Wheaton came to Washington Saturday night, specifically to an alumni event hosted at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. I was under-dressed for the first time in my life, Charming having overridden my explanation of business casual, opting for jeans. That wasn’t the only thing singling us out – it was our singleness, too, and the absence of funny stories about our house and our kids.
We don’t have any. That didn’t bother me when we first arrived. We exchanged photo ops with an older couple at the model of the sign in front of Blanchard Hall back on campus. The wife was a kindergarten teacher. They had graduated before I was born. I’d hoped we’d sit with them. Grey hair comes with wisdom; often, simple life anecdotes teach me a lesson when traded across a few decades.
Then a friend of Charming’s arrived, and our conversations were redirected to the beach ball sized bump covered by her classy, black cocktail dress and explanations that her husband was home with their toddler. We lost track of the intriguing older pair until the event was concluding. Instead, we found a table with room for Charming’s friend and her mother on our right.
To our left was an enchanting young woman in a gorgeous dress with a floral pattern that made me steal third and fourth looks at an inconspicuous bump unbefitting her slender frame. I tried to hide my jeans under the tablecloth, but it wasn’t nearly as effective as this couple concealing their early pregnancy. She couldn’t have been thirty yet, and the way her husband doted on her, alternating between taking her hand and rubbing her back hinted at the early years of a marriage.
There must have been more than a hundred people there, alums from the ages. We’d met a few in passing who’d hailed time in Wheaton fifty years ago. But we had to sit at this table, between two twenty-somethings glowing in their second and third trimesters, adding to the growing family at home somewhere, looking fabulous in their business casual attire and confident in their wedding bands.
Okay, so I might have imagined some of that confidence, but by the second course of the meal and the third helpings of these ladies’ stories about their kids and careers and marriages and moves, I excused myself to the ladies’ room, ironically to escape the estrogen. Theirs or mine, I couldn’t be sure, but I lamented the hand dryer, wishing for paper towels to make a cool rag for my forehead.
Suffering would be the topic of our sermon the next morning. Suffering would be the focus of a YouTube video Chuck would share with me in the days to come. In that ladies’ room, I was suffering. I was simultaneously telling myself that I should not, in fact, be suffering. I have incredible students, a school I love to serve, family members I can count on, and a smart, handsome guy for weekend adventures. So, why was I suffering? I looked in the bathroom mirror half expecting to have turned green from the seething, unwelcomed jealousy over the well-dressed baby machines.
Instead, I saw me in my jeans, make-up smeared, the bump above my jeans simply the product of too many French fries. The suffering, whether warranted by my life circumstances or not, whether justifiable on a measuring scale of severity of life’s heartbreaks or not, was real. The suffering was real, and it was tangible, and it had manifested itself as this reflection in the bathroom mirror.
I saw all that I wasn’t and imagined all that I should be. I should have been wearing a simple black dress. I should have a band on my left ring finger. I should have a genuine baby bump or a toddler in my arms to finally make use of these Italian hips. So, selfish right? Here we are, knee deep in an elegant affair aimed at raising awareness of and funds for these meaningful, life-changing improvements to a university that will afford exponential growth for both students and those they’ll serve in this mission… and I am, once again, wallowing in self-pity over the reward God has chosen to withhold from me.
By the time I returned to Charming and the rest of the table, the speakers had begun and I was spared further self-issued comparisons (except during a hymn, when I mentally noted that the voice to my left was like an angel, while my sore throat could barely crack out the melody). I focused on the program. I listened. I wished I made more money so that I could give to any cause that had need. I admired Charming for his spirit of generosity, but in those jeans at that table, I found myself envying him, too.
At Restore Church in Silver Spring the next day, Andy McNeely gave a sermon entitled, “Through the Night”. He presented Jesus’ struggle in the garden before being crucified to illustrate that God has a purpose in suffering. When our suffering, whether the result of our own sin or another’s, finds us alone in the wilderness, we are to lean into God as Christ does.
I found my mind wandering to another verse, the denotation of my self-acclaimed Achilles’ heel. Paul had written that he had been given a thorn in his flesh that humbled him. My temper has always humbled me. I can never be an “incredible” communicator whilst it dictates me, and it has served as commander in chief over my relationships since my toddler personality emerged.
That one I understand, because it’s suffering that I caused. I could have prevented it. It’s easy to explain, and thereby easier to work through. I can make plans to hold my tongue in the future. I can read Psalms and pray for God to put a guard over the door of my mouth. I can strategize and plan and scheme for less suffering in the days to come.
This suffering induced by the reality that I may never give birth, induced or otherwise, can’t be connected by any lines effectively concluding my sin was the cause. Is it, then, the cause of another? Unfortunately for Charming, my Achilles’ heel stomps most ferociously when I’m most broken in this specific state of suffering, where sheer irritability finds it’s easiest to attribute fault for current failures to his snail’s pace. This longing for motherhood is an Achilles’ heel in its infancy; I don’t have strategies to evade its ugly byproducts.
Earlier today, my gym mentor Chuck shared a video by Elevation Church. They’d taken lines of Pastor Steven Furtick’s sermons in a series about Jacob and combined them with images and music. The impact was powerful and immediate. As the tempo mounts, he recounts in Exodus when God appears to Moses. When asked who Moses should say has sent him, the Lord replies, “I Am who I Am.”
That was how I remembered it, too; however, the video went on to acknowledge what comes next, that God says He was not just the God of their fathers or of Abraham or Isaac, but that He was the God of Jacob. Pastor Furtick imagined aloud what He believed God was emphasizing by including Jacob, saying, “I’m the God of Jacob, too. I’m the God of that part of you that you don’t want anybody to see. I’m not just the God of your success. I’m the God of your struggle.”
Once again, Chuck had me moved to tears on that elliptical at Planet Fitness. I registered it. That struggle. That part of me I don’t want anybody to see. It’s what I saw in the mirror in the bathroom at the Mellon Auditorium. The suffering is real, but He is the God of my struggle.
I saw that there was purpose in this suffering. I wrote it here in white wicker loveseat weeks ago. I knew that I was supposed to be here. When I walked into that event on Saturday in jeans, that backdrop of Blanchard Hall jilted me. I remembered like it was yesterday the way we’d climbed up the stone wall to grab a photo op on our road trip to Wheaton last summer. I recalled looking down at the pathways that had led us to one another and seeing purpose in both of our suffering.
Now, seven months later, posing in front of the imitation, I see the same pathways, just seven months longer. They’re meandering, no discernible destination yet. There is no direct route to family for us just as there is no direct route out of suffering for me. Like our Wheaton road trip, the value can’t be weighed solely in having reached a destination. It was the moments in the states along the way with my brother’s family, Charming’s friends, Mulan, and baseball games that earned the journey significance in my mind.
Tonight, I don’t have answers for the green monster of envy. I just keep hearing Pastor Furtick’s words, “I’m the God of Jacob, too. I’m the God of your struggle.”
What I see in the mirror is what I am. And I suffer. The God of Jacob sees what He will redeem. And I dare, again, to dream.