words

Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

30 January 2007

Let It Not Be So

Last Sunday, on the way to church, we found my daughter Charlotte's dog Tessi—the mother of the lab pups who were born in my first post—dead on the road. There is a longer, more distressing version of this story that I won't tell here, involving the family coincidentally being in two cars and us all seeing the body separately and separately concluding that that the fur was the wrong color of brown to be Tessi, and then my husband leaving the girls and me at church while he went back to verify that it was indeed our poor dog. In fact, he never really was able to recognize Tessi from her remains—the accident that had killed her had been too brutal, too complete—but he could see that the dog was female and that she had recently whelped.

Anyway, back at church, before the girls and I knew—or, before we accepted that we knew—I prayed a prayer that had occasioned two dog miracles in the past: Let it not be so. My daughters were praying the same prayer, I'm sure, as was my husband, as he looked in vain for Tessi's collar and then went home to change his clothes and fetch a black plastic bag and then returned to the scene of the accident. Let it not be so. Let it not be so. Let it not be so. As I prayed it, though, I felt pushing up through my words a different prayer, a prayer I didn't want to pray, a prayer I rarely pray unless made to do so, typically at church, and even then not usually in much earnest: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

What a scary prayer. You are praying against your own interests, for one. And, invariably, if you are sincerely acknowledging God's superior will in a situation, then you know things are bad, really bad, not as you would have them at all, and not likely to change for the better. Thy will be done is a pitiable, last minute plea for order, for sense, it seems to me. It is a prayer that means, Oh Lord of heaven and earth, let there be some good reason for this misery, this evil suffered, even though I can't see one. Once you pray it, Thy will be done repels all lesser prayers for help or healing—especially the mindless, hopeless, breath-holding prayer of Let it not be so. As such, it also relieves you, I suppose, of the tense burden of hope in suffering—the hope that keeps you from embracing pain and truth and thereby, perhaps, getting past their attendant terrors. But Thy will be done is—for me, in any case—the hardest prayer to pray and mean it, whether for a child's dog or for a friend with cancer or some other trouble or for the victims of some atrocity you read about in the news. I’d so much rather just pray the familiar Let it not be so, which takes me on the slow road around my mountain, than enter one of the dark faith-tunnels that hurtles one straight through to whatever unknown safety might lie on the other side.

In any case, someone else’s will was done than ours, this time. Tessi was dead, and we were left to console ourselves with the obvious violence of the accident, which allowed no time for suffering. And with the fact that Tessi had managed to wean her nine pups before she left us. And with what fine pups they are, just now learning to climb their pen and plop, fat-bellied, to the yelping freedom of the yard and the fields beyond.

But Sunday morning at church, in one of those ironic fiats that God seems to enjoy, when I could hardly listen to the sermon for praying my prayer and my daughters’ prayer and my husband’s prayer, the pastor preached on the power of corporate prayer. He made reference not only to the Lord’s Prayer—focusing especially on the line that had by then made it to the back of my throat—but to one of those alluring promises of Jesus’s that seems to invite us to desire that our own will be done: “if two of you on earth agree on anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three of you come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19-20). And so I was left to reconcile, as always, the sovereignty of a God who thunders, “Where were you when I made this world?” and whose will is done, willy-nilly, with the love of a parent who wants to give his children good things and has granted me countless miracles in the past, many of which I probably didn't even notice.

I am also left with this bleak question: Could it be that the two or three passage is not about the granting of our corporate requests at all but about the futility of our ever agreeing, simultaneously, on what’s important? I mean, perhaps we get so busy praying Let it not be so that we can’t recognize, much less agree to, the larger prayer for life that begets all prayer.

The puppy miracles my family has witnessed in the past—a broken leg miraculously healed, a congenitally non-existent eyeball restored to normalcy—have moved us closer to that life, I think. We saw and believed, at least temporarily. When I spoke of one of these miracles in church, though, a friend of mine was offended. His wife suffers a debilitating illness from which she will eventually die. Why, he asked, would God heal a puppy and not a woman who had been prayed over and prayed over earnestly, by droves of friends and loved ones for years?

I was ashamed of my family’s little miracle, then. Of our sometime need for answered prayer to document and prove God’s love. Were not puppies themselves proof enough? Or daughters? Or the white winter sunshine last Sunday morning? And what of my friend’s complaint? Why no healing there?

I have no answers, no deeper knowledge of the ways of God than this: It will be as he wills it, but he loves us, crazily, with that single-subject doting of the most besotted mother. It seems a puny answer, though, this riddle, to assuage a young daughter’s loss and a friend’s years of fruitless petition for healing.

6 comments:

Spring said...

I read your post a few minutes ago, and I didn't comment then so that I could think about it for a while.

During the last few minutes I found myself filled with rage that your friend could make you feel ashamed of your little miracles. I definitely don't understand what he's going through, but there will always be suffering to trump even the most horrible suffering imaginable. A puppy's broken leg, a woman dying slowly from a disease, a husband mourning the inevitable death of his wife, an entire African tribe facing genocide. Who's to say someone's suffering is smaller or larger than another's? Who's to say puppies are less significant in God's eyes than humans?

Since I am very much a dog person, I love how much those puppy miracles mean to you, and how they restore your personal faith. And I don't want anyone to take that away from you.

Patty Kirk said...

