Pain & Weakness

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After a fall, sometimes all you can do is pick yourself up and keep going. Sometimes you need to dismiss the pain, take a deep breath, and put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes you need to show more courage than you feel in order to keep going. And sometimes you need to let your pain show and your weakness be exposed.

Today I fell. Unable to mask the pain because my neck and shoulder issues are too serious, I was able to disguise enough of the pain to continue with my meeting and then to have dinner afterward. At first I just wanted to go home, because I knew how bad that fall really was to my body. Pain was shooting down my back and not just through my shoulder, though that was bad enough. I knew, however, that as soon as I got home I’d break down, and I did not want to do that. I didn’t want to spend the evening in pain and broken. So I shaved off an hour, distracted myself with good food and company, and ignored the pain and shakes.

As an adult, we rarely have the luxury to be sick or hurt. Work, responsibilities and life wait for nothing or no one. Yet sometimes brokenness happens. In this case, it was physical. In other cases, it is far more complex. For me, this particular physical brokenness highlighted how much I absolutely hate being weak.

For decades I treated personal weakness as the greatest sin imaginable. Others could be weak, but I could not be. If I was weak (which of course I was) then I would deal with it in private, not letting anyone know. Clearly that was a recipe of disaster.

I’ve learned how to embrace my weakness, in all its forms. I’ve learned that my weakness is what will keep me approachable, humble, and connected to others. Yet it is not easy. I don’t do weak well nor easily. My tolerance for pain is quite high. My ability to ignore an ache has been cultivated over many years. Still weakness is not something that sits easily with me.

But tonight I am weak. The pain has eased, but it was greater than I let on. Now I’m simply tired of keeping it at bay. Tonight I let my pain out, so that in the morning I can start anew.

Embracing the Love

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“Love takes courage, and anyone who says differently is an a**hole!” the old man told his soon to be born grandsons. This line from the play Smokefall rings through my mind not just because it is hilarious (even if you don’t like the language) but because it is oh so true.

The play at the Goodman Theater involves many themes of love, of family, of heartbreak, of predestination, and of transformation. If you have the opportunity to see it, you should. It will have you thinking (and laughing) for days.

What stood out to me is how the play reflected the complexity of life. In one’s twenty’s life is still mostly simple. Life has such hope and such ambition. This all lasts until the first child or first death or first heartbreak, then life becomes inordinately complex. However, it is a shame to disillusion the young with the vagaries of the adult world. It is cruel to take that simple dream from them. Yet it is also cruel not to give them the tools to triumph over the complexities of life when they come.

“LOVE TAKES COURAGE!” the old man yelled. Yes, to love after heart-break, after death, after pain takes great courage. To reveal our hearts to others whether in friendship or romance takes great courage. Sometimes more courage than we think we have.

I wrote last week about embracing the pain. Yet it is absolutely impossible to embrace the pain of our lives, whether physical or spiritual or emotional, if we cannot embrace the love as well. Masochism is not the answer. If we only embrace our pain, as some do, we become nihilists who bemoan all of existence and make life miserable for anyone around us. I’ve actually met someone like this, and it takes great fortitude to maintain any kind of relationship. In fact, I couldn’t do it because I did not have the support system in place to help me bear the torrent of bitterness. I embrace my pain but not at the expense of foregoing love.

Having experienced pain, loss, betrayal and grief makes it harder to embrace love (in all its forms), yet once we do, it makes it so much sweeter. Just as adding salt to a recipe highlights the sweetness of the ingredients, so does pain or grief make all worthy relationships that much more special. Friendships mean more. Relationships have depth and purpose. It is far harder to take people for granted. I know I can’t.

Yet love takes courage.

It takes courage to speak the truth. It takes courage to offer ourselves when the potential for rejection exists. It takes courage to love without strings and without expectation. It takes courage to embrace our pain even as we embrace our love.

Ecclesiastes talks about the meaninglessness of life. I believe Solomon was weighed down by the overwhelming power this world has to bring us to our knees. The pain of this world has an ability to take us to the breaking point. Yet even Solomon understood that in the midst of toil and strife it is critical to have someone by your side, someone you are toiling for, someone to uphold you in your hard times. It is even better to have two by your side.

