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.

 

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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.

 

Three things TCKs taught me not to take for granted

If you know international students or have friends who are third culture kids (TCKs), you know you can’t take anything for granted—not the terms or phrases you use, not your understanding of geographical knowledge and especially not your time spent together.

Language.

Catchphrases are cultural, so you may have to ask questions about what an offhand comment means. Recently a friend I’ve known for a couple years asked, “Do you want more to eat?” I replied something along the lines of, “It’s okay.” She nodded silently and then asked a moment later, “Does that mean you don’t want more?” Oops! That is what I meant, but I can see how my language could be confusing (a) perhaps in general and (b) especially to someone whose second language is English.

Even after years of knowing someone, language differences can interfere with communication. However, this causes you to engage constantly in order to deepen your relationships. You also grow accustomed to hearing or using terms from different languages, expanding your vocabulary and thus your world.

Geographical knowledge.

Next, your international or TCK friends might not know where Montana is, but that’s only because they grew up overseas and probably know where a lot more countries are than you do! And let’s reverse the scenario for a moment: you probably don’t know the names or locations for the provinces in China, Mexican states or other geographical subdivisions in all your international/TCK friends’ countries! I’ll admit I do not. Living in the United States, I’ve never had to know.

Of course, a few TCKS may know more American geography than born-and-raised Americans because of the educational curriculum they’ve used overseas or the places they’ve visited when they’ve come to the States. It’s excusable for international students and TCKs not to know where the state of Connecticut is since they might not have spent much if any time in the States, but when they do-bravo! I’ve met countless American college students who do not know. (In case you’re one of those people, Connecticut is in New England. It’s east of New York and above Long Island Sound, south of Massachusetts and next to Rhode Island. It’s in the northeast United States.)

Time together.

This overarches the daily interactions and conversations with international students and TCKS. Although they may hate goodbyes, third culture kids are used to having people come in and out of their lives, and they’ve been those transient people for others. They know how to value time with their friends.

As college students we have about four years we can expect to be together. After that, who knows where we’ll move on this small, round planet? Nevertheless, as TCKs and Disney fans know, we live in a small world. With international connections and often a penchant for travel, you never know when you may meet again! Years down the road when you bump into your friends in Colorado or Kenya, treasure those moments—as well as the ones you’re living now. We honestly can’t take time for granted.

 

My international and TCK friends have blessed me in countless ways, not the least of which is vicariously showing me more of God’s world. They’ve opened my eyes to see things from different cultural perspectives and have taught me how to count time as a blessing.

What have your international or TCK friends taught you?

Lessons from physics: how to glorify God in the new year

When I entered college, I already knew I wanted to take a couple specific courses: journalism, for one, and physics.

“What?! Physics? Why would you take that? It’s crazy hard!” Yes, so I’ve been told. But at my liberal arts college, we’re required to take one lab science and one non-lab science. I had a bad experience with biology in high school, and I had found chemistry boring, but I’d loved physics. Why not take it in college?

My mom discouraged me from taking the course, thinking my GPA would plummet. Admittedly, I became a bit anxious by the way everyone talked about the subject. Nonetheless, physics was still on my mind sophomore year. Should I chance taking the class? Would I regret it forever if I passed up this challenge?

That year a chapel speaker spoke on taking challenges, and it was settled. I resolved anew to take the physics. I signed up for the class for my junior year fall—this past semester.

Since I did not complete AP calculus, I took “baby physics,” the algebra based class. Still, I hadn’t taken physics for four years and math for three and a half. On top of that, I did not own the pricey textbook. Moreover, the professor, being a theoretical physicist, did not teach very clearly or understandably.

On the bright side, I had the privilege of sitting next to my friend MJ every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, celebrating when we actually understood something and questioning if that could possibly be true. I also loved walking from chapel to class with my dear friend Ann each day as well, sharing in her life through those walks. Since she studies engineering, she was able to encourage me that I would pass and be okay.

I did well in labs, thanks to my lab partners who understood the subject. My prof was kind and gave us homemade brownies (which he made sure we knew were his creation, not his wife’s) after a bad test. God also provided me with tutors to help with homework, as I was consistently and utterly lost without their help.

But I hated physics. (Sorry, physics major friends.) Unfortunately, I did not understand the subject. The day we spent on music was sweet, and I enjoyed the aforementioned relationships, but I couldn’t wait for the class to finish. All I needed was a D to pass.

For those who knew me in high school, perhaps you think I have stooped too low. But college is not high school, and my college is known for its “rigorous academics” in particular. Since coming to Wheaton, I’ve developed certain skills and lost others. Case in point, I am no longer smart in physics, and I have to be okay with that. I can write and influence people, and since that’s what I want to do (as opposed to being a hard scientist), I was fine scoring low. I just needed to pass so I could graduate on time.

I honestly was unsure if I could achieve this goal. Without any curves or special grading, my test average hovered in the low 50s. I needed a 60 to pass.

I fearfully avoided looking at my grades over break, but last night I checked them. Praise be to God, I somehow passed physics with a C-! Not a D, not even a D+, but a solid C-!

The point of this physics narrative is not actually about science—it’s about taking challenges. Had I not taken physics, I would have regretted it my whole life. I was miserable in this class this semester, but I passed and thus succeeded. In my lowest moments, I clung to the hope that passing would make it worth it, and it has. I can say that I faced and overcame a challenge, and I can take no glory for myself!

All the glory goes to God, who provided me with friends to support and encourage me, a kind professor, tutors for homework help, sustenance and stamina to make it through December, and finally, a passing grade.

Friends, when faced with a daunting challenge this next year, take it. When everyone seems to think you’re crazy and that you’ll fail, persevere. And above all, always lean on God and give him all the glory! We can do nothing without him.

Happy New Year.