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The Fellowship of Suffering
All the passages below are taken from David Lyons and Linda Lyons Richardson’s book “Don’t Waste the Pain,” published in 2010.
Most people who write books about their pain are looking at it in the rearview mirror, years after their suffering has passed and they've had time to make more sense of it. So why in the world am I sitting here writing this book just six months after Ian died? Why is Linda writing from the front lines of her own battle? While we were working on the chapter on joy, she found out her cancer had returned yet again. (She has since found out that her prognosis is good enough to avoid chemo for several more months.) So why are we doing this? The simple answer is this: We don't want to waste our pain.
We are passionate about passing on what God has been doing in us. This final chapter is designed to help you help others who are in pain. They may be suffering physically as Linda is. They may be suffering emotionally as we have been with Ian's cancer and death. Regardless of what their pain looks like, there are people around you who need the comfort that has been entrusted to you.
The first chapter of 2 Corinthians describes well what we have been living throughout our battles with cancer. We are not experts on comfort; we're just sharing our lives. But our life experience is consistent with what Paul said in this chapter.
1. Embrace the Tenderheartedness of God
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3, NIV)
There are people known for their tender hearts. I am not naturally one of them. In premarital counseling, Renee and I took a personality test that exposed what we both knew: We are opposites in many ways. Renee is verbally expressive, while I am reserved. Renee anticipates emotionally, while I feel things later, if at all. Renee is beautiful, while. I am ... less so. Most important, Renee is tenderhearted, while I tend to be indifferent. I was one of those guys who might run over a squirrel on the road and never look back. So it will come as no surprise that within a couple of years after marriage, we were growing apart emotionally. At one point Renee said to me, "You don't need me. If I was gone, you would just go on with your life and hardly miss a beat." I'm ashamed to say that although I protested her accusation, in my heart I thought, You're right. In truth, we were careening toward divorce. But God intervened through godly friends and mentors and through His Word. I'll never forget the day it dawned on me what an emotional cripple I was and that I desperately needed my tenderhearted wife to help me become more like my tenderhearted God.
I think that Paul was naturally more like me than Renee. Remember how he was tracking down Christians to exterminate them? But God broke through, and by the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, he had come to know God as the Father of compassion, the God of all comfort. He had come to embrace the tender heart of God. In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote, "It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor."1 That's something to think about. But I am certain that we don't really know God until we know His tender heart.
Finding God’s Heart
As we all struggled to deal with Ian’s initial cancer diagnosis, my oldest son, Wesley, turned to his Aunt Linda for perspective. She explained that in the midst of her own anguish, she discovered the tender heart of God, who Himself had to watch His own Son endure torture and death on a cross. God could identify with her own broken heart.
My initial pain took me down to the bare nothing. With no hope of recovery, I got to the place where I had only God. Then I was able to realize that when it seemed I had the least in my life, I actually had the most one could ever have.
You’re doing exactly what God wants, Wes. Talk to Him, trust Him, give Ian to Him. Allow your heart to be broken. Then you will know more about the heart of God. I remember literally lying flat on the floor and sobbing that it truly didn’t matter if I died, as long as I was with Him. Strange as it sounds, it felt as though I was lying at the cross of Jesus, and then I was free.
He Was There
Where is God in the most painful moments in our lives? Was He absent when cancer invaded Linda's body? Did He check out the day Ian died?
Years ago, I went to a seminar that featured prayer as a primary path toward healing. We explored the sources of our destructive thoughts and feelings and asked God to lead us back to where we first learned those patterns. In spite of my doubts about the process, I asked God to take me back to one traumatic experience that had shaped me.
As a boy I had just two friends: two brothers who were the only children within miles. One day they invited me to meet them on a nearby hill after dark. When I arrived, there was another boy who was much bigger than any of us. Before I knew it, he was on top of me pounding me to a bloody mess while my "friends" stood by and laughed. They had paid him to beat me up as revenge for some perceived wrong. I had been violently betrayed by my only friends.
In the seminar, I was prompted to ask God, "Where were You that night?" That question led me into one of my most profound encounters with Him. He showed me where He had been. He had been right there with me and even in me. He was there feeling every blow as that boy hit me.
