“Most people think that living with quadriplegia is overwhelming. And it is.” Speaking at #CCEF16, she says this even as she says that now, nearly 50 years later, she would not give up her intimacy and depth in Christ, deepened through suffering, in order to walk. How do we bring these two opposing experiences together.
Joni tells us there are 1 billion disabled people in the world, most living in the developing world–people who are at greatest risk of being abused, neglected, and not protected.
She spoke of her chronic pain that grew over the years and exploded in the mid 2000s and how it robbed her of joy and capacity to do the work she wanted to do. “It (the pain) made my quadriplegia a walk in the park.” “I know I am under the sovereignty of God but now his sovereignty seemed so scary.” “My depression lifted the day I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.” She said this with a smile, “Oh God, you might be taking me home now.”
“I knew in my head that God is sovereign and that I trust him. Why can’t my emotions fall in line?” She then used the idea that in this life we experience “splashovers” of hell and “splashovers of heaven.” “There is nothing more sweet than finding Jesus in your moment of hell.” Pain tends to bring us into self-focus. But when we see the affliction of Jesus on the cross, our focus is changed. It doesn’t mean we no longer suffer but that our suffering done in and with Christ, “no longer afraid of it.” There is comfort in the promises of God even in the dark seasons.
How can counselors convince others that Jesus is enough even if the pain is not able to be fixed? We start by counseling with compassion (being with them in their pain and suffering). When the sufferer sees they have a place in the body of Christ, that they are not isolated, this is of great importance. Spiritual community helps the sufferer to accept the pain as their own. God never intended us to suffer alone. Together, healing begins. We don’t just declare God is over all suffering, we demonstrate it through deep relationships.
Someone who knows suffering can say things that many able-bodied people cannot say, or cannot be heard to say. Joni’s voice is prophetic for the Church. She calls us to walk with those with disabilities rather than avoid. May we listen. May be validate their pain first as we sit with them. May we never tired to hear of their difficulties. May we never put our need for assurance that “everything will turn out right” ahead of their need to be heard and loved.
This morning, Winston Smith of CCEF faculty opened the #CCEF16 conference on this topic. A few days ago I wrote about the toxicity of ruminating on negative thoughts and feelings. We often struggle even more when we berate ourselves for our reactions to life.
Winston began by asking the audience how they feel about their painful feelings. He noted that how we feel about our emotional experiences shape how we experience emotions. He finds feeling bad about feeling bad is especially problematic for Christians as they often feel that their negative things should not amount to much in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. If my anxiety only means that I don’t believe and trust God then I can only suffer more. It becomes an “inescapable feedback loop.”
If the Gospel itself only becomes a cause for greater shame and guilt, then something is off, says Smith. Instead, Smith says, “our negative emotions are designed to deepen our relationship with Christ and with each other.”
Winston took the time to look at Jesus’ emotional expression at Lazarus death (and soon to be resurrection). Jesus loses it. He is in anguish. This emotional distress reveals his divinity not merely his humanity. Notice that the good purpose of Lazarus’ death it doesn’t removed Jesus’ anguish. “What would biblical counselors say to Jesus as he wept? ‘I know Jesus that you are feeling bad but this is going to be for the good.’ Jesus is not having a moment of doubt…no, he is coming face to face with the brokenness of this world and all that it will cost him…and he is emotional and he weeps.”
Therefore, being image bearers of God require us that we experience and name negative emotions, especially in light of our experience of injustice and brokenness. And the more in tune we are with the glory and love of God we ought to feel intensification of negative feelings in response to things that are not right. We could even say that we have a calling to have negative emotions.
Jesus chose to enter into Mary and Martha’s pain. That is what love does. He concluded by telling a story about a man with a child with a serious medical problem. The man was somewhat sheepish that he felt anger, fear and helpless when the daughter was having a crisis. Winston asked, “what are you going to do for my friend? Are you going to try to fix it? No, We shouldn’t try to fix his feelings.” Let’s move beyond the “repent and repress” response to our negative emotions.
This is the opening plenary and there will be more to come. One of the areas I hope they cover is the skill of validating and sitting with the negative emotions of others. This is hard to do but an essential skill, first in order to comfort and be present with others in their pain. Second, as we learn to sit with the pain of others, we can also help teach others to be okay with their emotional experiences. The more we accept, the more we can then choose how we want to respond.
If you are in the Philadelphia area, I want to give a final shout out for an important conference put on by the American Bible Society’s Mission: Trauma Healing. This will be our 5th (I think) Community of Practice conferences where trauma recovery practitioners meet to learn and encourage each other in the work of trauma healing. If you have never been before but want to hang out with folks doing trench work around the world, this is the place to be. Missionaries, mental health experts, ethnologists, linguists, pastors, humanitarians, and everything in between are the common attendees. This tends to be a rather intimate conference where you get plenty of time to talk around tables with folks doing what they talk about.
This year our conference theme is We are Sojourners: Refugees and Trauma (conference information and registration link). What makes me excited this year is the diversity of presenters. We have well-known psychiatrist Curt Thompson presenting on attachment injuries related to trauma. We have presentations and a documentary unveiling about African Americans in the US (yes! Refugees can live in a land for generations and not be fully “home”). There will be presentations by Diane Langberg as well as presentations by experts on the current refugee crisis from the Middle East.
In addition, there will be this activity on Tuesday night which includes musician Michael O’Brien at historic Christ Church.
Those who have attended before should realize that this is now held in Center City Philadelphia at the office of the American Bible Society and not at the Mother Boniface Spirituality Center in the North East.
If you are interested in the wide world and burdened about trauma and refugees, come and meet your family!
UPDATE: Conference registration cut in half! Now only costs $250 instead of $500.
I will be attending and speaking at the 2015 General Assembly of the World Reformed Fellowship in Sao Paulo, Brazil (March 23-27, 2015) on the topic of recovery from child sexual abuse. Boz Tchividjian, Diane Langberg, Jim Gamble (N. Ireland) and Beatri Kruger (S. Africa) will also be covering topics such as preventing child abuse, sex trafficking and counseling.
These conversations are important everywhere, but this audience will be representing Reformed church communities worldwide, and that makes it very important conversation since churches worldwide need to keep talking about abuse that takes place within Christian environments. ! If trauma and abuse aren’t your cup of tea, there are parallel tracks covering everything from transdenominational ministry, Islam, church ministry and sexuality, church planting, and prosperity gospel.
See WRF GA Assembly for more information about the conference program and how to register for the conference.