When Discouragement begins

Maundy Thursday has always been my favorite liturgical service of the year. I love the contrast of celebrating the Eucharist, followed by the immediate removal of all decorations and beauty. The stripping of the altar is beautiful and haunting. On that night, the church is left an empty shell as we exit the barren sanctuary in uncomfortable silence. It is a reminder of how the very life, and heart, of faith is ripped away if we disregard the resurrection.

Such theological reflections are easy when you sit comfortably in the prayer-desk, never having truly walked the road of suffering and emptiness. In the past, I entered my reflections with ease. I would feel appropriately subdued and contemplative. But was I ever truly affected?

In 2015, everything changed.

The news of my wife’s cancer had come unexpected. She had a tumor previously removed, but all indications were that the growth within her was benign. After hearing about its malignancy, we had thought our visit to the cancer center was a mere follow up appointment. After all, the tumor had been removed – that should have been the end of it. But on Maundy Thursday, 2015, the oncologist told us, “I’m recommending chemotherapy. You start next week. Here is the paperwork.” We were dumbfounded. To this day the pit of my stomach drops whenever I think of those words.

The fact that we sat, weeping in the exam room, as our church gathered for our annual Agape Feast is testifies to how spiritually distant I felt in that moment. I felt encumbered by sadness and confusion. All the times I prayed with my wife while she hunched over in pain felt pointless; the prayers I prayed seemed forsaken. In hindsight, I see things differently. But in that moment, it felt as if my faith was very thin. This is not a comfortable experience for an ordained priest.

This feeling of spiritual discouragement would linger with me through my wife’s entire cancer treatment, and far beyond. Each day I wrestled with an odd dynamic of both daring to believe in ever-present goodness of God, and yet at the same time, feeling deeply a lack of spiritual life. I preached messages I had a hard time accepting myself. I offered prayers that felt flat. I smiled while internally I wept.

Spiritual discouragement can be hard to pin down because it is different for everyone. It may be a general feeling of lacking livelihood in your faith, a feeling about being stalled in your spiritual life, or a feeling of a complete lack of faith altogether. It may involve a struggle with prayer, or lack of desire to read the Bible. It may result from life turning ugly out of the blue. These feelings can be hard to deal with. We feel like Ezekiel’s dry bones, lifeless and dry.

Compounding this problem is the fact that we rarely talk about spiritual discouragement. We pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s like we want to keep the illusion alive that faith in Jesus removes us from anything truly upsetting. Faith means being stalwart, unaffected. We live out a faulty theology that assumes struggles in faith are the denial of faith – if we really loved Jesus we would just smile and sing Shine Jesus Shine.

But that is rarely the case. This wasn’t the case for Jesus.  It wasn’t the case for the disciples. It rarely is the case for us. So, if you are reading this from the point of spiritual discouragement, I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that it’s ok to feel this way. It’s not a lack of faith, or a failure of your spirituality. It’s part of our Christian journey and myriads of faithful people understand exactly what you are going through.  The good news is, our Lord walked this path before us, and he walks this path with us today.

Requiem for my mother

On the last day of this year, just hours before the flipping of the calendar, my mother died after an extensive fight with Cancer.  The road had been long and painful, but the death itself was relatively quick.  Time after time my mother had shown her resolve, living even in her last moments with a desire to care for those she loved.  Since her death, the family has talked in length about her self-sacrifice, her love, and most importantly, her faith.

A few days following her death, I took some time alone.  I sat in a coffee shop with my journal, and began to write whatever words flowed out.  I wanted to put to paper the myriad of thoughts, memories, and emotions that whirled within me.   As part of this time, I began to reflect on my mother’s faithfulness.  Here is what I wrote:

All the stories of her selflessness, her constant desire to put others before herself, to bless them, this was drawn from her deep love for Jesus.  It was because she fed herself constantly on the grace of God that she could, even in her most painful of days, look to the blessing and betterment of others.  She longed to put on Christ, to serve as he served, to bless as he blessed – to be a witness and a sign to the very kingdom in which she lived.

As such, her faith was not an escape.  It did not shield her from the difficulty of life – it provided no retreat from the torment of cancer.  Her faith did not make the road easier – for in some respects it led her more deeply into her own suffering.  It highlighted the home she longed for – the mansion to which Jesus would lead her.  She embraced those painful days knowing she was embraced by the one who walked his own suffering road.  She sat and cried knowing her tears were matched by the one who wept blood in the darkness – but over whom the darkness would never prevail.  And so she could, in the midst of all pain and hurt, live in faith and hope.

With her eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of her faith, she grasped the eternal hope rooted in his victory. Where, O Death is Your Victory?  Where O death is your sting?

And now she resides in blessed rest, experiencing the fulfillment of the longing of her soul.  She breathes in full  the grace and joy only partially experienced in this fragile world.  She is embraced in the loving arms of Jesus where she again weeps – not in sorrow or sadness – but in joyful eruptions of delight at the vision of the Lamb upon the throne. Her eternity is one of rejoicing for she spends it in the very activity she loved here on earth – the praise and worship of her Lord and Savior.

And so even in this loss we can join in her song and say Hallelujah.