And He was right there when a little girl I know was tortured and raped. He was there when Jerry Sittser's mother and wife and daughter were killed by a drunk driver. And both that little girl (who is now an adult) and Jerry Sittser would tell you that somehow knowing God was there with His arms wrapped around them in their pain has brought profound healing.
He was there the morning my son died. When Ian's vital signs were vanishing, all the medical staff left the room so that Renee and I could be alone with him. We sat on either side of him, each holding his hand. But the Father of compassion was holding us. "The God of all comfort wept with us.
He was there with us, just as He calls us to be there for others who are in pain.
2. ENTER INTO THE FELLOWSHIP OF SUFFERING
For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share [literally, fellowship] in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:5-7, NIV)
Early in our ordeal, a friend of a friend wrote to me, "There is a fraternity of suffering people. It's not an official group, and we haven't posed for a photo yet, but we know each other when we meet. Not one of us applied for membership. Suddenly we found ourselves having been inducted into this order."
No, none of us applied, but all were invited. We are not called to a pain-free life. In fact, peter said,
Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate [literally, fellowship] in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13, NIV)
Paul actually celebrated entering into the fellowship of suffering, and he aspired to enter it more deeply.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ---the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. (Philippians 3:7-10, NIV, emphasis added)
What does it mean to participate in the sufferings of Christ? I don't think it has anything to do with completing what Christ did on the cross. Jesus said, "It is finished" (John 19:30, NIV). I think it has everything to do with entering into the pain that the members of His body suffer today. Paul lived and breathed this. He entered into it with his whole being.
I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. (Colossians 1:24, NIV)
Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? (2 Corinthians 11:28-29, NIV)
Breaking Through Isolation
We are invited into the deep bonds that form among those who suffer together. Calvin, my twenty-year-old son, is seriously considering joining a fishing crew off Kodiak Island in Alaska next summer. The owner, who recruits college students from all over the States, tells me that members of his crew generally become friends for life as they sometimes work twenty hours a day and occasionally risk their lives for one another. Christ wants us to experience that kind of bond with Him and with the members of His body.
Sometimes we are drafted into the fellowship of suffering when pain tragically breaks into our lives. At other times, we voluntarily participate when we choose to be there for others in pain.
People in pain often feel isolated and overwhelmed. They feel that no one really understands, that no one really bears the burden with them. To some degree, that's true. Proverbs 14:10 says that each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can fully enter into it. So don't say "I know how you feel" when you really don't and can't. That can feel like you're making light of that person's pain.
But people in pain also long for someone to genuinely enter in as much as possible, to draw near and carry the burden with them. Galatians 6:2 calls us to "carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (NIV). When we landed in the hospital with Ian, Renee's best friend said to her, "I will be here with you no matter what happens." And she kept her promise, for fifteen months and beyond to today. There were many nights when we would find ourselves alone with Ian, feeling overwhelmed and afraid, and she would show up just to be with us.
So where do you start? You might begin by simply saying from the heart, "I'm so sorry." If they sense that is coming from deep within you, they will find comfort in how you are drawing near and entering into their pain. You can say, "I can't fully understand what you are feeling, but I'm hurting with you." It may be less helpful to say, "I can't imagine what you are feeling." That tends to confirm their feelings of isolation.
Sometimes the best way to enter in is to say nothing and simply weep with those who weep. After Ian's memorial service, friends waited in line for hours to give us comfort. I remember little or nothing of what was said there. But I vividly remember one dear friend who, after waiting for so long, simply threw her arms around me and wept. She had nothing to say, yet she had everything to say. "That touched me deeply. Maybe all you need to say is, "Can I give you a hug?" Physical comfort can sometimes say so much more than words.
Your Story, Our Story
We can also enter into another person's pain by sharing our own stories. Paul went there as he continued to teach the Corinthians about suffering and comfort:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NIV)
In context, this is a remarkable confession. Much of 2 Corinthians is a response to Paul's critics. But here he makes himself vulnerable by sharing how he had gotten so depressed because of his own suffering that he sincerely wanted to die. Have you ever been brought that low through suffering? Paul felt it was important for the Corinthians to know he had been there. He opened his heart to them, hoping they would open their hearts to him.
