My father-in-law, who also happens to be my church’s pastor, asked me to share some of my Lenten reflections at our Maundy Thursday Service. This is similar to a Good Friday service but we do it on Thursday because we like to get a jump start on the activity, or perhaps we are simply extra spiritual. Now that I think about it, in hindsight, he didn’t actually ask me, I think he said, “I’m going to have you share some thoughts”. It feels good to be known. Me? Thoughts? Well, I wouldn’t know where to begi- Pass me that microphone.
I think I’ll start with the first time I became aware of Good Friday. I was maybe 2 years past my cancer diagnosis and still going into the oncologist’s office every three months for lung x-rays and brain MRIs. The melanoma was deep enough to get labeled stage 3, and they suspected that since it had already travelled to my lymph nodes, its next resting place would be my lungs or brain. I was, perhaps, 22 at the time.
I had been in to the office a few days before for all of my exams and they found a mole ‘suspicious’ just below my neck. Because it was such a prominent location on my body, and since it would require a stitch or two, they asked me to come back Friday, when the surgeon was in to biopsy it. I returned, dutifully, and sat in the chair in the office I had dubbed ‘my chair’. It was nearest the exit. I was easily the youngest person, by a good 30 years, in any of the waiting rooms, but this one, more than the x-ray one or the lab one or the MRI one, made me the most uneasy. This was the waiting room filled with hairless, genderless, sunken faces. This was the waiting room with Cancer Support Group laminated cards dusting the coffee tables. This was the waiting room where I could hear labored breathing and feel eyes boring into my spine as I got up at the sound of my name. Maybe they assumed I was here waiting for someone else.
What I hated most about that waiting room, though, was that it put me face-to-face with my life’s two possible outcomes: either this was the place of people whose fates I had narrowly, and gratefully, escaped or, this was the face of my future. My 22-year-old brain handled this philosophical trauma by spending as much time as possible at the nurses’ station checking in before taking my seat. “Are you sure you got my insurance card?” “Oh, hey Wanda, how’s the grandkids?” Eventually the nurses tired of my inane jabber and went about their actual jobs, trying to save the lives of cancer patients, and the like.
On the large whiteboard near their station, instead of the usual general welcome, were the words, “Happy Good Friday.” I thought about those words when my name was called and my spine was set ablaze with stares. I thought about it as I settled myself on the crinkly, papered table. I thought about it when they injected my skin with anesthetic and when they did the quick slice. I thought about it when they stitched me up and told me they would call me in 3-5 business days. When they left the room, I sat for a long time in silence, in my gown, alone. This is a good day to get cut, I thought. I guess that was the thought I’d been waiting for since it got me off the table and back into my clothes.
And that is all Good Friday has meant to me since, only in ever increasing layers. It is a good day to get cut, a good day to get a scar. It’s a good day, a good a day as any, to experience pain, brokenness, loneliness, disappointment and loss. In a culture, even a church culture, that prioritizes health and wealth and safety and happiness, it is good to have one solid day set apart to prioritize suffering. All of Lent, actually, has come to symbolize lamenting for me. In a world where everyone seems shiny and successful and put together, Lent gives me a container for my suffering. It gives me language for sadness, and loneliness, making it normative, holy and expected. In a day and time where we can stuff our brokenness and ailments and aging and raging mental illness safely behind closed doors, Lent invites us to open them up and give them some air.
I needed Lent this year more than I ever have before. My mother-in-law is dying and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It feels really good to say that out loud. I think I’ve been spending all of my energy since her diagnosis trying to stay on the Easter side of things. I tell myself I have less faith if I say she is dying, we never know what God will do! Also, I am one of those Kooky Kristians who believes in real life miracles. They’ve happened right under my nose. I was told by two doctors, before the cancer diagnosis, that I would never have children. We all know how that story ended.
I know God can. I don’t need anyone to tell me that. But I don’t know that He will. And although I’ve seen miracles with my own two eyes, those same eyes are currently watching one of my favorite people on Earth get eaten up from the inside.
The only thing I knew for sure was to let myself stay on the Good Friday side of things this Lent. I’ve sat for these 46 days and let myself be sad, let myself sit in the unknowing and the fear. This does not come naturally for me, I don’t like to get too close to the edge of that cliff, or like the Israelites, the edge of the mountain. The Israelites spoke to me this Lent season, as I read their story in Exodus. I needed to travel with these people who were called out of bondage, released and freed from slavery just as I am, but at the slightest bend in the road, beg for that slavery back if it means a steak dinner. The same people that ran and hid from suffering and who in fear ‘stood far off, while Moses drew near, to the thick darkness where God was.” Lent was my invitation to draw near, even if it is cloudy and dark and scary because it is where God is.
It was Thomas Keating that said, “silence is God’s first language, everything else is a poor translation” and that made me think that maybe darkness was God’s first dwelling place. God created light, God separated the light from the darkness, but it never says He created the darkness. Darkness was already there, presumably with God in it, working, breathing, plotting, loving. That is why His rod and staff comfort me when the valleys He created out of darkness become dark once again, shadowed by grief and death. I’m reminded He not only dwells in the darkness, He is in charge of the darkness.
I think that’s what happened to me that day when I sat on the crunchy, paper table. I let God be in charge of the darkness and I began to let suffering do its work in me. I stopped running so fast, I stopped pushing it away. I saw with fresh eyes that Jesus navigated a way by going before me, taking on all suffering as His own. No suffering is uncharted territory. I’m more thankful this year than I have ever been that Jesus came to us not as a shiny, polished, mega-preacher, all crisp and packaged and put together, but as a wounded, suffering Savior. I’m thankful that He showed us how to suffer, and showed that it is ok that we do. For we are surely an Easter people, but we live in a Friday world.