January 20, 2015

How Life's Thorniest Paths Can Lead To Great Joy

I lay still that early winter morn soaking in the silence of the house. Our bedroom remained artificially dark by the drawn window shade. My head was pounding and nothing could stop the battle that raged deep within.

The sound of the ringer on the phone interrupted the internal dialogue.

Picking up the receiver I heard the voice of a woman from a Bible study group I’d attended at a local church. We’d not connected in a while due to my ongoing medical issues.

She explained that God had told her to call me and read a page from her devotional Streams in the Desert. She didn’t know why or have anything else to say and only wanted to be obedient.

Here’s an excerpt of what she read... 

“My child, I have a message for you today; let me whisper it in your ear, that it may gild with glory any storm clouds which may arise, and smooth the rough places upon which you may have to tread. It is short, only five words, but let them sink into your inmost soul; use them as a pillow upon which to rest your weary head. This thing is from Me.

Have you ever thought of it, that all that concerns you concerns Me too? For, “he that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of mine eye” (Zech. 2:8). You are very precious in My sight. (Isa. 43:4) Therefore, it is My special delight to educate you.

I would have you learn when temptations assail you, and the “enemy comes in like a flood,” that this thing is from Me, that your weakness needs My might, and your safety lies in letting Me fight for you.

Are you in difficult circumstances, surrounded by people who do not understand you, who never consult your taste, who put you in the background? This thing is from Me. I am the God of circumstances. Thou camest not to thy place by accident, it is the very place God meant for thee.” (emphases mine) (pg. 56-57)

Later I’d discover that, even though it was the month of November, this devotional entry was from February 1st. What I’ve shared is only a portion. You can find the rest online here.

I’d begun crying after the first sentence and when she finished reading, through a stifled sob, thanked her for her obedience before hanging up the phone.
  • She didn’t know that I’d just been through one of the worst medical debacles ever.
  • She had no idea that after three hours in the operating room a team of surgeons who’d promised they could release my contractured foot had deemed my case too difficult.
  •  She didn’t hear my “ugly crying” as it echoed throughout the surgical unit when I was informed, by some of the best, that my condition required a higher level of expertise. 
  • She hadn’t heard the bickering between specialists who each insisted it was the other who was afraid to operate.
  • She couldn’t see that being “examined under anesthesia” had further crippled me.
  • She wasn’t aware that as I lay there in the dark the tentacles of despair worked tirelessly to choke every remaining ounce of hope from my heart.
  • She’d not heard my faint prayer as tears soaked my pillow: “God, where are You? What happens now?”

But God had seen and heard it all.

In fact, He knew about this battle long before it ever began. He had been with me every step of the way. Twice He’d spared my life. I’d traveled a very long road of sickness and suffering before arriving at this place.

The corner of doubt and despair.

And in that place He reached down and literally whispered in my ear. Using the voice of an unwitting obedient servant He reminded me that, not only was I in the center of His will, but that He would fight for me.

Joy didn’t immediately flood my soul but regaining a sense of God’s presence brought tremendous relief.

The next few days were spent unearthing myself from the fog of general anesthesia while fielding calls from three different physicians volleying my case back and forth like a hot potato. In some ways it was akin to a scene out of The Three Stooges. I listened a lot and spoke very little. Laughed once or twice.

I had no idea what God was up to but He was the only One worth trusting at this point.

That Saturday, I received a call from the specialist in East Tennessee who’d more recently been in charge of my care. He had set up an appointment on Monday with a surgeon over there. By this time, I felt a wide range of emotions and only slightly hopeful.

On Sunday evening the phone rang.

The voice on the other end radiated joy. We’d only met once or twice. He’d fitted me for an orthotic. “You’ve been on my mind,” he said. “I thought I would give you a call. What’s happening?”

Boy did he open a can of worms.

I shared with him my recent experience hardly stopping to take a breath. When I finished he laughed and said, “Let me get this straight. You’re depressed because you have an appointment with the best foot surgeon this side of the Mississippi River in the morning, right?”

Wait, what?

Before our conversation ended, I discovered that not only did this man know the surgeon; he’d worked with him in the operating room for years. He felt that the appointment was all God’s doing, promised to be in prayer, and offered additional words of hope before hanging up.