The hazardous part of sharing your own story is that it may be more than the person in pain wants to hear or bear. Because we have lived our suffering in such a public way, sometimes folks assume that we want to enter into the suffering of others. They want to introduce us to others with cancer. We sometimes end up feeling like, "Don't ask me to enter into their pain when I can barely handle my own right now." We have entered into others' pain, though. Even now we closely follow the story of another family with a child near death. We exchange intimate notes and feelings with them that we share with few others. During our many weeks in the pediatric intensive care unit, we entered into the pain of a few others there, very few. You can only take on so much when you yourself are stripped bare by pain.
But in the right time and situation, it can be deeply comforting to be invited into the story of another even while you are living out your own story. It can be a welcome distraction. It can bring redemptive meaning to your own pain, wringing value out of it for others.
The fellowship of suffering is not an exclusive club. We're all invited. Some are drafted, although we can dodge the draft by choosing to live in isolation. But if you enter in, you will find it to be a place of deep bonds with Jesus and the members of His body.
3.BE THERE FOR OTHERS AS THE FATHER HAS BEEN THERE FOR YOU
[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. (2 Corinthians 1:4-5, NIV)
I don't know all of God's purposes for allowing pain into your life. But I know one: He intends to comfort you so that you will comfort others. In fact, He intends the comfort you receive from Him to be so abundant that it can't help but overfllow into the lives of others. Once you have entered into another person's pain, that comfort can take a lot of different practical forms---listening, talking, serving, or just showing up. But before we can comfort others in these ways, we have to get past the biggest obstacle the Devil puts in our way: self-centeredness.
When we are in pain, all of our natural instincts strain toward protecting and preserving ourselves. Some of that is God given. We do need to take care of ourselves, particularly when we are hurting. Pain is like the warning light that calls for attention. But sin tries to distort that and push us into destructive self-centeredness.
Another Kind of Cancer
Rising above self-centeredness isn't easy for anyone, but it takes a special kind of courage for someone who is sick and facing a possible death sentence. In the thick of things, I prayed that Ian would find that courage. Three months into his cancer, I wrote this to friends:
April 26, 2008
I'm praying that Ian will nor only endure well, but that he'll rise above just surviving and reach out beyond himself to bless those around him. Cancer patients can get self-centered. After all, this is hard! But self-centeredness is a cancer of its own. I'm praying that in the midst of all this, Ian will find the courage to rise above self-centeredness to give and to bless and to love.
Ian did find the courage to get outside of himself. His courage inspired the Olympic athletes. He became an asset to the nurses in the oncology clinic, encouraging other patients to put their pain in perspective. He refused to cave in on himself emotionally. He lived every day to the fullest and dragged others along with him.
When Ian was diagnosed, his big sister Nicole Lorelei struggled with whether or not to move back east to attend school as she had planned. One day she was pushing Ian around the block in his wheelchair and began to mention her dilemma. Before she could finish the sentence, he said, "You need to go. I want you to go." In spite of her reservations, with his encouragement, she did go. The cancer of self-centeredness was being defeated so that Ian could be there for others.
As Long As He Wants
Linda, too, learned how to fend off those moments of self-centered pity, which sneak up on us when we've most vulnerable. Near the end of a fourteen-month round of chemo, she was feeling worn out and weary of being the "fine example" of how to live through adversity. She wrote this to her church:
People tell me I’m amazing, strong, full of faith, an inspiration. I want to put my fingers in my ears and scream. The truth is I’m acting like a jerk.
I lay in bed last night unable to sleep because everything hurts. Lying in bed wide awake but trying to sleep seems to be the best time to feel sorry for oneself, so I did. Blistered feet, stinging mouth constant weariness, no physical energy, hair mostly gone, skin ravaged---the usual. Then I got tired at God because I’m just tired of this whole thing. Seven years is long enough. Haven’t I learned whatever it is I’m supposed to have learned by now? Hasn’t He used me to “inspire” enough people by now? Can I quit already? Use someone else to tell Your story, God!
