He suffers with us

 

When I first started this blog back in the summer of 2007 I was about to fall into one of the darkest times of my life. As I look back at the first several posts, I can see I was still fighting it, still trying to find cheerfulness around me and write about it, even though inside I felt a growing desolation and despair. I had created a category that I called “Wrestling the Tigers” to describe my struggle with migraines, something that I had been dealing with since I was a kid. But a deep depression was settling in as well, and I soon started writing about that under the tigers category. The migraines were to worsen, the depression become debilitating, things in the community get progressively harder, my job as a minister to international students fall apart, and my felt-relationship with God disappear. But in 2007 and 2008 I was still fighting it. I was still trying to find a way to figure out work, to talk through things at the community, to medicate the migraines and the depression, and to re-find the connection I’d had with God.

By the end of 2008 things were falling apart. I moved from one house in the community to another, to try to relieve the strain of one of the difficult relationships, but that triggered more stress and difficulties. I had a scary reaction to a migraine medication and had to miss a work retreat, and when I was scolded and threatened with being put on probation because of it, I finally realized that I was not going to be able to make the job work, and I quit. I tried to rally and choose another career — applied to nursing schools and took a statistics class as a prerequisite. But after a few weeks of struggling to take the two trains to my class every week I realized that going back to school wasn’t feasible. I took a full time nanny job but had to quit after three weeks because I felt so sick. In 2009 I finally gave into the depression and migraines, and collapsed into bed. I stayed there for ten months, getting up only once or twice a day to go downstairs for coffee or food. I hardly left the house or had social interactions beyond a few strained words with my housemates and community-mates. It was next to impossible to chat about normal things when I was in so much pain, both physical and mental, and people soon grew tired of hearing me talk about how bad I was feeling. I don’t blame them. I was sick and tired of talking about it, too. It was easier to be alone.

The worst part about that time, though, was feeling like I’d lost all the ways of connecting with God that used to be so precious to me. Reading the Bible had been as much a part of my day as my morning coffee, but now the words were empty of the power and beauty they used to hold. But it was worse than that: I would read the empty words and remember how much they used to mean, and feel that loss so intensely that I couldn’t bear it. It was too hard. Sometimes I read them anyway, and just cried. Prayer was hard, too. I used to find such solace in prayer, pouring out my heart to my best friend and giving my life to him daily. But now I just felt emptiness. All I could feel was the depression and the constant pain of the migraines.

IMG_0347Then, one day on a whim, I bought a little crucifix online. I was raised in the Protestant tradition and remember being told that Catholic theology was wrong because they kept Jesus on the cross, whereas Protestant crosses were empty, representing the resurrection. When the package came, and I took out the little plastic Jesus it seemed so strange — a little Jesus doll when what I wanted was the real man, present in my heart, mind, and spirit, as he used to be. But one day, when the pain was at its worst, I placed my fingers on the nails in his hands, studied his face and his body, and wept with understanding: Jesus was in pain, too. He was suffering, too. I might not understand why it was happening to me, or why he wouldn’t answer my prayers to take it away, but now I knew that He was in it with me. For the days and months to come I lay in bed, clutching the crucifix to me and crying. Here’s what I wrote one night:

This did not go at all as planned, if I ever had a plan.  It had something to do with impressing everybody, but doing it without appearing to, effortlessly, the way I tell jokes,without smiling, looking away afterwards, leaving people to laugh or not, too cool to acknowledge my own cleverness.

But I was broken out of my intellect, my intention, my talent by the brokenness of my body, and though I wanted to relate to Christ in his witty repartee, his compassion, his healing, I now relate most to his twisted form on the cross, eyes shut in pain, not yet dead, not yet resurrected, not yet ascended. My Lord, the suffering, naked, four inch plastic form on the eight inch wooden cross.

I am not making a theology out of this.  Far be it from me. I am telling you what I do not know, not what I know. I am in pain all the time. I am dizzy, nauseous, exhausted, and this is before the side effects from the medications kick in.

Jesus’ features are not twisted in agony. If you didn’t know better you might almost think he looked peaceful. But I think that I recognize the movement inward that a long-suffering spirit makes. It is close to meditation. You have less to do with the world, with what is going on around you. Physical and emotional sensation take over and then, somehow, you sink below that, to a place deeper than that.

The contemplatives teach that at our very center the Spirit is constantly praying; that our act of prayer consists of joining in awareness with that ongoing prayer.  This is the only kind of prayer I can hope for, now.

I place a finger on each nail and press the wooden cross to my heart, the broken body of Christ against my own.

i-came-here-to-kneel

Taken from my bed — my home for many months — a ray of sunlight makes its way in and I reach through it to the cross.

The dark time lasted for six years, all told. Those two years, from the end of 2007 to the end of 2009 were the worst of it; after that I found a better (for me) migraine doctor and better meds, was able to start working a little bit and exercising, and learned what I needed to do to support my mental health. I still have migraines — almost every day, in fact — but they’re not as bad, and I know how to manage them. The depression has gotten slowly but continually better — these days it only visits occasionally, and I know what to do: Slow down, breath, meditate, do yoga and centering prayer. The spiritual stuff took the longest, though. I’ve written about that elsewhere, and I’m writing more. But for today I wanted to share this post about what the crucifix meant to me in that dark time, in case it might be helpful for someone who is in the darkness now. I don’t know why your prayers for healing have not been answered, or if the answer is, “no” or “not yet.” But I know the God that loves you is with you, and knows how you feel. He suffers with you, as he suffered with me back them. You are not alone.

