Sometimes, I try a little joke to startle God into giving me what I want. This tactic has never worked, but I keep trying it anyway. Several years ago, I told God: “Whatever it is you want me to learn from this horrible experience, I promise you, I’ll figure it out later. Just let me have this baby now.”
Nobody laughed; and no baby came, not for a long while yet. It was almost New Year’s Eve, and I had been in labor with my sixth child for days. Truly, days. I begged the midwives to induce labor or at least hurry it along. But it was a small hospital in a small town, and there was no anesthesiologist on staff for the holiday. They would need one if something went wrong. So I labored the long way because there was no one there to rescue me—not yet.
The baby was finally born, in her own time, according to some impenetrable timetable that was hidden from me. The midwife declared her “Baby New Year,” the first one born in the year 2006. So that’s why it took so long! the jolly nurses said. She was waiting for the New Year! But it was a small town, and there was no hullabaloo just because of the date. She herself seemed to care only about the things all my other babies cared about: a full belly; warmth; not falling.
Today, that small hospital does not even have a birthing wing. Expectant mothers have to leave town to give birth because year by year, the hospital loses more and more the capacity to give people what they need. I have since moved away, and whenever I visit, there are fewer stores, more drugs, less reason to stay, fewer ways to escape. Residents talk interminably of how to save the town, but no one seems able to follow through—not yet. There is simply too much need and not enough help.
Today, I trundled into the shower for the 10,000th time to wash my ungainly body clean for the 10,000th time. I am not pregnant now; just unwieldy, bulky with February torpor, showing the marks and malformations of 10—no, 11—pregnancies, lest we forget. There has been a lot of waiting over the last 20 years. Waiting for this; hoping for that; learning to stop wishing for things. A lot of agonized prayer; a lot of impenetrable timetables. A lot of cycles of dirt and cleansing and dirt again.
They say that God never answers “no” to a prayer. His only answers are “yes,” “not yet” or “something better.” I believe this, in theory, but in practice, “not yet” feels much worse than you would expect. You understand the justification for waiting: If we force events that are not ready, things may go terribly wrong, and who will be there to save you then?
Jesus has felt our sorrow, carried our burdens, sweated through our labors, taken our punishment onto himself.
But that does not make the pain any less. There is no escape. You still have to labor the long way.
I do not know if this is spiritual progress or not, but I am reluctant to ask anything specific from God anymore. To tell God exactly what I want and need and to be satisfied with something other than, “Yes, right away!”—this takes some combination of childlike trust and ancient contentment that I do not have—not yet.
I will put in the call to see if the labor can’t be hurried along, the pain pushed past a little sooner. But I see what kind of place we live in, this failed community, this Earth. There is so much need and so little help. The help that is available looks like waiting, waiting it out. And that does work, eventually.
Speaking of impenetrable timetables, here it is, Lent. Some years, we are consoled to know that Jesus has felt our sorrow, carried our burdens, sweated through our labors, taken our punishment onto himself. And sometimes, Lent just shows us what it means to be abandoned.
Or so it seems. Labor feels passive, but most of the time, there is interior progress happening. The way out is coming, only slowly, slowly. It isn’t just suffering; it does work. Most of the time, the way to work past it is to wait, to let it happen.
Three impenetrable, incomprehensible hours, Christ labored on the cross before salvation could be brought new born into the world. Long hours of labor, and Jesus cried out because there was no one to help. He felt he was forgotten. He felt he was being allowed to fall.
But help was on the way, eventually. Salvation did come. Just not yet.