Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Framing Pain

By Dorothy Greco

Due to chronic pain, sleep often evades me. When the insomnia happens for more than five consecutive nights, I have to draw upon every ounce of my spirituality to get through the dark hours without cursing God or descending into despair. Suffering reveals the extent of my powerlessness like nothing else. And to be honest, I hate it.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes, “Our lives are a spectacle of helplessness.” This is not my preference—I love to be in control—but as I age, I cannot argue with this reality. My spiritual work is to discern how to find God in the midst of the helplessness.

In my experience, the locus of our internal struggle as we suffer revolves around two central questions: “Is God good?” and “Will anything redemptive rise up out of this?” While our suffering often feels arbitrary and meaningless, I believe that God embeds unique gifts under the wrapping of pain, disappointment and grief.

Though we face an incredible loss of control and objectivity during these junctures, we actually do have power over how we respond. Jerry Sittser writes in A Grace Disguised:
The experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. Instead, the defining moment can be our response to the loss. It’s not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us.

Our carnal response is typically to demand, “Why is this happening to me?” Asking this question in the midst of suffering is similar to driving a mini-van in thick mud—it only gets us more stuck. I’d like to suggest an alternative question for God; “Would you be with me and teach me how to be more like you?” This paradigm gives me traction out of meaninglessness and self-pity. It also enlarges my soul, giving me a greater capacity to love and offer empathy to others.

By using this frame, I’ve found a better way to endure those sleepless nights. I recall many of the tangible ways God has blessed and provided for me: a loving husband, believing children, a roof over my head, three meals a day, vision, my friends. This stills my mind and miraculously allows me to believe that God is fighting behind the scenes on my behalf. My body might still be dragging the following day, but my spirit has the will to live and continues to believe. Though I would never choose the road of suffering, I am grateful for the ways that it has transformed me into the image of Christ.

Dorothy Littell Greco lives in a household of males (5 if you count the dog) just outside of Boston, MA. She pastors, writes, and compulsively makes photos of beautiful things. You can find more of her work on her website, www.dorothygreco.com.

Monday, May 20, 2013

When the Shepherd Herself is in Pain

By Dr. Bev Hislop

My husband’s words caught me off guard. “Honey, I just got a call from the doctor and she wants me to come in tomorrow for an angiogram.”

Five years prior the doctor suggested we track progress with the possibility of the need for a heart valve repair in the future. Apparently “the future” was here.

My husband’s heart valve repair surgery was scheduled for Thanksgiving week.

I recall returning home alone the night before the early morning surgery. As I crawled into bed and looked at the empty pillow next to me, I cried out to God, “Is this how it’s going to look now? Or will you fill this empty place again with my dearest friend on the planet, my husband?”

As a friend said to me recently, “Bev, you’ve written Shepherding Women in Pain, but how does it work when the shepherd is in pain?”

Well-meaning friends said to me
  • “You teach pastoral care, you’ll know what to do.”
  • “My uncle also had an open heart surgery and he survived fine. He has since gone to be with the Lord. Your husband will do fine. He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine.” (Her uncle was dead! Is that supposed to be comforting? Easy for you to say “He’ll be fine!” How do you know?)
  • “God never gives us more than we can bear.” (Not comforting at the outset and where is this verse anyway?!)
  • “I know exactly how you feel. Just keep praying.” (No one can know exactly how another feels.)
  • “If there’s anything you need, let me know.” (Putting one foot in front of the other was about all I could do.)

When the shepherd herself is in pain, as I was then, often we do not receive the answers for which we are searching, but we begin to see God in a new light. Oh, it’s not God who has changed, rather he’s opened our eyes to see him more accurately: his true character, rather than the caricature in which we’ve been trusting.

Typically at the first impact of loss (real or threatened), few words are best. Presence counts more. Sometimes silence can be comforting. Don’t feel you have to have just the right thing to say. It may minister to someone in extreme pain to receive (verbally or in writing) one of the following simple expressions:

  • I am praying for you (if you really are!)
  • I don’t know what to say (acknowledges how hard this is).
  • I love you. I care about you & your family (if you do).
  • I’m concerned about you. You mean a lot to me and I want to help (offer specific help).
  • I wanted to come here (to the hospital) and just be with you (without feeling like you have to keep a conversation going non-stop).

