Thursday, May 17, 2012

On guilt and compassion

Psalm 113 (NIV)

Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, you his servants;
   praise the name of the Lord.
Let the name of the Lord be praised,
   both now and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
   the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
   his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
   the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
   on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
   and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
   with the princes of his people.
He settles the childless woman in her home
   as a happy mother of children.
Praise the Lord.
I have come across this Psalm a few different days over the last few weeks, and while it tweaked me each time, I’ve not yet chosen to explore deeper. Perhaps because I was skirting it, perhaps because I had other ideas or the passages it was paired with those days spoke more clearly. But in the last few days, I’ve kind of been seeking it out, waiting for it to appear back on the lectionary.

The challenge with Psalms like this, as beautiful as they may be, is when they contrast with our reality. We know not every poor person gets raised from the dust, not every person with needs escapes the ash pit to sit with princes. And, specifically in the context of someone who writes about parenting and refers frequently to the blessing of his family, we know not all childless women are settled in their home as happy mothers.

Obviously plenty of women choose to be childless. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the women and men who desperately want to be parents and yet are unable to do so. Perhaps they never found the right partner. Perhaps there was a medical inhibition. Perhaps they suffered the heartbreak of a lost pregnancy or the death of a child. Maybe they were unable to adopt. Whatever the reason, I am sure such people find little comfort in this passage, and I also wonder if my carrying on about a happy family inspires regret or resentment or bitterness. When I complain about the sick four-year-old waking up the healthy toddler at 6:30 a.m. two days in a row, do they read that and seethe because it smacks of a person who doesn’t know how good he’s got it in life?

These are not hypotheticals for me, as some of my dear friends have struggled with some of the issues I mentioned. And while I have a handful of folks in mind, in truth the number probably is greater — this isn’t the kind of thing a lot of people open up about. I wish they would because it gives people like me the perspective to see how blessed we truly are, yet it’s also challenging because I can’t ever find the right words in response.

I do realize perspective is the key issue. Should we discuss our health when we know so many are sick? Should we complain about our jobs though we know millions are unemployed? Should graciously accept all issues with our house because others can’t afford to buy a home, or worse, don’t have enough money for rent? Should we gloss over any conflict we have with our family because others only wish their relatives were alive to ignite such consternation?

There is something in the human condition — probably the animal kingdom, too — that allows us to be insulated from the suffering of others in order to focus on our own needs. There’s probably actual science to explain that, but I didn’t do all that well in freshman psychology (though I did compile a wicked list of unintentionally funny things the professor said, and finding said list among my stacks of college junk ranks high on my to-do list). Simply put, suffering is everywhere. And in a way, brushing off every last one of your own challenges because “Someone else probably has it worse” is little more than an avoidance strategy. I know so because I do so.

I wrote Saturday about a turning point in my life where I first felt the strong pull to start a family. I never once had occasion to doubt if I really was called in that direction. I fell in love and got married in accordance with what I expected. When we decided to have our first kid, there wasn’t the slightest hurdle. We’re might be too fertile for our own good. As much as I wanted to me a husband and father, and as much as I appreciate the blessings of that being my reality, I can in no way comprehend what it must feel like to feel that pull — or any such strong desire — and yet be powerless to make it real.

Friends have discussed having to adjust their five- or 10-year plans (be married by age 30, have all my babies by 35) for any number of reasons. And each time, all I can offer is, “Well, I guess things just usually work out for me. I’m pretty lucky.” Writing it out like that makes me feel like a colossal jerk.

This might be the time to invoke an adage such as “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” I prefer to frame it by suggesting no human has the right to try to guess how God might operate. I can’t explain why my life unfolded the way it has and someone else finds stumbling blocks at every turn. The only proper response, I feel, is to praise the God from whom all blessings flow, which is easy when blessings are abundant, but just as important, if not more so, when suffering abounds. But again — easy for me to say, right?

A prayer for May 17:

Lord, you are the giver of all things good. I am unworthy of the blessings in my life yet exceedingly grateful. For my wife, our children, our family, our home, my job, for all the things we have on this Earth, and especially for the redeeming love of Jesus, I thank you. My heart breaks for those who want to be parents but are unable, and I ask that you help me or someone else find a way to comfort them. Not my words, but yours, God. If you see it fit, let your strength and your compassion flow through me whenever I have the opportunity. Amen.

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