There and Back Again

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I am still recovering from getting hit by a white Toyota Prado.  My broken rib still hurts when I try to do too much or move the wrong way…and that’s how I learn what “the wrong way” is.  My brain seems relatively clear after my concussion.  And I’m starting to go stir-crazy for lack of exercise.  I’m afraid that was predictable.

So today, I walked to school again.  It’s between four and five kilometers.  I probably wasn’t quite ready for this walk, but I’m not ready to go insane, either, and if I have to pick between the two…   I walked. Continue reading

On Marriage, Part 3: Hope for Healing Damaged Marriages

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This is the third part of a marriage series.  Part 1 was thinking about whom to marry and Part 2 shared what we’ve learned about staying married.  Part 3 addresses what to do if you feel like your marriage is in trouble.

For each of these posts in the marriage series, I feel (rightly) obliged to show my credentials:  who am I to say anything about marriage?

I’m Mike.  I’ve been married to Kim for 23 years and we’ve come through the death of a son, a miscarriage, a daughter with extreme health concerns for her first four years, fourteen moves, five years living in a developing country (two in a slum), getting fired, deaths of parents, severe depression, and two what I would term major crises in our relationship, both lasting over a year.

What I can say for my perspective is this: we’ve walked through a lot together and we’re still happily married.  We like each other.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We laugh together.  Our marriage isn’t perfect, but we wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s.  And we’ve worked our butts off to get this far.

I’m not an expert, not a licensed marriage and family therapist, and we have not experienced many of the worst things that destroy marriages.  So why try to say anything?

Three reasons:  One, I’m a transformation junkie.  I believe God can change any of us, at any time, none of us are beyond redemption, and likewise our marriages.  Two, I believe that the scars we carry are opportunities to speak to others who are struggling with wounds similar to what we have survived; God redeems our suffering by making us able to love others who are suffering as we did.  Three, I hope this offers a safer way to start seeking help, a first step, and this may be your chance to start doing something before it’s too late.

If reading this helps one marriage, it’s so much more than worth the hours of writing.  And from my end, I want to know I’ve offered what I can.


People often think you have to resolve your problems with each other before you can heal.  You may need to heal some first before you can resolve your problems.   

The worst year of our marriage happened here in Nicaragua.  We got so fed up with each other that our dates became the venting of our stored frustration with each other, the time we addressed our conflicts.  Who wouldn’t look forward to that Date Night?

The lowlight, from my perspective, was when we went out to dinner and I just lost it in a restaurant, started crying and couldn’t stop, had to go out to the car and we just drove home, where I insisted Kim get out so I could go be by myself.  I can’t remember ever crying in public like that, before or since, even at a funeral.  Big surprise, we stopped having dates soon after that.  Then we were just unhappy with each other all the time, while never spending any focused time together.

For perspective, Kim and I had been so romantically in love that once, during our college dating years, we made a rule limiting how many seconds we could gaze into each others’ eyes.  So if you’ve asked yourself, “How the hell did we get here?” yeah, so have we.  And we made it back from there.

People often think you have to resolve your problems with each other before you can heal.  You may need to heal some first before you can resolve your problems. 

Of course the best advice is, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” meaning reconcile by the end of the day–i.e. as soon as possible–so that nothing can build up.  But though this will help protect our relationships from serious division, it’s not a cure all.  Not every conflict can be resolved in one conversation, sometimes we try to forgive but have trouble letting some things so, and when there is a pattern of the same behavior, promptly addressing it still may not touch the root of why it keeps happening.  Oh, and sometimes we disagree over the conflict, can’t settle it, and then we’re just in bed and angry and the sun is long down.

Your problems almost certainly did not start overnight. 


Here is what I know:  your problems almost certainly did not start overnight.  Ours didn’t.  They grew and spread through many choices over many days and weeks and months, maybe even years.  Perhaps in a rare situation you or your partner just made a horrible, destructive decision out of the blue and everything came crashing down.  It happens.  But almost always the decisions are the daily kind, like erosion, the small disagreements and tensions and fissures that add up.  Maybe you have had a dramatic breaking of trust, but likely that came at the end of a chain of events, too.

