Today I went back to visit a friend in Nazareth; I had promised her I would go to church with her so after visiting for a few minutes, we walked up the block to “church.” *Funny side note: in Nazareth, there are two “St. John’s” churches located literally across the street from one another. “Locals” differentiate the two “St. John’s” by referring to the one with the gargoyles or the one with the red doors!*
It was actually a nice experience. I haven’t been to church in over a decade. *Another side note: I actually used to be incredibly active in and at my “home church.” I volunteered like crazy; I went to services LONG after the rest of my family stopped going; I played in the bell choir, I played violin and cello and piano when they needed me to do so … I did a LOT in my church in my later teenage years.* The service was very much like what I am used to – I suppose you could call it a “typical” Protestant service (non-fundamentalist – I guess I have to make that distinction as well). The sermon was short but important – a “lesson” I found relevant for all of us who suffer with chronic illness and with all other sorts of “life” problems. My friend and I actually became friends largely because of her mother – I didn’t know her very well at the time but she invited me, a neighbor, to her mother’s 99th birthday party; I told her I would go and I did go – this is a story in and of itself. To make that long story fairly short, I ran into a “friend” on my way back to my apartment (at the time, I lived across the street from said first friend) and after being yapped at for far too long (this “friend” is a little nutsy) I had to walk around the block so said “friend” didn’t know which house was “mine.” When I finally got back, I ran in, took off my sweaty clothes to change, missed a phone call over which I obsessed for over a month (another long story for another time and another place…..), got re-dressed, tried to return the call, and finally made it to the party in time for birthday cake and to sing “Happy Birthday!” I was there just long enough to visit with the mother before the home hospice worker took her back to bed. It was basically at this party that I solidified my “status” as a good friend with this particular neighbor, now FRIEND.
To make THAT long story shortER, as life does what life does, her mother died within the next few days. No one really saw it coming (apparently the mother was in the same sort of state for something like 15 years). A mutual friend saw me walking home in the rain (I had ANOTHER friend from home lose a child the day before and in addition to it all, I was just not doing well personally); she knocked at my door to let me know our friend’s mother had just passed away. I thanked her for letting me know and went inside; I managed to hold back the sobbing until I was alone in the dark. The death of a friend’s mother; the death of a friend’s very young daughter; my own pains, both physical and emotional … it was just too much. The next few days saw the arrangements of the mother’s funeral and church services – I couldn’t make the full services because I had ANOTHER “new” dentist to see, but I still attended the church service for as long as I could to pay my respects and to be there as a friend for my then-neighbor. It was important both for me and for her – to this day I think my just being there made me a “friend for life.”
My apologies for the tangential rant. At any rate, back to the church service today! The pastor began his “sermon” by asking the congregation to think of a particular difficulty each of us had been through over the past few months. My friend leaned over and said “my mother….” with tears in her eyes. I know she is still struggling very much with the loss – I honestly cannot imagine the pain she is in both due to the loss in general and her specific circumstances (for privacy, I will not disclose them here). As much as I know she is hurting terribly (and for far too many reasons), I also know how much I am hurting, albeit in very different ways. The pastor paused and we contemplated our “struggles” for a few minutes. The silence was broken when the pastor continued – he said in his earlier days in religious studies, he often took issue with the idea behind the frequently utilized adage that “God only gives us as much as we can handle.” My virusy foggy brain suddenly focused on this idea with my full attention (*another side note: if you have been to as many churches and synagogues and other religious institutions as I have, you will likely agree that very few “practitioners of faith” deliver any useful information in their various forms of”diatribe.”*). Although these days I wouldn’t consider myself a “Christian” per se, I was, as I mentioned above, brought up “in the Church'” and went through my adolescent and teenage years in “the Church.” (My pastor actually was the one to give me the “the birds and the bees” talk! My pastor, who has since left “my” home church, was one of the most amazing and talented orators I have ever had the fortune of hearing and knowing; I was incredibly fortunate to spend many years with him as a very close friend.) At any rate, Christian or not, I have frequently contemplated the idea that God or the Universe or whatever “Greater Power” you want to believe in only gives us “what we can handle.” (If you don’t believe in a “Higher Power,” look back to the founding father(s) of AA who would chain alcoholics to radiators to PROVE that even inanimate objects could serve as a “Higher Power!”) This idea, necessarily, implies that God, a supposedly forgiving AND omnipotent entity, dishes out all of the horrific things people do to each other and gives us all the pain and suffering we must endure (or give in to, I suppose). How can a “loving” God and the God who TESTS FAITH BY DISHING OUT SUFFERING TO HIS BELIEVERS BE ONE AND THE SAME? It is an interesting question, regardless of who or what you might believe in or believe.
