Embracing the Long Haul
By Melissa Morgan Kelley
long haul

Sudden disruption, followed by a long, uncertain walk toward stability. Does this sound familiar?

We’ve all heard of COVID long-haulers, those patients whose brain fog, fatigue, and breathing problems linger for months and sometimes indefinitely, upending their lives and eroding normalcy.

Kelly Marcilliat of Denver was an avid outdoorsman before his coronavirus diagnosis, but he now sometimes struggles with simple tasks such as navigating a four-way stop in his neighborhood.

“I sat there looking at the intersection,” Marcilliat told NBC News, “wondering ‘what do I do?’” Marcilliat certainly never expected cognitive difficulties to interrupt his ability to function.

I never expected to battle a mysterious illness for years on end. And we as a nation never expected to navigate the cascading crises we have experienced the past 18 months, disrupting our health, economy, government, and social systems.

These kinds of events disorient us and shock us out of our complacency. They humble us. They awaken us to the reality that has been there all along — we are not the masters of our fate. We do not have the power to assemble our lives like building-block towers, growing ever upward.

This is disconcerting, to be sure. We would not choose these challenges for ourselves. But there is blessing in being faced with our limits and finding that God specializes in making strength out of weakness.

What if we were to embrace the gifts of the long haul rather than racing for the exits? What might God have to teach us about Himself, ourselves, our neighbors? And how might He use these humbled versions of ourselves to help redeem, restore, and renew His world?

Making Peace with Our Limits

Many of us grew up being taught about God’s grace and our weakness. But it is hard to appreciate the former without experiencing the latter. Some of us become aware of our insufficiency gradually, others suddenly.

I was 24 when life flipped upside down. I went from thriving PR professional to bedridden patient in a matter of weeks, unable to work or maintain a social life. Once the acute phase of the illness passed, I was left with persistent fatigue and migrating pain that drastically reduced the ambitions of my days. Life became less about seizing the day and more about limping through it while trying to appear normal to those around me who were perplexed that doctors couldn’t fix me.

I now know I was suffering from Lyme disease, though it took 17 years and dozens of doctor visits to receive that diagnosis. I have seen much healing since those dark early days of my illness, while some symptoms remain.

The hardest part of the process was letting go of pride and self-sufficiency to acknowledge my weakness and dependency. To yield to the long-haul path God had for me, when I wanted only relief and strength. To learn to “live the given life, not the planned,” as novelist and poet Wendell Berry wrote.

Dependence is a bad word in the United States, according to Kelly Kapic, Covenant College professor of theological studies. “We are uncomfortable admitting that we are creatures.”

His upcoming book “You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News,” will be released by Brazos Press in January. In it, he explores the concept of finitude, the state of having limits or bounds. Kapic explains that, in theological language, only God is independent, making everything and everyone else by nature dependent creatures.

This partly explains why we can be arrogant while moving through our everyday lives. “We go to the grocery store and buy groceries, and say to ourselves, ‘I earned this, I did it,’” says Kapic. “We live in a myth that we are independent when empirically and theologically that’s a joke, but we buy into it.”

The balloon is punctured when we come to terms with how dependent we actually are, which often becomes clear through a crisis. With suffering comes greater clarity of our actual creaturely needs. This process of finally “seeing” can bring with it a sense of loss. When anger and grief surface, Kapic counsels, we bring them to God in lament, not holding back or trying to manage it ourselves. “Theologically, He’s the only one who can take it.”

Scripture is filled with lament, from Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), to the cries of the psalmist, “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:3).

We find comfort in the Psalms by seeing others talk to God about their pain, and it teaches us to do the same. Eugene Peterson, in “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,” writes, “The psalms are great poetry and have lasted not because they appeal to our fantasies and our wishes but because they are affirmed in the intensities of honest and hazardous living.”

long haul

Christian scholarship has been rediscovering lament in the past several decades. There is a tension between popular evangelicalism, which sometimes emphasizes triumphant Christian living and leaves little room for lament, and the Reformed tradition, says Kapic, which affirms God’s sovereignty but can be tempted toward fatalism, treating God like a mad scientist rather than a loving Father.

We must hold together multiple truths of Scripture when pondering these things, Kapic says. We must affirm that God brings about good and shapes us in the midst of hardship, but also hates evil. “Evil is not good. Joseph getting sold into slavery was not good, even though God worked in and through it.

But dependence on God and others isn’t evil. Kapic says it is part of the good way God made us. When we recognize our dependence, we begin to develop true humility. We begin to see God in every aspect of life. And we also find unexpected freedom.

“It’s quite liberating,” says Kapic. “I don’t have to know, do, and be everything.” If we are creatures, we don’t have all the answers, and we feel less need to prove ourselves. We begin to treat others with greater dignity and compassion. We begin to seek God anew.

Practicing Hope

Persevering through sustained hardship requires a different skillset than bouncing back from short struggles. The longer the trial, the more likely we are to become overwhelmed and lose our connection to God, according to K.J. Ramsey, therapist and author of “This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers.” Ramsey has ankylosing spondylitis, a painful autoimmune illness that has no cure.

As she learned to cope with chronic pain, she began studying neurobiology as well as theology. “Stress builds up in our systems over time, leaving our bodies in a state of allostatic overload,” said Ramsey. “It becomes more difficult biologically to access peace and joy.”

To combat this, she advocates that her clients and others living through long-term stress focus less on mustering up strength, and more on accepting the compassion of Jesus, who called the little children to Himself. “Christ is with us even when we don’t feel safe. There is grace for our stress.” In fact, our weakness can be an invitation to become more aware of who we really are — His infinitely loved children.

A variety of spiritual practices can help us grow in resilience during hard seasons, including preaching the Gospel to ourselves through Scripture. We find peace when we remember, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9) and “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).

