Series on Suffering #2 – “A Container for an Ocean of a God”

Suffering an ocean of a God

Suffering : A container for an Ocean of a God! by Robynn. Find all Robynn’s posts here. Find a quiet spot with a cup of tea or coffee to read this one. You’ll be glad you took the time….

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When I was 9 and she was 8, in the quiet of a boarding room, while helping each other make a bed, I asked Amy Jo Inniger if she’d be my best friend. She said no. I was heartbroken but I accepted the rejection bravely. A year later she asked me if I remembered the question I had asked her a year before. Of course I did. “The answer,” she said, “is now yes!”

We were kindred spirit friends of the Anne Shirley and Diana Barry variety. She was the wind beneath my wings. When I graduated from high school a year ahead of her she loyally wrote me each week. When she ended up at Wheaton College and I was in the middle of the desolate Canadian prairies we made a way to see each other. She took the train up. I drove down (twenty-four hours straight with a brother and another friend!). She was in our wedding. I was in hers. She and her husband followed us to India and stayed in our town for nearly six months. Amy Jo was in the delivery room when Connor was born. She sang over him his first lullaby. She crocheted his first blanket and matching hat. Eventually her and her beloved husband found themselves in the slums of New Delhi living and working among the poor. Her house was the size of some king size beds. She cooked as the poor did, over a one burner stove. She washed clothes as they did, under the tap. Every Thursday they’d escape to a nicer part of town and stay one night in their “team center”. Every Thursday she’d call me on the phone.

A prayer letter we wrote in January 2000 tells what happened:

                When I was 29 and Amy Jo was 28, I stood by her hospital bed and watched her enraptured face as she saw her baby daughter for the first time. It was 11 pm, 6 hours after her surgery. The hospital was asleep and quiet. Amy had awakened and asked to see her baby. A nurse and I wheeled baby Kiran Hope’s cot down three floors to the Neuro ICU. When Amy focused on my face she smiled in recognition. When she saw the baby she beamed. “Oh Kiran, you’re so pretty.” She listened with pride as I told her about her new daughter, how healthy she was, how she had scored a 10 on the Apgar test. “Kiran, I’m so sorry that I can’t be with you these first few days,” she apologized, “but I’ll have the rest of my life to make it up to you.”

                Those were some of the last words Amy Jo ever spoke. She slipped into a coma at four the next morning and died four days later.

                The symptoms were sudden and simple: an intense migraine that started on November 11th. After pregnancy related causes were ruled out she was referred to a neurologist. The first MRI was done on November 27th and was inconclusive. Further tests, done on the 28th and the 29th revealed she had a large malignant brain tumor. On November 30th at 1:30pm they began two operations, first a C-section and then brain surgery. Kiran Hope was born at 1:45pm. Amy Jo came out of the OR at 5:10 pm. I had the blessing and privilege of introducing her to the little girl she had longed for years later that night.

                Amy Jo was a loyal kindred-spirit friend. She loved Jesus and wanted to be like Him. All she ever really wanted was that He be glorified. She was convinced that it was more important to Be than to Do. She was frugal and enjoyed simplicity. Little things were Big treats for her. She loved beauty and colour and texture and saw it all around her, in vegetable carts, bright saris and children’s faces. She was a well read, intelligent woman with opinions that would have shocked some! She was extremely uncompetitive and couldn’t hold her own at Scrabble for the world! She was generous and wanted those around her to be happy.

                I loved her. And the missing ache is still quite sore.

Amy Jo died. Even now as I type those words, it’s still so hard to believe.

Understandably, those were hard days. It didn’t make any sense. God had every opportunity to answer the prayers of hundreds, maybe even thousands who prayed. We asked Him to heal Amy Jo, to restore her to life, to give Kiran the mother she deserved. But God didn’t come through. For months afterwards my faith was shaken. I couldn’t understand it all. We had prayed. Emails went pouring out soliciting prayer from literally around the world. Mega churches in South Korea prayed in unison, smaller groups of more reserved people prayed together in the UK. They prayed in Pakistan, they prayed in Canada and the US, they prayed in Germany. And we prayed in India, fervently, sincerely, desperately. But still God did not heal. And Amy Jo died.

Months later Lowell preached a sermon that I hated. He entitled it Who Forgot to Pray for James? The text was from the book detailing the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12, “About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had James killed with a sword. When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. Then he imprisoned him…. while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him”. Most of us know the story: the prayers of the church swayed God and He arranged for Peter’s miraculous deliverance! But was not the church also praying for James? Is there any reason to think they weren’t? Of course they were. Believers are being persecuted, the faithful rise up with prayer and power to beseech the Great God of the Universe to put an end to it. It’s what the church does! There is every reason to believe that the believers also prayed for James and others who were equally brutally treated, and yet God allowed James to be murdered and Peter to walk free. It doesn’t make any sense. Who can know how God figures these things out?

