By Madison Garrett

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes. 

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes. 

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes.  

I repeat this to myself over and over as we drive through a Suwanee sunset to Room 411.

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes. 

It’s a prayer and a plea and a desperate kind of hunger, a howl for the Lord to be who He says He is. It is my longing, my belief, my guttural cry and hopeful rage that calamity, chaos, and cancer will not write the story.

It’s the second weekend in a row we’ve spent in the hospital, the second weekend in a row we’ve ordered pizza or gone for burgers because no one has the energy to cook, and the second weekend in a row we’ve given all of our energy to bring Christ-light to a florescently lit hospital room. We keep making jokes that it feels like Christmas, with the most recent hurricane sending Atlanta a brisk cold front that wipes away any trace of August as we settle softly into September. This September, as it turns out, is full of anniversaries, surprise surgeries, and more desperate laughter in dreaded waiting rooms. And, unexpectedly, that same longing for Christmas, for hope, for joy, is here too. That same desperate anticipation for a reprieve is here. The longing and desire for lightness, for Jesus, is here. We sing Christmas Carols around the hospital bed even though its the second week of September and we make dad and our friends laugh- and in that laughter we can breath a little bit deeper.

Joy feels really hard these days. It doesn’t feel natural. It feels like a fight, like a constant standard I cannot match, like pressure, like disenchantment, like despair. Joy feels like despair because it doesn’t come easily and I don’t always have the courage to fight for it- and that doesn’t seem okay. That seems inherently wrong, like I’m not doing this season well enough or believing hard enough and where is the God of Justice in all this anyway? The God who says He will fight for us if we are just still- how do I find Him admits all the hurricane victims and displaced refugees and cancer patients running out of patience and the families camping out on window sills and bedsides and waiting rooms, unable to really sleep deeply at night, laughing because it feels rawer and realer than tears? Where is the God who promises to repay the years the locusts ate? Where is the Jesus who looks at His Beloved and says “Your faith has made you well”? Where is the Lover walking with me, coming up alongside me out of the wilderness? Where is the Comforter when my heart feels suspended above fragments of best-laid plans and unknown futures? Where is the One who binds up broken hearts when I cut myself on the sharp edges of a story I never expected to be living?

Joy feels really hard in my pedestrian life, when my job description reads “enthusiastic” and when that is easy at work but hard in intimate relationships and even harder when I come home.

Home is a little difficult to explain. In an attempt to protect the privacy and hearts of my family, it is a lot more difficult to write about. For a long time, writing about this season came very naturally to me. It was an outpouring of everything on MY mind, all of MY emotions, all MY processing. But coming home after graduating college suddenly means that “where we are” means “where I am” too. I have always written from a distance, but now, I am in the thick. I am in the trenches. I am up close and personal with the day-to-day effects, huddling with my fellow soldiers amid explosions and shrapnel and surgery and chemotherapy. Suddenly, not all the brokenness is mine to write about. Suddenly, my every day life looks like the wear and tear and strain of a life lived daily alongside cancer.

My new normal, though no longer a knife to the stomach, is more like a toothpick. The discrepancy between what my life is and what I thought my life would be like is no longer gut-wrenching. I no longer feel my heart torn in two by a shattered expectation. Instead, this season pricks, mildly but consistently, no longer paralyzing me but simply irking me, like a poking toothpick, like a splinter in my finger, like a thorn in my side, like a lego I continually step on but can’t figure out how to move.

It is no longer overwhelming, but subtle: it shouldn’t be like this.

It is no longer a rage, but now a vile whisper in my ear: we deserve better than this.

But “deserve” is tricky.

Deserve evokes bitterness, resentment, a discontent. It reveals a heart wrapped up in the cobwebs of entitlement, a mind tormented and underscored by a secret belief in a grace-through-works doctrine that the beautiful Lord does not subscribe to or endorse. We do not deserve this. That may be true, but “deserve” eats at my heart until it cries out wildly, barbarically, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!?”

Of course joy becomes tricky when I put myself on the cross. 

Of course joy is elusive when I make myself and my family the martyrs of this story, instead of recognizing the extent to which the Lord has provided for us in the trickiest of seasons. There are a lot of “should’s” about this season. My dad, the smartest man I have ever known, should not struggle to recall my birthday. We shouldn’t have to beg each other to treat others with love and grace and kindness. We shouldn’t have to help my dad do the simplest things, like take the stairs, when he has spent his life abundantly capable and always driven to work harder than everyone around him. This shouldn’t be the life my mom signed up for when she spoke the words “for better or for worse” at her wedding.

