Category Archives: Pain and suffering

The Magnificent City

[Note: I wrote this many years ago, and very recently a friend asked for a copy. I had thought it was lost, but this friend managed to dig one up. I hope this story blesses you.]

© 1992 Shaunna Howat

There she was finally, in God’s presence, where she had wanted to be for so long. There was no need for sunshine, because all the light they needed radiated from God the Father.

She was clothed in a splendid white gown made of cool, silky rich cloth she had never felt before. Looking about her, she saw that everyone was dressed the same. They all glowed in their garments. Just how she imagined them to look.

She watched them as they stood or sat in small groups, talking, relaxed. They would laugh quietly at something shared intimately, all at ease with one another. Old friends, long departed, now reunited.

She had been told to wait where she was; there would be an Escort meeting her.

How she got to this place she couldn’t exactly remember. Most of the people with whom she had spoken here didn’t really remember their own deaths much either. Or they just didn’t need to talk about it. They had all died, hadn’t they? Nothing remarkable in that.

When she had first arrived, she was given a tour of the Magnificent City. Mansions of precious stones lined streets of gold. Marble, rose quartz, aquamarine, ruby, diamond, emerald—all the beautiful stones on earth, plus more she had never seen before. The mansions were huge, immaculate, with perfect gardens lovingly tended by numerous white-clad individuals.

She entered the Great Palace, an enormous structure the likes of which she remembered seeing before in pictures. The Temple in Jerusalem, she decided, must have looked much like this. Entering the Holy of Holies, the most central room, she looked out upon vast legions of saints like herself, all bowing before the throne of the Most High God. Angels flew up, around, and back, singing “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” The train of His robe filled the temple.

At the right hand of the Lord God sat His Son, brilliant in glory.

Then she had the chance to do what she had longed to do most of her life: She fell at the Lord’s feet to worship Him face to face. She dropped to her knees on the golden floor, tears of joy streaming down, and marveled at the look of pleasure on His beautiful face.

Countless others worshipped all around, singing joyously with the angels. Strains of music poured forth from a choir of golden voices, an orchestra of unearthly instruments.

“Welcome, my daughter,” He said. To her! “I have been waiting for you. You have a room reserved here. Your name is written in the Book of Life.”

She never tired of being on her knees in that splendid room. It seemed like years went by as she knelt at His feet, listening to Him speak, drinking in His glory. Then she realized that time had no meaning while she drank in the blessings and sang praises to her Lord. She never wanted to leave.

After a while, her Escort took her outside and told her she could return to worship any time she wished. She followed him to a mansion where large golden books lay open on tables. Their leaves shone with a heavenly light and spoke softly to their readers as, wonderingly, they each turned pages to hear more.

Going to a book, she stood amazed to find it speaking to her!

“Welcome, daughter, my chosen one,” it said. “You have been brought to this place because of your undying faith, because I called you and you believed in Me; because you held fast to your faith and I held you in the palm of My hand. You have wondered why so many times—why there was so much suffering in the world, why friends and family were taken from you, why the world is the way it is.”

She turned another illuminated page and listened as it spoke to her.

“Now you may spend time finding out the answers to all you have wondered and more. Understand how the earth was formed by My hand. Watch Jesus as He was brought to life again. Learn the answers to all the questions you have ever asked, to which there seemed to be no answer. Watch, daughter, and listen, to all the glorious, perfect answers. Then you will know.”

Tears of joy, of understanding, of thankfulness flowed, as she read endlessly, watching and learning. She didn’t want to stop. She had spent her years on earth asking, wondering, wishing she knew the answers to all of life’s questions—and here they were for her.

“At this time,” the book said softly, “you wondered why your father was taken from you. And here is the reason.”

And on yet another page she read, “At this time your heart ached because you lost your child in the womb. And here is why.”

The answers were so clear to her! On earth she had held fast to her faith that God, in His infinite wisdom, had reasons for everything that occurred in the world, and that God’s ways would be made clear to her in His time. And here, in her own book, were the answers.

Finally, her heart content with all she had ever wanted to know (and strangely aware that all of life’s mysteries really did not matter much after all, compared to where she stood right now), she was ready to move on.

She was ushered into a Banquet Hall where the others gathered to feast. There she found family and friends who had gone before her. Their appearances were different from what she had remembered, but they were still the same people she had known on earth. And though they were different, they were also the same.

Her earthly father, whom she had not known since she was a child, was the same smiling, tender man she remembered, only he was different. There was a countenance of peace upon him that had not been there. And the suffering body she had known in his last days was transformed to perfect, unageing health and clad in a pure white gown.

What a marvelous time all her friends and family had in the Banquet Room! They had no trouble getting to know each other again, sharing memories and talking about the Glory of the Lord.

She wondered aloud when she could once again sit at her Heavenly Father’s feet and worship Him. They all smiled and nodded knowingly at each other. It was the favorite pastime of all who lived in the Magnificent City. When they were away from Him, they hungered to return.

“You can worship whenever you like. That’s the beauty of this place. We like to worship regularly. We spend our moments in worship and fellowship. There is no measure of time here; all our moments are like grains of sand in a limitless hourglass.”

So her days were spent just as she liked: she walked down golden streets with her loved ones, worshipped the Lord, and marveled at His wondrous works. To worship endlessly at His feet was all they desired. Banquets of beautiful food were set before them, and they broke bread together in fellowship.

Soon she was made aware that others around her had tasks they were delighted to perform. Gardening, singing, playing beautiful instruments, preparing food for others to enjoy. Some escorted new arrivals. As soon as she became aware of these tasks, her Escort appeared beside her.

“Your job is at hand,” said her Escort, whom she had learned to find at her elbow just when she had a question that needed an answer.

“What is my job?”

She was so eager to perform a task for the Father that it seemed impossible she had spent so much time in the Magnificent City not doing anything for Him.