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19 comments on “He suffers with us

  1. Tania Oro-Hahn says:

    Thank you for you posts! I really enjoying reading them and find myself wondering where it will go after the first few sentences. I suffered from migraines for about 32 years. I had an unexpected prayer experience as well and I’ve been migraine free for two years this coming August. It still surprises me that I now just get bad headaches…what a difference. I pray for my 12 year old son who also suffers from periodic migraines…in fact he is fourth generation migraine sufferer in our family. I don’t know why God heals at times and not at others but I pray that God will continue to encourage you and expand your vocational call. May our suffering God bring you healing from migraines. Shalom, Tania

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tania! I’m so glad that you have been healed from your migraines, though sorry to hear that your son is a migraineur, too. Mine started around that age. Thank you for your comment and your blessing.

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  2. Beth says:

    I love so much about this, and so much of it resonates with me. My favorite things are how you described the lack of closeness you felt with God as your “felt-relationship.” I’ve never heard that. The piece you wrote holding the crucifix in the depth of your pain is stunningly beautiful. Thank you for sharing even though that was a dark time. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hope Wiltfong says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. Your battle has been long, hard, and still seems to be on-going. Heavenly Father will see you through it – I am so glad you are finding some comfort now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kerry says:

    Jessica,
    I’m so sorry for that hard hard dark time.
    I feel compelled to share this info. just in case it could help.
    You don’t have to have Celiac to be affected by gluten, you could just be gluten sensitive.
    Here is one article about a possible migraine link
    http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2012/05/03/migraines-more-likely-for-people-with-celiac-disease-study-says
    And here is one of many links about depression and gluten intolerance
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24689456
    Perhaps you already know all this and have tried a gluten free diet but just in case you haven’t or another reader hasn’t heard of this I wanted to get the info. out there.
    Sending love to those hurting,
    Kerry

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Susan Roberts says:

    Thank you for being so honest and bare about your struggle. It’s such a relief to see that as Christians, we don’t have to all be over-achievers and have a happy life. There is a place and a point to believers that struggle. Even if it’s not pretty and it leaves us wondering why.
    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susan, yes! I think we focus so much on praising God and being grateful, that when life itself is hard and even brutal we don’t have the words in Christian circles to talk about it. But chapter after chapter in the Bible is about suffering and sorrow — David crying out to God in the Psalms, Job losing his family and all his possessions. There is even a whole book entitled Lamentations. We need to lament more, I think, and make space for that for each other. When the nine women in men were killed in Charleston, Austin Channing Brown called for laments on Facebook and Twitter under the hashtag #welament, and it was incredibly powerful.

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  6. I, too, faced depression about the same time. I was a pastor at the time. Having to quit was one of the most shattering events of my life. But slowly I have experienced healing.
    I have a friend who lives in a refugee camp in Bethlehem. My husband and I were given the most holy privilege of visiting his home and family there. When I walked into his home, he handed me a crucifix. He is Muslim but he knows I am a Christian. Receiving this gift was one more step toward wholeness, it is a gift I treasure. Your story resonates with me in so many ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. brianbalke says:

    I intuit something in this writing that you feel a connection between your suffering and confrontation of the reality of Jesus – not something understood, but something felt.

    I used to get terrible migraines when I was a child during my parents parties. I understand them now as my struggle to maintain my spiritual isolation.

    When I finally let the cross into my heart, late in my life, around 42 or so, it was like my heart was tearing in two. Tal and Acacia have this song “Yahweh” and the second refrain comes closest to characterizing the experience (and I do love to dance). Having discussed this with some ministers, I know many shy away from it.

    It can be frightening, but there is on the other side a deep peace and acceptance that all suffering serves a purpose, if we can find it. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t supposed to undo the wounding that we forced upon him. Being strong enough to love through the pain may be an important preparation. We have to be able to step into his without getting lost in it. Your pressing of the cross against your heart is deeply evocative to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. piepergirls says:

    Jessica, I am in the midst of a deep, dark depression. I prayed to Jesus this morning to show me – really – for real this time – not unlike the thousand times before today where He is. So graciously He brought your blog to me. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. piepergirls says:

    Jessica, I am in a deep, dark depression. This morning I asked Jesus to show me where He is in this – really show me – not unlike the thousands of times before and He brought me to your blog. Thank you.

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  10. Frodo says:

    Thank you. Thank you so much for writing this. I’m also in the confusing midst of mental illness, not mostly depression but still I also have the sense of drifting on a boat not knowing how long I’ll be here, wanting it to stop and wanting to get my old functioning back, being frustrated with not being able to answer ‘good’ to questions of ‘how are you’. I too have lost my sense of a relationship with God. I’m trying to regain it and your post was a reminder that God will see me through, that there are other people struggling with similar things, that there is hope simply because God loves me so much. Thank you for being so open, thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Frodo, I’m so sorry that you’re struggling, but I’m really glad that you’re here. Yes, God loves you so much, even when you can’t sense of God’s presence. St. John of the Cross writes that it is in those dark nights of the soul that God is actually doing the most, deep inside of us, below our senses and experiences. Hold on, friend. You are not alone.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Jessica, this is so faith-filled and so beautiful. I can just see the crucifix and your beautiful connection with Jesus. My heart is sending love to you for your continued healing and faith. You are a very special and beautiful woman. I am so happy that we met. XO

    Liked by 1 person

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