The Long Road through Hell

“Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” 

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

The search for relief and answers often leaves us with more frustration and questions, as we can come up to another dead end in the maze.

The suffering, whether physical or mental changes you in ways more profound than you ever anticipated. In the beginning, you may “Let go and let God,” or you may offer up incessant prayers, hoping God will hear and move on your behalf. However, the pain continues or worsens and you begin to doubt. You begin to take your “spiritual inventory” to see if you are hindering God’s work- confessing sins, speaking scripture, and doing everything you can do be a good believer. All of these things- confession, reading scripture, and good deeds- are perfectly good things to do, but there should be a balanced approach to our life’s problems.

I have spent the last fifteen years seeking the balance between reason and faith. I have learned through my own experience that sometimes you have to be the one in control. You must realize that you have the tools and resources at your disposal to face your problem. Like most life lessons, I learned the importance of balance the hard way through trial and error.

On my blog, I have shared stories about my health struggles with Celiac disease and other issues, but it was my Ulcerative Colitis that served as the catalyst for this balance. Ulcerative Colitis, an autoimmune disease,  is inflammation in the colon, which can cause frequent diarrhea, stomach cramps, bleeding, anemia, weight loss, and other things that disrupt a perfectly normal life.

I was diagnosed with UC in 2000, and it went into remission until 2002, when it came back with a vengeance. I was young and naive in my faith, thus I underestimated my opponent. I believed that this would pass like it did the first time, but it didn’t. I prayed everyday, asking God for healing, claiming healing, standing on the word, confessing sins, every cliche you can think of, I did. No results.

Accepting the fact that maybe divine healing  wasn’t “God’s will,” I sought medical treatment in 2004- after I lost thirty-four pounds and became anemic. After blood transfusions, a colonoscopy, new medications, and a lifestyle change, I was on the road to recovery and things were fine, as long as I continued the medication and watched my diet.

From time to time, however, the UC escapes and reeks havoc like the Joker breaking out of Arkham Asylum and tormenting Batman. I became anemic again in 2015 with mild inflammation of UC, though I had no outward symptoms. I started with a new doctor and a new medication that worked fine until late 2017. The newest medication has stopped working and I have been on four rounds of steroids since December. Of course, like all medications, steroids have side effects, which include weight gain, mood changes, and in some cases, cause long-term bone damage.

I have now started another medication-a biologic injection to get my UC under control. As of this writing, I am in the beginning process, waiting for the medication to build-up into my system. I am hopeful the new treatment will work and I can get back to living life. I do my best to live a full life, despite the UC and other health issues.

My battle with UC has been my own long and hard way out of hell. Living with this disease for almost twenty years has changed the way I look at my faith. I’ve accepted the reality and gravity of my health and it’s not something to take lightly. Just because a book written thousands of years ago says that Jesus or God healed this person or that person, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen for every one. We read, teach, and preach about the healed and delivered, but what about the people who did not have their prayers answered? Why are their stories not in the Bible? If I were a gambling man, I would wager that for many of us, our stories would mirror those not found in the Bible more often than those that are in the Bible.

If you are battling a chronic disease and struggling with your faith, I understand. If you’re searching for a spiritual reason for the sickness, you probably won’t find it. I would encourage you to be discerning of everything you hear and read.  You must use good judgment and seek out medical treatment. I would encourage you to take care of all aspects of your life- the physical, mental, and the spiritual. You have to do what is best for you and your loved ones. If you have to change your diet or take medication, you can still enjoy life to the fullest and get the most out of every day.

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The Wall

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By Michael W. Raley

I stare at the wall and wonder,

“What does it all mean?”

Have I spent my time on the right causes

Or have I just blindly followed the crowd?

I moved forward to only get knocked back down;

I wonder how many more times I can get back up.

What I’ve known no longer works

And my journey begins anew.

I’m older, wiser, and more discerning;

Armed with equal amounts of skepticism and reason.

At this point, there is no turning back,

There will be no retreat, no surrender.

I will get around this wall,

Whether it be over, under, around, or through,

I’m coming, on my way to a breakthrough.

 

 

I Never Knew My Own Strength

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By Michael W. Raley

I never knew my own strength

Until I came across my greatest foe.

Not a person or cosmic entity,

But my own body.

I live with the chronic sickness and pain

While I strive to live a full life.

I do my best not to complain

And I don’t want to be a burden,

But there are times when it’s too much,

Yet I persevere.

The prayers have stopped

And God remains silent.

I guess it up to me

To gear up and face this enemy,

Which I will, no matter the obstacle,

No matter how I feel.

“Vivere est militare.”

To live is to fight

And fight on I will.

 

The Worlds Beyond Ours

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It is estimated that there are 100 billion, possibly 200 billion galaxies in our universe.1

Let that literal astronomical number sink in for a moment. I could not imagine have 100 billion dollars, let alone 200 billion. After taking care of my family and friends, giving towards numerous charitable causes, buying everything I could want and paying taxes, I would still have more than enough money to spare. Yet, beyond our world, our galaxy, are boundless worlds that we cannot begin to imagine.