So despite how hard this life is, how much pain we must endure, how much grief we bear, it IS possible to bear it. It IS possible to not just survive but to thrive. We do that by simultaneously remembering our pain and by choosing daily to embrace love.

“Love takes courage, and anyone who says differently is an a**hole!”

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Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,

    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls

    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.

    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,

    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Embracing the Pain

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I am in physical therapy for a frozen shoulder. First thought to be a problem with my neck, an old injury resurfacing, it is now clear that any pain in my neck is a result of my gimpy and locked up shoulder. Yet for six weeks I was given therapy to fix the neck, though my neck was not really the problem.

The issue became clear when another therapist took over my case. With a new view of the situation, a new course of treatment was put in place. An incredibly painful treatment.

Tonight I asked my therapist how long it takes to “unfreeze” a shoulder. Looking me in the eye, he said, “It takes a long time and it hurts like hell.” Neither of those statements surprised me. I’d already been in pain for many months, and the treatment – especially his – was indeed painful.

I went from a therapist who weighed a 100 pounds soaking wet to one who was more than double that size and with at least double the strength. A key part of my therapy is hands on pushing, pressing, stretching, pulling and all around pain. There is no short cut. And even if there is a short cut, I’m not sure I’d go that route.

You see, although the therapy is incredibly painful and I come away aching, I am also coming away with just a little bit more mobility, a little bit more flexibility. Tiny improvements that give me great patience. I tolerate the pain, grimacing through the exercises and stretches because I know that it is helping. I may try to complain or harass my therapist, but I can’t. He is helping me even as he brings pain.

Of course, my physical pain and this therapy reminds me of all the healing God has done in my life. I had to go through incredible pain, reliving moments of abandonment, neglect and the absence of love, in order to find belonging, acceptance and unconditional love. Just as I endure the pain of working through the scar tissue in my shoulder, so I had to work through the scar tissue on my soul.

I have come to value, even embrace the pain in my life. Without that pain I would not be the person I am today. And quite honestly, the person I am today is someone I love very much. There is a freedom, a strength, a peace, a focus that wasn’t there before. I can embrace who I am, including the areas that continue to need improvement, because I know that God has embraced me. My pain has opened my eyes to all the potential in the world, in others, and in myself.

I know many people who have experienced deep pain and sorrow. I have yet to find a person who does not see life differently because of their grief. For some, it is still an open wound, tender and painful to the slightest breath. Others have scars, painful and raw but healing. Some, like me, have the faded scars to point to as a reminder, but the pain is rare and fleeting. For us life is stronger than the past and hope triumphs. The scars become beautiful reminders of healing, joy, freedom, and hope. Life is far more precious now because it has been tinged with pain.

Twice a week I endure the physical pain because I know only through it will I find complete healing. Twice a week I remember the soul pain I once endured, and I smile with joy at the life and hope I now enjoy.

Beauty Arises

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Beauty arisesNo human can ever know exactly how another person feels. I am me and you are you with our individual lives, so we can never, ever know exactly what each other is feeling. That does not mean, however, that we cannot come close to imagining what another is going through and thus be able to walk alongside them. Coming alongside does require that we have some life experience upon which to draw. An “I’m sorry for your loss” means something more when we know the person saying it understands loss themselves.

About 9 years ago, still in the throes of grief and overwhelming pain, a guest preacher said these words: “Your greatest pain will become your greatest ministry.” I was furious at this statement. I did not want my life to be defined by my abandonment and loss. This statement seemed to minimize the totality of who I was to the one area I had least control over.

A decade on, I see things a bit differently. The truth is my greatest pain is NOT my greatest ministry. Rather my greatest ministry is the triumph through pain and the knowledge that my triumph is a resource for other people’s healing. Because I have come through – not around, over, or passed – my pain, I know what awaits on the other side: HOPE and BEAUTY. I offer hope that pain does not last forever even if the consequences are with us for the rest of our earthly lives. Hope for something truly beautiful does exist.

