Underfoot, across the room, upstairs

Sequoia trees
Sequoias still remind me of God's presence during a time of suffering.
Have you experienced joy and peace in a tough time? Our women's Bible study recently challenged me to remember and share an uncommon time of God's joy and peace.

February, 1987.
Living with four small children is busy. As a stay-at-home mom at the time, some days felt like living in a three-ring circus. I learned to keep looking around to see what little people were up to ... underfoot, across the room, upstairs.

When they were small, it seemed someone was always sick or thinking about it. So, when four-year-old Kimberly became clingy during her brother's birthday party, I thought she was jealous.

But, the next day, it became obvious Kimberly was coming down with something, a cold probably. And we knew it wouldn't be long before more were sick, again; they shared everything. So, we decided to get out of the house while we could.

After church, we drove to Locus Grove Nature Center, a favorite educational place for families with active young children. Especially on cold, cloudy days, our children loved crawling through the indoor cave and running across a wooden bridge that spanned a small pond. We could also spend hours in a room with stuffed animal puppets; puzzles; nature books; microscopes; and best of all for the boys, snakes! Real snakes!

Sometimes the staff showed educational nature films. That day they did.

We took a break, and watched a film. Thankfully the kids didn't squirm too much during the film, and we could all rest.

We learned that sequoia trees have been enduring fires through the centuries. Within the last 100 years or so, good-intentioned government policies created a dangerous environment for sequoias, so fires became more damaging to the ancient giants. Eventually, someone decided smaller, more frequent fires, could be beneficial, so the government decided to begin a controlled fire policy to reduce litter on the forest floor. Then when fires came, they were less devastating.

The film made an impression on me. David and I have long loved the sequoia trees, so tall and majestic. In 1975, we had camped in Sequoia & King's Canyon National Park for part of our honeymoon. Wonderful beauty. One of our favorite places on earth.

Later that night, after four children had gulped a last glass of water, I finally had time to reflect and pray. Fires could be beneficial? I wanted to think about that.

Fiery trials
Fires are a metaphor for suffering. Peter uses the image of fire when he writes of ordeals and suffering, urging believers to commit themselves to their "Faithful Creator." Often in my devotional life, I'd dissect topics on suffering, since I was constantly, it seemed, working on healing from everyday and childhood hurts. It might be impossible; but, I wanted to understand what God was up to when we go through hard times. Would I ever learn?

That evening, new material on the subject of suffering occupied my thoughts. I meditated on images of 2,000-year-old giant sequoias, with fire-resistant bark, which could stand their ground, relatively undamaged, while frequent fires crept around them. If only people could develop such suffering-resistant shields, I'd wear one. I knew I erected walls to protect myself, but they couldn't prevent all flaming threats from kindling pain inside.  All I knew to do was pray for God to help me fight my external and internal fires when they blazed. But it was hard to shake the thought, If God really loved me, why did these things happen? Some mornings, I struggled to get up and do the next thing. If there was a better way, I wanted it.

I pondered other points the film made about fires, sequoias and their fire-resistant bark. After officials decided to protect the sequoias from fires, bigger and more dangerous fires became the norm. Those fires devoured accumulated litter and debris at the base of the redwoods. So, instead of crawling across the forest floor, as they had for hundreds of years, fires raged. These types of fires could penetrate portions of cinnamon-colored bark and leave cavernous, blacked places in the great trees. That's why so many majestic trees now stood, damaged, but healing.

Yes. Yes. That's me, too. Damaged in places. And healing. These thoughts and images, and others, encouraged me that God was working in my life. More than ever, I wanted to be wholly committed to God, so I prayed "God, help me to trust you. ... God, use me." 

Joy! Such swelling joy. A joy unlike anything I'd ever known.

Later, David and I discussed sequoias, fires and enduring truths that God loved us. We were both excited.

I may have thought God would help me be less crabby during another time of cabin fever, stuck at home with sick kids.

I may have expected I would never ever be sad again. I had no clue what was to come. Soon.

The next day, we thought Kimberly had the flu. She had a high fever and was vomiting. I called the doctor. The receptionist said the flu was going around, give her fluids, and call back if she got worse.  I mixed up a batch of cupcakes to take to school, as promised, for Jeff's class. Before long, Kim said her head hurt. She lay across two chairs in the kitchen. I kept glancing at her, worried. I decided not to frost the cupcakes, so we could deliver them and get back home fast and cuddle.

Of course, I prayed. I also called the doctor's office again. And again they said, call back if she was worse. Throughout the day, I called back, again and again. She kept getting worse. Finally, the doctor's office fit us in for an appointment sometime after 5 p.m. David watched the other three, while I took Kim to see the doctor. I had to carry her into the busy waiting room. I lay my small daughter down, and we waited.

When the doctor examined her, she had trouble rousing Kim. "Why didn't you tell me she couldn't bend her neck?"

I stammered out, "I didn't know. ... She has the flu. ... She's been resting. ... I called your office."

The doctor left the room and returned. Several times. She asked more questions. Finally she said, "She has meningitis."

Sitting in the ambulance beside my sleeping daughter, it seemed like a long drive from the doctor's office in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to Children's National hospital in Washington, D.C. As we bumped across pot holes, I remembered images from the night before. Images of burning sequoias and stories of the God who goes with us through our fires. I was scared for my daughter. I also felt a joy and peace that I'd never known before.

After a spinal tap, doctors said Kim had a bacterial form of meningitis. They could give her medicines that may help. She could die that night. She might recover and have brain damage or become deaf. She might not walk again. It was too early to know.

In the next days and weeks, David and I took turns sitting with Kim in the hospital. David's mother came to help with our children at home. Our faith community prayed. The doctors did what they could with skill and grace.

The day before Valentine's Day, Kimberly went home. Much later, after many doctor visits, we learned: Kim had no obvious residual damage. We were lucky.

If the doctors only knew. We were more than lucky. We were blown away by God's work in our lives. We were grateful for the practical and prayerful help of family, friends, our faith community, and the medical professionals. We were grateful for more time with the little daughter we loved. But, we knew Kim's healing was only part of the blessing. The bigger blessing was a stronger faith that God cared about us.

Now, more than thirty years later, I can still remember praying in the quiet isolation room where Kim lay, burning with fever. I was praying there in the silence, sitting beneath images of giant sequoia trees towering to the heavens. They weren't really there, but I could see them in my heart. And it was an incredibly beautiful place. I sensed God with me. With us.

Joy and unusual peace were among God's welcome gifts for that time.

I wish I could say that every hard day or season after that experience was easy to get through. They never were exactly like that. Instead, I've been learning not to seek validation of God's love and presence in my feelings.

Sequoias still remind me of God's presence during a time of suffering.

Believe it or not, after all that, I still find it hard to trust God sometimes. But, I've been seared. I know he is real, and he cares for us. So, with feelings in-line or not, that's how I live, one day at a time. I live in faith in the One who is, a God who joins us in the busyness and in the silence, when skies are gray, and when fires burn away barriers to his presence.

And I'm still looking to see if I can glimpse what God is up to ... underfoot, across the room, upstairs.

"Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." Psalm 20:7 NIV.

How about you?
Have you experienced joy and peace in a tough time? Please feel free to share by leaving a comment.


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