God Uses Pain

I have learned now that while those who speak about one’s miseries usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more.

C.S. Lewis
Joy Davidman Lewis

Secrets. Deadly. C.S. Lewis lost his beloved wife, Joy, to cancer. But he didn’t hide his grief, writing about it in A GRIEF OBSERVED. His wisdom is meaningful because it comes out of his own life experience.

A Grief Observed

Our culture tends to think of pain as a negative, as something to sweep under the proverbial rug.

“How are you?”
“I’m fine thanks. And you?”

We may not want to take someone else’s time to share the truth of our journey, the faith crisis we’re in, the pain of loss, a wayward child, bankruptcy, or challenges within a community, a ministry, a marriage.

But secrets divide us. They raise barriers. Don’t go past this point. No more questions. Change the subject.

Have you been there? I have. In my last three posts I’ve written about being part of an inner city ministry for ten years, years that included times of significant joy and reward as we helped people through times of personal crisis, led children’s clubs and adult Bible studies, a teen choir, food and clothing distribution, and started a school in the ghetto. Joy as some committed their lives to Jesus Christ and started to walk a new path, making different, more positive choices than many around them.

But those years also included times of pain, with a controlling leader who told us not to talk to family or friends about doubts or issues with his leadership. So, along with others, I held a lot inside. I kept secrets. Was I fine? Definitely not. Did I tell anyone? Not for years.

So being with other women who were part of that organization two weeks ago was extremely meaningful. We shared honestly and openly, asking and answering questions and also sharing about our current lives. Although I know there was and is more to share, we spoke the secrets aloud. And it was healing.

Someone said when people speak about their joy, people listen and affirm. But when we speak our pain, people lean in. All of us have experienced pain, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. And pain spoken loses some of its power, while pain held in spreads like a cancer.

Obviously we need to be wise. Sharing everything with everyone is neither prudent nor effective. But we do need safe places where we can be authentic with a few trusted individuals.

When we speak of our pain (within appropriate boundaries), others want to hear. They may be experiencing something similar, and they want to know how we overcame. What gave us the strength to move through the pain to new understanding, to finding hope again?

Perhaps we can begin to welcome pain as a gift to help us grow or warn us of needed changes. The child who places her hand on a hot stove learns not to do that. The pain of betrayal may caution us against trusting too quickly, about delving more deeply into a person’s integrity before getting too involved.

These are some of the women in my life now, who challenge me in my walk with God and relationships with others. Our “Fab Friday” bunch is a gift!

The pain of distance from God may remind us that we need to spend regular time with him, enjoying this most important of all relationships.

None of us wants pain. Few of us invite it. And God doesn’t send it. But he can use it in our lives as it reminds us …

  • that God is our comfort as we move toward rather than away from him. “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (I Peter 5:7)
  • to serve others–God comforts us so that we can pass that comfort along to others in need (II Corinthians 1:3-5)
  • to patiently endure–“My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees.” (Psalm 119:71) and
  • to rely on God–“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life” (I John 5:12).

Out of pain and problems have come the sweetest songs, and the most gripping stories.

Billy Graham

Those are reasons to be thankful for pain’s impact in our lives.

May God guide you as you open your heart’s secrets to him, our ultimate Counselor; and to trusted confidantes, so that you may be healed.

Aftermath

I’ve reflected this week on the joy of last weekend’s reunion with former mission colleagues, of reconciliation, of hearts that never stopped loving each other despite misunderstandings, miscommunication, and directives not to talk with person(s) who left the ministry.

And while we were honest and vulnerable, this was not a leader-bashing weekend. We are all fallen sinners, saved by grace. And despite the flaws of the leadership, God used that ministry to bring hope and healing to many who chose to follow Christ. And for that I am deeply thankful.

At the time I left L.A., I think we lacked a real understanding of grace. So, from the leadership on down, we (myself included) tried to mold others into a certain image, forgetting that God has created us with minds that question, gifts that differ and cause us to view the world uniquely.

One woman talked about the hurt of feeling she never measured up because her artistic, creative temperament didn’t fit the square hole she was supposed to fill.

Another was falsely accused of stealing.

And because our system had a strict top-down heirarchy, pressure flowed downhill even as questions or doubts were passed upward. So if I said something negative to my “uplink,” she had a responsibility to report that to the President.

We were told not to discuss questions or problems outside the ministry because “‘they’ wouldn’t understand.” Burdened and feeling bound, I talked to my older brother about my concerns that last Christmas. He recommended counseling. But the response I got when I mentioned that was “I thought you promised not to talk to your family about this.” So I couldn’t get perspective on the issues that troubled me.

About ten days later my questions came to a head and I left.

But challenges don’t stop when we leave one situation for another. Their shape may change, but we must continue to lean into God because there is little that is certain in our world other than his love, grace, and presence. Pain inevitably comes. But God is able to use it, to comfort us so that with His comfort we can comfort others (II Cor. 1:3-5).

