Times of Refreshment, With Quacks of Joy

The specter of drought is always present in Texas, even when we’re having plenty of rain. During those rare times when it rains to the point of inconvenience, and we comment on it, we’re always quick to add, “Not that I’m complaining!” A rural Texan being swept off in a torrent of floodwaters would probably feel compelled to say, “Well, we did need the rain.”

Lately we’ve been dealing with not just the specter but the reality of drought. Even the oak trees, stalwart and hardy, are showing signs of stress. There’s not much grass for the horses or cattle, and the big stock pond, which Greg filled with catfish and perch a few months back, has gotten low.

Weather is cyclical, but not in the sense of things repeating themselves in strict and tidy patterns. Averages are just averages, not some sort of natural law, and things deviate farther and more frequently from the expected norm than we’d like. When Greg was a boy that big stock tank never went dry; now it frequently does. It’s sad to see the water receding from dry banks and getting dark and scummy in the low center before vanishing altogether in a damp bit of cracked black clay.

This morning I woke at 4:30 to let the dogs out. I stood a moment with the front door open, wondering what that sound was. When a drought goes on long enough you actually forget the sound of rain.

We had no social plans for Memorial Day, no cookouts to be rained out. I had knitting projects and plenty of yarn; Greg had a number of jobs around the place that could be accomplished just as well in rainy weather. His big outbuilding has become a catchall for tools, horse tack, gardening supplies, random trash, and cats. With a fresh breeze and plenty of animals for company, he knocked out some repair projects and tidied up. It’s now possible to reach the feed bin without first performing a contortionist’s act around the four-wheeler.

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And we like for feed to be easy to reach.

I decided I’d had enough of knitting directly from twisty yarn skeins and dealing with the resulting tangles. I looked online, found instructions for how to make a center-pull yarn ball, and got to it. One of the skeins was already pretty messed up; untangling it took a lot longer than getting it into ball form. Well, that’s a lesson for next time: wind the yarn right away. We don’t start out knowing everything in any discipline. We learn as we go.

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Mmm, yes. Quite.

I, too, had plenty of animal company. Dogs and cats contribute little of a positive nature to the process of winding yarn, but they are willing and enthusiastic participants. Ginny the Chihuahua stayed especially close. Rain worries her; she likes to be snug against a person, preferably under a blanket, during storms. She would have liked it if I had settled down on the sofa with my knitting, but I had to get my yarn in shape first. I put two chairs back to back, spread out the tangled yarn on the dining table, worked some out, wound some it around the chairs, stopped to untangle again, and wound some more. Wanting to be as near me as possible, Ginny sat on one of the chairs. Later, when Daniel came home, he saw the whole set-up from across the room and thought for a moment that I was lashing Ginny to the chair like a little prisoner.

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From that angle, an easy mistake.

I worked with the windows open, and what sounded at first like quacks of delight coming from the direction of the creek turned out to be exactly that. The ducks were glad of the rain too. They quacked steadily for hours. Once I had my yarn taken care of I stood outside on the back porch a while and just listened.

Today is Memorial Day. The whole idea behind memorial, behind memory, is calling to mind things that aren’t happening anymore, things that ought to be remembered. Like the weather, life has its cycles: loss and renewal, dearth and plenty, sacrifice and reward. And as with weather, the patterns aren’t predictable or tidy. Sometimes the one doing the sacrificing doesn’t get to reap the reward. Sometimes your allotted days don’t allow you to hear the dissonance resolved or to see the purpose and beauty emerge in a design that looks like chaos. Hope is what bridges the gap—the hope that God is good and will make all things right, in this life or in the life to come.

The young nation of Israel that wandered through the wilderness in the book of Exodus gets a lot of flack from modern churchgoers, but I wonder which of us in the same circumstances would do better or as well. They didn’t know how the story would end; the God of Abraham was still largely an unknown quantity to them. They had a promise and the testimony of some compelling miracles, yes, but the future was still the future, not an accomplished fact. God allowed them to run out of water, to experience genuine privation, to have real cause for fear and doubt. If he hadn’t, they’d have had no opportunity to demonstrate faith.

Faith is a challenge by definition. It means hanging in there on the strength of a promise, often when everything around you looks like a reason to give up. I know a lot of people right now who are clinging to faith and longing for times of refreshment. I pray that those times will come, and soon, for all of us.

The rain came down steadily for most of the day, and more is expected for the rest of the week. Greg drove by the stock tank and said it’s looking good. He may get to go fishing in October after all.

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

~Genesis 8:22

 Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it.

~Isaiah 45:8

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Through the Doorway: More Lessons About Anxiety From a Shetland Sheepdog

ronan intro

This is Ronan. He is my dog, my Sheltie, my 2013 Mother’s Day present. Bridget, my first Sheltie and the first dog who was ever really mine, had died some months back, and the family thought that I should have another.

Like most of our dogs and cats, Ronan was a rescue. My daughters visited him at the shelter and got in the kennel with him. He seemed like a good, friendly, well socialized dog. They brought him home.

