Legitimate Suffering, Legitimate Grace

The most common substitute for the legitimate suffering of the self is the illegitimate suffering of others.

…human beings who try to avoid changing themselves… always set out on a destructive course to change the world, others, or even God.

~ Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent by Richard Rohr

Some of us respond to pain by taking every bad thing on board, believing ourselves worthless. Some of us respond to pain by exacting it on others. Some of us do both at the same time. Some switch from one to the other. They’re both human responses to pain – possibly even to the human condition. Jesus did not. He turned the world on its head when He willingly, consciously, conscientiously took the pain of all the world and bore it into the grave. In doing so He made it possible for us to say I don’t have to be like that any more. This is Grace, freely given.

We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:19 (The Life with God Bible NRSV)

Lying to Save His Skin

The maid saw [Peter], and began again to tell those who stood by, “This is one of them.” But he again denied it. After a little while again those who stood by said to Peter, “You truly are one of them, for you are a Galilean, and your speech shows it.” But he began to curse, and to swear, “I don’t know this man of whom you speak!” The rooster crowed the second time. Peter remembered the word, how that Jesus said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” When he thought about that, he wept.

Mark 14:69-72 (WEB)

What sorrow Peter must have felt. How disgusted with himself, how desperate he must have grown over the days between Jesus’ arrest and the resurrection. But look what God did with his life! And if God can do that for him, what can He do for you and me? What can He make of this broken mess?

Broken

Sometimes I wonder what the point is. Sometimes I look at the world and all I see is brokenness. Sometimes I look at my life and all I see is brokenness. Sure, I see that where many families would have fallen apart, we stayed together and grew in love, flawed as it is. We’ve had our rocky moments but I think, thank God, that my children are going to be ok. They have been through such a lot, but each of them is, I hope, secure in the knowledge that he or she is loved and worthy of love. Each child has hopes and dreams for the future and understands that they have to work to reach those dreams (to a greater or lesser degree). Each child also has a knowledge of God, again to a greater or lesser degree… Prince’s understanding of Christianity is – of necessity – very simple. It boils down to ‘God is love. He teaches us to love. Be kind. Where you have done wrong, say sorry.’

I have a wonderful husband, who gives me more than words can say. I hope I give him what he needs, too. He has been enormously supportive throughout our marriage (we celebrate five years this year!) and even more so these past few months during EMDR. My husband always sees things in me that I never see in myself. He always has. Ours was definitely a match made in heaven.

But then I look at me. I’m nearly 40. I’m still going through therapy. When will my life begin? When will I experience normality? When will I be able to serve God more fully?

So I said to God, “Dear God, how can I be of use to You when I am like this – broken and jagged and anxious and broken and…”

I had hardly begun this (admittedly rather truculent) prayer when into my mind came an image of Christ on the cross. He was weak. He was scorned. Naked. Shamed. Humiliated. Tortured. Nails through his flesh to enhance the suffering. Broken.

“This is my body, broken for you.” The words flashed into my mind as the image changed: Jesus with the disciples, sharing the final meal, speaking the words that would become a gift for His followers.

The image changed again: bread and wine raised aloft as the priest repeats Jesus’ words; words that have echoed through the centuries. “Take, eat. This is my body… Do this in remembrance of me…”

*****

Jesus was broken. I am broken. We are all broken, in different ways. Brokenness is the most remarkable thing about the Gospel. Brokenness was taken down from the cross all crumpled and empty. In grief and sorrow brokenness was carried and laid in a tomb, carefully wrapped in cloth. The shell-shocked stragglers walked away.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Reblog: In Illness, on the Cross with Our Lord

********

I suppose what’s below also applies when experiencing (or reliving, as in EMDR) rejection, humiliation, feelings of worthlessness, being blamed when you’re not at fault… All these things our precious Lord went through in His Passion. That really is a comfort to know.

‘The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.’

Isaiah 53:2-5 (The Message)

Contemplative in the Mud

At the Basilica in Lourdes

Do not be distressed about having to stay in bed ill and not being able to meditate, for to endure the scourging of our Lord is no less a good than to meditate. No, it is undoubtedly better to be on the cross with the Lord than to be only looking at Him.
Saint Francis de Sales

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Needed Time

I’m off to my EMDR session tomorrow, with the full intention of trying to ‘let go’. My friend is in labour with her first baby. My parents are flying back to Europe this week from America. The children are at school tomorrow. A friend mourns his wife.

In the Middle East, Christians are fleeing their homes, their livelihoods, running from everything they have ever known. Worse still, some of them stay, knowing the consequences but choosing to live as people of light in the land of darkness, God help them. God bless them. See how bright they blaze in the darkness?

Children the world over are abandoned, abused, neglected. Families starve in the basement while in the penthouse they party with champagne. One is born into poverty. One is born into privilege. The world groans under the weight of her own iniquities.

Now is the needed time. Lord. As much as ever, we need You. We need a Saviour. Help us to be thankful for ‘enough’ and when we have more than enough, help us to share. Help us to always be alert to the suffering of our brothers and sisters, and to help them in whatever small way we can. We know that with You, Lord, small becomes big, last becomes first, poor becomes rich. Thank you, Lord, for your Upside Down Kingdom. Help us in our weakness. We need You.

Amen

EMDR, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Mental Illness

My doctor psychologist lady tells me I’m holding back. She tells me I’m ‘blocking’: I am not letting the EMDR process move forward at anything other than a snail’s pace. Which is ok, she says, but I only have 18 sessions and then I have to go back on the waiting list if I need it again. So if I want to be seeing real improvements I have to allow her in, as it were… No, I don’t have to allow her in. I have to allow me out – the me that stays hidden, locked inside the vault. This tomb was created so that I could survive. If I hadn’t, I would have lost my sanity or, worse, lost my children.

It is the existence of the vault that causes the PTSD, because occasionally the vault is shaken, and occasionally, outside of my control, one of the terrible things hidden inside escapes and wreaks havoc, even if only temporarily. It happens often enough that they give it a name and call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is quite a polite-sounding name for what happens when your own head screams danger! danger! danger! because the man walking by looks vaguely like your ex-husband, or emergency! emergency! emergency! when you hear a certain type of sound that sounds a bit like something far worse. Mind you, I’m very good at hiding it. Abuse teaches you to hide your thoughts and feelings because they make you more vulnerable, so you become a master of disguise.

I think PTSD occurs because human beings are wired for survival. It took me time to figure that out. I thought I was weak and that that’s why it affected only some people. I don’t now. PTSD occurs when you have to push your emotions down in a hostile, sometimes life-threatening situation, in order to think rationally and clearly – in order to survive. It’s a great survival technique. The trouble is that you then have to be able to process the memories of those terrible events, because that’s what the brain does every night as you sleep, but if you’ve had to push it down far enough, and if you’ve had to push it down over and over and over in order to survive and continue to survive… well, then you end up with PTSD, because we’re not made for intense and unrelenting distress.

The past two days I have been giving what the psychologist said a lot of thought. She’s right and I know she’s right. I have talked it through with my dear Frank. I have talked, in less detail of course, with each of my children. It occurred to me that if I was diagnosed with a different kind of serious illness, I would allow myself the time and space for the treatment to work, and I would explain to the children what was happening (because they’re all old enough to understand) so that we could muddle through together because that’s what families do. So why had it not really occurred to me to do this for EMDR? Why did I think that my treatment and its effects were not ‘worthy’ enough to be given consideration?

I don’t think the fault lies solely within me. I don’t think it’s just me wanting to push through and just get on with it, because, as St. Teresa of Avila says in The Interior Castle, ‘getting on with it’ is just common sense. No, I think that our culture looks upon mental illness and its treatment with cynicism. Sufferers are often perceived as weak-minded or morally deficient, as malingerers or somehow less human. Our culture subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) degrades those with mental illness. They become objects of fear, scorn or pity, as if they’re no longer worthy of the same respect and dignity as someone with a ‘physical’ illness. Yet even Jesus experienced mental anguish:

‘In his life on earth Jesus made his prayers and requests with loud cries and tears to God, who could save him from death. Because he was humble and devoted, God heard him. But even though he was God’s Son, he learned through his sufferings to be obedient. When he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him…’

Hebrews 5:7-9 (GNT)

Mental illness is a physical illness. If my brain doesn’t work properly because the neurons got screwed up by too much adrenaline, or if the brain’s hormones are too high or too low, how is that not physical? Who in this world can look into my malfunctioning brain and know what I am thinking or feeling? No one. Yet still the fear within ourselves makes us view the mentally ill at arms’ length. In the 21st century that is nothing short of a disgrace.

I read an excellent post from Ann Voskamp today. She could have written it just for me at this exact time. Praise God for His provision! How can I be anything but thankful for today? Here’s an excerpt. I pray it blesses you as it did me:

Dear Thriver

I once held a bird in my hand.

No one else could see it, but I felt it. I felt it’s heart thumping hard and afraid.

It happens– there are ways to look fine on the outside…. and no one knows what you’ve really survived.

But honestly? You didn’t just survive, so let’s toss that myth right at the outset.

The way you keep walking? You may be wounded. You may be hurting. You may be limping. You may feel alone and overwhelmed and an unspoken broken — but you’re no victim. And you’re not just a survivor. You’re a Thriver.

You may bleed but you rise.

Yeah, it may not feel like it — but you are seen… how you just keep keeping your chin up and living brave through the hurt and how you keep taking one step out of bed and another step through the door — and how you keep scaling mountains by relentlessly taking steps forward.

But I wanted you to know — your wounds are seen and it’s okay… 

To read more click here, it will open in a new tab.

Lent: Prayer and Meditation

Cornish Daffodils – Happy St. David’s Day. Spring is in the air!

‘As most certainly the way to please God is to keep the commandments and counsels, let us do so diligently, while meditating on His life and death and all we owe Him. Then, let the rest be as God chooses. Some may answer that their mind refuses to dwell on these subjects and… this to a certain extent is true; you know that it is one thing to reason and another thing for the memory to bring certain truths before the mind. Perhaps you may not understand me, possibly I fail to express myself rightly, but I will do my best. Using the understanding much in this manner is what I call meditation.

Let us begin by considering the mercy God showed us by giving us His only Son. Let us not stop here, but go on to reflect upon all the mysteries of His glorious life, or let us first turn our thoughts to His prayer in the garden, then allow them to continue the subject until they reach the crucifixion. Or we may take some part of the Passion, such as Christ’s apprehension, and dwell on this mystery, considering in detail the points to be pondered and thought over such as the treachery of Judas, the flight of the Apostles and all that followed. This is an admirable and very meritorious kind of prayer.’

The Interior Castle ~ St. Teresa of Avila

Addendum: The following is a paraphrase of the above in more accessible English (I imagined communicating the same ideas to my daughters).

The best way to show our love for God is to try very hard to keep His commandments and do what He teaches us through the bible. As we do this, we can also give thought to Jesus’ life and death and everything He did for us, and we can think about how our lives can and should be different now that we belong to Him. Don’t worry about trying to achieve more than this, though. Let God show you where to go and what to do next. I know some reading this will be thinking that they find it hard to keep thinking about these things, which is fair enough. Our minds don’t always stay focused on what we’d like them to stay focused on. However, when we do make use of our hearts and minds by thinking about these things in this way, this is what is meant by ‘meditation’.

Here are some ideas to get you started: first, think about God’s great mercy when He gave us His only Son. Then move on, considering all the amazing things in Jesus’ life. Another way to begin might be to think about Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before He was arrested, then you could imagine the actual arrest and Judas’ betrayal and how the disciples all ran away. Thinking about these kinds of things in this way is not only a type of prayer but a very beneficial kind of prayer.

Any thoughts on either the words from St. Teresa, or on my paraphrasing?

Waiting

We’re waiting for Christmas in this season of advent, waiting for Christ the Redeemer, the Rescuer. As for me, I’m still waiting for EMDR therapy. It’s been nearly two years since I was first assessed by psychological services (or whatever the heck they’re called). I had to see several different people, for several different assessments. On the second appointment, the woman asked me “So, how do you compare yourself as you are now to how you are normally?”

I considered this and eventually replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never really known what ‘normal’ is like.” I then told her a brief life history. She referred me on. And then the next person referred me on. And then the next one put me on the EMDR waiting list.

Sometimes something will trigger a memory and I struggle to maintain a hold on reality, on normality. And then, even though I manage much better these days to keep the veneer of ‘okayness’, I feel drained and discouraged. I can’t even talk about the triggers, because they’re too personal, too intimate. Why do I feel ashamed of these ‘intimate’ triggers and their ‘intimate’ effects? I’m too tired to even be angry about it all any more. It just is. But being awash with disgust is soul destroying. It’s disabling in the very real sense of the word. What is the most disgusting thing that you can think of? What makes you physically nauseated just to think about it? Can you imagine living with that, and the shame and disgust associated with your own, private being, within your own self? I know that the shame is not mine, but because it is linked to me in such a deeply personal way, it is mine. I hope that when I do finally have the EMDR therapy I can be stronger, more resilient and better able to take care of everyone. I try my best, for the children in particular. Every day. One day at a time, but for how many days? I waited before. I waited and waited for years and years and years for God to act, for God to intervene, for God to stop the evil.

In the past few years I have read the following passage several times and wondered why it’s there. I have wrestled with it. God doesn’t intervene to save the woman. God doesn’t even punish the murderers, or the cowardly men who pushed her outside to save their own skins. Her ‘husband’, who had just travelled for days and days across the country in order to fetch her back after she had run off  – ‘husband’ in inverted commas because she doesn’t even warrant the status of a wife, she is less than a wife; she is property, thing – this man who is at least supposed to protect her instead deliberately pushes her into the midst of a violent, seething mob. She is attacked and violated so viciously that she dies. And what happens?

God

Does

Nothing.

…[The] servant said to his master, “Why don’t we stop and spend the night here in this Jebusite city?”

But his master said, “We’re not going to stop in a city where the people are not Israelites. We’ll pass on by and go a little farther and spend the night at Gibeah…”… It was sunset when they came to Gibeah… They went into town and sat down in the city square, but no one offered to take them home for the night.

While they were there, an old man came by…  The old man noticed the traveller in the city square and asked him, “Where do you come from? Where are you going?”

The Levite answered, “We… are on our way home deep in the hill country of Ephraim. No one will put us up for the night, even though we have… everything we need.”

The old man said, “You are welcome in my home! I’ll take care of you; you don’t have to spend the night in the square.” So he took them home with him and fed their donkeys. His guests washed their feet and had a meal. They were enjoying themselves when all of a sudden some sexual perverts from the town surrounded the house and started beating on the door. They said to the old man, “Bring out that man that came home with you! We want to have sex with him!”

But the old man went outside and said to them, “No, my friends! Please! Don’t do such an evil, immoral thing! This man is my guest. Look! Here is his concubine and my own virgin daughter. I’ll bring them out now, and you can have them. Do whatever you want to with them. But don’t do such an awful thing to this man!” But the men would not listen to him. So the Levite took his concubine and put her outside with them. They raped her and abused her all night long and didn’t stop until morning.

At dawn the woman came and fell down at the door of the old man’s house, where her husband was. She was still there when daylight came. Her husband got up that morning, and when he opened the door to go on his way, he found his concubine lying in front of the house with her hands reaching for the door. He said, “Get up. Let’s go.” But there was no answer. So he put her body across the donkey and started on his way home. When he arrived, he went in the house and got a knife. He took his concubine’s body, cut it into twelve pieces, and sent one piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, “We have never heard of such a thing! Nothing like this has ever happened since the Israelites left Egypt! We have to do something about this! What will it be?”

Extract from Judges 19

Why is this passage even in the bible! I’m sure there have been arguments and debates over this, but my (unlearned) opinion is that this passage is here, in Judges, part of the inspired Word of God, for people like me: people for whom someone could have acted to stop evil, people for whom someone should have acted to stop evil, and people for whom the help didn’t come.

Hundreds of years after this woman (she is not even given the dignity of a name) was brutalised, Jesus came. He was rejected, beaten, humiliated, shamed for sins not his own. In Jesus, in His birth, His life, His teaching, in His healing, His death and resurrection, that woman and I, we find hope. I find myself.

‘Jesus Is Rejected at Nazareth

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath he went as usual to the synagogue. He stood up to read the Scriptures and was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed
     and announce that the time has come
    when the Lord will save his people.”

Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. All the people in the synagogue had their eyes fixed on him, as he said to them, “This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.”

They were all well impressed with him and marveled at the eloquent words that he spoke. They said, “Isn’t he the son of Joseph?”

He said to them, “I am sure that you will quote this proverb to me, ‘Doctor, heal yourself.’ You will also tell me to do here in my hometown the same things you heard were done in Capernaum. I tell you this,” Jesus added, “prophets are never welcomed in their hometown. Listen to me: it is true that there were many widows in Israel during the time of Elijah, when there was no rain for three and a half years and a severe famine spread throughout the whole land. Yet Elijah was not sent to anyone in Israel, but only to a widow living in Zarephath in the territory of Sidon. And there were many people suffering from a dreaded skin disease who lived in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha; yet not one of them was healed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were filled with anger. They rose up, dragged Jesus out of town, and took him to the top of the hill on which their town was built. They meant to throw him over the cliff, but he walked through the middle of the crowd and went his way.’

Luke 4:16-30

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,

and in his word do I hope.

Come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel.

For we are all

Captive as well,

Lord,

Ransom captive Israel.

Blessings

A spider busily weaves his web over the glass as the sun shines through the pane, lighting up the windowsill. The crackled, peeling paint doesn’t look shabby in the sunlight. It looks somehow blessed – as if the light shining on it gives it new character; makes it beautiful. In the distance I can see dark clouds. Rain is probably moving our way, but right now the sun is shining.

