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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Self-preservation, or…?

Christianity is a battle, not a dream.”  – Wendell Phillips

I’ve written before about my ongoing struggle with fear.  I hold tight to the promises of peace, trusting in the nearness of God to be my good.  I memorize verses that tell me that He is my refuge.  I pray loud that God is my only security, that only in Him can I be safe.  Which is why I came up short the other day to find I was wrong.

© Copyright Jerry Segraves and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Jerry Segraves and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Nowhere am I promised to be safe.  Oh, He will be my refugeHis nearness is, in fact, my good.  He will become my security, but my insatiable need to feel safe will never be met this side of heaven.  I stumbled across one of those charts that you’ve probably seen before.  The ones that contrast “fleshly thinking” with “spirit-filled thinking.”

And this one sets the desire for peace against the acknowledgment that we are in a battle:

“Is self-complacent; craves the peace of mind that relieves him of unwelcome responsibilities.”

vs. 

“Knows that warfare between good and evil will not allow undisturbed peace.[1]

I’d heard before that peace doesn’t necessarily mean everything goes perfectly.  You only have to look at the cross to recognize that Jesus didn’t mean “trouble free” when he said “My peace I give to you.”

I’d heard how He doesn’t promise to take the storm away, but that He gives you peace in the midst of the storm.

But what if it’s not just a promise to help us endure the storm?  What if it’s a call to get out there and stir one up? 

I spend so many hours hoping that tragedy doesn’t strike that I’m not even truly living.  I remember watching my six-year-old waver on the edges of the dodgeball game during kindergarten recess.  The thought of getting hit with the ball was just too much for him.  I can relate.

But here’s the truth, the one I need to sink down into the depths of my soul: The ball might hit you, and it might hurt, but staying on the sidelines means you never get to play the game.

Lisa Bevere states it this way:

© Copyright Michael Gäbler and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Michael Gäbler and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

“Becoming who God created you to be is both your best offense and your best defense against the enemy’s strategies.  He obviously didn’t stop you from drawing breath. It is now time to keep him from stifling the spiritual seed God planted inside you.  When the enemy oppresses, it is always because he fears what we might become.”

I think that’s true. The next best thing to making sure you were never born or killing you outright, is sentencing you to a living death where you do absolutely nothing.  Self-preservation is the opposite of the gospel, so how is that I’ve been telling myself God will help me with my pet project of self-security?

Preserving your life doesn’t save it.  It just keeps it.  And what good is a well-kept life? 

I want a well-spent one.  Whole-heartedly, frivolously, even recklessly poured out, because we’ve joined His game, and it’s a wild one.

 

 

“Ours should not be the love that asks, ‘How little?’ but ‘how much?’;

the love that pours out its all and revels in the joy of having anything to pour on the feet of its Beloved.

The question ‘what is the harm?’ falls from us and is forgotten when we Calvary, the Crucified, and the risen-again Rabboni of our Souls.”

–Amy Carmichael


[1] Beyond Ourselves, pg. 192

The Good Shepherd

I like to sing the hymn, “This is My Father’s World,” because it helps me recollect that courage is my birthright.

© Copyright Hansueli Krapf and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Hansueli Krapf and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Sometimes I get frustrated with the slow process, the way my head-faith doesn’t match up with my emotions and heart reality.  Some days the brokenness and self-absorption, the underlying this-is-not-the-way-it-is-supposed-to-be is overwhelming and I just want to hurry up and be sanctified already.  Faith-filled because of insta-healing.  Done with the struggle.

You and I both know that rarely happens.

The good news is that Jesus sticks fast.  He doesn’t leave us to ourselves or abandon us.  He doesn’t even wait for us to realize that we’re broken and self-absorbed.  It’s like parenting a young child.  You don’t tell a two-year-old to quit being so self-focused.  It’s just the way he is at two.  It’s just the way we are in sin.  We’re a mess.

