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Overwhelmed with Gratitude

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Piglet

To an outside observer, I suppose looking at the last twenty or so years of my life could be perceived as gazing at a depressing resume of suffering.  For my wife Margaret battled an autoimmune disease called sarcoidosis for most of our marriage, culminating in her death in July of 2017.

Yet I find myself today, the day before what would have been our twenty-ninth wedding anniversary, overflowing with gratitude.  How can this be?  Well, I would summarize my reality in four gifts that I have received.  Here they are:

  • The gift of God’s comfort: Psalm 34:18 has been my experience: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” How grateful I am for those times of weeping and heartache, when I felt the balm of His comfort.  These personal experiences with my loving God are hard to put into words, but they have been so precious to me.
  • The gift of friends: I have been so richly blessed by a multitude of diverse and caring friends.  My family, those at my church, those at my work, some local, some across the country.  All of them have one thing in common:  they care about me.  And that, is a gift I cherish.  Clarence’s departing words to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life resonate with me here: “Remember George: no man is a failure who has friends.”
  • The gift of purpose: Looking back at all those years of health-related challenges, I know that every iota of it had a purpose. The Lord never wastes a moment of our pain, for He uses it to mold us into the people He wants us to be.  Romans 8:28-29 makes this clear: “For we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
  • The gift of hope: This gift has two aspects. First, I don’t grieve Margaret’s death without hope, for she trusted in Jesus and Jesus alone to save her, and thus she is, right now, very much alive in heaven with the Savior.  She is “away from the body but at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).  Second, for my remaining years on this planet, I have this promise of God: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).  Sure, I will still have times of suffering and pain, but God will be with me.  And that assurance is a gift I will cling to for the rest of my life.

Next month I will share another excerpt from my new book.  How thankful I am for all the gifts the Lord has given me!

The Start of our Journey

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This is the introduction of my book, Sick and Significant: The Indispensable Life of the Chronically Ill. 

On August 19th, 1989, Margaret Ann Aldrich and Michael Joseph Robble (that’s me) were married in the small town of Cortland, NY.  As I look back on that special day, two somewhat comical moments quickly come to mind.  One is what Margaret’s dad, Pete Aldrich, the quick-witted retired dairy farmer, told her as they began to walk down the aisle.  As she took hold of his arm, he said, “I better not walk too fast, cause they’ll think I’m in a hurry to get rid of ya.”

The second involves THE SONG.  You see, for this wondrous event I wrote Margaret a song.  Called I Love You Margaret, I had rehearsed it meticulously, wanting it to be of stellar quality for my new bride.  Yet what I failed to take into account was that I had a major problem with stage fright.  Singing it to her, one-on-one, wouldn’t have been a problem. . .  but there were people at our wedding.  Hundreds of people.  And as the ceremony began, the fear of performing that ballad, with all those eyes burrowing through me, was paralyzing.

So, as Margaret approached the front of the auditorium, looking angelically beautiful while gently holding Pete’s arm, she lovingly gazed into my eyes and saw. . . fear.  No, more like terror.  If only I could have suppressed THE SONG for those precious moments as she gently walked toward me.  I was being conquered by the potential of my musical failure, to be witnessed by the multitudes.  Would my voice crack on the high notes?  Would I have to swallow at the most inopportune of times?

Thankfully, see didn’t do an “about face” and leave me at the altar.  It all worked out.  The ceremony proceeded as planned, I got through the three minutes of torment in my musical Twilight Zone, (she and those in attendance actually enjoyed the song) and we were joyously married.

Little did I know that day that the second verse and chorus of my song would have prophetic-like implications.  Here are the words:

As the years go by we’ll walk together

Ever by each other’s side.

And if trouble should come upon us

As one in Jesus we’ll abide.

I love you, Margaret

I am and always will be your friend.

I love you, Margaret

My love for you will never end.

