Pain Check Part 2: When pain stops – it’s not back to normal.


What does it take to get your attention? What does it take to motivate change? What’s your wake-up call?

I left myself in pain at the conclusion of my last blog, so let me briefly share the second chapter of the “Pain Check.”

The back spasms continued through the weekend. I preached three services Easter morning and crawled into my bed-sheet grave as soon as I got home. The next morning, I sent a text to an orthopedic surgeon in our congregation. He put me in touch with the “spine guy” in his group. By God’s grace, I saw him Tuesday morning. The course of treatment included a shot and a round of medication over the next six days. Within a few hours, the relief was amazing. Oh, thank the Lord! After 8 and a-half days of dreading every movement, I could walk, sit and move with minimal discomfort. So, off I went, doing a few projects that had been on hold… (You can see where this is going, right?).

That night, feeling so much better, I was getting ready for bed and moved my leg just the wrong way and– Wham!–that familiar shot of pain went up my back and took my breath away. I cannot express the fear, the anxiety, the regret that overwhelmed me: How could I be so careless? Had I just undone all the relief the initial dose of medication had provided? (More “Pain Check” questions).

I went to bed, fuming at myself for my carelessness, and prayed and prayed.

The next morning there was a measure of relief again. Mercy! I got a call from one of our sons, Peter, who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, asking how I was doing. I shared the story of the relief and the relapse. And that’s when he “corrected me gently” (1 Timothy 5:1) as only an adult child can do with a parent. “Dad, he treated the pain so you could rest and get relief,” Peter said, “not so you could just ‘go back to normal.’ You need to begin to rebuild your foundation with core-strengthening exercise and learning proper body mechanics so this will be less likely to happen again.”

So now I’m in the process of developing a “new normal.” I don’t want to go back to the way things were. I don’t want to be sidelined by pain and immobility again.

Pain is most often the body’s warning system. In many cases, it signals a need for attention, and often a need for change. For a “new normal:” like proper body mechanics in movement, or a healthier diet, rest, and exercise. And that’s where I make the connection to soul distress. Soul pain is often a signal to pay attention to God, to my inner life, my priorities and perspective. It’s often a call to pursue a “new normal” spiritually.

There are several images for this in spiritual formation. One is “putting off” the old nature and “putting on” our new nature in Christ, as we read in Colossians 3:5-10:

5 So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you… 10 Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. (NLT)

A second metaphor is moving out of bondage/ slavery into freedom, as we read in Galatians 5:1-13.

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law… 13 For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. (NLT)

When pain comes, be ready to consider the possibility that it is signaling a call to a “new normal.” Put on the new thing– and be free!


Basics come first OR The Price of Impatience

Lombardi FootballPiano

What’s the connection between Vince Lombardi and a grand piano? It’s all about the unintended consequences of impatience.

I’ve always been interested in music. I began with trumpet in the 4th Grade band at Monfort Heights Elementary School in Cincinnati, Ohio. Then I added electric guitar  with a few of my buddies. We were a basement band– not a garage band. Eventually, I realized that playing piano (we’d now say “keyboards”) would add a great deal to my versatility. So I started lessons with the nicest teacher you could ever imagine– and that was a problem. She taught me what I wanted to know, but…

So let’s cut to Vince Lombardi, winner of the first ever AFL-NFL World Championship, later known as Super Bowl I. On January 15, 1967, Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers of the National Football League (NFL) beat the American Football League (AFL)’s Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. (If you’re not a football fan, hang in there–I hope you’ll get something out of this…).

Lombardi did not begin with a “super” team. In July 1961 the 38 members (it’s now 53 players with a head coach and 15 assistant coaches– more than you may have wanted to know!) of the Green Bay Packers football team were gathered together for the first day of training camp. The previous season had ended with a heartbreaking defeat when the Packers squandered a lead late in the 4th quarter and lost the NFL Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles. In his best-selling book, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi, author David Maraniss explains what happened when Lombardi walked into training camp in the summer of 1961.

Vince took nothing for granted. He began a tradition of starting from scratch, assuming that the players were blank slates who carried over no knowledge from the year before. He began with the most elemental statement of all. “Gentlemen,” he said, holding a football in his right hand, “this is a football.”

Lombardi’s methodical coverage of the fundamentals continued throughout training camp. Though they were impatient to get to actual plays and scrimmages, each player reviewed his assignment: how to block, tackle, run, pass and catch. They opened the playbook and started from page one. At some point, Max McGee, the Packers’ Pro Bowl wide receiver, joked, “Uh, Coach, could you slow down a little? You’re going too fast for us.” Lombardi reportedly cracked a smile, but continued his obsession with the basics all the same. His team would become the best in the league at the tasks everyone else took for granted. Six months later, the Green Bay Packers beat the New York Giants 37-0 to win the NFL Championship. [adapted from a blog]

According to “A Football Life” video on Lombardi’s coaching life, his players didn’t see the ball for the first two weeks of training camp. That tried their patience! He made them focus on the fundamental physical conditioning and habits that would be essential to being productive with the football.

I see a principle here: Spiritual life must have a firm foundation in both understanding and practice. There are no shortcuts. Knowing and living the “basics” of faith are essential for growth and maturity.

“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12-14 NIV).

So back to piano. I was impatient to be able to play familiar songs as soon as possible. So my teacher taught me a few basics and then put songs in front of me I wanted to learn to play. I could figure them out, slowly, following the fingerings she wrote on the music. She wanted to motivate me—and it worked for a while. But when I discontinued my lessons, I couldn’t figure things out on my own. On the other hand, my friend, Tom, had a teacher who made him learn scales in all keys. And his teacher taught Tom to play Bach’s Two Part Inventions in all keys. Eventually, Tom could transpose (change the basic key) any piece of music on sight. He could modulate (change from one key to another through a progression of notes or chords) in a variety of ways. Tom is a master of performance on the keyboard. Me? Well, I play guitar.

You see, I was too impatient—and my dear teacher catered to me. Impatience, even for the best results, can undermine growth and success.

I’ve learned that the process is the product. Day by day, prayer by prayer, verse by verse, book by book, worship service by worship service, choice by choice, conversation by conversation, mistake-repentance-and-forgiveness by mistake-repentance-and-forgiveness, we are shaped into the likeness of Christ.