April 24, 2003
I knew she was alive. I could hear her arguing with the paramedics, but I couldn’t quite make out my sister’s words.
Each time I tried to move closer to the tangled twist of metal that had been her minivan, an emergency worker would prevent me. “You have to stand back, ma’am.”
“No, I have to be with them,” I wanted to cry out.
Somehow I tamped down the scream and watched helplessly as two EMTs loaded a stretcher carrying my 78-year-old mother into the ambulance. They’d told me she was conscious; that’s all I knew. But they’d had to cut her out of the passenger side, which had taken a direct hit from a pickup traveling about 60 mph. The door was crumpled, the headlight and right front quarter panel were gone, and the wheel was bent at a 45-degree angle.
With adrenaline pumping, I observed the scene in that detached yet hyperinvolved way where time seems to expand as your brain endeavors to process too much information at once. Even with the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, the intersection was dark, and I carefully inched toward the streetlight to lean against the pole. My right foot was throbbing; I’d fallen and fractured the little toe just moments before I received word that my mother and sister had been injured on their way home from the grocery store.
Closer now, I could distinguish Laurie’s words. My sister, still in the driver’s seat, was refusing to let them place her on a back board, the rigid plastic board ambulance crews use to immobilize a person with a possible spine or neck injury before transporting them to the hospital.
“You don’t understand,” Laurie said, her voice firm even though she was crying. “My neck was like this before the wreck. It doesn’t bend.”
For several long, agonizing minutes she argued with the paramedics. She explained that she’d had rheumatoid arthritis since she was four, and that the vertebrae in her neck had fused on their own by the time she was a teenager.
Ultimately, she had to give in because they would not remove her from the car without putting her on the back board. It was on her terms, though. “Atta girl,” I thought as Laurie gave them orders about how to handle her.
I’m sure they tried to be gentle. Still, she screamed as they laid her on the board and tried to straighten her body enough to strap her down. She was just too bent to lie flat on her back. I held my breath until they finally closed the back door of the ambulance, turned on the siren, and sped away from the scene.
When I first saw Laurie in the emergency room, I gasped. As she had tried to tell them, the cervical brace would not fit, so they had placed a rolled-up towel under her neck, another one across her forehead, and then used duct tape to secure her head to the board. Her face was red and swollen from the force of the airbag when it deployed.
While I dealt with the admissions paperwork, a nurse began to take a medical history and check Laurie for injuries. Besides the neck trauma, her right elbow and one of her fingers appeared to be broken. They brought ice packs. X-rays and lab tests were ordered. Several times Laurie asked for something for pain, but the answer was always that the doctor had to see her first.
And all this time she was still lying flat on her back, still strapped to the board, muscles freezing in place, the number of broken bones yet to be determined.
After more than an hour without seeing a doctor, I became the squeaky wheel, trying to get the attention of somebody with the authority to get Laurie something for pain. It takes a lot for my sister to cry–she has a high pain threshold–and it was killing me to stand by her side, dry her tears, and watch her suffer.
Another nurse came in and began to go over the same territory we’d already covered. “On a scale of 1 to 10,” she asked Laurie, “how bad is the pain?”
Laurie lost it and began to sob. “It’s excruciating!”
Amazingly, the nurse paused just long enough to look up from her notes, then repeated the question.
“Twelve!” Laurie shouted.
Evidently a number, even though it was outside the required range, was the right answer. She left the room and went to get the doctor. I helped Laurie blow her nose and wiped her eyes.
She surprised me when she spoke again. “I shouldn’t have said ‘excruciating.'”
“Huh?” My own pain and fatigue were setting in. I’d been standing on a broken toe for a couple of hours by this time.
“It means ‘out of the cross.'” Her voice was soft, her tone reflective. “His pain was excruciating, not mine.”
Four days after Easter Sunday, while suffering intensely, my sister put her own pain in perspective by remembering the passion of Christ.
