A few years ago, I was sitting in the orthodontist’s office, thumbing through a magazine, while our daughter was receiving an adjustment. These things take time, and I was in the middle of a decent article, when the assistant beckoned to me with her index finger.
I followed her back, where Lauren was eased in the reclining leather chair.
We have a problem, said orthodontist, all serious.
I was nonplussed. This was child number four in braces, and I felt unflappable. I raised my eyebrows.
Hasn’t your dentist suggested removing her wisdom teeth?
I inwardly groaned. Our three sons had wisdom teeth that had developed early; they had all been extracted, and it was expensive.
I sighed. No. He thought she could wait several years, I said.
He proceeded to wave his hand at x-rays and colorful flow charts, with lengthy explanations and growing intensity.
If this isn’t done ASAP her orthodontia could be damaged. That is a bunch of money wasted! And her teeth are so straight!
I eventually fled the office, clutching a list of oral surgeons in one hand, while dialing one of them and juggling my purse and keys. Mr. Orthodontist had succeeded in alarming me. I had visions of peeling into the oral surgeon’s parking lot on two wheels, that day, or else.
Within a week, we were seen for a consult. Our poor daughter was in low spirits, having formerly witnessed two of her three brothers swell up like balloons while simultaneously becoming sick from the pain meds. I assured her that I would do whatever necessary to get my hands on anti-nausea pills, should she require surgery. That was the best I could offer.
We sat in the examining room for a few minutes, when the oral surgeon breezed in. He was as relaxed as Mr. Orthodontist was intense.
Well hello, he said, shaking hands and smiling.
He studied the x-rays, turning them this way and that.
What brings you in?
I brought him up to speed on our situation. He nodded, examining Lauren’s teeth, and looking again at the x-ray.
Well, this is not a hair-on-fire situation, he said simply. Orthodontists tend to get worked up, but she will be fine to have the wisdom teeth removed anytime in the next year or so, as long as she continues to wear her retainer.
I laughed with my daughter as we drove home. This is not a hair-on-fire situation. We loved the saying, and use it still: a way to remind ourselves to calm down.
The other morning I pulled in to the gas station, stepping inside to pay. A wrinkly woman, behind plexiglass, smiled brightly as I stepped forward.
May I have $30 on pump five? I asked.
Of course, baby! she smiled. Would you like any gum or coffee today?
I declined, thanking her and asking for a receipt. She obliged, adding: Have a wonderful day, sugar!
Her small, worn face was so friendly; her eyes shining. I was a bit startled, as the tenor of her words, a soft wrap about my shoulders, felt so warm, so gentle, so different from the callousness that has warped our world. Yet here she was, one itty-bitty woman, unknowingly waging a quiet war against the tide with her honey-combed spirit.
I stepped outdoors, shivering in the cold air, where many were pumping gas. Most looked plain tired, shoulders slumped as they filled up their vehicles.
There is more than one way to fill a tank I thought, as I began pumping the fuel.
The kindness of the clerk had inspired me. So I smiled at the lady at the gas pump across from me.
Chilly, isn’t it? I asked.
Yes it is! she answered. I’m enjoying this wintry weather. We made further small talk, and she waved, friendly, as we parted ways, our tanks now filled with fuel and kindness. And just like that, my burdens felt lighter; the day brighter.
I hold my new day planner, forever old-school: real paper bound before me and true pencil markings. The clean pages will fill, but not just yet. The planning and wishing and praying and hoping offer a sliver of brilliance as we begin this new year. The mercy of possibilities.
This is tempered with the truth that none of us know what this year, or even this next moment, will bring. Most are a bit frayed after having been shaken by loss and grief and the unknown during the past year. We are all wading through hardship, on some level. I am continually comforted by the life of Elisabeth Elliot, who once said in her book Suffering is Never for Nothing:
The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.
God’s plans are stretched into forever, while our afflictions are light and momentary. They feel heavy and unending, but we are promised that they are actually preparing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). I am comforted by this dear reminder again and again and again.
If I look over my shoulder, I glimpse an old black-and-white film: the story of my life. I see the shining moments of laughter and simple joys, pleasures so genuine, sacred moments innocent of the knowledge of what was next, around that proverbial bend. And then those hard and sad and frightening times flood in with a mighty rush, knocking me down, breathless. How kind God is to not allow us to see the future, which would steal our finite happiness.
I, too, like Elisabeth Elliot, have plodded through deep waters and scorching fires. Because of those painful, tender times, my faith has flourished in ways only hardship can produce, and I drink deeply of the goodness of God. He is faithful, and is always working; the Holy Spirit is our Comforter.
Overarching every single trial are eternal hands, cupping our lives, which will never be snuffed out too soon. God holds the key to calm clarity in the midst of sadness and grief and sickness and pain: the promise of our Perfect Redeemer, coming to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). He is fashioning the future home of his trusting children (John 14:2).
Our job is an inside job, a yielding of our own soul to the Lord: loving and obeying Him wholeheartedly, which if genuine, will overflow in love for our neighbors. That gas station sales clerk, wrapped up in kind words and friendliness, pulled me in. Her warmth made me want to sit a spell and enjoy the goodness of God in the midst of a hard season. And isn’t that the hope of the gospel? Peace within, because of what Jesus, our Rescuer, has already done?
I need not wait for all my plans to align, or my health to improve, or for that person to snap out of it. The pleasures of God are mine now, to enjoy through adversity, through all of those seemingly hair-on-fire situations. As God’s children, may we shine even more brightly this year in our patience and warmth towards others. As Ephesians 2:10 (ESV) reminds us:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.