“Do not worry; everyone is expected to spend a large amount of time adjusting before beginning their tasks. Yours is now at hand. It was designed for you because of your deep compassion on earth for the little ones.”

She followed him to a mansion and through doors of precious jewels. They paused in a hallway before an enormous door of pearl.

“Inside awaits your task,” he said with a secretive smile.

She could hear the sound of bubbling laughter coming from the other side of the door. The sound that had always melted her heart: the chortling, breathless belly laughs of her own children and grandchildren. She smiled just remembering their laughter, almost wanting to return to that time.

Her escort pushed open the door and stood back to let her see. The room, bigger than nearly every room she’d seen in this Magnificent City, stretched as far as she could see. It was filled with babies.

Babies of all sizes and colors. Beautiful, happy, chubby babies held in the arms of loving men and women in rocking chairs. Babies crawling after sparkling, tinkling, golden balls on floors as soft as cotton. Babies nursed by mothers who sang heavenly lullabies as their infants drifted off to sleep.

Millions of babies.

“This, too, is reserved for you,” said her Escort. He indicated a baby who crawled up to her, sat unsteadily on her fat little bottom, and lifted her arms up to be held.

Tears flowed down her face as she stooped to pick up the dark-eyed baby. The infant laughed delightedly and clapped her dimpled hands.

“He knows, doesn’t He, just what I love?” She whispered into ringlets of hair at the nape of the baby’s neck.

“Yes,” answered her Escort. “This task was reserved for you and for all who love babies. And for all those who fought and prayed and argued and marched against the scourge of the earth, the devastation that killed millions of babies before they could be born. This room is filled with those babies.

“They need so much love and tenderness, because many were rejected before they took their first breath. They need patience and encouragement, because their earthly parents had no room for them in their busy lives. They need soothing lullabies and soft beds because they knew violence before they could see the light of day.

“Come and go as you wish. Worship whenever you like, and feast with your departed friends and family as often as you want. Your task will always be here waiting for you. These babies will always need you, and there will always be more.”

He turned to go.

“Wait!” She remembered a question that she had not asked before.

He knew the answer before she could form the question.

“The child you lost in your womb is in your arms now.”

She gasped and looked into now-familiar eyes, the same laughing, chocolate-brown eyes as those of her other children.

Her Escort smiled with pleasure as the secret was revealed. How he loved his job!

“Yes, she has been waiting for you. Waiting for you with confidence, for you to hold her and love her, too.”

“But you said this room is full of—”

“All babies who do not have a chance to be born come to this room to wait. All babies.”

He turned to go. “I must return to my tasks.” And he disappeared.

Her time was spent joyously. As she rocked sweet-smelling babies to sleep in the golden room of downy-soft floors and pearled walls, she looked forward to worship. After her hours of adoration at the Father’s feet, she reveled in time spent with family and friends in the Banquet Hall.

Angels who traveled from the City to the earth to bring messages to the faithful, to guard the believers, would return and share their stories. She was surprised that, as it seemed years had gone by for her in her deep enjoyment of the Magnificent City, only a day or two had gone by since she had departed from earth.


Time began to matter even less to her as she immersed herself in long worship sessions, endless family reunions, and armloads of babies who never seemed to get enough cuddling. Her task, her worship, and fellowship kept her busy, just as she loved to be.

One day as she left the Worship Hall, headed for a banquet, her Escort appeared at her elbow.

“You need to know that your dear friend is arriving shortly.”

“She is? How delightful!” Her friend’s face came to mind, a loving memory of one of the dearest friends she had had on earth. She remembered how they had been mothers together, raising their children to know and love the Lord, and wondering if they were doing the right things for their children.

She remembered how they longed to sit together on cold winter days before a fire with hot cups of tea, just to chat, and were never able to because they were so busy raising children.

They had spent time together with their husbands, the four of them, sharing dinners and evenings out, worshipping together in church.

Then, as they got older and their children moved away, they had had more time to spend together, just enjoying each other’s company. Children and grandchildren came and went, playing across their floors, and they grew old through winters by the fire and summers under shade trees.

Suddenly she longed to see her friend again and spend long days showing her the glory of the Magnificent City!

“I am her Escort, too, you know.” He smiled broadly. “I escort kindred spirits, and the Lord foreknew you to be kindred spirits of the first degree. You loved and worshipped the Father together with all your souls. You cried and laughed together in the raising of your families and in the loving of your husbands. You prayed fervently. You fought the battle valiantly. And she is coming to find her reward, just as you have before her.”

“You don’t know how pleased I will be to see her again!”

“Yes, I do.” And he disappeared.

Upon reaching the Magnificent City, her friend spent such a glorious time at the Lord’s feet, and in reading her golden book. And she, watching her newly-arrived friend, enjoyed seeing her happily reuniting with friends and family who had come to the Magnificent City before her.

“Now it’s your turn,” whispered a voice at her elbow. Her Escort nudged her forward, and then they saw each other.

With a little sigh of recognition, her friend called her name. “I knew I would find you here!”

There were hugs, and happy tears, and laughter as they reunited. Linking arms, they walked the streets of the Magnificent City, she telling her friend all about each mansion.

They worshipped together again, smiling as they remembered the countless times they had agonized over their families and how they were being raised. Now they knew how the Father’s Hand had worked in their lives, and they were comforted to know that He had superintended every moment, all according to His perfect plan. Not even the mistakes and messes could change God’s plan.

One quiet day in the Babies’ Room, the door was pushed open and their Escort stood, her friend by his side. She watched from her rocking chair, and he winked at her knowingly as her friend stopped to pick up a fair-haired child whose arms were raised up to her.

She could not hear what he said, but she knew. She watched her friend take in the room full of babies as their Escort explained. The task fit her so perfectly.

