The Push: From Pain Alone to Pain and Joy Together
(Remember, joy is not living in the absence of any challenge or pain, it is the ability to move through challenges, pain, and happiness with the assured knowledge that we are loved by God. We are not alone. We realize that we have been found. A deeper reflection on how we have caused God pain in our own brokenness is found by sitting in silence and listening to the truth in our soul. Even so, accepting that we are still unconditionally loved leads to a confirmed reality of living in joy.)
“Thankfully my life has been a perfect example of living with joy and pain together.” – Jeff Conway
LIAR! (Please yell out that word the way Carol Kane’s character did in Princess Bride.)
Being the perfect example is so far from the truth. I have had seasons of personal struggle, but reaching out to others with pastoral care always seemed to be my journey back towards living in the joy. Helping others find the truth of joy has always been a part of my walk to its depths. Knowing the truth in joy and living it out have not always been as clear as it is now, living on my own razor’s edge: when will that fall be my last fall leaving me unable to take shuffle steps? It has put my life in a different perspective.
I did not experience true physical pain in my life until my fourth year at university. What became an enormous joke that lives in infamy with my fraternity brothers is the night I fell asleep riding, truly coasting, on my bike on the path next to the Willamette River. It was months later that the pain began pulsing down my leg during a regular run. The pain progressed rapidly over the next few months. Because I'd totally forgotten about my bike accident months earlier, the doctors were stumped by what was causing the pain. X-rays showed nothing out of the ordinary. Physical therapy did not help and sometimes made my situation worse. So much worse that I was struggling to find joy. Pain ruled every day, and I was not leaning into the presence of God’s love. Darkness pushed against the light and felt like it was winning. Constant pain disengaged me from the joy. It got so dark that I considered trying to crack my head against the pool at my apartment to make a downing look like an accident.
It took a fraternity brother to snap me out of those thoughts and give me confidence to tell the doctors to be more aggressive. One myelogram later and a major rupture in a lower disc was found.
“Are you sure there was no accident in your recent past?” the doctor asked.
“Well, there was this bike accident way back in autumn….”
A few weeks later I had surgery and began my journey away from pain. I hadn't let joy rule in that time of my life, but I learned much from that season that would carry into my pastoral and personal life.
In January 2017, I announced to the leadership of the church I worked at that it was time to begin planning for a pastoral change. It was important to me that the church would not have to go through an unplanned leadership change. I told them I imagined I had 1 to 1 1/2 years to continue to serve. I was living in a place of deep abiding joy. My body was failing, but my faith was not. God gave me a great sense of freedom sharing openly with the entire church and I was still strong enough to keep moving forward as the leadership began their transition plan. But by the Spring my body was in a more rapid decline and the transition plans were moving swiftly. They were doing everything I hoped they would do but darkness began pushing in. Joy was slipping and panic was entering in its place. After 35 years of ministry, all of the faith I had been given, all of the life experience of traveling through four continents studying and ministering felt so far away. How could what I had prayed for cause me so much trepidation?
Then we had a gathering planned for late Spring. I got a call from someone saying that they would not be able to attend (for a perfectly legitimate reason). But in a panic, I said, “I need you. I feel like I’m dying.” To the recipient, who had never heard me speak so emotionally, it felt like manipulation. For me, it was the brokenness of my humanity pouring out in two hurtful sentences, directed at someone who didn’t need to be the first for me to unload upon. I grieve the pain I caused that person with my erratic and confused spiritual and emotional pain. And it has been a long journey of forgiveness.
So yes, pain and joy dwell together in harmony. But no, we do not always push through the seeming dissimilarity of finding balance with pain and joy. I do not always. But God is always present to push the panic, paranoia, and pain to its proper place—not away, still present, but in a place where the harsh edges can be smoothed.
God is the amoeba in my soul. No sharp edges. Rounded, smooth, pushing, extending and contracting. There is no cure. I don’t want one. God planted Godself as a gift that brings longing, life, light. At times, the darkness pushes into my brokenness, spiritually; emotionally; and now, more than I ever recognized, physically, I can dwell in that place too long, even pushing myself. But God is there, and God always prevails. God moves into the various rooms of my soul and brings the mountains low and raises the valleys and makes the path straight. It may take me time to recognize the truth, but I am always set free and encouraged to dwell in joy.
I encourage you to continue to marinate in the Word. After you have spent some time in the first letter of John, continue on to the second and third letter. Take time to sit with the word LOVE. What does it mean to you? How have you yearned for true, honest, complete love in your life? Where do you see that complete, unconditional love? Sit. Soak. Steep.