He limped badly on his left front leg, putting no weight on it at all. But we were hopeful. He was a young dog; with good care he should recover just fine.

But no. On examination, the leg injury was found to be an old one. The cartilage in the elbow joint was completely worn away; the vet was fascinated by how very absent it was. There was no way to make the leg right. The vet could either fuse the joint together, giving Ronan a stiff leg which he still wouldn’t be able to walk on and which would require lifelong pain meds, or amputate.

This was such an easy choice that I was surprised to be given two options. The fused limb would have no greater function than as a torso decoration. It would be worse than useless; it would be in the way, impeding mobility and causing pain.

The leg came off, and Ronan made a quick recovery. He’d been tripoding around for so long already that the adjustment to three legs didn’t seem to trouble him at all.

ronan recovery

I like Shetland sheepdogs. They’re small, intelligent, and Scottish, and they have the herding-dog mindset that’s so attractive to me. It’s natural that I would compare Ronan to Bridget, though he’s his own dog and has his own place. It didn’t take long to realize that Ronan is a very different dog indeed.

They were different in appearance. Both were initially overweight, but Ronan is just a bigger dog altogether. Bridget eventually slimmed down to twenty pounds, about average for a Sheltie. Ronan started out at a whopping thirty-eight. He’s down to twenty-six now–slender for his dimensions, but still high by Sheltie standards, and that’s with just three legs.

Like Bridget, Ronan has a sable coat, but his facial markings give his face a completely different character. Bridget had a thin white stripe down her nose; her face looked closed and shrewd. Ronan’s stripe is broad, creating a wide-eyed, perpetually surprised expression.

But the most significant difference is in personality. Bridget came to us with many anxieties; Ronan not so much. He is outgoing, for a Sheltie, and largely free from hang-ups.

Largely, but not entirely.

Anytime you have a rescue dog, there will be some mystery about its past. You make inferences based on behavior, but you don’t really know. And there is always something. Even Ready, our Australian shepherd/Border collie mix, who had the most well-balanced personality I’ve ever seen in a dog, was afraid of brooms—not of being hit by a broom, but of the sound the bristles made when drawn across the floor. It just seemed to give him the willies; when I’d start sweeping, he’d skitter off. Had he been spooked by a broom as a pup? Who knows? It was a cute quirk but not that big a deal. Bridget, on the other hand, had a lot of behaviors that made us suspect she’d come from a household with an abuser.

Ronan’s hang-up was one I’d never dealt with before. He wouldn’t come when called.

I’m not talking about when he was excited about a tennis ball or distracted by food or expecting a bath or something. I mean that under ordinary, unremarkable circumstances, this dog would not come. He wouldn’t just ignore the command; he would get up and go the other way, like Jonah fleeing the presence of the LORD and going to Tarshish instead of Nineveh. There was no haste in his movement, just a steady, grave plodding in the opposite direction.

Never before had I known an otherwise well socialized dog to refuse to come. “Come” is usually the easiest command to teach, assuming the dog likes you at all. It wants to come; it wants to be with you.

But Ronan wouldn’t come, and I don’t know why. If he’d feared abuse, I’d expect him to fear people in general. But he seemed comfortable with us. He did prefer the company of women to that of men, as Bridget did, and I’ve heard this is typical of the breed. But his run-away-when-called routine was for women and men alike. He didn’t mind when I approached him; he seemed to welcome my presence and to enjoy being petted. But when I called him to me, he actively sought to get away.

Does he associate something unpleasant with being called? Maybe something to do with his injury? Maybe people used to call him over and then feel the injured joint in a way that hurt him. But it would have to happen an awful lot for him to build up this level of aversion.

Within the house, the behavior wasn’t much of an issue. Ronan would come easily enough to eat (assuming there wasn’t a male family member between him and his food dish). Going from inside to outside wasn’t a problem either. The only real trouble was getting him to pass through an exterior door from outside the house to inside the house.

It isn’t that he dislikes the house. He likes it fine. But something about passing through that doorway in that direction spooks him.

This was a real pain in the early days, especially for the guys. The girls and I had enough trouble getting him inside; when Greg or Daniel tried, it was downright comical. It’s not that he’s a fast animal. With his three-legged gait, he’s easy to catch. But then what? The guys couldn’t exactly tackle him. He’s unsteady, and they didn’t want to knock him down; and he might snap at them. One day Daniel chased him around the house in several sluggish and time-consuming laps before Ronan wiped out on a corner and came down hard on his stump, which hadn’t completely healed. At that point Daniel gave up, for good.

Catching Ronan became a woman’s job. The process evolved over time. At first we’d catch him, pick him up, and carry him up the porch steps and into the house. As heavy as he was in those days, this was a real chore. Then someone had the bright idea of using the leash. This was a big improvement. Once leashed he would succumb to the inevitable and come along with surprising docility. Sometimes the leash wasn’t handy and we were in a hurry, so we’d grab him by the back of the ruff and pull. Then Emilie realized you didn’t always have to pull. Often you could take him gently by the ruff and just guide him inside.