Then I remembered Stan’s mother-in-law. Stan, a friend of my brother, is a Kenyan. His mother-in-law in Nairobi was recently diagnosed with cancer. It’s not the best place to have cancer because the medical care she’s receiving would be no where near what we have available here. Apparently, her family’s not taking it well, so I sent a note of encouragement to her through Stan.
It exploded. By that I mean it got passed to other family and friends, and eventually I received word that it was being used in women’s Bible studies in Kenya as proof of God’s faithfulness and healing power. I don’t even recall what I wrote, the real author was God. He used my e-mail.
Then I remembered Mary, a woman who lives in the hills of Kentucky. We met briefly a couple of months ago when she was visiting her sister here and she came into my shop. Her eyes looked so lifeless, her demeanor forlorn. I was touched by how sad she seemed. When she stepped out of the room, her sister told me Mary has cancer and that she’d been given six months to live. Mary clearly had given up on life. You could tell that just from looking at her unsightly wig.
I talked to Mary awhile, told her about my own cancer, and somehow got her to laugh. She seemed to trust me and told me that her nails were peeling. Mine were also (a result of our drugs) and I offered to give her the nail strengthener I’d bought that morning. Coincidence? Hmm. She balked but finally took it with a smile, grateful for the special gift from a stranger.
Her sister returned to see me a couple of day’s later, saying Mary couldn’t stop talking about our chance encounter. Mary had left school at thirteen, and, in her sister’s words, “is a simple but sweet woman.” Well maybe she wasn’t highly educated, but she had a heart that touched mine. Apparently she had little local support back home and was living this nightmare mostly alone. Mary was without hope, scared and discouraged, and crying every day. I got her address and wrote to her, telling her I’d continue to pray and that I hoped her nails were stronger.
A few days ago, I got a letter back. She’d gone home and bought a new wig! Praise God---not for the wig, but that she cares about herself again! She was feeling better, and she said she’d begun to pray for me, too. She said she’s reminded that God does care for her, and she asked me to write again. She looks forward to something. Depressed people don’t look forward to anything.
I wasn’t even supposed to be in my shop that day. God put me there, and Mary too. It may seem that I encouraged Mary, but it’s she who encouraged me. We seem to have nothing in common, except, oh yeah, we have cancer and know God. That’s all it takes.
I won’t list all the others who came to mind last night while I lay awake. I eventually fell asleep, but not before apologizing to God for being a brat. If it weren’t for the cancer, I’d no knowledge of these people. My life is so much better than theirs, in terms of my care, my circumstances, my support system, my prognosis. Who am I to complain? God can use me to tell His story as long as He wants. Wait a minute!. . . Oh, never mind. As long as He wants.
Oh, how I love my sister!
The Power Of Showing Up
Just as the Father of compassion is there for us, we're called to be there to comfort others in pain. One of the simplest ways to do that is to just show up. I once had a fellow on my leadership team who was bemoaning his lack of strategic contribution. But he, more than anyone else on our team, was shepherding our people. It's true that he rarely had a strategic plan, but I used to say that he had the "ministry of showing up." He just had a knack for being there when people most needed him.
Helping people in pain is not that complex. Yes, it can get complicated, but at the root, it's simply being there for them as God is there for us. We do not have to be heroic or extraordinary. Mother Teresa once said, "In this life we cannot do great things. But we can do small things with great love." Some of the greatest comfort I've received has been so simple. A friend would show up with tears in his eyes, pray briefly, then leave. And that was enough for that day. Renee's best friend would arrive with knitting in hand and sit and quietly pray. When Ian died, my college roommate dropped everything to fly across the country to be there with me. That was a priceless gift.
Others tried too hard to be profound or fix things. It seemed they were too uncomfortable with our pain to just sit with us in it. The most comforting friends have been those who don't need us to protect them from our pain.
