Squash blossoms open into five-point stars And wave in a constellation from the garden, promising fruit soon. Today, New Horizons showed us Pluto after soaring through space for nine years. It shakes loose in me some doubt of God. How can in this vastness anything be sure? How can anything see me, know me, love me, save me? The breeze pushes through the squash stars, and they dance. Then too I see the shaking marigolds, yellow dwarfs casting light in the gloomy rain. I hear the Psalmist sing from them: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
I wrote that poem five years ago. Back then I still fretted some over my doubt, but these days I embrace it. When I start to feel the ground shake under me, I’ve accepted that God is big enough and loving enough to handle my fear and doubts. When I go full-doubt, all squinting and cynical, He does not throw at me wrath or shame. He follows me there.
The world, even the parts of it that profess to be Christian, is a terrible proving ground of God’s character. Because it’s what we see and hear and feel and taste, we can be easily duped into thinking the way our world reacts is how God is – full of retribution and war and violence and disease and backward justice. Pshaw.
Psalm 139 is how God is. And there, at the end, as God has followed the Psalmist to every height and depth, he does not condemn for anxious thoughts or offensive ways — he leads the Psalmist from that place.
Jesus is how God is. Jesus saw doubt and gave to the doubter what he needed. Jesus knows what it feels like to ask where are you? Jesus explained to the Father that we just don’t know.
I don’t run from my questions. I don’t tremble in my doubt. I let it be. I invite God into it. Surely, this too, must delight him because it means I’m still working — still accepting that, as Paul said, I only know in part. I’m still clawing at the truth of him. There’s still mystery to explore. There’s still love to give. There’s still feet to wash. There’s still room at the table. There’s still more of my life to lay down.
Yo, an earlier version of this had a huge mistake in it. I hope no one saw it. Whoops.
I am a big fan of being in control. Just truly a huge fan of planning and coordinating and timing things so they go off perfectly. I literally itch and squirm in discomfort when a well-planned thing doesn’t go well. This characteristic has served many employers well, but I swiftly burn right out.
I am equally annoyed by people who are laid back and who accept that they aren’t in control. Honestly, how dare they be so in touch with reality? Where have they shoved their childhood trauma?
I forgot to bring in a succulent from my deck before a cold spell hit, and I could see its dead remains from my living room window in November. Guilt and disappointment and a bit of anger danced around inside me. I dealt with all that quite brilliantly, in a way I love to do – I avoided it. Well, it is already dead so I will just not look at or think about that for a while.
March and Quarantine came a’courting, and so I found myself on the deck, cleaning up the crime scene, and three little starts from the succulent fell out of a safe little spot between the succulent’s pot, and some others. Three little leaves had tucked themselves into a warm, dry place, and sent out roots and new leaves.
Look at that. It’s like creation doesn’t even rely on me.
I have spent a lot of time uncovering the fact that the control freak in me is the result of a graceless Christianity in which many of us are still suffocating. You too may find yourself a bit uptight had you grown up with the overwhelming burdensome dread that anyone you did not share the Gospel with might go to Hell and so you too might also go to Hell. If Hell was one bad thought or one imperfect reaction away, you too may panic over a tiny mistake (see also: The Puritans). In How to Survive a Shipwreck, Jonathan Martin captures this Pentecostal pressure so wonderfully in a story about his utter breakdown at eight years old over failing to witness to a cable repairman. I laughed and cried at how closely I related. He then writes:
But that was the system I internalized, and that is how I always interpreted anything I thought God might be calling me to do. It wasn’t an invitation, but a threat. I grew up feeling sure God was holding a gun to my head, saying “do this or else.” Everything I did for God, even when I grew older, was still done out of a sense of duty and obligation. … When you are living in constant fear, there is no way you can choose to live out of your depths.
Many of us are desperately trying to live into two opposing truths: 1) God is all-powerful and 2) He depends on us to do everything, or else it all fails. That’s a paradox that breeds anxiety and shame, and there grace cannot root. Worst of all, you tirelessly encounter yourself failing (because to be God is — to all of humanity’s continued bewilderment — impossible) so then more anxiety and shame sprout up. The good seed is choked out.
