Or: “Faith and Mixed Metaphors.” I see I have incorporated a hamster wheel, a river, a road with a driver, and a pair of rough shoes. Let us pray they do not all converge. It seems that would not be advantageous to the poor hamster.
These are the thoughts I wrote as I surrendered my foster baby last week. I have lived through ten days without her, which gives me reason enough to hope for one more.
I recognize the hamster wheel when it materializes in my brain. Without my knowledge or consent it constructs itself up there, and I am running, running, running. “Surely it doesn’t have to be this way. Surely it’s best for her to stay in the home she loves and knows. Surely with us. Surely. Surely the Lord will move his hand and intervene to spare us grief. Surely.”
I’ve worked this wheel before. I’ve been here in this space.
It is not rational. It is a protest that cares nothing for rationale or legality. It is desperate, frantic, and constructed from nothing but the thin air of pain.
I spin big scenarios on that wheel. I write eloquent appeals, I devise cunning strategies that make everyone happy, I imagine miraculous overturns of court orders. I spin and spin and spin, and when I am done spinning my ideas, they whirl into nothing and I am still a hamster and I am not getting anywhere.
This grief, our specific grief, is for the healing of nations. Our loss allows a family to rebuild. This I believe in more than anything else in my universe. I believe in grief whether or not there is a higher good in the world. I believe in sacrifice like I believe in breathing, I don’t know any other way to live. These are good, big picture ideas, very altruistic, very sound.
But in the moment, when it comes down to the last days. When my-baby becomes not-my-baby before my eyes, the moment they walk through that door. When I kiss her skin for the last time. When I mark the last walk together, the last rocking to sleep, the last twinkle, the last grin, the last breathing-in of her so perfect scent. When goodbye breaks, my philosophies wind down like the spinning of a hamster wheel and I just want out. Back to Before, when I could still close my heart. I want it to stop.
Being in public during grief is like being in public during labor, and trying to act normal. Trying to breathe through the contractions. Trying not to scare anyone. Unable to think of what to say. Wondering when and where I’m going to collapse. Not if.
In protesting my loss, I find myself saying, “She is leaving on Tuesday,” but always in my mind adding a secret postscript: “…short of a miracle,” or “…Lord willing,” or “…but probably not for real.” I find myself holding out irrational faith for a cure. Perhaps unhealthy faith for a cure. That is hamster wheel talk. The more I hold to the certainty of rescue, the more devastated I will be when the blow falls.
I am pleased to see that I have grown, since my last grief. I still walk through inevitable protest, but I can see when it’s swirling round me and call it what it is.
In the past, I have found myself in places where my longing turned to insistence, and hardened into a desperate faith-in-deliverance that did not stand me in good stead. I did not begin to process my grief until the last breath was breathed, because surely the Master would come through to save, and then suddenly I had outrage and abandonment to face as well as loss and sorrow.
I have found that Faith can be another face for De Nile, something we talk about a lot in recovery. Denial tells me that nothing so painful could possibly be true. Denial tells me I don’t deserve it. That this kind of thing doesn’t happen to people like me. If I tack God’s name onto my hope of rescue, it sounds pretty holy. But it’s still denial.
I’m not sure anyone has mapped the exact latitude and longitude where one becomes the other, but I know it’s there, somewhere in the netherlands of grieving. I know there is a place where the waters mingle, and you’re not sure which is which. Usually the current is strong there, some form of insistence tugging at my craft because “It has to be this way. God could not do otherwise.”
Jesus asked for faith in some situations where it looked like denial. He looked into the loving, tear-filled eyes of a woman whose brother had become a decaying corpse and said, “Do you believe that he can live?” She said, “I mean, I’m trying, but he’s pretty dead, Lord.” He asked that of her. But I don’t think he meant for every maid in Israel to exhume her dead relative in hopes of immediate restoration. For every wake to hold a prayerful arm-twisting to coerce God into flexing his muscles.
In the old days, I thought that belonging to God meant we wouldn’t shatter, that our negative emotions would be minimal and our stories would work out. I don’t believe that anymore, though I suppose it depends how long term we are talking. It doesn’t take an extensive perusal of history or the Scripture to see that God’s people are led through anguish. And yet when it comes down to it, when the pain hangs poised to strike, somehow I still find myself believing that we will be spared. Or begging for it, whether I believe it or not. And I am in good company, for I know someone who was born to die, but on the eve of the appointed day he begged for rescue. He knew the plan; he was on board with the plan; he was fully surrendered to his father’s will. And he cried for the deliverance that would have ruined everything.
Faith-filled prayer for rescue walks a fine line between holy acceptance (“This is His will, here at the end of all things”) and holy dissent (“He can deliver me, even now”).
In history, you see people of faith balancing their positions and hedging their bets. “We know that he is able to save us from your fire. But if he does not, our minds are made up anyway.” In today’s world, we struggle to find our footing on that tightrope too. A family gathers around a dying man in a hospital bed. Do they hold the 24-hour prayer vigil to pray the cancer out of his cells? Or do they say, “He is dying.”
I don’t mind protest. That is, protest hurts like Gehenna but I don’t have a problem with it being a normal stage of losing big. I don’t know a way not to put in my ten thousand steps on the hamster wheel, but it helps to know it for what it is. Helps to know it won’t last, to know it isn’t logical thinking, to know not to attach too hard to my fresh-spun fantasies, and above all to know not to act on what I concoct.
Because I am trying not to ride that longest river. Trying not to claim rescue from, and a radical unmaking of, the divine plan. Trying to accept again that the most glorious redemption can include death – and, butterfly-like, I will rise again.
I am relieved to find, in the middle of my grief, that this wound is cleaner because I didn’t insist that he save me out of it. There’s no salt in it, just straight pain. And pain is time-bound.
Acceptance of reality does not have to be opposed to faith. Sometimes faith means accepting ahead of time that illness is taking the life of my loved one. That the state is moving my foster child from a home she knows to a home she doesn’t, because they share a last name and a history. That the worst is going to happen to me in some way, and I am going to survive it. Trying to hold what is. The dying is happening. The baby is leaving.
What if faith doesn’t mean “certainty of God’s plan—and telling him about it until he agrees with me,” but the rougher-shod, humbler kind that means “walking steadily forward, knowing that whatever happens will be of him”? What if it means less fighting, less wresting of the steering wheel? What if it means trusting that the road he has me on is good, whether or not I can see it now? What if it means laying my head against his chest like a child and letting him drive unassisted? I tuck a little dissent in, enough to remind myself he can still step in with power, and I fantasize a bit about that gearshift right there beside me, especially the Reverse, but I do not grab for it. I keep my hands still, free of the controls.
Because this I have learned from my Father in my griefs: He is a very, very good navigator.
I am growing.
Our-baby-not-our-baby is doing supremely well in her new home; she is so very loved, so cared for. I am more than grateful every moment for this grace, and for the chance we had to be her people when she needed us.
Where is Jesus asking you to trust him?