Image

Losing Hope

“I loathe my life. I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.  Your hands fashioned and made me; and now you turn and destroy me.  Remember that you fashioned me like clay; and will you turn me to dust again?  You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews.  You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit.  I am filled with disgrace.”  Job 10:1, 9, 11, 12, 15

I had gotten to that point.  I felt suspended somewhere between what I was FEELING about my body and chronic disease state… and what I KNOW about who God is and how He administers our existence.  I felt distraught.  I was distressed and utterly discouraged in the unending barrage of medical complications and manifestations of disease.  The thick rope that anchored me steadily with knowledge of God’s goodness and care seemed to be thinning as the weeks passed into months without reprieve.  There was no end in sight.  Every corner I turned presented another serious complication.  I was losing hope.

Disgrace was the theme that wove through multiple domains of my life.  My body had been segmented into parts, routinely examined and explored, studied and surveyed.  Though the medical professionals treated me with utmost dignity, there was no dignity in what needed to be discussed and dissected.  Invasive examinations had become routine.  Disgrace describes as well what had become of my vocation.  At one time, working in a profession that I loved, using my graduate degree to its fullest potential, my career had finally reached the point I had dreamed of fifteen years earlier when starting out at a small junior college.  I had served in leadership roles, administered programs, managed teams of staff.  Due to the compromises of my health, I stepped away from my chosen vocation and settled into a position of part-time secretary, for which I was desperately not qualified.  I felt grateful for the job but disgraced by what had become of my life’s work.  My timeline for post-op healing was written on a “Return to Work” form; yet the reality was that I struggled with the idea of returning to a work that was a symbol of my failure and frailty, a daily reminder of my loss and limitations.

In moments of contemplative truth, I reached out to my closest loved ones to confide my feelings that seemed to close on top of me like a cave-in.  Besides compassion and a commitment to pray for me, there was little that could be done.  They heard my hopelessness, but with no end was in sight, there was no hope to offer. The circumstances were terrible; no words of insight or wisdom could take the terribleness away.

For family devotions, my husband decided to read “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom.  When he chose this book, he had no idea the depths of discouragement and pain that I would be enduring as he daily read page after page of this incredible true life story.

Corrie and her sister Betsie were Dutch underground resistance workers rescuing Jews during Germany’s occupation of Holland in World War II.  The sisters had been arrested and sent to prison camp; their arrival at Ravensbruck in Germany was their third place of imprisonment, far worse than the previous locations had been.  Upon arrival at their overcrowded, flea infested sleeping quarters, Corrie was feeling distraught by the situation.  There was no end to their suffering in sight.  The circumstances were terrible.  Corrie was distressed and uncertain of what to do.  Betsie reminded her that the answer had been given to them that morning through their Bible reading:

1 Thessalonians 5:15-18, “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Betsie insisted that they immediately turn to the Lord in prayer and give Him thanks.  Corrie’s resistance to this idea was almost humorously described in her account.  With Betsie’s prodding, she and Corrie took turns naming things they were grateful for in the midst of their terrible and hopeless circumstances.  After identifying thanks that their smuggled Bible had safely passed through inspection and thanks for the overcrowding of women who would be able to hear the word of God read each day, Betsie gave thanks for the fleas!  Corrie’s reaction was the same as mine would have been.  FLEAS?!?!  How can we thank God for fleas???  But Betsie’s faith spoke with resolve, reminding Corrie that God’s Word tells us to give thanks in ALL circumstances.

That night, as I laid still, too afraid of the pain to move, I listened to the words of Betsie.  My body had become my prison; pain and disease were its evil captors.  Beside me lay my Bible.  Betsie was right; all the answers I needed to all the questions and longings of my heart would be found in those pages.

I started in the Psalms.  David’s passionate cries and emotional outbursts expressed with words the groaning of my own heart and mind.  I continued in the book of Job.  Without explanation, his livelihood, his family, and his health were all stripped away.  The contempt and despair of life became words with which I could identify.  I kept reading.  Day after day.  Day after day.  I kept flooding my mind with these words.  And this is when hope finally returned.

Hope came because I know the end of the story.  After being tormented by the reigning king, David became king.  After losing all he had and despairing of life itself, Job was blessed far more than he had previously known.  After weeks of suffering from flea bites, Corrie and Betsie realized that it was the fleas who kept the guards out of the sleeping quarters, thus enabling the Word of God to be freely shared every day in their overcrowded barracks.  God’s Word became light in that dark prison camp.   God’s Word became hope in the midst of their terrible circumstances.

I don’t know if the terribleness of my circumstances will resolve here on earth, but I do know that the end of my story here is a place of no more pain, no disease, no suffering.  I do know that the end of my story here means eternity with Jesus in heaven.  I don’t know how long the journey will be between now and then, but I will say with Job,

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?  The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 2:10, 1:21

 

 

 

Image

Humbly Grateful

My magical recovery date was April 24th.  The surgeon signed the note; I was allowed to return to work without restrictions the last Monday of April.  This was to be the unfettered day when I would be well again.  April 24th.  I had it written in black and white.

