Sometimes, there are stories without answers, stories that, try as we might, leave us perplexed, longing for resolution but seeing no possible path toward it. In their shadow, we feel vulnerable, forced to acknowledge the frailty we live with as humans.
Some of us prefer to think we’re strong, so we coat ourselves with shields like perfectionism, control, achievements and agendas. Others of us are paralyzed with fear, so we drag our feet, hoping that if we don’t move too far no one will notice our sloth (or the hours we waste on Facebook). Regardless of the disguise, when the answerless stories show themselves, we grasp at straws, shaken out of our own worlds and into another’s.
Some college friends’ children are dying of a incurable genetic disease. They were born seemingly healthy children, but developmental delays in their toddler years led to the discovery that they had an incurable and fatal genetic order called Sanfilippo syndrome. I catch glimpses on a screen from afar as they share of simple joys of the moment, appreciation of the days they share with their children now, and tears roll down my cheeks when the grief over their devastating life circumstances slips out. Their situation has rendered them far more vulnerable than most of us will ever be, and one beauty in how they walk through their life is that they share it with others, one small step at a time.
A sister-friend recently battled a relapse of an eating disorder. I had walked with her through it once before, and let me tell you, it was no spring picnic to stumble through it again, for me or for her. She’s a fighter, for sure, but there were moments when the disease got the best of her and ripped the days out from beneath her feet. On those days, I would glance at the sky with my lifelong whisper of ‘why’? But other days, the desperation of her honesty stopped me in my tracks, reminding me of the power of vulnerability to clean out even the deepest crevices within.
I, too, have known my own moments of devastation, of coming to grips with a different kind of story than those of my friends above, but filled with the same humpty-dumpty crash of breaking and falling to pieces. In fact, I know many who carry their own such stories, perhaps less tragic than my friends above, but still very real. Rarely do we share such stories aloud with each other. Instead, we tuck them away in a little corner deep down inside, leaving them quietly hidden.
In brokenness, there can be great loneliness, for who understands the unique terrain of the rocky paths we each walk? For this, I listen carefully when my friends risk the vulnerability to share from their broken places. I don’t understand what it means for children to live in wheelchairs, or to starve myself so that I can feel safe. My friends’ willingness to share more than just the happy parts of their stories gives me a sensitivity to the parts of others’ paths that I have never navigated myself.
I don’t know if I always respond to such paths ‘right’ or well, but because of their vulnerability, I am compelled to give it a try when I might have otherwise avoided it. We walk only in our own shoes; and we know only the depths of our own stories. Sometimes we are like the king’s men, fumbling because we don’t know how to pick up the fragile who have fallen down and cracked. So we distance ourselves, fearing that we’ll somehow break them into even more pieces when we don’t know how to ‘put them back together’. The question staring everyone in the face is what if they can’t be put together again, or at least, right now?
But what if we’re asking the wrong question? Instead of putting back each other back together, what if we just walk alongside, listen to, embrace-as-we-are?
Here, there is no easy answer, no triumphant victory, no miraculous intervention. This brokenness is the daily grind. We wait, longing for healing, not knowing when, or even if, it will ever come. As we wait, walking alongside others or, perhaps even sharing our own broken selves, something more emerges.
It is a beautiful story of hope written by a father for his children.
It is a marker on a white board.
It is a slowly but steadily healing heart, drowned in tears and awakened by the hunger within.
It is the surfacing of the quiet, deep down moments that we share for our own healing, and for others’ to remember they are not alone.
“All his life long, wherever Jesus looked, he saw the world not in terms simply of its brokenness,” wrote Frederick Buechner, “but in terms of the ultimate mystery of God’s presence buried in it like a treasure buried in a field.”
A friend of mine who lost his firstborn son at age one calls them God Fingerprints, the little moments that steal our breath and remind us that we do not walk alone. Mysterious and buried in the midst of the days of pain, we must keep our eyes peeled lest we miss them, but they are nonetheless there, touching so many little moments around us.
For even if all we feel is broken, we are far more than our brokenness. Right there smack dab in the middle of our foreheads is a screaming loud fingerprint that shouts, “YOU ARE MINE! The brokenness is not yet healed, but it is already redeemed.”
It began first with the day of the ashes, and then reached out a hand toward us from an empty tomb.
“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength,” mused Freud.
The God Fingerprint said it something like this, “For when you are weak, then I am strong.”
Immanuel, they called this strong One. God with us. We wear His ashes on our foreheads proclaiming our hope in the power of Life even when our shoulders sag under its heavy weight. And when a great fall leaves us feeling cracked beyond repair, Immanuel walks alongside, giving us a strength we never knew we had.
Meet the McNeils
If you’d like to learn more about the friends I mentioned above, you can read more on their blog, Exploring Holland. Matt, their father has also written an excellent children’s book called The Strange Tale of Ben Beesley to process his grief over his children’s diagnosis. All proceeds from the book go the MPS Society to search for a cure to Sanfilippo Syndrome.