Of Januarys and Whale Bellies

I hate January. My mother does, too, which would not be of note except for the fact that she was born in January. Upon our last meeting, mom and I decided that January, August and September are the stepsisters of the twelve month family, and January is unquestioningly the ugliest of the three. Poor January.

We have good reason to hate her though. Every year she heralds some kind of grief or hardship. To recap the last couple of years:

In 2011, I encountered teff flour, which was a major catalyst for the downward spiral of my health. I repeated the mistake of allowing this toxic (for me) substance in my body, and quickly thereafter was sick with a horrible stomach virus which was immediately followed by the flu.....all in January.

Last year, Sara was diagnosed with RSV on January 6. Days later, I became alarmingly allergic to sulfa/sulfur products, and almost died several times over the course of a few days.

January 2013 hasn't been particularly kind either. So far, I have suffered the worst burn of my life (the pain of which could easily be compared to the pain of natural childbirth), the death of my great aunt of whom I was very fond (also on January 6....what is up with this day?), a constantly sick infant, a troublesome little virus of my own and hard news concerning Jenny. And January is only halfway over. Sigh.

Also in January, there is always the depression. I would call it a battle, but it's more like a siren song.  Every year, the fanged wind sings its melancholy ballad, I am lulled into a sleepy stupor, and the grey drear swallows me whole before I know what is happening. Fortunately for me, I have learned something from experience which makes being eaten a great deal less frightening this January as opposed to last--God goes with me even to the belly of the whale.

Have you given much thought to the belly of the whale? Most people equate the whale with judgement. I have heard many times that having depression means that there is something wrong with me....that I have sinned somehow and my depression is my just deserts. This explanation is incongruent with what I know of scripture.....not to mention harsh.

David, a man after God's own heart, struggled with depression. The proof is in the psalms. I can't imagine Paul escaping its nasty clutches while under house arrest any more than I can imagine sweet Mary living completely untouched by the contempt and rejection of her friends and family when they discovered her pregnancy. And then there's Jesus--the perfect Man--who perspired blood in the garden and utterly despaired on the cross. I don't understand the why and how of depression, but the examples of the Bible and the Spirit inside of me agree on this--depression is not judgement. And truly, it reminds me a great deal of the fish which swallowed Jonah.

When Jonah was tossed from the boat into the waters of the deep, he was set to drown. As in the days of Noah, the water was the judgement. The fish was something else....something akin to mercy. The fish saved Jonah's life. I'm sure it was a dark, cold, miserable place to make camp for three days. I'm certain Jonah hated his accommodations, but the Lord had not given Jonah over to death (Psalm 118:18), which could only mean that He had plans other than judgement. In his slimy, smelly abode, Jonah waited--waiting was all he could possibly do--and in the waiting, God worked a miracle in Jonah's heart. When he was vomited onto dry land, he was no longer running from God in terror. He was walking determinedly toward Him.

January....depression....the fish--these all represent places you would never chose to sleep overnight. We human beings rush and run and do and sweat and are never still. We are ever anxious for the next event, achievement or pleasure. We crave light and merriment and frivolity and vanity upon vanity. I don't mean this as criticism. It is simply who we are. But Januarys and fish bellies are good for the soul in the same way that brussel sprouts and fermented cod liver oil are good for the body.

January lasts 31 days for most people. My January has stretched over seven months now. Much like Jonah, I despaired when I was first eaten, feeling like God had delivered me to a fate worse than death. (Hunger and physical misery are formidable foes.) But as it happened for Jonah during his three day January, something has changed inside of me while I have sat in the dark of a fish's insides.

One thing that has changed is that I have become more teachable. The Fish Belly Hotel doesn't offer room service, and eventually one becomes ravenous. I am hungry for even the hardest lessons of God. The most recent hard lesson has been that of "embracing obscurity." God has been working humility into my heart for awhile now. (You may remember my post about the death of Supermom.) In the first few days of this January, I released the dream of writing my novel to the Lord. It wasn't easy. I feel very real grief in my heart because dreams die violent deaths, you know. It hurts to say goodbye to something I have wanted to do so badly for so long.

