Waiting for Easter

Cross by George Wharton JamesWhen I saw the priest swipe the Ash Wednesday cross on my baby’s forehead, I cried.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the priest said, and I looked at my round-cheeked, bobble-headed, newly-born gift, and I was terrified. He will die one day, I thought, and the simple truth of the human condition quickened inside me. I spent this last January in the hospital with that child, now a growing seven-year-old. He was gravely ill, and, for a time, the doctors didn’t know how to diagnose him.

If you’ve ever lingered in a children’s hospital, you know it is a hallowed place. It tears you up to see young bodies worn thin with illness and bloated with medication, to watch toddlers toting IV poles, and to find children who should be running and jumping and laughing bedridden.

There’s an instant respect and gratitude for the nurses and doctors and workers who battle death every day and long through the night.

There’s a strange kinship that comes with intuitively recognizing the fear and powerlessness on fellow parents’ faces stretched tight with worry.

We named our eldest son Dominic, because it means belonging to the Lord. I’ve always believed it, but facing the reality that our son didn’t in fact belong to us, that we couldn’t heal him or sustain him or hold on to him — it was a hard place.

It’s also a place where dysfunctional coping mechanisms come in handy. The ability to emotionally disconnect, to push past the pain and fear and instead smile at my weak and feverish child was a strange gift that made the days endurable. The breath-stealing moments came at night, when the room was quiet and my boy slept, and I curled in to the hard plastic couch and cried a soundless prayer, the kind where no words come and your body prays for you, the kind I last prayed when we miscarried a baby, the kind that comes from the gut.

© Copyright Renjishino1 and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Renjishino1 and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

One afternoon I was able to slip down to the prayer chapel, where the thick doors shut out the muffled sound of the hospital. It was late December, so the nativity still sat at the front of a room framed by four stained glass images. Next to that was a kneeler facing Mecca. Opposite, a spreading tree curved over the wall. And behind that, a glass cabinet, filled with every religious symbol you can imagine. This was a place where no one could escape the truth of mortality, where a parent’s deepest fears confronted them face-to-face — a place where everyone reaches for God.

I had the chapel to myself, which was good, because emotion is loud and desperation bottles up inside, and all I could think was: NOT MY CHILD.

The past four years have wrung us dry as a family. Circumstances have squeezed tight from every possible angle, and brokenness and sin have nearly choked the life out of us, and as 2014 dawned I couldn’t face this new gauntlet.

“Please, God,” I begged. “Not that. Not my son.” I refused to bookend this with a rote request for God’s will to be done.

I was afraid of God’s will.

I know well the stories of Job and his inexplicable loss and Abraham climbing the mountain with his boy and the woman who dared to believe Elisha’s promise of a son only to lose him. I wanted life and health for my child. If something else came, well…the thought of it was, and is, intolerable.

I confessed this to a friend who gently reminded me that no, thank you must be a permissible prayer, because there was Another who prayed the cup of suffering be taken from him. And I held tight to that when the diagnosis finally came, when it turned out my son’s rare disease was treatable but had long term consequences, when we learned that he had cardiac damage that may or may not resolve, when the doctor quietly instructed us how to spot the signs of a heart attack in children, when we learned that at seven years old, he has heart disease. I am deeply thankful for that outcome. I know it could have been much worse, and that for many children it is.

© Copyright Jerzy Hulewicz and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Jerzy Hulewicz and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Writing medical updates for friends and family reminds me of this. I can’t make myself form the expected vocabulary. “Praise God,” seems like what I ought to say to preface every good report.

But it rings false in my mouth, because it feels myopic and premature. I’m grateful, yes, but I’d have much rather passed on the whole experience. And what of the other children? The ones who have only bad news to report?

Easter is far off and while the hope of God’s victory frames all of life, we live in the shadowlands where children’s hospitals are still packed full. I can’t stop thinking about the families who don’t get the “Praise God” report. Many days I find myself back in the hospital chapel, panicked in the face of suffering children, and shouting: NO, THANK YOU. Because disease and death? I hate them.

In the front of the chapel, there was a large book filled with written prayers. Pleading prayers, and resigned prayers, and prayers for strength, and messages of love to dead children. Because children die. Parents sit in that room and plead and cry and God doesn’t take the cup from their boy’s lips.

They are left bereft and empty-armed, and I can hardly breathe when I think of that played out. I can make no sense of the “why?” questions, and while my head does fine with accepting the sound theological parsing of suffering, my heart can’t swallow it. On this side of mortality, there is no answer to the reality of that kind of suffering.

