Chronic Pain and Mission
It was late October in 2015. I was traveling with my best friend, Chris Blair, and one of my church elders, Jim Chandler. I had always wanted to go to China, and the opportunity had come through the Let’s Start Talking ministry (LST). It was a dream come true. There was only one problem; I was in agonizing pain.
The flare had started back in June of that year and was unrelenting. The 15 hour plane ride to Shanghai was excruciating. By the time we landed, I struggled to walk. Our main activity, one-on-one conversation sessions, in a coffee shop hurt me every moment that I sat down. Another long flight loomed on the horizon.
When I got back, I began the process of radiofrequency ablation to relieve the pain in my lower back. The results were disappointing. In late 2016, I had a 2nd hip surgery, was in pain all the time, and was fighting my first battle with depression. Though my trip to Shanghai was my tenth overseas mission trip, I could not imagine boarding another plane for that length of time. If I did not improve, my overseas mission days were behind me.
I am writing this post because I just got back from an LST mission trip to Recife, Brazil. Obviously, I am feeling better. I was not pain free, but the pain was manageable enough that the trip was worth it (I’m not saying the Shanghai trip wasn’t worth it, but only that I couldn’t do it again under those circumstances). Part of the reason, I took advantage of the opportunity is because I don’t know how long I will feel good enough to do it. So, I would like to offer a few reflections on this recent experience as it relates to chronic pain:
- Do what you can when you.
I know that “carpe diem” is an overused phrase, but there is good reason for it! When you are feeling well enough to participate in something you love, don’t assume that your renewed health will last forever. Those of us dealing with chronic pain know better than most that good days and good seasons are fleeting.
On the other hand, to do nothing because you are afraid you might hurt one day in the future is no way to live life! Pursue that career. Join that mission. Run the 5k. Go to church. Maybe you feel better for only a month, but why wait until you feel too bad to do what you want to do? Maybe that month stretches out to a year or longer. You will never regret living your life intentionally while you can. However, you will almost certainly regret passing up opportunities that were before you once your health brings those opportunities to a close.
- Find a mission that even chronic pain cannot rob you of.
I love mission work. Every one of my eleven overseas trips have been meaningful for me. However, my identity and mission for life were not tied to my ability to pursue mission work. A couple of years ago, I worked through a mission statement with a ministry called Right On Mission. My mission is “to acknowledge the stardom of every person’s life.”
This means I help others to see their incredible worth before God. I help others to envision living their lives as God intends them to live. This mission can be lived out when I am hurting and when I am healthy. Even if I am confined to a bed, I can live this mission.
You may or may not ever go through a formal mission writing process, but you can choose to live for something greater than what your health allows you to do. I know people who have had to give up careers they were passionate about due to their health. This is a tragic loss worthy of profound grief. Even in facing such loss, some of those same people have found their purpose in living again.
- Don’t give up on living a meaningful life.
This third reflection is perhaps just a way of restating the 2nd. I state it this way because there are times when the pain is so bad and the loss so draining that you cannot find any meaning in life. You are just focused on somehow surviving the day. But it is important that even in our worst of times, that we do not lose hope of having better and more meaningful days.
On our worst days, we often ask, “What does God want from me?” It might be better to rephrase the question, “What does God want for me?” God doesn’t need anything from you. In his love for us, he does want something for you. God intends for every person’s life to be meaningful. Chronic illness cannot rob us that meaning. Let’s end these reflections with a great reminder of God’s love from his word:
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:37-39).
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