Trouble, in the form of medical hardship, came upon us quickly.  Our lives were thrust on a course we never anticipated.  If you are reading this, chances are you find yourself today in a similar situation.   Have most of the dreams you once had for you or your family been extinguished?  Are you straining to see God’s love for you in all of your difficulties?  Do you feel like, because of your circumstances, the Lord has put you on the shelf of irrelevance?

I pray our story, really the Lord’s story as weaved in us, will encourage you.  For as you shall see, our dreams may have been crushed, but Jesus’ love and purpose for us wasn’t.  As I look back, I am amazed at all the Lord did, and is still doing, because of what he determined was normal for us.  Please read on, and see, whatever your health problems may be, that you truly are Sick and Significant.

Medically Bruised but not Forgotten

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This is an excerpt from chapter two of my book, Sick and Significant.

“Biblically, the desire of God’s heart is that folks who can be described as bruised reeds and faintly burning wicks (the imagery used in Isaiah 42:1-3) are to be remembered and lovingly cared for.  Even though they may often be absent from church functions, they should not be falling off the radar screen of their congregation’s care. Sick and afflicted Christians are a part of our family, and, “beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

You see, a battered blade of grass still reflects the majesty of its creative design.  It still drinks and benefits from a plentiful water supply.  It still has hope of being fully restored through the benefit of proper care and an intake of life-giving nutrition.  This is why people who are bruised reeds are objects of the Lord’s infinite compassion.  They still have life.  They still have a role to fulfill in God’s sovereign plan.  So, our God of mercy is passionate about not allowing the weight of their troubles to break them.  And this is why, as fellow members of the body of Christ, it is imperative we help bear their burdens.

Note as well that faintly burning wicks still provide a measure of light.  They are not blackened, useless pieces of cord.  Sure, they may not be able to fully illuminate a large room, but they can be a glow of hope-giving inspiration to those in the dark corners of life. Given the right conditions, a single candle can be seen from hundreds of feet away. Suffering ones that flicker in the sea of their turmoil are very precious to Jesus—and can still be instruments of the Lord’s life and comfort.  So, our Savior will not snuff them out.   Weak and smoky as they may be, their lives still matter, and therefore we, the people of God, must do all we can to not allow their light to be quenched.”

May we be freshly motivated this month to pour out God’s love on those we know who are suffering.

 

 

At Home in Heaven

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On July 26th, 2017, my precious wife Margaret passed away at the age of 63.  She had heroically battled the autoimmune disease sarcoidosis for almost thirty years, and despite decades of pain and disability, demonstrated a contagious joy throughout her lifetime.

How was this joy possible, even when she received the news this past April that she had a terminal heart condition?  The answer to that question is simple, yet eternally profound: she knew the love of Jesus in this life, and the promise of Jesus for eternal life. You see for her, hope wasn’t to be found in the circumstances of this earth.  Hope was found in looking beyond what she could see, to the One who died for our sins on a bloody cross, and rose three days later triumphantly demonstrating to the world that He was in fact God the Son.  She knew the Lord’s love as expressed in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

So as the day of her death approached, her anticipation of seeing her Savior grew.  As her physical strength deteriorated, she knew she “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), and that to “be with Christ. . . that is far better” (Philippians 1:23).

My great comfort is that she is now in the very presence of God, free from pain, immersed in the splendor and glory of heaven.  Do you have this assurance, as you think about the moment your life ends?  If not, I would plead with you (and Margaret would as well) to come to Jesus.  Put your total trust in Him and Him alone to forgive you of your sins and to give you the gift of eternal life with him.  Prayerfully consider these words of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.  Do you believe this?”

May the amazing love of God become more and more real to you in the days ahead.

A Life of Purpose with Chronic Illness (Part 3)

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This is my third blog post on living a life of purpose with a chronic illness.  Once again this month I am taking an excerpt from my new book, Weak and Indispensable, A Life of Purpose for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Margaret woke me around midnight, and anxiously told me her engagement ring was missing.  As I struggled to reenter the land of consciousness, I did my best to encourage her, and assured her that most likely it would show up somewhere on the floor in the morning.  I figured the gold band with three diamonds wouldn’t be hard to locate in the limited areas of our home she navigates with her walker.  She was concerned because she had absolutely no idea when it had fallen off her finger—the persistent numbness she has in her hands and feet (it’s called neuropathy), had left her clueless to where and when this had occurred.

