Most of us can recall a time in our lives when bad news hits like a knock-out punch to the gut, a stunning blow that floods our senses with all the force of an imploding dam, frigid backwater coming at us in a swift noisy din and leaving us unable to breathe, flailing for the surface—wherever the surface might be. I sputtered, “I have cancer.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, you have DCIS.”
I want to point out right away this isn’t a book for the fearless and faithful—like my friend Billi Clem, who met her DCIS breast cancer with gratitude, wonder, and a delightful sense of humor. I’m not like her, more’s the pity, but there are a lot of women who are. They face devastating loss with fortitude. I envy them, but I am not one of them. This book isn’t for them.
It’s for people like me. People who are afraid, who find faith difficult. People who seem to endure one thing after another until it becomes difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel. You see, cancer isn’t my first crisis. Nor is dysautonomia my friend Valerie’s, or macular degeneration Barbara’s. With each new trauma or disappointment, people like us stumble about in familiar darkness of heartache and want, unable to navigate our way to safety while everyone else seems to lead normal lives.
I suggest yes.
Remember Elijah? He too was from the Old Testament. He’s the chap God assigned to take on Queen Jezebel and her wicked god Baal, a god who demanded the sacrifice of babies and whose rituals involved eating feces. In a maelstrom of fire, Elijah burned down Baal’s altar; and Jezebel, in a white-hot fury, came at him with all the resources of her arsenal and army. A scary time for Elijah—much like cancer for us, and financial ruin, kids on drugs, betrayal, chronic pain, debilitating disease, divorce.
Elijah ran pell-mell for the desert where God hid him amongst the stony outcroppings of Cherith Creek. There he was, on the “Most Wanted” list, his life in peril, and all he’s got is a crummy little creek in a beastly hot desert. Oh, yes, the ravens. Foul, glossy black things they are, eating nothing all day but road kill. Yet in Elijah’s extreme deprivation and isolation, fear pummeling his gut, the ravens became God’s saving grace. They brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening. Who would have thought that carrion-eating birds would be a man’s only hope of survival? It’s almost offensive. At times it feels offensive. But then, sometimes that’s what grace looks like.
This is the good news. In the tight spots, God sends us grace by way ravens. I know, I know, not exactly what we want. Filthy birds with decay in their beaks. We want “cured,” “livable wages,” “love.” We all have our list. We all want that window when the door slams shut, boxing us in with no way out. And so it’s easy to dismiss the ravens—not even see them—these creative gifts of grace in the chaos of our fear and anxiety and grief. And thus we cover ourselves in sackcloth and ashes as did Job, and we cry along with him, “Oh, that I was never born!”
My mother used to tell me I reminded her of a 1950’s baby toy, the plastic happy clowns with roly-poly bottoms that babies batted at. Easy to knock over—but, with beans in their bums, the clowns bounced right back up. Bat, bob, bounce. Up and down, bobbling around. Oh such fun! But not in real life. Such treatment for real can depress the most spirited of souls. “Life keeps taking a whack at you,” my mother would say, “but you always bounce back.” I used to ask, “But what happens if I can’t bounce anymore? It’s getting harder and harder.” I was in my fifties when I began asking, “What if I break?”
“You won’t break,” she’d say.
But I did break, and I have broken. Cancer broke me.
One day in the parking lot of my son’s workplace, I was again in tears. Cancer’s complications were taking their toll and each visit to the plethora of doctors only served to deepen my despair. Like Job, I was on my knees, wailing, weeping, beating my chest, dressed in sackcloth and ashes. Like Elijah, I was back at Cherith and stuck there—isolated in the beastly heat and dribbling creek of the desert. It can be a nasty business for the beleaguered. How was I to go on? I looked up and saw love and a kind of anguish in my son’s eyes.
“All I want right now,” he said to me, “is to enjoy the day with my mother.”
There it was, a raven in the desolation; divine grace in the wilderness. Suddenly all I wanted was to spend a day with my son. We went out to Marymoore Park where we biked through the trees; we kayaked, too, along the riverbank where dragonflies zip-darted over the water’s surface.
You see, God will find a way to penetrate the evils of this world to give us hope. In my case, to whittle away at the false doctrines of health and wealth to a greater understanding of God’s infinite capacity to inspire awe. The riverbank, the dragonflies. A son who loved me. And in the end, is this not what God did for Job? Inspire awe? No answers to Job's brow-beating questions. No insight into the evils that befall. Just questions of His own. “Who set the stars?” he asked Job. “Who carved the mountains? Who put the leviathan in the sea? Who turns the earth in its seasons and sets the birds on their course?”
“Who made this place?” God asked in my silence. “Who sheered the cliff face, dropping it 6,000’ to Lake Bennett below? Who cradled the glacier, who empties its icy lagoon? Who guides the feet of the mountain goats and who feeds the artic squirrels? Who sets the breeze to rest the birds’ wings?”
“Well?” badgered Bill, eager for my reaction.
In that moment, overcome by all that God was, all that He created, all that He gives us, all I wanted to do was to bow before God, as did Job. “I did not know my soul could still sing,” I simply told Bill—and turned a corner in my soul.
My premise is that we ignore ravens at our peril. But if we can learn to recognize them, appreciate them for what and who they are, we can then know we’re not forgotten or abandoned on the stony outcrop of our pain. The same God who sends us ravens in our darkest hours is the same God who sets the universe.