Sunday, November 30, 2014

Working Through Transitions

Transitions can be hard.  Even good change can be complicated.  Traveling, seeing something finish, starting something new, taking time off--whatever the specifics of the situation, transitioning from one phase of life to another can be tricky, and this escalates to a whole new level when you add chronic illness into the picture.

Before anyone goes running off spreading the rumor that I'm pregnant or something similar, I'm not.  Sorry to disappoint. :P  Moving on...

I think what I find hardest about transitions is the opening it can give to doubt, insecurity, and fear.  While things are known, there is a certain amount of security and routine.  No matter how hard or how bad the routine can be--it is still routine.  Dealing with new situations involves a certain amount of necessary unknowns.

Such a transition is the new reality in our household.  Effective December 1st, Jon will be working as the manager of our local Habitat for Humanity Restore, and I will be working from home part-time as an online freelancer doing odd jobs involving typing, proofreading, formatting, writing, researching, and any other odd contracts that come my way.  This transition should allow me to take more time to rest and try to not get as worn down  as well as have more time to devote to school.

Upon sharing this news with many people I've had a broad spectum of responses--ranging from gleeful well-wishes to skeptical raised eyebrows.  While i wish I could say that I knew exactly how things were going to go and that everything was settled, that is simply not the case.  As you might imagine, there are a lot of unknown factors at play here.

Both of our jobs changing at the same time, our household income decreasing by a significant chunk, and our entire home dynamic shifting is cause for a little transition anxiety along with some insecurities surfacing.  The good news is that we know our God provides for His children, and there is no doubt that He has provided these job changes and will continue to provide for us along the way.

In a lot of ways these jobs have been perfectly chosen for us, particularly with regard to our long-term hope of moving to the Middle East down the road.  Jon's new job with Habitat may very well connect him with employment opportunities overseas once he is established in the organization.  They have building projects in many countries around the world, and part of his motivation in changing jobs is the future possibility of using this as a network to gain access to places we would otherwise have a very difficult time getting to and staying in.  Also, with my job being primarily internet-based, I will be able to theoretically work from just about anywhere that has internet access.

So, as risky as all these changes may seem on the surface, God is already providing the details and leading us in a very gentle step-by-step way.  It's not easy to leave these kinds of details in His hand, especially when fibro threatens to make it next to impossible to turn off my mind, but it is encouraging to see the work He has already done in us and to look forward to what He is going to do with us in the future.  We appreciate your prayers and will keep you updated as we see further progress.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Home is Worth it

Have you ever had a day where you felt like survival mode had to kick in to get you to the end of it in one piece?  What about a week like that?  How about an entire month or year of your life?  I have.  I think many people with chronic illnesses could attest to that being the case on a fairly regular basis. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are often sucked into the belief that the only way we will make it to the end of the next week, day, or hour is to put on our "game face" and plunge back into the fray with a stiff upper lip.  We look out at what we have to face, look inside at our own limited resources and energy reserves and resolve to dig in because there is no one else to handle it for us.  That sounds lovely, but in fact, after the first round or so it gets tiring.  After five-ish rounds it is downright exhausting, and after several years of doing that on a fairly regular basis, it becomes not only a habit, but an entrenched way of life. 

So, what am I saying?  Is it wrong to it survival mode and just grit your teeth and get through it?  Perhaps not.  Is it where we want to live?  Not really.  Even with a chronic illness, with frequent doctor visits, new prescriptions, side effects, lack of sleep, interpersonal stress, survival mode is not really a healthy place to live long-term.  If it were, I'm pretty sure they would have come up with a more appealing name for it by now. The point is, we can go there for short periods, but some of us live there a little too often.  Christ did not breathe new life into us simply to keep us barely alive and hanging on for dear life (though there are definitely times when that seems like it is all we can do).  Christ came to bring us life that we could live abundantly.  So how do we do that with a disease that seems to zap the life right out of you?  Good question.  I'm still working on that answer. 

I think the key to abundantly living out faith in spite of chronic disease is to stop focusing so intently on what is wrong with us.  Let me say that again -- We need to stop focusing so strenuously at what is wrong with us and get our eyes back on the One who makes all things right.  That doesn't mean it's an easy thing to do. When you're in pain, the last thing you want is someone telling you to just not think about the pain and it will go away (that isn't usually true).  Think about it though--there is pain in this world.  There is heartache and tragedy and sorrow--all because of the curse.  This world is inevitably broken and falling apart (much like our bodies feel on a daily basis). 

We of all people have been given a unique opportunity to long all the more earnestly for the glorious appearing of our Savior.  Our very bodies and the whole creaton are crying out in brilliant harmonies desperately yearning for Jesus to come back and reveal to us who we truly are. 

