It had been a long time since I had felt such doubt. I was in free fall—over a cliff, down, down, down, with no idea where the bottom might be or how hard I might hit. The question which had led me to trip over the edge was a classic one: if there is a God, then why is everything going so wrong?
My mother-in-law had died in the early hours of that same day. She was sixty-seven, and we had come to believe that, terrible diagnosis aside, we had much more time with her. Prayer was working, the tumours had been shrinking. Then, suddenly, she was gone. My husband had spent the previous night by her side and had spent that day making those most painful phone calls and house calls to tell her loved ones the news, including having to tell his grandmother that her only living child had died. He made funeral arrangements. He picked out flowers for her casket and clothes for her burial. He did all of this alone, because I was on the other side of the country with the kids: a nineteen-hour drive away. We were so blindsided by this loss that we had gone ahead with vacation plans, with Dan planning to join me once his mother was stabilized. Instead, we were now days apart at the time when we most needed to be close.
But the kick over the edge came after I had fallen into a heavy, sad sleep that night. Dan had decided that he was going to fly out to join us in Prince Edward Island. He had spent the day doing all that needed to be done, and then he was going to come to his family, to the wide expanse of ocean and red sand coast, to the clear sea air, to the four of us holding onto one another, and we were going to drive back to Ontario together. I was to pick him up at the Charlottetown airport the following morning. Instead, just after I drifted off, I got his frantic phone call telling me that he was stuck behind two enormous burning accidents on the highway and that there was no way he was going to make his flight. He had given himself three-and-a-half hours to make a one hour trip to the airport, and there was no way he would make it.
I made phone calls to the airline to try and book something else. I called Dan back several times hoping, praying, believing that something must shift on that highway. He was going to get through. He had to make it. And as the time narrowed in on his plane’s departure, and the airline apologetically informed me that all flights for the weekend to the Island were booked, and Dan was still stuck, a jarring stream of texts and emails and facebook posts was flooding my phone telling me that my friends, family and church had heard of Helen’s death and were praying for us. How could so much prayer be directed our way and yet Dan couldn’t get this one small thing that he needed so much? We weren’t trying to move a mountain, we weren’t asking for his mother back, we just needed one car-sized window in the traffic to open.
In my family, we have a saying that we referred to often when it felt like life is falling apart: “things have a habit of working out.” It has served as a nudge back toward sanity when we have become consumed with worry. A lot of the things that we fear don’t ever come to pass, and when we look back on difficult circumstances, hindsight reveals a greater wisdom, a bigger picture at work. But of course, this saying is only a nudge, it isn’t the full truth. Life does sometimes fall apart. The chaos and disappointment of that dark night felt all-consuming at the time for us. And then there are the flattened towns of Italy and Myanmar from this week’s earthquakes. There are the bodies of two-year-old refugees washed up on foreign shores. There are global and personal tragedies taking place everywhere, so much graver than the loss we were facing that night, reminding us that life comes with no money-back warranty and things do not always “work out.”
Yet something did happen that night, something smaller and less dramatic than the highway opening like I was praying it would. It caught my breath in the back of my throat despite that smallness. I was falling, and then someone other than me pulled the parachute open. I was suddenly cushioned, caught. Those prayers that were flooding in didn’t prevent Dan from missing his flight, but they did provide a sudden peace, a deep and unarticulated sense—I would even go as far as to say, knowledge—of being in God’s hands, even though I had just questioned God’s very existence. “My flesh and my heart may fail,” the psalmist wisely said, “but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73). Or as my Spiritual Director Kevin commented, “we might not believe, we might not see, and amazingly, God is there anyway.”
Eric Liddell, the famous Olympian whose life and faith was depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire, wrote “Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives and God’s plans, but God is not helpless among the ruins.” God hasn’t left us helpless either. God sets it up so that we live our faith in community, we seek God together. It matters that we pray for one another because sometimes we are too blinded, too disappointed, too broken-hearted to find strength ourselves. Sometimes we just can’t see and feel and trust God alone. And as the days have unfolded since that night, I have been aware, too, of that other important tool God gives us in asking us to pattern our faith lives around the communal act of worship, coming together to pray. “Eucharist” is the Anglican word we use for worship that centers around the meal and sacrifice of bread and wine, the promise that in sharing that bread and wine together, Jesus is revealed to be with us. But the word Eucharist simply means thanksgiving. Our worship is shaped by the practice of gratitude. Our worship builds our gratitude muscles. That night I was caught and cushioned by the gift of communal prayer, and in the days that followed, my Eucharistic training allowed me to step back from disappointment, breathe when the wind was knocked out of me, and see the blessings that abounded.
Things don’t always work out. This is truer than the family saying I grew up with. Things don’t always work out. But there is grace. There have been all kinds of happenings this past month since my mother-in-law’s death that haven’t gone according to plan, that have seemed needlessly difficult in an already difficult time. There have also been numerous points of grace—gifts from outside of ourselves that have lifted us, given us strength or peace, a much needed smile. There have been prayers that haven’t been answered that I can admit were perhaps better that they weren’t, there have been prayers answered in ways that I wasn’t expecting. I have had to lean far more than is comfortable (or that I would have chosen) on the faith and provision of others. And I have had to rely on those gratitude muscles that are built week in and week out through the ups and downs of our lives as we keep coming back to the rhythm of church life.
We haven’t been sheltered from doubt and loss. But we have been shepherded through. I am tired and fragile and sad. I am also grateful and glad and profoundly blessed. God is not helpless among the ruins. Thanks be to God.