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That moment when you forget you have chronic pain

 

Two of my friends are marrying each other in a few weeks, and they are planning a boat trip the day before the wedding. I was talking to one of them about it, asking how to RSVP, and he said he was not sure if I would be able to participate in the day trip due to my back, since the activities involve hiking.

My friend was very considerate and left the options open to what I thought I could handle, but he remembered what I forgot: that I have chronic pain that affects my daily life.

I forgot this because the boat trip sounded fun. I forgot this because I am a socially active person. I forgot this because I am relatively physically active as well. I forgot this because I was feeling strong during that conversation.

Chronic pain and illnesses are odd in that they do not always manifest themselves. I can go a week carrying my guitar on my back and walking to the library, dancing around the house, and lifting babies so they can “fly.” I will have discomfort and pain in this time, will potentially take some ibuprofen to ward off the stronger pain I feel coming, and will certainly require several massages to keep going in this time, but I will still feel relatively strong.

(My definition of feeling strong means being able to walk without having to think about it.)

But then I will have a breakdown. The pain will grow too strong, and an inexplicable weakness will overcome me. Tears will come, my limbs will go weak, and I will lie on a couch or the floor and have to talk to myself again and again and again in order to sit up or move my legs.

“Okay Skye, you’re okay. You’re okay. Move your leg. Move it. MOVE YOUR LEG. Come on, Skye, sit up. Oops, you’re not moving. Why aren’t you moving, Skye? Silly. There you go. Try again. Good, okay, let’s sit up now.”

Sometimes I will be strong in the morning and have a breakdown at night.

Sometimes I will have a totally strong day.

Sometimes I will have a totally bad day.

Breakdowns tend to happen once a week, on weekends, on Sundays. (The devil still cannot stop my worship to the one true God and my Healer.) However, I cannot predict when I will have a good or bad day.

I asked my soon-to-be-wed friend to pray for me to have strength during the entire wedding weekend. I told him I would plan to go on the boat trip but would cancel that day if need be. I absolutely love hiking, so I really want to go.

And who knows? Maybe the Lord will heal me by then. It has been seven years of pain so far. I think it is about time to enter a year of Jubilee and be rid of this pain. Don’t you?

 

 

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Some say refugees. I say friends.

I spend nearly every day of the week hanging out at the houses of refugees or having them over my place. On weekends many of us attend church together, all weekend long. On weekdays others of us eat lunch together; I always look forward to 12:30. Several of us practice music together, all of us converse together and call out the ways we appreciate each other, and some of my acquaintances who are refugees open up their houses till midnight to share ugali and rice and greens and fish.

Just this Sunday, I visited a Congolese pastor’s house as a stranger and left with an invitation to return anytime. As I left, he made sure to point out his apartment number and floor so I could find it next time. Thank you, Pastor David.

I recently realized that I talk about my friends who are refugees differently than I talk about my native-born American friends, particularly those who are white or monocultural. Sometimes this lends context, but it can also be problematic if lending to an othering effect.

“Reaching out to” or “serving” our refugee neighbors or any marginalized population in order to feel good about ourselves hinders us from fully engaging with the group being “served.” When we do this, we are looking through a lens of power versus powerless. Although we may be doing good deeds and growing in our understanding of particular refugee populations, subconsciously thinking in terms of power dynamics blocks our hearts from receiving love.

We native-born Americans are not the saviors. But we can be good friends.

Here’s an idea: let’s develop deeper friendships so refugees become fully human in our eyes, fully capable of giving while still fully needy, like us native-born American humans. Let’s open our hearts to receive love from the strangers and soon-to-be-friends we seek to welcome.

While the humanity of refugees is not a question, it is important to note that the human experiences of refugees have been shaped by horrors like war and statelessness. Refugees have experienced things most native-born Americans have not. Their experiences will vary by age and country and contingency. The histories of the countries they have fled and lived in have shaped them in significant ways. The color of their skin will also impact their life chances once in the United States. We must consider the systems in place that affect their daily lives.

