Monday, November 14, 2016

Sharing Pain's Spotlight

Last night, a group of us had the privilege of watching a short video about pain and lament produced by one of the women at our church. The purpose, she said, was to help us know how to relate to others as they lament various sorrows in life, and to help us know how to share our own story.

That struck a chord. Pain and lament is a very personal experience. So I’m sure I’m not the first to admit that I have a hard time sharing the spotlight of pain. It’s mine, I’m the one feeling this emotional hurt so deep that I can actually feel twinges of physical pain. Why should I be made to compare my pain with what I see others experiencing?

This is a dark place. On a good day, I’d like to say I am an empathetic person. But pain has a way of twisting even our best intentions. Last week, as the country and my friends reeled from the less-than-desired outcome of a very stress-filled election, I found myself under this dim cloud. How was I supposed to find the strength to stand under the weight of one more troubling experience? Does this make my pain less important?

I really wanted to pray, reflect, and write, but I just kept circling around this emotional conundrum without any peace. It took a few days, but I eventually remembered a passage from Lysa TerKeurst’s Uninvited. I am so glad God led be to begin this journey with that book, long before weeks like this. With a sane mind, I read truth, circled it, and marked it with little stars. A pillar of remembrance. This is what Lysa shared:

“Even as the closed doors and rejections seem more prevalent than the new opportunities you’d like to see, even as you’re seeking to readjust your thinking, remember that there is abundant need in this world for your contributions to the kingdom . . . your thoughts and words and artistic expressions . . . your exact brand of beautiful.”

Pain and lament is a very personal experience. But it is also a very lonely task. We can begin to climb out of the cavernous hole sorrow has dug when we remember that we all, on some level, desire to be known and understood; loved and comforted. Hearing the stories of five different people’s lamentation in that video, I was reminded that my struggles and fears are indeed woven together in the world’s brokenness, but they are also uniquely mine. Further still, God’s presence in my pain is not a cookie-cutter response, but an intimate and relevant manifestation of grace.

This morning as I was scrolling through Instagram, a graphic from John Piper’s Desiring God took this truth and grabbed my heart:
Image from Instagram, Desiring God
[Plug: If you aren't already following Desiring God's website, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, I highly recommend them. You won't be sorry.]

It is only through that perspective that I know the sharing of my pain serves a greater purpose. As I read articles, books, and Bible-inspired graphics on social media, a simple phrase like this will jump from the page. “That must have been written just for me!” I think, and yet I know that I am just one of many, thirsting for encouragement and instruction. I don’t want to forget these truths, so I have a running list. It is pages and pages long, but these links and quotes are not just an archive of resources, they are pillars of remembrance. I can look back and see the instances of God’s faithfulness when He provided kernels of truth, at just the right time. That, with everything else, is an important part of my story.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Redemption of Being Brought Low

This is Part 3 of a series I am calling "Leaning In." Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here

It’s funny how long it takes to learn something. It’s often said that 30 days will help form a habit. It is taking me much longer.

These last few years in Chicago have been a challenging season of close friends leaving. My brother jokingly says, “you sure have the corner on people moving away!” I definitely feel that way. I often find myself reminiscing about the way things “used to be” with tears in my eyes and longing in my heart. But through this, I am learning that my pain is not unique. Countless saints have gone before me, from whom I can draw wisdom and insight.

Last year, when still one more friend departed, I saw it as frosting on a bitter cake. It hurt a lot. But it caused me to make a decision to be vulnerable and lean in to my pain; to develop a theology of pain, loneliness, and belonging. I first encountered the writings of Catherine Marshall. Next came Vaneetha Rendall’s blog, Dancing in the Rain, and countless articles on Jon Piper’s Desiring God. They spoke to my soul, and even when the season changed and I didn’t feel as despondent and lonely as I did before,  I knew that I needed to keep learning and collecting kernels of truth to store away for when I would need them again.
It’s so easy to forget the lessons we’ve learned. While giving myself a high-five for checking the box next to each new thing I read, I was still wallowing in self-pity, doubt, and again . . . loneliness. Popular introvert/ extrovert psychology will tell you that being an introvert, I shouldn’t have such a hard time being alone. But, an introvert blog I follow points out that this is not the case. Ok, so that makes me feel a little better, I am a least justified in my feelings. But that doesn’t change the fact that I hate it. And that it makes me feel guilty for feeling lonesome when I know perfectly well there is Someone who is supposed to be my all. How to reconcile the two?

