What if Jesus doesn’t want to keep us from pain? What if the Hard Things and Broken Places are where we come to know the Lord? What if he is growing within us a heart full of courage? What if he wants to grow this within our children as well?
On April first, just before I sat down to Write Brave Words, Arienh-our-almost-five-year-old crumpled over her iPad and choked out a belly-full of sobs. She had been listening to music in bed and I had been kissing her goodnight. “Whenever I hear that song,” she said through tears, “I think of my daddy being in Afghanistan and he was gone for just so long. I waited for him for many days and he did not come for many, many days. It was just longer and long. I missed him more and more all the days, and my heart was very, very sad.”
It has been a year, but the grief can still come.
I can’t begin to describe to you what it feels like to just “have a daddy be gone.” Not gone for short, comprehensible amounts of time, but really gone, gone like it feels forever. I want to quantify, say to you, “it’s not like a death” or “it’s less than divorce” as if something being not death means it has to be light, or easy. I want to defend myself, makes sure you don’t think I’m complaining by saying, “I mean, it’s not cancer” or “it’s not like we are processing through a crazy adoption!” It is almost as if I fear you’ll think I’m fishing for sympathy when I’m not. It is almost as if I worry you’ll condemn our life choices when some of their consequences pan out rough. It is almost as if feel obligated to apologize for finding life hard, almost as if I have to apologize for finding a military deployment difficult to bear, almost as if I have to defend, or explain, my daughter’s tears. But no, I’m not saying X is harder than Y but less difficult than Z. A thing is what it is and deployments are blessings and burdens, just like anything else, with the weight resting heavily on the burdening side.
To a little child–old enough to miss a parent, but too young to understand–a deployment really just flings about pain. Other parts of life can still be happy, but there is nothing happy in having a parent gone, especially if the parent is a good parent and a child’s dear friend. You and I or children who are older can find ways to stay connected, to enjoy the one who’s absent, but that little child, maybe in the 2-4 year old range, cannot see the experience with the objectivity of our matured eyes.
Even with almost daily Skype dates, our little girl’s heart shattered over the nine months her daddy was gone. She, a daddy’s girl, who in all her years before the deployment would sleep on his chest, find all her solace in his arms. Her heart was broken while the rest of our hearts carried on.
Nothing weighs heavier in our hands than the responsibility of caring for the hearts of our children.
I’m thinking of all of this because we are teetering on the fence as David’s enlistment ends in a year. Should we stay in? Should we get out? The dream all along was to go from here into chaplaincy, but should we pursue? Or should we walk away? We really don’t know. Right now we take slow steps. Lift a foot, set it down carefully. Lean into it our weight, see if the ground holds. Is this the path Lord, or is that? Each step is a prayer, a prayer for doors to open or doors to close because now we know the cost. We know the cost. But we also have known the reward.
Do you know what it’s like to want with all of your heart to just move home? To buy a little piece of land, set up a heritage, put down roots, live close enough for grandmas and grandpas to pop on in? Do you know what it’s like to want with all of your heart for your kids to grow up with their cousins? What it’s like to never want your husband and daddy to go away? Do you know what it’s like to co-parent from two different parts of the globe? To live together and then be apart, live together and then be apart, live together and then be apart? To know how to be married but also how to practice single parenting and sleep alone? Do you know what it’s like to worry for your children and ache to give them what their hearts desire, ache to keep them from any twinge of pain?
Then you know what its like to want the opposite of that with all of your heart as well. You know what it’s like to have your feet set on a path that feels bigger than yourself, of on the one hand wanting all that I’ve described above–hometowns and family and roots–and on the other feeling like Jesus is beckoning down a different road. You know what it’s like to ache for all things, but to ache for him the most. You know what it’s like to actually experience “all this will be added to you,” to find his promises are true and good and stronger than all the desires we leave behind. You know what it’s like to have “all this” not only added, but multiplied.
Maybe you know what it’s like to wish with all of your heart that you could promise your daughter her daddy would never go away. Or to put it more broadly and to use Scripture’s words–perhaps you know what it is to wish you could promise there would be no more sorrow or sadness or pain. “In this life, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, and how we want to keep that trouble from our kids! I don’t want my children to ever have tears to cry! I don’t want them to confront the conflicts of hope and despair, sadness and joy, mourning and rejoicing, darkness and light. Maybe when they are older, but not now. Can’t you keep them from that, Lord?
I looked at my daughter with her hair splayed on her pillow like a sun (had we even brushed it that day? or the day before that? or the day before that?) and I whispered, “you are so brave.” She is.
Still, what could I say? I groped for words and suddenly found amongst the dark things treasures of hope. Storehouses of them, and if I didn’t see through a glass darkly maybe I would more aptly understand. Yes, I want to keep her from pain. But maybe Jesus doesn’t. Maybe the beautiful mosaic of her life can only be made from the gentle breakings he brings to her heart. Maybe the courage learned in the safety of the nest is necessary for the long routes she will be called upon to fly.
Maybe my task is not to keep her from the hard things (at least not the hard things that lead to good) but to nurture her heart and bravely walk with her as she learns courage firsthand.
Maybe it’s all true, heaven is real, eternity is long, sadness and sorrow will flee. Our sufferings will be placed to rest. Our longings will be met. Our goodbyes will cease. The loneliness we feel from missing a person will never be felt again. Of course. Of course.
So I told her about tears in a bottle. I told her how Jesus wept. I told her about a God who understands, who felt all things as she feels, how her feelings are real and right, and how her good God will bring from the hard things an eternity of beautiful good. I said it, uncertain she would comprehend because my own world-weary heart even now struggles to understand. I offered her words of faith with my own faith smaller than the proverbial seed, small as a grain of sand.
Oh you, faith of a child. You defier of natural law. You mystery of the ages to the minds of mature men. Here you show yourself again.
Before my eyes this girl-child became comforted; not merely placated, but comforted, as if a deep, soothing wind breathed right into her lungs and spread through her body via the pathways of her blood. As if her little heart rested in her knowledge of HIM. “Oh,” I thought. “Oh.” I’m a slow student. But I could see it. Here I wanted to offer her safety by protecting her from pain, while Jesus was busy offering her safety through comfort in the middle of the pain itself.
Yes. He walks with us through sorrow and pain and sadness and fear, doesn’t he? He walks with us through loss and sacrifice and longing. He walks with us through separation and reconciliation and recovery. And somehow, somehow, this is better than never having to experience these broken things at all.