Beyond the Bright Side

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.” – Psalm 34:18

I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering recently.

Sorry…that was rather abrupt, wasn’t it? Let me back up a bit for you.

I’m not a big fan of e-readers. I like the look and feel of a real book, I like turning pages, and, well, I’ve always been sort of an old soul, which means newfangled stuff is automatically suspect. Nonetheless, I do own a Kindle, and I’ve come to grudgingly acknowledge some of its advantages. Foremost among these are the free e-books that pop up now and then. Some, of course, turn out to be a waste of space – meaningless images that I just scroll through while I’m looking for something I actually want to read – but more than one book has pleasantly surprised me and introduced me to an author I’m now glad to know.

Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free by Tullian Tchividjian is one such book. Although I’m not quite done with it (alas, I can’t tell you how many pages I have left, because e-books don’t HAVE pages), I’ve already been deeply impressed by the author’s refreshing and candid approach to what C. S. Lewis calls “The Problem of Pain.” So often, Tchividjian notes, we try to gain control over our struggles: we try to find the “bright side”; to identify what sins led to our present condition (and how to atone for them, thereby getting happy again); to conquer them as quickly as possible so we can have a good story to tell and so people won’t judge us for not “getting over it” quickly enough. But, as he points out,

“God…intends to free us from ourselves. He even wants to liberate us from our need to find a silver lining in suffering. We see this powerful truth play out in the life of Job…He could not fix what happened to him, much less stop or explain it. In fact, he could barely hold on. Thankfully, the good news of the gospel is not an exhortation from above to ‘hang on at all costs,’ or ‘grin and bear it’ in the midst of hardship. No, the good news is that God is hanging on to you, and in the end, when all is said and done, the power of God will triumph over every pain and loss.”

This isn’t exactly what we’re used to hearing. Whether it’s a motivational speaker, a “prosperity gospel” preacher, or a well-meaning friend, the message from those who would speak to us in our pain is frequently: “Look for the bright side. Find the ‘why.’ Tell me what you’re learning. Tell me something good.” And yet the truth is, sometimes God is the only good to which we can cling amidst a world broken because of sin. To suggest otherwise is to say that we know the reason for our suffering and can therefore control it. (Job’s friends, anyone?)

Before I go on, please understand: I’m not proposing that we wallow in self-pity whenever life doesn’t go our way. The “poor me” mentality can be an attention-seeking indulgence that keeps us from growing and prevents us from recognizing when things are getting better. What I am saying, though, is that when we insist on finding the positive – as quickly as possible! – we minimize the reality that pain and sadness are an incurable disease that only the cross could cure, and will end only when Jesus comes again. Moreover, we create an atmosphere of insincerity; one in which people in the midst of a trial, approached with well-meant questions about how they’re holding up, hesitate to respond with the truth – that they’re still hurting, and that just living from one moment to the next requires every ounce of energy.

The good news is that, when we come to God with our pain, we need no carefully-worded platitudes; no pretense that, well, things are tough but we’re hanging in there and we can definitely see that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. As David says in Psalm 139:

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me…
You understand my thought from afar…
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.”

God knows our hearts – even better than we do – and we need not hide those thoughts and feelings that seem negative and therefore shameful. Reading through the Psalms, we can see that the authors thereof felt no such compunction. In Psalm 66, David pleads with the Lord:

“Save me, O God,
For the waters have threatened my life…
I have come into deep waters,
and a flood overflows me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched;
My eyes fail while I wait for my God.”

Further on, we find Asaph lamenting in Psalm 77:

“In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;
In the night my hand was stretched out without weariness;
My soul refused to be comforted…
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.”

In the end, it’s only when we bare our souls to God, acknowledging our brokenness and our inability to handle things on our own, that we can truly focus on Him instead of ourselves…and begin to find rest in His immense love for us. As Ed Cyzewski put it in his book, Why We Run From God’s Love – another e-book that turned out to be a beautiful surprise –

God’s sturdy arms catch us when all we have to offer is our broken dreams and weak legs to leave us falling before Him with nothing left to offer. The truth is that we could never stand on our own all along. We’ve never been healthy or as we should be…there is something within us that will spark to life when we experience the parental love of God. We’ll know that we have been accepted as we are, and in Him, we’re loved more deeply than we could ever imagine. We’ll stop running, and we’ll finally rest because we are loved.

