Usually when I hear people talk about finding the good in the midst of a difficult situation, my cynical radar goes up. I picture the scene in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" where Brian and the two thieves are being crucified while whistling and singing "Always look on the bright side of life."
It reminds me a girl named Cathy that I knew in high school who already lived on her own before she had even graduated. At school she was the perpetual ray of sunshine, always offering warm smiles and hugs, but hardly concealing a deeper undercurrent of sadness that you could nearly taste.
But once in a while, we have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of grace in the middle of the worst humanity has to offer. And it's in those moments that I tend to recognize God in our midst.
I shared a story a little while back about a couple in our church that is expecting their third child. They told our church community during what we call "show and tell" time that the baby had a rare heart condition called HLHS. Though tragic, the fact that they shared their struggle with a community that loves them broke open wide a space in which love and grace flourished. Though little Avery's and his "broken heart" still face many challenges, there was immediately an opportunity for profound healing to take place.
Last Sunday, we had the chance to witness another such story of healing.
Angela's grandparents' marriage was mired in scandal, particularly given the culture of the time period. Back then, the word "pregnant" was rarely used in reference to a woman "with child," and often moms-to-be would go into hiding during the latter months of gestation, so as not to draw too much attention to their obviously enlarged state.
Given the modesty around the entire issue of pregnancy itself, it's easier to understand what an uproar it would cause in a family when they learned their daughter was expecting before she was married. Though planning to marry, Angela's grandparents faced everything from outrage to denial as they explained the situation to their families. Her grandfather's parents, intent on maintaining a false sense of propriety, refused to accept the fact that their son was the father of what they called "the bastard child."
Despite her grandfather's insistence that their baby girl was, indeed, his, his parents, scoffed at his assertions. "That bastard doesn't even look like you," they'd say to him.
It reminded me of the story in the Bible about the woman with the "condition of the blood," which caused her to be considered ritually unclean. For Angela's mother, the idea that somehow the blood in her veins did not match that of her father -- and therefore, his family -- was enough for them to justify many types of abuse over the years. From emotional and physical harm to even rape, Angela's mother suffered because of her bastard status, until finally Angela's grandfather resolved to walk away from his own family in order to protect his girl from further harm.
Of course, much of the damage had already been done. Aside from the lingering effects of abuse, it's hard to imagine the feelings evoked by knowing your own family doesn't claim you, and that your very existence is at the root of a schism that would never heal. But despite all of that, she did have the unconditional love of her father, who had always insisted that she was his little girl.
Angela's grandfather struggled with a rare condition of his own over the years known as "esophageal webs," which basically means that membranes periodically grew across his esophagus, causing him to choke violently, and struggle to eat at all at its worst. The rare genetic condition affects only one in about 100 people, and only about 20 percent of those affected experience regrowth of the webs after they have been surgically "Roto Rootered." Unfortunately, Angela's grandfather was among that unlikely one-fifth of a percent.
Angela's mom stuck by her father's side through it all, and mourned his passing without any reconciliation with his family of origin. However, she had Angela in her life to focus on, and thankfully, the abuse and name-calling was a memory from the past.
As an adult, however, Angela began to suffer from some digestive issues of her own. Following an upper G-I scope, she too learned that she had a rare condition that affected only one in 500 people. The genetic condition was known as esophageal webs.
Angela's mother had been her daddy's little girl all along. And what a strangely, painfully beautiful way to finally learn the truth. Though Angela's grandfather, and his entire family of doubters, had since passed on, this struggle that Angela now faces of her own was a rare and unexpected gift that she could offer her mother. In the midst of the suffering, there was a gift of peace, truth and validation. It didn't change the past, and even if she hadn't ever learned of the connection, she knew that her dad loved her as his own. But there was something profoundly healing in knowing that the blood coursing through her body was the same blood carried by her father, his family, and now, Angela and her children.
"Won't it be nice someday to truly know we all belong?" said Angela as she passed around photographs of her family on Sunday morning. Yes, there is pain inherent in living. Suffering is inevitable. But belonging brings with it a kind of healing that is strangely greater than the hurt.