Sunday, December 28, 2008

Two Types of Desperation

1. Blind desperation. This drives one to drink, abuse drugs, get entangled in unhealthy relationships, or seek help from dangerous sources (Eastern religions).

2. Clear sighted desperation. This drives one to pray, fast, repent, and develop a deeper biblical faith.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Seeing Invisible Disabilities

[This was first published in Moody Magazine, a few years before its unfortunate demise.]

Jesus had a way of seeing what others missed and ministering to those who were forgotten, shunned, or misunderstood. He touched and healed lepers when everyone else scurried away. He cared for those with chronic afflictions - such as congenital blindness and incurable hemorrhage - while others gave up. He bestowed hope where others scattered the ashes of despair. He was love Incarnate (John 1:14; 1 John 4:16). We need that character of divine love if we’re to see and minister to the hurts of others.

America has made strides in recognizing and assisting people with disabilities. Most public facilities are now accessible to the handicapped. The pool where I swim has a lift for the disabled. The law rightly forbids discriminating against the handicapped (see Lev. 19:14, Deut. 27:18, Matt. 25:40).

In the Christian community, Joni Eareckson Tada has raised people’s awareness of the needs of those who suffer from severe disabilities. She has encouraged the afflicted not to despair, but to trust God to use their broken lives for the glory of God and the good of others.

Still, many disabled people continue to suffer both chronic physical distress and misunderstanding. Their suffering is masked by a healthy appearance. They are not in wheelchairs and do not use canes. Yet their pain and debility is real and chronic. They have "invisible disabilities."

It may be the soul-sapping fatigue, environmental sensitivity, and chronic pain of fibromyalgia, or lupus, or Lyme disease, or multiple sclerosis. These souls suffer not only from their diseases, but also often from the uninformed and hurtful reactions of others.

Those suffering from fibromyalgia, such as my wife, often ricochet from one physician to another, repeatedly encountering the impatience and defeatism that often characterize the medical community's attitude toward those whose ailments are intractable, invisible, and (usually) non-terminal. Insurance routinely refuses to cover needed treatments. Worse yet, loved ones frequently do not understand the nature of their invisible disability and respond wrongly.

When someone looks healthy, we are tempted to tell them to "just buck up" and do what we think they should do. Those with invisible disabilities are often expected to do what is beyond them. We would never tell someone who uses a cane to run a marathon, but just going to the store may be a marathon for someone with lupus.

A seminary student of mine looks healthy, yet he suffers from such chronic and extreme back pain that he lost his medical practice. He also lost a friend who could not accept the limitations that chronic illness put on their relationship.

What can Christians do to discern people’s invisible disabilities and display the love of Christ?

First, we can empathize with them, instead of lecturing or ignoring them. The Book of Hebrews tells us to remember those in prison as though we were shackled with them (13:3). Similarly, we must try to put ourselves into the prison of the chronically ill person’s life. This is difficult, and almost nothing in our hedonistic culture encourages it. Nevertheless, we need empathy to be agents of love and encouragement. Jesus wept; so should we (John 11:35).

Second, we should listen to and believe what the afflicted tell us. My wife looks so healthy and fit that someone in the locker room where we swim thought she was a woman who’d been swimming at top speed for an hour. But if you listen to Rebecca’s story — one of pain and frustration mixed with faith and determination — you’ll find things quite different from how they appear.

Third, we can look for ways to minister to those we know with such conditions. Sherri Connell’s web site, The Invisible Disabilities Advocate, ( offers a wealth of materials. Sherri, who suffers from an invisible disability, has a big heart, an indomitable spirit, and much practical and spiritual advice.

Let us seek to have the eyes of Jesus, so we may look beyond appearances and gaze deeply into the lives of those who are suffering. Then we can offer them our love, understanding, and encouragement.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Choose Life!

Many suffering from chronic illness, as well as their loved ones, can give into an attitude and spirit of death. Despair and wanting it all to end is natural. But this must be refused according to the truth of the Bible, which we take on certain faith. Consider just a few passages.

19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.—Deut. 30:19-20

13 For you have delivered me from death
and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
in the light of life.–Psalm 56:13

25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?"—John 11:25-26

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.--John 10:10.

17 I will not die, but live, And tell of the works of the LORD.—Psalm 118:17

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Blues for Christmas (not Elvis)

"Are you set for Christmas?" someone asked a friend, who suffers from chronic illness. The assumption behind this cliche is that one has set out the holiday fanfare, bought presents, and the like. But that could not be done, and had not been done for over a decade. You see, the chronically ill are not normal; they don't do the usual things: take vacations, go out to eat, keep their houses as they'd like (clean, well decorated), entertain guests, work full-time or part-time, have a set of regular friends, and other items of everyday life. The pedestrian becomes the alien.

