The View from the End of the Rope

6:45 pm, Monday, August 8, 2022

It has been a long day.  I just finished chemo.  I am in the Roswell Cancer Institute imaging clinic, waiting to be called for a brain scan MRI. David left to get groceries and prepare a late supper.  I am disappointed, discouraged, teary-eyed, and, to make matters worse, a bit embarrassed.

7:00 pm

As I wait, I take the advice I gave to clients for years and have blogged about more than once: start journaling about the angst.

Confession:

I have been complemented by family, friends, and medical team on how well I’ve handled an abundance of difficulties throughout this process. And yes, I have felt validated respected and brave for my “handling it all so well.”

And yes, I have attributed my persevering, positive attitude to my dependence on God’s faithfulness towards me no matter what happens.

But over the last two days something started to emotionally unravel. It started with overreacting to my husband’s innocuous comments yesterday but thankfully having it all resolved quickly, more thanks to him than me.

I want to blame this emotional roller coaster on the steroids I am taking to heal the liver from an unfortunate turn in the immunotherapy treatment.

But…. Something other than steroid-craziness is going on.

My ‘end-of-the-rope’ was bound to come but I thought it would come at the ‘end-of-the-road’ when all treatment options have been tried and failed, therefore reclassified as terminal. Another counselor told me once that when you reach the end-of-your-rope – the point where you cannot climb back up but cannot lower yourself further – it is time to let go and trust in God.  I love that image.  I have rehearsed that end-of-rope/end-of-the-road moment too many times to count. In that future scenario, when told there is nothing else that modern medicine can do for me, I picture myself demonstrating great faith and even love and gratitude for my wonderful medical team. I become some kind amazing hero of faith in my eyes and in others. Ah, the follies of ego!!!

But I am having an end-of-rope moment now.  This morning, I had an unexpected call from my oncologist to come in for an unscheduled visit. I was hoping he wanted to discuss weaning me from steroids. The opposite happened as my liver enzymes had gone up. He has increased, slightly, my steroid dose; meaning less sleep and immunotherapy still off the table.

I had an unexpected reaction to the consultation. I got visibly frustrated and hurt. Tears!

The irony and hypocrisy of the reaction is that yesterday I had complained to friends of hearing of cancer patients reacting similarly, being unreasonable and unfair to their medical providers.

Not that I went ballistic.  Hospital security was not called.  But I had tears of frustration, and I over-questioned my healthcare providers. I argued about use of words.  “You say ‘increase’ in liver enzymes but I say, ‘slight uptick’ when I look at the graphs.”   After spending more time with me than I deserved I patted my oncologist on his hand as he was leaving, an apology, of sorts. But it did not end there: as I was led to the chemo chair, I was told that my oncologist had just ordered in addition to the chemo an hour of saline for low sodium before the infusion. Come on! My feet were already in a crazy swollen state of discomfort I questioned the purpose of this. I asked the infusion nurse several times to call the oncologist finally reconsidered and gave me what I wanted. (If the low sodium was acute, he would have won that skirmish for sure).

8:00 pm

Back in the imaging waiting room, the technician finally called my name for the MRI.  As we are walking to the imaging room, he said the scan would not take an hour, as I assumed, but only 15 minutes.  That simple correction somehow, in some way, flipped the mood switch. Delighted, I became my friendly chatty self as I sensed that joy was beginning to take hold again. 

The Lord heard my lament and gave me hope. David is thankful to see the smile back on my face!

9:00 am, Tuesday, August 9

But I cannot leave it at that.  It is tempting to think of God smiling at us with approval when we are behaving graciously and mercifully to those around us especially when we are suffering and amid disappointments. Conversely, we imagine him clucking his tongue when we are miserable, irritable, and faithless. The thing about that is that it does not typically lead to a heart change. Why? Shaming is not affirming or inspiring. It gets us stuck in a spiritual arrested development. Spiritual maturity on the other hand fills us with the knowledge of God’s love that surpasses our understanding (Ephesians 3:19).

He made us to trust in his unfailing and never changing love. It is who he is, and the operative word is grace (unmerited favor).

Neither you or I can make God love us more or less by what we do when we have already thrown our hat in the arena of God’s faithfulness. And in a mysterious, wonderful way we are changed and willingly motivated to continue the good fight of our faith.  (1 Timothy 6:12)  We can let go of the end of the rope.

And, as Paul writes, “No eye has seen, and no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things which God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9

This is something to fight for, something to live for!

The Place Between Suffering, Overwhelming Loss and Defiant Hope

I pray often – not long prayers necessarily, sometimes short ones.  Sometimes the pain or anxiety I am experiencing is all I can see so my prayers are not eloquent.  “Jesus, help me!”  

I pray for those who ask for prayer and those who don’t. Praying for others feels good – feels like a privilege. And many people appreciate the effort and spirit with which it is done.

