Beneath the twisted limbs of a tree heavily laden with pears, an old man sits. His gnarled hand reaches out and he plucks a plump fruit, contemplates it and then slowly slumps to the ground. We are left to correctly assume that he has died and the camera pans back to take in his laid-out body under the pear tree. But then fallen pears float back up to the tree to reattach themselves and a white unicorn trots backwards across the scene. Thus begins the video that accompanies the song "Return to Innocence" released by the band, Enigma, back in 1994. The rest of the video is a story-line that moves backwards through the life of the man in the opening scene. He grows younger and younger; we observe him laughing with friends, kissing his bride on their wedding day and sitting tearfully while getting his hair cut when he is a child. At the end of the video, he is a squalling infant who has just been baptized.
A return to innocence.
Have you ever had a time when you wished for just that: a return to innocence? A return to a simpler, easier time? Perhaps a return to the ways and days of your youth? Perhaps a return to a time before troubles, trials, disease or destruction snuck into and muddled up your life?
I know that I have.
Let me explain. Last May, I finished up treatments for stage 3 breast cancer. They followed a typical treatment regiment with chemotherapy followed by a single mastectomy and then radiation. Then, my oncologist recommended that a hysterectomy happen sooner rather than later and, last September, I underwent another surgery. Since then I have healed up beautifully. I am able to work out and hike again. I am back and busy with the children's ministries at our church and our homeschool is up and running at top speed. I feel a whole lot more like me again....the woman, the wife, the mom, the daughter and the friend. But what I don't feel is a return to innocence.
I can't go back there no matter how hard I try or want to return. Being told I had cancer changed things and changed me.
Way back at the beginning of this journey with cancer, a friend gifted me a notebook with an inscription inside. She quoted Paul Billheimer and wrote "Don't waste your sorrows"; she quoted Tim Keller and wrote "Don't squander your suffering." When I first read these words, I wasn't sure what to think. I mean, I had just found out I had cancer and felt like life, as I knew it, was unravelling all around me. I didn't know what the future would hold. I didn't know if I would be around to be in that future. I felt fragile and intensely aware of the limits of life. For a whole week, I could not scold my children or get annoyed at my husband because I was worried that our time together was coming to an end. And I wanted to cherish every moment.
But then those words "Don't waste.....don't squander your suffering" kept niggling away at me because I DID want to get rid of these new-found sorrows. I wanted to take them, throw them in a box, duct-tape and chain up that box and mail it to Vanuatu. With no return address included.
I spent a lot of time crying.
I drank a lot of wine so that I could fall into dreamless sleeps that were cancer-free.
Paul and I spent a lot of time holding each other and worrying.
Finally, we took our tears, our sleeplessness, and our worry to God. We cried out from the depths of our troubles and laid them before our God.
"We are worried and we are scared, God," we prayed, "We don't know what is going to happen or how sick I am going to get. We don't know what this is going to mean for our family. We cannot do this on our own. Please please help us."
We cried out in our trouble and felt God lift us out of our distress.
The cancer was there.
The chemo, surgery and radiation was there.
But the distress was gone......or mostly gone. Alleviated, certainly!
And we could feel the load lifted, the trouble transferred, the struggles sustained.
It wasn't something that happened in the blink of an eye but, rather, something that happened as we spent more time with God.
Reading about Him: We were freaked out about what stage cancer I had but worrying only made us fidgety and irritable. We felt hopeless and helpless, so we opened up our Bibles and read, "It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed" (Deut. 31: 8). Okay....that's cool, right? We certainly felt less alone in all this!
Reflecting on God's promises: There's a lot of waiting around in sickness. Waiting for blood-work, waiting for appointments, waiting for doctors to clarify tests.....waiting waiting waiting. Time and space for worry to creep in. Time and space for reflection.... "fear not, for I am with you;" we read in Isaiah, "be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand" (Isaiah 41: 10). We could use some strength and help, we ruminated.
Praying to Him: Being constant in prayer became a thing. I was praying every day over everything. I even found myself beginning my prayers with a "Hey, God...it's me...AGAIN...." ; prayer began to feel like such a natural conversation with God. I even found myself sneaking off to my room through-out the day to converse with God alone. Prayer helped me feel sorted me out.
I wonder if you've had moments like this:
If troubles have dropped you to your knees and all that's left is crying out; ragged ripped raw crying out. Gut-wrenching grief crying out.
Maybe the point is that we have to come to the end of ourselves so that we finally turn and see God.
There. Always right there. Waiting.
Waiting for our cries so that He can lift up, lift out, love, and lead.
Maybe the whole point is not a return to innocence and the way things used to be but, rather, a leaning into the sufferings - as painful as they have been - and learning.