We all carry the scars of hurt, damaged relationships, of loss, unfulfilled hopes and dreams for ourselves or for family members. And as this group of women shared beyond our stories of leaving the ministry, we heard each other’s pain — wayward children, grandchildren making choices they may regret later, marriage and physical challenges — and we stopped to pray over individuals.

A few weeks after I left the ministry 38 years ago, I attended a church in northern California. From the pulpit, one of the pastors shared that there was a theological difference between the head pastors and two young ministers. After prayer and discussion with these two, they agreed this was a significant difference and the two were released from the church staff.

The pastor told the congregation the truth without sugar-coating it or demeaning these young men. He spoke with compassion and expressed continuing love for these two. I cried through the whole service because this separation was handled with love, compassion and honesty. Few of us who have separated from ministries have experienced that. Remaining staff members may be told untruths or half truths, as they were in my case. People may be told not to communicate with those who left, thereby leaving questions and misunderstandings that grow and multiply among those left behind.

But God is still sovereign. Nothing is a surprise to him. This morning I read:

“Trust that I know what I’m doing–that I can bring good out of everything you encounter, everything you endure. Don’t let your past or present suffering contaminate your view of the future. I am the Lord of your future, and I have good things in store for you. I alone know the things I am planning for you–to give you a future and a hope.

JESUS TODAY, p 40

One of my nephews was baptized on Easter Sunday a few years ago. I asked why now. What had changed. His answer? “I finally found a church where it was okay to ask questions.” We need to welcome questions and seek answers together before the Lord. We may need input from others like Board members or counselors. We may continue to serve. Or there may be good reasons to go our separate ways. But let’s be open and honest about these issues, rather than holding them in secret.

Burdens shared are lifted, as we experienced together last weekend. But we have to say yes…yes to being vulnerable, to sharing deeply with those we love, to recognizing and appreciating our differences. This reunion could have come sooner for me. I was invited to a staff wedding several years after I left. I wasn’t ready to face those who had hurt or shunned me, and declined the invitation. This time when Katie texted to ask if I had an interest, my response was immediate. “Absolutely, yes!” I was ready. And God was and is good.

“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Romans 8:28

The weekend was healing, unifying. Going forward, we will seek to understand each other, we will honor those who serve with us, we will respect differences and encourage real communication. And we will continue to love each other.

Hope Realized

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!

Ephesians 3:20-21, NIV

I was on a Southwest Airlines flight to Los Angeles to meet women I hadn’t seen for 38 years. My anticipation was high, but I wasn’t sure what to expect.

We worked together in the Los Angeles ghetto. Some of the women coming to the reunion accepted Christ through the ministry and went on to become staff members. 

Six women in this 1970’s L.A. staff photo were among the 14 present at our reunion

During my ten and a half years of service there, we worshipped, sang, taught children and adults the Bible. Our African American teens taught us white Mennonite girls, not known for dancing, the “hustle”. Our girls laughed at us, but I won the dance competition. That’s about as much dancing as I’ve done in my life, and it was fun! We taught children’s and adults’ Bible studies. We cried together when someone we loved was hurt or killed. We took in women who were abused, threatened, hurt. We watched an SLA house burn to the ground directly across from our home. When our lives were threatened we sat up late, talking and praying until we were fatigued enough to sleep.

We were close, both because of a common purpose and because we needed each other. We built tight-knit relationships within staff and in the inner city communities where we lived. We rejoiced together when another precious child, woman or man began a walk with Jesus that changed their lives and gave new hope.

Thirty-eight years later, I wondered how the women I would be with had changed. How had I changed? Would we have to work our way past years of separation and misinformation or could we pick up where we left off?

As I wrote last week, my departure was under less than optimal circumstances. Would there be questions, rehashing, resentment? Or forgiveness and love and acceptance for each person where she is now?

Were there residual areas of healing that needed to occur? I have forgiven those who hurt me. But were there still areas I needed to address?

After taking my first ever Uber ride from LAX, I knocked on Katie’s door. Entering, I was greeted with a lingering hug, which I gladly returned.

As twelve other women joined us, the extended hugs continued. Without words, we seemed to say “I’ve missed you. So very good to be with you again.”

One missing – we were 14!

I felt at home.

After a potluck lunch the 14 of us sat around the family room. We took turns updating each other on our lives. None of us are still with the organization we left, although one or two still volunteer with it. For four and a half hours we shared nonstop.

Patsy asked why I left. She had felt abandoned, another person walking away from her life. For 38 years some of these women had no idea why I left. I shared that I had lost trust in our President, with whom I’d worked very closely for 10 1/2 years. When he realized I no longer trusted him, he told me to leave town … that night. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. My sharing answered a long-held question for Pat, and I think brought some closure.

