Monthly Archives: December 2011

Pain

Something remarkable happens in Matthew 9:18-22. It is a mysterious miracle behind a miracle. Here is Saint Matthew’s account:

“As Jesus was saying this, the leader of the synagogue came and knelt before him. ‘My daughter has just died,’ he said, ‘but you can bring her back to life again if you just come and lay your hand on her.’
So Jesus and his disciples got up and went with him. Just then a woman who had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding came up behind him. She touched the fringe of his robe, for she thought, ‘If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed.’
Jesus turned around, and when he saw her he said. ‘Daughter, be encouraged! Your faith has made you well.’ And the woman was healed at that moment.”

I would like you to focus on this part of the event: “. . . a woman who had suffered for twelve years . . .” It is waaay too easy to read those eight words and not grasp the gravity of what is happening. We tend to focus on the miraculous healing Jesus performs with this woman’s chronic illness. But if I may make so bold, I will share with you what it means to suffer for twelve years with chronic illness and pain.

In the beginning, you know something is wrong but you don’t know what. You try to shrug it off and get on with life. But the pain interferes with increasing frequency. You have trouble sleeping. You can’t concentrate at work. Many of your favorite activities make the pain worse. Finally, you go to the doctor. He orders an X-ray, some tests and lab work. The results are inconclusive. He prescribes medications to ease the symptoms. The meds work for a while but eventually the pain returns. Desperate, you give up many activities. It’s almost impossible to get comfortable at night and this causes you to lose sleep. You are constantly fatigued. You quite work and take a job with fewer responsibilities in exchange for greater flexibility from your new employer. You still miss a lot of time from work. You earn a fraction of your former salary. You continue to see doctors and specialists. Much of your time and income goes to doctors, physical therapists and the pharmacy. Your family’s standard of living takes a dive. You can’t do the things everyone else does. You endure a surgery that fixes part of the problem, but the pain continues. You begin to think it is all in your head, but you know better. You try alternative treatments. You reveal your condition to Christian friends and clergy. They often lay hands on you and pray for you, but there is no relief. As the years slip away, self-loathing creeps into your thoughts. You are irritable and gloomy. It becomes very difficult for your spouse and family to endure you. Sexual intimacy decreases to almost nil. You entertain thoughts of jumping off a bridge. You wonder if the pain will get so bad you will, in a moment of madness, abruptly end your life. You get pissed off at God for allowing this to continue. You challenge God to either kill you or make you well. You become the definition of discouragement.

Then one day it all comes together. The doctor orders an MRI and the problem is identified. You try a new medication and the pain is gone. With some minimal lifestyle modification and staying on your medication, you can live for many years without chronic pain from your illness. It’s impossible to describe how exuberant this feels. Getting your life back is the miracle behind the miracle of healing.

Here is where I must be absolutely honest with you. I do not know why miraculous healings happen so rarely. But the longer I’m alive on this earth the more I appreciate that healing is healing, period! When you struggle for years to find healing, you’ll take it any way you can, even if it’s through what we consider the conventional science of modern medicine. To me, the most sacred and miraculous part of healing is the miracle behind the miracle of healing—getting your life back. Once you get it back, are you going to do something special with it, or try to return to your former life? Here’s the secret: there is no going back to your former life after you’ve been healed.

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Bugs

My wife and I visited a new church in our neighborhood on a recent Sunday morning. I felt anxious as we strolled up to the front door. It was the type of anxiety I always feel when about to meet new people. Will I be on my best behavior? Will they like me? Will I like them? Will they see through my facade to the real me? Well, they did see through my facade.

After exchanging pleasantries with the greeter at the door, I scooted into the safety of a back row seat. While waiting for the service to begin, I started reading the handout the greeter gave me at the door. I never got past the first paragraph. Here is what it said:

“Inside these doors you’ll discover people who struggle with lying, cheating, envy, greed, sexual impurity, gossiping, back-biting, bickering, anger, swaggering, bullying, cruelness, arrogance, meanness, stupidity, impatience, hate, judgment, pride, and even more.”

Wow, at first glance that didn’t read like the best marketing plan to attract new people to the church. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. We have an innate human tendency to put our best foot forward, make a good first impression, hide the crazy as long as possible, dazzle people with our best qualities and prevent others from seeing our imperfections. But no matter how hard we try to conceal the flaws, they will betray us when the pressure is on.

Do you know what engineers and technology professionals sometimes call imperfections in new products? Bugs! That’s us. We have bugs in our lives.

