Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Dark Night of the Soul

"Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord."
~Psalm 130:1 NRSV

Ash Wednesday 2017

 When St. John of the Cross spoke of the dark night of the soul, I wonder if he had any idea of just how true the concept would ring for believers of future generations. A Christian's spiritual desolation full of melancholia, doubt, and a feeling of separation from God. It is a soul-rending time, a dark time, and a moment where one's faith is put to the ultimate test. I know this because I've experienced it and have so the past few months.

In all honesty, I had never planned to talk about this. I'm a very private person and as an aspirant in the Episcopal Church (meaning, someone who plans to be a deacon or in my case- a priest); the idea of putting a voice to it seemed like a risk that could cost me in the taking. When I started getting the inkling that I should do so, I thought I had lost my mind. However, the more I resisted, the more the hints grew stronger and constant until I'm sitting here with a cup of tea to fortify my nerves and my fingers on the keyboard. If I really want to be honest: I'm terrified.

I would like to apologize in advance for the rawness that will show up in this post. I'll be talking about some hard things and while my language may be a bit harsher, I won't be completely offensive in my word choice.

I'm not going to lie: 2017 has been a very bad year for me. It has been a never-ending, relentless shit storm that has delivered one punishing blow after the other. In fact, during my last week of the semester, my Trauma professor referenced such occasions by what the French refer to as coup sur coup or blow-by-blow. On the second day of the new year, I was in a minor car accident that had me in severe pain for several days. I suppose I should have taken that as an omen, but I have never been very superstitious.

Between that and a lost battle with the Winter Queen, I ended missing the first week of classes which could be disastrous as I was taking all upper-division courses. And it did indeed have consequences. I was terribly behind in my work plus with the additional pain, my concentration was virtually nil. Eventually, things got so bad that I had to entertain the notion of a medical withdrawal or even just dropping out. I started missing a ton of class and when I could go to class or work, I often had to leave early or step out because my body was in too much pain. It got to the point where even a couple of professors wondered if they were being negligent and unethical in letting me try to continue. Unfortunately, I didn't have a choice but to continue because if I don't graduate in May 2018, I will be without financial aid and have no way of paying 40k+ for another year. Translation: I'll be several thousand in debt with no degrees. I had to take Incompletes in all of my classes, withdraw from one which put a second 'W' on my transcript and had to request at least one extension on all of my Incompletes thus far.

This was compounded by the fact that I was getting even sicker and under constant stress from my classes and a series of untreated trauma that chose the worst time to raise its ugly head. Combining all of that, plus some issues in my private life and I was brought first to my knees and then to my face.

One thing I've been praised for many times has been my ability to pick myself off the floor, dust off my knees and continue down my path. A portrait of strength and courage, I suppose. I have survived the continual loss of my health- three devastating diagnoses, constant pain, and my continual reliance on mobility aids. I have endured humiliation, the occasional depression, and personal failures. All of these things I survived by taking the Stoic approach to taking things on the chin and moving forward. But this time was different, it was so different. I had been thrown prostrate to the ground and no longer had the strength to get on my feet again. I began to withdraw from people and sequestering myself. I stopped interacting beyond what was necessary for classes and work. My sleep patterns became worse and my appetite was gone. Some of those cheery Facebook posts? Yeah, that was to keep people from being concerned and to leave me alone. I fell into deep despair and it finally came to a head in April.

On the night of April 8th around 10 o'clock, I was a wreck. I paced around my apartment in tears. I was unable to think straight, in high amounts of pain, and I couldn't endure another minute. At the moment, I knew what I wanted more than anything was for the suffering to end and to me, there was only one avenue for it and it involved my death. I didn't know at the time but there are two stages of suicide: Ideation (the imagining or planning) and Crisis (the attempt or successful death). I can't remember everything I was thinking that night- only that my head was foggy and that I felt a relative calm as I reached for my planned method. 5 tablets of Vicodin, 5 tablets of Flexiril, 3 tablets of Amitriptyline, and 3 tablets of Valium. Essentially, enough medication, at least in my mind, to put me to sleep and with any luck stop my heart. Now, I am aware that planned overdoses are far from foolproof and could lead to worse consequences including a slow and painful death. As I held the pills in my hand, I looked out my window and considered how I wanted to do it. Because of my isolating myself for several weeks, I knew it could be days before my absence would be noticed and probably not before the smell hit. I considered taking the pills in my apartment and walking the short distance to the river so no one from NCU would find my body. And then for some reason, I can't explain, I had the sensation like I had been jerked out of sleep. My mind instantly cleared and I stared at my pill filled hand in horror. I threw them onto my desk and sobbed uncontrollably as I realized fully what I had nearly done. I sent a message to a trusted mentor to let her know that I was in crisis and would be turning myself into the hospital. Because my energy was instantly drained, I decided to rest and go in the morning if I still felt it necessary. Throughout the night I could hear a voice in my head repeating the same words over and over; "ugly...pathetic...weak...unloved...forgotten... abandoned...forsaken...damned." The next morning, instead of going to my church's Palm Sunday Mass, I checked myself into the suicide ward at the E.R. where they nearly institutionalized me but chose not to because they were worried it would make things worse. I went home and rested.