I sat on the edge of the bed in total awe.

Twice, in one week, God had used people who hardly knew me to deliver words of truth I desperately needed to hear. Our “church family” had long ago walked away. Most doctors didn’t even want to hear my name.

But they were not God.

God knew my name. Apparently He knew my phone number, too. He also knew which of His kids could be entrusted to obediently follow His nudging so that He could minister to me in a very personal way at one of the lowest points in my life.

As I allowed it all to sink in I could feel the vice-like grip that despair had on my heart break loose.

Although there was no way to predict the outcome of the next day’s appointment in that moment only one thing mattered--maybe two. God fiercely loved me and would walk with me all the way even carrying me if necessary.

This was cause for great joy.

This difficult time in my life resurfaced recently while reading Margaret Feinberg’s book Fight Back With Joy. Feinberg is no stranger to suffering and pain having recently fought an intense 18 month battle with breast cancer.

During the battle she made an amazing discovery. It is the very foundation of what surely must be her most vulnerably written book yet. “More than whimsy, joy is a weapon we use to fight life’s battles.”

You might nod your head yes emphatically if you’ve never had more than a “bad hair day.” But if you’ve gone through or are currently going through gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, bone-crushing hardship, your response might be different.

You might argue or ask questions like “what about when things seem to be unbearable OR unbelievable OR both? Can we experience joy then?"

We can, but it requires shattering some illusions about joy first. Margaret does an excellent job of that.

“The biggest myth about joy is that it only flourishes in good times, or that it is only a byproduct of positive experiences. We assume that when everyone has a clean bill of health, when the kids are well behaved, when the spouse is attentive, and when the bank balance has on extra zero, inner exuberance develops most easily.”  (pg. 62)

“Trials can become the gateway to greater joy, but these passages are fraught with obstacles. The roadside is dotted with land mines, inhabited by bandits, overgrown with briars. Telling someone to look for blessings in the midst of burden, however true, is hard to swallow and even more difficult to execute. But the spiritual growth we experience in trying times, though often more gradual and painful than we’d like, is occasion for celebration.

It’s not in the absence of difficulties but in their presence that God bestows a mighty blessing on us.”
(pg. 60)

The story I shared is just one example of a time when God has revealed Himself to me in a greater way while in a hard place. In those moments when the path grows increasingly painful, it seems that He fully has my attention and I become more aware of His presence in my life. The thorny places challenge me to trust Him in new ways and more clearly see Him working on my behalf. And often I am able to spot blessings that I would have missed otherwise.

“Life’s thorniest paths can lead to great joy.” Margaret Feinberg 

Oh how true this is. Life can be hard at times but it is possible to celebrate more, regret less, and stare down our greatest fears. Instead of cowering under adversity or curling up in defeat we can fight back with joy.

Maybe you don’t know where to start. Margaret’s book is a perfect place to begin. I can't adequately put into words all that I've gleaned from this book. I was dying to get my hands on it and trust me when I say it did not disappoint.

Fight Back With Joy will help you:
  • Expand your joy threshold by awakening to God’s fierce love for you
  • Escape fear and regret by applying biblical strategies to whatever crisis you’re facing
  • Overcome depression as you reignite your imagination for laughter and celebration
  •  Discover freedom from the past by learning how to turn mourning into joy
  • Rise above endless demands and become more winsome, cheerful, and thankful
No matter what your circumstances, you can practice defiant joy. When you do, you will embrace a life that’s richer and fuller than you’ve ever known before—a life radiant with joy.

I recently shared an interview with Margaret Feinberg along with a preview of the 6 Session DVD Bible Study which you'll want to check out. I also highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Fight Back With Joy at Amazon or Barnes and Noble today.


Denise Beidler Bennorth said...

Melinda, I am so glad there were those who followed through on promptings to come to your aid. What a blessing they were. When we are enduring trials, it is so very hard to be brave, to hang on for a glimmer of hope to shine for us. We've both come from some hard spots, although mine was not a physical pain, and was certainly not of a very long duration when compared to yours. I'm so glad we're both in a better place today. I often wonder how you are doing, and I think about our owls. A local birder tells me to listen for an owl in the park behind our house this spring. Hope springs eternal. ;-)

Kendra said...