A year after beginning the Catherine Marshall’s Beyond Ourselves, I took vulnerable step #2. Around this time, I think I asked the Lord to show me where I needed to walk in obedience. I am a person of action, I like to have to-do lists and finished products. But I was beginning to realize that I don’t need to be “moving forward” to make progress in my faith. There were no shooting arrows with heavenly messages, but a quiet conviction that I was called to continue “leaning in” during this season. Walking in obedience was my “task.”

Not knowing what I should read next, I turned to Google and searched for “bible study” and “loneliness.” Guess what, folks? There are not many loneliness Bible studies out there. I’m not sure the reason. Maybe this is still a taboo topic, or more likely, the experts know that this is just one topic in the range of issues we struggle with as humans in a broken world.
Eventually, I stumbled upon Lysa TerKeurst’s book, Uninvited. The cover was trendy and inviting (funny, huh?), but the title didn’t seem like it was a good fit. The subtitle , on the other hand, spoke to me: “Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely.” Still, I was a little skeptical. There are a lot of kooks out there writing Christian books. I didn’t want to buy something wonky. So I did a little more research and found that Lysa runs in the same circles as many other authors I admire and respect! That decided it, this was a book I needed to read.

Even with great tools at my disposal, my own desire to soak up these truths (through reading, writing, meditating on Scripture) comes in waves. I know that it is precisely when I don’t want to, that I know I should—even if it’s storing up truth for the next rainy day. I haven’t finished the book yet, but Lysa has already opened my eyes to a new way of looking at my own self in relation to the love of Almighty God. It is from Uninvited that I discovered my second revelation (the first was Marshall’s prayer of relinquishment): I am not set aside, but set apart.

This doesn’t hit closer to home than when I am reeling from the pain of departed friends. I can grieve; feel left behind, utterly alone, and forgotten by God. Yet the truth is that I am loved, known, and guided by a God who is infinitely more wise, compassionate, and patient than any earthly friend could ever be. Naomi experienced this type of pain and anxiety at the beginning of the book of Ruth, yet her attitude far surpasses how I express myself in the midst of pain. She was brutally honest with her daughter-in-law, her friends, and with God, crying out, Do not call me Naomi (pleasant), call me Mara (bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.” (Ruth 1:20-21).

Last night when our Women’s Bible Study was discussing these verses, I was struck by the beauty of Naomi’s story. She begins empty, lonely, and hopeless. But God’s redemptive actions essentially say, “you are not set aside, you are set apart.” It is so easy to see pain and suffering as a curse. But I am so glad that Naomi did not. She recognized God’s hand in every aspect of her life. With this perspective, her redemption could only come from God. Looking back, I’m sure she was able to rejoice in the arc of God’s refining grace. The path of suffering is never our first choice, but being brought low is often the first step in the Lord’s blue print for our sanctification—the process of looking more and more like the holiness of Christ.

From her new home in a different state, my dear friend is the one who continues to remind me of this, saying with fervent expectation, “I can’t wait to see what the Lord has for us!” Would we have expected the same from Him if we had not been brought so low?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Pain and Grace

I feel like I am on the cusp of learning something. That this hard thing called life, is one big exercise in teaching me something vital about obedience and faith, love, hope, and peace.

The women’s Bible Study at my church is slowly going through the book of Ruth. The guide we are following is very thorough and garners rich insight from just a single phrases of Scripture. As a woman, I really appreciate being able to look at Ruth and Naomi’s struggles, fears, and faith, and imagine what I would do or feel in the same situation. In the face of loss, rejection, and loneliness, they were women of enormous courage. As I compare my life to theirs I recognize that I live with much fear. Fear of loss, fear of loneliness, fear of pain. These things were real to Ruth and Naomi. But their obedience to God carried them through to the other side, into the Lord’s provision, care, and peace.

What would it look like for me to take steps of faith like that? In what area of my life is God calling me to obedience? Am I living in the freedom of Christ?

I used to think that I understood the meaning of faith, obedience and freedom. It’s not very difficult when one leads a clean, quiet, safe life. But those seasons never last very long. Life is more often messy, clamorous, and vulnerable. I am learning that these things are not the absence or silence of God, but His way of getting our attention. I recently heard a sermon by Charles Stanley about listening to God. He emphasized that God often speaks to us in our restlessness. If we are willing to respond to anxiety, discomfort, and pain with prayer, God is there to guide us in whatever way He knows will get our attention.

