More than a few recent contributors have shared about God becoming more real in the midst of injuries and surgeries. No sane person wants to be a patient or to suffer, but, for most of us, it will happen sooner or later.
For about a month I’ve been struggling with a nagging leg injury that unexpectedly got a lot worse a few weeks ago. I suddenly found myself unable to walk without discomfort, and I had real pain whenever I tried to run.
I know this isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I’m not trying to over-spiritualize anything, but I was surprised at how much I ruminated on the injury and how much I let it eat away at my joy. I changed my routines but nothing helped. In fact it felt like no matter what I did, I made it worse. The whole coming-to-terms process with the injury messed me up more than I expected.
I have some good friends who recently lost their house in a fire in east Portland. Their 3 year old watched it burn down from the street, and the whole thing has really shaken them up. A few days afterwards I was texting with my friend, and he said: “An incredible lady at our church yesterday told us this which has been super helpful: ‘I don’t even know how to tell you to pray about this. But I do know to start with being thankful.’” This happened right when I was really starting to become frustrated with and subconsciously fatalist about my leg injury.
Around this time, Anne had her hip replacement. The night before the surgery we were praying for her, and she started thanking God for her now-defective hip. “Thank you for all the places this hip has taken me, for the children it helped me carry, for the times it cushioned my falls while skiing.”
Watching my friends weather these difficult situations with thankfulness as their starting points wakes up my soul. It started to foster some basic thankfulness in my own heart as I wrestled with the distance between what I wanted and what was actually happening to my body. I know it’s small, but I started to focus on the recent times I’d enjoyed trail running and chased my toddler around easily or effortlessly knocked out a bunch of chores — things I now temporarily struggle with. I could see how fortunate I was in those moments and how alive I’d felt. If God was in those moments, surely He was in these moments of feeling like a lame duck.
Fast forward a few weeks after my injury started brewing. There I was sitting at a coffee shop at 6am in Central Oregon as my caffeinated brain woke up to the reality that I just couldn’t run this race I had trained for — which was set to start a few minutes later. After a warm up jog I still could barely walk. How did I end up here? I felt silly. It’d been weeks of worsening pain, some denial on my part, some bending to social pressures, but a lot of genuine desire to reach my goal and have fun. Still, all the objective data pointed towards needing to withdraw long before this moment. Somehow I still found myself here, waiting until the last minute to admit and accept it. I saw my friend off at the starting line and hobbled back to the coffee shop where I sat and quite randomly read Psalm 139 in a little devotional book I’d grabbed from the car to pass time while my friend raced. You’ve probably heard the line “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I didn’t feel too wonderfully made in that moment of struggle, but I was more intrigued by what the psalmist could have meant by “I am fearfully made.”
How a human is made blows my mind. Pure awe. It’s times of suffering when we really appreciate how wild it is that a bajillion things have to function right every second for us to stay healthy. And the complexity, our lack of control — it just demands respect. It’s like those rare times when you physically shudder at an idea. The fact that I’m not always breaking down every second of every day — that realization makes me feel wonderfully and fearfully made.
I’m fearful of being the patient, and I go to great lengths to ignore or avoid my own suffering sometimes. Richard Rohr says “Love and suffering are part of most human lives. Without any doubt, they are the primary spiritual teachers more than any Bible, church, minister, sacrament, or theologian.” At different times I’ve tasted thankfulness amidst suffering — even at moments being thankful for what my anxiety or the loss of a loved one has taught and done for me. But I admit it’s still not natural for me to be thankful in moments of suffering.
I’m left with a few questions in this season: What would it look like to start with thankfulness in my moments of pain? What comes to mind when pausing to consider how I’m wonderfully AND fearfully made?