On Memorial Day this year, I took the first step: I admitted I had a problem.
I was completely out of control in the most literal sense—that is, I was on a tube behind a ski boat in the middle of a busy lake, flying over wakes and screaming my guts out. While the “normal” version of myself would have found this enjoyable, the new, not-so-improved version of myself that has been displaying itself recently did not find it enjoyable. Instead of “woohoo”s and “yeah”s, I was having more of a this-is-the-end-and-I’m-going-to-die moment. When I was sure my shoulder was about to come out of its socket, I let go and went skidding across the water.
Spoiler alert: I did not die in a freak accident that day, but the panicky way I reacted to something that should have been fun made me realize that something larger was going on in my heart.
Though I have been known to stress out from time to time, historically speaking, I am not a worrier. Then, on a sunny day last June, I married a man who likes to do gainers off 60-foot cliffs and built a bike ramp off the end of our dock. Things started changing for me around that time. Granted, I was the one who (accidentally) led us through python-infested mangroves on our honeymoon, but I am not one for danger.
I think my anxiety began with what we’ll call the Great Sunscreen Battle—a long and circular battle which can be summarized like this:
Me: Babe, can I put some sunscreen on your back?
Bryant: No, I don’t burn.
*Burns to a crispy lobster red*
Me: Bryant, you are burnt.
Bryant: No, I just tan red.
At some point I started researching melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and things really started deteriorating from there. I became convinced that my life partner would surely die of skin cancer, and probably right after we had five babies, so I’d be left alone with a brood of towheads that would never know their daddy. I did not think about this all the time, but I started to dread the sunscreen conversation every time we were headed to the lake or beach.
There was also the bike ramp, which I enjoy seeing on Nitro Circus, but not really when people without helmets were launching themselves off of our dock over a precarious piece of plywood. I’d cringe every time Bryant went over it, imagining things going awry before he made it to the end of the dock and him hitting his head on one of the posts.
I was sure that if I could just convince him to wear sunscreen, to wear a helmet, to not be so reckless, that I could keep him alive forever. That if he would just do what I said, then he wouldn’t have to die of preventable causes. It made me feel crazy.
Recently, it seemed like tragedy after tragedy occurred—not to my own friends or family, but to friends of friends. A woman from Charlotte was hiking with her family on Crowder’s Mountain and stopped to pose for a picture with her husband when she slipped and fell 150 feet to her death. An entire family’s life forever changed in the blink of an eye. Then two girls I went to school with died within two weeks in tragic events. Following that, a family that attends my church was rear-ended at a red light and their two-year old son and unborn child were killed in the accident.
I can’t explain the heaviness on my heart for these events, the tragic deaths of these people I don’t really know. I can tell you one thing though—it made me terrified. Terrified because I may be able to convince my husband to wear sunscreen (we’ve turned a corner here) but I cannot keep someone from rear-ending him in traffic. I can’t keep him from contracting a disease. I can’t keep him from slipping and falling to his death in a freak accident. I am not in control. Funnily enough, I don’t think I even realized I was trying to be in control.
I have really been wrestling with God about this. I thought I was pretty good about trusting God with my stuff and letting go of things I can’t control, but my hands were closed on this one. How can I live when the people I love could just die at any time? How can I live knowing everything I love will slowly start dying off if I don’t die first? It begins with childlike faith.
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 18:1–4 NIV)
My friends Laura and Jason recently had an adoption fall through a week before the baby was due. The birth mother just changed her mind. There was no good explanation for this—why had God prepared them for this child and led them down this path, only to pull the rug out from under them at the last minute? We talked about childlike faith: Laura and Jason could trust God’s goodness in a situation that they didn’t understand, or they could choose not to. Thousands of questions really come down to that: trusting that God has a better or different plan, or becoming angry and bitter.
If the Gospel is true, the ultimate reality yet to be realized is hope, not despair. I really believe that Jesus is going to make all things new. I really believe that we are a tiny dot somewhere in the arc of a long, redemptive story. But it’s so easy to forget that—to get so wrapped up in our own story and our own needs and wants that we lose perspective. But because I don’t know what God is up to, ever really, except for writing this long story of redemption, it does take faith—real faith—to trust in God’s goodness. Most of the time when we talk about faith we’re struggling to have it, rather than actually exercising it.
Choosing joy in the midst of tragedy and courage in the midst of fear takes this childlike faith: Yes, God, I will trust that you are in control and I am not. I will trust that you have a plan for the earth, and recognize that the earth does not revolve around me. Yes, God, I will trust you, because you see everything eternity past and future, and I see only the slightest wedge of my individual reality in my individual lifetime.
I get why religious skeptics think faith and the message of the cross is foolishness. If faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (Heb. 11), I’m not sure I can win any argument, much less one about matters of faith that have come from years of study, reading, experiencing God, and living in Christian community. Childhood is a state in which people seem so helpless, so impractically optimistic, so immature and unaware of the world. Yet I've realized that no amount of intellectual knowledge or striving has brought any real peace to my troubled heart, so I cling to the redemptive truth of Jesus' promises.
The older I get, the more I admire this kind of simplicity. Not just materially, but also in patterns of thinking. What I'm commending is not ignorance, but rather a thoughtful choice amidst the chaos to avoid overcomplicating matters of life.
I have a coworker named Marge who is my hero. Her husband died suddenly two years ago, and she is one of the liveliest, social, joyful, lovely, and bright people I've ever known. One day I asked her how she had coped with the loss of her husband, and how she continued to live such a full life without her life partner of 50+ years. I remember being struck by the simplicity of her answer: "You have to believe that there is still life to be lived."
There are times in my life when I've been bogged down by big questions—existential questions, self-doubt, questions about my beliefs and their role in society, is my husband going to die? I enjoy being thoughtful about these things (except the husband dying thing) but sometimes I get so deep in my own head that I can't see simple realities, simple truths, and accept and act on what is instead of my idea of what should be.
"…You do not know what tomorrow will bring. For what is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes." (James 4:14)
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