-color lyrics started cycling through my head that I realized I'd relaxed my standards too far. So frustrating!

Ever since the adversity in my life has increased, I've noticed I have a lower and lower threshold to tolerate negative (anti-God) stuff. It's almost physically painful for me to hear or see anything that goes against God's Word. I literally cringe internally. I didn't use to feel like this, so one of my old childhood friends was really confused one day when I asked her to turn her music off in my car. It wasn't because I didn't want to be tolerant, open-minded, or kind. I just couldn't take the dark and negative lyrics that permeated her entire CD. She didn't understand and was offended. I realized that my struggles had fundamentally changed me.

About 10 years ago, I made a very important discovery: I choose what I put in my mind. I control my thoughts. Whatever I see, experience, listen to, or work on affects me deeply. When I see a disturbing scene in a movie, that scene can often pop up in my dreams later that night. When I spend a lot of time with people who are negative, I begin to feel and talk negatively. Conversely, memorizing a scripture verse will lift my mood and keep me grounded in truth. There's no room to be passive when it comes to my thoughts because my thoughts directly affect who I am and what I do.

When you're feeling stressed out about adversity in your life, do you ever have days where you feel like you've "been through the war"? I think that's a pretty accurate description for what most of us face when we are struggling with a major problem. The problem is discouraging. It threatens to bring us down. We think about the problem. We focus on everything that isn't going right. We see everything physically that is against us, and it's so tempting to give in to all the worry, the fear, the negative messages swirling in our minds, and give up.

But we have a choice! Our battle is not fought physically with real swords and shields. It is fought spiritually, in our souls and minds. That is why Paul said:

"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
Ephesians 6:12

How do we fight in a spiritual war? We have to fight the enemy's weapons of discouragement, hopelessness, fear, and doubt with encouragement, hope, confidence, and faith! All of those things require us to be purposeful about what we put into our minds, what we experience, what we listen to, what we watch, who we spend time with. If I want to purpose to be encouraged, I need to think encouraging thoughts, listen to encouraging songs, and be uplifted by God's truth. Being in a battle gives me no choice. I either suit up in God's armor, or I will be a quick and easy casualty.

We're instructed to fight this way:

"We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."
2 Corinthians 10:5

Taking each thought captive and making it obedient means having control over my mind and directing my thoughts constantly to obey God's teaching. It's the only way to win the battle on a moment by moment basis. Not doing this would be as silly as sending an army into battle with no training, no battle plan, and no weapons. That kind of disorganized chaos wouldn't survive a war. Similarly, I don't survive very well spiritually when I don't control what goes on in my mind. I'm easily attacked by doubt and naturally become disheartened.

In order to win the battle, I must have this goal:

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things."
Philippians 4:8

This command isn't to make us into boring goodie-goodies. It's to make us powerful spiritual warriors! It's a battle plan for facing the hardships of life. If I strive to place the truth of God's word in my mind, worship songs in my heart, uplifting relationships around me, and positive images in front of me, I will train my mind like a commander trains an army. I don't want to be a casualty of discouragement, fear, doubt, or hopelessness. I can defeat all of these through continually focusing on my King and Commander Jesus - the one who gives me strength.

(I included a new song in my playlist to the right which contains lyrics straight from Psalm 36:5-6. What better song to get stuck in my head today than one that will remind me of scripture - over and over again!)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One Pair of Hands

I had some very hurtful things happen to me last week, and it's been agony getting through the emotional pain. Sometimes I wish there was something like Motrin for the soul. Physical pain can abate for a time, but emotional pain is constant, gnawing, with no available respite. I found myself shifting restlessly in an effort to get some momentary relief, just to gather the strength to keep going.

When I was cleaning out my email inbox yesterday, I saw a forward from a long time ago with this song as an attachment. I don't like downloading forwarded files, so I had put it aside at the time. Interestingly, I ended up finding it when I needed to hear it the most. I looked up the song on YouTube, and as I listened, I felt such a warm and powerful comfort from the hand of God. It's worth a listen - especially if you like Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers. (At least, that's what I'm reminded of.) :)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What the Bride's Uncle Said

Sometimes the way I handle my anger sucks.

I have to admit it here before I can go any further because to be honest, I blew it last weekend.

To set this up, I need to first confess that I tend to stuff my stuff. That means that when I get upset about something or frustrated, I tend to stuff it inside rather than deal with it. I think in some warped way I may think that means I'm trying to be "good" and "nice" by overlooking offense, but what I'm really doing is filling the pot up when the heat is on, and it's only a matter of time before I start to boil.

