Tag Archives: pain

The Transition Time

spring ducks

I’ve been home from Armenia long enough now that I should be over the bulk of the jet lag…but I still feel like I’m lagging. I can hardly stay awake past nine; I can’t get up early to write; I can’t manage to get much of anything checked off my to-do lists. I’m slogging through my days, staring off into space a lot, forgetting a lot of really basic things, like brushing my teeth.

A week and a half later, I’m still just a little out of step with my own life.

There is an entire gamut of emotions that I imagine I should probably feeling after a trip like this: guilt over our excess and our waste. Newly realized devotion to changing the world…or at least changing our spending patterns. Quiet wisdom gleaned from those heavy, precious moments in the homes of Amasia.

I feel none of that…which makes me feel like, possibly, I’ve done this whole thing wrong.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weather.

Daylight Savings came and brought with it the dry, brown beginnings of something that we’re tentatively calling spring. 

The snow is gone, and it’s been warm enough to sit outside on the deck in just a sweatshirt. This weekend, Andrew dragged the patio furniture out of the shed, and a few brave-hearted ducks flew back in, even though the bulk of the pond is still ice.

I don’t know how to feel about this weather. The last two years, we’ve had blizzards well into April. Winter, that cruel tyrant, is notorious for letting the first little seeds of hope begin to sprout…and then quashing the whole thing with ice and swirling gray snowstorms.

It’s warmer now, but the grass is still brown and the trees are still bare, and it’s only March. These transitions between seasons tend to be complicated and drawn out and full of heartbreak in Minnesota… and I’ve been here for more than a third of my life now. I’m just too jaded to hope that the worst is truly behind us.

*

On my trip two weeks ago, I wrote a lot about Armenia’s beauty and poverty and glory. I told you a little bit about the genocide and about that old beautiful church. But I don’t think I conveyed fully how in transition it is — particularly in the Gyumri area, where we spent the bulk of our time.

It wasn’t all that long ago, really, that the 1988 earthquake crumbled so many lives, killing 25,000 and leaving another 50,000 without shelter. And then, just a few years later, communism fell, and Armenia found herself on her own in the rubble, without the support she had grown accustomed to.

Transition.

I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t understand extreme poverty. I have no personal context through which to filter the experience of the family living in a shipping container, spending their days searching for twigs and branches to keep their home warm. (This is me, tuning out the story of the parents’ struggle, doing puzzles with the children. Kids, I understand. Puzzles, I understand. Poverty? Not at all.)

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner
Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

But I do understand transition. I know about how long it takes, how painfully slow it feels, how you alternate between hate and nostalgia for The Way Things Used to Be.

It’s hard to believe that Jesus is the Solid Rock when the world you’ve lived your whole life in has cracked beneath you into a thousand pieces. You can’t tell if everything is still half-broken or if it’s half-repaired, and hope is a scary concept when life has been full of false starts and crushing disappointments.

Is it clumsy and irreverent to make this about me? To draw upon the metaphor of this country’s journey as a mirror for my own? Or is it worth seeing how the same we all are? That underneath the reasons and the dressings and walls and curtains, our hearts are made of the same stuff?

It happens in different ways for each of us, but at some point or another, the world we know shatters beneath us, and we’re lost in the endless gray chasm between What Was and What Might Be.

Transition

*

On our second day in Amasia, we met an old couple with a young son. I was taken by them all, but especially by the father, Andranik, who reminded me so much of my Grandpa-in-Law that I had to physically restrain myself from looping my arm through his and snuggling in.

If it were still the old days, he’d be retiring now. Instead, he’s shuffling with his wife and son several miles each way to clean other people’s  barns. “Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening, and what do we earn?” he asks. 600 dram  — about $1.40 a day — for the whole family.

In the interview that the staff wrote up for us the week before we came, Andranik said, “I have lost my faith. I cannot believe in anything.” He said, “It is our time to die, but we are still living.”

But that day when we visited, he seemed to fill up the small shack. We crammed inside, and cameras kept flashing, and he looked proud as he pointed to the things he had made — a church delicately crafted from paper, a wooden carving, some photo-shopped pictures of his grandchildren. He showed us his goats. He stood tall and he smiled. He seemed to me larger than life, even in the smallness of his situation.

I told him he reminded me of a favorite grandpa; he said that I was his favorite granddaughter. I got my hug.

“He seemed more hopeful today than he did in the interview you wrote up,” I told the translator as we walked the snowy path back to the bus.

“It was you guys,” she said. “I think he was honored that you came to see him.”

