Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Heart Problems

A little over a month ago, one of my first posts when I relaunched my blog was called “A Confession, An Apology, and A Challenge.”  I was truly touched by the number of responses (public and private) that post generated!

And, true to my word, I did start taking some tentative steps towards a healthier lifestyle. But, as is often the case, life happens… and good intentions fall to the wayside. At the beginning of June, I led the largest team I’ve ever taken to Reynosa, Mexico. (And when you’re a missionary… you eat what’s put before you, right?) When we returned, I had a very full week of meetings & projects, which leads to eating out and late nights. Then on the following Saturday morning, I spent hours working in the summer heat and humidity to help make some progress on the long-postponed cemetery cleanup.

All that to say… I was pushing myself too hard and was genuinely worn out! I wasn’t making the best meal choices, and I certainly wasn’t getting the rest I needed.

So when I started feeling sick that weekend, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. I rested, and of course I prayed, but when I wasn’t feeling better by Sunday evening, I actually broke down and went to Urgent Care where I received a shot and a prescription for more meds. And usually, for me, this is where the story ends. The prescription does its job, I feel better, and life goes on.

But this time, I began to notice a new symptom: tightness in my chest. Not overwhelming, not debilitating, but persistent… and troubling. I couldn’t ignore it.

Some of you may remember that several years ago, I spent a couple of days in the hospital after experiencing chest pain. The doctors put me on a medication and advised me to lose weight, exercise, and reduce stress. And I did! I lost a significant amount of weight, I felt much better, I actually enjoyed my exercises, and I had energy to spare! I did so well that my cardiologist told me I didn’t need the prescription anymore! But as I confessed back in May, I had since gained all that weight back, and then some.

So I made an appointment with my cardiologist. A big part of me hoped that he’d just tell me to lose the weight, exercise, and reduce my stress again. But another part of me was also a little afraid that he’d find something else, something more serious.

When you’re worried about something, the waiting is the worst part. First, you have to wait for that initial appointment. Then you have to wait for scheduled tests. Then you have to wait for the results. It gives you a lot of time to think. And I did think about a lot of things. Why did I gain so much weight back? I had a million and one excuses. There was the international adoption and the weeks spent traveling. Then coming home and adjusting to our new normal of life with young children again. There was so much going on in my life. Besides, I deserved a little comfort food, right? ;)

And despite my weight gain, up until this point, I had felt pretty good. So maybe I was a little overweight. Nobody’s perfect! But look at all of these other things I was accomplishing! Didn’t all the good I was doing elsewhere kind of, erm, outweigh my weight? It wasn’t that I was making bad choices on purpose. I still wanted to make healthy choices, I knew that was the right thing to do, but there was no sense of urgency about it. It wasn’t that important.

Until I started to feel that discomfort in my chest.

Fear can be a pretty powerful motivator, and I realized that regardless of the outcome of my doctor’s visits, something in my heart would need to change if I didn’t want my current weight loss journey to end the way my previous one did. And that’s when I finally took my own challenge seriously, started eating healthier, and now I’ve lost 8 pounds so far!

(BTW, the good news is that my tests came back showing nothing serious, and by the time I got my answers, the symptoms had already subsided. It turns out that my chest tightness was apparently just a less common side effect of the prescription medicine for my earlier flu-like symptoms.)

One of the things Bro. Buddy (aka, my dad) likes to say is that people will make time for what’s important to them. Often, he shares this in the context of relationships or participation in church activities, but it really goes beyond that. If we choose not to do something that is within our power to do, it’s because we’re giving something else priority instead. It’s a heart issue.

When we don’t feel like doing something, we’ll often say that our heart isn’t in it. But despite what our culture tells us, as believers, we are not to “follow our hearts.” (Jer 17:9) We’re supposed to tell our hearts what to do! (“Love the Lord your God with all our heart” is a command, not a suggestion!)

So how do we make our hearts follow our lead?

First, I think we have to realize that God-things aren’t necessarily easy things - sometimes it takes work. We love it when something just falls into place beautifully, when circumstances and seemingly chance encounters align and almost effortlessly bring about the desired outcome. We call them divine appointments or God-ordained situations. And yes, there are times when God does work that way. But there equally divine, equally God-ordained things in our lives that require work. Things we have to fight for, that don’t come easy.