While, I took steps to put safety precautions in place (handed over my medications to a trusted friend, created a safety plan and such), I had to deal with the aftermath of my choice. Growing up, I was taught that suicide is a stupid, selfish, chicken-shit long-term solution to a usually short-term problem. Not to mention, that it is an unforgivable sin in eyes of God.  I felt deep shame for my weakness along with anger and self-loathing. This intensified a couple of days after my hospitalization when I opened the local newspaper and read a heart-rending article. That very same night, there had been another woman in my situation who was 18-a full ten years my junior who was attending her Freshman year at the University of Oregon with her sister. Both of us had stood at the edge of the abyss. I woke up and she didn't. I felt sick when I read about her suicide and seeing how young she was. This was a girl whose life had barely started, she had her life ahead of her and who knows what potential she could have had. A few weeks ago, I was discussing this with a friend and he asked me how it had made me feel. In all honesty, I felt guilty because I survived and she didn't. I also felt anger towards God because I can't understand why He pulled me back instead of her.

Maundy Thursday 2017
After everything that happened, I reached out to my rector at St. Mary's and told him everything. After briefly discussing the theology surrounding suicide and my being spiritually dead, he asked to meet with me after Holy Week but encouraged me to participate in the events of the week including the meditation of the Stations of the Cross that took place later that day and taking an hour prayer shift at the Vigil at the Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday. I took the 1-2 A.M. shift and sat on the floor in front of the first pew in the chapel. One thing that stood out to me was that to my left was the sanctuary which was pitch black. It was so dark that I couldn't see the main altar. But directly in front of me was the chapel altar bright in white and candlelight. I had a slight epiphany that while spiritually I was as dark as the sanctuary the hope was I would eventually find myself back in the light. I went home and had my own personal practice for Good Friday, Holy Saturday and went to Easter Mass on Sunday. While I had a good day with a friend after Mass, I felt dismayed by the fact that while I threw myself into Holy Week like I've always done, perhaps even with a bit more fervor, I felt spiritually hollow and numb.

I went to my first meeting with my rector, we discussed Holy Week and my feelings on the matter. He helped me see two important things: a) by trying to be selfless and not burden people with my problems, I was actually being selfish and b) I was afraid of being angry at God. I felt convicted on both counts because he was right. I chose to harm myself by isolating myself and suppressing some very raw feelings I had for my Creator. I did feel angry and dare say I have for quite some time because for the past few years especially, I have experienced setback after setback, crisis after crisis, and all of this with little or no let up. I might as well have stood by an open door saying "Next disaster, this way please."

But I chose to swallow my anger because it felt self-important and selfish because there are people out there that have it worse than I ever will. That anger finally came out about four weeks ago. One of the things I struggled with the most was the fact that I had all of these chronic illnesses but couldn't get access to proper medications, therapies, and treatments. I finally changed Primary Care Physicians and got a list of Pain Specialists that were listed by my insurance. I made call after call only to find out that only one accepted my insurance and he had filled his quota. I begged to be put on a waiting list at the very least only to find out that he was actually planning to remove himself from the list and let go his OHP patients. This meant that because of the nature of my insurance, I had no hope of getting any sort of treatment for my illnesses when a couple of them have the potential of being fatal. I felt my phone slip out of my hand and softly land on my desk. The book I held in other my hand wasn't so lucky. In a burst of rage I threw that book across the room so hard it made a loud noise as it bounced off the wall and hit the floor. I spun to the wall behind and slammed my hand against it bruising my hand before I sank to my knees. Then I started to scream at God. While I didn't follow the advice Job's wife gave him, I screamed and shook my fist nonetheless. I told him I was tired of living, tired of suffering with no reprieve and no mercy and enduring under His indifference. I told Him if all He was going to do is torture me that He should just kill me and be done with it. I then sobbed uncontrollably for the better part of three hours.

Fr. Bingham lit a votive candle for me.
A few months ago, a good friend told me that he found that emotional pain is infinitely far worse than physical pain. This incredibly difficult and dark season of my life has proven just that. It has been said that it's when we've been broken that we're closer to God and it just didn't feel so for me. If anything it gave me a glimpse of Jesus hanging on the cross and feeling the absence of God which made him cry out in Hebrew "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 NRSV)". It made me feel like I was in Hell, after all that is the literal definition of Hell- the separation between God and His creation. I feel like there is a thick wall of glass between Him and myself. I try to break through but only hurt myself further. I have spent countless hours on my knees in supplication for forgiveness, mercy, and relief... only to feel bereavement. There have been times in my life especially this year where I have wondered if I have been damned-both in this life and the next. I have and do feel like I've been forsaken and it's not an easy feeling to dislodge.

This summer, I've really tried to focus on allowing myself the option of having these feelings. It got to the point where I could no longer pray, read scripture, and going to church to take the Eucharist was hard because between my feelings and my being suicidal I felt wholly unclean. My rector lent me a prayer book and some prayer beads which I use every day. I've been reading the Psalms, Lamentations, and Job to remind myself that it is actually okay to be angry and to ask why. While, I've been mostly focusing on finishing those previously mentioned Incompletes, I've also been trying to take time for self-care by doing things I used to enjoy and trying to not spend as much time in isolation. Still working on both but I really do make an effort.

