Gutted, but Not Destroyed
“I tear down to rebuild. And through the process of pain, growth happens.
I hate it, but it is good.”
–Henry Cloud, How People Grow
I just watched a video montage of several buildings being demolished. Enormous structures of brick and concrete and steel. Exploding. Then imploding. Then crumbling to the ground.
Some of you have experienced—firsthand—this sort of tearing down. Not of a physical structure. But of your life. Some of you have survived a singular knee-buckling day. When the world as you knew it exploded. Then imploded. Then came crashing down. And you were left. Covered in debris. Reeling in the rubble and the ruin.
So far, my experience of pain hasn’t been quite like that. There wasn’t one momentous tragedy. Or one utterly devastating day. So far, for me, it has been a more systematic deconstruction. More crowbar and sledgehammer than dynamite.
Years of infertility. And miscarriages.
Adoptions delayed. Adoptions failed.
My father-in-law’s death. Mom’s cancer. Dad’s broken hip.
Financial strain. Relationships lost.
A marriage, a family, cracking under pressure.
And a faith, hanging in the balance.
There was one Monday afternoon in August 2008, when we brought Mom home from the hospital. Her cancer had returned. She’d had a minor heart attack. Then a stroke. After which she waved the white flag and declared she was done.
A hospice nurse was training my mother-in-law (Mum) and me when the telephone rang. Mum jumped up to answer it. When she returned, her face was grave.
“That was nursing home,” she said. “They’re recommending hospice care for your dad as well.”
I was too shocked or too numb or too overwhelmed to cry. I did my best to absorb what Mom’s nurse was telling me. Then I called Dad’s nurse back.
“His swallow reflex is getting worse,” she explained. “He’s been coughing horribly. For months.” I knew this, of course. His doctor had ordered a swallow test, which revealed that everything he took by mouth was going down the wrong way. Repeated x-rays showed that his lungs were still clear however. So everyone was a bit confused.
“We can’t keep feeding him,” the nurse continued. “He is going to aspirate. It’s inevitable. And it could kill him. He has two choices. Get the feeding tube and take nothing by mouth. Or formally refuse treatment and go on hospice. And at this point, he’s refusing the tube.”
“Let me talk to him,” I said.
I left Mom in the care of Mum, and minutes later I sat in the pink vinyl wingback chair, looking straight into Dad’s frightened eyes. I explained the situation as clearly as I could. “If you don’t get the feeding tube, you are refusing treatment that will prolong your life. You are saying that you’re ready to die. Is that the case?”
“I won’t be able to eat or drink? Ever again?” he asked.
“That’s right,” I said. He shook his head.
“That’s no way to live,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
We sat in silence, as we were prone to do. Each trying to comprehend the decision we had to make.
Finally he asked, “What do you think?”
And I answered, “Get the tube.”
Then I called my brother for moral support. And he put my nephews on the phone. “Grandpa,” they said, “please get the tube.”
To which my dad finally said, “Okay.”
Dad recovered from the procedure, and we brought him to the house to visit Mom a few times more. On October 20 he spent the afternoon watching football by her side. She had barely roused for days. When it was time to return Dad to the nursing home, he drove his Hoveround straight past Mom and out the door. I stopped him before he could lower his lift.
“Dad,” I said, “Mom doesn’t have long. Don’t you want to say something to her?”
And he drove his Hoveround back to her side. Took one final look. Gave her hand one final pat. “You’re my queen,” he said.
She died early the next morning. Mum and I were by her side.
Then. My brother moved my Dad to Tennessee to care for him there—against my better judgment. And he felt so far.
Then. We had a third pregnancy. This time heard a heartbeat. And allowed ourselves to hope.
Then. Days before my spring break trip to see Dad, the heartbeat was gone. And I spent that spring break, instead, in bed. Waiting for that little life to leave my body.
Then. Before I could arrange another visit to Tennessee, before I could see him again and say all of the things, Dad died.
Then. I was left with not just grief. But also regret. I felt rather orphaned. Exhausted and exposed. Gutted and barefaced. Reeling in the rubble. Sometimes surfacing to survey the scene. And ask the questions we all ask in the midst of suffering. Will I make it through? And how? What will life look like on the other side? Who is God in the midst of this? And is there a point to it all? Does this pain serve any good purpose?
The nihilist would say, “No.” And truthfully, when the destruction is all you can see, it’s tempting to agree with him.
But there is another perspective.
Does pain serve a purpose? Henry Cloud and John Townsend (How People Grow) would say, “Yes. It most certainly can.”
They do make a distinction though. Between good pain and bad. Between therapeutic suffering that brings life change. Destructive suffering at the hands of evil people. And worthless suffering that persists unnecessarily, that we perpetrate when we refuse to face our own stuff. The key is telling the difference.
Cloud and Townsend would say, God uses good pain—and grief—to produce in us growth. In fact, they call grief “the pain that heals all of the rest.” The most important pain of all. Because it leads us to the place of comfort and healing. It takes us to the foot of the cross. And when we grieve well, the good pain can do its good work. It can push our old coping mechanisms past their breaking point. It can tear down parts of our character. Make space for the new. Open up places that another season of comfort never could. Prepare us to live as we were designed to live.
Does pain serve a purpose? George Barna (Maximum Faith), too, would say, “Yes. It does.” In fact, Stop Number 7 on his journey toward maximum faith is “Personal Brokenness.”
“Brokenness” is something of a buzzword these days. Used in Christian circles to mean a variety of things. Sometimes it simply describes the human condition. We are all “broken.” Sinful. A great big mess. Or it describes our emotional state when the pain is just too much. Or it describes our families, our homes, when relationships dissolve.
Barna’s definition is a bit different. He describes “brokenness” as a specific time of face-to-face confrontation. Between God and us. When “God meets [believers] head-on with the realization that they are still too self-reliant.” When God allows a period of pain, wanting to evoke in us a response of “reflection and meditation, sorrow and remorse, realistic self-evaluation, talking and listening to [Him], and coming to the end of self.” And it is only through this sort of brokenness that we are prepared for the “glorious healing and reconstruction that God has in mind.”
For me, then, I believe that it was only in being thus gutted—stripped of my faulty self-assessment and self-dependence, my old coping mechanisms and defenses, my own plans and vision for my life—that He could really begin His good work.
One day Bob Villa arrived at the Percival Street Victorian in Boston. That original This Old House. And he found that the porch had been reduced to the roof, held up only by some indomitable old posts. A day or so later, the roof looked more like a grape arbor. And only one original post remained.
A few days after that, the house stood bare faced. No porch was left at all. “Board by board we’d gradually condemned and dismantled it,” Villa writes. Roof. Posts. Floor. The closer they looked, the more problems they found.
But. In the midst of the porch deconstruction, Villa and crew also did some “soul-searching.” They knew the porch deserved the best. That it was the focal point of the house’s exterior. So—although it was costly—Villa arranged to have new porch posts custom-milled out of single pieces of Philippine mahogany.
And so he built a brand new porch. A porch that was beautiful. And strong. And would stand the test of time.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.”
2 Corinthians 4:8-10