There are also people who presume and invade our emotional boundaries without invitation or permission. It can be hard to know if you are one of the people who should be there for a friend in pain. In some cases, it will be obvious. In others, you might need to ask indirectly, through a subtle note or through a third party. Sometimes it's just a matter of timing. Since Ian died, several discerning friends have said to us, "Whenever you would like to talk about Ian, give me a call. I'd love to be with you at that time." That's wisdom that comes from walking the path of pain.
The Power of Listening
When God does call you to be there for a friend in pain, your most important role is to be fully present and to listen, not to pry or to preach. Job's friends showed up. They sat with him and shared his agony for days. They were at their best when they were silent.
When they opened their mouths, they lost their redemptive influence. Although they had come to help, they had not come to listen. That became evident when job poured out his heart to them. Although he did not curse God, he was not in a good frame of mind either, and his friends thought they needed to correct him. Job's situation frightened them. They thought if tragedy could hit Job, it could hit anyone. His pain made them feel vulnerable, so they tried to come up with possible explanations that would make them feel safe. When Job spilled out his agony, they found it difficult to just listen. I wonder what would have happened if they had just listened? Swiss physician and author Paul Tournier said that being listened to is so close to being loved that most people can't tell the difference. There are many times when people have come to me for counsel and left feeling encouraged because I simply listened. Sometimes they've even praised me for my wisdom when I actually said very little. Are you afraid you won't know what to say when you are with someone in pain? That's okay. "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue" (Proverbs 17:28, NIV).
Listening means not probing or trolling for information. "How are you?" can be a hazardous question for someone who is in pain. I sometimes dread that question and fend it off by saying, "Fine!" or "I'm doing far better than I deserve---but not nearly as well as God intended." That leaves them thinking. But "How are you?" can also be a welcome question when it comes at the right time from someone who has demonstrated sustained interest in us and is prepared to really listen. Then it becomes an opening for sincere listening rather than conversation filler or information gathering.
The Power of Life-giving Words
There is great comfort in listening, but there is also a time to open our mouths and allow life-giving words to flow. Often those come in written form. Written notes have the advantage of giving us the freedom to receive and process them when we're ready. We love reading our CaringBridge guestbook. When Ian was at his worst, he would often refuse television or music but would nearly always enjoy having us read notes from friends.
There were times when the doctors' words would suck the life right out of us, drowning out the words the Father wanted us to hear. But then friends would come speak truth over us, renouncing fear and hopelessness with God's promises. These words breathed new life into us. Life-giving words can be gentle reminders to find joy. They can be tender nudges from those who have walked the same road. Life-giving words kindly share and build faith, and remind us of truth without preaching platitudes.
But beware of following Job's friends into trying to explain tragedy. Some of our friends felt like they needed to say something spiritual and wise after Ian died. The most common was "He's better off in heaven." That's so obvious, and somehow it felt like putting a Band-Aid on an amputation. They were saying what we already knew very well but did not feel right then. It was true, but not helpful.
Recently, Renee met someone in a church small group who had not known Ian but felt compelled to say something about his death. She said, "Maybe the Lord took Ian home because He knew that if he had lived longer, he would have fallen into a life of sin." That may be true, but there is no comfort for us in those words.
We have received notes from friends trying very hard to teach us what they thought we needed to know. There are times when that is needed, but it is usually from a close friend who has earned the privilege of serving as a guardrail when he or she sees that we are about to careen off into an emotional or theological ravine. But other notes were written by people who were just desperately trying to make sense out of what was happening to us. I think that is where Job's friends were.
Pain can push you to question what you think you know and believe. And sometimes we can allow it to push us beyond what the Scriptures say or teach. We desperately want to reconcile the goodness and power of God that we know with the horror and agony that we sometimes experience in this broken world. There is a technical name for that: theodicy (the vindication of God's goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil). I recently noticed that theodicy rhymes with idiocy. How ironic! From Genesis through Revelation, the Scriptures present both God's goodness and the evil of this world side by side without apology. We do well to do the same. Explanation is not what is needed most when we're in the midst of our pain.