She knew, too, in the gasp of recognition as her friend looked at the child in her arms. She knew as she watched a soft, cushioned rocking chair appear next to her own, and their Escort pointed it out to her. As her friend made her way over to where she sat, she saw tears of joy and knew again the familiar, aching desire to rock a child so long departed from her.

Cups of tea appeared nearby, and they sat thus, rocking bundles of warm, cuddly babies, chatting, and laughing.

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Resting on a Promise

For the believer, a state of rest comes not from an emotional high or low. Rest is a quieting of the mind. In the midst of a pandemic, in uncertain times, when we aren’t certain about the world around us, can “rest” be found?

 

Christian, rest comes from knowing that your future is certain. Of course we do not “know the future,” like a fortune-teller claims to do. Instead, we look beyond our present situation, beyond the uncertainty of what the next few days, months, and years will hold, to eternity. That rest is a promise, a confidence, a contentedness, for today.

 

“Rest” can be a time or place of refuge or safety, shelter in the eye of a storm, in the midst of a hectic time, or at the end of a crazy day. A mental state—the ability to remain calm while everything else around you is a jumbled mess. Peace when you’ve lost a job or a family member. A quiet heart when you feel so alone.

 

What if you can’t attain that calm place of rest? Christian, I’ve been there too. The answer isn’t to do more or try harder, as Michael Horton calls the endless striving in his book Christless Christianity.

 

First, last, and always, go back to what you know to be true.

 

Christian, the one source of truth is the Gospel. It is found in God, through His Holy Spirit, and guaranteed by the Lord Jesus Christ. I–and all believers–need to remind ourselves of the Gospel every day. Here’s the Gospel—the truth and the promise:

“Remember that you were [once] separated from Christ, … having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace…. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (ESV Ephesians 2:12-22).

 

This is the promise for rest and peace, a peace that is soul-deep. More than I rely on myself, my family, my friends, I trust the promises of God: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 81:8).

 

Remember the promises of God to help you in the midst of trouble, when you’re not sure who your friends are, why you are so sick, things are going so badly, or when it will all end. Remember how Psalm 27 opens, written by someone who had seen his fair share of turmoil:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who will stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident ” (Psalm 27:1-3).

Do not fear. Remember Who is greater than all your troubles. Rest.

 

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Pursue Peace

In 1776 the British pastor Augustus Toplady penned a familiar hymn called “Rock of Ages,” a beautiful statement of his assurance of faith.

This assurance, this confidence gives him a sense of peace, a sense of rest.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

The world is full of trouble. Dangers lurk everywhere, as we saw especially in the year 2020. We didn’t know how bad the pandemic would become; we couldn’t believe the destruction we saw in the streets of many cities. We wondered whose business would fail next, who would lose their jobs.

We worried, we fretted. We lived day to day, week to week, in a sort of daze. What could possibly happen next? Can it get much worse? Is this the new normal?

As much as we’d like, we can’t see the answers to such questions. But there is a comfort in the midst of the heavy, haunting weight of anxiety and unrest.

Think of worries as twofold: the temporal—what is happening in the present time or the immediate future, and eternal—where this is all heading at the end of days.

To some measure, we are able to affect our temporal worries, soothe them, perhaps change them, or try to manage them. But those eternal worries—who can know? This is the question that every generation has tried to answer. Whole religions have been invented trying to answer them. How can we know for sure?

History from all over the world tells of people who claimed to have the answers to all that troubles us. They begged wise men to impart some truth, something they could hang onto. Imposters every day invent new schemes to gain followers, enriching themselves and plunging poor souls into debt and depths of despair.

The prosperity gospel, for example, promises your best life now, but it ignores the truth that regardless of how much we pray against it, hard times do come. It ignores the truth that Jesus promised: “In this life you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The promises from man-made religions might make you feel okay for awhile, but eventually the nagging worry creeps back in.

That’s because the answers are only skin-deep, and they leave you feeling dissatisfied. Ultimately all the pretense cannot bear up under the weight of uncertainty, and you are back where you started.

But one God, the true God of Heaven, Creator of the universe, offers the only answers that hold up under scrutiny, answers that soothe the soul and offer a deep sense of peace and rest. Promises that are not empty, because Jesus has guaranteed them with His own life, which He laid down. And then, to seal the promise, He came back from the dead.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Peace, comfort, and rest come from this assurance: the God of the universe is my shelter. Knowing that the almighty, all-powerful God cares for individual souls like mine. Knowing that there’s nothing I can do—not the labor of my hands, but simply trust.

Trust in God’s grace, given to those of us who recognize how sinful we are. Realize there is nothing we can do to save ourselves from the deadly consequences of those sins, and repent: ask for and receive the cleansing power poured out for us at the cross by Jesus Christ.

In this I have confidence, comfort, and contentment, and I know God will never leave me nor forsake me.

My worries, my doubts, my fears can plunge me into despair if I don’t stop and remind myself: What do I know to be true?

Emotions can cause me to doubt, cause me to run, and when they try to take over, I have learned to ask myself that question.

What do I know to be true?

The answer is the Rock I cling to, the Rock in whose cleft I can hide my face, my shelter in the storm. The answer is that God is the one true source of peace and rest, even when the heaviest burdens weigh me down.

What do I know to be true? What about when things are at their worse and I can’t stand on my own? I must remember—and Christian, you must also remember—that you have been saved by the grace of God, and not the work of your hands. This is what you retell yourself when everything around you seems to be crumbling.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

Let me hide myself in Thee. I cannot save myself. Wash me, Savior, or I die.

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Great Expectations, adjusted

A mom asked me for help in what to do for her child, who was going to be out of class for the next two months due to some radical chemo treatments. Her young teenager has cancer. This wasn’t the first mom I’d met with a child in need of special treatment.