We had reached the point where we could no longer go back and find the roots of our problem.  Kim and I symbolically had to sweep everything off the table and start over.  We put our time together back in the center of that table and nothing else.  Then, slowly, we would add things back, after we were certain our relationship had stabilized again.

Most of you have seen that visual lesson where someone shows how if you put the big rocks in the bottle first, the rest of the rocks and sand and water can fit, too.  We weren’t going for that.  We dumped everything out of the bottle and put in the rock of our marriage, plus the bare minimum of our responsibilities (keep feeding our kids, show up for work).  Then we started over learning to like each other.  We intentionally, consciously changed how we spoke to each other.  We were not avoiding the areas of conflict altogether, but we were not discussing them, or even alluding to them, on date nights.

We went on an anniversary trip together during this time and it was…stilted.  We were no longer just easygoing and comfortable with each other.  We had some nice times and also some awkward, difficult conversations, because we were committed to keeping things positive with each other.

If what I’m describing sounds like denial to you, think of this:  you have a gaping wound in your side and every time you bring up the conflict between you, it’s like taking sandpaper and rubbing it up and down that wound.  You might think, “No, I’m addressing the problem,” but it’s possible all you’re really doing is inflicting pain and aggravating the injury.  If you can’t stand each other, you’re not going to want to work things out.  Ever.  You might stay legally married but your relationship may not recover.

In our opinion, if you have covenanted to be married for life (those vows you said, not a contractual agreement), you have a long time to let yourselves heal and keep working through the conflicts until you can reach reconciliation.  Neither of you is going anywhere.  Whereas if you keep making the other person scream out in pain, one of you might go somewhere, far away, because you (or he or she) has reached the pain tolerance limit.


Prayer has saved our marriage.

We pray.  We believe in prayer, we believe in God’s desire and power to answer prayer, and we both think our lives would have gone horribly if God had not intervened many times.

When we are angry or fed up or at the end of our rope with our spouse, someone’s heart needs to change.  But I can’t change my significant other’s heart.  Often, I can’t even change my own.  But God can, and I can be willing for it to happen, which in my experience is the one crucial prerequisite.

You may read that and think, “Why does my heart have to change? I’m not the one who’s wrong!  I’m not at fault, except maybe 15% of the time!”

That may be true.  And you both may think that–which mathematically doesn’t work out at all.  But assuming 1)you want to stay married, and 2)on this trajectory your marriage will smash on the rocks, your heart will have to change, whoever is more to blame.

I once preached a sermon entitled, “You’re Wrong.”  Most Christians who have any grasp of orthodox (sound) theology know that we are sinners saved by God’s grace.  That’s our party line.  But even though it’s implicit in “we sin” that we must be wrong–sin means doing or thinking something wrong, self-damaging and dishonoring to God–it’s harder to hear “you’re wrong” than “you’re a sinner.”  What’s up with that?

I think two things:  we don’t really, fully with our whole hearts embrace that notion of being sinners with all its uncomfortable implications, and we are willing to admit to God that we’ve screwed up but not nearly so willing to acknowledge to people that we aren’t (always) right.

Maybe I overgeneralize here, but let’s take the case of the conflict between you and the person with your ring: are you wrong?  How much of the problem is because of you?  Can you start there as you approach how you will reconcile and heal, that you really are wrong? 

Ask God to change your heart.  I mean seriously, even if you are not in the habit of praying, even if you aren’t entirely certain there is a God up in the sky (or wherever the God-you’re-not-sure-of might dwell), ask God to change your heart and help you see where you are wrong.  Why?  Because 1)God just might do that, and it’s worth the risk of asking to save your marriage, 2)asking to see where you are wrong is a big step toward coming to see that you are, in fact, wrong in a lot of things; you’ve acknowledged the possibility.  God can work with that.

If you ask God to change your heart toward your beloved, and you keep praying that, he will answer your prayer.

Nope, I don’t know your situation personally (unless I do), but I do know that even if your significant other “started it,” the pattern of irritation and criticism and defensiveness and sarcasm and avoidance and manipulation and passive aggression is now being perpetuated by two.  Most of us pray for God to change our spouse.  When the conflict drags on and grows into a full-blown crisis, we might get angry at God for not answering.  But I know this, too:  If you ask God to change your heart toward your beloved, and you keep praying that, he will answer your prayer.