In the summer of 2017, I was asked to help with a ministry at my church wherein emergency financial assistance is offered to community members in danger of having their utilities disconnected. This was part of a larger job, and in the earliest days, I found myself rattled by the interruptions this task caused to my well-planned days. In an especially exhausting moment, as I stood in a brightly-lit lobby with a person over-explaining their situation while a phone was ringing and things needed to be printed, I felt my temper flare because nothing was under my control and I could not do everything and please everyone. This person in front of me was a distraction from what I needed to do. God spoke up.
(A quick aside: I may attend a United Methodist church now, but I grew up a Pentecostal hillbilly*, and God doesn’t worry too much about talking to us because everyone thinks we are a little nutty anyway.)
So, I tell you with no self-consciousness that God spoke to me, and what he said was this: “Listen to my children. “
Truly I say to you, I had not known what it meant to be rattled before that. Before that moment, I was still living in that paradox, desperately trying to know the formula to please God. Am I supposed to witness now? What do I say now? Why am I even here? I want the gold star. I do not want to mess this up. There are so many ways to mess this up. Why are there so many traps?
Shh. I’m inviting you in to just listen, God told me. Because they are mine.
In Luke’s account of the bleeding woman, I love that Jesus stops and looks for the person who touched him. I love in Matthew when the Canaanite woman argues with Jesus about crumbs and changes his mind. Paul wrote to those quarreling Corinthians, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” If Jesus stops and looks and listens and loves, then I will too.
Listen to my children. In my time in that job, the fruit of laying aside my plans and accepting that invitation changed me. I understand much more about the injustice of the systems we’ve built. I understand that even as the president boasts to a Boy Scout camp a few miles away from you, a prophet in plain clothes all but defeated by poverty will wrap their hands around yours and speak right to your soul about what it means to truly trust Jesus. I understand that situation was not irony but the rebellious revolutionary truth of the Gospel — that this strange Jesus is Messiah, even while the culture is on its knees to counterfeits. I understand how alone so many people feel, how alone so many truly are. I understand what it means to shut up and get out of the way. Yes, there was often action to take, but the real holiness was just sitting with someone and listening. The holiness doesn’t depend on us, but boy, does it love for us to accept the dance. I’ve seen the risen Christ, and He’s right there in between two of his children sharing a moment of eternity together.
Because I am still here on earth breathing, I have not been healed of all my control and anxiety issues, but that moment and the ones that followed poured new ways of understanding the endless mystery of grace into my life. Even in that little whisper to me, God was saying what he has said since the beginning of time – these little ones are my beloved.
I dampened some soil and put those little succulent volunteers in a semi-sunny spot where their cells have continued to multiply. I look at them every day, and I listen.
*I borrowed “Pentecostal hillbilly” from Jonathan Martin’s book too.
As I sat in my car this past August, in the rain, in a cemetery where I could not locate my mawmaw’s grave, I wept for this intense emptiness that had taken residence in my heart and soul. I felt it even in the pits of my body, manifesting in exhaustion and aches. Mawmaw has been gone for over a decade, and though I miss her, I was not mourning her death that day. I was mourning my inability to find her stone, which my mind had built up intensely as a homing signal for my roots. Surely, if I could find it, the emptiness would ease. Even as it rained hard, I had walked the rows, my eyes reading name after unfamiliar name, apologizing to each for my own disappointment in their presence. Finally, lightning had driven me back into the car, and I drove home.
Emptiness. I was carrying it everywhere I went.
Now there was a woman who had been married to a member of a group of prophets. She appealed to Elisha, saying, “My husband, your servant, is dead. You know how he feared the Lord. But now someone he owed money to has come to take my two children away as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “What can I do for you? Tell me what you still have left in the house.” She said, “Your servant has nothing at all in the house except a small jar of oil.” 3 He said, “Go out and borrow containers from all your neighbors. Get as many empty containers as possible. 4 Then go in and close the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all those containers. Set each one aside when it’s full.” 5 She left Elisha and closed the door behind her and her sons. They brought her containers as she kept on pouring. 6 When she had filled the containers, she said to her son, “Bring me another container.” He said to her, “There aren’t any more.” Then the oil stopped flowing,7 and she reported this to the man of God. He said, “Go! Sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what remains.”