And in such cases I have to talk to mom and dad about adjusting their–and their child’s–expectations. There is no hard-and-fast rule out there for dealing with interrupted plans. The typical plan for a high school load each year wouldn’t work for this atypical situation. No rule says that at age 18 a child should graduate from high school and head off to university. Not every child fits that stereotype. This mom, and others like her, must adjust other circumstances in order to accommodate the family’s present needs.

Cases like this rise up often as I advise parents about educating their children. The whole child needs to be considered, I tell them, not just the amount and type of classes he is going to take each year. The family whose father just passed away: how does mom homeschool the children and find a job to support her family? The international move because of dad’s job: how can we consistently educate the children while we all adjust to a new living arrangement? And on and on the stories come.

Our great expectations continually need adjusting–the expectations of what my life will look like, of what my children will grow up to become, of good health all the way through my life, and more. What happens when the bottom drops out of my great expectations and I am left to reconsider everything?

What do I do when life hands me something other than what I had planned all along? What do I do with that disappointment?

compassion

A friend whose daughter began exhibiting signs of a mental illness wept. “This isn’t something her brothers and sisters should have to watch. They have the right to be normal teenagers, and not have to deal with their little sister unravelling in front of them.”

A family member who discovered her husband’s unfaithfulness after 35 years of marriage lamented that this shouldn’t happen to her after all they had been through together.

The mom–and many like her–with a daughter in chemotherapy wept as she and her family struggled to adjust to the heartache, the fear, the whirlwind that has been visited upon them.

As much as I weep with these friends and family members–and also in my own quest of adjusting to a life with chronic pain–I want to remind them that “normal” doesn’t exist.

And who can say that family members shouldn’t have to live with a sibling whose world has unraveled due to mental illness or life-altering illness? In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. He uses all things for good, for those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28-29). Living with someone’s illness can teach countless lessons in empathy, compassion, caregiving, unconditional love, and much, much more. The illness of a loved one is not a surprise to God; he will use it for his purposes and for his glory!

While it’s difficult, and maybe even feels insurmountable, I’ve found that I must adjust my thinking about expectations, looking more realistically about what “normal” means. In reality, we know that life is full of disappointment, tragedy, and challenge. Maybe that’s what’s “normal.”

Christian believers have been promised that life will be full of troubles. But–and here’s the most important BUT–we’ve also been promised that Christ will be with us nevertheless. Christ promises us, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Being visited by tragedy, challenge, disaster, or just run-of-the-mill teenage rebellion doesn’t mean the end for your family. It means that this is another opportunity to place your faith, your trust, in a God who will never leave nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).

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I didn’t need another dad

Jim2aI didn’t need another dad. My dad died when I was 15, and I mourned that loss for years. By the time I was in college, I was doing okay–at least I said so to anyone who asked–and didn’t want another dad. One stepdad had moved in and then out of our lives, and it wasn’t the best experience for anyone concerned. That confirmed that I had been right: I didn’t need another dad.

Married, done with college, another stepdad entered the scene, and I was determined not to like his imposition into our family. But I saw how much he loved my mom, and how he took my teenage sister under his wing. She really needed a firm hand during her rebellious years, and he did a great job. He might be okay for them, I decided. But me, I’m out of the picture.

A couple more years went by, and I was pregnant with our first child. Suddenly, with pre-term labor at 30 weeks, I was on bed rest. And the stepdad (who I didn’t need) came to stay with us, to bring me lunch as I lay like a beached whale on the couch. He painted, set up the baby’s room, puttered around in the yard, and made sure I had plenty to eat and drink. I could see how well he might fit into our family.

Then when our son was born, there was Jim, video camera rolling, as proud as if our son was his very own flesh and blood. And as each child was born, there he was again, beaming. He’d already had his own grandchildren, but he was pretty thrilled with the crop of step-grandchildren he was getting from my sisters and me. So maybe he was going to fit in pretty well.

We moved a lot as a young family, and there were my mom and step dad, visiting, playing with the children. Jim and my husband undertook several remodeling projects wherever we lived. He brought a crowbar and hammer and loved every minute. And my husband felt pretty sure he could use a father-in-law like that.

High school and college graduations, and a wedding in our family, would find Jim beaming again, photographing every minute, the happiest grandpa in the room.

Thirty years later, we all gathered to wish Jim a happy 90th birthday. And suddenly I realized that I had needed a dad all along. He had been there, with a hug and a kiss, ready for adventure with the kids, for remodeling with my husband, for a raucous game of cards every evening, with a strong shoulder to lean on in joy or pain. He had been there all along, strong and steady.

He had been the only grandpa our children remembered. He had been the dad my teenage sister needed, and he did it well. He had been a dad to my older sister and me, in ways we didn’t anticipate. He was a father-in-law to Kyle, who loved thinking through home improvement projects while wandering with him through the Home Depot. He’d been our dad.

And on his 90th birthday, with all the family gathered together, we found that we were losing him. He was slipping away. I was able to tell him how much he meant to me, to my husband, to our children, and to thank him for every loving thing he did for us. We were thankful that he heard us and responded with a hug, a hand squeeze, a little pat on the arm. We moved him into hospice at home and said goodbye to him, one child and grandchild at a time. What a miraculous gift, that most of us could gather together at the right moment.

I realized why I hadn’t wanted another dad. The pain of losing my own father was so great, it left a huge hole in my heart. No attachment to another dad meant no more great holes in my heart. But Jim snuck in there anyway. And I realized, in spite of myself, that the memory of all those loving years was even worth this sharp, momentary pain of loss right now. We are all the more rich now, because he was our dad. Our grandpa and father-in-law. Mom’s husband.

I love you, Jim. Thanks for being my dad.

James Eitel: husband, father, stepfather, grandpa. 1926-2016

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When treasure fails

Black and white portrait of a very sad old womanHer husband died a couple of years ago, after a long, lingering illness. Left alone in her advanced years, she quickly lost her grip on reality. She tried to drive places, got lost, and was taken back home by the police. She frightened some of her neighbors as they swerved to get out of her path when she careened through the neighborhood. She began verbally abusing her neighbors, shouting and accusing them of stealing her food, her clothes, her mail. She taped threatening notes to their doors, telling them her lawyer would be contacting them soon about those missing clothes.

