Of Flood and Drought

Pardon my rambling a wee bit–it does, as usual, arrive somewhere in the end.

Regen, Regen,
Alle pflegen
Sich, darüber
Regen, lass mich
Bin ich dafür
Oder bin ich dagegen?
–Die Prinzen

Rough translation: “Rain, rain, everybody feels the need to get all excited about it. Rain, let me consider, am I for it or against it?”

My sweet friend Bethany has written a beautiful post on the question of rain and its dual nature, blessing to the parched and curse to the flooded. It’s a duality I’ve been struggling with myself in recent months, having rediscovered the Jars of Clay song “Flood” in a season where I’ve felt my theme song to be America’s “A Horse with No Name” (except that I’m still not quite sure I’ve hit the point of “It felt good to be out of the rain” yet). And it’s found a new twist in the last week as I’ve watched the lake levels rise while friends claim to be losing sleep over the loss of life downstream.

There is no silver lining! those friends have screamed. Who cares if the lakes are recovering and the fields are green when people are dead?
But wait, I thought suddenly. Look how much water the lakes have caught. How much worse would things have been had the lakes not been low enough to absorb the flood?

There’s a Romans 8:28 in there, but the parable could have several applications, I think. Maybe the fuzziness is due in part to my filtering the idea not only through my own experience but also through that of Jared Padalecki, whose #AlwaysKeepFighting campaign against depression took on new urgency when he worked himself into deep exhaustion that worsened his own struggles, and Carman, who announced earlier this week that his pushing himself too hard too soon after going into remission from cancer was threatening the health of his heart. Thanks be to God, both of these brothers had wise advisors (friends, family, and co-stars in Jared’s case, good doctors in Carman’s) from whom they sought help and whose advice to rest and heal they heeded (Jared by canceling con appearances, Carman by canceling his latest Kickstarter-funded album project); and they also had supportive fan bases encouraging them to take care of themselves.
But of course, we don’t have to be celebrities to have a fan base–Hebrews 12:1 tells us of the “great cloud of witnesses” that’s cheering each of us on, no matter how obscure we are in the eyes of the world. And especially when we’re in times of drought, however literal or metaphorical, it’s important to remember the promise of Psalm 127:2b: “He giveth His beloved sleep.” After all, when Elijah was suicidal in 1 Kings 19, the first thing God did, even before giving him a message of hope, was to make him do nothing but sleep and eat for two days.

I keep thinking back to a message God urgently wanted me to hear at the beginning of this journey, from Priscilla Shirer’s excellent study Discerning the Voice of God, drawn from the story of Moses: “When you’re in the desert season, God is preparing you for the next big thing.”* The seasons of our life aren’t just measures of the passage of time; they also season us, as one seasons wood or metal to strengthen it for a given purpose. And I keep thinking that the droughts of our life, the ones that drain our reservoirs so dangerously, also hollow out a space in our life to contain an oncoming flood. Maybe it’s a flood of blessing, the “pressed down, shaken together, and running over” kind that could have been the ruin of us if God hadn’t made room for it. Maybe it’s a flood of hardship of a kind that only someone who has been through the desert on a horse with no name can weather. Or maybe it’s a matter of God putting us in the gap to absorb a flood, of blessing or of curse, that someone “downriver” from us needs to be spared lest that person be utterly destroyed.

Note that I’m not trying to say the drought of 2011 and the dry years since are unequivocally good times because the land and the lakes have been able to absorb so much of the water dropped by the recent storms. The suffering in this part of the state during this drought has been terrible. Nor do the drought seasons of our lives necessarily cease to be hard or necessarily kill off only sins and other parts of our lives that needed killing off. Romans 8:28 doesn’t mean that the bad things that happen are actually good or that we deserved them in some way. Tolkien captures the tension well in this exchange, between Manwë, the archangel ruling Arda as God’s regent, and Námo Mandos, the archangel of judgment in whose house the souls of Elves rest within Arda, from Chapter 11 of The Silmarillion (emphasis mine):

It is told that after the flight of Melkor [= Lucifer] the Valar sat long unmoved upon their thrones in the Ring of Doom; but they were not idle, as Fëanor declared in the folly of his heart. For the Valar may work many things with thought rather than with hands, and without voices in silence they may hold council one with another. Thus they held vigil in the night of Valinor, and their thought passed back beyond Eä and forth to the End; yet neither power nor wisdom assuaged their grief, and the knowing of evil in the hour of its being. And they mourned not more for the death of the Trees than for the marring of Fëanor: of the works of Melkor one of the most evil. For Fëanor was made the mightiest in all parts of body and mind, in valour, in endurance, in beauty, in understanding, in skill, in strength and in subtlety alike, of all the Children of Ilúvatar [aka Eru = God], and a bright flame was in him. The works of wonder for the glory of Arda that he might otherwise have wrought only Manwë might in some measure conceive. And it was told by the Vanyar who held vigil with the Valar that when the messengers declared to Manwë the answers of Fëanor to his heralds, Manwë wept and bowed his head. But at that last word of Fëanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, he raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said: ‘So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’

But Mandos said: ‘And yet remain evil. To me shall Fëanor come soon.’