I’ve learned that one of the biggest blocks to true forgiveness is the need to be justified, to have the other person say how right I was and how wrong he or she was.  I’m grateful that I learned this before I entered our marriage, and the lesson saved what has become one of my closest lifelong friendships. Two people holding out for hearing “you were right” can easily become The Zax.


Forgiveness is to marriage as oxygen is to lungs.

I tried to stress in Parts 1 and 2 that if you can’t or won’t forgive, marriage isn’t for you.  If you’re already well into marriage and only just now discovering this fact, you have to 1)learn, 2)get divorced, 3)resign yourself to an unhappy relationship.  I suggest 1.

But forgiveness is hard; it is one of the things that makes marriage such demanding and sometimes grueling work.  You may be facing trying to forgive something that feels beyond forgiveness.  In the end, that’s the choice of whether or not you will stay married: can you forgive that?  Maybe “that” is adultery; maybe it’s years of habitual neglect or indifference; maybe it’s doing the things that bug you the most on purpose, just to piss you off.

And maybe you can forgive, but is there any indication the other person will change even if you do?

So much of marriage is based on hope.  I think most of us enter our marriages with starry eyes and unsubstantiated confidence that everything will go well.  The truth is, we are making vows to love a person who is going to change and grow and we have no idea who they will become.  And that’s describing emotionally healthy people.  “Sickness and health,” “Richer and poorer,” “Better or worse,” those are seriously wide ranges that we’re committing to.

We’ve entered this relationship that assumes change is not merely possible, but guaranteed.  What we’re really asking, therefore, is not “will the other person change if I forgive,” but “will the other person change to stop doing this thing I can’t bear?”  My point here is, we’ve already taken a huge leap of faith that the person I loved when I exchanged vows is someone who a)I will still love even after she has changed radically over the years, and b)will still love me even if my changes are difficult for her, even if I don’t become what she hoped I would be, even if I don’t become what I hoped I would be.  Like I say, it’s starry-eyed that this doesn’t strike us as a huge risk, but when you look at results, clearly it is.

 Seeking God to change my own heart and believing that Kim is trying, too, that is a radical act of hope.

So I am taking a similar risk when I forgive and believe that my spouse will change.  Forgiving in hope of seeing change (not as manipulation to get change) is the risk we take in marriage.  Seeking God to change my own heart and believing that Kim is trying, too, that is a radical act of radical hope, especially when we don’t feel loving toward each other.  And yet, it’s not a true risk, because for our hearts to survive, we need to forgive anyway.


Forgiveness does not equal Reconciliation

I have to make a crucial distinction here:  We forgive everything, but not everything can be reconciled.  By this I mean we do not hold hatred or resentment in our hearts against our significant others (nor anyone else, if we want to live and grow).  But we may not let them in the front door ever again, if the problem is bad enough and they show no commitment to change accompanied by action.  Reconciliation requires genuine change.  Virtually always, it requires both people to change.  Note: Trying harder to get the other person to see you’re right is not change.


Not every conflict can be reconciled and not every conflict should be reconciled.

“WAIT!  I thought you were trying to heal our marriage, not talk us out of it.”

I used to be the optimist who believed that every single marriage can be saved.  I don’t anymore.  I do believe, as I said, that everyone can change and be transformed by the power of God.  I also believe that if two people are committed to staying married, they can work out their problems.  If neither of you will give up, then you don’t have to get divorced.  It comes down to the two of you: no one outside can force you to quit, so as long as neither of you quit and you keep working on your relationship, you will work through things.  Eventually.

But sometimes, the other person gives up and you can’t make them try.  Should you stay in a marriage with someone who doesn’t want to get divorced but refuses to make any effort to change?  I really believe that is between you and God.

Should you stay in a marriage in which you are being physically abused?*

No.

The only “unless” I will submit is that your husband or wife is willing to demonstrate genuine repentance–meaning not merely “I’m sorry” but turning around and going the other way–through a number of agreed upon steps that might include therapy, limited time together, outside accountability and certain other benchmarks that show evidence of effort and progress.

There is a crucial difference between forgiveness and allowing someone to continue in destructive behavior. I may forgive someone for stealing from me, but I won’t have them walking through my home unaccompanied again, unless I know that the person has changed.  I mean, really, demonstrably changed.

Having said that, I don’t want to speak against someone else’s faith or willingness to forgive.  I have a number of close friends who have forgiven some awful things in their marriages that I cannot picture being able to forgive, much less reconcile and continue to be married.  But the truth is, I have not been through their situations, and we experience God’s grace when we’re in the midst of the struggle, not standing outside watching it.


 

I know this has been more narrative than step-by-step, so I’ll offer that, too.

Decide for yourself (and with God, if you pray) whether your conflict is worth ending your marriage over.  If it truly is, you should decide that consciously, not through erosion and passing the point of no return.  If it’s not, then make up your mind to do whatever you can on your end to fight for your marriage…and continue with this list.

  1. Identify what you have done wrong.
  2. Pray for God to help you change your heart toward your spouse, no matter who has done what.
  3. Ask God to help you forgive what your love did wrong.
  4. Apologize, ask forgiveness, and commit to changing.
  5. Receive apologies, forgive (this may take time) and don’t keep score or hold it against him or her.

As I said, you may need to do step 3 and commit to it over a period of time before you can make progress with reconciling your conflict.  And you may never reach the point where fault is acknowledged and forgiveness asked.  You may both simply have to choose to forgive and let it go.

Remember, taking these steps assumes your relationship is in a place to work through the conflict.  If you need to heal and regain fondness for each other first, do it.  Make that step two and keep returning to it.


 

There is a vast quantity of research and writing on marriage and healthy relationships.  The very best source I know is the Gottman Institute.  They have forty years of research invested in figuring out why some relationships last while others end.  Here is their blog that directly addresses the things that they have found most often kill relationships, which they refer to as “The Four Horsemen”:  Criticism, Stonewalling, Defensiveness and Contempt.

I highly recommend reading through these posts on the Four Horsemen, which include not only descriptions of destructive habits we can all get into, but ways to address each and work together to change.

 

I hope and fervently pray this may be of some help, or that you are able to find the help you need elsewhere.  When we most need help, often we feel least willing to seek it.

If you have comments or questions, I would be more than happy to respond.

Here is one last thing I know: God does love you and does desire to help your marriage.

 

 

*If you suspect you are being physically or emotionally abused, seek help from someone you trust personally or a professional.  I am NOT suggesting here that forms of abuse other than physical are acceptable, but they may require more discernment to identify.

Redemption from Ashes

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Something beautiful happened today.

We stood on the freshly dried concrete floor of our friend Elizabeth’s newly-built home and we worshiped God and prayed for his blessing.

Two weeks ago, Elizabeth’s  home burnt to the grounds home burnt to the ground.  She had to guard the pile of rubble so that no one would steal her last possessions.

Two weeks ago, we barely new Elizabeth.  Kim had chatted with her about kids and dogs and recargas.

Eliza and Bella

Elizabeth and Bella sharing Scripture verses and laughing.

 

Today, we sang songs of gratitude together and prayed blessings for this home; then we shared mini-doughnuts and Coke.  And it struck me–and I hope this doesn’t offend you–that we were sharing communion together.

Now, we know Elizabeth.  She is joining our Mujeres de Shalom (“women of peace”) group led by our ministry partner Bella Ndoro.  She even, somehow, has the tiny beginnings of an inventory of 2 cordoba (6 cent) bags of chips.  Corin is more than happy to be her best customer.

The kids chased a ball around outside while we talked and laughed.  kids in front yardAnd I pictured what I had seen two weeks ago when I walked back to see the site of the fire.

 

I have described in detail the broken infrastructure of Nicaraguan government and social services.  But I watched bags of cement delivered, construction workers show up (whom Elizabeth was responsible to feed; we and some other neighbors got to help with that), and in less than two weeks, Elizabeth has a home again.  I don’t know what you think of socialism, but we’re certainly grateful she is not homeless.

I love the word “redemption.” When I speak of redemption, I mean God’s refusal to let bad things just rot, his absolute determination and willingness to bring good out of bad.

I love the word “redemption.” When I speak of redemption, I mean God’s refusal to let bad things just rot, his absolute determination and willingness to bring good out of bad.  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  This does not mean that all things are good; some things are horrible and some are evil.  But in all things, God continues to bring good for people’s lives.