It's not your typical take on chronic illness, but stop and think for a moment about the fact that your physical disease may, in fact, be pointing you and others to a deeper need.    Rather than let us get too comfortable here and feel too much at home, we are given the privilege of longing for our true Home more than ever. 

That is a gift--albeit a painful one.  Whether the pain is cancer, accompanied by the constant worry of whether the treatment is working, or the constant torment of rheumatoid arthritis, or the steady pain and weakness of fibromyalgia, don't let the pain that accompanies you on your journey Home rob you of the joy that comes in this journey.  It is not because we like pain or wish to suffer for the fun of it, but because we know there is great purpose in it, and a loving reason behind it all.  There is joy in longing for the Home you have never yet seen.  Thank God for yet another way we can see that we are merely travelers in this world, walking through broken, rough ground. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Responding to Shared Pain

It's been a little while since I posted on here.  The idea I want to talk about is one that has recently been driven home with such force that I couldn't entirely find the words or the strength to express it, but it is one that I believe is worthy of being said and emphasized.  So, diving in...Here we go.

On August 27th my cousin Don was in a very serious car accident.  I will spare the details because I know my family has seen them repeated ad nauseam on the internet, in person, over the phone, etc.   He hit a semi and was very severely injured.  He had to have brain surgery and leg surgery that same day while many of us sat in the waiting room trying to let the events of that morning process through our minds and hearts.  People flew into action, whether donating money, or starting facebook groups with support and prayer, or even just bringing in food--everybody was onboard.  This was good, this was encouraging, and I know it has helped to see people from all over the country praying for him and our family.

It's hard to describe with accuracy the bond between my cousins and I.  It's often a flexible word meaning anything from your best friend and playmate growing up to someone you may have only met once in your life.  In our case, it is definitely a case of the former.  Our group of cousins has been extremely close and for that reason this event struck a deep chord with all of us.

I don't share this account looking to drum up more support for a cause, or even to try to evoke some kind of sympathetic gesture from anybody.  I simply have been learning recently that there is a major difference between facing your individual level of pain (i.e. chronic illness) and facing pain that is so major it sends shockwaves out to an entire group of people simultaneously.  There can be a tendency to think that your own pain only affects you (even though we've already discussed how that is not entirely true) but there is no denying the impact that an event like this has on many people.

It's not always easy to find a way to help in situations like this when you already feel so weak to begin with.  When the people closer to the situation seem stronger than you are, and more able to control their emotions and face daily life, you might wonder if there is something wrong with you.  "Why can they get it together and I'm still crying?"  "Why can't I just trust God and go back to my routine without wondering about it all the time?"

What God has been showing me these past few weeks is that having a chronic illness doesn't mean you're the only person in the room struggling with something big.  And while facing that at the same time as a family crisis may add another level of challenge, it doesn't mean that you can't be used of God to comfort other people or simply just be available for them.  There is so much of living with fibro that means "you can't" but in this case, living with fibro means sometimes you can walk into this kind of situation and hold someone who's crying and feel enough of their pain to grieve with them, or share enough of the heartache that you are a safe person to be honest with.

Trying to go through life with your pain and sensitivity meters set about 50 levels higher than normal is often a very frustrating way to live, but every once in a while God gives glimpses of ways in which it is not roadblock, but a gift.  When everyone around you is suddenly facing immeasurable pain and questions, you get the chance to set aside your daily pain and focus intently on reminding them who your Savior is.  That is an awesome thing, and I think that is something I may have been much less ready to do had I not already been forced to slow down and do that to some extent to myself on a daily basis.

A side note: whether you have fibro or not, it is not a bad thing to set aside yourself for a while and enter into someone else's pain for a bit.  The Body of Christ possesses an amazing strength in its inter-connections, primarily because of the connection starting with Christ.  We lose a lot when we get so absorbed into our own routines and concerns that we only care about others when we're with them.  Also, cliches are not always helpful.  Sometimes it's hard to say the truth without it sounding cliched, but grasping for something out of the cultural tragedy box is only as helpful as the depth of the relationship.

Also, horror stories?  Why do people feel inclined to share horror stories?  If you've truly been through something like this, you have enough common ground to know you don't have to prove it by giving graphic details of other people's hospital stays...  and if you haven't, you really don't have to search for it that way... :P  Ok, that's all I have, I apologize in advance if this post makes no sense, but I felt compelled to share something and my mind and heart haven't finished the processing time yet, so it may be entirely jumbled.  We do appreciate your continuing prayers as Don hopefully moves to a Rehabilitation Hospital on Monday.  He is doing infinitely better than the doctors gave any chance to hope.  For that and for all of this pain we praise God.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Theological Problem of Chronic Pain