I'm very sorry for such a dark post. As I've said, I have no idea why I'm putting all of this out there for public scrutiny. Perhaps as Anne Lammot said; the lesson of Easter is that "even if you bury the truth it will always come up again". I have buried the truth in the past and donned a mask but the time has come for the mask to fall and the truth to come up. I wish I could say this has a happy ending that I'm feeling much better and that my walk with God is even closer. Alas, I'm still in the thick of it. I still struggle to get through one more day and sometimes even one more minute. While I'm not feeling particularly suicidal and haven't for quite some time, I'm still in darkness. I'm still heavily depressed and occasionally I still shake my little fist at God. Despite the pain and anguish, I still hold onto my faith. I haven't lost my faith but it has been through the ringer for sure. I try to find a few happy moments every day, little ways that I'm blessed on that day which has helped. I believe in time that I will find relief from my anguish and that I'll find myself back in the pure light, but until then all I can do is try to endure my suffering and wait. It truly has been a long and dark night.



Thursday, March 23, 2017

Enough With the Alternative Healing Articles!

I need to be honest, very few things drive me crazier than receiving yet another article, link, ad, or dissertation claiming that if I do this activity or drink this tonic, my ailments will be healed. Rarely does a week go by when I don't have some well meaning friend trying to make suggestions on how to improve my living conditions. Now, I do want to make it clear to my friends and family members that have sent me suggestions that this post isn't going after you. That being said, there are a few reasons why many of those who deal with chronic conditions, myself included, have a really hard time with articles such as I have mentioned.

1) Any drug, tea, food, or supplement that claims to heal or cure any chronic ailment whether it's Fibro, Colitis, MS, Autism or other such conditions are scams. While such tools can treat the symptoms of these conditions, that is a far cry from healing the patient. There is a reason the Mayo Clinic defines chronic pain as "Chronic pain is persistent, lasting for months or even longer. Chronic pain is considered a health condition in itself." The other side of the coin is frankly the really sucky part of dealing with chronic pain: it is permanent. We're going to be dealing with it for the rest of our earthly lives.

Now, as a devout Christian, I do believe in miracles. The Gospels are full of stories of Jesus and the apostles healing chronic conditions such as the woman with a mysterious blood illness, the ten lepers, the man at the pool of Bethesda, and the blind man at the temple gate. These stories tell us that miracles are possible, it is possible that tomorrow God in His omnipotence will heal me of all my pain and suffering. However, the likelihood is that I'll wake up tomorrow morning and that first stabbing pain will still be there as it was yesterday and yesteryear. I and people like me will most likely be dealing with our pain until our Master calls us home.

You might be wondering what the harm is. I mean, there are plenty of things out there that can be tried and some things that should be tried, I give you that. But, when chronic pain patients receive those well-meaning healing claiming suggestions, it can give many a sense of false hope. It can also really hit home at a deep and damaging level just how hopeless our situation is when those suggestions don't work.

2) These kinds of articles take personal Hells (and make no mistake that chronic pain is the patient's personal living Hell) and make them look completely trivial. Believe me when I say that if chronic pain could be cured with something as facile as a tea, many of us would have been back on our feet last week. It can be just as humiliating as someone telling us that our pain wouldn't be as bad if we were to do x,y, and z. Trust me, if we could, we would.

While I can't speak for every disabled or chronically ill person reading this blog, I can say that we can get pretty creative and proactive when it comes to dealing with our ailments. We also tend to talk to each other about what works for us. I have a very good friend that I discuss these things with. We compare notes on what works for him and what works for me. Not only is it helpful for ideas, it is wonderfully therapeutic. I tend to drink a lot of herbal teas and limit the amount of coffee I consume. I try to start and end my days with Tai Chi and Qigong to keep myself limber and lessen the stiffness of my tired muscles. I also do yoga via Youtube videos with sessions geared towards Fibromyalgia patients. Each of us has our different needs and different levels of discomfort to deal with so there is no blanket solution.

There is something I do want to make clear because I have just typed a lot of hard things. I understand that you care about your friend or loved one who suffers these ailments every day, You want them to feel better and have an improved quality of life. I have a lot of wonderful friends and family that want those things for me. Because I know this and understand this, I can see why these articles seem so wonderful and helpful. The heartbreaking problem is the fact that they rarely are helpful. They can even cause tremendous pain for those of us who struggle with coping with the burden of such pain. Worse of all, they trivialize that pain.

So that being said... PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STOP WITH THE ARTICLES! They're not helpful to me and other patients. The writers of such articles are snake oil salesmen in my estimation for the reason I have previously stated.

Please, by all means, continue to care about us, love us, support us and make yourself available. We love you for those gifts and we will let you know (as far as we are comfortable) what we need if we need something. All I ask for myself is that you leave treatment options and therapies in the hands of my physicians. That being said, if I find something that works for my pain management, I will share it in case it would work for someone else. But I add the disclaimer that the treatment will be different for each person.

I believe in the tender mercies of my God and Creator. I believe in the healing powers of my Savior, Jesus Christ. I believe through them anything is possible. But I've also learned that my pain has been a powerful tool that has made me more empathetic, loving and has brought me closer to my God. Even if I am never healed, I am reminded that this is for my good. I don't want it to be trivialized or seen as a simple issue. The complexities of chronic pain will never be simple therefore the cure will never be simple.



