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.

God is With Us

God is With Us

It is the first week of Advent, a Tuesday. My body seems to be falling apart, and no one has any concrete answers. A few speculations, but it just feels like they are trying to placate me with something. I start with anger, rage. I want to lash out, punish someone. I know it is irrational . But it makes illogical sense somehow in my emotion-driven brain. I will punish my body.

But I can’t. That’s not an option anymore. I have charges to keep and ground to maintain. Hard-won ground that I cannot afford to lose. My loved ones cannot afford to suffer the consequences of my illogical temper tantrum. Nevertheless, I lash out at my body for two days. I give myself two days to have my starvation strike.

As my indulgence draws to a close, I crumple, resigned to my state of debilitation, and sink into an even more terrifying stage of lethargic apathy. Knowing that this can’t continue, I reach out feebly only to be met with helpless concern from those who love me. What can they do? They can’t heal me. Body or mind. I reach out again via text, but I know that such efforts are fruitless. I need a miracle.

The world sits, waiting, wounds wide open, festering, infected. We are desperate, grasping for something, anything, but we open empty hands. I sit, broken, holding a sleeping baby, weeping weak and bitter tears into his innocence. Too much. Life is too much. The physical pain. The emotional pain. I am crippled by the agony and have no answers. I simply cannot maintain the status quo anymore. My tears evidence my release. I let go.

In my other hand, I hold my phone, a life-line of sorts. A devotional appears on my email. It promises hope. It is hope week of Advent. Fancy that. The irony is not at all comical at this point in my pain. It is just heart-piercing. A dagger. I know that in my agony, I represent something larger, a deeper, more acute world-wide agony.  All is not right, and I am not alone in my despair.  We are collectively wailing and weeping, longing, but not daring to hope for a miracle.  We just can’t hold it together anymore.  If nothing else, Advent carries with it a sense of release, exhale, and deeper surrender.  Sometimes, that comes coupled with despair.

I’ve read this devotional before. She wrote it last year during Advent. The author will wait for the unlikely, in search of a miracle, just a glimpse.  The Morpho butterfly will land wide open blue, impossibly, on her shoulder for a solid 25 minutes, and she will rejoice, reassured by the presence of God.  It stands as a symbol of hope.  I scoff.  I feel a solidarity with the cynical world, who scoffs with me.   God doesn’t do that for me.  He hates me.  Or worse yet, He just doesn’t even care.

A wide open weep stumbles out of my mouth.  Tears splash the muslin baby blanket, wrapping my innocent child. No hope.  No butterflies. No real help is available from doctors, from friends, from family, or even, maybe especially, from God.  He’s silent.  I pause, as the world pauses now, in the prolonged silence of death.  We hold our breath.  A bit longer.

Nothing….

A baby’s belly-laugh breaks the sickening silence.  His sleep-enshrouded mirth opens a pin-prick of light in the midst of a pitch-black death-night.  In the midst of my broken sob, I see my child, still in slumber, laughing out loud at something.  Maybe it’s a dream, maybe he is responding to my body’s heaves. Nevertheless, he laughs a laugh that only a baby could muster in the midst of his deepest sleep.  His laugh rises like music notes to meet my song of lament, and our emotions unite.  Tears still flowing, I join in his laughter-song.  I join my son, and joy invades, takes residence in my sorrow.  This baby, oblivious to the depths of my pain, has become the means of grace through which hope takes flight. My tears still flow freely, and they mingle with tears of joy, of hope.

Out of the depths of my longing hopelessness, I look down to see a sleeping child laugh.  My child, who represents hope, joy, and renewed life. All is not lost I am not forgotten. We are not forgotten.  God is with us.  He has manifested Himself in a tiny baby boy.

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.

Come, Lord Jesus

It is interesting how the Advent season seems to amplify the pain and brokenness in the world. Folks drink cider, put up colored lights and trees, sing songs, and go to church. Businesses are shut down.
Christmas Day.
Christ-worship Day.
Children are molested. People are murdered. Homeless ignored. It is bone-cold and dark. Evil is profoundly present. In fact, in light of the “glow” of Christmas, the darkness appears that much darker. To me, one of the greatest tragedies and let-downs of Christmas is the increased awareness of the agony and ache that remains–that all of this feels like it shouldn’t be present, not on this supposedly special day. Not on Christmas. Not on Jesus’ birthday celebration. That name, Jesus, that name that is supposed to dispel the darkness, doesn’t yet seem to be powerful enough even on His own celebratory day. What a sham! What a travesty! What a slap in the face!
Magical? Hell, no. It always seemed more cursed than magical. On a night in mid-December a few years ago, I had my second of three attempts at my life. On the second week of Advent. Of the coming. Advent couldn’t save me from my destructiveness, could it? My world remained hell on earth through the Christmas season. I was still sentenced to suffer. I particularly did not get a day off on Christmas. Not when you are in treatment centers, psych wards, hospital rooms, the prison of your corroding consciousness.
No, evil and its consequences don’t honor “Holy-days.” They actually just rub salt in the wound just that much deeper. They hold themselves up to reinforce just how screwed up I am. I can’t even embrace joy and celebrate for 24 hours, let alone 24 days of Advent.
Hell on earth doesn’t honor “Holy-days.” Abuse doesn’t honor them. In fact, it seems to lord itself over them.
And all the more, we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Weeping, we cry it. With all of our desperate hearts, we wail it until our voices crack and we crumble. “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel.”
That name.
Lord Jesus.
Emmanuel.
Prince of Peace.
Wonderful Counselor.
Be those things. FOR ONCE. FOR ONE DAY. Is that too much to ask? ADVENT.

And yet….
Maybe this is why we have Advent: To make us yearn that much harder. Let His kingdom come. To make us hope, that there will be a day of PEACE.