Pain’s Pained Choices

Chronic illnesses constantly ask the sufferer to make choices which inevitably seem like lose-lose. If you live with chronic illness, you know that well. If you don’t, then even at your most well-intentioned you live with ignorance as to what people like with on a daily basis. We are not brave, really. I certainly don’t feel brave today.

Today I woke up in pain. Ankylosing Spondylitis is a rare, potentially degenerative, unpredictable arthritic condition which affects primarily the spine but also other joints. It’s normal for me to wake up in pain, but today the levels were higher than usual and, as usual, for no discernible reason. Tight hamstrings, pain all the way through my back and neck. About 6/10 on my scale; on a normal person’s (apparently AS sufferers by necessity develop an unusually high tolerance for pain) it’s probably around 8/10. Apparently what I rank as north of 10/10 is worse than an especially painful childbirth.

I had planned to go to the gym today – I’ve put on weight and need to keep up the momentum on my new regime. Going to the gym will probably loosen me up a bit , but high pain brings with it a willpower melting emotional low. I lie in bed before the alarm sounds (pain always wakes me up) and wrestle with the trip to the gym. I eventually give in and doze fitfully through waves of pain and comfort myself that I’ve already been to the gym twice this week and it’s only Wednesday.

I slowly work my way into the day at my desk. The pain doesn’t go anywhere, and I’m tired. Pain is tiring, and I’m wrestling my mood. A while into the morning and it’s felt fairly productive. My concentration is all over the place, though. Pain does that. I have some top-up pain killers for days like this. If I take them, the pain will ebb somewhat and in theory I should be able to work more. However pain killers would mean more drowsiness on top of my tiredness. Stick or twist? I stick, for the time being. The rheumatologist has told me that topping up with the pain killers could affect my liver.

It would be good for me and the dogs out for a walk later, but the very thought of controlling them on the lead ratchets the pain still further. I put off the decision for now. I feel like I’ve lived a whole day of choices and pain and wrestling. I’m emotionally and physically shot. It’s only 12:30 p.m. Suddenly even the thought of what to have for lunch utterly overwhelms me.

Brave? Most certainly not.

Trauma, two years on

It’s now 2 years since our friend and deeply committed member of the church I lead was murdered in Nairobi by terrorists at the Westgate mall attack. I’m not one of those people for whom birthdays and anniversaries and birthdays are a big deal; I understand that for other people they can be significant, but for me they tend not to be. The anniversary of my mother’s death, for instance, is one that makes little impact on me. I check in with my family to see how they are doing – but for me it’s not a big emotional occasion. Anniversaries do however make useful markers as to how we are doing on the never-ending journey of grief; they can help us to see not so much how life has gone on without the person we’re missing, but rather they can show how our life has reshaped and maybe even enlarged itself to encompass the griefs with which we live.

The anniversary fell on a Monday. Last year – the first anniversary – fell on a Sunday. At our church we used the opportunity to remember not only James, but all whom we’ve lost and for whom we wish to give thanks to God. We developed a simple process of each person taking a flower and placing it in a vase at the front of church as a symbol of our cumulative memories, grief and thankfulness. It was a moving and helpful process, which we undertook again this year on Sunday. Although I was aware of the emotion around the service, it wasn’t something I found personally difficult; it wasn’t until lunchtime on the Monday that I tuned into the fact that irritability, jumpiness, tears close to the surface but never actually happening and anxiety were all part of my reality. By the evening I was fully on edge, manifesting many of the symptoms of the post-traumatic stress I’m told by an expert I experience as a result of my leadership calling and work two years ago. My wife went out to run a brief errand, and I was a mess of anxiety until she was safely back home; three good friends had been away all weekend and I couldn’t rest until I found social media evidence of their safe return (I was too self-conscious to actually check in with them directly); sleep was a distant hope, so I read and listened to music until well into the night.

Acceptance is a part of any healing process. You can’t get healed of a medical condition unless you accept you have it in the first place and seek the prayer or treatment you need; it’s also a well-recorded part of the grieving process. For me, the 2 year anniversary marks a point of acceptance. Not so much of James’ death – I’m pretty sure I’ve accepted that – but of my response. When it was first mooted by someone who knows about these things that I was experiencing some PTSD, I was hesitant and resistant. It’s not as if I was in the mall when he died; he may have been a good friend, but he wasn’t family. But  – and this is important – what I’m learning to accept is that the role I was called to play at the time placed me in a vulnerable position. It meant I was, amongst those who are not family, in an almost unique position of living through the events with the family but unable to process my own emotional reactions to events concerning my friend. I was living it, but needing to put parts of myself ‘on hold’. Part of me had to pause, the other part had to run. I was involved, privy to much private information and some intimate, precious moments. I was in the story, deeply. Two years on I’m accepting that this PTSD is a normal reaction to the abnormal events in which I was caught up; apparently it’s not unusual for people in jobs like mine in situations like this one.