Eliza and Mike

I was standing there, looking at these solid, blank walls and this bare floor, a house that none of us–you reading this and I–would consider luxurious.   It’s one room.  But I doubt I’ve ever seen someone more grateful for a home.

And where we were strangers before, now we have started friendships.  Where she was abandoned by her husband, then left with nothing, in that same place we got to surround her and pray and sing and laugh and eat.  Our close neighbor friends, Mileydi and Juan Carlos, and our Servant Partners teammates have become Elizabeth’s new friends.  

When we first began to sing, there were only a few of us in the Eliza with everyonecircle, but as our voices drifted outside, some neighborhood children and two other moms came in, drawn into the celebration. In this barrio, tensions over the sharing of scarce resources and distrust among neighbors can run high. We lean on God to make part of our witness here modeling a better way of living together, of singing and sharing and holding hands as we pray.  Of learning from Jesus how to be true neighbors.

 

[Kim and I wrote this one together.]

 

Until We Die

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What’s with all this dying?

I’m watching the internet explode with posts about David Bowie and Alan Rickman (and chipping in a few of my own).  I thought this article about losing our theologians was brilliant.  It captured for me why I’m grieving over artists whom I never met or even saw live.

There’s been a fair amount written about death, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to add to the collective wisdom here.  But an unusual combination of things are swirling around in my head and I’m trying to figure out how they all fit together.

David Bowie was a brilliant artist, a true musical genius.  I’ve never listed him among my personal favorites, but I respect his accomplishments and enjoy a lot of his music.  But then there’s this:

“David Bowie was an incredible musician who inspired generations. He also participated in a culture where children were sexually exploited and raped. This is as much a part of his legacy as his music.”

Two nights ago, I watched the movie Spotlight with my daughter.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it and believe it has a decent chance of winning the Academy Award for best picture–TRIGGER WARNING, though, it’s about the Boston Globe breaking the story of sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church.  Challenged by a college friend, I’ve been doing research since and finding out how horrifically prevalent sexual abuse is within the Protestant church and missions.  Today I spent time with the director of our school, discussing the dangers and committing my help to identifying and preventing such abuse at our school.  If you are part of a church, mission or Christian school and aren’t already well-informed on this issue, I urge you to read this entire article.  I know it is says some negative things about certain organizations, but turning away from what we don’t want to know helps create an environment in which abusers can carry out their abuse.

Jesus always sided with the abused.  He always stood with the persecuted.  Many of the stories of healing speak not just of his miraculous power, but of his willingness to stand against abuse, hatred, and shunning of the weak, the victim, or the shunned.  When he stopped the crowd rushing to Jairus’s daughter to speak with the women who had hemorrhaged for twelve years, he did more than restore her dignity.  He challenged a system that turned suffering people into outcasts.  He stood for the victim of abuse.  She was considered “unclean” and had no business in that crowd, much less touching a rabbi.  Jesus credited her courage to touch him and believe in his power and compassion as bringing about her own healing:  “Go in peace; your faith has made you well.”   The woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman by the well, the lepers he touched, those possessed, all of them were despised and considered outcasts because their suffering was considered their fault.  They must have sinned.  They brought this upon themselves. Continue reading

Chikungunya–The Virus of Memory Lane

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Chikungunya finally found me.  aedesmosquitoes

Oh, my gosh, it hurts!  😉

Please read my self-descriptions in that “laughing because it’s so ridiculous” tone of voice.

 

Last night, my knee started to get stiff.  I’m forty-seven and I played basketball in our gringo-nica-middle eastern pick up game Tuesday night, so I thought I might have wrenched it and was just getting the delayed reaction.  You get older, you still play hard, everything hurts.  Fair enough, that’s the price you pay.

But the knee kept getting worse.  I iced it for a long time, and then could barely stand up.  Dang!  What did I do to my knee?

Then I noticed that I wasn’t feeling right: a little feverish, a little dizzy.  I suffer from insomnia, so honestly I’ve gotten used to mild symptoms like that.

But next I seriously had to plan out getting up, figure out which direction I could push so that I didn’t have to use my right leg at all, and why are my shoulders hurting so bad and–uh, oh.