During that sermon Lowell used an illustration that communicated powerfully to my battered faith. He explained correctly why I don’t like swimming in the ocean: there are living things lurking beneath the surface, the waves are unpredictable and splash my face, it’s cold and deep, there are undertows and pulls that frighten, it’s salty and sandy and alive.  I do not like swimming in the ocean. I much prefer a swimming pool, a heated pool at that. The temperature is controlled. You can enter at your pleasure either the deep end or the shallow end. You can go in as far as you like and then climb back out. Blow up a floating device and float on the top if you choose! The bottom is level and smooth. There are no surprises. Nothing lives in a swimming pool.

And that’s the kind of God I prefer as well: one that is controlled and moderate; a God who I can measure and understand. I can enter His depths but only as far as I am comfortable. However that’s not the kind of God we have. Our God is an ocean of a God. He is alive and dangerous. There are forces at work below His surface. He alone controls the depths, the sprays, the splashes of His personhood. He woos us to the bottom and the water may appear murky and mysterious. Our God is wild and untamable. He is expansive and unpredictable. When we say he is Holy, we mean he is strange and weird and we do well to take our shoes off. The ground is Holy and the Water is deep.

After his horrid sermon Lowell asked that we sing a particular song. The words to that song, now old and rarely sung, still alarm me, “It’s all about you Jesus. And all this is for you, for your glory and your fame. It’s not about me, as if you should do things my way. You alone are God and I surrender to your ways.”

Suffering gives us a container to somehow hold this unholdable God.  Suffering reminds us that he alone is God. There is a humility that shakes our knees, we are overwhelmed by our smallness, our fragility, our mortality in the face of it all. And although we are wiping the Wild Salty Wonder out of our eyes, in some ways it’s never been clearer, we’ve never seen things as poignantly as we do now. It’s all about Jesus, his glory, his fame. Who are we to think that He would do things our way? He alone is God and so we do, we surrender to Him and to His Holy, Weird, Strange, Wild ocean-like ways! Suffering does this for us: it allows us a glimpse at how strange and weird he really is, it lets us see his holiness up close.

Much of this post was adapted from Chapter 9 of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission written by Robynn Bliss & Sue Eenigenburg

13 thoughts on “Series on Suffering #2 – “A Container for an Ocean of a God”

  1. I know this, this wiping away of the ‘Wild Salty Wonder…’ I am so sorry. I didn’t know about Amy Jo. I well remember some of your Amy Jo stories. No part of that ending makes sense. But – God alone knows how valuable it is for our tiny pool-sides to be ripped out of our theology! It is here where our weakness meets His unfathomable that we can begin the task of coming to grips with our smallness! Love the analogies here, Robynn.

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  2. I adore this series so far – it reflects so much of what I am learning in a very difficult season of my life. Thank you for the beautiful imagery and the clear articulation of something that I’ve been wrestling with over the past few months.

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    1. Thanks for your affirmation. It’s felt like a vulnerable series to write. I’m humbled that you are connecting with it…. I’m so sorry that you are going through deep waters just now. May you find the grace you need.

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  3. I love the ocean imagery…thank you! And I’m glad to know about the Expectations and Burnout book…just added it to my Amazon wish list. :-)

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  4. Wow. Once again you put to words what has lingered in my heart. I too have feared going deep. I have feared the gut wrenching pain. There are no guarantees that I will survive. At least survive in the way that I desire or anticipate. Fear also of what I will see about myself – to confirm all the ‘lies’ that I have heard from the Enemy all my life.
    But not going deep is not an option because my heart remains stunted, weak, gasping for breath.
    And so I do with God just as I do when I’m getting into a pool. I SLOWLY try to get used to it. First the feet, then the knees, then the thighs. If anyone splashes me, I’m outa there! I try to control.
    Yet Father understands my fear. He is wooing me. Drawing me into the deeps of his heart. I know that my life will not look at all like I might expect or what I might want, but I KNOW in my head and desire to know deeply in my heart that, no matter the pain or unmet expectations, I do desire to be caught up in his glory, in his story, in his heart.
    A thought that has been on my mind lately as I transition and journey and seek to seek Father’s heart is this: The peace of knowing that this is the exact spot that my Father has set me in at this moment. This is the space that he has ordained for me right now. (I tend to plan for the future or regret my failures of the past). The peace of resting and being right here and right now. What does Father have to say to my soul in this moment. How do I see him at work right now – even in the quiet and uneventfulness of this quiet time between major transitions, when my ‘activity’ and ministry is limited.
    I tend to be uncomfortable with the quiet. When things are quiet and the water of my life is still, I can see more deeply what is deep in my soul and I don’t necessarily like it because it’s not what I want or what I think it should look like. But my Father smiles and looks at it with me and he gently draws my heart into his and, even though the waters of who he is may rage around me, I am held close and secure and I can rest in Him.
    Hugs!

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    1. I think you are on to something with the word “survive” – someone I know once said she could never be a therapist without God – because to face suffering and neurosis is like death and someone who understands that needs to lead you through it. So much to process Thank you

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    2. You are perfectly poised for going to the deep end! I love watching your soul contract and relax and contract again in your comments. I said a prayer for you as you submit to your Spiritual Director…he is leading you. Follow quietly and with surety. Grace to you. THANK YOU for letting us see your heart today.

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  5. Very, very good, sweetie – God has gifted you, Robie Joy and I’m so grateful that you are using this gift to encourage others to draw closer to this “weird God” that you talk about.

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