Thursday, October 08, 2009

We Need Each Other

(I first wrote this two years ago, and it was published in Christian Family Health. Unfortunately, it was published under the wrong name. In the Men's Health section... See blog entry "I Was Published...Sort of". The John Winthrop quote is newly added.)

We must delight in each other, make other's conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.
-John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630

It is amazing how one day can change everything. One day, life seems to be going well. It seems that life could not be any better, and everything you have worked for is in the palm of your hand. One day, you have the life you wanted, the life you hoped for, and it seems that nothing can take that away from you.

Sure, you realize that all sorts of things could potentially alter your reality. Still, you believe those are the things that happen to other people, and your life is safe. You never imagine that it is your life that is about to be turned upside down. You never think that you are the one who is about to go through something that is going to try you to your very core, and you are just going to hope you come out of it on your feet.

In April of 2007, I experienced just such a reality. After experiencing a series of unrelated symptoms, it was learned that I had renal carcinoid cancer. Due to other health problems, I would require surgery very shortly after my diagnosis.

As quickly as the diagnosis came, my world as I knew it fell apart. It was not the diagnosis of cancer that so disturbed me. There is a long history of cancer in my family, so the diagnosis did not come as any surprise to me. The reality that my whole life, the life that I had worked so hard for, was slipping through my fingers was the reality that hit me the hardest.

You see, before all of this...the hospital, the cancer, the surgery, the recovery...I had experienced many other heartaches and losses in my life. These were losses that challenged me over and over again to rise above the despair and live a full life.

It took every ounce of strength and determination I had to build a life for myself, and now, all of that was being swept away. I had no financial means to fall back on to see me through the recovery period. Everything I knew was about to change.

It was through this experience that I began to realize the importance and vitality of community. None of us belong wholly to ourselves. We are made to need God, and we are made to need each other. This became more real to me than ever before as the season of pain began to unfold in my life.

Throughout the months of recovery, I began to receive bills from the wonderful medical professionals who had helped save my life. While I had received donations of cash, gift cards, and so forth along the way, none of it was enough to meet my basic needs and pay my bills at the same time. I appreciated the help I was given, but I knew that more needed to be done.

We hear a lot of talk about community. We are encouraged to get involved in the communities we live in by doing volunteer work, attending high school events, becoming part of Rotary or Lions clubs. There are online communities such as MySpace and Facebook, allowing common bonds to be formed between people who may never actually meet face to face. We are encouraged to be part of this thing called community, but really, what’s the big deal? Why is community important?

As my journey continues, I continue to learn why community is so important.

As the bills started coming in, I realized I had no way to pay these bills. I could not ask my family for money. I had applied for assistance from the government, but was informed that it would take several months to reach a decision on my case, and I could not expect any funds anytime soon. Something had to happen, and fast. The bills were piling up.

I shared all of this with my community at Antioch Church, and no sooner was the need expressed than a plan of action began falling into place. Within two weeks of first mentioning the need to raise funds, the strategy and supplies were in place, along with people to move the operation forward. Coffee cans bearing my picture and a synopsis of my story began appearing in businesses around Elk Rapids, Bellaire, Rapid City, and Eastport.

We were about to be amazed by what God would do through a small community of believers who came together with a purpose. Within a few days of placing the first cans in Elk Rapids, about three hundred dollars had been raised. After placing the coffee cans around Bellaire, about four hundred dollars more would be raised. With the cans in Rapid City and Eastport, nearly $1000 dollars would be raised to put toward my bills.

That may not seem like a lot of money in light of what medical care costs these days. However, the truly amazing part is what God did beyond our efforts. It was as though God was waiting for us to come together as a community with purpose, and then He would move in ways that would surprise us all.

Within a week of placing the cans in Bellaire, I received a phone call from my caseworker at Michigan Department of Human Services, informing me that I would begin receiving Medicaid, and that the Medicaid would be made retroactive to June. This meant that the majority of my medical bills would be taken care of by the state, so the money raised from the coffee cans would be ample to cover whatever bills were left over.
Beyond this, I was also informed that I was deemed disabled, and would be receiving a retroactive check within the next couple of weeks, as well as monthly checks beginning in October. This came as a surprise, because I had been informed at the time of my application that a decision may not be made until October or November. Imagine my relief when the decision came so quickly. I knew it was something only God could do. God had clearly given me favor with the decision makers handling my case, and brought a quick resolution.

Just as my community shared my pain, they also shared my joy at this turn of events. I decided that no further fundraising efforts needed to be done at this time, as God has more than provided for my needs. God took the small effort of our little community, and multiplied it above and beyond what we were expecting.

As this season in my life continues, I continue to understand why God made us to live in community with each other. There are days when my thoughts are dark, my heart is sad, and I do not understand what all the suffering is for. There are days when life seems bleak, and I do not know if I can continue on, or if I even want to. It is in those moments that God reminds me that I do not belong wholly to myself. I belong to Him, and I belong to the community He has placed me in.
It is in this community that I can find hope when I feel that all hope is lost. Through this community, I find strength when my own strength has failed. We are made to need each other. All of life’s ups and downs are a shared experience, and when we cannot see the way clearly, God gives us a brother or a sister who can see for us. God speaks and moves through community in a way that He doesn’t often do when we are trying to fly solo.

I watch my three year old niece, and I see that she has a strong sense of what it means to belong in a community. She could not imagine life without her friends from daycare and preschool, or her family. She knows she does not belong wholly to herself, and she looks at the world around her with eyes that can see the miracle of the everyday.

When we are young, we do that. We can look at the world, and see the miracle of the sunrise every morning, the beauty of the rainfall, and we know with certainty that there is something of the eternal in those we love. We can feel God speaking to us through the world He created for us.
As we get older, we lose that sense of awe and wonder. Instead of being a source of delight, the world we live in becomes something to be analyzed, questioned, evaluated for purpose, etc. We begin to intellectualize even the most miraculous of events, whittling them down to text book cases of the unremarkable. We look at those around us, and cannot see the miracle of who Jesus is in them. We may see their shortcomings, we may see the things about them that irritate us or prevent us from achieving our own goals or desires, but we rarely see the miracle of who God is making them to be.

I am learning that it is in community with others that I can regain that sense of awe. The world seems a little sweeter when I can share it with others. People seem more beautiful, and I can watch in amazement as Jesus reveals more of Himself through my interactions with others. We are all getting through this life the best way we know how, and being in community with each other makes the burden a little lighter to carry. We can see God’s grace in each other as He expresses Himself through us.

In this season of my life, I am learning a lot about God’s grace expressed through others. God never promised us an easy road; He only promised we would never walk that road alone. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us, and part of His presence in my life rests in those in my community. It is through these vessels of grace, in this community of grace, that I see His hand move.

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