sufficient

I’ve written in the past about my experience of enduring years of chronic migraines and cluster headaches and how thankfully, following surgery, they are now no longer part of my experience. I am conscious that for many people chronic pain is still part of their experience – physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual pain is incredibly debilitating.

In the darkest days before the operation there were times when I felt like I was clinging on by my fingertips – clinging to my desire to carry on and clinging to my faith as a follower of Jesus. In those moments there was a verse in the Bible that was immensely helpful:

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (from 2 Corinthians 12:9)

open handsAnd I can honestly say that was my experience. God’s grace – his generously-given, unearned, sustaining presence – kept me going. I was able to live, serve and bless others from a place of weakness because God filled in the blanks for me. When I lacked words he provided them. When I couldn’t think he provided the thoughts. When I couldn’t see beyond the pain he lifted my eyes up towards hope. When I was battling through in my own strength he provided people to carry me and to tell me to stop and rest.

The context for those words in 2 Corinthians is filled with mystery:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What, or who, was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Chronic migraine and cluster headaches certainly feel like a thorn and are tormentors. We don’t know, and Paul doesn’t tell us because it’s not important.

I can certainly empathise with prayers pleading for God to take away the pain. And not just three times! So, why didn’t God answer his heartfelt pleading to take away this thorn? Why did God allow me to suffer for so many years before finally the surgery resolved the problem? Or, to widen out the question: why doesn’t God always seem to answer our prayers in the way that we want?

The answer Paul received was not a theodicy (answers to the question of how a loving God can allow evil, pain and suffering to persist). It was a promise. The promise was of a loving, gracious sustenance that was sufficient for the problem. Not a flourishing, dancing-in-the-aisles, swinging-from-the-chandeliers victorious healing. Just enough to enable Paul to cope. Sufficient.

Sometimes we receive more than we need. But we will receive sufficient.

And God will make up for what we lack. It may not be inner strength and fortitude. It may not be miraculous supernatural ability to rise above what is going on. It could be that it is other people coming alongside us. It could be that it is the ability to let go of some of the stress and allow others to help. It could be that it is the opportunity to receive love, support, encouragement and strength from others who can give you what you lack. It could be that it is the courage to stop and realise that we are not indispensable and that we don’t have to go it alone. And in that liminal space the paradox of weakness being strength, of grace sufficient for pain, of power perfected in impotence becomes reality.

The difficulty for us is that in order for this to happen we have to trust God and stop trying to do it all in our own strength. We have to trust that he will keep his promise. When you’re in the depths of despair it’s perhaps not so difficult to do that because you’ve already exhausted all of your own resources. My testimony is that this is true. Today I read Simon Thomas’s blog of his own heart-rending experience. He is finding the same to be true.

But if you aren’t in a wretched place the same promise is true – God’s grace is sufficient for you. You may need to let go of more of your security blankets and self-reliance to experience it, but I believe that he will prove himself trustworthy.

I pray that you and he will continue to know that God’s grace is sufficient for you. And that his power is made perfect in your weakness.

Be blessed, be a blessing

scarred love

 

There have been several major tragic events in the UK in the past few weeks, involving significant loss of life and injury, and my heart goes out to all who have been bereaved or injured.

Recognising and honouring the incredible acts of selfless generosity and heroism that have been shown in response to these events is one way in which we can respond with hope and resilience in the face of tragedy. Responses in these extreme circumstances are of hope not hate, of kindness not cruelty, of love not loathing, of heroism not hesitation. These responses (to me) reveal glimpses of the intended qualities of the One who created human nature.

There are different levels of human culpability in these horrendous events (by which I mean that I am not wishing to prejudge the outcome of any inquiry, trial, etc). We have to accept that if humans had not acted in certain ways these tragedies may have been avoided or far less tragic. We also recognise that there is a pernicious quality to the evil side of life.

 

So what do we do?

