Friday, July 23, 2010

Lessons in Suffering: Our Undoing

"Oh, my friend, it's not what they take away from you that counts. It's what you do with what you have left." -- Hubert Humphrey

"I just don't feel like myself," I have moaned repeatedly this summer.
And it's true. This woman who spends so much time in bed, her bedside table littered with prescription bottles and get-well wishes, bears little resemblance to the more active person I perceive myself to be. This new woman moves so slowly, calculating each muscle movement required to roll over and sit up -- scarcely remembering the nights she would tumble out of bed as a new mother, waking to find herself already on her feet upon hearing her baby's cry. This new older woman walks haltingly, each labored, deliberate step a reminder of how far she has to go.
This isn't me, I want to protest.
The me I was -- the me I know I ought to be -- is much more involved in family life. She bathes her girls and slips bows into their hair. She monitors her boys' computer time and steers them to outdoor activities when they need to burn some energy. She goes to the grocery store and tries new recipes. She does a lot of laundry. She is not a great housekeeper, but she tries. She stays up too late working on craft projects and anticipates each new day as an opportunity to make memories.
In short, she does stuff.
So many of us feel most natural and productive when our lives are in motion. We take to heart passages like Colossians 1:10, desiring to "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work." We pour ourselves into the roles God has given us, and pour ourselves out for others every day. Sometimes we may feel tired, frustrated or overwhelmed by our service, but for the most part we find joy and purpose in using our talents to bless others.

We may begin to define ourselves by our actions. This can be helpful in living purposefully day to day, but detrimental when circumstances change. Periods of illness or financial hardship can be even more challenging when we cannot serve in the way we are accustomed. When we find our identity in doing, seasons of "undoing" can be our undoing if we are not careful.

When I am tempted to discount my spiritual significance during this season of rest, I need only think of my grandfather. I never knew Papa as my mother remembers him -- a well-read college professor who loved the outdoors so much he walked to school each day.

Growing up, I loved to hear stories about Mother's childhood days. She would laugh recalling how her sister learned a lesson about greed when she raced the other kids to the breakfast table so she could claim the biggest blueberry muffin Papa had made, only to discover that the largest one had raisins instead.

Papa took an active roll in church, college and family life until a massive stroke nearly killed him. The next few weeks were tenuous as he teetered between life and death, doctors unsure how much of his former abilities he would regain. Months later he returned home, paralyzed on one side of his body and confined to a wheelchair. Over the next 13 years Papa's health continued to deteriorate, and he spent the last years of his life confined to bed.

Yet even as his world grew smaller, his faith in God grew bigger. He accepted the drastic changes in his lifestyle without complaint and inspired the rest of the family with his spiritual focus. And although his professional teaching career met an abrupt end, Papa was one of the greatest spiritual teachers of my life.

It is true that often actions speak louder than words, and serving others brings fulfillment and joy. But we can still bear fruit even in seasons of undoing. Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." Whatever our circumstances, all of the attributes mentioned as fruit of the Spirit are still within our reach when we cling to God.

At yesterday's follow-up visit with my neurosurgeon, he told me I will need at least six more weeks of recuperation before I might be ready to start physical therapy. That means another month and a half without bending, lifting, twisting or straining. Although my doctor says healing from this back surgery will be slow, he feels confident that I will recover and learn to manage the remaining issues.

Knowing that I should return to the person I was helps me look for the blessings in this season of rest. Right now I can draw closer to God with more uninterrupted time in my day for Bible study and prayer. Although not physically able to accomplish tasks I usually do for my family, I can be more emotionally available for one who wants to snuggle or read a book. And as I am blessed by those who serve me, I can encourage their good intentions and express appreciation for the love that surrounds me. And I can let this season inform my service to others when I am well.

But what if I don't recover?

Could I still be me?

I would not be honest if I said I wouldn't face discouragement and frustration if I couldn't return to my normal level of activity. But thinking back to my dear grandfather, I know that even if a season of rest stretches into years, God can still shape us into the people He would have us be.

The truth is that if we surrender to Him each day, we can please Him whatever our circumstances. And when we enter a season of rest, we can find ourselves doing His will -- even in the undoing.

"Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5).
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