Bridget was extremely reserved, almost a one-person dog, but Ronan is sociable. He never shied away from the other dogs, but he was initially wary of Buddy, the Great Dane mix. Buddy was very much a puppy when Ronan met him, though they were about the same size; he was forward and clumsy in his movements, and his friendly overtures made Ronan nervous—understandable, since Ronan was none too steady on his remaining feet. If Buddy got too close or too nosy, Ronan would snarl, and Buddy would jump back, startled. It was fun to see a Shetland sheepdog make a Great Dane back down.

Buddy is more graceful now, and he and Ronan get along fine. Ronan likes being with the other dogs and does his best to join them in play. He can’t keep up in a running and chasing game, but if Buddy and Feather are running back and forth together from point A to point J, Ronan stays in the middle of their course and runs with them from points D through F as they pass by.

He likes wrestling games too, though the other dogs don’t actually wrestle him. He hovers nearby as they wrestle each other; he moves around them in an arc and occasionally darts in, close but not touching.

It can be sad to be on the periphery. Being close is nice, but it’s not the same as being in the thick of things. Most of the time Ronan is just a glorified spectator. But recently Greg saw Buddy actually playing with Ronan one-on-one. Buddy now weighs sixty pounds, most of which is muzzle and leg; he not only outweighs Ronan by over a hundred percent but also towers over him.

Buddy seemed to know he had to be careful with Ronan. He lowered himself to Ronan’s height and waggled. They “wrestled,” and when Ronan came at him Buddy rolled onto his back as if Ronan were really owning him.

Ronan loved this game. He is free from the self-examination that would cause a human being to realize that a pretend wrestling game with an opponent who is only going through the motions and letting you throw him is not the same as the real thing. Knowing that we are coming up short in some way and that allowances are being made for us can chafe at our pride, but maybe we are too short-sighted. The truth is, none of us is truly whole, and in the community of grace we are all making allowances for each other most of the time.

ronan derp

Any reduction from the normal and healthy is a loss and should be recognized as such. However resilient an individual animal may be in recovering from the loss of a limb, the fact remains that dogs were meant to have four legs. Over his lifetime Ronan will have a lot of unusual wear and strain on his frame due to compensating for his missing limb. Arthritis is likely in the future, and he falls down a lot in the present. He will never again run full-tilt in a double suspension gallop with all limbs fully extended.

pictured: not Ronan

pictured: not Ronan

 It was Emilie who took Ronan to the vet back in the spring to have his leg examined. I remember when she texted me the news that the damage wasn’t reparable. She was pretty down about it; we’d only just adopted him, and now he had to have an amputation. She apologized for gifting me with a dog who had issues. I replied that everyone has issues sooner or later and this one wasn’t that bad. A dog, like a person, is a whole package, an assortment of temperament and history, physiology and character, adding up to something wonderful and unique. Ronan is a gift, and I’m glad to have him. He is a very different dog from Bridget, but like her he has taught me much about myself and about God.

Ronan forgot how to dog bed.

Ronan forgot how to dog bed.

Ronan still has issues with coming when called. As long as he isn’t being called inside, he comes just fine, but when an exterior door is involved, things are a little dicey. It seems to help when no other animals are crowding him. It also helps if I back away from the door, though with all the swarming cats and whatnot this is not usually possible. Once in a great while, when everything is just right and he has plenty of space to negotiate the threshold and isn’t overthinking, he passes through the doorway entirely on his own. Most of the time, though, he still needs help. But he no longer runs away. Sometimes he just laps a few tight circles, allowing himself to work off a little nervous energy without putting actual distance between us, and making it easy for me to catch him.

And sometimes he doesn’t even do that. Sometimes he just stands and looks at me, as if he’s thinking, I know you want me to come through that door, and I’d like to do it, but I don’t quite have the courage to do it on my own. So I’ll wait here, and you can come get me and guide me through.

It’s not brute force that makes this work. I’m not muscling Ronan through the door; I’m just guiding him, and he isn’t resisting. The thing that makes the difference is my presence. Just having me there gives him the courage he needs.

My dog is far from perfect in obedience, but his heart is inclined in the right direction. I’m not so perfect in obedience myself. Sometimes I don’t want to come when called; sometimes I’m unsteady on my feet and afraid I’ll be knocked down. Like Ronan, I don’t have to come through the doorway on my own.

Working the Work of God

“Man, am I tired,” the young schoolteacher said at the end of a hard day.

His father, a lifelong rancher, scoffed. “You’re not tired. You sit in a classroom all day. You don’t do any work.”

We may well take issue with the rancher’s paternal manner, but he raises a legitimate question. What is “work”? Is it defined by effort or result? Is it necessarily physical? Must it produce something useful? Am I “working” when I tap away at a computer making a story or a blog post? Are athletes “working” when they train to pursue or propel a ball in accordance with a complicated set of arbitrary rules? Is my daughter “working” when she studies Latin? How about when she draws? What is the proper answer when a stay-at-home mother is asked with a condescending half-smile, “Do you work?”

