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Through the breaking waves of death

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New life from surrendered suffering

For ancient mariners, there could hardly have been a more terror-inducing sound than the roar of waves breaking onto the shore, threatening destruction of the ship and death to all life aboard.

But for one suffering Jew in the 2nd century BCE, the “waves of death” in Hebrew scriptures also reminded him of the life-threatening waves of childbirth pain. So, he wrote a new song. This piece – inscribed on a scroll – remained hidden for 2,000 years inside a jar of clay, until one day it was found by a Bedouin shepherd chasing a goat into a cave above the shores of the Dead Sea.

I am in distress, as a woman about to give birth to her firstborn.
For her pangs come suddenly upon her, agonizing pain at the mouth of her womb….
For children come into life through the breaking waves of death….

(From the Dead Sea Scrolls, Thanksgiving Psalms 11:8–9)

In the ancient world, death was a too-frequent visitor in the place of birth, a reality this songwriter of antiquity seemed to understand. The body of the labouring mother sometimes interprets birth pangs as “danger,” and quite naturally responds with fear. This is not surprising because most other kinds of pain are necessary alerts to danger, arousing fear and driving the sufferer to seek healing for the fracture, cancer, or bleeding.

A mother who is experienced in labour knows that surrendering to the fear makes it more difficult for her baby to be born. Counterintuitively, she chooses to turn away the fear, embracing the pain instead. One breath at a time, she pronounces this particular  pain “good,” and surrenders to its life-bringing work.

The bright birthing room of a hospital is very different from a morgue. However, the lessons learned in the birthing room can create a tiny but secure space for life to grow when suffering is encountered again, even in the valley shadowed with death.

It was in the birthing room of our community hospital and in the small hours of the morning that my husband and I first saw the face of our youngest son. Fifteen years later, we saw him again at the same hospital. But this time, we were asked to identify him in the morgue.

As profoundly different as the morgue was from the birthing room, the waves of pain experienced in both places were profoundly similar for me. In the days following my son’s death, I often pondered the day of his birth. Matthew was born one breath at a time, through one wave of pain at a time. And I wondered whether, in some way yet unimaginable, this new pain might also be surrendered to God in a way that would bring life.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, crying out “Abba, Father,…everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). For reasons that I do not understand, but as Jesus himself experienced, God doesn’t always remove suffering from the ones he loves. Yet, Jesus’ surrender to a suffering that was held in the hands of his Father became a saving life.

When I try to escape suffering, its waves pursue me and terrify me. But when I turn to face the wave and simultaneously surrender my suffering  to God, the terror begins to dissipate.

There is even the hint of possibility of an uninhibited future joy. It washes over me with the picture of my eight-year-old grandson (another Matthew!) who loves to surf the waves of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He doesn’t fear the ebb and flow of the surf. Not our grandson! Instead, he paddles right through the breaking waves until he finds just right one, then rides it with abandon to the shore until its force is spent.

Just maybe our surrendered suffering labours within us in ways that are hidden for the moment, but that births unexpected life to others and even a surprising joy for ourselves.

Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.
By day the LORD directs his love,
at night his song is with me…(Psalm 42:7–8)

Dorothy Peters lives with her husband in Abbotsford, B.C., where they attend Highland Community (MB) Church. They have four children and four grandchildren. Dorothy is on religious studies faculty at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. 

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