Resilience Requires Double Vision

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“How are we ever gonna’ get through this?”

I hear (and ask!) this question frequently, especially as nearly everyone is being told to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus 2019).

And then there are those who cannot stay home because they provide essential services. They have a very different endurance challenge as they ask, “How are we gonna’ get through this while we’re caring for others?”

I am learning anew a very old lesson. It was taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

“Set your heart on the kingdom and God’s goodness, and all these things will come to you as a matter of course. Don’t worry at all then about tomorrow. Tomorrow can take care of itself! One day’s trouble is enough for one day.” (Matthew 6:33-34 J. B. Phillips paraphrase).

These verses teach us not only about God’s promises and our priorities, but also about managing our perspective. I am calling this “spiritual double vision.”

Spiritual Double Vision

Jesus teaches us to concentrate on two focal points to develop and sustain our resilience:

First: Focus on the goal (“God’s Kingdom”).

Second: Be in the present moment (“one day’s trouble”).

I see an analogy with what ophthalmologists call monovision with contact lenses. Sounds like a contradiction to double vision, but keep reading! One website describes it this way, “Monovision involves wearing a contact lens on the non-dominant eye to correct near vision, and a contact lens on the dominant eye (if needed) to correct distance vision. Monovision works because the brain is tricked into thinking that the contact lens is actually a part of the natural eye.” (Source: https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-monovision-3421638)

In my analogy, one focal point for distance—for the goal. The other focal point for the near—for the present moment.

A Lesson from Cancer Surgery Recovery

More than seven years ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. That was a jolt. Double vision helped me get through my treatment and recovery.

People assured me I would be fine, that the Lord would get me through. I appreciated their reassurance. But there was no shortcut to recovery! I would go through a major surgery with significant physical “disruption” at the very core of my body.

Resilience came from disciplined focus. I got too discouraged when I thought about the weeks and months of recovery and the years of testing for recurrence. I drew strength by focusing on what I could do each day. I rested, walked, ate wisely, and paced my responsibilities. I practiced accepting what I could do and releasing what I couldn’t do.

We are all, in fact, stuck in the present moment. There’s no Fast-Forward to get through the sad, scary parts of life. There’s no Pause button to freeze the precious times. And there’s no Rewind for the “If only’s” and “What if’s” that can flood us with regret.

So how do we handle the future?

Looking Ahead Is Like Swimming Underwater

As a child I loved to swim underwater. We had contests to see who could stay under the longest and who could swim the farthest underwater. One thing was for sure: you can stay under, holding your breath, for only so long. Then you must return to the surface to breathe.

Looking into the future is underwater time (perhaps in more ways than one!). I have learned that, in a time like this, I can’t get too far ahead in anticipation without increasing anxiety. I can go there briefly—out of necessity for personal preparation and as a leader—but I must soon come back to the present moment. I just can’t stay under too long.

Be in the Present Moment

It’s the lesson of manna. When the Israelites had escaped Egypt and were traveling through the wilderness, God sustained them with manna. Manna was a miraculous food substance provided daily, with a double-portion given before the sabbath (Exodus 16). Manna, God’s daily provision, is the reference behind Jesus’ prayer for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:11).

We exercise faith, choosing to trust the Lord for today’s provision. Yes, it’s quite literally an exercise in discipline to say, “Lord, I trust you to provide what I, my family, my loved ones need today.” I’ve often said I would prefer to own a “bakery” so I would be assured of bread for years to come. God’s promise, however, is for today’s needs. By faith I know that’s better than my bakery!

Learn to Cope With A Fuzzy Future

One of the resources from Alcoholic Anonymous, Day By Day (published by Hazelden), begins January 1 with this wise insight:

“It is not always easy to do what is necessary today, but it is impossible to change yesterday or to guarantee what tomorrow will bring. Our year will unfold better by living each day as it comes than it will by regretting the past or anticipating the future.”

Real double vision makes everything look out of focus. With spiritual double vision, we have to learn to cope with a “fuzzy future.” But the good news is that we will have far more clarity, peace and strength for the present moment.

COVID-19 Restrictions and Spiritual Practices

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You’ve heard the saying, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” For me, every cloud has a spiritual lining.

I used to think the “silver lining” saying was based on the metaphor of a coat or jacket that had an inner lining. If it was a wool jacket, for example, the lining would keep it from irritating your skin. My interpretation didn’t make much sense, but I got the idea there can be some good in the midst of not-so-good. But now I believe this saying is based on the image of the sun behind the dark cloud. It shines in such a way that the cloud is outlined (thus lining) the cloud.

