Pain In Middle Earth

I am a huge fan of Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien. I know not everyone is and I promise not “geek out” too much about my Middle Earth fandom here where I spend most of time writing about faith in the midst of chronic pain, but some of you love this kind of stuff, so I am going to indulge a little bit today (and I’m still going to connect it to chronic pain)!

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I recently finished a book by Daniel Day about Tolkien’s inspirations for his dark villains of Middle Earth. It was a short and fascinating read with incredible artwork throughout. Though I had read all of Tolkien’s Middle Earth books twice, I had never looked more deeply into the world of myth that inspired him. I was so inspired that the next book I bought was a book about Norse mythology.

Tolkien weaved together so many stories, peoples, and characters from mythology, one would be tempted to view his Lord of the Rings work as derivative. But the genius of Tolkien is that he made a better mythology than his source material, and he made it his own. Of course, as a devout Catholic, he also weaved in biblical themes and symbolism, because he believed that all stories were ultimately derivative of the greatest story.

Lately, I’ve found myself wanting to be lost in the world of fantasy, yes, even the world of myth. Is fantasy, as Tolkien conceived it, simply a world to which we can retreat to escape our pain? No, I don’t think so. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was full of pain, suffering, and death, just like ours. Heroes risked and experienced suffering and death in their battle against evil. In fact, even characters (like Frodo) who did not meet their ultimate demise, accepted death as inevitable to complete their quest.

I don’t think it is escapism that draws me into Tolkien’s world. I think it is meaning that pulls me in. I see something of our own struggle against the pain and evil of this world in the heroic stories of Frodo, Sam, Bilbo, Aragorn, et al. I am inspired that Tolkien’s characters saw their world was worth fighting for even in the midst of their darkest threats.

And maybe you think that doesn’t matter because it is a fictional world, but the best works of fiction echo the real world. We are caught up in an epic battle between good and evil. Everyday people decide where they will stand. Everyday people decide what they are willing to die for. Everyday people look doggedly for the meaning in their existence and in their world.

Who needs the belief in the reality of meaning and the story of good ultimately prevailing more than those who suffer with chronic pain? I need all the stories I can get that remind of the ultimate story. A story in which God himself heroically offered his life over to the forces of evil in what seemed like certain defeat for all goodness and truth. A story where even death itself could not hold down the Son of God.

That story is not a myth. But Tolkien’s mythological world helps me see that ultimate story in new ways. I will never tire of hanging out in Middle Earth. On my darkest days, it is still a place where I can find light. It is a place where I am reminded that pain and suffering are not things in themselves. They are simply the absence of good. Since good will prevail, pain and suffering will disappear when evil is vanquished. I will embrace every opportunity to be reminded of that glorious truth, even in the literary world of fantasy.

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Thoughts on the Loss of a Loved One For the Chronically Ill

I haven’t blogged in over a month and part of the reason is that I’ve been processing some thoughts during a difficult time. My best friend was killed in a motorcycle accident on July 12th and we didn’t have his memorial service until July 26th. I found that I lost my voice, so to speak, for a while. I had no words to offer anyone. Even preaching–my regular job–was difficult.

Image may contain: 3 people, including Chris Blair and David Heflin, people smiling, people standing and beard
Chris Blair, Jim Chandler, and David Heflin during a training weekend for a mission trip to Shanghai.

I didn’t prefer the long delay between Chris’ death and the service, but it might have given me a chance to find my voice again. I was asked to be the emcee for the service. I had the honor of opening the service and then facilitating the process of many others sharing their thoughts. By God’s grace, all went well.

Still, I didn’t have anything new to say to the chronically ill/chronic pain community. I was dealing with a very different kind of pain and I couldn’t find the common ground between the grief of the loss of a loved one and the kind of pain I usually address here. I’ve come to the conclusion that that is the point. They are two totally different experiences and one does not inform the other very much at all.

If I had never known chronic pain, the death of my friend would not have hurt any more or any less. And the experience of chronic pain did not necessarily prepare me for the type of pain related to losing a loved one. And that’s okay. I don’t expect that somehow going through one kind of pain makes you stronger for another type of pain.

The lesson is that grief and loss visit all people. We are not different because we hurt physically. Life is still life, and death is still death. This brings me an odd sense of comfort. Having chronic pain is a different kind of experience than what most people have to endure. It makes us different enough.