We really are terrified sheep.  See that one over there?  The one who is frenetically racing around the sheepfold, quaking in fear?  See the joyless one?  She’s rushing from one thing to the next, harried by circumstances and hounding memories, and fears of the future.  She’s got raw wounds and infected flesh.

She’s beat up and starved, because she’s so afraid she never sits still long enough to find true nourishment.  She will continue to run, until she actually dies, because she knows no differently.  Even if someone could explain to her why it really doesn’t make sense for her to be afraid given her reality, she would find no peace or rest in that perspective.

© Copyright Michael Gäbler and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Michael Gäbler and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

This sheep on her own will die.  She will die because of her wounds.  And she will die because she is so blinded by herself.

Perhaps someday this sheep will be able to root out the fear and feed in security.  Perhaps she will venture out to the wide-open pastures there for thetaking.  Perhaps not.  Whatever she ends up doing, whatever she does in this present moment, her only hope is to stick close to the shepherd.  She may still hover about his knees, quaking at imagined threats, but he doesn’t mind.  He will protect her from any true threat and give her exactly what she needs.

And do you think any passable shepherd will leave her cringing there at the edge of his cloak?  No, he will gather that wounded scared-to-literal-death sheep in his arms, and carry her close to his bosom.  He’ll do the same for you.  He tends his flock like a shepherd, and he gently leads those who have young.  He invites them to feast on His presence even when they are beset by enemies.  He is with them in the dark moments.  He will lead them beside still waters.  He will restore their souls.

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© Copyright Jonathan M and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!  Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!  

On Fear

I am constantly beset by fears.  When I was 10-years-old, at the height of the early-90s AIDS scare, I once stayed up all night because there was a mosquito in my room, and I was convinced this meant I would get bitten and die from AIDS.

© Copyright John Kerstholt  and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright John Kerstholt and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Yes, seriously.

My fears are equally unsophisticated today.  They are always irrational, improbable, and completely petrifying.  Occasionally, I can cloak them in some semblance of culturally-acceptable palatability.

Of course mothers worry about their childrens’ well-being. That’s my job. 

Of course I should worry about health problems.  Perfect health is my birthright. 

Of course I should worry about my financial future.  To do otherwise is irresponsible.  After all, it’s the American way.

But whether my fears are tolerable or ridiculous, they all are grounded in one base lie: God is not good.  He is not trustworthy.  He might accidentally permit something horrible.

I need to be vigilant so that the unspeakable doesn’t find me.  He will not really protect me, provide for me, love me.  Sound familiar?  Doubting the goodness of God is the original sin, the core of all our brokenness and woundedness and bentness.  It is our root problem.

Perhaps you are like me.  Perhaps you can toe the line theologically and intellectually.  I believe that God is good.  I know that the incarnation is the supreme evidence of this.  I genuinely confess his goodness and pray for grace to live into it.  I assent to his love and care.  But my soul is in love-less agony. 

What does it mean that God loves you?  How do you receive and feed on that truth? And can it seep into every corner of your soul, thus transforming your life?

Scripture says yes.  The Bible teaches us that nothing can separate us from his love.  In fact, over and over, we are commanded not to fear. The worst we can imagine: death, suffering, pain, loss; it doesn’t matter.  His love is with us.

It flows in and through us.  His love is never content to be held at arm’s length.  It is consuming and inexorable.  The current of his life can wash all the festering wounds and sweep away the toxic disease and sin of our unbelief.  Cleansing, life-giving streams can flood our inner person.  He promises to do this with each of us.

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© Copyright Dirk Beyer and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

In my prayer closet, I can receive this.  Many days I wish I could live in my prayer closet.  It’s when I come out that things get hard.  The anxiety creeps back.  My old places of woundedness and fear come knocking at the door of my soul.  My enemy prowls around digging his claws into the sore spots and twisting hard.

