It had been building for days but after the New Year’s Day sermon on “Resolutions”, the dam broke. The message wasn’t about resolutions it was about not being hypocritical so I guess that was the tipping point. After walking out of church the minute we got in the car Luke announces, “Okay if we’re going to be honest it’s my turn.” Like any mother of a teenager I prepared myself for some horrible admission. Luke leads a pretty simple life so this was an overreaction on my part but we all know a mother can go from zero to sixty miles per hour on her emotional speedometer in under a second. I inhale and before I’m ready to offer any kind of follow-up out flows what I can only call a tsunami of anger.
The roads are covered with ice and I’m clinging to the steering wheel driving as slowly as possible while a storm hits inside the car. It started with, “I’m not going to pretend anymore I’m really pissed off”, and then what followed was honest raw emotion that was anything but eloquent and for Luke’s sake not repeatable. I say unrepeatable not because it was foul-mouthed but because it was his heart crying out in pain.
The kid has just lost his best friend to a horrific battle with cancer and he’s confronted with this reality every day when he looks across the street. He doesn’t understand why God did not answer his prayers and why the miracle he was counting on was not delivered. On top of that he’s woken up to the reality that the only other person he’s ever considered a good friend, who happens to be one of his teammates, isn’t such a good friend after all.
As the storm rages I listen and my heart hurts because I can’t argue with Luke. Every point he has to make is legitimate. At only one other time in his life have I seen Luke wrestle with reality like this. It was when I told him his father and I were divorcing. This isn’t to say that Luke hasn’t experienced heartache at other times because he has but at those times he found some way to contain it – to put his grief in a box and use it as a stepping stone.
That’s not the case now and I can sympathize with him because I don’t get it either and I’m angry. I sat in church and listened to the same message and walked away thinking what the heck am I supposed to do with that? I left with nothing that would help me make sense of anything. Like Luke and countless others as this New Year starts I’m confronted with the reality that many things are not right in the world and I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all especially because I can’t fix it.
So I listened and let him come to the end of his rope assuring him I was there to be the knot in it. I would not let him fall. What I appreciate about Luke’s storm is that through it what he knew he wanted was a win. Not for the sake of any sort of victorious bragging rights. He was able to figure out somehow in the chaos of all his emotion that he wanted to take the sting out of feeling betrayed by death and loss of trust with a good memory.
Flash forward to today. We’ve ridden the wave of his anger, stabilized a bit, had a nice day-off from reality while skiing and then I had my little meltdown. It was short but it was a first. The day started with news from my niece that she had lost one of her closest friends to a snowmobiling accident – a young Christian man on the verge of graduating from law school and getting married. Her heart was heavy and the loss to his family felt like an enormous weight on her compassionate shoulders. I thought of this young man’s parents and the bottomless pit of grief they’d just been pushed into. This news was followed by an undeserved nasty-gram from someone angry with me who is really angry at themselves but wanted to take it out on me with little regard for what I might be going through. Hurt people hurt people I remind myself and swallowed my anger like a tequila shot that burns all the way down.
I re-grouped by getting busy with the kids and then my neighbor called and wanted to go for a walk. As tired as I felt I want to be available whenever she needs me so we both bundled up. Walking when it’s ten degrees outside requires a lot of layers but metaphorically speaking you cannot put enough armor on to protect your heart from being pierced by the cries of a friend in anguish.
Still I was not letting her go out alone and we walked and I listened. My heart broke to hear more about all that lies behind her grief. Intellectually, I know that losing a child is the hardest thing a parent can endure but with the length of her son’s battle and the degree to which he suffered I have to say that in all my years of ministry this is a loss I can’t get my head around. I realize this is a somewhat ridiculous statement because all you have to do is open the newspaper to read about any number of horrific things that you can’t get your head around. However, in those cases you have more emotional distance. When pastoring I could walk into a hospital room, hold a hand, and leave shaken but still somewhat intact. In the story of Michael’s life and death of which we are a part I can’t. It’s too close and feels impossibly hard. Just like Luke I want something to take the sting away because I don’t like on any level what God has allowed.
I know my closest confidants would remind me it’s been a long year filled with challenges and that I’m worn out but that explanation doesn’t help. I understand the theological underpinnings of suffering. I understand the cycle of grief. I know healing is a process but having the head knowledge doesn’t mean my heart has caught up. I feel behind. My spirit is weary.
In the weeks before Michael died I wrestled with God more than ever because I sensed that the miracle of healing we were praying for was not going to happen on this side of eternity. As a family we continued to pray confidently for healing. Privately, however, I was pleading with God – downright begging him to not let this mother, I so deeply admire, experience a grief I can’t imagine recovering from. My focus had shifted from Mike’s suffering to what I knew would be Kelly’s. I couldn’t find any good answer other than a full and complete healing here on earth. A healing that medically speaking would require time to stop. One day on my prayer walk in front of her house I angrily insisted that God spare Michael’s life not believing any amount of His grace could help his mother endure the grief.
