The deepest things I’ve learned and the greatest gifts I’ve received have come from the deepest suffering – having what I didn’t want or wanting what I didn’t have. And I imagine that most of you would say exactly the same – Elisabeth Elliot
What a dreadful place the world would be (if) you eliminated suffering. Everything that corrects the tendency of man to feel over-important and over-pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now, but he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered – Malcolm Muggeridge
Forgiveness; can you imagine? – Lin-Manuel Miranda
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
And by it, I mean 2020; and by like this, I mean epic global disaster ratcheting up our intra-and-inter-personal tensions to the point where most of us are thinking, speaking, and behaving in ways we hardly recognize and somehow reacting to the thing one of your closest people did as though it is now indescribably intolerable so you will SHOW THEM by unleashing all your pent-up fury, because, guess what, the disaster has also deprived us all of the thing many of us rely on to get through hard things:
Easy Access to Our People.
Some of you aren’t sure what I’m talking about. You used to know what I meant, but now you find yourself sitting in a space that feels empty, white, bereft.
You thought you had people.
But the people you thought were your people have somehow vanished along with memories of
high-fiving strangers in grocery stores
after your local sports team wins
Seriously, guys. Remember hugging?
Like, hugging those people not in your household?
Others of you are wondering what all the fuss is about.
Seriously, its not a big deal, you think.
No one in your sphere of influence has been impacted by this seemingly-far-off-or-possibly-made-up virus and you wonder,
either out loud or to yourself,
why should I care?
And in so resolving not to care –
because that’s easier than throwing online landmines at your distant second cousin’s Facebook petition because HOW DARE THEY be pro-mask or anti-mask or whatever they happen to be that seems oh-so-offensive right now
Its not supposed to be like this.
Remember when we used to communicate with, well, random people?
(Before you peace out, introverts, back up; I’m an introvert too, and we need our people just as much as anyone … in small, measured, controlled doses, and only those we really like, and only when we feel like it, of course.)
(So … shh. This affects you too.)
Remember those normal every day interactions we had at the office or the schoolyard or the grocery store or the waiter at the restaurant?
(Seriously, the last time I’ve seen someone in the service industry SMILE.)
(Right now, it’s the last time I’ve seen someone in the service industry period).
Those tiny little interactions, like waving your fist at the driver who cut you off and then realizing their daughter is in your daughters sports team or high school band,
and then realizing we really can’t hide
and no man is an island
and all of that.
We’ve been given the gift
of seeing life
as though each man is an island.
And I don’t know about you, but I think we’re getting worse on our islands.
No, seriously, go with me on this.
Think about the level of reactivity you have to normal, every day frustrations. Your coffee being cold. Your commute being long. A slow-moving train parking itself in front of your road while you’re late getting your kids to school. Your mother-in-law’s latest phone call wondering when you’ll be free to get together (THIS IS NOT ME. MY MOTHER-IN-LAW IS AMAZING AND I LOVE TALKING TO HER.Not kidding even a little bit.)
Then think about the level of reactivity you see in those around you.
Do you ever find yourself wondering,
Where did that come from?
Why are we even talking about this?
It makes me wonder if we aren’t reacting to the thing in front of us at all;
If we’re reacting to something more frustrating than any mask mandate or social gathering ban in history:
The understanding that we are more powerless over our lives than we originally thought.
Take my oldest for example.
Last Christmas, after eight and a half years of homeschooling, my Christmas girl announced to me that she was going to go to MEI
and oh, by the way,
she was going to get into their marching band.
My head spun.
I had taken the school tour for her sister, not her; she was ‘just humouring me’ by tagging along, she’d said.
I calmly reminded her that no one had ever gotten into band in grade 10;
that her grade year was already full;
and oh, by the way,
what on earth was she planning to play in that marching band,
because last I’d checked she didnt play a brass instrument.
Or a woodwind.
Or a drum.
Head up, she marched into our school-room-turned-music-room-in-the-process-of-becoming-a-recording-studio, hauled out a case I’d forgotten we had and announced:
The grandpa she’d never met.
The same one who learned trumpet to make some friends in high school.
The one who’d I’d never heard play that trumpet.
The same grandpa she kind of looks like a little bit and the same one who’s fiestiness would have made her giggle and giggle till her sides hurt.
The same one who’s sense of humor she’s inherited ten times over.
I asked her why, and she said – well, it’s clear I need to learn a few things about people.
The truth was, her heart had just been broken.
As goes many adolescent – and lets face it, sometimes adult – relationships, a friend had proven to be something other than who she’d thought.
And while the initial discovery of the betrayal she felt was intense,
and something I’d never want to relive with her,
when she looked at me and said
clearly I need to learn that people aren’t always who they seem.
I knew every tear was worth it.
I wasn’t sure she’d get what she wanted.
(In fact, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t.)
But I wanted to fan the flame of her boldness,
so I threw all my efforts into making it happen,
because if there was one thing I resented growing up,
it was all the people who seemed to try to tell me my dreams were ridiculous or it couldn’t be done
and I resented myself even more for believing them,
instead of giving it a try and seeing what would happen.