I had surgery on my right knee, many moons ago.  The surgeon had planned to do arthroscopic surgery to remove two bone chips, but one of those pieces of bone was much bigger than anticipated, so what was supposed to be two tiny incision points and a laser turned into a connect-the-dots-and-open-wide game on my leg.  I only found out when I took the bandage off and saw the long scar, many days post-op, because apparently the doctor had told me…when I was still under anesthesia.

So, my knee feels just like it did during physical therapy post-surgery.  It hurts like crazy to bend, I have to move it manually sometimes, and–

When Kim got chikungunya, she woke up one morning with terrible knee pain.  We couldn’t figure out how she injured it so badly while sleeping.  She limped severely for a few days…and then the rest of the symptoms arrived.

Light bulb!

i didn’t injure my knee in some bizarre 24-hour delayed reaction.  I just have–oh, crap.

Now that I’m forced to admit it, I also had a rash on my trunk several  days ago.  But come on, there are so many rashes available here! (Denial) It didn’t have to be chikungunya. (Denial)

Last night’s “sleep” was an adventure in positioning: I’m freezing, I’m boiling, my knee needs to stay propped but now my shoulder is yodeling, is on my side bett–NOPE! What?  My finger aches?

My wife had chikungunya back in October, and survived it with grace and a bare minimum of whimpering.  But she also missed three consecutive days of school, and she simply never does that.  I mean, never.  Until this stuff.

You’ve certainly picked it up, but here’s the scary part of chikungunya for a guy like me:  it lets you relive all your injuries.  I mean, first-hand, genuine pain and swelling and authentic immobility.  That stupid finger I jammed a couple weeks ago–it’s like it just got hit last night!

In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Narnians discover an island where dreams come true. TheDarkIsland Initially they’re delighted–until they grasp that it isn’t where their daydreams or fondest wishes come true, but all those horrible, sub-conscious fears and freaky, surreal combinations of different parts of life.  Now follow me here: the puzzling thing about pain is how, when it’s passed, you can’t fully grasp how bad it hurt.  It’s like it recedes into the fog.

Now imagine all that wonderful pain proceeding out of the fog to pay a visit!

It’s a mosquito-borne virus, so when the mosquito bit someone else with it and then bit me…
The odds were not in my favor; sooner or later, some little Aedes mosquito was going to take a nip out of Kim–or one of the thousands of other folks who’ve suffered it–and find its way to me.

Chikungunya is rarely fatal.  Only if one’s system is extremely compromised initially will it be life-threatening.  Tragically, many Nicaraguans in slums live at a lower-than-optimal level of health, so it’s likely more dangerous here than it would be in a US suburb.  It’s been in the news constantly, and the ministry of health has workers all over the city doing this:

A health ministry worker fumigates for mosquitoes that transmit dengue and chikungunya in Managua, Nicaragua, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. Nicaragua's health ministry announced on Tuesday that they have detected 225 cases of chikungunya nationwide, this year. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

A health ministry worker fumigates for mosquitoes that transmit dengue and chikungunya in Managua, Nicaragua.

What are they spraying?  We’re not sure, but it smells a lot like diesel.  Would you rather have the risk of chikungunya and/or dengue or have your children breathing those clouds of (I’m going to take a leaping guess here) toxins for the next several hours until the air clears again?  You can tell them “No, gracias,” when they ask to come in and spray, so then it’s only the fumes blowing in from the street and the neighbors.


I’m going to end with a few quasi-serious reflections.  

I’m not freaking out over this.  It’s inconvenient, and there is no cure (just addressing symptoms), but I’ve watched Kim and many friends, both Nicaraguan and gringo, suffer through it.  I’ll be okay.

It’s also fair to say Kim and I would not have experienced chikungunya if we hadn’t come to Nicaragua.

This hurts and I’m not enjoying being in pain, but even if my symptoms last the maximum time, it’s still temporary.  I know people, I have friends, who live in chronic pain.  They carry on with grace and good humor and generous hearts.  In this moment, while I have a tiny glimpse, I respect their choices, every day, to develop that character.  I’ve seen a chronic illness not always handled with grace, and those choices can make all the difference.

