My sister left me with a book, Bittersweet by Shuana Niequist, when she came to visit briefly before heading off to Korea for a year to teach English with her husband. I am sad. I will miss her so. Also I am slightly jealous of her life situation and opportunity to go gallivanting off to explore a foreign country for a year.
Anyway, she specifically asked me to blog my favorite parts of the book. We mainly communicate and keep up on each other’s lives through our blogs. That may seem weird, but it isn’t and it works quite nicely for us most of the time especially now that we will be in entirely different time zones. And we acknowledge that sometimes this isn’t nearly sufficient and a several hours long phone call or FaceTime is necessary.
The book is highly relatable if you are a Christian in your mid- to late-twenties as it deals with life circumstances that age bracket faces.
The first few chapters flow really well together. Then it seems a bit disjointed to me and it took me several more chapters to figure out that it was a collection of separate essays which I would have figured out had I read the back cover. I got used to the format though and plundered on through the whole book in just one day.
Niequist wrote the book after a couple years of drastic changes in her life, including she and her husband no longer being on staff at Mars Hill church.
This last season in my life has been characterized, more than anything else, by change. Hard, swirling, one-after-another changes, so many that I can’t quite regain my footing before the next one comes, very much like being tumbled by waves. It began three years ago, in January in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I got pregnant, lost a job I loved, had a baby, wrote a book. A year after I lost my job, my husband, Aaron, left his job in a really painful way, and then for the next year and a half we traveled together and separately almost every week, doing all the freelance work we could find, looking for a new home and trying to pay the bills. Leaving our jobs at the church meant leaving the church community, the heart of our world in Grand Rapids, and that loss left a hole in our lives that was as tender and palpable as a bruise. The day after our son Henry’s first birthday, my brother Todd left on a two-year sailing trip around the world, taking my husband’s best friend Joe with Him. My best friend, Annette, left Grand Rapids and moved back to California. I got pregnant again, our kitchen and basement flooded, and on the Fourth of July I lost the baby. My first thought, there in the doctor’s office, was, “Everything in my life is dying. I can’t keep anything alive.” At some point in all that, we put our house up for sale, which meant lots and lots of showings but no offers. After several months, my husband and our son and I left our house still for sale and moved back to Chicago, to a little house on the same street I lived on as a child, exhausted and battered, out of breath and shaken up.
I guess that was the part most relatable to me because I’ve felt so in limbo since quitting my job, finding out I was pregnant, having a baby, moving to Thousand Oaks, leaving our ministry and church, finding out I was pregnant again, trying to find a church and become part of a new community, having another baby, moving again, etc.
Here’s the part where I learned something though. Because I have pretty much responded to these changes in the same way that she did. A child throwing a temper tantrum. You’ve all seen if here with terrible posts railing on motherhood and feeling stuck in this life and whining about how very awful my life is.
I know that to another person my difficult season would have been a walk in the park, and that all over the world, people suffer in unimaginable ways and manage far worse than my own little list. I was miserable because I lost touch with the heart of the story, the part where life always comes from death. I love the life part, and I always try to skip over that pesky death part. You can’t do that, as much as I’ve tried. I believe that God is making all things new. I believe that Christ overcame death and that pattern is apparent all through life and history: life from death, water from a stone, redemption from failure, connection from alienation. I believe that suffering is part of the narrative, and that nothing really good gets built when everything’s easy. I believe that loss and emptiness and confusion often give way to new fullness and wisdom. But for a long season, I forgot all those things. I didn’t stop believing in God. It wasn’t a crisis of faith. I prayed and served and pursued a life of faith the way I had before that season and the way I still do now. But I realized all at once, sitting in church on a cold dark night, that the story I was telling was the wrong one–or at the very least, an incomplete one. I had been telling the story about how hard it was. That’s not the whole story. The rest of the story is that I failed to live with hope and courage and lived instead a long season of whining, self-indulgence, and fear. This is my confession… Looking back now I can see that it was more than anything a failure to believe in the story of who God is and what he is doing in this world. Instead of living that story–one of sacrifice and purpose and character–I began to live a much smaller story, and that story was only about me. I wanted an answer, a timeline, and a map. I didn’t want to have to trust God or anything I couldn’t see. I didn’t want to wait or follow. I wanted my old life back, and even while I read the mystics and the prophets, even while I prayed fervently, even while I sat in church and begged for God to direct my life, those things didn’t have a chance to transform me, because under those actions and intentions was a rocky layer of faithlessness, fear, and selfishness… If I’m honest I prayed the way you order breakfast from a short-order cook: this is what I want. Period. This is what I want. Aren’t you getting this? I didn’t pray for God’s will to be done in my life, or, at any rate, I didn’t mean it. I prayed to be rescued, not redeemed. I prayed for it to get easier, not that I would be shaped in significant ways. I prayed for the waiting to be over, instead of trying to learn anything about patience or anything else for that matter… Every wave presents us with a choice to make, and quite often, unfortunately, I have stood, both resolute and terrified, staring down a wave. I have been smacked straight on with the force of the water, tumbled, disoriented, gasping for breath and for my swimsuit bottoms, and spit onto shore, embarrassed and sand-burned, standing up only to get knocked down again, refusing to float on the surface and surrender to the sea.
So there it is. Now what do I do about it? Stop being angry and whining and face up to life, my life, just the way it is. That’s what. Because there is no use in complaining or saying I am not built for this or meant for that life circumstance. That this is not the way I planned things or what was supposed to happen. This is what happened. This is right where I am supposed to be learning and living in this situation just as it is.