Eph. 3. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine told me she was having a hot flash. I leaned in. “Are they real? What are they like? None of my friends has talked about them.” I’m 50, she’s 49, and we are all of the age for the “change of life”. But no one discusses it.
Her eyes widened. “You have no idea,” she said.
I didn’t have any idea. And deep in my heart, I thought: “Caroline, you haven’t had a hint of perimenopause yet. Ha, ha! You’re invincible. You’re going to stay young FOREVER.”
Fourteen days later, at the start of Labor Day weekend, God gave me a gift I deserved: hot flashes came out of nowhere. They assaulted me literally every 15 to 30 minutes. They hit me all day and all night long. I’d be sitting around, minding my own business, when my body would turn into a fiery furnace of Biblical proportions. My legs ached. Then I would break out in a vicious sweat. Then I’d get cold. I would complain, wonder if I was dying, and know that I was the first woman ever to have such an affliction. You know how when we women become pregnant, we’re sure we’re the first woman ever to have had a baby? Well, my friend, when hot flashes hit you KNOW you’re the first woman ever to have suffered such a scorching indignity.
On the second day of the weekend, I marched into the kitchen. “Hug me,” I told my husband. He did (he was given no choice).
He backed away, as if singed. “Wow. You’re burning up. I think you have a fever.”
“Thank you.” I clenched a fist. “I KNEW it! And all this time I was worried it was perimenopause. Ha. We don’t have a thermometer. I’m going out to get one.” I jumped in the car and sped to the drug store. I walked the twenty aisles and finally located a thermometer. I tapped my sneaker while the nice drug store worker tried to figure out how to work his cash register. I raced home, ripped open the packaging, and jammed the thermometer in my mouth. I scanned the results. It said I was a degree below normal. Impossible. I took my temperature again. My husband came in and asked what it was. “97.3 degrees,” I said in a low voice.
He laughed. “You’re a degree lower than normal.”
“Maybe the thermometer is broken,” I said. He eyed me. Another hot flash hit, and I took my temperature again. Still, I had no fever. This was ridiculous. It was impossible. How could I feel this hot and not have a fever? What was going on?
I Googled hot flashes. Every website used the words “maybe” and “probably.” What? I was indignant. “No one really knows what causes hot flashes,” I told my husband. I was sure he was as fascinated by this topic as I was. Who wouldn’t be? “All the websites ‘guess’ that it has something to do with fluctuating estrogen levels interfering with the body’s ability to adjust its inner temperature… probably.” I was seething. I mean, they know estrogen levels drop, and they know women get hot flashes, so they assume they’re linked but they don’t actually know why. “It must be a whole load of male doctors who just don’t care,” I announced.
The Holy Spirit gave me one of those gentle nudges in my side with His loving elbow. He whispered to me that just two weeks earlier, I had been one of those clods who hadn’t cared. Huh. So maybe these hot flashes were a good thing. At least I was learning empathy.
By breakfast on Monday, I burst into tears. The onset of perimenopause meant no more babies. I don’t care how old you are or how many wonderful children you have, I think deep down most women just want more babies. It’s a thing. Especially when you’re madly in love with your husband. And now the door was closing. My husband has three kids from a previous marriage. I have two. Now there would be no “our” baby. For my friends who have had no children, a hot flash can feel like a door slamming in their face.
“Maybe we’ll have grandchildren one day,” my kind husband said. Somehow, learning I could be a granny one day didn’t seem to help me feel younger.
We biked to the tennis courts, where I tried to hit a ball in blinding heat and humidity while hot flashes came and went and my wounded wrist ached. “Maybe I can go and get an enormous shot of hormones and stop perimenopause in its tracks and have a baby.” I batted a ball over the net. My husband missed the shot. He looked alarmed.
The hot flashes came and went the rest of the weekend. I wasn’t, shall we say, my most composed self when my body was burning up. My long-suffering husband is very calm even when I am not. “Maybe you should take some time alone,” he said, as we biked back.
I laughed. “I know, right? This is ridiculous.” At the end of the long weekend, my husband drove us back to the city. “Well,” I told him, “if my hot flashes came out of the blue like this, and hit this fast and furious, I bet they will be over by the end of the weekend. They will just burn themselves out.” I waved a hand in the air. “They’ll be over by the time we reach the city.” He eyed me dubiously. I Googled it. While Googling, another hot flash hit, and I announced irritably, “that’s it! I’m not going out to dinner again until these hot flashes are over.” I started skimming medical websites. My husband changed lanes. “Watch out!” I cried.
