In my life, there’s a lot of beating up going on.
Personally, there’s the matter of my illness. As a recent survivor of stage 3B cancer, I get batteries of scans and blood tests every few months. Sometimes the numbers are alarming, and they feel like a punch to the gut. My whole self – mind, body, soul – tenses. I steel myself against bad futures. I grit my teeth and clench my fists.
Then, corporately, there’s the matter of my beloved school – Seattle Pacific University – currently in the process of major downsizing. Which positions will get cut? What’s going on behind the scenes? Should I watch my back? This, too, can make me stiffen and grit my teeth.
Sometimes, I feel as if a creature inside me is rearing up to spread its shoulders and growl. It is a creature that, to borrow the words of Dylan Thomas, “do[es] not go gentle into that good night.” No – “it rage[es] against the dying of the light!”
And I have welcomed this creature, sometimes. It is a strange comfort to feel like the master of yourself even when under attack on all fronts. It makes you feel good, just for a moment, to scream in the face of adversity – to tell it off. You can even admire yourself. You become like a doomed hero cutting a striking figure – an elegant silhouette – against a horizon of flame.
Though my enemy inside (cancer) and my enemy outside (downsizing) are out of my control, I can stand up and take the punches! I can will myself to defiant, glamorous courage. I can channel that ancient, warrior spirit that finds glory in destruction fiercely met!
There is something in American culture that worships the art of taking punches. I think we all admire doomed-but-spunky heroes, no matter our background. It’s in our DNA. And it makes for good cinematic moments. How many movies have shown soldiers walking into certain defeat and dying in blazes of glory? Or what about the end of the movie Braveheart, or any number of Clint Eastwood flicks? This is the spirit of “taking it like a man.” It is a spirit of boot-strapping, superhuman stubbornness. In visual art, my field of expertise, it is the spirit of Stag at Sharkeys, one of George Bellows’s famous boxing paintings. Here, two guys beat the crap out of each other even though they’re about to drop. https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1922.1133
But today, as I find myself inwardly stiffening at a blood test result, Jesus asks me:
“Why do you put on a brave face?”
“I don’t know,” I think to myself. “I don’t know.”
It’s because I have to – it’s my way of keeping it together. I want the comfort of control, the illusion of just a modicum of agency. I can’t seem to help but seize the reins – at least, the reins of myself. I have to push, push, push. I have to fight, fight, fight. It’s up to me.
So I say, mutteringly, in prayer: “I will take one for the team, Jesus. I will suffer for you. I will try to set a good example. I will make you proud. Go ahead and give it to me, Jesus. I can take it. I will take it. Give me whatever you need to, Jesus. I can handle it. I can do you proud. I know I can.”
And then Jesus says: “I don’t want that. I don’t want that, little one.”
And after that, He says: “Don’t stiffen up. Don’t grit your teeth. Just sit with me.”
I deflate. I have been proud. I sit with Him and weep.
It’s not for me to take the punches. I can’t. None of us can. We fool ourselves if we think so.
Jesus took a lot of punches, sure, but He was God. And He took His punches (without fighting back) because His surrender to the Father was soaringly complete.
As a result, from His Cross, all the pain and fear and dissonance flowed right into the heart of God, where it was swallowed up in love.
At the beginning of this school year, I pray for three bodies that are taking some punches: my own body, the body of my school, and the body of the Church Universal. I pray each will collapse into Jesus’s arms, lay down its boxing gloves, and weep. Then I pray that each will surrender everything, everything, to our moist-eyed Father, who watches with a furrowed, compassionate brow.
As fighters, we are often foolish; we do not see clearly, and we strike at shadows. But our Father’s plans are not our plans, and the burden He gives is light.