Splinter

For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
(Acts 9:16)

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
(2 Corinthians 12:7)

During my struggle with migraine, I have been blessed by the prayers of many fellow sojourners for healing. Some of them, very well-meaning and wonderful people, have told me emphatically that it is not God’s will that we suffer with such maladies, but that He would have us be free from them in order that our ministry might be effective.

Respectfully and without a trace of acrimony, I very heartily disagree.

You see, more than once when I have prayed to see the end of migraine, God has brought 2 Corinthians 12 to mind, particularly verses 7-10. In this passage, as in the book of Job, God has repeatedly reminded me that sometimes His work in the midst of affliction is what brings Him glory.

And in truth, He does not need me to be particularly efficient or even functional to accomplish His work. To the contrary, my weakness and inability provide a background that prominently displays His glory.

While I have to admit that I would love to be entirely free of migraine and all its myriad accoutrements, I also know that the ability to praise God despite them honors Him for who He is and not merely for what He does.

Do I believe that God is able to remove pain from my life? Yes, absolutely; I have no doubt that He can.

However, I also know that He knows what He is doing, and what He is doing often necessitates putting me in situations that I would avoid if given the chance. In the same way, if someone told me that eating a certain fruit every day would give me the body of a 25-year-old Olympic gymnast, well… Suffice to say that I would buy them by the truckload.

But I tend to learn best from hands-on experience.

Though I may understand the principal of a thing – how it works or how it is done – I never fully grasp it until I have experienced it myself. Just so, experiencing pain helps me to better understand how intensely my Lord suffered for me. Having a weakness of my own gives me a more complete understanding of how little God actually needs me to accomplish His will.

Perhaps this is why Paul wrote that his “thorn” was to keep him from becoming conceited. Personally, I am embarrassingly susceptible to swollen pride if I were allowed any credit for what God has done through me. As it is, I can only marvel because I am keenly aware of what is done by Him despite my weakness.

Pain, though unpleasant, is an excellent tutor.

In the original Greek, the word translated as “thorn” in the ESV is only used this once in the text of the New Covenant. According to Thayer’s Greek Definitions, it could be translated as “a sharp stake or splinter.”

The idea of a splinter resonates well with my experience of chronic migraine; specifically, the maddening type of invisible splinter inflicted by a thistle or nettle. You can’t see it, but you certainly know it’s there. (Perhaps this is on my mind because of a recent gloveless and rather silly attempt to rid my garden of an infestation of these wicked little plants…)

But the thistle is not without purpose. With its habit of propagating in neglected areas, it Goldfinch004can draw attention to fields or fencerows in need of a little TLC. And though its needles are most unpleasant, its flowers do provide nectar for a wide variety of bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds, and its seeds are a favorite of many species of birds, including the stunning goldfinch.

Even so, my own pain is not purposeless. I fully believe God can and will heal me if it best serves His plan. However, I also know that He will not until He is finished pruning away my pride, my self-reliance, even my lack of faith and providing hope for others in the meantime.

 

I am not advocating that we never pray for healing for self or others, only that we do not allow it destroy our faith if His answer is, “No.”

Instead, while you pray for healing, also ask God to reveal any areas of your heart that may need a little TLC and trust Him to be enough. We can truly rejoice that no experience of our lives lies beyond His power to redeem. Not even our pain.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Corinthians 12:9

Blinded: A Migraine Lesson

Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.
(John 9:40-41)

In my last migraine post, I shared a bit about how one of the weirder migraine-associated symptoms (aphasia) has affected me and how God has used that particular bit of unpleasantness to pare down my pride.

And no, the irony that most of the time aphasia is associated with damage to a part of the brain is not lost on me. Like I said, it has been an effective humbler…

But these temporary bouts of aphasia are not the only oddities that migraine has brought into my life, nor are they the only symptoms that carry an embedded spiritual lesson. Let’s check out another one:

Ocular Migraine

While some degree of aphasia precedes almost 90% of my migraine attacks, ocular migraines are much less frequent. However, if my first bouts of difficulty speaking were disconcerting and embarrassing, my first ocular migraine was downright scary, not the least because I was driving with my three small children.