It may be a little late into this blog to get into this particular thought, but I thought I'd give it a go anyway.  I was thinking about this earlier today amid the craziness of church.  My current musing is the idea of dealing with chronic pain.  This whole blog is about dealing with fibromyalgia from a Christian perspective and a big part of that is dealing with chronic pain. Lots of people have some trouble facing the idea that God Himself might directly or indirectly be the cause of their pain. 
Oddly enough,  I am not one of those people.  I find few things (if anything) as comforting as the idea that every struggle, difficult situation, and heartache has been chosen by God to make me more like Jesus.  There are few things I can think of that would be worse than the thought that all of my pain in my lifetime is random and without purpose.  So at the end of the day I don't struggle with the theological idea that God may leave me in pain for the rest of my life. That's the easy part.  Getting on here every month or so and sharing truth that God has seen fit to teach me through this--that's not hard.  I could write volumes of articles on the harsher mercies of God, the pain and suffering of following Him with cross in hand, and do it without challenging a single belief or conviction that I hold. 

So why am I writing about this?  There is one tiny part I forgot to mention  that I do struggle with on a semi-regular basis, and that is where this truth becomes reality on a daily basis to  me personally.  It's easy to proclaim the theological purpose behind suffering, but it's difficult to tangibly serve God through it.  I love sitting and theorizing about God's plan for different situations.  I throughly enjoy seeing God glorify Himself through the suffering I see in believers around me, when they hurt deeply and still trust Him.  What I don't have a very good appetite for is feeling the pain all the time and trying to still hold onto my joy.  I don't mind the side of it that involves talking about how good and faithful my God is, but when it comes to Monday morning and I haven't really slept the night before and I'm gulping down a handful of prescriptions and over-the-counter pain mess just to make it into work close to on time, can I really claim that I am embracing God's harsh mercy for me? 

Why is there such a disconnect between what my brain knows is true and what I feel in a regular basis about the way things are?  Sadly, I am ashamed of the answer, but feel compelled to share it with you guys, because this problem is bigger than just me.  Simply put, I still hold my personal comfort and desires before God's glory in my life.  Doesn't that sound horrible when you say it in real words?  But is it not true just the same?  If I know that God is in control of my circumstances, and I know that He could have chosen differently for me, but He didn't...  If I know that He will bring glory to His name through what He brings into my life, then why am I not more excited to watch and be a part of Him finishing what He's been faithfully working on since the beginning of time?  I would rather be comfortable and happy than suffer--even if God is glorified through that suffering.

I would like to think that there are at least moments of clarity where I can see the bigger picture and embrace what God is doing whatever the personal costs, but I would be lying to you if I claimed that's where I am all the time.  The majority of the time I am simply putting one foot ahead of the other, and hoping for an easier day tomorrow--that's just not good enough.  That's not joy, and that's not a full picture of what the Gospel looks like.  It is not enough to half-hearted walk around wishing for "better" because there isn't better to be had.  We are not here to be comfortable,  and we are not here to be served.  Are we better than Jesus? 

So this is a challenge to myself as much to anyone else, but rather than just acknowledging in my mind that God's glory is more valuable to me than my comfort (all the while feeling disappointed with His plans for me) I want to truly embrace this idea when Monday hits and I feel like crud but have to go work anyway.   I want to embrace this when I feel alone and isolated with nowhere to look but up.  When I feel short on comforters or understanding from other people,  I want to learn to be content in whatever situation I find myself in, because ultimately His glory and His name are worth a lot more than my comfort.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fibro Meets Wedding Meets Gospel

For those of you who just did a double take, no--Jon and I did not have yet another wedding.  We did, however, spend a few days last weekend completely engulfed in the wedding of two very close friends. I won't pretend that there weren't last minute headaches, 5-a-day trips to WalMart for extra supplies, miscommunications galore, missed details, time crunch stress, disaster area kitchens, and most other hectic events commonly experienced in today's wedding scene.  But typical wedding chaos aside, this was by no means your typical wedding.

I guess lots of people think that weddings they are heavily-involved in are special and unique.  It sounds like a cliche.  But while most maids of honor are out stressing over the details of the decorations or meticulously planning special parties for nervous brides, I hit my limits long before the work was done.  To top things off, I realized the morning of the wedding I had completely forgotten to actually purchase the wedding present...

Yeah, it was that kind of weekend.  I had a lot of times before the wedding when I felt like a complete failure--as a friend, as a wife, as a worker, as a Christian in general, as a human being...