In spite of all these cautions, don't be too afraid that you will say the wrong thing. Life-giving words overflow from love-filled hearts. Even if you say the wrong thing, if sincere love is your motive, the receiver will sense that. The apostle Peter was right when he said that "love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8, NASB). And long before that, wise King Solomon said, "Words kill, words give life; they're either poison or fruit---you choose" (Proverbs 18:21, MSG).
The Power of Life-giving Actions
Even life-giving words can't stand alone. If a picture is worth a thousand words, actions must be priceless. So the apostle John wrote, "Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:18, NIV).
For some people, like Renee, this comes naturally. Renee walks into a situation and knows just what to do to bring life-giving help. She finds joy in doing so. Others, like me, need to work at this. But we can learn---and the Holy Spirit is right there to help us. Remember the Holy Spirit is "the Comforter." You've experienced Him comforting you. You can also enjoy Him comforting through you. He's really good at this. Early this morning, He prompted me to write a note of encouragement to someone I hadn't seen or had any contact with in a couple of months. So at 6:15, I sent off an e-mail. Within an hour, I received a response marveling at how much she needed to hear just what I had shared. These actions don't come naturally to me, but when I listen to the Holy Spirit; I get to be in on His holy work of comforting others.
When people are in pain, they often don't really know what they need, which is another reason to be sensitive to the Spirit. "Let me know if there's anything I can do" is rarely helpful. Most will never call. They don't want to impose, or they can't think far enough in advance to make it convenient for you to help. Plus, it can feel humbling to be on the receiving end. What we've found most helpful is when others take practical initiative to do what they believe would be helpful.
After her baby died, our friend Leura summed it up well: Just do what you do. You know what you enjoy. You know how God uses you. You may be a house cleaner, a casserole maker, a flower sender, a childcare provider, or a letter writer. In our pain we want the huggers to hug, the pray-ers to pray, the givers to give, and the nurses to nurse. Spare us the awkwardness of trying to be something that you are not. It's okay. Just do what you do. Paul encouraged the church in Rome “Let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren't" (Romans 12:6, MSG).
When you visit, you might bring some healthy snacks or even a meal. Rather than saying, "Let's get together sometime," just show up and ask, "Would this be a good time to go out for ice cream?" Or just bring the ice cream (our favorite comfort food) and be prepared to leave it if it's not a good time. Leave a note with money earmarked, "For something just for you." One friend got creative and went from restaurant to restaurant asking them to donate coupons or gift certificates for our family. That was practical and fun.
On several occasions, Linda's neighbor would bring over a pot of homemade soup and a large bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough, knowing how much Linda's husband enjoys the raw dough and Linda likes the baked cookies. That sweet, simple gift helped them endure their ongoing pain.
If you are close enough to the hurting person, you could offer to coordinate the help he or she needs. Pain is utterly exhausting. It can be overwhelming to make it through the day, much less think about what is needed for tomorrow. More than once, others coordinated healthy meals for us. At one point, when Ian needed 24/7 care at home, a friend coordinated volunteer caregivers and helpers through an online calendar. My co-workers sacrificially stepped in to lift my responsibilities or release me from obligations.
We usually celebrate and honor those who travel overseas to touch lives. But some of the most beautiful and powerful expressions of Christ's life flow very close to home: “The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me"' (Matthew 25:40, NIV).
4. PRAY AS IF IT'S THE MOST YOU CAN DO
On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (2 Corinthians 1:10-11, NIV)
"Has it come to that?" This is what one of my team members often quips when we turn to prayer in our meetings. We laugh at how we have droned on in our discussions without consciously and corporately turning to our Leader. Then we get down to what may be the most important part of our meeting: praying.
Isn't it strange how we think of prayer as the least we can do? How often have you felt a pang of guilt as you said to a friend, "I'll pray for you!" when you wish you could do more. It may be that you should be doing more. But it also may be that praying is the most important contribution you can make.