When the county was alerted by the police, Senior Services came to investigate. She told them sweetly that her neighbors were taking good care of her, and they went on their way. But her neighbors shied away from her abusive nature, instead of “taking good care” of her. Some did try. They brought soup over and shoveled her driveway. But for the most part, they stayed away. Can you blame them?

The story gets worse. Neighbors called her son, who was living in another state. Come and take care of your mother, they urged. But the son, emotionally paralyzed, was unable–or unwilling–to do the right thing. And can you blame him?

His story was told to neighbors by the woman’s husband before he died. The woman was mean, abusive. She abused those around her, all her life. Her son couldn’t get away from home quickly enough once he was grown. Her husband shielded the world from her nasty, abusive temper. His kind, gentle nature was the buffer that everyone saw, and no one suspected what was going on behind closed doors.

But once her husband was gone, that buffer was also gone. The son, paralyzed by his years of torment at the hands of his mother, couldn’t bring himself to deal with his father’s death, nor could he attempt to manage the estate his father had left behind so that his mother could be cared for.

So for a couple of years, the old woman began drifting farther from reality, continuing to shout abuse at her neighbors. She began hallucinating about a big black dog in her house, calling people to say that she was cornered in her bedroom closet, because the dog had chased her there.

Finally Senior Services had done enough research and decided that, because no one was able to take care of her, she would become a ward of the state. She was taken to a nursing home.

The house stood empty until the state took over and put it up for auction–the house and all its contents. The proceeds would go toward her care.

On the day of the auction, the neighborhood was packed. Someone set up a concession stand with hot dogs and water, chips and soda. All the house’s contents sat on tables lining the driveway. The furniture inside was also up for auction. And bit by bit, all the accumulations from the past 30 years were sold off.

“And this box of Tupperware. Who will get the bid started? Two dollars? One?” The auctioneer named the pieces from the home–a porcelain pig. A few cross stitch patterns. An electric fondue pot. On and on, for two hours. And then, finally, the house itself was auctioned.

How sad, how very tragic, that this woman’s life was taken apart and sold, piece by piece, to pay for her long-term care. And even more tragic–the son, who couldn’t bear to bring himself to take care of those details himself, still paralyzed by the abuse he endured all through his childhood.

15 Pile of GutsThe piles of her household goods, sitting on the driveway, reminded me of a few trips we had taken to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf States. One by one, houses were emptied of their contents and left on the curb for disposal, mountains of furniture, clothes, books, and treasure laid bare for everyone to see. Though we were the ones to gut many houses, we averted our eyes from the mangled, moldy contents, such a pile of personal treasure completely ruined. We saw the grief in their owners’ eyes as they watched the years of accumulation reduced to garbage when two weeks of high water destroyed everything.

When what you value in life is ripped away, what is left? When the buffer between you and the world is taken from you, who are you?

The ancient book of Job describes just such a scene. This wealthy man, with many grown children, an abundance of livestock, servants, and treasure, had everything stripped away from him. He was afflicted with pain, illness, and sores all over his body. As he sat on an ash-heap, his wife scornfully advised him, “Curse God and die.”

What would you do? What would you say, if you were Job? He did moan; he groaned aloud, nearly paralyzed by grief and pain. “Has not man a hard service on earth, and are not his days like the days of a hired hand?  Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like a hired hand who looks for his wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me.  When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ But the night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn. My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt; my skin hardens, then breaks out afresh. My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and come to their end without hope” (Job 7:1-6).

But Job, even sitting on the ruins of his lost fortune, and grieving the loss of his children and betrayal of his wife, and suffering physical pain as he was, had a deep assurance that there is something–Someone–more, and he invested his trust in that.

Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! If you say, “How we will pursue him!” and, “The root of the matter is found in him,”  be afraid of the sword, for wrath brings the punishment of the sword, that you may know there is a judgment. (Job 19:23-29; emphasis mine)

Life is hard; cruelties abound. Experience proves that we cannot rest our faith in our treasure, and that people will let us down. So when all around you fails, where do you place your trust and your faith? Job declared out loud that his faith was in God, and his faith never wavered, even in the midst of the worst kind of horrors. Be assured that there is only One who keeps His promises (“I will never leave nor forsake you,” Joshua 1:5) and who will never leave or forsake you, if you have placed your trust in Him.

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Talk to me.

Talking with someone who has a chronic health condition

I hurried past the pastor’s office, where I could see him sitting at work. I was there to meet my husband, who was working with the worship minister on a Saturday morning.

“How’re you doing?” the pastor called.

I gave a little wave, hurried past his door, and said what I always say: “Okay!”

He called even more insistently. “Come in here and tell me how you REALLY are.”

I am one of those people with chronic, nearly-unremitting pain. It’s exhausting, grinding, mind-numbing pain. But I don’t often share with other people how I’m feeling. I resist mainly because it’s a long story. I hate seeing the look of sympathy in other people’s eyes. I don’t want to bore anyone, nor do I want to draw attention to myself. So I give a pat answer.

But the pastor was not interested in that. He was genuinely concerned, and I walked in, sat down, and answered his question in more depth. And afterward my day went a little more cheerfully.

A few days later I sat down with a friend over coffee. She has a chronic health condition and is frequently in bed all day with pain. She and I don’t need to talk much about how we feel. We understand that it’s not our favorite topic, and we both hurt a lot of the time, so we talk about other things. The nice part of this friendship is that if one of us cancels on coffee because of pain, the other truly understands!

This brings up a topic I’ve read about here and there, and it bears repeating. How do you talk with someone who has a chronic health condition?

