Three days ago, as I pumped gas into my car in mid-morning, I cried, tears streaming down my cheeks and onto the pavement. Before I tell you why, I’ll back up and describe how the day began.
An Inside/Outside Contrast
Sunrise birthed a new day, spraying rays of warmth over the grass and bushes outside my bedroom window. Yet I awoke pessimistic, the pall of darkness in my spirit a stark contrast to the external landscape. Sometimes I can’t identify a reason for a plunge in my mood. But today, I’ve identified four factors that, if these did not precipitate my depression, at least exacerbated it.
Demoralizing insomnia. Despite prescription sleep meds, natural aids such as melatonin, a highly-rated, expensive Tempur-Pedic bed, a “no caffeine” policy after mid-afternoon, and recent use of a C-Pap machine due to sleep apnea, I seldom sleep well. That’s been the case for many years. Six hours of sleep calls for a celebration! Three or four hours a night occurs far too frequently, probably seven or eight times a month. Despite the inability to snooze peacefully overnight, I cannot nap during the day. You could offer me a million bucks to fall asleep in the afternoon and I could never claim your money. Perhaps I just can’t turn off my mind, no matter how lethargic my body feels.
Debilitating fatigue. A particular medical condition teams with insomnia to deplete my energy. Perhaps the primary symptom of extremely low testosterone is fatigue. No physician will prescribe meds for the low “T” due to the research-based link between the medicines and blood clots, and what happened to me in 2014.
The last time my doctor prescribed weekly injections to reverse low “T,” my energy gradually escalated over a year’s time. But as a consequence of the meds, I almost died from multiple, large blood clots ensconced in both lungs. My cardiologist said, “You are a lucky man. The death rate for your particular condition is over 50%.”
To combat weariness, I often exercise, take daily whopping doses of vitamins that boast of energy-enhancing potential, receive doctor-prescribed injections of Vitamin B-12, and eat lots of protein-rich foods. Yet when it comes to a physical zest for living, it’s all to no avail. Even when I get the rare seven hours of sleep, exhaustion dogs me by noon. I’d much rather endure physical pain than day-in-and-day-out fatigue.
Persistent physical pain. One current source of pain is temporary as I recover from shoulder surgery. Still, if I thoughtlessly lift my right arm, I literally scream for a second. The shoulder issue compounds my insomnia. I am a side sleeper and I cannot put weight on that side for a few weeks.
Far more significant is the daily biting pain caused by spinal degeneration. Numerous injections from pain specialists over the past decade haven’t helped. A surgeon told me recently that surgery won’t relieve my discomfort. To that dilemma, add the increased frequency of severe headaches, at their worst when the day starts. (Yes, I had an MRI of my head, but they didn’t find anything up there.)
If you haven’t already guessed it, I’m a wimp. I know special saints whose body hurts them far worse than mine troubles me, yet they are optimistic, positive persons who accept God’s dark providence with far more aplomb than I do. Yet as a depression-prone person whose fight of faith consists of constant battles with negative thinking, the physical pain is sometimes like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Perhaps I could handle bodily aches more gracefully if I weren’t already weighed down with despair.
On the morning I referenced at the start of this article, I woke up with a headache, a disturbance in my spine, unfathomable fatigue that made just getting a shower difficult, and if those weren’t enough challenges, my mood was darker than a cloudy night far away from the artificial lights of a densely-populated area.
COVID-19. For the first three months of this pandemic, I wasn’t conscious of any negative effect of social distancing on my mood. But over the past two weeks, that has changed. With South Carolina experiencing a dramatic escalation of new virus cases, I’m now feeling a deep sadness when I read the newspaper or watch TV news. The lead story in Wednesday’s Columbia paper was especially hard to take: 60 days of required wearing of a mask anywhere in the city limits of Columbia, except within one’s home (or else a $25 fine for each observed neglect of the new ordinance).
I now realize it will be a lot longer than I expected before I see some of my university colleagues and other friends. Or when I do come across them, I know I can’t give or receive a hug or a handshake, nor even see their faces due to their mask. I am not a sanguine temperament who is real demonstrative with friends, yet I emotionally ache over the lack of others’ physical presence and touch. No amount of smartphone “face time” or Zoom chats boosts my spirit as much as others’ literal presence. How discouraging to think that putting my arm around the shoulder of a good friend is currently anathema!
