This morning I read the first few verses of the Book of James for a Bible study, and now, lodged in my mind are the words, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (1:2), alternating with Elvis Presley bellowing, “Lord, this time, you gave me a mountain!”
I don’t know why the Elvis Presley. After my advent month of lament, I’ve felt “all joy” more than “a mountain that’s too high to climb.” As we wait to find out whether the IL-2 treatments had any effect on my mom’s kidney cancer, I’ve mostly felt like I have sure footing on the mountain. Christmas came and epiphany followed, and after all of the exertion it took to face down the fear and anxiety in December, I find myself surprised by peace and joy. It’s like my mind has persuaded my heart of the truths I already knew: God is with us. Do not be afraid. I am with you. Be strong and courageous. Love one another. Love as I have loved you. Consider it all joy.
How do you consider a cancer diagnosis all joy? How do you consider the potential loss of a parent all joy? It’s baffling and counter-intuitive and hard. Endurance is hard; anyone who has trained for any kind of competition in their lives knows about building physical endurance. Anyone who has prepared for end-of-semester exams or tests to enter graduate school or pass board examinations knows about mental endurance.
But spiritual endurance? Facing the unknown, the doubt, the fear? We shirk that task like a cat avoids water.
James goes on to say that this kind of endurance, through trials of any kind (you name it, sister, it counts), shapes us and makes us perfect. Not perfect in the way you and I think of it; no, this perfect is wholeness. Climbing the mountain of the thing that is tearing us apart actually fills us up. It makes us whole, more complete human beings.
I don’t understand it entirely, but maybe it’s like this: maybe it’s like learning how to swim. Learning to swim doesn’t take away the fact that water can drown you. Learning to swim doesn’t stop the waves from coming. Learning to swim doesn’t change the scientific composition of the water or the fact that you are fully submersed, fighting against sinking, only your eyes above water.
Learning to swim doesn’t take anything away; it adds strength, and confidence, and peace to persevere amidst the waves.
I’ve been standing up here with my hands on my hips staring down into that ocean, feeling like we’ve got this, all the fear and anxiety and worry are at bay, right now, right here. There will still be griefs. There will still be trials. There will still be pain and loss and sorrow. But there will also be joy. There will also be love. There will also be peace. There will be both things, a messy and complicated blend of grief and love, and that mixture is grace in action. This is what it means to be made more complete, more whole, more substantial. Look at this view.
From here I can see next week looming, a new wave we’ll need to decide how to face, its power and height and depth unknown. Mom goes in for scans on Thursday.
Maybe, as I told Brandon last night, maybe I’m going to be bowled over on Thursday, up to my eyes in grief at the results. Maybe we will receive the best news ever and be up to our eyes in relief. I don’t know how I will respond on Thursday.
But I can swim.