Prayer is an essential lifeline, though it may be hard to pray in the ways we are used to. Ramsey uses a variety of prayers to stay connected to God when energy is low, including repetitive “breath prayers” — praying a bit of Scripture or a short prayer, such as “Lord, have mercy.” These prayers calm and regulate the nervous system.

What if we were to embrace the gifts of the long haul rather than racing for the exits? What might God have to teach us about Himself, ourselves, our neighbors? And how might He use these humbled versions of ourselves to help redeem, restore, and renew His world?

Ramsey also recommends regular walking to reconnect our bodies, minds, and spirits. Taking walks is especially helpful because it shows us physically what is true, she says. “We are not stuck; we are headed somewhere good; and we are still in a story of redemption.”

Kapic sees overcommitted, hurried living as a major obstacle to connecting with God during times of struggle, and advocates building margin into our lives so that we can cultivate hearing God’s voice.

One essential practice he recommends is silence, though it is typically uncomfortable at first. We are tempted to fill the void with the radio or music or podcasts — though this only underscores our need for quiet. Embracing a simpler lifestyle also creates space to be with God. The pandemic may serve as a natural reset on the level of busyness we previously accepted as normal. “Almost everyone has been spread too thin,” said Kapic. “Especially pastors.” We likely had too many relationships before, and not enough depth. Many of us confused busyness with spirituality.

The question now, as vaccines create more opportunities to go and do, is whether we should jump right back to the way things were before, or whether we should take a wise, honest assessment of our creaturely limits.

“It is good that God made us to have limits,” said Kapic. “Many people wrongly associate limits with sin. But God designed us to be in communion with Him and each other.”

Knowing our limits drives us toward life-giving practices such as prayer, studying Scripture, and investing in relationships — which work together to create a strong spiritual foundation. The stillness and simplicity we cultivate in the valley can serve us well for the rest of our lives.

Restored to Reach Out

Psychologist and author Diane Langberg describes the past year as a “tsunami of instability.” Even the most even-keeled have experienced disruption and uncertainty in destabilizing ways.

“The margin for managing stress has been eaten up because of the length and complication of the pandemic,” explains Langberg, an expert in trauma. “Everyone has experienced loss and felt vulnerable. And some are suffering in ways they have never suffered before.”

Langberg sees an opportunity for Christians to serve the suffering inside and outside of the church during this crisis. She explains that suffering has the power to silence people, to isolate them, and to make them feel powerless. In her role as a psychologist, she helps patients heal through restoring their voice (their ability to tell the truth to themselves and others), their relationships, and their sense of dignity and agency.

So much of this restoration work involves “being with” — being present and listening without negating or minimizing those in pain.

“It’s the way of our Lord,” said Langberg. “He came in the flesh and lived like us even though He didn’t have to do that. He is the God who crosses over.”

Sadly, many churches haven’t met this standard during the past year of instability. The temptation of any institution is to focus on self-preservation rather than meeting the needs of its constituents. “The church hasn’t historically majored in caring for people, and we were not prepared,” said Langberg, whose recent book “Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church” (Brazos Press, 2020) addresses this topic. “We were not ready on the frontlines for something like this.”

It is sobering to be faced with our shortcomings and to admit we are inadequate to the task. But that is exactly where churches must start, according to Langberg — with lament, humility, and repentance.

As an example, she notes the sharp increase in domestic violence during the course of the pandemic, as those in unsafe situations had fewer options to find safety. “There is no reason the church can’t come in and partner with shelters for the sake of those suffering,” said Langberg. “We can seek out their expertise in humility and learn to become more like our incarnational Lord.”

Jesus moved toward suffering in the Gospels, not away. And He is calling us to do the same. In this time of interrupted church services, ministries, and programs, might God be saying, “Stop, listen, what have I called you to”?

Our work is to look like Jesus, act like Him, and seek His face, Langberg says. To provide stability and hope so that others might experience the reassurance we have received. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Langberg stresses that we cannot effectively serve suffering people unless we meet them in their pain and show that we understand it. This is a powerful reason to persevere through our own long-haul struggles — to become the hands and feet of Christ to those coming after us.

Shaped Into Something Glorious

Suffering shakes us out of complacency. It reorders life in a way that can be hard to comprehend. And it often brings us to our knees. Just ask COVID long-hauler Kelly Marcilliat: “It’s extremely upsetting to not be able to tell yourself why something is happening to you. It gives you a feeling of complete lack of control, like you’re a leaf in the wind. No one wants to be like that.”

long haul

We know this is true. No one enjoys being reminded of his finiteness. No one naturally rejoices in her inadequacy. Only Jesus can find a way to take our lack and shape it into something glorious.

We look to His Word to understand how He works: “My power is made perfect in weakness. … For God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. … When I am weak then I am strong.”

In God’s upside-down economy, weakness is greater than strength. That is the mystery we hold in our hands. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

God beckons us to follow Him into the broken places of our lives, because that is where we see Him most clearly. And where we learn to see others.

In his book “Counterfeit Gods,” Tim Keller recounts Jacob’s lifelong search for blessing, which eventually leads him to the ultimate blessing — the life that is ours through Christ.

Keller writes: “As with Jacob, we usually discover this [blessing] only after a life of ‘looking for blessings in all the wrong places.’ It often takes an experience of crippling weakness for us to finally discover it. That is why so many of the most God-blessed people limp as they dance for joy.”

Perhaps this is what it looks like to embrace the gifts of the long haul. Limping as we dance for joy. And coaxing our fellow sufferers to dance alongside us — all for the glory of God.

Writer and editor Melissa Morgan Kelley continues to seek stories about long haul suffering for upcoming articles. Connect with her melissakelleywrites@gmail.com or on Twitter @melissakelleym.

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