She came to see me about her mother’s ashes
I had come into possession of them following a sudden death, an absent next of kin and a request from the community police to find a resting place.
Barely an adult herself, the young woman was equally ill-equipped to balance the emotional turmoil of a deceased parent with burial arrangements and funeral costs. Yet, she meandered into my office with the bravery of a seasoned warrior. As we sunk into our conversation, I began to learn just how long she had waged that battle.
For many years, the woman and both her parents had been in and out of our lives. They were often homeless. Her parents were frequently incarcerated, and the last time she herself could remember a stable living arrangement was the age of five.
When her parents were available they hopped from short-term hotel stays to friends’ couches, occasionally making a bed in the back seat of a car. When mom and dad were not available, her home was the foster system, occasionally a family member and, as she got older, anywhere she could fly under the radar.
By the time she was in high school, the school system hardly knew she existed. Her mom had convinced someone they were homeschooling. But the only schooling she could remember was teaching her dad how to use a computer to produce the counterfeit checks that paid for their next meal.
Unfortunately, this deeply confusing childhood launched her into adulthood with a diminished self-worth and a distorted view of relationship. So desperate was her need to belong, that she joined the acquaintances she had met on the street in a string of brake-ins and got caught.
Sitting in a jail cell those many months, she reflected on the parental footsteps she had followed and reckoned with choosing a life quite different. She loved her parents, and knew they loved her in the best ways they knew how. But the path she had traveled with them had left her with little understanding about being anything other than homeless, addicted and now incarcerated.
She was only weeks away from release when the worst news came. Her mother had been found dead in her apartment, and the courthouse send off before she went to jail for six months would be her last memory.
Upon her release, she found her way to my office where I heard this story for the first time.
As she unraveled detail after detail of her twisted childhood and subsequent challenges, I thought of the implications of 2 Timothy. In what is often considered Paul’s final letter before his death, the apostle addresses his fellow missionary to whom he is close enough to call a “son.” Paul’s charge to his beloved Timothy is mostly concerned with how he will stand firm in the message of Christ’s church despite the circumstances he might find himself.
“The spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline,” verse 1:7 reads. In spite of any amount of suffering the world might give us, I’ve learned this truth is paramount in understanding who we are and helping others become all that they are meant to be.
So, in my best ‘you can do this’ voice, I started digging for the spirit of God within her.
“You are 19-years old, with the whole rest of your life ahead of you,” I said. “What are you going to do with it?”
I was prepared to hear her hopes and dreams. I planned to talk about school, how to help her get a job, the steps to find permanent housing. What I got was a lesson in adversity and a new appreciation for the faith required to overcome it.
“It just isn’t that simple,” she said. “My whole life has been a certain way. It’s all I know and all I understand.”
“You ever play Jenga?” she asked. I nodded.
“My life is kind of like that. I know I’m capable of building the tower taller than you can imagine. Who I am, the real me, is better than what my life has been, thus far. But to build that tower, I have to choose piece after piece from the bottom of the stack and place it on top of an already fragile tower,” she said. “Those pieces are painfully difficult to identify and remove.”
“Although I have a lot to gain with going to school, finding work, remaining in a stable home, it also means I have that much further to fall when the tower topples over,” she continued. “Inevitably, my experience so far says the tower can only get so big. So, I have chosen not to build it at all.”
Lost in her words, I reflected on the complexity of becoming all that God intends us to be. Are the challenges of those walking through our doors so great that they may not even own “a game of jenga?” How often do any of us, for that matter, refuse to move forward, be who we are or take a risk that brings us closer to who God created us to be simply because we are afraid of falling?
As 2 Timothy points out so profoundly, the risk, the strategy, and the suffering of our lives is actually what this life with Jesus is all about. Those who embrace their suffering, therefore, are actually more equipped than anyone to tackle a lifetime of “Jenga towers.”
For “If we have died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we deny him, he will also deny him. If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:11-13).