Sincere prayer as an act of obedience

My husband, David, was in the city walking when a panhandler approached.  The man described the jam he was in and asked for money.  Over the years, I have challenged David’s cynicism regarding panhandlers and encouraged him to not to ignore people on the street asking for money.  After all, panhandling is not anyone’s dream job.  Although now homeless, or dealing with a mental disability, or both, they were once children dreaming of careers as a pilot, teacher, nurse, basketball player……like us.  As the man pocketed the money David gave him and turned to enter a nearby Burger King, David called out, halfheartedly without real conviction, “I’ll be praying for you.”  The man stopped, did an about-face, walked back to David, and said, “Will you pray for me now?”  My somewhat stunned husband responded positively, placed his hand on the man’s shoulder and prayed for him.  David walked away from this encounter with a lot more conviction and much less cynicism.

But certainly not every time we pray do we walk away feeling uplifted or victorious. Sometimes we pray in obedience to a biblical fundamental, but we are left still shedding tears for others or for ourselves. We are just not sure we are always going to get the answer we want. But despite the disappointments, we pray. It’s just what we Christians do.

As my followers know I have been struggling through treatments for metastatic breast cancer for 3 1/2 years. Just yesterday I was told that my X-ray scans showed a reduction of liver metastasis. Hip, hip hooray! The immunotherapy may be the ticket for a longer life. As my daughter said, “You were due for some good news.” The combo of immunotherapy and chemo was doing its job.  But the celebration was short lived. My blood labs showed high liver enzymes that indicated hepatitis.  Immunotherapy had triggered an immune response against the healthy parts of my liver. Immunotherapy is off the table for now and indefinitely as cancer treatment takes a back seat to restoring a sick liver. David and I left the clinic heartsick.  I considered all the prayers from my friends over the years on my behalf for a better outcome to the ongoing story of keeping me alive as long as possible.  I often feel self-conscious about it.  I do not think I am monopolizing my friends’ prayer time but worry that they grow weary or understandably numb to the same requests over and over, month after month, year after year, which go…. 

“Please pray this new therapy will improve my condition.”

“Please pray this side effect will abate.”

“Please pray I will get some sleep………………”

Our doubts do not change who God is.

A friend has been praying for her drug-addicted son for years. He is almost forty and homeless and recently found sleeping in a street by the Buffalo police.  He was taken to jail after the police discovered he had an outstanding arrest warrant.  My friend confessed at our church community group that she wondered why, decade after decade, her prayers for her son are not answered. She went through a litany of reasons: “Maybe I don’t have enough faith.  Maybe I have not repented from some sin that blocks God’s answers.”

But in all her doubts and disappointments she persists in prayer.  She and her husband cannot shake the feeling that Jesus is “near to the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18).  They may doubt and worry, but they do it in the presence of God. 

Lamentations 3:19-23

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness

Prayer as the co-existence of grief and defiant hope

Last week, in Fairbanks, Alaska, Josiah, the oldest son (25 years old) of our dear friends, Tony and Lara, was killed; hit by a car while taking a walk on Saturday night. This couple are not new to devastating family trauma. Thirteen years ago, their 5-month-old, Jeremiah, died unexpectedly, and then 9 years later their daughter was treated for an aggressive, protracted leg sarcoma (currently in remission).

Tony and Lara’s children in 2009. Josiah is holding Jeremiah.

And now this! What more can a family take? As my husband and I listened to them we were once again struck with their faith in the faithfulness of God. Truthfully, before we called, I was ready to hear some ‘justifiable’ self-pity, anger, and bitter fatalism. Sure, they cried, and we cried with them, but as we listened, we could only marvel at the Holy Spirit’s care of them as they enumerated all the love that friends, family, and church were pouring out on them. They said, “We feel blessed by all this love!”

To summarize, this heartbroken couple expressed their faith as hope in the resurrection and the mysterious promises of God righting all wrongs some day at the end of time.  We do not live in a cold, impersonal, pitiless universe of random chance and tragedy.

Seven months ago, Labib Madanat (read about him in Christianity Today) died suddenly while leading an exploratory mission group through Iraq. He left behind not only one of the most influential Middle East ministries but five children and his wife, Carolyn.

Carolyn and I talk frequently, she is in England, and I live in New York.

In her grief and questions, she will voice her concerns for her children and admit to overwhelming loneliness and sadness for the husband she dearly admired and loved. (Labib was hard not to love.)

Rev. Carolyn Madanat and her children

I thought she might take a protracted break from her work as a curate (associate pastor) for the Church of England but that’s not happening. She soldiers on, engaging in the rhythms of her church: studying, teaching, counseling, administering, baptizing, leading worship. And then of course there is the running of a household and the comforting of children that are looking to her for the stability they need in such a time. She doesn’t accomplish all this with the stiff-upper-lip British stereotype.  She’s deeply authentic and realistic in what she faces.

But again, I have never heard that she cannot do it or that the Lord is not there for her or real to her.

She leans hard into the presence of God through prayer, church life, and the word of God.

She writes,

“I realized that trust in God’s goodness and feelings of sadness are not mutually exclusive; lament is a path to praise that travels through disappointment and pain and being ok with not knowing everything. It is accepting the co-existence of grief and hope; mourning what has been lost yet grateful for what remains. Part of prayer, I’ve realized, is surrendering to God the questions we don’t have answers for and having the assurance that they are in safe hands; it is having enough confidence in God’s goodness and steadfast love towards us that we don’t need to settle for ‘glib’ answers.”

