I love you all: some thoughts on staring into the sun
I wanted to write a post for you all about the things I most excited about Portland, give you the scoop on our hopes and dreams for the future, and probably talk a little about what it is like to leave a mission organization (and all of the ways I really love InnerCHANGE and hope to stay connected). Instead, life knocked me down hard and my current inner state can only be described as “in a bad way.” I’m a hot mess (definition: being “spectacularly disordered”). But also I am pretty sure this is all a normal response to all that has happened.
Since April, I have been on a roller coaster with my health, then had a baby a month early and was subsequently hospitalized for severe Pre-E, getting very sick in the process. Then there was just the normal crazy of having a newborn (plus a four year old) and then also the fact that we are moving across the country and leaving the mission organization and role that I have staked all of my identity and self-worth on, not to mention preparing to say goodbye to wonderful people and to an amazing neighborhood and community. Add on to that that as of this point (5 days away from Moving Day) we don’t have housing or jobs perfectly lined up. It’s a lot to deal with, in every way.
Krispin and I just wrote a little piece for Leadership Journal on the reciprocal blessings of being in relationship with refugees. I meant every word of what I wrote (you can read it here) but this morning I realized that I had left a bunch of stuff out too—probably on purpose, but maybe not—about the flipside of all of those blessings, all of that love. Because the reality is, that every time you expand your heart just a little bit more—be it for a child, a spouse, a neighbor, a community—you are not only inviting in love, but you are inviting in loss.
I thought about this a lot this past week. Last Thursday my baby got sick and we ended up going to the emergency room. Little babies and fevers are not a good thing apparently, so he got the full work-up of tests (including a lumbar puncture) and was chock full of IVs and antibiotics and sad and miserable in the hospital for over three days and three nights. To be so close to his suffering and not be able to do anything about it (other than try and comfort him in the midst of all the hospital clutter) was like watching the illusion of control be ripped away. It felt violent. It came on too fast.
My first response was to try and control the situation—I will never leave the house with my baby ever again—I wanted to tighten up, make my life as small and manageable as possible, tuck me and mine into a safe little cover. Just keep my head down until we finally reach a safe place, far away from all the suffering, wherever that might be.
But you know as well as I do that there is no controlling the universe, there is no way to manipulate God or come out of this world unscathed. For most of our lives, we don’t really care about this fact—we live in the soothing world of denial, which ain’t a bad place to be. We simply live like we are immortal, that bad things won’t happen to us, that we won’t experience loss or grief. But every once in awhile in our lives something causes us to be quickly ushered from the place of denial into the place of staring directly into the sun, and it burns us very badly. A counselor told me this is like when a lobster sheds its exoskeleton and waits all shiny and soft and pink for a new one to grow—it is vital for the lobster to grow, but it is an incredibly vulnerable place to be.
So, in that children’s hospital, I stared into the sun for a little bit. I’ve been stripped and I need my shell to harden a little quicker, but I can’t rush the process. I am starting the next phase of my life pretty freaking burnt out, and there is nothing I can do to change this fact.
One of the hardest parts of the children’s hospital, if I can be honest, is the fact that I know so many women with dead babies. It’s a side effect of working with traumatized communities, many of them from rural areas with lacking health care. In the ESL classes that I teach, it is an anomaly for a woman not to have lost a baby. Some of them talk about it more freely than others, but the fact remains: so many souls are lost. As I rocked my own sick baby, tangled up in cords and wires and hot against my arms, I couldn’t stop crying. I knew, in the logical part of my brain, that my baby was most likely going to be fine. But what about all the other babies? What about all of God’s beautiful, breathtaking children who were snatched too soon from the earth? Why do I get to be in this safe, calm, air-conditioned hospital when so many others are not?
This is my way of processing my life, the kind of flashbacks I get as someone who tries to be a helper. In my own dark time, the sadness and grief that has been poured into my ears for the past decade came forth unbidden. The inequality of, well, everything is a constant presence in the back of my mind and this one—the one where some people have babies who die and some do not—is just the latest installment. Where could I put my grief? My own and the grief of all the mothers I know, the ones parenting souls that none of us ever see? In the hospital, there was no way to escape it, but I wanted to.
I thought long and hard about closing up my own tents. Of staking my ground on me and my precious, hard-earned little family. Of ordering our lives for our own health and prosperity and happiness. Of taking a break from all that sadness. Never have I so badly wanted to give up, close up shop, slam the doors, hunker down. White-knuckle the American dream—a calm house with no screaming neighbors, a job not saturated with the effects of war and violence, a walk around a neighborhood not beset by the evils of poverty. I thought: I just want to be done.
But I’ve been reading in the latter part of Isaiah a lot, because my friend Kelley told me to. And it is piercing through all of my bullshit. It is the upside-down kingdom personified. Don’t believe me? Start in Isaiah 54 and don’t stop until you get to the end of the book. When the world seems so full of cruelty and casualties and chaos, it is lovely to read of a God who sees it all and who promises to right all the wrongs.
There are these verses that I cannot push away.
“Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.”
And before those words about the tents, Isaiah says this:
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married.”
And this, this is what I need to know. I need to know that God is a God who sees, who has heard all these same sad stories, that he has ingested them and grieved over them and that he was and will continue to be, the first to cry over them (thank you for those words, Selma). I need to know that the upside-down kingdom is real. That women who have suffered the most in this life will have their arms filled with children—big eyes, soft skin, wide smiles. That the most devastating truth of this hollow earth—that all of our babies will die, some much much too soon—will one day be undone, and that Christ himself has given us this confidence of resurrection.
To be honest, I still don’t quite feel like singing. But as bleary and fragile and sad as I am, I do believe God who wants us all to think long and hard about who we let into our lives, and to push us to make room for others. I believe in a God who asks us to not hold back, to not be stingy with our love—even as we know that every person we love is one more person you will lose.
God sees the cities, sees the desolation within—the sick babies, the broken communities—and he promises to fill them to the brim with goodness. I want to believe it, and even now I know that I do: even though the city today remains desolate, one day it will be filled with laughter.
And it will be a laughter like the kind that only babies can bring.