I am in a season that could definitely be described as messy, clamorous and vulnerable. But through God’s grace, I also feel an underlying string of hope shifting into place. I’ve shared before about my church. It is a small church, with a uniquely blessed community all living within the same few zip codes. This tight community makes life decisions and struggles about so much more than just me. Living in such a transient neighborhood and city, the largest struggle has been the loss friends who move away. When this happens, I react with great sensitivity and empathy. I can feel my anxiety bubbling up, just thinking about how many things their leaving will impact. But this unease and hurt is a gift from God. It is a wake-up call. C.S. Lewis wrote about it in his book, The Problem of Pain:Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

One of my favorite Christian writers, Catherine Marshall, fills much of her books with this concept. Throughout her lifetime she experienced great loss, affliction, and loneliness, yet she records a distinct moment when she traded
resignation for acceptance through a prayer of relinquishment. In her book, Beyond Ourselves, she describes it this way:

“Resignation is barren of faith in the love of God. It says ‘grievous circumstances have come to me. There is no escaping them. I am only once creature, an alien in a vast unknowable creation. I have no heart left even to rebel. So I’ll just resign myself to what apparently is the will of God; I’ll even try to make a virtue out of patience submission.’ So resignation lies down quietly in the dust of a universe from which God seems to have fled, and the door of Hope swings shut.” 
“But turn the coin over. Acceptance says, “I trust the good will, the love of my God. I’ll open my arms and my understanding to what He has allowed to come to me. Since I know that He means to make all things work together for good, I consent to this present situation with hope for what the future will bring.’ Thus acceptance leaves the door of Hope wide open to God’s creative plan. This difference between acceptance and resignation is the key to an understanding of the Prayer of Relinquishment.” (Chapter 6, p. 104)
This is the kind of truth you cannot come to without pain leading the way. I would much rather not have to deal with the grief and loneliness of departed friends, but I am also realizing that I would not trade away these times of God’s deep grace. He has gotten my attention. Now to the challenge of listening for what He is saying, walking where He is leading, and watching for what He is providing.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

This is What Vulnerability Looks Like

One of my favorite things about Sunday evenings is donning my apron, laying out all my ingredients, and making soup or stew for the coming week. It is a ritual that I prepare for with research and imagination. It is a creative endeavor with a practical outcome. It both excites and calms me. And it is something that I enjoy doing alone.

As you read this, I wish I could turn your attention to previous posts I’ve written on this topic. But the problem is, I haven’t posted them yet. I’ve written them, yes, even added to them, and questioned them. I just can’t seem to find a good starting point. And every story, essay, or article must have a starting point. When it comes to thoughts, however, they don’t often have a clear beginning. Thoughts, and even dreams, wind themselves around and around in our minds. By the grace of God, something concrete begins to form.

So, last Sunday evening, I was extremely grateful when I began cooking and had this tangible thought: cooking is something I enjoy doing alone. Here is the reason I bring this up: sometimes it is very hard for me to be alone. I have wrestled with this truth. I’ve tried to ignore it, push it aside. I’m tried to wrap my mind around the science of being an introvert who struggles with loneliness (this should be an oxymoron, right?). Even in the midst of solo activities that I enjoy, it is so easy for me to turn my thoughts to feelings of loneliness and dejection.

This I know: I am good at being alone. I am not good at being lonely.

I could wallow in this unfortunate fact (and I often do), or I can acknowledge it, and seek Truth to fill in the gaps. My head knows that as a follower of Christ, I have the freedom to be content in His love. But why is it so hard for my heart to feel the same?

I am confident that I am not the only one who feels and experiences this. It has taken a great amount of vulnerability for me to get to this point where I can share my struggles, but I do so because I know that healing and growth is often sparked when one person’s openness  begins to resonates with yours. I can only write about these things today because countless others have gone before me, trusting that the way God designed their minds and hearts was not a mistake. I have chosen to “dig deep,” to seek out Scripture and the life-giving perspectives of some of my favorite Christian authors. Their writings and memoirs have helped me gain perspective and assisted me in forming a theology of loneliness and belonging. It is their words that I will reflect on. 

I am by no means done with this journey, but I am finally at a place where I can share what I’ve learned, and in the process, etch these truths deeper into my own soul. I cannot tell you how long this “series” will last, but I know it will take some time to hash out all I want to share. I invite you to join me along the way. If something resonates with you, copy it down, bookmark it, tag it, store it for a time when you will need to be reminded of it.

There are times when we will all feel lonely, but we are never alone. For the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. He mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, great is His faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23).

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