Though I was confident the ring would show up, the next morning, as a precaution, I retrieved two bags of garbage that I had taken out the night before.  In the unlikely scenario that her ring had somehow tumbled into the kitchen or bathroom trash, I didn’t want to run the risk of being tormented by the possibility, if her ring didn’t surface, that I had allowed it to become buried treasure in a Colorado landfill.

Over the next few days our all-out search proved fruitless, and as it became clear the ring wasn’t in the house, the two bags of rescued garbage began to beckon my name.  So. on a Saturday morning, equipped with plastic gloves and a resolve to sift through an assortment of grossness, I meticulously initiated my refuse adventure.  Bag #1, a slimy blend of decaying kitchen goodies, had everything from egg shells to salmon skin—but no ring.  Bag #2, a plethora of bathroom trash, also was ring-less. . .  that is, until I got to the very bottom of the bag.  And then there it was, a bit soiled from the used tissues cloaking it. . . but never looking so beautiful and precious.

God’s truth as revealed in the Bible would encourage Christians (especially we healthy ones) to freshly realize the chronically ill and their caregivers are like Margaret’s missing ring.  They may be surrounded by non-appealing circumstances: the difficult to look at “slime” of medical hardship and painful disabilities—but their symptomatic surroundings don’t define who they are—priceless gems designed by God to bring beauty and life-giving radiance to their churches and communities.

The Lord’s heart is clear on this matter.  Isaiah 42:1-3 informs us, regarding the coming Messiah, that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”  What does this mean?  That the Savior is full of tender compassion for suffering people.  He will not oppress his children who are afflicted and bring them to the breaking point.  On the contrary, he longs to apply his balm of comfort, and provide for them the strength they need to endure.  And amazingly, he also wants to show them the meaningful purpose they can fulfill in their daily lives.

Next month I will discuss practically what that significant, God-ordained role looks like for the chronic sufferer. If you are feeling like the purpose for your life is clouded today, I would encourage you to freshly come to Jesus.  Read the Gospel of John, and see Christ’s great love for you.  May God show you how to find hope and purpose in the days ahead.

A Life of Purpose with Chronic Illness (Part 2)

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My 1977 Bowling Team Photo–In case you are wondering, I am second from the left.

This is the second of my series of blog posts on the topic of purpose.  Today I am again drawing from my work on my new book, Weak and Indispensable, A Life of Purpose for the Chronically Ill and Their Families, which I hope to complete in the fall of 2017.

I have been a high school math teacher for the past thirty years.  It is a career that I am very grateful for, and hope to continue for another five to ten years.  Due to my life-long interest in math, on those rare occasions when I am asked about the athletic accomplishments of my youth, most folks assume I was either on the chess team or a member of my school’s math club.  Their assumptions are pretty close.  I have one varsity sports letter to call my own—in the grand game of bowling.  As a high school senior, I shocked everyone (including myself) by finishing seventh in the nine game tryouts.  As a result I became seventh man on a seven man team.

Since bowling is a sport where only five players can participate at a time, player number seven is just a smartly dressed team representative among the crowd.  As my varsity season began, it became very clear very quickly that I wasn’t ever going to be the “go-to” guy who had to strike to secure our team’s victory.   No, usually during the matches my biggest decision was whether or not to go grab a cola before the third game began.  When the season concluded, I think I may have bowled a total of seven games in competition.  That’s seven out of over a hundred.  But, I did get a shirt.  I did go on a bunch of bus rides with the team.  I did have a great seat watching my teammates compete.

At the end of season banquet I got my varsity letter, but whatever pride I felt at that moment was subdued by the reality of my competitive insignificance.  They didn’t need me to win any matches. No one recalled a clutch performance by Michael Robble, because there wasn’t one.  I only rolled my bowling ball if our opponent was hopelessly out-matched or if three of our starters were bedridden by an outbreak of the stomach flu.

