Sometimes the sweet, youthful voices on the radio do more to irritate than inspire me. It’s nothing personal. I was once one of them. I remember singing in the childhood family trio with my nieces, “I Found the Answer”–loooong before any of us knew any real questions. We need to live a little in order for such audacious declarations to have any personal resonance. (It begins “I was weak and weary, I had gone astray…” I was 10!) I still find my foot in my mouth way too often. This time it was around the topic of suffering, which came to mind again this morning when I heard…
“When I walk through deep waters, I know that you will be with me. When I’m standing in the fire, I will not be overcome. Through the valley of the shadow I will not fear. I am not alone. You will go before me, you will never leave me.” ~~Kari Jobe
I had to shush my crass inner cynic who piped up that Sweetheart, the deepest waters and the hottest fire you’ve probably experienced, to date, was a breakup with your boyband-looking crush; your proclamation to not be overcome through the valley of shadow sounds a lot like your way of whistling in the dark until you can find the next hunk to hang your budding identity on. Wow. Harsh, I know. Apparently I needed coffee–and to repent. The cynic softened during the second stanza.
“In the midst of deep sorrow, I see your light is breaking through. The dark of night will not overtake me; I am pressing in to you. Lord, you fight my every battle and I will not fear.”
I was at a retreat this weekend which was perfectly timed since those of us who observe such things are approaching what is known as Holy Week or Passsion Week. All eyes of the Christian world turn toward the journey of Christ toward the crux fidelis, faithful cross, a journey we are invited to take, both in remembrance and in various realities of our own (RSVP anyone?).
As a welcoming exercise we were asked to comment on the readings we had been assigned in preparation for our day together. I chose Grace Revealed. Sittser’s story of “redemptive suffering” challenged me to be open to the thread of redemption running through the last five years of my own suffering with chronic migraines, admittedly a stretch. I scanned the room as I spoke until, embarrassed, my eyes stopped at My Beautiful Friend. I overheard her giving an update to someone earlier that morning on her own disabling condition. “They’ve told me I am no longer improving. I’m not getting better.”
Arrested, my words caught in my throat. There I was, midsentence, straddling the awkward space between moving forward and backing up. After all, one merciless day at a time she is watching pieces of herself float away, beginning with the removal of her stomach five years ago. Now she requires full time companionship. “I’m too young to be this old,” she quips, with characteristic good humor that’s beginning to show signs of wear. I, on the other hand, have a debilitating headache once in a while that pales in comparison to the realities with which she coexists. Yet the quality and course of both our lives have been altered irrevocably. Our minds want to make sense of suffering, so we rank the BTU’s of our personal fires like we rate the burn of chili peppers in Scoville Heat Units on our tongues:
Beautiful Friend’s Life = “You Can’t Handle This” Hot Sauce, from Peppers: 225,000 units – Beyond habanero and scotch bonnet at up to 350,000 units. Maybe there is an end in sight but you can’t see it from here for the tears in your eyes and various other maladies that mar your vision.
Chronic migraines = Serrano pepper: 6,000 – 23,000 units – Depends on the day. Like 4 star Thai curry, it’s hard to swallow. Your eyes burn and you have to stop eating periodically but there is relief between bites.
Young love gone wrong = Sweet Bell Pepper: 000,000 units – Shut up and eat. You’ll be fine.
Missing the Point
But perhaps to compare is to miss the point. We each have a personal tolerance for chili heat–or not. My Swedish friend is just beginning to appreciate cayenne in her cooking and my daughter refuses to add jalapenos to her to-die-for pico de gallo. Another daughter was adding Tapatio to her 2-year-old’s mac and cheese. Now almost 11, she loves her hot sauce!
Only God knows our capacity for redemptive suffering and what will result in an enduring work of pure gold or a breathtaking Chihuly sculpture. To even imagine it is sometimes beyond what our limited vision and immediate pain can allow. It’s even possible we won’t get to see the other end of the redemptive thread in our lifetime, a mystery I am not so willing to accept when I’m being honest. Still, we’re invited to trust.
No matter the magnitude, the reality is that if it’s mine, it’s suffering. The fashion-forward cutie in the video, glammed up in fake eyelashes, suffers as deeply in her way as My Beautiful Friend who now has none. There is no band making redemptive sounds from the groanings of her soul. Only God hears them–and those of us privileged to be close enough. To our naked eyes, with our limited perception, none of it makes sense.
What we all do have, though, as night falls again and again, when we’re stuck in the burn of a perpetual Good Friday, not yet having seen our Easter sunrise, is the promise of which the sweet voice on the radio reminds us,
“You are not alone, I will go before you, I will never leave you.”
As sweet diminishes heat in well-balanced cuisine, may you find the sweet truth “You are not alone” cooling to whatever fire you may be in.