“Count back from one hundred,” the anesthesiologist prompted me with the standard cue that ushers surgery patients into a safe oblivion. In those split seconds before everything went blank I remember thinking, “It would be okay if I didn’t wake up.” Wow. Even as I write that sentence it is hard for me to believe that I was in that dark of a place only one year ago. Six months of a plethora of health issues culminated with an appointment in the operating rooms of Swedish Medical Center to have my thyroid removed due to pre-cancerous nodules on my thyroid. During that six months I experienced high blood pressure, low blood pressure, increased heart rate, chronic laryngitis (the nodule was pressing on my larynx), pain, sweats, mood swings. In short, I lived in a “thyroid storm.” According to the National Institute of Health a thyroid storm is a life-threatening condition, resulting in erratic, extreme physical symptoms. According to my doctor women have been known to commit homicide while in the midst of this storm. I sure felt like I was in a wild, unpredictable hurricane, and I responded accordingly. I took cover and hid from others and even myself. The erratic, ever-changing symptoms scared me to death and justified my taking excessive, numbing medication. The isolated, medicated sick me made sick decisions that only intensified the storm. By the time doctors diagnosed the problem and scheduled my surgery I was exhausted, depressed, and welcomed the complete escape of the anethesia.
I have hesitated to write about this experience because I imagine readers thinking, “Sharon, can’t you just be happy and get it together?” In fact after a recent blog, one well-meaning reader wrote, “I hope you can learn to trust Jesus, because He makes everything work.” Over thirty years ago fellow-struggler Brennan Manning was asked why he continued to struggle after all of his meaningful Abba encounters. He responded, “It is possible because I got battered and bruised by loneliness and failure, because I got discouraged, uncertain, guilt-ridden, and took my eyes off Jesus. Because the Christ-encounter did not transfigure me into an angel. Because justification by grace through faith means I have been set in a right relationship with God, not made the equivalent of a patient etherized on a table.” I’m not as eloquent as Brennan, but I too would say that I struggle with loneliness and I’m prone to wander, and that when life blew a thyroid storm my way I didn’t trust God. I wanted to be a patient etherized on a table.
But then I woke up. I immediately began treatment to replace what had been lost from the faulty thyroid. I came out from hiding and started talking to my friends and family about the storm. I stopped the numbing medication and although the physical symptoms were beginning to fade, I started feeling the residual pain. Today I feel better physically than I have felt in over ten years. I have experienced the most challenging and life-giving year of recovery in all of my years on this journey. And I”m ready to share a little of what I have learned in and out of the storm. I still don’t know why God allows sickness, pain, cravings, and disease. I just know that I’m really glad that when Jesus stood among the Pharisees he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor; sick people do.” Something exceedingly meaningful and worthwhile is emerging from the suffering of these past months. I know in ways that are deeper and wider and fuller than ever before that only a God of inexhaustible love, infinite creativity, and a burning desire to redeem every single moment of our lives could take a storm-torn, broken-down wreck like me and make something beautiful.
This past year has been a year of shift. Without meaning to be crass, I could change the tone and tenor of this paragraph with one letter. I am discovering that in the midst of struggle, difficulty, loneliness, and misunderstanding, God is waiting to move us ever so slightly in ways that can bring calm to a storm, redemption to brokenness, and life to death. In other words, I am learning that every experience — every experience- can be a holy experience, if we shift. Shifting isn’t easy for me, because I’m stubborn and think I know and see clearly. Shifting is humbling, because it requires that I change and admit I’ve been wrong. Shifting is a response to grace. Flannery O’Connor wrote that “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Disease, exhaustion, depression, addiction, loneliness, and discouragement are gifts that can compel us to give in to grace. And when we give in to grace, we start to shift – ever so slightly – in ways that can change everything.
The shifts for me — attitude to gratitude, me to we, broken to broken open — have not been graceful. They have been awkward and halting and more often than not at point where God pinned me down in a place where I really had no other choice than to shift. John Steinbeck wrote, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” I guess this is a part of my travelogue for a trip that I would not have taken had it not been for the storm — a trip that has taken me and taught me to shift. Today I give thanks for that storm — for every part of it — the physical, emotional, and spiritual. 19th Century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about a shattering storm in “The Wreck of the Deutschland”: “Thou mastering me God! giver of breath and bread . . . over again I feel thy finger and find thee.” I didn’t know it was God’s fingers on me when I came out of that anethesia and starting squirming in the uncomfortable physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences of the prior months. I couldn’t recognize His touch until I made a shift.