2 Kings 4:1-7
Even before the deep depression of my 2019, this story from Scripture was bothering me. I have lost track of when it first caught my attention, but I can safely say, for 2-3 years, this story has been nagging at me. I would return to it, read it, find nothing hidden there. I would read countless commentaries like those of Charles Spurgeon, in which it seems most people read this as a faith – then action parable: “She did what she was commanded to do: she did it in faith; and the result answered the end. God takes care to deliver his servants in ways that exercise their faith. He would not have them be little in faith, for faith is the wealth of the heavenly life.”
But that was not satisfying whatever itch was stuck in me about this passage.
Eventually, I learned about Ignatian Contemplation – thanks first to an interview on Fresh Air with Father James Martin. Ignatian Contemplation is praying with Scripture in such a way that you use your imagination to build the scene, place yourself among the actors, and see where your attention is called. For a quick crash course on that, watch this video over on Youtube.
So, I tried that with 2 Kings. What is God wanting me to look at?
Inside the scene, I heard anew, Elisha’s words: Go, get as many empty containers as possible from your neighbors.
And there I was, a harried woman, cooking supper. I hear several small children, playing somewhere out of the house. I hear them laughing and calling out. I am sweaty and hot but safe. The smell of roasting meat fills my home. There is a knock on my door, and there stands my neighbor’s sons. I know their names, call to them cheerfully. Yet, my heart is full with worry for them. I know their father has died. I know that the law allows these boys to be taken as slaves to pay his debts. I know that this loss will not only strike heartbreak into a woman already desperate, but will drive her further into poverty. These boys in front of me will be slaves, never growing into the men who can take care of her. When they ask earnestly for empty jars, why would I hesitate in gathering any and all that I had?
How would this miracle have happened if her neighbors had hidden away their extra jars? We don’t see them, but isn’t their gracious generosity just as crucial to this miracle as the other players?
Spurgeon goes on to say, “If she borrowed few vessels, she would have but little oil; if she borrowed many vessels they should all be filled, and she should have much oil.” I would counter – if she was given few vessels, she would have but little oil; if she was given many vessels they should all be filled.
Our culture often expects people to work for their blessing, but here Elisha says – go ask for help. And so – this miracle is a collective one, that required neighbors to give freely.
I wonder – Whose miracles are we divinely woven into? Are we seeing them? Can we hear the knocks on our doors? Do we see our empty hands as something to offer a neighbor, to hold theirs when they are in despair? Do we recognize our ears can lovingly receive the troubles of a friend? Does the empty passenger seat on our way to work or the grocery store belong to one of God’s children? Do we have empty hours and loneliness that we can give to some Kingdom work? Has the extra room in our house that hides all of the junk from our visitors been set aside for a foster child? A wayward relative? A person right on the verge of homelessness?
The story of Elisha and the widow sticks with me because I can’t let go of these questions: What emptiness am I holding onto that can be transformed by the miracles of our God? Whose fullness am I denying?
But then – what if your emptiness is of the existential sort? What if your emptiness is a darkness consuming you? In the pain of that, I found myself praying to God: Who could want these empty jars?
And then Easter approaches, and I remember what God does with emptiness, even the scariest, most confusing emptiness. I think of those first disciples, finding an empty tomb, dismayed and terrified. That dark emptiness must have crushed their already broken hearts. But what they would soon learn, and what we know, is that tomb’s emptiness would swallow death itself.
So here is my empty jar laid bare. The chemicals in my brain and the sadness of some situations emptied me out – to the very point that I no longer wanted to live. I could not find my roots. I could not imagine a blooming. I was emptiness itself. Every day, I would hand what I could of it to God: Please take this from me.
And then I started to whisper it to the people I trusted most, and they in return handed me their jars – mostly their time and their prayers and their love and their expertise. But every time I thought I might run out of hope, there was another text message or a hug or a joke or an appointment, and the oil kept flowing. And I’m here – living on what remains.
The blooms get all the glory. But those buried, hidden bulbs that hold energy through frozen darkness, that allow themselves to spark new shoots when the time is right, that root the beauty of each spring with no praise – those do all of the magic. I think of the Kingdom of God, always there underneath what we can see because we do not look. And yes, we sometimes see the grace, sometimes we feel the Holy Spirit, when it blooms bright enough to pull our eyes away from the distractions, when it is big and powerful. Yet, what gentle, hard-working, life-sustaining holiness we must miss, even as it is surges all around us.