Michaelangelo, Metaphors, and Sacred Objects

I like symbols and symbology. I’m quick to perceive relationships between seemingly unconnected circumstances, objects, and ideas. This is good for a writer; it’s the foundation for metaphor, effective characterization, and convincing multi-layered cause and effect. It’s also good for making sense of the actual world, whose events are related in ways more complex and profound than can be seen on the surface. We know things by other things—the manifold by the simple, the abstract by the tangible. God often speaks in metaphor, and the imagination can serve as entryway to the understanding.

But things can get whacked when we constantly think of incidents and events as having particular meaning and significance for us personally, like the universe is sending us coded messages. I don’t want to force an analogy or see connections that don’t actually exist or place undue importance on things that in fact have nothing to do with me. I try to keep a sense of perspective. Otherwise my writing, and my life, will get pretty damn silly.

Or pretty damn terrifying.

Or pretty damn terrifying.

All this disclaimer is basically an introduction to another one of my extended metaphor posts. I have a lot of Sacred Objects in my life; within the past year or so I have written about the symbolic importance of a marble, a ring, and a tree. They are reminders to me of things God has shown me about himself. This is the story of yet another such object, which I found twenty-four years ago.

I was hiking with a friend at Angelina National Forest in Nacogdoches. I dearly love twisty, serpentine hardwood forests, full of shadow and secrets, thickly draped vines and furtive little noises. These woods were nothing like that. They were piney woods, like those I used to visit as a child in the Arkansas Ozarks, and just as lovely in their own way. Everything there is bold and open and upright; the pines shoot skyward like giant lances with handles planted in the ground, and the outnumbered oaks have to grow tall and slender and straight just to keep up and reach sunlight. The very air seems bright and clean with resin’s sharp astringency. It’s a place for clarity of thought, meditation, worship, and prayer.

I was twenty, old enough to have racked up some serious regrets and determined to make a new start. I felt hopeful, but bruised and sore inside, twice-shy, and afraid of failing.

At some point in the day, I found this.

nut and bolt thing

It was some sort of nut-and-bolt-and-washer combo, fused into a solid unit. No trace of threading remained on the bolt. The pitted iron surface was a deep brown, lightening to rings of orange rust where bolt and washer met. One long side was flattened to a taper, with the knobby end just vanishing into the flatness.

nut and bolt thing side

The nut was still a respectable hexagon shape, but the washer was warped, pressed up on one side and down on the other, with a delicate curve like the curl at the tip of a rose petal. Viewed from above, the nut and washer did look a lot like a rose.

nut and bolt thing rose

Within the borders of what is now Angelina National Forest, there used to be a sawmill, a railway spur, and a small town. The last of the township was abandoned in 1927, almost ninety years ago. The remains are still there, slowly decaying in the clearcut. The little iron whatsit I found might once have been part of a building, a machine, or a railway structure. Whatever its original purpose might have been, even the memory is lost now, along with the materials it held together, and the thing itself is useless for holding anything together in the future. No wrench will ever loosen the nut from the bolt, and nothing short of hot forging will restore the entire hunk of iron to its original three components in their original forms. Even then, the molecules would be rearranged.

What does it take to so alter the shape of three stout pieces of iron, not in a forge but in a pristine pine forest in East Texas? What forces of heat and pressure, what passage of time, season after season, year upon year? Nature can be a terrifying thing, swift and violent, slow and implacable, patient and strong.

I picked up the little iron whatsit and carried it with me. I don’t know why; I just liked it. And over the course of the day I realized it fit my hand perfectly.

nut and bolt thing hand

I’d recently heard Tommy Nelson preach at Denton Bible Church about the building of God’s temple in Jerusalem. The temple wasn’t just another impressive old building. It was designed as a place for God to personally dwell among humanity, the ineffable and eternal and uncontainable Maker somehow placing himself in a particular physical space crafted by human hands out of timber and stone and precious metal. And the plan was for the nations of the world to come to this place and learn of God and delight in him. The temple was a beautifully proportioned edifice whose furnishings, walls, textiles, and even basic layout all illustrated things about the character and actions of God. It was, among other things, a metaphor.

The building of the temple was a task long in the planning. King David, the warrior-poet, had wanted to be the one to undertake the project, but God said no. David’s reign had been marked by war; his hands had shed too much blood for him to build the temple. The task would go instead to David’s son, Solomon, whose reign would be characterized by peace (1 Chronicles 22:6-10). So David contented himself with amassing supplies—timber, stone, precious metals—for the project he would never see completed or even begun.

King Solomon took the throne, and in the fourth year of his reign he began to build the house of the LORD. He had a quarry somewhere in or around Jerusalem where his builders worked alongside builders sent by Hiram, king of Tyre, preparing timber and stones for the house of God (1 Kings 5:18).

And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.

1 Kings 6:7

Stone-shaping is a percussive activity. Every tool involved—mallet, axe, adze, hammer, wedge, chisel, rasp—is designed to get rid of the parts the stone-squarer doesn’t want, either by forcible removal or by abrasion. A quarry filled with stone-squarers busy at their work is probably no place for someone like myself with a high-strung nervous system and near-pathological sensitivity to noise. Confining the stone-shaping to the quarry would certainly make for a quieter, more peaceful building site. But is that the only reason it was done? And why does the author of the Book of Kings even mention the practice?

Adam Clarke, the Ulster Scottish Bible scholar, writes of this passage,

It appears that every stone was hewn and squared, and its place in the building ascertained, before it came to Jerusalem: the timbers were fitted in like manner. This greatly lessened the trouble and expense of carriage. On this account, that all was prepared at Mount Lebanon, there was neither hammer, axe, nor any tool of iron heard in the building; nothing except mallets to drive the tenons into the mortises, and drive in the pins to fasten them, was necessary: therefore there was no noise. But why is this so particularly marked? Is it not because the temple was a type of the kingdom of God; and the souls of men are to be prepared here for that place of blessedness? There, there is no preaching, exhortations, repentance, tears, cries, nor prayers; the stones must be all squared and fitted here for their place in the New Jerusalem, and, being living stones, must be built up a holy temple for a habitation of God through the Spirit.

solomon temple building

I am not familiar enough with stone-shaping or sculpture to speak with authority, but to my imagination modeling seems less daunting than carving. You can add to clay or other medium as well as take away. My dad, a painter, could paint over a problem section in a work in progress without sacrificing the entire painting. As a writer, I can take a word or phrase out, put it back in, try it somewhere else, read it aloud, and think it over, always knowing I have the option of changing my mind entirely and going back to the original wording. But with stone carving, you have one shot. If you knock something away, it’s gone, unless you do some tedious repair job that will never be as good as if you had gotten it right the first time. A good stone-carver must possess incredible foresight and vision as well as physical dexterity and strength.