Sadly today, folks who have a chronic illness or disability can often feel like I did on the bowling team.  The confines of disease make it difficult to believe they still have a life of usefulness. Let’s face it—when we see healthy people living active lives, it is all too easy to think we are less important.  So the key question of this month’s blog post is this:  With all our medical limitations, is it REALLY true that our lives matter to God, our church, and our community?

Well, to find the answer to this question, we must look beyond the constraints of our medical reality.  For if true meaningfulness is to be found in health and activity, then millions of people have become bench-warmers in the mission of life.  The good news, however, based on the Bible, is that first and foremost, we can know our lives have significance in the Lord’s eyes.  How?  By getting to know Jesus.

His love for you and me is not based on our accomplishments.  It is not based on our ability to do things.  Rather, it is based on who He is.  The scriptures tell us this:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

If you are feeling like your life has no real significance, make it your goal this month to get to know Jesus.  I’d encourage you to read the Gospel of John, and prayerfully ask the Lord to reveal Himself to you.  For living a life of purpose begins by knowing the personal love of Christ.  He is the one who can transform your soul and bring to you forgiveness, hope and meaning.

Have a blessed holiday season!

A Life of Purpose with Chronic Illness (Part 1)

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This is the first of a planned series of blog posts on the topic of purpose.  It is being fueled by the writing of my new book, Weak and Indispensable, A Life of Purpose for the Chronically Ill and their Families, which I am hoping to complete by September of 2017.

Living with a chronic disease or disability is a rough road.  Incurable physical afflictions have weapons that are painful and relentless: the progression of symptoms, disabling pain, discouraging longevity, and envy-tempting restrictions.  Just in the past year Margaret has experienced the development of early stage heart failure, coupled with blindness in her right eye.  These conditions have been added to her deluge of chronic fatigue, searing chest pain, shortness of breath, joint pain, and abdominal discomfort.  As her husband and primary caregiver, I have had to look at the progression of her symptoms with a helpless sorrow.  My wife is losing her medical battle in a painful, sequential, physical progression. One thing in all of this is certain—apart from a medical miracle, “normal” for us in the foreseeable future is a life permeated with an array of symptom-induced troubles we wouldn’t wish on anyone.

On a deeper level, I have had to ask myself if there is a beneficial purpose for a family like ours.  Are we destined to just play our version of “Christian Survivor,” where our major accomplishment in life is to simply persevere?  Is the primary point of our disability and pain to burden others?  Are we facing our medical challenges to be a living counterexample to people, so they can be thankful they don’t have to suffer like us? Or is it possible, despite our daily limitations, there is something with immense significance we are called to do?   Is there a truth-based mission to be embraced and followed when our medical prognosis is so discouragingly negative?

Let’s face it—in our action-orientated culture that promotes worth based on ability, activity, and achievements, for those of us whose lives have been slowed by chronic illness there can be a heart-crushing crisis of purpose.  The world of disabling physical affliction can leave you to wonder if your life now has substandard value.  After all, you can’t do the things you used to, or the things you want to.  As a patient, the key accomplishment of your day may be to safely navigate your home for a few trips to the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.  As a caregiver, your daily list of successes entail providing quality care for a loved one while at the same time shouldering the weight of life’s typical challenges.  Whether you are a patient or caregiver, our performance-driven culture may make you feel like you’ve left a life of once productive value to one of seemingly burdensome, fatiguing irrelevance.

Is this the case?  Are the sick, disabled, and those who care for them somehow less important?  Since they can’t be “doers,” does that mean they have lost their significance in our churches and communities?  Thankfully, the answer to these questions is a resounding “NO!” As you shall see, God has designed a life of significance for the chronically ill, both individually and in the lives of other people.

So, stay tuned.  Over the next few months, our blog will be highlighting key truths that will inspire you to live a meaningful life with your chronic illness.

May God richly strengthen you in your medical battle.