When We Have No Answers

As efforts worldwide continue to seek the eradication of the polio virus that plagued the United States and UK over a half century ago, we can now thankfully vaccinate against this virus that can keep on giving 30-40 years later. When people cannot, or choose not, to receive the vaccine, we can understand why they may contract any of the various strains of polio.But for the 15-20 million worldwide survivors (Dr. Colin Tidy, 24 June 2016) who experience post polio syndrome, some wonder why or how they got the disease before Jonas Salk’s successful vaccine that became available in 1955. They have no answers.

A much lesser known disease, the Spanish flu, was a killer second only to the Black Death. Most students of Western Civilization know the Black Death (Great Plague), killed an estimated 75-200 million people in Eurasia between 1337-1350. Some sources claim the Black Death took 30-60% of Europe’s total population.

But until I recently read Susan Meissner’s As Bright as Heaven, I knew virtually nothing about the second greatest pandemic, the Spanish flu. This horrifying flu epidemic occurred just a century ago in 1918. One of the hardest hit cities, Philadelphia, buried more than 12,000. Like polio, the Black Death, and other unexplained tragedies, the Spanish flu was no respecter of persons. Poor, rich, educated, or not, this epidemic took life indiscriminately. One family member might survive while another succumbed within days. Again, we have theories and historical records, but no answers.

Evelyn, a character from this historical fiction, studies neurology in the mid 1920s, and seeks to treat a woman suffering from what was termed “dementia praecox, a psychotic disorder.” Sybil’s illness progresses until she has no ability to speak or even recognize her extremely devoted husband. Treatments of 1925 included “bathing therapies, sleep cures, barbiturates, hypnotics, and alkaloids,” but none kept Sybil from descending into madness (term of that time). Again, they had no answers. Even today, almost a century later, we have no answers to many physical and mental maladies.

When we lack answers, we try to explain situations by using metaphors or some concrete examples. In Meissner’s novel, Evelyn says, “Her mind is like an onion whose layers are peeling off all by themselves. And just like there is no way to reattach an onion’s layers, there is no way to stop Sybil Reese from mentally disappearing.” Such word pictures offer limited insight into the effects of a malady but no answers to the searing ache of loss.

Ever since Job, people have wondered, feared, and/or angrily confronted God for answers to why. Why me? Why this? Why now?

Yet I believe we do well to take a look at Job’s reaction after loses virtually all, and then demands counsel with the Almighty. Job’s contrite response follows.

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted… Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;”. Job 42:2, 3b, 5 ESV

I find real contentment in a sovereign God, One whom I trust to have designs, events, and ways beyond my comprehension, even when I can decipher no earthly answers. And when we all walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can know the One who surmounted evil, triumphing over man’s universal enemy, death. We will see Him face to face; all earthly questions will cease to plague us, and we shall be home.

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The Messy We Can’t Hide

A few years ago a woman sat in my living room, sobbing and trying to choke out words and apologies for her inability to regain control. Though we didn’t know each other well, she desperately feared growing old without a husband. Long before Carrie Underwood’s song, “Cry Pretty,” was written, I witnessed in myself and others that “You can’t cry pretty.” We love looking at the camera when we’re smiling or laughing, but who wants a picture taken when tears stream down her puffy, red face?

Somehow we easily begin to foster the image of the sanitized person, ignoring the reality that we live in this world, affected like everyone else, by its brokenness. As I think back over almost 70 years of being different, unable to do many activists other kids did, I realize I got a jump start on dealing with life from a particularly odd angle. My “messy,” like this rescued owl’s, was quite visible. Oh, I found ways to hide some of my “messy” in matters that didn’t involve physical strength and agility; my attempts to appear all together involved school work, singing, teaching, and leading Bible studies. In virtually every situation, my pride lay at the root of the each facade.

And that, my friends, is the messy we can’t hide from the One who sees our hearts. He has told us no heart can be trusted; deceit and desperate wickedness lie at our core. Antithetical as it sounds, acknowledging our utter brokenness to the Lord unfetters us.