Monday, December 28, 2015

I Was A Mormon

There were prisoners living in a cave. They have lived there since the days they were born. Each prisoner was tied to a rock so that they could only see the wall in front of them. Behind them were roaring fires and torches where their captors would pass by carrying different objects, statues of animals and so on. Some spoke, most were silent while their shadows were seen by the prisoners. One day, one prisoner was able to untie himself. Once he was free, he looked behind himself and was blinded by the fires. When his eyes adjusted, he could see the captors still carrying their objects, still passing by. He looked to his left and to his right to see that there were other men like him, tied up and their eyes glued to the wall showing the shadows. He then noticed there was an opening on the other side of the den of the cave that too held a light. He carefully made his way to that light until he was blinded by the world above. The sun’s rays were painful to his eyes that had only seen dim light and darkness. Once his eyes adjusted he could see everything. Water, grass, trees, animals, and the sky. When the day turned to night, the beauty of the moon and stores took his breath away. As he stood there transfixed by what he saw, he thought of his life in the cave. No, after all, that he has seen and learned, he cannot go back to that existence. He then thought of his other prisoners and pitied them. He decides that he needs to go back and free them. When the captors see him return and attempt to free the other prisoners, they kill him to prevent him from educating them and letting them escape the cave[1]

I am that prisoner. I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for 8 years and 10 months. I first heard of Mormonism when I was 14 years old and two young men wearing nametags knocked on my door and gave me my first discussion on my front porch. They invited me to church, left their card and a Book of Mormon with me and moved on to the next house. My mother took the book from me and called the missionaries to tell them to never contact me again. A few weeks later I started High School and after school, I ran into those missionaries and apologized for what had happened. One put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Someday you will know the truth for yourself”.

A few months later, I met a man named Andrew when I co-founded a Venturing Crew in Prineville.  Andrew had just turned 18 and was preparing to apply to be a missionary for the church as well as applying for his Eagle Scout rank. At first, we didn’t get along one bit. Then we were able to see that we had a few things in common. We made a truce and eventually, we even became friends. In August 2005, I proposed a relationship on the same day he received his mission call to the Peru Lima South mission. After a long discussion of what the mission would entail and what kind of relationship he felt I would be signing up for, we began dating. Before he left, he gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon that looked just like the one the missionaries gave me and he had me promise him two things: that I would consider reading the book and that I’ll be prayerful in all things. While he was in Peru, I read the book and took the missionary discussions. I was baptized as a member on February 26, 2006. Eventually, my relationship with Andrew ended, but I had gained my own testimony so it didn’t have an effect on my newly-founded faith.

I threw myself completely into the world of Mormonism. I went to early morning seminary on a daily basis, went on Temple trips, watched General Conference, and served part-time as a missionary. I tried to proselytize my friends and family. I was in love with Mormonism and everything about it. I planned to live and even die if necessary for the church and its good name.

In 2010, I met JB, an Evangelical studying in seminary in hopes of becoming a pastor. He was interested in Mormonism and wanted to speak to Mormons to get a better idea on what we believe. He introduced me to the world of Apologetics where I had fun defending my faith and speaking to Born Again Christians about theirs. From time to time, I was asked about certain doctrines of the church that I wasn’t familiar with. I started writing them down so that I could look into them. I began rereading the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price to find answers to my growing questions. I also read old Ensign Articles and sermons given by Prophets and Apostles. The more I read on subjects such as the nature of God, the Godhead, and the Plan of Salvation the more questions I had. It got to the point that I became troubled by what I had learned. Eventually, I decided to go to trusted friends within my ward with these questions. Some were willing to work me but most rebuked me. I was accused of reading anti-Mormon literature, being influenced by Satan and betraying my baptismal covenants.I was also accused of not wanting the church to be true and of being an Apostate. I was taken aback by the vitriol that I received from people I esteemed as close friends and people I looked up to. My Facebook page became  a war zone as my Evangelical friends collided with the Mormon ones. I was accused of seeking attention and intentionally hurting people in order to achieve it. I eventually with the help of JB, placed my questions on my blog. These questions came from several months of study, discussion and church sermons from the Journal of Discourse.

I eventually sat down with my Bishop and my Stake President with these questions. But I received little answers and, even more questions as well as frustration. When I continued my pursuit, friends began writing me off. My inbox filled with more messages of condemnation. Eventually, my depression worsened until I tried to end my life October 2013. My best friends saved me and were kind enough to start reading my inbox and getting rid of the hurtful messages. They also took the liberty of removing those friends.

During this very dark time in my life, God was working me into something for His use. My aunt had me go to Women’s Bible Study with her and my cousin. She set up an appointment with the church’s Care Pastor so that I could talk to him. He listened to my concerns that had developed from my years in Mormonism and used biblical passages to assure me that my concerns were unfounded. When I told him about the covenants I made, he helped me to see that I made promises that I had no business making. He helped me to repent and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior that day. I continued going to Bible Study and made friends with some very lovely and kind ladies who were aware of my situation. Both in the group and out they made it clear that they were thinking about me, praying for me and loved me. When I was baptized on the 6th of November, some of them were able to attend to support me.

