Saturday, June 6, 2015

The purpose of pain

The time has come.

As many of you know my sister died of brain cancer in June of 2013. Although I am grateful she is no longer suffering and currently enjoying the company of Christ, I won't lie and say it's been awesome for the rest of us left behind. It's taken months (ok years) for the actual truth of what happened to BEGIN sinking in and still I catch myself feeling horrified and shocked when I remember she is gone. There are so many times I wish I could talk to her, and also so many times I wish I wasn't reminded of her. Like anytime someone needs to know about my family medical history... that conversation rarely ends without tears. I hate that I can't call her up and laugh or vent or make fun of her- you know, normal sister stuff. 

3 months after she passed, our life was further turned on it's head as we suddenly moved away from our community in Charlotte to start a new life in Atlanta. This. Was. Hard. In a season where I needed friends who were like family to us more than ever and routine and familiar and everything to be the same except for the major glaring truth that my sister was gone, I had almost nothing that was the same. Almost everything was different and the color and flavor and texture of my new life was much more dim and bland and rough than the previous paradise I had known in NC. 

I was not a fan. Ha! I tried to be optimistic and hopeful and desperate to find purpose in the struggle, but I wasn't always successful.

Although in throws of the crisis I handled these major life events fairly well and was truly held together by the grace of God, over the last two years the condition of my heart and my view of God began to change. It's been something I am just now really trying to understand and sort through. I've thought about writing about this for a long time and honestly, the best way I can articulate this journey through pain is through an allegorical story. So, here goes..

