If You are at all involved in this situation, it seems like it should be going a lot better.
This is the conclusion I have come to many a time, when I have been struggling with some challenge, such as tending to my son’s special needs (he’s ten and autistic), or my own mental health. Lately, I have been pondering the fact that he and I appear to be so mismatched as a mother-and-child unit. The things that he does to make himself feel better—like making loud, repetitive noises—prove extremely triggering to me. For as long as I can remember, my brain, and my heart, have needed times of quiet in order to be restored. As a child I remember being lulled to sleep by the soft sound of waves bathing the beach adjacent to our condo. I also remember begging my mom to stop one of my siblings from singing loudly and continuously—which was her own form of decompression. Before my son was born and I had more time, I benefited greatly from yoga classes, especially those with no music playing—only the sound of one’s own breathing. Certain prayer exercises can be incredibly helpful as I slow down and intentionally turn inward towards God. Except for the lack of sleep and vows of silence, there are aspects of monastic life that appeal to me. (Actually, I’d probably last about three days before needing to go shopping at one of my favorite home goods stores).
As I look at a picture I recently took at an arcade we took our son to, I regard it with some bitterness. You know how it works at those places: the tickets that pop out of the gaming machines aren’t really “winning” you anything. The amount of money that you feed them has no real purchasing power when you approach the redemption counter to exchange tickets for toys. I’m surprised more arcades have not been boycotted by environmentalists. It probably takes three trees’ worth of cardboard to win a fruity-smelling eraser. But I digress.
My question to myself is: where do I go, and what do I do, when I feel utterly confounded and provoked by the prevailing factors—both inner and outer—of my life? Because taking it out on myself by destructive behaviors is not a good option. Numbing oneself with food, or (sigh) shopping, or any other harmful behavior only creates predicaments that you will have to deal with later. And although many of us don’t give it a second thought, it’s also a horrible idea to let self-condemning statements run amuck in our minds. Reciting the script where we will suffer forever and never amount to more than the sum of our pathetic problems can do harm as much as blackout drinking or sleeping around, I think. It’s giving yourself over to darkness that could permanently damage you while you remain in a compromised position. When you finally come to your senses, will you still have a shot at a comeback, or be irreparably damaged? Whom else might you have hurt on your hell-bent bender?
As my instincts have often guided me, I turn to Biblical narrative to see if I can find any stories to save me from myself. The first one that occurs to me is the Nativity story (Luke 2), because I think either Joseph or Mary could have uttered my opening complaint. Right off the bat the storyteller is eager to characterize these two as exemplary individuals: Mary with her openness to divine movement upon her, and Joseph with his concern to care for her, even when it looks like she had disgraced herself during their betrothal (see Matt.1:18–25). Not only are they forced to make the arduous journey from Galilee to Judea while Mary is pregnant, but her time also comes while they are fulfilling a harsh political edict. Worse yet, Mary gives birth in a stable, because Caesar’s census has drawn such crowds that the inns are all full. She lays her newborn baby in a feeding trough because there are no other options.
The gospel writer Luke leaves out important (at least to me) information such as whether any available woman took pity on Mary and helped her through labor and delivery. Was Joseph appointed to this task too, on top of trying to secure his wife’s most basic needs? The fact that Jesus’ birth is bookended by angelic visitations—Gabriel to make the annunciation at the start and the host of divine celebrants guiding the shepherds toward the end—shows that this was all God’s idea, right from the start. So why does it have to be so hard on Joseph and Mary, when they are traveling—both literally and figuratively—the right road?
If we go back even further into the Scriptures, to 1 Kings 18–19, we find yet another faithful follower of God who slams up against adversity. Beset by his own political troubles, the prophet Elijah is sent by God to speak to King Ahab, halting the rain in his land by the annunciation of a divine word (1 Ki. 17:1). After the water ceases to fall, Elijah gets into a shoot-out with Queen Jezebel’s prophets, who serve Baal. The two camps set up their altars side by side, but only Elijah’s sacrifice is consumed by the God of Israel’s fire. The prophets of Baal are not only shamed by this outcome, but meet a bloody end as Elijah executes them afterwards (1 Ki.18:40).
Rather than triumph in his victory, however, Elijah runs for his life from the now-enraged Queen Jezebel and hides out in the wilderness.
“It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
Not exactly the victory song of a man who has been successfully mediating divine miracles by virtue of his words and deeds. At least I can’t see myself being able to change the weather or summon the exact response I am looking for from God when unbelievers are watching.
Interestingly, God does not argue with Elijah’s lamentation, but rather sends an angel—twice!—to give him food, drink, and comforting words (“Arise, eat, for the journey is too great for you.” [1 Ki. 19:7]).
When he’s up to it, Elijah is told to watch God put on a special display of his powers as winds rend the mountains where he is, an earthquake shakes the land, and a fire roars through. Only when he hears the soft blowing of the wind does Elijah cover his face and wait for God to speak to him. He learns that many believers remain in this seemingly traitorous place and that he has a job to do anointing new leaders. His life—personal and vocational—is not over.
Would Mary and Joseph have done better being received with fanfare at the time of Jesus’ birth? Would Elijah’s embattled heart have been ministered to more effectively by louder demonstrations of God’s power? Speaking for myself, I know that sometimes I resent God that He can’t make things a smidge more easy for me. That He can’t show up with lightning bolts like Zeus, zapping away at my doubts and difficulties. Maybe I’m more fragile than I know during certain times of trouble, and the last thing I need is more drama. Maybe God sometimes needs to clear the stage to a state of bare bones so I can see what I hold in my arms, without forgetting that it’s actually a miracle beyond belief.
Blow my mind, I’m saying to my Creator.
I’d rather reach your heart, He’s probably saying back. Only He knows best how to do that.
So, I let the tickets drop from my hands and stop trying to keep score. I’m not going to “earn” anything at the counter anyway. It’s all a gift. But that won’t stop me from speaking my mind when things don’t seem right. And somehow I believe God wouldn’t have it any other way. Because sometimes, the journey really is too great for me, and I need His special attention.
Feed me, Father.
I feel so battered and depleted
Let me glimpse more of how You really are at work
In and around me.
And when that’s not what’s best
Grant me a quiet, trusting heart
That responds to the still, small voice.
Don’t let me miss out
On anything You are saying
Because You are always speaking
To us and through us
If we let You