As the months went on, I studied the Bible more and more. The Gospels gave me new hope in the relationship with God and my Savior. I began forming relationships with other Mormons who were just like me. With mentorship, I was able to find the support I needed which helped me to get through the pain of my experience and inspired me to become a mentor. A few months later, I was awarded acceptance into Northwest Christian University, a Bible College in Eugene. I entered campus August 23, 2014 and enrolled in the Christian Ministry program. Due to a promise I made, I tried going to the Young Single Adult ward a few blocks away from campus. It ended in heartbreak and even ended for a time a friendship I treasured. On November 24, 2014 I resigned my membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. On December 04, 2014, I received a letter from the Bishop of the YSA Ward telling me that my resignation not only ended my membership, it also ended my salvation. More to the point he said, “We are directed by the handbook of instructions to inform you that by having your name removed from the records of the church that your records are also being removed from the Book of Life.”

I took this to mean that I am now considered a Daughter of Perdition, that Salvation is now closed to me. My friends at NCU gave me love, reassurance that I am not damned and even got me to laugh about it. As Romans 8:1 reminds us, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. When I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, the etching of my name in the Lamb’s Book of Life was filled with the ink of His blood and will never be erased. With this confirmation, I turned my back on my former faith.

Since then, I have been spending a great deal of time in prayer with God and diving into His word. I have added History to my dual major and try to take as many Bible classes as I can. Reading the Church Fathers and other theologians has given me a greater understanding of theology and the Bible. I joined the Episcopal Church in May and am training to be a pastor in hopes that I will run a church in the future. I also minister to Mormons who question church doctrine or wants to leave. I listen to them, pray with them, cry with them and teach them. I also help them find other churches to attend with a church family that will help them with their walk with the Lord.

While the LDS church has caused me a great amount of pain, I am grateful for my years there. Because of my experiences, I have a greater love for the true God because the pain brought me closer to Him. I am also grateful for my remaining friends in the church that continually show me kindness. Their support has meant a lot and I truly hope that this story doesn’t make them feel attacked. They have no need to be ashamed. I would also like to thank Bishop Todd Sheldon of the Centennial Park Ward of the Redmond Oregon Stake for always being available for my questions and trying his best at helping me find answers. I value his friendship and would feel remiss in not mentioning that he has always been supportive of me. For those who are faithful members that read this, I want to make it clear that this isn’t an attack on them or their faith. It is my story and mine alone. I want to share it so others know that they are not alone and to explain why I made the decisions I have made.

It took pain and self-doubt for me to leave my cave. Once I got outside, I felt the sun of the Good News, I marveled at the stars of the friends I have made. All of these experiences were assigned to me for a reason. I believe that reason is so I can help others in their pain. There are some who are still in their caves and if I can help them, then I want to. I was a Mormon who found Jesus Christ in a way I hadn’t expected. I found God in His words that are the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. I am not ashamed to be the Christian I am today because Jesus isn’t ashamed of me.  

[1] The Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s Republic, Book VII

Thursday, September 17, 2015

My Struggle with the Invisible Disease

I slowly make my way to my classes. It’s a day of the flare up so I have to use my cane to keep me from becoming a quivering heap on the ground that has been touched by only God know what. As I pass you, you avert your eyes. Yeah, I noticed. And it’s okay. A teacher once told my class that noticeable infirmities make people uncomfortable and they don’t know how to act or react when they come across a person in that situation. Even worse, you wouldn’t be able to guess the excruciating pain that I struggle with every day because it can’t be seen. I wear a mask to cover my ailment and I smile even when it hurts to do so. This is called Fibromyalgia.

I want you to know that I wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I was hiking, running, swimming and walking great lengths. My stride used to be fast and my muscles toned. Now, my stride is little more than a shuffle and my muscles deteriorate as I speak. I lift my backpack and instantly feel my muscles quiver from the weight of all the textbooks and my laptop. My back protests the pressure but settles as I adjust to the weight I put on it. I then check the time and begin my day knowing it’s going to be a long one.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I really don’t know. I do know I don’t do it for sympathy or pity. I don’t expect anything from you. Perhaps, it’s because I want to be understood. Someone once said that the truth will set you free. I hope it’s true. While I know there is no freedom from this daemon, I can at least hope that some aid will come.

When you look at me, I feel like you don’t really see me. What do you see? Some overweight short ugly woman with dark eyes and lines etched in her face? Do you see a pathetic creature that has to use a cane but there appears to be nothing wrong with her? No broken bones, no physical manifestations? I’m sorry if I put you off, I really don’t mean to. While I look like everything is fine, I can assure you that the agony is very much real.

I have good days and bad days. On my good days, the pain is a dull throb. It’s still there and I may twinge a time or two, but I can bear it. I laugh and smile and my spirits are okay. I enjoy sitting with you and learning with you. I listen to the lectures and laugh with you when the professor says or does something amusing. I go home and make supper and delight when I have guests to eat with me. For a time, the daemon sleeps.