Thing is, my girl is ahead of me.
She knew she had nothing to lose, and possibly everything to gain.
And… she got into band.
But the place she thought would ease her way into a new environment has instead been found to be the most challenging part.
But hard isn’t necessarily bad.
I got into a bit of a rant about this at work this week.
Fifteen years ago, when my girl was barely sitting up on her own and I started labour and delivery nursing, most women I met wanted to have as little intervention as possible with the hope to deliver as naturally as possible. I occasionally had to convince them that some situations called for some intervention, and that a small intervention could sometimes save them from a bigger one.
But that’s not so much the case anymore.
Now most women I meet want to have as much control as possible over their experience, and while that’s a concept that resonates, and patient choice is important,
there’s something about labour and delivery that defies control.
Our bodies are built to do something
that naturally overwhelms the strength we think we have to that point.
When we submit to that process,
we find that maybe
we could do a harder thing than we once thought.
So while, sure, I’ll get you your epidural, I’m a little concerned about the growing idea among expectant parents that
as soon as this labour thing is over with, everything’s going to be great.
I’m not sure what they’re expecting, but we deliver humans in my line of work, not puppies or house plants or toys or artificial intelligence.
Unique humans, who will challenge every reserve we think we have and push every button we didn’t know we had, and who, as they get older, won’t require less from us so much, but different; and the kind of different where the stakes are increasingly high.
And unless we stick our heads in the sand and scream LALALALALALALA
I don’t know of any epidural for raising teenagers.
But I do know that pain isn’t always the sign of a bad thing.
In my line of work, it signals birth.
And the thing about being an expert bedside nurse
is that you know
sometimes anesthetizing isn’t the way to go.
Think about the way it was designed – birth, that is.
Long before the serpent, apple and curse, a woman’s body was designed with a small form of a future womb; one that would grow and adapt and seal in a growing human. At the right time, the muscles at the top of that womb would start contracting, so that it opened, made room for, and pushed out
There’s no way that wouldn’t involve a little, erhm,
And yet we seem to think that birth after the Fall should be more comfortable than it was before.
Some of my patients have mused about what labour would have been like before Genesis 3.
The agony of the contractions they experience
combined with the absorbing cultural mandate to
avoid suffering at all costs
has lulled them into thinking that pain and work are the enemy,
When in the original paradise,
There was always going to be a little of both.
Take the work designed for man in Genesis 2, for example.
It says that man was placed in the garden, put there, to cultivate and keep it.
The word for put in Hebrew is also the word for rest.
The man was rested there, in order to cultivate and keep the garden.
I’m no gardener, but my neighbor is.
Year round, I watch her tend her growing things with detailed, continued, expert, constant supervision, weeding, watching and waiting.
And some of it is just plain work.
Her joy in that work is palpable, though;
Because doing the work we were meant to do often feels like rest.
When we are able to do the thing we are called to do and have the exact resources we need, when its not so challenging to seem impossible and also not so easy that it loses our attention – that’s flow. It feels so natural it hardly involves strain.
I wonder if that’s why the Hebrew word for it was rest.
But rest man did not.
Instead, at an undisclosed-but-seemingly-almost-immediate-time-after-their-creation,
the woman placed as a helper suitable for him
isn’t found helping her husband do what he’s been called to do
– cultivate and keep the garden –
but is standing right in front of the one tree they’ve both been commanded to stay away from.
Oh, its not all her fault. It’s clear from the text that Adam was right there next to her, saying nothing to contradict her.
But complainers tend to produce a culture of complaining,
and envious eyes tend to produce self-pity in their companions;
So this helper was leading him to doubt the goodness of the situation he’d been provided.
Ignoring the from any tree in the garden you may eat, freely, she zeroes in on the
One tree purposely kept out of her reach – for her good.
She couldn’t see that, though.
All she could see was how good the tree looked, and how great it would taste, and how her life and her person would be so much better if she just had this one thing.
Our oldest has had her eyes open to this battle lately – in herself, her friends, and girls in general.
Why do we always focus on the one thing going wrong,
instead of all the things going right?
Last Wednesday she challenged herself to a fourteen-day-no-complaining fast.
Twelve hours in, she texted me:
THIS IS SOOOO HARD!
My immediate response:
Are you complaining about that?
A vehement ARGH greeted me in return.
I wonder if the structure of the challenge is your problem.
It’s never wise to focus on the one tree when there’s an entire garden to enjoy.
The first BC COVID lockdown of 2020,
all I could see was the one tree.
To be fair, it seemed like a lot more than one. It felt like fifteen thousand.
But in reality, the part that really felt like loss to me was not being able to see friends.
I feared I’d lose some of them.
I feared they wouldn’t miss me.
I feared finding out I didn’t belong in anyone’s bubble.
And I let that fear control me.
Word to the wise: fear never accomplishes anything good in us.
But it did force me to confront some layers in my soul that should have been put to death long ago.
Fortunately the lockdown made it impossible NOT to confront those layers.
I mean, what else was I gonna DO?