Scream

Rage

Weep

Sit in dumbfounded silence

wpid-20140217_131122.jpg

All of these and more. I think that we need to be honest with ourselves about how we feel as a first step towards being honest with one another. What emotions are we feeling? Why do we feel these things?

One response to these sorts of event is regret expressed as ‘if only’. If only’ regrets can be corrosive. They can eat away at our ability to confront the impact of what has happened and begin the long process of coming come to terms with it and how we feel about it. But I can’t help feeling a deep sense of ‘if only’ regret on behalf of the victims. All suffering and death is a vile reminder that things are not as they should be, but somehow when the victims are those we would deem to be ‘innocent’ that exacerbates our sense of outrage and indignation that it should maraud savagely into our relatively well-ordered society. So we wonder whether it could have been prevented?

‘If only’ also looks for someone to blame: someone should have done something differently. Often that ‘someone’ is someone who is not known to us. It is much more difficult to cope with when ‘if only’ points the finger of blame and someone closer to home, or even to us. The ‘if only’ blame requires someone to resign or to be convicted or to apologise. And while collectively we may feel better when that happens we transfer the blame to that person / organisation and we distance ourselves from it. But the regret remains.

If you want to blame someone, by all means blame God. If you want to complain about the injustice then give him your best shot. He can cope with the raging lashing-out of hurting people.

Writing this post today I remembered writing a lament to God a few years ago for those who died when a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane was shot out of the sky over Ukraine. I was surprised to find that this was 18th July 2014 – how was it so long ago and how had I forgotten all about it?

Did you hear the 298 30,000 foot screams? Do you know who pressed the button: do you know if they feel guilty? Did you fall with them? Do you share the grief of the parents, partners, children who have an unexpected chasm opened up in their life? Do you know how angry we feel about it?

Do you care about the people of Ukraine, because we have replaced them with new news? Do you understand the depth of division that is so deep that people have given up on politics and taken up guns? Do you know how many people have died unseen by the world’s media and unnoticed by most of us?

Do you know how many people are buried in the rubble of Gaza or how many have escaped with their lives but that’s all they have left? Do you comprehend the incomprehensible hatred that fires random rockets and retaliates with missiles that infuriate and motivate more rockets that exasperate and lead to invasion? Do you weep with the families of four young boys who had been playing football on the beach until the shells hit?

And then there’s the Islamic insurgency in Nigeria, civil war in South Sudan, ongoing uprisings in Afghanistan, destruction and devastation in Syria and Iraq, and so many more. We name countries because the people are unknown to us and because it makes it easier for us to cope rather than think of all of the individuals.

Does the inhumanity make you weep? Does it make you regret? Does it erode hope?

It’s wrong. So wrong. Words can’t express it. But they are all you have given me.

One of the consequences of our global news social media world is that, while we feel the impact of each new tragedy more keenly because we see footage from camera phones from those who were there and we hear eyewitness accounts almost as they happen, we move onto the next one fairly rapidly with an almost macabre fascination. I could easily change the words above to reflect the most recent events. And in a few weeks’ time perhaps (please God no) there will be new events to replace those…

But when you are screaming at God when these things happen, ask him where he was and is.

God is not indifferent to our suffering.

At the risk of being insensitive to those who are suffering in ways far beyond anything I can imagine I do believe that part of the answer to that is that he is with us, he is in the pain, he feels the impact, he is screaming the screams of anguish. Why? Because he loves each one of us with love that goes far beyond that of any parent or child. He loves us because he made us lovingly. When his beloved ones are damaged, ruined, destroyed, and defiled his love – even though it remains undiminished – becomes a scarred love.

Be blessed, be a blessing

scar

If you are one of the poor souls who reads my bloggages regularly you will know that from time to time I mention that I suffer from Chronic Migraine and Cluster Headaches. From about 2002 onwards there has been a constant Migraine headache going on inside my skull. The only variation was in intensity of the pain levels. To go with this is a regular routine of Cluster Headaches. The CH attacks make the migraine feel pleasant by comparison and are debilitating beyond belief.

