Friday, June 12, 2009

Strange Gifts

I have appreciated all the encouragement “to keep it real” in telling our family’s story.

But as ‘real’ as we’ve been, (which is a natural propensity, rather than a virtue, in my case) our writings have revealed just the tip of the iceberg. A huge, dark, frozen mass, like the one that sank the Titanic, still lurks beneath the surface of our words.

What has happened to Katherine is simply unspeakable in many ways.

Monstrous, outrageous…

Unreal, unfair, unnatural, unimaginable…inacceptable, inconceivable, incomprehensible.

In addition to Blind Faith, Denial and Avoidance have been faithful friends. So much of this is simply not to be borne that many times I’ve kind of shut down, flaked out, numbed over. I live primarily on the surface, just doing the next thing that needs doing. Most of the time it’s better that way. There is plenty to do.

Still, there are times when the unanswerable questions clamor to be addressed.

Like, HOW COULD A GOOD GOD ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN TO ONE OF HIS BIGGEST FANS???

(As St. Theresa joked with the Almighty, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”)

***************

A verse haunts me. I remember the first time I read it. I thought, “Well, thanks, but no thanks. Better pick someone else for that job. Don’t think I’ll be cashing in that particular favor anytime soon.”

The verse was, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” (Phil.1:29)

(To grant: 1 a: to consent to carry out for a person: allow fulfillment of; b: to permit as a right, privilege, or favor 2: to bestow)

Lord, please don’t grant me this favor. Don’t even think about bestowing this honor upon me. I give up all my rights for this privilege. Give it to someone more worthy. I’ll wash their feet in heaven….or anything else that needs washing. I’ll sit at the back of the bus, stand at the end of the line, gladly accept the smallest, dingiest halo. I’m just not far enough along for this honor. Why don’t you let me grow a little more? Get a little more spiritually mature? (By the time I’m mature enough, I’ll be dead…transported straight to Bliss.) Let this particular cup just pass me right on by....

Suffering’s not my bag, baby, as Austin Powers might say.

***************

Catching Katherine in a rare weak moment was the impetus for my most recent metaphysical query. Following the trans-facial nerve graft, she and Jay stayed at UCLA’s Tiverton House for recuperation until her initial checkup and stitch removal. (The Tiverton House had been our first lodging in the aftermath of Katherine’s AVM rupture, so it returned us emotionally to that time even more vividly than did the surgery alone.) Grace and I kept the baby at our apartment just down the street. On the second day, we strolled him up for a visit with Mom and Dad, but he was too wild to be around the patient. I took him upstairs to the indoor playground to run some energy out. When James and I returned to the room a little later, I could hear sobbing from out in the hallway. “I don’t know how much more I can endure,” Katherine was crying as we entered the room. I handed the baby off to Jay and sat down on the bed with Katherine and her sister. “Look at me…Any one thing would be bad enough, but to have all of this...”she gestured from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet. I hugged her gingerly, trying not to touch anything painful. She looked like Poor Pitiful Pearl: Frankenstein stitches down each side of her neck and the length of her left leg....lips swollen up like Octomom’s...matted, unwashable hair. Her whole body throbbing with pain, Katherine seemed terribly fragile...almost breakable. The shaking of her shoulders just made things worse. By this point, Grace was crying, too. But when I started in, Katherine instantly reverted back to Family Cheerleader: “But I’m okay. I really am.” I think she may even have patted my arm.

Adding insult to injury, James acted like a brat...I mean a baby...as we were leaving. When I asked him to blow Mommy a kiss bye-bye, he yelled “NO!” Then, to rub it in, he looked at her and gave me a hug and a kiss instead.

I was pretty mad at God for the rest of the day. Well, maybe not mad...just really hurt.

There sure is a whole lot of hurt down here.


But hasn’t my child suffered enough?

***************

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” (Phil.1:29)

I struggle with this troubling verse. It indicates that some (certainly not all) suffering is a privilege...an honor...a boon. The inference: Katherine has been chosen for a special mission.

He must really, really trust her.

It is human instinct not only to avoid suffering at all costs, but to actively pursue our own comfort. Currently, I have a front-row seat in the lecture hall for lessons to be learned from the lives and mouths of babes. I have been reminded of our most essential, in-born human nature: I do not want to be hungry, thirsty, wet, dirty, hurt, bored or ignored. I WANT food! Drink! A dry diaper! Comfort! Stimulation! Attention! Love! And stuff. More Stuff! MY Stuff!!!!” (Ditto all that for me.)

