Today my heart feels heavy and sad. And I’m not sure why, given the fact that I have racked up some serious blessings over the last few days. First of all, my son has finally started sleeping again, after weeks of major disruptions that brought my husband and me to our knees. Second, I have been able to get immediate and comprehensive help for an old—and painful—eye condition that has flared up. Third, the intensive therapy that we have been trying to secure for my son is finally in place, and he is working with behaviorists and a speech pathologist. Finally, the “staycation” my husband and I planned last month worked out rather well, allowing us to unwind just a little while my son and one of his caretakers played on the beach.
And yet, when I turn inward, the emotion that lingers there can only be called grief. I feel like I am in mourning, as if I should be tying a black band around my arm, talking in hushed tones (if at all), dressing in dark colors.
Yes, I know that the information I get through various newsfeeds provides plenty of reason to mourn. The astronomical numbers of new COVID cases in our country baffle me, as does the endless list of people slain in cold blood because of their race. But the pain I feel from these sources is shared with so many, as if the weight of illness and evil has been spread out over multiple shoulders, so that none of us—I hope—bears it completely alone.
No, this particular grief feels more isolating than that, more secret than that—like something I have lived with for years that occasionally flares up like my eye but receives no attention because I can’t quite name it. And so today I am going to make an attempt to bring it into the light, because if current events have taught me anything, it’s that terrible things fester and gain strength in the darkness. Any chance at healing and change requires a confession of truth.
The first truth I can identify is that the grief seemed to emerge alongside the recent blessings that I have just mentioned (and that was not even a complete list). When I think about it, I realize that I am far more comfortable being on the needy side of prayer than on the thankful side of it. I’m quite familiar with feeling desperate, worried that the problem I’ve slammed up against this time will be the one to finally do me in. Whether it is a health issue or a psychological issue or even just an endurance issue (having a special needs kid brings this last one up a lot), I often get overwhelmed by how big the trouble seems and how small I appear in comparison.
As a believer in Jesus, I know what to do with that place. I pray and ask others to pray (and if we’re being real, I would guess that others are doing more of the praying than I am during a crisis). I also line up appointments with appropriate professionals and reconnect with support people, drawing a circle tightly around myself. By means of all these things, I am essentially crouching down low before my God, asking Him to please, please come through.
Now here’s the second truth: when He does come through, usually by means of another person’s expertise or kindness (or both), I’m not quite sure what to do with myself afterward. I know that I register the initial relief that comes with a catastrophe narrowly avoided, but then what? When I stand back up again, what kind of posture do I take? Do I clap my hands? Dance with joy and abandon? Reflect back to my Maker the appreciation I feel for His direct intervention?
Sadly, the answer most times is no. I do not.
Here’s a better description of what transpires. I rock back from my knees onto my bottom, shocked to have been helped in a manner so dramatic, so seemingly indiscriminate. I stay put for a minute, just to make sure that I haven’t dreamed up the intervention. Then I get myself up, dust myself off, and—I hate to say—cross my arms over my chest. It is a gesture of doubt, perhaps even of suspicion. Too many times my heart moves right along from that suspicion onto anger. When God most deserves my fervent gratitude, He gets the stink eye. The expression that says: what do You really want from me through this? What price will I have to pay?
I don’t know what’s worse, wondering whether I have somehow chosen to be an insolent adolescent, or whether I was born a total freak at my core, someone whose spiritual wiring is utterly faulty?
Either way I have to face the question: what now? Because this is no way to live, and I sense that my anger, in fact, fuels the grief I’ve been feeling.
So I turn to the Bible, a text which explores in such depth what it means to be a human being, a creature whose emotions so often prove confounding. And I am led to the story of Jesus’s encounter with a Samaritan woman in John 4, purely because I know if it were me standing in his sandals, I’d be so tired of the stink-eye coming from one who is supposed to be my faithful disciple.
As it happens, this account begins with an explicit description of Jesus being weary (4:6) when he has an encounter with a woman who (like me) hardly has her act together. The scene is set in Samaria, a place typically avoided by observant Jews because of its inhabitants’ iffy theology. Jesus rests by a well at high noon while his disciples go in search of food. When a Samaritan woman comes to draw water, he engages her in polite conversation that quickly gets quite personal— a staggering breach of social (and religious) etiquette on many fronts.
