I’ve been so sick for so long that looking back over the past few months is like staring into a dark tunnel. I’m just glad to be at the other end.
I’m a little too worn out to fully analyze the experience. Maybe some things are meant to be endured and survived rather than understood.
Still, I do know that there is a metaphysical, spiritual conundrum that we never quite escape in this life. C. S. Lewis called it the “problem of pain.”
Why do we get sick? Why do we hurt? And, hey, if we’re going to ask these questions why not go all the way … why do our babies get sick? Why do so many children suffer?
Of course, I don’t know how to answer those big questions. Does anyone? Lewis himself offers a bounty of wisdom, but it isn’t as if even he lets us off the hook. We won’t find the ultimate answer in a book. I believe we’ll find it one day in a face. Jesus’s face. But, I haven’t yet looked into those eyes, so, for now, it’s all hope.
Even if we can’t fully answer the “problem of pain” on this side of life, I don’t think we’ll ever get close if we ignore the little problems. The everyday pain.
When Jesus said to pick up our crosses and follow him, I don’t think he was telling us to suffer in silence. To just shut up about it already! Though, I admit, I sometimes picture him rolling his eyes in response to my whiny prayers. But, in my mind, it’s a fond exasperation.
That picture – of someone picking up their cross and following – is kind of nice, actually. As if Jesus were telling us that even our pain is a part of the story. Even our pain matters in some way. Pick it up, bring it along, I’ll take care of it, he says. Maybe today, definitely someday, it will be dealt with.
I won’t forget the tears you’ve cried.
So, what do we do in the meantime?
I’m not sure, but for the first time in months, I’m taking a good look around.
By the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel I can see blue skies. I can feel a warm breeze. And the scent blowing across my face is the heavy sweetness of backyard orange blossoms.
Here is another moment that begs not to be analyzed. It’s meant only for joy.
This is the kind of landscape I’m dreaming of. Cold. Bleak. Beautiful. Beautiful because there is not a drop of tree pollen for miles.
It seems that the trees here in northern Florida are trying to kill me. Maybe they have no such intention, and it’s only that my lungs have misunderstood. They think the thick yellow dust swirling through the air is reason enough to close up shop. I try to convince them otherwise with pills and inhalers.
It’s been a long month, and pollen.com tells me I still have a ways to go.
I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. It’s left me feeling nostalgic for Chicago’s concrete jungle. Living there I did do some sneezing in springtime, but this? I’ve never known anything like this. I’ve always said that I’m a winter person. That I need that season of cold, sleepy hibernation. It seems my body agrees. There’s always something blooming in Florida, and, apparently, my lungs have had enough.
For now, I’m sticking close by my bedroom air purifier. I have time to be inspired. Time to write. Somehow, though, I’ve found the life of the bedridden to be less than inspiring.
Still, whenever I open my Bible I find promise after promise of healing. Who knew God had so much to say about healing? Now I know, though the promise of it belies my reality. So, I’m holding tight to the promise and waiting.
“Blessed is the one whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.”
I have prayed for healing.
I have prayed for symptoms to disappear because that is what healing meant to me, but deep within I have suspected that my prayers were somehow too narrow. Too limited. How, then, should I pray? Is true healing more than the absence of some symptom?
I prayed that my boy would be healed. I prayed that food would no longer squeeze the breath from his lungs. God heard my prayer. When his throat began to swell, and I had forgotten the epi-pen, a stranger’s hand reached out with the medicine he needed.
What does it feel like to be healed? It feels like being held.
I have felt the breath squeezed from my own lungs. For one long, hard month I have despaired of ever again feeling strong. And I have prayed for healing.
I prayed for breath when what I needed was hope.
This is not a less-than prayer. I do not redefine healing in order to make it seem more possible. Lungs are made strong, allergies do disappear, the cords of cancer and disease are broken every day, but God can do so much more than that.
His healing is not limited to our bodies. His healing is not given only to those whom doctors will pronounce well.
To be healed by God is to know that death is a lie. That there is nothing to fear.
“He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.” Psalm 18:16
To be held in arms of love. That is what it feels like to be healed.
I’ve been sick. For a month. I’m worn out with it.
Worn out enough to have spent the last few days in bed. Worn out enough to have finally called the doctor. Having filled the prescription he gave, I can breathe again. Though I am still tired. And each breath has that ache-y, medicinal twinge suggesting that my body knows it isn’t yet breathing under its own strength.
To be confined to a sickbed feels like the ultimate waste. Productivity ceases. To-do lists are left undone. One can no longer give anything. Confined to bed, receiving is the name of the game.
