“Authenticity” is a word that we hear batted around a lot in the Uni church circles these days. We’re told repeatedly that we shall be different than other denominations or manifestations of our denomination by virtue of how much less spiritual acting we are and how much more spiritually honest we are. Authenticity is this catch-all word that at one moment safe-guards us from being Pharisees and at the same time underscores any character flaw with the unspoken “I’m just a sinner saved by grace . . . and I’m not really interested in trying to do anything with the grace I have been given.” Not that all authenticity is like this, of course, but I wonder that when we begin to need to define what authenticity is or, worse, establish it as what we are in comparison to what others are not, we’re starting to miss the point of what it means to actually be authentic.
I’ve come under some attack in the past and as of late by a few different people for some of my beliefs or, as the case may be, lack of disbelief. It’s been interesting. Some has been direct while others are more passive-aggressive. Either way, it’s been a challenge. I’ve realized though that a great deal of it comes from some presuppositions that these people have about why I believe the way I do. I don’t doubt or see value in doubt because I must have had a rosy and warm life that has not given me any reason to struggle with Faith. I must be naive about the harsh realities of the world we live in, because my understanding of devastation and hardship is framed in a Southern Baptist world view that says (and, an incorrect understanding of Southern Baptists will get you this) suffering like what occurs in Haiti is surely some kind of judgement being brought by the hand of God.
On this, I’m calling foul. And, as I had to previously, stepping away from my normal methods of blogging, I’m digging up in the background of my life for something deeply personal and airing it out there like some sort of claim to my ability to say that I have known the fire, I know the fire, but I know I shall not be consumed. This is an exercise in authenticity. Or, at least, here’s hoping.
You’re supposed to have power over something when you name it. There’s something mystical in it, some binding power that subjugates the named thing to the namer. I suppose that’s why doctors name diseases, because in addition to all the obvious reasons, there is the underlying sense of control that can be had when a name is imparted, a thought of “we have named this, we can cure this.” Perhaps that’s why patients do not get to name their own diseases, because they don’t get the luxury of control.
CRPS, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or living in the fire. The last part is probably what you would call it if you have it, if you’ve endure it for going on a decade or so, at least, that’s what my mother calls it.
To go ahead and do away with the usual “well that sounds just like . . . ” that can tend to show up when I discuss my mother’s illness, let me just lay out some basics of the pain: it covers her entire body, which is different than most forms of CRPS; it causes her to feel as if someone has poured gasoline on her body and lit a match, coupled with the sensation that someone is taking a hammer to her bones; she has been to several notable doctors to try and understand what happened to her, what is happening to her, including doctors at Mayo Clinic, who have consistently looked at her and asked why she has yet to attempt suicide because of the level of pain she is in; and, most devastatingly, there is absolutely no cure. Just “management.” But my mother has both a sensitivity to most medications and a desire to not be on a constant morphine drip, so there’s not much “management” that goes on.
This is my reality and has been my reality since I was in 2nd grade. Now I’m going into my third year of Uni. The pain has only gotten worse over the years. There have been hopeful attempts that only resulted in increased pain or lack of mobility. Three different physical therapists brought about three different increases in pain and hardship. My family went from two paychecks with my Father as a pastor being paid little and my Mother a corporate professionalism speaker and HR consultant being paid enough, to only having the income from my Father. Vacations and trips across the country or out of the country -- provided only by the grace of God -- went from family vacations to just my Father and I, while Mom stayed home.
Life changes. Life changes in an instant. Everyday things are now great and powerful triumphs of body and will. Things that you tend to find easy or typical, consider how quickly it would change if one of your parents were suddenly and horrifically disabled. It’s funny, most people want to bring up the reminder that at least she’s still with us. Don’t get me wrong with what I’m about to say: I love my Mother very much and, as this post will explore, I am beyond grateful that she’s still with us. What I want to remind people of, though, is that “she’s still with us” is a thin comfort when you have to watch the pain and know that you have no ability to stop it.
That’s my Mother. I have no ability to make her life any better. She’ll stop me here, I know, and point out how I grew up learning to cook pretty well, or do my own laundry, or be independent, or that she got all the time she could in by taking me to museums and art houses so that I started cultured before the disease made such travel impossible. But the underlying reality within all of that is the harsh, cruel pain that you only know when you’re on the outside of someone you love unable to make their suffering any less. Chronic pain is a cruel, nasty thing.
