A proper diagnosis

Even though I’ve faithfully stretched and exercised throughout my adult years, I have stiff muscles. Various stressors, both physical and emotional, have no doubt contributed to my tightly-wound state. The tension increases and decreases, often without a clearly-discernible cause and effect, but it never disappears completely.

Earlier this year, a prolonged period of tender-to-the-touch joints and knotty muscles left me feeling dejected. Thankful a series of medical tests ruled out several serious possibilities, but being no closer to a solution, I procured a referral for physical therapy.

When I went for the initial evaluation, I told the therapist she was my last hope. She maintained a professional demeanor, but I’m almost certain she thought, “Just great! How did this woman end up on my schedule?” Nonetheless, she proceeded with the assessment, asking questions and directing me to bend first one way, then another.

In summarizing her findings, she stated, “Your overall strength is good and your range of motion is somewhat greater than normal. Your joints are loose.”

Attempting to interject some humor, I replied, “Then I guess it’s a good thing my muscles are tight so they can hold me together.”

The therapist didn’t laugh. Instead, she provided the missing piece that allowed me to solve the years-long mystery: “Oh, your muscles really are working over-time to provide the stability your joints and ligaments would normally provide.”

And what did I do with this critical bit of information? I turned to Google, of course! A search of “loose joints, tight muscles” yielded a name for my condition: joint hypermobility syndrome. As I read article after article, years of confounding experiences began to make sense. In trying to help myself, I’d unknowingly inflicted more harm, specifically by over-stretching and requesting too much pressure during my periodic massage therapy sessions. Sadly, my body interpreted these efforts as an assault on the alternative stabilization method it had established. The outcome: more tightness, more trigger points, more tenderness around my joints.

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Physical and spiritual training require the proper equipment.

The relief of finally understanding what I’d been battling for so long mingled with deep disappointment at the realization I can’t fix it. It’s the way I’m put together. At best, I can learn how to manage it. Now enlightened, I’m focusing on strength and balance, paying more attention to posture, and being vigilant when it comes to adding pressure (physical and emotional) to an already-stressed system. I’m hopeful consistent implementation of these changes over time will be beneficial. Even so, I’m finding it difficult to be patient while my body adjusts to this new approach.

The spiritual parallels are hard to ignore. Before God calls us to himself, we lack a proper diagnosis. We sense something’s awry, something’s missing. Our attempts to feel better frequently result in the opposite or are short-lived. Because we’re created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), made to glorify Him (Psalm 86:8-10) and enjoy fellowship with Him, nothing else can satisfy our souls’ deepest longings.*

At the appointed time, He replaces our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26) We begin to understand our condition and the sin that separates us from our Father. There’s nothing we can do to repair our brokenness. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Fortunately, He doesn’t leave us in our helpless state. He sent his only begotten Son to heal our souls and restore the family bonds broken at the fall. (Genesis 3; John 3:16) Jesus, the Great Physician, took our infirmities on himself and bore our iniquities. His wounds brought about our healing. (Isaiah 53:4-5) His righteousness, graciously granted to we who were once lost, ensures our eternal inheritance. (1Peter 1:3-5)

Even though Jesus’ perfect obedience has been credited to our accounts, fully paying the debt we owe our Holy God, we will struggle with the effects of sin, ours and others’, as long as we’re in the this world. Like my impatience with my physical progress, there are times when, with the Apostle Paul, I bewail my inability to consistently obey my Father. (Romans 7:18-20) Nevertheless, with the help of the Spirit, we’re being conformed more and more to the likeness of our elder Brother. (Romans 8:29) Bit by bit, we shed the old and put on the new. (Romans 12:2)The transformation will continue until Jesus’ promised return, when all will be made new and perfect – no more sickness, no more sin, no more tears. (Revelation 21:4)

Until then, may we abide in the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power at work within us. (Ephesians 3:20)

 

* Several well-known quotes alluding to our “God-shaped void”:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1692

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” St. Augustine, Confessions, c. AD 400.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952.