Or condescending evil sneer.

Or condescending evil sneer.

My dictionary’s first definition of “work” is exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil. A narrower definition farther down is productive or operative activity. Narrower still is employment, as in some form of industry, esp. as a means of earning one’s livelihood. The physics one, which I do not understand in the slightest, is force times the distance through which it acts; specifically, the transference of energy equal to the product of the component of a force that acts in the direction of the motion of the point of application of the force and the distance through which the point of application moves. The theological definition is simply righteous deeds.

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Science.

I posit that the most basic work a person can do under ordinary circumstances (as opposed to extraordinary circumstances like climbing a tree before this wild boar gores me, or building a fire before I freeze to death) would be work that produces or processes food, because in the absence of food all other work becomes a nonissue. Clothing and shelter come close behind; after that things get blurry. But food is tops.

Most civilizations have a staple food, usually a grain. People-groups that cultivate grain are more stable than hunter-gatherers, and stability is foundational to civilization. (By “civilization,” I mean an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached, as opposed to simply a group of people living together in basic subsistence.) But a truly essential thing, something that simply must exist before a civilization can develop, is a food surplus.

Without a food surplus, people spend most of their time and energy scratching up a daily living. There’s nothing left to pursue art, science, or philosophy. Even basic craftsmanship can’t progress much when you’re always working for your next meal.

Thus.

Thus.

A food surplus changes all that. Suddenly you have time to ponder things beyond subsistence, and members of your community can afford to specialize. After you get past the apprenticeship period involved in learning any new skill, this leads to greater efficiency in industry as well as the cultivation of the finer things in life. Metallurgy, written language, civil engineering, even a formal priesthood, all can flourish in the presence of a food surplus.

Another prerequisite for a civilization, or something that grows up along with it, is the building of walls. When you build walls, you commit yourself to staying in one place and protecting that place from predators, animal and human. And once you have those walls, you need to man them. You need an army.

Seriously.

Seriously.

It’s been said that an army marches on its stomach. Herodotus’s mind-blowing account of the march of the army of Xerxes from Persia to Greece contains some wild numbers which many modern historians find simply unbelievable, but I don’t think anyone has disputed the proportions—that is, that adding support personnel to combat personnel basically doubled the army’s size. Transporting a large army—whether 500,000 or 2.5 million—from Persia to Greece with supplies and equipment, on foot or by horse, and feeding them on the journey to keep them fit to fight when they get there, would be a logistical challenge in the modern or ancient world.

xerxes army big

And I’m sure it looked just like this.

I recently read an article that said for every modern combat soldier, there are 2.5 support people keeping him going. My son, a soldier for the National Guard, estimates it’s more like 5.

This is only reasonable. A soldier, as the apostle Paul said, doesn’t concern himself with civilian affairs; he commits himself to a different task. He isn’t raising food or making clothing or constructing shelter. Someone else must bear the burden of feeding, clothing, and sheltering him, and fashioning weapons for him to carry, vehicles to transport him, and tools for him to use. His “work” is to defend the civilization he represents—to keep that civilization, with its livestock and its commerce and its written language and its codified system of government, and its walls, and its food surplus, safe from marauders who would otherwise pillage and burn it all to heck. He’s doing a necessary job, vital to our survival, and yes, we do want him on that wall.

(I’m of course aware that a military may abuse its citizenry and that not all wars are just, but the idea is still sound. Most pacifism is the indulgence of a coddled and sated society. Its adherents cannot understand what it would truly mean to lay down arms, forever, in a fallen world. Few of us can. We’re so far removed from the edge of annihilation, so deep in our security, that we’re like fish who don’t know what “wet” is.)

In summary, then, a food surplus is necessary both to building a civilization and to defending it.

Which brings us to the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.

The chapter begins with Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee. A multitude that earlier saw him heal the sick now follows him at some distance. Unlike the army of Xerxes, this multitude has no supply train. These are just a lot of regular people following an itinerant rabbi to who knows where. When they started the journey, they probably had no idea how long the trek would be. If they packed provisions at all, they’ve run out by now, because it’s implicit in the text that they have nothing to eat. They’re like several vanloads of unexpected guests pulling into the driveway right at dinnertime.

What happens next is so familiar to many of us that it may have lost its shock value. Jesus takes five barley loaves and two fishes and uses them to feed a crowd that’s well in excess of five thousand. After the meal is finished, twelve basketfuls of leftover bread fragments are collected.

Think about how this must have appeared to the crowd. Without expending significant time or observable energy, Jesus somehow generated an enormous quantity of food. Just transforming five loaves into twelve baskets of bread would have been a huge deal in itself, but that’s merely what’s left over after the multitude ate and was satisfied. How did Jesus do it? He didn’t wear out any equipment. He didn’t plant any seed—always an inherently risky venture, because seed can be eaten instead of planted, and once in the ground may or may not bring forth a good yield. Neither did he reap a crop, grind grain, or knead and bake dough. The bread simply appeared as he willed it to.