Our pain shapes who we are and will always leave us different than what we were before. This doesn’t mean we are worse for our pain, though we wouldn’t wish it on our worst enemy. When we have God at our center, we are better for facing our pain head on and going through to the other side. This doesn’t take away the torture of the journey or the very real agony that accompanies our grief, loss, sorrow, and pain. It still hurts. A lot. But there is hope on the other side. The tunnel does eventually end, and light does break through.

My past pain is so much a part of me that I have a very hard time connecting with people who have not experienced some level of heart ache. I am like a dog with a scent. I intuitively find those with grief and pain, and I’m able to connect with them. They recognize in me a kindred, broken spirit, who can make them feel normal in an abnormal situation. Too often when we go through loss of any kind, good-intentioned folks will minimize our pain, thinking that is what we need. The truth is we need to be allowed to feel our pain, anger, grief, sorrow, despair and loathing if we are ever to be free of those emotions. Denying them does not eradicate them. Instead denying our emotions intensifies them until they take on a whole life of their own. Our emotions then resemble something like Frankenstein’s monster set loose on an unsuspecting village. Pitchfork fights are an ugly and painful result.

9 years ago I hated everything that had happened to me. My heart was broken. My past, present and future family were eliminated. I was vilified and ostracized because of lies told about me. I was virtually silent for five years because of the pain and betrayal. Yet it was only by going through another less painful loss (and seeing how far I’d come) and being able to walk alongside someone else as they processed their own loss that I was able to find my voice and my freedom. My pain suddenly had a purpose. While it still took another four years for God’s healing to be fully realized, I was able to help one person find hope in a very dark place. And in helping, beauty arose from the ashes.

Our pain is real. Whether we lose a much-loved spouse to cancer, an estranged spouse to divorce, a pet to old age, a child to suicide, or an elderly father to Jesus’ arms, our loss is valid. Mourn and weep. Remember and learn. Change and grow. Share with those acquainted with sorrow and lean on them. Forgive fully, forgive often, and release the pain to the One who truly does feel our pain. God feels our pain because it is his pain too.

Great beauty comes from great pain when that pain is shared with God. Take God out of the midst and the pain is hell on earth, deforming and scarring. Yet with God at the center of our messed up and painful lives, he is able to transform over time our greatest pain into our greatest beauty. By giving us grace and by us giving grace to ourselves, God creates a masterpiece out of broken pieces. Only then can we reflect the depth of grace and beauty we were meant to have.

Pain is real. Beauty out of pain is possible. Allow God to take you through it with kindred spirits alongside and see the transformation that awaits. Beauty can arise out of the ashes. Trust me. I know.

Dying Alone

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Max Rakov, Jeannette Zeltzer“I don’t want to die alone.”

These words are spoken with fear and pain by an 81-year-old woman I recently befriended. Alone and isolated, a survivor now and yet a victim still, she spews her anxiety to me. Once she has “vomited” as she likes to call it, she is calmer and less anxious. Knowing that nothing she says, no matter how outrageous or blasphemous, will shock me or make me turn from her is like water in a parched land to her. For the moment she is strengthened and encouraged. Tomorrow the fear will return.

“I will probably die alone.”

These are the words that swam through my head 11 years ago as I watched my mother on Christmas Day 2002, dying of cancer so far spread that we hardly had a diagnosis before she was gone in January. As she slept in that sunless Alaskan hospital, I saw my potential future. It broke my already broken heart. I had just lost my husband and before that my baby, two very different kinds of death. I knew then, even as young as I was, that I would never have a child to sit by my bed keeping watch while I died. Fall and winter 2002/3, as I so clearly remember, was one of fear and great pain for me.

Since meeting and getting to know my 81-year-old friend, these memories have come back. I find, however, that the pain is not there although the fear would like to grab me if given the chance. If I let it, if I succumb to the lies that I believed for so very long – that I wasn’t loved or lovable, by parent or spouse or myself – I would fall into to such a place of fear I’d never be able to pull myself back out. Facing the next 40 years with a lie so toxic would put me in a place of utter desperation, just like my friend. Fortunately, I know the truth. It is this truth that I use to fight the lies of the enemy, within and without.

