I decided to post the first paper I wrote this semester to my blog. Not because I think it’s amazing or worthy of public appreciation (ha!), but because it describes so well the place where I currently am and I want to remember this place. The paper was to be a personal spiritual journey reflection paper. We were to identify an obstacle (ha! I have like 14 and I couldn’t choose so I rolled them all into one and just called it “suffering”) in our spiritual journeys and the steps we are taking to overcome it. Alongside that, we were to develop a word picture or analogy for this obstacle. These things have been floating around in my brain since oh….2009 and I feel like I am starting to finally make some progress with marrying the ideas of God’s love and the role of suffering in life.
So here is my first paper affectionately titled, “The River.”
When I started my first day of school at Denver Seminary, my husband David was in the hospital with two large blood clots in his lungs. I quietly slipped out of his hospital room at 4:45am after a restless night’s sleep listening to him struggling to breathe and fighting through pain that his morphine drip was not helping. I walked through empty hallways with my books in hand, passing nurses in the cardiac wing who looked at me quizzically. Little did they know, I had a long drive ahead of me to a very important class that I refused to be late for. My husband is probably the only person who truly understood how important it was that I make it to class, despite, or perhaps in light, of his tenuous condition.
My husband’s health crisis which kept him in the hospital for a week due to complications occurred six months after I endured three painful and mostly unsuccessful spinal taps, which were three months after I had brain surgery to repair a rare and degenerative vestibular condition. Brain surgery was on the heels of my husband’s job loss, which was on the heels of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy which almost cost me my life and resulted in the loss of our only child. The loss of our pregnancy came after three years of infertility testing and treatments which have brought us no closer to parenthood six years later. Suffice it to say, I have become acquainted with suffering.
Despite the brevity, I do not recount this grim list of events casually. Each one has made a deep and distinguishing impact on not only my day-to-day life, but my spiritual life as well. I share these events as a way to set the scene for describing the subsequent spiritual wrestling match that has taken place in my heart.
Through the vast majority of the trials I have experienced, my faith in God and my enthusiastic pursuit of Him have not wavered. I have clung tightly to Him as David and I have weathered the storms that have come our way. I have continually sought the Lord through prayer, worship, Scripture, godly counsel, church, spiritual direction and a simple but deep longing in my heart to know and experience Him more. Along the way, however, a shift occurred in my perception as I unknowingly began to view God’s intentions for me with trepidation. My belief that God was good held firm, I just did not believe His intentions for me were good. I knew God was loving, He just did not love me quite as much. Subsequently, the door to my heart began to slowly close as I rationalized my way through why God would intend such hardship for me. I still sought after His wisdom, comfort, peace, guidance, presence, grace and forgiveness, but my pursuits ended there.
During a guided retreat in November for CF606 which I was auditing at the time, I was made painfully aware of the impervious state of my heart. One of the retreat exercises entailed reading through various verses and writings about God’s love. Aggravated, I regarded this exercise as futile because of my conviction that God did not actually love me. Why spend an afternoon reading through things that did not even apply to me? It was in these moments when the Holy Spirit confronted me with my deeply errant view of God and His love. Does God’s love automatically equate with blessings or a lack of problems? Does the Lord’s goodness mean one never suffers or experiences hardship? Should the natural response to trials be closing one’s heart off to God in an attempt to self-protect? I was overwhelmed by how far astray my assumptions about God’s nature, which is characterized completely by love, had gone.
The retreat was a catalyst for reshaping my perspective. How I viewed suffering, trials and pain in light of my renewed sense of God’s love began to change. Conversely, how I viewed God’s love in light of suffering, trials and pain also began to change. As I opened the crack to the door to my heart wider and wider, my mindset began to shift and I have been more welcoming of God’s love in its various forms. Much of the Old Testament has been particularly transformative, allowing me to gain insight into the relationship between God’s love and the suffering of His people. One section of Hosea 6 has brought me considerable enlightenment in regards to God’s love and His intentions in suffering.
Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us
down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise
us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going
out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the
earth (Hos 6:1-3 ESV).
Isaiah 30, which speaks of eating the bread of affliction and drinking the water of adversity (Is 30:20 ESV), is a perfect description of the nourishment I have become familiar with and has given me considerable great insight into the Lord’s recognition of suffering and what He intends for it.
The purpose for my suffering remains partially veiled. I do not believe the Lord has fully revealed His design for it in my life, nor do I believe my heart could bear the full weight of such purpose at this time. However, as I look back over the years, I survey remarkable maturity and growth that only suffering could produce. As gold is refined in a fire, so has my heart been refined by the trials. I cling to James’ words in the hopes that the perseverance produced by these trials might one day be made complete so that I would be fully “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas 1:4 NIV).
If I were to further speculate, I might estimate that the suffering I have experienced serves, in addition to developing a mature faith, as a precursor to ministerial calling, whether that be in the realm of chaplaincy, spiritual direction or simply helping friends who need companionship while walking a difficult road of their own. Despite my blindness regarding the reason, I intend to continue in my pursuit of vulnerability before God. No longer will the door to my heart receiving and reciprocating God’s love remain closed. That is not a state to which I wish to return and so I will remain unflinching in my reception of His love, whatever form it may manifest itself. This includes intentionally remaining open in prayer during subsequent hardships, such as my husband’s recent hospitalization. The temptation certainly existed to adhere to past faulty beliefs the second we walked into the emergency room. As a result it takes extra intentionality to refute past convictions and continue forward in my simple but transforming belief that God is indeed good in my life, He is indeed for me and He does indeed love me.
As I have begun to explore the relationship between God’s unconditional love and His purpose in suffering, I have been led to a word picture of a river. A river is a wild and unbridled force that cuts through rock, plummets as a waterfall over cliffs, frequently floods low-lying areas, forms steep canyon walls, carves paths through impenetrable terrain and on occasion, injures the occasional recreational enthusiast.
A river also shapes trade routes, provides irrigation water for fields and farms, nourishes surrounding flora, provides drinking water for wildlife and people alike, allows for spectacular scenery, fly fishing, rafting and outdoor relaxation. Rivers are wild and scary but they are also life-giving and peaceful. They are a vivid juxtaposition of wonder, life, necessity and goodness with rampant power, torrential rawness and a hint of danger.
If I wish to lead others to the water of this mighty River, then I myself cannot be afraid of it. I must be willing to submerse myself in these mysterious and often painful Waters. It is not enough to sit on the River’s edge and remark on its beauty, take photos and urge others to jump in while I stand at a safe distance, afraid to get wet. If I aim to attend to others along this river of God’s love, I must be a guide who is not hesitant to get in the boat and face the rapids head on. I cannot walk the shoreline shouting instructions at those who were willing to enter a boat, I must enter the River myself.
To draw the picture of a rafting guide out further, if my boat were to capsize with myself and crew in it, I cannot swim to shore, set up camp and count my bumps and bruises for the subsequent few months. There is no progress in rehashing old wounds while maintaining a victim mentality. If my boat were to snag on a log in the River and the air began to escape from it, I cannot wave my white flag and decide to walk the rest of the journey. The River goes places that cannot be traversed on foot.
This is why I left David’s hospital room that Wednesday morning. Since that retreat in November, which opened my eyes not only to my own errant ways of thinking but also to the conviction that I was being called to begin the Christian Formation and Soul Care program at Denver Seminary, I have been utterly convinced that hardship should not hold me back from exploring more of God’s love for me. It probably would have been much easier to skip class, defer my studies for a semester and ruminate over yet another hardship that we have endured. I love my husband deeply and wanted to care for and support him in any way I could, but we both also were highly aware of the significance of not letting another health crisis impede the journey towards further spiritual growth and development. So I tiptoed out of his hospital room and back into the River.