What Happens When God Picks a Fight
By Kasey Van Norman, Stephanie Rische
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Kasey Van Norman
All rights reserved.
SUDDENLY I COULD no longer breathe. There I stood, alone, paralyzed with fear, and drowning in uncharted emotions. I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw things and smash walls with my bare fists. I wanted to shout obscenities that would make my church friends shudder. Yet all I could do was focus on breathing.
Just keep breathing, I told myself.
Deep breath in. My lungs stung as if I'd just swallowed a thornbush.
Deep breath out. The air barely made its way past the massive sob that was moving from my gut to my chest.
I felt like I was outside of myself, watching the scene play out as if it were a TV show. Except I couldn't change the channel—this was my reality one cool October afternoon in central Texas.
I looked around my living room. The sectional was in place, with the three turquoise throw pillows in disarray, as usual. I'd wanted a pop of color on our drab brown and khaki sectional piece, but these pillows never really made sense. I just moved them around from corner to corner, hoping to magically acquire the eye of an interior decorator one day.
The room was lit by bright sunshine pouring in through the windows. I love windows—lots and lots of windows. When I'm home alone, I like to turn off all electrical lighting and raise each section of blinds all the way to the top. Sometimes I catch myself squinting at the particles dancing on the light beams. Is it dust? I often wonder. If it is, I must be a terrible housekeeper. Or perhaps it's just air—fine, perfect pieces of air. I assured myself of this possibility once again as I traced the movement with my finger. And so we are, I thought. Dancing pieces of air moving along a beam of light. Here today—gone tomorrow.
I breathed in the familiar home smells—a mixture of my latest Yankee Candle fix (sugar cookie) and the aromas that seemed to follow my children—crayons, dirty socks, wet towels, soap, bubble gum, and—let's see—peanut butter. Yes, in my house, there's always lots and lots of peanut butter.
The house was quiet. Both children were still in school, my husband was busy at the office, and the dog was asleep somewhere (probably curled up at the base of my husband's pants hanging in our small closet). There was no sound except the muffled hum of nearby traffic and the faint buzz of a neighboring lawn mower.
Everything seemed so perfectly normal.
The Phone Call That Changed Everything
Now over the hump of thirty, with a marriage that was stronger than ever, the blessing of two healthy children, a fresh new start in a new town with a new church and new friends, and the dream of becoming a published author blooming into my reality, my life wasn't just normal—it was good. For the first time in a long time, my life was finally something I wanted to be part of again.
Only a few moments before, I had fluttered into the kitchen with my loads of groceries while humming—no, loudly proclaiming—each lyric of the latest Taylor Swift song. I spun on my toe like a makeshift ballerina, spinning along with the chorus as I dramatically whirled to open the refrigerator door.
As I unloaded the groceries, my cell phone rang from somewhere at the bottom of my purse. I brought the deafening anthem down to a gentler decibel as I grabbed for my purse, shuffling through the jumble of bills, makeup, granola bars, and random mom necessities.
"Hello?" I answered cheerfully. "Yes. This is Kasey."
And then ... the room stopped. The singing stopped. The spinning stopped. Even the tiny flits of air floating through the room stopped. Now all I could hear was breathing—deep, heavy gasps of air that were apparently coming out of my own body.
Only moments ago I was happy—I daresay joyful!
I was smiling and singing, wearing my hair in a ponytail for one of the first times in my life. I'd always worn my hair short, but a year ago I vowed to grow it out enough to experience at least one ponytail before I died.
I'd said it jokingly, the way someone who is feeling young and healthy would say it. The way someone would say it before getting a dreaded phone call from a doctor's office on an otherwise ordinary October afternoon.
That was just one moment ago. But now ...
As I stood outside of myself, I saw a girl who was pale and fragile. A girl who desperately wanted to cry but for some reason was holding back the tears. I saw a girl whose face had aged dramatically in the span of a few minutes. She no longer looked like a thirty-something—more like a fifty- or sixty-something, with her crinkled brow and down- turned mouth and hollow eyes.
No part of my body moved. I wasn't even sure if I'd blinked for some time. I felt frozen in place. Utterly lifeless.
I stood that way in statue- like silence for what felt like hours.
And then, all at once, the silence shattered.
"Why, God? Why?"
I was surprised to discover that the voice was my own.
Then everything seemed to happen in slow motion. My phone hung suspended in midair before crashing to the hardwood floor below.
My body shook uncontrollably as I paced through every room in our home. I would start to sit down, only to jump to my feet like I'd caught on fire. I ran into our bedroom and flung myself on our unmade bed. Seizing the nearest pillow, I smothered my face in the soft cotton with all my might. It smelled of laundry detergent mixed with my shampoo.
