Monday, July 13, 2009

hope in suffering

I have been thinking about hope a lot lately, for a lot of reasons, namely that my son Rowan just turned one about a month ago, and that I was recently asked to write a book for students on hope in the near future with a cool publishing house out in Kansas City (more on all this when some of the details get worked out, and it becomes official). But mostly because this past year saw some difficult experiences that have taken a long time for me to spend time sitting in, reflecting on, and let change me. I can't begin to describe the amount of hours that Shey and I have spent in conversation, tears, prayer, silence, and even yelling as the pressure that suffering caused erupted into our lives.

When Rowan was born June 10, 2008, Shey had already been in the hospital for over a week with intense back pain that the doctors had been attributing to Rowan pressing on Shey's sciatic nerve, but actually was the fruition of an infection developed in the bone of her spine which was also causing severe inflammation in the muscles near the infection and dramatic pain. Watching and being with Shey as the pain intensified for over a month prior to Rowan's birth, and especially right before and after his birth...all while the doctors tried to figure out just what was actually happening, were some of the most difficult days of my short life. And then, when Rowan was born with pneumonia and air trapped outside of his lungs causing him to breathe poorly along with being premature and a few other issues, the suffering intensified into new heights. Not to mention that for the first four days of Rowan's life, Shey and Rowan were in different hospitals, literally forcing me to choose between the two of them as they took up residence 1 1/2 hours apart. After three weeks in hospitals, both Shey and Rowan would come home: Shey, barely able to move on her own, with months of slow therapy, and a lot of medicinal treatment to go; Rowan, as good as new, and a toughness to complement his easy-going personality.

There were many other hardships during those three weeks at the hospital, and certainly plenty when we made it back home, but I am not writing tonight to try to spell out all of the suffering or to make anyone have pity for me or our situation at that time. In fact, Shey has known plenty of other suffering with her only sister suffering the traumatic effects of a brain injury suffered in a car accident nearing 10 years ago. I've stood at the bedside of a student with her parents as she breathed a final breath after a battle with brain cancer at only 16. We've got close friends whose newborn has already had multiple heart surgeries, and have been greatly encouraged and impressed with their tenacity, hope, and resilience. All this to say: both Shey and I know that everyone has or will experience suffering in their life. We aren't special, we don't have any claim to fame, or even believe that we handle things like this perfectly.

But I process and reflect through writing. And I have been shying away from writing about this for a long time. Not because I haven't wanted to...but because I wanted to let the experience of last year to sink in. To try to desperately to hear the still, quiet voice of God in the suffering and hardships of the past year. To let the silence fill my heart. To let my silence give room to hear the community of people around me, and to spend my time processing things deeply with the close family and friends who gave ears to listen, and wisdom to share. And I wanted to spend this past year with my new family. Shey and I have been together for a long time now, and there was a lot we wanted to process together, and enjoy together with the new addition to our family. Not to mention, for the last three years, I had been going to seminary full time plus working full time at the church, so I wanted to take a year to slow down, enjoy living out in the country, spend time with Shey and Rowan, and heal up a bit.

I'd like to post some thoughts on hope in suffering, and how I've worked through some of the dark periods of my life, not really for any other reason than that it is time, it is time for me to speak about it out loud to others, so as to name the suffering and reflect upon the hope found in suffering. Not hope because of suffering, not hope caused or brought on by suffering, but hope in suffering. Maybe later I will unpack all that theologically. But not right now.

I was reading over an email recently I sent to two close friends at a pinnacle of the hospital stay, as it was one of those emails that just comes out, like when you have to throw-up whether you want to or not...and I can remember a couple of words from the email, and weeping as I wrote. I wept because I had nothing to give, nothing that I was holding back, and I knew these two guys would be there and had already been there to listen. To hear me. To give ears, hearts, hands, and knees to the pain they both were watching me and my family experience, and go through with us too, as they shared in depths of the darkness with us. And the next morning, when I finally talked to and/or saw those guys, I experienced in a new way why Jesus necessarily had to come to earth. Why Jesus had to be a person, a living breathing, blood-in-the-veins, scraped hands, dirty feet, smelly of a person: namely, because hope is always embodied. Hope takes shape. Hope in some distant place isn't the grandest hope to me, hope found in others helps to give life meaning and possibility when suffering seems to be closing every door. And those two guys in numerous ways embodied hope and made it real, being living light in the stormy clouds of life's grey shadows.

And hope took shape when our families surrounded us, or my parents hopped on a plane the moment I called them for help. Or when moms, friends, kind nurses, or family stayed with Shey or with Rowan when I couldn't be with one of them. Hope embodied is the best hope of all. It is the perfect blend of hope that changes the present and the future. Hope embodied in voices singing to my son when I couldn't hold his hand, hope embodied in friends who helped Shey to laugh when tears had been the only words spoken, or friends who let the silence speak...and simply were present with us in that silence that speaks a thousand words without a sound ever being made. Or kind emails, voicemails, hospital visits, flowers, all signs, markers, reminders of a hope made real. This isn't some pie-in-the-sky hope. This isn't some "well one day things will be better hope." This is hope eternal changing the present reality. This is embodied hope that changed me. That gave hope in suffering, because it was embodied in others, when I couldn't find it in myself, or have the eyes to see it.

Does this mean that there isn't hope for the future, or that embodied hope is the only kind of hope? Surely not. But the embodied hope of today, is a marker, a sign, a cosmos-altering way of being in the world that actually makes a difference. As Jesus says so beautifully in teaching us to pray, "May God's will be done on earth as in heaven," amen. Amen. Hope embodied is hope that can illuminate the darkness of suffering. It doesn't remove the pain of suffering, or make anything easy. But it is real. And it is present.