Sometimes I try to define "normal" and I even yearn for it.
At those times in my mind, I think that families should never have members who do crazy things or "go off the rails". But in reality, I could regale you with story after story of the nuts in my family tree (seriously) and while my extended family may have been blessed with more than their share of eccentrics (some mild and some not...), the truth is that I think most (not all, but most) families have at least one crazy aunt in the attic or an uncle that "we just don't talk about in polite company..." So if the majority of families have at least one person in their extended (or immediate) family who is a little whacked out or who drives everyone crazy or who seems bent on self-destruction or who is just "hard to get along with", then that's really.. kind of .. the norm for life down here.
In my mind, I think (and often ask) God to shield us from suffering as well as relieve our suffering when it comes. (And I don't plan to stop asking for that any time soon, just in case you are wondering...) However, I just finished reading a novel about a demon-possessed Messiah-like figure who sweeps into a small town and starts healing everyone. (Yes... it's a Frank Peretti novel... A book called The Visitation). At first, the cult leader seems wonderful and the people are thrilled to be able to walk again, to have crushed bones made whole, etc. But as the novel progresses, you see that these physical healings don't really change the people. The thief who has been made physically whole is still... a thief. The one who was paralyzed and who can now walk turns out to be a bully. By the same token, another character who goes through great suffering because their situation is not "fixed" - this person comes through his ordeal with a strong faith that encourages others to follow Christ.
I hesitate to write these things because, honestly, I don't do well when I am in pain. Any kind of pain. Phil can tell you...
In my 58 years of life, I can see two (and only two) times when I felt like I had an epiphany (i.e., drew closer to God) during suffering. That tells you there have been a whole lot of other days when suffering came knocking at my door but the epiphany didn't come with it... :)
In Dec. of 2004, Phil and I decided to write up our testimony and pass out that letter, along with some Christmas cookies, to people in our neighborhood. We passed out most of them early in the month but we still had about 4 houses to visit. It snowed heavily right before Christmas and the ground was still covered in some places on Christmas Eve. I was debating whether to distribute the last Christmas baggies when a neighbor, who was well-past sixty, came over with some cookies for us. I asked him how the roads were and he said they were fine, it wasn't hard to walk on them. Phil was at the store and David was at a friend's house so I decided to "try it" and so I wrapped up in my winter coat and headed out. I had not gone far before I learned the true meaning of "black ice". I fell on the pavement, not once but twice, each time catching myself on my left wrist. After the second time, I looked up to see a car slowly heading toward me. It was still about two blocks away but, since the day was overcast and it was late afternoon, I didn't know how much visibility the driver would have and I didn't know how much control he would have over the car as he tried to stop. I literally cried out to God for help and tried one more time to stand. This time, I made it and was able to walk to a neighbor's house where the father (who, unknown to me, had been in prison and was still not a saint by any means) - where the father willingly took me to the hospital on treacherous roads.
Obviously, God was taking care of me (and it was not His fault that I made a bad decision to go out on icy/snowy roads) - but at the time, I could not see it. I remember hearing the doctor at the ER saying how he just loved dealing with crushed bones and I hoped he was kidding. He wasn't. I had crushed every small bone in my left wrist, so much so that the specialist couldn't insert a brace into it as he planned but instead put five pins in it. He told me all he did was hands and arms and he'd never had to operate on both sides of a wrist before but it was the only way he could put mine back together.
I remember being deeply ashamed as I lay in the ER room that evening, waiting for Phil to come. All I could think about was how this would affect our budget, our home life, our jobs. At the same time, I began to wrestle with what I would later realize was an arrogant attitude, although I didn't see it at the time. I mean, I was trying to do the Lord's work so why would this happen to me? (I later realized that Foxe's book of Martyrs pretty much answers that question and then some... Duhhhhh... Not to mention the New Testament, the life of Paul and ultimately, the life of Christ).
However, at that time I was in great pain and it would only intensify on Christmas day. So the questions just began to come along with Self-Pity, a friend who would stay right by my side through my four months of physical therapy. (When I first walked into the physical therapy room, another patient said, "Welcome to the House of Pain!" Soooo not good.... :)
As I lay there on Christmas afternoon, still unaware of the journey that was ahead of me, I was not thankful that my sisters-in-law had come over to the house to fix the meal I was supposed to be fixing. Nor was I thankful that they were trying to keep noise to a minimum so as not to disturb me.
The truth is that I wasn't filled with love for Him or anyone, especially as the day progressed and the swelling in my arm increased.
At one point that evening, I was lying there telling God how things "should have been". It was Christmas, my favorite holiday, and I should have been in the living room with the rest of the family. It was a time for rejoicing and I should have been able to sing songs and enjoy the holiday ambiance. It was a day for remembering the child in the manger and I should have been able to worship but I couldn't. There in the dark, I felt isolated, alone in my pain.
And that was when Jesus opened my "eyes" and shared some things with me. He impressed on my mind that the first Christmas was tough for Him. That for the first time, He was separated from His home in Heaven, that there was no turkey and dressing waiting at the stable where he was born and no Christmas lights either. Basically the first Christmas was a time of separation and marked the beginning of a road of suffering. In that moment, there in the dark, I felt I really understood Christmas for the first time and knew that I was actually able to celebrate it better - not in spite of but because of my suffering.
The other epiphany happened on a particularly difficult day in therapy. I remember that there were three middle-aged school teachers in therapy that day and all of us were crying:) The therapist was already passing around the Kleenex box when I got there and I remember he looked at me and said, "Whatever you do today, please don't cry!" Then he twisted my wrist and I managed to say, "We're going to have to make a deal. You do what you gotta do and I'll do what I gotta do..." He interpreted that statement rightly and immediately went for another Kleenex box....:)
As was typical for most of my therapy days, by the time I got on the exercise machine, I was not a happy camper. And when I'm not happy, I'm afraid the Lord hears about it.... So I was pouring out all my complaints, mostly asking Him why I was having to go through all this, when He impressed this thought on my mind: you haven't praised me yet in all this so keep going...:) (I really believe God has a sense of humor...)
I hadn't praised Him yet? Of course I hadn't praised Him yet!! I was in pain and I was ticked... Why would He even think that I would praise Him under such circumstances????
And the answer came to me, for what it's worth: because, until you can praise Me in the midst of pain, you haven't really praised Me.
Praise from a joyful heart is easy.
Praise from a pain-filled heart is tough.
And yet, our God inhabits praise. That is where He lives. And sometimes pain coupled with praise is the vehicle that draws us closest to Him because His son Jesus is, after all, a man acquainted with grief...
Does this mean that the next time I'm in pain, you can expect to find me praising God?
No. Don't even think that....
As I said, two days out of 58 years is not a stellar track record.... All this means is, I'm still learning, still a work in progress. And yes, I'm probably also someone's crazy aunt in the attic or the family member who drives others crazy.
As someone once said, "Normal is just a setting on the dryer."
I think Heaven will be beyond "normal", everything we desire and then some!
But we're just not there yet...