Thoughts from the pit

I had such a strong vision of how our family was going to be. Thirteen years ago when I said, “I do”, I thought we would have a tribe of happy children, gathered peacefully around the table. With Christmas coming, my vision turns to games played around the fire, stories shared with food, children listening as we whisper the reason for the lights and presents, the joy that we have a Saviour.

I know now that this was an ideal, even in ordinary families. The peace is disrupted by sin, selfishness, illness, and tiredness. Those moments of peace and joy, when they come, are precious.

I think the past ten years have been God slowly prying my fingers loose from my vision. I cling on tightly, because this is what we have been taught to want. Peace, happiness, gently glowing fairy lights and thankful faces.

I think God has a different vision. And now that we have accepted that our oldest son actually has some pretty deep issues, I’ve been working through a process of mourning my vision, and learning to accept and live in what God, in his wisdom, has given instead.

God’s vision is one of self-sacrifice, where we learn to make space for other peoples’ difficulties and differences. It hurts. It means that maybe our family worship times have to be short, snappy, fun, rather than slow, deep and thoughtful. But you know what, that’s where my husband excels. So maybe God’s vision is also one where I learn to let go of control a bit more.

God’s vision is one of forgiveness, where we walk the hard road of saying, “You hurt me, but I’ll accept the pain of that rather than break our relationship”. We are walking with him in this, following the footsteps of Jesus.

God’s vision is one of love, where we show kindness when we are reviled, patience when faced with ingratitude, and persistent generosity when our efforts go unrecognised. We could not learn these things so well if life was always easy, if our children were always obedient and thankful.

If I have learned one thing in this life it is that the harder road is always the better one, though it may hurt. The best things of God are those won through pain, through trial. Just as the best views are found at the top of a rugged mountain path, the greatest love is found through sacrifice.

God knew this. It’s why he allowed sin into the world. It’s why he sent his Son to live here, instead of remaining in perfect peace and joy in heaven. It’s why he allowed us to crucify his deeply loved Son, so that the whole Trinity could enter our brokenness and love to the fullest measure.

God seeks to draw us up into his higher life, his life of sacrificial love, his life of forgiveness and mercy. Will I still fight him? Or will I embrace the opportunities he has given me to experience deeper love, deeper forgiveness, deeper grace?

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Public Isolation

I’d forgotten how isolating suffering can be.

It feels like the worst thing, to be walking about with an invisible weight resting on your chest, so heavy you can hardly breathe, and no one notices.

To feel as if you are screaming and sobbing inside, and no one can hear you.

To feel as if the weight of life is just so heavy that you can hardly take another step, and no one wants to help you.

And smiling hurts. It hurts because it feels so fake, so false, to be pretending you are fine, when you feel as though your life is crumbling in your hands.

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So you try. You pick one or two people and stammer out that things have been really difficult for a long time, and now it feels as if no area of your life is really functioning and you don’t know what to do. But because you’re nervous and don’t want to be a burden you laugh and try to make it seem less of a problem than it is, so the real issue isn’t fully expressed.

And because people are busy and overwhelmed themselves they don’t usually take the time to really delve deeper and ask what the problems are, and to imagine what it must feel like. I’ve been there myself, had a conversation with someone, walked away, and only later has it struck me just how difficult their life must be because of some seemingly small thing they shared.

Or sometimes, because people are busy and overwhelmed themselves, a look of cornered panic crosses their face unawares, and you realise that they don’t want another problem to be burdened with, another need to meet, another struggler to carry, they are just keeping their own head above water and that’s enough.

So you feel like no one really understands.

And sometimes, what really, really hurts, is that you get more kindness from someone who doesn’t even know Jesus than those who do, and are supposed to know better.

I’m going to come back and explain why things have been so hard, and why I have’t touched this blog for months now. Right now that task is a bit beyond me … there are so many issues I don’t even know where to begin.

As always I’m looking for something to take away from this experience, even this depression and hurt.

I think sometimes God pulls us aside and takes away every person we are depending on. This feels like unkindness, but it’s not. Because he wants to be everything to us, knowing that only then we will find peace and strength. People will always let us down. They were never designed to carry the full weight of our need, let alone in this broken world where sin so readily destroys. Only God can fill the eternity gaping in our souls, and he longs to do it. So he makes us feel that need by pulling away every false prop.

So if you are feeling alone too, lean into him. Cry the messy kind of sobbing and tell him that you need him. Let him bind up your wounds. You know, sometimes that hurts too. Oil on raw skin stings. But later it soothes and heals.

And then be the person you long to meet in your darkest hour, the one who pulls up a chair and listens, who isn’t afraid to ask the probing questions, the ones that draw out the pain. Yes, even when you are hurting yourself. Offer kindness instead of politeness, love instead of reserve. Sometimes God sends us pain so we learn how to help the many others in this world who are crying out for love, and truly have no one to turn to.

 

What I mean when I say, “I’m tired”

Today I took my two younger children out to a farm park. When I got back I spent an hour painting furniture. Then I cooked our dinner.

Just an ordinary day in the life of a mum, right?

Yup. Except that by dinner-time my arms and legs were trembling with tiredness, and it was all I could do to eat. By the time I’d put my daughter to bed, I was so tired even breathing felt like an effort.

Because although, in one sense, I am an ordinary mum, in another, profound sense I am not. I am a mum with a chronic health condition.

My Crohn’s disease is in remission. I am so thankful for that. But while that means I am very happily living without daily diarrhoea and sickness, it doesn’t mean I get to live without some of the other symptoms … tiredness and bowel pain being two of them.

It’s the tiredness I want to focus on, because it is the one symptom that is so hard to explain. When people say, “I’m tired,” it can mean so many different things. Having a newborn baby introduces a whole new level of meaning to the phrase! Having two toddlers at home is yet another dimension! I’ve experienced the desperation and horror of both 🙂

But living with a chronic condition … this is a tiredness so profound that it can feel hard to breathe.

For me, right now, the worst thing about it is the lack of understanding from other people. My husband is wonderful, believes me when I say that I am too tired to pick up the toys on the living room floor, too tired to read, too tired to clean.

Not everyone is so kind.

I know what ordinary tiredness feels like, and how, most of the time, it can be pushed through. Or how, if you just sit down for ten minutes, it passes. But this is not like that. It feels as though the bones in my arms and legs have turned to lead. Moving them is hard work. It feels as though my rib-cage is weighted, as though when I breathe in I am having to lift bricks resting on my chest.

It gets me down. Very down. Because I don’t like my house being a mess. I don’t like not cleaning the kitchen sink for two weeks because by the time I’ve done the basic essentials like emptying the dishwasher and cooking dinner, I’m out of energy. I don’t like telling my kids I’m too tired to play with them. I don’t like choosing a freezer-to-oven meal yet again because the healthy, home-cooked option is too hard. I don’t like saying to friends that going out in the evening is too much at the moment.

It makes me sad and angry that just taking my kids out for a couple of hours leaves me wiped out. I hate what this condition has stolen from me.

I get upset that my weight has crept up and up over the past two years because when I’m down I eat, and I have no spare energy for proper exercise. I joined a weight-loss programme last year, but decided that the stress and extra work of preparing meals from scratch was making me tired and irritable, and though I loved the impact on my body, I decided that, right now, being there for my kids is more important than how I feel about my body (and fitting in with a cultural stereotype of what is beautiful).

This is not meant to be a complaint. I’m writing this so that, if you too are living with a chronic condition, you have something to show those who do not understand you. Sometimes it helps to read something by a third party.

So if a loved one or friend of yours has just shared this with you, read more into their ‘I’m tired’ than how you feel after a long day’s work. Instead, remember the last time you were properly ill, and the first few days of recovery (when you’re well enough to be out of bed, but doing ordinary things leaves you wanting to crawl back into bed). That’s the level I (and your loved one) live at most days. We can manage ordinary things, so it looks like we’re ok. I can hoover my house, clean my bathroom … but then I have to stop and rest, or I’d have nothing left for my kids when they come home.