We need to make a choice. (Josh 24:15) Sometimes we wait until we “feel led” to do something, but many of the important issues in our lives don’t require special guidance or a personalized invitation. Back in 1986 David Stellwagon and I felt the Lord might be leading us to do some door-to-door evangelism in a certain part of town. We went to my dad and shared that we were going to pray and fast about it. He laughed at us and asked incredulously, “You’re going to pray and fast about sharing the Gospel?” That opened our eyes to simply obey something we already knew to do - and to an amazing summer of door-to-door witnessing that prepared each of us for future ministry. Later that year I moved to Mexico as a missionary and David ended up serving 12 years as a missionary in Japan. Sometimes we just have to step out and do what we know to be right, with or without the warm fuzzies.

Second, I think we need to radically de-compartmentalize our lives. Maybe we fail to reach our goals because we refuse to see the bigger picture. Mark 12:30 says “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” “ALL” leaves no room for holding back the parts we don’t want to let go of. We cannot possibly fulfill this command, and we will not experience true wholeness, unless we’re willing to leave everything on the altar. “Wholeness” includes every part of our life, and like a bowl of spaghetti, everything is connected to everything.

For example, I struggle not just with eating well and exercising, but with rest, or lack thereof! As anyone who has ever tried to catch up with me at the office knows, I like to stay busy. And often with that busy-ness comes stress. And when we’re stressed, we tend to make food and scheduling choices because they’re convenient, not necessarily because they’re the best choice. Which leads to illness. Which leads to more stress. And more bad choices. Can I honestly say that I’m focused on walking towards wholeness if I address my bad eating habits but not my bad sleeping habits or my oversquozen schedule?

Thirdly, after we choose to walk towards wholeness, we need to continue making smaller choices that lead in the same direction. We need to stay the course. Isaiah 2:3 tells us that God teaches us his ways so that WE can WALK in His paths. This means that we have work to do! It’s not enough to simply know where the right paths are, we have to continue to walk in them. This is probably where we all struggle the most. We make progress for a while, and then we mess up. So we give up. No one likes to fail. But failure doesn’t have to be final unless we quit and never start again. So accept God’s new mercy for today (Lam 3:22-23) and start over … again!

And finally, don’t go it alone. (Pr 27:17) When we feel like giving up, having the encouragement (and accountability) of others can make all the difference. Many people find that they’ll stick to an exercise routine better if they’re doing that routine with a friend. But that doesn’t mean that we all have to do the same thing. There is no one-size-fits-all program. Did you notice that in Isaiah 2:3 the word “paths” is plural? It’s also plural in Psalm 23:3, “He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.” God will guide you along the path towards wholeness that He designed for you. But it’s good to journey with others who are traveling parallel on the path God designed for them. And it’s good to encourage one another on our individual paths.

When I wrote my initial “Confessions” blog I had several folks ask me about starting a group for mutual encouragement and accountability. I thought that was a great idea to keep the conversation going, so I started a Facebook group called Walking Towards Wholeness and I’d love for you to join me there, if you’re interested in this journey. But in keeping with my goal of not cluttering up my schedule, I held off announcing the group until I found someone to lead it. But who?

I’m excited that Rich Carlisle has agreed to take the lead in this group! One of the reasons I asked Rich to be the group “coach” is because I’ve seen him in action as an encourager and he is one of the best. Besides doing his own work to lose weight and get in shape, he has the heart of a coach, of a discipler, of an encourager, and I know he’ll find ways to motivate us to stay on our paths. We may not be shooting for the same target - some are wanting to lose weight, others are wanting to gain muscle, others may simply want to get some light exercise incorporated into their daily routine (or stop using their stationary bike as a clothes rack :) ). But if we’re committed to walking towards wholeness and health, we can all celebrate each other’s victories and encourage one another when things aren’t going as well. Rich is going to be a wonderful coach and I’m excited he’s accepted the challenge.

Now it’s your turn to accept the challenge. If you’re interested in being part of a group where we share our journey towards health and wholeness while not all doing exactly the same thing, but receiving the same encouragement, just click on https://www.facebook.com/groups/walkingtowardswholeness/ and share your story! I hope to see you there!

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