  • Though our illnesses may vary, we still live among healthy people who may or may not really care to hear the full story when they are asking, “How’re you?” Thus the reason we may breeze past you with an easy “I’m okay.” If you honestly do want to hear how I’m feeling today, take the time to look me in the eye and ask, “How are you REALLY doing today?” I appreciate it when you pause to listen. I don’t judge you if you don’t.
  • When you propose some activity and I turn you down–even again and again–it probably isn’t because I dislike your company. It might actually be that the activity will drain me of my last energy reserves for the day or the week. It’s why I don’t commit to regular activities, like weekly Bible studies or book clubs. If I do, I usually end up canceling often, and that comes off as inconsiderate. (I hate letting people down.)
  • This blog contains a great story by a woman with lupus, who found a way to express to a friend how she must carefully consider her energy every time she must do something during the day. I like the analogy she uses, and I believe it’s appropriate for anyone with a chronic condition and with limited energy reserves. A couple of my friends understand the spoon analogy, and all I have to do is tell them I’m out of spoons for the day. They get it.
  • Just because I look okay–meaning I am dressed, have makeup on, my hair is brushed, and I’m walking–doesn’t always mean I am well today. But I am here, and participating in life, and glad to be doing it. (You might not know that I nap when I get home. But at least I was there!) I still carry around a burden of pain, nearly all the time, every day, even though I don’t always show it. (Remember that although we have a chronic health condition, we still love to laugh, shop, go to movies, take an occasional walk. Getting out and about doesn’t mean I am suddenly healed. It may very well mean I have a few spoons left today.)
  • “What can I do for you?” some may ask me. Sometimes I honestly don’t know. You can’t fix me a meal, because I have several dietary restrictions, and I feel like that’s too burdensome for an unsuspecting person to take on. So if you have a good idea, run it by me and I’ll tell you what I think. It might mean you can pick me up for a trip to the store or vacuum my floor. The little things help.
  • I wish I had a dollar for every time some well-meaning person approaches me with a story of a friend or relative who has a chronic condition. They will tell me about a new exercise, treatment, dietary supplement, or doctor. Really, I DO know that your story comes from a very caring place. It’s just that I have probably heard that before, or have already tried it, or have read that the treatment you mentioned is just a bunch of hokum. For the most part, I’m not going to run out and try your theory (I’m not going to run anywhere…), but I might look it up if I haven’t heard it before.
  • Please understand if I don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes I just want to cry, and I’d rather not make such a mess of myself. If I tell you I don’t want to talk about it, I really don’t. Understand that this might be a very bad day, and I’m doing my best just to keep it all together.
  • Sometimes you might see me on a particularly bad day, when it’s hard to keep it all together. Give me a gentle hug if you want–but please make it gentle, since everything hurts. Offer me a smile and mention me in your prayers. If you must, buy me some coffee (decaf, since I also have chronic fatigue) or chocolate (if it works with my diet), or loan me a good movie.
  • Look me in the eye and tell me you care. It lifts my spirits and helps me when I am low.

 

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On dealing with pain

puppyA walk with my dogs gives me a picture of two opposite ways to view the world. Digory, the oldest, a terrier mix, is fearful and neurotic. He’s just a mess. Dobby is our cockapoo puppy, just learning how to walk on a leash. I can read their minds.

Digory: “Your feet are scary. Scary leaf. Scary water in gutter. Yikes–a dead squirrel! Eek–another dog. Scary sticks. Watch out for rocks. Ack–a car!”

Dobby: “Watch how fast I can stay ahead of you! Oh boy–a leaf to chase! Mmm, green water tastes great. Mom! Can I take the furry, stinky chew toy home? Look, look–a new friend! Wait for me! I’m tasting this rock! Oooh–a stick! Can I chase this big car?” He found a tennis ball on one of his walks and wouldn’t let me pass it by. Digory has seen many of those fuzzy round green monsters before, since our walk takes us by two tennis courts, and he makes a wide path around those scary things. Not so for Dobby.

Not to wax philosophical for too long about dogs with very little brains, I can see how their human counterparts can tend toward similar, widely disparate responses. My poor neurotic terrier (he really is a sad case) greets every challenge with fear and worry. And the little puppy finds adventure (and things to chew) around every corner. To him, as with many humans, even dark days have a few bright spots.

I’d like to think I’m like the latter, even though I am far from my puppy days. I don’t like dwelling on the negative for long, I don’t carry grudges (not very many of them, anyway), and I’d rather focus on the positives than reinforce the negatives. And in every situation, no matter how grim, I like to find the bright spots and remind myself of them from time to time.

It’s been two years or more since a huge spike in pain from fibromyalgia sent me on a round of doctors, including the Mayo Clinic, to seek answers. I’ve learned so much about pain and about myself. I rarely like to dwell on the negatives, but if my experiences can help a few people, so much the better. This ongoing “journey” through pain–because it hasn’t ended–might be a helpful bit of instruction for someone else. And it might help you to find the positives dotting a landscape that might be full of dreariness.

Pain does a strange thing to the body. Neurologists can tell you better than I, but my experience showed me that when a person’s physical pain increases, it affects all sorts of other areas. The brain may not be able to process it all. My memory suffered, my vocabulary shrank (I often couldn’t find the words), I didn’t sleep very many hours at a time, and I couldn’t work. I was dizzy from reactions to medicines (the journey to find the right meds is a whole other story); I became anxious and depressed. I couldn’t hold a pen, carry my purse, lift a laundry basket.

So what did we do about it? One doctor after another threw their hands up in the air and sent me on to other doctors. This taught us to be careful in choosing a doctor, asking questions up front about what they know and are prepared to help with. Some, but not all neurologists are prepared to help. Some, but not all rheumatologists are able or willing to help. Some, but not all chiropractors have a holistic view of fibromyalgia. And so forth. Because fibromyalgia exhibits differently in different people, doctors need to help assess the best path for each patient, and it might not look the same for everyone.