Often my husband has told me that amid spiritual dryness, frustration, bleakness of spirit, Peter’s response to Christ in John 6:68-68 says it all for him. It is the starkness of its truth that pushes him and many others into a deeper wisdom of God’s goodness.

In this incident, Christ’s teaching has alienated many of his followers and they begin to desert him.  Jesus then turns to his closest disciples and asks, “Will you leave me too?”

Peter responds, “Where else would we go for You have the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

We pray and trust God no matter what because He is the good and compassionate God who loves us. Sure, we are besieged by doubts during difficulties and often find his ways inscrutable, but we still pray and cry out with tears and laments to God. Our laments are not simply floating into an impersonal, pitiless, cold universe. We are not alone, and our lamenting follows the examples of the great men and women of the Bible.

In Psalm 56, the psalmist, presumably King David, asks God to “keep his tears in a bottle” (v.8) in remembrance. David is expressing a deep trust in God—God will remember his sorrow and tears and will not forget about him. David is confident that God is on his side. He says, amidst his troubles,

In God, whose word I praise,
    in the Lord, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can man do to me?

Jesus remembers all the things that happen in our lives, including the suffering endured for His sake. In fact, there are many instances in Scripture of God’s recognition of man’s suffering.

So, like the millions before and the millions after, I pray for certain outcomes, and I will pray fervently for those outcomes to be in God’s best interest for me and others. But if I don’t get my hopeful outcomes, I will assume that my tears and sorrow are held tenderly by God and will be shown one day to have been the just right and good outcome that I could have never imaged. But within Gods cosmic plan those bottles of collected tears like the collected tears of many will be somehow redeemed into a glorious and splendid eternal reality beyond and more we could have ever imagined.

What is Disappointment-Worthy?

In an earlier post, I described how the ‘pre-cancer me’ had too many concerns, strong opinions, and preferences. I was living life poised to be disappointed at every turn. Disrupted travel plans, bad hair days and minor slights were all felt too deeply! It took metastatic cancer to bring more clarity, balance, and self-control to disappointment. I had gotten lazy, neglecting the hard work of self-examination, and taking control of my emotional reactions to disappointments. I like the new me, the metastatic me.

View from my balcony in
St Augustine, FL

My current disappointments are few or less intense because there are less things of this world that mean that much to me. I am vacationing and being with family in St Augustine, Florida. I write positioned to see the smooth coastline, hear the waves breaking, smell the sea breeze, and feel the sun warm my brittle bones. So heavenly and peaceful. But I am feeling increasingly detached from this experience as well as many others that have given me pleasure. This does not feel like a bad thing as I’m experiencing more peace of mind than I have been accustomed.

Anhedonia is a mental condition which describes a pervasive lack of interest in those things that use to give pleasure and enjoyment. It is a core symptom of depression.

As a retired mental health therapist, I have asked myself whether I am experiencing a symptom of clinical depression. Certainly, cancer sufferers have more depression than others. No one would be surprised to hear I was struggling with depression. But I am not. I have received a blessing amidst existential suffering.

“Set your mind on things above and not on things on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden in Christ.” (Colossians 3)

…and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame….consider this…so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  (Hebrews 12:1b – 3)

Do not get me wrong, I feel pain, loss and sorrow. I am not cultivating a Buddhist mindset that sees all suffering originating from and sustained by human attachments. I WANT to be attached to those I love, and I want to enjoy the beauties all around me in this world. I am not numb to disappointments, rather I am having fewer of them because I’m learning through this disease what is ‘disappointment-worthy’.

There also seems to be a supernatural aspect to this ‘screening’ of life’s disappointments. I call this something, “training for eternal life”.

The apostle Paul in the letter to the church at Colossi exhorted the congregation “to set their affections on eternity with God.” Why? Because God wants to bless us. I am going to die, and you are going to die. So, as the author of Hebrews puts it, while we are enjoying this life it is a mercy to fix our eyes on Christ, the author, perfecter and finisher of our faith, and then we will not lose heart or grow weary as we soldier on, training to enjoy the eternal life ahead of us.

I can only think of one disappointment that would have devastating effects for me and for you. The absence of the presence of God due to unbelief or to poor teaching and training would make coping with incurable cancer unbearable.

Where do we go with this?

Continue to be disappointed, even heartbroken over the losses, travesties, and tragedies of life both for us, our loved ones, and for the countless, nameless sufferers throughout this broken world. To do so is to have the heart of God motivating us to call to out to Him for relief and rescue. But leave the disappointments from assaults on ego, the frustration of inconvenience, the slights and criticisms from others on the junk heap of the worthless and inconsequential.

Disappointments are not so bad if we allow them to whittle away at the vain and useless, and cling tenaciously to the grand promises of God – a future where God promises to make every injustice and injury right in the end!  The scriptures say God promises that every tear will be wiped away; all tears, not just the tears of heartache and loss, but the tears of anger, frustration, and petty disappointment. 

Can I get an Amen?

Mourning and Joy

In December we celebrated the season of joy.  Joy, joy, joy written on Christmas cards and banners and sung in our Christmas carols.