There is only Jesus.

A wounded Savior, I’m desperate for him. It’s moments like those where I need the crucifix. I need to see God himself coming to enter into suffering and death. I need to see him draw near to us in the face of our doubt and grief and show us the wounds in his hands and his side.

© Copyright Michael Saludo  and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Michael Saludo and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

When I hear stories of loss, a friend whose newborn baby died after four months of battling in the hospital, the woman whose five-year-old was suddenly given a few months to live, the dying mother who stores up letters for her four children to read after she’s gone, the missionary who came home on furlough to find a terminal cancer diagnosis, the Code Blues ringing through the hospital halls —it is too much for me. Death, our great enemy, steals in, and how can we endure it? 

I don’t know. There are no theological answers that make the pain bearable. Death is part of our world — a strange, beautiful, holy, and terrible thing about being human.

Lent gives me space to receive this, it brings me into the wilderness with Christ, who took on a body destined for dust. The ashes on all of our foreheads become a quiet chorus that whispers: death comes to us all. Though we must accept death, there is no way to normalize it. I think of this as I wonder how one copes with the suffering and untimely death of a child. Or of anyone, really, because is death ever timely when we were made for life?

I’m having trouble ending this post, wrapping it up with some sort of tidy conclusion, but I think that’s perhaps appropriate. There is no conclusion for the Lenten moments – no tidy answer for my empty-armed friends, for the mothers still pacing floors, for the hollowed-eyed fathers in the hospital coffee line, for all of us who cry wordless prayers of pain.

Together, we wait with the suffering, gasping, beautiful world, believing hard that Easter is coming.

 

Mundane Faithfulness

Democracy of the Dead – Catherine Marshall

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  

To honor that sentiment and to stave off an easy chronological snobbery, today’s post comes straight from the mouths (or pens) of men and women who have died in the faith.

From Catherine Marshall’s BEYOND OUR SELVES 

“…during Kenneth’s long illness, I had so many examples of God’s tender father-love.  Like that time soon after Kenneth himself suspected that he was going to die and asked me ‘Mother, what is it like to die?  Mother, does it hurt?’

Cross by George Wharton JamesEven as Mrs. Mac repeated the questions, tears sprang to my eyes.  “How – did you answer him?”

The white-haired woman seemed to be seeing into the past.  “I remember that I fled to the kitchen, supposedly to attend to something on the stove.  I leaned against the kitchen cabinet.  Queer, I’ll never forget certain tiny details, like the feel of my knuckles pressed hard against the smooth, cold surface.  And I asked God how to answer my boy.

“God did tell me.  Only He could have given me the answer to the hardest question that a mother an ever be asked.  I knew – just knew how to explain death to him.  ‘Kenneth,’ I remember saying, ‘you know how when you were a tiny boy, you used to play so hard all day that when night came, you would be too tired to undress – so you would tumble into Mother’s bed and fall asleep?’

“’That was not your bed.  It was not where you belonged.  And you would only stay there a little while.  In the morning – to your surprise – you would wake up and find yourself in your own bed in your own room.  You were there because someone had loved you and had taken care of you.  Your father had come – with his great strong arms – and carried you away.

“So I told Kenneth that death is like that.  We just wake up some morning to find ourselves in another room – our own room, where we belong.  We shall be there, because God loves us even more than our human fathers and takes care of us just as tenderly.”

We were both silent for a moment.  Then Mrs. Mac said softly, “Kenneth never had any fear of dying after that.  If – for some reason that I still don’t understand – he could not be healed, then this taking away of all fear was the next greatest gift God could give us.  And in the end, Kenneth went on into the next life exactly as God has told me he would – gently, sweetly.”  There was the look of profound peace on my friend’s face as she spoke.

Welcome

Thank you for visiting. I am a fellow pilgrim, a lover of words, one whose heart had been struck by the Word of the living God. I love him. I trust that his perfect love for me is daily triumphing over my fears: fear of the unknown, fear of all the ugly scars of pain and grief, fear of death and dying, and I look to him to defeat the plague of fear and replace it with newness of life.

My words, prayers and reflections here are offerings of courage, a discipline that helps me take heart and strengthens my will to choose the good. I offer them to you in the hopes that together we might give each courage along the way.

May the Lord ever satisfy you with his Word.

Courage+
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