I just returned from visiting a hole. The last time I met this hole in the ground was twenty-two years ago. I was in my mid-20s and probably in the best shape of my life. I was just beginning my daily 5-mile run and, if I remember right, I was feeling great about myself. I was young, healthy, thriving. As I ran through La Mirada Regional Park in the prime of my life there was a little 6 inches long by 3 inches wide hole under some pine needles up ahead. My foot found the hole or perhaps the hole found my foot and in a fraction of a second I went from a vigorous young man to a pathetic young man, lying on the ground, writhing in pain. As I hobbled back to my house, barely able to walk on my freshly sprained ankle, I found myself keenly aware of how incredibly fragile and vulnerable I was. Of course, the truth was that I was that fragile and vulnerable seconds before the hole, but it took the hole to bring that ever-present reality into awareness. I was painfully right-sized.
I took a walk and visited that hole today, some twenty-years later, because I just received word that there is a hole up ahead. This one is bigger and there is apparently no avoiding it. And, unfortunately, it is not my ankle—my body—that is being thrown to the ground, but someone whom I and many more significant others than I love dearly. And, again, I am painfully right-sized. All of my projects, important to-dos, pressing deadlines, interesting conversations come crumbling down. I am—we all are—incredibly fragile and vulnerable. Life is but a vapor—a breath—that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:14).
Paul calls these holes thorns in our flesh, messengers of Satan sent to torment us (2 Corinthians 12:7). In a less acute moment, he refers to them as light and momentary afflictions (2 Corinthians 4:17). James talks of falling into all sorts of trials (James 1:2). Peter speaks of being grieved or distressed by various trials (1 Peter 1:6).
They are grievous. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, but we do grieve (1 Thessalonians 4:13). And perhaps we grieve all the more intensely—all the better—precisely because we have hope. When you have no hope it is easy to give in to apathetic fatalism: stuff happens. When you have no hope it is easy to give in to despair: what’s the point of it all anyway. But when you have hope you have a counter-narrative: this is not how things were supposed to go down and this is not how things will be … eventually. The loss, the pain, the holes don’t have the last word when you have hope.
But today is not that day. Today is the day when you are just running along, minding your own business, maybe even feeling at the top of your game, and you get blindsided by the truck careening out of control or the prognosis that is so bad you didn’t even have the courage to fear it. It sucks the wind out of you and you are lying on the ground writhing in pain.
“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, each one came from his own place... For they had made an appointment together to come and mourn with him, and to comfort him” (Job 2:11). Today is the day you start walking. You go sit in the ashes. If it was more culturally appropriate, you would tear your clothes, wail, sprinkle dust on your head (Job 2:12). And then, like Job friends, you shut up. In the words of a prophetic friend of mine, you show and shut up.
I share all of this with you because perhaps today you hit a hole. Or perhaps your hole is coming tomorrow or the next day. Whatever the case, living in light of our fragility and vulnerability exposes, as it did for Paul, our weakness—our need. And in the midst of that exposed weakness, in the midst of being right-sized, deflated of ego, we look to God to find strength. I pray for strength today … for my friend, her family, her community.
I didn’t find that little 6-by-3 hole at the park today. The years have filled it in. But I hear that there’s a new hole up ahead. Lord, have mercy.