As I walk, I see gates everywhere—most closed, some locked, a few standing open. And beyond the gates, rhododendrons dressed in mauve and fuscia and pink, fountains of canary yellow forsythia blossoms, tidy rows of a purple flower I can’t name.
The beauty draws me; the gate keeps me out. Even if the gate is standing open, it marks a boundary. When I cross through, I’m on someone else’s territory, out of a realm where I choose how life looks. And unless I’m explicitly invited through by someone I trust, I hesitate to step over that threshold.
Lately I've been seeing suffering—small or large, mental, physical, or spiritual—like that gate.
I know beauty lies on the other side of it. I’ve experienced Jesus’ gentle, compassionate love more deeply through illness and loss than anywhere else in my life. I want more of Jesus, want to settle more deeply into his love and give him more of mine. Jesus' beauty draws me.
And yet often, still, I find in myself an anxious restlessness which turns out to be hiding a deeper sadness or struggle that I’m subconsciously trying to fix or push away. As much as I want Jesus, and as often as he has met me in the challenging places, I still don't always find it easy to sit and let Jesus meet me in those places.
As K.J. Ramsey says in her beautiful book, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers,
“We tend to look at our discouragement as a problem to be solved rather than a place to be comforted” (p. 80).
And it’s not surprising.
“Suffering places our bodies and stories in tension with the story we’ve been soaking up our entire lives. The drumbeat of Western culture is that effort produces success. With enough foresight and determination, we each can create a life with minimal pain and maximum pleasure. We are proprietors of possibility, the doorkeepers of our own bright futures” (Ramsey, p. 31).
But it's grace that I can’t easily solve my sadness, because that returns me, eventually, to the One who meets me in it.
As I sit with the image of the gate, I realize that Jesus is not just the beauty waiting for me on the other side of the gate. This man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief has come close and made himself the gate. He doesn’t stay safely on the other side, waiting for me to bravely walk through suffering to meet him. He stands in the doorway where I hesitate with all my questions and fears of trusting enough to walk through to a place where I don’t get to control my feelings or my future. He asks me to trust him with both, to pour out my heart, extending to me a pierced hand, proof that no matter what waits in the unknown of the other side, there is nowhere his love cannot reach me.
“We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
God is not only the God of the sufferers, but the God who suffers. Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.” (Nicholas Wolterstorff)
This week, when I needed help sitting with the restlessness long enough to pray the sadness beneath, Jesus extended his hand through a sculpture and a prayer of lament which offered me words to pray as well as space to find my own.
He offered his hand through listening friends and the honest words of K.J. Ramsey. And he led me through the vulnerable trust of David crying to God, "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I," and finding himself led closer and closer into that most intimate of places, the shelter of God's wings. (Psalm 61:1-4*).
*"God's safe keeping is viewed here in increasingly personal terms, as the aloof ruggedness of the high crag of verse 2 gives place to the purpose-built tower of verse 3, and this in turn to the hospitality of the frail tent (4) with its implication of safety among friends; and finally the affectionate, parental shelter symbolized by thy wings. This, against all appearances, is the best security of all. . . And, in spite of RSV, it is more than a fond wish: verse 4b is as confident a prayer as 4a." (Derek Kidner, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, on Psalm 61:3-4)
Resources I linked to above (so you don't have to go back and find them):
Faith, Grief, and Covid-19: A Conversation (An excellent free resource from Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. The session 1 pdf is where I found the sculpture and liturgy that I appreciated this week.)
K. J. Ramsey, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers (I'm only half-way through this beautiful book written by a counsellor who also suffers with chronic illness, but already it has been well worth the price of the book.)
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son