Ah, but those four maladies don’t have the last word. As the late radio newscaster Paul Harvey always said before giving a human interest angle, “You’ve heard the news. Now stay tuned for the rest of the story!”
The Rest of the Story
After stopping at the gas station, I drove home and nestled under the covers on my bed. A worm’s belly in a tire rut couldn’t get any lower than I felt. I know I wasn’t thinking logically, but at the time I assumed that my usefulness as a writer and teacher was over. I said to myself, “How in the world can I accomplish anything requiring intensive study if fatigue and pain keep hindering my capacity to concentrate? Recently, more often than not, my primary accomplishment has been taking up space!”
Yes, I admit it. I threw a colossal pity party. And to my amazement, God attended it!
I shifted from feeling sorry for myself to a heartfelt prayer for His help. I asked Him for a more optimistic outlook, to strengthen me so I could fulfill some of the day’s ministry deadlines. Honestly, I didn’t expect Him to intervene. But God, despite my feeble faith and self-centered focus, responded to my desperate cry. He knew I needed something to change my perspective on usefulness. (But God...Oh, how I love those words!) “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).
That’s when I experienced the convergence of three unexpected interventions that revealed God’s sensitivity to my plight, and demonstrated His perfect timing in meeting my need.
Within one hour, back-to-back-to back, I received three different messages that refreshed my spirit, instilled hope and remodeled my perspective about my ongoing usefulness to God. For the remainder of the day, these messages rejuvenated me physically and emotionally.
First, a pastor called and asked me to preach for him this coming Sunday. Several days before, he had said in an email that he might use me sometime this summer if he could get away for rest, but I got the impression that it would occur way down the road, if it happened at all. That opportunity to share God’s Word buttressed my sagging spirit. I told my wife, who knew how rough my morning had been, “Maybe God isn’t finished with me yet!” No matter how I’m feeling on the day I preach, God’s Spirit never fails to energize me when I open His Word. Due in large part to COVID-19, this was my first pulpit supply opportunity of 2020.
Second, I received an email from my university asking me to mentor two Doctor of Ministry Leadership students beginning in the Fall semester. This online degree assigns a mentor to every student. The mentor contacts them at least twice a month, occasionally meeting them face to face through “live” meetings or video conferencing. The purposes include encouragement, intercession, and as they get closer to their dissertation over a two-year period, guidance on their research project.
I knew I might be assigned a student for the fall semester, but in God’s timing, I received the notice for two students on the very day when I needed to know that I am needed.
Third, I received a long personal email. A friend who served at Columbia International University for 14 years wrote one of the most heart-massaging letters I’ve ever received. I had sent him a copy of the book I recently wrote on chronic pain, featuring the story of CIU’s president Mark Smith (Oh God, I’m Dying!). Nineteen years ago, this friend’s wife suddenly died. Years later, he had a stroke that still hinders his limb strength and left-side movement. Mark’s story and the related biblical perspectives on affliction buoyed his spirit. He said, “Your book definitely touched me on a deeper level than others I’ve read on the subject of suffering.” He also implied that the emotional and physical pain I’ve experienced prepared me to write Mark’s story, because I, too, have seen God’s sustaining grace through difficulty.
Imagine: he cited how God is using me not in spite of my afflictions, but because of them! His letter convinced me that all the intensive effort to write the book will bear fruit, and that my usefulness to God isn’t limited to what I’m strong enough to do in the future.
For the second time that day I wept, this time prompted by joy fueled by the Lord’s immediate attention to my prayer and His encouragement through other people. I concluded that a God who is willing to act for me with such perfect timing, right when I felt consumed by hopelessness, is Someone I can trust even on the inevitable days when I’m not cognizant of His presence or intervention. Indeed, as David put it in Psalm 31:14-15, “But as for me, I trust in Thee, O Lord. I say, ‘Thou art my God.’ My times are in Thy hand.”
Medically-speaking, the term “chronic” refers to an ongoing, long-lasting condition, one that began in the past and which is expected to continue. It is not an exaggeration to say that I’m a victim of chronic insomnia, chronic fatigue, chronic physical pain and chronic depression.
But don’t feel sorry for me. After all, I’m also overwhelmed by a condition exponentially stronger and more life-altering than those four nemeses put together.
It’s okay if you view me as weak, needy and fragile, so long as you see the Savior on whom I lean as strong and adequate.
Soli Deo gloria. Glory to God.