When I was in early high school, our social studies class viewed a video about the terrifying danger of nuclear war. Why this was deemed a good idea for such a tender age, I’ll never know. But one scene stuck with me these many years, and it wasn’t the explosion or even the fallout.
In the last moments of the film, a small family of survivors coated in toxic, white dust come upon one other person—an elderly man—on the side of the road. The man is frail and stooped, but as the ragged family slowly approaches, he rises to meet them and holds out his hand, an offering nestled in his outstretched palm. It is a single, bright orange.
The gesture broke my heart. We, the audience, knew that every person in the frame was doomed. Radiation sickness was a mortal lock, and if that didn’t end them, the impending nuclear winter was sure to finish the job. Yet whole worlds were contained in that single kindness.
When the world is aflame, a cup of cold water is nowhere near enough to quench the fire. Yet somehow, it can still make all the difference.
The skies are glowing orange in California as I write this. It is too smoky to venture out to play, so for now, we exist within the walls of our home. During a viral pandemic when our little family of two pastors and three children has already weathered an awful lot, it seems almost intolerably cruel that now the outdoors have been taken from us as well.
On an errand today we drove by a little café festooned with cheerful banners. “Patio seating available!” said one. “Outdoor dining at its finest!” said another. The weight of another small grief pressed in upon me. This restaurant adapted to COVID precautions, but how would it weather this newest firestorm? Who wanted to dine indoors with a virus lurking, but who could make it through a meal outdoors with the very air itself choked with smoke?
I held back tears. Everything seems to make me cry these days, even chirpy café banners. Yet even the orange skies and shuttered businesses weren’t the last nail in the coffin of my good cheer.
“Daryl!” I yelled to my husband from the living room floor where I was stretching after a halfhearted attempt at exercise. “Something just scampered across the floor!” The last time that happened—many apartments ago—it was a cockroach, so I was slightly less horrified to discover it was a rodent. We chased it under the couch and then grabbed a broom and a shoebox to trap it. Holding our breath, we flipped the couch. The mouse had vanished.
Thus began the saga, and the unwelcome discovery that there were several mice (some of whom were parents because, oh yes, we also began to find baby mice) and that they had chewed their way into the very walls of our home. Traps were set, an exterminator was phoned, more traps were ordered, and I fell asleep at the end of yet another eternal day of teaching, parenting, and pacifying my endlessly energetic children while working from home to the sound of scratching in the wall right near my head.
“I don’t know what to do,” I told Daryl. We can’t hang out indoors with other people because of Covid, but now we can’t be outdoors because of the fires. And now our house—the only haven left—is rat infested. There is nowhere else to go.”
After reminding me that it was mice, not rats (yes, there were rats, but only outside because, oh California, you’re not all palm trees and sandy beaches, are you?), Daryl quoted some NT Wright at me. This is what happens when you marry a pastor.
“I’m reading about Jesus’s descent into hell,” he told me. And NT Wright says that part of its significance is that “Christ’s presence goes with Christians, even to the darkest and most tortured parts of their lives. Even hell is not beyond the bounds of Christ’s presence, graces, and redemption.”
He continued, in his own words. “We’re coming to the end of ourselves, love. And we want out. But Jesus is already down there for us.”
I finally put words to what I’d held at arm’s length for six months: this season is too hard for me. It is too hard for many of us—for most of us, I’d wager. It isn’t something we would have chosen and it’s not something we want to continue. We have come to the end of all our normal coping mechanisms, from entertainment to exercise, and found them all wanting. These months are simply too hard. These burdens—the uncertainty, the sickness, the financial devastation, the loss, the thousands of small griefs from graduations to hugs—are absolutely too much. I’ve tried crying, “Uncle!” to no avail. There is no end in sight.
So I began to ask: What do we do when there is nothing left to do?
We do nothing. And somehow, there at the end of ourselves is Jesus. He was present at the bottom of Jeremiah’s well, at the bottom of Joseph’s cistern, looking down upon Stephen as the stoning began, and with Mary in the throes of childbirth. He will meet us at the bottom of our own lives too.
What we preach and pray for is a triumphal rescue, but more often what we receive from the Lord in these excruciating moments is not a quick fix or a magical cure but one more mouthful of manna.
“Come back tomorrow,” God says, “and I will nourish you again.”
I long and grasp for deliverance, for relief, for an end to the legion macro- and micro-griefs 2020 hath wrought. Yet the only way out is through. And the only thing we are promised is that, because of Jesus, we will not walk alone when the flames burn and the waters rise.
In seminary I spent a summer training as a hospital chaplain, sitting with families in ICU waiting rooms, praying with patients before surgeries, and witnessing a great deal of suffering and death. One afternoon, after witnessing the last breaths of an eighteen-year-old who, days earlier, seemed to be making a turn for the better, I stormed into my supervisor’s office, interrupting her lunch.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said. “Everything is sad and horrible and my favorite patient just died. How dare God let all of this happen.” She paused, her salad fork halfway to her mouth, and then gently set it down.
“What do you need, Courtney?” she asked.
I raged. “What do I need? I need people to stop dying. I need less suffering in the world. I need God to do his job.”
She paused again.
“Do you know what I think?” she asked. “I think perhaps you should go up to the labor and delivery floor for a little while and look at the babies. Just go to the viewing window where they have all those bassinets and have a long look at all the fat, healthy babies.”
I seethed. I’d come to the end of myself, and what felt like the end of the world, and she was prescribing cuteness?
“Fine,” I said. “But it isn’t going to help.”
I stomped to the elevator and took it up to the fifth floor, where I spent the next half hour watching the babies snooze and squirm in their bassinets while nurses in pink and purple scrubs bustled about soothing and tending.
Within the same building existed death and life, endings and beginnings, grief and hope. Within each of us, the same.
Suddenly my stomach gurgled, reminding me that I’d skipped lunch. I rode the elevator down to the chaplaincy office and crumpled into a chair with my sandwich and my tears.
“Did you see the babies?” asked my supervisor, peeking out of her office.
“I did,” I said. “And they were beautiful.”
Cover image by Martin Péchy.