In other words, it isn’t only the pain of illness that makes it so uncomfortable.
When sick, it is no longer possible to do; the challenge is simply to be. I focus on each breath in and out. At first, this brings fear. Later, comfort. To labor at something which is usually instinctive is to recognize that it has always been, will always be … a gift. Breath. The presence of God. Beyond us and within us.
When we are sick, the world shrinks. I have a book. The view from my bedroom window. A slowly ticking clock. This is life condensed. Which means there is more to notice, more to observe, more to think about in one minute of this life than in an hour of my usual busyness.
And that is a good thing.
Still, I hate the phrase “look on the bright side.” It suggests a yin-yang view of life that I simply can’t accept. I think you know what I mean: every cloud with its silver lining, every light with its shadow. No thank you.
Shadows only make me dream of a world without shadow. Of light without darkness. Of a day when “the moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter … when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted” (Isaiah 30:26).
But, in the meantime, I do marvel that anything good can emerge from sickness. From brokenness. From darkness. This isn’t to say that “it’s all worthwhile” or “it happened for a reason.” Those are platitudes that do little justice to the utter wrongness of sickness. And brokenness. And darkness.
No, when I acknowledge the good gift I am marveling at the fact that darkness is never all. There is always something more. Something beyond.
For me, now, it is only a few words read in a book in the middle of the afternoon while I lie in bed and listen to the children scream their far-off screams. They are not, in this moment, my responsibility.
And so, released from every responsibility that says do, I lie still and read a description of wolves crying under a full moon in Yellowstone Park. I’ve never heard a wolf’s cry, I don’t know if I ever will, but now, having read these words, I can carry that cry with me for the rest of my life:
At the same time other wolves joined the first two, and we heard … the full-throated quiver of the pack. It haunted everything it touched, sanctified it. It rolled down the mountains and onto the plains and the bison heard it, the ground squirrels heard it, the crows nesting in the trees heard it. Mary began to tear.
“We are alive,” the wolves said. “And the world is beautiful.”
(from Eternal on the Water by Joseph Monninger)
On Friday, our weekly pizza-and-a-movie night had to be postponed (and, yes, for those of you wondering, I make two: one deliciously normal for four of us, one dairy-free, wheat-free and “pizza” in name only for the middle child).
This middle child, our accident-prone five-year-old, had to be taken to the emergency room after a fall onto the cement floor of our garage. He came home late that same night happy to show off his new plastic dinosaur and the half-dozen staples on the back of his head.
I still remember, years ago, the preschool teacher who told me that if any child was going to fall into a puddle or trip on the curb it would be my son. Always. This has never stopped being true.
Twenty-four hours later, three of us kneel to receive communion. We prepare to remember death and taste resurrected life while the boy so recently knitted back together stands behind us. The boy who knows what death tastes like better than any of us. He does not yet receive the elements, but he is always given a short blessing, a gentle hand on his head.
Our servers are an elderly couple unfamiliar to me. They must be Sunday-morning regulars moonlighting at our Saturday-evening service. The husband places his hand on my son’s head and leans in close. He prays and prays until it seems that the attention of a whole room has condensed and fixed itself on this prayer for one small boy. I don’t remember a communion blessing that ever continued so long.
It is long enough for this memory: I am seven-months pregnant with my miracle baby, my-sewn-in-tears-and-reaped-in-joy son. I am filled up with a baby and with fear. Having waited so long for him, I am sure that this gift cannot be given with no strings attached. There must be some price, in pain, that I must pay. Until someone touches my own head and prays for me, and I see … well, I hardly know what I see, but it is as if my unborn son and his maker are alone together. Then I understand that I have only a peripheral role in the relationship between them, and I see that my love is small and weak compared with the love God has for the child he’s made.
Kneeling at the communion rail, I can see that the young couple next to me are also watching my son and the gray-haired man. I can see tears in her eyes and feel them in my own, and I know that this, this, is what it means to live in a beloved community. We have been so well-loved by God that our hearts break for how he loves everyone around us. We are loved, and we are loving, and our hands touching broken heads and fearful hearts are the hands of Jesus, always.
And the heavy burden of love that I carry for my son is shared. It is not, has never been, mine alone. Of course, my husband shares it, the firstborn (who runs to her room weeping as the car leaves for the emergency room) shares it, but Jesus also shares it and his beautiful church shares it.
We are a beloved community.
My love for books is well known. However, books haven’t always come through for me. They haven’t always given me the answers I’m looking for.
In my house, there is a particular shelf of books that have failed me utterly.
I’m honored to be writing over at Lisa-Jo’s place today. Won’t you join me there for the rest of the story?