No longer do my motives and actions have to remain cemented in performance or perfectionism. Yet, with the tenacity of a jackhammer, I return to break up the cement and drag out those foolish mindsets. What kind of help can I find? Over the years, I have applied wisdom from Proverbs, and have coupled that with the accountability of my husband and a few close friends. Deep inside us all, we know messy defines our DNA. Thankfully, we can know the only One who sees it all and yet chooses to love us unconditionally and change us steadily.

Bringing the Spaces Closer

For our silver anniversary Dave and I toured England, Scotland and Wales for 15 days. That first trip to the British Isles introduced us to the above graphic at each underground stop. Americans might say, “Watch out!” or perhaps the more formal, “Watch your step,” but Brits post, “Mind the gap.”

We can well apply this idea to what happens to us between a crushing incident of grief or pain and any ability to move our life on after that. There’s no time line, no outline, no series of steps that fit all. Wanting a closure date, though we do long for relief, sounds presumptuous. So with tentative, faltering steps, we venture into the open fields that lie before us. Can we bring the space between the pain and some measure of peace closer together? If so, how?

Perhaps an illustration from our woods can help. Three Lady Slippers stand as sentinels on the mossy hill, while a solo plant sits isolated, down below. Digging up the one to move it closer to the three rarely works because of the fragile nature of these flowers. Aren’t grieving, suffering people equally fragile? There is healing happening in the soil that we do well not to disturb Those who wish to offer help or come alongside a hurting person do well to also mind the gap. Some consolers decide they don’t know what to say or do, so they avoid the one in pain. Others rush in with platitudes or their own experiences. Whether the hurting soul or the hopeful comforter, we all do well to avoid attempts to pull, push, or transplant. Why? Don’t we long for relief, quickly and completely?

Yes, we ache for a quick remedy, but in the secret under the ground, work does continue. Left alone, the Lady Slipper (or Moccasin) orchid reproduces via symbiosis. The New England Today website explains this well.The organism, in this case a fungus in the soil, causes the stubborn seed to open. Once the fungus cracks the seed and attaches, the fungus gives needed food and nutrients for the plant to flourish.

While people, music, solitude, or cards and written notes may all prove helpful, God can crack the most stubborn heart in the work He accomplishes in the secret places. May we have the grace and patience to allow the Gardener to close the spaces as He chooses.

In-between Places

After the agony of suffering, tragedy, or grief strikes, we often receive what I’ve referred to as God’s anesthesia. Something akin to the gentleness of a fragile lady slipper cushions us. We move, undulating like fragile petals swayed by a spring breeze.We have moments or prolonged spaces, despite the best support systems, where we are painfully alone, a solitary blossom trying desperately to cling to the soil we’re in at the moment. Though the sun shines around us, chill air is what we feel.

However, as we attempt to move on, to find a new normal, we find ourselves in what novelist Susan Meissner calls “in-between places.” Her skillfully written novel features two women. Clara Wood is a nurse who witnessed a friend plummet to the sidewalk after jumping from the flames of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. She works on Ellis Island, never taking the ferry back to New York City. The contemporary (2011) female character, Taryn Michaels, has worked at a fabric shop since her husband died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, the day she headed into Manhattan to share with him the news of her first pregnancy.The events of this broken world that strike the soul can be identified in most cases. The resulting response, however, can leave some people living or merely existing without purpose or strength. Why do we sometimes get stuck in an in-between place? Meissner posits this idea: “Time ceases to have substance when you are flattened by despair.” That, my friends, is one powerful sentence!

Our culture uses the word depression more often than despair, but the connotation of the latter word gives a sense of utter hopelessness. A metamorphosis must occur so we are not flattened or consigned to remaining in some form of an in-between place. Let’s consider first the writings of two Old Testament writers.