Imagine what a civilization could do if it had not just a food surplus, but an unlimited supply of work-free food! Think of the possibilities for advancement in art, literature, architecture, science!

And if you are a tiny nation oppressed by a conquering empire, and if your sustainable energy source—your anthropomorphic arc reactor technology, let us say—has been foretold by the prophets and anointed by God himself…well! Think of the power of your revolution! Watch out, Rome, it’s about to get real.

But wait! Not only can your uber-guy produce unlimited supplies of food, but he can also heal the sick! Your wounded soldiers will be instantly returned to service, no worse for wear! Your army is proof against both siege and assault. That alone makes it well-nigh unstoppable. And that’s not even counting any other superpowers Jesus may have up his sleeve. If he can do all this, imagine what’ll happen when you put a weapon in his hand!

Something like this guy, without the personality disorders.

Something like this guy, without the personality disorders.

The significance of all this is easily lost on twenty-first century Americans. Our economy is such that we see little connection between our labor (such as it is) and the food we eat. The expenditure of energy goes through a lot of intermediary channels between our jobs and our food supply, and most of us have far more than enough anyway. If someone presented me with twelve baskets full of bread fragments, I would be frantically visualizing my limited freezer space and wondering how we would ever finish it all before it went bad. Not so for a first-century working-class Israelite. Abraham’s descendants remembered how God fed their ancestors with manna in the wilderness when they were too nomadic, and too stuck in a desert, to cultivate grain. God had supplied their lack by a completely supernatural, previously unheard-of means: bread from heaven itself. It didn’t grow on any plant of the field; it just appeared on the ground, ready to eat as-is or be baked or otherwise cooked as the people pleased.

By producing bread out of almost nowhere, Jesus did essentially the same thing, only more so. What an unmistakable mark of authority from on high! No wonder some of the men present said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. No wonder they decided to take him by force and make him king.

It’s easy to criticize Jesus’s contemporaries for not getting it, for expecting a tangible political redemption and not perceiving that Jesus was accomplishing much more. This is the historian’s fallacy, blaming the decision-makers of the past for failing to perceive things that seem obvious from our retrospective vantage point. The truth is, political redemption was a pretty reasonable thing for them to expect, because that was the shape their redemption had always taken in the past. Certainly the prophets gave indications of greater things to come, but a game-changer this big takes time to sink in.

Through a clever game of evasion, Jesus escapes the zealous king-making crowd. Eventually they do catch up with him, and he addresses them. And boy, do they get an earful.

Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.

Labour not for the meat which perisheth–the stuff that fills the children’s bellies and provides a layer of protection against social and political chaos, or seems to; the stuff of prosperity and stability. This is an extraordinary thing to say. To “labour not” is to invite famine and dearth.

Perhaps wondering what possible alternative there could be, the people ask Jesus, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?

Jesus answers, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

This is the crux of the matter. The work of God is believing on the one he has sent. Not generating an endless food surplus or making a king of a guy who can; not stockpiling weapons or righteous deeds. Believing on Jesus. The only “work” that Jesus calls “the work of God” is an act of faith.

Does this sound too easy? Easy or not, people fail at it. Most of Jesus’s listeners at the time did. First they hedged by asking, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. (Notice how they still can’t get away from the word “work.”)

Jesus answers, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.

The true bread from heaventhe bread of God—is no mere physical substance, but a person, body and soul, who gives life unto the world.

A long back-and-forth follows, with the crowd getting increasingly irritated by Jesus’s insistence that rather than being merely the source of the bread of life, he is the bread of life.

It finally comes to this.

I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

This is understandably disturbing. I wouldn’t fault any earnest disciple for asking Jesus for clarification. He’s spoken in figures of speech before, and he’s always explained himself to those who made sincere inquiries. He’s a teacher, after all. Maybe the Twelve do ask for clarification later; John doesn’t say. But the crowd at large evidently doesn’t. After some more back-and-forth in a similar vein, many of his disciples–not the Twelve, but actual followers of Jesus, not random lookers-on–say, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?

Then Jesus asks, Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.

Jesus isn’t talking about some crude cannibalistic ritual. It is the spirit that quickeneth. His words have import beyond the physical.

From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

Among those who remain are the Twelve. Were they quicker on the uptake than those who left? Perhaps they were just as puzzled as the deserters about all this eat-my-flesh-and-drink-my-blood business but had sufficient faith in Jesus to believe that whatever he meant, he’s right, because he is who he is.

Then said Jesus unto the twelve, will ye also go away?

There are no words for the poignancy of this question, or of Peter’s reply.

Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.

Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said that the work of God was to believe on the one he had sent? This is faith not just in his food-generating abilities or his healing powers, but in him. This is the way to partake of the bread of life. This is the work of God.

A Princess Inside

Some years back, my girls and some of their friends were being mistreated. The details aren’t important; it was just one of those things that happen all the time, caused by carelessness more than malice. I could have complained—I was in the right and can be eloquent when roused—but in so doing I would have damaged some relationships to a degree out of proportion to the problem. The girls weren’t being harmed, just annoyed. My best course of action was to swallow the pill and move on.