Shift this image to one of a spiritual lining: We can look for a spiritual outline framing every aspect and circumstance. We need eyes to see and ears to hear.

Novel COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease) has disrupted life globally unlike any other catastrophe. Hurricanes, tsunamis, even wars are all devastating – but are limited to a geographic area, even if that area is huge. This is global, leaving no area and no person unaffected. We are being asked to self-quarantine, practice social distancing, and cancel all regular activities that involve gathering. Though we are not under Marshall Law, it’s like everyone is on house arrest.

So where is the spiritual lining? Where is the spiritual outline that gives us a frame of reference for these trying times?

It’s interesting that all this is happening during Lent, the season of the Christian year leading up to our Easter celebration. Lent (whose name comes from the lengthening of days in spring) is a time when we often give up certain things in symbolic fasting both to identify with Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-14) and to express our repentance and spiritual readiness to follow the Lord.

We are all giving up a lot these days. I’m suggesting the spiritual lining is to frame our new circumstances in light of spiritual practices or disciplines. Let me highlight four:

Fasting

The overarching discipline these days is fasting. Fasting is abstaining from things that are good in order to give greater attention to spiritual concerns. It is one of the most frequently illustrated spiritual exercises in Scripture, occurring in a great variety of situations. Fasting feeds the soul. Some have said fasting is praying with the body.

We are now being “forced” to fast from nearly all our normal away-from-home activities. This loss of control is one of the most debilitating experiences for the soul. When we lose control over how we work, what we do, over our use of time and money, we lose our sense of self-affirmation and confidence. The discipline of fasting is about control, or more properly, about what controls us. In spiritual formation, fasting has an immediate impact on a person, revealing what controls them.

Following his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1-14). He fasted for forty days and nights. He identified with Israel hungering in the wilderness, both spiritually and physically. But when temptation came, another issue came to the fore: what would control Jesus and his mission? He was tempted to put other things before God’s will, including his own comfort and desires. Jesus won the battle through the power of the Spirit and the Word of God.

This “stay at home” crisis brings the opportunity for clarity, providing the opportunity to reevaluate what controls us. Approach this as a spiritual exercise so that your attitude shifts from resentment and fear to a framework for gratitude and understanding. Journaling is very helpful in this process. Check my index of topics for previous blogs on journaling.

I’ll be briefer on the other three disciplines.

Solitude

Working from home and cancelling group activities puts many in a place of solitude. I realize parents with children at home may feel there is anything but solitude!! Hang in there! But do find some time to be alone.

Solitude does not come naturally to us, with up to an estimated 70% of people being extroverts.

Solitude helps free us from the magnetic attractions of the world: attractions of materialism, of popular acclaim, of busyness and often-senseless activity. It puts us in a place where we can see more clearly what the world has been doing to us.

Sometimes it’s only by getting away from people that we can truly give ourselves to them. Those who are always available, soon have nothing to give. Time away in solitude can prepare us to serve God and others in more effective ways.

Sabbath

The change of pace will likely provide some additional time for rest. This can relate to the discipline of Sabbath. Think of Sabbath in terms of pacing your Work-Life balance to include one full day of rest weekly and parts of each day with intentional refreshment.

I have written several blogs on Sabbath and rest (check my index of topics), so I will just add the thought that we can use this time to learn to “work smarter,” developing a more sustainable, gracious, humane pace for our lives.

Simplicity

For many, the most stressful aspect of this crisis, beyond health, is economic. We are realizing how vulnerable we are. In no way will I minimize the great challenge we have to get through this. We are facing stress now and the stress of a long recovery.

The spiritual lining, however, is in clarifying our priorities and values so we live differently on the other side of this crisis.

The discipline of simplicity speaks to the stewardship of resources. Simplicity re-frames the discipline of poverty practiced by many monastic orders. Jesus never taught that all his followers were called to poverty. (Where would we get the resources to provide creative, expansive ministry if every Christian was impoverished?) We are called, however, to provide for ourselves and our families (1 Timothy 5:8) in ways that allow us to also “be rich in good deeds” (1 Timothy 6:17). A time like this strips away our wants from our needs. We focus on essentials and generosity for others in need.

This is a season of dark clouds, indeed. May the Lord give us hearts and minds to see the spiritual lining.