Then the daemon wakes. I can be in a deep sleep, be in class, or getting out of bed to turn off the alarm clock that goes off at 5 AM every morning. The daemon roars and pain shoots through my back. My breath leaves me in a sharp gasp and sometimes it drives me to my knees. My body trembles and my muscles contract. If I’m lucky, I’m able to drag myself back onto my bed. If I’m not, I’m stuck on the hard floor. I’m all alone. I curl up into a ball and wait for the waves of sharp stabbing pain with aching throbs to cease. Tears fall from my face soaking my pillow or carpet while I ask God “why?” I wonder if I did something to anger him to where this condition was given me as punishment. I wonder if there will be any salvation from it. It feels like someone is beating me with a club and sometimes I check myself to see if there are bruises because the sensation is so real. Minutes turn into hours and I’m trapped. I can’t call for help because there’s nothing anyone can do. I can’t breathe out a cry because all of my energy is draining from the daemon torturing me. It hurts to breathe, it hurts to speak, and it even hurts to smile. I am alone through the entire process.

Eventually, the pain begins to lift a bit. I check the time and see that if I hurry, I’ll make it to Greek class and be on time. I force myself to my knees and then to my feet. I look into my mirror and see the lines and the trail of marks that my tears left behind. I see the storm in my eyes that dulled the green fluorescents with hopelessness and despair. I quickly shower and endure the sharp needles that assault my exhausted and aching body. I wash my face and brush my hair and teeth and stare in the mirror again. I look tired and pained, but I fix my features to look serene. I leave my apartment and solitude, knowing that I must hide my pain. You ask me how I am and I’m sorry to say, I do lie. I tell you I’m good and then ask you how you are, hoping that you’re having a better day than I am. I’m grateful for your smile. I feel guilty for my deception, but I fear your discomfort and that you’ll be put off if my mask falls and my agony reveals itself.

I live in a world of absolute twilight. It may be high noon but in my world, I live in darkness and
light. I feel like I’m constantly alone. I’m isolated in my pain as another daemon assaults me. The daemon carries depression, self-loathing and even hopelessness. Do you know what it’s like to crave the touch of another but fearing it at the same time? I love your embrace that is warm and full of friendship. I live on those tokens, but I can also feel your hesitation and fear of hurting me. One wrong move, one hug that is too tight on the wrong part of my body can call the daemon. I appreciate your care to not hurt me. I also appreciate your courage to risk it by showing me that you appreciate my existence. It’s a little ray of your sunshine that briefly holds back the twilight of my life. You walk away to your classes and your life and I walk to mine. The depression comes back, reminding me of my loneliness. This road is hard to walk on and it drains me all the time. I walk this road every day and sometimes I find someone else walking on a similar road. Both of us acknowledge each other and move on with the brief comfort of having an idea of how the other feels.

At the end of the day, after hours of lectures, homework, grading and interacting with people, I may finally go to bed. I lay down and I hear the daemon growl, preparing to strike. I curl up with a heating pad and look to heaven with a simple prayer. Sometimes an angel intercedes and the daemon sleep, other times, he ravages me with this disease. I close my eyes as the hot tears form against my eyelids. I tell myself that dawn will eventually come. I finally drop my mask and façade and for a brief time, I allow myself to be honest, to feel the emotions and pain that I push aside every day.

To you I may look normal and healthy. But, I promise you that what I feel is very much real. When you comment that there can’t be anything wrong with me, it pierces my heart and soul. I wish I can show you how wrong you are. But I just stand there as shame fills me and my eyes cast down to the ground. After that, my eyes never leave the ground. I can’t bear to look at you and the others because I know that the cane and my general appearance can be intimidating and off-putting. I don’t expect you to understand, but please, remember that I am still human. I love you and love being around you. I do my very best to give the impression that I’m okay, even if I’m not. If my deception hurts you, I’m very sorry. Just know that I try to be strong and that I do what I can to defeat the daemon. This is what it is like to deal with an invisible illness. It can be very lonely and the effects are permanent and lingering. Under my shell shows a personal hell to which I am damned until the day I die. But I try to be above it. I want my life to be more than Fibromyalgia. All my schooling and my future career makes me feel alive and I use it to show the daemon that I am stronger. The struggle is real, but I try to overcome. Fibromyalgia is real, but I rise above it. This is what it is like to have an invisible disease. This is Fibromyalgia.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Cost of Discipleship

In Christianity, the many Protestant sects have been debating, studying and contemplating what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ since Martin Luther was a monk in Erfurt. The questions of Grace, Discipleship, Forgiveness, Good Works, and what it means to be a Christian have been topics of deep meditation for many of those who profess faith in Christ. These questions were reflected by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, a book he wrote during the rise of Nazi regime in 1937 Germany. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Theologian with the Confessing Church that opposed Hitler during World War II. Bonhoeffer stuck by his faith until he faced the gallows on April 9, 1945 for conspiracy and treason against Hitler. In Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer walks the reader through the Sermon on the Mount[1], which describes the meaning of being a follower of Jesus Christ. He spelled out his description in different categories: Grace and Discipleship; the Call to Discipleship; the Beatitudes; the Enemy; and the Body of Christ.

When it comes to Grace and Discipleship, Bonhoeffer talks about cheap grace and costly grace. He starts off by bluntly describing cheap grace as “the deadly enemy of [the] Church” (Bonhoeffer). He defined cheap grace as the justification of the sin, but not the sinner. He goes even further by arguing that it is the grace one bestows on oneself by preaching forgiveness without repentance. Today’s Christians would recognize this as the charge that Christians believe that because they are saved through the blood of Christ, they have a free pass to sin. Bonhoeffer harshly condemns this belief because of the practitioners modeling themselves after the world’s standards.

