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Entries in pain (2)



It's a pretty gloomy day here in Houston. The sky is as gray as wet newspaper. A steady drizzle is coating everything just enough to make it seem that there is a thin slime eveyrwhere. And despite temperatures in the 80s early yesterday afternoon, by late afternoon we were already heading into the 40s. Just outside my window it's cold, it's wet, it's kind of depressing.

And yet here I sit—warm, dry, in a pretty happy mood. 

What a difference a half-inch of glass can make! I can see a world, just beyond, that I know to be unpleasant and even painful, because I was out in it for a time. I know it's there. But here, where I choose to sit, I'm beyond that world. I'm outside of it, in a sense, by being on the inside. 

Life is like that for most people. Me included. We were out in the storm for a while, but then we chose to come inside. Maybe we were forced to be out there, to get to our job or to get back home. We come in contact with it from time to time, it can't be avoided. But ultimately that outside world, with its cold and drizzle and whipping wind, isn't for us. It's not where we choose to stay. Why would we?

Some do, you know. There are some who can't seem to escape it. The best they can hope for is to huddle up, to bundle up, to take shelter anywhere they can find it. They may know of a way out, but are unwilling or unable to take it. 

Sometimes it's up to us, the inside-dwellers, to help them get to someplace safe and dry and warm. Sometimes we have to take them by the hand and lead them, because they don't know the way on their own. We have to nudge them. We have to do a little investigating and thinking, find a way to convince them to get somewhere safe. Sometimes the burden of the other is on us, simply because we have the perspective of having been inside.

We should also remember that if we can still see that world, it'd be easy enough for us to end up back out in it. We do have to pass through it, sometimes. We have to operate in it, while trying to hold on to our dry, warm, comfortable existence. We have to pass through a rainy patch, open to the sky and the wind, before passing into the next warm, dry corridor. It would be so easy to get to the door and find it locked. So what then?

We knock like crazy. We bang on the door and beg to be let in. And if that doesn't work, we go looking for another way in, another door that isn't locked, another building that offers shelter. From our perspective, there's no need to resolve ourselves to our fate. We don't have to stay out in the cold and the rain.

Sometimes, though, we forget. Or we get discouraged. We decide that there really is no hope. The doors are locked, and that's the end. Why go looking for another way in? All the doors are probably locked anyway. The people inside either can't hear us, can't understand, or they don't care, don't want to hear our plight. 

So we give up, and we huddle up, and we bundle up as best we can, and we just try to tough it out until the rain and the cold give way to a warmer, dryer world. That happens, from time to time. The rain stops. The cold fades. And life seems pretty good, out here in the world. 

Trouble is, the rain and the cold come back. They always do. It's the nature of nature. It's the way of the world. No matter how nice the day is, it's just a day. Later, the day turns to night, clear days turn to storms, summer turns to winter, and there you are again, right back in the drizzle and cold of the world, trying to survive, trying to get by.

Come inside! 

Door's locked? Find another! Find a window! Keep banging until someone hears you, or go find a different building with an open door and a dry, warm place to sit! 

Often, our mistake is to get locked into only one way of seeing our world. But that's not how the world works. The world is a place of perspectives and opportunities.

No one wants to lose their job, because no one wants to struggle. I've been there. But I've also been in the spot where I was stuck in a job I hated, because I was too afraid to start looking for something else. I was afraid I'd just make a bad choice, end up somewhere worse. I was afraid my boss might discover I was looking and fire me for it. I was afraid I would just move laterally, from one crummy gig to another.

And then, when I lost that job, I suddenly had to get creative and proactive and organized. I got my resume together (finally). I started talking to people I knew (finally). I started putting in calls and applications (finally). I started thining about what I would want to do 40 hours a week for months and years at a stretch (finally). I started asking myself what I really needed and what I really wanted, and where, in that Vinn Diagram, was the overlap? Finally!

No one wants their health to go bad, because they fear being weak or sick or even dying. I was there, too. I was weak and sick, and then someone happened to notice that my pulse was too low. My heart wasn't working right. I had a birth defect no one had ever known about.