When I came together with Chris’ family and our mutual friends, I wasn’t thinking about my physical pain (To be honest, it has been much less lately anyway). I was thinking about how much we all lost when Chris left us. Just this day, I had some heavy things on my heart, the exact kinds of things that I used to always call Chris about. I couldn’t call him and it made me grieve all over again.

I do not grieve like those who have no hope. I know I will see Chris again. I believe in the resurrected Jesus and the complete victory he gives us his people over death. But deep inside me is a void created by the absence of a brother I will always cherish. And in this way, we (those of us with chronic pain/illness) are just like everyone else. I’m not glad for our losses, but I am thankful that we aren’t so different after all.

P.S.: Chris was a graphic designer and he is the one who created the Broken and Mended logo.

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Freedom For The Chronically Ill

As we celebrate our nation’s independence, I realize that freedom means many different things for different people. Some dwell significantly on our soldiers who have secured our freedoms since 1776 (the Revolutionary War actually started in 1775). Others may dwell on the freedoms themselves, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of religion, and so forth. For me the freedom of religion is my most cherished freedom because I know that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world do not enjoy such freedom. I try to not take it for granted.

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I often hear people who suffer from chronic illness express sentiments of being trapped in their bodies. That got me to thinking about what freedom means for those who are hurting constantly. You cannot escape your pain and you cannot escape your body. You manage as best you can, but in a very significant way you long for freedom from your illness.

Some have tried to escape their pain by taking their own life. That’s not freedom, however. That is surrender. Now I know that many good people have become overwhelmed by their own pain and took their lives. I do not have an ounce of judgment for them. But neither do I want to give any credence to the idea that suicide or euthanasia purchases freedom. Instead such irreversible actions just pass down your pain to those who survive you in the form of crippling grief. It is one of Satan’s greatest lies that death itself is freedom.

In the Bible, death is our enemy. Christ defeated death in the resurrection. Those who belong to Christ share in his victory (1 Cor. 15). Christians are now free from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). Christians do not defeat death by embracing it, but sharing in Christ’s victory over it.

The Bible is an eschatological book. Eschatology means “last things,” but the entire Bible looks toward a horizon where everything will be as it should be. Such an aspiration is a concession that things are not as they should be right now. If they were, you would not be sick. You would not be dying. To achieve this aspiration, God personally came to earth and suffered in the person of Jesus Christ so that he could be risen from the dead and ascend back to the side of his Father, forever securing his victory over sin and death and ours.

Our freedom from pain and suffering does not come through our death, but through his. While it is true that death can be a relief from suffering, that is only true due to the hope we have in Christ. This victory produces a whole new eschatological reality.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:1-4).

Sometimes freedom cannot be gained through a declaration–Even after the Declaration of Independence, the war raged on until 1783–but has to be waited on patiently. The Israelites were in Egypt for 400 years before God freed them through Moses. One day we will have our freedom from this body of pain and suffering. One day God will give us a new immortal body that will never suffer or die. One day we will have our freedom and it will never be lost again!

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So You Are Doing Better…Now What?

The struggle with chronic pain/illness is not always a downward spiral. It feels that way at times. I can remember a series of doctor’s visits that left my wife and I shaking our heads every time we left the appointment. When would the bad news stop? I consoled myself with cheap Italian food at Fazoli’s–hey, we all have our guilty pleasures!

Medical diagnoses notwithstanding, the struggle was manageable until 2015. That summer I started to go downhill, eventually resulting in another hip surgery and nerve burning procedures in my back just so I could sit without pain for longer than 15 minutes. During those days, it felt like I would never get better. It was my downward spiral season.

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Chronic pain and illness is not always a downward spiral.

Lately, I have been doing better than I have since this all started (2011). I would estimate my pain to be down about 75%. I still have a few rough days, but I have more energy and less pain than I have had for years. I am going to the gym. I’m losing weight. Instead of a downward spiral, everything is cycling up. I am very aware that this could all change quickly.

However, I believe it is important to take advantage of this season. If you are feeling better, do what you can now. Yes, your condition could change for the worse again, but that should be the reason to take advantage of the blessing of this particular opportunity.

I can remember when all of this first happened, how humbling it was to find out how severely limited I could become. I took what I could do before chronic illness for granted. I know better than that now! Even though I am not pain free, I feel almost normal these days. That’s a nice feeling.

Of course, continue to listen to your body. Don’t overdo it. Don’t hurt yourself. But do what you can and don’t forget from where you came. I mean don’t lose the empathy for others just because you are doing better, and don’t take for granted how well you are feeling.