As a result I found this anniversary harder than the first one; a friend pointed out that this may because there are fewer socially normal rituals associated with it. Last year the anniversary was a draining but helpful flurry of events and conversations; this year ‘normalised’ it all more, which may be part of the difficulty. I don’t want to accept that the new normal; but I must, and I am. It’s a constant, tidal ebb and flow of acceptance and rebellion, of remembering and forgetting; but acceptance is now at least in the frame.

That, then, is where I find myself two years on. The same place; somehow more painful, but healthier.

Related to this post

Trauma, one year on

Stumbling towards resurrection’s launchpad

Like a thunderclap: words at the funeral of a friend

Lessons On The Way 10: On Confusing God’s People with God

Church can be bad for your spiritual health. It’s easy as an attendee to get all comfy and cosy, and to forget that there’s a whole other six and a half days a week for you to live out what you say and sing in those 90 minutes on a Sunday. It’s easy to get cossetted into a holy huddle of false sacred/secular divide, and keep the world firmly out there and us comfortably in here. These, and more, are the dangers of being part of the strange and beautiful bride that is the church.

What’s on my mind today is how easy it can be to allow the actions of Christians to harden my receptivity towards God. It seems to me that this a danger especially for those of paid to lead churches – not that it isn’t a danger for all of us, just that the space of ‘professional’ (much as we might hate what that word might be seen to imply) church leader is where I find myself, and I’m increasingly and acutely aware of the dangers of the job.

In this role I find myself in the centre of a number of odd dynamics. There’s the sense that despite being the one with training and experience and who is paid to do what I do, I have a roomful of ‘amateurs’ (in the best sense of that word – the root of it is ‘love’) who have no training and little experience in what I do but plenty of strong opinions. Like the fans of a flailing football team, there’s plenty of passion, some insight and some ignorance directed at the one full-time manager who’s around. Or there’s the way you become a focus for the projection of issues people have – with other church leaders from their past, father or mother issues, authority figure issues, God issues, other Christians issues and the like. Sometimes one finds that these can be challenged or called out; sometimes they can’t be because the person’s distress is too great or need too urgent. Then there’s the hours you work that aren’t seen, the prayers you pray that the one prayed for never hears about, the casual complaints and the tired jokes about working a day a week and your ‘one busy day a week’. I could go on.

All of that and more stacks up. I suit up my armour – on a good day, that God’s armour – and wade into the world ready for what it brings. However it’s easy for that armour to be a hard carapace that may protect me from hurt but also keeps God on the outside. If I’m not careful I’ve started to confuse God’s people with God; I know we say that I’m here to serve God’s people, but really I’m here to serve God. It’s a crucial distinction. You can’t serve two masters, and if you hang around church long enough (especially as a leader) it’s easy to confuse God with His people, my feelings towards them with my feelings towards Him.

I’d done that. It’s been a tough season in a tough job. I’d put a shell around my heart and soul. It gradually crumbled over the course of a week’s retreat and a good weekend at the church I lead until I attended another church on the Sunday evening (which we do often). I asked someone to pray with me, the shell shattered, exposing me to the loving, burning gaze of God in a way that used to happen regularly but hadn’t happened in years. God looked into me, I blinked back at Him, and the shell was no more. Well, maybe it’s still there a little – maybe it’s a symptom of our default sinful state that we always seek to hide in the garden just a bit; but I’m now graciously, freeingly exposed. Not healed, not sorted, not perfect. Just open.

How many masters do I serve? How many are in the audience? The answer should only and always be: one.


Also In This Series

  1. I don’t have to do it all
  2. How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath
  3. The dangers and offensiveness of grace
  4. Tables and chairs are spiritual
  5. I’m (a bit) like St Paul
  6. Nothing’s that important
  7. It’s probably me
  8. The hero trap – what if I’m Goliath?
  9. The beginning and ending of spiritual warfare