Suffering and Kingdoms

Friday night, Ellis woke up coughing.  Brooke had to work Saturday, so it fell to me to go into Ellis’ room in the night, to hold her.  Her room was dark and humid; I held her upright, but it did little to help.  I gave her water and then honey, but neither did anything to slow her incessant cough.  I lay there, holding Ellis in the guest bed, praying for her cough to subside.  I prayed for Ellis, but mostly in my sleeplessness I prayed for her cough, for it to stop.

It did, I suppose, for a time.  Then it came back at four with virulence, and I was up again.  I prayed again, but the cough persisted until daylight.  The next day, Saturday, Brooke went to work early and I wondered what my prayers meant.  I still wonder, amid the miraculous promises of the gospel.  I wonder if I lack faith when my prayers are not answered.  I wonder how, or what, to pray.

That Saturday, reeling from sleeplessness, Ellis’ cough was that proverbial straw.  I could scarcely pray, not simply from her cough, but from a month’s worth of frustration, from a lifetime of an evangelical faith that only expresses praise and hope, never doubt and anger and despair.

I chose, that day, to only pray the Lord’s prayer.  I do not know how many times I prayed it.  Many.

That phrase, May your Kingdom come.  I love that phrase.  I love that God’s kingdom cannot be spoken of in propositional statements, but can only be told obliquely, in stories and lumps in the throat.  I wonder, however, if God’s kingdom comes the way I am told it does.  I am told, at least from pulpits and pop songs, that God’s kingdom comes from happy thoughts and Sunday morning gatherings and morning times alone with God.  And, I suppose it does come in this way.

But I want the Kingdom that I would really trade in all I have to get.  The kingdom like the treasure in the field.  This Kingdom, this dynamic and unseen and audacious kingdom, comes only from sacrifice and suffering.  It comes during morning gatherings, but only when people are raw and honest about their hurts, about their disappointments.  It comes with songs of elation, but only after desperation.

We see this necessity of suffering from the beginning.  Women are saved through childbearing (whatever this means), and men must toil in the ground to produce food.  Noah survives a flood.  Later, much later, after Israel has been enslaved 400 years, Moses is rejected by his own people before he suffers in front of Pharoah; and after the exodus he and the whole nation suffer in the desert.  Waiting.  Suffering.  Paul suffers for the churches in the New Testament, or Peter, or any of the saints.  And that is to say nothing of Jesus, who suffered more than all, so that a new Kingdom might come.

We avoid suffering at all costs, which is fine — smart, even.  Yet, for the inevitability of suffering we talk scarcely about it.  We will suffer, you and I, today or tomorrow.  And what we do with that suffering, with that tension of hope and doubt that makes faith rich and deep, that will define our character, even this Kingdom of which we are a part.

I want a Kingdom tempered by suffering, grown larger by it.  A Kingdom filled with people who know how to weep, because only those who weep truly know, accordingly, how to rejoice.

Saturday night Ellis was still coughing.  Brooke had read that cool air sometimes helps with coughs, when other avenues have been tried.  So, at ten or eleven — I don’t remember — we pulled Ellis out of her crib.  She was awake, and coughing.  Brooke and I put on sweatshirts and wrapped Ellis in a blanket.  And then, we walked out back and sat on the patio, the night still and cool around us.  “Isn’t this wild?” Ellis said.  She snuggled into me and her eyes grew heavy; her cough slowed.  I thought of the prayers I had prayed that day: unable to exert or even mention my will that her cough might be stopped, I had simply prayed for God’s kingdom.

The three of us sat on the patio while Ellis fell asleep.  The wind blew in the maple by the fence, and we could see the light off the reservoir.  I do not know what to do with prayer, especially unanswered prayer.  I do not know how to articulate God’s kingdom, at least not in any sort of succinct way.  I know only that I prayed for God’s kingdom amid suffering and anger, and my family sat on the patio that very night, drawn there because of the suffering, and there while the wind blew and Brooke and I talked softly, there was the unending and infinite Kingdom, the stuff of mustard seeds and yeast and treasures in a field.

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