Image

Fear Overcome by Faith

I admit it… I am afraid.  Next week I will submit my body to the skills of a surgeon I met one time.  I will enter into several hours of deep sedation under the care of an operating room staff of masked strangers.  They will operate from above and below.  While removing the final segment of my colon that has become irreparably diseased due to diversion colitis, they will create two large wounds to heal when the operation is complete.  It is an extensive and delicate surgery.

If experience is our best teacher, than I have learned in the last nine months that my body will puzzle the experts with its process and condition, and I have learned that the “rare complication” is not so unique when you become part of its statistic.  The portal vein blood clot, the liver infarction, the C-Diff infection, and even the diversion colitis were not the normal course for recovery from my March illness and surgeries… but they were my course.

Now my path has brought me to another unwanted surgery, a surgery that will make my ostomy permanent.  There’s no turning back now.  There is no possibility of reversing the ostomy.  The diversion colitis has determined this path.

I am reminded again of the truth that I clung to as a life-line through the early days of my recovery as each day brought waves of uncertainty and complexity: None of this takes God by surprise.

King David wrote many Psalms that expressed fears he battled; David clearly describes how faith in our all powerful God conquers those fears.  David wrote of his enemies, of the nay-sayers who slandered him and tried to pull his focus away from the Source of his strength.  Yet David knew the faithfulness of the Lord, his God, because experience had been his best teacher.

Psalm 3:1-5 Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”  But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.  I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain.  I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.

Next week, as I face another major surgery with significant risks, I would not be honest if I said I wasn’t afraid.  Fear is overcome by faith.  My experiences of these last nine months have been a remarkable teacher.  I know that I am deeply loved by God, and He gives me strength.  I deeply love the Lord, and in Him I find courage.

Next week, when I lie down to sleep, I know that I will wake again, because the Lord sustains me!

Image

Lord of all pots and pans…

Ephesians 1:12, “… so that we… might live for the praise of His glory.”

Why do we do “good works” as Christians?

This question about motivation came up in my women’s Bible study class this week as we work our way through the book of Ephesians.  Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus declaring who they are as a result of our Father’s gracious plan (chapter 1, verses 3 – 6), the Son who carried out the plan (chapter 1, verses 7-12), and the “seal” of the Father’s plan in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (chapter 1, verses 13-14).  This beautiful doxology of praise in verses 3 through 14 remind us not only of what He accomplished for us, but also of who we are because of His completed work.

It was the plan of our Heavenly Father to bless us in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).  We are not an after thought.  Before the creation of the world, He had a plan for us (Ephesians 1:4).  We are forgiven and redeemed (Ephesians 1:7), and our inheritance is secure (Ephesians 1:11) as adopted children of God (Ephesians 1:5).  All of this was according to God’s will (Ephesians 1:11) so that we might live for the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:12).

Salvation does not depend on me.  Christ’s completed work on the cross is not dependent on my decision to believe He did it or on my good works to accomplish.  Redemption and forgiveness of sins was in accordance with God’s plan and design.  It is Christ’s work that secures my place in heaven for eternity.  The good I do, therefore, is not to ensure my salvation.  The good I do, then, is “for the praise of His glory.”

The message of Brother Lawrence in the little book entitled “The Practice of the Presence of God” has been foundational in my thinking about motivation.  I first read this book as a teen, and I have read it at least once each decade since.  Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth century Christian from France who lived a simple life, working in the kitchen of a French monastery.  He is said to have been a large, clumsy man who was unlearned, yet the simplicity of his faith and the message of his life reveals that he understood deep communion with God.

Brother Lawrence wrote of his motivation: “I engaged in a religious life only for the love of God, and I have endeavored to act only for Him…”  He worked from the perspective that “set times of prayer were not different from other times; that he retired to pray according to the directions of his superior, but that he did not want such retirement, nor ask for it, because his greatest business did not divert him from God.”

Brother Lawrence did not have a fanciful life of walking around in elaborate robes, constantly studying Scripture, and continually engaging in great theological debates with rulers of church and state.  His duties were to cook and clean the kitchen.  “…in his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God, and with prayer, upon all occasions, [asking] for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy…”

His prayer became, “Lord of all pots and pans and things… Make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!”  It was with this motivation to do all things for the love of God and as an action only for Him, that Brother Lawrence was able to “turn even the most commonplace and menial task into a living hymn to the glory of God.” *

So it is true for us as well.  Justification, the forgiveness of our sins and redemption through Christ’s sacrifice (Ephesians 1:7), has been accomplished.  It is completed.  It is finished (John 19:30).  Sanctification, the process of renewal, is an on-going work of God in our lives.

