So, among the other things happening in my life right now (which do consist of more than shooting myself subcutaneously in the belly every night), it's Lent. I've never been big on giving things up for Lent, although it's not a bad idea. What I have tried to do is think more intentionally about my life and my faith during this season. It's a particularly good time to think about the potential meaning of any suffering in your life - in fact, if you go to worship during Lent, it's fairly hard to get away from that theme since most of the bible readings have something to do with that.
[Also, for the sake of honesty, and before you say, 'well, just don't go to church during Lent,' I should mention the fact that I am a pastor. So, not going to church is not really an option. And although I had intended NOT to talk about my profession in this blog - only because it comes with a lot of baggage that I get tired of - I find that I just can't write this particular entry without being truthful about such a huge part of my life. Okay. Confession over.]
I'm preaching this week on two stories about wandering around in the wilderness, and I'm finding that this is a particularly apt metaphor for my life at the moment. While rooting around on the internet searching for helpful preaching ideas (i.e., alternating between textual studies available online and reading the People magazine website because you never know when the love life of Tom Brady and That Giant Model Lady, or some new Lohan chaos, might be helpful to mention in a sermon), I came across an article which talked about the idea of an "involuntary Lent." The author, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, put it this way:
In prior years when our life and financial security were far more predictable, Lent meant we could choose which special sacrifices we wanted to undertake - but just for six weeks, until Easter Sunday. And then back to normal.
But now we have a new reality: we aren't choosing our sacrifices this year, they have chosen us. And they aren't just for six weeks: they have been our burden for over 75 weeks now, with no end in sight.
Obviously, he's addressing the economic turmoil which affects all of us to one degree or another. I admit that said turmoil is affecting me to a very slight degree, for which I am thankful, and about which I also feel a little guilty. But it is deeply affecting people I love, and that is grief enough.
One of the great struggles of this infertility journey has been the questions it raises for me about faith, and about why things happen, and about my relationship with God. I've done some serious thinking about why shit happens in the world, and my highly theological and astute reflections can be summed up as follows: it just does. God did not smite me with infertility to teach me something. It is not the will of God that I not have children. God is not trying to tell me to adopt. After serious theological and philosophical consideration, I have made some peace with the fact that shit happens, and it's happening to me, and that's just how it goes sometimes. As with any darkness in life, this one has pointed out some of the bright spots: I have a loving and supportive husband; I have some great friends and coworkers; I have damn good insurance, all things considered; I am basically healthy and able to handle the difficulties of this treatment cycle. All good stuff.
And I am finding a lot of meaning in these wilderness-wandering stories lately. The truth is (as far as I can tell), there is not a lot of helpful Christian thinking out there about infertility. A lot of it seems to be along the "pray harder, have faith, God is working for good, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" kind of line, which doesn't do much for me. You know how many people in the bible "just had faith and it all worked out"? Pretty much none. Nobody. The people of the bible screw up, get mad at God, make HUGE mistakes, doubt everything they are supposed to know about God, complain on a regular basis, turn their backs on suffering, and, in general, completely f&ck everything up. I realize that this helpful Biblical Summary is unlikely to make it into the Christian bookstore, but that's the point: the bible is a lot more likely to commiserate with our struggles than it is to tell us to shape up, have faith, and put a smile on your face.
So, back to the 'involuntary Lent' - that seems about right. The wilderness wanderings of Israel were, in every way, involuntary. This wilderness of mine is, in every way, involuntary. I do not want to be here - I want the promised land, the child, the late nights and the crying jags and the dirty diapers and the sweet smell of baby powder. And yet what I think I need, as much as I believe I need that promised land, is some way to find meaning in this particular wilderness. Without resorting to cliches like, "God works in mysterious ways." (Which is probably true. But not all that helpful.)
This 'sacrifice,' this particular stage of my life, is not of my own choosing - it chose me, for some unknown and probably unknowable reason. Even now, even in the midst of it, I can see some of the ways in which I am becoming a better person, someone with more compassion, a bit more patience, someone who realizes now, more than before, that each person we encounter may be fighting a battle, walking through a wilderness, which may not show on the outside, but which is worth empathy and understanding. Could I have learned these lessons any other way? Probably. Did God make me infertile so that I would learn this stuff? Hell, no. But here's the thing I struggle with most: if I don't at least try to learn something from this involuntary Lent, then it is worth nothing. I don't know how this story will end. I believe I will make it to the promised land. I believe strongly that our child is on the way. But I cannot know that. And I can try to make choices which redeem this struggle in some way, which transform its darkness now into some light, later. Maybe much, much later.
Things do grow in the wilderness. Slowly, usually. And they need to be hardy to survive. But it does happen. May it be the case for me, and for you, if you're in this wilderness too.