In the spring of 2020, I stepped out every morning under the East African sun onto a piece of heaven called Haven of Peace Academy. Palm trees framed the sunrise over the Indian Ocean, as newly hatched white butterflies decorated the 17-acre campus that was my home for almost 20 years. As elementary principal, I was surrounded by children; everywhere I turned, there was someone to talk to – a parent, a teacher, a toothless, dancing first grader. I ate lunch with friends from Denmark, India and Zimbabwe; every conversation was alive with culture and rich diversity and perspective. My days were full of problems to solve, music, laughter and light.
Six months later, I woke up every morning in my small Southern California apartment with beige walls and beige carpet and drove the kids to school. Then I sat on the brown couch we bought for fifty dollars and was bombarded by silence. My new job was remote, so I faced the computer all day; my only interactions with other people were through that screen.
I sat at my tiny kitchen table and ate lunch with a magazine. I went to the grocery store, to church, to pick up my kids again and never recognized anyone. Six feet and masks barred me from getting acquainted. I was alone and I was unknown.
A season of suffering and grief
The deaths in my life in 2020 lined up like tombstones. The death of my self-respect: being forced to leave Tanzania three months early engulfed my head in shame. The death of feeling competent, knowledgeable, relevant: starting a new job was like becoming a toddler again. The death of being known: the wealth of my relationships in Tanzania took 20 years to build.
But just as we cannot skip over the dying, so we must not also forget that the resurrection is coming.
Some of these losses would have come regardless of how we transitioned, but the pandemic compounded the grief. And inside was a yawning emptiness.
I was starting my life over from scratch. I lifted my weary eyes to climb that mountain again, and it felt insurmountable. I was restless, anxious to jump ahead, to skip the hard parts.
But it was there, in the emptiness, where a new facet flashed on the gospel's diamond. In the descent into shame and loss, I found a deeper identification with Christ.
In J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life, Paul Miller describes seasons of grief and pain as where we “reenact the gospel.” We may perceive them as places where God doesn’t see us or love us, but surprisingly, it’s there that we find true union with Christ. Miller writes, “[D]ying to self shapes the contours of the normal Christian life.” Then he continues:
“If dying…with Christ is the new normal, then when we encounter dying, we don’t have to collapse or withdraw into ourselves. We can be weak, even depressed…It’s a relief to realize that if we’re dealing with hard things, we should be depressed. Jesus models depression for us in his Passion as he is overcome by the weight of his coming death.”
God rarely reveals all of His purposes in suffering. But realizing that God would always use my pain to draw me into deeper identification with Christ gave me a new resolve. Under the weight of shame, God brought me a new perception of grace. Walking through heavy loss, He gave me strength for the day – or the hour. I experienced the mystery of closeness with the One who chose to endure far worse on my behalf. As my eyes were opened to His purpose in the descent, the sharp edges of my emotions softened, lost their power.
A humble resurrection
Romans 8:17 tell us, “We share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Again and again, Scripture reminds us: if we want to experience His rising, we must first walk through the dying (2 Cor 1:5, Phil 3:10). There, we reenact the gospel. But just as we cannot skip over the dying, so we must not also forget that the resurrection is coming. There, we find our hope.
My heart is more expectant for resurrection and my eyes are more open to look for it.
Elisabeth Elliot writes, “[T]o God nothing is finally lost. All the scriptural metaphors about the death of the seed that falls into the ground, about losing one’s life, about becoming the least in the kingdom, about the world’s passing away—all these go on to something unspeakably better and more glorious. Loss and death are only the preludes to gain and life.”
Quietly, without fanfare, I began to rise.
Metamorphosis emerged. We bought a house. We pulled out the dying plants in the backyard and I planted a garden that erupted with color come spring. We started a home group that filled our house with popcorn, bouncing children and rich conversations. I figured out how to work well from afar – how to contribute, but also how to appreciate the silence that marks many hours of my day.
Miller writes, “Death is the launching pad for resurrection. That’s why enduring through the deaths is so crucial. When we escape the dying, we miss the resurrection.”
Of course, this isn’t heaven. Wounds are healed but scars remain. And of course, I could sink again tomorrow. Many have descended to far lower depths than I ever have, and why should I be spared?
So here’s where I’ve changed: living out the resurrection means enduring the dying when it comes. By accepting this, the less afraid I am of the descent. I find I’m less desperate to defend myself. Less concerned about avoiding humiliation. Less anxious about all the “what ifs.” My heart is more expectant for resurrection and my eyes are more open to look for it. Because it will come. Perhaps in this life, perhaps in the next – but it will come. And therein lies my hope.
I am indebted to Paul Miller for what his book taught me on this subject. It permeates everything I have written in this piece.
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