But all those “should’s” go out the window when we get to Room 411 and the Lord takes over. All the discontent and deserving evaporates when the drive and desire to bring joy to my father before surgery takes over, when I stop looking at my own heart to encourage the heart of the dad I know and love. What is it about that phenomenon, that desire to lighten taking over, which propels me to laugh and buoy spirits, to take back the atmosphere of the hospital and change it, to change pity to pride, to transform fear into fervor? When the instinct to let love surround the change shakes away all the “should’s”, that’s when I know, when I remember: joy never comes from me.

I am the one who wrestles with the Lord like Jacob, who runs like Gomer believing I am not enough, who cries out for my Beloved before seeking to know if He is there. The joy cannot come from me and all my fragmented pieces, who constantly wonders, cries, prays “Jesus, where are you? Jesus, only Jesus, come quickly! If not on this earth, then into our lives, into the stories that feel stagnant and cracking and bodies that are broken! Jesus,  WHERE is the joy in these tribulations? How do I count all these busted remnants JOY?”

The answer is one that I say I believe and say that I know, but the truth of which only becomes real and true and necessary when I look at it from the side of a hospital bed: joy only comes from Jesus.

And with that, the narrative of what we deserve, of “grace-through-works”, goes right out the window, which is right where it belonged in the first place. A gently-introduced humility abbreviates my expectations and invites love to come closer, closer to the hospital bed, closer to the man who is hurting and in need of grace, closer to the brokenness. No, this joy does not come from me. And what a relief that is! I do not have to be joyful. Joy comes from Jesus, daily, moment-by-moment, exactly when I need it. Joy is like manna reigning and raining from the heavens to feed discouraged hearts in the wilderness, to feed my downcast and weary soul. And daily, moment-by-moment, before we need it, we must make the decision to rise early and collect the nourishment, the provision, the miracles made available to us.

In Room 411, we tell stories, relive memories of before the diagnosis, letting the joy of then develop into the joy of now. We talk about Mitchell climbing buildings and getting queasy at the sight of blood. Molly explains her recent races, I interpret inside jokes for bewildered nurses, and we all burst into singing our favorite songs from Year Without A Santa Claus. And it’s in these moments that I can breathe deeply and remember: The Lord has not forsaken me. The Lord has not forsaken my father. Joy, in hospital rooms and outside them, is possible when the Lord is present. And the Lord My God is ever-present and ever-permanent.

But maybe joy, true joy, is not actually concerned with the permanent. In Exodus, the manna was not permanent. It was in fact extremely temporal. When the Israelites gathered more than they needed, they would wake up the next morning to a maggot-filled mess where their manna once stood. It couldn’t last the night; it wasn’t meant to. Manna is temporary. It is new every morning, not as an obligation, but as an invitation to believe more deeply. When the Israelites collected it and stored it, they compromised their view on the character of God. In collecting, in hoarding and grasping the gift with clenched fists, they were really saying “I don’t believe that the Lord will or can do this again.”  They lowered their theology to meet their needs and fears. The kind of reckless belief that I want, that Jesus delights in, collects with open hands, taking what is needed and believing that the Lord will be the same tomorrow as He is today. That kind of belief is not concerned with what is permanent, but Who is consistent. And the character of GOD is consistent, giving manna and delight and joy when they are needed, letting them be new every morning.

And now, once my mind is opened to one drop of manna, suddenly it becomes all I can see. Suddenly, everywhere I walk, I find my feet covered in manna. It brushes up against my toes, building up against them; layer upon layer of provision greets me when I look for it, when I let the little gifts of joy-giving manna be enough for me, rather than dragging myself down for not feeling joyful all the time.

And maybe THIS the miracle that I’ve been longing for and praying for. Maybe it’s the release of pressure to do things right, and instead be real and broken with real and broken people. Maybe the miracle happens when we as broken people stay and clasp hands in hospitals rooms and laugh even when everything in our world is shattering. Maybe that’s the miracle: when we sit together in our pain in gyms and box trucks and home offices, when we laugh together and when that laughter breaks the strain of pain just a little bit.

Maybe it’s the miracle or maybe it’s the manna that gets us through this season, that allows us to survive in the middle of the wilderness, that are the God-ordained moments of loveliness that keeps the heartbreaking-power of this season at bay, that keeps it from being wholly horrible. Maybe the miracle is the community that arises of the best people you wish you had met under any other circumstance. Having cancer in common both breaks and releases.

Maybe the miracle we get is the new sense of wholeness, of the holiness that comes in being wholly broken.

Maybe that’s the miracle. Maybe the miracle is something I don’t understand yet. Maybe it’s not a certain standard of health. Maybe its not a body free of cancer. Maybe it really is just the fact that God still exists and is still sweet and still listens and still gives me bits of loveliness to cling to in the midst of the really, really tough moments. It is another loaves and fish miracle from the Lord: taking what is meager and making it enough.

