Saturday, May 23, 2015

Peace in the Midst of Suffering

Like most people, I have had a number of trials and sources of suffering in my life. Sometimes those things last for a season of life, and sometimes those things endure for a long time. Sometimes those things are the result of personal sin, and sometimes they are simply the result of living in a fallen world.

When trials and suffering arise, it is tempting to respond in sin, self-reliance, or despair. But I have found that it is possible to have peace in the midst of suffering. God gives peace in countless ways: some expected, some unexpected.

One of the main ways God has given me peace in the midst of suffering is when my mind is desiring His will and not my own; when I can put one hundred percent of my life and heart into His hands. Practically, I do not always feel that peace day in and day out. But in those moments where I feel anxious, alone, sad, or overwhelmed in life I trust that God will give me the peace I desire if I find my delight in Him. As Psalm 34:7 says, "Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart."

Another way God has given me peace in the midst of suffering is by seeing how suffering reveals my weakness and His grace and strength. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul describes struggling with a "thorn in his flesh." We don't know what Paul's "thorn" was, but it was some kind of trial or suffering. It could have been a physical ailment, a sin issue, or some life circumstance. His "thorn in the flesh" was a struggle for him day in and day out, but Paul understood that God was revealing Himself through his struggle. He writes, "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Sometimes God gives peace in unexpected ways. Last week, Samuel and I took a road trip to St. Louis to visit my mom who is struggling with a degenerative brain disease. She was recently moved to the care center in her nursing home and is struggling with communication, loneliness, and fear. It was hard to see her in that state, and harder still to be powerless to do anything to make her feel better. All I know to do for her is to pray that God will give her peace. I know He is able; and I know He will in His own timing and way. It was neat to have a few glimpses of joy and peace in her heart when I visited her. She was so happy to see Samuel. But one of the most amazing moments was when we heard hymns being sung outside of her room. She cannot really speak, but she motioned and groaned indicating that she wanted to go see who was singing. We found a group of residents gathered around a piano singing hymns. We joined them and sang hymns together for almost an hour. She had so much joy and peace in singing those words of truth. She can't even speak yet she was singing these wonderful words of Scripture. In the midst of her physical and emotional struggles, God gave her peace in Him.


Lastly, there is peace that comes from knowing that God has planned every trial and suffering for a good purpose. There is a song by Shane and Shane that I love which has reminded me of this so frequently over the past couple years. One version of this song has an interlude with a sermon excerpt from John Piper. Before I had left for treatment in September of 2013, I printed out his words and had them on my wall all year as a reminder that nothing we go through here on earth is meaningless. And so while there may be countless painful moments in our lives, there is a certain peace that comes from knowing that God is at work in each one of those moments.



I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You strike down to bind me up
You say you do it all in love
That I might know you in your suffering

Though you slay me
Yet I will praise you
Though you take from me
I will bless your name
Though you ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need

My heart and flesh may fail
The earth below give way
But with my eyes, with my eyes I’ll see the Lord
Lifted high on that day
Behold, the Lamb that was slain
And I’ll know every tear was worth it all

Though you slay me
Yet I will praise you
Though you take from me
I will bless your name
Though you ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need

Though tonight I’m crying out
Let this cup pass from me now
You’re still more than I need
You’re enough for me
You’re enough for me


[Not only is all your affliction momentary, not only is all your affliction light in comparison to eternity and the glory there. But all of it is totallymeaningful. Every millisecond of your pain, from the fallen nature or fallen man, every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that.

I don’t care if it was cancer or criticism. I don’t care if it was slander or sickness. It wasn’t meaningless. It’s doing something! It’s not meaningless. Of course you can’t see what it’s doing. Don’t look to what is seen.

When your mom dies, when your kid dies, when you’ve got cancer at 40, when a car careens into the sidewalk and takes her out, don’t say, “That’s meaningless!” It’s not. It’s working for you an eternal weight of glory.

Therefore, therefore, do not lose heart. But take these truths and day by day focus on them. Preach them to yourself every morning. Get alone with God and preach his word into your mind until your heart sings with confidence that you are new and cared for.]

