Lessons from crying over a teenage sick love story

I accidentally watched the The Fault in Our Stars last night and I wept. Accidentally as in Martha and I watched the end of Big together before her cell meeting and it was on next (free HBO for a few more months). I think I kept watching it because my kids and I just saw the two star-crossed lovers play siblings the other day in Insurgent and I was pleased they were getting along so well.

I don’t remember crying so much during a film. Maybe I cried because I was alone and my tween & teen daughters were upstairs asleep and I’m vulnerable to sentimental stories about losing daughters. Maybe I burst into tears because my friend Karen finished her long battle with lupus last week and I’ve been suspending my feelings about my loss until her memorial. I don’t think it was because these winsome teenagers’ humanity and process of staring death in the face put me in touch with how precious and fragile life is – sharing romantic love or feeling deep gratitude for what we’ve been given speak to me.

You may actually think Young Adult books or movies based on them are silly, overly simple, or not worth your time. You may think the story is basically a melodramatic illustration of the five stages of grief. As you learn to live with pain or learn from someone suffering with a long-term illness, I hope some of my takeaways from the film could be useful to you.

You carry your pain with you, and others can sense it even if you hide it. Trying to put on a brave face all the time or pushing it down doesn’t actually fool those close to you. It’s like dragging luggage around. Wouldn’t it be better to have some help carrying it while you need it?

Gratitude is a powerful friend. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes you need to practice. Even for something small like flowers blooming this week in Philadelphia, being grateful can shape your experience.

Have the feelings you have, not the ones you think you should have. Likewise, others not having the same feelings doesn’t make them not understand you or not love you. What you feel at the moment is relevant and those feelings don’t need to run your life.

Have a process with others without punishing yourself for setbacks. Let others in to help you find a path through the pain and get led on a journey. If it’s not linear you’re human. Don’t quit trying.

Jesus not only came into suffering (our suffering and the suffering of all of creation) but suffered. He wasn’t usually stoic yet He became who He was given to be. If we don’t learn how to grieve well, our grief will overflow in more damaging ways. There will be other, smaller things from traffic to mean people or microbetrayals to inconsideration that will beg for our fighting juices. I’m grateful for people like Karen, who not only suffered faithfully but taught us how to fight the Good Fight rather than getting caught up in the tiny battles.

The dress that out trended Trayvon and other things we can’t handle

Last Thursday bunches of my friends were talking/posting about the dress that broke the internet. I think that whole thing was fascinating. It was trending hard and even famous people weighed in on which color combination they saw. The same day, other friends of mine were talking about another “color issue” that wasn’t getting as much buzz in our national consciousness – the third anniversary of Trayvon’s death. The week after he NAILED IT with the Keystone XL veto, Obama was hanging out with Trayvon’s parents to commemorate the anniversary. That’s a nice gesture, but many of us are feeling the Spirit move us to more than sympathy – after all we still don’t know who killed Brandon Tate Brown on Frankford Ave!

Monday the execution of Kelly Gissendaner was postponed for a second time – the first one because of snow and this time because of an issue with the lethal injection pharmacist – supposedly. My friend shared this open letter to Georgia Christians yesterday that has some insight into her story as well as an appeal of putting a limit to the violence. Her case is really wild – and with so many under-represented people of color in the same system, I hope putting off this form of state sanctioned violence is a trend.

Today I read about Brett, the “Soldier of Christ” going back to Iraq with some other Americans vets to join the Assyrian Christian militia to fight ISIS. Not only is he Polish/Irish (yay!) but quotes Matthew 25 in needing to take care of the vulnerable in a day when the US left things worse than how they found them. I admire his courage and commitment, even though I have a different interpretation of how to live out Christ’s directive. Maybe you can feel the tension that I do – at least he’s doing something. It sometimes feels like I’m surrounded by a generation of people who hear about horror stories or know about injustice or oppression (more about it than any generation before) and the only response we can muster is to complain or do internet things.

When we are facing more injustice than we can handle, what do we do? When we are suffering does God care enough to move? At one of Circle of Hope’s meetings last Sunday night someone from my cell brought into our discussion this tension and asked if “God will never give us more than we can handle” is actually in the Bible. A friend who worked as a chaplain was quick with the clarification (1 Corinthians 10:13 – God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, God will also provide a way out so you can endure it) as something about keeping our hearts from being set on evil rather than dealing with pain. Tye Tribbett even wrote a song about it.

I’ve heard people tell me that God gave them cancer to teach them something. I heard Ricky Gervais joke on his HBO special that God also gives AIDS to babies in Africa as part of bit about problematic Godviews. I think the advice “God will never give you more than you can handle” might be a useful self-help mantra at times but is probably more of a capitalist “buck up, cowboy” that got attached to the faith. I think that it’s nice to think there are limits to suffering and that Jesus cares about it. Rather than getting tougher, however, I wonder if we can get softer and let God in to care about us. Can we be tender enough to allow Christ’s compassion to move us to heartbreak with others? Can we be open enough to let the Holy Spirit deploy us to work for justice in some rather complex times?

Lent is a good opportunity to explore what we can’t handle. There’s a lot. I think Jesus was finding his limits in the desert, but with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Let’s be honest about those limits, those spaces where we feel the tension with courage and see if God doesn’t move a bunch of us to become a healing agent there.