Long ago my husband and I bought a used car. It was a terrible decision: we know nothing about cars. Nor did we know much about sales pitches. We prayed about it, and bought a lemon. It needed the same expensive transmission repair every year we owned it.
One year, it needed that repair right before we took a very rare vacation. The vacation was to the ocean, which I hadn’t seen since I was a child. It was a twelve hour trip both ways. And right before we set out, the transmission failed.
In the rush to get it fixed, we got stranded and wasted money on a string of mechanics. But the car was back in working order just in time. We prayed about it, and started on our way.
The car broke down again, a couple hours into the journey. We were delayed most of the day at a random town in Kentucky, sorting out plans and payment for the second major transmission repair in a matter of days. I sat in the lobby of a car dealership wondering what would happen to our rare vacation: charting how much closer we should have been to the ocean. I will always remember the design in the repair center’s carpet — I spent hours staring at it while I realized I was getting a lesson in patience. I had to lose my expectations of where we ought to be and what we ought to be doing, and accept the state of things — for how long? I didn’t know. Moment by crawling moment.
Physical pain is also like that. But in sharp physical pain, acceptance isn’t moment by moment: it’s every shattered instant. The mind’s whole effort is to absorb the instants, to breathe into the stab of them. Emily Dickinson called it “the Element of Blank”1 — pain forces out the recollection of when it began. But it won’t do to project onto “infinite realms”. You just have to focus on breathing now. And now. And now. “Patience is the first lesson of severe pain” (Rom. 5:3-4).
It is also the first quality of love in 1 Corinthians 13: “love is patient” (v.4). Love, and the people I love, are the sweetest and most precious part of my life. But it’s true, and I know it: love and pain require the same spiritual motion. I think this is because love in a fallen world is always exercised in a gap where things are not what they ought to be. Something is wrong — sometimes, severely, desperately wrong. We often feel in relationships, as in waiting rooms of many sorts, that things ought to be charting a different course.
Our culture teaches us that happiness is power to determine our own course; but so much of what hampers that is locked in place around us before we are ever born: other people. Our families are formed of people we didn’t bring into being, or choose to be with. Maybe we got to choose a spouse, but that choice is largely made at a period of immaturity, often in a huge area of ignorance — as we grow in understanding, it’s easy to struggle and feel stuck. The kind of choices involved for most of us in career paths, workplace acquaintances, or church family are very limited.
It’s easy to dream of alternate lives with different paths, different people, desirable places we might be if we had fully informed choice — instead of making our best guesses in the dark, or having to put up with someone else’s decisions. But Someone Else is Yahweh, far older and wiser than we are, and thoroughly acquainted with all of us. He has pared our life to this shape: this place, these circumstances, these people. From a purely philosophical perspective: this life, in any circle of humans, and in any event, affords everyone our world’s most significant possibility (if we accept it): not of success, or relative ease and comfort, or seeing our loved ones make wise choices, or having everyone together on Christmas or New Year’s, or even of a noble usefulness – but of practicing patience. A potential, not of getting what we want, but of receiving what is given. Because love is, first of all, that kind of possibility.
This little span we have here, with these limitations, these desolations, this design in the carpet — it is our one and only opportunity, the only one we get in the universe, to learn how to love.
To learn how to take the stuff of a broken world — disappointing vacations, unmet needs, sickness, self-ignorance, besetting sins, wounded pride, lies, addictions, injustice, betrayal, loss — and fashion something that stays tender and honest. This precious opportunity is passing away. And so are the people around us. The worst days of our lives may be our only opportunity to love them.
No matter where we are, who we are with, we have this opportunity — and we are not equal to it. We cannot achieve everything we desire and we cannot achieve this one thing in front of us. But the work of love is the work of God; and God is the most creative worker on earth.
Our love may not change our circle of acquaintances, or our circumstances — it does not even always hold our circle of loved ones together. Those are things we cannot determine. There are so many things we can not even understand. But love always transfigures our selves.
It does this by crucifying us, sometimes moment by dragged out moment. We have to receive the shape of our cross. Every day, we lose what we think we should be doing or who we think we should be with. In a world with death, disease, and sin — with those things inside of us, and inside of other people — the transmission is just going to fail. A lot. Even when we pray.
Sometimes I think God knocks me back to a place of breathing through every shattered instant when I am struggling most to receive this. However welcome relief has always been, that kind of physical pain is not an interruption to my life. It speaks with clarity to its essence. Because reality has to be carried like pain — sometimes debilitating pain. Its greatest potential, love, is God’s new creation. And that means a lot of old things get shattered. Love means our catastrophic death before it can be any sort of life.
It’s easy for me to think that the world especially needs people who can alter the catastrophes, like God. But what the world really needs is people whose character on a cross is patience. People like Jesus, who are learning to lose their lives, and to live out of a different center than their own will. People who die and breathe. Gradually, the dying becomes fuel for the breathing: a bush in a wilderness that burns and is not consumed, because its flame is the presence of God.
One of my friends once said that we should “all call ourselves and everyone who has ever crossed the thresholds of our lives, as well as every inanimate thing and every creature — all are to be called ‘Shiloh’ . . . all are sent.” I fail at calling myself and all things “Shiloh” almost every day. But one of the reasons God waits is to be gracious (Isaiah 30:18). He waits in a huge gap where things are not what they ought to be. He loves people who are charting off course: you and me, the people we are — not some other, less heart-aching people. He never fails to call us “Shiloh.” We wouldn’t be here at all, if He hadn’t called us that. I can learn to welcome the things and people God sends, because His love for me is patient.
And what lies in store, after absorbing all the instants and hours and days, waiting and waiting and waiting, until the end? “Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy” (James 5:11).
— “The end of the Lord:” a transfiguration. A revelation of intense pity and tenderness; a parched land that blossoms like a rose (Isaiah 35:1). After we die all the way dead, we get to be raised all the way — to what? Christina Rossetti called it “the Shaking and the Breath.”2 Ruth Pitter described the vision of those “daily and here, in this poor house with me … standing in the flame of glory.”3 David prophesied a “fullness of joy” — “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). It will have to be more wonderful than all the fairy tales, or than all the dreams we had to drop into Jesus’ nail-pierced hands. Our tales and dreams reach far, but not far enough: they are always groping from the only things we know. The end of the Lord is to make everything new.
We can’t imagine that. Sometimes we can’t even believe it. It’s hard to push our faith through the stabbing, or maybe the
numbing cells that line the lacerations on our hearts. We can’t dream up what God has laid up, on the resurrection side of love. But it’s true, reader — Shiloh, whoever you are. This waiting area where our experience of love — the sweetest and most precious thing we know — can also feel like driving a lemon, or leave us on the floor, trying to breathe into a hard blank: this isn’t the sum total of everything. There is something worth waiting for. So die and breathe.
Ebenezer Reformed Church, Shafter, CA
1“Pain–has an Element of Blank–” by Emily Dickinson
2“Easter Eve” by Christina Rossetti
3“But My Neighbour is My Treasure” by Ruth Pitter