Though you slay me
Yet I will praise you
Though you take from me
I will bless your name
Though you ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Best Worst Year of My Life

My life was never so fragile as it was during the Spring and Summer of 2013. I struggled to process the loss in my life: the loss of a child, the loss of my femininity (in a physical sense), the loss of good health, the loss of my mother's health, and the list goes on. Matt and others sought to help me navigate this season of life in many ways, but I continued to spiral downwards personally and physically. At the same time, I had more prescription medications in my body and in my medicine cabinet than at any other time in my life. Whether they were recently prescribed or remaining from previous prescriptions, I had a variety of narcotics, sleep aids, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety medications. It was a recipe for disaster.

During those months, I began turning to these prescription medications to relieve not only my physical pain, but my emotional pain. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was abusing my medications; I had obtained them in the right way, but I was using them in the wrong way. Before long, my abuse of medications became an addiction to medications; my body and mind wanted them more regularly and in greater amounts. I was blind to my addiction, but the evidence was becoming clear to others: I spent a lot of time in bed, I combined medications with alcohol, and I hid medications from my husband.

Friends, doctors, and my husband all noticed changes in me and tried to help. In certain ways, their efforts were fruitful, but overall my personal and physical life continued to spiral out of control. In early September of 2013, my husband came to see my life was so out of control that we needed to seek out professional help and he admitted me to an inpatient drug / alcohol treatment center in Statesboro, Georgia, called Willingway Hospital.

I was told that I would be at Willingway for four to six weeks for a detox and rehabilitation program. While I agreed to this plan outwardly, I told myself I would only really need to be there for a week at most. In my opinion, all I needed was help detoxing from all my medications. After a few days, I realized that I was going to have to stay for the entire four to six weeks. I didn’t know how I could be away from my kids for that long. I ended up walking out of the treatment center on two separate occasions, but I couldn't go home because my husband said I had to finish the program. I went back to Willingway after a few hours, and reluctantly resumed the program.

Eventually, my counselor at Willingway determined that the inpatient program was not the right fit for me. I needed a more intensive, long-term approach to my addiction recovery. And so while on a conference call with my husband, my counselor told me that I needed to go to residential treatment for twelve months. I resisted, saying that I could not be away from my husband and children for that long. To make matters worse, I was told that my husband had been asked to resign his job as a pastor because of the issue related to my addiction. Now we were all in the midst of "the night."

I won't go into too much detail about my time in residential treatment, but I will say it was "the best worst year of my life." It was good for me in many ways, but it was so hard physically, relationally, emotionally, and spiritually.

The hardest part was being away from my children. At first, I couldn't even think of them without feeling physically ill. I made the decision to put away all my pictures of them, and had to ask my sister to pray for them because I could not. In time, God helped me feel better knowing I would see them again. My husband kept me updated on them, and I was able to talk to them on the phone for a few minutes each week. When I had the chance, I wrote to them, drew them pictures, and knitted them things.

During my time in treatment I was broken down to nothing and then built back up. God used the girls I lived with and my counselor to guide me through this time. He placed me so perfectly in the exactly right place with exactly the right people. God used them to show me things about myself that I had not been aware of before because of my addiction, pride, and selfishness:
  • God showed me my sin in a way I had never seen it before. 
  • God taught me what pure dependence on Him looks like. 
  • God taught me to trust in Him. For so long I depended on myself and I always thought I knew best. In some very dramatic ways, I learned that that is not true. When I gave my will up to God completely, He faithfully used other people in my life to point me in the right direction and help me make better choices. 
  • God gave me peace. 
  • God showed me His faithfulness over and over by providing for me and for my family: new employment for my husband in Dallas, in-laws to help care for the children, etc. 
  • God showed me mercy over and over through people at Willingway when I kept fighting against them. 
  • God showed me love in giving me some wonderful lifelong friends from my time in treatment. 
  • God showed me grace in giving me a second chance at life. 
Looking back, God had His sovereign hand controlling every event of the past two years. Our "night" was painful and long in certain ways, but true joy came in the “morning.” I know other "nights" may come, but I have no reason to doubt that He will continue to be faithful.

While I was in treatment I would play the piano whenever a could. Every time I would play, I would play the hymn, "It is Well with My Soul," and the words give me such peace. I've been sharing the story behind the hymn with our kids this week. The author, Horatio Spafford, suffered incredible loss; everything was taken away from him except his faith and people to support him. First, he lost his son to illness, then he lost his business, and then he lost his wife and four daughters at sea during a voyage from America to Europe. Following their death, Horatio made the same voyage and wrote these words at the location where the ship carrying his wife and daughters had sank:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
It is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well with my soul. 
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well with my soul.  
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well with my soul. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

O Love That Will Not Let Me Go

In May of 2013, I remember laying on the operating table before my hysterectomy, thinking about my cancer, my physical pain, my miscarriage, and my mom's brain disease. To say I was overwhelmed by it all would be an understatement. I remember thinking about David in the Psalms crying out to God when he was overwhelmed. As my thoughts alternated between fear and prayer, tears started running down my cheeks, and then I was out.

