What gives you hope? This is a question I have been asking myself lately as I’ve faced a health challenge. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll notice a that I have a wonky head. My headaches tend to come and go, but they’ve been worse lately as my neck has been in almost constant pain. The solution to the problem is still out of reach, and it seems like lately my sense of hope has been chiseled away bit by bit.
Chronic pain has a way of bringing the ceiling down on a person. The temptation for me is how I begin to think of myself – I can start to see everything through the lens of physicality (my friends will attest to this!) Every muscle ache is noted during the day with relentless observation. I forget about enjoying nature, reading books, enjoying friendships or any of the other many blessings in my life. The greatest danger is that I forget about the deeper side of life and exercising my faith muscles.
It was in this state that I went for a walk with my friend Bev last Sunday. I talked about the challenges I’d been facing. Friends do bear each other’s burdens and Bev is a compassionate listener. With gusto I started to list the appointments ahead of me – x-rays one day, a specialist the week after, another appointment later in the summer. I talked about them as though they alone would get me through this time.
Bev is indeed a compassionate listener, but she is also honest, and she later emailed me with “niggling thoughts”, as she put it. She noticed the frantic tone behind my list of appointments. It was like I was a drowning sailor clinging onto a tiny life preserver. “What are you placing your hope in?” she asked me. “These appointments might help you (and I hope they do), but are they your ultimate organizing centre? Don’t forget about God. He is there in thick and thin, in sickness and in health.”
As good friends do, Bev reminded me of who I really am, beyond just the physical. Her words brought me to my senses. As soon as she wrote, I could see it what I had been doing – or rather, what I had been forgetting. Forgetting the larger Story around my small story. Forgetting that we can’t ultimately count on health, but we can always count on God to provide meaning and unconditional love in our trials.
The next day found me setting off for Regina, Saskatchewan, where I was headed with a group from Monarch Teacher’s Network to present a workshop. After a visit in the car with my travel companions, I settled in with my book about King David (who we are studying at Watershed in the book of Samuel in the Old Testament).
Before he was king, David had to be on the run for many years, in fear for his life. He sought refuge in the caves and deserts of the Ancient Near East. Like me finding refuge in appointments, he had to come to face the question, “What gives me hope?”
As I read, I began to see David’s life mirrored in my own. I wasn’t running for my life, but it still seemed that the words were meant for me. A refuge is a very physical thing at first, yet David ultimately found himself saying that God was his refuge. What brought David into the desert was his troubles, but something more profound happened. Prayers erupted in him as he took refuge and found solace in God. Many of those prayers have been recorded in the book of Psalms.
As I kept reading on the road to Regina, I heard a gentle reminder in my heart to turn to God in my troubles. There’s a verse in the book of Romans that came to mind, reminding me of a reality beyond my understanding. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Rom. 8:28
As I write these words, I don’t want anyone to think that it’s easy to trust like this. I still had neck troubles at the workshop, but I felt a gentle nudge to pray for help. Help to keep my eyes on the bigger picture. There are many blessings in my life, not the least of which is the fact that nothing can separate me from God’s love. I remembered my friend Fana, who chose to count her blessings instead of listing her complaints. I kept returning to the word “refuge” – I could take refuge that God had a greater meaning in troubles, and was forming me in ways that I don’t always see from my limited vantage point. I certainly don’t always do this well, but there was no doubt of the reminder to hope in God.
There’s a scene in the book Tuesdays With Morrie that often comes back to me, giving me an example of the promise in Romans. In the book, Morrie has to face the diminishment of his life because of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. To get through his coughing, he has to breathe as deeply as he can, exercising his mind not to get swallowed up in pain. In one of the Tuesday lessons, he tells his friend Mitch that he now understood why he had severe asthma as a child. He had practiced this exact kind of breathing as a child, and this practice helped him with his present troubles.
I often don’t understand the why of the limitations I face. In my worst moments, I act like a spoiled princess who thinks she is entitled to a life of clear sailing. But this week I’ve received nudges from friends and from my reading, reminding me to see this experience through God’s eyes. It became clear to me that this was the topic of my next blog post.
What I hear is, “Your ways are not my ways, my dear daughter. I am writing a larger story in your life, and I am working all things together for good. You can take hope in what perhaps feels invisible to you now. I am with you.”
Hope. It isn’t easy to exercise trust in what I can’t see, but this is where I’ve experienced God this week. Hope is different from optimism, which relies on everything turning out “all right in the end.” It reminds me of a wonderful quote I heard once in a sermon:
“Hope is forged on the anvil of adversity.” The preacher, Peter Gomes, goes on to say that hope is not a wimpy word. Suffering can form character in us, and hope becomes much more than mere optimism. I love how he says that hope is muscular. “Muscular hope is the stuff that gets us through and beyond when the worst that can happen happens.”
To anyone who is reading this blog and is facing troubles of your own, I wish you and all of us this kind of hope.