So let me give you a list of what helped me through my “journey.” (I really hate that word. Let’s try to find another.)

1. Carefully search for the doctor who is prepared to help. Ask whether they have many fibro patients, and whether they’ve been able to help many of them. Ask whether they are willing to consider natural methods as well as chemical. I found relief from chiropractics and from a method proposed by the Neurologic Relief Centers. (Anything I recommend medically comes to you with no guarantees. I’m just telling you about what has worked for me.)

2. Some fibro is relieved by eliminating certain foods, and you may want to experiment by using an elimination diet. For me, avoiding wheat and corn helps not only with the digestive issues common to fibro (not-so-pleasantly referred to as Irritable Bowel), but with some level of pain control–some of the time. Living gluten- and corn-free is not easy, but it’s definitely doable, especially when the alternative is painful. One doctor told me that most grains and dairy foods are rough on fibro patients. I can handle some dairy, sparingly.

3. Find a good psychiatrist. Fibromyalgia is often closely related to depression. I don’t know if it is a chicken-and-egg situation; did depression come first, or is it an effect of fibro? At any rate, many fibro patients need an anti-depressant to help manage the pain and depression. While a family doctor can help with some ailments, he or she may not know all the ins and outs of medicines related to depression. Interestingly, my psychiatrist experimented with different pain management meds in combination with anti-depressants, to find the right balance for me. I will not go into the meds that caused me more trouble than they helped, because everyone reacts differently. Just keep working to find the right balance, and find someone who will listen and who is willing to work with you.

4. Find a good counselor.  Sometimes fibro sufferers have emotional pain that exacerbates the physical pain, or vice versa. Talk with a counselor who can help you work through whatever has caused you to suffer emotionally.

5. Read up on fibromyalgia. It’s helpful to find other people who can talk to you about how they manage their condition. The Mayo Clinic has some educational information on their web site. Some organizations like the National Fibromyalgia Association have  newsletters with articles by doctors and fibro sufferers, so you won’t feel so alone.

6. Sleep. Chronic fatigue syndrome is also linked with fibromyalgia. (Isn’t it a delightful condition?) A good psychiatrist will help you with that as well. I learned that long naps are not so helpful, because they will mess up my nighttime routine. But a 20-30-minute nap will refresh me if my pain is running a bit too high.

7. Be willing to say no. I have a tendency to take on too much, whether work, or volunteer, or travel/tourist activities. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t plan on too many things at once. Allow yourself to decline invitations or even say no to other people’s expectations of you. Build some resting times in between the activities. I have to admit, this is the hardest one for me right now, because I have always been a pleaser. I hate disappointing people. So I’m preaching to myself right now: stop thinking you have to do everything/be everything. Say no, and be okay with it.

8. Find rest for your soul. This is the most important point, and I probably should have led with it. You can find all sorts of articles relating to “spirituality and pain” on the internet. But I want to go farther and emphasize that it is God alone–God the Father, the creator of the universe–who provides the answers to those suffering from pain. I encourage you to seek Him, run to Him, and find rest. Psychologist Phil Monroe at biblical.edu encourages sufferers in the following manner:

“The chronic pain sufferer who grieves well

  • asks God for relief
  • stays in community with others
  • seeks relief through human means yet has an attitude of waiting on the Lord, and
  • explores and confront[s] hidden sin in self that the pain may reveal.”

I can’t agree enough with this. Find someone who can pray with you, read Psalms to you, take you to church.

Learning how to wait on the Lord is not the easiest thing. For a very long time I tried to figure out what I had done wrong. Surely, I thought, if I pray the right prayer and show God that I have done all He wants me to do, He will find me worthy and heal me. I finally understood that there’s nothing I can do to seem more worthy, or to heal my spiritual self. My broken condition is also the human condition. Nothing I can do or say, no prayer of mine, can save me or heal me. That’s the bad news AND the good news, all at once, because the other side of the coin is that God alone saves; it is He who sets the captives free, and there is nothing I can do to save myself.

What has this got to do with my chronic pain? Everything. When I learned that I cannot save myself, I also began to learn how to wait on the Lord. The process of waiting isn’t yet another thing to do on a list I can check off. It’s a daily walk–praying, meditating on God’s word, and resting. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29 ESV). It’s discovering God will hold you, hide you from the storm that’s raging: “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock” (Psalm 27:5). You can read a couple other blogs of mine that address this attitude of waiting on the Lord, here, here, and here.

So there may be something to that earlier analogy of the dogs’ views of the world. Will I choose to focus on the dark and scary side, or will I find the bright and promising side? In all things, even in this long, painful storm, I see promise and hope, and I want you to also.

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Moving away from mediocre: Read good books

Kids-sitting-on-booksThe only time I watched “19 Kids and Counting,” that TV show about the Duggars, I nearly choked. My daughter was interested in it, so I sat down with her and turned it on. They are a home school family, and they are Christians, and I will not criticize them too much for any of their choices, because–God bless them–they are doing what they believe God has called them to do, raising that big bunch of kids.

But (you knew there would be a “but, didn’t you?) this one episode had the family visiting a public elementary school and talking to kids about their big family. Essentially they had become ambassadors for homeschooling. A student asked one of the older girls about her favorite book of all time. She smiled and named something that made me groan. Honestly, I don’t remember which book she named, but it was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. When I had looked it up, I found it was some sort of Christian fiction novel that oozes romance, bonnets, and formulaic simplicity. (See my blog on those silly books here.) I had SO wanted to see someone stand up and tell the world that she was a well-read homeschooler by announcing that her favorite book of all time was something like Les Miserables or The Scarlet Letter. Instead, she showed the shallowness of so many parents who just don’t reach beyond their comfort level and challenge their children with excellent literature.

