We just returned from a brief trip to Juárez, México to visit our dear friends, Maria and Gilbert, who run an elementary school and junior high school. Besides just caring about seeing our friends, Dustin and I also wanted to visit since we are on the school board and are deeply invested in what happens there. We want to pour our time, energy, and talents into helping Colegio Ganley (elementary) and Colegio Gamwell (junior high) thrive. But the last time we were there as a family was three years ago, right before I became pregnant with Elliot. We’d planned to go again as a family in March 2017 when we took a group from our church on a mission trip. But my pregnancy complications had become so severe we knew it was best for me to stay home. Dustin led the trip without me, and while he was there serving, I called him with the unthinkable news that the doctors had confirmed my water had broken. Dustin remembers where he was standing and what he was doing when he got that call, and the idea of returning to Juárez had been impossible for him for the first couple years due to the association with the traumatic moment that led to the death of our son.
But now, almost three years since that horrific March day in which we received the painful news my pregnancy was failing, Dustin was able to return. He still couldn’t set foot in the building where he was when he received my phone call, but what bravery to return. While holing up in our cozy home and never getting outside our four walls might be easier, we have to live what Elliot taught us or we won’t be alive at all.
The elementary school is in its 15th year of existence and the junior high in its third. I came to that place when the elementary school was in its second year and it was still just beginning. The children I taught are now teenagers and adults, many with children of their own. I’ve seen amazing transformations in which families embrace Christ, embrace the challenges of breaking generational cycles, and embrace the hard work of being different. These lives have burst open with color against the gray backdrop of drug addiction and poverty. In the thirteen years since I first encountered that remarkable place, I have seen things grow!
I have also seen kids and families I love there stagnate into sameness, continuing generational cycles of broken families, drug use, perpetuating poverty, throwing away opportunities at education, not allowing Christ to be real to them. It can feel discouraging. But I think I glimpse something I was not able to see so well before Elliot. If everything were judged just on how it appeared on the surface, we’d all have great reason to be discouraged. But Christ is a sustaining inner work, and I don’t believe his work is ever done or that he’s ever given up.
In the fall I planted tulip bulbs at Elliot’s grave. I don’t know if I’m really supposed to do that, and I’ve had imaginary conversations with some grounds worker trying to stop me, as I get all wild-eyed mama bear and defend my right to take care of my baby’s place however I want! Thankfully for all involved, no one has ever approached me in these tender and defensive moments. As I was planting them, the parallel became apparent of what I was doing and how it echoes what I’m desperately hoping for. These bulbs, dead though they are in appearance, have all the potential for colorful life just waiting inside them for the right time to bloom. The body of my little boy is dead; this is a fact that never leaves me and never stops breaking my heart. But could his body, that precious seed, still hold the same potential as a tulip bulb to break forth in colorful life one day? I don’t know how resurrection works; if it’s literally these same bodies or something on a higher plane we can’t comprehend, or perhaps both. But if the Creator created plants to die and be reborn annually, wouldn’t he who counts us of much greater value than the lilies of the field have something beautiful in mind?
But it’s not just an end-of-life someday hope, is it? Isn’t that same marvelous germination the abundant life Christ came to pour out? I think so. I think when things don’t look promising on the outside, when things look as good as dead, we have to maintain hope in Christ and his work in each human heart. Even as hopeless as a life (or a death) may appear, there is the potential for a seed to take root and to grow into something colorful, fragrant, alive.
I heard while I was in Juárez that one of my students of so many years ago is in prison now for transporting firearms. He will likely be there a long time. It breaks my heart. I haven’t seen him in over a decade, so I all I remember is the toothy grin of a 9-year-old. He was one of those boys with too much energy but always kept me laughing. What happened to that innocent and lively little boy? What strongholds in his family history, lack of support at home, and poor decisions led him to that point? My first response to this news is to feel so let down, to think he is a lost cause, to think somewhere along the way it could have been different, but now it’s too late.
But that’s not the way things grow.
Growth is less an instant appearance of completion and more a death which leads to transformation. Christ is there in that prison cell with my former student; He is there in the cold silent grave that houses my baby; He is there in the slumbering seeds and bulbs awaiting spring’s warmth. He is there.
I like to see things happen. I like to go to sleep at night knowing everyone I love is accounted for, safe, and happy. But I’ve always known I can not make this peaceable wish come true. I remember weeping many nights after I left Juárez, wondering what would become of the innocent children I came to love so dearly. What hope did they have when all the factors in their lives would constantly press against them to remain trapped in generational cycles? It seemed impossible and unfair. And then l became a bereaved parent and I had to wonder: where is the hope in any of this? This year someone very close to me has been in the depths of mental health hell most of us can’t comprehend. If it’s all going to end in such pain, loss, and heartache, what is the point?
I suppose if I could tell an acorn it would one day turn into an oak tree if only it would allow itself to be buried and dormant, it would likely contest. It seems impossible. Yet God’s teacher, nature, doesn’t let us get away that easily. Impossible life from death happens every day all around us. Why should it be less true inside of us?
I think Jesus is fortifying my heart to not lose heart. It is so easy to lose heart. I lose heart when my daughter cries and needs to hold Elliot bear because she misses her brother so much. I lose heart when I see teen girls in Juárez pregnant before they’re sixteen by guys who have no intention of marrying them. I lose heart as files of children in Colombia needing adoptive families come through my inbox, and I know we will likely adopt only one. I lose heart when my loved one feels that a healthy mental state free from crippling depression is impossible for him.
Christ Jesus reminds me things are not as they seem. There is growth happening in the secret places, slowly, imperceptibly to us, and always in the view of Him who made it all. I don’t always see the way things grow in Jesus’ economy, but they always do. Hope in this growth looks like waiting for a bud to bloom in someone’s life, embracing small victories, and allowing the suffering in the world to create more compassion in me.
As the tulips and leaves bloom this spring, I’ll see Christ’s face in them. I’ll let nature be his voice as he tells me again and again:
“Therefore we do not lose heart.”
“Por tanto, no nos desanimamos.” 2 Cor. 4:16
This is the way things grow.