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?

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