Refugees in the United States have overcome a lot: less than one percent of refugees worldwide are resettled, and it is common to spend almost two decades in camps or foreign cities before coming to the US, if granted status here.

Yet once they receive this status and move yet again, they come to a land that often treats them poorly.

Several of my Congolese-American friends have told me that Africans do not believe them when they say the United States is not heaven. (I witnessed this over
-admiring attitude firsthand in DRC myself.) But the truth is that when they come to the United States, they can barely make rent. Their living conditions are not necessarily significantly different. They start at the bottom of the workforce. Academic degrees do not always carry over to the American system. In short, life is still quite difficult.

Take pause today to consider these injustices. Do a little research. Sleep on what you discover. Wake up woke.

Now take pause to consider the ways refugees give to your community and the United States, the ways you have seen them serve. Thank them for their contributions. Be creative about it.

Today I stand with countless global citizens to celebrate world refugee day. It has been a truly splendid day full of energy and smiles and even a bit of dancing (see the InTandem – a Flashmob of Empathy video below from Denver’s World Refugee Day rally.) I particularly think of the ways my friends are bettering my life through their hospitality and friendship and food. The main ingredients I have noted are time, love, and ugali, given in generous portions. I am grateful for my friends who are refugees and am incredibly glad to be a part of their lives as they are in mine.

Les Worshipers repetition, UJN PC: KSB

Masauti ya nyumbani (Sounds of home)

Every night I fell asleep to the sounds of my neighbors partying, the dance music audible through the thin walls and crimson drapes. Every morning a rooster awoke before the sun and squawked along with my morning alarm. I usually crashed at 20:30 and rose at 5:45 to prepare for the long work day at Un Jour Nouveau, a Goma-based Congolese organization “equipping men, women, and children to transform the culture of Congo through Christ-centered education, reconciliation, and leadership.”

“Siku muzuri,” I’d greet the smiling guards, Carlos and Jonathan, before crossing the road to Mama Esther’s house for breakfast. The sun gleamed off Lake Kivu and illuminated the vibrant foliage and bright flowers in her yard, where I waited for my driver, Fabrice, to take me further into our smoky city of one million. We’d drive over gray-brown rutted dirt roads, past blue Vodacom signs and red Airtel stands, around the turnabout with its statue and construction and occasional military presence, by the pastry store and banana booths to the Center. Fabrice would play “Alpha Omega” by Gael until we arrived.

Then English classes and staff prayer and lunch and piano lessons and worship practice ensued, filling my day with countless people and immense joy. Praises from Les Worshipers, the church choir, echoed off the rooftop and across the street (see video below). It seemed someone was always playing a keyboard or picking on the guitar, and the afternoons were bright with the sound of children’s voices. (I was often one of the people playing guitar and singing, whether in English class or choir repetition.) The sun set by 18:00, I went home for dinner with the family, chatted with my crazy wise and hilarious housemates and began the cycle again.

Goma is a home to me. Charles’ questions and chuckle, Denis’ melodic voice singing “Nakwimbea leo nafuraha” in church, Happy Fanny yelling my name across the yard, Mama Julienne’s Swahili at lunch hour, Jenni’s hearty laugh, Dieum playing “Napesi” on keys — these are some of the sounds of home. I don’t know if I’ll return to UJN and all the particular voices and people I love so dearly, but I do plan to return to Congo. And I cannot wait.

 

Montana. PC: KSB

“My grace is sufficient”: praising God in the face of chronic back pain

“You’re too young to be in pain like this,” they tell me. I shrug and grin sadly. It doesn’t change that I have had chronic back and neck pain for the past six or seven years. I’m only 21.

In high school I went to the chiropractor about once a year for back pain. I thought this was normal, and maybe it was. Doctor Metzger was great, and I appreciated the adjustments he gave when my bones needed it. I also appreciated his honesty, jovial personality, and belief in natural medicine. But in college the pain intensified.

