It’s 5pm Paris time but my body doesn’t know it. During the past three days, I slept in little fifteen-minute increments on the plane and in a hotel lobby because I was so anxious about the upcoming trip. Now that I’m here, my anxiety seems justified.
Anxiety is contrary to faith. I know this in my head but am still anxious. Faith believes that God directs every step — anxiety is a consequence of NOT believing in His love, provision and care. I’m thinking, now, of Paul’s ministry. Paul was reactive — when things happened, Paul responded and moved on. I don’t see a lot of foresight and planning in Paul’s life. Of course, his life was God-directed. Yet Paul seemed in control of his emotions, though there were events, such as the betrayal of friends, that made him anxious and angry.
I know God controls all of life, that even a tiny feather shed off the back of a sparrow is noted by God, so it follows that God must have known what was going on in Paul’s life. This means He let these things happen to Paul … or chose them to happen. I feel something similar on this foray to Paris. God is allowing things to hurt me; I don’t feel His presence and control.
By the time I got to the airport in Denver, my enthusiasm about going to Paris had entirely dissipated. What was supposed to be God-directed seemed God-forsaken. How was I supposed to interpret what was happening? Why didn’t I have the faith of Paul?
Right before I left, I cracked the door of father’s bedroom to say goodbye. He was very pale and grey. His body was straight and stiff, legs elevated like a cadaver in bed. Looking at him, I was overwhelmed with guilt about leaving him. I wondered if I’d ever see him again: would our years together end in a motionless, grey exhalation? Is that how life ends … as we die do we lose colour, stop moving and make inaudible sounds? My tears flowed. For the first time in my life and for reasons I don’t understand, I told my father I loved him. He slightly tilted his head toward me and said, “I’ve loved you as well …” as his voice dropped and eyes firmly shut. And that was it. He had signaled to me that he was done speaking. I had been dismissed.
I closed the door.
My dog has been very affectionate the past few days. He sensed something wasn’t right perhaps because I had been scurrying around in ways atypical. Pup trailed me closely, not permitting more than four feet of space between us. At night, his massive body pressed against mine as his huge head leaned near my face, eyes watery and open, scanning for information or explanation. He licked my hands incessantly before I left, a new behavior, and walked around with his leash in his mouth as if to tell me he wanted to go.
I tried to reassure him. I told him he was the best thing that ever happened to me in life, that I loved, loved and loved him, would never leave him permanently, and would return so we could walk in the park together. I promised to bring him big bones. To be with him forever. That he was my one and only dog. My faithful Pup. I repeatedly told him he was “bestest dog in the universe.”
As I brought the luggage toward the door, he put his huge body between me and the door, knocking the heavy bags over. He stood close to me and pushed his head on my hand for petting. Finally, when the departure moment came, I threw my arms around him and told him, one last time, that I loved him …
… then, closed the door.
I would have thought that God would quietly reward me for my attempts at obedience, that He would see my anxiety and alleviate it, but then my backup nurse texted me to tell me she had COVID — this was right after father’s primary nurse had a death in her family and left the state for a few days. I was already in the airport. Checked in. I stood there and looked out at the grey sky and wondered if I was making the right decision. Should I stay home to care for my father? Am I being selfish? Unloving?
I texted my son to tell him about the nurse. I told him I couldn’t do anything, that the plane was about to leave. My son responded with the most comforting text message I’ve ever received:
” … I’ll figure it out.”
I queued in line with the rest of the passengers pulling my new standardized, 21″ carry-on wheeled suitcase topped with another bag sized to fit under the seat. In the past, I hadn’t cared much about this sort of stuff but now I didn’t want to risk any last minute snafus so had carefully measured and bought luggage according to regulation. As I took my final steps into the plane, I trusted my son to be mature and responsible. I actually trusted him. It wasn’t hard, either. My dear son had offered to do something for me, not the other way around. It had been so long since someone did something for me that I wasn’t certain how to react.
I thanked him. That’s all.
In planes, I prefer to sit in window seats in planes so I can watch the last minute checks pilots do, like moving the flaps back and forth a few times to make certain they’re working. Though the workers on the tarmac always make lots of noise, the loudest thump seems to be shutting and locking the door through which passengers had embarked. When this door is firmly closed, there is no going back.
You would think that God would comfort me even a wee bit — I suppose my son’s mature and kind response was part of His comfort — but frankly, I felt His distance, not approval. As I looked around, non-Christian people seemed far better off than me. I smiled as I watched a middle-age couple with two, thick-glassed teen girls share little boxes of Chinese food as they laughed among themselves. It was uplifting to see such a happy family, particularly since most people were sitting alone, emotionally detached, staring at their phones, atomized in self. Few spoke. Even couples sat silently, absorbed by their phone or some other “electronic device.”
Where was my divine “attagirl,” I wondered, thinking of how Paul had sung in prison as chains rubbed his skin raw and muscles ached from being held in one position. What’s wrong with me that I can’t trust God, feel joy, and relax in the knowledge that He has all things under control, including this foray into Paris? Is it my fault I don’t feel His comfort? Is my faith so flagging that I doubt His provision? Isn’t there supposed to be joy in obedience? Why doesn’t He give little nudges of approval when I desperately need them?
Paul sang because he intuited God’s love and care.
I wasn’t singing. My stomach was in knots.
