It’s Complicated

“Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.” ― Martin Luther

These days people are asking me how I’m doing. More than usual. My wife is fighting cancer. This has become a long term struggle with many soldiers helping us in each and every skirmish.

I’m not sure what to say when asked how I’m doing. Sometimes people really want to get an update. Sometimes this question is just an expression of compassion and support as we pass along the way. Still, other times I’m asked by folks who aren’t getting a clear picture from me and are trying to imagine themselves in my shoes. What’s it really like?

Sometimes people just don’t ask. Maybe it’s just too overwhelming for others. Maybe there just aren’t any words.

Typically I’m responding without thinking too much. My response depends upon my mood, my schedule, my need at the moment to let it all out.

How AM I doing? Well, it’s complicated…

I’m feeling scared

The world I live in is mostly filled with a lot of certainty. Watching my wife manage an ever changing daily battle with stage four cancer (that’s now in her brain) and all the medication side-effects brings a daily dose of uncertainty into my (our) life. Mostly we have routines and rituals that make life so comfortable. When the journey heads into the unknown, fear begins to howl in the background.

“Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps even depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has.” ― Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I’m feeling full of hope

Not a single day passes that I don’t experience encouragement of some sort. It is all around me (us). It comes in all the expected places, the emails, notes, hugs. But is also appears out of nowhere. Strangers who lift so much of the burden and never even realize it. All sorts of little “coincidences” seem to appear right and left. I don’t go very far without sensing and knowing the presence of God. My faith has found a resting place. Despite what has happened so far, the core of my belief is not moved. These beliefs are ever more resolved as I am pulled into the deep end.

“It’s amazing how many coincidences occur when one begins to pray.”  – Bill Hybels

I’m too busy to think about it

Life has gotten very fast for a number of reasons. Fighting cancer is a whole other career to add to what’s already on our plates. It’s easy to get behind with one important part of life while trying to manage a whole new chapter.

It’s too easy to slip into the fast lane and wake up three counties later, unconscious of so much that always matters.

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” ― T. S. Eliot

I’m uncertain about what the future holds

Our mode of thought has been to just think about today. Even though there are always future plans of some sort that are a normal part of life, we are trying to readjust and live more in the moment – hang on to this day. When I do think about the future; retirement, grandchildren, remaking the house, who am I going to give all my junk to? Sometimes it can be frightening – going from theory to practice. It’s sweet to quote the proverb about numbering your days, but actually doing it is a whole other matter. Living like there’s no tomorrow makes one take today that much more seriously.

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.”  – Psalm 90:12

I’m often around other people who don’t want to talk about our “situation.” I imagine that most people are uncomfortable talking about serious illness – what do you say? These days, so many have a lack of personal experience. Great health care and growing distance within families means that suffering and death are not experiences we learn to manage in the same ways our parents and grandparents did.

I’m angry

Let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t be mad every single day. If there was any sort of justice, I’d be the one hit by the dump truck of life, not her. Who knew that the uncertainties of life were going to come and trample in our yard? Living in a society that promotes and promises justice doesn’t  mean the experience is always assured. It’s a hope, not a certainty. Instead of trying to find justice in all of this, the best way to work through the weeds is to be truthful and admit these feelings, find people to talk it out with and pray without ceasing (in all honesty).

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” ― Mark Twain

I’m counting my blessings

Perspective helps with all sorts of situations. But how do you put cancer into perspective? There is always something to be thankful about. In each and every situation there is a way to find thanks. There is always another person near who needs to feel a little mercy and grace. Instead of anguish, there is thankfulness for so much more of life never taken for granted anymore.

“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” ― George Bernard Shaw

I’m buckled in for the roller coaster ride

When a life threatening illness strikes there is always a loss of control.  A feeling of “what’s next?” Living a life that’s not really mine, it belongs to a disease that’s taking control of more and more. Of course there is always this illusion that I was ever really in control of anything in the first place. The economy shifts, someone new comes into power or a hurricane appears on the horizon. Instead of looking for control or being heartbroken because of the loss, I’m learning how to just survive today. I used to have all sorts of big plans for the future. Maybe that was a mistake.

“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”  –  Epictetus

Well, how AM I doing? It’s still complicated…but I made it another day, and I tried to make it count.

 

O LOVE THAT WILT NOT LET ME GO – George Matheson

O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

 

 

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Momentary, Light Affliction

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So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:18 (NLT)

The Apostle Paul certainly knew about suffering. He had been beaten, stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked and starved. He had friends abandon him and spent the last years of his life on a perpetual journey and finally in prison. He knew trouble’s first and middle name.

When people are sick or taking care of sick people – they can get absorbed in the situation. Surely this is a survival mechanism that helps people in crisis make it from day to day. But Paul reminds us that despite the urgent crisis that inevitably hits, there is so much more to center our souls upon. There are things that will last forever, things to come that we will be a part of and will be a part of us. How are you doing at “fixing your gaze” on what really matters?

Preliminary to any self-determined act of behavior there is always a stage of examination and deliberation which we may call the definition of the situation. And actually not only concrete acts are dependent on the definition of the situation, but gradually a whole life-policy and the personality of the individual himself follow from a series of such definitions. – W.I. Thomas

How are you defining your situation? Is the suffering you are experiencing the whole ball of wax? Is there more to your life, to your suffering, than just right now? Do you need to get some people around you who will help remind you of what’s going away and what’s lasting forever?

Remember, every single day of your life, there are people that cross your path who are suffering in their own private ways. What can you do to be a lighthouse, a little bit of salt, a reminder to look up and watch what you believe?