I ended up with a pacemaker. And at first, all I could think about was how much I might have to give up. How limiting it might be. I was afraid. But turns out, I'm more alive than ever now. I have more options. My health is getting better. My energy is getting better. My life is getting better. That's a new feeling, and a new perspective!

No one wants to lose a loved one, because the pain of loss is too great. I know that first hand, too. I've lost some of the dearest souls in my life. It hurts. It always hurts. It hurts even now, years later, just as much as it did the day I lost them. I didn't "grow past" that pain. It became a thread within me. Something I could feel occasionally, even if I'd rather avoid it. 

But what wonderful memories I have of those amazing people! What brilliant, bright lights they have been in my life, even after their deaths! What great and wonderful growth I've experienced because of what they taught me while they were with me! I'll never stop missing them. I'll never stop loving them. I'll never stop being better because of them.

God doesn't want us to suffer or be targeted by evil. And we wonder why, then, it happens. And the reason is, at best, difficult to explain, and at worst, impossible for us to understand. My own take on why evil is allowed to exist is this: God allows some bad to happen so a greater good can follow

The argument I heard for this that resonates most with me, and even haunts me, was made by Christian Apologist Dr. William L. Craig. I'm going to paraphrase it, so what you read next is my interpretation and not a direct quote.

"God allows evil, such as a school shooting, to take place so that a greater good, such as a nation focused on better laws and strategies for gun control, will be possible." (remember, completely paraphrased by J. Kevin Tumlinson)

God doesn't want children to die because of violence. It grieves Him. It horrifies Him just as it horrifies us. If such a violent act leads to a change in how we, as a nation, approach gun control? If it changes the perspective of the nation, and of the world? If out of the tragedy new laws and new ways of thinking evolve or erupt, and make it more and more difficult for such a thing to happen? If the lives of billions of children, spanning into the future, are spared because these precious, invaluable lives were lost at the hands of a lunatic? That serves a greater good. It has purpose. It means something. It defines the tragedy in terms of strength and grace and growth.

That is bitter, cold comfort for those who lose children in this way. No, we do not want it. No, we DO NOT WANT IT. Please, dear God, take that evil from us for ever.

The answer is yes. Don't you see? God is saying, "Yes. I will take the evil from  you. Bite down on something, because surgery like this always hurts." It's a new perspective for us to thinking of tragedy in this way, and it's not comfortable. But it's necessary. It helps us grow. It brings meaning to horrible, unjust things.

Look for the other way. Look for the new perspective. Your life, marked and marred as it may be, isn't the limit of who you are and who you can become. Look at the tragedy, the pain, the evil, the darkness and cold and rain that you're in, and choose to see the opportunity it can provide. Pray for wisdom. Pray for faith. Pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Go look for another way.



Sometimes there's a whole lot of tough stuff hitting you at once. Money gets tight just when your air conditioner breaks down, and your mother calls to tell you her apartment is flooded and she needs a place to stay for a few weeks, and one of your cats gets injured and has to go to the vet, which ends up costing more than a house payment, and while you're coordinating all of this you get a flat tire. For a nice cherry on top, while trying to find a parking spot at the grocery store, someone zips in ahead of you without so much as a wave. 

I've always handled things like this very poorly. I get mad. I say things (paint-peeling things that could make a sailor blush). I make rash decisions and take stupid actions. More than once I have hopped out of my truck to confront the jerk that just cut me off, or the one who won't back up and let me get out of a parking space, or the one who was just minding her own business but happened to be in my way on a very bad day. 

Not good. Dangerous, even. But beyond that, so outside the scope of what God wants for us it's unbelievable. 

Here's a news flash—bad stuff happens. It's like it happens all the time, am I right? 

It's true. Even when we are fervently praying that nothing bad will happen, something always seems to go wrong. Scary stuff that makes us feel like we're alone here, like no one, but especially not God, is looking out for us. We're on our own.

And it's true. We really are on our own. 

What ... you expected something different?

Here's the truth—when we are focusing on the things that scare us, that make us angry, that make us worry, we are on our own. God is there, of course. Always. But he's more or less hovering just a bit away, waiting for you to realize that you're thrashing and struggling and trying to stay afloat in a situation in which you have no hope of surviving.

I like the lifeguard analogy.