When they were all toddlers, it seemed we were forever driving to the pediatrician. Most of these trips were unremarkable, but there is one that stands out clearly in my mind mainly because “clearly” did not at all describe my visual ability.

I was on the interstate en route to the pediatric clinic when a jagged, roughly circular line of black and white appeared in the left of my visual field. It’s rather difficult to describe, but imagine a scintillating border of alternating, diagonal black and white stripes. Inside that flashing border is… nothing. Nothing at all.

At the time, I had no idea what was happening. All I knew was that there was some kind of funky hole in my vision – and that hole made it impossible to see if there was anyone in my left rear view mirror or in the lane beside me. Forget my vehicular blind spot – I had almost an entire blind side. 

By the grace of God, I made it to the pediatrician where I  had difficulty signing in because the left side of the page kept disappearing into this mysterious visual void. After unsuccessfully trying to tilt my head in a manner that brought the entire page into view, I finally told the receptionist what was going on.

To my horror, the nurses clustered around me, bringing me juice, getting me a chair, and in other ways causing what all young moms dread: a scene. Finally, one of the nurses or doctors asked if I had migraines, and when I replied in the affirmative, she reassured me that this was “normal” for migraine sufferers (a term that has only ever been applied to me with the addition of “normal for…“).

Since then, I have had a handful of these somewhat bizarre events, though now I know to just wait it out for 30 or 45 minutes. However, dealing with these unannounced blind spots got me thinking about a different kind of blind spot.

As I journey down the narrow path of sanctification, I have often asked the Lord not to allow me to be unaware of sin but to expose it. Lately, He has shown me blind spots in my relationships; places where I have areas where I have harbored resentment, allowing this ugliness to taint both my words and actions. Doing good works, maybe, but with sullenness rather than the cheerful gratitude which befits a daughter of the King. In other spots, rather than rejoicing in the success or blessings of my brothers and sisters in Christ, I have nursed a small and secret envy.

Rather than keeping my eyes on the Author and Perfecter of my faith as I ought to be doing, these blind spots of jealousy or bitterness have grown in an increasingly hungry arc across my view of certain friends or family members, blinding me to several of their very excellent attributes. Such blindness leaves ragged holes in what should be relationships alive with genuine warmth and closeness.

But my Father is good, and I am thankful that He does not leave me to grope about in the darkness of my own animosity. Instead, He chastises me,  revealing the full extent of the sin-taint by exposing it in the brilliant light of His own holiness and perfect love. When my sin is brought thus into focus, I feel a keen grief that leads to repentance.

Then by His redemptive power and loving mercy, He restores the sight of this old sinner, bringing His healing into the rifts of my relationships as well. Once I can see clearly,  love for my brethren and appreciation for their gifts is also revived.

So what are your blind spots? May He who gives sight to the blind cause us to recognize and repent of our sin so that we may be brought into a right relationship with Him and others.

Speechless – A Migraine Lesson

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.
(Proverbs 11:2)

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
(Proverbs 16:18)

Most people have some familiarity with migraines as well as the standard symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sounds, and/or odors.

What you may not know is that a migraine is much more than a bad headache and often involves some fairly bizarre neurological symptoms before, during, after, or even occurring entirely apart from the actual onset of pain.

Just for kicks, let’s explore one of them – and how it helped deflate my ego:

Aphasia

In my personal experience, aphasia is a fairly good humbler of pride. As a child, I was frequently told I was smart and by the time I was an adolescent I began to believe it. I particularly liked to think my knowledge base was somewhat broader than it actually was, and because I was also insecure, was threatened when others knew more than me.

In my young adulthood, I also held a fair amount of intellectual smugness, somewhat oddly wedded to a crippling fear that I was not so very bright after all. Often, the resulting product was an arrogantly offensive attitude and included many distinctly unintelligent actions.

When aphasia strikes, however, it is rather difficult to feel oneself to be intellectually superior.

The first (and most extreme) instance of aphasia in my life happened very memorably when my children were very small. I cannot remember whether it was before my episode with meningitis or afterward, but I can very clearly recall the humiliation I felt.

I was hosting a play date for my littles and was talking with some other moms. Suddenly, I realized that the sounds coming from my face bore no resemblance whatsoever to the clear and coherent words I had composed in my mind. In despair, I remember trying to correct my speech only to have more garbled gibberish erupt from my now-red countenance before I finally hit upon the brilliant idea of shutting up.