Ah, my new shampoo, I thought. My first shampoo from an actual big-city salon that had cost way too much for our family's modest budget. But it was the shampoo I just had to have for my new, long hair.
The ponytail whose days were numbered, I now knew.
For some reason I couldn't get my head around the implications of what the nurse had just told me. The only thing I could grasp was that I would lose my ponytail.
I let out another sob and threw the pillow across the room.
I need something heavier, I thought. I wanted to throw something that would leave a dent.
I knocked down a fan that stood in a nearby corner. Then I ran my arm across my bathroom countertop, sending every product and toiletry bottle soaring across the room, crashing to pieces onto the floor. But it still wasn't enough.
I clenched my fists to my sides, puffed out my chest, and craned my neck to the ceiling. Then I yelled like I'd never yelled before. It wasn't even a yell—it was more of a roar from a place deep inside, a place I didn't even know existed.
There were no recognizable words—just moans and groans, with a few profanities mixed in, that escalated into a full-out scream. I paced a few more rooms and finally found myself collapsing onto one of the turquoise couch pillows.
Though it had once felt like the splash of color I'd needed, the shade now struck me as tacky.
* * *
I never guessed I'd end up here. I'd been a Christian since the age of nine. I'd been a grief counselor for three years, speaking hope to weary family members as they clung to those final moments with their loved ones. I taught the Bible to a group of women each week, and I'd even had the incredible opportunity to write and publish a book on what it means to truly believe God.
My head knew all the right answers—each step required to respond in a moment like this. My brain kept beating into me the definition of faithfulness. After all, I'd preached and prayed about that very topic to so many others in their times of crisis. But now ...
Snot and tears saturated every inch of my face. My trembling fingers twisted around my ponytail over and over again. I attempted to swallow, but no saliva would come to my aid.
I tried to stand, but my body was chained to the place I'd landed. I reached for my phone to call somebody—anybody—just to hear a voice. The sound of anything besides my wretched breathing would do me good. But I couldn't stop shaking enough to press any buttons on the phone.
And then, as if someone had flipped a switch inside me, I stopped.
I stopped crying. I stopped yelling. I stopped throwing things, stopped moving, stopped thinking, and maybe even stopped breathing for a moment.
I sat there frozen on my drab sectional, feet curled under me, wrapped in a cocoon, and mustered every ounce of energy I had left to ask just one question out loud. I tasted salt as the words left my lips.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" My voice was little more than a whimper.
The moment the words escaped my lips, I covered my mouth in shame. How dare you compare your pain to the pain Jesus bore on your behalf? I thought. It doesn't even come close!
Yet the phrase remained on my tongue as I sat there in silence, watching the air dance around me.
I knew I needed to call my husband. And the rest of my family. I knew I should clean up the mess I'd made in my fit of anger. I knew I needed to face this treacherous word—look it in the eye, engage it in battle.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I'd eventually have to deal with all the implications, too. Losing my hair. Wrestling with whether this was some kind of delayed punishment for the sins of my past. Wondering what would happen to my two children if they lost their mom before they hit first grade. Would I be there for my son, Lake, when he got his driver's license or started his first job or fell in love? Would I ever stand in the front of a country church on a hot Texas day as my blue-eyed Emma Grace flowed gracefully toward me in a white dress?
I couldn't think about all that yet.
And I couldn't think about my mom's battle just two years ago. I wouldn't allow my mind to travel back to that hospital room where she took her final breaths, where I watched her suffocate under the weight of her own fluid as the cancer ate away her body from the inside out.
I'm not sure how long I lay there like a child, lost and alone, bathing in a pool of my own sweat, mucus, and tears.
Finally, I whispered, "God, please help."
With shaky hands, I picked up my phone and called my husband. His voice was cheery when he picked up. "Hey, honey. How are you?"
Justin's voice was always like that. He has a gift for being tender and optimistic—he's sunny even on a cloudy day. It's as if he always has a silver lining tucked away in his pocket, ready to be pulled out whenever I come to him with a problem. If I called to let him know the oil light was blinking frantically on my dashboard or a friend hadn't texted me back and I was sure she was mad at me, he was ready to soothe me. He'd say, "Well, have you tried this, honey?" or "It will be okay—just let me get home, and we can deal with it together." Yes, my husband is a saint (although he hates it when I say that). He may not have the exact solution to the problem the moment I call, but he always leaves me confident that if I just give him a few minutes, he'll come up with something.