Over the last year I have been incredibly blessed, not because of a new job or new place to live or new stability in my finances, but because I have come face to face with the truth of who I am and have repented of the lies I believed for most of life. The power in knowing the truth that I am God’s daughter changes everything. Not only am I made in his image, but I also bear his name. I am loved simply by being me. I do not need to try to earn that love or to prove that I’m lovable. I am. Simply am loved. God is my father. God is love. I am loved. There is a sense of power and authority that comes with this. It isn’t a power to abuse but one to surrender and pour out, just as Jesus did. We have the power to love others freely and unconditionally. Our position as God’s children changes everything.

I don’t know if God has someone for me to grow old with. I hope so. I’d be a better person for it, and I think he would be too. But regardless if that is God’s plan or not, I know I will not die alone. This goes beyond my certain knowledge that God, my father, is with me always and forever, which is no small thing. I know that I have friends who are like family to me. Sisters not of blood but of heart and mind and spirit. Sisters I trust with my life. I have family I love dearly and who have my back no matter what. I have other relationships that are growing and developing both family and friends. The future looks full and joyful with these people around me, something I could not say a decade ago.

When I look at my 81-year-old friend who craves relationship yet does not know how to relate even to herself, I see the pain in her heart and see the fear that a Godless life has created. I see what I saw in my mother on that Christmas day, a woman who sought her own way and found herself alone in a frozen wilderness. One day I also hope to see my friend like I saw my mother the day after Christmas, humble and praying to God with a resulting peace overwhelming her face.

I know for a fact I will not die alone whenever that day may come. My mom did not die alone, physically or spiritually. And if I could determine it neither would my friend. However, the real choice is not mine. She needs to choose. Will she be God’s daughter or not? Will she die alone? Or not?

The Art of Holding Things Loosely

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Watercolors of GreeceFor the last three months, I have slept on the floor. First a carpeted floor, now a hardwood floor. I do have an inch thick Therm-a-rest to ease the hips and shoulders, but otherwise I am sleeping on the floor.

And I am joyful for it.

Last night, as I was talking about the bed I hope to one day get, I felt a surge of joy over what I already had. I have so much!

Now some who helped me move would say, “Yes, Kim has a lot of stuff.” While others would scoff at the term “a lot.” The reality is that I’ve had much more and I hope to have much less. Usually by this time of life, things will have accumulated. A house will be full. A yard will be well-tended. A car will be well maintained. But I couldn’t fill a house now even if I wanted to. A yard would be a sanctuary full of flowers but grass would be an annoyance. And frankly a car is a problem in the city with limited parking and a densely populated area.

I have learned the art of holding things loosely.

THINGS simply do not matter. Even things with great meaning are still just THINGS. My hole-y blankets from when I was a child, I still have. Pictures of my family are everywhere. My watercolors from Greece hang on my wall. The rock I picked up from Mt. Sinai sits next to a scrap of alabaster from A Pile of RocksEgypt which is next to a dish of stones from Sardinia. These all sound so very impressive, but really they are just pile of rocks. The memories and stories tied to those things are what are lasting and what matter. Do I value these things? Yes. But they are not my treasure.

Now you are probably thinking I’ll say, “My treasure is in heaven.” Well, it is, but that’s not what I care about. Yes, you heard me. I don’t care that I have a storehouse of treasure waiting for me in heaven. Even that I hold loosely. Not because I fear I will lose it, but because none of it is mine to begin with. God is storing it, so I don’t have to worry about it. All I need to do is focus on the here and now, his kingdom come on EARTH as it is in heaven. This means, that what is important to Jesus is important to me. And things just aren’t that important.

Clearly this perspective is not normal for most Americans. Even in the church. Most of us in the church have sought comfort and ease. I know. I did it too. That is, until comfort and ease were ripped away. And later, I gave it away. It was after having everything that truly matter stripped away that I saw how all that remained didn’t matter. All but God, that is. It then became easier (but not easy) to simply surrender my comfort. I clearly remember the day I first thought, “I’m uncomfortable with being comfortable.” It was then that God was able to take me on an incredible journey.