Many of my thoughts in the weeks preceding the ceremony included all the traditional roles I wasn't living up to, all the responsibilities I was supposed to be helping with, and how overwhelming the remaining things to be done sounded.  I felt trapped beneath the weight of culture's expectations for a wedding (including those specifically for a maid of honor).  In moments of this lost perspective, my fibro reared its ugly head and tried to make me forget why I was even a part of the wedding to start with.  That could have drastically affected my view of this wedding and the days leading up to and directly following it.  I could have found myself sinking into the darkness and fog of comparison and guilt and wondering why God would put me in this spot of wanting to help and do certain things and then not give me the energy and power to do them.  It could also have negatively affected relationships with all involved.  Thanks be to God, it didn't.  What I haven't told you about this wedding yet, is that both the bride and the groom were not in this wedding for themselves.

This might seem odd, especially considering culture's idea of what marriage is about today, but they truly weren't.  From start to finish, this wedding was not about getting the perfect decorations, finding the most breath-taking photographic angle, or getting a picture-perfect cake.  This wedding party was not there to worship the bride and groom.  They were there to worship Someone else.  This was a celebration--grace was on display.  God brought together a man and a woman who are both fallen sinners, who both struggle to trust Him with their biggest, deepest, scariest hurts.  A couple who are perfectly paired to bring out each other's most drastic insecurities and weaknesses, and yet are also perfectly designed to be the method most used by God to bring about their deepest healing.  What we saw at that church was not a perfectly engineered and manufactured Kodak moment or a Hallmark movie ending.  It was a public display of gracious, transparent, vulnerable, risk-taking, committed, self-sacrificing love.  It was a symbol of Christ taking His church with all her weakness and vulnerability and scooping her up in His arms and embracing her to himself.  It was a visible reminder that in Christ, broken people are restored and healed and loved.  It was Gospel.

Why am I sharing this on a fibro blog?  I know, this is sounding a little more wedding-ish than my normal posts, but I share this here because I was struck to the core by the amount of grace that went into this wedding.  Not only was the public presentation extremely Gospel-centered, but the whole preparation and understanding involved behind-the-scenes exuded grace from start to finish.

I am pretty sure that I could be in the running for worst bridesmaid of the year, but that was not the point.  The point was, grace.  I felt so privileged to get a ringside seat for this tribute to Gospel.  My fibro has kept me from doing a lot of things, and will probably prevent me from doing many more in the future.  One thing it could not steal was the opportunity to proclaim grace with my sister and (now) brother on a very special day.  I could relate to their feelings of vulnerability, and I could praise my God for their willingness to make that day about His work in their lives, rather than their feelings or plans.  Whatever lies ahead for them, I know that God is in it, and He will finish what He has started in them.  Grace and peace to Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah Brown. <3

P.S. Your wedding present is coming in the mail ;)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Can you help me?"

I hate asking for help.  Honestly, if I can find a way (however inconvenient or bizarre it may be) to do things on my own, typically I do.  This may range from any number of things such as: moving heavy furniture, extensive work projects where I don't really know what I'm doing, driving long distances to pick up and drop off people, carrying things, and the list could go on, but it would probably get too specific.  Suffice it to say, I like to do things myself.  Like the proverbial toddler who takes 5 times as long to tie his shoes and stand up as it would take his mother to tie his shoes for him and carry him to the car--I metaphorically yell "I do it myself..." to the world and send a message of "beware" to any who would attempt to intervene.

I think some of this has to do with being an American and probably with being raised fairly conservative.  I tend to fall on the side of people who idolize the American dream as not just having financial success, but having whatever I get as a result of my own hard work.  Nothing is good enough if I didn't earn it myself, carry my own weight, keep up with the pack, don't drag others down, etc.  There is an entire subculture of America that makes being self-sufficient a "Christian" thing to do.  How did that come about?  Does the Gospel look AT ALL like something you accomplish for yourself? Or something you deserve?   Not in my Bible.  Strangely enough, it is the exact opposite that is reflected in the pages from the very beginning to the very end.  It is simply grace that allows us to take part in his story.  

So, why write about this topic on a blog about being a Christian with fibro?  I'm so glad you asked... ;)  What if, God gave certain of us believers these chronic, painful diseases and conditions so that we could be used to glorify him and help edify the rest of the Body of Christ (i.e. the healthy Christians)?  What if part of our role as believers is to help and be helped by other believers?  How can grace and mercy and compassion be shown to a community of people who all pretend they are fine and self-sufficient so that nobody looks down on them?

There is no shame in needing help.  In fact, there can be danger in being unwilling to ask for help, because problems get hidden instead of solved, and people suffer silently unwilling to admit their struggle.  The Body of Christ was designed to both accept and to extend help, as an arm might help compensate for the other arm if it happened to be injured.  Our theology on salvation may be technically correct, but we have at large embraced a practical methodology that supports the idea that you may enter the Kingdom under grace, but once you get there you have to keep your place by works.  Chronic illness makes requesting help even harder, because it is not a one-time thing.  

People may be happy to help you once or twice, but when your needs become chronic along with your illness, and you begin to feel weak and helpless and like a drain on society; that is when you have to hold on to the truth that asking for help is not a shameful thing to do.