Costly grace, on the other hand, Bonhoeffer describes as the “pearl of great price” (Bonhoeffer). “Such grace is costly” Bonhoeffer contends “because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives man the only true life” (Bonhoeffer). In other words, man’s salvation and grace came at the great expense; the life of the Son of Man. When Jesus commands for believers to follow Him, He is offering them grace. Bonhoeffer points out that in order to follow Christ, the believer has to be willing to not only act like a faithful member of Christianity, but be willing to lay everything down for Him.

When Jesus said to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:18-19). He was extending the invitation to discipleship. Bonhoeffer termed “discipleship” as “adherence to Christ because Christ is the object of that adherence (Bonhoeffer). Not only does the believer follow Christ, he or she must also surrender themselves to the disposal of their Master. If they try to follow according to their own term, Bonhoeffer argues that it is no longer a discipleship because costly grace does not work that way. Simon and Andrew literally dropped everything, including their futures when they answered the call of discipleship from Jesus, they didn’t give condition to their being disciples, they submitted to their Master’s will.

The call of discipleship means life and death, according to Bonhoeffer. Through self-denial and suffering, the believer takes upon them the cross of Jesus as well as having to face temptation and shame. The believer is not above Christ, the believer must suffer because it is the badge of true discipleship. Bonhoeffer acknowledged that this also includes suffering torture and death for faith in Jesus Christ.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the reader is introduced to what is called The Beatitudes. Bonhoeffer speaks of the plight of the twelve disciples as being “the poorest of the poor, the sorest afflicted and the hungriest of the hungry” (Bonhoeffer). These are the men that gave up everything for Jesus and Jesus publically calls them “blessed” as He describes what it means to be a disciple. As the reader reads each section, they will see things like “blessed are the poor in the spirit…”; “blessed are they that hunger…”; “blessed are the pure in heart…”;“blessed are the Peacemakers…”; and even “blessed are they that have been persecuted…” These are the virtues of being a disciple. A follower must walk the walk if they’re going to talk the talk. Bonhoeffer mentions that while these virtues distinguish a disciple, the world will hate them for it. “Not recognition, but rejection, is the reward they get from the world for their message and works” (Bonhoeffer). This isn’t the promise of peace and plenty, but of trial and tribulation. Given what Bonhoeffer was about to suffer, the Beatitudes would have reminded him down the road what being a disciple is.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer also speaks of how a disciple of Jesus should treat their enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). According to Bonhoeffer, “Love is defined in uncompromising terms as the love of our enemies” (Bonhoeffer). Bonhoeffer would later demonstrate this while being incarcerated at Flossenbürg. He ministered to the other inmates and the guards with love and compassion to where his execution affected even those who were part of the execution. The reader would agree that praying for those who persecute this is far from being easy, in fact it’s one of the hardest things imaginable, but Jesus commanded it and Bonhoeffer reminds the reader that it is part of being a Disciple of Christ.

Bonhoeffer also spoke about the Body of Christ, both in faith and His corporeal form. He points out that the first disciples lived in communion and fellowship with Jesus. They witnessed His miracles, broke bread with him, learned from him and in the case of the most beloved disciple, possibly John, watched him die on the cross. While modern day Christians, will not have that same kind of fellowship, they are still part of the general body of Christ and are still required to live as a disciple. When Bonhoeffer was watching Nazi Germany rise into power, many of his colleagues and lukewarm pastors waffled in fundamental doctrines in order to appease Hitler. This didn’t sit well with Bonhoeffer because it was cheap grace that those individuals were after. He condemned such a practice when he declared, “A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities. They are heard, learnt and apprehended, and that is all. But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears, or heart, but living men who will follow him” (Bonhoeffer). To Bonhoeffer, the fact that these individuals were bending their values and beliefs to mollify the Fuhrer showed that while they talked the talk, they were unwilling to walk the walk.

When the reader wonders what it means for he or she to be a Christian, Bonhoeffer tells them through The Cost of Discipleship that they have to be willing to lay down everything, including their very lives for Jesus Christ. Because God showed humanity mercy by sending His Son, Christians have to show mercy to others, including their enemies. Costly grace was given because Jesus did just that. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is little to ask for the same in professing believers to do the same in return.

[1] Matthew 5-7, ESV Holy Bible

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Rainbow Bridge?

The last seven days have been difficult, oddly enough as I wasn't one of the directly affected. My best friend and her mother had to make one of the hardest choices ever: to put their dog to death via euthanasia. Once the decision was made I helped make the arrangements and was present at the shelter and later took the 12 year old dachshund to Horizon Pets to be cremated. I put all of my efforts into helping the people Sugar left behind to grieve that I had no grief for myself. 

Yesterday, my mother was kind enough to pick up Sugar's ashes and bring them by our place. Along with the cherry wood box was a card and a clay heart with Sugar's paw print. The card was a sympathy card that came with a poem on the front. The Poem was titled "Rainbow Bridge". I pulled it closer and read it aloud to my friend. 