I remember lying in bed in Denver the summer after my freshman year, crying and praying that I could move my body in order to get up. My cousin Jonathan prayed for me from two time zones away, a bad chiropractor stole my money, and I wasn’t well enough to hike in the Rockies. Then sophomore year began.

I composed a mental list of friends who could massage well so I wouldn’t overburden one person when I desperately needed some relief. These student masseuses have been incredibly kind over the years, and I am deeply thankful to these friends. Yet even the most thorough massages would not be effective for long. At first they helped for a couple weeks, then a day or so, then only a few hours. Now they don’t do much at all except to provide very temporary relief and comforting physical touch.

The pain makes college more difficult since I spend all my energy controlling it, which hinders my learning in class and tires me out when it comes time to do homework. Praise the Lord that I have made it this far, with only a few months left until graduation! Although my back and neck issues have caused me to struggle, I am still on track to graduate. I know others whose diseases have set them behind or caused them to drop out of school.

About a year ago, I was in constant pain, and approximately once a week I would break down and not be able to walk, since the pain translated into a weakness in my extremities. I remember collapsing and sobbing in a pile of leaves after church one Sunday, unable to walk the quarter mile from church to the main campus building. Dry leaves served as my tissues, and after the tears had released enough tension in my back, I managed to walk home with multiple rest stops. Typically the pain would build back up over the course of a week until my next breakdown. The pain was usually worst on Sundays, which I understood as a spiritual attack.

This pain hindered not only my own body but also my work in Goma, DRC, this past summer. When I was too weak to teach English one day, I lay crying on a couch in the director’s office and then held my friend Clarice’s hand. My driver took me across Goma to search for medicine so I could prevent more breakdowns and work again.

The pain came to a climax in the first week of my senior year this past fall when I broke down four times in one week. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish college although I’d worked so hard to get to this point and God had shown himself so faithful to bring me there. I began going to doctors and having my friends carry my bags and support me physically as I walked.

I have learned to ask for help when I need it, for I cannot do everything on my own. I am weak on my own. But I am not alone, not with God’s Spirit in me and His people around me.

I’ve been to chiropractors in recent years, but they can’t offer an explanation and don’t do much to help my larger problem. X-rays say my bones are fine. Finally I went to an alternative doctor who confirmed that my problems aren’t structural but rather a conglomeration of internal issues that have built up over years and manifested especially in my shoulder and neck — viruses I’ve had since birth or gotten from a vaccine, strep in my shoulder, and so on. No wonder massages and chiropractic adjustments couldn’t fix me.

This doctor’s remedies have helped a great deal, allowing me to go even weeks without thinking about the pain, although my back would still be uncomfortable at times. What a gift! But a little after Christmas break, the pain started to worsen again. Two weeks ago, I had to stop six times on the four block walk from my house to the place where we had worship practice because I wasn’t strong enough to carry my guitar. I just kept praying, “Yesu, Yesu, Yesu,” taking strength in the name of Jesus.

When I arrived at worship practice, the pianist was playing “Because of Who You Are.” I asked her to keep playing piano, just keep playing, and I laid on the ground and cried. That afternoon I decided to praise God regardless of my pain. I told Him and my team that even if I suffer with this pain for the rest of my life, I will give Him glory and praise.

Since then, I have taken new joy in my suffering. Instead of neglecting God in my trials, I will turn to Him. He has shown himself to be mindful and good and gracious and faithful, and my life would be desolate without the hope Jesus gives. The Bible promises that God will make everything new, and I long for that restoration. Meanwhile, God has given me incredible friends to support me emotionally and help me in my physical need, people who pray for me, and people who can relate to me and guide me along. I am blessed.

I believe Jesus heals, and I’ve witnessed Him do it multiple times in multiple places from Goma to Wheaton. I don’t understand why he heals some people and not others or why some people are healed on the spot and others wait for years. In all this, I do know that His love is constant and faithful and sweet. And I will praise Him for all my days on this broken earth and in heaven where all things are made whole.

