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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The Same Kind of Suffering

Be sober-minded.  Be watchful,” the apostle Peter writes to a young church undergoing intense persecution.  “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

© Copyright John Kerstholt  and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright John Kerstholt and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I read my copies of The Voice of the Martyr’s and Gospel for Asia, and I learn that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than all the centuries preceding.  The stories are difficult to digest:

The pastor’s wife, who finds herself a widow with twelve children to raise after her husband is machete-ed to death.  The solitary girl whose parents and two other sisters were slaughtered for their faith.  The wrongfully imprisoned.  The hidden church.  The children rejected and abused for their faith.  The missionaries hiking miles through hostile jungles to share the gospel with remote villages.

When I’m having a day beset by fear and doubt, I often read the life-stories of these brothers and sisters, and my heart gains courage.  Because despite my suburban existence, I’m desperate for courage.  

Resist [your adversary],” Peter goes on to say, “firm in your faith, knowing that the same kind of suffering is being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” I read this the other day and was stopped short.  Really?  The same kind of suffering?  My American Christian life is nothing like that of the persecuted church.

Or is it?

A Ugandan pastor’s life is snuffed out by a violent physical assault.  An American pastor’s witness destroyed by a life of hidden addiction and sin.  In both, the collateral damage is immense.

An Indonesian church building is bombed by a hostile grenade, and a prosperous southern congregation ripped right down the middle with gossip and slander and righteous indignation.  A middle-eastern theological seminary is denied permits for their building by an intolerant government and a western denomination grows fat with luxurious campuses set to tickle the ears of listeners.

© Copyright Jerzy Hulewicz and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Jerzy Hulewicz and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

A Chinese pastor is tortured in a prison camp, because of his preaching, and a western Christian is chained up by addiction and despair.  A North Korean believer cannot teach their children about Jesus under penalty of death, and an American believer is paralyzed by the lie of affluence and free-time.

Christians in hostile countries are faced with the life-or-death moment: will you deny the faith or face years of imprisonment and torture and you and I stick fast in our spiritual inertia and the captivity of a mindless cultural norm. 

It’s no use quibbling over what qualifies as an enemy’s attack.  The church is besieged, and you, if you are a Christian, are smack dab in the middle of the battlefield.

Because the truth is all Christians are undergoing the same kind of suffering.  We do not have the imminent threat of a machete attack, but we, too, live in a world torn asunder.  One full of loss and fear and doubt.  Of broken relationships and broken hearts and diseased minds.  Of fractured souls and hidden pain and “coping mechanisms” that strangle the life out of us.

 You are fooling yourself if you don’t think you have an enemy.

You have a real enemy.  The one who is looking to devour you.  And the reality is, your enemy isn’t a movie version, the kind that will only push the hero so far until she can break free and save the day.  Your enemy comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy. The time is short and the stakes are real.

Whether literal physical imprisonment or spiritual chains, both kinds of oppression have the same aim: to keep you from being effective and fruitful in the kingdom.

Your real suffering is whatever paralyzes you, the things that keep you from fulfilling God’s purpose for you.  You know what I’m talking about.

That deep-seated long-held fear that keeps you safe at home.

© Copyright Jerry Segraves and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Jerry Segraves and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

The addiction that’s destroying you but you still can’t set it down.

The lies that lull you into drowsy complacency or riles you up to self-protective indignation.

The voice that tells you you’re being too legalistic or intense or whatever, the one that claims what you do might not really matter all that much.

The insatiable appetite for entertainment that keeps you from truly living.

Whatever battle you find yourself in, take heart!  Peter’s words are for us today.  This exhortation to watchfulness and sober-mindedness comes right after the familiar verse: Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

You are not alone in the battle you face today, in whatever threatens to unmoor you and keep you immobilized.  God cares for you.

Almighty God, the one who stretched out the heavens and sustains all things by the word of his power.  He cares for you.

He invites you to cast all your cares on him, to put yourself under his mighty hand.  He is the one who has promised to be with you always.

And Peter’s exhortation doesn’t end there.  It concludes with a promise:  “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself confirm, restore, strengthen, and establish you.

Almighty God will complete the work he has begun in you.  The one who works all things together for good for those who love himHe will not leave you to yourselfThe hope of your transformation rests on his faithfulness, not yours.  His promise is triumph over suffering, hope in the midst of adversity, the weight of glory surpassing momentary sufferings.

Because whether we see victory this side of heaven or not, we are people-who-live-by-faith.  We look with hope to the promise of resurrection, to the day when we can celebrate with God how he brought good from that particular suffering, from that unbelievable loss.  Hope-filled people see the tragedy of the martyr’s widow and orphaned children, the ministry destroyed by sin, the broken and crippled churches, and all the collateral damage on the battlefield and even yet trust that good can come of all of it.

Because good will come of it.  God promises you a feast.

© Copyright Daniel Dauria and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Daniel Dauria and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Your enemies linger on the outside, pressing in and tempting you to leave the table, or perhaps try and keep you from ever sitting down.  Resist them, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kind of suffering is being experienced by the church around the world and across the centuries.  Look around the table.  You are not alone.  Your brothers and sisters are there, too, joining the feast.

And do you know who else is there?  Christ himself, the one who has prepared the table for you in the presence of your enemiesChrist himself serves youChrist himself offers you his life for your daily breadChrist himself, who shows us his own wounds, engraved with the weight of the world’s suffering.  Come at his invitation.

For where Christ is makes a heaven even of the wilderness.