And daily, I want to seek it out. I want to gather it and hold it close and recognize the beauty of it, the holiness of a gift directly from the Lord. On Monday, it is in finishing ten pieces of a Thomas Kinkaide puzzle even when the purple trees make it really hard. On Tuesday, it is the people who show up and serve before my mouth can even form the words: “I need help,” the friends who bring dinner, who paint bedrooms, who bring toilet paper and paper plates when we forget to buy them, in the friends who see all the frazzled parts of our family and stay. On Wednesday, it is cotton candy clouds and a job that allows me to see both the sunrise and the sunset. Thursday’s manna is a deep, real, broken, intentional conversation with a co-worker, of two broken hearts dropping bombs and staying admits the wreckage willingly. On Friday, it is a Wendy’s frosty and a friend who is unafraid to be angry at God. On Saturday, it is listening to the same life-changing podcast over and over while driving around Atlanta and surprising my brother with a chocolate milkshake on a Georgia Tech parking deck. And then on Sunday, it is breakfast together, how rapidly we can eat bacon, and the victory that comes in making dad smile.

And the manna keeps coming:

That half-lit half-hour of showing up to work early and taking a moment to be still before I open the car door and my day begins.

Front-porching sitting with green tea and good books, filling my mind with the wisdom and words of authors and musicians like Ann Voskamp and Maria Goff and Andy Baxter and Amanda Sudano Ramierez.

The thrill of cardboard boxes on couches.

The sweet relief of laying down to sleep each night.

Joy-filled exhaustion at days that are lived meaningfully.

Watching the solar eclipse with a fifth grade class to the tune of “Dark Side of the Moon”.

A thousand stars on a clear night in North Carolina, the Cain’s dock rocking our up-since-four bodies to drowsiness.

Wind chimes playing on a morning that feels like fall.

Watching Bachelor In Paradise because silliness and simple delight is good for the soul.

Open couches from open-hearted friends.

A Lizzie McGuire marathon.

Ordering delivery after midnight.

The moment of breaking open with another broken human.

Sending good books to good people.

Winning one-armed cartwheel competitions against sassy fourth grade girls.

Staying an hour after a meeting ends to share in the simple joy of being together.

Cracker barrel at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday because our work day finished early.

Sky-streaking lightning on a drive home with the windows down and a new album on repeat.

This is all manna: the scattered bits of loveliness that barricade my heart from the hurt of this season. You are what I need. You are all I need. This is the land of the living and it is good to be alive here. Manna is the result of honest messiness, of the Lord seeing us in our wanderings and giving us what we need to keep going. He gives us- willingly, generously, and lavishly- that good, deep, intimate love that says in tangible gifts “I see you. I know you. I’m not going anywhere.”

Maybe the miracle, when there doesn’t seem to be a miracle at all, is this manna. He gives the miracle of bread and oil, of loaves and fish, of manna when we rise and quail when we are weary. He answers my cries of doubt, my questions, with quail and mourning with manna. We receive miracles in the form of manna, in the daily occurrences that I never thought I would get to have, in our puzzle time when dad can remember all the lead singers of his favorite seventies bands, in the text messages he sends, even in his groggier states, and in the typos in his Facebook posts. These are all manna- and manna is always a miracle.

We do not feel miraculous. We do not feel inspirational. We feel cracked open and broken and raw and we are hurting.

Yet our pieces, broken and scattered, are the evidentiary support that the Lord does not use people in the ways we expect. He goes above and beyond in the ways that He uses broken people, something that always always always humbles me. Because most days, our lives look like leaning: not on our own understanding, but into the messiness, into the fragmented future, into presentness, into the manna, into utter dependance, into reckless belief. He is not safe, but good, and that goodness pervades and extinguishes and relights what has been blown out. Even in doubt and heartache, I am determined: my theology will not match my pain. My pain will quiver in the brilliance and brightness and truth of my belief. Love moves closer even when love is rejected or unreturned or misread or misunderstood. When my prayers look like cries and sighs and groans too deep for words, when the unrecognizable cuts like a switchblade, love weaves us together and manna keeps us going. We gather enough for that day and we keep going, saying to the Lord “You are enough. I receive what you give as sufficient for me.”

When we look at the splintered expectations of what we thought our life was going to be and when we begin to wonder if we can actually do this, if we can actually keep going, the miracle of manna is the answer. It is the answer and the ability; it is the Lord saying “YES, my child. You can. Your strength will come from me. And you will always be able to keep going.”

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes.

The stories of the Lord begin and end with manna.

Madison Garrett

Madison Garrett