For most of my life I’ve loved swimming in pools. I have decades worth of beautiful memories spent splashing in the sun - the cool water rushing past my skin, leisurely sunning on inflatables, diving for treasures, squealing down the water slide, doing the “washing machine” with my sister countless times and playing Marco Polo… these memories coming flooding back like a tsunami.  I’ve had some amazing times swimming, that is, up until my relationship with swimming changed forever.  
In the fall of 2013 I was swimming in a pool - truly having the time of my life, and then it happened. Out of nowhere I was pulled under water. This wasn’t a fun “see how long you could hold your breath” competition moment, this was life or death. I couldn’t see what was holding me down, but quickly I started squirming and thrashing to get to the surface. Word cannot express how awful it was and my inability to stop this. Finally, the force lifted and my body floated to the surface. The second air hit my face I was gasping, exhausted, and scrambling to reach the pool steps. I hobbled out of the pool and laid limp on the pool chair in shock over what had just happened. Almost immediately my mind was filling with confused thoughts, trying to process what went wrong. “Did that really just happen?!” How could that have happened? Nothing like that has ever happened before. I didn’t understand. My mind was still soggy and saturated from the water. I laid on the pool chair for a long time… trying to regain composure, trying to regain my strength. It took longer than I expected. I had no idea that kind of trauma would affect me like it did.  
When my family noticed I wasn’t in the pool, they came to check on me. I recounted the horrific details of what had just happened and they were worried. I told them I’d be fine and they were impressed with how well I was handling such a scary event. They encouraged me to just relax and rest up, so I did. I stayed on the pool chair the rest of the day. That night I was still so tired and exhausted that I just pulled a towel over me and slept in the only place that felt safe and far from the edge of the pool. Soon days passed and I just couldn’t bring myself to leave the pool chair. I wasn’t sure why, but I just couldn’t get past what had happened. 
In the blink of an eye my life was operating from the pool chair, but no one really knew it - I worked remotely on my computer so it seemed all “business as usual.” I had my meals delivered here, text my friends from here, so my secret pool chair life went virtually unnoticed. People thought I still loved swimming and honestly, I wanted it that way. I needed to keep up appearances when behind the scenes I was trying to sort through all these things I didn’t understand. During my time on the pool chair I would often think back over all the fun times I had had in the pool- they were such great memories, but anytime I looked at the pool or thought about swimming again, I would become practically paralyzed from anxiety. Day after day I sat staring at the clear blue water, listening to it lap against the edge and all I could think about was what horrible thing would happen if I dove back in.  
As I replayed what had happened over and over in my mind, I soon came to the conclusion that it had to have been the pool’s fault. The pool had done this to me - it had hurt me in a way that seemed beyond repair. Why would I ever go back in the pool when I was certain that would result in absolute pain-filled agony? I decided the only way to manage this was simply to avoid the pool. I could still say I “liked the pool”, but if I stayed away from the pool I could cope, I could keep it together. As my fear of the pool grew, my memories of all the good times began to wane. Oh from time to time I would tell a good pool story and remember how things use to be, but more and more I started to believe that the pool was… unkind, relentless, and intended to hurt me any chance it got. I didn’t want to believe this about the pool - I knew in my heart that I loved the pool and was born to swim, but I just… couldn’t get past it. I felt lost and confused, completely directionless on how to fix what felt eternally broken. Before I knew it, I had forgotten how to swim all together and considered what it would be like to pack up my swimsuits for good.  
And then it happened. One day a friend of mine (one of the few who knew I was camped out on the pool chair), made a suggestion. She told me that in order to love the pool again and enjoy swimming that I needed a swim teacher. I needed to go back to the basics and learn how to swim again - the right way. She had someone in mind- a friend of hers named Jane, so without much thought I scheduled a lesson. Somewhere deep down, underneath all the confusion and emptiness, was a desire to swim again and I hoped Jane could get me there (but to be honest, I wasn’t holding my breath).
My lessons began and to my utter surprise, Jane helped. A lot. In fact, Jane didn’t just help me learn to swim again, but she changed my perspective on the pool all together. Through Jane I realized a shocking truth that I never really knew how to swim the right way in the first place. She helped me see what the pool really was (a lot of things I had known at one time, but completely forgotten) and the whole point of swimming in the first place. She somehow magically healed my "happy pool memory" amnesia and assured me that the pool wasn’t my enemy, but my lifelong friend. She challenged me to stop seeing the pool as the cause of my pain, and instead - the reason I made it to the surface. To this day, I still don’t know the real reason why things happened like they did, (I probably never will), but because of it- ALL OF IT, I am now able to swim to new depths I could never have reached before and experience joy in the pool in ways I never dreamed.
After my initial re-entry into the pool I was still wrestling with the purpose of going through pain and my desperate desire to avoid it at all costs. I just couldn't make sense of it. Recently, something incredibly devastating happened in our community back in Charlotte. The unthinkable happened to a dear family and fellow ministry partner. As I watched nearly everyone I knew endure this tragedy, I went to God with questions. "WHY?" Not only the obvious questions - Why this family? These circumstances? This level of heartache and suffering? but... "Why did so many people need to deeply experience this sorrow? This pain? This grief? Somewhere in my searching God confirmed that all this pain and sorrow spread across thousands of people was worth it for his plan to be accomplished. He reminded me that he was in the trenches too - knew every soul aching from this loss, heard the millions of prayers being said on behalf of this family and yet - it was still all worth it somehow. It was purposeful to a level beyond my understanding. And not only that, but as I sought to understand the purpose of such widespread pain, I finally had a break-through. My perspective on pain FINALLY shifted into a different place like a gear on a bike. It occurred to me that pain was one of the few things that truly wreck us - it not only exposes our fragility, but it resets our perspective on the larger narrative of life - the purpose of life and the hope for an eternal life united with God through trusting Jesus. It reminds us of how fleeting this life is and how every moment, every minute should be spent wisely. It reminds us of the eternal outcome of how those moments are lived. As I began unpacking this, I finally caught a glimpse of pain - not as my arch nemesis, but as a true, unfathomable kindness from a loving God desperate to save his people. Trials are not just things to endure, they are the consistent urgings of God to stop being distracted by things that don't really matter and "get things right" before it is too late. Trials are the most 3d dimensional version of His grace upon grace upon grace and it leaves me completely astounded.

This revelation was life changing for me and I hope it is for you when difficulty comes your way. Grief, sadness, and pain are real- and some of it never leaves our hearts, but neither does the limitless love of Christ.

I can't help but be reminded of the song "In Christ Alone" and find more and more depth of meaning every time I sing or hear the first stanza.
"In Christ alone, my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. This cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. What heights  of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease, my comforter, my all in all, here in the love of Christ I stand."
I am so grateful for a faithful God who loves us enough to let us hurt a little bit now (in the scheme of eternity) so that we can have everlasting joy with Him in the life to come. He is GOOD and His mercies are new everyday. 

ps. For “swim lessons” that will literally change your life, buy Jen Wilkins’ book here

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