I think Brother Lawrence had it right.  My Saturday morning chores of changing bedding, cleaning the floors, and tending to a week’s worth of laundry, can become a hymn of praise when I do my work for the love of God, endeavoring to  do all things only for the His glory.  Likewise, when I sing a special song in church, send a card of encouragement to a friend, or bring coffee in for my co-worker, it is for the love of God and for His glory.  Whether in my home or in my community, my “good works” are not about me.

My prayer today will be: Lord of all pots and pans and things, may I faithfully complete my tasks, motivated by my love for You.  I cannot do this unless you enable me.  I will only fail if You leave me to myself; it is You who must hinder my falling and mend what is amiss.*  May I live for the praise of Your glory.  In Jesus name I pray, Amen.  

* Quotes from “The Practice of the Presence of God with Spiritual Maxims, a Classic of Practical Christian Devotion with Brother Lawrence, pp. 18 – 20 and introduction.  Revell, Fleming H. The Practice of the Presence of God with Spiritual Maxims. Grand Rapids, MI: Spire Books, 1958.

 

Image

Say Something… Anything!

I’ve known Jean for just shy of 2 decades, yet in the last 6 months, our relationship has transformed despite the 200 miles that now separate us.  Several years ago, Jean suffered a devastating and unexpected loss, and the woman who remains on this side of widowhood is very different from the married woman I met at church all those years ago.  These days, I can describe Jean with one word: Encourager.

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.”
1 Thessalonians 5:11

Throughout the long months of my recovery, through various complications and an endless stream of medical disappointments, my friend Jean has sprinkled little words of hope, encouragement, and inspiration.

Recently I thanked her for the way she has ministered to my heart through her words, and she confessed that sometimes she doesn’t “know what to say or how it will come across.”  Yet she never fails to say something… anything… as a way of communicating, “I see you, friend; I hear you.  You are not alone.”

Jean shared with me that it is because of her own suffering that she has learned to be present with others through her words.  These are the things she “learned from grief.”

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (emphasis added)

It is an interesting reality that through suffering, people draw closer or people fade away.  I learned this lesson at the age of ten.  My mother died of breast cancer when I was in the 5th grade.  Ten-year-olds don’t know how to manage the big work of grief, and some adults don’t know how either.  My best friend, with whose heart my own seemed to share a beat, suddenly disappeared after my mother’s funeral.  Her mother didn’t know how to cope with grief and didn’t know how to teach her daughter to be a friend in the midst of grief.  In the passing of my mother, I also lost my best friend.  Days of silence turned into weeks, weeks into months.  More than 30 years have now passed but not a word between us.  I was the same little girl who loved to roller skate, giggle, swim, and have sleep overs.  I was the same but different.

Nine years ago, I suffered another devastating loss of a loved one.  In the same way as the loss of my mother all those years earlier, I experienced people drawing close and people fading away.  There were two women in my life, at that time, who called me nearly every day.  They understood life and loss enough to realize that I was the same person, but for that season, I was different, and the care they provided could impact the way I managed my grief work.  They understood that I needed intense love and support so that I could work through the complications of loss and come out the other side, the same person but changed.

This season of recovering from medical trauma and the resulting complications, has been similar.  Friends and family have drawn close or faded away.  I am the same person, but I am different.

I still need the women in my life to encourage and inspire my walk with God and my roles as wife, mother, and employee.

I still need my pastor to be my wise counsel and challenge my framework around how God’s word is alive and active in my life (Hebrews 4:12).

I need my siblings to check in and ask the tough personal questions about details that are delicate regarding my health.

I need my co-worker who asks me at least once a week, “How are you really doing today?”

I need the dear grandmotherly woman from church who regularly sends me cards in the mail with Scriptures.

This season has been another reminder to me that my words have the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21).  One of the many redemptive purposes of suffering is so that I can comfort others with the comfort I have received from Christ (2 Corinthians 1:4).

My words need not be eloquent; if I fret about what to say, I may say nothing at all.  My words need not be my own; I can share an inspirational quote or a verse from God’s word.  My words can be in a text, over the phone, or as I pass someone in the hall.  I just need to say something…. anything!