I can't say anything to make it easier to ask for help, but I can urge you, my sisters and brothers in the Faith, to strive for a community of grace that encourages and embodies the love and understanding necessary to support those who are dealing with sometimes devastating and debilitating conditions on a daily basis.  Let's put aside our instinct to judge each other and look down on each other or on the flipside to avoid asking for help due to pride or fear of judgment.  Stop trying to be an island, and grow into the Body joined together by ligaments and joints.  We are the hands.  We are the feet.  Let's get walking. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Stop Hiding

I have a friend who is in great pain.  She is often in pain to some degree, but there are times when it reaches an over-the-top level.  Unfortunately, she lives far away and I have no way to go to her house and sit by her bed and talk to her.  I can't drop by with something silly I found at the store or just give her a gentle hug to remind her that God still loves her.  That is hard.

I have many friends who struggle with different areas, and for some reason, almost none of them live within hugging distance.

It's hard to watch those you care about suffering.  It's even harder when there is no clear cause and indeed no cure.  With no definite end in sight, it becomes a waiting game.  Even good days can be viewed as merely segues into the next crash.  

Fibromyalgia is notorious for letting you have some good days and then making you pay for them slowly and painfully.  There are times when it feels like a malevolent intelligence is orchestrating the pain my body experiences.  I sometimes feel afraid to enjoy a good day, because I know the bad one is coming.

Sometimes this cycle of ups and downs feels oppressive to me and I enter what we like to call "the fog."  It is a very dark, hopeless place that manifests itself in different ways depending on the situation.  I can be there for days and just drift through my routine.  When I'm in the fog, sometimes I am afraid to tell other people about it.  I feel the weight that it puts on me and I hesitate at the thought of laying that weight on someone else, even a small part of it.  I can rationalize it away as much as I want.  It's not their problem.  They have enough to worry about without adding my load to theirs.  They won't understand and it will just make it awkward for them when we talk. And the list could go on and on. 

When I continue to resist letting others see the struggle and participate in it with me, the feelings of hopelessness and defeat grow exponentially until they seem to be the only thing I can see.  

It is easy, when in great pain, to feel like a burden on others.  It's easy to hate the thought of being "the invalid" who has lots of needs and can't "carry their own weight."  These thoughts can come like a mental avalanche burying you in feelings of inadequacy, false guilt, failure, depression, etc.  But when this cycle of mental roller coaster takes over, there are some basic truths we are missing.  

God is sovereign over your pain. 

God was not sleeping when you were diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  He wasn't away on vacation when you began fighting the pain to get out of bed every morning.  He was there.  He is still there.  This pain is not beyond the scope of His control.  Nothing is.

You are not the only one affected by your pain.

The body of Christ is a BODY.  When one part is hurt, the whole body is affected.  We are members of the same body and our Head is Christ.  When you hurt, the people who love you hurt too.  They just may not feel free to tell you that while you're in the fog.  

God has a purpose for your pain that goes beyond you.

Believe it or not, God is using your pain in other people's lives.  It doesn't feel like it, but God's plan for your pain goes beyond how it affects you.  Others are given the chance to share in the struggle and face it with you when you share it with them.  
Rather than hiding it and pretending it's not there, perhaps your role is to bless others by putting them in a position to experience grace along with you.

...the gospel creates community...

The truth is, there is a weight to our pain, and sharing it will lay some of that weight on others' shoulders.  But that is not necessarily a bad thing.  The Gospel, when applied to daily life, creates community.  Instinctively, we are now more concerned about others than ourselves.  We want to give beyond our means to others.  We hurt for those who hurt, and we celebrate with those who celebrate.  We are community, and when one of us is hurting, the rest of us need to be ready to help.  We are irreversibly connected to each other.
So...stop hiding.
It is not our place to decide how God will use our pain in other people's lives.  We don't get to decide that any more than we get to decide how He will use it in our own.  We are simply tasked with being obedient and trusting that His purposes for this suffering are good and beyond our comprehension.  

Let the body do what it is designed to do.  Let others share in God's grace as He sustains you through your worst days and scariest nights.  Take it to Jesus and don't resist when He sends His followers to help.  Stop hiding your weaknesses and let grace and love and mercy and compassion be practiced within this family of believers.