Trying to explain this cluster of consternation to someone ignorant of it all (particularly a mere acquaintance) just is not worth it. So, she made a vague remark to cover it all up--and mustered a half smile, God bless her.

It is well know that depression and suicide increase around the holidays. People feel obligated to be extra happy. They cannot. This sad fact then makes them more sorrowful, even morose. The same unhappy effect strikes the loved ones of the chronically ill as well. They spend the holidays attending to their spouses, children, or friends--trying to buck up, to keep working, serving, to not become self-centered and complaining. When they fail, the pain they cause the loved one and themselves is almost impossible to bear. This is because few (if any) others can step in and help their spouse or daughter or father. The crushing burden is their's alone to bear--and they have not handled it very well. Nor can they share their lament with many others. People simply do not have the categories, and educating them as to this brand of despair is not a happy task at all. Often, the eys of the new instructed glaze over (while the rest of their face labors to look concerned); they nearly cock their hands in disbelief like dogs perplexed by a strange human gesture unfathomed and unfathomable. But this time, it is not cute.

Christmas comes, stays; and mercifully goes. The joyful carols are silenced. The pomp is put back into its packages. The festivities are buried for another year. But guilt remains at not be able to rejoice--or only rejoicing in brief episodes.

The theology of Christ-mas remains: God has incarnated for our salvation. It is true. It is reasonable. It matters for eternity in every area of life. Yet the chronically ill and their helpers think more of the Cross than the manger, more of the lamenting, beaten, and bloodied Jesus, than the tiny, perfect babe. They also try to think ahead to a time when every tear is taken a way, when bodies work and thrive and sup rise in their hidden virtuosity.

At the end of the day, we--the lamentable lamentors--confess our sins. "We have not loved God with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves..." God hears, knows, weeps, forgives, and does not forsake. Nor does he do everything what we want, either. In the morning, we remember that His mercies are new this day--if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. But we are glad that Christmas (but not the Incarnation) is over.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Suffering Well With Others

[I wrote this a few years ago and posted it on The Constructive Curmudgeon. I republish it here without changes.]

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Right now many of my friends are suffering terribly in different ways. Bad news is breaking forth everywhere. Through this manifold of variegated tragedies it strikes me that many of us fail to minister to our friends who are suffering. We say and do things that hurt more than help. We dispense acid rather than balm. By and large, we do not know how to lament and grieve with others—although some saints excel in this grace. Popular culture teaches us next to nothing in this regard. It has no time for such realities. In the wake of the recent epidemic of natural disasters and given my many friends, relations, and students who are suffering deeply (from bereavement, marital crisis, cancer, and chronic illness), let us consider briefly a few ways to suffer well with others.

First, we ought to pray for wisdom before speaking or communicating in any form with one under the pressures of loss. Ask God to give you the heart and tongue that heals—or at least doesn’t multiply the pain. Consider a few egregious examples. Someone loses a spouse only to hear someone ask within a few weeks of the spouse’s death, “Are you grieving well?” Is this some kind of test? One should grieve with the sorrowful heart, not ask it for an internal audit. Or consider this. Someone is diagnosed with cancer and is trying to reorient their life to handle this. A member of the person’s church says, “Oh, if I had to have chemotherapy—just shoot me.” Perhaps the shooting should come before that… The dear person who received this body blow is now preparing for chemotherapy with courage and hope. Remember what The Book of James says about the power of the tongue (James 3:1-12).

Second, one should not over-interpret the dire situations of a fallen world by trying to read God’s mind. This only makes for hollow comfort. Yes, God will bring good out of evil for his people (Romans 8:28), but we don’t quite now how he will do this. As Os Guinness writes in his superb new book, Unspeakable, the silver lining of a dark cloud—if we can even find it—does not explain the full meaning of the suffering. In light of this, we must learn to silently stew in our ignorance instead of spewing forth our pious pronouncements on the specifics of divine providence. Job’s friends went wrong only when they broke their silence in his presence and began to speak without knowledge.