So I couldn’t help but think as I watched the BC Health Officer update of a few weeks ago informing us that social gatherings of any size were banned and churches no longer permitted to meet,
That I was a lot different now than I was back in March.
Each restriction announced this November could have felt like a punch in the stomach.
The place that my girl found stressful and even damaging at times – school – was staying open; her outlets of joy and confidence – youth, her first opportunity to lead worship – both at church – were being shut down
or severely modified.
And yet I knew, I KNEW, this was going to be
exactly what we – and she – needed.
I just needed to take her – and my – eyes off the one tree.
So I asked for the grace to see the garden.
And it was there – abundant, plentiful, and free.
The opportunity to get some living room updates done without distraction.
More time at home, inside, preparing our homes and hearts for Christmas.
An opportunity for me to focus on each of my family as well as learn a new role at work that seemed to fall in my lap.
And a break from some other things that needed some space too.
Because a break can be an odd form of gift.
There were things she wasn’t going to get a break from – her job, her friends, and the time to sleep and concentrate on the other things shed been given to do
– including catching up to some new music in band,
Because she’d been promoted to second trumpet in one song.
So we took a collective breath.
It was going to be just fine.
The trick was to just do the next right thing.
(In case you’re wondering if you’ve heard that before, you probably have; a woman far wiser and mature than me came up with it. I’ve quoted her at the beginning.)
The funny thing about doing the next right thing, is that wou become so occupied doing the next right thing
you don’t see all the difficult and painful things passing
as those series of right things lead to
exactly what they should –
Contentment, production, meaningful contribution to the world.
Or – exactly where you were always meant to be.
I caught a glimpse of that lately.
A few years ago I had a significant period of shifting, transition, and, well, loss. And a few months ago a friend who knew me well enough to know of the shift but not enough to know all the layers behind it was talking about how she sometimes finds it difficult to understand grace.
Justice makes sense to her; grace, not so much.
If someone takes something from me, they need to give it back or be punished, she said.
Its something I could have heard myself say not so long ago.
And while I still believe it, because justice is an important thing to advocate for,
In the moment I heard her say those words all I could think about was
If I was thinking about this a certain way, I could accuse you of stealing from me this very opportunity to talk about your passion for justice and struggle with grace.
And instead all I could think was
If only you knew the grace you were being shown right now.
I gasped – to myself, of course.
She had no idea.
And it made me wonder,
How many hidden graces am I missing?
Probably a lot.
Take my high school yearbook, for example.
I pulled it out recently to show Noelle some pictures of people I went to school with whose kids were in her class, and I found it littered with messages from people who truly made me smile, in person and on paper.
The messages. They were light hearted and deep and meaningful and fun.
And there were LOTS of them.
I didn’t remember high school like that.
All I remembered was the embarrassing stuff and the awkwardness and the immaturity and cliques.
But turns out, there was a lot of good people I had a lot of fun with while we were all figuring out how to do life as our pre-frontal cortexes were developing.
It could have been so much worse.
And, turns out, it was a lot better than I remembered.
I wonder how many other graces I miss while beating my brains out crying for justice
Or screaming about not being able to get the one tree
While I’m wandering a garden littered with beautiful, healthy trees to enjoy.
The thing is,
I don’t really want the justice I spend so much of my life crying for.
Justice would mean the one tree Eve’s envious heart obsessed over would be the final tree to change my eternal fate.
But its not.
It’s not supposed to be this way.
But praise God, it is.
It’s because its not supposed to be this way that I have any hope at all.
And maybe that’s the reason for all the things we think aren’t supposed to happen.
Each one wakes us up to the reality that the world we living in is failing us.
I was first awoken to this twelve years ago January 7th.
At the beginning of 2009, postpartum tiredness-turned-bladder-infection exploded into leukemia-on-the-edge-of-blast-cell-crisis in a matter of four days.
All this came on the heels of asking for deliverance from something else.
But there’s something about cancer that silences all that.
See, every year- every day – you get once you hear the ‘c’ word is no longer something owed you.
Instead its an indescribable gift,
And the gift of cancer is that you can finally SEE that.
Pandemics don’t bother you the same way. Normal irritations don’t bother you the same way. You care less about having a bad day because the thing is, you got to have another day, period.
And each day with it, the more the ‘c’ word is drowned out by the flood of all those other awesome things you didn’t have the eyes to see before now,
Until those other things become so loud the ‘c’ word is barely there.
Instead of thinking I probably won’t see my kids have kids,
I remember that I didn’t think I’d get to see them go to high school.
And it reminds me,
The current labour of sorts that I see my oldest in isn’t a problem to be solved,
but an answer to a long-ago prayer:
Please let me stay a little longer for them.
And so far, He has.
This current pain is an indescribable grace.
The hidden graces?
They need to become our louder voices.
I get it –
It seems almost impossible to think like this.
And I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m really bad at what I’m suggesting here.
But every time I take my eyes off the one tree and pull back to see the orchard,
I remember that its
and exactly what I need,
and these hidden graces become not so hidden.
We. Can. Do. This.
And if we figure out how,
2021 will be a very different year.
No matter what.