 

The Problem of Good

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I’m going to take a bit deeper dive today—because deep questions deserve deeper reflection.

I face questions about the problem of evil and suffering day in and day out—in my own life as well in my interactions with others. But there’s another problem we don’t discuss: What about the “Problem of Good”?

This occurred to me one day when I was visiting in the hospital. I heard myself praying, “… And Lord, while we pray for your healing, we also thank you that so many things actually work in our bodies—including the healing powers within that you’ve given us.” I wasn’t minimizing the illness. I was also recognizing the resources God provides to overcome it.

The thought was so clear– and contrary to what I often think in the midst of a hospital visit. While many things go wrong, we also need to be aware that so many things, for the most part, go well. This fact flips our normal perspective on its head. Instead of asking only, “Why is there suffering?” we also need to ask, “Why is there good? Why do many things work?”

I remember being intrigued by an essay entitled, “The Problem of Pleasure,” by Philip Yancey. He wrote:

Why is eating fun? Plants and the lower animals manage to obtain their quota of nutrients without the luxury of taste buds. Why can’t we? Why are there colors in the world? Some people get along fine without the ability to detect color. Why complicate vision for all the rest of us?

Those who argue that life is random, the product of impersonal forces, have a challenge to explain goodness and pleasure. Something more than utility and necessity are at work in this world, continually bringing pleasure, energy, healing and hope.

Here’s the issue: in a world that “runs down,” and where many things go wrong, how do we explain all that goes right? Physicists explain that systems move toward disorder and disorganization unless energy is supplied to disrupt that process. Bodies decay. Flowers die. Coasting bicycles come to a stop. Your coffee and tea cool to room temperature. And that clean, organized space you created quickly moves to disorder in a matter of days. (They explain these as evidence of the second law of thermodynamics and entropy– but there’s no time to develop these concepts now.)

If running down, decay and disorder are “normal,” how do we explain the continual supply of life necessities and countless enhancements to our experience? Music and art that inspire, ideas that empower, friendships that encourage and challenge– why are these and so many other positive aspects part of our everyday life?

In his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson addresses this theme when he points out that problems and negative responses are actually the easiest issues to explain. The real challenge comes from explaining the source of goodness and virtue. He writes,

“Vice is easy. Failure is easy, too … Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what’s inexplicable … Violence, after all, is no mystery. It’s peace that’s the mystery. Violence is the default. It’s easy. It’s peace that is difficult: Learned, inculcated, earned… Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery. How is it that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery” (pages 80, 82 and 125).

In a world of suffering and evil, success, virtue, peace and calmness are examples of the Good that gives us hope.

What is the source of this Good? In theology, we call this Good God’s “common grace.” “Special grace” is the forgiveness, reconciliation and new life God gives us through faith in Jesus Christ. “Common grace,” on the other hand, refers to God’s provision for all creation, as described by Jesus in Matthew 5:44-45,

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

So, amid all the truly hard situations that disrupt your life, give thanks that many things do go right. This is not about denial. It’s the way to faith, hope and perspective.

God is great, and God is good. And we thank God.

Life’s Hard Classroom

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Adult life is filled with illusions that die hard.

As a younger person, I somehow got the idea adults had it all together. I assumed that by a certain age, (probably 40 or so) you knew what to do, had what you needed, and had life all figured out.

If a wry smile comes to your face because of my naivete, I don’t blame you.

It’s likely I was shielded (or simply oblivious) to the sufferings and trials experienced by my parents and other adults around me. And that’s probably God’s mercy.

But then came the time (the first of many!) when I realized it’s not like that at all. Life is hard, a puzzle, an adventure, a roller coaster, a disaster (at times) and all together uncertain and unpredictable.

There are many amazing blessings in life, to be sure. But if we expect to figure life out and get everything “all settled,” we’re in for huge letdown. If we tie our hopes and security to this thing called “earthly existence,” we are in for devastating shocks and crushing disappointments.

One of the most constructive responses to a hard time is to learn from it. We can ask questions like: What is this teaching about myself in terms of my expectations, inner strength, and readiness? About others? About life in this broken world? About God?

There are some situations, however, where we will never find the answers in this life. Especially to the question, “Why?” But there is a way to find strength to press on.

During one tough season I confessed to the Lord that I was tired of “learning lessons.” Enough already! And as I was journaling, it was like the Lord said to me, “Life in this fallen and failing world is the Hard Classroom. That will never change until I return. But be thankful you have me as your Master Teacher to tutor and train you step by step by step.”