 

Longing for Egypt

A recent devotional reading directed me to one of several Old Testament instances of God’s chosen people grumbling against Moses and Aaron. But, ultimately, their protests were against the Lord himself. The particular passage in Exodus recounts how the Israelites complained about not having anything to eat. This, as you may recall, occurred soon after God’s gracious provision of water from a rock in response to their grievance regarding thirst. (Exodus 15:23-25) The grumbling escalated to the point that they lamented the fact they’d ever left Egypt. “If we had only died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death”, they moaned. (Exodus 16:3)

To listen to their description, you’d think they’d been on an extended vacation. Had they so quickly forgotten God delivered them not from some idyllic existence, but from slavery?

IMG_6094 (2)Our pastor has been preaching through the book of Exodus. The events recorded in the second book of the Bible – the burning bush, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments – have been part of my Biblical knowledge for as long as I can remember, dating back to my childhood Sunday school classes. Nevertheless, this ongoing sermon series has yielded a number of thought-provoking insights for now-grown-up me to ponder.

Consider for example: When the people initially cried out to God, they were seeking relief, not rescue. (Exodus 2:23) By then, they’d been in Egypt 400 years and had grown accustomed to that culture. It felt like home. In fact, they even worshiped Egyptian gods.[1] The Israelites were focused on their day-to-day existence, just hoping conditions would improve. But God took note of the darkness of their spiritual condition. He knew He had to not only get his people out of Egypt; He had to get Egypt out of them.[2]

God initiated their deliverance. Indeed, He initiates the deliverance of every one of his children.[3] For until He calls us, we remain dead in our trespasses, unable to save ourselves or to even realize our need of salvation. (Ephesians 2:1-9) Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf frees us from the penalty of sin – God’s wrath and eternal separation from Him – as well as sin’s ultimate pull and power as we navigate life in a world that’s no more our Home than Egypt was home to those God freed from Pharaoh.

Nonetheless, as long as we’re in the flesh, surrounded by worldly influences without and our own not-yet-perfected desires within, we will struggle to do what’s right. The Apostle Paul outlines the ongoing battle well in Romans 7:18-20. God and sin both promise us joy, peace, and happiness, but sin lies. And it fights back with a vengeance when we try to get free.[4]

It’s so easy for us to read the accounts in Exodus and think, “What was wrong with those people?” They saw God do mighty miracles on their behalf, they heard his voice (Exodus 19:9, 16-19), they ate food He rained down from heaven (Exodus 16:4-36), yet they grumbled and complained and even longed for Egypt. But, sadly, we are capable of the same amnesia, grumbling and self-deceit when it comes to forgetting our helpless, hopeless estate apart from God, how vulnerable we are to temptation.

God, in his mercy, provides a way out when we’re tempted. (1 Corinthians 10:13) Even so, there are times when we turn away from the offered escape, rationalizing some sort of exemption for ourselves, yet knowing there are no such exemptions. It is then that our loving Father disciplines us, allowing consequences of our actions to chasten us and draw us back to himself. (Hebrews 12:5-11) The Spirit contends within us, reminding us Who we belong to, who we are called to be. My own times of wandering have convinced me that unless I live a life that satisfies God, I will not live a life which satisfies myself.[5] Obeying, loving and glorifying Him are to be my primary purpose, now and forever.

Just like the Israelites, we’re apt to forget or downplay distasteful aspects of our past. A wise counselor recommended I record the hardships I endured during a difficult situation some years ago. She advised, “In time you’ll forget how bad it was. Write down specific events, so you can look back and be reminded of the reality.” And so I did. And many are the times I’ve read what I recorded. Psalm 40:1-3 became my refrain: I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.

O, Lord, throughout history, You’ve told your people to set up memorials, (Joshua 4:1-24), to observe days of remembrance, to recall your great mercies. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)[6] May we never forget how lost we were before You found us and may we ever praise You for your daily protection and provision as You faithfully lead us Home.

[1] “The God Who Knows”, sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant Church, January 28, 2018.

[2] “Throwing Down the Gauntlet”, sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant Church, February 25, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Throwing Down the Gauntlet, Part II”, sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant Church, March 11, 2018.

[5] Arthur Bennett, “The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions”, p. 161, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1975.

[6] The sacrament of Communion is one of our most important ways of remembering Jesus and his atoning sacrifice.

Father knows best, take 2

First-time obedience – it’s something we strive for and long for in our children, be they toddlers or teenagers. As we try to shape them into responsible, caring human beings we establish rules and enforce boundaries, preferably in a consistent and loving way. But oh do they ever push the limits. There are times when we even wonder if our children may be suffering from temporary hearing loss. We repeat our instructions over and over, frequently increasing our volume with each repetition.

