For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it,b like a garden of vegetables. 11But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, 12a land that the LORD your God cares for. The eyes of the LORD your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Deut. 11: 10 – 12)
When I first came across these verses, they named the change I’d made from my childhood home to college. It was like I’d entered a new country when I arrived at Wheaton and started to shed the weeping guilt I felt when I was a young girl, guilty over being wretchedly sinful. I’d belt out “amazing grace that saved a wretch like me,” and pound on the “wretch” part. I felt guilt for just being. Some of my earliest memories were of preachers describing how filthy we were in God’s sight. They pointed at the audience, “You put Jesus on the cross.” All I wanted as a toddler, I was three, was to be Jesus’ friend. The years following, I grieved. I drew near to God. What I found in the Bible and CS Lewis named what I was feeling.
There is a brilliance to encouraging people to name their sins i.e. their wrong doing, their brokenness. I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We don’t have to work on that good self image, which becomes a lie, when we are aware of our failings. We can admit our failings but we’re not left with that guilt because God cleans us up.
As a young woman I was homesick even though I was home. I’d weep for hours with longing to be held. I grabbed ahold of the promise that Jesus would wipe away our tears. That longing eased when men I was dating took me up in their arms.
It was a kind of longing C.S. Lewis called sehnsucht. In The Weight of Glory, he said, “In speaking of this desire for a far off country, which we find in ourselves even now…Do what they will then, we remain conscious of a desire no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? A man’s physical hunger does not prove that the man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger may prove that he comes of a race that repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.”
My longing for something more, even though I lived on a gentleman’s farm, a mile in from the main road, a farm whose trees caught light and shadow, and whose woods were secluded and safe to walk in, a farm with old stories, only pointed me to God and his promise of a kingdom coming.
But at Wheaton I started to see that God longed to bless his people. Isa 30: 18 reads, “Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you,
And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the Lord is a God of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him.” I read Proverbs and saw that the righteous person looks for good things to happen, is confident that God longs to bless them. “The wicked flee when no one is pursuing them, the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1) “The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow to it. (Prov. 10:22). “What the wicked dreads will come upon him, but the desire of the righteous will be granted. When the tempest eases, the wicked is no more, but the righteous is established forever” (Prov. 10: 24 – 25). I was gobsmacked that God actually wanted to bless me, to give me good things, answer the desires of my heart. My perspective shifted a little.
Another shift came when we moved to this farm and then again when I retired. Someday maybe I’ll tell you the fearsome transition we made from our house in a small town to this farm. One therapist said that was normal when dreams come true. But moving to this farm wasn’t a dream come true. I’d written that I’d never get close to a place again because of how the ground can own you. In The River Caught Sunlight I write about this: “A voice that seemed to rise from the land itself ran through Janice’s head. If sounded like wind running through hay just before it’s cut. ‘Keep the farm no matter what. It’s the most beautiful place on earth and you are the daughter. You are an heir.'”
It was a spirit I felt, a spirit that captured my brother; the old 1790’s house did not want to be changed. My brother’s best friend commented that he was the only one he knew who grew up and lived as an adult in the same room. He did not want to let it go. But when I returned to visit the farm after new people had bought it, I saw the house had become more itself with the changes the owners made and I was pleased.
I have felt that in this house, the resistance to the changes we made, a stiffness like a horse ready to buck, that has eased in the decade we have lived here. Though I wish for a room that is a dedicated library and office because my bookshelves are scattered throughout the house.
Settling here was more like a return to my native country, a call back to the ground whether I wanted to come back or not. I was like a woman in love when I walked our field. Another therapist said that renovating a house can make a person feel naked and vulnerable, torn down to the studs, like the house.
Another change came when I retired. I have felt like I’ve plunked down by the green pastures and still waters. It’s been lovely to be quiet enough to listen to my friends instead of whining crying and complaining, chewing their ears, barely able to hear their story. It’s been lovely to walk down the road grateful for breath and the sound of my footsteps and my dogs sniffing in the snow banks. I have seen the single milkweed stalk.
People ranging from John Donne to popular evangelical writers tell me I should reject this comfort, that I should choose suffering. Donne said:
“Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new”
and goes on to compare a relationship with God to being ravished because of how we need to be made new. Yes we do need to be made new, but what happens when that new creation comes? Evangelicals have said we need to choose the difficult thing and try to hold onto comfort at all costs. The title of Jen Pollock Michel’s essay: Move Over, Sex and Drugs, Ease is the New Vice touches on this. Her point that we are bodies and living in bodies can be difficult, it takes effort to love, is well taken, but I still wonder if it’s right to seek suffering.
She closes her essay by saying, “Following Christ, then, I am radically called to the bother of the material world with its attendant burdens and griefs. Love, in both its everyday gestures and grand flourishes, is the radical embrace of burden, not the rejection of it.” I agree we should do the hard work of love, but it isn’t always hard work. It isn’t always a burden. It’s not always the valley of the shadow. Sometimes it’s green pastures and still waters. Sometimes it’s sitting at table in the presence of your enemies, which I take to mean, the ultimate reconciliation with people who have been difficult.
If you’ve just lived through several decades of the difficult thing, isn’t it ungrateful to choose the hard thing, instead of letting it come to you? It surely will come because life is hard. The last forty years have been grinding hard mostly from grief, but also from the hard road of making peace with myself.
I know this season of rest will end because if you love anything mortal, grief will smack you. C.S. Lewis says “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
It has been a long work for me to receive this good, quiet time that retirement has brought. I used to frustrate the heck out of my mother whose heart must have ached at her child who picked at her sorrows like so many scabs. She didn’t know there was a kind of joy that came with those tears. (Nowadays I would have been put on medication and carted off to a therapist. Thank God that didn’t happen.)
My mother used to say, “There were two prisoners. One saw the bars, the other the stars.” She hoped I’d look at the stars. In one of the rare letters I received from her, she told me to enjoy college because it was the best time of my life. I thought how awful to pass through the best so early in life. But my time at Wheaton wasn’t the best. It was rich, yes, complex yes, with its own difficulties. But the best was yet to come these decades later.
But she was right. I don’t need to go looking for suffering. Maybe that push towards suffering has been present in evangelicalism for years, and what my mother so hated in my sorrows. I know Jesus says take up your cross, but he also calls us to new creation, to a Kingdom that is here, now. He was anointed with the oil of joy above his fellows, and who for the joy set before him endured the cross. I recently bought two books about joy: Defiant Joy by Stasi Eldredge and Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness by Ingrid Fetell Lee to help me explore this more. Experiencing joy and practicing gratefulness are ways to throw our fists at the darkness and turmoil that seem to be over taking our culture.
But if God has lead me to these green pastures, who am I to go running off to the mountains? Maybe that’s where the story of the lost sheep comes in. Sure Jesus said the shepherd would find that sheep with great joy, but I wouldn’t doubt he might be mumbling under his breath, “Why didn’t the sheep stay with grass and plentiful water? Why didn’t she rest?” as he set out to find her.
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