And that made me think of the book of Job. Not that my daughters’ suffering, or my vicarious suffering on their behalf, had anything on the trials of Job, but Job’s experience does shed a lot of light on unmerited suffering in general.

The book of Job is fascinating for many reasons, not least of which is that it shows Satan having access to heaven. We’re not given details of the arrangement, but there he is in verse 6 of chapter 1, presenting himself to God.

  7 And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

Evidently Satan just cruises the planet, seeing what’s up.

Then God says something extraordinary.

  8 Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?

The word “perfect” doesn’t mean “sinless” in this context, but rather “complete” or “mature”—like a perfect fifth in music or the “more perfect union” spoken of in the Constitution. God doesn’t claim absolute moral purity for Job. Still, the claim he does make is a big one. And he’s making it to Satan, the Accuser, who gets off on defying God and discrediting his followers.

I just can’t get out about that. Here is a man so praiseworthy that God himself holds him up as an example of upright character.

It’s easy to imagine a sneer in Satan’s reply.

  9 Doth Job fear God for nought?

 10 Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.

  11 But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.

At this point you can almost hear a chorus of “Oooooooooo!” from any demons who may be in attendance. Then heavy silence. The court of Heaven awaits God’s reply.

For this is the sort of question which, once raised, cannot be dismissed. Do we follow God merely because he blesses us? Are we mercenary creatures, obeying God in order to reap the benefits of a godly life, without loving God himself? Is virtue a strict business relationship—sort of an I-stay-chaste-and-honest-and-you-bless-my-crops-and-protect-my-health-and-family thing?

Or is there more to it than that?

There’s only one way to answer the question: put it to an empirical test.

  12 And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.

Once permission is granted, catastrophe falls swiftly on Job. In a stunning series of acts of war and freakish natural disasters, his blessings of wealth and comfort and children are wiped out in a single day.

We must remember that in Job’s culture, material blessing was considered the mark of God’s favor. The whole cause-and-effect, blessings-for-obedience thing was intrinsic to contemporaneous thought. It was just the way things were.

Job knew he hadn’t sinned in a way that could have merited such heavy retribution from God. He’d been faithful—unusually faithful—superlatively faithful. A chasm gaped before him, an apparent rift in the very order of the universe. How could he reconcile what he believed about God’s goodness with the evidence of his eyes?

  20 Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,

  21 And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.

  22 In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.

Imagine the exultation among God’s angels and, yes, God himself when Job spoke these beautiful words. A mortal man, prone to frailty and doubt and despair, and not privy to the counsels of angels, had risen above cultural assumptions and held firm to God when he had ample reason not to. When you continue to love and trust someone even when his behavior baffles you—when you say to yourself, “Well, I don’t know why he’d do that, but he must have a good reason,” and you are content to wait on the full explanation—it means you have faith in that person’s character. He is a friend of the highest order.

The thing that caught my attention that day four years ago is how God regarded Job. He had confidence in him; in some mysterious way he trusted him, if I may be allowed to use the word. He trusted him to such a degree that when Job’s integrity was questioned, God could say with assurance, Go ahead. Put him to the test. You’ll see. God allowed Job to be attacked because he thought Job could take it. And he was right.

Suddenly my vexing little social irritation took on a new significance. Could it be that God thought I could take it, too? That he trusted me to handle this small piece of unmerited suffering with grace and tact and self-control? If so, then it was a compliment for me to be experiencing it at all.

And suddenly I wanted to make good on that. I wanted to justify God’s confidence in me—to glorify him. I would take the blow on the chin, keep my feet under me, and smile.

Job’s trials didn’t end that first day. By the time Satan had finished, he’d lost wealth, health, family, and community standing; and the company of visiting friends only added to his misery. True to their culture, Job’s friends held stubbornly to the dictum that suffering is the direct result of sin. Actually, most people are quick to search for simple cause-and-effect relationships to explain suffering, even those who don’t consider God part of the process. You did X, and now Y is happening to you. The reaction is a defense mechanism. We want to distance ourselves from the possibility of future suffering of our own, and it makes us feel secure to believe we can avoid Y by not doing X.

To a degree, this is sound thinking. It’s prudent to take note of relationships between behavior and consequences and direct our paths accordingly. They say experience is the best teacher, but experience doesn’t always have to be direct and personal. The book of Proverbs is all about gaining wisdom vicariously.

But the truth is that people often suffer through absolutely no fault of their own. And that is a terrible thing to see.

This is not to say that unmerited suffering is without purpose. God does nothing by chance, and he puts limits on what the Enemy can do to us. But we don’t always learn in this lifetime what that purpose is. The point is that the suffering may not be our fault. It may even be our merit.

But I think we can safely say that undeserved suffering always has one particular purpose behind it. That purpose is the demonstration of character.