Michaelangelo’s David stuns me every time I see an image of it. The figure is slender but strong, and the bodily proportions are a bit off, with huge head and hands that give David an adolescent look. (The size of the head was probably meant as a trick of perspective because the statue was originally intended to be positioned on the roofline of the Florence Cathedral and not at ground level. The hands, however, are probably meant to look oversized.) One leg holds David’s entire weight, causing his hips and shoulders to rest at opposing angles, and giving the torso an s-curve. This posture, called contrapposto, is further accentuated by the inclination of the head to the left and by the contrasting positions of the arms. In profile, which is how we view the statue today, the combined effect of posture and facial expression—the furrow of the brow, the bend of the wrist, the tuck of the head—is taut and apprehensive; but head-on, as displayed in Michaelangelo’s day, it is aggressive and purposeful. In fact, the positioning of the statue at the time of its completion was considered a bold political statement.

michaelangelo's david

And all this came from the mind and hand of a twenty-six-year-old man and was worked into a piece of flawed marble previously rejected by another artist.

I realize I’m wandering a bit. My little iron whatsit is a far cry from Michaelangelo’s David or a stone in the temple Solomon built. Nobody is going to put it in a museum or marvel at its beauty. But it fits my hand, and that makes it special, at least to me.

A lot of things look weird until you know their purpose, and then they look just right. Knitters have the niddy noddy and the ball winder; firefighters have the Halligan bar; nineteenth-century surgeons had the tonsil guillotine. Form follows function, sometimes to terrifying places.

Here, for example.

Here, for example.

Natural forces can dramatically alter the shape of things that seem durable and hard—either with swift violence, as with floods, volcanoes, and hurricanes, or slowly and tediously, as with erosion. Swift or slow, these forces appear terrifyingly random and indifferent. The making of a tool or a work of art, on the other hand, is deliberate and purposeful. But to the medium being shaped, if we imagine the medium having a human consciousness, it would all be one and the same. The medium wouldn’t like it and would rather be left alone. I know I would. I don’t like excessive pressure and friction and heat. Given a choice, I would get away from them. But if God uses these things to shape me and fit me into his house, his hand, then that changes things. What appeared to be random suffering is shown to have purpose, and that makes it easier to bear.

(Not that we should be quick to assume we know what that purpose is, or to make light of pain! Nothing is more irritating than to hear suffering demeaned with glib words about how it’s all part of God’s plan. C.S. Lewis asked, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know he is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”)

Whatever the workshop—a pine forest, a Jerusalem quarry, a human heart—God’s work has purpose, and his vision can be trusted. He uses rough forces to make things of beauty.  And he will not always be hammering and chiseling and adzing and sanding. Suffering in this life is our opportunity for gaining character, but one day the work will be complete. The forces that shaped my little nut-and-bolt combo had finished long before I came along on that hiking trail. It was a perfect fit the moment I picked it up; there was nothing left to do.

michaelangelo's david hand

What Will the Harvest Be?

It’s been a pretty good year in the garden here at Midkiff Manor. Nobody got snake-bit, in spite of two close encounters with copperheads, and thanks to the electric fence the horses didn’t steal any produce except that one bell pepper from the basket I mistakenly left in the shed. The horses did eat the weeds we tossed outside the fence, which was a win-win. And though I didn’t keep track of the volume of the harvest, I know we ate a lot of oven-fried summer squash and tomato-basil-mozzarella salad. The kitchen freezer is crammed with frozen crooknecks and zucchinis, the laundry room fridge with butternut squash, and I have more butternuts curing on a rack outside. The cherry tomatoes are still producing, and before long the tomato seedlings I started some weeks back will be ready to set out for fall.

There are many reasons for our success, and I’ll gladly take credit for as many of them as I can. I’m particularly proud of our homemade squash trellises, which have been well worth the T-posts, cattle panels, and hours spent in assembly. By keeping fruit and foliage off the ground, we protected the plants from disease and reduced weeding to a fraction of what it would have been with a bunch of sprawling vines. Also, sprawling vines would have meant more hiding places for copperheads.

squash trellis 2

Early in the season Greg did something clever with trenching and PVC pipe, and the end result was a hydrant in the shed providing us with easy water access for garden and horses. I was almost giddy with delight. I loathe dealing with water hoses—hauling them from here to there, tugging them through tall weeds, laboriously untangling a mass of deceptive coils only to realize the hose I’ve been wrestling isn’t the one that’s screwed into the hydrant, or has been taken apart somewhere in the middle for I know not what reason, or has a nozzle attachment on the end that I don’t need and can’t get off. The whole thing is exhausting and demoralizing. Just knowing I don’t have to deal with all that has made me a lot more eager to work in the garden than in years past.

The garden site itself is a good one, with a rich sandy loam—Bermuda grass and weedy taproots just pop right out of it—and a slight slope that helps the water flow down. We can’t take credit for the soil, but we can for being smart; the main reason we chose to build on this site is because of the successful gardens of people who lived here decades ago. One of these, a former hired man, declared that this location was the best site on the whole farm for gardening.

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Some crops were more successful than others. The Black Cherry tomatoes did pretty well, the Jaspers did great, and the Tycoons bugged out early without producing a single fully ripe fruit. The okra seedlings got devoured by grasshoppers almost as soon as they sprouted. The first round of sweet potato slips did too, but we replanted and put on some row cover and are hoping for the best. We would have foiled the grasshoppers altogether if we’d set out the slips earlier in the season, but we couldn’t find any at local feed stores and ended up mail-ordering some from Tennessee. Even if the sweet potatoes do their darnedest from here out, their yield won’t be half of what it should be, but next year we’ll know better. The butternuts and crooknecks had a terrific output; the zucchinis just did okay.

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In the garden as in life, the reasons for failure are sometimes clear and sometimes not. Pests, disease, and lack of water produce predictable results, but often things go wrong and you really don’t know why. Why did some of our tomato plants produce so much better than others? The high-performing Jaspers were at the head of the row; the ill-faring Tycoons were at the end; the Black Cherries were somewhere in between, both in location and in yield. Were the Jaspers getting more water than the others, or less? Was the water pooling at the end of the rows or not flowing down enough? Are the Jaspers just better performers? Were the Tycoons devoured by an incredibly selective tomato hornworm?

The climate here in South Central Texas is harsh. Having the right varieties helps a lot but doesn’t guarantee success. Six years ago, when we first started scoping out possible building sites for our future home, we found a little tree surrounded by brush, weeds, and old house wreckage. With help from a Neil Sperry guide, I identified it as a Texas mountain laurel: small, tough, evergreen, drought-tolerant. It produces fragrant purple blossoms in springtime and actually prefers slightly alkaline soil. How awesome is that? Greg’s mom said the tree was probably planted decades back by a former resident, a lady whose house later burned down. This lady had a lot of trouble in her life but she always had a beautiful garden. We took this as a good sign, and I named my blog for the tree long before we started construction.

