reflection on suffering

When All is Well, and It Hurts.

I feel better than I have felt in eight years.

Please don't miss the gravity of this simple statement.

I am at the closest place to remission I have ever been in the eight years I have lived with autoimmune disease, and it is a simultaneously sacred and scary place.

Since graduating from my master's program in May I have been thoroughly soaking up the wonder of being well. My husband and in-laws generously gave me an inflatable standup paddleboard as my graduation gift, something I have lusted after for years, and I've since spent most of my free days paddling on open waters, dwelling in the sun and fresh air and capacity of an unencumbered body.

I have been experiencing a season of nearly unparalleled freedom, and I have embraced it with my entire heart.

Embracing the joy of today comes with a willingness to accept the grief of tomorrow. Because of some life decisions my husband and I are making, I know this season of wellness could end in a couple months. This season of wellness is quite possibly limited. For several weeks I have chosen to dwell in the joy of what is rather than the impending anguish of what is to come. There is wisdom there, and I am proud I have allowed myself the space to dwell in the present. And yet, as I drove across town last night, I remembered the soft tap of my soul and the Lord: "you need space for sadness, too." Praying, the question I knew I needed to sit with was, "What do you need to grieve?"

What do you need to grieve?

I can't say I completely know the answer to my question. Through attending to my story through the tool of the Enneagram, I know I need to grieve several places where I historically felt unseen and misunderstood, and where my emotional world was invalidated from childhood through the present. I also know I need to grieve some painful experiences from graduate school.

But, today as I stepped on the bathroom scale for the first time in a month and realized I had lost ten pounds, I stopped. The ten pounds in many senses does not matter, but what it symbolizes does. Ten pounds symbolizes activity, life, movement, and change--an effortless physical freedom I have not known since I was a 21 year old.

For a moment I danced my naked body, rejoicing at what I saw in the mirror: stronger legs and arms, tone where tone has been lacking, the curve and shape of my former self. I danced to the thrilling reward of days in sunshine with a moving body and an uninhibited heart. 

But plans. Planning means choosing the substance of our days. And in the late summer and early fall, that means choosing the probability of a smaller, more holistically-arduous existence. This is a hard concept to relate with or without details (some of which I, frankly, am just not ready to share). Outside of being me, it is easy for others to simply think that since I cannot know what the future holds, I should only hold out hope for it being better than I imagine. But I do know my body, and I do know how, like a well-oiled machine, my body needs particular ingredients in order to thrive. Take one of those ingredients away for even a week, and it screams in pain and refuses to move without great struggle. Thus, I hold out hope for the potentiality of a better future than I can imagine, and I live in the reality of knowing impending pain is both possible and probable. 

I will not borrow trouble, but I also will listen to the voice of the Lord telling me to attend to the grief in my heart. I will hope. I will thrive. I will glide across the lakes of Colorado with joy illuminating my very presence. And I will bring stillness to my heart, strengthening my soul for whatever lies ahead. 

When all is well, and it hurts, I simply have to be present to it all. The joy of my season in life right now is so expansive it almost physically hurts at times. And the sorrow of now in relation to where I have been and where I might be headed hurts as well. But if there is anything the past eight years of dwelling with God in sickness has taught me, it is that joy and sorrow are necessary friends. One cannot survive without the other, and I will accommodate them both.

When Pain Makes You Feel Joy--capturing the small opportunities.

This morning has been rough for me physically. Every day I experience "morning stiffness" upon waking up, and some days the stiffness just doesn't go away. Today I had an 8am class, so it was pretty painful to make it to school and sit in a non-padded chair through the three hour lecture. I never know when my morning stiffness is going to last all day, so I often push past the pain and try not to dwell on it, thinking it will likely subside soon. But sometimes it lingers, and the pain can be so intense that it brings small tears to my eyes. Not necessarily because I'm overwhelmingly sad, but because it really hurts. 

Being in intense pain while listening to a lecture is hard work. And I realized this morning that when I recognize the truth that I am sacrificing my personal comfort for the sake of learning to better help others feel the comfort and hope of God's coming Kingdom, great joy enters into my present experience of pain. Though it's sometimes healthier for me to stay home, there are times when I can push through pain. But in either way that I cope, it is imperative that I stay mindful of my experience. When I am mindful in the moment of the fact that it is truly difficult to be a student with chronic pain, I am presented with an opportunity to respect myself and revel in the calling God has put on my life. It's a godward moment, a space in my heart to submit my experience of pain to God knowing that he wants to use it for the good of others. Small moments like these when I'm wincing in pain are sometimes sacred spaces where sadness over my authentically hard experience mingles with the joy of knowing God is working to redeem pain in all its forms--and that I get to help others know this coming redemption. It is by no means an invalidation of my sadness but rather an active and mindful experience of it in the presence of a God who cares about it intimately.

So as I sit here typing and feeling rather woozy, I am smiling inside even as I wince and close my eyes at the world that's beginning to spin around me because of the pain. But I write even now because I so want you to know that joy can enter into our sadness when we let ourselves experience it. It doesn't always. It won't always come. And we don't have to dutifully force ourselves to feel it. But it can come. And It will. I truly believe that a gift of suffering with chronic pain is that through it God often enlarges our capacity to feel joy. You might feel like that is the farthest thing from the truth right now, and I respect you for feeling that. I've felt that way too. But I also long for you to know and experience the truth that God deeply cares about your pain, so much so that he sent his  Son to live in a broken human body, experiencing the worst physical pain imaginable in addition to the existential weight of your and my angst, so that he could redeem it and banish it from the world forever. Jesus knows my pain and your pain and he conquered it. When he comes again, our pain will end forever. And in the meantime, the very Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead can live in our hearts, tenderly helping us face our pain and find joy in and despite it

And that's part of the beauty of these sacred, pain-filled moments--they exist because the Spirit of God lives in me. My pain-filled moments can be invaded by joy because they are an opportunity to commune with the Living God. This is somewhat heady, existential stuff, but it's also the stuff that faith is made of. So, if you have the mental energy, wrestle with it, wrestle with me and with God by reflecting on the following verses:

Jesus...”made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself by becoming obedient even to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
— Philippians 2:7-8
“...I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him...that I may know him and THE POWER OF HIS RESURRECTION, and may share in his sufferings...[that] I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
— Philippians 3:8-9a, 10a, 11b
Therefore, my beloved brothers (and sisters), be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that
IN the Lord YOUR LABOR IS NOT IN VAIN.”
— 1 Corinthians 15: 58

In the Lord our laboring in these small, pain-filled moments is not in vain. Sometimes pain can make us feel joy, because in it we can know the suffering love of Jesus and the real power of his resurrection. And, friends, there is no greater joy than beholding the love of God in Christ.