So why the groan? Need you ask? (Please read my post on the need for excellence in home education here.) Let’s think of good literature like we think about food for just a moment. And in many ways, we can do that because literature is food for the brain. Consider what happens when you consume a steady diet of junk food for very long.

fat-kits-eating-mcdonalds

Not very attractive, is it? (Poor kids.) The same can be said about literature. Consuming mushy, senseless literature creates mushy thinking. There is no challenge for the mind to hang on to, no deep thinking to draw upon, no great themes to puzzle over. Mindless reading may be good for a day at the beach, but a steady diet of it will stultify the brain just like empty calories and high sugar content will create sluggish little bodies.

Challenge  your child to read great literature. I have all sorts of good suggestions here. Give your child the wonderful struggle of good over evil, the theme that every conscience dwells on daily. Give them deep subjects to wrestle with, reaching slightly over their age level once in a while. Read to them from the non-abridged versions of classic literature and let their little imaginations soar. Once they get accustomed to a diet of rich literature, that junky, formulaic romance will no longer hold any sway.

Just like a good diet, though, you certainly don’t want to slip into old habits of sugary, fatty nonsense. Fill your bookshelf with classics that fire the imagination. Start them early with great selections from AA Milne, Shel Silverstein, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lucy Maud Montgomery, CS Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and more. Keep them going on that once they can read on their own. When they’re older, tantalize them with JK Rowling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters. And once they have consumed all of this, they are ready for the really big guns: Victor Hugo, Ayn Rand, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Melville, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, and more.

Why challenge their sweet little minds? Why not let them just read what they want? Because, left to their own devices, they will slink away to a corner and eat french fries and chocolate bars all day long. Left to their own devices, they will read Captain Underpants until their minds turn to fat, sweaty mush. Left to their own devices, they are suddenly age 17, wondering why they can’t pass their SAT tests.

Some moms have sweetly told me that while challenging their kids to work hard and well on their schoolwork is a good thing, raising them to be good people in a loving environment is much more important. I will always look those parents in the eye (figuratively, since I am speaking to them from the blogosphere) and remind them that one of the most loving things they can do is to teach their children hard work done well–a skill that will last them a lifetime, no matter what they do in their lives.

See related posts here and here.

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Looking to myself for healing

Not to be overly dramatic, but pain has been my companion for most of my adult life. It has gotten immeasurably worse in the past year, and finally I have a diagnosis of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. The name doesn’t do much to improve my healing, but at least I know it’s nothing else, and I can focus on how to live with what the doctors call a “neuro-muscular” disorder.

The pain, on a scale of 0-10 where 10 is unspeakable, knock-you-unconscious, reached an 8 at times. The mind can only take so much pain before it becomes confused, trying to cope with so much input. I couldn’t think straight much of the time, lost my words and my concentration, could not read or finish sentences when talking.

And I became depressed. My mind began wandering into unhealthy and unhelpful patterns of thinking. Friends and family had to remind me that I was ill, that this was not my fault, that it was going to get better. I couldn’t think past the pain or the idea that somehow I had brought this on myself.

Some of my unhealthy thought processes cycled around on the theme of “gotta pull myself up by my boot straps and make myself—force myself—to get well again.” That was futile thinking, and perhaps even damaging thinking, to imagine that I had brought this on, and I alone could make this go away.

Suffering from pain on and off for much of my adult life, I had been under the impression that I could bring myself out of this pain, if only. If only I prayed differently. If only I could find the unconfessed sin in my life and repent of it. If only I had a closer relationship with God. Those, I learned, are lies designed to keep me imprisoned in my own feelings of guilt and inadequacy—looking to myself for my healing.

Yet these were some of the things good church-going people were telling me, and those thoughts stem from prosperity gospel preaching. “Name it and claim it” preaching teaches that if you pray the right prayer and believe that you were meant to receive all the good things God has stored up for you on earth, you will get all those things NOW. I may be oversimplifying, but this is the teaching of many popular preachers (Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, TD Jakes) these days, and it has crept into the evangelical church.

In that way of thinking, then, I can state that I will be well, and pray the right prayers, and believe that it is true, and I will be well. If I do not get well, then, it is my fault. What a harmful, damaging lie! Yet this was ingrained in me.

My background is filled with this kind of experience. Of people quizzing me about how I am praying and what I pray for, perplexed as to my continued pain since there were so many prayers. To continue in pain, then, is obviously my fault, because I did something wrong, or didn’t do enough of the right thing, or didn’t pray the right prayer. Yes, I was even told that I wasn’t praying right!

Pastor Russell Moore talks about the heresy of the prosperity gospel, and I paraphrase here: “If you want to know whether you are following Christ, look to your life. So says the prosperity gospel. The problem is that all who preach the prosperity gospel, as well as all other human begins, will end up dead one day. Some will fall ill and suffer.” Then where is their gospel?

Is it my fault, then, when the pain comes back? This has taken me on a path to explore what I know to be true about God. He is sovereign. He does not need me to DO anything in order to receive his blessings. There is no formula to follow—only believe. I don’t need more faith. I have faith. I don’t need to pray a formula in order to gain more prosperity or more health or blessings. I don’t need the Prayer of Jabez or some other prosperity fad. I need God’s sovereignty.

The job of healing me is God’s, if he chooses. And if he does not?

Then God, being sovereign, will provide for me in every way he sees fit. In this I identify with the Apostle Paul, who found himself with a physical illness or pain. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 8-10).The power of God is greater than my pain.

And here is the vital point: in this experience God got my full attention. This pain is teaching me much more about myself, and my faith, and my God, than I would have learned free from pain. My life may be poor in health, but it is still very rich in blessings.

So if I do not get healed in this life—if my pain continues for the rest of my life on earth—is this my fault or because of my inability to fix my condition? No: God is sovereign. He is good, rich in mercy, and has saved me not because of me, but because of him. And I know that the final healing will come, when I see my redeemer face to face.

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