This works on earth as surely as in heaven. When adversity delivers an upper cut, some folks cave and others stand firm. I am a devoted student of human nature, and I watch these reactions and quietly file away my observations for future reference. I’m sorry if this sounds creepy, but I can’t not do it. I assess character all the time. I’ve seen some friends and acquaintances handle serious adversity with such cheerful patience and faith in God’s goodness that I feel humbly grateful just to know them. Others have lost my good opinion by pouting and making others miserable over small matters. Most of these folks would probably be surprised to learn that their integrity of character matters to me in the slightest, but it does.

Sara Crewe, the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic story A Little Princess, is a pampered girl who has always been surrounded by luxury and affection. She is well-mannered and accomplished and treats others with kindness and consideration.

But she wonders how much of her reputation for goodness is deserved, and how much is owing to the environment in which she was raised.

‘Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? Perhaps I’m a hideous child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials.’

Later in the book, Sara loses everything—family, wealth, position, and almost all physical comforts—in one Job-like swoop. This is her opportunity to show what she’s made of. Sara proves her quality, and it is sterling.

‘Whatever comes,’ she said, ‘cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.’

Being a princess is not the same as being rich or comfortable or happy. Being a princess is an identity. A princess is a king’s daughter. She might lose her fine clothes, her wealth, even the high regard of the multitudes, as many princesses throughout the history of the world have done. But she never stops being a princess inside. A princess is a princess, always—as surely as her father is a king.

On Trying to be Taller

The truth of the matter is that, despite my best efforts with good posture and steely glares, I am shorter than the average American woman. Going after things that are out of my reach is so much a part of my life that I hardly think about it. During a recent painting project I nearly wiped out standing with one foot on the top rung of a none-too-steady ladder and the other on top of the water heater, while stretching with all my might and main to fit my paintbrush into the farthest, backest corner of the 10-foot ceiling. I regularly plot my trajectory from points A through D: plant knee on counter, hork self to kneeling position, carefully stand upright on slick granite, reach high above head to top of cabinet. Often I stand on one foot and reach with the opposite arm, straining hard in an effort to elongate my spine.

“Why don’t you ask me to get that for you?” my husband asks if he happens to be around. Well, why don’t I? Habit, I guess, or impatience. Greg doesn’t go through what I go through to reach things. He puts up his hand without even stretching his arm to full length, both feet on the floor—no strain, no problem, almost no conscious effort. Then he grabs the thing and hands it to me without any apparent understanding of what a remarkable thing he has done.

“Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” Jesus asks in Matthew 6:27. A cubit is roughly the length of a human forearm. This would be a significant increase in height—enough to get me to the top shelf of the cabinet with no trouble at all.

The verse is part of a beautiful passage, Matthew 6:25-34, on worry. I am a worrier by nature and have come back again and again to this passage since first reading it in my teens. Lately, it’s verse 27 in particular that keeps recurring to me. The question is rhetorical. None of us can add a cubit to his stature by worry (“taking thought” in the language of the 1611 King James), any more than I can increase my height by straining for something out of reach. Both are exercises in futility, a waste of energy and time.

And yet worry snares me again and again. Often it’s little things that get me started. A young friend’s Facebook post hints at depression, a spoken word has something amiss with the tone, a shadow passes over a face, and my mind is off and running on some wild extrapolation. This is the gift and curse of being a writer: I imagine huge sprawling networks of What Might Happen. My vocation had given me lots of practice at ferreting out the nuances of human emotion and motivation, and I flatter myself that most of my guesses are pretty close to the mark. But sometimes I’m way off. The uncertainty, when applied to someone I care about, drives me crazy.

I want to draw a circle of protection around all those I consider mine and keep them safe from physical harm, foolish choices, darkness of spirit. I know I can’t do it. And yet the compulsion persists. I have this sort of primal belief—shared, I think, by one of my children—that my worry actually accomplishes something, that it holds things together and keeps disaster at bay, like the hypothetical Higgs boson which, if I understand it correctly, keeps atoms together so the universe doesn’t fly to pieces.

Fear, in and of itself, is not irrational. Disaster is not some rare anomaly outside the norm of the fallen world; it’s ever-present in possibility and actuality. Security is an illusion. Sudden violence can maim or destroy life in an instant, and foolish, reckless actions can shipwreck a promising future. I’ve seen it happen over and over.

So fear has its place. The Bible admonishes us to fear legitimate authority, the natural consequences of sin, and God himself. But it also admonishes us not to make fear a crippling mental habit. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). For the Christian, life is more than a bewildering maelstrom of folly and violence. Life has meaning and order, even the tragic parts. God has good plans for his children. And prayer changes things.

I know some people say prayer doesn’t really change anything except the one doing the praying. The future is fixed, immutable; an answered prayer is only one which happens to coincide with the outcome God has predetermined. In other words, it has no effect whatsoever on actual events; but it does in some way draw the intercessor closer to God. If that’s true, then frankly, I don’t have time for it. I’ll spend my energy trying to change things on my own steam, and I’ll never know a moment’s peace of mind.