After trying myriad forms of pleasure, intellectual pursuits, and power, King Solomon wrote, “So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair, over all the toil of my labors under the sun,” (Ecc 2.20 ESV)

Ezekiel, in describing God’s wrath in bringing about Israel’s coming destruction, wrote, “The king mourns, the prince is wrapped in despair, and the hands of the people are paralyzed by terror, (Ezek 7:27a ESV)

And, the Bible’s shortest verse, “Jesus wept,” (John 11:35 ESV) attests to our Lord’s anguish, despite the fact that He was about to raise His friend Lazarus from the dead.

Yet the apostle Paul comforts us with words that follow the most spectacular metamorphosis ever, the resurrection of Christ. Paul, describing all believers, offers this pure truth: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;” (2 Cor 4:8-9 ESV)

The hope of this truth can, in God’s timing, move us out of the in-between spaces to places of peace, beauty, and growth.

Gospel Optimism

Trillium, with its beautiful trio of leaves and petals, grows in the woods here in Western Maryland. So does the trout lily.The trout part of the wildflower’s name originates from its leaves, visual reminders of the markings on a trout.These quiet signs of spring require the hiker’s sharp eyes and careful walking through the woods. People can rampage through entire fields without seeing these and other delicate beauties.

I believe a parallel applies to human pain and suffering. Admittedly, chronic pain forces me to plod through some of the tougher days without looking for the tiny signs of joy growing in the fields. So I pray for the Lord to lift my eyes that I might refocus.

When the psalmist wanted to know where his help came from, he lifted his eyes to the hills, seeking assistance as he pressed on toward Zion. His quick realization came: “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121) As a song of ascents, this psalm speaks of Jewish pilgrims who trekked the arduous path upward to Jerusalem. The writer of this psalm realized that a person, not a city or a pilgrimage, truly offered succor.

Anyone dealing with chronic suffering can understand this word picture, because looking to Jesus offers aid far superior to any earthly pain reliever. Even an extended release medication has limited efficacy. But unveiling the incarnate person of the trinity, encountering Jesus personally, connects me to the One who made the heavens… the earth… me. He tirelessly cares for those who suffer.

Knowing or know, a word used almost 900 times in the ESV, convinces me over feelings or feel, which appears about 15 times. I have days when I feel lousy, but I know the One who has my days in His hands. That gives me a phrase I have read somewhere and wish I could credit to its original author: gospel optimism.

Driving very slowly through a country road this afternoon, Dave and I wanted to see if the lady slipper had bloomed. Not yet, but we know the delicate beauty of the flower will burst forth any day now.

Wishing you gospel optimism.

You Believe What?

In her wheelchair, this woman dealing with MS drew a breath to listen to my answer to the rapid-fire questions she had just spat out about dealing with pain and debilitating physical losses. “What do you do to cope?” she demanded.

Without realizing the excited smile on my face, I told her what sustained me: when I drew my final breath, I knew I would see the Lord face to face, forgiven and whole.

Leaning across the desk and arching forward in her wheelchair, her eyes widened as she exclaimed, “My God, do you really believe that?”

There it was! The unbeliever drawing the sword of her pain and looking for relief or, at the very least, a full-on duel.

Verses immediately pinged around in my head as if in a pinball machine, but the bell sounded when I remembered a recent sermon. In Romans 9, Paul had quoted Isaiah in writing that Jesus would be a stumbling block, an offense. “But,” warned my pastor, “woe to us if we are the offense.”

Gently, I shared with her the gospel of faith, inviting her to look to Jesus more than any other. I left her with some questions for thought and set a future time to meet. Though I desperately wish I could conclude with a story of her affirmation of saving faith, she never returned. In C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, he says pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Some are roused toward the Savior; others not. In the same book, Lewis also states this hard truth: “For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.”

Yet, even those who follow Jesus struggle to rejoice in suffering and grief. Finding a new normal, a reason to get out of bed, some purpose in living can present a perplexing maze.