I go to my instruction manual searching for answers. I’m trying to figure this out here....wrap my mind around a concept so completely contrary to our human nature. I dig this up in Acts:.“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41)

Why??? Were they sick masochists? Like the frat pledge in Animal House who begs for another spanking, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” Could this be the origin of the Medieval practice of self-flagellation? I am reminded of Dame Julian of Norwich, who prayed that God would allow her to experience corporally the physical agonies of Christ. She almost died. And the beautiful Madame Guyon, who prayed that God would take away her beauty so that men (other than her mean husband) wouldn’t be tempted to hit on her. She got disfiguring smallpox that left her marred for life.

What is the secret? Why are there those who not only don’t shrink away from suffering, but embrace it, invite it? Where is the joy in suffering?

Recently, I reread some accounts of the persecuted church. Stories of the underground churches that operated under Communism particularly intrigue me. Betrayed, beaten, imprisoned, and matyred for their faith, the Eastern Bloc Christians nevertheless emanated a supernatural joy that greatly perplexed their Western brothers and sisters. It almost seemed that the worse things got, the greater the ineffable joy abounded. I think of the 1st and 2nd Century martyrs who went to the lions singing hymns and praising God. The earliest disciples were so filled with joy that on at least one occasion they were accused of being drunk at 10 in the morning. Persecution, torture, imprisonment, and death were just around the bend. What were they thinking?

There must be some hidden benefits. Paul wrote to the believers in Rome,“...we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Rom 5:3-4) Peter sheds some more light on the source of the joy: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (I Peter 4:12-13)

I have never fully understood this “participation” concept. In Phil. 3:10, Paul declares, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Is that a key? We become more like him through our suffering? Isn’t that the goal of sanctification? Can we only truly come to know him and become like him by sharing in his human experience in its totality? I do know that if I want to become more like him, parts of me will have to die. The parts that are selfish, self-serving, self-preserving, self-protecting, self-aggrandizing…even those parts that are merely self-comforting. The willing acceptance of suffering is a type of death: death to my own wishes and desires....not my will, but Yours.

There was a 2-year period during which I experienced severe, unrelenting, chronic pain. The pain was so violent at times that it was all I could do to survive the day. Some days I didn’t want to. During that time, I ran across this:“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in the body is done with sin.” (I Peter 4:1) Intense suffering has the ability to burn the self out of you. It can cause you to look beneath the surface, behind the veil, beyond yourself. I have to confess that I am not yet “done with sin,” but, then, I am a particularly tough case. I did, however, have some of the most beautifully intense spiritual encounters of my life during that nightmare of physical suffering. There were “treasures in the dark.”

"I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name." (Isaiah 45:3)

My experience showed me that, through suffering, we can come to know God in the secret recesses of our hearts in a much deeper, more profound way than is possible when we’re content to exist on the anesthesized surface of life. And the light that we bring with us from these encounters in the darkest places may illuminate those around us. We bring the treasure out with us, and willingly share it.

I am reminding myself of this now.

But that was me; this time it’s my child.

Still, as hard as it is to witness the pain, I have to admit that the Katherine Light has never shone more brightly than now.

***************

I keep trying to reason away the emotions. Get some peace. Understand. Concluding my research on suffering’s silver linings, I find these verses:

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. (2 Cor. 1:5)

But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction. (Job 36:15)

My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.(Ps. 119:50)

He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."(Mark 5:34)

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”(Rom. 8:17)


Unearthly comfort…deliverance….preservation…peace….freedom. The voice of God himself speaking promises of abundant life. Glory.

Good Lord, Glory!!!

(Glory: praise, honor, or distinction…distinguished quality or brilliant asset…great beauty…SPLENDOR… the bliss of heaven…a height of prosperity or achievement…a state of great gratification or exaltation…)

I'm gonna let it rest now. Too much thinking can wear you out.

***************

Today was an exquisite California day. Actually, you could call it a glorious day. The kind of day that helps you understand why California real estate is still so insanely high: warm sun, dry air, brilliant light, cool flirty breeze.

I went to therapy with Katherine in the morning, then Grace strolled the baby over at lunchtime for a changing of the guard. On the way back to the house, James and I stopped by the playground of the children’s wing. As James entertained himself by moving dirt from one place to another, I wandered around the garden space having a little interior monologue, still not feeling a conclusion to my questioning. Finally, I made a direct address to Heaven: “Okay, would you just help me really understand the suffering thing now?” I felt an invitation to be still. I sat on the cool grass in the shade of a big, beautiful tree. I tried to reason things out in my head again, but images of the tragically broken people I’d just witnessed in therapy kept coming to mind. So much seemingly senseless suffering....lives destroyed by accident, violence, or, most senseless of all, drunk drivers. Leaning against the comfortable old tree, I looked up at its’ delicate emerald leaves dancing in patterns above my head. Translucent with sunlight, they made a kaleidoscope of every kind of green. My favorite color. The color of life.

Words drifted down:

“The gifts are much greater than the grief.”


Somehow, that was enough.

***************

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." (Romans 8:18)

"And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast."* (1 Peter 5:10)

(*The by-word on all of Katherine’s emails.)