So, when you are faced with something much bigger than you can deal with alone, find someone else who will walk down the road with you, and let them help you carry it as you both walk Home.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Finding Your Identity Outside of Your Ministry (Fibro in Ministry pt. 2)

From the title, you might be a little uneasy.  It doesn't sound like a nice, warm and fuzzy topic.  After all, as Christians we like the word "ministry" and it sounds very biblical and devoted to say that our identity is found within the particular ministry we serve in.  In this same vein of thinking we call leaders by their roles within the church "Pastor Joe, Pastor Mark, etc."  Even those who do not have the title in their direct address, we often still label as if that is their claim to fame.  "John Doe, missionary to Chad," "James Johnson, evangelist and author," even "Sally Jameson, church pianist" or "Jenny Jackson, VBS teacher, nursery worker, alto in choir, casserole maker, etc."  The list could go on and on.  We constantly label people based on what they accomplish or how they contribute to the cause of Christianity.  We are not alone in this--the secular world does the same thing.  People are frequently identified by their contributions to the world at large, or their talent in a particular field.

When you are enveloped in a culture that treats identity this way, it's very difficult to see reality any other way.  Perhaps it's true, perhaps your identity is tied integrally to what you do.  This has been perpetuated, particularly for women in the church.  You are what you do (a trendy spin-off of you are what you eat, I guess.)  But is this true?

This question does not seem like a big deal to people who are easily capable of meeting the expectations of  those around them and themselves.  It doesn't bother people to tie their identity to something they excel at.  It is appealing, is it not?  Do we not all want to be defined by something that makes us look good?  Do we not all want to find acceptance and appreciation from others based on our own works?  It makes us feel good and accomplished.  As Americans especially we are trained to "carry our own weight" and "judge people based on their actions, not the stereotype of their people group."  This sounds good, right?

This question becomes a big deal when you are chronically ill.  Suddenly, no matter how much you want to, you cannot fill the roles you used to.  You may be unable to teach that class or sing in church or bring a covered dish to an activity.  You might find that eventually you lose claim to every shred of "identity" you once had in the church.  

Regardless of whether you're a pastor's wife, the children's Sunday School teacher, a long-standing member of the choir, or simply a faithful church member there is a sense of identity tied to your role.  It may be small or it may be significant, but it exists.  There can be a profound sense of loss when separated from your typical areas of service.  What does a teacher feel when they cannot teach?  Or a pastor who can no longer preach?  A die-hard choir member whose voice is taken by circumstances beyond their control?  What do you do when every area of service seems stripped away?  What is left of your "identity"? Are you still valuable to God?  Is it possible or even a good thing to find your identity outside of the ministry God gives to/takes away from you?

How can we know?  Is my identity found in what I do?  Should I define myself by the job I have or the volunteer services I provide whether in church or in the community at large?  How does God define me? 

The Bible is clear in its teaching that our identity is found in Christ and in him alone.  We are not brought into the Body of Christ based on our actions, why should we start defining ourselves by them once we are in it?  

It is very difficult to separate oneself from the ideas we grow up with and are taught from a young age.  It is also difficult to define yourself one way when it seems everyone around you defines you by different criteria, but let me explain why I feel it is crucial to do just that.

If we allow ourselves to be defined by what we do instead of who we are in Christ, we are no longer standing in the grace of God that brings salvation.  We have become children of works, trying to earn our position and keep our position through our own efforts.  Unless we allow Christ to redefine us with his shared identity, we will continually fall short of our own internal expectations (as well as others) and when chronic illness interferes with fulfilling the roles we once held, we will face a spiritual identity crisis.

So what's the point of all this?  Are we not supposed to serve and enjoy it? Here's the point:

Whether chronically ill or not, we must NEVER define ourselves by our skills, talents, accomplishments, or even (dare I say it?) our service in ministry.  No matter how good it sounds it is a vicious lie to say that we can be defined by our particular ministry.  Say it again: We are NOT defined by the ministry or ministries we serve in.  

Therefore, we must refuse to be defined by anything outside of Christ.  Christ is our identity.  Christ is our head.  Christ is now how we see ourselves.  Christ is how God sees us.  No matter how sick you are, how ineffective you feel, or how downright useless your life seems--Christ is your identity.  If anyone has an issue with your physical weaknesses, they can take it up with your Head who is Christ.  If you have an issue with your own weakness--take it up with your Head.  He has a purpose in how He has made you, and your worth to Him has nothing to do with you getting the job done.

How do we serve?  We serve where we can, and we don't feel like failures for not serving where we can't.  We follow Jesus, and let Him show us where to get involved, how much we should be involved, and what we should be doing.  We do not let feelings of inadequacy and others' opinions determine how we serve God.  We serve where we are, and trust our Father to give us His best.

[Consider this rant officially completed. :)]

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Fibro Stole My Twenties..." (or did it...?)

For those of you who aren't aware today is actually Fibromyalgia Awareness Day.  Rather than just do a quick "find appropriate graphic and post on your facebook wall to promote more uninformed throwing around of the term" I thought I'd take some time to post on something that God has been working in my life because of my fibromyalgia.

