From a very early age, I have had a tendency to narrate my life. My mom loves to tell about the time I jumped off the diving board, proclaiming, “Help, cried Sarah, as she jumped into the pool!” (My aunt, seated nearby, quipped, “Read to her much?”) As I grew a little older, I traded my broadcast-journalism for a more internal narration. I imagined myself the protagonist of the story called “Sarah’s Life” and created various scenarios in which each chapter might fit a larger whole. Looking back, I can see how the details of these stories were shaped and molded by the stories around me – in the books I read, the movies I watched, or the people I observed. Some of these influences were good and true; others began to quietly weave in seeds of false stories that fed my own pride and fears.
Thankfully, one important influence was the story I was learning through the Bible. From a young age, my family and my church taught me God’s story. When I moved to Boston as a teenager and began attending CTK with my family, I learned that I could read the Bible as one big story of Creation (God in his love and power creating a world that was very good), Fall (humanity’s sin corrupting God’s good creation), and Redemption (God sending his Son to live and die on behalf of humanity, to restore our relationship with him and make all things new). I loved this framework; it helped me to make more sense of the Bible, and this in turn helped me to make more sense of my life. I began to replace the Disney-movie stories in my head with biblical ones. Suddenly, a moment of conflict with my friends could be reimagined through the story of Joseph, who saw God use even the betrayal of his brothers for the good of all of Egypt. In times when I grew ashamed of my own sin, I could retell my story in the words of the apostle Paul, celebrating my weakness because it shone with Christ’s power. These stories also gave me such hope for my future; if God could redeem slavery and sin, I believed I could expect great things from even my worst circumstances.
In 2008, while I was away at college, I got a call from my dad. He had experienced chronic back pain throughout the previous few years, which had been flaring up again recently. Despite it all, I remained hopeful that doctors would be able to find a cure. After all, wasn’t God about the business of turning suffering into good? Many were praying for my dad, and I imagined the testimony we’d have when he was cured: God would have heard and responded to the prayers of his people.
But my dad was not calling that day to tell me he’d been cured. Instead, in a cruel twist to the story, he was calling to tell me that his back pain had been masking the pain of a growing tumor, and he had just been diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. A few short weeks later, the story got worse: his cancer had spread, and he was now Stage 4. Terminal.
My story, and my dad’s story, now no longer fit inside my paradigm of how God’s story worked. We had experienced the fall; where was the redemption? Along with many others, I prayed for physical healing. But in the midst of the years that followed, as my dad’s health only deteriorated, I got a close look at a spiritual healing I could not have previously imagined. My dad became more patient and kind; he humbly asked for forgiveness for ways he had hurt me, and graciously extended forgiveness for ways I had hurt him. In one of his last days, I remember my ever self-critical father rolling over in his hospital bed and whispering, “I learned to love a little better, didn’t I?” He was not bragging; it was a moment of joyful recognition of the work God had done in him. It was redemption.
In March of 2011, my dad’s body succumbed to the cancer and he went to be with Jesus. I grieved deeply, but also rejoiced greatly at the redemption I had seen in his relationships with me, with others, and ultimately with God. I was slowly growing to realize that my original view of redemption was influenced a whole lot more by fairy tales ending with “happily ever after” than by God’s promises in his word. Others asked me how I was doing, and in those first few months I was able to sincerely reply, “It is so hard, but God has been so good to us.” I saw God changing my heart. I did not yet realize, however, that I was still mixing God’s story with other stories. I was subconsciously replacing “happily ever after” with a new cliché – “every cloud has a silver lining” – and while I had found my silver lining, the clouds were only beginning to pile up.
2011 remains a year I’d prefer to forget. In the months immediately following my dad’s death, I also lost my grandmother and grandfather; experienced the end of a relationship with a man I loved; and developed a mysterious illness that left doctors befuddled and me exhausted and weak. Everywhere I turned, I looked for redemption, something good God could be up to; but everywhere I turned, circumstances only seemed to be getting worse. Slowly, I gave in to the despair. One evening in late December, I took a walk alone on the beach to watch the sunset, but I went too far and eventually became enveloped in darkness. That moment – with the sound of waves crashing close by, the darkness thickening around me, and the growing realization that I was not quite sure how to get back home – started to feel like a metaphor for my life. I was lost.
I did make it home safely that night, and I eventually started to feel myself emerging from the darkness. What sustained me and brought me through was not any one moment of revelation, conversation, or prayer. It was God’s grace, manifested for me through the faithful presence of friends and family, including my church family. I experienced so many moments of undeserved mercy and kindness: Pastor John Standridge brought me Ben & Jerry’s; Leann Barczi let me sit on her floor and cry while we did arts and crafts; and every week, Pastor Rick Downs met with me, listening to my complaints, reading me Scripture and praying for me to believe God’s promises. At the end of each meeting, he would say to me, “It’s good to be with you.” I would laugh when he said this; how could he find it good to be with me? I didn’t even find it good to be me.
But God used the repetition of Rick’s statement to help me begin to uncover my true beliefs. I thought God had abandoned me because I was not overcoming my circumstances or experiencing redemption. The most I could do was simply get through a day, simply “be.” Had God invited me to simply be with him, without answers, with my grief and doubts? Did God, like Rick, even call this “good”? Over the months, I found great comfort in realizing that, yes, God invited me to sit in his presence and simply be, that in exchange for my sin, suffering, and despair, I got his glory. I began to imagine my life through the lens of a new Bible story, that of Mary and Martha. I had never understood why Jesus praised Mary for sitting at his feet (after all, she probably left a lot of dishes out for poor Martha to do!), but for the first time in my life, I began to experience the joy in sitting at Jesus’ feet, offering nothing, but finally seeing Him. The redemption here was both sweeter and more bitter than “happily ever after” or clouds with silver linings: I was coming to realize that God did not promise me a life that made sense, or a life in which I saw everything “worked out.” But he gave me something more. He gave me Himself.
As I write this, we are approaching Easter. Every year since 2011, I experience Easter a little differently. I think this is because, now, I have finally been forced to sit in the darkness of Good Friday. I see now that this world, which is full of promise, is also full of death and suffering. And I am not promised that the death and suffering will be made right immediately – or even in this lifetime. But because of Christ’s resurrection, I can also hope that my own death is not the end of the story. I can even bear to sit in and grieve the million “little deaths” before my death – missing my father, mourning broken dreams, struggling with a frail earthly body – without trying to force them into a happy ending, because I am promised that these are not the whole story. I am promised that there will come a day when I will be with Jesus, a day when, as a great storyteller once wrote, “everything sad [is] going to come untrue.” And so as I sit in church this Easter Sunday, I will take hope in the fact that whatever comes in between, I know that my story begins and ends with this Easter liturgy: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
Sarah Stuntz has been a member at CTK since 2000, when she moved to the area with her family as a 15-year-old. After a brief foray back down South, she's called CTK her church home since 2008. She currently teaches high school English in East Boston and lives with wonderful roommates in Somerville.
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