When I woke up from the surgery, my anxiety and depression quickly returned. I was on lots of pain medicine because of the surgery, and I mostly slept for the next couple days. I just wanted to isolate in my room and sleep in order to escape from or at least quiet all of the thoughts and feelings that were swirling inside me. I didn't give into those things completely though; I kept trying to get "out of" myself and to focus my heart on God. I was continually praying, singing and listening to music, and reading the Psalms. But rather than feeling strengthened to face life here on earth, all I could think of was going to heaven. I wanted my new, glorified body, to see my dad and my miscarried child, and to rest at Jesus' feet. Though I longed for it, I simply could not feel His presence in my pain. I was in the midst of the “night," and it was very, very dark.

It's astonishing that looking back, I can now see that God was with me. In fact, He had me in the palm of his hand and never let me go. He did allow me to wrestle with some deep emotional and spiritual pain, but over time He used that renew my hope in Him. He didn't renew my heart when or how I wanted Him to, but he did indeed take hold of my heart once again and drew me to Himself.

In the midst of suffering, it is so hard to hear someone say, "It is okay - God will take care of you." While this is a true statement, it is rarely a comforting statement to one who is suffering because it seems like an attempt to discount or silence the deep emotional turmoil they are experiencing. While they aren't always reliable, God gave us real emotions that should not be discounted or silenced. Rather, those thoughts and emotions should be verbalized to God Himself in prayer.

We sometimes think of prayer as a peaceful, quiet, happy thing. But in the Bible, especially in Psalms and in Jesus' life, prayer is regularly marked by the raw emotions of lives disrupted by sin and brokenness. There is nothing wrong with crying out to God and asking him our "why" questions, telling him our complaints and frustrations, and "groaning" to Him in pain and sorrow.  Just think about Jesus' words on the cross on Good Friday: "He cried out to God saying, 'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Matt. 27:46).'" And in Psalm 102, David is in such distress and sorrow for the majority of the psalm. He is honest with God in his emotion. But by the end of the psalm, he has reminded himself of who God is (or, more likely, the Holy Spirit has interrupted his complaints with a fresh reminder of truth). I love seeing this pattern in the psalms. The honesty and raw emotion and honesty of cries to God, followed by simple reminders of who God is and what He has promised. 

Even in the midst of my struggles with anxiety and depression three years ago, God had a hold on me. As Romans 8:38-39 famously says, "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." I didn't always feel that reality, but I knew deep down that it was true. In fact, it was during that season of my life that I wrote a new tune to the hymn, "O Love That Will Not Let Me Go." Like the text, this tune seems to blend the somberness of my heart and joy of my faith in a unique way. I hope it offers some perspective and encouragement for you and your heart today.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mom

Three years ago, around the time of my hysterectomy, I found out that my mom has a brain disease called Corticobasel Degeneration. It is a rare disease that is basically a combination of MS, Parkinson's, and Dementia.

I had just been to St. Louis to see my mom a few months earlier. Me and my sisters had given her a big surprise party for her 60th Birthday. Friends and family came in from all over. It was such a sweet time.





Currently, my mom is not doing well. Her balance, memory, speech, and overall health have declined very rapidly. She cannot walk any more, and she can barely speak. It seems that she is fairly aware of her physical limitations, which makes me her frustrated. As you can imagine, it makes me sad to see her in the this condition.

People have asked me questions along the lines of, "Why would God have them go through something like this?" When I was going through cancer I know I asked a lot of those questions. I think the reasons for why God allows suffering can sometimes be seen in this life, but are not easily seen or understood. Our "why" questions are important, and we should not be afraid to bring them to others and to God. But what matters more than the answer to our "why" questions are these three truths: God is in control, God is working for good, and God is present with us in our suffering.

I am so grateful for my sister, Katie, who lives in St. Louis and is helping care for my mom alongside Ned, my step-father. While Ned suffers from Parkinson's, but he still cares for my mom with grace, love, and humility. I am so grateful for him. It is hard to be away from my mom during this hard time, but she is in such good hands.

