“You have way below normal levels in every hormone.  Your thyroid is not working, and you are significantly deficient in Vitamin D.”  This is the way that my doctor welcomed me to the world of being a woman in mid-life, battling hot flashes, dimmed vision, and an occasional mood swing into homicidal/suicidal ideation.  Clearly, I am not getting better and better.  I left his office with a handful of prescriptions and a deep sense that maybe I really did need the AARP card that I’d received in the mail earlier this month.  The news of my mid-life decline and a heightened sensitivity to my aches, pains, and twinges reminded me of the words of Henri Nouwen, “If we are hostage to ourselves, we will be imprisoned by loneliness.”  There is nothing like physical pain, personal struggle, or individual neediness to remind us of ourselves, and that often traps us in a vicious cycle of self-awareness and self-absorption.  There’s not a lonelier place to be stuck.

Mike Mason in his wonderful book, The Gospel According to Job, writes, “Suffering . . . becomes an enormity, a concrete reality so overwhelming that it has the power to engulf all other realities, to eclipse thought except the thought of itself.”  What pulls us from becoming mired in self-absorption and the inevitable loneliness that brings?  My friend Sally has shown me that painful personal circumstances can become the context to give rather than perpetually wonder if we can handle our pain, make our pain go away, or wallow in our pain with a paralysis that keeps us stuck in ourselves.

Months ago Sally’s purse was stolen while she was in the grocery store.  The thief used Sally’s credit cards to charge over $20,000 worth of goods and services.  Investigators were able to track down the woman who had stolen Sally’s purse and charges were filed.  Sally attended the sentencing hearing and asked the District Attorney if she could speak before the judge sentenced her perpetrator.  The District Attorney immediately recognized Sally.  You see, Sally had charges pending in court as well.  A few months before her purse had been stolen Sally had been arrested for driving under the influence.  Sally’s arrest began for her a journey of facing her alcoholism, seeking help, confessing her foolishness and failure, and surrendering control to God.  Even though she could potentially be sentenced to jail for her violation of the law and no one could blame her for thinking about her own pain and problems, Sally has grown a heart of compassion and kindness during her months of surrender.

The District Attorney reminded Sally that her charges might be made known to the Court if she testified in the case of her stolen purse.  Sally calmly informed the D.A., “Oh, I plan to tell the judge about my situation myself.”  When it was Sally’s turn to make a statement about sentencing for the convicted thief she turned and faced the terrified woman, “I will be standing in your shoes in a few weeks.  I am guilty of a crime as well.  At first I wanted them to throw the book at you, but as I prayed about it, I knew what I really wanted was for you to experience the forgiveness and grace of God that I have come to know since I was charged with a DUI.”  Sally told me later that she may very well be joining her perpetrator in jail, but I know that whether she is in jail or out of jail, the fruit of freedom is evident in her life and available to others wherever she is, and in whatever circumstances.

Sally’s story reminds me that although I need to care for myself and faithfully take all the medications that the doctor has prescribed, if I only think of and care for myself I will be in bondage.  Mike Mason goes on to write, “Restless [the Enemy] casts about for something that will prove more compelling, more absorbing, more real than God Himself, for he believes that to find that something would be to dislodge God from His throne.”  Certainly there is nothing that seems more compelling, more absorbing, and more real than ourselves.  When my life becomes about me, then I am God and that’s a scary place to live.   When I can turn to God in the midst of painful, disappointing, boring, humiliating, exhilarating, and daily personal circumstances, I can hear His prescription for mid-life maladies and more:

” Let your [struggles] bring out the best in you, not the worst . . . . respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.  In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up.  You’re kingdom subjects.  Now live like it.  Live out your God-created identity.  Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you” (Matthew 5:45-47).

Sally has certainly shown me that it is in the midst of the ruins of our lives that God’s presence abides, and it is in the midst of those same ruins that we can offer beautiful gifts to others.  We may not be getting better and better, but it seems that God is committed to making us more and more dependent on Him because He knows that in that dependence we have the opportunity to be plunged into what Heschel called “radical amazement.”  In His presence, dependent upon His power, self-absorption disappears and we are compelled to, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21).  When our personal realities become the context in which we love other broken, needy people, we really are free. 

Our personal struggles (even and especially menopause) are absurd and meaningless if we believe that we are here to experience better and better.  Our personal struggles become sacred when they make God more real than any pain or problem and in so doing turn us into professional lovers.  It is good to remember that suffering and sorrow are not the natural state of things.  God is, and God is love.  Quite simply, rooted and grounded in Him (rather than ourselves — our pain, our problems, our dwindling bank accounts, our mounting bills, our physical aches and pains, our hurts, our loneliness) we love.  So bring on the hot flashes, reading glasses, Bengay, and expensive bioidentical hormones — may they only allow me to go in Love.  Go with Love.  Go because of Love. 

“By this will all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).