But we all know Christmas holidays can be difficult and lonely for many. Christmas time does not give temporary respite from hardships, loss, and pain.  ‘Joy to the World’ can be plastered over cards and banners but far from our hearts.

For me, the hardship of metastatic cancer brings the meaning of joy into sharp focus. Can cancer and joy ride on the same sled together? Stranger yet, is there joy to be enjoyed within cancer treatments even though you can be left grasping for relief as side effects leave you once again feeling diminished?

The answer is: there better be!

First, being playful and joyful, looking for the delightful and comical, in myself and others, is my MO.  I’m not positioning this quality as being superior to all others, I’m simply stating that I have a natural playful orientation.  I’m not pollyannish. I can worry, fret, and grieve along with the best of them but joy and playfulness are my darlings!  My great fear before cancer was that life would hit me with a tragedy so colossally devastating that all joy and playfulness would evaporate instantly and permanently.

Second, and this is far more important, the Scriptures teach there is joy within suffering through Christ and strength to endure suffering through Christ.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

James 1:2-3

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

1 Peter 1:3-9

The joy of the lord is my strength.

Nehemiah 8:10 

I had an experience of joy two weeks ago. Fever, infection and need of a blood transfusion landed me in the hospital.  Within a few hours I was ready to go home but I was told I needed to stay. I was not happy about being admitted and I was not happy having to share a room.  Comfort and rest were foremost on my mind.  A shared hospital room, with double the nurses and attendants coming in and out would not garner rest and recuperation.  But soon my roommate and I became chummy and by the evening I found myself in the role of encourager and patient advocate as her pain escalated through the night.  Late in the evening I found myself at the nurse’s station, asking if more could be done for my roommate’s pain. I just wanted her to be comforted.  I prayed for her on my bed throughout the night or I sat on her bed rubbing her back. It was distressful and heartbreaking to a be witness to someone’s intense pain. Finally, by the late morning the next day, her pain was under control, and she was feeling much better. I was discharged at noon, feeling relieved for roommate Sue.

By the time I left the hospital I was full of joy.  Why? 

Donald McCullough wrote[1],

“Great mourners are great rejoice-ers.   In opening the door to pain, they also open it to joy. Those sensitive enough to be crushed by sadness are those who also can be lifted by happiness.  Mourners are blessed as they have sensitive hearts: they prove themselves to be children of God and their tears may be turned into healing action but more importantly ‘they shall be comforted by God.’”

Mother Teresa and her associates would mourn and grieve as they walked the streets of Calcutta but the atmosphere in the shelter where the sick and destitute were brought was filled with joy, smiles and laughter.  I am no Mother Theresa, but I understand it.  In the hospital I mourned with and comforted my roommate.  If felt lifegiving and heavenly minded.

Tim Keller, pastor and Christian apologist, upon receiving a diagnosis of incurable pancreatic cancer wrote in The Atlantic.[2]

“As God’s reality dawns more on my heart, slowly and painfully and through many tears, the simplest pleasures of this world have become sources of daily happiness. It is only as I have become, for lack of a better term, more heavenly-minded that I can see the material world for the astonishingly good divine gift that it is.

I can sincerely say, without any sentimentality or exaggeration, that I’ve never been happier in my life, that I’ve never had more days filled with comfort. But it is equally true that I’ve never had so many days of grief.”

Amen.  I will always cherish the ‘joy’ of my sleepless night at the hospital.


[1] McCullough, D. ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.’, November 1990.  Christianity Today.

[2] Keller, T. The Atlantic. “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death”  Mach 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/03/tim-keller-growing-my-faith-face-death/618219/

Advent, Afghanistan, Cancer, Hope

Guest post by Dave Eley

At 716 Ministries, we just finished an intense, 3-week training course designed to help 18 Afghan evacuees, recent arrivals in Buffalo, adapt and succeed within the American work culture.  It was delivered in three languages – English, Dari, Pashto – to a diverse collection of farmers, soldiers, engineers, medics, professors, mechanics, government officials, taxi drivers.  We heard their stories.  Some came with their families; some, tragically, for their temporary safety, left wives and children behind. All left behind their material possessions, or at least what could not be carried in a small bag. 

What is the one thing you’d take if you had to leave your home, your country immediately?

Afghan Work Readiness Class, December 2021

I asked several students what they brought with them; what they packed of their identity. 

  • One woman, a professor, had 15 minutes to pack and flee to the Kabul airport.  Other than essentials, she took her perfumes.  She told me, “My fragrances are part of me, they are part of how I think of myself.”  I get it.  Her colognes reminded her of her essence. 
  • One man – farmer, corporal, citizen-soldier – proudly showed me his laminated wallet-sized certificates of recognition from the US Army, attesting to his contributions to various military deployments.  Operation Eagle, Operation Red Dagger, Operation Achilles.  He played these cards out before me as if presenting a winning poker hand, a royal flush or inside straight.
  • I am grateful for smart phones.  A person with a smart phone can flee a country with the family photo albums intact.  Children, moms, wives, husbands, handshakes with US military special forces.  One man, a mechanic, showed me a short video of his fancy footwork on the soccer field, dribbling around two opponents.  For some reason, this made me sad.  The bright red and yellow football ensembles, the shouting and clapping, the joy of a peaceful summer afternoon on the field with friends in Afghanistan. 
  • On the last day of class, we conducted mock job interviews.  We brought in eight potential employers and let the students rotate amongst them, practicing and refining their pitch.  This is the highlight of all our courses, where students grow in confidence with each successive interview.  One student, an engineer, forced to leave his family behind and currently disabled with a distressing and, as yet, undiagnosed nerve injury, told an interviewer, “I left much behind, but one thing I brought with me was a positive attitude, a strong work ethic, and a hope for a better tomorrow.”

