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
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Fighting for Faith

“How long will this people despise me?  And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”  Numbers 14:11

I like to think that I would have unshakeable faith if I could only see God’s goodness with my eyes.  How could the Israelites still not believe when time after time they experienced first hand God’s miraculous, mind-boggling deliverance?

© Copyright Arpingstone and licensed for reuse under Wikimedia.

© Copyright Arpingstone and licensed for reuse under Wikimedia.

They witness the shocking clarity of the Plagues, the way God’s people were spared while the rest of the land despaired.  Their feet carry them through the impossible crossing of the Red Sea, an astounding triumph of dead-end deliverance.  They, a ragtag band of slaves, plunder Egypt, the most powerful empire on earth.

And what was it like to see a fiery column blazing through the nighttime darkness and a mysterious cloud leading the community by day?  How could one deny God’s presence with that daily reminder hovering overhead? Every morning, they tasted the manna, food that rained down from heaven and filled their every need.  Despite all this, with each new challenge, they waver in fear, wishing they could go back to Egypt.

Joshua and Caleb didn’t understand either.  “The Lord will give us this good land,” they told the people.  “Only do not rebel against the Lord.  And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us.  Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.”

But the people don’t believe Joshua and Caleb.  They choose unbelief.  Unbelief in the face of the Lord’s goodness.  Unbelief despite of all he had said and done to show his special care for them.  Unbelief with the miraculous hovering overhead.

I would believe, I tell myself.  If I had seen what they had seen, experienced what they experienced, I would believe.  But I’m lying to myself.

Haven’t I seen and tasted even more?  Haven’t I witnessed the fullness of the Gospel, God’s ultimate triumph over all the powers of darkness, his defeat of death itself?  Don’t I live on this side of Calvary, a place where Christians know with confidence that nothing can separate us from the love God?  That there is no condemnation, no crippling judgment, no barrier between my Creator and me?  Haven’t I learned to call him Father?  Don’t I receive the daily, living bread, sent from heaven to satisfy my every need?

© Copyright Daniel Dauria and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Daniel Dauria and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I wonder: were the Israelites really foolish or were they just unable to make the connection?  Perhaps they wrote off as coincidence God’s intervention in their lives.  Or perhaps their terror was so great it drowned out the memory of past goodness.

Or maybe we really are that broken that no matter what we see with our eyes or experience with our lives, we still believe the serpent’s accusation that God is not good, that he will fail us.

For isn’t unbelief at the root of all sin?  Isn’t doubt of God’s goodness at the core of every act of rebellion? 

This unbelief creeps in when I worry over what might happen, over what Bad Thing could come.

It blinds me to the gift of the present moment with a repeating loop of past mistakes and the wearisome anxiety of future what-ifs.

It smothers the planted Word of God when I think about the good I could do and then yawn and return to my established habits of mindless entertainment.

It occupies me with sin management rather than love for God and others.

It keeps me in the wilderness when God has called me to the Promised Land. 

And it riles me up to scorn and despise any person who might challenge my unbelief by calling me to faith in God’s goodness.

I stand with the Israelites, rock in hand, ready to stone Joshua and Caleb for their faith-filled words.  How dare they suggest God delights in overcoming impossible odds?  How can they call me to risk my life, to base all on a promise from God?  Isn’t it folly to hold my life so loosely, to cast all hope on something he might fail to deliver?

© Copyright Hansueli Krapf and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Hansueli Krapf and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

The serpent’s words echo down through the ages: Has God really said? God might be withholding something.  His ways might not really be good. What God really means is that you get what seems best to you.  And the insidious seed of unbelief takes root.

How can we fight for faith when we are so inclined to doubt?  How do we find faith when our eyes are so darkened by the size of the enemy in front of us?  When everything looks dark and grim and full of giants?  We stand in the desert and look at the carnage in front of us, opting for scarcity instead of risking faith in his promise of security and abundance.

I think we fight for faith every time we pronounce the opposite of the tempter’s words.  We fight for faith by calling to mind what God has really said.

God has said that he loves me.  That he delights in my well-being.  That he is not blind to the groaning of the world.  That he will work good even out of the darkest moments. That in the end, all will come right, that all of this will have been a momentary blink, not worth the weight of glory to come.  That we will rejoice with him at the eternal feast.  Like Joshua and Caleb, we declare back the promises of God, and we encourage our hearts with the truth: God is good.  Whether I’m able to recognize it or not, he is good.

We fight for faith by reading the Scripture, by replaying the countless ways he’s helped his people.  We read church history, witnessing anew his ongoing presence and activity in our world.  We recall our own personal Ebenezers, the moments where we say: Thus far has the Lord helped me.

We fight for faith by waving our tiny fists in the face of a fallen cosmos, holding on to the belief that this is our Father’s world, even when all around us declare it to be worthless.  In the face of bleak circumstances we join our voices with all of creation and proclaim the goodness of God.  We shout it to the heavens, leaving no room for tendrils of fear and uncertainty to choke us.

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© Copyright nheyob and licensed for reuse under Wikimedia.

We fight for faith by recalibrating our idea of goodness.  We set aside the safe bet, what seems good to us, what we’d design as a world-plan or plan for our lives.  Because, really, what do we know anyway?  Looking to him in faith, even when everything around suggests otherwise, is the story of the Scriptures.  It is God’s way.

It’s David gathering stones in the presence of Goliath, it’s Gideon sneaking into the enemy camp quavering in fear, it’s Hezekiah spreading the accusations of his enemies before the Lord.

It’s too-old Abraham and laughable Sarah having a child, it’s a young woman becoming queen and saving her people from genocide.

It’s Joash the boy-king and Moses the murderer-turned-leader and Elijah with his water-drenched altar.  It’s God turning everything topsy-turvy and taking the humble and small and ridiculous to work inexpressible triumph.  It’s a teenage virgin believing an angel and uneducated fishermen teaching millions through the generations.

It’s a persecutor becoming an advocate, unclean Gentiles receiving the Spirit, and the last, the little, and the least inheriting the kingdom.  It’s God himself becoming a helpless baby, and the torturer’s cross becoming the hope of the world. It’s the Christian story.  It’s your story.   

Renounce unbelief.  Take the stones you would hurl in fear and anger and instead build an altar of remembrance.  Cast aside the things that feed doubt and call to mind the clear evidence of the Lord’s presence in and with you.  In the darkness of suffering and loss, sing of his goodness.  Raise your tiny fist in the air and defy the brokenness of our world.

© Copyright Michael Saludo  and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Michael Saludo and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Say it loud: God has really spoken.  His eternal Word came forth and reconciled all things to himself.  He spoke his Word, and I am saved.  Say it through the ages: My God is good.