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”  Hebrews 10:24

 

Image

The wound was about him; the forgiveness was about me.

     The words we hear… It has so much less to do with the words themselves and so much more to do with the relationship between speaker and listener.
     In the early days of my surgery recovery, a man I have known my whole life remarked to me that “Ostomies are gross!”  The words stung, like some sort of parental rejection.  I stiffened at these words.  It felt as though porcupine quills had emerged at the startling threat to my acceptance of this life change.
     The ostomy was not my choice.  The surgical amputation of a third of my colon was the last resort to other less invasive failed medical interventions.  I was left a semicolon.  This is the hand I was dealt.
     Each time his words floated into my awareness, I dismissed them with logic.  I reasoned that he is an inconsiderate extrovert.  I reminded myself that the colectomy was an emergency action taken to restrain the infection assaulting my body.  I comforted myself with the truth that my illness does not define me; who I am is defined in God’s Word.
     I told myself many times that I forgave him for the thoughtless comment.
     Yesterday I learned that he was hospitalized, a portion of his foot was amputated as a last resort to other less invasive failed medical interventions.  My initial thought was one of concern and compassion.  The following thought was snide: “Perhaps I should inform him that four-toed feet are gross!”
     In that moment, I knew that I needed to forgive him.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Ephesians 4:32

     Just as in Christ, God forgave me…
How does God forgive me?

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression…? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. Micah 7:18-19

     So, I understood the course I needed to take.  Pardon of his thoughtlessness.  Forgiveness for his offense.  Mercy in the face of rudeness.  Compassion in the place of impertinence.
     He, the one who caused the wound, is completely unaware of how his words impacted my heart.  He is utterly ignorant of how is words shook my then fragile acceptance of a life-changing medical trauma.
     It was less about the words, and more about who he is in my life.  If the same words were spoken by one of my teenage sons, I would have unpacked their thoughts and feelings with them.  If the same words were spoken by a customer, I would have dismissed it entirely.  It was less about the words, and more about him.
     I forgive you.
Forgiveness: the work of God that has long brought me freedom from emotional wounds.
      I forgive you.
The wound was about him.
     Forgiveness is about me.
Forgiveness is setting my heart aright after it has taken a blow.
Forgiveness is walking the narrow road as a Christ-follower.
Forgiveness is about loosing the bonds that shackle me to the offense.
     I forgive you.
And now my heart feels only sadness that he is facing a life-changing medical trauma of his own.  I wish him courage.  I pray for his healing.  He is forgiven.
Image

Redemption through this Suffering

Mid-July.  My symptoms were increasingly bothersome.  We wondered if the C-Diff infection had returned or if there was yet another complication to address.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:16-18

It had been two weeks since learning the news about the liver infarct (the portion of my liver that died due to a blood clot).  The reality of this long-term issue and its long-term needs was settling in.  Indeed, my physical body is diseased; improvement will happen with time, but full recovery is impossible.  As my husband says, “None of us get out of here alive.”  We are not made for this place.  James 4:14 reminds me that I am just “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Instead of focusing on the temporal, the deterioration of my body is a continual reminder to focus on what is eternal.

In mid-July, I returned to the hospital for another lab work-up; the results brought both comfort and concern.  The C-Diff infection was gone.  We were tremendously grateful and breathed a sigh of relief!  Yet the exclusion of C-Diff confirmed the new symptom culprit: diversion colitis.

Diversion colitis is a complication of having an ostomy. It causes purulent inflammation in the remnant colon.  It usually begins within a year of the colectomy surgery.  Some individuals are asymptomatic.  For those who experience symptoms, they can range from mild to severe.  The underlying cause and symptoms of diversion colitis can be treated with medication, but surgery is the only method of correcting diversion colitis.

The diagnosis needed to be confirmed by scope and biopsies.  As is true with all gastrointestinal diagnoses, the doctor needs to see the damage and disease to determine the diagnosis.  My procedure was scheduled, and I counted the days until relief could begin.

By the day of my procedure, my symptoms had grown increasingly distressing.  The pain was debilitating.  Though even on my hardest days I refuse to spend the day in bed, I spent most of the day prior to my procedure confined to my room.  Prescription pain relief took the edge off and provided enough calm to end my tears.  The count down of days became a count down of hours.

Biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.

After a week of trying to find a pharmacy who carried the medication and obtain authorization from the insurance company to cover the prescription, we decided to try a different medicine.  I am thankful that my Crohn’s disease is treated by the eight pills I swallow each day.  The diversion colitis treatment, however, is not so simple.  Each administration requires about thirty minutes.  Like ostomy care and injections for the blood clot, I had to learn a new process, gather appropriate supplies, and learn to quiet my heart in the midst of new challenges.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. Romans 8:18-25

What started March 3rd as an Urgent Care visit for abdominal pain had resulted in a cascade of issues.

  • 13 days in the hospital, requiring 2 abdominal surgeries
  • Re-learning life as a semicolon
  • Left hip nerve damage and left leg instability
  • A stay in rehab to learn how to walk with a weakened left side and receive support with wound care
  • Portal vein blood clot
  • C-Diff infection
  • Liver infarct
  • Diversion colitis

Being subject to frustration, shackled by the bondage of decay, I wait eagerly for the redemption of my body.  Complete healing in heaven is my hope, and for this, I wait patiently.

Yet in the mean time, I cling to the promise that I am “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance” for me to do (Ephesians 2:10).  Therefore, I live one day at a time, believing that He is transforming the suffering of my body into good for His glory.  As Paul wrote, “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…”  Earlier in Romans, Paul writes that, “…we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (chapter 5:3-4).”

I do not know what will come next.  Perhaps there will be more complications.  As it is, I have six medical appointments ahead of me, with more to come.  Yet this I do know: God is using this suffering to knock off rough edges in me, to soften the places where I have grown hardened and to refocus spiritual disciplines that have grown lax.  There is redemption through this suffering.  God is using this suffering to work in the hearts and minds of those who journey with me and in others who read these reflective and deeply personal writings.

To God be the glory!  Great things He has done.

Image

His Gentle Whisper

1 Kings 19: in the immediate wake of a great victory, Elijah was so overcome by fear and exhaustion at the threat to his life that he cried out to God, “I have had enough, Lord… take my life!” (vs 4)  He was ready to be done.

In early July, four months after my  ostomy surgery, I was learning the devastating news about complications we could not have predicted even in a worst-case-scenario discussion.  My best friend uttered the very words of my heart after hearing the diagnosis, “How much more, Lord?”

As days turned into weeks, God was using the wisdom of the doctors and the cocktail of medications to win the battle my body fought against the C-Diff infection.  Severely weakened by the infection and its treatment, each day was a struggle.  As the bacteria was being eradicated from my body, some symptoms resolved and others remained.  The symptoms that lingered became a clear indication of what was happening to my body; it was indeed my liver that was suffering.

My gastroenterologist ordered another CT scan. It was my fourth scan in four months.  The risk of exposure to the radiation was less than the need for imaging of my abdominal organs and the blood supply to each area.

Following the scan, there was a long delay before the doctor came to discuss the results.  She was not supposed to be in the clinic that day; she was seeing me on her lunch break.  My husband and I assumed she had been detained by a morning procedure.

She entered the exam room dressed in scrubs and apologized for both the delay and her appearance.  Neither one were a concern for us; we were simply grateful that she made time to meet us that day.  She explained that her delay was due to the findings on the CT scan and the resulting conversations with my surgeon.  It was not someone else’s bad news that kept her; it was my own.

Over the next hour, she discussed the situation involving my liver, my continued symptoms, and concerns related to me working outside of the home.  In her ever gentle manner, she guided us to understanding what was found and how we needed to move forward.

Another complication.

“How much more, Lord?” 

The CT scan in April discovered the portal vein blood clot, and showed that it was restricting blood flow to the left side of my liver.  The July CT scan discovered that the right side of my liver suffered an infarct; it showed a wedge-shaped piece of the liver had lost complete blood supply and become necrotic.  The belief was that a portion of the blood clot broke off and lodged in the right side of the liver, causing the infarction.

A hepatologist (liver doctor) and a hemotologist (blood doctor) were added to my care team.  The vitamin and mineral supplements I had been taking for years were no longer allowed, to prevent strain on my liver.  Decisions about medications, consumption of foods and beverages, and my activity level will be filtered through their impact to my liver.

1 Kings 19:9-13, “There he (Elijah) went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

“He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’

“The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’

“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”

Throughout these last several months, I’ve learned to listen for the gentle whisper.  If I could borrow this imagery from Scripture, I might compare the ostomy surgery to a great and powerful wind that tore my body apart and shattered life as I knew it.  I might compare the portal vein blood clot to an earthquake and the C-Diff infection to a fire.

Similarly, I can assert that through all of it, the Lord was my protection; He held me safe in the cave of His loving care.  He has kept my heart encouraged and my spirit lifted through His gentle whispers.

On one particularly discouraging day, a former colleague opened instant messaging with me.  Her starting comment spoke to the very need of my heart.  We chatted about my struggle.  She reminded me of the promise from Ephesians 2:10 about the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do, identifying that He wasn’t done with me yet!  God whispered hope through her.

In a quiet moment on a solitary day, as I laid wrapped in a hand-made quilt, I re-read the handwritten label stitched on the underside.  The sweet quilt maker from my church family had written my name and her name and the date of her gift.  Then she wrote, “A quilt is something you make to keep someone you love warm.”  God whispered love through her.

On a day filled with disappointments, I poured out my heart to my sister.  She listened.  She validated the pain and the losses.  Then she shifted my focus to the words of 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”  God whispered courage through her.

Every day, through the hugs of my boys and through the endless compassion of my husband, God continues to whisper.  Through His Word, through the hymn writers of ages gone by, through my pastor’s homilies, God continues to whisper.

In my fear or exhaustion, I may question, “How much more, Lord?”  At the end of one battle, I may not feel capable to face the next threat on my life.  Yet through all that has transpired through these last several grueling months, I have felt God sheltering me, and I continue to hear His gentle whisper.  He whispers hope.  He whispers love.  He whispers courage.

Image

The Vicious Bacteria

I could hear the nurse talking; I tried to focus my mind on her words.  My heart was breaking.  The domino effect of medical issues I had faced since March was unbelievable, and I began to wonder when I would actually be on the road to recovery, rather than just the path to the next serious complication.  This was incredulous!  

It was June.  I had been home from the rehab center for 12 weeks.  I had learned how to manage ostomy changes.  The treatment for the blood clot was underway.  I thought I was on a clear path, the detours completed.  I was wrong.

I had been diagnosed with a UTI ten days earlier and given a course of antibiotics to treat it; I thought it was just a little bump in the road.  A few days into the treatment, I began experiencing some symptoms that could be associated with liver decline.  I sent my doctor a message, and she squeezed me into her schedule.

In addition to checking liver function, she wanted to rule out an infection that can happen to patients who have recently been hospitalized, stayed in long-term care facilities, had an autoimmune disorder, or had recently been on antibiotics.  I scored four out of four on that check list!

The test came back positive.  I had the vicious C-Diff infection.

C-Diff is a bacteria that attacks the small and large intestines, destroying all of the good bacteria in the gut until only the C-Diff bacteria remains.  It causes extensive inflammation throughout the intestines, and symptoms are similar to what one experiences with the flu.

 

As we sat around the dinner table with our boys the night after learning about the infection, my husband soldiered on bravely.  He had tried to keep family routines consistent throughout the long weeks of my illness and recovery.  Just like every other night, he picked up the study Bible to read the next chapter.  He began reading where he had left off the night before, Romans 5:

“…we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

By the time my husband finished our reading and lead us in the Lord’s prayer, we were both crying.  He squeezed my hand as his tear-filled eyes met mine.  We clung to the promise that there is meaning to be found in what we were enduring.  There is a redemptive purpose in our suffering.  We were discovering this truth anew.

As the days passed, I continued to decline despite the treatment I was receiving.   I had daily calls with Mayo Clinic; I learned that if I did not call to check in by mid-morning, a nurse would call me.  There were days we talked three and four times.  My illness progressed despite all the best efforts. The doctors doubled my dose of medication. Then I developed a rare complication to the infection.  The doctors added a new medication to the cocktail and gave me 24 hours to see improvement, before the decision to hospitalize me.

The days were dark, but my hope remained in the peace that this life is not the end.  The illness only made the longing in my heart that much more earnest for my eternal home.

My only option was to persevere.  I trusted that whatever the outcome, it would be for my best and for His glory.

My daily prayer became, “Lord, empty me of me so that I can be filled with You.  You are my hope.”