There is a common thread amongst the things these Afghan evacuees brought with them from the Kabul airport to a US military processing facility in Virginia, and ultimately to Buffalo: a reminder of their personal dignity. 

Creek Rock Art: Flight to Egypt (Dona Eley)

Did Mary take the perfumes (frankincense and myrrh) with her when she and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to escape the wrath of Herod?  (Thank you, Egypt, for your hospitality.) During his family’s exile, what did Joseph look to for dignity and hope to deal with the fear, anguish, sense of powerlessness, boredom, lack of community and meaningful work, heavy responsibility? 

Pastor Acher Niyonizigiye, a former refugee from the Burundi civil war of the 1990’s, wrote, “We often see the Nativity (Advent) as a celebration of comfort and innocence.  In Europe and North America, Christmas is often a time to think of coziness.  Could Joseph or Mary ever fit in with these modern Christmases?”

Could Joseph or Mary ever fit in with these modern Christmases?”

– Acher Niyonizigiye

Dona and I are big fans of coziness and comfort.  But during this Advent season we are grateful that in our cozy little corner of western New York, we could be a part of one of the organizations providing some measure of comfort and safety for our new neighbors.  I do not want to over-compare myself to Joseph and Mary, or even the strength and resilience of the Afghans I met, but I do pray that at life’s inflection points along the journey through this fallen world I will, like Joseph, ‘get up’ and do what the Lord commands (Matthew 1:24 & 2:13), or, like Mary, be the Lord’s servant and embrace the small role I am given in the Kingdom (Luke 1:38).

I read the paragraphs above to Dona.  After appropriate encouragement she said, with the insight and clarity I depend on, “You are missing the most important part.”

Advent (arrival or ‘the coming’) is a season of expectation.  There are some parallels between the Christian season of Advent and the arrival of the Afghan evacuees and their attendant expectations for a better life.  But for Christian believers there is so much more.  At Advent we look back at the birth of Christ and ahead to the return of Christ.  Faith in the reality of the past and hope in the reality of the future combined.  The Nativity is a big deal.  But we, who embrace the Jesus story, see the return of Christ and our resurrection as the ultimate deal.  With the Second Advent, poverty, missed employment opportunities, anguish, powerlessness, family separation, disease, terror, war, even death will be no more.  We will be done with this fallen world. 

As I reread the last paragraph I thought of our own uncertain future, Dona and I. This month, my brave and lovely wife entered her 4th year of struggle against metastatic cancer. Six different therapies to date, this last one the most draconian: chemical infusion each week, hair loss, nausea, fatigue. There are lots of tears shed by us both, but yet, and yet, we experience the joy of the reward of the ultimate deal. I can say confidently and without false bravado that Dona has a ‘peace from God that surpasses all my understanding.’ And I feel it, too. (Philippians 4:7)

Now, how to proclaim this good news, the Gospel, winsomely, humbly, and authentically to our Afghan neighbors, indeed to all our neighbors?

Wishing you a joyful, hopeful Christmas and 2022.

Dave

Challenges to Feeling Comfort from God

Four Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God, published in July 2015, remains my most popular post.  Nearly every day that post will get several visits.  I’m not sure why.  I am an obscure blogger buried in the internet.  Perhaps the title bubbles up near the top when someone Googles ‘comfort from God.’  I wish I could generate this popularity for my other posts so advertisers for cancer yoga pants and pink ribbon nightshirts would flock to me.  But seriously, I suspect tens of thousands of people trawl (not troll) through the web every day, desperately looking for some comfort, some solace from God.  I have a heart for these people.  On occasion, I am one of them.

As I lurch from one cancer therapy to the next, struggle against one quality-of-life-diminishing side-effect after another, and, consequently, am painfully reminded of my mortality daily…….I MARVEL at the ways God gives me comfort.  I keep a running list in my head of how he meets me more than halfway.  In thinking about these comforts, which are often subtle, I can see why if I am not alert, I may miss them.

  1. I miss the comfort because it does not come according to my timetable.
  2. I miss the comfort from God because it comes through means I take for granted.
  3. I miss the comfort because I do not realize my suffering is an opportunity to serve others.  (The service is the comfort.)
  4. I miss the comfort because I am just too fatigued or lazy to draw on the resources of the church family.

God’s comfort is not according to my timetable

Diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer since 2018, there is not a visit to my oncologist since then that I don’t feel like the sword of Damocles hangs over me, ready to drop. In the run up to the appointment, I am always praying for encouraging news about the level of tumor markers or the results of scans.  And then I pray that I would feel God’s presence and that I would have courage to face what is in store as I wait for news. I am follower of Christ, so I know that my relationship with him comes alongside suffering and comfort. None of us are exempt from this reality but when I suffer, I want that comfort on my timetable, not God’s, for that usually requires waiting. I’m tempted to question God’s love because the waiting feels like an answer: “no comfort for you today and maybe never.”