Even saying this, I also get that the temporal piece is so far beyond my grasp.  I’m fine, and trying to laugh, largely because I know this is going away.  For someone to accept that, without a miracle, this level of pain is the daily dose, that takes some powerful character and/or faith.

Finally, I come back to how fortunate and privileged I really am.  I have a comfortable bed and nice pillows, I have clean drinking water and all the ibuprofen I need.  A Nicaraguan friend whose wife had chikungunya recently asked for some acetaminophen.  He had just done a small job for me, for which I had paid him, but he’s unemployed and would have had to decide between buying medicine for his wife and buying food with that money. Putting twenty tablets in a baggie for a good friend is the work of six seconds and doesn’t require even a second thought for me; the cost to me is negligible and I’m grateful for the chance to help.

Being sick drives home this point for me:  We are rich and have the comforts and protections that come with wealth.  My health is not compromised.  I’m going to limp around for a while and then I’ll be fine.  I hope I’ll laugh the whole way.

 

 

Fred

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I sat by his bed because there was nothing else left to do. He lay fetal, curled up tight into himself against the hospital bed railing. He looked like a caricature of himself. “Moon face” had taken over all his features and then worked its way down his body, bloating and distorting the man who had ridden his bike 3,500 miles from Alaska, who ran in 24-hour-races and called his friends derogatory names impugning their manhood if they couldn’t keep up with him at work.

He slept almost peacefully. He would moan and rub his face or brush at his I.V., but he never knocked it out. The morphine kept pouring into him, keeping him from agony and consciousness. His wife and her mother and his mother and I stayed by him in turns and recited stories about him. Half of them I heard for the first time there. He was crazy, certainly. His pain tolerance exceeded that of mere mortals. He had never turned away from anything, it seemed now, in his entire life, but rather grabbed everything by the throat and conquered it. But you can’t really grab death by the throat.

He had done the closest thing, I think. He had refused to blink, refused to wince or cringe or ever, even once that I witnessed, feel sorry for himself. In the last months he had swung from wanting to stay so he could raise his 3-month-old baby girl to wanting to die so he could be with God fully. Two months earlier he told me that he no longer “tried” to hear God’s voice; God now spoke to him direct and clear. “Just like I’m talking to you. Except he says better things.”

One of the things God said was to try the snake venom. His mother had heard about a clinical trial that treated brain cancer with snake venom by shooting it directly into the tumors. Reports from the first study were positive but the second study had sounded overwhelmingly successful. You always wanted to use the “M” word. At first, he had said no. “If God is going to heal me, I don’t want people to be giving credit to snake venom!” But a week later he said, “God told me, ‘Hey, Stupid. You need to do that!’”

Does God address you as “Hey, Stupid?” No, me neither. But I’m thinking now, after it all, that this doesn’t disprove either God’s existence or Fred’s hearing. Certainly God deals with each person differently, uniquely. I mean, if he really does know everything then of course he would.

But Fred needed to live one more month to make the next clinical trial. That’s what we all prayed for. Technically, he did. But he also needed to be strong enough to undergo the treatment. Instead, he was laying there waiting for his body to release him. The four of us prayed together, crying, laughing, reminding one another what he would say. We asked God to let him die quickly. After four months or nine months or nine years of praying for his healing, we asked God to…kill him. We call it “take him” or “release him” or even passively “let him die.” I’m not sure I can explain the difference now, not with God. I know the difference between my letting him die on his own and killing him, because I don’t hold life in my hands. One of the Psalms says, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.”

Ten years ago, I screamed and prayed and watched while my infant son died. God did not heal him from his heart failing, shunting blood so that he suffocated while on one hundred percent oxygen. So many stupid things people told me about God, about my faith, how God trusted me and I should be happy and thank Him; it took me three years to recover faith and understand that God had not betrayed me and that most of my anger was at people who spoke untruth about God, not at God himself. But I still can’t explain the difference between God letting a baby die and causing a baby to die. And so with Fred. If God can heal and does not, God allows death. But if each of us lives because God sustains our lives, then when our lives cease… Yet this path has pitfalls. A man shoots another man through the heart: God does not pull the trigger, God does not end the life, other than choosing not to suspend the natural laws to stop the bullet or restore the heart. Fred had a malignant growth in his head that invaded and sowed destruction and finally… God didn’t stop this bullet, this tumor, and God did not restore Fred’s brain. Did he?