 

Leading worship at a multicultural worship night. PC: Wheaton College Student Activities Office

Live to worship

7:23 PM – I fiddled on the violin as Henry set up the sound system and turned on the keys. The song began as a rehearsal for Sunday’s worship, but it morphed into something else. After ten minutes, it was a new song, and I removed my shoes.

Every third quarter note, the drum set emitted a crescendo like cymbals. The resonance of Henry’s keyboard traveled across the empty stage to make it ring and fill the room with the sound of ghost musicians. I harmonized in the microphone as Henry led the worship song. My voice filled the space with improvised lyrics, prayers to our Father in Heaven.

Eventually we brought the song back to the original lyrics, closing the song with a prayer paralleling the introduction. “I love the Lord for He heard my cry and He delivered me from my fear/ and He lifted me up higher and higher… I believe You move at the sound of my voice/ You heard my cry and You answered me… I just wanna thank You/ I just wanna praise You/ I just wanna sing a song of love and have Your heart be moved by mine/ O God, be moved by mine.”

The power of prayer, revealed by the Holy Spirit through human voices over electronic keys and soft percussion. The power of prayer, captured in lyrics written by covered and covered by Jaye Thomas, read in the combined quote above. The power of prayer, like a psalm, a form of writing that is itself a musical call to God.

7:48 PM – I slipped my bare feet into my shoes, he shut off the sound system, and we went home.


Worshipping with my friend Henry this Christmas break made me realize how much I miss my worship team in Illinois. It has only been a few weeks since we practiced, only a few weeks since we conquered finals and rode into Christmas break, but those weekly times of worship are precious to me. Every Monday we meet to pray, fellowship, and worship God through music. We practice our pronunciation and have fun on the glockenspiel as we prepare to lead our multilingual community in worship.

This year I prayed for a team of worshippers, people who would want to spend time with the Holy Spirit even if we did not have an event to prepare for that particular week. God answered my prayer and has blessed us all through our habitual times of fellowship with each other and with Him.

This January I have the honor of helping to lead worship for Snow Camp, a winter retreat. My team plans on attending the weekend event as well, although we will not lead the worship together. A colleague is organizing the time, but I have the privilege of contributing to the set and leading vocals. Preparing for this throughout the month of December has thrilled me because I anticipate the Holy Spirit’s presence and power at the retreat and desire to know the Spirit more even now.

One of my main purposes in life is to worship God through music and prayer. Worshipping Him renews the life in me since I am spending time communing with the one who gave me new life: Jesus Christ. What joy!

David and Asaph knew this joy when they wrote the Psalms. They knew God’s heart and His faithfulness as they sang songs of worship and praise, songs that begged for Him to intervene and rescue them, songs that always ended in some form of reflection on who God is. Songs of sorrow and songs of dancing. Prayers, put to music.

Israel Houghton sings it accurately: “To worship You I live / I live to worship You.” This is my purpose: to glorify God. This is the purpose of any Christian, in fact, through whatever gifts and privileges He has granted you. May the new year only increase your desire to know God’s heart and worship Him, the Almighty One.

Me and my family when they dropped me off in Wheaton for my freshman year of college.

This is my last…

Many college seniors count their “lasts” – the last chicken tender night at the cafeteria, the last general education classes they put off for three years, the last spring break road trip with the roomies, the long-awaited last set of finals. I do not know what collegiate lasts will most strike me, but I am preparing myself for some larger lasts.

I hope to return the Democratic Republic of Congo soon after I graduate. I hope to live there permanently or until God moves me elsewhere. I recognize that I do not know God’s timeline for my return, but should these plans follow my ideal timeline, this year could also be my last living in the United States.

Leaving the States does not mean I will never visit; my sister will graduate high school next year, and at some point my best friend will be married. These people are incredibly dear to me, and if at all possible, I would love to attend these memorials in their lives. Hopefully I will also be able to take a vacation every several years to see those I love in the U.S.