On the other hand, I'm not saying I'll never write at all. Giving up the dream to write my novel had more to do with me giving up the desire to be known for something than giving up the act of writing a book. For the moment, God is calling me to find all of my significance in Him. He wants to show me how cooking meals, washing plates, changing diapers and raising children are dignified endeavors when I offer everything I do "as unto the Lord." He wants me to do small things that no one else sees, appreciates or respects because He is posturing my heart to live for an Audience of One. Furthermore, He wants me to give up "The Joseph Principle," which is the popular belief that God leads us into suffering to prepare us for bigger and better things. While that certainly happens for some people, "sometimes suffering only leads to our greater obscurity but God's greater glory.....God more often allows us to suffer to refine our own hearts....than to prepare us for 'greatness'.....Embracing obscurity allows us to relinquish our dreams for and to Him--to His timing and His ways. We prefer Him to the dream." (Embracing Obscurity, pp. 117-119)

He is also working love for people into my heart. Last June, the Lord showed me that I did not really love people which is essentially the same as not really loving Him (1 John 4:7-11). Because He knows I am unable to venture out much, He has brought opportunities to love others to my doorstep. I have been allowed to feel the sting of rejection, judgement, rudeness, purposeful misunderstanding, disrespect, and thoughtlessness, and have been expected to forgive and love the ones who have inflicted the pain. Forgiveness--real forgiveness (as opposed to fake forgiveness which is simply sweeping the wrong under the rug hoping and trying to forget about it)--is impossible. It is absolutely impossible to confront the wrong and the pain of the wrong and love that person anyway without the Lord's help. Forgiveness requires dependence, a class which always has an available seat at the University of January.

And then there is the lesson of waiting. I have known for awhile now that I have no idea how to "wait upon the Lord." I have asked saints wizened by age and long life lived with the Lord what it means to wait spiritually. Not one was able to give me a satisfying answer. There is no "Waiting for Dummies" offered at Barnes & Noble, and there is no "How To Wait Upon The Lord in Three Easy Steps" tutorial on Youtube. The only way one can learn to wait upon the Lord is to....well, wait upon the Lord.

I can't describe what I'm doing or how I'm doing it. It isn't simplistic at all. It is mysterious. It is something that God is working in me, not something I am working for God. But I can tell you that waiting is mostly quiet and still. It is working through the same mundane tasks every day, going nowhere, being nothing but in every way exposing yourself to the Lord as fully as a virgin bride to her new groom. It isn't safe. It isn't comfortable. But somehow it's so very right. Sometimes, it is simply enjoying the Lord for Himself and for no other reason. Sometimes, it is crying into His bosom because it's all too much and it hurts too badly. Sometimes, it is lying expectant and breathless, knowing you are on the cusp of something truly magnificent but realizing you aren't there yet. And it is knowing and accepting that the magnificence may be for your eyes only.

 "In waiting, we enter into the cosmic patience of God. At least in part. We begin picking up the deep rhythms of the Spirit, the heartbeat of God. We begin thinking in terms of years and decades rather than minutes and hours.....God's ways are like the rain and the snow that come down disappearing into the earth. No rush. No fanfare. No manipulation. Then when the time is right, up comes the life, 'giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater' (Isaiah 55:10). That is God's way." ("Waiting," Richard J. Foster, Heart to Heart, November 2007).

January is about as fun for me as a three night stay in the digestive tract of a gigantic fish was for Jonah. While I may always hate January, I know that good things happen in January.

Some of my favorite people were born in January, my mom being one of them.
I began a relationship with Brandon in January.
I was delivered from a lifelong sin last January.
I have learned to love Jesus more deeply every January I have been alive.

And I would not give up all the dismal January days I have suffered even if I could because it has given me the following gift--

"Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. And it makes our life programs new and overcoming. We need not get frantic. He is at the Helm. And when our little day is done we lie down quietly in peace, for all is well."--Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

I don't write this post only to give assurance that I am happy under hard circumstances. I offer this post to you in the hope that if you are living in January (or a whale belly), that the discomfort is well worth the reward. And if you have yet to find yourself in a whale belly (or in mid-January), I hope you will not be too dismayed when you find yourself there. Jesus resides with and within us whether we find ourselves at the gates of Heaven or make our beds in Hell. And truly, He is all we need (Psalm 139:8).