When the reality of loss and grief, of sin and injustice, of evil slaps you in the face, how can you regain your breath?  How can you put the first foot forward?

Most days, I don’t know.   I hold tight to the promise that He gives abundant life.  That He delights in our well-being.  That He is love.  And in that place of miniscule belief, I declare, “I believe that you are love.  And anything that comes from your hand, I will accept with gratitude.”

This, for me, is the gate out of fear.  This is tiny faith that stands up and walks around in the love of God.

It’s not a fatalistic agreement that what will be, will be, thank you very much.  Accepting what God alone gives in turn renounces anything that doesn’t come from God’s hand.

It looks to him, who sustains all of creation by the power of his ever-present Word, the Word who knows what it’s like to be us.  Because when God opens his hand to satisfy the desire of every living thing, that’s what he gives us.  Christ himself, the bread of life.  And, in the midst of my fear, I pray for grace to look up and see Jesus himself alone.

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Image Credit: Mepkin Abbey

Losing Our Minds

“If you lose your mind, you lose it into the hands of God.”  – Elizabeth Goudge 

I would have thought this quaint before I had my own mid-life crisis.  I actually like the term “nervous breakdown” better.  That somehow seems more benign than the modern diagnoses with their sterile categories, the ones that somehow suggest diseased thinking can be folded up and put in the appropriate drawer like a mildewed sweater.

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© Copyright Leo Gestel and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Panic disorder.  Anxiety disorder.  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Someone even suggested PMS.  If only.  It doesn’t take much.  Just the tiniest slip, the way in which your body betrays you with the sudden rush of adrenaline or your logical thinking jumps out the window at the thought of driving over a bridge.

The trigger itself is irrelevant, but you know that your reasoning doesn’t make sense, and willing  yourself to be braver, or more faith-filled, or just saner leaves you clutching the airplane seat-handle and counting the long breaths.

At first I thought it was uncommon.  That something went wrong.  Thyroid or hormones or vitamin deficiencies or Something, because mental illness isn’t the American way.  It’s impermissible, kind of like aging or imperfect health.

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© Copyright naturenet and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

And then I discovered we all have it.  We call it by different names.  Alcoholism or a struggle with porn or workaholism or yo-yo dieting.  Internet addiction or shopping therapy or hidden rage or cutting.  But really it all stems from the reality that we are defective.  We’re broken.  John Eldridge says something to the effect that we are all born into this world doubting the love of God.  There’s the root of it.

At our deepest level, we operate out of the reality of scarcity and fear and brokenness and sin.  Not just the “sin” of one individual transgression, but the death-bringing, life-defying, stranglehold of separation from our Father.  We are alone and terrified, and there comes a time for each of us when we are stripped bare of our coping mechanisms.  When the novels or movies or food or relationships fail us, and we are left naked and shaken, wondering if we have lost our minds.

I wonder if we ever had them in the first place.

Thing is, it doesn’t matter.  He holds our minds.  He holds our fractured souls, our fragmented lives, our frantic running and striving and avoiding.  He knows we are but dust.  He’s never been fooled by our posing as anything different.

Though he’s promised us he will make us so.  “Don’t be afraid, little flock,” he says.  “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  I think about this on the nights when I wonder if things can get better.  Or worry about how they can possibly get any worse.  On nights when I see without question that there is no health in me, and I’m afraid that even the illusion of well-being might be stripped away.  Those are the nights when I cling to the truth of God’s love fleshed out.  Jesus is with me, I pray.  Jesus will take care of me. 

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© Copyright jcsalmon and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I need this truth in a world of sudden breath-taking tragedy.  One full of inexplicable loss and terminal diagnoses and children starving and people being trafficked.  Of news reports that warn me to be more vigilant and less trusting and more careful.  A world beset by an enemy who does indeed steal and kill and destroy.  A world where from the first day we drew breath, we lost our sense of well-being.  Let’s reclaim it.  Jesus is with us.  Jesus will take care of us.