Before you start getting the handkerchiefs out for a sob story let me say that since I had an operation to install an Occipital Nerve Stimulator I have been more or less Migraine and Cluster Headache free while it has been working, which is life-transforming. The headaches are still there. They are still firing away, which I discovered to my painful cost when the battery in my first ONS expired and the headache pain resurfaced almost instantaneously. But the ONS means that my brain no longer pays attention to the pain signals.

(If you don’t like the idea of surgical implantation you might like to skip the next paragraph and pick up the bloggage below the picture).

I am SO grateful to have this gadget implanted within me and to feel the reassurring ‘fizz’ in the back of my head where the wires are implanted. Each week I sit for a while and re-charge the battery that is inserted just under the skin at the top of my chest (no, I don’t plug in, it’s an induction charging process).

charge
recharging

 

 

(If you skipped the last paragraph, welcome back). The great news for me is that because of this implant I am pain free on the whole. The headaches are there still, but I can’t feel them because my brain has been tricked into ignoring the pain signals.

However, occasionally I get a bit self-conscious about the bits and pieces inside me. Last weekend I attended the Baptist Assembly and as we were sitting in a row in the auditorium one of my self-conscious moments came over me as I realised that all of the people behind me were able to see the scar in the back of my head (oops, sorry, another potential squeam moment). I started to wonder what they were thinking about it, and if they were put off by it. I started to feel uncomfortable about it and wanted to put a hat on to hide it.

And then I realised that most people weren’t likely to be feeling as awkward about it as I was. I realised that if anyone asked me about it I would be able to tell them about the wonderful life-transforming nature of the surgery that led to that scar. And I realised that, once again, I was grateful that I have the scar rather than the headaches. I still wouldn’t mind if my hair regrew in that area and covered it (or indeed the rest of my scalp too) but I became comfortable once again in my own skin, scars and all.

That then got me thinking about how people can be really uncomfortable about how other people perceive them. We all want to be liked and appreciated. We don’t want other people to think badly of us. We try to keep our weaknesses and failures and difficulties hidden from others.

But as a follower of Jesus I want people to know that I have not got myself completely sorted, I still make mistakes, I still let people down, I still get things wrong. I want people to know that I am a work in progress. And while I don’t rejoice or revel in these things they are like the visible scar on the back of my head and I am happy that they are visible because they are testimony to the change that God is bringing about in me. I want people to know that my relationship with God, the example, teaching, forgiveness and fresh start offered by Jesus Christ and the personal experience and presence of the Spirit of God make all the difference in the world to me. Slowly but surely I am being changed to become a better person. The scars and wounds of fragile human nature and fecklessness are still present, but they now point to the fact that my identity in God has been changed to ‘forgiven’.

Just as my ONS means that my headaches no longer have the debilitating effect on me they once had, and it gives me the opportunity to live life with a broader smile on my face, so my relationship with God described above makes all the difference. It’s not that I am perfect and that bad stuff will no longer affect me – far from it. The bad stuff still happens but it happens in the wider context of God’s forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, his gentle presence, a certainty, a hope and a meaning for life within me that are life-transforming for me.

And my story includes an experience that without that forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, presence, certainty, hope and meaning for life within me during the darkest days of the rampant Migraines and Cluster Headaches I would not have been able to live in even the semblance of coping that I had. God’s grace was enough when there was nothing else but pain. The pain didn’t go away, but the all-consuming meaninglessness of it was given a different context of life, hope, love and strength that came from God, not from within.

I hope and pray that you might experience that for yourself too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

life in all its fullness

DSCF1884Just a short thought today as I have been out for most of the day…

When Jesus told people that he had come to give them “Life in all its fullness” did they realise that the fullness of life includes pain and suffering as well as joy and excitement? Did they understand that the fullness of life includes doubt as well as certainty? Did they expect fullness of life to include moments when God seems distant and silent as well as those times when we are aware of his awe and wonder? Did they think that forgiveness is only needed after hurt has been caused?