I’m constantly having to choose, to make sacrifices, to conserve my small allowance of energy, making it stretch. I make choices most people don’t have to weigh up: Do I sort out the pile of laundry or take my toddler to the park today? Do I go to the supermarket or arrange to meet another mum and toddler? I want to do both, but I know it will be too much.

Sometimes I choose something knowing I will suffer for it (like today), because I’m sick of this tiredness ruling my life. But I can only do that so often.

And what makes it 100 times worse is when people don’t understand, don’t even try to understand. It leaves me drained and upset when people judge me as a failure, assume I’m lazy, weak, ill-disciplined … and I have no opportunity to correct them. When people ask how you are, you can hardly launch into a long explanation of how you feel, so “I’m quite tired at the moment”, has to suffice. It barely scratches the surface.p1000669

But it humbles me, which is a good thing, and I am learning to rest in the fact that God knows I am doing everything in my power to please him. I am learning to be happy that he understands, he knows. But every now and then, someone else’s complete lack of understand really, really hurts.

So if you know someone with a chronic condition, be kind. Remember times you have felt like even ordinary life was too much, and how frustrating it was for you, just for two or three days. Let the person have a little moan every now and then, maybe even cry on your shoulder. Leave out the judgement on their house, appearance and life choices. Perhaps they hate having crumbs on the floor as much as you do, but don’t have the choice of whether to leave them another day or not. Have a bit of compassion for them. Because now you know what they mean when they say, “I’m tired”.

I came across that viral picture of Drake, today, the little boy battling cancer in the USA.

My heart skipped a beat.

I wanted to leave the image, return to my cosy comfort-zone. I made myself look back. I made myself honour his bravery and his suffering by reading his story.

Such images, such stories, break through comfortable Christianity. They force me to confront the reality of the world. Such stories rescue us from easy answers to the big questions, the questions that have stumped philosophers through the ages. There can be no neat answer to such an appalling tragedy.

If I’m honest, such an image makes my faith skip a beat.

My belief system is thrown into context. What does a poor carpenter from a forgotten corner of the world have to do with Drake? With the suffering in Yemen? With anyone broken and sad and in pain and having lost everything?

It seems unbelievable suddenly. Does God really care? Is there even a God, if such things are allowed to be?

I think through the alternatives: there is no God. Then there is no question. Suffering is not a problem, it just is. Cancer has no higher meaning. It is just part of this cycle of living and dying that will continue ad infinitum. If you are lucky enough to have avoided bad genes or contagion then enjoy yourself and spare a thought for those whose lives are soaked in suffering. This is all they have.

Other religions … with other gods sometimes suffering is repayment. I must have done something terrible to deserve this. I must redeem myself by doing better. What a terrible burden to bear.

With God … I am not sure God provides an answer to suffering. I suspect because no answer would satisfy. Who is going to listen and then go, “Oh sure, ok; I understand. That’s why my little boy can’t eat and is having to take poison daily. I see now, it’s ok.”

Everything in us resists suffering. We know, deep inside, that this is not meant to be.

I prayed for Drake. I prayed for his mother. I didn’t know what to pray – I have never had to watch my sons suffer so much. It’s unimaginable. I suddenly realised that God knows. He watched his son, his only son, be beaten and bruised. He watched him cry out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

 

So as I prayed for Drake’s mother I realised, God can comfort her. He knows. He knows what she is going through, to watch helpless while her son suffers. And Jesus knows what Drake is going through. He knows what it feels to be in pain, to want it to stop, to think you cannot go on, but to keep on breathing anyway.

His arms are open wide, so that if Drake’s medication fails he can step into those welcoming arms and be free from pain and suffering. His arms are wide open, so that if Drake’s medication works, that little boy can run to him for comfort and help on the days when it’s unbearable, and know that one day he can be strong and live for the one who did die.

This is something offered by no other religion, a God, transcendent and holy, yet who knows pain. Who has walked my road, and walks it with me. Who has drunk the cup of suffering to its dregs.

This doesn’t answer the philosophical question, I know that. But it offers something I find nowhere else. Suffering alone is probably the worst thing imaginable. Jesus suffered alone, so that he could stand by me when I suffer.