Recently Tom was out of town for 4 nights. I miss him when he’s gone. Oh, that first night is always a little fun…lying on the couch watching HGTV’s Property Brothers while fine dining on a bowl of popcorn and a glass of red wine. Sometimes I even play music loudly and dance in the den, although the dogs, Eli and MO, look at me with an expression similar to what Tom’s would be, if he were home to see it. One night is one thing, four is entirely too many as far as I’m concerned. The house feels too quiet and the bed is way too lonely. And scary at night. This past week I thought of friends who, by varied circumstances, live alone. Some happily. Some not so happily. I felt admiration for them. I felt compassion for them. Not that I know, or will even let my mind consider what some of their circumstances must feel like. But the kind of compassion that I can offer, safely from a distance. So, it doesn’t scare me too much. I have a friend who lost her husband to a fierce battle with cancer a little over a year ago. She writes a blog (keepyourfacetothesun.com) and in it she has authentically and beautifully shared her struggles and glimpses of joy as she journeys the valley of grief. And though she’s open and honest, I still can’t let my imagination enter into her pain. It’s just too scary.
Yes, life holds challenges, some that are frightening. I’m not talking about your run of the mill anxiety, but those fears that take you to the ledge of powerlessness. These fears make us all uniquely common. The circumstances may be different but the experience of fear is all part of being human, which makes it common among us all. The Bible tells us to “fear not” a bunch of times so that should clue us in to the reality that life is going to hold some scary stuff.
Right now, some folks I know are experiencing challenges in matters of health. Facing the reality that they simply cannot physically (and often mentally) do what they once could. This realization hits us each at different ages. I remember thinking on my 22nd birthday that I was now an old lady; I had crossed a bridge into obsoleteness. Ha! Looking back now I see the naïve and inexperienced woman I was then as an unformed embryo! Everything a possibility and a growth opportunity to come. Some have trouble with age 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90….although at some point we’ve got to start feeling some sense of accomplishment at merely making it, right? But it’s not just about birthdays. No, it’s really not about birthdays at all, is it. It’s about being able to do what you want to do, fully physically and mentally participating in life. And the thought of not being able to do “something”, whatever that threshold is, can be terrifying. So, we avoid thinking about it, all the while taking our vitamins, exercising, and considering plastic surgery, until the inevitable gives us no choice to not only think about it, but to deal with it.
Some folks I know are experiencing challenges in their careers. Retirement can often be the big bugaboo of that area of life. Especially if the retirement comes before planned. This is especially hard for people who have based their entire identity on who they are at work. Naturally the thought of retirement is terrifying because it means being forced to reckon with what identity lies beyond the role of the function performed. Scary proposition. So, many just wait until it happens, entering into what can be the most significant season of life fearful and bewildered.
Some folks I know are experiencing relationship challenges. These can often be most troubling because when we’re out of balance with another human being, especially THE human being, well, it’s hard to find balance in anything else. Feelings of betrayal and abandonment in a relationship can produce fears and mistrust and resentment. And when fear and mistrust and resentment get together…well, nations have been ruined by such things. Relationships are complicated, full of ebb and flow. We have this crazy expectation (crazy in the sense it is an expectation impossible to achieve) that once we are in relationship with another human being (or another group of human beings) that it will always “work”. Or we’ll die trying! It’s too scary to consider that the ebbs and flow are actually what make relationships rich and deep. Worth having. Ann Morrow Lindberg, in her classic book “Gift From the Sea” shares relationship wisdom beautifully through her words…
When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity – in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern. The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides. One must accept the security of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency. (p.109, Random House, VINTAGE BOOKS EDITION, March 1978)
One person I know is presently facing the biggest fear of her life. And I think, if we are honest, it is probably the biggest fear of anyone’s life. It is her fear of death. Her own death. My friend who is beautiful and smart and vibrant and full of life has been told that she is dying. There is no more treatment for her cancer. I hate this for her. I hurt for her. And I want to be there for her. From a safe distance of course. I try to listen, offer words of comfort. I mean I’ve done this for a long time in a “professional” capacity. I’m a chaplain. I’m a pastor. I’ve been told I have a gift for pastoral care. I’m supposed to be good at this. But for some reason I’m really lousy at it right now. My words come out shallow. They sound so much better in my head. But when they exit my mouth they have a rather tinny cheerleader sound to them. And there is nothing rah rah about what she is facing. She is standing at the inevitable precipice we all face at some point. It’s scary enough to think of living alone. But to think of dying…alone…Bible verses are great and all. But what she needs now is some incarnational hope with a capital H.
So, I have been praying about this. A lot. Praying for her. Praying that God will show her a glimpse of the joy that is prepared for her.
Once she has crossed this precipice.
And praying that God will give her strength and peace.
As she stands at the precipice.
And I have been praying about how to be there for her in a way that is helpful, not harmful or self-centered.
I don’t have a tidy end to this post. I’m still praying. And waiting. But there is something stirring. Something about the need to face whatever fear it is head on. Giving permission to “go there” in considering what could be the worst that could happen. And then allowing God to meet us right there. To show us there is an after that. An after we get old. An after we retire, or lose our job. An after the relationship ends. An after death. And as I consider all this I wonder if therein lies the true message of Christ. Maybe it sounds a little unorthodox because it seems to have nothing to do with dragging our sorry asses out of the pit of sin. Maybe that’s why it may actually be some good news. Good news not in the sense that we are entitled to it, but that it comes from a love that is so much more than our smallness. I think the good news of Jesus Christ is that in the midst of every single fear, every single hurt, every single loss, every single death, there is a love that stands with us so that we are never alone, in the sense of being lost, and that there is an “after” beyond our fears. Every single one of them.
What is your greatest fear? Do you trust that there is a power great enough and full of enough love to hold you in it, during it, and after it has passed?
Something to chew on….