My dad passed away in 2003 from cancer and my mom will be with him soon. It will be hard to be without both of them in this life, but I know that I will see them again in heaven. And one day, because of Christ's resurrection, each of us will have glorified bodies that are free from the disease, pain, and decay that we had to endure on earth. In this season where we celebrate Christ's death and resurrection I can't help but have so much joy and gratitude in my heart for the salvation he has given to me. One day my whole family will have the privilege of not only being together, but of being together worshiping God our Father in Heaven singing with the angels.

In mansions of glory and endless delight,

I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright;

I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow,

If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.




Sunday, March 29, 2015

Healed vs. Healthy

I am grateful that I am at a place personally where I can look back at the past few years and view them through the lens of God's Word. There have been so many days, weeks, and even months that doing that seemed either hard or impossible. So I am grateful that God has renewed me in this way. This does not mean that I have been "healed," as if my struggle with a hard heart, selfishness, pride, depression, addiction, or other sins is somehow over and done with these things forever. There have been plenty of times I have prayed for that kind of "healing," hoping that my struggles would simply end never to return. But I've come to see that God isn't in the business of giving us instant, complete freedom from our sin. Instead, He's in the business of giving us gradual, partial purification from our sin. So as long as I am in this world I will struggle with those sins that are unique challenges for me. But God has, for today, given me a reprieve from some of the more severe ways I have struggled. I am not "healed," but I am "healthy."

A rough analogy for this is my cancer. I will never really be "healed" from cancer. I am very "healthy" in terms of my cancer; in fact, it's been nearly four years since I finished my treatments. But my cancer could come back at any time, and statistically speaking, the chances of that happening are significant. And so I have to take preventative cancer medicine every day, visit my oncologist regularly, and be sure to watch for certain physical warning signs of a relapse. In the same way, I need to take preventative measures against my sin as well. I need to be reading and meditating on God's Word, in relationships with other people, trusting in God's will and not my own, and in prayer. I cannot be "healed" by those things, but they can help me be "healthy."

God has given me joy in this day of my journey, and for today my eyes are fixed on Him. He has given me daily sufficient grace. That is ultimately the result of God's work in me, but it has also come through a lot of personal effort and many prayers that God would work in my heart.

As you may know, music has always been a big part of my life. It often helps me connect my emotions with my thoughts. As I have written these posts, I have often been reminded of songs and lyrics that have encouraged me in specific ways. The song I included below is a song I have listened to many times in the past year. It is a helpful reminder that I will ALWAYS be in need of God's grace, and he will never fail to give it. As the chorus says, I ask you: "How many times will you pick me up, when I keep on letting you down? And each time I will fall short of Your glory, how far will forgiveness abound?" And You answer: "My child, I love you. And as long as you're seeking My face, You'll walk in the power of My daily sufficient grace."



Saturday, March 28, 2015

Looking Back // Looking Forward

A lot has happened in the past three years since I last posted regularly to this blog. In many ways, it has been one long “night” in my life, meaning a season of difficulty. 

In February of 2013, I found out I was pregnant. I was really surprised because I was on a medication that was supposed to "shut down" my ovaries and protect against my estrogen-receptor cancer returning. While I was initially excited about the possibility of having a fourth child, I knew the pregnancy was pretty risky, both for me and for the baby. It was risky for me because in order for the baby to survive I would have to take hormones that might cause my cancer to return. And it was risky for the baby because I had so many medications in my system. But within just a few days of finding out I was pregnant, God took the baby. This was so hard for me because I really wanted more children. 

After my miscarriage, it was decided that I should have a complete hysterectomy. It would lower the chances of any cancer recurrence as well as prevent from any more pregnancies. After having a double mastectomy, having a complete hysterectomy was a very hard to think about. I felt like my body and my femininity were being destroyed. But I agreed to the surgery, and had it done in May of 2013.

Here is a journal entry I wrote during this time:
After all the medical issues I have gone through in the past 3 years I can’t help but think, “Why God?” Why does it just keep coming!? I have realized I need to take a step back and realize this is such a short time in the big picture.  And most importantly God will use each of these things to bring glory to himself.  Maybe he is causing me to go through cancer, pain, and a miscarriage so that I can relate to each of those things and be evidence that God will carry me through.  It may not always be the way I want it to be, but that is because I am not God.  
I so often want to play God not even realizing it.  I want to be the director of the show. But it doesn’t make sense for the actors in the show to tell the director how the show should be run.  Does it? I need to seek God’s will not mine.  I need to trust God’s will not mine.
I was looking forward to giving my testimony and singing some songs at our Community Bible Study retreat on Saturday, but I ended up in the ER.  The retreat was focused on rest. Resting in Christ alone to give us strength. I have gone through so much physically, emotionally and spiritually that I am ready to “rest.”  The place that I can get my ultimate and fulfilling rest is in Christ alone. Matthew 11:28-30 says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.” 
As I was thinking about what music I could sing at the retreat, I thought of the hymn, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say."   
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” 
Psalm 103:1-5
As I reflect back on that time in my life, it makes me so thankful that I have my three beautiful children, and that I am currently cancer free and healthy. I love the last part of the verse I had written in my journal from Psalm 103, "who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” 

God may not always answer my prayers in the way that I think they should be answered. So often I start to think that I am the director of the show, but I am not. But God answers our prayers in a way that brings glory to Himself and is ultimately good for us. If I pray for His will to be done then whatever circumstances may bring he will give me peace and joy in the midst of those circumstances. He does not promise to calm the storm, but He does promise to carry me through it. He will satisfy me as long as I keep my eyes fixed on Him.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Journey Continues: Joy in the Morning

“Weeping my remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
Psalm 30:5b
 
It's been nearly five years since I was diagnosed with cancer, and nearly three years since I posted my last entry to this blog. I originally intended my blog to be an informational cancer journal. But in the process of writing, I realized two surprising things. First, it was therapeutic for me to reflect and write. And second, it was personally encouraging to others. In a certain way, my blog became less about my journey through cancer and more about journeying through life, and the hard circumstances it brings, with honesty and faith. 
 
Since my last post, I have continued to face several hard circumstances, including a few that I consider much harder than cancer. I have struggled with depression, a miscarriage and hysterectomy, addiction, strain on my marriage, separation from my family, and a move to a new city. As a result, I have decided to continue my blog, writing about some of those things with the hope that it will accomplish more good things in my life and perhaps also in the lives of others.
 
For the sake of clarity, I should say three things about how I will approach these hard topics.
 
First, I am not writing as one who has "arrived." I have not walked through these things perfectly or completely, and so I'm not pretending to be an expert or guide for others. I'm simply writing to share my experience as one who is in the midst of their journey. As I have gone through each hardship, it has been so encouraging for me to know another person who has gone through the same thing. So for those who are struggling with similar circumstances, I hope there can be comfort in knowing that you are not alone.
 
Second, while I want to share honestly about my struggles, I don't think it is wise or helpful to share everything about my struggles through this blog. Some things are just too sensitive, and other things are best shared in more personal settings. 
 
Finally, I am going to approach these topics as a Christian who believes that God uses hard circumstances for my good. Rather than decreasing my faith and joy, I believe God has used these circumstances to increase my faith and joy in Him. Matt recently shared a quote with me about this by Tim Keller. In the Introduction to his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Keller writes,
"[A]t the heart of why people disbelieve and believe in God, of why people decline and grow in character, of how God becomes less real and more real to us - is suffering. And when we look to the Bible to understand this deep pattern, we came to see that the great theme of the Bible itself is how God brings fullness of joy not just despite but through suffering, just as Jesus saved us not in spite of but because of what he endured on the cross. And so there is a peculiar, rich, and poignant joy that seems to come to us only through and in suffering."
While Keller's words may sound strange or even harsh to some people, they really resonate with me and my story. My "joy in the journey" has increased not despite suffering, but through suffering. As Psalm 30:5b says, "Weeping my remain for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." I have had many "nights" over these last few years but God promises us that one day there will be no more nights: the day when we are in His presence. "By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day - and there will be no night there (Rev. 21:24-25)." So rather than being totally self-focused in my life and in this blog, my prayer is that God will keep my eyes fixed on His faithfulness to me and on His love for me as I turn to the promises in His Word for perspective on my circumstances
 
I'm not sure how frequently I'll post entries on my blog, and I'm not sure how long I'll keep posting. But for this season of my journey, this is something I'd like to do again. I hope you'll follow along, and find some strength and hope along the way.