One of Linda's friends wrote this in response to Linda's request for prayer: "This is grueling for you, to be sure. Oh, dear Linda, to pray you through this is the most logical, sensible, and right thing to do, and yet it does not relieve the immediate 'get me out of this!' sensation you must go through constantly." Yet some of the most comforting words we hear are "I'm really praying for you." We sense in our spirits when someone means that, and it tells us that even when he or she is not with us, that person is with us in a vital way. It matters. Love is conveyed in praying. Soon after Ian fell into seizures, one of our pastors asked if he could bring a woman to pray for Ian, a woman gifted in healing prayer. She was a stranger to us, and we were reluctant until we heard that God had already placed Ian so deeply on this woman's heart that she had been praying and fasting for him for days. We've often said that if you love our kids, we feel loved. We felt loved by this woman before we ever met her. Sincere and earnest prayer is not the least we can do; it is one of the most pivotal ways to enter into the fellowship of suffering.
One of the most precious experiences of our ordeal came one night through a global prayer meeting. People all over the world agreed to pray at a set hour. An intimate circle gathered around Ian's bed. But there were circles of friends fanned out around the globe. Several dozen youth gathered at our church and poured out their hearts for Ian. They paced the floor with open Bibles, crying out to God for Ian. Others prayed alone, but not alone. Many marveled at participating in a global gathering before the throne. I like to imagine that prayer meeting as front-page news in heaven that day.
Prayer is an opportunity to enter into the life of another in the most powerful and intimate way. People often asked Linda what they could do to help, offering meals, rides, and so forth. She always found their prayers to be the most effective help they could give, and she learned that admitting her own weakness---and acknowledging where true strength originated---was the surest way to be strong again:
Ladies, I'd like some prayer, please. Yesterday afternoon I began to feel lousy, and by the time I closed the shop, I knew I was ill. I could barely close up, and it hurts to move. Steve wanted to take me out to dinner, but all I wanted to do was curl up under a blanket and not move. Turns out I had a fever. Those rascally little white cells are apparently still on vacation1 Today I feel mostly fine, except for the “not wanting to move” part. I thought I’d pulled a muscle in my abdomen but wasn’t really sure, what with all the other achiness. Well, today it’s clear I did, and I’d like your prayers for strength, wickedly strong white cells, and all the rest. I have to be well enough for chemo in two days so it can knock me down again. Sigh. Thank God I have you who know Him, and thank God He is our source.
The following day Linda reported back:
I don’t know what you said to God, but I felt great all afternoon! It was pretty amazing. The pulled muscle wasn’t bothering me, and my temperature was normal. I had energy to last all day and even went out to dinner! Thanks for taking my request to God, and please thank Him for His answers. You know the Holy Spirit thing we’ve been studying? Well He is alive and active among us. Now, to get through the chemo tomorrow morning, I can do this. My brother sent this to me from our late Dad’s journal: “Jesus is not pushy. He just moves into the places that we vacate for Him.”
Praying the Impossible
We've written two chapters on prayer and talked about it throughout this book. Yet we still can't convey how important prayer has been to us as we've journeyed through our pain. Linda expressed it this way in a letter to her friends:
June 15, 2009
Last moth’s sermon on praying for “impossible” thing was very meaningful to Steve and me. It shouted “Ian!” to our hearts. We pray for miracles for Ian for fifteen months, and no one who knew him will ever be the same. I can honestly say that not one person in the extended Lyons family will ever go back to our pre-Ian prayer lives. Through his dad’s CaringBridge blog, thousands of people have been forever changed by the experience of praying for the impossible.
At first we prayed with frightened, tenuous hope. Then we prayed with growing belief. Finally, despite our earnest prayers, Ian died. But he left behind him people who know God better, love God more deeply and trust God more completely. Rather than convincing us that praying for miracles is not worth the pain, it convinced us of God’s power and love, and drew us closer to Him.
Yes, we did see miracles. We saw people who had never given God a second thought turn to Him in wondering prayer. We saw doubters recommit their lives to Jesus in faith. We saw teenagers turn to God in faith by praying for Ian, living out what they had learned as children but had never put into practice. We saw God choose specific times to show His power and mercy in the most unexpected ways. We were constantly surprised by the things He did for Ian and for the ways He continued to reveal Himself to the rest of us.