Sometimes folk say, “aren’t I lucky?” and their Christian brother or sister nods sagely and says, “ah, but are you lucky? Or are you blessed?”. I know what they mean, and I know they mean well by pointing out that God is the giver of all things, but aren’t we blessed in the good times and in the bad times? Do we really believe that the bad times are because God withholds His blessing? Should we go around during the good times praising God for His blessings, but not in the bad times? Doesn’t that make it seem as if God favours some (i.e. those He has ‘blessed’) more than others? Isn’t that the same lie that underpins the prosperity gospel? Isn’t that the same lie that says I can earn my way into God’s favour?

The world is good. The world is bad. Life is good. Life is bad. I don’t understand why some suffer so much more than others. I do know that in suffering we can learn more about God, and more about our dear Jesus and His Passion, than we ever could without suffering. We’ll never know the whys and wherefores in this life. Ecclesiastes tells us:

For everything there is a season,

and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance…

Ecclesiastes 3:1,2,4 (NRSVA)

I am thankful for all the seasons of my life. I am thankful that when I desperately needed help, the hands and hearts of my brothers and sisters in Christ were there for me, especially those in Celebrate Recovery. Without Celebrate Recovery I wouldn’t be here now.

Carry each other’s burdens and so live out the law of Christ. ….

Galatians 6:2 (NRSVA)

Thank you.

I don’t know why I continue to be so surprised at all the good things that we have been granted in the past few years. Why am I surprised to not be suffering for the first time in decades (I don’t consider this illness as suffering – far from it)? God is good. God is always good. But when life is good we must never become complacent. We must love our suffering neighbour all the more, all the more. As Ann Voskamp says, all is grace.

This song is not written about God, but it’s the one that makes the most sense to me today. It also serves a dual purpose of saying thank you to God, and thank you to my beloved husband, who has shown me God’s love with such generosity and patience through the good times and the bad. I hope you like it, too.

 

‘What must have been the feelings of our Lord Jesus Christ?’

“And [Jesus] said to them, I have earnestly and intensely desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…”

Luke 22:15 (Amplified)

 

‘Now you see, Sisters, what God does that a soul may be recognised as his:

he gives of what he has,

and this is the same as what he gave to his Son in this life.

God cannot give us a greater blessing…’

 

‘If a soul with a mere spark of compassion, such as you or I (which of course is nothing in comparison with the love and compassion of Christ), if a soul with a mere spark of compassion feels the torment (of seeing God offended by the sin-filled world) to be intolerable, how on earth did Jesus feel? What a life he must have endured, since everything was tangible and present to him, and he always had, right in front of his face, the wickedness of the world which spits in the face of his Father!

Without any doubt, I believe that these sufferings (seeing the sin-filled nature of the world) were very much greater than those of his sacred Passion, because with his death came the means of ending the sinfulness of the world…’ 

From ‘The Interior Castle’

by St. Teresa of Jesus

(paraphrased by me)

What must life have been like for a Spanish nun 500 years ago?

The Interior Castle was written by a nun called Teresa, later known as St. Teresa of Jesus or Teresa of Avila. She was great friends with, and a great influence on, the man who later came to be known as St. John of the Cross, author of Dark Night of the Soul, etc. The book I have quoted from above is translated from 16th century Spanish into English and whoever did the translation is, although very proficient, clearly not a native English speaker. What I’m getting at is that the prose is rather clunky and in many places obscure. This makes this amazing writer rather inaccessible to the modern reader, which is why I have paraphrased this quote just to clarify the meaning.

But what a heart-stopper! To think that Jesus loved God so much, and loved all of us so much, that he willingly chose his death as a means of removing our separation from God because our remaining in sin caused so much pain and misery. I don’t know whether I agree completely with Teresa’s interpretation of the crucifixion, but it has certainly made me think. Jesus saw the sheer sorrow and suffering of a life separated from God and loved us so much  – knowing how we are made in God’s image – that he would willingly walk the road to Calvary because the pain of seeing us continue as we were was even worse… it’s just beyond comprehension.

Additionally, and this is something I have never really heard spoken of, I never really considered how sin and suffering grieve God. My sin pains God in much the same way as seeing my child, my dear child, spitting in my face and walking the road to destruction.

I would do anything to stop my child from hurting. Maybe that’s the echo of Christ in me, in each of us?

          Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls

              All your waves and breakers have swept over me.

Psalm 42:7 (NIVUK)