What a powerful story! I love hearing about Amazing God Moments. The book sounds great, too (though I think you should share your story...) ;-)

Rebecca Waters said...

First, I love your writing. Now that that's out of the way, I love this message even more than I love your writing! And in sharing it you are demonstrating trust, obedience, and joy. Thank you.

My husband died suddenly in October. I heard a few days ago of a young woman who attended the funeral. She was not a believer. From what I was told, she said to the woman next to her, "I have been to funerals before, but never to one where the widow followed the casket with a smile on her face." The woman she said this to turned and said, "That's the face of hope on a woman of faith." May I be that woman forever. A woman of hope and faith and trust and obedience and love and joy. Thank you for these words of wisdom and for your courage in sharing them with such transparency.

Kendra said...

Oh - And I loved the devotion you shared. "This thing is from me." - Good thing to keep in mind!

Melinda Lancaster said...

If you get a chance check out the whole reading for Feb. 1st, Kendra. I've got it linked in the post. It was really something else. I later wrote a poem that I'll share some day. It took awhile to see how God was winning the battles but He clearly was!

Melinda Lancaster said...

Well, it appears we have something in common, Becky. I love your writing, too! This you already know.

The message is what matters here. Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of God in the battle. I'm so glad He went to such lengths to remind me that I am His. That makes me smile when everything else brings tears.

I'm still praying for you daily. My heart hurts with you and your family. Yet I find such inspiration in the example you continue to set both online and offline. You are a woman that I learn a great deal from. Thank you for your friendship.

Much love!

Melinda Lancaster said...

I was so glad that the book brought back this memory, Kendra. Sometimes we forget where God has done as new battles arise.

We all have a story to share. Perhaps I'll share mine, time will tell. Thanks for hat encouragement.

I know you are trying to cut back on books (ha!) but really you need to add this one to your list immediately. It can't even begin to express how good it is and the impact it has had and is still having on my life.

Melinda Lancaster said...

Thanks for coming by, Denise. I appreciate it.

I'm very thankful for the people who obeyed. I learned a valuable lesson from them. We never know what small thing we might do that can make a world of difference. Better to just obey and let God work the details out.

Every time I hear an owl, I think of you. About our conversation regarding change. They are very loud and active here still. That means you come to mind often. :-)

Maybe we'll catch up some day. I'm so thankful that you are in a better place. What a whirlwind of a year it has been for you. Such a blessing to watch it all unfold, my friend.

MargaretFeinberg said...

Melinda, thank you for sharing your story and for your raw vulnerability. Continuing to lift you up in pray as your fight back with joy.

MargaretFeinberg said...

Oh Rebecca, I am so sorry to hear of your loss -- but inspired by your joy during your circumstances. Thank you for sharing.

MargaretFeinberg said...

Love that reminder, Kendra!

jasonS said...

I didn't make it to read this yesterday, but I needed it today. I've not experienced the health issues like you have, but there are some soul-crushing things in our lives right now threatening to overwhelm us. Thank you for continuing to fight and continuing to encourage and find joy, Melinda. I know it's not easy, but blessings, healing, and restoration to you in Jesus' name.

Melinda Lancaster said...

You've inspired me to be more vulnerable. You have also helped me to find ways to fight back with joy that I never thought possible. I can't thank you enough!

Melinda Lancaster said...

Hi Jason. I'm just glad you came by. I don't normally personally invite people to read my posts. In fact I think that was the first time ever. Maybe God was in that.
Soul-crushing comes in many forms and is so very painful. The reason I am most glad that you commented is because I wasn't aware of your struggle. I am now. So, I will add you and your family to my prayer list. It's not a pleasant place to be in. I hurt for and with you.
The past 2 1/2 years we've been through something that makes my health issues seem like a walk in the park. Joy has eluded me and many times I have wondered if I'd survive such brokenness. There's my confession now as well.
When I heard the title of Margaret's book I did everything I could do to get my hands on an advanced copy because I felt so desperate. But I had to wait. God's timing is always perfect. It showed up on Christmas Eve.
We all need each other in this battle. I'm thankful we can link arms together and both fight back with joy.

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