The tree is still there in what is now our back yard; I can see it from my study window. But some months back it started looking sickly and dropping leaves. I’m always sorry to see a good tree die, and this one has been a sort of symbol to me—not quite on the order of the White Tree of Gondor, but a reminder of God’s goodness and our purpose in being here on the farm in the first place.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books, writes in The First Four Years about a beloved young cottonwood tree planted by her husband in a sheltered spot north of the house where Laura can see it from her pantry window. A drought ruins that year’s wheat and oat crop, but the little cottonwood survives…only to die later in a fire that destroys the house while Laura is suffering from depression following the death of her second child. This is pretty much par for the course for the Ingalls and Wilder families, as anyone who’s read the Little House books knows. Grasshoppers, blackbirds, bad weather—their farm troubles are legion, and throughout the series wild hope and crushing disappointment follow each other in a heartbreaking loop. The first year of Laura and Almanzo’s marriage, they grow a beautiful field of wheat which, if harvested, will pay all they owe and leave them so well off that when Laura first does the math she thinks she must have made a mistake. One August day, Almanzo goes out to start harvesting, then comes back to the house and says the wheat still needs another day or two to be perfectly ripe. That very afternoon, a hail storm wipes out the entire crop.

Throughout the Little House books there is this sense that if they just hang in there, if they find the right land and the right crop and dig in and work hard and go without new shoes, they will succeed. Those who fail at farming do so because they give up too soon or don’t know what they’re doing or don’t have enough heart. The Ingallses and the Wilders have plenty of heart; their determination and good cheer in the face of overwhelming setbacks, their pure grit, just astound me. Long after the events described in the series, the Wilders did indeed have a successful, prosperous farm in Missouri, with an orchard, dairy cows, grain fields, and poultry. But Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls, with all his energy, optimism, and hard work, ended up packing it in and moving to town, where he supported the family with carpentry jobs. That must have stung.

Farmers live pretty close to the edge, but really all economic ventures are speculative. Some livelihoods appear more stable than others in the short run, but ultimately times change, new markets emerge, and old industries collapse. The early American turpentine orchards of the Eastern Seaboard thrived for a time and then failed, leaving acres and acres of devastated land where virgin forest had once stood. Silk manufacture took a nosedive when polyester became a thing. Some of the most adored actors in silent films couldn’t make the transition to talkies because their voices were untrained or heavily accented, and so their careers ended. Disco flashed and died; within a few years its stars went from adulation to hot scorn. For a few years in 1990s Texas, ostrich farming looked like it might take off, but the market soon cratered, leaving newcomers with birds purchased at too high a price to ever be recouped. Many owners abandoned their birds to the wild, and for a while rural Texans worried about ecological disaster in the form of flocks of well-adapted seven-foot feral birds with powerful legs and four-inch claws capable of killing a lion, or a man, with a single kick. Non-Texans, I did not make that up.

Sowing the seed by the wayside high,
Sowing the seed on the rocks to die,
Sowing the seed where the thorns will spoil,
Sowing the seed in the fertile soil:
Oh, what shall the harvest be?
Oh, what shall the harvest be?

There’s something almost ominous in the repeated line at the end. What indeed shall the harvest be? Who can say? In the words of the teacher, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Witchcraft and idolatry, both forbidden by God in the Bible, are really methods of manipulating time and chance. The kind of medieval European folk magic that Westerners associate with witchcraft doesn’t put in an appearance in Biblical accounts. Witchcraft in the Bible is about telling the future. Even the necromancy in 1 Samuel 28, where Saul gets a witch with a familiar spirit to call up the spirit of the prophet and kingmaker Samuel, is done for the purpose of asking the outcome of Saul’s upcoming battle. Idolatry is about influencing the future, performing prescribed rituals so the gods will grant what you want, with the usual example being good crops. (Farming has been chancy business ever since Adam and Eve left the garden.) Maybe anxiety is just the witchcraft and idolatry of a rationalistic age. We are fooling ourselves, messing around with worry and fruitless activity that exhausts us without actually qualifying as work.

In Perelandra, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel set on an Edenic planet Venus, the activity forbidden to the unfallen inhabitants—the forbidden fruit of the realm—is staying overnight on dry land. Ransom, the Earthman protagonist, thinks this is odd at first, but after mulling it over realizes it makes a lot of sense. The planet is oceanic with an unknown number of floating islands. Go to sleep on one of these and you have no idea where you’ll wake in the morning. You might find your plans sidelined and yourself inconvenienced, separated from someone you long for. God wants the Perelandrans to trust his providence and not try to snatch sovereignty for themselves. They couldn’t anyway, any more than we can, but they could sure mess themselves up trying. We none of us can secure the future.

perelandra floating island

Sowing the seed with an aching heart,
Sowing the seed while the teardrops start…

Throughout the created world laws of cause and effect are always at work, whether we plan and labor with thoughtful diligence or just allow ourselves to be directed by outside forces. But the system is broader than we realize, and things happen that we don’t foresee and can’t account for. Plans go agley; friendships fail; and early promise falls short in execution. Likewise, boons and blessings come unlooked-for from unexpected places, and people emerge from years of sin and sorrow to walk in the light and thrive. Not all surprises are disappointments.

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Bell peppers were among the middling performers in this year’s garden. The foliage looked good, but the fruit was small and scarce. And again, we didn’t know why. Online sources suggested fertilizer, but we didn’t want to use the synthetic stuff, and anyway we thought it shouldn’t be necessary on such fresh ground where other plants were doing so well. We talked about adding compost or organic soil amendments, but other things demanded our attention, and we let the peppers go.

Then about a week ago two of the plants suddenly started producing decent-sized fruits of bright yellow and red. I have no idea why. In the words of Lord Robert Crawley upon learning of his wife’s unexpected pregnancy, “I don’t understand what we’re doing differently.” In both cases, there are mysteries involved far beyond human agency.

And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.

Mark 4:26-9

The Bible abounds with agricultural illustrations and parables. Much as our modern world disguises the fact, agriculture is ground zero for human sustenance, economics at its most basic.

A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.

Luke 13: 6-9

And that’s the end of the parable. Jesus doesn’t say whether the remedial treatment works or whether the owner of the vineyard even agrees to give it a go. He just leaves off with the possibility that this isn’t the end of the tree’s life, and that just because it hasn’t borne for three years doesn’t mean it never will. And this is good to hear, because people go through years of unfruitfulness as well, and we can’t just conclude after a certain amount of time that if they’ve gone so long in a certain state, they’ll remain that way always, any more than you can be sure that those who start well will end well. Where there is life there is hope, and uncertainty too. Whatever happens, it won’t be something we can take much credit for.

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A few mornings back, I looked out the window and saw four of the family dogs standing around the mountain laurel tree, pawing it and giving it funny looks. By now the leaf canopy was so thin that I could tell they hadn’t treed any cats, but something had caught their interest, maybe a snake. I went outside to investigate.

I never did figure out what the dogs were so worked up about, but I did see this.

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Clumps of glossy baby-green leaves. New growth.

Will the tree continue to leaf out and bless and cheer me? Who can say? I hope so. And whether it does or no, God has good things in store for me, in this life and the life to come. The one who gives chance after chance to a fruit-stingy fig tree can be trusted with my future.

Sown in the darkness or sown in the light,
Sown in our weakness or sown in our might,
Gathered in time or eternity,
Sure, ah, sure will the harvest be.