I am not just talking about working out. Maybe you’ve put off a project. Maybe you wanted to write a book. Grab hold of this particular season that you have been given like you never would have before you got sick or hurt. You now have the gift of perspective. Use it to its fullest!

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The Gift of Empathy

Being a sympathetic person is different than being empathetic. Sympathy can be expressed by anyone whether they have experienced something or not. I can be sympathetic toward someone who has experienced the grief of losing a parent, but empathy requires you to have had the same experience. I cannot empathize with that person’ loss except in a general way about losing a loved one. Obviously, this was true of chronic pain as well. Before I had that experience, I can only say something like, “I am sorry you are going through that.” That is sympathy and can be meaningful, but empathy is being able to say, “I know what that’s like because I have experienced it.”

Note: (Some truly empathic persons may be able to genuinely feel others pain even without the same kind of experience, but this is the exception not the rule. Likewise, we can talk about trying to be empathetic by seeing someone’s situation through their eyes. This is a worthy endeavor, but I am talking about empathy that is earned and naturally genuine).

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Credit: Getty Images

When my oldest was born with acid reflux, it was miserable. He was our first child and he screamed for hours every day. It was demoralizing to the extreme. I remember we got him in to see some kind of specialist and they ran some tests and came out and tried to tell us that it was normal! We couldn’t believe it. They didn’t even have sympathy. But I’ll never forget our pediatrician telling us that he had been through the same thing with his daughter. Even though it had been twenty years earlier, it meant so much to us that he could empathize with our suffering. We, in turn, got to empathize with others going through the same thing with their babies. 

Many people view God as a distant deity, as sympathetic at best and indifferent at worst. Years ago, Joan Osborne sang a song that asked, “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like the rest of us. Just a stranger on the bus just trying to make his way home?” The implication was that God doesn’t know what it is to be one of us. And even though we can say that God knows everything, God could not truly empathize with us unless he did become one of us. But that’s exactly what God did in Jesus Christ. Heb 4:15:

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

Th high priest represented the people to God. Jesus is the perfect high priest because he represents us as fully human, yet not tainted with sin. He is both divine and human, but it is in his humanity that God is able to empathize with us.

Paul wrote about how their sufferings became a means for the comfort of others, just as Christ’s sufferings became comfort for them. 2 Cor. 1:3-7:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

This is the Christian view of empathy. Our God, who knows our struggles firsthand, comforts us and we, in turn comfort one another. That is what Broken and Mended is about. This is a community in which we experience empathy and give that blessing to each other.

No one signs up for chronic pain, but your endurance of it has given you the gift of empathy. When someone hurts every day of his or her life, even though their experience of pain may be very different than yours, you know what it is like to hurt every day too. Maybe we wouldn’t have wanted to acquire empathy on this matter, if we had a choice, but don’t let that gift go to waste. You may truly be a blessing to someone who desperately needs to know that they are not alone!

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What To Do With All That Advice

Not long after my health problems started with injured hips the advice started flowing in. Long before I knew I had a chronic illness, many well-intentioned friends had a hard time believing that someone my age could have hip problems. One man told me that I probably just something “caught up” in there, whatever that means. Others told me that it was probably my back, and I needed to see a chiropractor. Eventually, others told me that if I gave up diet sodas or followed this special diet all my problems would go away.

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They all meant well, but the problem is not a one of them had any idea what they were talking about. Even some of my early doctors did not understand what was happening to me and gave me poor advice. One person brought me magnets. Another counseled me on some kind of electrical impulse therapy. Someone gave some advice that I thought was the craziest I had ever heard, so crazy I thought I would never forget it, but as I’m writing this I can’t remember what it was!

The advice never stops. Whenever you share your story with someone new the advice almost always follows. It is given with no understanding of your medical condition.

I realize that some people do well with alternative medical approaches. I have tried a few, admittedly halfheartedly; acupuncture, deep tissue massage, chiropractor, a few elimination diets, etc. I did try those magnets. I think there are times when I find the mood to try something new. After all, what do I have to lose?

But most of the time I hear the newest suggestion and just listen politely. I already know that I have no interest in their latest simple solution to my complex medical condition. I know it won’t work because it has no bearing on an autoimmune disease that attacks healthy joints and tissues. My doctors barely understand it and we are working together to do everything imaginable just to keep the disease at bay. Your encounter with a new type of therapy that helped you overcome your back injury is irrelevant to what is happening in a body at war with itself.