Nine years ago, Fred first discovered he had cancer. The doctors did not know how long it had grown there, because Fred had been suffering migraines and, eventually, blackouts, for how long? Fred wasn’t sure. They operated immediately. He lived five years and the cancer came back. They cut it out. He lived two years and the cancer came back. They cut it out. It came back six months later. They told him that operating again would kill him, that he had no more options, and that he would likely die in two weeks…with his daughter’s birth due in three.

We all prayed in a frenzy then. I am not consistent with my prayers—I am not consistent with anything—but I thought of Fred fifty to a hundred times a day and tried to pray every time, seconds at a time. What did it mean? Was God nudging me to pray, reminding me again and again? Why does God remind me to ask Him to do what He could do without me? I don’t know. I have less than no answers. But I know this: Fred lived four months. He watched his wife give birth to their daughter. He held up his daughter in front of the congregation and dedicated her to God. Fred and Naomi named her “Eva,” which means “life.”

Then we prayed and watched and waited for a miracle. For the first month, Fred worked. He didn’t have his previous energy, but he could still work on his house. I would come to check on him and find him laying hardwood or installing tile. Fred had bought a huge, run-down two-story house when he and Naomi got married, then gutted it. They lived that way for a year, until Naomi said, “Enough!” Then they fixed up a back cottage on their property and lived there while Fred continued to restore their home. He worked as a contractor, so he built other people’s homes eight, ten, twelve hours a day and then came home to work on his own. In his spare time, he did construction for non-profits and people who couldn’t afford to pay. I am writing this while sitting on the deck he built for us: he raised the money for materials, organized the work party, and put it together in two weekends. We worked alongside him but didn’t pay a dime (other than feeding the workers).

Fred could no longer keep that pace, but he still looked for ways to help. One of Naomi’s stories: the last walk around the block Fred took, the day before they hospitalized him, three days before he… Fred saw two homeless people who had taken up residence in an alley there. He knew them. He stopped to talk with them and told them to come by so he could get them warm coats. By the time they came, Fred had lost consciousness.

“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I “knew” that verse but Fred taught me what it means. He did not fear death for one moment. He knew, beyond hoping or thinking or even believing, simply knew that death meant He could finally be with God. All he wanted in his last months was to take care of his wife, be with his daughter, and tell people God wanted them. He hoped to be healed so that people could see God and have to deal with the miracle. Did he get a miracle? Was it less obvious than we hoped—Fred living another fifty years and raising a family—but a miracle nonetheless? He wanted to live so that he could do more work, because, he told me, “Once you’re dead, you’re done here.” But he wanted to die because the cancer was slowly taking away what he could do and he had endured so much pain—more than any of us comprehended, I’m now sure. His pain tolerance was ridiculous. But he didn’t want to die merely to escape the pain, but because it kept him from being who he was.

I miss him. He taught me more than anyone else has about true belief. I am a pastor and a father and I try to live my life fully in God’s presence and as part of Jesus’ Kingdom. But I do not have the faith Fred had, and walking beside him through his life, dying, and death showed me how much I say but do not yet believe.

Fred slept for hours while we stayed with him. Finally, first Naomi’s mom and then Naomi left to take a rest. I stayed with Fred’s mom and we talked more. Then Fred woke up. He groaned and mumbled and we finally understood that he needed to use the bathroom. The nurse came and he kept saying, “Just two minutes. I just need to go. Two minutes.” But his arm had an IV and his balance was no longer reliable to get to the bathroom. So she and I helped him stand and use a “urinal,” the equivalent of a bedpan. He laid back down and started swatting at his IV and said a few incoherent sentences. His mother asked the nurse to increase his morphine and the nurse did.

Fred asked for some food and managed a few bites of pudding before he started to drift off. I walked over to his bedside and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Fred.” He opened one eye. Then he saw me, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re a good man.”

I caught my breath and started crying (again). When I could speak, I leaned in close to his face and said, “You’re a great man.”

He held my eye, and he smirked, and it was a true Fred smirk, my friend really there again for a moment, as if saying, “Yeah, right.”

Then he closed his eyes.

He died at 6:30 the next morning.