When My Heart Is Faint
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel strong right now. I have tried so hard to be intentional about living out Psalm 61;
1 Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
2 From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I;
3 for you are my refuge,
a strong tower…
But try as I might, my spirit is overwhelmed.
Even before this month it had been a trying year for my family.
In January, my second father was admitted to the hospital for what was going to be an overnight stay. The plan was to have a stent placed in his failing heart to buy him some time to do cardiac rehab to become strong enough to have options for treatment.
His overnight stay became 2, then 3 and then on his 5th day there, he coded. Twice. He was placed on ECMO, dialysis and a ventilator. For those of you unfamiliar with what those things are and what they do, you may know them by their more common name; life support.
So began weeks (4, 5,7? I don’t even know anymore.) of balancing work, home and 4-hour roundtrips to the hospital to support my mom, my step-aunt and to sit by a bedside while praying the prayers too hard and deep for words.
My spirit is overwhelmed.
And somewhere during all of that, another family member received a cancer diagnosis. I got strep throat. My annual physical revealed I needed to have an MRI to check for a brain tumor. My sister was in a car accident that deployed her airbags.
And then, just for fun, my new minivan stopped working.
Because a squirrel chewed through some important engine wiring.
You. All. A. Friggin’. Squirrel.
Did I mention I am also trying to plan my wedding? My twice-postponed-due- to- the- death-of- my-Dad wedding?
My spirit is overwhelmed.
We moved through those weeks into February and the cancer prognosis was better than we thought, and I recovered from Strep and the MRI came back clean and my sister was fine and the warranty covered the squirrel damage and we started to believe that maybe, just maybe 2020 would be something other than a total dumpster fire.
Then the heart failure became brain failure and roughly 18 months after the sudden and unexpected passing of my first dad, I found myself writing planning a funeral and writing an obituary for yet another father figure.
My. Spirit. Is. Overwhelmed.
I could not see how to move forward, I could not see how to help my mom, my family and myself walk this road. My lifelong struggles with anxiety were at an all-time high and more than anything I longed to try to get back to “normal” life.
And just when I thought I couldn’t handle one more thing, COVID-19 made its appearance.
So here I sit at my kitchen table, working remotely while practicing social distancing from my coworkers, my family and my village that has sustained me through more grief than I could have ever anticipated.
As a person of faith though, I am reminded that even during these times of social distancing and self-quarantining we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And I believe we hear from those witnesses when our hearts and minds need the words that have no voice.
Prepare Then Look Up
The witness I have found myself drawn to in this season of life is Hezekiah. Not one that traditionally comes to mind when we think of the great fathers of the faith, Hezekiah was one of the Judean kings. At the age of 25, he succeeded his father, Ahaz, to the throne. He reigned for 29 years and died at the age of 54. Hezekiah’s story in the Old Testament is largely told to us in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles and Isaiah.
More than a decade into his reign as king (historians estimate around 701 BC) Hezekiah and all of Judah faced a crisis. The Assyrians, the dominant world power at the time, invaded Judah and marched against Jerusalem. Seeing the inevitable, Hezekiah worked hard to prepare Jerusalem for the siege that would befall them. This included fortifying the walls of the capital, building towers, and constructing a tunnel to bring fresh water to the city from a spring outside its walls.
He did all that he could to ensure safety, security, and “normalcy” for his people, but these were trying and uncertain times. And as further preparation for the coming onslaught, King Hezekiah wanted his people to remember that they had more than these physical provisions, more than their war experiences, and more than their knowledge of battle to sustain them.
He also wanted them to remember their spiritual source amidst so much fear and anxiety. In 2 Chronicles 32: 7-8 we see him remind his people: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid for …with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.”
To my overwhelmed, anxious spirit, these words are as important today as they were in the scary moment centuries ago when they were first spoken. Having been overcome by powerful, seemingly unstoppable forces, Hezekiah was able to do the hard thing. He knew that God’s people were often given to fear and anxiety and I imagine that despite his own struggles he wanted them to remember that they were not alone.
Many times, in recent months, I have found myself asking the question “Where is the strength and courage to be found to face this?” Part of that answer has come from the support of the village that surrounds me and from the preparations that I made in advance. But more and more I am finding in these days that Hezekiah is also providing answers in his reminder to look up and remember our God.
Remembering Our God
Perhaps due to the nature of the work I do, I often remember God as Creator. But in heeding Hezekiah’s call to truly remember our God, I went back to those stories of Creation, to look and see what I had perhaps forgotten.
And I found myself in Genesis Chapter 2.
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
2 By the seventh day God had finished the work God had been doing; so on the seventh day God rested from all God’s work.
3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creating that God had done.
St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Laborem Exercens that “Man ought to imitate God both in working and also in resting, since God himself wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest… From then on men and women are called to perfect this divine work through their own work not forgetting that they too are creatures, the fruit of God’s love and called to a definitive union with him. Resting on the seventh day, hallowed by God, takes on a deep human significance….A life that is lived under the constant pressure of work, without time to consider the source from which all things come and to which all things tend as their final goal, could lead people “to forget that God is the Creator upon whom everything depends” and to whom everything is directed….”
Rest at the end of creation week did not indicate a ceasing from work, rather, God ceased active creation and took pleasure in the good things God had made. The Hebrew word translated here as “rested” is the verb shabath, from which comes the noun that is rendered in English as “Sabbath.” The primary meaning of this verb shabath is “to desist from exertion” or “to cease.”
For many, our current enforced “shabath” is less of a desisting from exertion as it is more of an overexertion of our anxieties. So how then do we remember our God?
The Power of The Pause
Austrian-born pianist Artur Schnabel lived from 1882–1951 and was the first artist to record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. From my research, he was considered moderately talented from a technical perspective but was renowned for the depth of his interpretations of various works.
When asked about his talents he reportedly replied “I don’t think I handle the notes much differently from other pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, there is where the artistry lies!!”
And in our story, in the story of all creation, the true artistry is that God rests. God stops.
I remember God as active, as planning, as care taking, as moving. But in Genesis we see that at the end of all of the doing, God blessed and sanctified a time of ceasing.
In the same way, God wanted God’s people to “rest” in God. In this time of such strain on society, on our planet, and on our very spirits we see and feel that our tendency to abstain from this rest has had dire consequences, both on ourselves and on our planet.
Amid our collective fear of the unknown future and acknowledging the devastating impacts of COVID-19 we are reminded of the fragile, hopeful, holiness of this rest rising in the form of the ways that the Earth is repairing itself.
We are seeing calculations that indicate the improvements in air quality recorded in China may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 years old and 73,000 adults over 70. In Hyderabad, India the ‘Janata Curfew’ enacted on Sunday led to a subsequent decrease in the emission of harmful gases with the Air Quality Index falling 13 points in less than one day putting it under satisfactory levels, a rare occurrence. And while some of the reports of the condition of the canals in Venice running clearer than ever may have been misinterpreted, it is true that the air is less polluted due to a decrease in boat traffic because of the restricted movement of residents.
Without question, these are anxious times.
Perhaps though, this time also provides us an opportunity to be strong and courageous enough to reconnect with this sanctifying rest. And in resting may we be reminded of a God who designed us to pause, who turns an ear toward the prayers of the faint of heart while providing refuge for those overwhelmed in spirit.
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