“So how long DO they usually last?” he asked. At this point, he seemed as eager as I was to find the answer.
“Five years,” I read out loud. “Five years is the normal length that women experience hot flashes. And some women have them the rest of their lives.” I groaned.
“That’s a long time to wait until we go out to dinner again,” he said dryly. We laughed.
I Googled cures. None sounded good, and all were riddled with the same “maybes” and “probablys.” You can try taking a low dose of anti-depressant or anti-seizure medication, and it “may” help. There are various herbal supplements with strange names, but people seem to switch doses constantly. You can exercise daily, stop smoking, avoid alcohol and caffeine, and lose weight, and it will “probably” improve matters. (But please note: the onset of menopause means immediate weight gain from bloating and swelling of the hands and feet, and it inhibits the ability of even the most determined athlete to exercise because – newsflash – exercise makes you hotter, but the websites fail to note these ironic interferences). You can try hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and honestly, that looks like the most plausible solution, but some of the older studies warn of side effects. In short, if you’re already pretty healthy, and you, like me, have a deep aversion to any medication stronger than Advil, you’re sunk.
“Ah ha!” I said, reading from another website. “Look at this! Japanese women don’t experience hot flashes unless they go on a Western diet.” I paused. “We’ll just eat all Japanese food all the time.”
“So we’ve gone from never going out to dinner for the rest of our lives, to eating every meal at a sushi bar?” my husband asked.
I nodded and grinned. “It probably has something to do with the soy in their diet, although there’s a culturally-based reporting bias. Apparently Japanese women complain less.” I shook my head. “Clearly, I am not Japanese. But even counting for their stoic natures, it looks like Japanese women do experience significantly fewer menopause symptoms. So we can buy more edamame. And it might help.”
Then I said, “what I want to know is how can I act like a nice person when a hot flash hits like a momentary fever? I’m not having any irrational thoughts. I just am irritable because I’m in pain. And I don’t want to be irritable. I hate it. So if I am stuck with hot flashes, what’s the solution? Do I try to be alone until they pass? They only last a few minutes. So maybe being alone is a partial solution. But what I really want is to be able to be myself, and not be irritable, even when I’m in momentary discomfort.”
I asked the question, and even as I asked, I felt the Holy Spirit whispering that there was a solution, but that trying harder to be nice wasn’t the answer, and that tomorrow the answer would come. I sensed the answer had something to do with feeling loved, but I wasn’t particularly even liking myself after being a witch on wheels all weekend.
And so today, I am returning to my blog after a three month hiatus to tackle the third chapter of Paul’s letter to Ephesians, where Paul prays that his friends in Ephesus, who were already believing Christians, would be able to “grasp the love” that Christ offers. This phrase has been haunting me all summer. I thought about it every day, and it froze me. If I’m supposed to “grasp the love,” I thought, how can I write about that unless I am really feeling God’s love? I thought I should wait until I felt full to the brim with God’s love, the way Paul describes. I don’t want to be a hypocrite and write about something I’m not feeling.
So I waited. I waited to grasp God’s love while circumstances made me feel even less loved. My 19 year old daughter moved to California. My 20 year old son adored his camp counseling job so much he was usually too tired to see me (“Mom, I know you wouldn’t know anything about this,” he would say with a grin, “but it’s really hard to look after children who don’t listen to you.”). I waited to grasp God’s love while my older, half-brother Johnny died while he was just sitting in his chair one afternoon listening to music. I waited to “know” God’s love while I worked on my 650 page young adult novel, even though the more I wrote, the worse (and longer) it seemed to get. I waited while I gave my husband some much needed time alone with his beautiful children without their new step-mother, and I missed him and them. I waited while a wrist injury (from all that typing) stopped me from playing my beloved tennis. I waited and waited, and counted all my many blessings, and yet every day I felt no closer to “experiencing” God’s love for me, and no more worthy of writing about how to grasp God’s love than I had at the start of summer.
And then the hot flashes hit, I became irritable… and so I stopped trying to be sure I was “experiencing” God’s love. Instead, I made a decision to just receive it. Why? Because a drowning woman is not going to try to understand how thick, or long, or strong is the rope that lands in front of her in the water. She’s just going to grab it. She’s going to hold on until she is dragged to safety.