The thing about my family is that we are dealing with more than one major life problem at one time, and it's been difficult like this for years and years. When people are burned out, it's easier to lose control. It's easy when you live in close quarters to take out your frustration on someone when it's not really directed at them. It's easy to have one "last straw" that triggers the outpouring of pain and emotion. It's easy to literally throw in the towel and scream at the top of your lungs, "Enough is enough! I can't take this anymore!" Only, in the irrationality of anger, it can come out as "I can't take you anymore!" which is way worse.

My anger, frustration, and pain boiled over in anger and tears this weekend, and I felt totally ashamed afterward. I felt ashamed at my words, at overreacting, and especially before God because I had been studying his word earlier that day. I felt like a fraud and a failure. How can I claim to love God and pour out such bitterness? How can worship and resentful anger come from the same mouth? I was truly hanging my head that day as I walked out the door to my friend's wedding.

When I got there, I was just hoping to make it through the ceremony without having any health issues. I was still ruminating over how badly I had handled my emotions earlier, and I was especially convicted when the definition of love (1 Corinthians 13) was read aloud. My behavior? Not. So. Loving. Ugh.

Just as I was expecting a few short words before the vows and rings, the bride's uncle announced that he would be giving a sermon. I was waiting for the typical love, give-and-take, and how to have a happy life together deal, so I was completely surprised to hear him zero in directly on this verse:

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12: 2

Furthermore, he focused immediately on the word "perfect." He reviewed more of Romans 12 and the "laundry list" of traits that are set as the standard for perfection.

Ah great. Just what I needed to hear about, being perfect.

But then he said, "perfect does not mean being flawless."

My ears perked up. Oh?

He said that perfect is pursuing God's purpose relentlessly. He continued to speak about the importance of our purpose, the goal that God has for us, and that we cannot let our flaws hold us back from pursuing God. He said that we will fail in life. We will be flawed. That is certain. But he wrapped it up like this:

If there is a Phillips screw that needs to be screwed in, and you have a choice between a brand new flat head and an old, beat-up, mangled Phillips head - you're going to pick the flawed Philips tool because it's the one best suited to the job. That's what it was created to do, and it can do that job perfectly, even though it's got flaws.

When he said that, a wave of relief rushed over me. The bride, groom, and guests probably wondered why in the world they were hearing about flaws and purpose at a wedding, but I knew those words were, if nothing else, complete grace from God to me. It was as if he washed away my irrational words of anger and said to me: You're still able to complete the mission I have for you. Don't give up when you fail to meet my holy standards. You are covered by my Son.

If that wasn't enough, the next morning I turned on the TV to catch the tail end of one of my favorite pastors, Charles Stanley. After he finished his sermon, I was about to turn it off, but I decided I'd just leave it on for the "Ask Dr. Stanley" message at the end, where he answers an email question.

The question was from a woman who had experienced long-term tragedy in her life, and she couldn't properly handle her anger over the pain she was suffering and the people who had disappointed her along the way. It was as if I had written the question myself. Tears filled my eyes as Dr. Stanley compassionately comforted the woman and me by saying that God understood the emotions and the struggle.

I experienced that feeling of grace all over again.

But the really exciting part of his answer was about the purpose that God still intendeds for us to fulfill. He talked about God's goal for our lives and the need to press on to realize the specific purpose God has for us, even when we have to continually turn over our anger to him and even when we fail in how we handle our anger.

It was the SAME MESSAGE TWICE in under 24 hours! In both instances my heart felt washed in love, compassion, and forgiveness. I felt God speaking directly to me in my pain. I was also excited and encouraged by the hope set before me. This pain isn't all for nothing. There is a job for me to do here on earth, and it's a job I'm specifically suited for. My body, mind, and soul are being shaped to do this job that God has set me apart to do. It's a unique and awesome thing to be assigned good works by my Creator and to be fashioned by him in order to do them. It is so exciting that in spite of, and maybe even because of my flaws and failures, God can still use me.

It's my purpose today to pass along this encouragement to you. There is a purpose that God has uniquely created for YOU to accomplish. He can use a broken, beaten-up, humble heart that is committed to him. He wants us sinners to accomplish great things in His name. So if you feel humbled by a sin, weakness, or failure, remember this: It's not our flawlessness that counts, it's our faith and our willingness to press on in Christ.