It is, rather, a matter of God making all things beautiful in His time (Ecclesiastes 3:11). I know in my own life, I’ve sensed God closing doors and changing interests in ways that make me suspect something big is coming from somewhere away upstream… I just pray I’m ready for whatever it is when it hits.

* Funny thing is, when I rewatched that lesson just now, I didn’t hear that exact quote again, even though I remembered her saying it several times. Hmmmmmm….

For St. Paddy’s Day

St. Patrick's Breastplate, ink and watercolor, 24" x 36" Shown here on the south porch of Company Headquarters, Fort McKavett
St. Patrick’s Breastplate, ink and watercolor, 24″ x 36″
Shown here on the south porch of Company Headquarters, Fort McKavett

Atomriug indiu
niurt trén togairm trindóit
cretim treodatad
fóisitin oendatad
in dúleman dail.

I arise today in a mighty strength,
the invocation of the Trinity,
in belief in the threeness,
in confession of the oneness,
toward the Creator of creation.

–St. Patrick

Giving Thanks for No

Axiom: God always answers our prayers.
Corollary: His answer usually falls into one of three categories: “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait.”

The corollary vastly oversimplifies matters, I find; for example, it doesn’t take into account the way He answers questions or the fact that “Yes” doesn’t always look like we think it should, such as a request for healing being answered by His taking the person Home, which is the ultimate deliverance from bodily woes. But it’s still a useful corollary as far as it goes because it reminds us to accept the answers we may not want to hear.
That’s my chief quibble with the Garth Brooks song “Unanswered Prayers.” The speaker’s prayer was answered, but he hadn’t wanted to hear the “No” he received. However, the larger point of the song–that we should be thankful for the times God doesn’t give us what we want because He knows they’re not what we need–is a very good one.

I sat in a mentor’s office one grey day early in the semester, looking for advice. He was teaching a class I really wanted to take, but to do so in addition to the classes I was already registered for would mean taking an overload, and I didn’t know whether to attempt that or drop one of the other classes or just what.
He knew, however, that the previous semester had been extremely hard on me physically and emotionally. Christmas had helped, but I still had a lot of healing to do. So he explained what the workload in his class would be like and told me gently that I wasn’t well enough yet to keep up with it all. The other classes would be better for me.
I nodded, disappointed and relieved at the same time. “Thank you for telling me no,” I said.

Years later, I interviewed via Skype for an editorial position at an academic press on the East Coast. It sounded like a cool job, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to move.
“I don’t know what I want, Lord,” I confessed in my prayers. “What do You want?”
“I want you to trust Me,” He replied.
“Okay,” I said. “If You don’t want me to take this job, don’t let them call me for a second interview.”
I received a rejection letter by the end of the week and thanked Him for the answer.

The following summer, I interviewed for a position at a state college in the hope of being able to teach the kinds of courses I’m teaching now for BCF, online. What they offered me instead, basically for peanuts, were three on-campus sections of the single hardest course in any English department. I had one day to decide.
I didn’t want the job. I felt exhausted just thinking about it. But I hadn’t had any work coming in all summer and had no truly promising prospects on my radar, and I didn’t know whether my hesitation was from God or a result of my own fears of burning out.
So I prayed and asked friends and mentors to pray. Most friends outside the English department couldn’t see past “YAY! JOB!” But several mentors asked the same questions and gave the same cautions, and the more I prayed, the more God confirmed that the no really was from Him. And He repeated what He’d told me before: “I want you to trust Me.”
It may have been the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I turned down the job. And two months later, I received a contract from a translation agency that remains one of my biggest clients.

A few months after that, I came to the conclusion that it was time to leave Waco, and it looked like the right doors were open for me to move back to Llano. At the same time, however, I got word of a teaching position at a Christian college in Fort Worth that sounded like a really good fit. I applied, and they asked me for a phone interview.
“Okay, God,” I prayed before the interview. “I really don’t know what I want. Show me what You want.”
And the interview began with the dean admitting that they’d already hired someone else but wanted to interview me anyway in case, as they hoped, another position came open within the next couple of years.
So I moved back to Llano and haven’t regretted it.

Now, I won’t try to kid you. It’s not always that easy. Walking by faith gets downright scary when not only can I not see light at the end of the tunnel, I’m not even sure whether I’m facing the right way or whether I’m about to walk smack into the tunnel wall. And there have been many times in recent years when I’ve gotten my hopes up about an opportunity, especially with regard to my writing, and been bitterly disappointed when it fell through.
But in quite a few of those cases, I now realize that God, like my dear mentor, was telling me I wasn’t well enough yet.
It’s hard to be patient, to wait for His timing, especially because I’ve spent so much of my life in school that I’m used to seasons having pre-defined end points. This post-doc in hardship is taking a lot longer than I’d hoped! But if there’s one thing I know from long experience, it’s that God tells us no because He loves us and wants the best for us, even if we never understand the answer this side of eternity.

Stilling the Pendulum

“Why can’t there be a balance?” Enola asked me as we politely disagreed over Matt Walsh’s latest post on marriage and “The One.” “Why does it have to be all or nothing?”
“Well, that’s why I keep writing,” I said… and then I got to thinking, wrote the following, and showed it to her. And since she approves, I’m posting it. 🙂

So here’s how I see it.

God has a perfect plan for each of us. For a lot of people–not all, but many–that plan includes marriage. As long as we “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” we can trust that “all these things,” including marriage to “The One” if that’s His will, “will be added unto” us at the right time. And as long as each spouse continues to love God with all his or her heart, soul, strength, and mind and both commit to love each other as themselves, we’ll have our “happily ever after”–not in the sense of not having any more problems ever, but in the sense of being where God wants us to be.

But there’s this pesky little thing called free will that means we have the choice not to follow God’s plan. And that, “For aught that I could ever read, / Could ever tell by tale or history,” is why “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

I don’t believe God’s perfect plan involves marrying an abuser or becoming abusive toward one’s spouse (nor do I believe God requires the abused to remain in their marriage–abuse is a type of infidelity and thus is justified grounds for divorce). I don’t believe God’s perfect plan permits one to violate the Seventh Commandment on the pretext of having found “The One” after making a mistake. I do believe it involves pursuing God together and working together to remain obedient and make the marriage function, even in the rough times that are sure to come because none of us is yet precisely who God wants us to end up being. He’s still working on all of us.

Now, I don’t say any of this to condemn anyone. There’s grace for those who have gone astray, and Romans 8:28 still holds true for victims who need healing after being abused or betrayed. But in the ideal case (which any scientist can tell you may be harder to achieve than it sounds!), when both spouses are obedient to God’s will, they may be confident that they have indeed found “The One.”

On Brokenness

My dear friend Bethany has a post up today about broken saints. It is, like all her writing, very good and insightful, but one point in particular got me thinking. She objects to a worship song, popular when we were both in high school and undergrad, that includes the verse, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for….”

On the one hand, I understand why it’s a sticking point for her, because it’s a sticking point for me as well. Especially when divorced from its context, a plea to be made holy, such a verse can seem to encourage a kind of spiritual masochism, as if one can’t grow unless one is in constant physical or emotional pain. I feel the same discomfort when reading Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God”), even though I understand the point Donne’s trying to make.

But on the other hand, both Donne and the writers of that worship song do have a point, though I think Ira Stanphill expressed it rather better in this hymn:

I had the privilege of hearing the story behind this song when Bro. Stanphill performed it at my church once. If I recall correctly, he had just gone through a nasty divorce in which his unfaithful wife left him, but as he grappled with his grief, God showed him things he needed to repent of and change in his own life.

Now, I’m not going to claim that God caused that divorce, not least because divorce is one of the few things that God states in Scripture unequivocally that He hates. (I don’t have time to unpack the idea much in this post, but there’s a major difference between what God causes, what He condones, and what He permits.) Nor am I in any kind of position to claim that Bro. Stanphill deserved to lose his wife; he didn’t, from what little I can tell. But we do know from Romans 8:28 that God can take even our worst disasters, even the events that grieve Him as well as us, and make them work for our good–and sometimes that good involves the discovery that our hearts had become hardened and needed to be broken so that we could let go of certain sins.