My dad always told me you can do anything you set your mind to. It encouraged me to be ambitious. But the reality of life taught me there are some bugs we cannot fix by ourselves. In fact, I’m not certain we can take ultimate responsibility for fixing any of our bugs. I think God does the fixing. Don’t get me wrong. I know we can’t sit idle and expect God to do all the work. We have to choose to fix the bugs and then act. It can take years simply to have that aha realization about a bug that’s causing a lot of problems in our life. That’s where God is indispensible. He’s in the business of revealing bugs and helping us exterminate them.

So the next time some mocking non-believer accuses us Christians of being hypocrites, we can say yes, we are, and so are many of those who accuse us of hypocrisy. The difference is there are Christians among us willing to face the reality of their bugs and, with God’s help, exterminate them, or at least minimize them. This is simply a necessary part of the path to maturity and depth. It’s the people who don’t think they have any serious bugs or need help with the bugs they know about that I worry about.

Yep, the folks at Crosspointe Church in Natomas, California, saw through my façade to the real me. They even listed some of my characteristics in the first paragraph of their bulletin. You might see some of yours in their bulletin, as well.

Unhurried Conversation

There is a remarkable article in Christianity Today by Mark Galli titled, “Why We Need More ‘Chaplains’ and Fewer Leaders.” Basically, Galli is saying that the church, generally, has assimilated the business world’s definition of successful entrepreneurial leadership at the expense of servant pastors—also known as chaplain pastors—who focus on healing hurting souls. Galli mentions unhurried conversations as a gift that chaplain pastors use to bless and heal the hurts of others. Oh how right he is! Pastors with the gift of unhurried conversation can get overlooked in the rush of church activities. They don’t get much glory, and they don’t seem to need it, either.

Here’s the thing. If I had written the Bible, I would have included the gift of unhurried conversation with the other spiritual gifts. Yes, I know it is probably ancillary to one of the “actual” spiritual gifts. I’m being facetious, sort of. In all seriousness, I believe the gift of unhurried conversation is not limited to the clergy. We can all bless each other with this most precious gift. It just takes a little mental practice. We have to be “intentional” (church parlance for making ourselves do it). Practice not thinking ahead to the next task or duty when talking to someone, especially when talking to someone who is hurting. By not thinking ahead, and existing in the moment, it’s easier to have an unhurried conversation. An unhurried conversation, oddly enough, can be short. It’s not so much about the length of the conversation as it is about being unrushed and completely engaged with the person you are talking with. Resist the urge to look over the person’s shoulder at others you need to speak with. Don’t glance at your watch and for heaven’s sake don’t look at the messages in that abominable cell phone while trying to practice unhurried conversation.

Most of us in the pew won’t become the next great mega-church pastor, evangelist, missionary or the prior of a pious hermitage (my personal favorite), but we can bless people with the ministration of unhurried conversation. Unhurried conversations will become more precious as the pace of life intensifies, forcing us into dimensions of shallowness and loneliness we’ve never experienced before. Thank God for this precious antidote and the people who wield it.

Ask

This will get uncomfortable for some readers. During the past twelve years I sought direction from God, through prayer, about my purpose. Why? When I entered middle age I yearned for a calling, something to pour myself into before ruinous old age kept me on the sidelines. I received no response to my marathon prayer for purpose. Well-meaning folk in the church often say the Lord hears your prayers and he is in control. Really, that’s it? I already know the Lord hears my supplications, but what I crave is an answer along with an open door, even if the door is opened just a crack.

In Matthew 7:7-8 (NLT) it says, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

This passage might be referring only to the act of salvation or spiritual matters. I’m not sure, but it sounds like it encompasses more. It’s definitely not talking about winning the lottery. But I must admit there are times when I read it and think—that’s cruel! I can think that because I’ve been asking and seeking something spiritually valid (a purpose) for twelve long years without an answer. And let me tell you, the silence of the heavens causes fear. Fear that God doesn’t care. Fear that something is wrong with me, and others are more deserving. Fear that God might not exist and we are utterly on our own.

But then I shake it off and go back to asking, seeking and knocking. Why? Well I don’t have a brilliant answer that will make you go aha! Sometimes I don’t understand why the Bible says a few things that simply don’t seem to happen in real life. But something did come to mind while musing about this. Here it is:

Every parent understands what it’s like to have a child ask for something incessantly over and over. The child thinks they can wear down their parent and get the answer they want by repetitious asking. Can I have a BB gun? No! Can I have a BB gun? No! Can I have a BB gun, pleeeeease? Nooooo! On and on it goes until you are ready to put your child up for adoption. You just want your child to stop asking. But God isn’t like us parents. I don’t completely understand it, but God invites us to keep on asking. I don’t believe God is cruel and likes to string us along. At the very least, by encouraging me to keep on asking, I am forced to choose whether I want to keep coming to God or just walk away from the relationship. If I walk away, I have no hope, and life without hope sounds . . . horrible. Maybe I’d be less troubled if I gave up and stopped asking, but I doubt it.