I had progressed from wheelchair to walker, from walker to cane, from cane to hands-free.  I was ready to return to work and re-establish routine in my life.  I was ready to be productive, to create, to invest myself.  I was looking forward to being well.

Oh, how my heart clung to this whisper of hope!  April 24th.  Alas, this was just a date, and when it arrived, I wasn’t miraculously well.  Oh, how disappointment struck when I realized the unreality of my expectations.

Four days after returning to work, I was back in the emergency room.

During that eight hour occupation of the exam room, I had a series of tests, a myriad of labs done during three different collections, two separate ultrasounds, and another CT scan.  As I sat in the room between visiting medical professionals, I kept a running monologue with the Lord.  I honestly had no idea why I was there, but I knew it was exactly where I needed to be.

The night before I had mentioned to my husband that I wasn’t sure what was around the corner, but I knew whatever it was, the Lord would shepherd me through it. I explained to him that twice that day, through two different means, in two very distinct ways, I had encountered Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely Your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

The first time I heard Psalm 23 that day, as I listened to our local Christian radio station, I remember feeling deeply touched by the words.  I was moved to tears.    There was a sense within me that I really needed to hear it; I listened intently.

Later that day, as I plodded through a book about how God uses disappointments in our life, I read the author’s interpretation of these verses.  I remember thinking that I needed to grab hold of the meaning of this passage; I had a sense that Psalm 23 was to remain in my awareness. The next day I understood why.

The ER doctor treating me that night returned to the exam room in a solemn manner.  She explained that I had a blood clot that was cutting off the blood supply to the left side of my liver. This was an unintended but not surprising complication of my March illness, surgeries, and extended bed rest.  To every piece of information she shared, I calmly responded, “Okay…”

She tried to impress on me the reality that this was serious.  “Okay…”

She tried to emphasize that this would be a long, involved process of healing.  “Okay…”

She tried to explain that this could result in further complications with my liver or other vital organs.  “Okay…”

Her words of diagnosis and prognosis were received by my quieted heart.  The Lord had already prepared me for that moment.  In His kindness and goodness to me, He reached into my day, before I was aware of what was to come, to remind me that He was already there.

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?”  Psalm 8:4

The God of the universe, who orchestrates all of life everywhere, is still mindful of me.  What a humbling thought!  He reached into the midst of my need and gave me peace.  He had been with me through all of the medical crisis and grueling recovery to that point; I had no doubt He would shepherd me through this too.

Then the doctor explained the treatment.

I could feel the peace of my heart slowly fade as fear, then terror, gripped me.  The doctor explained that I would need to inject myself in the abdomen twice each day until the oral medication was at a therapeutic level.

The issue was that I don’t do needles. I can’t watch phlebotomists draw blood. I can’t look at IV’s going into my arm or hand. I should be desensitized to it at this point in my life, but I’m not. I don’t do needles.

I told the doctor that I could not do it. When she told me the alternative was hospitalization, I asked her how long. She wouldn’t answer me; she was not going to let me wimp out. She told me that I could learn to give myself the injections. I wasn’t so sure.  She excused herself from the room and informed me that the nurse would be in shortly to teach me how to administer the shots.

As I sat alone in the exam room, I told the Lord between tears that though I had been able to adjust to all that a perforated colon had thrown at me… I grieved the colostomy… I learned how to change my ostomy appliance…  I had adjusted countless details of my life that I never expected to be impacted by it… I did not think I could do the treatment for the blood clot.  “This crosses the line!” I cried out to God.

“Yet give attention to Your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that Your servant is praying in Your presence this day.”  1 Kings 8:28

In that moment of fear and frustration, a gentle peace swept over my heart.

“I, even I, am He who comforts you.”  Isaiah 51:12

God identifies Himself as our comforter. He answered me with peace and reassurance from His word. The verse that flooded into my awareness was one that I often repeated when lap swimming as I pushed my body to swim faster or longer:

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13

I needed my body to do the unthinkable, and I knew that it was outside of the realm of own ability to complete this task.  My fear was paralyzing, but my faith in an all powerful God who loves me with an inexhaustible passion was greater still.  My fear said this treatment was unbearable, but my faith said that He would shepherd me through this.

The nurse entered the room.  With “I can do all things…” repeating in my mind and tears still welling in my eyes, I told the nurse I was ready to learn how to take the shots.

My nurse was a gift of compassion and kindness.  She patiently walked me through the process.  She comforted me as I cried.  She never rushed me; she stood beside me offering me grace and encouragement.  I cried so hard at some points that I couldn’t see the syringe I was holding in my hand. Several times, when I had convinced myself to push the needle into my abdomen, I froze.  I could not move.  I practiced deep breathing.  I kept repeating my mantra.  After uncountable minutes of tears and suspended movement, I did it!  I sunk the needle and depressed the syringe.  Every bit of the solution entering my abdomen burned; I continued to plunge it in.  The needle withdrawal was a rapid movement of victory!

 Inserting the needle and injecting the burning solution continued twice a day for fifteen days, as I stayed focused on the One who shepherds me and repeated the promise that I can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens me.  With only half of my abdomen available for injections, I had a limited area to work with.  I developed extensive bruising and large, rock hard hematomas.

As the medication thinned my blood, the skin breakdown around my stoma became significant.  One particularly rough day, as blood pooled in my ostomy bag, I required an impromptu visit at the wound-ostomy clinic with a check-in from the concerned surgeon.  Throughout this time, I had to learn new techniques and try different appliance set ups as we worked to minimize the exposure from my oddly shaped, oddly placed, retracted little stoma.

None of this was easy.  I got discouraged.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

I began to focus my thoughts on all that the Lord had provided up to that point.  My heart became overwhelmed with gratitude.  I tried to welcome the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (Give thanks in all circumstances) and James 1:2 (Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds). I tried to welcome these words, rather than allow them to guilt me to be in an emotional place I had not yet arrived.  As I re-focused my thoughts away from the difficulties around me and onto the many graces provided to me, my heart became overwhelmed with gratitude!

The reality is that my circumstances did not change.  I was still in the recovery phase after surgery.  My energy was still low.  I daily dealt with pain.  I still required injections twice a day and lab draws twice a week.

“From the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.”  Psalm 61:2

Sometimes my heart gets overwhelmed… but God.
God is good.
God provides.
God comforts.
God sends comforters to me.
God is with me.
God is shepherding me through this.

I am humbly grateful.

 

Image

He is the One who writes my story…

By mid-April, I was six weeks post-op.  I wrote a “final update” to my friends and family. Though my long days of convalescing from surgery were coming to an end, the reality is that this was only the beginning of the story.  This was just one tumultuous chapter.

During my early recovery days, a rather thoughtless extrovert informed me that “ostomies are GROSS!”  As an inner-world processor who never has a clever come-back, I was surprised by my response for him: “Having an ostomy is better than being dead!”

Recovery from the surgery was a physically and emotionally painful process, but I survived.  I lived to experience more days; I can receive each day as a gift. I am reminded of a quote posted by the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation,

“I know this transformation is painful, but you’re not falling apart; you’re just falling into something different, with a new capacity to be beautiful.”

~William C. Hennan

There was no “resuming normal life” following convalescing.  There was a new normal, a different normal to be learned and experienced and embraced.  I wrote of that time:

“Waves of grief over what I lost mingle with gratitude that I am alive. Throughout the last week I’ve had three different conversations with loved ones when they shared that during the first week of my hospital stay, they feared that I would not survive. The reality of what I endured is sinking in, what my body suffered and fought through. I know others have not survived this, but I did. I have a calming peace that reminds me that I am okay, but I also feel immense sorrow that I will never be the same. I cling to the Word of God that reminds me that every day of my life was written before one of them came to be (Ps 139:16); none of this took Him by surprise. Yet there is a part of me that wants to push back and scream, ‘THIS WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE PART OF MY STORY!!!’ I shake my head in disbelief and wonder. I put my hand on my abdomen; the crinkle of the plastic pouch and rigid feel of the appliance awakens my senses and affirms that this is real. This is real. This is real, and I’m okay. It doesn’t always feel real, and I don’t always feel okay. I must remind myself that it is so. If the goal of grief work is acceptance and adjustment, then I must continue to embrace the grief. This is not a life change that I would have chosen, but this is part of my story. And I’m okay.”

 This is part of my story.  I wouldn’t have written a chapter this way; if under compulsion to write such an ordeal, I would have wrapped it up quickly and moved on.  However, I am not the author of my story.  My loving heavenly Father is the author of my life.

In His mercy and love for me, He is using this pain to shape me.  This is not a theological statement about whether God causes or merely allows tragedy in our life; this is a reminder of the promise found in Romans 8:28.  He will work all things together for my good.

He is using my frailty to renew me.  My continual prayer is that He empty me of myself so that I can be filled with Him.  If illness is His means, then I need not resist. He is using my brokenness and suffering to shine His light into my own darkness.  It is my prayer that the words I compile here will bring honor to Christ, and that He will use these words of vulnerability to shine His light into the lives of others as well.

This is only the beginning, and there are more chapters to be written: one about my liver and one about a vicious bacteria.  I am not well.  I do not know when I will be well again, but this is part of my story.  And I’m okay.