Can I have a drink? he asks, knowing that the very request will take her aback. Which, of course, it totally does, so much so that she has to ask why he deigns to speak with her at all. This is just the response Jesus seems to be looking for, because he seizes upon her query as an opening for a whole series of provocative statements. As if pulling up water from a very deep place, he draws truths from her that are hard to admit. Yes, she, too, is tired. Not from physical travel but from a revolving door of entanglements as man after man leaves her.
Remarkably, the one truth the Samaritan woman does seem to retain despite her destructive lifestyle is this: There is a Messiah, and He is the ultimate explainer of all that we are, and all that we do (4:25), whether we are talking about how we live in relation to each other or our Maker.
“Yes,” Jesus says to her, “you’re speaking to Him now. I am right here. For you. Always. Not like all those other guys.”
And, then, incredibly, Jesus does something else he knows this thirsting woman needs just as much as his words. After all, she’s probably heard many sweet pledges and promises over the years that just didn’t pan out.
He stays. Two whole days, teaching in her village. Revealing himself to her community and thereby (I believe) restoring her connections to it. Nothing like being loved on by the Messiah to move an outcast from the margins of society towards its center. Rather than being regarded as a pariah, she has been permitted to be the vessel from which her whole village draws a drink of pure gospel—straight from the lips of the Christ himself. They say to her, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” (See 4:42)
So what’s this got to do with me? And what’s it got to do with the picture of the boy in the boat?
Here’s more truth to answer those questions. I grew up in a household that became increasingly volatile as I entered my teens. My father, a deeply religious man, would fly into fits of rage without warning. There was no telling what would trigger them, how long they would last or how violent they might become. Worse yet, they were often accompanied by vicious language, in which I was accused of being a terrible, fallen human being (maybe that’s why I feel so much for the Samaritan woman).
Although I have received much healing, I will never forget what it felt like to be so incisively abused. And although the source of my father’s explosions was mental illness, it mirrored what families of addicts often experience: a reoccurring cycle of calm and fury, stillness and storm. It got so that I couldn’t trust the quieter times, knowing they were only a prelude to eruptions.
It’s no wonder I cannot rest easy when good things come from the One above. There’s a part of me that still believes my Heavenly Father will exact a terrible price each time he meets a need or acts “nice.” After all these years of working on the wounds of my past, I still carry a lot of anger over what was done to me by someone claiming to speak for God. Imagine if Jesus had shamed and condemned the Samaritan woman instead of salvaging what little human dignity she had left. She might not have ever recovered.
I see now: I am aggrieved that my anger should persist so long, tainting the rapport I want to have with my God. And I wonder: do you bear the stains of a similar wounding? Is it hard for you to trust your Provider because some so-called representative of him messed with you over and over?
If so, we are not peevish adolescents withholding thanks out of spite. Nor are we freaks of nature, incapable of gratitude. We are emotional orphans—strangers in a strange land with nowhere to go when our sore spots get scraped for the millionth time. Weary from carrying the weight of our anger, we mourn, worried that we will never be free of the conflict that arises every time we’re given good and feel bad about it.
What I want to say to those of you who get torn apart in time of blessing: don’t give up. God understands that there are serious reasons why you cannot respond the way others do with such enthusiasm and ease. He’s willing to meet you right where you are, the same way he waited on the Samaritan woman. He wants to give You a good long drink of himself, even if he has to start really small. I know you may not be feeling incredibly receptive to his love, but you can handle a thimbleful. A few drops. A single swallow. I know you can. Let him take it from there, and don’t worry about whether you deserve this gracious treatment or not.
The other day my son’s sitter took a picture of him asleep on our deck. He had awoken very early in the morning and was knocked out by afternoon. What I love about the picture is that my son is doubly held as he slumbers. The inflatable boat that cradles him is itself cradled by the larger inflatable pool. He can simply drift and let go, sustained by outer forces (air and water) that pose him no harm.
Oh, Jesus, please uphold us like that. Comfort those of us who mourn in ways that are difficult to describe, that make us feel repulsive to You and to ourselves. We have no idea why You are stopping to speak with us in this state, but we want Your words and Your Presence so badly. Love on us until we move from the margins of our woundedness toward a more grounded, truthful center. Stay with us until we are convinced that you are the Savior of the World, one who will never “flip” on us or desert us as others have. Receive our grief and anger and give us your healing in return. Allow us to float free, for we are exhausted from our struggle.
And though this word might be small, we say it with as much sincerity as we can muster: