These are slow summer days, stretching long at the ends from first light to last. We drink them in deep swallows, savoring the absence of hurried schedules. We sleep later than normal and wear pajamas longer than we should. The hours unspool without our notice or care. It seems a luxury. I’ve not had such a peaceful summer in years, and I couldn’t put my finger on the reason until I remembered the shroud of pain that used to wrap me up tight with fear and misery. The familiar heaviness of July heat has settled over our low corner of Missouri, a wool blanket dipped in boiling water and hung out to steam and dry above our heads. It’s hard to get a good breath when the air is so hot and wet. In being well these past 12 months, I’ve nearly forgotten the summers past when I struggled to separate the heat of a southern summer with the fire that encased my spine. It was always hot, inside and out.
Two summers past, I was on the brink of a breakdown. My health had deteriorated to the point I was losing my hair, struggling to remember things, sleeping only an hour or two at night, wrestling with pain like it was my full-time job. Physically, I was wrecked. I was also losing my grip on faith. I wasn’t just sick, I was heartsick. My husband and I were walking through a season of doubt about our vocational ministry while also watching our fourth year in the adoption process come to a fruitless close–a lot of loose ends, frayed and pulling at my confidence.
I was sorely tempted to hold hands with bitterness. She’d been a longtime companion, bitterness. But she is a difficult root to kill, the kind of plant nobody wants in their garden, a tangle of vines that spreads with ferocity. Bitterness is the kudzu of discontentment. At its best, kudzu cloaks the world in greenery, turning trees into stooped giants with draping, viney arms. It kills everything underneath, but it’s not until winter when we see the degree of damage. Kudzu inhabits what it covers. And I know from a ten year contention with it that bitterness works the same, inhabiting the heart with tightly wound tendrils that suffocate life and light.
I was afraid of the kudzu effects of bitterness again in my life. Desperate for health, for relief, for purpose, for contentment, I turned with halting steps and faltering prayers to Christ. I hesitated because it seemed too much. My health. My complete inability to have another child, no matter what avenue I tried. My internal wrestling with a decade of failing church ministry. The dizzying effects of everything at once.
The believing part of me knew Jesus was the one to run to, but the doubting part of me couldn’t hold His gaze. I was Peter sinking in the Sea of Galilee, unable to take my eyes off the choppy, churning waves. But Jesus was Jesus, chastising my weak faith while also holding on to me. His grip was stronger than bitterness, His gaze steadier than mine.
His strength overrode my weakness.
He held on to me while the pain engulfed my spine, when every rejection email from the adoption agency landed arrived, when Sunday morning rolled around and I dreaded being the pastor’s wife, when doubt felt bigger than faith.
How did it happen, you ask. How did He hold on to you?
And I would answer that He did it by walking the floors with me in the middle of the night that summer of heat and pain. Pain was the word reverberating through my body, throbbing in time with my pulse. Pain, pain, pain.
But there was also Christ. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Reminding me of the words He’d said, of the promises He’d made, reminding me until His words were louder than my pain.
I am with you always. (Mt. 28:20)
I will never leave or forsake you. (Dt. 31:6, Heb. 13:5)
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. (Is.43:2)
I will be with you in trouble. (Ps. 91:15)
Nothing can separate you from My love, not things present or things to come. (Rom. 8:35, 38)
While I waited long for healing, for a child, for some kind of purpose, He held fast to me. He did it in every turn of the page in my worn Bible. He did it when I struggled to pin down the words to pray. He was present. Visibly, no. But in every way I needed, He was present because He has promised to be, even (and maybe especially) in pain and doubt. In the white-fisted vise of pain, I learned that Christ could sustain me. He could hold my gaze and teach me to hold His. He could deepen my faith when He reminded me who He was. I could walk on water because He was with me.
I wasn’t healed that summer. My pain worsened, actually. It would be another year before I would begin to experience pain’s release. It slipped away slowly, hesitant to leave me, I guess. And then one morning at the beginning of last summer, I woke with a jolt and scrambled to name the startling absence I felt. It was nothing. I felt nothing. Instead of a body on fire, there was just a body. I turned to the clock in a room bathed in bright morning light and realized I’d slept all night for the first time in six years.
These past few weeks, I’ve let myself remember those days fogged up with heat and humidity and pain and doubt. I’ve had a bit of a flare-up, and while the ache settles into my joints, there’s a stifling muscle memory there, too. I feel those surges of anxiety that used to steal my breath when I tried to imagine a future shrouded in lifelong pain. I remember the dark, still nights and my splintering sanity. I remember the song I sang to keep me grounded.
I remember the way I called out to the Lord to heal me and the way He responded by being with me instead.
I remember the words He spoke long ago that throb with truth in time with my pulse, whether there’s pain or just the memory of it. His words of promise and presence. Words I needed then, words I need now. Words that remind me that He is enough on these long, summer days that shimmer with the heat of pain and faithfulness.
My pain and God’s faithfulness. I am not sure I could know one without the other.
Photo cred: Jake Givens with Unsplash