I met and interesting, likeable young man at Ian’s funeral. He knew Ian through the Olympic Training Center near the hospital, where he was a trainer. This young man has multiple piercing and tattoos and a “man of the world” demeanor. Still I was drawn to him, because he clearly loved Ian. He told me that he had been confirmed in the church as a child but had walked away from it soon after, living the worldly life he wanted. He is a kind and loving man, but not yet clear on who God is or how He could fit into his own life.
Yet he posted a note to Ian on the CaringBridge site that said, “Hey, Buddy! I just prayed for you. I don’t know if I did it right, but at least I tried!” Can you imagine how that trilled God? He also told me that knowing Ian and our family had changed him forever, that he was taking a whole new look at the God of his youth, that God isn’t who he’d thought He was. His last words to me that day were “I have a lot of thinking to do.” He’s been changed forever, and I don’t doubt the angels will someday rejoice when he asks Jesus into his heart.
This is only one story; there are more. Miracles do happen, even if they’re not always the ones we ask of God. Still, it’s always worth if to ask for them. After all, God is better at choosing which ones are needed the most. Our desire for the miracle of life on earth for Ian was not granted, but we still trust and believe in God, for Ian now lives in Him.
Don’t Waste the Pain
I recently read a wonderful biography of Abraham Lincoln, and I am still marveling at the man.2 Pain marked his life from beginning to end. Yet somehow he allowed his pain to make him greater and greater. Humble beginnings, lifelong ridicule of his sad face and gangly body, repeated failures and defeats all prepared him to lead our country through its most painful days.
Lincoln did not waste his pain. He allowed it to make him more much more than others around him. He gathered the strongest leaders of his day around him and rose above them because of his wisdom and compassion, qualities that had been forged in his pain. His steel resolve for noble purposes could not be broken by fear of pain. He had already been there and back.
He presided over some of the bloodiest carnage of war ever seen on earth, leaving almost 700,000 dead from their injuries. Nearly every family in the country was wounded by death. But Lincoln did more than merely preside; he waded into the pain around him. In spite of warnings about his own safety, he would often visit the battlefront. Tears would course down his cheeks as he walked among the dead and dying. And as he did, he grew. His soul grew so that he could shepherd his people through their darkest days. He loved them, and they knew it deep in their hearts.
We all have choices to make about how we respond to pain. Near the beginning of Lincoln's administration, his little son Will died. Mary Lincoln chose the way of greater pain as her response. It made her less rather than more. She lived in self-centered fear and misery. Her husband, on the other hand, allowed his pain to enlarge him for his destiny.
After years of living through a "curse" that has turned into a blessing, Linda now says this about Lincoln:
I’m certainly no Lincoln, but God has enabled me to use my own pain to become something more than I ever was before cancer invaded my life. Even I marvel at how easy it sometimes now seems to endure the ongoing disabilities I deal with daily---pain, heart problems, brain damage, physical weakness. None are easy! Still, I cannot recall a time of more true happiness or witness in my entire life. Though weak in body, I feel stronger than I did ten years ago since I no longer walk by my own strength, but that of Jesus.
A few days ago I received a heart-wrenching note from a mother whose twelve-year-old son died from a brain tumor just a few weeks ago. My soul howled with agony. I careened through fresh memories of those first moments and hours and days and weeks following Ian's death. It is bitter to welcome a grieving mother into our fellowship of suffering.
As I lay in bed, I wondered how to gently coax her out from under her pain, lest her pain shape her in destructive rather than redemptive ways. I half dreamed, half imagined a prisoner of war who refuses to be defined by his circumstances, a man whose soul has somehow grown larger than his cell, larger than his captors, larger than his pain. I dreamed of a man whose captors secretly stand in awe of him, wondering what kind of man could endure what he endures with such dignity, what kind of person could find joy and even sing in the night in spite of all the pain they inflict on him.
I long to be that kind of man in the face of my pain. I long for this mother to join us in the fellowship of sufferers who rise above their pain to become more. And we long for you to join us.
Where will your pain lead you?
Questions for Reflection
1. Nicholas Wolterstroff, Lament for a son (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 81.
2. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005).
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