I have never understood my sister’s ability to cope with pain, other than as a gift of God’s grace. That she spoke disparagingly of broken bones and what turned out to be a bad whiplash humbled me at that moment and to this day.
The following day Laurie was on the cell phone, trying to work from her hospital bed, with me hobbling around and fussing at her. Mother had a punctured lung and more than a dozen rib fractures. Miraculously, her legs were not broken even though they had been jammed into the dashboard.
In a week they were both home from the hospital.
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
(adapted and expanded from writing originally posted on 9/23/07)
“Moreover [let us also be full of joy now!] let us exult and triumph in our troubles and rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that pressure and affliction and hardship produce patient and unswerving endurance. And endurance (fortitude) develops maturity of character (approved faith and tried integrity). And character [of this sort] produces [the habit of] joyful and confident hope of eternal salvation. Such hope never disappoints or deludes or shames us, for God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit Who has been given to us.”
(Romans 5:3-5, Amplified Bible translation—emphasis mine.)
“Troubles…sufferings…pressure…affliction…hardship”–no matter what you call it, it’s pain. Perhaps physical, maybe emotional or mental or even spiritual. Is there any necessary degree of pain required to earn the name of suffering? This is one facet of human life where it seems to me that everything truly is relative. How do you judge the comparative pain of two mothers, one whose child was stillborn, one killed by a car as a teenager? Is there any reason to quantify the suffering of parents of a child who has walked away from the Lord and stopped speaking to them, versus those of a son who will never walk or speak at all? What about the affliction of someone born blind as opposed to one who goes blind as an adult? One who loses the use of a limb versus one with chronic debilitating arthritis?
But don’t we often try to compare our trials with those of others? And how exactly are troubles supposed to produce endurance? Won’t they just as likely produce frustration and fatigue? When people are afflicted, what they long for is peace, the end of the problems. Do people under siege become more patiently persevering than those with serene lives?
A young man I know has joined the military. His parents have forwarded his letters to me, along with other friends and family, for the past six months or so. At first he wrote daily in diary fashion, and mailed a week’s worth at a time. The letters he wrote during Basic Training reduced me to tears at the thought of the hardship he was enduring. What is the army trying to achieve in these men’s lives? Are they trying to kill them? To wear them out and make them sick? No. They’re trying to make them strong enough to endure the hazards of defending their country in a war. If there are no hardships, no privations, no grueling exercises to survive, how will they develop the toughness, the resilience, the discipline and perseverance they’ll need in battle?
The young man didn’t give up, didn’t say, “This is too hard, I can’t do it.” He kept going and discovered new reserves of strength and skill in himself. He knows that hiking ten miles with a 50-pound pack won’t kill him, nor will any of the other seemingly impossible tasks the army set him in those grueling first weeks. He has learned to trust that a) his commanding officer knows what he can endure, needs to endure; and b) his body is capable of more than he’d ever dreamed of before now. He has learned to keep his eyes on the goal and not give up.
Chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews is a memorial of God’s miraculous work among His people. It’s also a hair-raising list of struggles, tortures, and deaths suffered by His faithful. And then chapter 12 begins with this statement:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (NIV)
We struggle and we persevere, because we trust that God knows what He’s trying to accomplish in and through our lives. We have a perfect pattern in our Lord, “who learned obedience from what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Because He is at work in me, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength”(Phil 4:13)…precisely because His power is made perfect in my weakness (II Cor. 12: 9). The success of enduring makes it feel possible to keep going. Hope is born out of affliction, because He faithfully sustains me as I keep my eyes on Him. Peter walked on water as long as he didn’t watch the waves.
Does this mean I’m going to go looking for trouble? Not hardly. “Each day has enough troubles of its own” (Matthew 6:34). And just as God’s mercies are new every morning, so are the struggles that go with being alive on planet Earth. But each one is doing its work in me, chipping away at the old nature and forming in me the woman God created me to become.
Is there going to be a time when there are no more trials, and life is as calm as the glassy surface of a pool on a windless day? No. If anything, as I mature the trials will intensify. Will I notice? Or will I have built my endurance so that I have sufficient strength for what comes today–though if it had arrived last year, last week or even yesterday, it’s not clear how I would have coped.
As my friend Anna pointed out when we talked about this, C.S. Lewis says it’s “further UP and further in,” rather than just further along the level ground. And if the road lies all uphill until the end of time, each step will bring me closer to the One I love. Faith and hope will sustain me until the day when they are swallowed up in eternal Love, eternal Now, where there is no night, no pain, no tears…and no more suffering to endure.
My father prepared me for his death from the time I was 7 years old. When, at 15, it happened, I still could not contain my screams which echoed off the walls of a hospital waiting room filled with aunts and uncles and my mother. I know nothing of suffering.
I demanded to see him, to feel his body one last time. I needed to touch him to believe it. I helped to choose his coffin and he was buried three days later, mourned by daughter, wife, friends he touched, and a son. I know nothing of suffering.
I am a father now and imagine the terror of my father sensing death’s immanence, about to leave a wife, a daughter, a son. I imagine the shear sadness of knowing you are dying and it is not the idea of your own death, but the idea of not being with those whom you love. I know nothing of suffering.
I have stood in the room with my wife’s dying father. I have watched death transform the glittering gaze of my spouse into a dull, drawn, darkness directly descended from the deceased. I know nothing of suffering.
I have laid beside my wife’s sadness watching her soul ebb and flow with memory and longing for her father, as I churned with memories of my own. I know nothing of suffering.
I have watched my family’s sudden and subtle shifts as a grandmother, a friend, an uncle, a grandmother, a grandfather, pass away with each year. Death’s disorganization requires re-alignment of rote roles. I know nothing of suffering.
I know of sadness, of deep, abiding sadness and whether 40 days or 40 months, I know I should let go and allow each to ascend so the Spirit can arrive and anoint me.
“then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.” Acts 4:10
My friends, please don’t have a medical crisis that calls for CPR if it’s ever just the two of us, with no one else around; if the EMT’s don’t arrive quickly, you might die.
I have taken several CPR classes, but I always wonder if I could successfully perform the procedure on a needy person if the situation called for it. The single thing that gives me the slightest glimmer of hope for you in our little scenario is the mnemonic ABC—airway, breathing, circulation. I do remember these “handles” from my training, and they are enough—I think—to jog my brain and the rest of my body into taking the corresponding appropriate action.
That, of course, is the whole point of memorizing “ABC”, repeating it over and over during the training, getting it into my head through every avenue available, until I know it forward, backward, inside out. It’s knowledge meant to sustain in the needy moment.
I see a connection here to the case that can be made for Bible memorization. In our American educational system, memorizing has been somewhat set aside in recent years as “old school”. We used to call it “learning by rote.” Rote is defined as “a memorizing process using routine or repetition, often without full attention or comprehension”. Those who would eliminate this memorization method often do so based on that last part of the definition—just learning the words, facts, or figures without fully comprehending can’t be that valuable, they say.
I would be the first to recognize that it won’t do you much good, lying there unresponsive before me in need of CPR , if all I can remember is “ABC” and I don’t know the corresponding actions to take. But, hopefully, the ABC memory trigger creates the hook where action hangs its hat. In the same way merely knowing the words to hundreds of Bible verses may help me win the Bible Bee in Sunday school without being of much additional use in my life if it never translates from head knowledge into practice.
In my own experience, getting God’s Word into my head has often been the first step in getting it into my heart. Many times, when I need the wisdom and light of God’s truth, I don’t have a Bible at hand (just as I probably won’t have my first aid book at hand when you need that CPR). But it is an amazing moment, if I stop later to analyze, when a verse I memorized during a summer Bible club more than forty years ago flits and lands right in the bull’s-eye of my heart need at just the right time. That is the fire of God’s Spirit using the fuel of His Word to ignite the flame by which I’m able to see my next step along the path or the need of my neighbor who lies along that path wounded and beaten up by life. Through memorization, that Word is constantly accessible to me in places and during activities where I cannot or do not take my Bible, like in the shower or behind the wheel of the car, or when I’m talking with my neighbor or standing in the checkout lane at Wal-Mart. These are places where God speaks His sustaining Word to me or where His Spirit may prompt me to speak it to another.
My fifteen-year-old son and I have been memorizing Isaiah 53 in our homeschool during this Lenten season. I learned the chapter long ago from the King James Bible, so this is a tune-up for me, tweaking my recall now from a different translation. But I have to tell you, something is happening this time through that did not happen when I memorized that passage in a memory challenge years ago. There have been mornings in the past couple of weeks that I’ve repeated those words and have nearly wept at pondering the fact that all the piercing, crushing, and wounding that Jesus withstood was for me. It’s the familiar cadence of the ancient words, learned first through plain old drill, that has left room for the Holy Spirit to put the spotlight on the revisited truth.
More than once the Psalmist mentions the activity of meditating on God’s Word. Again, not always having a Bible in hand, I can meditate on verses I have memorized—chew as a cow would chew its cud; crude illustration, but the purpose of the activity is thorough digestion. It is said we are what we eat—likewise, we become what we take in and digest of God’s Truth.
I am 52 years old. I still memorize, but not nearly as easily (or often) as I did when I was 6 or 12 or 21. I am thankful that I grew up in a faith tradition where Scripture memorization was encouraged. God’s Word sustains—the posts that have preceded this one this week give testimony to that. God’s Word memorized sustains—it’s like the high quality trail mix you carry in your backpack as you travel through life. Always there, ready when you need it…and if you keep hiking and keep renewing your supply, it’s always fresh.
seeking not to understand
but strength to do Your will
seeking not to be heard
but to hear the still small voice
seeking not the answers
but to trust the Solid Rock
seeking not feel Your touch
but to know that You are near
seeking not to work and do
but rest in who You are
Seeking not Your movement
but the movement of my heart
seeking not to suffer less
but to suffer more like You
seeking not escape
but to walk along the way
seeking not to see the end
but to see me as You do
seeking not to help myself
but help for what You’ve called me to
seeking not to grasp
but to be held
” . . . seek first his kingdom and his righteousness . . . “
Sustaining – How do you keep going? What sustains you in your relationship with Jesus? On cold days and weeks and months when you are cold and hungry and thirsty, what feeds you?These are the questions posed for this week’s discussion. At first the questions troubled me. If I only read the first question, the answer is easy – Jesus! He is the One who keeps me going. Then I read the second question and at first I drew a blank – mostly because He was the answer to the first question. My answer to the third question is the same as the first – Jesus! He feeds me, warms me and quenches my thirst.
But it wasn’t always so. The longer I have thought about the questions, the more I realized that there was a time when I wondered if I could hold on to faith. It was in those early days of faith – I had been raised in church all my life but those first days, months and even years of testing MY faith, I wondered…is this worth it?
I would try to live faithfully and fail – serving God as if he was a bit of a tyrant always looking for ways to “get me” and punish me for a wrong thought, a mean word or some other misstep.
Yet there was something about Him that continued to draw. Each time I failed, even though there was this fear of punishment, He still drew me. In time, I learned that He wasn’t out to “get me” but to have a relationship with me. I began to realize that any spiritual discomfort was not from punishment but from pulling away and keeping a distance from Him.
There came a time – and I’m not sure when or how – I found Him to be my refuge and strength. Instead of looking for ways to sustain my faith or to sustain my relationship with Him, I was seeking Him to sustain me in marriage, in ministry, in times of grief and in times of great challenge.
When there are places – relationships, ministries, etc – that are cold, lacking in some way, I find myself retreating to the only One who can bring sustenance to any of those. I retreat to the place of prayer – read Scriptures and wait on Him. He comes and I am renewed.