But the Bible doesn’t bear out the idea of prayer as an exercise in self-improvement rather than a means to change things. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16); it doesn’t just make the man himself a better Christian. Exodus 32:7-14 records a mind-boggling incident (discussed at length in this thought-provoking article) in which the prayer of Moses actually causes God to turn away from a stated purpose and do something else.

I’m not dismissing God’s sovereignty. I just believe that it’s broad enough to incorporate man’s choice in a meaningful way, so that our actions, including prayer, make a genuine difference in the outcome of events—that God actually designed the system to work in such a way that in some instances he waits on our prayers.

I should make it clear that prayer is something I have not been as faithful about as I’d like. Unbelief whispers in my ear the oldest lie in recorded history, that God doesn’t really have my best interests at heart, that he’ll give me a stone when I ask for bread. Another voice sighs that prayer doesn’t change things anyway, other than some vague internal change to me personally.

So I turn to worry instead. Worry is like the strain of trying to make myself taller than I am, to exert power I don’t have. By sheer effort and will, I expect to extend my reach past the stature God has granted me. Prayer is the appeal to the hand that reaches with effortless grace and takes hold of what is beyond my grasp.

It isn’t worry, mine or anyone else’s, that holds the universe together. It’s God himself. “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16-17).

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by a burden to pray for certain individuals. At such times I feel an almost physical heaviness, a prompting I dare not disobey. It pushed me out the door yesterday with a leashed dog at my side, into the cool April freshness, where I asked God’s providence for the people on my heart—for clarity, truth, light, wisdom, protection, guidance, everything I could think of.

Over my forty-one years, I’ve wasted more time and energy in worry than I care to recount—all for nothing. I didn’t accomplish anything other than sleep-deprivation. All that effort didn’t make me omnipotent, any more than my dangerous stunt on the ladder made me taller. I don’t want to waste any more of whatever years I have left. God waits on me to say the word; he wants to lavish grace and wisdom and comfort on the people he’s placed on my heart, people he loves with a far greater love than mine.

The Eye In The Sky

You can tell a lot about someone by the superpowers he’d like to have. My primary powers of choice are two. First, supersmartness consisting of flawless memory coupled with the ability to instantly assimilate new data in a meaningful way. Second, superspeed that amounts to virtually stopping time while I get stuff done—like assimilating all that data. Put those abilities together, and you have what might be called practical omniscience.

So what does this say about me? That I am a nerd. That I feel a need to control the people and events around me. That I value information and see it as a means to security and power.

Most folks scoff too readily at control freaks. They seem to assume that a wholesale relinquishment of control would be a good time. Truth is, loss of control often leads to loss of life and resources, occasioning the lament, If only I had done this or that at the critical moment, all this destruction and waste could have been prevented.

Of course I’m so simpleminded as to rationally believe that I can or ought to exercise this level of control. Things just aren’t as simple as they appear to me. If I really did have the power to go back and change the thing that appeared to be the catalyst for all that went wrong, a multitude of dependencies besides the ones I’m concerned with would also be altered, leading to outcomes I couldn’t possibly have predicted. For it to work at all, you’d have to be truly omniscient, not just comparatively so; and anyone who is truly omniscient is God and not yours truly. End of story.

Yet the mindset persists. It haunts the present, making me think, What juncture am I at right now that will become the crucial past choice of the future? Will it be a choice I’ll have just cause to regret?

Smallville’s Chloe Sullivan: “It’s easy to think that having all the information is the same as having all the answers.”

“Your biggest problem, Mom,” my eighteen-year-old son told me once, “is that you second-guess yourself.” Boy, did he nail that one.

Various Scriptures, such as Romans 16:27, Jude 1:25, and 1 Timothy 1:17, refer to God as the “only wise.” Of course this doesn’t mean that wisdom never appears outside of the person of God; the Bible makes it clear that God grants wisdom to people. But this wisdom is always partial, limited by our own limits. God alone sees the whole picture. The best course of action for me as a Christian is to pray for wisdom and trust that God will give me as much as I need in any given situation.

A serious impediment to my prayer life is the feeling I often get that I shouldn’t be praying for X; I should have already taken care of X myself. Self-castigation keeps a running commentary in my head, nagging me with the feeling that no matter what I do, it’s not enough. The accusation I fear most is that of laziness. And there is a peculiarly Christian laziness that boils down to using grace as an excuse for sloth.

James 1:5 is a life-saver and sanity-restorer for people like me.

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

Those three words, “and upbraideth not,” make all the difference in the world. God doesn’t give grudgingly, blaming us for the frailty that compels us to ask, but graciously, liberally, gladly.

I will make missteps. I will continue to have just cause for regret. Even in the retrospect of lucid old age (a blessing I pray God will grant me), some things will remain mysteries to me until the life to come. But my portion of wisdom is enough—not because it feels like enough, but because it’s what God grants me. And I can safely trust his character, even when I cannot comprehend his means.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all life thou givest—to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.

All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee,
And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.

~Walter Chalmers Smith, hymnist, poet, minister of the Free Church of Scotland

Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

~1 Timothy 1:17