Music and laughter filled the reception hall following the wedding as everyone gathered to eat and dance. A caller gave the next steps to the Irish Ceili as two rows of dancers stood facing each other, partners alternately meeting in the middle, linking arms and twirling around.
I sat watching the dance, people laughing and singing; smiling to beat the band. The gym where the reception took place was set up with circles of chair clusters for people to sit and visit. Although I couldn’t dance, I enjoyed taking in the happiness around me. Rapid movements; twisting and twirling, my broken spine couldn’t bear. I sure wished I could dance though. I watched partners laughing and whirling and it took me back to a year earlier when I had first learned the Ceili in Scotland with a group of friends. That was shortly before my nineteenth birthday, and only a couple months before my failed back surgery. How life had changed now. The chairs in my circle were mostly empty now as friends had left to join the floor. Their lives moving on as normal…
However, the chair next to mine wasn’t empty for long. I looked away from the dancing to notice a man about my father’s age and his wife walking towards me. He looked familiar to me. I’d heard of him before. They approached with intention, and wore smiles, warm and sympathetic. Together they greeted me and sat in the seats next to mine. The man, I noticed, looked at me with a knowing eye. They told me they’d heard about my back surgery and life of chronic pain, as many had by now. But what stood out wasn’t that they came and sat with me. It wasn’t that they cared about my health. What stood out was that this man knew something no one else seemed to know. He knew, that even though I was smiling, even though I was happy to be there, even though I loved the people in that room –I was hurting.
He didn’t tell me he knew this. I don’t remember us falling into a deep heart to heart about the emotional struggles of a person in pain. He just told me about a tree, in Gettysburg.
In the battle a missile flew from the mouth of a cannon—missing man, beast, and barricade, halting in a tree–but it didn’t explode.
Over time, as the tree grew with the cannonball lodged in its center, it grew around the cannonball.
The tree was shaped by the cannonball in its core.
The man leaned forward as he looked in my eyes and said, “When you go through suffering your life is shaped by it. But listen, it’s different for a Christian. When you trust in Christ, He uses your suffering to shape your faith and make you more holy. You will never be who you were before you suffered, and going forward, your life will be shaped by the suffering you have experienced.”
The music and dancing were a faint picture in the background now. “It’s different for a Christian” his words repeating in my head. Then I thought how apart from Christ the “cannonball” in my life might only be an excuse for self-pity and bitterness. But I do trust Christ. And because He suffered, I get to know Him better as I suffer. I get to become more like Him.
“Not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)