"My fibro stole my 20's..."
"Fibro took some of the years when I should have been the most active and productive and left me hobbling around my house fighting to get out of bed every morning..."
"My condition killed my dream of becoming..."

These are all comments and thoughts you might find in online support groups around the world, whether for fibro specifically or chronic painful conditions generically.  It is very common to hear people describe their illness in terms similar to these.  They go through a grieving process where they deal with what they have lost as a result of their disease.  Many times people move through it and get to the other side able to keep a mostly positive outlook on life and enjoy what they do still have.  However, some never emerge from this period of grief and spend the rest of their lives proclaiming their condition and their pain to their friends and family and bellowing it from the metaphorical rooftops on internet forums and chat groups.

I had this thought this morning on my drive to work.  My exact thought being "Fibro has stolen my 20's from me."  I thought about lots of my friends who are able to be nearly as busy as they were back in college, or others who manage to work a full-time job, be involved in every activity at church, have multiple children, somehow produce edible food at meal times regularly, etc.  The list could go on and on.  When I think about the things I'd like to be thinking about while still in my 20's instead of what I end up spending lots of time thinking about (prescription drug interactions, side-effects, "how bad is my pain today?", what kind of pain is it and what kind of drugs work for that kind of pain, etc.)  I can get really frustrated.  Sometimes I want to look at God and just ask, "What could you possibly have planned in all this that is good?"  But only a couple minutes into my drive to work and pondering these thoughts, I had a pretty startling realization.  It was obvious, and I should have started here, but I didn't.  It dawned on me as I was muddling through all the dismal details of daily life with fibro, that Fibro didn't steal anything from me.  That was such a big, new thought to me that I need to say that again for those who are skimming this post.

Fibro didn't steal anything from me.

It's true.  Yes, it feels like fibro has taken away the possibility of living at the speed I thought best and most efficient.  Yes, it has drastically changed the way I live each day.  But, no, it isn't "stealing my twenties."  This realization came in the form of several connected thoughts.  To say that Fibro stole my twenties is embracing one of several lies.  Either I'm saying that God had a better plan for me, and fibro somehow managed to mess that up so I'm stuck with mediocre existence Plan B.  Or, I'm saying that this decade of my life actually belongs to me, not God, so if God is giving me fibro then He is stealing my life, health, enjoyment, etc. from me.  Starting to see the problem?  #1 - Fibro is NOT more powerful than God.  #2 - My twenties don't actually belong to me anyway.

So, let me sum it up this way--While life with fibro can be a very painful and sometimes spiritually challenging existence, it is not a second best "sorry it's the best we could come up with on short notice" type of life (even in ministry), and it is certainly not something that was mine to start with.  God has a plan and purpose for even this, especially this.  Though it can take things I love and put them on the shelf at times, though it can smash my dreams and plans to bits so I watch them shatter on the ground, it can't do that to God's plans for my life.  The twenties may be when most people are most active and flexible and able to "conquer the world" but for me the twenties are definitely becoming a time when God slows everything down and waits for me to pay attention, and then shows His strength in my utter weakness.   It's all His.  There is not a second of my life that is not under His jurisdiction and control.  If fibro is His plan for these years, then it is good.  I may not feel it, or understand it, but that does not make it any less so.

Whether you're completely oblivious to what fibromyalgia is, or whether you're living with it everyday and have for years--don't be deceived. Don't listen to the lies or plausible arguments.  Not one moment of this is wasted or unnoticed by God.  Embrace what He is doing, and stand in awe of His grace that He lets you be a part of it.

"In the hands of our Redeemer, nothing is wasted."   - Jason Gray, Nothing is Wasted

Monday, April 21, 2014

Stewardship of Broken Bodies

This may seem like an odd topic to post on the night of Easter, but this has been running through my mind periodically for the past few days.  You hear occasional teaching on maintaining stewardship of your physical body to the glory of God."You aren't your own..." they say. Or something to the effect of "God didn't give you a body so you could use it on whatever you want. It belongs to him." There is plenty of teaching on the topic of sacrificial giving of yourself in order to help the cause of Christ.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a virtual vacuum of teaching on how to be a good steward of your body if it doesn't work the way it's supposed to.  How are we to be good stewards of bodies that wear out more quickly than they should? What if your condition leaves you incapable of fulfilling the expectations other people (sometimes including even your local church) have for you? What do service and ministry look like then?  It can be a very difficult situation to find yourself in--physically incapable of meeting requirements from your job, expectations at church, and possibly even self-imposed obligations at home.  There is a thought prevalent in a lot of churches today that says you can't be spiritual if you can't handle as much as the average, dedicated member.  For some reason, even being chronically ill is not a good enough answer to these obligations.  You must still find a way to provide for your family, be there for your friends and family, and find time to make cookies for the special event at church or you are not a good, spiritual wife/woman.

