Rain, Pain & Grace That’s Quenched

 

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I fell asleep on the floor of our family room last night, curled up right next to the couch. My exile from our matrimonial bed was not because I happened to call my wife fat or tell her that her baking tastes like charcoal; she’s not and it doesn’t and (may the record please show) I didn’t. It’s difficult to explain it, but when I have a migraine that keeps me from sleeping I often find myself wandering around in a state of restlessness, commonly collapsing in a random location that somehow feels comfortable in the moment. And then sleep finally comes. I’d be lying to you if I told you these tendencies weren’t a little strange, even too me; they’re peculiar, really. But so is pain; so is life.

Lately these peculiarities have been much more common than usual. Over the past few months I’ve had endless doctor appointments, lab tests, new prescriptions and screenings all in an attempt to find a way to control or alleviate some of the pain caused by chronic migraines. Blessedly, there has been some relief. This shouldn’t be a surprise but grace often is.

And lately it’s come in the form of rain.

“What’s the weather today?” My wife asks, as she’s getting dressed and I’m making her coffee.

“Clouds. Chance of rain.”

“Seriously? Again?”

She rolls her eyes though I try not to let her see my smile, adding an extra pinch of sugar to her morning coffee, to help her survive the grace that’s been given to me.

Which goes to say that one of the peculiarities I’ve come to embrace has been my affinity for overcast weather. Someone who has never had a migraine cannot understand what its like to be oppressed by sunshine, for it’s rays to reach through their eye-sockets and pound itself around in your skull, like your cranium is playing racquetball with a grenade.

I often find myself listening to people daydream about their plans to move somewhere like San Diego or the Caribbean, to a locale that absorbs the sun’s rays nine days out of ten. I want to ask: “Why the hell would you do that to yourself?” But I withhold. Not because of prudence or self-control, mind you, but because the older I get the more I learn how convincing others to adopt my tastes is either fruitless or results in my ultimately getting less of them for myself. Thus, I shut up. Let them move to Florida; it’s less rain on my rainy parade here.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize. I have several friends who suffer from seasonal depression; cloud cover for them is like bright sunshine into my blood-shot eyes. And sometimes I feel like my prayers for grace compete for theirs like two friends who’ve grown up and now have young boys playing on opposing football teams; we both call the lads “winners” but reality tell us that one of them is going to walk away defeated.

And maybe grace does compete with itself. That said, I’m often reminded of what the poet Jay Parini said, reflecting on rainfall from his own window: “my thirst for something more than I can see is briefly quenched.”

To live at all is to feel pain; the tree of life has thorns on it, of this I am convinced. And after the fall those thorns grew for thousands of years till they were sharp enough to pierce the brow of our Savior before he was crucified. A crown of thorns, crown of pain, crown of life conquering death.

Which is to say that the relief of pain isn’t always grace; sometimes grace is the pain itself. And when I consider this, I see the rain as grace for everyone, not just me. Perhaps this is my way of feeling less remorse over my child wining the football match. Or, perhaps grace always is the winner. We’ve just forgotten that there’s no scoreboard, that we’re on the same team.

And this consideration also forces me to see my own pain as a richer grace, a deeper grace, than even it’s relief. If living is pain, then it is also thirst. Thirst for something more, something beyond, something for which I would not yearn if I did not thirst. And that’s a remarkable thing. For thirst must be quenched, will be quenched- if only we keep on thirsting.

And when I awoke on the floor early this morning my headache had, for the moment, abated. And today the sun came out and my wife was happy; grace was shining upon her. And I can bear it, even if my head begins to throb again. Because when grace falls, it falls on all of us, not just some.

And perhaps pain is just the eyes to see it.

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God Of The Puddles

I am fascinated by small bodies of water.

There’ve been a lot of rainy days recently, as New England springs are known to have. Glancing out my window between classes this week my eyes searched for a puddle somewhere on the sidewalk below. For although I might not be able to see light raindrops themselves falling outside, I knew that if a puddle had ripples painting their story across its surface then I would know of their existence.

There’s a small pond on the edge of campus that I drive by whenever I leave. A fountain sits in the middle, disturbing the water with its constant stream and splashes. But on the outer edge, where the water is still, a log extends itself above the lily pads and placid surface. Lately, while driving past, I’ve spotted small black disks sitting on the log; I cannot help but conclude that they are turtles basking in the sun. Whenever I walk by, however, they’re nowhere to be found- as though there are a million mysteries that hide themselves from me the moment I become aware of their existence.

When I first arrived at seminary, I was cautioned by numerous sources not to “allow seminary to become your cemetery”. This pun-ish phrase was the means by which our administration, faculty and peers alerted us rookie theologians to the keen and prevalent possibility of, within the study of the God, losing our actual faith in God; missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.

I remember thinking then, and sometimes thinking now, that in order for me to lose my faith, I would have to have found it.

For faith has never presented itself to me as something subject to or capable of my articulation. I cannot tell you why I breathe the way I do, any more than I could tell you why I am convinced of God and his omnipresence, omnipotence and all those other terms I flash up on the felt story-boards of my heart, like a four-year-old in Sunday school shouting out all the answers. I am able to confess that I believe these words to be true; now and then I even see small sparks of them in the world around me. But, for the most part, they are mysterious and slip out of my sight before I can confirm their existence, like turtles on the other side of the pond.