“If I paint a wild horse, you might not see the horse… but surely you will see the wildness!”
― Pablo Picasso

Homesickness

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For here we do not have a lasting city,
but we are seeking the city which is to come. – Hebrews 13:14 (NASB)

Sometimes our suffering is made worse because we are too attached to this world. The poet Wordsworth wrote “this world is too much with us…” He was in anguish about civilization all around that had created such a deep chasm between mankind and the natural world.

The ditch that that I typically fall into when suffering arrives is the one between my earthly and heavenly perspectives. It even now seems to plague my travel through these recent days. I fall into it and my eyes are averted, panic and worry set in, I quickly forget to keep my sights set on what is eternal.

There’s always going to be something here and now that will distract us from our eternal beliefs. Then when suffering arrives, our attachments are made even more urgent. They seem to weigh us down and keep our sight too short.

  • Our health and freedom
  • The mortgage and our debt
  • Family and friendships
  • That all important career
  • The future of our children
  • Those big plans for retirement

When we suffer (or someone close to us suffers) we face an existential fork in the road. We can run down the path of panic and fear – filling our pockets with worry about the here and now as if it was all that really mattered. Or, we can take the path that leads us toward that vast horizon of eternity. Things that only mattered, now seem to matter just enough, only after drawing near to God.

“We lead our lives so poorly because we arrive in the present always unprepared, incapable, and too distracted for everything.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Life

When we spend so much of our life worrying we haven’t anything left to spend on seeking what will matter forever. When suffering raises it’s ugly snout, our worries multiply through the roof. Fear drives us into the dark woods and we lose sight of home.

I DON’T WANT TO GET ADJUSTED

In this world we have our trials
sometimes lonesome, sometimes blue
but the hope of life eternal
Makes all old hopes brand new

And I don’t want to get adjusted to this world, to this world
I’ve got a home so much better
and I’m gonna go there sooner or later
And I don’t want to get adjusted to this world, to this world

Lord, I’m growing old and weary
and there’s no place that feels like home
Saviour come, my soul to ferry
to where I never more will roam

And I don’t want to get adjusted to this world, to this world
I’ve got a home so much better
and I’m gonna go there sooner or later
And I don’t want to get adjusted to this world, to this world

Iris Dement

Jesus’ parting words to his disciples… Don’t get lost in despair; believe in God, and keep on believing in Me. My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you. If there were not room for everyone, I would have told you that. I am going to make arrangements for your arrival.  I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together. 

– John 14:1-3  (The Voice)

Through Every Dark Night

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“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I’ve been thinking about suffering these days.

There are different kinds of suffering. I just read one pastor who cataloged 14 different kinds of suffering he found in the Bible. That’s a lot of heartache. It’s impossible to divorce the Christian life from suffering. It’s almost impossible to find someone in the Bible who didn’t experience suffering. Suffering has always been a part of the life of faith. I suspect it always will be.

We can experience misery as the result of consequences, such as bad behavior or selfishness.

  • When people have to go to prison for breaking the law
  • A student fails a class because he stopped attending or didn’t hand in assignments
  • A family falls apart because neither spouse will give in

But the kind of suffering I have been thinking about is the kind that happens to people out of the blue, when someone experiences terrible harm for no reason at all other than because they live here on earth with others.

  • A drunk driver kills a family in another car
  • A child is diagnosed with an incurable cancer
  • The economy shifts and your father loses his job all of a sudden
  • An innocent victim is sexually assaulted

It doesn’t seem like the same degree of suffering if its somehow deserved. There’s got to be a different word. To me, what makes it real suffering is that the people who live the experience have done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Horror and pain sometimes fall without reason on innocent people. That’s suffering.

 “The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time.”
– Psalm 34:19

There is no immunity from trouble, from suffering. Even people who are living right, end up suffering. How will God come to the rescue? So often, it’s not the way we planned or fast enough. But He is near to the brokenhearted. When we walk through the valley of shadows He provides visible comfort. His Holy Spirit has been sent to walk with us so that we will never be alone, never be afraid, never feel abandoned. Through every dark night there waits a sunrise.

“The Lord has turned all our sunsets into sunrise” – Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD)

 

 

Who You Thought You Were

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I was watching a talk by writer David Brooks a few weeks ago. He said something that seemed very important to me.

“As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.” 

Tillich was a Lutheran theologian from Germany (1886-1965). He spent his academic career here in the United States first at Union Theological Seminary and then at Harvard Divinity School. I hear these words from the past and I discover some meaning to the road I’m on for the past few years. A road I’m sharing with several others as well.

My response to suffering has been anything but pretty. I can’t believe what’s coming out of my mouth most of the time. I’m the guy who has old men at church calling me “sir” – surely at this stage I am supposed to have things figured out and be able to maturely handle defeats and disasters. But that’s not what’s been going on. Tillich hits the nail on my head. I’m never going to grow up if I’m not even sure of who I really am.

“I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity but to mature and transfigure us.” ― Hermann Hesse

When we suffer we are able to look past the fable of who we think we are and present to others. We see another side of ourselves, the vulnerable and broken remains.

  • Suffering helps us to grow up because it reveals to us a truth hidden from our happy introspection
  • Suffering helps us to see what must be attended to in our lives, we see faults and frailties for the first time or that we thought we had outgrown
  • Suffering shows us more of the truth and less of the fiction that keeps us deluded about whether we are moving forward or not

This quote from Tillich continues to speak to me because it calls me to cast off more and more of the comforting veneer and become more genuine, more frail and less in control. I believe that transformation, healing and growth can happen only when we look at our true selves. No, I’m not who I thought I was.

That’s okay.

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed