The Brush Pile: Suffering Pt. 2

brushIt was the kind of hot that you feel in your joints. That kind of hot that makes it dangerous and necessary to sit down and take breaks when you’re working outside. I had a work crew of about 13 people with one other adult. We were on a missions work-site for a SBC entity repainting and doing minor repairs to a needy home.

We had been on the site for three days and my leg had all but given out. (see part one) After day one, I had to use a cane, and now at halfway through day three I was unable to stand up without pain. I tried to hide my weakness from the crew and attempted to insist on leading by example. But God, in His divine providence, placed on my crew the only student in my ministry that I would be willing to listen to. The tyrant nurse demanded that I sit and direct from the grass.

So, imagine the scene: We’ve been working hard all morning and we are exhausted. The students on my crew were sweaty, sleep deprived, and anxious for a break. By this point in the week their relationships are solidified and they’re no longer trying to impress each other. My leg felt like it was on fire and I really couldn’t walk well or stand for long without leaning on something. Every step sent painful waves up my leg. So… I listened to that faithful student and sat for a break. It was about an hour after our lunch break.

Now… please understand… I don’t sit when there is work to do. I work. If I’m in charge of a work-site or a mission, I accomplish the goal and lead by doing. I may move slow, but I keep moving until it’s time to stop. So, sitting is not in my nature. But in this moment, the tyrant was right.

About the same time I sat down, another crew member sat down to take a water break. Behind us was a large pile of brush and bushes that needed to be cut away from the neighboring fence and dragged to the street. The other adult on the crew told the young man beside me, “Hey, we’ll all take a break in about 30 minutes. Go clear that brush.” I had rested about 5 minutes (until the tyrant was out of visual range), then I stood up and limped over to clear the brush.

My resting compatriot rolled his eyes and said, “Hey! Is that supposed to make me want to clear the brush?”

I laughed, “No… it’s supposed to clear the brush.”

He jumped up. “Sit down! I’ll do it.”

I laughed again, “Make me.”

“Come on man! I was just taking a break.”

I responded, “I didn’t say anything to you about a break. You do your thing bro, I’m gonna clear this brush.”

His countenance changed immediately. Suddenly he realized that we weren’t forcing him to paint and clear brush, we were allowing him to. No one was judging him or telling him he was lazy. We were just working to get the job done. He saw me working through pain, and he worked harder. I’d like to believe that this moment left an indelible impact on his life and that one day he’ll write a tell all book with a chapter in it dedicated to his limping crew chief… most likely he will still take extra breaks and try to get out of working hard and may never remember that moment. But, in that moment, that boy got to work and we cleared the brush.

I do know that others have expressed that there is a certain power they have learned by seeing suffering people overcome their suffering. When people who you are leading see you struggle, they recognize that the struggle is not the end and they have hope.

Sometimes people need to see your pain. Not because they need to pity you or because you’ll get more work from them if they do. But because they need to know that what they are doing transcends comfort levels. They need to see that suffering is part of life and they can move past it. They need to know someone can make it through the suffering that is all too common in this life.

So push through your suffering, you’ll find your example will inspire. It might not inspire many… but it will inspire. You can do it, push through.

This is part two of a series of undetermined length. pt. 1 is here

Processing Suffering, Pt. 1

This image is from The Misery of Job and The Mercy of God by John Piper

About 4 or 5 years ago I was afflicted with an odd disease. This disease causes a lack of movement (flexibility) in the specific affected limbs, weird hardened red patches on my skin (seriously they feel like plastic), occasional swelling, often severe nerve pain, and constant muscle fatigue. Sometimes I have to use a cane and walking any significant distance is always painful. Oddly enough, I feel privileged to be afflicted. You see, I know the God of the universe and He has seen fit to give me the delight of non-debilitating suffering (but that is for a later blog). I’ve learned more about people, patience, empathy, and leadership than I know what to do with. In all that time I’ve been comforted by some, annoyed by others, and surprised by my own heart more than I care to admit. My feelings about this struggle are often convoluted and confused. Sometimes there is a moment of clarity and in an effort to process those moments I’m going to share here. Hopefully my clear moments can help you in some of your cloudy moments.

The most common question I was asked by pastor friends after being diagnosed was, “what are you learning?” Although well meaning, this question often frustrated me. In the moment, I couldn’t tell you why this frustrated me… it is a very reasonable question, especially to ask a Christian. As I have pondered why this bothered me I’ve come to a few conclusions.

  1. This question spiritualized what is real physical suffering. While these good men meant well, they asked a question that seemed to dismiss the chronic pain that I was struggling to deal with. Pain that would probably come and go the rest of my life. This question reduced my pain to a set of life lessons and assumed that all suffering is something you must be able to learn from. In truth, sometimes life just stinks and there is nothing to learn from it. Sometimes you’ll be covered in boils or experience death for no other reason than the fact that sin and death exist. Indeed, I have learned a great deal. But I cannot reduce my suffering to measured bites for you to chew on. What I was feeling was real, painful, and constant. What they were asking me to do was to reduce that to a set of expressible truths that could be packaged for them to understand.
  2. This question seemed to dismiss the pain I was struggling to overcome. Asking someone who is dealing with chronic pain to open up about what they are learning is kind of like asking someone if they can take dictation while riding a horse. They’ve just figured out how to stay on the horse and now you want them to write a letter? What God reveals to suffering people is often so overwhelming that it is difficult to process and even more difficult to explain to people who don’t or haven’t suffered. If you want to help, take a note from Job’s friends… just be around, don’t say anything. It is when we start to talk that we get ourselves in trouble.
  3. This question assumed that I was at a point in my journey where I was ready to learn, or at least be pushed to consider deeper truths of suffering. However, chronic pain is not like a text book. You don’t simply read the chapter and assimilate the knowledge. You will constantly walk up-hill learning through exhaustion and exasperation. You will take a thousand steps before you realize the correct method of handling your pain. You will struggle to maintain… this is suffering with chronic pain. It stinks and it is long.
  4. Finally, this question makes me feel abnormal or like I am supposed to be something more. When suffering becomes common place and chronic in someone’s life, the one suffering must realize that this is now normal. Chronic pain becomes a part of everyday life and at some point you simple learn to ignore it. I remember sitting with an elderly man who struggled with chronic pain. I told him about my issues and when he shared with me what it was that he dealt with, I said, “That sounds annoying.” He shrugged and said, “it is what it is.” That is exactly how I feel! I know I should have some tremendous insight and lofty wisdom about glorification. However, in reality… I’m a normal guy and it is what it is.

Ok, so this question irritated me. So how do we help each other process pain then? Just four simple things.

  1. Just be around. Suffering people don’t need prodding or advice or wise sayings to hang on to, we just need you. Come, sit, and be with those who are suffering.
  2. Tell me what you are learning from Scripture. Seriously… read your bible and grow then show me.
  3. Laugh with them. This is critical. Suffering people need to laugh. One of the greatest delights I have had when suffering is when someone led me to think on unrelated humorous things. To laugh, this is the greatest medicine.
  4. I have a small group that prays for me constantly. They have prayed for years that the Lord would remove this thorn and for years I have kept it. Yet, their prayers for me are a dear reminder that I am not alone in my suffering. I have people around me who care and long to see me better.

I intend to share more about my personal journey so this is titled part 1. I have no idea how many parts there will be. So… we’ll see.