We live with our diseases and have come across almost all the relevant helpful advice. We know how to use the internet and to network with others who have the same disease. If it seemed reasonable, we probably tried it. We discussed it with our doctors.

But I am not really writing this blog to “Them,” “Them” being the always willing and rarely helpful friends with their advice. I know how it feels to have your illness reduced to someone’s campaign against diet drinks. My suggestion is to smile and say, “Thanks for sharing that. I’ll give it some thought.” You don’t have to give it any more thought than it took to say that. If you try to explain the folly of their ways, they likely won’t get it, and they will think you are stubborn and ungrateful.

I know how it feels to be made to feel like you are not doing everything that you can to help with your health. If you just did this or that, then you wouldn’t hurt all the time. I know how much that diminishes your struggle. But don’t take it out on “Them;” they don’t know because they haven’t been where you are. They probably really do care and just believe that if you listen to them that you will be well. No matter how delusional that thought may be, they are merely trying to help.

Try new advice only when you feel like it is something you’ve been looking for. Otherwise, maybe just let it go “in one ear and out the other.” Just don’t forget to smile!

What’s the worst advice you’ve received?

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What Hurts More Than Pain

Note: I’ve been away for a few weeks finishing a paper for a class on suffering and healing. Jumping back in here with the devotional below which was given in the latest Broken and Mended support group meeting:

You might remember the story of God creating Adam and placing him in a garden. God had previously commented that everything in creation was “very good,” but when he observes the loneliness of man he says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” God created Eve in response to man’s need. Though that story describes the genesis of the relationship between a man and a woman, generally it could be said that it is never good for man or woman to be alone (What we mean here is not the occasional experience of being without company, but being without relationships). We are created as social beings and we need others. When we convince ourselves that this is not true, then we deceive ourselves and choose isolation. But God says that is not good. And when we are honest, we can admit that too. 

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Chronic pain and illness work to isolate us from others like few other things can. First of all, there is the reality that it is difficult for anyone to understand what you are going through. You can’t explain it, and some may even doubt your sincerity. Second, your health begins to limit you from activities and social gatherings. It might even keep you out of church. People who were good friends have little interest in slowing down to your pace. You soon find yourself in a very lonely place. Other attempts to engage with others is ultimately unsuccessful, discouraging you from even trying. Though understandable, your own behavior then exacerbates your dilemma. 

People also feel isolated from God. This may have to do with missing church, but also from feeling like God let you down or maybe you think he is even punishing you or simply does not care.  Depression and suicide rates are much higher in the chronically ill. It is no wonder when pain may be just the start of the struggle and lonely despair may be the end. The Bible has plenty of examples of lonely and brokenhearted people crying out to God. Here’s an example in Ps. 25:16-19:

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
    for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 Relieve the troubles of my heart
    and free me from my anguish.
18 Look on my affliction and my distress
    and take away all my sins.
19 See how numerous are my enemies
    and how fiercely they hate me!

This Psalm is attributed to David and he did have many enemies. Maybe we feel like people don’t care as much as they should, but we don’t likely have enemies trying to do us harm. However, the result for David is the same for us. His situation pushes him into isolation. But David knew whom to cry out to because he knew this about the Lord:  Ps. 34:18:

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
    and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

The most important thing to remember when we are overtaken by an extreme experience of loneliness is that God cares and has not left us alone. The Bible is full of reminders of God’s promise to be with us and especially with those who have been brought low by forces beyond their control. Jesus quotes a passage from Isaiah and applies it to his own ministry in Luke 4:18-19. Originally the passage said, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,” (Is. 61:1). Jesus, of course, is God in the flesh and came to share in our sufferings and he promised he would never leave us.

We are never truly alone among others as well. Although your experience is unique to you in that no one ever had the exact same experience, many suffer in similar ways, sometimes worse, sometimes less. Broken and Mended exists to bring some of these people together so that we are reminded that we are not alone and that we have a shared journey. We don’t do this just to commiserate but to actually help our situation improve by mutual encouragement and hospitality. Henry Nouwen describes this hospitality as, “a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition that we all share.”[1] 

Finally, there are ways to communicate with others who do not share your pain but are willing to listen. Find those people in your family and friends and be open with them. Broken and Mended is not a substitute for church, but it does provide a level of Christian fellowship that can be helpful. You are not alone!


[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society  (New York:  Image, 1979),  95.

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