Third, learn to lament with people. Study the Psalms of lamentation and the many laments in Scripture, such as those uttered by King David, Paul, and supremely Jesus himself, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” (You can find a link to my sermon, “Learning to Lament” on this web log.) A lament is the cry of the anguished soul before God, which displays puzzlement as well as anger. It expresses disorientation in search of reorientation. However, a lament is directed to God and before the audience of God, “the audit of Eternity,” as Kierkegaard put it. Listen to the stories of the suffering and identify with them. Say un-profound, but appropriate, things like, “I am so sorry” and “That is terrible.” The American South has expression that captures this perfectly: “I hate it for you.” I hate the fact that two marriages are being ripped apart and are may be dying. I hate the fact that my friend’s spouse is going through chemotherapy. I hate it for all of them, and I should show them that I hate it. I hate it because I love them.

We should never try to tell people that losing a spouse or having cancer or facing a divorce isn’t really so bad. It is bad, very bad. This is a fallen world, a world that is still groaning in anticipation of its final redemption (Romans 8:18-26). As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes in his moving and profound meditation, Lament for a Son, we must sit on the mourner’s bench with the suffering and lament with them. This in itself provides a kind of comfort.

I am but babe in this healing skill—suffering well with others. Will you join me in the school of lament? Will you learn to sit on the mourner’s bench before God and with those whom you love?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Where is God?

There is a very sensitive web page called Where is God? created by Sherri and Wayne Connell. Sherri is chronically ill. Please consult this resource and support their important work

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Stop, Ask, Listen

Stop and ask:

a painter about her

a poet about his

a singer about his

a philosopher about her

a prophet about his

Then: listen

Stop and ask

a mother about her

a father about his

a soul about her

a lover about the

a teacher about his

a patient
about her pain

Then: listen.

Stop...stop, and ask

a Creator about the

a Designer about the

a Lover about his

a Sufferer about his

Then: listen

Friday, December 19, 2008

Love, Pain, Anger

The best response to pain (chronic or otherwise) is love, not anger. Yet anger comes so easily to some of us when we perceive the suffering of our loved one as unjust and unfair. Then that anger hurts the one we care about so deeply, and the cycle repeats and deepens the trauma. Pain leads to anger, which leads to guilt.

"Love is patient and kind," said the Apostle Paul. Anger, or at least rage, is never patient and kind, but is a manifestation of the flesh, the sinful part of us. Yet God is still there to forgive and restore, amidst our brokenness.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Welcome to the world you never wanted to live in

This blog is for reflection on suffering with chronic illness--how to understand it, cope with it, and perhaps overcome it through the power of Jesus Christ. It is a place to testify, to question, to lament, to hope, and to learn.

What is chronic illness? It is an ailment that is not terminal, but not curable. It baffles the medical establishment and is usually left unresearched. Those subject to its cruelties endlessly try new cures: alternative medicines, special prayer, new traditional remedies, and various coping strategies. Some, sadly, commit suicide; some become clinically depressed. Yet many soldier on, despite it all, calling out to God, believing the Bible the best they can. This often happens alone. A great deal of the pain of chronic illness is loneliness. Few understand the blight. You don't get better; you don't die. What is wrong with you? In fact, you may look healthy, although you feel like a living hell. Pick me ups don't work. Bucking up is impossible. You realize what is true for everyone, but which few ever realize: your life is not your own. Your plans are shot; your dreams have become nightmares...but you still must dream.

I know those who are chronically ill. Their stories resonate in my soul and are unforgettable. I lament for them and with them. I pray and fast for them. I take them to doctor visits. I rage at a seemingly empty heaven when nothing changes for the better. At the end of the angry day of vanity, I pray again. "Lord, where else can we go. You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:66).

Maybe, in the providence of God, this humble forum can give solace and camaraderie to the millions who fall between the cracks of American culture. Whose lives are not normal and are inexplicable. Those who cannot work; cannot go on vacations; cannot have normal families; cannot buck up and tough it out; cannot meet the expectations written into the fabric of contemporary culture; who feel stranded on an island of ineffable pain, but who cannot stop speaking out about their fate.

This is for the aliens in our midst and under our roofs and under our skins. This is a forum for those who bodies, "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139) have become their mortal enemies. And this is for their loved ones, those who anguish in impotence and frustration. Those who hate themselves for not being more patient, more Christlike when yet another dream or normality goes into the garbage heap.

This is for those who have despaired and have been unable to rest in despair, for who can rest there. Despair is, after all, giving up on God, who is Almighty and able to save.

I welcome you all to this experiment in creative suffering. You, the sisters and brother of Heman, the lamenting Psalmist who, very likely suffered from chronic illness. Hear his cry, then tell me of yours:

Psalm 88

A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites.
To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth.
A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2 let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.