And it seemed stunningly simple, miraculous that it could be true.

Of course. 

We can’t always ease each other’s transitions, but we can enter in to that lonely, gray space. We can stand under the sagging roof. Smile and listen and see and do our very best to understand. And in doing so, we bestow worth and beauty and honor. In doing so we say, You are worth seeing. And in doing so, we remind one another that there is something to hang on to. Something to believe in. Something to hope for.

Photos by Laura Reinhardt
Photos by Laura Reinhardt

*

Today it’s gray and the wind is harsh and cold and keeps flipping the lid of the recycling bin open.

The winter is a tyrant, slow to leave, constantly overstaying its welcome, and who knows when spring will actually finally come? Who knows how much longer we can take it?

All we can do is sit together in the dwindling cold, pull our sweatshirts tighter, and help one another wait it out.

Psalm for Wednesday Morning Chemo

For Melissa

I do not (as far as I know) have cancer. But, these days, I find myself living life alongside a dear friend who does. This is for her – and for anyone else who finds themself on this hard new journey: a psalm, a prayer, a simple grasp toward hope.

photo credit: limowreck666 via photopin cc
photo credit: limowreck666 via photopin cc

God of water and wilderness
and of hospital rooms, filled with IVs
smelling of antiseptic and latex:
To you we pray.

Glory. Glory.
Glory.

You have counted the hairs on my head,
so You know, too, about the ones falling out.
The way I feel every morning:
like I’m combing away a part of myself,
becoming someone I hardly recognize.

Still, I have to believe that you who number things like hair and stars
and the grains of sand of these ten thousand fall-frozen lakes
must know each of the 37.2 trillion cells in my traitor body.
Including the renegade ones —
those damn cancer cells, dividing, dividing —
Dividing my whole life into Before Cancer
and Now. Here.
Waiting.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to savor your goodness
when everything tastes like metal.
And if I’m having trouble trusting it, Lord,
It’s only because I’m afraid.

Here is what I know:
You are the God who sees —
not just the ocean’s surface
but every creature in its endless deep.
You who watch the jellyfish dance
and listen to the whale sing her mournful song
and know where the sea turtle
lays her eggs —
you see me too:
my heart, my fear, my hopes —
and even those odd-shaped cells
with their multiple nuclei
and their coarse chromatin —
and all their capacity for destruction.

Your eyes do not look away:
Not from the sparrow
falling.
Not from me,
as I sit here in Wednesday morning chemo.
The drugs are pumping
into the port they cut into my chest —
the place I held my babies when they were small.
The place where you say you’re holding me
now.

The weak fall light is straining through the windows —
and the trees —
they are almost entirely bare now.
They look a little haunted in the absence of leaves,
but I bet you know
exactly
how many leaves fell.
And I bet you’ve already planned it all out:
how many leaves
exactly
will grow there when spring comes back.

It always comes back.

And it’s Wednesday morning.
Again.
And all there is to do is sit.
The medicine courses, again, into my body,
and all I can do is
Receive.
All I can do is
Pray
to the God who sees it all:

Especially that which I
cannot. 

Glory. Glory.

Glory.

One Small Change: Head Up, Eyes Open

Today we have the lovely Rachel Haas sharing about finding a middle ground between closing your eyes and not noticing the pain of others…and trying to hold everyone. It’s such a difficult tension, and Rachel has written it beautifully. May we all learn to keep our head up and eyes open where it comes to those around us.

prayer - matt gruber creationswap

I’ve sat through a thousand altar calls in my life. Some were at the end of church services, the decrescendo of a message delivered from the pulpit. Others were louder, more intense, capping off youth ministry events or purity conventions. But they all carried the same words, delivered right before the invitation to come forward or raise a hand.

“All heads bowed, all eyes closed.”

For the longest time, it felt right, completely appropriate for the moment. It was a strange allowance for privacy, as though to ensure the safety of the ones making such a life-changing decision right there, a few feet from where I sat. It was only fitting, only appropriate, that eyes were kept closed and heads tucked down to avoid any sort of intimidation.

But then I started realizing the heads didn’t rise at the end of prayer and the eyes didn’t open at the word “amen.” They were still down, shuffling through the world, being careful not to look another believer in the eye. Of course, we would hug them, rejoicing in their newfound decision, somehow slipping into standard clichés of “welcome to the family” and “don’t forget to live out loud!”