My question here is what do you do when your physical health and perceived spiritual obligations seem to being conflict? Do you find a way to get it all done no matter what the cost? Or do you simply step back in failure wishing it were possible to serve the way you once could, but no longer can? It's hard to deal with the spiritual pressure faced by those with chronic conditions that are not visible to the casual observer.  No one expects someone who has lost a leg to keep up the pace they did when they still had both legs. It's hard to find that same level of adjusted expectation when your diagnosis doesn't come with crutches or a wheelchair, or even a bandaid.  What adds to the frustration is the fact that many strong believers in this situation are already frustrated with their increasing limits and feel inadequate on their own without facing the frustration of those who used to feel they were dependable or reliable.  So the question still remains--what does biblical stewardship look like as it relates to bodies that are unreliable at best, completely broken down at worst?  What does God expect of the chronically ill among his people?  Aren't we supposed to gladly spend and be spent for the sake of the Gospel?  How does that relate to our physical health when our supply of energy is already precarious?

Upon thinking through this issue for quite a while, I think I have come up with some biblical principles that apply here...

1. Because our bodies belong to God, they are not ours to abuse or to selfishly hoard.  By this I mean that neither extreme reflects legitimate stewardship of the resources God has given us.  We should not be harmfully over-extending ourselves by giving in to external pressures or false guilt, but we also cannot use the concept of "stewardship" as a copout to avoid giving sacrificially of ourselves (up to and including being physically worn out and possibly sick sometimes).

2. God is not unaware of our physical limitations, because he planned them for us specifically. What can get confusing about this is when those in spiritual leadership over us try to get us to do more than we are physically or mentally capable of doing. It's easy to confuse being asked to do something at church with God putting something on your plate.  God will supply the strength and energy necessary for everything he wants you to do, but he will not necessarily give the strength to do everything you may be asked or expected to do by others.

3. Our sacrificial service and ministry should be directed to pleasing God alone, not alleviating guilt or pleasing other people. It is true there are times when you give beyond your comfort level or even physical ability, but that should never be for the purpose of impressing other people with your level of dedication or making ourselves feel more spiritual. It should be service directly to God and will often involve difficult decisions trying to determine if it is God who wants you to do something or just a person's expectation.

There is a lot more I could say on this topic, and probably more I should say to avoid miscommunication that might occur.  Suffice it to say that as hard as it can be to accept new limitations and feeling like a failure as a Christian when you can't do everything people may think you should be able to, it is important to see that these new limitations come from the hand of God, and rather than viewing them as disrupting his plan for us, we should view them as his plan for us.  Don't think for a minute that this means finding an excuse to avoid things we don't want to do because we're simply tired.  This is a matter of viewing our God-given strength as His and trying to spend it on what his priority is for our life.  That won't look the same for everyone, but I believe the only way to pursue knowing what his priorities are is to be in the Word constantly and to desperately seek wisdom in prayer.

Take heart, my friends, he will give guidance and direction and strength for this perplexing and often exhausting journey.  And for those of us who are serving in the Gospel with chronically ill believers, let us show more often grace and love of Christ to our brothers and sisters who are struggling to keep one foot in front of the other.  More to come on ministry in the face of chronic fatigue and pain.

Grace and peace. Praise God--He is risen!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Though You Ruin Me, Still I Will Worship

After a while to reflect on and think about the shared video from last post I thought it was time to do some sharing of thoughts of my own.  It almost seems like cheating to just post someone else's really deep thoughts on my blog, even if it is just a link to their youtube video. But watching that video, listening and internalizing those words into my mind and heart, I felt compelled to share that because that is where I need to live.  

Living with fibro I find it really easy to occasionally hit these points of clarity and realization where I embrace that theology of "though You ruin me, yet I will worship."  It's easy to get there, but very difficult to stay there for very long.  It doesn't take too long for me to get sucked back into thinking that my life revolves around me, and to be sick or miserable or sad is to be failing somehow.  I am lulled back into thinking that my wants and desires are the most important thing in the world and everybody else should think that too.  

In other words, my mature theology has about a 5 second attention span.  I hate that.  I hate the thought that there is a clock on how long I maintain a correct perspective before it seems to set back to default of "creature of comforts."  I hate that although I know this truth and want to embrace this truth, I forget it all the time.  I would love to be able to get on here and say that this idea characterizes my life on a daily basis, but I don't think I can honestly say that yet.  I am gradually learning yet again that the call of the cross is not one to an easy life.  I want to embrace the fact that God's plans for my life may look nothing like what I have envisioned for myself.  I want to get to a point where more often than not and for longer than the couple minutes it takes to watch that song from the video I am fully and completely on my face with God saying and meaning it again and again, "though You ruin me, yet I will worship."