"But where sin increased, grace increased all the more..."
Romans 5:20

"For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
Ephesians 2:10

Monday, August 3, 2009

When abnormal becomes the new normal

Recently, a good friend of mine got mono. Whenever I'd read his status updates on Twitter or Facebook, I'd find myself slightly surprised at how limitations and symptoms that were new and foreign to him were completely typical for me. Can't go to work? Can't do errands? One activity in a day is too much? Trouble concentrating? His health was radically altered to resemble mine for a few weeks. It reminded me just how much I've had to adapt my lifestyle to my limitations. Dealing daily with abnormal health has become normal for me.

It's not easy to understand chronic illness if you haven't lived it. I'm always happy to find some kind of analogy for my daily struggles with dysautonomia in order to improve understanding and awareness. This dysfunction of my autonomic nervous system affects almost every system of my body. Symptoms range widely in type and severity from day to day or even hour to hour. I can be doing ok one minute and flat on my back the next - quite literally. Describing these symptoms and feelings to another (healthy) person is just short of impossible, so sometimes I don't even try. However, it can be helpful to use an analogy every so often, just to keep those around me in tune with what I cope with on a regular basis.

Tonight, I briefly visited the online support forum for my condition. One member made me smile knowingly when she posted that adaptation and adjustment to her limitations had left her forgetting what it felt like to be "normal." She said that seeing people standing in 90-degree heat at a BBQ left her marveling: "What if they get overheated? How can they stand so long? How can they talk and not be short of breath?" I share this sense of wonder when I see average people completing normal, everyday tasks with ease. I sometimes question how a person can have enough energy to get through a full day of work without immediately crash landing on the couch. For me, watching the average person function is akin to seeing a superhero leap tall buildings in a single bound. If I think back, I know that at one time I was healthy enough to do it all, but it's as if I'm remembering a dream, not real life.

Standing is incredibly difficult for me because my blood pressure slowly drops the longer I'm upright. (To a lesser extent, this also happens with sitting upright.) Unless I shift my weight around, walk, or do something else to circulate my blood, my brain gradually runs out of oxygen the longer I remain standing still. I used to have no analogy for this kind of feeling, other than a fogginess in my mind and a feeling of urgency to move or lie down. I mean, even though my brain is slowly being deprived of oxygen, I still look entirely normal on the outside. What do people think when I start to have trouble following their conversation or finding words? Do I look thoughtless when I ask a question they just answered 5 minutes ago? Do I appear stupid when I have to think hard about simple responses? Does it seem odd that I can walk over to greet someone but shift away uneasily while we converse? All these questions go through my mind.

Standing for me is similar to lifting a heavy weight above your head. At first, you can hold the weight up without much of a problem. Sure, it's heavy, but it's possible. Then your arms begin to shake as your muscles fatigue. Soon, you can feel your body crying out to put this weight down. As you power through every message your body is sending you to STOP, you eventually find that you cannot will yourself to go on any longer. Your arms suddenly reach the breaking point and collapse under the weight that at first was manageable. It's the same way standing feels to a person with dysautonomia. The initial stance may be manageable, but the longer I stand, the more urgently my body signals me to sit, sit, sit! If I ignore these signals for too long, I can eventually collapse.

Another problem that I deal with regularly is severe fatigue (usually with muscle aches). Saying these words makes it sound like a nice nap or a day in bed will have me back up in no time. However, my invisible illness is not cured by sleep, and in fact, my fatigue is often at its worst during the hours after I wake up! I have had a hard time describing this type of exhaustion to the average person. There is just nothing like it when you are young and healthy with endless energy. The closest description that matches this feeling is when you have the flu. The flu makes every single muscle in your body ache, and moving feels like you are fighting through molasses. People who have had the flu or even mono can understand this feeling. When this crushing exhaustion is unrelenting for months and years, it is not possible to maintain a normal life. Imagine how having the flu disrupts normal life for a week or two. Now think about what it would be like to have the flu all the time. It's important to remind others that even though I look normal, I'm actually putting forth 3 times the typical amount of effort to get through a particular activity, and afterward, I "pay" for an event with worsening symptoms for days after it's over.

I've been thinking carefully about these analogies for some time, and I'm writing about them not to get sympathy, but to spread awareness of what it's physically like to live in a body limited by chronic illness. Each person with chronic illness probably has a particular symptom that disables them more than others, and some are more severely disabled than others, but the result is the same - trying to operate as normally as possible while feeling very far from normal.

Next time you meet someone who seems confused, distracted, or has trouble following your conversation... next time someone tells you they are just too exhausted to make it out... next time you meet someone with a chronic illness, remember that though they may appear normal, it's quite possible they are fighting through physical suffering greater than you could ever imagine.

"Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle."