You shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord… No longer shall men call you, “Forsaken,” or your land “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land “Espoused.” Isaiah 62:4
It came on like a bad hangover before I’d even sipped the cup. The lump in my throat burned with the double embers of shame and regret: shame over my screwed-up life, suffering-infused life; regret over my decision to speak about it at a large Catholic conference.
The inner slamming began at the airport, the second I got into a car with another conference speaker. Pumped up like a heavy lifter, he gave me the run-down on his whole amazing family during the drive to the hotel.
“My oldest son is 22, and he’s a gifted videographer who’s already earned enough money to buy his own house,” he began. “My second child, a daughter, is brilliant. She runs my ministry full time.” On it went, blah, blah, blah, as I sunk down into the back seat wondering how I’d become the poster child for suffering—the topic I was asked to speak about at the conference.
How has his life managed to go so right, and mine so wrong? I began to agonize before I could even access a scripture verse or slogan I try to live by, such as “Compare and despair,” or “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
The weekend conference happened to be taking place on the dual anniversary of my late husband’s death to a massive heart attack and my brother Stephen’s death by suicide. I was already feeling emotionally brittle when I left home, and the account of my fellow speaker’s thriving family burned like salt in open wounds. Stupidly, I’d forgotten the upending sting of tragic anniversaries and the grief they evoke when I’d agreed to the speaking engagement. I’d also forgotten how easy it is to be thrown back into an old, worn-out narrative—a story we believe about our lives or ourselves that keeps us bound to self-rejection and hopelessness.
Hopeless cause, I brooded as we rode along to the hotel. Yep. That’s my name and my story.
I’d heard the story my whole life: My sweet, young Mama had caught the Asian flu in the final weeks of her pregnancy, and prayed a novena to St. Jude that I wouldn’t come down with it and die. I caught it anyway, and my serious infant illness caused her endless anxiety as she stood over my bassinet for days listening to see if I was still breathing. She named me after St. Jude, given both the novena and the fact that I was born the day after his feast day. I guess St. Jude came through in the end, because I lived to tell the tale. I joked throughout life that I was a “hopeless cause” when telling the story—until my life my life imploded and I began to own the moniker.
Hopeless cause. That’s my name and my story, I repeated to myself with self-pity as I wheeled my suitcase weepily into my hotel room.
And then I remembered God’s voice, thundering loudly in my heart one day: Your name does not mean hopeless cause. It means praise of God! I had heard God speak with such piercing clarity that I’d wept at the holy force of the message.
“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it,” novelist Gabriel García Márquez once wrote.
What would I remember about my one hallowed life, and how would I choose to remember it?
Would I remember my life not as suffering-infused, but as glory-filled—thanks to all of the outrageous ways God has shown up? Would I memorialize tragic days as sacred days—recalling what God did for me instead of what life dealt me? Would I see beyond grey ashes to silver linings—indulging myself in God’s graced perspective instead of my own puny perceptions?
Help me, God, I prayed. Help me remember what you’ve done for me.
“I’m not here to talk about suffering today,” I heard myself declare convincingly as I stood at the podium later that afternoon. “I’m here to tell you about God’s glory!” I then listened to myself tell my own story with honest amazement and gratitude over the marvelous works and ways of God all along the way. God had changed my name—and my story—from hopeless cause to praise of God.
I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink,
The people whom I formed for myself that they might announce my praise. Isaiah 43:20