One of the creators of No Need for Bushido made a similar point in the comments on a recent page in which the heroine receives some harsh words from another character, who unjustly calls her selfish. “It’s not the accusation she deserves,” he said, “but it might be the accusation she needs.” And indeed, the very next strip shows her making an effort to ask the hero about his own losses. It’s too soon to know what the larger ramifications of the confrontation will be, but the writer has hinted at more character development to come.

Don’t get me wrong. Not all spiritual growth requires hardship, and God doesn’t always allow us to experience hardship because He wants us to learn something. Sometimes bad things just happen because we live in a fallen world. (That’s a point I’m still grappling with regarding the season of life I’m in now.) I don’t know that it’s necessarily wise to pray to become broken, unless you’re aware of a hardened place in your own heart that you can’t break down by your own efforts. There are plenty of other ways to ask God to cleanse you of sins you might not even recognize. This great classic is one of them:

But despite the distance we may need from the hard times for hindsight to become 20/20, our brokenness can become a positive state as long as (in the words of yet another song) we give Him all our “shattered dreams, wounded hearts, [and] broken toys” and let Him “turn [our] sorrows into joy.”

A parable for Epiphanytide

There were two horses in a fenced field on a winter day. The land had been in a long drought, and though fresh grass had sprouted thanks to recent rains, there was little of it in this field. Yet the horses’ master did not want them to starve, so he had bought good hay and placed a good-sized stack in the field for the horses to eat.

One horse ate the hay. One horse kept trying desperately to graze at a barren patch where all the new grass had already been eaten away.

Which of these horses did his master’s will?

I had been trying to formulate a post on what we look for when we, like the Wise Men, seek for God; the question arose from memories of a former friend who, while attending seminary, foolishly believed that no one who doesn’t have an MDiv or ThD has anything of value to say on the topic of theology. Then I saw these two horses while my dad and I were out shopping, but I hadn’t been able to ponder the sight much beyond “There’s a sermon in there somewhere….”
When I showed the above to my friend Enola G. Freeman, though, she came up with the following application (“with no apologies for shamelessly borrowing from the Apostle Paul”):

Too often we see the truths of God and consider it too good for us, that we are unfit for it, so we leave it for the “experts” — while we slowly starve. We wait for them to feed us, when God has given us His Word to read and our minds — touched by the Spirit — and our imaginations to be used. We are COMMANDED to seek His truth for ourselves, but — rebelliously — we seek to be fed like babies when we should be consuming filet mignon.

Plus, godly counsel and insight aren’t limited to people who’ve had seminary training. My ex-friend may have outgrown his snobbish folly by now–at least I hope he has–but what wisdom he surely missed while he was unwilling to listen to a grandmother or cowboy or young person whose only learning came from the same Book that ought to have formed the basis of all his studies! They might be as “common” as hay, but if they’re listening to the Holy Spirit, their words are worth more than the tired old barren earth of certain circles of academe.

As we enter this new year with whatever other resolutions we may have made, let’s also resolve to ask God’s help in purifying our hearts so that our spiritual eyes will be open to see Him wherever He wants to meet us–in His Word, in a book, in a molecule, or even in a boring old haystack on a winter’s day.

Verses from a weary heart

I was debating asking friends for some encouragement this morning, but then this poem I wrote a few years back popped into my head. So since it’s more blessed to give than to receive, and since it suits the season as well, here’s hoping it’ll bring some encouragement your way. 🙂

Sunrise Serenade

There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Each morning, while the world is still
At daybreak, from my windowsill
There comes a cheerful sparrow’s trill:
The night has gone, the day is come.

Whatever trials lie ahead,
Whatever dreary chores I dread,
Still pipes the sparrow by my bed,
The night has gone, the day is come.

Sometimes in bed I long to stay
To rest my head and heart all day
And listen to the roundelay:
The night has gone, the day is come.

O Lord of Hosts, Whose lowly birth
Proclaims my more than sparrow’s worth,
Sustain my heart with holy mirth
’Til Night has gone and Day is come.

Copyright © 2007 Elisabeth G. Wolfe. All rights reserved.

To Give You the Kingdom

Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. — Luke 12:32

For the Lord God is a sun and shield, the Lord will give grace and glory; no good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly. — Psalm 84:11

These are two of the verses that have been on my mind today. But the context may surprise you.

You see, I have a very dear friend, F, who like me is going through the desert on a horse with no name. Our circumstances are different in a lot of ways, but some of our struggles have been the same, and we vent to each other and encourage each other as much as we can.
Another dear friend, C, is terminally ill, has been for some time, and is facing worsening disability, and in the most literal sense, God alone knows how long she has left.

And yet.

C is one of the best examples I can think of to illustrate the point I made about the cleft of the rock. She spends much of her time studying Scripture and learning truths about God that she wouldn’t have been able to glean if she weren’t in the same condition, and she insists that as hard as it is, she’s content. F and I are finding the same thing, though our circumstances aren’t as dire and sometimes we really need God’s help to trust His timing. (“Pacience is a poynt [virtue], þaʒ [though] hit displese oft,” as my buddy the Pearl poet said.) And C and I remind each other from time to time about the passages in The Hiding Place where Betsie ten Boom takes “in everything give thanks” to the extreme of thanking God for the fleas and lice infesting their overcrowded barracks in Ravensbrück–and then finds out that the vermin are the only thing keeping the Nazi guards from discovering the secret Bible study they start.
I don’t think either of us forgets that Betsie eventually died in Ravensbrück… or that her remains were incorrupt.

No good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly. It is His good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

That doesn’t mean that God won’t grant us financial blessings and temporal luxuries. But it’s not a guarantee that He will, either; health and wealth may not rate among the good things that will help our walk remain upright. And it definitely doesn’t mean He’ll deliver on His promises the second we want them fulfilled. If we expect–nay, demand–that kind of instant gratification, we become like the foolish woman in the saying, “If she had a ham under each arm, she’d cry ’cause she had no bread.” And we forget one of the surprising pieces of wisdom we can find on the oldies station:

Don’t you play the queen of diamonds, boy, she’ll beat you if she’s able.
You know the queen of hearts is your best bet.
It seems to me some good things have been laid upon your table,
But you only want the ones that you can’t get.
–The Eagles, “Desperado”

Sometimes the desert and the nameless horse are part of the road we have to travel to get to the point where either we’re capable of receiving the good eternal things He’s saving up to shower on us or others are capable of receiving the good things He wants us to give as freely as we receive. And sometimes we forget that we won’t necessarily recognize the Romans 8:28 of it all, the now and the not yet, the point where “it felt good to get out of the rain” becomes true and we do remember our names at last, on this side of eternity.

That doesn’t mean the good things aren’t coming. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”–all of it, not the half offered by earthly kings. And “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man all that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). It just means that in the meantime… maybe we need to practice being thankful for the fleas.

A Tale of Two Stepfathers

A while back, I was over at my parents’ house for supper, and we watched an episode of Adam-12 that… stuck with me, I guess. I had intended to write about it then, but life happened. Still, with the recent news out of the NFL (not to mention the NCAA and Rotherham), the subject is as timely as ever.
Also, a brief note before I begin: The stories I’m about to relate happen to deal with men, but… let’s just say that the wicked stepmother trope also exists for a reason.

(I’ll put the episode synopsis behind a cut, just in case there are any Mark Oshiro-level spoilerphobes reading!) Continue reading “A Tale of Two Stepfathers”

He hideth my soul–where?

Am I the only person with whom God uses fandom shorthand?

A while back, I was re-reading Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Psalm 91 and reached this passage in the ninth sermon of the series:

“Thou hast made the Most High thy refuge.” To this asylum the seducer has no access; to this height the calumniator cannot mount; to this retreat the wicked accuser of the brethren finds no admittance. For, as you remember from the beginning of the psalm, these words are addressed to him “that dwelleth in the aid of the Most High,” fleeing thither from the “pusillanimity of spirit and the storm.” We have a double necessity for running to this refuge and dwelling in this aid, because as the Apostle says, there are “combats without (and) fears within.” There would be less need of having recourse to the Lord, if either our interior strength could support courageously the tumult outside, or if external peace allowed our pusillanimity to remain undisquieted. “Thou hast made the Most High thy refuge.” My brethren, let us often run for safety to this refuge. It is a strongly fortified place, where we shall have nothing to fear from the enemy. Would to God we were allowed to remain there always! But that is not for this present time. What is now a refuge shall, however, become one day a dwelling-place, and an everlasting dwelling-place. Meanwhile, since we are not as yet permitted to make our abode there, let us at least visit it often. For against every temptation, against every tribulation, against every kind of necessity, this city of refuge is open to shelter us; the mother’s arms are extended to welcome us; the “clefts of the rock” are ready to receive us; “the bowels of the mercy of our God” invite us to enter. Little wonder, then, if he does not succeed in escaping from his enemies, whosoever despises such a refuge.

And in my spiritual ear, God whispered, “Batcave.”

To understand why that one word made me bawl for a good half hour, you have to know a bit about what it means in Supernatural. Continue reading “He hideth my soul–where?”