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.

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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.

Jesus Gives Meaning to Suffering Part 1

Pain, suffering, and grief touch us all at some time during our lives. The worldview we hold in dorm room bull sessions or philosophy classes faces the crucible of reality that tests the theory’s strength when the generality dubbed suffering invades us personally, repeatedly.

When I entered Houghton College, I relished a fresh start. Polio and back surgery had hospitalized me for almost two of my 18 years. My new Brooklyn friend Rosemarie, youngest of eight children born to German immigrants, had somehow gotten through public school without the polio vaccine. As she and I went through freshman physicals, she received her polio shot but assured the campus doctor,”Don’t worry about her; she’s had the disease.”

Other than a week in the infirmary my freshman year, a room change from third floor down to first that allowed me to avoid stairs, and the requirement that I take “adaptive phys ed,” I had four healthy years. Despite having read C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain during my infirmary stay, I still had some simplistic ideas of pain and suffering. Before Dave and I married in the summer of ’68, we had talked about polio, and I had told him that due to the more than 100 full-body x-rays I’d received prior to my back surgery, chances were we wouldn’t have children. Yet, 5 1/2 years later I gave birth to our first son. A second son completed our family 2 1/2 years later. image Dr. Bryan Wolfe and Dr. Brent Wolfe. 12/24/17

While Dave and I awaited Bryan’s birth, my dad died of brain cancer. It came as my personal introduction to grief. Those Bible verses I’d learned in 1960 supported me, despite the difficult pregnancy. I began to meditate on Romans 5:3-4 (NIV)

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

With grief raw, I first looked at the progression of the things suffering produced. How else could I begin to understand rejoicing in suffering?

Endurance and I had a fledgling kinship that dated back to my recovering from disease and surgery. Character, definitely a Holy Spirit work in progress within me, included times of spiritual zeal along with some major flaws and potholes. But why did hope conclude the list?

I looked first at endurance, and Romans 15:4-5 assured me that God gives endurance and encouragement by the things written in scripture, and by individuals following Christ. I stopped visualizing endurance as pushing through exercises with gritted teeth. Paul coupled endurance with encouragement, pointing to hope and unity. In 2 Corinthians, Paul linked endurance to acquiring patience, along with trusting the sovereignty of God in distress and hardship. But it was Colossians 1:11 that connected endurance and patience with “joyfully giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints.” With that verse, my myopic vision sharpened like the Gran Telescopic Canarias. There was a connection between endurance and joy.

Thoughtful reader, I don’t know how you pick up the pieces and continue to survive and even, dare we think, thrive, after pain, suffering and grief have leveled you. But as I continue to ponder endurance, character, and hope, I grasp more of Jesus as the One who gives meaning to suffering.

Caregivers to Those Who Grieve

Like ocean waves that ebb and flow, we desire to show compassion and care to those who, in deep anguish, flounder in seas of grief that often, unexpectedly, knock them over. Their grief sends crashing waves over them, while we who desire to help, press forward and pull back like storm swells erratically pounding the shoreline.

At the time of a death, the funeral, or a memorial service, I’ve often noticed what I call “holy anesthesia.” By this I mean that God allows us to simply function, or do the next thing as Elisabeth Elliot often counseled.

The grieving family may feel pressure to have an open casket so friends, family, neighbors can see the deceased. In 1975, my mom felt that pressure, and though the body lying in the casket, felled at 59 by brain cancer, little resembled my dad, she reversed her earlier decision for a closed casket. Such viewings, often brutal on the family, may be waning. My father-in-law pastored for over 60 years and encouraged families to celebrate a life and present the Gospel through a memorial service.

I think back to a college comedy show when a fellow student’s monologue poked fun at thoughtless comments voiced at funerals, such as,”He looks so good,” or “She looks so much like herself.” Tragically, this young man died of a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after. How incongruous to see a hearse on our college campus, a place of young people just beginning life’s journey! Stark death had struck where and when we least expected it. At 18, I got a first-hand experience that put a young face to the word death. My faith held, but I remember the awkwardness of student conversations about Paul’s death. This incident happened over 50 years ago.

Today, folks can Google the 10 or 12 or any number of things not to say to grieving people or to do for them. And the perspective runs from Psychology Today to Christian, with many variations in between.

But really, how can we reach out– or pull back — to offer genuine help? I find the key often lies in the face-to-face bond you have with the person. Hitting the crying emoji on Facebook simply because you know someone who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows that person, rarely registers. If you personally know an extended family member, seek their advice regarding whether the grieving person is ready to deal with other people yet.

While I am extremely thankful for the resources of EMTs, policemen, clergy, and other professionals, I honor those who offer long-term, specific acts of mercy and encouragement to those who grieve long after the services and casseroles end.

Just one small example: In the mid 80s, I was privileged to teach a beautiful, brilliant, and vibrant young woman. A rare form of cancer attacked her body when she was in her early 40s, and took her life in about six weeks. Each year, on the day of her death, I write her mom an email. I try to include a specific I remember about Lisa’ high school years. Lisa’s mom responds, telling me about her son-in-law and the two granddaughters. And she thanks me for remembering the daughter she’ll never forget.