It took a few heartbeats of silence before the other moms closed their mouths and looked away, probably wondering if I were drunk. It was the longest play date of my life.

I never spoke of this incident until I saw reporter, Serene Branson’s very public episode with aphasia and recognized the look in her eyes. However, it wasn’t until I read an article written to dispel rumors that she’d had a stroke that I learned the term “aphasia” and that it was linked to migraines.

Although my aphasia is rarely that severe (and from the look in the reporter’s eyes, I highly suspect panic set in, making things worse for her at that moment just as they did in my living room years before), it can still be embarrassing to speak in slurred speech, mix up words, or lose them altogether.

It’s also decidedly difficult to feel pompous when you have just asked your daughter to pass the couch at the dinner table. Not to mention those dignity-deflating moments when the name of a relative or close friend fails to roll off the tongue during an introduction…

But of course, my younger self desperately needed humbling, and I daresay I still do. Certainly, aphasia is only one of many tools my Father has used in taking me down a notch or two.

And while discipline is not always pleasant to the erroneous child, there are some delightful byproducts. While I may temporarily lose my ability to speak intelligibly, I have gained the ability to laugh at myself. Because if I am honest, plenty of my random word-swaps or numb-tongue exhibitions are more than mildly entertaining!

No longer do I feel the sting of humiliation when my words become tangled or fail to be in any recognizable tongue. Now, each instance of aphasia (and of the milder sort, there are many) serves as a reminder to keep my pride in check… and also to watch my words.

Have you had any embarrassing migraine moments you’d like to share?  Feel free to comment below. I’ll be unplugging for a few days, but I’ll respond as soon as I get back!!

 

 

In the Furnace

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.
Isaiah 48:10-11

I have yet to develop a desire for affliction. To this day, I can guarantee that the words, “I sure hope to be hit by a killer migraine today,” or “Boy, what I wouldn’t give to engage in battle with cancer,” have never once crossed my lips.

Affliction of any sort is unpleasant. Unpleasant, but not unprofitable.

In fact, I would venture to say that my faith in God has grown more through times of discomfort than times of ease.  That is not to say that my faith has been unshaken – far from it! In truth, my faith has been shaken, stirred, turned inside-out, boiled, numbed, seared, battered, and even left for dead.  But it has not been destroyed.

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.
(2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

Oh, I will admit that I have had my moments of doubt; wondering how a God who loves so deeply could stand to watch so much pain. But then… He not only watches pain, He participated in it.

With an infinite God, there is also an infinite capacity to suffer, and the agony He suffered on the cross was far more that mere physical pain. It was an agony of the soul; a tearing apart of a blessed Unity when the Man, Yeshua, took upon His human shoulders the burden of countless sins He did not commit.

When viewed from the proper perspective, my own misery seems puny in comparison.

No, true faith and trust in God is not consumed in the heat of the furnace of affliction.   Instead, it is refined; for as the blistering heat reveals weakness and impurity in all forms, they can be gradually separated and removed. Bit by bit, trial by trial, the faith I have in God is slowly but certainly becoming less about what He does for me and more about Him. 

One lesson I am learning through pain is that He will not yield His glory to another, not even if that “another” is me.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that while I have enjoyed many times of sweet and gentle communion with my God, they are often sweeter and more delightful because of the painful trials.

Yet what I am discovering is that the things my Lord allows to be devoured by fire are the very things that hinder me in my walk with Him. The cords of self-righteousness, self-importance, selfishness…. actually a whole lot of “self” is burned until there’s nothing more than ash.

And when all is said and done, what survives the flames will be whatever brings Him glory.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”
(Daniel 3:24-25)

Morning Meanderings

But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”
Job 2:10a

Today as I walked with my Father in the cool of the morning, my heart was filled with adoration for Him and gratitude for all He has done and continues to do all around me. Tennessee is so beautiful in spring, and I was acutely aware that living in such a gorgeous place is a blessing – one for which I am very thankful.

Walking through the neighborhood, exulting in God and in the beauty of His creation, my thoughts roamed to the various stages and seasons of life. No wonder, for even as I type these words, a friend and neighbor is in the hospital in labor with twins. Though her labor will truly be just that – hard work and travail – and though the future remains unclear, still we all look forward to the joy of two new lives.