Except our heads were still bowed and our eyes were still closed. Worst of all, we’ve took it upon ourselves to teach the newcomers to be that way, too. I don’t think it’s done with any sort of malicious intention, as though we are truly trying to blind the newly opened eyes of those who gather with us under His wing. But it still happens, as though we are docking the tails of these new ones, taught all our lives it was the right thing to do, never understanding just how painful it can be.

So I became frantic in the way I so often am when I start to feel the holy urge to make a change. I began to push myself deeper into the crush of people, the downtrodden and the “least of these,” wrapping myself around first one, then four, then ten, then twenty, until my arms were stretching and my body was unravelling the way a sweater does when you ask the dog and your sister to join you in the same woven piece of fabric.

And then the Voice came whispering, moving like a breeze through my hair: I wasn’t asking you to hold everyone, dearheart. I can do that for you. Just reach out and touch where you can reach. I’ll close the gap.

So I stopped screaming. And I started speaking. I started speaking love in a way that started as a timid whisper but grew into a lioness roar breathed into me from Lion of Judah lungs. I didn’t have the claws or the tools to remove the scales, to lift lowered heads, to change the entire scope of the progressive Church as we know it today. All I had was my voice, and I was realizing that I didn’t have to scrape my vocal chords raw to see eyes start raising from the ground.

I’ve stopped trying to force it, stopped trying to reach out spindly arms in my own human strength, stopped striving exhausted to stretch my calendar until the lines are bowed out and my family is begging me to sit and breathe and stop.

Instead, I’m opening my arms as wide as they go, and not a single inch wider. I’m letting the Lion do the leading, and I’m perched on His back with my fingers in His mane and a coracle-boat at my feet. I’m living with my own head up and my own eyes open to catch a glimpse of His country over the wave. I want to hear stories, I want to see gazes meet His. I want to see dancing and I want to hear cries of the greatness He has done.

Head up, eyes open.

 

rachel haasRachel Haas is a novel-writing, coffee-consuming, paint-flinging, wild-at-heart Jesus craver. She is married to Jonathon, as she has been for the past four years, and is mother to Marian.  She dwells in between Midwestern cornfields where she pours her heart out in lowercase abandon. She blogs at Dramatic Elegance.

Somehow I Didn’t Punch Him In The Neck

I’m so honored to have Tricia Williford sharing here today. She is a beautiful writer with an incredible story to tell — which she does in her new book And Life Comes Back which releases this Saturday (CORRECTION: It actually comes out FEBRUARY 18th, not January 18th. I blame my vacation-addled brain) and which I can’t wait to get my hands on.

This piece speaks to every part of me — particular the part that will never stop hating Christian jargon and easy, oversimplified answers. Give her lots of love in the comments, and then go preorder her book!

airport

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.

We were sitting and standing on the plane; we had just landed, and we were in that impatient place between landing and leaving the plane, the time frame that seems an easier place to make conversation somehow, when we feel braver to talk to strangers since we know we’re all about to go our separate ways anyway so there’s less pride and conversation at risk.

He had gray hair and he wore a bowtie “at least twice a week,” he said. We realized in our small circle in rows 22-24 that we represented several Christian colleges in the midwest.  The man with the bowtie was writing his dissertation

“I just turned on the computer, and it crashed.  I don’t know what happened.”  He spoke so sprightly, like, oh dear, I’ve misplaced my car keys, or something even more trivial.  Let me just say – if I had lost any or all of a doctoral dissertation, I would need a nicotine patch (and I’ve never smoked a cigarette).  I didn’t want to ask the obvious question, and yet I just had to know: “Did you back it up anywhere?”  I was crossing my fingers for him, hoping he had been so careful.

“Well, I think it’s on a thumb drive.  But all of my family has Macs, so I wasn’t able to check.  I’ll try when I get home.  Everything happens for a reason.”  (I wanted to suggest that perhaps this travesty had happened because he wasn’t using a Mac.  But I digress.)

Just then, the line started moving forward as we were finally allowed to deboard the plane.  Which I think is a funny word.  Board and deboard. Like one can just add a prefix to tell the opposite; like the opposite of enter might be to de-enter.  Seems like somebody ran out of ideas in the words department on that one.

The couple sitting next to me, the Wheaton college grads who now have prestigious jobs in finance and cancer research in Chicago, offered to let me exit before them.  I had a connecting flight that was already boarding in another concourse and expected to leave in the next few minutes.