12 comments:

Jessica Ranjbari said...

I wanted to send you a quick e-mail if that's ok - I couldn't find your e-mail address anywhere on here...mine is jbillings1114@gmail.com - It's a little personal and long to leave as a comment on here, so I'd prefer to just e-mail it to you if I can. Your openness has been such a blessing to me.

Erin said...

I'm one of those "people who don't know you" who reads this. Through mutual friends, I guess, I've stumbled upon your blog. I just want you to know that Katherine's story is such an inspiration to me, and your beautiful, honest words often bring me to tears. I am one of the many, many people praying for y'all and Katherine's full recovery. Your family is such an example of pure faith, and I almost feel guilty that I am benefitting from just reading about your story. I look forward to your posts and updates, it's a way of regrounding myself and is such a firm reminder of God's glory. Thank you for that, I know God is using y'all (and your suffering) in a mighty, mighty way. I will continue to earnestly pray for all of you.

Callie said...

I read all of your blogs. I get SO excited when the heading changes...it means there is something new and wonderful to read!!
This post really, really touched me. I've shared with you before that I can fully sympathize with you and your chronic illness...I, too, suffer from a chronic illness. I have often felt that I have had to experience so much more suffering than my peers. It seems unfair, cruel even, that one person is expected to suffer from a chronic illness, have a severe traumatic brain injury, have family members with serious mental illnesses, and COUNTLESS other issues.
Families like yours help so much to encourage me. I know I have not been through nearly as much as you all have, but I certainly have been through a lot!
I often ask God why me, the daughter of missionaries, a girl who is devoted to the Lord in every area of her life, would have to go through so much. I have often had to just close my eyes and repeat 1 Peter 5:10. I have to know that there is a reason. God is going to make me strong, firm and steadfast.
I have tried so hard to "embrace" my sufferings. It is much harder than it would seem, though! Knowing that you, who have seen much more affliction than even I have, can make it, I know that I can make it, too!
Thank you so much for your wonderful words. They do so much for everyone that reads them.
I cannot wait to one day meet you and Katherine. You two are my heroes. More than you could ever know.

tatiana said...

"A little faith will bring your soul to heaven, but a lot of faith will bring heaven to your soul."
- Author Unknown

these strange gifts are enough....

love & prayers....

ef said...

You might enjoy reading "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People." This has been around for a really long time so you may already be familiar with this book written by a Jewish Rabbi after his son was diagnosed with progeria. It is available on Amazon.

Although we are inspired by Katherine's story, none of us can really appreciate the challenges of your daily life and the enormity of future logistics. I pray Katherine will develop to her full potential and those who walk beside her will awaken each day refreshed for the journey.

ef said...

oops, should read: "When bad things happen....." but, Kushner does try to shed insight on the 'why.'

j said...

Every day is a miracle

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qILw1iFzmIE

get the tissues

Jessica M. said...

From, My Personal Promises Bible for Mothers,

2 Corinthians 1:3-4
"You are the God of all comfort, who comforts my children in all their tribulation, that they may be able to comfort others who are in any trouble, by the comfort with which they themselves are comforted by You."

John 14:16,18
"I will pray to the Father, and He will give you and your children another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever.....I will not leave you and your children comfortless. I will come to you."

And this reminds me of you:

Isaiah 50:4
"The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being taught."

Allison said...

Thank you for being "real". I believe with my whole heart that when we question God about anything, particularly suffering, He responds. He responds in ways that are so much Higher than we are;) I can't imagine how painful it is for you to see your beautiful daughter suffer. But, when I look at Katherine(who I do not know), I can see Jesus.

WOW, is all I can say to what you got from Him under that tree.....
“The gifts are much greater than the grief.” Oh sweet Jesus.....my breathe was taken away. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

In Christ Alone,
Allison

linde said...

We are still praying for you guys. Praying for some sunny days for your hearts!

dawn said...

I LOVE this post! Kim, you have such a gift. Thank you for giving words to how many of us feel about Katherine's injury and most certainly, have felt in our own suffering.

I want to give you a big bear hug. Next time I see you I will. Your sentiments are so poetic and relevent. Thank you!

xoxo-dawn

Linda Abney said...

Kim,
This is my new best blog entry. I don't like the subject. It's too scary. But, the conclusions, albeit present conclusions(you may get further as life continues) were VERY insightful and thought-provoking. I will have to chew on them for a long time. Have already reread it and will need to do so again and again. It is certainly something that someone shortsighted like me has a hard time wrapping my mind and heart around. That's because my sufferings have been light. There are so many things you and Katherine are teaching us that we hope we'll never need to know. But, that's up to Jesus. So sorry I missed calling you on your birthday. PLease give Katherine, Amie and James hugs from the Abneys.
Love you,