Monday, April 20, 2015

Redefining Friendships (Letting the Gospel Impact our Relationships)

One thing that chronic illness has done for me is redefine the image of friendship in my life.  Before my diagnosis a lot of my friendships were based on connections of strength.  I found other people who shared my mutual passions or interests or skills and we discussed them from positions of strength.  We both came to the table with something to offer, and we had mutually beneficial relationships.  

Some of these friendships came in the form of friends in certain classes at school; others were at church where I was able to volunteer and get involved in a variety of different programs with others equally dedicated to the cause.  In looking back on it now, I can say that most of my relationships were relying to some degree on my ability to "hold up my end of the deal" so to speak.  Whether my end was to continue being involved in a certain program at church or affirming some belief that my friend held dear or even dressing a certain way that my friend approved of.  

Acceptance was definitely dependent on certain factors which varied according to which friend was in question at the time.  Needless to say, in this type of atmosphere of friendship, my deep friendships were a lot of mental work to maintain.  Not only did I have to keep straight the criteria for keeping each friend happy individually, but I also had to work hard at times to avoid letting one friend's criteria break offend a different friend.  Those years were exhausting.

Then came the years where no matter how hard I tried I just could not keep up with the demands (whether external and real or internal and imagined).  I worked harder but fell farther and farther behind.  I was swamped with life itself, and completely drained.  My mind was completely drenched in stress on a daily basis, and I felt so intensely alone.  I gradually wandered into some new friendships while keeping some of the rare ones that didn't involve a lot of mental gymnastics, but the damage had been done.

Then came my diagnosis.  Fibromyalgia.  Those years of being inexplicably tired no matter how long I slept.  Those years of being in pain no matter if I was exercising regularly or not.  Those headaches that would not go away no matter what OTC pill or hot pack compress I tried.  Yeah, it was all real.  It wasn't going away.  That anxiety that would creep in from nowhere and stay as long as it wanted.  Those long periods of darkness that sometimes lasted for months without hope of relief.  They were probably going to be a fight for the rest of my life.  So why am I telling you all of this in a post about friendship?

In a lot of ways Fibromyalgia has complicated life for me, but in regards to friendships it has simplified things greatly.  I can no longer limit myself to friendships where I feel that I can enter from a position of strength, because to put it bluntly, I am weak.  Physically, emotionally, often spiritually and mentally.  I can't be the person whose entire friendship hinges on meeting someone else's expectations or fulfilling a need in their life, because I am often struggling to keep up with things inside the four walls that constitute my own home.  

I can't go through life viewing myself as a strong person and trying to surround myself by other strong people, because I have seen the truth.  We are weak people, and we need a strong Savior.  No one is going to be able to fulfill my expectations except Jesus (and that's only when my expectations are right, which is not always).  No one is going to be available all the time to drop everything and come to the rescue.  No one is going to always have a good attitude and tell me exactly what I need to hear or quote exactly the right verse to prop me back up on my feet.  No one is going to be all of what I need in a friend except Jesus, so what audacity do I have thinking that I can play substitute for Him?

This realization has freed me in a lot of ways.  It has been hard to see some friendships slip away from the past (but who hasn't had that happen?).  It's not always intentional on anyone's part, but sometimes people get to different places in their lives and no longer have the connection they used to.  I am genuinely grateful to God for every true, deep friend He has ever brought into my life for however short a time because I know that was His mercy and grace at work.  But honestly it's hard to stay connected with people from the past when your connection was based on what you could do and now you're....just....sick.  

Some of my closest, deepest relationships that have Gospel written all over them are people that I have known for years, who I used to think were invincible, and in recent years we have been able to connect in weakness as well as strength.  We are no longer trying to convince each other that we have no needs, but we are humbly sharing them with each other and encouraging each other to look to Jesus who is our mutual friend.  

I am also making new, deep connections with people all over the country and world who are willing to be open with their weakness and share it as a way of connecting in the Gospel.  It is refreshing and encouraging to share your struggles and weakness with someone who is honest enough and brave enough to share their own in return.  No one wants to be an emotional charity case, and the Gospel pictures the Body of Christ as a family that cries with those who cry and laughs with those who laugh.  We are to be sharing in each other's grief and bearing each other's burdens.  How can we do that if nobody knows what they are?  

I have written many times about being willing to reach out to those who are struggling with weakness, but it occurs to me that sometimes the most effective way to reach out to a weak person is to share some of your own weakness, and in the process to connect on the deepest level possible -- your mutual strength and hope -- Jesus Christ.  He is our comfort.  He is our strength.  He is the reason that the darkness does eventually lift, and the days are worth it inspite of the pain.  He is the reason we carry on. 


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"How are you doing?" (Serving through Listening)

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and realized that the person was simply waiting for you to finish talking so he could pick up where he left off?  I have--many times.  It doesn't usually lead to a productive, thought-provoking conversation.

Have you ever greeted someone with a casual, "Hey, how are you?" only to keep walking without even giving them a chance to answer you?  Did you really want an answer?

Sometimes the most loaded question you can get as someone who is chronically ill is "How are you?"  A lot depends on who is asking and what type of answer they're looking for.  Do they really want to know?  Do they only ask to be polite?  If they do seem genuine, how much can they handle?  How much do they already know, and how much context will be necessary?  It really can be exhausting trying to navigate these seemingly ordinary conversations.

Now try framing that conversation by squeezing all that analysis into the 5-10 minutes before church services start and multiply it by 10-15 people milling around trying to be "friendly" and "fellowship."  Odds are good this is the scenario facing most chronically ill people at their local churches if and when they are healthy enough or stubborn enough to drag themselves out of bed to go to a service.  

Needless to say, this situation does not bring out very many solid conversations.  The socialite walks away feeling spiritual and satisfied, and the sick believer is left feeling disconnected, marginalized, and more isolated than before.  Ironically, much of the time this ritual is being practiced in the name of "good Christian fellowship."  

Our churches are full of people who want to socialize, but can't stop to actually listen.  I'll be honest, there have been times when my least favourite question was "how are you?" because I had no idea how to answer that.  As a Christian you feel like you shouldn't lie, but you also don't necessarily feel comfortable or even expected to tell the truth.  And let's face it, who wants to be the person who always has an answer in the ballpark of "Well, I felt like crap for another week, but I'm still alive"?  What do you do when the cultural expectation in church (answer to those types of questions must be positive or risk making the other person uncomfortable) conflicts with the basic Biblical expectation (don't lie)?

You might consider this a common problem, and you might even feel equally annoyed when someone asks you a question, but doesn't really want an answer.  But how can we make this better?  We are all busy here, and we need to get back to our schedules.  If we actually stop to listen to the people we're "talking" to won't we be cutting down on our progress in ministry? 

I do have an answer to that.  The work of the ministry is people.  Broken, hurting people.  If you don't have time to listen to them and love them patiently--then you don't have time for ministry.  Whatever else you're doing in the name of "ministry" that's not it.  You may actually be doing damage in the name of Jesus.  

There is quite the push in church to have program-oriented agendas.  We will bake cookies, hand out flyers, invite people to church, witness to people, teach the children, etc.  But we are not scheduling time out to just sit and listen to the people we're supposedly trying to help.  Maybe instead of more programs and willing volunteers, what the church needs is active, compassionate listeners.

In the context of chronic illness, this can be a long, hard journey.  There are lots of ups and downs in this walk, it is often not a fun experience.  There will be medication transitions and hopes raised and dashed.  There will be side effects, new symptoms, unexpected flare-ups, cancelled plans, and all kinds of trials unique to their own struggle.  

Being there for all of it is exhuasting, but it is what the church is called to do.   As sisters and brothers in Christ, we need to show each other the love and concern of Christ, and if we are going to follow his example, we must do what he did.  Listen with compassion.  Sit and grieve with those who are grieving the active life they will never have again.  Sit and cry with those whose pain you may not understand.  Listen to people without trying to "fix" them.  Learn from their pain instead of avoiding it.  The ministry of listening is crucial to someone in constant pain.  The world around them often isn't listening.  Many times other Christians make them feel worthless because they are physically incapable of typical church activities.  We don't have to get a Master's degree in Psychiatry to be able to help the hurting around us.

Maybe rather than rushing off to your 46th commitment for church, you could just take some time out of the rest of your life to sit with someone and listen.  Rather than trying to suggest a quick fix, learn about their condition from them.  Instead of judging her and assuming she brought it on herself, maybe you could ask questions to make her feel comfortable opening up to you.  

Be the person in someone's life who says "How are you?" and stays to hear the answer--no matter how ugly the answer is going to be.  Be the person who goes out of their way to make people comfortable enough to talk on a deep level.  There's a lot of talk about being the hands and feet of Jesus these days.  Maybe it's time he had a few more ears.