About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25) When we find ourselves in the midst of trials, it becomes easy to focus on ourselves. And for good reason.
Life, as we know it, has changed. The anxiety surrounding that moment builds as we feel a loss of control.
death of a loved one
lack of improvement in chronic illness
consequences of fighting for justice
The rhythm was altered without our knowledge. The implications may involve physical/emotional hardship. The discomfort is unsettling. We seek restoration. But as we seek it, we may develop “tunnel vision.” We look for God’s redemption within the scope of our own lives. Yet, God’s movement in our trials speaks to those outside our scope as well.
Paul and Silas were no strangers to trials. Because of their passion for bringing Jesus’ message to a secular society, persecution was a regular experience for them. But when God acted to deliver them, others took notice.
Others witnessed them calling out to God through song as they lay in pain from their beating. Their response was counter cultural. But “the other prisoners were listening to them.”
As if that wasn’t enough, God’s power came through with a mighty force and blew open the prison doors and loosened the chains! As a result of this experience, the jailer’s eyes were opened. He recognized God’s hand in Paul and Silas’ moment of trial and sought to be baptized. Our trials aren’t just about us
Throughout scripture, God is about drawing others to Himself. Whether it be directly (public manifestation) or indirectly (testimony). Our trials are one venue through which that happens.
How are others seeing God’s hand at work in your trial? Sovereign God, No part of our lives is outside your view. We are reminded of your power to break through those situations which come our way and cause distress. Please hear our cries as you have heard the pleas of those who have come before us. We seek deliverance from the hardships we are experiencing (name them). As you restore us, may others see you at work. Amen
Amy Simpson’s article, “Supporting Families Living With Mental Illness” resonated deeply with me. Her story speaks of a journey that many walk in silence; one with which I am all too familiar. I am ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church but currently am not serving in a pastoral position. However, I do have a ministry. It is through my own family’s journey with our child, who is being treated for Bipolar Disorder, that my eyes were opened up to the need for educating and equipping the local congregation to care for others walking our journey.
Recently, I had the privilege of leading a workshop at the ECC Central Conference Women’s Spring Celebration for women with children affected by mental illness or other challenges. The fact that the room was packed spoke volumes. That room became a place of refuge and belonging. Common experiences shared included isolation, exhaustion, and the need for community – specifically for Christian community. Simpson’s call to action to the church to support families affected by mental illness matches my own experiences as a parent and as part of the body of Christ. I offer here some practical suggestions for how the local church can support families struggling with mental illness.
Educate: Become aware of organizations that supply information about the condition. For ministry staff, the questions that arise may include: How do I care for this person and their family? How do I help educate the congregation without drawing negative attention to the individual (and family members)? Since the symptoms fall on a large spectrum, the individuals have different needs. Some churches have a sunday school class that particularly caters to children with special concerns. We give practical suggestions to teachers when cues such as frustration or anger are presented.
Understand the impact on the entire family:As Simpson notes, “…behind every person with mental illness is a family that has been impacted-perhaps even devastated-by that illness.” Time, energy and resources are often drastically reduced in caring for the affected individual. Siblings may feel neglected. One idea that has been welcoming to us is the inviting of our other children to play at other families’ homes. It’s a simple act that benefits everyone and reminds the siblings that they are special too. Any gesture that can ease tension is a gift to the family.
A note on a theology of suffering: Simpson cautions against a theology of suffering that teaches “that life should be easy and happy.” While I agree with her, I would also admonish against a belief that medication/treatment provides a diversion from acknowledging the reality of suffering. I know persons with mental illness who have refused medication because they believe that the illness is a “cross to bear.”
People facing other illnesses such as diabetes, heart conditions, etc. do not usually see their conditions from that perspective. In particular, parents of children with mental health issues may struggle with embracing the use of medication to help their child. Further complicating the decision by throwing a misguided theology of suffering on them is not helpful. I believe that God has gifted individuals to develop medications that help restore “normal” processes of the brain and give those affected a better quality of life.
The beauty of the Christian community is that we are made better by growing together. We gain a bigger picture of God’s character through our interactions with each other. My daughter loves and is effective in helping in certain tasks. When she was younger, she placed the communion cups in the trays. She also helps prepare the snacks (and I might add enjoys being creative in this task) for our Café’ which follows our Sunday worship service. Children, in general crave purpose. Involvement affirms the truth that they are an important part of the community. . The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up…”. (1 Thessalonians 5:11) As Simpson states, “Helping people with mental illness is part of the church’s mission and calling. This is true not only for church leaders, but also every Christian. We are responsible for our response to people in need.”
” Do you want to be made well?”
The question posed to the man in John 5:5-9 appears rhetorical.
We do not know if he was born with a disability or his physical limitations are the result of an injury. Regardless, he is accustomed to his place near the pool of Bethesda. He’s resided in that spot for 38 years! He knows the perceptions of how he got there. Surely his parents must have sinned greatly in order for God’s blessing to be withheld. The whispers and stares are not lost on him. He watches those whom wear the badge of “blessed” murmur as they pass his way daily. It’s not an abundant life. But it is what he has accepted.
And then he encounters Jesus. He wasn’t even seeking Him. Yet, Jesus approaches the man.
Who, would not embrace the offer to be healed? After all, multitudes clamored to be healed through Jesus’ mysterious yet miraculous touch.
What appears to be a simple question actually carries with it a complex web of implications.
Three years ago, my son became sick. Originally struggling with a chronic upset stomach, epilepsy presented suddenly. Our lives became caught up in a whirlwind of questioning, troubleshooting and despair. Thankfully, God’s mercies held us tight during that year. However, reeling out of that trauma, my son struggled with being made well. As I walked with him in that journey, I reflected on moments in my own life when I too feared “being well,” The voices spoken both audibly and echoing in our heads, appear to hold power and keep us from breaking free.
Restoration changes our perceived identity
Is it no wonder that the man in John 5 became accustomed to his socially appointed lot in life? We are creatures of habit-even if the routine subtly and deceptively keeps us from being restored-fully whole in communion with God..
My son’s visit to Mayo Clinic included a visit with a psychologist who only sees adolescents with chronic illnesses. Why? Because narrowing one’s identity to fit around the illness becomes tempting. My son was exhorted to not let his epilepsy define him.
Our own identities may be informed by life changing parts of our narratives, illness, injury,sinful actions committed against us or sinful areas with which we struggle. Regardless, Jesus has promised us abundant life Healing may or may not happen here on Earth but restoration is always possible.
How will he recognize his purpose now? What will it take for him to break through the perception that he is no longer dependent on others for basic needs? How will he establish autonomy?
Restoration places us out of our comfort zone; even if the previous zone of habitation limited us. As my son returned to High School for his Junior year, following the previous year of illness, I anticipated that he would welcome the fresh start. However, anxiety filled him as he began. I felt completely blindsided. Why would apprehension fill his heart?
He had become accustomed to his lot. Sympathetic teachers. A force of people supporting him. Extra time at home.
As my writer friend Emily Conrad wrote in response to one of my posts, “I finally got something I’ve been longing for for years and now I find myself on the other side of a situation I had grown comfortable with. I had accepted it. And now that Jesus spoke and I’m moving on, I feel a little wobbly on these legs.” Transitioning to a posture of empowerment demands walking forward. Even if the ground feels shaky at first.
Restoration expands our view of God’s character. Believe it or not, grasping who God is can cause one to feel a bit unsettled. Humanity has always yearned for the predictable. Comfort is found in explanation. Uncertainty sends our hearts and minds stirring. We simply find difficulty in grasping God’s words through Isaiah” “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. Isaiah 55:8-9
Doesn’t it seem easier in a chronic situation to adapt and accept that God is not capable of Forgiveness? Mercy? Delivery? Healing?
“Do you want to be made well?”
Jesus heals the man in a way that the man never expected. Not in the pool but simply out of Jesus’ authoritative word: “Rise. take up your pallet and walk.”
Later, Jesus finds the man to complete the process of restoration. “Go and sin no more.”
Suddenly, his daily rhythm of life is altered.
Walking forward demands trusting our sovereign God in our new steps. Acknowledging that we can balance on one leg as we move the other in front in order to stride toward the longed for but unfamiliar horizon.
It’s possible. because of Jesus
Jesus, who desires my wholeness so much to encounter me when I wasn’t looking for restoration.
Jesus, who believes that I am so much more than what I think of myself. Jesus.
What must you surrender to Jesus so that you might be “made well?”
Sometimes, life leaves your brain full and your mouth empty. A season of life two years ago encompassed one of those times for me. The thing is-these seasons don’t just end with a nice and tidy resolution. They don’t leave us with an instant epiphany of profound theological insight. Rather, we are left with a reminder-:spiritual, physical, emotional- that we are humans wrestling with the realities of living in a place of in-between.
It is not yet Heaven.
The days of December 2013 quickly filled up with preparations for Christmas as well as doctor’s appointments. My eldest son became increasingly ill. A periodic problem with an upset stomach evolved into a daily issue. Watching your child feeling sick packs a punch to the stomach and the heart. The immediate desire is to fix it.
Yet, beginning in October, we sought an answer from many physicians and no one could fix it. How can that happen? We live near Chicago; a mecca of renowned and state-of-the art medical centers. A gold mine of wisdom on the complexities of the human body. Yet, each visit to a different specialist yielded more questions. We just wanted answers.
Emergency room doctors ruled out some things But nothing made him better. Daily, he made the trek to school with virtually nothing in his stomach except a bit of protein shake. Sometimes, he couldn’t gather the stamina to make it to school. My husband and I worried. The school pressured. The bills mounted. We prayed. Friends prayed. Strangers prayed. But there were no answers.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6 (NIV). Embracing the peace of Christ in the midst of uncertainty challenged me.
Finally, after many tests and procedures, a diagnosis was reached. Whew! Finally a name and a course of treatment.Finally, an answer! Medicine would bring healing and resolve the problem. I grabbed hold of the answer and felt a sense of relief; control; no uncertainty. How easy is it to acknowledge the “peace that passes all understanding” when circumstances line up according to our expectations? But would that peace permeate if the circumstances change? The events of the next day confronted me with that question.
Following dinner, upon preparing to study for finals, he fell to the couch and began to seize. Never having witnessed a seizure, it was the most terrifying moment of my life. The limp look of his body; the lifeless look in his eyes, will remain etched in my mind for a long time. Those five minutes led me to a profound realization as my mind grasped to acknowledge the surreal reality spinning around me: there are many things I can control-but death may not be one of them.
Fortunately, he came out of the seizure, was quickly rushed to the hospital, and the scans came out clear. But, more questions arose...and yet no answers. In my frustration, I hesitated to let go of what I thought to be a resolution. I didn’t want to believe that our lives were once more catapulted into the abyss. “How do you embrace the peace that transcends all understanding when God’s movement does not align with Earthly expectation?
As we dealt with the uncertainty in his health, we attempted to proceed with the rhythms of life. That wrenching moment rewound in my mind in the midst of my days. Ambulance sounds caused shivers down my back. Yet, I attempted to let Jesus, not me, guard my heart.
The dark, frigid winter painted an appropriate backdrop to the events and feelings over those next several months. While we continued to hold on to the glimmer of light held out for us through scriptural promises, the realities of living in the “not yet” continued to speak into our lives. How does one live in the truth of new life in the resurrection, yet, face the reality of destruction and death of the things of this world?
My heart and my mind bear the scars of living in a kingdom that is both now and not yet. But I am keenly aware that I am not the only one. In one way or another, all of us feel that paradox. Circumstances may differ. Our expectations and God’s answers may or may not merge. Yet, the testimony and scars of others bear witness to the peace that Christ offers, while living in a kingdom that unfolds toward completion.
It’s the peace that Jesus promised to his disciples, who had given up everything for him. “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 (NLV).
Eventually, the winter season yielded to the brighter, warmer days of spring; not just meteorologically, but symbolically as well. My son’s health improved. I am aware that I am bound to encounter those seasons of restlessness again. They too are promises of Jesus. But He also imparts a peace that “transcends all understanding” as we navigate through them.