But I had not walked away from the Lord we all loved.

The ability to ask and answer questions, the vulnerability we shared with each other, reestablished a foundation of trust among us. And I realized that I was the first, but certainly not the only one who experienced rejection and hurt in leaving that ministry.

We had prayed for a time of healing, of restoration. My text to Don said it all. “Ohhhhh. Myyyyyy.”

Have you had a difficult challenge with a ministry from which you needed healing? That changed your faith? That caused you to question God or service?

You’re not alone.  Let’s talk about it.

Next week I’ll share more of what I learned and experienced this weekend. Still processing!

Reunion, Reconciliation

Thirty-eight years! It’s that long since I’ve seen some of the colleagues with whom I worked in the Los Angeles ghetto for ten years.

After a painful breakup/firing/split, I left not only the ministry but the city, eventually returning to my roots in Northern California.

This breakup impacted me in ways I imagined divorce felt like. It hurt! Misunderstandings and controlling leadership prevented my former friends from communicating with me. I felt isolated, cast off, forgotten.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I knew nothing about setting up a corporation. But I worked with a man who had the vision for an inner city ministry, and I handled the details. With many calls to City and State, we were established as a nonprofit organization. I worked closely with the President on the corporation’s implementation, guidelines, fundraising, and communication. I coached foreign workers on applying for the appropriate work visas and, on one occasion, spoke directly with the immigration official at the Vancouver airport who was not going to allow a young woman to board her flight to LA. But after my lengthy conversation with the officer, Nancy arrived to minister with us later that day.

I taught children and teens and lived with other staff women in the LA ghetto. We lived and ministered together and chose to be part of the community we served. We suffered together when someone we loved was hurt, killed, or when our own lives were threatened. This was my second family. And now we were separated for many reasons.

Between 5 and 19 women lived in this house during my ten years there.

Over the years it took me to heal from the impact of a controlling leader and unrealistic expectations, I prayed that God would somehow bring back some of those friendships. He has done that with some of the most significant peer relationships I had, and I am deeply grateful for the ability to clarify, question, and grow together as we talked in depth about how God used the ministry, and even the control, to teach and build us.

Unfortunately I’m not alone in my experience of burnout.

Others have gone through similar experiences. Controlling leadership that steps into the place God rightly inhabits, and its resulting burnout, can cause someone to lose faith, not only in a specific ministry or leader, but in God himself.

So how do we heal?

We cry. We rest. We look for those areas of personality or conflict that we own, and learn to release those we do not. Some of us write. With time, we learn to forgive.

We seek out people who are ‘safe’; those with whom we can be real who will love without judgment, listen without trying to “fix,” help us laugh and cry with us and accept us where we are at that moment.

We may seek help from friends, pastors, or professional counselors. We breathe out the pain and breathe in, increased understanding.

We look for ways we can encourage others with the strength and comfort God has given us, knowing He wastes nothing, including our hurt.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.

II Corinthians 1:3-5, NLT

And sometimes we reach out at some point and there is a positive response that allows bridges to be built and relationships to jump-start, wobbly at first, then growing stronger as the cords deepen.

So next weekend I’m flying to Los Angeles for a reunion with some of the women with whom I worked on staff, most of whom I haven’t seen in 38 years! Will I laugh? Cry? Probably both, as we remember the good times and the ways God used the ministry, and perhaps grieve over some of the boulders and stones along the way.

Knowing this reunion is happening 38 years after I left Los Angeles gives me great hope that God is still in the business of reconciliation.

Can’t wait to tell you more about our time together!

Retooling

I sat down at the keyboard, placed my fingers in position. I couldn’t open my WordPress program. Nada. Nothing. I was stumped. I couldn’t post my weekly blog.

The following week I contacted my provider to regain site access. After six or seven calls and repeated emails that got me nowhere, I was getting quite frustrated.

Finally I spoke with a service representative who said, “This is beyond my pay grade so I’m going to escalate your call.” Thank you Jesus (and Shawn)! This man recognized he did not have the skills necessary to correct my issue and up-loaded my call. Jon, on the other hand, did have the needed expertise and spent time with me, giving me back access to the administrative side of my blog and answering questions patiently. Something about my system needed retooling.

How often do you and I need retooling in our lives, whether spiritually, physically, emotionally or mentally?

I was recently challenged to fast in some way. I tend to get lightheaded if I wait too long between meals and so a food fast doesn’t seem workable for me at this time. However, I can fast in another way, for the purpose of spending that time with the Father.

My morning habit is to pick up my phone while I’m still in bed, check news and emails. I’ve determined that for the next week I will postpone that time on my phone, rather getting out of bed to sit by a living room window overlooking the pines and hills, and start my day with my Savior FIRST.

I need retooling periodically. How about you?