I declined their offer.  “No, it’s okay, really.  I’ve resigned myself to missing the flight.  If I make it, I make it.  If I don’t, I don’t.”  I was going to visit a friend for a long awaited reunion, and I desperately wanted to make that flight.  But there’s only so much you can do, and I tend to err on the side of not throwing a fit in public over things outside my control.

As we walked up the aisle, all of us preparing to go our separate ways, the man with the bowtie said behind me, “Ah, yes.  Sweet providence.  This is when we are thankful we believe.”

I’m sorry… what? Sweet providence?  What kind of providence are we talking about?

He implied that the outcome of whether I made the flight is an example of God’s faithfulness, an example of when we are thankful we believe.

No, I cannot say this is when I am thankful I believe.

I am thankful I believe when I realize that it doesn’t matter at all whether I make the flight or not, that there are bigger and greater things happening in the world, and I am part of a greater story.  I am not ‘thankful I believe’ because I am hoping the crowds in the airport will part like the Red Sea.

My husband died three years ago, and I learned to have grace for people who said the wrong thing.  Because what is there to say?  Nobody knows what to say to a 31-year-old single mom of two children who was widowed overnight and now must somehow begin again.  Nobody knows.  But people want to say something because silence sounds uncaring, and in their efforts to fill the void, sometimes they say the wrong thing.

I learned to have grace for this; ‘to have grace’ is our Christian cliche that means, in a general paraphrase, ‘I managed to keep from punching that person in the neck.’

I heard the whole gamut.

“This happened for a reason.”

“It was his time to go.”

“All things will work together for your good.”

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

“He’s watching over you.”

“Maybe you can encourage your children to behave by telling them that their daddy is watching them from heaven.”

“The stars are holes in heaven where the ones we love are peeking through.”

Photo by Nicola since 1972 Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Nicola since 1972 Flickr Creative Commons

I forgave them for saying those things, and I ask you to please forgive me for the following caveat: Those are stupid things to say in the face of crisis.

First of all, stars are stars.  Not holes in the floor of a world floating above us.

Next, I will not further damage my children by telling them that their dad is now omnipresent and omniscient, always watching and knowing, so they should mind their P’s and Q’s because Daddy will know.  That’s weird and creepy, worse than any Elf on a  Shelf. Hebrews tells me we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before who cheer us on as we finish the race.  So, if Robb is watching, then he’s cheering us on.  Not watching like some appointed tattletale of judgement.

God absolutely will give me more than he can handle; he never promised not to.  He promises to meet me there, he says his strength is perfect when my strength is gone.  That right there says it all: I’m going to run out of strength, and he’s going to take over. And that’s the beauty and the magnitude of who he is.

All things work together for the good of those who serve him.”  Well, that doesn’t necessarily mean my good, it doesn’t mean now, it doesn’t mean today, and it doesn’t mean life and happiness.  It means there’s a bigger story, and if I want to be part of it, I can step in and watch as it’s written around me, in me, and through me.  But it doesn’t mean that because I love Jesus my husband should be alive.

It was his time to go.” Yes.  God ordained his days, counted them long before Robb was born.  His days were numbered, and he lived every single one of them.  But I don’t believe it was God’s plan for Robb to die.  In fact, I don’t think death is what he wants for us at all.  I don’t think he wants my children to be fatherless, he doesn’t want me to be a widow, he didn’t want me to have to watch Robb die, he doesn’t want this heartbreak for me, and none of this is what he wanted in the first place.

Everything happens for a reason.”  I struggle with this one.  Sometimes we are tempted to say hurtful things to each other, words that don’t really help at all, in the name of finding a reason. If I may be so bold, I think God allows these things to happen, he raises beauty from ashes so his name may become greater.  Acts of terrorism do not happen so that people may hold tighter to their families.  Infertility does not happen so that married couples may be thankful for the opportunity to invest their money wisely.

Things happen.  Sometimes, they just do.  Hard drives crash.  Planes are delayed.  Hearts get broken.  Children get sick.  Parents die too young.  The beauty that comes in the face of this – the flowers that push through the sidewalk, the sun that rises again – these are examples of God’s faithfulness.  His favor may rest on me for a moment or a season, but this is different from his faithfulness that never fades.   To confuse favor with faithfulness is dangerously near the ragged edge of the cliff of believing at all in God’s sovereignty.

My God is faithful.  This makes me thankful I believe.

(By the way, I made the flight.  But I don’t think it’s because I’m a Christian.)

 

tricia willifordTricia Lott Williford is the author of And Life Comes Back, to be released February 18th.

For more of her words, thoughts, and writings, visit her blog: www.tricialottwilliford.com.

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