By the edge of a woods, at the foot of a hill,
Is a lush, green meadow where time stands still. 
Where the friends of man and woman do run, 
When their time on earth is over and done.

For here, between this world and the next, 
Is a place where each beloved creature finds rest. 
On this golden land, they wait and they play, 
Till the Rainbow Bridge they cross over one day.

No more do they suffer, in pain or in sadness, 
For here they are whole, their lives filled with gladness.
Their limbs are restored, their health renewed, 
Their bodies have healed, with strength imbued.

They romp through the grass, without even a care, 
Until one day they start, and sniff at the air. 
All ears prick forward, eyes dart front and back,
Then all of a sudden, one breaks from the pack.

For just at that instant, their eyes have met;
Together again, both person and pet.
So they run to each other, these friends from long past, 
The time of their parting is over at last. 

The sadness they felt while they were apart, 
Has turned into joy once more in each heart. 
They embrace with a love that will last forever, 
And then, side-by-side, they cross over...together.

For an unknown reason when I got to the penultimate stanza, my voice wavered and the last sentence broke me completely. My dam of emotions didn't burst, but a crack formed causing my tears to begin trickling. Was it for Sugar and the other animals of my past that have passed on? Was it for my dachshund at my father's place that has maybe ten more years before he goes to wait at Rainbow Bridge? I don't know. All I know is a simple poem written by an author no one can pinpoint came through my defenses and unlocked whatever emotion I still had clamped. I haven't cried since but those few tears took something. 

Perhaps it's the idea of a pet having a soul and going to heaven that touched me. A lot of people believe that animals don't have souls and cease to exist after death. I'm not so sure. Every time I look into the eyes of my Snoopy, I see something pure, something that belies the theory that my five year old dachshund doesn't have a soul. While Rainbow Bridge is merely the imaginings of a good poet, Heaven is very much real. Therefore the possibility that our departed companions have a place there, just as we have a place there. I can hope and I will hope that it is true. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Friend's Homily of Praise

Throughout Holy Week, many Christian's reflected on the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter. Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, His agonizing Crucifixion and His triumph over death with His glorious Resurrection. Because we all know Easter isn't about bunnies, sweets and coloured eggs, right?

On Easter I didn't go to church. Instead I read from the Four Gospels, from Romans and took in the message I found in the New International Version. This is my first Easter since my being born again and I read it like it was I was a child reading it for the first time. It reinforced the notion that we were saved with Grace because of Jesus willingly taking our sins upon him and suffering the separation from God and His death on the Cross. It was a beautiful experience.

I was also treated to another reading all together. Many of my readers are familiar with my friend JB who often blogs on issues regarding Mormonism as well as other branches of Theology. He just finished his four years of study at Asbury Theological Seminary and was recently interviewed for his Pastoral license. He was asked to preach at a Good Friday service in his hometown. He favored his readers, myself included, with his sermon on the subject. In my experience, preachers tend to favor John or Romans this time of years, so I had expected JB to do the same. However, he pleasantly surprised me with his sermon on Phillippians 2:1-12 which can be found and read here.

For those who are unclear what a Homily is. A Homily is a relatively short sermon regarding theological and moral matters. And this Homily in particular I recommend to my readers, Mormons and Christians alike, because it really drives home what Jesus did for us.

My favorite part of JB's sermon was when he spoke of how dark Good Friday was, because it's true. Christ's crucifixion was the darkest day in history. It was the day, He suffered the first time he was separated from God's presence because he took our sins from us. And it made Easter Sunday all the more glorious. I will close by quoting that part of his sermon. I heartily recommend anyone who has forgotten just how important Jesus' sacrifice is to read this. It will warm your heart as it has mine.

"But it came at such a cost, a cost greater than we may ever realize. Jesus walked down the darkest of roads for us. Out of love, the Creator let himself be broken by the broken creation. Out of love, the Light of the world let our darkness engulf him. Out of love, the eternal Word of God let himself be brought to silence. Out of love, the Lamb of God went quietly to the slaughter. Out of love, the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his lost sheep. Over eighteen hundred years ago, a bishop named Melito preached a sermon on the Passover, and here's how he described the paradox of Jesus on the cross:

Hear and tremble because of him for whom the earth trembled: The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged. The one who fixed the heavens in place, is himself impaled. The one who firmly fixed all things, is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted! God is murdered! ... For this reason the stars turned and fled, and the day grew quite dark, to hide the naked person hanging on the tree - darkening, not the body of the Lord, but the eyes of men. Even though the people didn't tremble, the earth trembled instead. Although the people were not afraid, the heavens grew frightened. Although the people didn't tear their garments, the angels tore theirs. Although the people didn't lament, the Lord thundered from heaven, and the Most High uttered his voice.

For us. It was all for us, all for the forgiveness of our sins, and the breaking of sin's power over us and over our world! Good Friday was a dark day, darker than any day before it and darker than any day after it. But love suffered that day of darkness to bring us everlasting light. Love accepted that cruel death in order to raise us up to eternal life. Because even through Good Friday, death and darkness do not have the final word. God shouted the ultimate word to the world on Easter Sunday: "Arise, shine, for your light has come! Behold, I make all things new!" But Christ's resurrection revives us because, on that old rugged cross, love suffered obediently, love paid the price, love fought for us, even at the greatest cost."