Christians psychologically interpret events in life in such a way as to give themselves either joy or anxiety. Objectively dreadful events can be brushed off by the strong-of-soul — those same events can be crushing experiences to the weak-in-spirit. I had always been strong in the past, I thought to myself. I used to throw the kids in the car and drive all over the country — for months! — never worrying about anything. It was pure joy to be out and about. I used to love watching people, learn new stuff, and absorb everything around me. Then, a series of truly devastating events occurred in my life, some self-caused. Each subsequent event scraped a bit off my naturally brave and nonchalant approach to life. These events chipped away at my sense of being capable and up to whatever life threw at me. Somehow, death after death, marital abuse and divorce, moving from house to house, caring endlessly for an ungrateful old man, poor health, living in ugly circumstances, isolation, being constantly surrounded by dull people, more ugliness … got to me. The events of life smashed and shattered my own self-confidence. In the Christian lingo, I was “broken.” No, that’s not a strong enough word — I was pulverized.
I couldn’t go on anymore. Couldn’t find a return path to the top of my game. Couldn’t feel optimistic. Didn’t hope. I begged God, often, to let me die. “Just take me, God,” I’d scream … into emptiness. God never responded. He never comforted me. Even God abandoned me, so I felt.
In the past, I would have toughened through it. I would have taken life’s blows, rose above them, and moved on. It’s not that my life had been easy in the past, but in spite of difficulties, my driven and strong personality always found a path upward. Bad things were temporary, I thought. Life would surely end on an uptick.
But then things got much worse. And worse. Still worse. Life’s body blows kept hammering me. I turned to God with restored vigor, finding parallels in my own life with biblical figures and events. God was faithful to the Israelites, I thought. After those weak tribesmen turned from their lousy ways, they were rewarded. There was oil in their jars. Unending oil. Their granaries were full. They had lots of children. Great property holdings. Loving marriages. Happy-making times. And, a lot of love.
So, like the Israelites, I turned from my lousy ways and began to serve others selflessly. Every time something bad happened to me, I redoubled my efforts to make someone else’s life better. My father became the recipient of my care. I doted on him as he went blind and became feeble. I met his every need. It bothered me that he was never thankful, but I mostly sloughed this off, attributing it to senility and age. I prayed often and though I heard nothing in response, I still believed God heard me. I stopped putting my trust in my own ample abilities and placed my faith in His. God would provide. He would be there. I didn’t have to worry about anything.
After all, God was good, loving, caring … a real Father, a dependable force in time of need. God — unlike every, single damn person in my life — would pull through. God was reliable, unlike the circumstances and people that had so often let me down. He’d be there in my time of need, unlike those who tried to leave me destitute. He’d comfort the afflicted. He’d guide, even heal, the blind. He’d pull little children into His big, succoring lap and tell stories as He patted their mussy heads.
You see, God is good. That’s rather fundamental to faith: God is love; God is good. And so, when my circumstances weren’t good, I believed in His goodness because that was his nature. His essence. I’m not good, but He is.
To believe in His goodness in the face of unending pain, however, required a bit of mental chicanery. Yes, of course God is good — the corollary is that whatever happened to me must also, by definition, be good. But it wasn’t good. His goodness crashed on the shoals of my reality. At one point I felt either His sovereignty or His goodness had to go. God controls all. A GOOD God controls all events in life. He lets them happen. No, He CAUSES them to happen. But there I was. Suffering.
This didn’t make sense, so I brushed it aside. It was a mystery, you see. My pea brain wasn’t capable of understanding how suffering could be an expression of His goodness. I just had believe in both his sovereignty and goodness. This was true faith.
Job is another painful example. Why did that poor man, a very good person, suffer so greatly. Yea, he was rewarded in the end, but … well … all the apostles were murdered in the end. They, too, suffered greatly. Why are some rewarded and others brutally murdered? The answer, I know, is that though the end of life is death, in Christian theology, life is eternal. My earthly existence is a blip on a line that extends ever-backward and ever-forward in time. What I think is death isn’t. It’s just a point on the line. The reward comes, but in the next life … in heaven.
Frankly, I found this line of reasoning difficult to swallow. I wanted to feel His love, concern, care, direction, providence and all the good stuff IN THIS LIFE. Deferred gratification isn’t a strong suit for me. I want it now. I want His good stuff. His good personality.
I told my father I loved him at a moment when I lacked self-consciousness. Those words percolated up from some shaded, hidden spot in my soul, like a little bubble of lightness. I’m not sure where it came from. Never in my life have I felt love for my father. The older I get, the more I think that a good life hinges on love. Not just God’s love, but the love I have for others. I want love. More of it. Much more. I feel as if I’m about to explode, not with need but with that inside-outing of the self that Hegel talks about when he writes that when God created the world, He “othered Himself.” I think I understand this better, now. To other myself means to love. God’s creative act was an act of love.
So, I’m here. I’m in Paris typing away in a comfy bed in a Ikea-themed hotel near the airport. I just slept four hours. It felt great. My brain is not as foggy. I just thought of those girls sharing Chinese food, their confidence in their father’s provision, their light-hearted laughter and obvious love for each other … that’s a sort of faith. It’s a godless faith, a faith in one’s earthly father and other people. It’s the faith of a child.
That’s what I need. I need more of a childlike faith in my heavenly Father’s love and provision so when I don’t see or feel it, I still know that God exists, that in the backdrop of my mind, there’s a solidity. A divine solidity. A rock of faith on which I lean.
In a few hours, I’ll be looking for housing. I pray to be led to a solution straight-away, but if this doesn’t happen, I pray to not rely exclusively on myself, but to continue searching in the God-filled void. A friend of mine just emailed me to say, ” I do believe God will lead you while you’re in motion; it won’t be random.” It’s a dual effort. I’ll do my part but as I do so, I pray He’ll guide my footsteps. I pray to feel His presence, to know His love, to trust in His provision … even when external events suggest otherwise. I pray for a break, a momentary respite from endless problems.
I pray for the strength to believe.