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Hard Providences

Ever since I started writing so much about loss, anxiety, isolation, and depression, my blog readership has seen a dramatic increase. (Um, yay?) The words seem to have resonated; I’ve been amazed and touched by the responses I’ve received. Some were from strangers; others were from people I’d known for years without being aware of even a fraction of what they were going through. One woman I’ve known over a decade said that “a big part of the struggles is feeling like you can’t talk about it.” She’s right. Isolation is crippling, and there’s relief in simply seeing a problem acknowledged, owning it, and knowing you’re not alone. I remarked on this to another friend, and she replied, “People are desperate for transparent relationships and shared struggle. For far too long, the (American) Christian life has been all about ‘living victoriously’ instead of recognizing the difficulties and helping each other walk through the hard providences.”

isolation backpack

American optimism is a beautiful and potent thing. It survived the first horrific winter in Plymouth Colony; it settled the western frontier; it built the railroads. All these achievements have suffering built into their very foundations, but what we chiefly remember is the triumph. Americans are all about assertion, determination, goals, and action plans. We refuse to accept defeat; we focus on the good to nurture and encourage it; we dream; we achieve.

The can-do spirit is so systemic to our culture that we forget there’s any other way of looking at things. We can get a lot of insight from an outsider’s perspective, as in these hilarious travel tips for Russians visiting the United States. Here’s what the Russian advice-giver has to say about American optimism:

Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation. Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, “Are you all right?” Russians will inquire: “Are you ill?” We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we “aren’t sick,” they “stay well.” We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda.

Hokey as it may sound, there really is tremendous power in thinking positively, though not as much as some would say. To some degree—we could safely call it a significant degree—our moods are affected by the set of our minds, the things we think about and brood over. And, also to a significant degree, this set of the mind is something we can control. But not always, and not entirely. The author of this Huffington Post article claims that changing from a negative to a positive outlook is as simple as flipping a switch. Seriously, those are the words he uses. Some days this may be true, but not every day or for every person. Sometimes the switch is stuck—corroded, even. Anxiety can do a real number on your mind. Obsessive-compulsive disorder—the real kind, not the eccentric-but-cute version we see in movies—can make you think about things you don’t want to think about, horrible things, over and over, and you can’t stop though you desperately want to. I don’t wish to minimize the real and admirable gumption people can show in disciplining their minds and emotions, much less excuse self-indulgence or mental sloth, but some people have a more challenging set of underlying circumstances than others, and that shouldn’t be dismissed.

C.S. Lewis has this to say in Mere Christianity:

The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.

It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.

In recent years a dear friend of mine went through some rough times, which she handled with incredible grace and fortitude. In the face of trials that could have cratered her, she joyfully and deliberately thanked God for blessings of life and salvation and family and coffee and birdsong and sunrise. She had down times too, and she was transparent about these, but hope was never absent. One day she observed that when things are going well, people often assume it’s because their methods for marriage or childrearing or Christian living or whatever must be the right ones. And they congratulate themselves on their success, subtly implying that those who are struggling are doing something wrong. But maybe the self-congratulators haven’t been truly tested yet; maybe their time just hasn’t come. And in the meantime, maybe they ought to be humbly grateful for their blessings and not so quick to take credit for them.

isolation birds

There is no shortage of optimism in the American church. We teach and believe that if you do certain things you will succeed, you will prosper, you will have a spectacular marriage, your children will rise up and call you blessed. And of course it’s true that cause and effect really is a thing and that certain behaviors do generally produce certain results. But there are a lot more causes than our systems account for, and if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit we aren’t following the behavioral formulas all that well to begin with.

There is a thing called the just-world fallacy which is responsible for a lot of needless frustration and blame. The idea is that people’s actions always bring fair and fitting consequences; good is rewarded, evil is punished, and moral balance is restored before the final credits roll. This has next to nothing to do with the justice of God; it’s a mythical temporal tit-for-tat that satisfies our limited comprehension. If asked point-blank, most people would claim they don’t believe anything so crazy and simplistic, but their responses to calamities often betray their unconscious bias. If someone gets sick, he must have had unhealthful habits. If a child gets hurt, the parents or caregivers must have been negligent. If someone gets swindled, it’s his own fault for being so gullible. This is a defense mechanism, of course, a psychological barrier to shield us from the knowledge that random terrifying events could happen to us too. Job’s friends subscribed to this belief, and they clung fiercely to it, growing increasingly hostile the longer it was challenged. Admit it! You sinned! You brought this on yourself. What, do you think God is unjust? He only metes out what we deserve. You managed to hide your sin for a long time but you were found out at last. You had it coming! Confess and repent before something worse happens to you!

Sometimes you just get tired. You’ve been staying brave and keeping faith and holding the course to the point of white-knuckled fatigue, but still no joy. You smile, but you feel beat up inside. You see people online and in person who appear to have succeeded where you’ve failed, and you’d like to crawl into bed and shut your eyes and make them all go away. You wish some wise mentor would tell you what you should do, but you’re afraid that confiding your problems will be perceived as gossip and complaining. Besides, even if you’re desperate enough to risk it, is there anyone you trust that much?

isolation weeds

On the whole I believe American optimism is a good thing for the church. It causes you to focus on what you can control rather than what you can’t. In relationships, this means that instead of brooding over another person’s shortcomings, you deal with your own, and that is an excellent thing. Once the other person is off the hook and not being criticized anymore, he might respond with positive change of his own, or you might realize that your shortcomings were the real problem to begin with.

But proactive optimism is not a failsafe formula for success. It can only do so much. And with all the emphasis on overcoming, those who suffer have no place to go. They feel they will be blamed for their own difficulties or their struggles will be minimized.

“These people do not stop smiling,” says the travel advisor to Russians visiting America. “Also, they don’t want to hear your problems because it interrupts their smiling.”

Maybe we need to stop smiling and really listen.

If we are believers, then our greatest burden, that of our own guilt, has already been lifted. We can now help bear one another’s remaining burdens. I think we could do better at this. We need to learn to remain in the tension of a difficult providence, to keep company with one another while accepting the lack of resolution and the helplessness. We really are helpless; we need God to intervene. When we realize this, we pray out of real desperation, and in interceding and being interceded for we become dearer to one another.

We also need to be more transparent about our own difficulties. Most of us probably have at least a few folks around us who would be quick to sympathize with our troubles and distressed that we’d kept them to ourselves so long. Also, being transparent can help another person do the same. It has often happened to me that I have shared a weakness or a struggle, and the other person has looked at me and said, “I am so glad you said that.” And then we really talk. Isn’t that remarkable? I don’t think the words are chosen idly. I think my admission truly makes the other person glad. We are both glad together, and able to relax in one another’s company.

Years ago I read an author’s account of how an acquaintance from church dropped by unannounced for some reason while her house was a wreck. The author was cringing inside, but her guest looked around and announced, “I used to think you were perfect, but now I think we can be friends.”

isolation hand in handLet’s not be perfect. We really can’t anyway, so let’s not even try. Being friends is better. Let’s be friends.

When Hope is Weak

When you’ve had as many cats as we have, you’ve seen cats get sick. A sick cat is a sorry sight. It creeps about with sunken body and head hung low. It stops making the Contented Cat Face. It hunches there, listless and still, waiting.