But nothing is certain.

This Thanksgiving could be my last with my extended family, the paternal relatives I grew up with for the first 17 years of my life. My transition to college and my immediate family’s move across the country has prepared me for the long-term separation, but the ache of being away from my cousins on holidays has not grown much easier over the past few years. I will savor this last, precious Thanksgiving with my family.

This year could hold my last Christmas with my immediate family and maternal relatives as well. This last would have happened anyway when I begin a family for myself, but now I am realizing our last Christmas together could potentially be now, this year, in 2016. Bing Crosby put it well when he crooned, “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.”

A mouse-bear I made of snow after the February 2013 blizzard in Connecticut. PC: jeanni Bennett

A mouse-bear I made of snow after the February 2013 blizzard in Connecticut. PC: jeanni Bennett

It could also my last time to see beautiful, beautiful snow for a long time. Some New Englanders yearn to move away from the cold, but I always loved my home state of Connecticut with all its seasons and its snowy winters. In Illinois we get a small amount of snow as well, and it transforms the landscape. It makes everything new. I will miss this.

As a senior in college, I hope to soak up most of the lasts. Some can hurry up and pass – I am quite excited to be finished with the academic aspect of school, honestly – but I do want to make the most of my time on Mu Kappa Cabinet and with my worship team. I want to make the most of my time with friends and family when I see them on holiday breaks in a few months. I want to see my best friend again and finally meet the man who stole her heart.

I value relationships. For this reason, I will treasure my time with my housemates and friends in Illinois as well as any time I have with my family and friends elsewhere in the States. Yet for this same reason, I am also itching to return to DRC. As I prepare for many joyous firsts in my life after college, I thank God for the blessed lasts.

 

How to be a peacemaker in a war-torn world, Part 1

To be a peacemaker is to fight.

When multiple races, tribes or countries have conflict or war with each other, peace may seem unattainable. (Re)conciliation requires faithful, patient effort and continual hope. After all, people and groups disagree with each other and are often engrained in their opinions. One side has hurt the other in a significant way that needs to be repented from before any true change can be made. In return, that hurt side may be retaliating to this injustice. Even when two parties come to the table to reconcile, it’s not easy to rebuild trust.

The battle for peace is hard-won, but it’s worth the effort. It’s worth the energy. It’s worth the pain.

Here are some tips to bring two or more parties together for peace:

Listen.

Don’t assume. Speak respectfully and demonstrate humility. Even if you disagree (and have history and statistics to prove why), when you show you care about one party’s opinion, they are more likely to engage in conversation with you. So, be respectful as you listen to another human or mediate between two parties. Given some time, this can lead to positive social change.

Be faithful.

Change probably won’t be immediate, and you may be persecuted for your efforts – even by those you thought you agreed with, since you are trying to bring them into harmony with an opposing group that they think could harm them! Recognize the fear there and don’t take it personally; keep fighting.

The fight for peace may be mundane at times. It may seem hopeless. It may exhaust you, but remember why you are fighting. Look to the peace heroes who have fought the battle before you. Their examples offer great wisdom and inspiration as you press onward.

Keep hope!

We are not fighting flesh and blood but are battling spiritual powers. These spiritual powers work through the corrupt societal structures we see, and we need to remember that prayer is effective. Yes, stand with the oppressed; in fact, God commands this. Yes, work in tangible ways for harmony and unity, shalom and reconciliation. But also pray.

Without God’s strength and his promise to make all things new, we have no hope or power to bring peace.

Gain encouragement by look at the small examples of success. Record and retell the inspiring testimonies demonstrating the fruit of your labor. Keep hope, my friends; keep hope.

 

As you labor for (re)conciliation, ask yourself why you are fighting for peace. How much are you willing to sacrifice for this battle?

It’s not easily won, but it’s worth the fight.