When I tell others of what God might want to do in them, I can see the fear rise in their eyes. Though they have seen much of the comfortable stripped away, to have more of it not just taken but actively surrendered instills them with fear. They don’t want to go through the full process. Just part way. This is far enough. I think I’m done now. Yet God knows best. He only takes us through the places that we need to go in order to come out freer and stronger than before. This does NOT make it easy. The process can be pure torture. For many it will feel like Hell. Truly Hell. But the fact is there are no short cuts. There are no microwave ovens, just pressure cookers that have crock pot timing. Pain and suffering WILL happen, but it is only through them that power and ultimate freedom will be found.

I say that but it does not mean that we can force the situation. We cannot, nor should we, conjure up pain. If we try, it will be a false, ego-centric masochism that is not from God and will only glorify Satan. We need to follow God’s process. For many it will feel like (and possibly be like) James who was martyred early in Church history. For others it might be like his brother John, who though exiled, lived to a very old age and saw unimaginable visions of the world to come. What these men had in common was their loose hold on this world. The things they had, they enjoyed. The things they didn’t have, they didn’t pine over. What they lost, they gained; and what they gained, they lost. All they did was follow God wherever he took them. Can there be a more joyful life than one following God? Easier? Absolutely. More joyful? Not even close.

My prayer for you and for me is that we hold the things of this world – whether beds or rocks – loosely, so that when it comes time to grasp the eternal, our hands are free to do so, and to do so with power.

Giving Voice

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In a sermon a few years ago the preacher said something to the effect that our greatest impact on others will come from our worst hurt. I was none too pleased with that comment, let me tell you. I was in the throes of my confusion and pain and simply wanted to forget everything. I wanted to change my name, change my history, change my memory. I didn’t want to tell anyone anything! As it was when I met new people words like “our” or “we” were completely eliminated from my vocabulary. They would not understand and that would then require me to explain something that I myself did not understand.

Since that time, however, I’ve come to generally agree with that statement. I say “generally” because there is so much more to the story than hurt and pain. If the story were to end in such, it would be dark, dreary and depressing, nihilistic and godless. Little impact for good comes out of despair and hopelessness. However, telling the story of triumph over despair, over hopelessness, over pain, over hurt is a vastly different thing. Oh, yes, vastly different.

I received a great gift in life. I received the gift of freedom. To share that gift with others has become my burning passion. Whether it is done through telling my story, preaching on the Incarnation, teaching (and learning) grace and mercy, helping the helpless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, giving voice to freedom is at the heart of it all. God brought me through some very painful times so that I could share with others how that is possible. And it is possible! We do not need to live with the bondage of lies, despair, sorrow, anger, bitterness, vengeance, or injustice!

One reason I hesitated in telling my story is because I know there are so many others who are going through so much more. I don’t make light of what took place in my life. No, the pain was too real for that, but the freedom I now have makes the pain so much less somehow. I think of my stepmom who in the last 10 years has buried three children, her father and her closest brother. That to me is pain beyond words. Yet she has the joy of knowing that through the fight against cancer two of her children gave their lives to Christ. She knows she will see them again. She also knows what it means to pray “whatever it takes, Lord.” I think of the countless others who have struggled with addiction, and the life killing effects it has on everything and everyone. I think of youth who have been disillusioned by leaders in the church whom they loved and trusted. I think of the rape and mutilation found in places around the world. I think of the young girls being sold or stolen to supply the seemingly endless lust of depraved men. My heart breaks for them more than I can say. What is my pain in comparison to that?

Yet I am now compelled to speak, to give voice. I can’t help myself. I must proclaim the good news that God knows our pain, knows the tragedy, knows the evil in this world. God knows all this and has done something about it. He has suffered himself and promises never to leave his children. God knows and is raising up his people to bring transformation and justice to lives and communities. I’m looking for ways to share this story – the story of the trailer park, the story of freedom – anywhere and anyway I can. Preaching, teaching and speaking have taken on a whole new life in me. The silence of recent years has been replaced with words of hope and joy, of transparency and freedom. I want to talk with people about how they too can receive that freedom. Knowing that we do not need to be bound compels me as no other stimulus could. We can be FREE! Is there any gift greater I can give considering what God did for me?

Let me share with you my story of freedom one-on-one, in your small group, in your prayer group, in your family, in your class, in your church, online, offline, over the phone, in letters. However and wherever. It is my story, but more importantly, it is God’s story for the world.