Sick Cat1

Sometimes the cat gets better. Its eyes clear; it starts eating and drinking and taking an interest again. When you pet the cat, it presses against your hand to get in a really good rub. It narrows its eyes to slits and rounds its back in comfort. A convalescent cat is as happy and grateful as any human recovering from a bad illness and just as wonderful to see.

sick_cat4

And sometimes the cat dies. Its fur and skin grow cold. The color recedes from its gums, leaving them pale and grey. Its eyes dull. It sinks into a stupor. Occasionally it rallies and fights for a while, meowing desperately, arching its back, scrabbling at the floor with its paws. Its breathing is shallow but strained; existence is hard labor. But it holds on.

For hours on Christmas Eve I watched a young cat slowly die. Several times I truly thought he was getting better, but he wasn’t. When my husband got home he took the cat outside with his .22 and ended it.

A recent remark from a friend got me thinking about hope, about how hard it is to let go even when you’re all but certain it’s in vain. It dwindles to a hard little kernel that lodges in your mind and will not move. Hope is part expectation and part desire, and it’s not particular as to proportions. Expectation may shrivel to a dry husk while desire remains robust and green, and together they still add up to hope.

You can tell yourself every hour of every day how unlikely you are to get what you want, but you cannot by an act of will stop the wanting. The most meager grain of expectation is enough to keep hope alive, and desire can actually nurture expectation, doing violence to intellect.

sick-cat-2

The trouble is that we can’t predict the future. If we could, then hope would be neither needful nor possible. We’re caught in the uncertainty between fulfillment and disappointment, and there’s no way out but through.

I think that faint hope is like a little cat that’s sick. It might make it and it might not. And the tension of watching and wondering is a terrible, terrible thing. Even when it seems that the most merciful thing to do would be to kill it, you can’t, because you can’t willfully end hope without ending yourself. The most you might manage is to stifle it, and if you make a habit of that you’ll end up like what C.S. Lewis called the Disillusioned “Sensible Man.” Though priggish and repressed, such a man “rubs along fairly comfortably” without being a nuisance to society. According to Lewis, such a state “would be the best line we could take if man did not live forever.”

Lewis continues,

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same. (Mere Christianity)

Is this any help for the one who is suffering not from the failure of earthly things to satisfy ineffable desires but rather from a simple inability to get those earthly things which he so badly wants? I think so–I hope so. If nothing else, it affirms hope itself as a virtue. Continuing to hope past the point of pragmatism can make us feel foolish and embarrassed. It shouldn’t. Hope and folly are not the same thing. We may or may not get the thing we want, but while we wait we can take comfort in knowing there are other, better things awaiting us whose fulfillment is sure.

I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the LORD more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.

Psalm 130:5,6

sick-cat-IV

Biting Airplanes Out of the Sky: Lessons About Anxiety From a Shetland Sheepdog

I was driving home with my kids one evening when something fluffy and sable-colored caught my eye from a bar ditch. A long, dignified dog face turned a little to follow our Suburban as we passed. Was it a collie? Something about its posture didn’t seem right. I turned the Suburban around.

Not a collie, but a Shetland sheepdog. She wasn’t visibly injured or starved-looking; in fact, she was on the tubby side. Long bald patches ran down either side of her spine. Her skin was coming off in flakes.

She looked at me as I approached, but without much interest. She didn’t get up, either to meet me or to run away, and she didn’t perk her ears or pant as a dog should. On the whole, the best word I could think of for her condition was “depressed.”

She had no collar, and my friend who lived in the neighborhood told me she’d been roaming loose for days. Nobody knew whose dog she was.

We took her home. It was too late to visit the vet that day. The dog remained listless, resting her head in Anna’s lap and accepting the children’s petting without pleasure or fear. Greg guessed that she had internal injuries and doubted she’d survive the night.

But in the morning she was still with us, a little pile of sable-and-white fluff bedded down on the grass just outside the French doors in the back hard. After waking up she gave a few barks, jerking her pointed nose skyward, and then looked at me through the glass to see how I was taking it.

Hoping she didn’t have some horrific contagious skin disease, I bathed her, wrapped her in towels, and set her in a corner of the living room. She went straight to sleep and remained that way for the better part of two days, seldom leaving her corner, using the towels as a temporary bed. Ready, our Border collie/Australian shepherd mix, paid no attention to her. She was more like a piece of furniture than a second dog.

But after a couple of days she started to wake up and take notice. At first I didn’t actually see her walking around; I’d just go into another room and suddenly there she’d be, looking at me with a strangely expectant face.

The vet said she wasn’t injured. Her lethargy, hair loss, and excess weight turned out to be caused by an underactive thyroid. The flaky skin puzzled us for a while, but eventually we decided it was probably just sunburn due to lack of fur. She’d delivered pups recently and still had milk. Her paw pads were rubbed raw. The vet said, “That’s what comes of being tender-footed and then getting dumped.”

We weren’t surprised when no one claimed the dog. We guessed that she’d been used in a small-time breeding operation and then abandoned because of her thyroid condition.

There was some talk of placing her with a nice Sheltie rescue organization. We already had one dog and two cats, and adding another dog seemed like a big deal. (Yes, we now have a combined canine/feline population total that numbers well into double digits. This was another time.) Greg, sensing my feelings in the matter, said, “You know, we could keep this dog if you want. She’s small. She won’t eat much.”

I named her Bridget, a good Scottish name. With the help of some prescription pills from the vet, she slimmed down and her coat grew thick and lush. There was something deeply compelling in her small pointed face; she was so intelligent, so watchful, so alert, so very fixated on me and me alone. Ready was the first dog I’d ever loved; Bridget was the first dog to be mine.

In many of Bridget's photos, she's either barking or about to be.

In many of Bridget’s photos, she’s either barking or about to be.

It appears to me that God has allowed some special things to happen in the relationship between people and dogs. C.S. Lewis thought so, too. He had this to say about animals in The Problem of Pain.

Atheists naturally regard the co-existence of man and the animals as a mere contingent result of interacting biological facts; and the taming of an animal by a man as a purely arbitrary interference of one species with another. The ‘real’ or ‘natural’ animal to them is the wild one, and the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing. But a Christian must not think so. Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal—the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master. If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so.

Some of this animal selfhood comes from selective breeding. Certainly selective breeding has produced some terrible things; dominion wouldn’t be dominion if it couldn’t be abused. But it’s produced wonderful things too, particularly with dogs. There’s amazing variety to be found in Canis lupus familiaris. Hunting dogs are bred for a certain kind of physiology and intelligence, security dogs for another, shepherds for yet another; and even within those groups there’s great physical and behavioral variation. Our Great Dane/Lab and our Border collie/Spaniel are comically distinct in even so simple an action as walking across a pasture.

The kind of intelligence particular to herding dogs, like Shelties, is a complex one. These dogs have to be able to direct the animals they’re herding, protect them from predators, and communicate with the shepherd.