Except this time.
"Justin, I need you to come home," I said. "Pathology called. They said the news is not good."
He didn't even ask me what the news was; he just hung up the phone. Normally I would have thrown a fit that he'd hung up on me, but not that day. After ten years of marriage, I knew him well enough to know he had his keys in hand and was probably halfway out to his car.
Moments later, Justin burst through the front door like the Hulk, huffing and puffing, stumbling over his words. "What ... when ... um ... what did they say?"
We both knew there weren't many options for the pathology report. It was either cancer or it wasn't, and when I said the news wasn't good, he knew I was about to drop the dreaded c-word. Yet there he stood—out of breath, tormented, but still hoping beyond hope that I might say something else— anything else.
Facing My Faith
The pain had started innocuously enough as an ache in my lower back. But over time the pain grew worse, and after five years, it still wouldn't go away. At times it was debilitating, causing me to grip the wall in agony just walking from one room to the next.
The doctor recommended surgery, assuring me it would take care of all my back pain. Apparently one of my ovaries had ruptured completely (which would explain the terrible pain). I would need a complete hysterectomy, meaning I'd be forced to have all my "girl parts" removed at a young age (think early onset menopause and hot flashes—yeesh). Even so, the surgery was a no-brainer for me if it meant I could live a normal life.
When the gynecologist ran the ultrasound scope across my jelly-coated abdomen, I saw her face pale instantly. Not only had one of my ovaries ruptured, but the other was "no longer functional," as she put it. All my other reproductive organs were barely viewable on the ultrasound through the massive cloud of endometrial cells that had invaded every physiological part that made me female.
There was no longer a choice: it would be an emergency hysterectomy.
This was a routine surgery for my doctor. She assured Justin that the entire procedure would take only thirty to forty-five minutes. Justin later told me he began pacing around the two-hour mark.
When I awoke enough to catch a blurry vision of my husband's face, I remember him saying to me, "Kasey, there was a mass ..."
The rest of his sentence trailed off into a cloud of morphine-induced sleep. When I finally woke up enough to talk in complete sentences without drooling, I still brushed off the conversation about the mass.
I heard Justin say it. I heard the doctor say it. But in my mind, I zeroed in on what I considered the key word: was. There was a mass. Dr. J. assured me she'd gotten every piece of it, so why worry? The good doc even put up with the surrounding surgeons mocking her for taking such precious time scraping and cleaning, then scraping and cleaning again. For three hours, all she did was scrape and clean around the now-empty cavity where the golf ball-sized mass once rested firmly in my abdominal wall.
Dr. J. told me later amid sobs (from both of us) that she sensed the Spirit of the Lord in her ear telling her to take her time, be thorough, and be sure to get it all.
Looking back, I now know that the removal of the tumor was a miracle in itself. The other surgeons—more experienced than Dr. J.—told her to leave it there, assuring her that it was nothing more than a fat pocket. But she continued scraping and cleaning, listening to the small, repetitious voice of God's Spirit pulsing within her.
As I sat in the hospital bed after the surgery, sinking into Dr. J.'s warm Jamaican accent, I chose not to believe that this mass could be potentially problematic. I ignored the hints of concern in the voices of both my doctor and my husband. Come on, I thought. I'm only thirty-one years old. Except for the pain in my back, I feel great. I work out, I eat relatively healthy, I take vitamin supplements.
True, my mom had died of cancer only two years before, but I refused to believe God would make me go through the same thing myself so soon. Besides, my new ministry had just launched, and my first book was coming out in just a few months. There was no way God would start something big in my life only to destroy it with a terminal diagnosis. Everything was going to be just fine. I knew it.
I coasted along on this belief for two weeks. But then the call came that forever changed my life.
Before the call, I thought my faith was pretty strong. I thought my relationship with God was solid, secure. I'd been through some trials—some of them self-inflicted and others that came as part of living in a broken world. But the moment I heard the timid voice of the nurse on the other line, all my stockpiles of faith dried up, and I felt as parched as a desert. This triumphant, redeemed, ready-to-take-on-the-world-for-God woman was suddenly laid bare on the floor.
My faith suddenly felt like a gaping wound, raw and exposed and tender to the touch. The simple brush of air against it caused me to flinch. My faith lay ripped open—little more than a blister of blood and pus.
There was no hiding it. No covering it. No running from it or looking away. There was no medicine that might soothe the nauseating ache.
In that moment, there was one thing I could do.
I must face my faith. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Raw Faith by Kasey Van Norman, Stephanie Rische. Copyright © 2014 Kasey Van Norman. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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