In this 14.5 billion year-old, ever expanding universe, how can we rule out the possibility of other life out there? I’m not speculating about galactic empires, Klingons, little green or gray beings, or any of the standard science fiction tropes, but just think about it for a moment. I am inclined to think that there is life beyond what we know, even beyond where our current science takes us. What effect would such thinking have on our theology?

Up until the pioneering work of Copernicus, later confirmed by Galileo, Church doctrine taught what is known as the geocentric theory of the universe, which states that the universe revolves around the earth. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory- which states the earth and galaxy revolve around the sun, which modern science has confirmed. We know with certainty that the literal universe does not revolve around us, but what if we are not even the apex of God’s creation? What if it is the epitome of humanity’s arrogance to assume our place while the vastness of this infinite universe?

What if beyond us is a world where its inhabitants have not spilled innocent blood in the names of war, religion, or greed? What if these beings did not destroy their environment through pollution, harming the air, water, and food supply? What if these beings listened to the voices of the philosophers and poet? What if they put into action the words of their own Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and aspired to live out those ideals without feelings of superiority or hypocrisy?

I find the universe to be a humbling place. If we were to consider our place in the grand scheme of things, could we once and for all put aside our tribalism and live in peace? Can we recognize for a moment that according to the Big Bang, our planet was created by giant collisions with other celestial bodies and we are still susceptible to threats from asteroids and meteors that could end life as we know it?

I would encourage to take a trip to a planetarium or an observatory and view a show. I would also encourage you to listen to Carl Sagan’s poem, “The Pale Blue Dot,” which puts a beautiful perspective on our place in the universe. Stop waiting for the apocalypse or heaven to come to earth, this is all we have and all we know for sure. Look up at night and view the stars, the constellations, admire the beauty and majesty of our universe and dream of the possibilities.

The Toolbox of Problem Solving

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Christmas 2000 my mom and dad bought me a large red Craftsman toolbox, complete with sets of wrenches, ratchets, hex wrenches, and sockets. (I’m doing my Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor grunt from Home Improvement as I think about it). At the time my wife and I lived in our second floor apartment, where I kept the toolbox in the living room (which is a great conversation starter if you have company). Soon we bought a house and moved out of the apartment where the tool box till this day sits in my disorganized garage.

I still have and use all of those original tools, along with others that have been added over the years. My parents gave me those tool knowing that I would need them and they equipped me for any job that may arise. I have confidence that I have “the right tool for the job,” which started with a generous gift.

Tools are great when you have to change your car’s oil, replace a garbage disposal, or put a new heating element in the dryer, but not all of life’s problems can be fixed with a 7/16 wrench. Relationship issues, health problems, finances, school, spirituality, and whatever else life throws at you require a different set of tools. There are times though, when I wanted to take a metaphorical sledgehammer to life and do a demolition and rebuild.

When it comes to life’s problems, all of us have the tools to get the job done. I believe we are equipped by God and through our own experiences to work on the problem at hand. What if we realized how empowered we truly are to face our problems? We have to take the initiative to open the toolbox. Grabbed the wrong socket? Just get the next size larger or smaller. Maybe the bolt takes a metric socket instead of a standard, you just have to see what works and what doesn’t. If the problem comes up again, you’ll remember the exact tool you need.

Have you ever prayed and prayed, and prayed some more, but nothing happened? We all have. Have you ever sat by passively waiting on God or someone else to fix a problem? Meanwhile days, weeks, months, or even years may go by with no results and we are left wondering what is wrong. We’ll shrug our shoulders and say, “It wasn’t meant to be.” or “I guess it wasn’t God’s will.” But, what if our unanswered prayers are God’s way of telling us that we have the tools and we can take care of the problem ourselves? For example, I have three hammers, it would be silly of me to call my dad and ask to borrow a hammer because I have what I need.

Tools and resources are available and we must seek them out. Miracles just don’t fall out of the sky, as we have to live in the real world. The real world is a messy place, where we will get greasy and sweaty doing the hard work. We live in a time if great resources and information, thus there is no excuse for us to wallow in ignorance or portray a helpless victim.  Open up your toolbox and start with what you have, where you’re at. You have the tools you need for now and you’ll keep adding to them as you go. Work on being the master craftsman of your life.

Time Well Spent

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I have a music streaming app on my smartphone which keeps track of the time I spent the previous month listening to music. When I receive this notification, it gives me pause as I think about the amount of time I spent listening to the music I enjoy. What if our lives had an app that could keep track of all of our habits? What if this app could keep track of everything we do in life? This app could keep track of such things as:

-The amount of time we spend complaining about the current presidential administration.

-The amount of time we spend arguing with friends and strangers on social media.

-The amount of time we spend putting off important tasks.

-The amount of time we spend in anxiety, fear, or depression concerning the past, present, or future.

Believe me, I have my days when I’m not the most productive person. I know the struggles you face- you work a full-time job, there’s family obligations, bills to pay, the car broke down, you’re trying to get in shape, and you have to go to sleep at some point. You’re just as fatigued when you wake up as you were when you went to bed. Rest and lesiure are important, as I too spend some down time trying to relax and drown out the noise of the world.

Henry David Thoreau spent two years living in a cabin on Walden Pond in an effort to live a better, simpler life:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…”1

Walden was first published in 1854, I wonder what would Thoreau say about life in 2018? Thoreau also discussed the need to simplify our lives:

“Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”2

When it comes to how we spend our time, Thoreau echoes the sentiment of Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca, who lived 1800 years before. Seneca challenged the general notion that “Life is short.”

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. Life is long enough and our alloted portion generous enough for our most ambitious projects if we invest it all carefully. But when it is squandered through luxury and indifference, and spent for no good end, we realize it has gone, under the pressure of the ultimate necessity, before we were aware it was going. So it is: the life we receive is not short,but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”3

One of the tenants of Stoicism I admire is the thought of living each day like it was your last. This doesn’t mean living in debauchery and unbridled hedonism, but giving careful thought to everything you do. We do not understand that we are given a certain amount of time to live, yet we plan as if we will live forever, a point Seneca makes so eloquently:

“It is because you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something may be your last.”4

The life of Jesus Christ overlaps that of Seneca, and Jesus in Luke 12:16-21 told the Parable of the Rich Fool. In this parable, there was a rich man who was satisfied with the fruits of his labors and decided to tear down his barns and build bigger barns for his crops. The rich man then decided to rest on his ambition and “eat,drink, and be merry.” However, the rich man was unaware that he was going to die that night, not getting the chance of basking in his accomplishments.

James also warns us about presumptive conduct: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’” (James 4:13-15, NKJV).

Thus, we must be mindful of how we spend this life, for it is the only one we get. Give consideration to all that you do and say, simplify, and focus your energy to what will build up yourself and others. You do not have time to dwell on toxic thoughts, relationships, and people. Don’t spent the next twenty,thirty, or forty years on trying to build for a future life, live the life you have now. God bless you.

1Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, Introduction and notes by Jonathan Levin. New York: Barnes & Noble (2003): 74.

2 Ibid, 75.

3 Moses Hadas, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. New York: W.W.Norton & Company (1958): 48.

4Ibid, 50-51.

The Roller Coaster of Anxiety

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It was the summer of 2006 and my wife’s employer at the time charted a bus for employees and their families to go to Holiday World, an amusement park in Santa Claus, Indiana (that is the name of the town). My wife, being the carefree daredevil she is, wanted to start off with the biggest roller coaster in the park (oh boy). As I looked at that wooden roller coaster, I felt a twinge of anxiety.

At this point of my life, I had not been on a roller coaster since I was twelve, as I developed a fear of them. We waited through the long line and sat down in one of the ride’s cars. The foam padded steel lap bars came down to secure us while the ride is in motion.

Click.

My thoughts and my heart began to race.

“I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here,” I kept repeating out loud.

I tried pushing up that foam padded steel lap bar, which would have been a job better suited for Superman or The Incredible Hulk. My wife reassured me that it was going to be fine.

Click.

The roller coaster started to move. Too late now. Time to man up.

Clickity clack up to the top of the track.

As our part of the coaster reached the summit of the first hill,the pressure built up in my head and I screamed to release it. The ride couldn’t have been three or four minutes, but it felt like an eternity.

Finally, it was over. I was back on Terra Firma. I was shaken, but I had conquered my fear. That day I went on to ride all of the roller coasters at Holiday world. A few years ago, I rode bigger roller coasters at King’s Island.

The story I just told was a sample of an anxiety-filled life. For anyone who has ever dealt with anxiety, it doesn’t have to be a large, fast, wooden roller coaster to trigger a response, it can be something as mundane as leaving the house for work, a test, or any other seemingly harmless situation.

I’m not a mental health expert, but I know how crippling anxiety can be. I know the frustration when it seems you have tried everything you know to get rid of anxiety, but it’s still there, taunting you like a bully.  Of course, some feelings of anxiety are good for survival, as we perceive threats to the safety of ourselves and loved ones. However, when anxiety clouds your judgment, freezes you, and becomes the norm of your life, it’s time to do something.

My life has been a battle with anxiety, as it my arch nemesis, like a Joker to by Batman or Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker. Very few people know of my struggle, but I am determined to take my life back. I am sharing my story on this blog (possibly with the world), to let you know it’s okay. You don’t have to be ashamed. You must be honest with yourself and admit that there’s a problem. Reach out and seek help any way you can.  Today is the start of a new journey for me. I’m taking back my life. God bless.