Now, about my Mother. As many people would attest, you’d rarely know that she was in such pain unless you asked her to tell you. She can manage alright with short car trips, so when we go out shopping and she gets out of the passenger side with her cane, you may register something. But then she’s smiling and more than eager to talk to you about the Lord, to impart her love of Him, or hear what He’s been doing in someone else’s life. She’s the love of God in motion, so much so that you would not know the pain of every step, the emotional crippling that comes each time she has to give me her handicap decal so that we can park closer to the store to make the walk shorter for her, and the fractured, broken, harsh struggle it is to simply be. To live in the fire. To never be free of the fire.
My Mother is incredible. She is a light, a joy to all who know her, and stands as a humble reminder that you can live in devastation and cling to the Faith. She struggles, she falls, but she will admit all that to you. She is authentic, if we’re still eager to put that buzz word in, but she is more importantly authentically faithful.
Over the course of this disease, God has revealed to several key, powerful people of prayer and Faith that He will heal my Mother this side of paradise. He has given her thirteen Scriptures of promise. He has shown that He has made a promise that He will ultimately fulfill. And all of this, I know, will read as pseudo-spiritualism or weird Pentecostalist kind of ramblings. They are not. These are simply, as much as it makes me smile to say this, the facts. God has given signs and promise, we trust in what is to come. We believe. We hope. But we hope while in the fire.
I have been criticized in the past for not having a more doubting sense of Faith. My sense of absolutes or things I don’t need to question are largely called on the carpet out of a sense of lack of spiritual maturity. I just haven’t read this book or taken this class or had this experience. And as true as some of that may be, I do know what it’s like to be devastated by realities that are beyond me.
In the first few years of my Mother’s disease, I at one point thought I heard the Lord tell me that he was going to heal her on her birthday one year. I informed her of this, I told other people, I was so sure of it that I just knew it was going to happen. I even remember calling her and asking her throughout the day while I was at school if she was healed. The day after, she was just as she ever was. There had been no healing, there had been no miracle. The temptation was there for me to doubt God, for me to demand from Him why I thought I had heard so clearly and then not see the promise fulfilled. But what I learned quickly, what I graciously was allowed to discover, was not that I doubted God but I understood that not everything I thought I heard was from Him. It could have been bad Chinese food or could have been a number of things. I was learning to start with the things I knew to stand on, like His Word, and allow those to slowly bring me into a maturity of prayer and meditation that let me hear Him more clearly, to discern His voice from my wants, and to trust His certain hope over my fleeting hopes.
We are now several years after that time in my life and we are still walking through the fire. Each day is still a challenge. Each simple task is not simple. Most people come into and out of our lives never understanding just how hard it is to struggle through this great, unending pain. But that’s largely because we aren’t ones to really broadcast it. I realize that this is the first time in my life I have so publicly and so explicitly laid out the under-riding hardship that has been a part of my coming of age. According to worldly standards, this should be my justification to doubt, to harbor anger, to set my fury against God.
But I have a choice. I can choose to live believing that I don’t understand His ways or fully grasp what is to come, knowing that this time, this struggle, has a greater narrative work in the story of God’s redemption in this world; or, I can spend my time doubting His goodness or “wrestling” with Him and ending up more confused, hurt, and broken. That’s why, my friends and readers, I stand opposed to doubt. For me, doubt has not been a part of my life because doubt places my fervent belief in God’s ultimate goodness into question. And as silly as it sounds, I need God to be good. For the sake of what my Mother and my family walk through daily, I need God to be good.
There was a time in my life, when I was younger, when I would proposition God with “If . . . then” statements or throw the fleece out like Gideon. There was a time when I would think it natural to question everything to get at some kind of secret, wise truth. There was a time when I wanted my want over God’s want, though on that point I still struggle, just not with regard to the above. I have left those things behind. I have allowed myself to stand with my Mother, as she would explain it, “In the fire, but not consumed.” And He has taught us things along the way. He has taught us hope; faithfulness; joy. It has not been easy. It is still not easy. But being in the fire with certainty of the Potter is better than being in the fire resenting the artistry that is to come.
So I don’t doubt. That’s not my struggle. I hope, hope deeply, because that’s what I’ve learned in the fire. I’ve learned to hope with certainty.
Maybe that’s foolish. But isn’t it beautiful to think so?