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To Any Mom Who Had Kids Before I Did

Dear Moms,

This letter is long overdue. Just about six years and eleven months, at the time of this writing. But you’re moms, too, so I’m sure you understand.

When I was teaching music, I had a colleague whose children were grown. Fantastic strings teacher, loved her students, helped me gain my footing as I recruited new students and took charge of the elementary orchestras. I did, however, consider her a bit of a bleeding-heart type. When I balked at some of her suggestions concerning the students, she would simply say, “You’ll understand when you have kids.”

Well, let me go on record as saying it: she was right.

I never thought of myself as insensitive. Quite the opposite, in fact. But really, I had no idea. NO. IDEA. And it turns out that, with respect to my childbearing friends and acquaintances, I was about as sensitive as a bulldozer.

For starters, I was wholly unaware of how completely a tiny, squishy-faced, immobile human being could turn an adult’s life upside-down. I mean, you feed the baby, change its diapers, enchant it with sweet lullabies, and put it to bed, right? Enough work to keep a person busy, sure, but nothing a professional educator with several degrees can’t handle…right?

HA!

Within a week of giving birth, the deadly cocktail of sleep deprivation, postpartum hormones, and consistently inexplicable crying had caused me to feel more incompetent than I had ever felt in my entire life. Vague recollections of my new-mom friends suddenly came back to me, and I wished I could borrow the TARDIS, go back to 2004, and visit my neighbor across the street who, three years before, was sitting on the front steps crying because her baby was inside crying and she didn’t know how else to make him stop. In my defense, I didn’t know about this at the time, or I might have at least visited her. The difference is that, during my pre-kid years, I would have just given her a hug and offered some vapid words of consolation. Knowing what I know now, though, I would have hugged her, told her she was doing a great job, then said, “Go take a nap. I’ll hold your baby for a while, and when he finally goes to sleep, I’ll make you something yummy. What’s your favorite meal?”

In addition to believing the whole “bundle of joy” thing (and don’t get me wrong: babies do bring a lot of joy…but it’s a mixed bag), I also thought that I didn’t have much spare time when I was working outside the home. I worked eight-hour days, often more, and ran around like a hyperactive squirrel when concert season arrived. Busybusybusy. Evenings and weekends? Those didn’t count as spare time. They were a GIVEN – just like sufficient sleep, hot meals, and bathroom privacy. Most Friday nights, my husband and I would order pizza, watch a movie, and go to bed late, content in the knowledge that we could sleep in the next day. I remember many nights spent reading until midnight in the living room, and wondering why our house was the only one in the neighborhood with lights still on.

Then I had a baby.

When you have kids, you are on call 24/7. Friday nights and Saturday mornings mean nothing to them. Some people are better than I was at teaching their kids to play independently and learn to sleep on their own, but even then…children just aren’t a 9-to-5 responsibility. Eventually, you regain the ability to do “adult” things you once enjoyed, but even then, you learn to consider the cost any time you carve out some time for yourself. “I feel like a Lord of the Rings marathon…hmm, well, the first movie is over three hours long, which meansĀ  that if I start it as soon as my oldest kid is in bed, I’ll get to bed after 11:30 if I don’t brush my teeth, and if he wakes up at 6:30 without calling for me at 3:00 AM, then I’ll get almost seven hours of sleep. Shoot. Okay, I’ll just watch the first DVD of Fellowship tonight and watch the other one tomorrow. As long as nobody gets an ear infection or needs a drink of water, I should be able to polish off the trilogy in six days without having a complete psychotic break. I should probably turn my phone off.”

I recall foolishly wondering why my friends tended to drop out of everything once they had kids. Sheesh. For my first few months of motherhood, I never wanted to leave the house again. The very thought of it made me want to curl up under a chair and cry.