That led me to search the Scriptures for passages with the word “instruct.” Here are a few that encourage me greatly.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Psalm 32:8 NIV).

God is a compassionate instructor. “With my loving eye on you” reassures us that the Lord does not scorn us for our lack of understanding. Instead, the Lord renews our minds and directs our steps (Proverbs 3:5-6), often in the very moment.

“I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7 NIV).

God meets us in our sleepless nights. When we can’t sleep, we can pray. And we can learn to listen. Don’t dismiss those encouraging thoughts that come, those insights, those memories and scriptures. I often get out of bed for a moment to write them down. I then consider them more carefully in the light of day.

“Good and upright is the Lord; therefore, he instructs sinners in his ways” (Psalm 25:8 NIV)

God does not require we be perfect in order to receive his teaching. He teaches us in the midst of our sin and brokenness, leading us to life.

When we live as disciples (a word meaning “students”) of the Lord in all that life brings, we discover a growing resilience, a deepening wisdom, a more realistic set of expectations, and, above all, the peace and power of God within that pass all understanding.

“So do not fear, for I am with you;

    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you;

    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” Isaiah 41:10 (NIV)

Consider this again, as if the Lord is speaking to you, “Life in this fallen and failing world is the Hard Classroom. That will never change until I return. But be thankful you have me, the Lord your God, as your Master Teacher. I will tutor and train you step by step by step.”

May it be so, Lord, may it be so.

God Hates Death

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“Doug, I’d like to ask you a theological question.” That’s not a typical comment from my brother, Dave. And we weren’t in a typical location—but it was perfect for getting perspective.

Let me set the context: In June 2018 my wife, Sarah, and I led a missions retreat in Austria. We decided to stay overseas for an additional 10 days in France. We wanted to do a bus tour of northern France and the Loire valley and invited my middle brother (I’m the youngest) and his wife to join us. We had a delightful time.

So we were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around to take in the views, we all got cappuccinos. Dave and I sat down, overlooking the Champ de Mars, the larger green space southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

Then came the question: “What do you say to parents who’ve lost their young child? Why would God allow that?”

That’s one version of the toughest question we all ask: Why does God allow suffering and evil?

Within moments I heard myself say, “Dave, God hates death.” I paused as that thought sunk in—for both of us. I can’t recall ever saying it that bluntly before.

“God hates death. Like a doctor hates cancer. Like an educator hates ignorance. Like a judge hates injustice. God is all about life. God gave us life in the first place and made this amazing creation. Death – and all that goes along with it—came into the picture because humanity didn’t want to love God or live in harmony with God.”

“The whole Bible is about God providing ways for us to choose life and love and hope in the midst of death,” I said, “God hates death so much he sent Jesus to defeat death so we could have abundant life now and eternal life with him forever.”

“Is that what you tell parents?” Dave asked.

“In a more interactive and pastoral way, yes, that’s part of the conversation.”

I am so thankful that, in midst of unbearable pain, through faith in Christ, death is not the last word.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. 
Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As Dave and I continued in conversation, one other thought came to me, “And I don’t think we will ever know why things happen the way they do (at least, not in this life). But that’s probably for the best…”

In my experience, even knowing why some decisions are made or why some things happen doesn’t necessarily help. We are likely to question and challenge any reasons. It’s not about why. It’s about God’s love giving us hope and God’s power giving us strength.

 

Your Cross to Bear?

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Definitions matter, especially in theology and spiritual formation.

A common example of an incorrect definition and misuse of a term is in the phrase, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear.” When most people speak of “a cross to bear,” they are referring to suffering or a trial they have to endure: like an illness, or caring for a difficult relative, or putting up with a challenging supervisor at work.

This phrase is based on Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23, “Then [Jesus] said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”

A thoughtful examination of this passage reveals that the cross is not merely an affliction to be tolerated or endured. The cross is Jesus’ place of mission, the place of his ultimate purpose, the place of judgement and redemptive sacrifice. Read the passage again, this time with verse 24 “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.’”

The cross is about losing your life– to save it. As Jesus’ followers, the cross is our place of mission where we open wide our arms as part of Jesus’ life-spending, life-giving mission in this world. The focus of the cross is always on others.

So what about suffering? What about that particular problem that nags you, wears on you and challenges your “cope”? The biblical image that best fits that situation is the “thorn.”