I am so grateful that the pillow beside me is now filled nightly with the presence of my dear husband.
The gift of family and friends sitting with us in the hospital and then visiting during the six month recovery in our home is a lingering sweetness. The reality of my husband’s presence is even more endearing as I recall those intimate times with my Savior.

What expressions of care and/or conversations with God have been most meaningful to you during a time of anticipated or real loss?

Dr. Bev Hislop is Professor of Pastoral Care to Women and the Founding Director of the Women’s Center for Ministry at Western Seminary in Portland, OR She is the author of Shepherding Women in Pain. You can order her book at http://fullfill.christianbook.com/?srctype=menu//.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Childhood Messages Reinterpreted

By Alexandra Kuykendall

We sat in a haphazard circle, nothing perfect about it, about us. Some nursing babies, others relieved we were child-free for a few hours. We were calling it "MOPS Extra," a time for us to gather outside of our regular MOPS meetings and talk. Because we all wanted to talk and connect. Talk about where we'd been, how we were surviving today and who we hoped to be if able to make it through the sleep deprivation that took over so many of us.

The question for the morning stimulated conversation: Where were you in the birth order in your family and do you think that has impacted who you are today? The answers came pouring out, but with them so much more than the position of siblings. We examined who took on more responsibility, how personality is formed, the birth order of our own parents and of our children. The question of where do I fit in this world in relation to the imperfect people around me? And how did I first learn to understand that?

And then Angie said it. That comment that would follow me home and crash through my brain over and over like ocean waves. With a baby perched on her hip she said, "My therapist told me once that children are great observers and terrible interpreters." She kept going, "I guess it's our job as adults to go back and re-interpret all those observations."

What perfect sense that made to me. We aren't equipped as children to understand the adult things happening around us. It's not until we've matured and lived some life, and hopefully walked some years with the holy, that we can comb through our memories and better understand their significance in our journeys. And to understand how they've shaped us into who we are today.

It gives new meaning to the 11th verse from 1 Corinthians 13, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways." I now have the responsibility to re-examine my childhood and the messages it offered me from my grown woman state. For the verse that follows is, "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." Then. When "completeness comes" as Paul says in verse 11, I will know fully my value in God's love.

When we are in the full glory of Jesus we will understand our full value. Until then we must sit in circles and reflect back to each other who God says we are. That we are indeed defined by love.

Alexandra Kuykendall is the author of The Artist's Daughter: A Memoir, where she examines the questions of identity, loving and being loved through her life journey as a child of a world-traveling single mom and an absent painter father. Alexandra and her husband Derek have four daughters. Connect with her at www.AlexandraKuykendall.com.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Praying for Your Team

By Mary Byers

I have a confession to make: I'm not the best at remembering to pray for others. For years this has kept me from saying, "I'll pray for you," even if I planned to do so. I was afraid I'd forget and I didn't want to disappoint or be a hypocrite. Yet lately there's been plenty to pray about in my role as a leader, whether at work, home or in my volunteer activities. As the need for prayer has increased, my desire to make this a priority has grown. Maybe the strategies I've devised to help me remember to pray for my leadership team will be helpful as you lead yours.

Prayer walking/running. Any time I'm walking or running, I try to remember to start a conversation with God. Yesterday during a brisk jog, I prayed for two friends with cancer, a child's academic performance, two others who experienced the death of a family member, and the parent council I work with at church. I've also prayed my way through the grocery store and on a walk around the block recently.

In the car. For years I've practiced the art of starting each drive with 5 minutes of silence. I've trained myself not to reach for the radio knob or the ability to make calls hands-free. In the past I've used this time to clear my head. Now I'm using it to pray for those I lead with. The digital clock in my car makes it easy to track time. Often, I'm pleased to see that I've prayed for more than these 5 minutes.

12:34. A friend shared that she prays every time she sees 12:34 on any digital clock. When I adapted this practice, I assumed I'd mostly be praying during the day. Now that I have teens, however, I'm surprised how often I find myself praying in the wee hours of the morning.

Prior to meetings. Leading a team often requires hosting meetings or preparing agendas. Before I do either now I try to bow my head and quickly visualize and pray for those who will be in the meeting.
The above ideas aren't intended to replace regular prayer time. They are simply ideas to help busy leaders remember and embrace the power of prayer in all the leadership roles they hold (whether prayer comes easily or not!).

Mary Byers is the managing editor of FullFill and the author of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations. She helps organizations remain both relevant and sustainable.