On the same street, another friend battles physical and emotional pain from a diagnosis of cancer and from complications from surgery. For this family, the road ahead is not so sunny, for his battle will be a battle against death and despair. Yet even here, there is the possibility of new life, for it is sometimes in anguish and suffering that we find a keener, sweeter appreciation for what our Lord suffered on our behalf.

Nearby, another precious friend recovers from a recent heart attack and stroke and still greets each new day with a smile. Though her nine and a half decades have left her body frail, her spirit has grown strong under the loving care of her heavenly Father, and she shares the joy He brings with all who are around her. For her, the road is nearing its end and she rejoices in her brief stay on earth and in the promise of eternity with her mighty King.

Another house in the neighborhood stands quieter than in previous years. In it, yet another friend has already finished her race, leaving behind both sorrow for her loss and a lifetime of delightful memories for her husband, children, and grandchildren.

As I walked and prayed, traces of what (I hope) is a waning migraine flared and receded. Spikes of pain shot through the ball of my foot, reminding me that with arthritis, every walk has its price.

The cool air wafted around my bare arms, and the birds lilted and trilled their various songs from the trees above as they darted about preparing nests or feeding their young. The fragrance of honeysuckle was swallowed by the pungent odor of a dead skunk. There, too, one death serves as a continuance of life for a pair of black vultures.

Over by the laNestingGoose008ke, a family of geese honked a warning and a great blue heron winged his way toward some other destination.

All around me is life and death; all around are reminders of the beginning of the race and the finish plus all the long miles in between. Life mingling both the bitter and the sweet, the poignant and the mundane; and death bringing a finality to all.

And yet…

For those who are in Christ, even death is a victory. Even suffering can be sweet. There is nothing wasted; nothing broken that cannot be restored; no error or tragedy that cannot be redeemed. Through the work of the Messiah, even the most heinous sin can be forgiven, and in Him, there is a gleam of light even in the darkest and most terrible regions of the path.

Today, I am thankful for my life in its entirety; for migraines and for seasons of respite from them, for suffering and blessing, for triumph and tragedy, for times of repose and seasons of toil, for all that is bright and beautiful and for the times of darkness that bring a greater hunger for and appreciation of the Light.

Today, I am thankful for the entire journey.

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”  … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:55, 57-58

 

My Mind is Set

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
(Romans 8:5-6)

In a candid moment, I might tell you that I am often tempted to self-pity. In truth, I have indulged in it far too often.  Of course, it could be argued that I have a good excuse to do so, for my peculiar set of issues includes migraines, arthritis in my spine and big toe joints, muscle spasms in my neck and upper spine… well, it can be a lot. Suffice to say that most days it is not so much a question of if pain is present but to what extent.

But I have learned that even the best excuses do not negate sin when it is present. When I have chosen to feel sorry for my poor little self, my Father has brought it to my attention that the root of my self-pity is self-focus. Self-focus is, of course, just a tidier-sounding name for idolatry. In short, it is sin.

In dealing with chronic pain, one thing I have learned above all else is that when my focus is on myself, my circumstances, or even the pain, it overwhelms me. I feel a bit like Peter who asked the Lord if he could join Him walking across the water – and he did! At least, he did until he took a look at the storm all around him. Then poor Peter began to sink (see Matthew 14:28-31).

When I take my eyes off the Lord and fix them on my problems, I also begin to sink into despair or self-pity. In my case, the words of Romans 8:6 are very literal – if my mind is set on my malfunctioning flesh, it leads to death of joy, of peace, of patience, and other such things.

However, if I can set my mind on the Author and Perfecter of my faith, the One who endured so much in order to set my mind free from sin, I find that my self-pity is replaced by reverence and awe. My joy is renewed. My hope is restored.

Rather than worrying about my own suffering, fixing my mind on the Spirit of God reminds me to see instead the suffering of those around me. Often, their suffering is far greater than my own, particularly if they do not share the hope I have in Christ and the undercurrent of joy in Him that is pervasive even in my darkest moments.

Gracious Father, today I publicly repent of idolatry of self. Please forgive me for every time past that I have failed to trust You in the midst of pain or difficulty, displaying a fixation on the problems rather than setting my mind on Your Spirit. You are enough for me; help me not to forget it in a time of testing. Fix my mind firmly on You, increasing my faith and giving me unwavering trust in Your name and ways. Use me – pain and all – for Your glory and let the life and peace of the Holy Spirit shine brightly through me to help those around mesunrise003, amen. 

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.
(Isaiah 26:3-4)

 

 

 

Counting the Cost

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’
(Luke 14:28-30)

Anyone who walks through this life with any kind of invisible illness or chronic pain knows what it means to count the cost. In my personal experience with chronic migraine, the ability to assess the risks of known triggers and weigh them against the cost – in my case, a migraine – is critical, especially if you are resolved to actually live and not merely exist until the end should come.

As a relatively handy illustration, I’ll relate a little experience I had on Holy Week this year. I have mentioned before that our small group was able to celebrate the Lord’s Passover under the guidance of a Jewish man and his wife during Holy Week. What I did not mention were the many migraine triggers that accompanied the event.

For one, any kind of stress – even what I call “good stress,” which includes enthusiastic anticipation – is a major trigger for me. Considering that I have longed to be a part of a Passover Seder almost since I read in the Bible that Jesus was a Jew, we can safely say that Trigger #1 was a go.

Then, of course, our small group meets in our home and since we would be having first-time visitors, I took the time to do some extra cleaning (which, in my world, lands the house extremely far from “Better Homes and Gardens” but at least puts us somewhere above “clearly, a natural disaster happened here.”) Getting overheated, particularly with moderate physical activity is a trigger for me. Because it was a fairly hot day and I did not bother to turn down the AC, we definitely had Trigger #2.

For some unexplained reason, I frequently get muscle cramps in my neck and upper back which can cause pain and, naturally enough, sometimes trigger migraines. Well, it must have been my lucky day because Trigger #3 was present as well.

I have at least two known food triggers – wheat, the consumption of which is an absolute guarantee for migraine fun, and alcohol which is only a trigger when there are other factors kind of pushing me towards the edge.

Matzo, of course, is made of wheat yet I did not want to be fussy, so I broke off the smallest pieces I could in order to participate. Knowing that there were plenty of triggers already lining up against me, I had intended to forgo the wine, but since a very helpful young man had already poured about an ounce in each adult glass, I once again chose not to speak up (although I did compromise by only having a sip at each point where a cup is supposed to be consumed during the meal). Ergot – Triggers # 4 and with all the others, #5 joined the party as well.

And yes, the following morning I woke up at around 3:00 a.m. with a doozy of a migraine; the kind that had me attempting a freaky, creeping sort of walk without fully raising my head and choking down the medicine while (very literally) praying that it would stay down long enough to work.

But it was worth it.

Sure, I lost a couple of days, but the heightened sense of communion with the Lord by participating in this very ancient tradition and the deeper understanding of how intentional His every act really is… well, there just aren’t words. For me, it was about knowing my God a little bit better. I had weighed the probable cost and decided to ante up.

Just so, when the Lord began the discussion that we jumped in on the middle of at the beginning of this post, He was trying to make everyone who was listening think for a minute. Understanding that the cost of following Jesus is… well, everything… we can see that it would be somewhat prudent to count the cost.

Following Him means He comes first; it is absolute surrender, and as my pastor said a couple of weeks back, when an army or nation surrenders to a conquering king, they do not set the terms. They accept them.

It is the same with Him, but I assure you that His terms are good. He asks that we give Him all that we are – absolute trust, absolute obedience, absolute surrender. Following Him means understanding that He sometimes withholds things that we are positive we need because He knows what is truly best for us. It means a commitment that extends for eternity and a willingness to be teachable and humble; to have our eyes opened to ugly and uncomfortable truths about ourselves and to feel the sorrow that our sin brings.

It means turning away from all of it – even the ‘pet’ sins that don’t seem that bad to us because He says that they are – and walking with Him no matter how hard things get.

In return, He offers us a life beyond the few brief decades of toil we have on earth; a life that will be free from sickness or sorrow or fear; a life in the glorious presence of God – an eternity to spend time getting to know the Eternal One.

I don’t know about you, but to me, that is definitely worth it!