The Quiet Journey

I suspect modern church gives a lot of Christians delusions of grandeur.

Many of us are told—with the greatest of intentions—that life with Jesus is a life lived loudly and in color.  That the journey we undertake with God will rock our world.  That we are earth-shakers, change-makers, miracle-prayers.

I’m not even talking about the prosperity gospel here.  The prosperity gospel promises material wealth and accomplishment as evidence of spiritual favor.  But a lot of our non-prosperity gospel churches illustrate a spiritual journey that is full of emotional and spiritual and psychological accomplishments, a ride from high to high to high. 

And, well, it isn’t.

Somewhere in all our focus on the miracles and the blaze of Pentecost we miss all the deeply ordinary, formative moments.  Fishing boats and slack nets.  Pinched-off heads of grain.  Fireside chats and roasted fish.  Lots and lots and lots of walking.  Weddings.  Funerals.  The grind of the in-between.

My mother started chemo six months ago.

She was, in many ways, deeply blessed.  Somehow, God saved her hair.  She hasn’t thrown up even once.  She only had one allergic reaction (last week) to the chemotherapy.  On the good weeks (the every-other-week she doesn’t have treatment) she even manages to get out of the house a little for some drive-through errands and a little lunch.

But it has also been hard.  Very hard.  And it has been a grind.

There are the physical symptoms, of course: neuropathy. Diarrhea.  Headaches from shots to boost her blood cell count.  She hasn’t had anything cold to eat or drink since before the new year, since one of her chemotherapy drugs gives her spasms if she ingests anything cold.  A thousand changes, large and small, to the body.  Weight loss.  And the fatigue.  My mom was the type of person who couldn’t fathom napping before chemo.  The day before yesterday, she admitted to me in bewilderment, “I slept the whole day except for an hour and a half—and then I slept all night!  And I’m still tired!”

But this is what God has given her.  This rough road is where God has placed her ministry.

No one wants this road.  No one wants to believe this could be the grand ministry.

People want a lectern, or a podium, or a name on the front of a novel.  People want a speaking gig, or to be sent to some far-flung country where they have to live in poverty with the natives but also look over staggering sunsets rising over the silhouette of the hills and feel a deep and unexplainable sense of contentment.  They want to have the ministry that makes a difference at the church, that does numbers, that moves people to tears and brings them visibly closer to God.

No one wants the grind.  Or the suffering.  But the grind, in so many ways, is where God uses us.

My mother keeps walking.  She sends me cards in the mail that I save, some of which (she doesn’t know this) I pull out and read when I’m having a hard day.  She makes meals for neighbors who have just delivered babies.  She takes great joy in being able to cook dinner for my dad, who would happily handle it on his own.  She glorifies God for things that most of us take for granted: finding the energy to hang up clothes, a jaunt to the bank drive-through, a really good pretzel, a Sunday in church.

Some days it takes all her energy.  And it feels so tedious some days, I’m sure, one task after another in the middle of this treatment that is lifesaving but also miserable.  But she keeps going, summoning the resources remaining to do the task at hand. 

And she smiles, because she knows that this is where God works and meets us.

It’s not that we shouldn’t desire to be world-changers, or that we shouldn’t expect moments of grandeur and glory.  God knows us, after all.  Knows what we need.  We will always have those.  But we must come to recognize that sometimes the world-changing occurs elsewhere: not in great public action, or ministry numbers, or accomplishment in the name of God, or emotional satisfaction and delirious joy, but in sawdust-littered workshops and chemotherapy rooms, in closets, in a meal prepared, in the offer of a blanket, in making a cup of coffee for someone who needs it.

When I was in college, it occurred to me to invite one of my college professors to my wedding.  I felt a kinship with him, and he was a dear mentor of mine: a Lutheran minister with a great spreading beard and a sonorous voice who loved Chaucer and Jesus and invited his students to his house for barbecues at the end of the term.  And I invited him to my wedding because he knew my husband and me, because our relationship had grown and developed in college and when I was taking his classes.

I didn’t think he would actually come.  But he did.  He came, and he watched the wedding, and he stayed for the entire reception with his wife.  And at the very very very end of the wedding, when the acquaintance guests had left and only the closest ones remained, he was still there.

My lingering memory of this remarkable man, accomplished in academic and in ministry in astonishing ways, is that he stayed until the last possible moment so that he could throw rice at the wedding of one of his college students.

What else is that, but love?

And what else is love that keeps my mom persevering through these chemo treatments and the tedium of them, that keeps her writing cards and making dinner, that lets her offer thanks and blessing?  God’s love supports her: this experience is where it has been made manifest.

The heroes of the faith aren’t going to be the people we expect.   I’m not saying they won’t be well-known or that they won’t have made great contributions to the faith.  I’m sure some of them will have done so. But I suspect it is more for the quiet moments of seemingly small significance—the thousand small decisions made in ordinary moments, in the grind, in the tired and suffering places—than for anything else.

My mom has reminded me of that.

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