Difficult grace

For it is clear that [Christ] did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect […]. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
–Hebrews 2:16-18

I wasn’t expecting to hit my nose on a scriptural mirror this morning.

Today’s sermon texts were pared down from the five keynote lessons of my July conference; this was my third time sitting with Jeremiah’s hope and Mary’s breath beyond fear in the Annunciation. Hebrews was not on the agenda or in the order of worship.

But somehow what I got today was a shock of recognition as the teacher mentioned Mary’s “flesh of my flesh” intimacy and Jesus’ incarnate experience: Christ says, I know what you’re going through.

I’m standing in the girls’ room, in the doorway. A sits, curled, her back on the opposite wall, which is really a strip between two floor-to-ceiling windows. She is in bitter tears, eyes blotched, and we yell our words across the nine feet. Out of the months of dark fog in her heart, she snarls, “You don’t understand what I’m going through!” I return, “I know exactly what you’re going through!”

This was not politic. And was, in the moment, as ineffective as you might expect. She wasn’t about to budge, to stand up and wash her face for sleep, to roll out of bed and robotically go to school, to sit in front of schoolwork for fifteen minutes and scratch a few sentences. Which is what I was demanding. Get up and go through the motions even when you don’t want to. Because the path through anxious depression is the one where you get up and walk.

I know this intimately. I have survived at least three major bouts of anxiety-fueled depression. So I have tried hunkering down and waiting. I have tried sleeping until I reach the other side of that crawling fear. And those strategies never lead where I want to go. Where I want to go requires the difficult path, the one where I grit my teeth, get up, and do the things that belong to that day. On those days I never “feel like it,” but I’ve learned it doesn’t matter what I feel. It matters that I do, and in doing I (much) later start to feel like “it” again.

I can say this to friends, to peers, to people on the bus. And it sounds blunt but somehow sympathetically practical, like the no-nonsense staffer that was your favorite.

To my child, it was truth like stone.

I had no melting sympathy, no “there, there” soothing, no “you can skip a few days; it doesn’t matter.” It did matter. I knew each day without walking was another day on the black end of the path. And “there, there” murmurs never shifted any darkness that I could see. She had all my empathy. I ached to whisk the fog away. But the best gift I knew was the hardest thing I had: get up, girl, and walk.

I see Christ’s incarnation as a profound gift that at the same time strips us of any hiding place we might once have sheltered in. In the days of Moses, we-God’s-children said, “You don’t understand! There’s nothing to eat in this wasteland, and we have to spend all our time walking!” And God sighed, and sent manna, and quail.

But here on the other side of the cross, we cannot turn to Christ and make the case of “You don’t understand!” Oh no. Christ understands every darkened scrap of our living days. And then extends us grace that we could never earn or live up to.

Grace that sometimes takes the form of his aching heart, saying, “I know. It hurts; it’s not fair. Get up anyway, and start walking.”

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