C.S. Lewis once stated that he believed in Christianity as he believed that the sun had risen, not only because he saw it but because by it he could see everything else. I glance outside on a rainy day and though I may not see the sun, I do see a puddle on the sidewalk. And the ripples are flowing and dancing.

It seems to me that God’s existence is not found in the beauty of things I can understand but in the quiet stillness of puddles. I wish I where different; I wish my faith were as articulate and brilliant as that of so many before me. But it’s not. And I don’t know, as the poet Hannah Faith Notess lamented, why God touches down on some of us and not on others.

The voice of an angel withheld Abraham from slaying Isaac; Job received everything he had in double portion. And yet His own son, God did not spare. Sometimes I think of Notess’ confession and I wonder, constantly, which category I fall into: the some, or the others.

But all the things I cannot see are the compelling mysteries that keep me searching again for more. And so, if I had to put my faith to words, I would proclaim that I believe in the God of the puddles, small lakes and other bodies of water that surround my every existence. I believe in the God who is and breathes like the mist on a cloudy day. I believe in a God whose goodness falls like spring’s rain. And I believe in this goodness even though, sometimes, the rain does not fall.

Because sometimes, when it does, I still choose to remain inside, watching it fall and telling its story to the puddles, lakes and ponds I see from within. Sometimes I stay inside rather than racing out, spreading my arms and letting it wash over me.

But some days, when it the rain has finished, I go outside and I take a moment to witness my own insecure eyes in the puddle’s reflection. In that moment, all it would take was a single miraculous raindrop to fall and it would recast me on the canvas of my own faith.

Sometimes it falls, but mostly the turtles slip back into the pond before I am within reach. And I am left believing in what I hope to see. Someday.

 

 

 

 

 

Running Water, Cloudy Days and Predestination

It was cloudy the other day, for the first time in weeks. Grim, overcast and cold, it sent my spirits souring.

“You’ve got to be the most depressing person in the world,” my fiancé said when I told her this over lunch. Her words didn’t come across as an insult, but rather with a sense of unmerited admiration. She’s my saving grace in that way.

After she left, I went to clean the dishes. I turned on the tap and watched as water soared through the faucet. I paused. Turning the faucet off, I saw the flow cease before the final remains of the advance party drifted down the drain. With another flick of my wrist, the river roared back to life, and obedient molecules pulled themselves over the surface of the sink, gravitating toward the gaping hole in its center. I put my hand under the tap and felt this strange substance that inhabits 70 percent of the earth’s surface and somewhere near 60 percent of my own body. Clear, tasteless and remarkable. Suddenly, I was horrified to think of how long I’d been standing there, staring at the water as it ran through my fingers and down the drain. I turned off the tap and headed outside, environmental concerns and third-world statistics rushing through my head.

I’ve been reading a book about a character that is obsessed with the idea of predestination. He’s a troubled man; I guess in a way we all are. His thoughts carry the weight of perdition nipping at the heels of one who is simultaneously immortal and mortal; there’s no rest. It’s weighed me down, these past few sunny days, and brings me to wonder why I actually care. Why do I care if the Artist knows what he’s painting before he sets his brush to the canvas? Such a declaration doesn’t necessarily mean that he has also already mixed the colors.

Of course, these sentiments may come easy for me if I’m to be viewed as one who finds himself on the side of the ‘elect’. But nothing goes to say that I’m not worried that my actions in the midst of some moral conundrum or an unintentionally heretical belief won’t leave me standing and shell-shocked with all of perdition yapping at my soul as the pearly gates are slammed shut in front of my face. In fact, I think of that a lot. I think of it with water running over my hands and down the sink.

My run had taken me down by the water, near the salt marshes. These local wonders are a fascinating ecosystem, somehow equipped to spend half of their life out of water and the other submerged. The tide goes out, the sun shines and all is well for the next six hours. But then, a quarter through the day, the golden rays turn hostile, the moisture begins to disappear and the recipients of grace begin to suffocate under its oppression. At the last moment, on the clockwork of eternity, the tide comes rushing in and allows the mortality of the salt marshes to catch a breath of something different, something necessary, something like a cloudy day.

Every day is judgment day, Flannery O’Connor said. Damnation has different shades and any human being is living proof of it. Sometimes I face sunsets with a heavy heart and looming consequences. Sometimes I watch the evening news and then driving to work the next day I get cut off in traffic and swear with bitterness at the soul who simply forgot to use a turn signal. Sometimes I watch water run down the drain or the tide sweep out to the horizon and wonder if it all really was planned and what that possibly means.

But then I think of how water runs through taps and clouds, tides and bodies. To the one who believes, it shall be given, the promise of discovering rivers of living water flowing under them, through them, within them, out of them. Belief is the presupposition, not action or even orthodoxy. It requires patience, not answers; hope, not assurance.

If I was predestined for anything, I was granted a longing for clouds to blot out the sun, to hide salvation so I could see it anew. I was predestined to stand at a faucet, with water running over my hands, so I could be reminded that beyond my questions and concerns sits the promise of life. I was predestined to ask questions, to stand at the bank of a salt marsh and wonder if the one who created it would hear my faint heart beating against to the tune of a million questions, wonders and worries.

I’m not sure about the rest but I was predestined for that.