Antidote: In such times I resort to writing.  It is therapeutic to get my complaints and worries down on paper.  This is a practice that I encouraged my clients to do with excellent results.  The benefits of writing down thoughts, feelings, experiences, grievances have been researched and validated repeatedly.  There are biblical precedents for this as well. The authors of Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations aired their complaints to God.   Read Psalms 42 and 43 for a blueprint on how to record our grievances. And note the end of these Psalms.  End our complaints in remembrance of God’s faithfulness in the past and therefore a hope for the future.  I often do this as an act of faith, even though I don’t always “feel” it.

God’s comfort comes through means I take for granted so it is not recognized as his comfort.

Many times, I ignore the steady stream of God’s comfort coming my way. I’m looking instead for a spectacular deliverance that takes away all the disappointments, dread, and angst that cancer brings.

“God! Where is your comfort?”, I ask as tears well up upon hearing not so encouraging medical news.  Then, upon later reflection, I realize that God’s comfort is always present. David, my husband is always with me, bearing with me the emotional toll of this cancer – a comfort that I assumed as insignificant compared to some dramatic show of comfort from God that would prove he cared about me.  I am the recipient of comfort that comes by way of family, friends, church community, and good medical care.  It is not good to ignore these obvious God-comfort sources just because they lack a spontaneous, spectacular, supernatural intervention. 

Question:  What brings you comfort?  Who brings you comfort?  Can you tie these comforts back to God?   If so, then practice the habit of thanking God out loud, as well as thanking those who are God’s ambassadors of comfort to you.  Do both often.  It will become a habit which will prepare you emotionally and spiritually for when the really hard times come.   You will be blessed and comforted in the process.

God’s comfort can come through my comfort of others

2 Corinthians 1:4

He comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

Bible makes it clear that our suffering can act as a refining fire for developing character in us as well as producing benefits for others. Our suffering and subsequent comfort from God gives us street cred in helping those who are suffering likewise.

I am touched when people reach out to me for encouragement and comfort. Many times, these people have a less severe cancer diagnosis and prognosis than I have but cancer is cancer and scares the heck out of anyone regardless of the severity.

For nearly 15 years I spent most of every winter working in the Middle East; teaching and coaching women in the practice of good mental health. These Arab women had very hard lives; harder than I could imagine. However, the moment I disclosed my cancer diagnosis (stage 3 back then) I could sense that my audience was touched and had warmed up to me. It was as if this ‘weathy’ American woman was not so privileged after all. On some level I was included into the fellowship of suffering women. The playing field was leveled, and they expressed encouragement by what I taught.  I was blessed by playing a part in their comfort.

Helping others releases God’s comfort not just for others but for us as well. Helping others triggers the release of “feel good” hormones like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine which gives a mood boost.

‘Dragging myself’ to church brings comfort

The kindness and love of the church family brings tremendous comfort.  This comfort is ordained by God. If we are not a part of a church community we miss out.   Being amongst the fellowship of believers in general, and being prayed for in particular, is one of this life’s spiritual, emotional, and physical means of receiving God’s comfort.

Metastatic cancer treatments offer no cure but rather cancer management with the latest targeted drugs and procedures to prolong life as long as possible.  The disease as well as the side effects of treatments can feel endless. “Whack a mole” is what my husband has coined it. One rough symptom is dealt with and right behind it comes another.  I’m tired, physically.  More seriously, I feel like I am tiring out my church family with frequent prayer requests to address the latest physical trial. I am tempted to stifle the prayer requests, ignore my church community, and rely on ministrations of the medical community to see me through till the end.

This past Sunday and I considered not going to church sporting my newest symptom, Bell’s Palsy. My husband was delivering the sermon, so I ended up going to support him. By the end of the service, I was drawn compelled to ask for prayer by from a couple of people. Instead, eight or nine people gathered around me, laid hands on me, and prayed gently and compassionately.  A flood gate of tears was opened but by the end I marched to my car with a lighter step than I had had for a while.

The elephant in this blog post

What happens when comfort gives way to death which we know happens a lot with cancer? Again, depending on your confidence in the reality of the risen Christ, there is yet an ultimate comfort. It’s a tough one to internalize but nonetheless it is expressed too many times in the New Testament to be ignored and its crucial to living faithfully in Christ during this life.   This life is not all there is.  We must think of and dwell on this.  But be warned!  if you think or talk too much of eternal life or heaven or resurrection you will be dismissed as a flake or someone who has their heads in the clouds. Don’t be dissuaded.  Contemplating the reality of heaven is a wellspring of hope for a future where all things are made just, good, and beautiful. It is here that you will find the comfort you need to live courageously and generously.  For relentless sufferers, death in Christ is the best comfort of all! God’s comfort never, never, never lets us down. It is only in forward thinking that I ultimately find comfort. There is sufficient comfort in this life to give us joy within sorrow and hope within disappointment.  But eternal life is where “every tear will be wiped away”, not before. For now, we fight the good fight of faith.

4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

dandelion

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3

Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.

But how do we experience comfort in suffering?  Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort?  Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests.  Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.

He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.

We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship.  Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.

1:  We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it

We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God.  Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination.  Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.”  Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.

2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful

Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.

3:  Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.

We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want.   We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.

Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”

He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed.  I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family.  At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion.  He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God.  And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’

When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”.  I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course.  In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.

But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering.  I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.  A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.

In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times.  As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things.   I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it.  And isn’t this an imitation of life?  We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble.  We feel like giving up.  But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary.  And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.

5 books that helped me grow up

keep_quiet_and_read_dostoyevsky_tee_shirts-r2f9201f1bfd84e30b672c88f7c7a6b73_8nhdv_324
the_brothers_karamazov_read_it_loved_it_tshirt-r33373f99351b4e7d8b09b8edbc4be85a_8natl_324 t-shirts by zazzle. Wow! I did not realize how hip Dostoevsky was. No t-shirts for me back in 1984

The Brothers Karamazov by Theodore Dostoevsky

In my early 30’s I read a dialogue between  two brothers of Theodore Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov that exposed my secret, buried doubts with such brutal clarity that I had to admit them and face them if my young Christian faith was to be preserved in a meaningful way.

Dostoevsky, a devout Christian after years of what he called “the hell fire of doubt,” wrote a dialogue in “The Brothers Karamazov”  between the brilliant atheistic  brother, Ivan, and his faith-filled, gentle brother, Alyosha.  I would learn later that this parable, called “the Grand Inquisitor,” had and has often been showcased as one of the great literary and theological challenges to faith in God.  Ivan’s hard hitting argument left me angry and crying, “Why God did you make us when you knew we would be so atrocious to each other and especially to children?”  The question haunted me. Ivan had gotten to me.

Being a first time mother of a two-year old daughter made me particularly vulnerable to Ivan’s argument. In the parable,” the Grand Inquisitor”, Ivan builds a case against God by including a story of a young child who was abandoned and left to die. Ivan admits that this argument does not come out of love for others (he admits to not having love) but rather out of a logic and defiance towards Jesus whose humility and sacrifice had apparently made no difference to humankind. Interestingly, Alyosha, the brother who loves God humbly and loves people purely does not counter the argument but rather patiently listens to his brother’s angry rant. He recognizes Ivan’s negative freedom as rebellion towards God and offers sorrow for Ivan while remaining unshakably committed to the goodness of God.

Alyosha’s reaction, or non-reaction, towards this cynical  brother was not satisfying to me at this time in my life.  I wanted hard hitting, iron-clad defenses and apologetics in response to Ivan’s challenge.  Dostoevsky does not offer any, at least not in this passage.  At this point in my faith journey I was left disappointed and emotionally off kilter.  The passage literally brought me to my knees and later to a self-arranged appointment with my pastor to discuss the faith turmoil I was experiencing. I was still a novice in understanding the mystery of love and grace found in Christ. I was growing up in my faith and suffering growing pains. Good! There would be more in life to come that would require a more robust faith than I had then.

For me and millions of others, the brilliance of Dostoevsky was his ability to pull back a corner of the curtain of faith through a grand narrative of humankind’s loveliness and awfulness within the context of the Gospel’s hope of redemption .  I would need to read the entire book in my 30’s and reread it in my 50’s as I continued to give up simplistic views of faith and life and grow up into life’s complexities and God’s immutable ways.  As it turns out gentle Alyosha’s words and more importantly his actions in the novel turn out a beautiful picture of grace that belies iron clad arguments while strongly  “truthifying” truth.  Sweet Alyosha   continues to teach me something about the beauty and  mystery of grace -” how sweet the sound.”

I not only recommend “The Brothers Karamazov” but also “The Gospel in Dostoevsky: Selections from His Books” (introduced by J.I. Packer, Malcolm Muggeridge, & Ernest Gordon).

Next blog: second on my list

What snow berms taught me about Holy Week

My husband and our Buffalo city pastor were having a conversation yesterday about the berms of snow finally melting. Steve, the pastor, told David that one thing he had to get used to when he moved from California was all the foulness revealed as the white beautiful snow began to melt. This is not the kind of image that the awakening of spring normally brings to mind. Yes, these berms are filthy right now as they melt away: ugly mounds of black, gritty toxic-looking snow mounds of street debris and animal foulness. They once were white, pristine-looking, snow-covered Olympic mountain range miniatures but now…….

west juneau snow berms_cropped

SRX_berm_city__t470Spring is coming but now there is that awkward in-between stage.  What was white and pristine now is revealing the ugly.

The celebration of the resurrection of Christ is coming.  A celebration of the victory not only over death but a victory over all that is debased, decayed and disgraced.  But the resurrection of Christ means nothing without that painfully tragic and awkward crucifixion.  The Passion Week signaled the end of Jesus’ humble presence on earth with his teaching, empathy, miracles and wonders…snow covered glistening mounds of purity and beauty.   There was great judgment, yes indeed.   Pure white mounds of snow burned away to reveal dark toxins that had been transferred from us to Him.  And then after that awkward, tragic, ugly time came spring in all its glory.  The Resurrection.