Romans 5:3-5 provides direction and hope, not in a saccharine, “Oh yippee, I am suffering” sort of way, but because of the benefits hope instills in both our character and our endurance. “Hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) When Jesus returned to the Father, he sent the Paraclete, also known as the Comforter or Spirit. Whatever our pain or grief, this Holy Spirit continues to pour God’s love into our hearts. So we move from gasps of breath to fuller inhales of the love that gushes, spurts, streams to us by God’s grace. As this growing flow of hope infuses more of God’s love, we know He will never disappoint. This hope, firmly secured in the death and resurrection of Christ, will not disappoint.

And YES, with all my being, I believe that!

Jesus Gives Meaning to Suffering, Part 3

Romans 5:2-5 (ESV)

[2] Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. [3] Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, [4] and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, [5] and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (italics, mine)

When pain or grief returns, sometimes like a revolving door, I return to the comforting words of the above verses. Consider the richness of Paul’s language: faith, grace, hope, glory. If I am to make sense of suffering in this life, I must look beyond circumstances and self, not an easy task in the midst of difficulties, but a necessary one as I search for purpose and meaning in my anguish.

My first personal tutorial in grief came before my 30th birthday. Pregnant with our second son, I received word that my Dad had lost his battle with brain cancer. My Daddy, the one who had held me when I burned with polio fever, hauled me in and out of a neighbor’s station wagon when I lay cocooned in a plaster body cast, walked me down the aisle on my wedding day, would not meet his new grandchild. The tears flowed, tsunami-like, as my grief for my Dad mixed with fear that the child I carried in a touch-and-go pregnancy would be lost to miscarriage.

Elisabeth Elliot, a favorite author, wrote words that broke through my grief and lethargy.

“When you don’t know what to do next, just do the thing in front of you.”

So I returned to teaching and caring for our two-year-old son. We brought Mom to our home during her winter break so she didn’t have to spend a February week alone in the house that had been home to her and Dad for over 30 years.

Brent had been my Dad’s shadow for all of the boy’s walking months, and I hoped Brent might grow to love my Mom as he had adored my Dad. When I came home from school the second day back, Mom calmly told me she had bitten Brent! Then she showed me the teeth marks our 2-year-old had left on her bruised arm. My hope for a transfer of affection took flight!

But before I fell apart, Mom explained that she had told Brent he hurt Grandma very badly, and then in a gentler manner, demonstrated. While Grandma’s arm showed the dried blood and toddler fangs of her attacker, Brent’s arm showed only a bit of redness. My prenatal hormones tore at my heart, wanting to console both Mom and Brent, and yet wanting to reprimand both. I ended up thanking Mom for correcting Brent’s unacceptable behavior, and Dave and I disciplined Brent for his unprovoked attack. That night I foolishly believed our son and my Mom would never be close. But God…

Literally, from the day of the bite, all the adoration Brent had demonstrated toward my Dad transferred 100% to my Mom. She and Brent took walks, baked cookies, played Old Maid, created homemade Christmas decorations, and built Legos together every time she visited. They remained buddies until her death during Brent’s freshman year of high school when Mom lost her battle with bone cancer. Then came the a greater realization about the Romans 5 passage: endurance leads to perseverance and then to hope.

This next connection I observed in Scripture involves hope and steadfastness.

“O, Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plenteous salvation.” Psalm 130:7

“…if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…” Colossians 1:23a

“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain.” Hebrews 6:19

Steadfast, just the unwavering staunchness and stability of the word, bolsters the situations of life like the flow of a river. Hope carries me along, murmuring that I need not stagnate in shame, for I have seen endurance lead to character and onward to hope.

Whatever comes around the bend next, I anchor my soul with the psalmist who writes, “Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we put our hope in you.” Psalm 33:22. And I look to Job, arguably the human who suffered more pain and grief than any other earthly human, and say with him, “I know that you (God) can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

Then I gain yet another measure of understanding grief and suffering because they bring endurance, refine character, and confirm hope.