Please consider how you will care for those who grieve beyond their initial pain.

Caregivers to Those in Pain

One of our grandchildren took this deer-in-headlights photo of grandpa today. And while he doesn’t usually look like this, he exemplifies the feelings of almost all caregivers at one time or another! I should mention that we’ve been married almost 50 years.My professional caregivers, except for the one doctor who called me Brat when I was 4, provided great care, even when weary and sleep deprived. But I want to honor the family and friends who minister to us when we hurt or grieve. So here’s a tribute, along with deep thankfulness, to you all!

My parents cared for me as a polio patient in 1950. They saw me through a 6-month hospitalization when I was 4. For the next 10 years they had to oversee my exercises, clinic appointments, and home care visits. And I admit that I detested the painful stretching exercises and gave my mom a fit!

By 1960, my weakened core muscles led to the need for my spinal fusion of T-1-12 through L-1. The same hospital where I’d spent 6 months a decade before now became home for a year. I was schooled and cared for there, but my parents managed to get me, totally encased in a 60+ pound cast, home for Christmas and Easter vacations. From a borrowed station wagon for the trips, to a special mattress, to bedpans, my folks managed it all. When I look back on their sacrifices for me, I know I never thanked them enough.

While we dated, I told Dave my story, including this caveat: one thing I didn’t ever want was pity. He took me at my word through the years! And if I had a hard day, his jokingly saying, “Ah, poor, poor…” was all it took to get me out of bed and moving. It became a joke until one day after a 1992 back surgery. I caved and said, “OK, you could extend a little sympathy today.”

This servant-minded man gets my battery-operated scooter in and out of the car numerous times each week, and hauls the two-pack battery in and out of the car to recharge it inside the house. Today, at my physical therapy appointment, he had ordered the two recommended walking sticks from Amazon before my therapist had time to adjusted a practice pair for me.

He quietly deals with my sulks, silences, and snivelings, and has never once reminded me of Philippians 2:14. “Do all things without grumbling or complaining.” How do I know when he’s frustrated with me? He’ll stop me and say, “Flo, what’s really the matter?” When totally bewildered with my mood or behavior, he reminds me, “I can’t read your mind, Flo.” And so we back up and try to share fears and frustrations, returning to the truth of God’s sovereignty in all of life.

The discussion we sometimes have now involves wanting to keep the husband and wife relationship solid, even as the caregiving role increases.

What about you, reader, as you think of the caregiver(s) in your life. Is there someone preparing meals to meet your dietary needs, giving a listening ear that hears even your whining, offering rides to the doctor’s office, advocating and scribing when you navigate the medical world, serving as a faithful praying friend? Would you remember to thank them?

Often. Sincerely. Lavishly.

Partnering with Pain

With the new film version of A Wrinkle in Time in theaters now, I remembered a Madeleine L’Engle poem about pain that gave me great comfort and tenacity in the early 1980s. Nonetheless, when I shared the poem with others, they were put off by it. But I get ahead of myself. By the late 1970s, I experienced increasing difficulty walking stairs in our split level home. This was accompanied by fatigue and tiredness. I simply chalked these symptoms up to raising our two sons, and involving myself in teaching and music at church. Since my six-month hospital stay as a four year old, I was reticent to see a doctor. Dave, the boys, and I did, however, move to a rancher in 1980, so I could avoid stairs.When I finally gave in to increasing pain and got an appointment, the doctor at Johns Hopkins told me I probably had what was then being called post-polio muscular atrophy. Medical research seemed to indicate that many polio patients started to display weakness and pain 30-35 years after the original onset of the virus. Was this new condition contagious? What were the implications for the future? What prescription could alleviate the weakness, fatigue and nagging pain? The doctors offered only this: Change your life style and get more rest.

Without the Google searches of today, information proved scarce, and what was available proved difficult to find. Who would fund research on Post Polio Syndrome (PPS) the name gaining acceptance? The Salk vaccine had been around for 25 years by 1980; polio in the United States was gone. Research dollars went to studies for cancer treatment, heart disease, and AIDS.

Besides, as an A personality type, I knew slowing down was not likely. And then someone gave me a tiny book of L’Engle’s poems, The Weather of the Heart.

The following poem gave me a plan, a way to work with, not against, the changes my body experienced. In whatever trials and pain you find yourself, I hope L’Engle’s poem will minister to you, help you look outside your circumstances, and with God’s grace, find joy.

Pain is a partner I did not request; This is a dance I did not ask to join; whirled in a waltz when I would stop and rest, Jolted and jerked, I ache in bone and loin. Pain strives to hold me close in his embrace; If I resist and try to pull away His grasp grows tighter; closer comes his face; hotter his breath. If he is here to stay Then must I learn to dance this painful dance, Move to its rhythm, keep my lagging feet In time with his. Thus have I a chance To work with pain, and so may pain defeat. Pain is my partner. If I dance with pain then may this wedlock be not loss but gain.