What is my part in all this?  I have a choice. I can deny the ugly with well-crafted exteriors of looks, clothes, charm, sharp intellect, sardonic wit and nice helpful manners, or….. I can acknowledge the foulness not just in my world but in me. I don’t have to be timid or offended at such an image or accusation. I can own it, admit it, confess it and look to the crucifixion for my forgiveness and its meaning of love and then finally be greatly relieved and forever thankful at so great a salvation as Christ’s resurrection promise. This life is not all there is. Thank God! I mean it!  For this is great news if this life has disappointed with its hurt, loss and misery which is by far most of this world’s experience.  He is risen indeed. And so what does that mean for me? What does this grand biblical narrative have to do with me? If I believe it to be true historically and spiritually then it means freedom – freedom from having to pretend.children laughing in fields

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,

The sun forbear to shine

But God, Who called me here below,

Will be forever mine.

– Chris Tomlin, Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)W

Power and Tears: Part 2

Reflections on the story in John 11 (read previous post for context)

Why did Jesus cry over the death of Lazarus if he knew he was going to use his power to change the natural order( resurrect Lazarus from death) and restore joy to his friends?tears 2

Simply – He cried because his friends were crying.  He became fully present with their suffering. He was not thinking of their future (what he was going to do for them in the next few minutes) nor was he thinking of his own future which was soon to take a dark painful course.

Nor did He feel a need to defend his actions when Mary, the sisterJesus cried of courseaccused of him of insensitivity or procrastination. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vs. 11). Absent in Jesus was any need to defend his actions even in the midst of laments that if he had come sooner the dire situation would be different. He stayed present.  His friends were grieving and that sadness affected Jesus with empathetic sadness.

Empathy – We may be born with the capacity to empathize but nurture plays a profound role.  We must be taught and modeled the experience of feeling another person’s pain. When people lack empathy we, in the mental health profession, assume, a childhood of abuse and/or neglect or a disorder. We assume that they were never the recipients of empathy nor had it modeled for them by the significant relationships in their lives. We recognize that something is off.

A story of parenting small children:  I was at a playground with my grandsons observing small children and their parents. One man’s daughter fell and cried loudly. The father gently examined her and lovingly reassured her of his presence and his sympathy for her pain.  Another parent noticed the situation and looked on. The child with her tried to reengage her in what he was doing – building a sand castle. I heard the following:  “I will look at what you are doing in a moment but right now I feel sad about that little girl who got hurt so I want to look at her.  Let’s look at her together for a few seconds… (Pause)  She seems comforted; so now show me what you were doing.”

If that intentional modeling continues to be that mother’s practice, the child will catch it and develop capacity for empathy.

But what about those who have been deprived of empathy at vulnerable stages of development? There is hope.  God’s gift of community – godly loving spaces for transformation interfacing with malleable brains is one such place of hope. Brains can be rewired over time through strong emotional connections to develop empathy. The church with all its warts and imperfections is still the functional body of Christ.  It provides opportunities for loving interactions with others that include  listening with empathy  to people’s messed up stories.  According to Curt Thompson, author of Anatomy of the Soul, it is within this context that people who have been formerly deprived of loving attachments begin to sense what an attachment to God feels like thereby understanding God’s grace for them and for others.

Andy (a man in his early 40’s) was a child that had to raise himself.  Without going into detail, anybody hearing his story would label his childhood as harsh and neglectful. Attachments to stable caregivers were absent; normally the harbinger of a distrustful adult. However, there were times when he took advantage of caring interactions. He described living for a brief time in a neighborhood where buses destined for Vacation Bible School and church services would pick up children who wanted to go.  He was one of them. There was a kind neighbor who noticed his loneliness and neglect.  Andy began to sense there was a God who loved.  “I would hear stories in church and something exploded in me about God and it was beautiful.”  However later,  Andy would go down a path as a teenager and young adult that would lead to drug addiction and a stint in jail.

Andy told me, “When released from jail, I did not know what to do with my life. Eventually, I took a woman’s advice and enrolled in a Christian program called ‘Teen Challenge’ (a ministry dedicated to the transformation of young people with substance abuse.) Through their accountability and structured program of prayer, chapel, work, prayer, chapel, prayer, fellowship, counseling, I found myself wanting to know as much as I could about God.”

Andy attended a bible college for a period and did mission work in Asia.  Today he serves others through an urban ministry.  A man full of empathy and warmth, Andy humbly says, “Sometimes being a Christian is the best thing, sometimes it is the hardest thing, but it is the only thing for me.”

Jesus cried. Of course he did.  This powerful empathic being carried empathy where no man or woman has ever taken it – to a cross of suffering for us. Many before and after him have spoken “truth to power”; but He and only He spoke “God’s power into God’s Love.”

Post script:  Tears are filled with the presence of stress chemicals and hormones.

Post script: Tears are a functional way of getting cortisol and other stress hormones from inside us to outside us.  Have you ever wondered why you have felt slightly better after having a good cry? God blesses tears on this side of heaven but there will come a time when he will wipe every one of them away. Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.”

end of times