Basically, the answer to the above questions and questions like it is “faith.” (Aaaaaahhh faith! If ever there were a tricky subject!) It is in BELIEVING that there IS a Greater Power out there that is WALKING WITH YOU in your darkest, most challenging times. It is not so much that God “dishes out” unfair burdens to some and leaves others alone (despite stories like that of Job….) but – as I have said here time and again – that everyone has his or her struggles in life – the challenge is in realizing whether or not one is going to take action and take on the challenges with which one is confronted or if one is going to feel endless suffering in self-victimization. It is not an issue of WHAT “God gives us” – after all, the Universe and everything in it including suffering are more or less random (at least in regard to individuals, as far as we know). If you believe we have anything like a “free will” (debatable, but not a debate into which I want to delve), we have to believe we have some control over what happens to us at least regarding our reactions to those things. We have to know that many of the “bad things” we face in life are due to humanity collectively as we see in the “political” environments around the world today, in climate change, in the poverty and war we continue to perpetuate, &c. God does not “hand down” severe illness, poverty, and death to children in Africa, for example, because “they can handle it” while more “privileged” rich Western white kids cannot. That is foolish thinking, at best. HOWEVER, what WE – and the starving kids anywhere and everywhere – CAN attribute to “God” (or, again, whatever “Higher Power” you want to believe in) is the strength to do what we can do with what we already have in the face of adversity. We can also call upon the idea of “Faith,” or believing someone or some “invisible power” is beside you, walking the treacherous paths with you. To know that even in your loneliest times you are not alone; to know that although you have lost your mother or your daughter and to BELIEVE there IS someone or someTHING there giving you the strength to keep on keepin’ on defines “Faith.” And that lesson in “Faith” is certainly a lesson in both gratitude as well as in humility.
To sum all of that up much more succinctly, the lesson is basically that it is not God’s job to give suffering to those who can “take it” nor is it “His” job to fix the ensuing problems. After our aforementioned moment of silence, the pastor asked the question – “When you thought of whatever hardship you have gone through in the last few months or year, did you ask God to take it away or did you ask God TO ENABLE YOU OR TO HELP YOU TO TAKE THE CHALLENGE ON OR TO GIVE YOU THE STRENGTH TO GET THROUGH IT?” Although it doesn’t seem like a terribly profound question, it really is – and it is the one that we, as “spoonies,” or sufferers of chronic illnesses face regularly. This is especially true after years and years of suffering – we begin to feel justified in “expecting” our problems to disappear without our concerted effort BECAUSE THE WORLD OWES US SOMETHING. How often do I hear that articulated in a seemingly infinite variety of ways?
The point in all of this is THAT WE DO HAVE A CHOICE. We can go down that path of perpetual self-victimization or we can realize the inductive fallacy in all of it, look to the future, and KNOW that through our own strength and determination we CAN and WILL find a “better place?” It is basically the distinction that exists between self-victimization / inaction (that “default state of failure,” the 0, the false) and DOING SOMETHING, even if it is just a change in thought, perception, or attitude (that “step forward” to “1,” the true, the ACTION that drives EVERYTHING). The pastor was essentially saying that “Faith” is not just “BELIEVING GOD WILL FIX OUR PROBLEMS” but BELIEVING THAT GOD (/ the Universe / whatever you want to put here) IS THERE AS A SOURCE OF SOLACE, AS A SOURCE OF ENABLING ALL OF US TO OVERCOME OUR CHALLENGES AND TO GAIN THE STRENGTH OR WHATEVER IT IS WE NEED THROUGH FAITH In other words …
FAITH IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE A MEANS OF TESTING ONE’S BELIEF IN GOD (/ THE UNIVERSE, &C.); RATHER, FAITH IS GOD’S (/ &C.) WAY OF SHOWING HE BELIEVES IN YOU.
I found this to be an incredibly refreshing way to look at a “timeless” “problem” – a problem that regularly challenges those of us with severe health issues and one that far too frequently holds us hostage by our own free will.
And so, with all of that said, I leave YOU the questions – what have YOU suffered through in the past few months? Did YOU resort to cycling through the “stages of grief” in asking or begging for the problem / suffering just to be gone … or did you ACT in some way, moving from a state of “failure” to success? Did you learn something in the process? Have you allowed whatever “Higher Power” you believe in to ENABLE YOU TO GET THROUGH IT ALL? How would you define “Faith?” (In any terms, really!) And to boil it down to ONE simple question – did you ACCEPT whatever anathema(s) you have faced? *NOTE: The topic of acceptance is one that interests me very much and it is a subject I have written extensively about elsewhere – what I want to say here, briefly, is just that although it might seem superficially contradictory, acceptance IMPLIES ACTION; IGNORING THE PROBLEM IS NEITHER ACCEPTANCE NOR FAITH.* There are so many implications to this discussion in general – take it wherever it takes YOU.
Whatever you believe in and whatever you are dealing with, I do wish you all a very happy and healthy day (or night) wherever you are in the world. Please know my heart is ALWAYS with YOU.
❤ Always, Beth