"Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope.
My comfort in my suffering in this: Your promise preserves my life." Psalm 119: 49-50
We had dinner the other night with a couple of our favorite people in the whole world. Before they got to the restaurant, Beve said, "Let's try not to talk about what's been going on in our life but to concentrate on them. I'm just tired of it. After all, we've been living it."
After our hugs and prolonged meal ordering, which is always an ordeal for wait-people because we're so busy talking we forget to look at menus, we got down to the serious business of catching up with each other. We haven't seen each other for a while, so there was a lot of catching to do. Beve and I tried pretty hard to keep the conversation fully centered on them...but if truth be told, that only lasted until our meals were ordered. Then we confessed that we hadn't wanted to unload on them, to let all the air out of the conversation, the booth, the whole restaurant, probably.
They were a little horrified, perhaps slightly offended. I'm not sure. What I do know is that he said, "Of course we're going to talk about your lives. We keep saying to each other, 'Can you believe what's going on up there?'" And with those words, something loosened inside me. Something that I've held so tightly for the last six months I hardly even knew it was there, certainly didn't identify it.
It really has been hard. This season is worse than any we've gone through, harder than most anyone goes through, with more stresses coming from more directions than we would expect. The elders, our son, my own health, other loved ones whose crises place them smack dab in our living room in life and death anguish, relationships that are broken, those we might have expected to help being absent and angry at us (me) for our care, the practical work necessary, the practical matters that never let up: every time we turn around, something is putting the screws to us, twisting and turning.
I've been naive, I think, in what suffering is, or at least how much one person gets. Like there's a finite quota for a person's life. You only get just so much and you're good. HA. A simple skim of history should have been sufficient to tell me how fallible this notion was. And a glance at Beve's sister's journey--which was legendary--might have been a clue. If I'd been paying attention. But I wasn't. I was purposely building my house on sand. On my own sandy mound of personal pain. That's what hit me the other night. I've lived in chronic pain for a decade. I thought I had a handle on it, on God's purpose in it for us and through us for the world. I've taught retreats and preached sermons about this. Led Bible studies and talked to 100s of people about suffering and the 'gifts of the fire', as I've called them, the wonderful, amazing riches God pours out to those purified by suffering. Not only after but IN it. Right in the middle of it.
But I've been naive. I have said--a thousand times--that I'm grateful for my suffering because it has revealed His love for me, has grown His character in me. I believe this fully. Right now, this very moment, I believe this is what HE does in suffering--He develops His character in us. AND I believe it not only reveals His love, but that we get to participate in His love--we get to actually participate in the LOVE of God, who suffered. This is a mighty, glorious gift. And my fundamental belief in this has not changed one iota. What has changed is that I begin to understand how foolish I was to think that my only suffering in life would be my own (not inconsequential except in comparison) physical pain. These last six months--no, perhaps these last two years-- have opened my eyes to how silly and wrong-headed such a view was. Even how proud and sinful.
I speak primarily of the problem of pain two different people face with whom I live. Grampie (like my mother before him) daily grows dim from his brain out. This isn't perhaps the kind of pain one might normally consider pain because he no longer feels it. He does, however, daily awaken to a world he doesn't recognize. For a whole week, he thought he was on a boat. A couple of days ago, he had Thyrza convinced (long-distance, of course) that he'd moved into a studio apartment and she was a little miffed at this change (since presumably she wouldn't have had to leave). He doesn't know the day of the week nor even the time of day, and hasn't the faintest idea what city he's in. He does, however, perk right up when a basketball game is put on the TV in front of him (and thankfully this is a perfect time of year for that!), and he always knows us when we walk into his room (even if he doesn't recognize his room!). Having watched Mom go through this process doesn't make it easier to see with Grampie. In fact, I wonder if it's harder because I know so clearly how the journey ends. And, just as my dad to me, Beve's dad is THE parent in his life and Beve is losing him incrementally.
An aside: It's hard to express to those of you who don't know him exactly who Grampie was, though. It's actually difficult for me to even understand. To Beve, he was just his dad. To our kids, he was their beloved Grampie. But this is a man who made a mark on his corner of the world. Last week when we were going through his papers, I found a memoir of a man who'd served with Grampie in WWII in Burma so I read the chapters the man said were about Grampie. He talked about playing basketball while in Burma with "The great Roger Wiley who the University of Oregon," and spoke of his great heart, his large grin, along with his stature and athletic ability. This quote comes from that memoir: "Fifty years after leaving China, Burma and India I delivered the keynote address at the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association. I mentioned that I had a warm feeling for Oregon because of my friend, Roger Wiley. After the meeting, several lawyers told me of how much fun the university had been because of this man. There had never been anyone like him."
The other pain--so jagged one can't imagine even stitching it up--is the pain our son faces. Daily. Beve looked at me the other night and said, "Did you ever imagine a child with a mental illness?" and I shook my head. Of course not. Who imagines that? But whatever my pain, J's is light-years more. He lives it. In it. There are moments when, in the dark, post-midnight hours, I worry that he is not strong enough or patient enough to do this work. I worry that he will give in to the pain, will allow it to overcome him. Dare I tell you this? Dare I admit I am anything but utterly faithful in this new, unprecedented (at least for me) pain? But dare I not? How can I start anywhere but with complete transparency?
Especially with God.
Yes, I have been naive about my suffering.
But God knew it. He knew my naivete.
And He also knows the limits. This I also believe.
I have more to learn. An encyclopedia's worth, I think. And perhaps the suffering to go with it. I don't ask for that or about it. However, what I put my hope in--no matter what comes--no matter how much or of what kind--is HIM. I choose, again this day, to put my hope in the character of GOD.
These are the things I know to be true about His character:
He will NOT allow us to suffer beyond our powers of endurance. He will not allow J to suffer beyond his power.
He gives comfort to those in need of comfort. I believe this for Beve and me, and I believe it for Grampie. Even in Grampie's diminishing cognition. I believe God, the Holy Spirit is leaning in (from within) to give comfort to His faithful one, and Grampie has been that.
What we have or are is in jars of clay--is always, ultimately, in weak bodies. There are some who don't know this. Strong, powerful bodies are surprised when their bodies break down, when things go wrong. They don't realize that the true power, the surpassing power doesn't come--NEVER comes--from themselves or their own strength. This misconception has never been open to me. Nor is it open to J. He knows--deeply and fully--that he cannot be strong in himself. He just doesn't have it. The other night a young woman sat in our living room and poured out her self-loathing and feeling that she is 'unforgive-able.' And our son, our unclear about his own relationship with Christ son, shared the gospel with her while I sat and listened. I mean, he really shared it. Straight out without missing a beat, in a way that many who profess a deep personal relationship are too scared to share. It was awesome to behold.
"... your word to your servant, for you have given me hope.
My comfort in my suffering in this: Your promise preserves my life." Psalm 119: 49-50