Shelties probably didn’t have a lot of predators to contend with on the Shetland Islands where the breed was developed, but I’ve read speculation that the modern Sheltie’s tendency to bark at aircraft, and launch its body upward as if to snatch the aircraft from the sky, is a holdover from when the dogs might have had to protect flocks from predatory birds. All the Shelties I’ve known take themselves seriously enough for me to think this might just be correct.

Here we see Bridget barking.

Here we see Bridget barking.

Bridget took a very serious view of life indeed. There was something both comical and poignant about the contrast between, on the one hand, her small size, fluffy coat, and dainty features, and on the other, her deadly seriousness and determination. Affronts to her dignity offended her. She was intelligent and vigilant, reserved with strangers but deeply loyal to me. She was something of a one-person dog, and though from my point of view she seemed friendly enough to the rest of the family, they claimed this was only when I was actually around. In my absence she was moody and peevish. Sometimes when I was away the kids would hang a blanket across the corner to which she’d withdraw herself, thinking that she’d feel better if she didn’t have to look at anyone. She stayed put behind the blanket until I returned, so maybe they were right.

We often wondered what Bridget’s life had been like before she came to us. Her behavior gave us some clues, but we could only guess at their meaning.

Anything resembling violence—rough play, raised voices—made her nervous. One day Greg, who was studying martial arts, was practicing a kata in the bedroom, and he began by clapping his hands together loudly. Bridget was relaxing in the living room; she couldn’t even see Greg, but at the sound of the hand-clap, she snapped upright, ran into the bedroom through the open door, and gave him a severe barking. She didn’t react this way to loud noises in general. Did the sound of flesh striking flesh have some significance to her?

Counting aloud bothered her too. I wondered if she had lived in a household where the parents counted menacingly at the children, as in, “I’m going to give you to the count of three, and then…”

She was mistrustful of men and adolescent boys but protective of children and women. When Daniel and two of his friends fought each other with wooden swords in the back yard she watched without interest, but when one boy’s little brother went outside she suddenly ran over to the big boys and barked and barked. Their violent behavior wasn’t an issue when the worst they might do is pick off each other, but once a small child entered the area, it was a danger that must be stopped.

Well, not exactly stopped. There is a big difference between a watch dog and a guard dog. A Sheltie is a good watch dog because it is vigilant and alert and will bark the heck out of anything it finds odd, but that’s about it. If the aggressor or intruder isn’t deterred by noise alone, he won’t be physically restrained by twenty pounds of fluffy dog. Bridget knew her limits. That she dared as much as she did, given her small size and overall anxiety about the world, demonstrated real valor, I think.

One day Greg was playing with Emilie, who was about eight at the time, tickling her and lifting her into the air. Emilie was squealing with laughter. Bridget didn’t like it; she barked sternly at Greg from a few feet off. Greg set Emilie on the sofa and jokingly (but nothing is a joke to a Sheltie) walked over to Bridget with a sort of bowed-up posture until he was towering directly over her. And Bridget stopped barking, shut her eyes, and crouched down in a tucked posture. She was in no danger, but she didn’t know that. She had done what she could to protect the child, and now she was prepared to take a beating for it.

Greg dropped the menacing posture at once, lowered himself in the most unthreatening way he could manage, and gave Bridget a friendly rub.

Like all of us, Bridget had a unique identity shaped by the genetic package she was born with and her formative experiences. I loved her dearly in all the goodness and frailty of her doganity. I loved her fierce loyalty, her protective impulses, her unnecessary anxiety; I loved the way she followed me around the house, gazed at me when I petted her, got excited when she saw me putting on the shoes that meant we were about to go for a walk.

Bridget and Ready, in from the rain. Not barking.

Bridget and Ready, in from the rain. Not barking.

A herding dog ought to be sensitive and responsive to the shepherd’s will. In Bridget’s world, I stood in the place of a shepherd. She wasn’t always as responsive as I would have liked; she barked more than necessary, often after I’d told her to stop, as if she thought I didn’t understand the threat. She was more vigilant than she needed to be; she spent a lot of time and energy taking defensive measures against forces she didn’t comprehend and couldn’t control anyway. She made me think: does my anxiety look this way to God? How many of my own fears are completely baseless, being concerned with things that will absolutely never come to pass?

Each member of our family has at one time or another had a dog that was that person’s particular dog, and in each case I’ve been amazed by how close a match it was, especially considering that none of us was searching for a particular breed or mix. These dogs just came to us—from the hand of God, I think, ready to love us and teach us and be exactly the companions we needed.

From left to right: my dog, Greg's dog, Daniel's dog.

From left to right: my dog, Greg’s dog, Daniel’s dog.

Bridget was my dog—neurotic, focused, watchful, loyal. She was far from perfect, but she did what she could, and she was wonderfully lovable just as she was. If I love my own shepherd with anything like Bridget’s devotion, I will do well indeed.

bridget sweet

Losing and Finding, and Sometimes Just Losing

For a brief time when I was about five, my family had a dog. His name was Snoopy, which confused me because Snoopy was supposed to be a black and white spotted beagle and our dog was a solid brown dachshund. I was a fearful child, often irrationally so—among other things, I had a phobia of the number four—and I was afraid of Snoopy.

My memories of early childhood are like isolated bursts or blossoms—vivid, discrete units, often lacking context or continuity, floating in an amorphous plasma of not understanding what the heck was going on. I don’t remember petting Snoopy or pouring his dog food or watching him snuggle down in his dog bed, but I do remember swinging on my swingset while he ran back and forth on the ground below, under and around me, barking and barking. Given time, I would have realized that his barking was playful, not menacing; I would have stopped being afraid of him, picked him up, carried him around with me, kissed him between his eyes. But he lived only a short time after we got him. In another blossom-burst of memory, I am outside with my sister and her friends, and my brother is hurrying down the sidewalk towards us, holding Snoopy, who is bloody and yapping in pain. He’s been hit by a car. This is my last memory of him.

Snoopy never slept with me in my bed or cuddled with me on the sofa. I didn’t push him around in a doll stroller or dress him up or feed him treats. I hardly knew him. But his small memory stayed firmly lodged in my mind. As I grew older I thought about him a lot. I felt bad that I hadn’t played with him. I desperately wanted him back—not merely as he had been, but as he should have been throughout the years I should have had with him. For years after his death, I would sometimes lie awake, thinking about this dog I had barely known, and crying.

Some years later, when I was about ten, I lost a stuffed animal—also a dog, bafflingly named Tubels. Some classmates and I had put on a short play for reasons I can’t remember. It was set in a pet store, and I’d brought some toys from home to stand in for animals that weren’t being played by classmates. The play was a rousing success, a credit to me as actor, director, and playwright, and I felt triumphant as I left school, carrying my stuffed animals in a basket. For some reason I was being watched by some after-school babysitting lady that day, a thing which almost never happened in my entire childhood. And somewhere between school and the babysitter’s house, Tubels was lost.

I mourned a long time for that stuffed dog. For a while I actually hoped and prayed that he might somehow be found again and returned to me. Lying awake in bed (again), I mentally replayed the walk to the babysitter’s house. I imagined Tubels falling out of the basket and rolling into a gutter, and me walking away, distracted by post-play euphoria, not paying attention. Sometimes I altered the scene in my mind so that I noticed he was missing, turned back, and rescued him, or never dropped him, or got picked up at school by my mom along with all my animals, safe in their basket.

Maybe I was more obsessed with loss than is usual for a child. The memories of lost inanimate objects, even those of little intrinsic value, remained sharp with me for years. Usually there was guilt involved, as with the plastic ring I took to preschool after I’d been told to leave it at home. Another girl tried to take it and spuriously told the teacher I had stolen it, and the teacher confiscated it from me without due process and put it in a can on a high shelf, from which it was never returned.

Eraser-Mate pens, introduced in the late seventies, were the bane of my sixth-grade existence. I’d always had bad handwriting; my hand cramped easily, and the whole process of putting words on a page was so painful and frustrating that I made a lot of mistakes. By this point in my school career writing with a pen was mandatory, so Eraser-Mate pens seemed like a godsend to me for a time. Theoretically, they offered me a chance to fix my mistakes. In reality, the nonindelible ink smeared under my hand and the eraser didn’t so much remove the ink as smear it around, so my papers looked as bad as ever. Eventually I was forbidden to use the things. But for a while they were precious commodities to me. They were more expensive than regular pens; they had to be stowed securely or brought home after school, or they would be stolen by some dirty pilfering eleven-year-old. I knew this, and yet I could not keep those darn pens in my possession to save my life.

It’s amazing that with my near-pathological levels of anxiety about loss, I didn’t do a better job keeping track of my belongings. My young brain combined hyper-vigilance with extreme absentmindedness. At school, I repeatedly failed to secure the pens in a safe location; at night, lying awake in bed (I did a lot of that), I agonized over my carelessness. Nobody was abusing me at home or making me shovel coal to pay for my lost pens, but there would be an accounting to be made, and I dreaded it.

Loss terrified me, and yet I couldn’t seem to get away from it. Every so often something of mine would just slip into a void, never to be seen again. I always felt I should have been able to prevent the loss, to take better care of my things, but somehow I just couldn’t seem to do it.

Eventually I grew up, and my hyper-vigilance got the better of my absentmindedness. These days I rarely lose my belongings in the sense of mislaying them. I have designated places for almost all household items and I usually put them there. (Sometimes this actually works against me, because when family members can’t find their own misplaced belongings, they know exactly where to look for mine, which they may or may not return after use.) But I am still haunted by loss. Of time, property, money, opportunity, relationship. Of dogs, real ones, whose names and stories I don’t dare set down here because if I do I will never make it through this post.

Sometimes the lost thing is a period of time, an epoch, in which friends and work and opportunity and health come together in a wonderful synergy, a sort of golden age, and suddenly it’s just over, the laughter and the flow of ideas and the good fellowship, and it will never happen again. There will be other people, other good times, but never this particular precious combination.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis asks, “How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.”

Our family has lost a lot of things in recent months. A horse, some dogs and cats, a vehicle. A hard drive, with a full complement of irreplaceable photos we always meant to back up. Some people. Dreams that can no longer be realistically expected to come true. I am tired of losing things. I want another golden age, one that won’t end. I want lasting security. I want to know that the things and people I love will never go away.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are precious to me. “And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost” (Luke 15:9). Jesus is speaking in particular of the joy in heaven over a sinner that repents, but the stories wouldn’t resonate so deeply if they didn’t reflect our expansive joy over the restoration of other things. I know that joy, and it is indeed too great to be kept to myself. When the lost kitty, despaired of after going missing for a full week, suddenly turns up early one morning perfectly healthy and meowing for breakfast, my delight must be communicated. I must scoop up the kitty, take it quietly to the bedroom of my sleeping daughter, and put it on her bed, where its softly treading paws and tickling whiskers will make her awakening into a celebration.

The lost-and-found experience teaches me this joy, while the lost-and-still-lost experience keeps me looking forward to the glad morning when I’ll have the most joyful awakening of all. In the meantime, I wait, and hope, and sometimes ache. As C.S. Lewis said in Perelandra, “God makes good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.”

casey

chat

ready

bridget

The Intolerable Situation

perelandra

I was twenty-one when my first child was conceived. I approached pregnancy like I approach most unfamiliar things: I bought a book and read it cover to cover. I had that book down. I was going to rock this pregnancy thing, just as I rocked everything I put my mind to in a serious way.

Before long I was diagnosed with one of the complications from the book: hyperemesis gravidarum, which is Greek and Latin for throwing up like crazy. The quaint term “morning sickness” was completely inadequate for what I experienced. It lasted all day every day and all through the night. Whatever I ate, it was a toss-up (ha) whether it would stay down. The book advised eating small meals and nibbling crackers before getting out of bed. This did as much good as throwing salt over my shoulder at midnight. I didn’t just not gain weight; I lost weight. I got dehydrated. I was admitted to the hospital where I was given IVs and an anti-nausea medication that I later learned is also used as a tranquilizer. It didn’t make me feel tranquil. It made me feel slow, out of sync with time, uneasy. It also caused my arms and legs to jerk uncontrollably. Sometimes I inadvertently slapped myself in the face.

Later, after that hospital stay ended, we learned that our insurance would send nurses to our apartment to set up an IV there, so the next time I got seriously dehydrated we did that instead. At one point I was completely dependent on intravenous nourishment for two weeks, taking in no food by mouth.

There are some types of pain you can’t compartmentalize. A migraine headache is like this. So is nausea. You can’t just drink a cup of tea and lie down and rest or whatever. It’s a pain that infects everything. There is no escaping or mitigating it.

I was productive of almost nothing during this time—except of the baby, which continued to develop just fine. I couldn’t write or even read much. At first this bothered me. Once in a while I’d pull myself together, get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed in something I could have left the apartment in, and sit down and have some serious Bible study. I had an idea that there was some lesson to be learned from this illness, and that if I hurried up and learned it—studied the right passage in the right way, prayed hard enough, exercised sufficient patience, surrendered adequately to God’s will—it would end.

Guess what? It didn’t work. I went right on being sick. I stayed in bed for days at a time. I couldn’t think about anything other than nausea, pregnancy, and how long it would be till Greg came home. I would lie in bed with this tight, twisty feeling in my stomach—kind of a burning sensation, but also something like a clenched fist—and I would count. In theory I was counting the seconds and minutes till Greg would be off work, but I went very, very slowly, stretching the intervals far beyond actual seconds, almost as if I could fool myself and be pleasantly surprised when he turned up earlier than expected. Or maybe I was just reassuring myself that time was linear and that units of it were indeed passing, however slow the process seemed.

(This habit of counting is something I’ve kept for over twenty years. When I’m bored or stressed and have to sit still, I slowly count, sometimes tracing the numbers with a finger. I might start over when I reach sixty or a hundred, or I might not. Sometimes I start over in a random place. I also count the hours and days and months leading to and from certain events, repeatedly. The events themselves may or may not be significant; I’m just marking time.)