Paul spoke of his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12. After experiencing a vision of the third heaven and paradise, Paul wrote, “…. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). Paul never specifically defined his thorn. Some scholars think it was a significant eye problem (based on Galatians 4:13-16), but the most important lesson is God’s message to Paul about the thorn.

But he [the Lord] 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Spiritually speaking, a thorn is an affliction, weakness, struggle that drives us to depend on the Lord. (Don’t focus on the ‘messenger from Satan’ right now! That’s material for another time.) Paul spoke of the thorn in the context of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and other difficulties. A thorn humbles us, in the best sense of the word. It exposes our humanity so that our need for God becomes clearly inescapable and undeniable. We come to the end of our resources and make a new beginning with God’s strength.

Both the cross and the thorn express important, valid, yet different dimension of our calling in Christ.

Bear your cross as part of Jesus’ continuing mission in this world.

Take your thorn to the Lord and discover his strength in your weakness.

And remember, Jesus both bore the cross and endured the (crown of) thorns.

Pain Check

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It felt like I’d been stabbed or cut across my back. Searing pain and a shot of burning that, literally, took my breath away. Like when I fell off the Monkey Bars in elementary school—that knocked-the-wind-out-of-you feeling. The word ‘excruciating’ seemed to be the best description—and this on the day after Palm Sunday, heading into Good Friday.

I had been reaching for a basket of dirty shirts from a small pantry off our laundry room, and that’s when the back spasm hit and wouldn’t let go. Ridiculous, right? Not a very brag-able injury…but it’s what happened.

And then something else happened. It’s what I’m calling the “Pain Check.” I became aware of an almost-instantaneous eruption of questions, concerns, fears, and anxieties that so often cluster around significant pain and illness. Pain triggers strong emotional dynamics. In addition to hurting the body, it can tear a hole in your soul—and it can offer opportunities for clarity and growth.

I’ll give my Pain Check List in a moment, but you might want to stop and make your own list. What do you tell yourself or ask yourself when you’re sick or hurting?

So here’s my basic list:

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!” (In this case, the back spasms continued unabated through Easter. I got through the Holy Week services with prayer, over-the-counter medication, rest, and adrenaline. Finally, I saw an orthopedic specialist—but that’s a story for the next blog).

And then there’s the “If only… If only… If only…”

You get the idea.

The “Pain Check” begins as a negative experience of self-accusation and usually moves into God-accusation. The physical pain often makes us turn against ourselves and even against God. But it doesn’t get stuck there.

We aren’t powerless. We don’t have to be victims or victimize ourselves. C. S. Lewis offered his famous insight into pain that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain). We can use these experiences to identify and challenge our negative self-talk. We can “freeze” the eruption of questions and respond to them in ways that make us stronger, in ways that are more reasonable and accurate. One way to think of this process is to frame it as a conversation with a dear friend or loved one. How would you respond to a friend who asked these questions?

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

My initial response can be pretty self-depreciating as I castigate myself for being inept, careless, thoughtless and so on. Actually, I wasn’t careless. I was simply doing something I needed to do and this happened. Things happen. No need wasting energy on self-blame. A more helpful response is: ‘I haven’t deliberately done anything to myself. This sort of thing happens. I need to use my energy figuring out how to cope and get better.’

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

Now that’s a complex question! The “Why? Question” doesn’t help much because a particular problem can be the direct consequence of an action, and/or the indirect consequence of an action, and/or simply the consequence of living a fallen world with a failing, mortal body. And even if we could answer the question, that would not change our current predicament.

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

Many of us tend to “catastrophize,” (as cognitive therapists call it) plunging into ‘worst-case scenario’ mode and forecasting a bleak future. In the vast majority of situations the phrase, “This, too, will pass,” may seem small solace, but can spark hope and perspective.

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!”

I am just going to say that God gets far, far too much blame for what happens. We live in a world that has rejected God and surrendered to the powers of the world, the flesh and the forces of evil. God is not the source of the problem, but God is the key to the solution.

I offer the Pain Check as a modest remedy for your soul. The Pain Check is the practice of naming your questions, fears and anxieties so you can address them with a renewed mind.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5 NLT).

Please understand I am not addressing the dynamics of chronic pain, nor the psychological depths of our reactions in crisis. It will often help to have the support of a wise, caring friend and even a skilled counselor and/ or spiritual director to relieve the soul distress in the midst of physical pain. But I hope the Pain Check can be a significant step to coping.