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. :)]