The Fellowship of the Suffering

The Fellowship of the Suffering

Two weeks ago, I was a beaming face of hospitality at the welcome center of our little, crisp church. I greeted members and guests by name with exuberance and Christmas cheer. I wore my favorite red dress and made sure that I was an approachable presence for our parishioners and neighbors. I was sick, desperate for healing, but on Sundays, I strove to present myself as a picture of health and vitality.

I sit now, experiencing a different form of fellowship. I have identified this as the fellowship of the suffering. We are huddled in a group room of an inpatient unit for adults with eating disorders. It is Christmas night. The lights are glimmering on Christmas trees somewhere, and families are celebrating in distant living rooms somewhere other than where we are. A token wreathe and a menorah decorate our unit. Staff has confiscated my makeup and hair products, proving them to be futile. We are stripped to the bare minimum of our selves. Sweats and Pajama bottoms are the norm, even on this night where the world celebrates. We play a haphazard game of Scattergories, filling the anxious space where we all feel the agony of the unknown. Will we heal? Is there hope? We await our Christmas dinner, served on hospital trays in portions that stretch our refeeding bellies to the edge of their physical limits, as they monitor our phosphorous levels, making sure that the food isn’t actually going to kill us rather than heal us. I exchange anguished glances with these new friends, relationships forged through the furnace of the initial agonizing steps of physical recovery. We hold hands as we dangle on the edges of medical instability and emotional uncertainty. We, the broken, the underweight, the malnourished, the sick, look out the narrow windows of our fifth floor unit to the twinkling lights lining the down town streets below us. Many tears have been shed today, and with our masks forced off, we sit, barefaced, without pretense. Some of us lean into the vulnerability, opening up in ways that we thought were off limits. In our fellowship of the suffering, we have an unspoken understanding that our socioeconomic statuses are of little significance. Our degrees, job titles, and achievements sit piled in the admissions office, waiting for us to pick them back up at discharge. For now, for this evening, we sit on even ground.

Not everyone has this unique “opportunity.” I am not sure how to replicate it in the real world, but on this Christmas night, I am encouraged with the though that Jesus would be inclined to check in as a visitor to our little locked unit. He, “God with us,” gravitated to the uncomfortable situations of suffering and agony. He would pull up a chair to our “Christmas feast,” where individuals sit wide-eyed, staring at the daunting plates of turkey and sweet potatoes in front of them.

I sit with the suffering, and I think back again to two weeks ago. I forgot about the importance of transparency. I forgot about the joy of journeying the rocky road of life honestly with others. I forgot that being real is one of the best gifts that I can give Jesus, others, and myself. I am reminded of this here, in this obscenely unlikely Christmas “retreat.” With the weight of my accessories, achievements, and attachments lifted, I can breathe again. I can genuinely breathe life into the dead places in my heart, and I can connect genuinely with others.

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An Advent Lament

An Advent Lament

One evening in early December, our half-hearted dinner comes to a close. Few words have been exchanged, and the children have each taken about a half of a bite of mashed potatoes and drummed the table with their silverware for the ten minutes that they have been forced to sit in their seats. Jordan and I sit wearily, lacking the energy to even mutter a few words to one another. I stare desperately at the seven candles lit in the middle of the table, longing for them to speak peace to my tempestuous heart. My heart is an impenetrable fortress and refuses to allow the light in. Jordan asks me why I am staring the candles down, and I sigh and blow them out with extended effort. Their light falls short of my desperate soul’s need for comfort and peace tonight.

The heaviness in my chest and the thickness in my throat lingers. My head aches with the aftermath of the day’s panic attacks and fits of rage. The lingering failure of the day hangs over my spirit like a cloud. And the advent candles failed me. Or I failed them. The emotional and physical pain of this advent is palpable, oppressive, and I struggle to breathe through the smog of my carnality. I feel as though I am crying out to empty heavens, staring into illusory candles, reaching for something that isn’t even there. I know that this is just a feeling, and I know, on an intimate heart level, that God is indeed with us. I just don’t feel Him or hear Him right now.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Come, Lord Jesus. Break through the darkness and brokenness of my multi-faceted infirmities. Break into our family’s heaviness, and lighten our load. Bring illumination to our darkness. In your mercy, bring beauty and grace to the daily lives of my innocent children. This Advent season, I am beyond desperate for your light. I need a pin-prick of hope. I understand that my perceived needs are not always accurate, so I will accept whatever package in which you choose to deliver said hope. I just need something, anything, soon.

Holy Ground

Holy Ground

A sacred space of Holiness dwells in these few days before Christmas. I feel like I am walking on holy ground, like I should never wear shoes the week before Christmas. 

I am so cautious about the space in my life in these days of acute longing and hope. I want to inhale more deeply, lingering in the hold for a few seconds longer before I exhale. 

We read a lot about making space for Christ in Christmas. But I see Him everywhere. He’s here. Absolutely, undeniably here. I just don’t want to miss Him. And if I don’t take time, I might miss a glimpse of the beauty of the One, the One  who wore flesh so that we could be with Him.

Oh, He’s with us. He is Emmanuel. Here. Now. In one sense, I don’t want to blink in case I miss a glimpse, and in another sense, I know that he will meet me with my eyes closed. 

The longing is profound this year. It grows more agonizing every Advent. Strangely enough, the joy also runs deeper, closer to my core.  The streams of longing and joy seem to run together, digging, wearing down a path of Advent in my soul.  My soul is weary, aching, and broken. And it rejoices with the thrill of hope. I am now capable of weeping in simultaneous agony and joyous rapture without splitting in half.  I had no inkling that a soul could bear the dichotomy of joy and grief in the same instant. 

This is holy ground that we are walking. It is no-shoes territory.  And I am becoming more fully alive with each day that I make a little bit more room in my heart for this enigmatic Christ-child. 

Peace

Peace. We pray for peace. We light the peace candle on this, the second Sunday of Advent. We ask for peace on earth. I ask for peace of heart and mind. I may be selfish that I can’t see beyond my weary war-stricken brain to a weary world, but it is where I am. The opposite of peace? For a long time, I have considered peace’s antonym to be division, which seems to be the definition of my internal state. I cannot even go through a train of thought without having an all-out brawl with myself, or one of my selves. This is the state of my parts. Many seem to hate each other. Peace? Not yet. But we aren’t really yet to the idea of peace on earth either. We still have wars and countless conflicts, and the world keeps turning, and we still have Christmas. We still hold onto hope. We hold onto the promises of Christmas. Peace. The second Sunday, followed by joy. JOY. Peace for me is unity, and not a political type of unity. Honestly, if I could achieve an internal unity, I would be in the running for the happiest person on the planet award. Shalom. It means among other things, completion. Wholeness. I long for wholeness. I long for my brain to come untangled and stop pulling against itself, the different threads and chains and ribbons to be woven and braided into something beautiful. For now, it seems like an endless chaos of interminable confusion. For me, the peace that I pray for this Christmas is internal. I need clarity, parts working together. I need my mind to no longer be a war zone but a sanctuary, a cathedral. Lord Jesus, come with PEACE. Shalom.

The beginning of Advent: December 1

My life is a rainbow, the ending of a thunderstorm, illuminated as a prism. It is pain and joy, intermingled. It is the Advent of Christ. It is profound agony shaken it its core by the deep resonance of grace. Constantly. It is a hollowed-out soul flooded with the raging waters of redemption. It is longing and gratitude walking hand-in-hand. It is, indeed, a lifeless stump, sprouting a tender shoot. My life is always December, bone-chilling cold, dead, and filled with ice-boiling anticipation. Advent is my life.