“The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it” Henri Nouwen
“Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up.” The Valley of Vision
Four months ago at 4 am, I sat thinking about my writer friend John. I knew he’d be up because he’s up almost every morning at 4 am to write. I think this is impressive if not a little crazy. And well, he calls it crazy too, which is why he writes at that hour. The real stuff of his life is just a little more accessible. Apparently, he says, 4 am is called the hour of the wolf in Sweden. The hour our primal self takes over.
It was this very idea I had on my mind while yet another labor contraction seized my wife’s body. She had her arms wrapped around my neck as we stood in the bathroom. I held the weight of her and my soon coming son with my legs because her knees were so wobbly from all the pain. And though my muscles were needed a whole lot in that moment, I felt so damn powerless. Powerless to stop this freight train of labor and get my wife out of this agony. I could only look on.
My wife hadn’t slept for the better part of 24 hrs. And when this contraction eased its grip, she wept right there in my arms. Wept because in her words, “There’s just no way out of this. I have to keep going.” She’d come to the end of herself there on the bathroom floor.
No wonder they call it the hour of the wolf. My wife was howling in her pain. I wept too.
Her words have haunted me since that day.
And it reminded me of this sentence from Parker Palmer I read a few months back, “One cannot escape one’s inner life so one had better get into it.” I sighed when I read this. All those little ways I’ve been trying to escape what’s going on inside my heart showed themselves. Lately its been delicious creamy iced lattes. But it might as well be crack cocaine, the way I sometimes crave them. I keep trying to get my insides soothed through food.
Because I don’t want to sit with my tiredness or my lonely heart or my shame. I want out of these things! I want a quick fix. I feel this way about working out or writing or just about anything – anything that requires suffering.
Its hard sometimes to sit in what’s going on inside us. Because a lot of it can feel real hopeless.
Like take tonight as an example. A few hours ago I got hit by a wave of loneliness, dark loneliness. And despair. I found myself in front of the fridge and then the pantry with the same question in my heart: what in here will numb this? Nothing seemed sugary enough to do the trick. A little while later at the grocery store, it hit me again. I knew I could walk over to the liquor store and get some beer. I wouldn’t get tanked. But I could put this loneliness at a distance for a few hours.
But I didn’t go get beer either.
Instead I came home and the loneliness got worse with the night. A whole lot worse. While my son sat in the bath, I went to retrieve his pajamas from his bedroom. And it hit me that I couldn’t take one more step without begging God for help. I sprawled myself out right there on the floor of his bedroom and begged God to show up for me. And later, when the boys were asleep, I spent an hour journaling to God about it all. Praying and talking it all out.
And you know what? Right when I expected my heart to cave under the weight, I felt better. My heart found God at the bottom of the bottom.
Its not that God leaves us alone with our insides. Spirituality after all is at some level a way to transcend our insides, to rise above our circumstances, our sin and suffering, and what Leanne Payne calls the “hell of the self.”
Yet spirituality is not escapism. Its not a means of avoiding those hard things within. God rarely does surgery on us while we sit in the waiting area. He usually asks us to cry out from where we sit.
You’ve probably met people who spiritualize their problems too much. “You know, just gotta give it to God… it’ll all work out for good… look on the bright side… I know I need to just pray about it more.” Its sounds so good, so right? Who could argue with this stuff?
But these words can often be used to avoid talking about our suffering, our struggles, our frustration or anger – all the very things we need to bring to God in honesty. Remember, he gave you the Psalms as our example book. Which means he’d rather have a bar fight with you than exchange pleasantries.
There are only two ways to keep your heart alive: Make your heart really small through denial or drugs or numbness. Or let your suffering undo you and lead you to really honest conversations with God. Its called redemptive suffering, meaning that the suffering and the times with God make you better as a person on the other side of it all.
That’s why we get deeper into it all. That’s why we try again when we are stuck. Because the way out is through.
A few hours after Amanda wept on the bathroom floor, the sun now up, she said to me, “I’m getting stir crazy. I think I want to go to the hospital.” She labored at home as much as possible to stave off the prods and pokes of the hospital. But the time had come.
And so we started the arduous 50 ft journey out the door to our car, doubling over every few feet as the contractions hit. Oh man, this was getting close. 7:46 am read the clock in my car.
Rush hour traffic made for an interesting ride. Every twist and turn and push on the brake reverberated through my wife’s body. Every red light took impossibly long. Until I could finally see the hospital entrance. I wheeled up to the emergency room door, bounded around the car to get my wife out.
“I can’t get out.” She said. I stared at her for a minute. She was serious.
And then came the loudest deepest labor contraction. She screamed from her guts. I recognized that from our last child… that’s a PUSHING scream. I grabbed a wheel chair from in the door and came back again. “We’ve got to get you in, honey.”
“Okay, okay…” she said. I grabbed an arm. And she pushed off with her feet.
And birthed our sons head! No joke. She quickly got on her knees on the wheelchair and we rushed her in as fast as possible. We made it inside, up the elevator, and down the hall to the first triage room on the birthing floor. And once she was on the bed it took one push and he was out.
Alive and healthy and out. The time? 8:05… 19 minutes from when we left our house including the 15 minute drive.
The suffering had birthed the beauty of our son.
So dear reader, press in. Dig deeper. Stop letting stuff sit so long in your heart. Who’s knows what glorious birth awaits you on the other side.