October 10, 2014

Like a Handful of Sand

Why does life have to feel like a handful of sand, something so hard to hold onto, always slipping through my fingers. Another day gone.

A week ago tomorrow a young man who graduated high school with my daughter last year was killed in a hiking accident. Nineteen years, now a life story is complete. He was charming, talented, well-loved. I barely knew him, but I am not ready for his story to be over.

Or mine. Are we ever? When I was sick and could better imagine my own death, I was as peaceful as you please. That was a great surprise to me. I sat and sat and I never felt worried or scared. I could imagine a world without me and I knew all would be well. Yet this world without this young man, so recently vibrant with life, now dead -- I am struggling to imagine the world without him. Mostly I saw this young man on stage. He was a scene-stealer, funny, unforgettable. The memories aren't enough. I want more.

Years and years ago a dear friend's father died from AIDS. She said, after he died, "I can't imagine a world without my father in it." When, half a decade on, my mother died, I knew what she meant. When my mother was sick I would lie in bed and make-believe that she was sitting on her couch watching T.V. instead of lying in a hospital bed. It helped, even though it was a flagrant denial of reality.

I want to be able both to face reality and get through the day without crawling back under the covers or eating myself sick. How is that possible on a day when we gather to mourn the death of a nineteen year old?

The kids who knew him have organized a vigil at a neighborhood park. They want balloons and music and turquoise and mint-green and rhinestones. They want to celebrate life. I have to go. I need their hope. I want my 11 year old to see how a community can come together in the face of tragedy and sorrow and weep and mourn and hope. I want to see it myself. This grief is isolating. It needs the balm of company.

I have tried to find comfort in acknowledging how many, many communities have buried their nineteen year old sons, their lives surrendered to violence or sickness or ill fate. But it is exactly the particularity of knowing this One that makes the loss so heart-rending. This face, this voice, the expectations that attached to this life.

And so, as all roads of truth do, this one leads inexorably back to love. I knew this young man just enough to love him. I know many people who knew him better and loved him better. Heartbreak is the price we pay for loving, and the price is steep.

What else can we do? Stop loving? No. We might as well stop living. That is, I think, the choice. Choose death or life. To choose life we have to keep loving and risk all the suffering that is bound to attend the love. Does Brittany Maynard really want to die, or are she and her family just so afraid of all the suffering that comes with loving even as she's dying?

The truth is we're all loving and suffering and dying all the time, every day. We can choose to pick a date and find a doctor to prescribe a pill and make an end of it. But we may very well miss the balloons and the music and the rhinestones.

[Note: If you have not read this piece by Kara Tippetts, do. She is a 36 year old mother of four from Colorado Springs who is dying of cancer. Her blog is a heartbreaking account of what it looks like to live -- and die -- with great love.]

October 1, 2014


Note: I shared the following thoughts when asked to give a spiritual teaching to a group of women in the women's ministry within which I serve. A friend wanted to see them here on the blog, so here they are.

“We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.” – 2 Corinthians 4:8-10

I was afflicted with symptoms, first pain, for months, yielding no diagnosis in spite of visits to specialists and more blood tests than I can count, all of which were normal.

I was perplexed. What is wrong with me? What is God doing? But more than anything I wondered, Who is this God? Who am I? Nothing that I knew, or thought I knew, of God or of myself was adequate to help me understand what was happening to me.

I was persecuted by symptoms and by tests and by doctors who all but dismissed me – How about an anti-depressant? one offered. I was persecuted by my own feverish imagination and by my relentless Google-searching of symptoms and possible diagnoses.

Finally, I was struck down. What had started on November 5th of last year as pain in my hands had, by the middle of April, evolved into pervasive weakness. I could not drive or even get in or out of a car without help. I could not rise from a chair or climb stairs. I was walking with the aid of a walker. I could not lift my arms, not at the elbow and certainly not at the shoulder. I could not get in or out of bed or dress myself or shower alone or use the toilet without help. I could not raise a spoon to my own mouth or swallow solid food.

I carried in my body the dying of Jesus.

I wish I could explain to you what happened then, but I can’t explain it. I don’t understand it.

I could not move my body, literally, could not move my limbs, but I was not constrained. In fact, I felt free in a way I have never felt, even as other people drove me and dressed me and washed me and fed me.

I was not driven to despair even as I was completely mystified about what God was doing in my life. I did not feel like giving up. I felt fully possessed of my own life. I was at peace.

I was far from abandoned. My husband washed my hair. My daughter dressed me and decorated my walker with ribbons. My family were provided meals for weeks into months. People came. They drove me to appointments. They swept my floors and scoured my bathrooms. They sent cards and brought flowers and sat on my couch. I was overcome with gratitude for the love that was being poured out on me, me.

I was not destroyed – and not because I finally got a diagnosis and medication. Not because I’m getting better. I was not destroyed even when I didn’t know if I would get better. I had arrived at a deep and inexplicable joy.

At the point, when I was most disabled, I knew, for the first time in my life, that I could live or I could die and all would be well. All would be well with me and with my family and with the world. I was able to embrace my death, so I was able to embrace my life. I know that the death I carry in my body is the dying of Jesus. My life must be the life, the resurrection life of Jesus. Whether I got better or not, I could be a sign of hope.

These questions are for every one of us:

When have you been afflicted, but not constrained?

In what ways have you been perplexed, but not driven to despair?

When have you felt persecuted, but known you had not been abandoned?

How have you been struck down, but not destroyed?

How do you carry in your body the dying of Jesus? How is the life of Jesus manifested in your body?

We ended with this song by Jason Gray, The End of Me.