That did not happen and out walking with Kelly is it any surprise that at times we had to stop so she could catch her breath through her sobs? All I could think to do was put my arm around her to keep her from losing her footing. In the back of my mind while listening I’m praying, “Lord don’t let me drown in her grief or my own she needs my strength right now”. Somehow after an hour and a half we made it home intact physically but emotionally every nerve ending was frayed like a worn rope with no knot at the end.
I walked in the house and looked at the dog, who the boys told me had barked the entire time I was gone, and asked, “What in the world do you have to bark about?” I wanted to put him up for adoption right that minute. Why in the world did I get this dog in the first place? Sensing my ragged nerves he came over with that repentant look of his that says I’m sorry I was just scared – you know I hate it when you’re gone. I stared at his big brown eyes and thought the world all around is barking and I can’t stop it and I hate this Lord. I really hate it.
The groceries still needed to be bought which was what I had been getting ready to do before Kelly’s call. Two teenage boys require a ridiculous amount of food at all times. I changed and headed out the door fearing that I would bite the head off anyone who even looked at me the wrong way. As I was parking the car I hit my lowest point. Getting out of the car I rudely told God, “Don’t you dare give me a penny. I don’t want one!” Chase had found one with me earlier in the day and that was enough. I didn’t want anymore. I wanted this last outing of the day to be one where I didn’t think about trusting God even if that felt ugly. My mood reflected the black ice all over the parking lot and I was okay with that. The black tide that had swelled out of Luke days before was cresting in me.
With a very strident attitude I marched into the store defiantly thinking that even if a penny hit me in the head I would NOT pick-it up. This fierce determination was short-lived. Like a kindergartner having a temper tantrum my internal foot stomping was quickly undone by the smiling face of a friend. One I haven’t spoken to in quite some time, but that has known me long enough she can see through any façade I might erect. I tried, I really tried to just say hello and see how she was doing and get in the queue at Starbucks for a cup of courage but she’s too kind. She wasn’t going to let me get past her without finding out how I was really doing. In less than five minutes with the Reader’s Digest condensed version I told her. She listened just like I did for Kelly and then graciously told me she was there for me. She would be the knot in the end of my rope that was unraveling.
I took her hug and words of encouragement feeling like something was giving me some footing. Still I wanted my nonfat vanilla latte to warm me up. The barista came from behind the counter and took my order after the man in front of me placed his. He paid and when I stepped up to the counter to pay the gal leaned in close with a surprised look on her face and said, “He paid for your drink.” Not certain that I’d heard her right I eloquently asked, “What?” She leaned close again and said, “He paid for your drink.”
Time stopped and jolted me out of my self-imposed self-absorbed I want to shut the world out mood. My emotional armor had been completely undone by this next kindness. I stood at the counter for what was probably only a minute but seemed like an hour feeling weak-kneed. I pulled myself together and walked over to where he was standing and said, “Thank you that was nice. Your timing couldn’t have been better.” He smiled and said, “I’m glad. It’s my Monday thing.” Feeling grateful I replied, “I’ll pay it forward next Monday – thank you.” Now that the steely disposition I’d girded myself with had melted I was finally in a place where I could see that maybe with time I would rebound.
With my cup of courage I started down the aisles and managed to get the groceries in the cart. Even my stop at the pharmacy uncovered more goodness when the pharmacist gave me the news. This month we wouldn’t have the usual problem getting the boy’s prescriptions filled because he had thought ahead and set aside the medication he knew we would need. He came to the counter and proudly told me to finish my shopping without worry because, “He had me covered!” I smiled, thanked him, and walked away feeling humbled by yet another kindness.
These were wins. Not bragging right wins because I played no part in them. No these wins were God’s way of reminding me that more often than not we are brought through our storms, not by big flashy partings of the sea, but by small incremental movements forward. Progress made with baby steps that move us into the fullness of His grace and mercy which we experience in relation to other people.
Yes, God is able to help us win the race with spectacular never too late miraculous events. However, more often than not it’s a slow steady ascent up the mountain that puts us within heaven’s reach. I know this but sometimes I get tired of the climb and I get frustrated with the same things I know break God’s heart. Fortunately, God loves me and is able to overlook my moods. This is why before I left the store I found a bright shiny heads-up penny. I stared at it before I picked it up and laughed at myself. After all this time of penny finding to think I wouldn’t pick one up even if I was mad as hell was just silly. My temper tantrums don’t faze God anymore than they fazed my Mother and in her wisdom she knew, just like my loving Father knows, that I will survive.