I reached a point where I simply could not take any more. I reached it a lot of times. That’s it! I’d think. I can’t take this any longer! This situation is intolerable! It must change! It didn’t. Nothing changed. I just stayed sick. I had taken all I could take and nobody cared. When I say “nobody cared,” I mean God didn’t care, or didn’t appear to. I myself was powerless to change things. There was no “final straw” action for me to take, no “that does it” plan to put in place, no scenario where I’d finally give in and spend more money or whatever and fix the problem. Only God could fix it.

I know now—know experientially—that people do reach this point again and again, or reach it and stay there: the point of Oh God I can’t take any more of this, this is the absolute limit, something has got to give—and nothing does. In some cases people truly can’t take any more, and they die. The rest of the time they keep going.

There’s a part in Perelandra, the second volume in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, where Ransom, a college professor from Cambridge University, finds himself on the planet Venus with a green lady, the Venusian equivalent of Eve. The green-skinned Venusian version of mankind is unstained by sin. But there’s another non-indigenous guy there on the planet who turns out to be no less than the devil himself inhabiting the undead body of Professor Weston, one of Ransom’s colleagues from earth. (I know how wacked that sounds, but trust me, it works. This book has to be read to be believed.) Devil-possessed Zombie Weston is tempting Venusian Eve. She hasn’t fallen, but she’s listening to his reasoning, and his arguments are good. Ransom argues back but feels woefully out of his depth. He is a well-educated, rational, thoughtful believer, but this is the devil.

This goes on for days and days. Ransom thinks, This can’t be allowed to continue. Something must be done. Reading the book for the first time, I wholeheartedly agreed with him. I actually felt that Lewis had a sort of authorial obligation to take narrative action—have Venusian Adam show up and give the devil what-for, have God speak from the heavens in an unmistakable audible way, something. But nothing like that happens. The temptation continues. Ransom finds some mutilated animals that Devil Weston has tortured but not killed. Their suffering is acute. Though the man and woman have not sinned, pain and cruelty have marred their world. Ransom is horrified. Again he thinks, Something must be done. Again nothing happens.

Ransom’s story takes a turn I did not expect. Eventually he realizes that, yes, something must be done, and he’s the one who must do it. He has no clear direction from God, no heavenly voice or prophetic utterance or anything, but he thinks things through and decides that he, Dr. Elwin Ransom, alone and unarmed, must kill the undead corporeal vessel of the incarnate devil. Two out-of-shape college professors, both naked, neither one experienced in hand-to-hand combat, must grapple to the death. The thought is both terrifying and repellent to Ransom, but he does his duty. It is all very difficult and awkward, and it takes several days. (You just have to read this book. It’s one of the darnedest books I ever read.)

The resolution to Ransom’s narrative is the exception rather than the rule; most of us do not have such a bizarre conclusion to our final-straw extremities. We just keep waiting, and getting loaded with more and more straws.

Paul’s metaphor of a thorn in the side is an apt one for certain types of suffering. A thorn is a constant irritation, an ongoing intrusion, different from an honest cut or scrape or puncture. It produces not only pain, but swelling, pressure, and inflammation. It doesn’t belong. The body wants to get rid of it, and over time healthy flesh can break down or expel a foreign body of manageable size and substance. But a thorn like Paul’s is either too big or too resistant to be worked on in this way.

When you have a thorn in your flesh, you just want it removed, and until it is you can’t really rest. Every movement of the affected area, every bit of contact whether accidental or intentional, is a painful reminder of its intrusive, maddening presence. You can’t feel truly whole or sound while it’s there. And once it’s removed, there is instant relief. The puncture wound remains, but the foreign body is gone. There is rest and release. You can heal now.

Some pain is like that. It may be physical, emotional, or psychological. While you have it, you are fixated on relief, and the relief you want is removal, cessation. The greatest possible good you can imagine is the absence of this irritant.

Why was I sick? I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be much point to it. Eventually I got better, and delivered a healthy (though skinny) baby boy, but I didn’t become a better person or anything. Often suffering does have a point; often people undertake it willingly for some higher purpose, as with some over-the-top athletic achievements. More often, suffering is completely unasked for, and instead of making you stronger it weakens, scars, or kills you. Don’t mistake me. I believe in the sovereignty of God, and I believe that suffering, like everything else in our lives, has its purpose. But that purpose may not be anything we can ever realize in our lifetime. From our perspective, we are in pain for a long time, and then it stops, either because we get better or because we die. Of course there is the idea that suffering makes you more compassionate and better able to comfort others in their own suffering. This is a sound Biblical principle, but it will only satisfy us so much. So, the reason I am suffering now is in order to become able to help someone else who will suffer later. Well, why does that person have to suffer? Is it just for the purpose of comforting yet another person farther in the future? Why not just end the suffering and let people be? What is the meaning of this cycle? Is it an empty cipher, unending and void?

The official answer is that suffering exists in the first place because there is sin in the world. It just happens. It has to be simply as a condition of our fallen existence. And God is able to shape it to his desired ends. I believe this. But the desired ends are too complex for me. When I hurt, or when people close to me hurt, I just want it to stop.

The cycle of suffering and comforting is not an empty cipher. It is not just a matter of passing off comfort like a baton. When we comfort one another, when we suffer vicariously on another’s behalf, and pray or labor or just commiserate, God knits our souls together in a way that is not possible when we are sharing our happiness. Suffering can be a great social equalizer; it can humble us and strip away pretense. When you are in sufficient pain it becomes difficult to lie about it.

Outside of our homes, most people present a public image most of the time. It’s all very clean and positive. Projecting such an image is natural social behavior. It makes people comfortable. No one likes the person who reveals all the ugly personal shortcomings of family members, or even of himself, to any and all. We would rather emphasize the positive, not just to look good but because we want to encourage positive things. But sometimes we grow discouraged, comparing the public images of others with our own private failures. Sometimes we need counsel or empathy, but we are too ashamed to seek it.

More and more as I get older I understand that every individual and family has secret sorrows and patterns of sin, no matter how good they look on the surface. The community of grace should be open about such things, while still respecting personal boundaries. If just a few people within a given church community were to stop caring about appearances and authentically share their struggles, more revelations from others would probably follow. There would be a lot of surprises, and a lot of relief.

The church should be lots of hurt people helping one another, like a company of soldiers behind enemy lines, the wounded supporting the wounded—binding, medicining, carrying, dragging, encouraging, and also trusting and relying, all of us doing our best to make sure everyone makes it safe and sound back to home territory.

Does this sound like a tidy way to wrap up my thoughts about the apparent futility of suffering? It shouldn’t. There’s nothing tidy about it. It’s messy and irritating and hard, and it doesn’t make pain any easier to bear. But I am beginning to think that it is in the tension of pain that we truly draw near to those who become most dear to us.

We can do this because of One who suffered all things, and gave us a pattern for submission in suffering, and empowers us to follow it. He suffered and even died, and he overcame. He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger–of all the lines of all the Christmas songs I know, this is the one that most consistently moves me to tears. He has defeated the intolerable situation.