I doubt it.

But then we don’t often think of it in those ways too. We want the good, the exciting, the joyful and forget that character is more often forged in the furnace than among feathers.

Yet they are all experiences of life. The difference with Jesus’ offer of “life in all its fullness” is that there is a God dimension in our life too. He is there with us in pain and suffering as well as joy and excitement. He understands our doubt and certainty. He has not abandoned us even when he seems distant and silent – he is just as close as when we are aware of his awe and wonder.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the appeal of Jesus

It was Friday. Mid-morning.

The court had given its verdict, albeit following a trial that ‘stretched’ the rules. They had found the defendant guilty on all counts.

And the Court of Appeal, one judge sitting on his own, had conceded that the verdict, albeit rather unsafe, was expedient. He too found the defendant guilty on all counts and had sentenced him to death.

But now the defendant had appealed to the International Court of Human Rights. He had enough of the snide comments about his beliefs, muttered behind his back as he worked. He was fed up with being the victim of persecution and oppression, accused of immoral behaviour and consorting with known criminals. He did not like the unjust way his case had been handled.

So Jesus appealed against the verdict and sentence. No longer was he going to be their whipping boy. He was ready to stand up for his rights and see to it that none of his followers ever had to go through what he had experienced. He did not want his friends to have to give up everything to follow him. He no longer wanted to be identified with the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, the oppressed, the abused, the unloved, the victims of life.

And he definitely did not want to wear a cross to work.

 

Inspired(?) by this news story.

ouch

Compassion“God won’t let you suffer beyond what you can endure.” Has anyone ever said that to you? I have said it in sermons occasionally, but I am wondering about it. It’s not the most sensitive thing for someone to hear who is experiencing extremely difficult circumstances. To the person who feels that they are at the end of their tether and they don’t feel that anyone is holding the other end it can seem trite or even insulting. To the person in constant pain it is almost an accusation – do you think it’s too bad? Rubbish: you should be able to cope with this if you trust God enough!

The problem I have is that I want to believe it. I think I do believe it, based on my own experience. But while it may be true that we can look back and say, “Yes, it was true,” when we are up to our necks in ‘it’ then we cannot easily see things from that perspective. When you are screaming in pain the last thing you want to do is think about well-intended platitudes.

I am sure that God empathises with our pain, distress, anxiety or whatever we are going through. After all, we are reminded, God the Father experienced bereavement at Easter and the Son endured extreme pain and ultimately separation from the Father in death. Before Easter Sunday comes Good Friday.

I am sure too that God is with us. His Spirit knows the deep within us and interprets what we are unable to articulate as prayers in the throne room of heaven – prayers that are heard and cherished. Some of the most profound theology is incarnational: God with us, Jesus who will never leave us…

Please don’t think I am having a crisis of faith here. I am having a crisis of Christians. We too often emulate Job’s friends alongside those who are suffering – trying to offer rational explanations, looking for someone to blame, praying harder, claiming things in Jesus’ name – when I think that what we really need to be are believing friends who will sit, wait, endure alongside, travel with. Rather than looking for the answers or try to make sense of what is happening we need people who will hug us, cry with us, laugh with us, talk with us.

When we have come through we have the right to say that God was with us, that he kept us, that his grace was sufficient for us, that we did endure. Nobody else has the right to proclaim that on our behalf.

And we need to bear one more thing in mind, dear Christians. Death may have been defeated as an eternal consequence, but it is still a physical reality for each one of us eventually, even well-meaning Christians and those who pray for healing. Death can be a freedom from pain and suffering, an end to misery: in that sense you could even describe as one way in which we are ‘healed’, made whole, become fully human. Nobody wants a painful death, but if the message of Easter tells us anything it is that our faith assures us that the moment when we are translated from this life to the next need not be feared.

Be blessed, be a blessing.