Thanksgiving

I hope that I’m grateful to God every day for the multitude of blessings in my life, and yet, like every other American, tomorrow will be a time when I perhaps think a little more of what I have and what I don’t have; who I hold close, even if only in my heart, and who I need to reach out to; and how I can live in gratitude and grace all the days of my life. We’ll have just five around the table tomorrow, owing to my elder son’s recovery from minor surgery Monday, and we’ll each share, as we always do, some thoughts on the things we’re thankful for. I’m pretty sure one of the boys will mention me.

But I’m going to kick it off early, publicly and quite personally by thanking the Lord Jesus for something that, frankly, I really don’t much enjoy.

I have a chronic pain condition, and I have a back injury that also hurts every day. The former is fibromyalgia, which, before I was diagnosed in May 2006, was something I didn’t even believe was real. Armed with a BA in journalism and all, I felt qualified to judge that fibromyalgia was simply the whining aches and pains of women who didn’t have enough to do or didn’t get enough attention. To my mind, it was a non-syndrome or, worse, a symptom of sniveling affluence that could be cured by deciding to snap out of it and devoting oneself to productive ministry at home or in the workplace. May the God who forgives me eternally bless my doctor, who patiently guided me through the realization not only that fibromyalgia is a real chronic pain/chronic fatigue/chronic sleep condition, but also that I had it. Other people I know have far more serious, debilitating illnesses, but we learn from what we’re given. This is what I got.

I wasn’t, at this time, a stranger to chronic pain. My back, injured in a serious car wreck in May 2005, was already in bad shape — but it had a cause. I could tell you the story. You could see the X-Rays. It really did look like an about-to-tumble Jenga tower. It’s degenerative — it won’t “get better” — but it was a tangible, specific thing that had a tangible, specific cause. It wasn’t my fault, the accident — but I would bravely bear the pain and plow through anyway, seeing it as my job to glorify God by going just as strong as ever. I was on the Moscow School District Board of Trustees then, and I worked hard, becoming, through the Renaissance Charter School fiasco and the failed 2005 facilities bond election, the most visible trustee and probably the busiest. I had also begun writing on Vision 2020, where the limp I was developing wouldn’t be evident to anyone and the news of my accident would excuse how I walked and got around for anyone who did see me. And, since the accident wasn’t my fault — he got a ticket; I got a trip to the ER — I was not only brave, but vindicated. The Kingdom of God, I thought, needed a Heroic Keely, and if circumstances awarded me a difficulty, then, by God, I was going to make use of it and be a hero.

But now I had a condition that I had callously dismissed in others, and there was no reason for it, no verifiable cause to explain it and no tangible way to diagnose it. Was it the wreck? Or the surgery on my shoulder, which was torn up when it happened? Stress from my Board activities? Fibromyalgia is a condition whose diagnosis is generally one of elimination. You rule out rheumatoid arthritis, a virus, exercise injury or structural impairment, run lots of blood tests, and finally accept that widespread, bilateral, constant muscle and joint pain, accompanied by sleep as restful as those nights long ago with fussy newborns and fatigue that I would describe as “crushing” if I were being honest and “considerable” if I was simply trying to be pleasant, together means Fibromyalgia Syndrome. It took me several months to accept it; it didn’t take long at all for the Holy Spirit to show me an entire host of things, not the least of which was my arrogance and pride. A back injury? Fine. But some mysterious, little-understood auto-immune or neurotransmitter disorder with no specific cause nor any sure treatment? I think not. I wasn’t the kind of person who gets stuff like that — if it was real in the first place.

It’s not that I’d been outwardly judgmental and suspicious of the one or two people I knew with fibro; I’m a nice person, so I just harbored a remedy of “get over yourself” quietly in my mind when dealing with them. And while I lashed out at my doctor when she initially gave me her diagnosis, I had felt justified. I was Keely, plunging through life with a bad back and a host of other stresses, some past, some present, but all REAL. I couldn’t deny that I felt awful, but I damned sure could deny that my doctor knew more than I did if this was the best she could come up with. A diagnosis of fibromyalgia offended me. I wasn’t whiny, or bored, or stuck in a quagmire of affluence. I had important civic and ministry work to do; I was a great mom, married to a great guy and overwhelmed only with affection for my sons. My life was full. And rich. And BUSY. If I was going to have something wrong, it had to be real, and I had to beat it. The Kingdom of God required nothing less; my heroism would testify to God’s goodness.

Or not.