Oh, Spring, I don't want you to feel badly toward my friend. I didn't mean to paint him badly. He has this heartcrushing task of watching the death of his lover, bearing all her burdens, suffering and raging and fighting and mourning on her behalf, really, since she is this sweet sweet woman who smiles all the time and seems to have lost the capacity to despair, if she ever had it. (I never knew her before the illness.) Her disease is like Tessi's death in slow motion, and my friend has to attend every second of it. And he was being real about his suffering in public--a rare thing in churches, I think. That is infinitely more important, I think, than the airing of my theological enthusiasms.

And I don't think his complaint was about dogs versus humans. It was just about his despair and terror of losing the woman he loves. I know too well how those two emotions--despair and terror--can metamorphose into anger. Often misdirected anger, it's true. My girls and my husband are my usual targets, I'm sorry to say.

My friend had no illwill toward me. I have misrepresented it if it seemed he did. He was mad, I think, at God. Like those guys in when the ones who started working late in the day got paid the same as the ones who had been there from the start. There is an unfairness in that, and he was upset about it. God's unfairness is something we all have to reckon with, at some time or another.

I heard Joyce Meyers on the radio once going on about how one shouldn't talk about one's answered prayers in public because doing so challenges the faith of those who don't think their big prayers are being answered. I think she's probably right. But I think, too, that we sometimes have to go through this sort of anger--the feeling of being slighted or neglected by God--before we can fully appreciate what it means to be chosen and particularly loved.

The other day in Barnes & Noble I was reading a book about a man whose wife fell under a subway and ended up paralyzed from the waist down. He was, of course, devastated--angry, depressed, etc.--until he learned to draw their new life. The book is full of his drawings. In the book, he retells a parable of friend of his told him in which a couple goes on holiday to I can't remember where--Greece or the Mediterranian or somewhere sunny--and the plane mistakenly desposits them in Holland. Grey. Flat. Overcast. Like in the Dutch paintings. And they end up loving it. It's not what they expected or wanted, but they end up finding it beautiful. The finding it beautiful, I think, is partly a product of first being disappointed--or angry, afraid, duped-feeling, as the couple probably was at first. That was where my friend was, I think, on that Sunday morning years ago.

And my shame was temporary, anyway. Not enough to get me to shut up about, as you say, my little miracles.

Wow. That was a long response. I feel like I've blogged all over again. There ought to be an adjective for that feeling. Blogged, perhaps. I feel blogged.

Spring said...

I knew I'd probably regret my comment soon after posting it, but I guess I wanted to air my emotions out anyway. At first, I even included a disclaimer at the bottom that said I probably sounded really ignorant. But remembering the advice I always try to follow about not writing something if it demands a disclaimer, well, I just deleted the disclaimer instead. Easy way out.

I probably seem super insensitive. I guess why I got so angry is because faith is really, really hard for me too. And I feel like every time I experience any sort of affirmation of faith, some theologian or someone who knows infinitely more than I do and is infinitely smarter than I am comes and takes it away. And I didn't want that to happen here.

But you, of course, have the much more mature attitude of compassion toward your friend, and I respect that. So it wasn't your writing that was misleading, I just brought a defensive attitude to your blog today.

One of the saddest things I can think of is an elderly man mourning the death of his beloved wife. I feel that if anyone on earth deserves to be happy and fulfilled, it's elderly men. The other day I was at Albertson's in line at the pharmacy behind a sweet, bumbling elderly man. My heart broke for him, and I wanted to walk up and hug him or help him read the tiny numbers on his prescription bottle or push his cart for him or something, anything, to brighten his day. And then an attractive elderly woman with a chic bob wearing jeans with expensive embroidery walked up to the cart in front of the man and dumped a bunch of paper towel rolls into it. I felt sheepish, but also very satisfied.

Spring said...

Also, on a separate note, I'm so sorry for your loss.

Katy said...

On Thanksgiving, I ran into my best friend Lauren, her husband Nate and their new baby Jack in the airport in Portland. Lauren and I didn't think we would be seeing each other over the holiday, as I was heading home to Texas and her little family was going to Oregon to visit her husband's family. They got off the plane that I was about to board in Portland en route to Dallas. It was surreal. I got to see them all and saw Nate with his little baby and darling wife, complete, happy and healthy. The Monday after Thanksgiving, Nate drowned in a boating accident, and my dearest friend had lost her husband. It was awful. I saw this beautiful family of my friend's three days before it shattered all to pieces, and I now have a dim memory of him waving and carrying Jack's diaper bag as they walked away through the terminal while I waited to board my plane to Dallas.

A minister I spoke with about this just shook her head and in her lovely, kind British accent said simply, "The kindness of the Lord..."

I think it says something beautiful about the kindness of the Lord that Tessi had already weaned her puppies. How lovely. Is it trite to say so? I don't know. Is it trite to say that God was kind by allowing me to see Nate with his family before he passed and not feel anything but happy to see the baby? Does saying so in any way lessen the biggness and emotion of what happened to Nate or to Tessie?

When I met Nate and Lauren's baby for the first time, there was no sorrow or sympathy there. I didn't hold Jack and feel sorry for him to not have a daddy. Bumping into them was a small coincidence that only later - in the broken moments that can't be fixed just because the world is so screwed up and broken - illustrates how kind God is to us.

I'm so sorry for your loss.

Kevin Bussey said...

Patty,

I just finished reading your book. I enjoyed it and wrote a review on my blog.