Often our rules are meant to keep our children safe. For instance, we know the dangers of running in front of a car, playing with knives and sticking keys in electrical outlets, thus we warn them. At other times we try to help them learn how to play well with others. Hitting someone because you’re angry they took your “favorite” toy (which you may or may not have looked at for days) is not advisable, at least if you want the person to be favorably disposed to your presence. Likewise, cutting your sister’s hair, “so she can see better”, without asking Mommy first will more than likely result in your scissors being kept out of your reach.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart for MANY reasons, guiding and disciplining day in and day out being near the top of the list. After raising my daughters, I now have the opportunity to come alongside Mary and Justin to help them bring up their three little ones. img_1950Though it’s tempting to take the easy route and fall into the role of indulgent grandmother, I know it wouldn’t do any of us any favors, least of all the children. Hence I adhere to the house rules, sometimes stating, “Mommy (or Daddy) says . . . ”, to reinforce the idea of obedience even when they’re not present.

Several months ago, after I’d repeatedly asked Joshua to stop engaging in some now-forgotten misbehavior, I thought, “I just wish he’d obey the first time!” Almost immediately, a still, small Voice spoke to my heart: “What about you? Do you always obey the first time?” The question pierced me to the core because the honest answer was, “No, Lord. I don’t.”

Occasionally, like Eve, I let myself be led astray by “Did God really say?” thinking.[1] Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe it would be ok to run a quick test, just to be sure. A while back, I left Joshua unsupervised for a few moments while I tended to his sister. He appeared with a sheepish look and a small cut on his finger. Even though we’d told him again and again knives are off limits because they’re sharp, he decided to check it out for himself. I can relate.

At other times my disobedience is more willful. I rationalize that given the circumstances, my behavior is ok, at least “this once”. Yet try as I might, I’ve never found a footnote anywhere in the Bible exempting me from God’s commands. Moreover, rationalization is a slippery slope which can lead us further and further away from who we want to be. King David is a prime example. It all started when he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Yet committing murder was probably the furthest thing from his mind when he went up on the roof of the palace to get some fresh air. Nonetheless one poor decision led to another until he not only arranged to have an innocent man die, but he lied and committed adultery as well.[2] This is a sobering story indeed considering David was God’s chosen king,[3] described as a man after God’s own heart.[4]

Knowing our weaknesses, God promises to provide a way out when we’re tempted.[5] Even so, we don’t always avail ourselves of his provision. And when we don’t, when we decide to go our own way, He disciplines us. Not because He wants to squash our fun or limit our self-expression as our children sometimes accuse us of, but because He loves us.[6] We are fearfully and wonderfully made in his image[7] and He knows what’s best. His rules and boundaries are there to protect us.

Over the years, my mom has said countless times, “A self-learned lesson is the best.” As much as I’d like to shield my children and grandchildren from harm, I realize consequences are sometimes the ideal teacher, at least when we learn from our experiences. It is much the same with me and my heavenly Father. He frequently uses the pain caused by my disobedience to draw me back to himself. I have learned I cannot live a life which satisfies myself if I do not live a life which is satisfying to God.[8] To be sure, most of the pain comes from a sense of disappointing Him which in turn leads to a rueful desire to hide, like Adam and Eve.[9] I rejoice in the fact my Father never lets go or loses sight of me, even when I wander. It’s impossible to hide. Indeed He seeks me out. His discipline confirms I am his daughter[10] and his loving arms are always open to welcome me back. The peace and joy that come with restoration are priceless.[11]

Let us not lose heart as we raise the children entrusted to us. May we be wise as we set boundaries, consistent when discipline is called for, and steadfast as we assure them of our love. In so doing, we will give them a glimpse of the Father who loves them even more than we do.

[1] Genesis 3:1

[2] The full account is found in 2 Samuel 11

[3] 1 Samuel 16:1

[4] 1 Samuel 13:14

[5] 1 Corinthians 10:13

[6] Hebrews 12:6

[7] Psalm 139:14, Genesis 1:26a

[8] The Valley of Vision, Arthur Bennett, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, p. 166

[9] Genesis 3:8

[10] Hebrews 12:7-8

[11] Hebrews 12:11