That’s the blessing that comes from pain, any pain, that flashes into our lives. It causes us to grab hold of the love God offers us and stop waiting to understand it perfectly or to be perfect before we allow ourselves to receive it. When you’re drowning, you don’t have to be able to swim the butterfly. You just have to cling to the rope that saves you.
We have to move past the fact that suffering, even the relatively minor kind, makes us feel like we’re not loved. That’s a lie from our enemy the devil. Paul opens the chapter with one, long sentence, in which he exhorts his friends not to lose heart because of his suffering. Eph. 3:1-13.
The problem is that when we or our loved ones are suffering, we do lose heart. We feel unloved, and so we sometimes avoid going into God’s presence when we most need it. Paul reminds us here that because of the cross, we now have complete access to the throne of God. But we have to remember to take advantage of that access. And hearing how Paul rejoiced in his suffering here can make us feel small. Hearing how Paul explains his suffering served the purpose of making known the great mystery of the ages, makes us think our suffering isn’t serving that kind of grand purpose. Gee, we think. Our shoulders slump. I don’t feel so good about MY suffering… And mine is a lot less than Paul’s…
Perhaps sensing this, a beautiful prayer pours out of Paul after this exhortation. The prayer is a series of petitions that open up to glory. As one commentator puts it: “They open out one into the other like some majestic suite of apartments in a great palace-temple, each leading into a loftier and more spacious hall, each drawing nearer the presence-chamber, until at last we stand there.” McClaren’s Expositions.
Here is Paul’s palace-temple of prayer: “I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.” Eph. 3:14-19. (emphasis added)
I wrote that prayer down in its entirety because it’s too incredible to summarize. MacClaren calls these petitions steps on a great staircase by which Paul fervently desires his friends will climb toward God’s love. It sounds amazing. Just reading the words is encouraging. But how do we do that? How do we “understand” and “experience” this love – or as another translation puts it, how do we “grasp” this love? It seems impossible. Why does Paul pray that even Christians, who do have Christ dwelling in their heart from the moment they receive Him, would have Christ dwell in their hearts? Why does Paul pray that we would “know” the love even though it’s “unknowable”? What is it about the Christian journey that even though we have Christ, we don’t KNOW we have Christ?
Maybe it’s like the new watch I finally got around to buying. Even though the watch is strapped onto my wrist, I still don’t know what time it is. My old watch was broken for so long, I fell out of the habit of looking at it. When we ask Christ into our hearts, He dwells there, but unless we access Him through faith, we can live as if we didn’t have Him.
So the secret to not losing heart when we fall ill, troubles hit, and discomfort or even pain strike, is to just to hold on, and keep on holding. As Charles Spurgeon said, faith is the vehicle through which we receive God’s love. The more we are afflicted, the more we WILL grasp the love. The more we need love, the more we will know the love. That’s how love works. The more we need, the more God gives.
Who else sticks by us when we’re irritable except people who love us? I’ve often noticed that difficult circumstances can drive couples apart. The trick is to learn how to make affliction bring you closer. It’s to talk, to lean into the love, to forgive, and to receive forgiveness. That we are so loved by others and most of all God is indeed more than we can ask or imagine, but luckily our imaginations are only the beginning and not the end of what God can do.
Because the way love works, true love, the kind we humans can’t grasp except in our wantings, is that the less we deserve love the more love we get. That’s the thing to hold on to. We can grasp the paradox. Jesus died to save the very people who abused Him while He was dying. Grasping that kind of love is the true change of life.
Happy postscript: The day I wrote this, my hot flashes stopped. Was that because my kind readers prayed for me? That seems likely because if you notice, Paul doesn’t say you “should” experience God’s love; he fell on his knees and prayed for it for others. There is incredible power in admitting our needs in humility and letting people pray for us. And yes, it might have been because I got used to the hot flashes, or that the intensity burned itself out during the weekend, just as I, the doctor with no license or experience, had predicted. Or maybe, just maybe, God’s love had filled me to the brim with His healing power when I wasn’t looking, even though I couldn’t wrap my brain around it, because His love isn’t dependent on our strength but comes instead into the places of our greatest weakness.
posted by Caroline Coleman on Sept. 8, 2015 (and updated with a p.s. on Sept. 11, 2015)