Fom attitude to gratitude
One spiritual director writes, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would be enough.” One significant shift of the past year has been toward gratitude. Gratitude allows me to shift from seeing painful, difficult realities from ordeals that must be endured to holy experiences to be explored. I hope this doesn’t sound like some easy Hallmark platitude. Gratitude is hard. For those of us who struggle with addiction it is easy to become mired in negativity. Practicing gratitude breaks the attachment with negatvity and opens our hearts to — to everything really. Cicero wrote that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” True thanksgiving doesn’t omit or diminish the pain or struggle, but it does compel us to shift from responding to them with an attitude of cynicism or a desire to escape to responding with an open, vulnerable heart that embraces sorrow and struggle as pathways to the holy.
Near the end of the recent storm in my life, one of my friends wrote to me, “You don’t deserve to be loved.” She was writing out of frustration and anger, but there it was in black and white – what I fear most. The belief that we are unworthy and unloveable is the spark that fuels the fire of negativity in most people’s lives. And that fire takes all the oxygen in the room so that there is no space for gratitude. Those words — you don’t deserve to be loved– tempted me to get back on the treadmill of working really hard to prove that I am worthy and I am loveable or to jump into the deep-end of addiction to protect my heart from feeling the sting of those words. But God. But God nudged me to shift. He whispered, “Don’t be afraid. Stop proving and protecting. My grace makes you worthy. My grace makes you loveable. My grace is free, and no matter how you sin and fail or how others might huff and puff to find something in you that I cannot cover, my grace is enough.”
Shifting to gratitude is only possible if I believe in grace. When I believe — heart and soul — that God loves me unconditionally, as I am and not as I should be, my heart shifts to life-shattering gratitude that allows me to see grace and God in and under and around and through every moment. Some may say that it’s unfair grace or cheap grace that would allow God to accept and love and make me worthy over again and again and again and again. I just finished reading an eloquent answer to these cries in The Romance of the Word by Episcopal priest Robert Capon:
“In Jesus, God has put up a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign on the religion shop. He has done the whole job in Jesus once and for all and simply invited us to believe it. . . . no fasting till your knees fold, no prayers you have to get right or else, no standing on your head with your right thumb in your left ear and reciting the correct creed — no nothing. . . . The entire show has been set right in the Mystery of Christ – even though nobody can see a single improvement. Yes, it’s crazy. And yes, it’s wild, and outrageous, and vulgar. And any God who would do such a thing is a God who has no taste. And worst of all, it doesn’t sell worth beans. But it is Good News — the only permanently good news there is — and therefore I find it absolutely captivating.”
My life is a testament to the wild, crazy, outrageous, vulgar, absolutely captivating grace of God. I have discovered that when you’re in a storm, you need a wild God. When you’re tricked by the insanity of addiction, you need a crazy God. When you are outcast by friends and family who have been hurt and outraged by your foibles and failures, you need an outrageous God. When you’ve fallen to the depths of depravity, you need a vulgar God. And when you are stumbling through the ruins of your unworthiness and unloveability you need a God of grace who is absolutely captivated with you. If that permanent good news doesn’t shift you to gratitude, nothing will.
So if you’re headed for a storm, smack dab in the middle of a storm, or bedraggled and bruised from being in a storm, can I invite you to shift? To gratitude. Gratitude as a response to the good, good news of grace will be a shelter in the storm and a compass once the waves subside.
“In the evening his disciples went down to the sea . . . . A huge wind blew up, churning the sea. They were maybe three or four miles out when they saw Jesus walking on the sea, quite near the boat. They were scared senseless, but he reassured them, ‘It’s me. It’s all right. Don’t be afraid.‘ So they took him on board.” (John 6, The Message.)
If you’d like to subscribe to future blogs by Sharon, please sign up in the space provided to the left of this entry. I’d love to hear from you!