Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Power of Pain

Kevin Robertson, the senior pastor of my church, was vomiting on an airplane yesterday. Kevin and his wife, Jennifer, are en route to an orphanage in Sudan to offer aid and assistance there.

For seven hours, a physician attempted to treat Kevin. When his plane landed in Kenya, he was rushed to an emergency room. Though his symptoms have subsided, the doctors couldn't determine the cause of his illness. Kevin planned to immediately continue on to Sudan, and as I type this, I wonder, Where in the world are Kevin and Jennifer? How are they doing?

I sent an email about Kevin to folks from our church at midnight last night. I've already gotten many replies, with people saying they're praying for the couple. And I've been praying for them throughout the day. I certainly would have prayed for Kevin and Jennifer if everything had gone according to plan. But admittedly, the fact they've hit a rough patch caused me to pay attention, and thus, pray a lot more.

Pain catches my attention. As evidenced by the emails I've received for Kevin and Jennifer, I'm not the only one who notices. Last September, I attended a youth workshop where the speaker, Christina DiMari, could barely stand up. She'd flown to Southern California from Kentucky, and just two days before the event, she'd been lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV. She had to have surgery shortly after the event.

When I later interviewed Christina, she told me she'd been inspired by another woman's illness. Christian speaker and author Beth Moore had been scheduled to speak at Christina's church. When Beth became extremely ill just before the engagement, her doctor advised her to cancel the trip. But Beth, still hooked up to an IV, boarded the plane to Louisville anyway. She was so weak she couldn't stand up at Christina's church, and had to sit on a stool as she spoke. "That's all I could think of because I was so sick," Christina told me, referring to her own moment of illness at the youth workshop. "I kept thinking of Beth and how she'd just pushed through it."

When I looked at their lives,

I saw two people who hadn't

abandoned God when things

got tough. And I saw two people

God hadn't abandoned.

Shortly after my meeting with Christina, I was facing my own pain. I lost part of my eyesight, and my physician told me it wouldn't return and there were no treatments. As I contemplated living the remainder of my life with that vision impairment, my thoughts turned to two friends--I'll call them Tom and Terry. Both are in their early 30s, and both are living with illness: Tom has multiple sclerosis, Terry has diabetes. Just knowing about their illnesses gave me hope that I could live with my vision loss. When I looked at their lives, I saw two people who hadn't abandoned God when things got tough. And I saw two people God hadn't abandoned.

I struggle with the idea of pain. Questions constantly fill my mind: Why did God choose to heal my eyesight? Why does God allow my friends Tom and Terry to be ill? Why does God allow people who are doing his work--like Beth, Christina, and Kevin--to suffer, even as they're serving him?

God hasn't given me answers to those questions. But he has stirred some deep thoughts. When I've seen people in pain, I've noticed their perspective changes. I've seen them cling to God. I've seen God give them enough strength to keep going. It was their pain that initially made me take notice, then their faith that held my attention. To an even greater extent, my own pain from my eyesight problems brought a renewed reliance on God, a deep gratitude for the good things God's given me, and a stronger sense of empathy for others.

Looking at some verses in Psalm 30, I realized the psalmist had been through depression, illness, and mourning. Painful stuff. The psalmist fully recognizes God has taken away that pain:

"I will exalt you, O LORD, for you lifted me out of the depths ..." (v.1)

"O LORD my God, I called to you for help and you healed me." (v.2)

"You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy ... " (v.11)

Pain is a human experience we've all had, yet so few of us discuss with others. I'm happy when I can rejoice with friends about the good things in their lives. But it's when they share their pain that I feel most akin to them. Despite the thousands of years and cultural differences that separate me and the psalmist, I can look at those verses and say, "Yup, I feel you." Additionally, that presence of pain amplifies the contrast of joy in the verses. The loss was big, but God's touch was way bigger.

I'm praying Kevin and Jennifer are healthy and safely moving forward on their journey. And I'm praying that God uses their moments of pain and turns them around to a big, powerful joy, like only God can do.

To ponder:
1) What are some moments of pain you've experienced?

2) Do you tend to talk about your painful experiences? Why or why not?

3) Do you see benefits to talking about your pain? What physical, mental, and spiritual benefits have you seen?

4) What are some positive outcomes of painful experiences you've had? Would omitting the pain change that experience?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your column. It was really interesting and thought-provoking. I understand all about pain (in my case, stress) leading you to God more. Recently my husband and I became foster parents to a little 2 1/2-year-old girl that we hope to adopt in the near future. While she's a wonderful child, she's also going through a traumatic transition and the terrible twos at the same time. The stress of instant parenthood has led me to rely on God more so than before. Although I wish I could say that I rely on God no matter what, it's during those stressful and painful times that I realize that I really do NEED him, and it's only through his strength that I can go on.
Thanks again!