Speaking of which…up until seven years ago, I was not a crier. I could watch Beth die on Little Women without shedding a single tear. Dead Poets Society failed to produce a lump in my throat. I was not an emotional girl, and – I confess – I was rather proud of that. And, of course, we all know what pride goeth before. In this case, it wenteth before my transformation from Data onĀ Star Trek into a sentimental sap who now gets weepy every time she reads to her kids from The Jesus Storybook Bible. Or sings along with their CD from Vacation Bible School. I actually cried at the end of Cars. Granted, I was a Pixar fan long before we had kids, but getting choked up over animated race cars, one of them with the voice of Owen Wilson? This was a new and different me, with a side of humble pie. And I’ve accepted the fact that this me is here to stay. So, if I ever laughed up my sleeve at you for being a hot mess, I’m sorry, and if I’m laughing now, it’s only at myself.

Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time and be the friend I wish I’d been for anybody who had babies before I did. To their credit, all of these moms still involved me in their lives, even during my Insensitive Years, and they haven’t once laughed at me or said “I told you so.” But I now make it a point to ask new moms how they’re really doing, to tell them I remember how exhausting it was, and to tell them what a wonderful job they’re doing.

And, by the way, if it’s not too late, I’d love to make you something yummy. What’s your favorite meal?

Humbly,

A Mom

You Are Amazing

I have this friend who’s just amazing.

She homeschools her three children, each one a paragon of academic excellence as well as expertise in a specialized area. One is a gifted pianist and artist; another spends his free time designing intricate and baffling engineering projects; and the youngest, at age five, already reads flawlessly. In addition to raising prodigies, my friend also creates perfect French braids, bakes bread every week, speaks three languages, and plays piano for various chamber ensembles…superbly, of course. Everything she does, she does well.

Another friend of mine also astounds me. She works from home, and spends several days a week helping with or leading various ministries in her church. Because one of her children has Cerebral Palsy, she devotes a large portion of every day to physical therapy, as well as helping him with basic tasks most of us take for granted. Somehow, though, she still manages to keep her house clean enough that she can regularly open her home for Bible studies, Girls’ Nights, pool parties, or one-on-one time with those of us who need a friend and know she will listen intently and advise lovingly. She has an incredible heart.

There’s this other friend who blows me away, too. She had a difficult upbringing, and got pregnant at fifteen. Despite unsupportive family members, she kept her baby, yet still succeeded in completing high school. Now, as a married mother of four, she works part-time, takes care of the household finances, cooking, and cleaning, and dedicates all of her remaining time and energy to playing with her kids, cheering them on at soccer games, and teaching them about Jesus’ love for them. Although she faces ongoing challenges with extended family, she meets them with grace, and, as far as I can tell, serves as the glue holding them together. Her strength inspires me to face the challenges in my own life.

I could go on…but I’ll mention just one more person. She struggles to keep her house in order, and hasn’t fully managed to teach her kids to do it either. While she likes to plan fun and educational activities for her kids, she can never quite get on top of things, and often ends up just taking them to the playground or the library again. Although her efforts to be a good mom require most of her physical and emotional resources, she often feels like she doesn’t quite cut it…yet, by now, she doesn’t feel like she’s too great at anything else anyway. The funny thing is, her friends don’t see her that way. Actually, they think it’s pretty cool that she cooks family dinners from scratch (even though the ingredients are from the grocery store, not homegrown); that she runs (even though she’s, like, NOT fast); and that she plays piano (adequately, but she’s hardly a professional).

I know all this because, of course, I am this person. I can so easily see and acknowledge what is distinctive and admirable in those around me, but dismiss as insignificant what is good in myself. And yet…God has designed everyone differently, and has laid out a unique path for each of us. When I consider the friends described above, what I admire, fundamentally, is not their accomplishments; it’s the grace and strength with which they walk the paths they’ve each been given.

So here’s what I want you to remember. Each of the people I mentioned would describe herself as ordinary. Wishes, in fact, that she could do better at this, that, or the other thing. But I know the truth…because I gain inspiration and encouragement just from knowing them, and they are precious to me. Maybe you, too, feel quite ordinary; you simply muddle through from one day to the next. There’s a good chance, though, that those who know and love you see things very differently. They might be looking at you and wondering how you do it all.

In fact, you know what? They just might think that you are amazing.