I declined to run for re-election to the Board not just because of philosophical differences between me and my colleagues, but also because I was . . . tired. A month before the wreck, I’d bought a brand new bicycle, one of those funky retro ones dripping with chrome and swoopy accents that embarrassed my kids and delighted me. I couldn’t ride it. I couldn’t do my usual three- or four-mile daily walk, and unloading the dishwasher made me hurt. My life had changed, and while my back was almost guaranteed to get worse — but there was a REASON! — I also now was dealing with a chronic pain and fatigue condition that didn’t respond to how smart I was, how active I was, how spiritually grounded I was, or how well known I was for being bright, sunny, witty, energetic and available. It seemed like it got the best of me, in ways nothing else ever had. And yet, in time, God got ahold of me in ways he never had, and I began to recognize pride where I’d first seen nobility and fear that I mistook for generosity of spirit.

The first nine months or so was a long tutorial, one I often resisted but endured (and continue to endure, with only occasional resistance). I’ve had to learn how to be . . . different. For one, I don’t often feel bright, sunny, witty, energetic, and available; I feel tired, sore, stiff, and limited. And even if I did, I walk with a touch of a limp most of the time. You’d notice. I get out of chairs in increments of carefully guarded movement, my shoulders hunch, and it’s pretty clear that I’m not moving with grace and fluidity to spare. I’m quite often too tired by 4 p.m. to do much at 7, and some of you know that it’s sometimes likely that I’ll call the day of our lunch date to cancel because it’s a pain day, worse than it was when we scheduled the time the week before. It’s become hard to hide, even if I had the energy to try to. Which I don’t, by the way. Trying to outrun the messenger is exhausting. It’s better to just receive the message.

I’d spent most of my life being the one people called on when they needed help, and I liked that. Much of it was a pure desire to serve; some, though, was because I was completely unaccustomed to asking the very things friends and sometimes strangers would ask of me — a ride to the store, help with a household project, whatever. Now I have to ask for help. Now I’m the one often ministered to. Learning to ask was like learning a foreign language; learning to live while depending at times on other people was like learning to navigate through a foreign culture. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, I thought, and surely God would fix it. Didn’t he need me strong and healthy?

Actually, no. He needs me whole and wholly available — to his Spirit and only then to the masses, and only then when he calls. The Apostle Paul said that when he was weak, the Lord Jesus was strong, strengthening him in grace. I’d preached on that. I’d read it for years. I thought how wonderful that was for Paul and I was glad he got to go through it instead of me. But in the last two years, I now get it. My body may be not as robust, hale and hardy, as it was, but I’m finding that my soul is rich to overflowing. I used to do things to show God I loved him; now, in a beautiful, mysteriously gracious combination of fatigue and faith, I’m learning to let God show me how much he loves me. A dear sister, my “aman cara” (soul friend), came along beside me to support me as I learned to accept a body that was weakened while uncovering the riches of a soul being strengthened, and as the Lord showed me where I had depended pridefully on being smart enough and strong enough, he taught me how HE was simply “enough,” sufficient for the broken things and the scary times and entirely gracious to me as his daughter — not his agent, soldier, or PR team, just someone he loves endlessly, extravagantly, and entirely.

If my back had never been knocked around in a wreck, if I’d never developed fibromyalgia, if I were still slingshotting myself out the door every morning to fight the good fight and exhaust not just the fullness of my gifts, but myself,too, I wouldn’t know rest. I wouldn’t know quiet. I doubt that I would be as focused on kindness as I like to think I am now, and I’m pretty sure I would miss out on all of the things that feed my soul now — things like reading on the couch with my puppy next to me, watching the leaves fall, sipping wine and enjoying the soft gleam of wood floors that I would have just skipped over before on my way out the door. I wouldn’t have figured out that the joy I got from helping people was the way they felt when I asked for help — had I really, even just subconsciously, even with good intent, thought I had a monopoly on the joy that accompanies acts of kindness?

Pain is a drag. Fatigue is a burden. There are, still, days when it feels like chronic back pain and fibromyalgia have gotten the best of me. But they are a gift, a serious of unfortunate circumstances, things filed under “shit happens,” transformed by the Spirit into a new way of living that now feels like being home, and I wouldn’t ask that they’d never come about for anything in the world. Chronic pain hasn’t gotten the best of me. Chronic pain has brought out God’s best in me, and while the fragrant aroma of Tiger Balm and herbal packs probably isn’t what Scripture had in mind, I know that by grace it can be transformed into an aroma pleasing to him and fruitful for me.

May God richly bless each one of you, tomorrow and always, and may we always remember to seek Jesus in sharing with “the least of these.”

2 Responses to “Thanksgiving”

  1. Keely, thanks for having the courage and humility to share this.

  2. I appreciate your comments, Caroline. It was kind of hard to reveal something of a personal nature, but I thought maybe the Lord could use it somehow — as long as it’s “Keely decreasing, Jesus increasing”!

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