I heard this from my pastor, Mark Hartman, at Sugar Creek Baptist Church in Sugar Land. Lifeguards are trained to scan the waters for danger, for swimmers who are struggling. And when they see someone, they leap into action. They grab their rescue board and dive in, they swim to the person who is struggling and drowning and then ...

They stop.

Whazzawhozitnow? Stop?!? Hello! Drowning victim here! Struggling, barely keeping my head above water, trying desperately to hold on to something, anything that will keep me firmly in the "living" category! And you choose now to take a break?!?

The thing is, if a lifeguard immediately rushes over and grabs the person who is drowning, panic will cause that person to resist and struggle even harder. They'll grasp onto the lifeguard, clinging for life, and end up dragging both of them down. There's a greater chance that they'll both drown out there if the lifeguard doesn't stop, assess, wait just a beat, and act only when the person has stopped struggling.

That's God. He sees us struggling, he knows that we're drowning and that we are scared, but until we stop the struggle He's going to wait. Until we realize that there's nothing we can do—that it was us that got us here in the first place, that if we could swim our way out we would have done so already—He's just going to wait, just out of reach. 

We can swim toward Him, of course. That means that we've calmed down enough to be rational. We're focusing less on the struggle and the danger and more on the positive things in our life. We've realized that our struggle is getting us nowhere, and if we don't get a grip we're going to go down. We can move toward God, and He will open up His arms and take us back to shore.

More often, though, we can't seem to get out of the struggle. We're focused on everything that's wrong about the situation. We can't find our footing, we can't find anything to grip on to, we can't seem to calm down enough to even out and take smooth, steady strokes, to follow a pattern that will get us back to safety. In those cases, God waits. He's not going to let us down ... He's still there, still cares, still knows exactly what to do. And eventually He acts to save us, because He loves us.

Of course, some of us keep strugglng for a long, long time. We've been treading water for so long, we have no idea how to stop. We're so afraid of sinking that we expend massive amounts of energy resources to keep our head above water. And it seems like it's working for a time. From the outside, from anyone swimming nearby or walking on the distant shoreline, we may not even look like we're struggling. "I'm OK," we say. "I can do this. I can keep kicking, keep paddling, keep struggling until I suddenly fly out of the water and glide safely to land on a cloud of my own making!"

Get real.

This is the kind of swimmer I've been for years. I struggle, but I largely keep it hidden. God sees me, though. He knows the truth. He's a trained lifeguard, able to see all the signs. And he's just waiting, waiting, waiting. Immortal, omnipotent deities seem to have way more patience than we mere mortals do, am I right?

If you're facing struggles in your own life, it's OK. It's OK that it bothers you. It's OK that it scares you. It's OK that you don't know what to do or where to turn. God's there, waiting. He won't let you down.

Sometimes we lose the things we're trying to hold on to—our home, our job, our pets, our family, our health. That's going to happen. Everything has its time in our lives, and when that time is over we have to deal with the grief of loss. God is there, too. He's waiting for you to come to him for comfort. We can't always understand the "why" of loss, but we can have faith that there is a reason for it, somewhere, somehow, and that it's tied to the love God has for us.

Our child playing with something dangerous—it could be fun for the kid, and it could hurt their feelings if they lose their toy, but we take it away for their good, whether they know it or not.

A student is punished for cheating on a test and has to miss out on after-school sports—no fun, and they don't get the benefits of being part of the team, but when they have to retake the test they learn and grow in a way they would have missed out on before.

A drowning man, struggling in the waves as a lifeguard floats nearby—he's afraid, panicking, and not thinking clearly, but someone is there to rescue him, once the struggling stops.

Lots of things happen that aren't pleasant, and that seem to bring no good at all. In the end it's about our perspective. What are we capable of understanding in that moment? Not much, really. That's why faith is so important. We have to know that God is aware of our struggle, and beyond that He knows how to use our struggles and pain to make us safer, stronger, better. 

Believe that, and act on it in faith, and the things that you struggle with become less frightening. Look for a way to learn and grow from every experience, and count all of the good that you have in your life, even during the hard times, and you will live a fuller life with less fear and pain. That's the point. That's the plan God has for you. Accepting it takes a leap of faith, but living it makes for a grander life than you ever imagined.