From Michelle. March 1, 2012.
Dear friends and family,
If January was a month of hope and of some reprieve, February was a challenge to those fragile gains. As soon as I noted improvements in Steve’s gait, it seemed, he began to limp again. As soon as I noted stability in his weight, he caught a stomach bug and lost several pounds. As soon as we thought we had found a good therapy routine, a regular therapist announced pregnancy related sick leave. These convolutions come as no surprise. No path in life is truly straight, even when the general momentum is moving forward. In a marriage course that Steve and I are facilitating, the instructors talk about the myth of the day when there will be more time. Much the same, there is the equally alluring myth of a life where everything goes smoothly. While such periods do occur and are sweetly precious, they cannot last. The truth is, while we all long for that stretch of straight and level road, we are equally in need of the discipline of the unforeseen bend, the uphill climb or the downhill rush. We shed more weight and gain more strength as we bend and scramble and sprint. We dig deeper and find new reserves. We lean harder and find God to be greater. A good story always has an unexpected twist and a good dose of dramatic tension. We all journey this way.
As we navigate the twists and turns, digging deeper over the miles, I find myself longing to shed more baggage. The discipline of a long hike involves choosing carefully what to bring. The longer and harder the trek, the more carefully we inspect the list of contents on our backs. Each additional pound is costly. I still have a great deal of flaccid weight and unformed muscle. There is an urgency to both materially and spiritually simplify, to grow lean. In an effort to mark the inner work, I create silly rituals of simplification. For each item of clothing I gain, I must give away two. I sort through the jumble of plastic bits and pieces among the children’s toys and throw things away. Several containers overflow with other things I will not miss. These seemingly trivial tangible actions function almost liturgically to also cleanse the spirit. There too, I am sorting through the trash and discovering what is truly essential. I can shed, little by little, pleasing people. I can leave behind a few books and entertainments that don’t edify and a mass of parental guilt and a few pounds of looking good. In my backpack I now have more room for prayer. It doesn’t weigh anything. I can breathe more easily.
I think back on our early days in Seattle, after the accident. We arrived with two suitcases. It was a gift to start fresh. We did not miss our things. There was a lovely spare quality to life. The essentials had space to breathe, uncluttered by all of the extra toys and furniture, the empty entertainments and the unnecessary worries. We even shed a house. It was all too easy, however, to accumulate again and clutter up that freedom. These lessons come slow. First, we took on material things. Later we added responsibilities, activities. As Steve became more able, we grew less discerning of our commitments. We grew more careless with our time and resources. The gift of the uphill stretches is that they alert me that my pack has grown too heavy. I must shed a few things to make it to the top.
And so, February’s gift has been that gentle reminder to simplify. To shed a few things and enjoy a more nimble response to the next unexpected turn. To make room in my pack for what matters and sustains. As I get older, fewer things remain. And in the end, only one thing: Christ.
After listing in great detail the tremendous faith of many of the protagonists in the bible across the centuries, the author of Hebrews notes that, “all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised.” No path of ease, no neatly delineated earthly passage lives among this list of saints. The author continues: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run the race which was set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” We are asked to shed the weight and run, looking not for an easy finish but with the example of Christ before our eyes, who suffered greatly for our sakes. The promise of ease does not arise in this life but in the next. But what we can do is shed every weight and sin, so that we may run with joy.
I do this imperfectly. My pack is always too full. My hands are never consistently open. My mind is easily cluttered. I take comfort in the list of saints. Their lives are flawed, their paths often circuitous. And yet, by grace, they finished the race, running in the shadow of the cross. And we, by grace, will do the same.