Praise the Lord anyway, because he is creative. He can bring good out of anything, creating diamonds out of mud, coal, rock and the bones of dead creatures. Make a boy sold into slavery a prince of Egypt. Things are just inert materials in his hands and from this unpromising argon, krypton, xenon, he can bring forth goodness and beauty.
I first encountered the idea of praising the Lord for everything when I was in India in the early eighties, in a book by Merlin Carothers called Prison to Praise. And for a while, I praised God for things that worked beautifully, and things that, apparently, did not. How happier and more optimistic I was then.
But then some things I really wanted did not come: prizes, stellar exam results, and I got kind of grumpy, and less “praiseful.”
I want to start living like that again, with thanksgiving in my heart, praising God for everything.
* * *
I have been reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts. Its insight and writing quality (generally poetic and aphoristic, though occasionally overly so, and patchy) may well make it one of the spiritual classics of our century.
Her central insight was “Eucharisteo precedes the miracles.” We give thanks in all things before we see the miracle.
* * *
I steadfastly used to praise God for everything as a young Charismatic woman.
When I was 19, I was returning by train from Madras to Jamshedpur, where my parents lived, a two day journey. On the morning of my journey, I go shopping in Madras’s tantalizing second hand book stores, and spend most of my money, and don’t have enough to buy another suitcase, and so impulsively buy a bucket to put the books in. (Please don’t laugh. I had tried to become a novice with Mother Teresa, and she refused to let her nuns buy suitcases, which she considered unnecessary and wasteful. They travelled with buckets, which she said were more useful. So that’s how I got the idea!)
So I scramble into the station, just as the train is leaving, and with my enormous clutter of luggage, get into the nearest carriage when happens to be third class. The very poorest people, noisy, crowded, and the cleanliness, well… And I planned to read Vanity Fairover the two day journey.
So when the ticket collector comes around, I explain, tremulously, that I almost missed the train, so didn’t even get to buy a ticket (an offence!) and please can I buy a second class one instead. He agrees, sells me one, and I move, bucket, suitcases and all. Settle into a bunk with Vanity Fair. Get hungry. Reach for my wallet. It’s lost in the third class compartment.
Now, this wasn’t a through ticket. So I have to get off at Asansol, with my melee of possessions, and not a penny to make a phonecall.
Fear. Cold sweat. What am I to do?
Well, I have been training myself to praise the Lord, anyway.
So I sit up in my bunk, and say, “Lord, if I leave my stuff here, and try and find that compartment, this may vanish too. And there’s no way it will be returned. I don’t know what to do. Don’t know how I am getting home. But I guess I’ll figure something out. And anyway, I will praise you.”
And I praise him in blind faith. Really do! And fall asleep!!
I am awakened by a rough shaking at my shoulder. It is the ticket collector, handing me my wallet! “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I say, effusively, overwhelmed. What are the odds of retrieving a leather wallet from a third class compartment in India? Apparently good! “You should be careful with your things,” he says brusquely and walks away. My wallet was intact. And I had had a good night’s sleep.
And learned a lesson. It is safe to praise the Lord, anyway!
* * *
Oh, I could tell you other wallet stories, of dropping it on Magdalen Bridge, Oxford, and a man who walked to Somerville College where I was a student, and returned it. Of losing it in Wordsworth’s parish church in Grasmere, and the grumpy verger who returned it, when I returned forlorn to praise God anyway, though I had no ID, no return ticket to Oxford, no money, no nothing. Or the Chinese student who returned it when I lost in Columbus, Ohio.
But I better not. I have already painted too vivid a picture of my stupidity.
* * *
So, praise God, and you get your wallet back? Well, yes. Sometimes.
But I’ve also lost wallets several times, and never seen them again–in Mexico City, in Chicago, in Oxford, and most recently, in Sweden.
Okay, then, let me tell you a Praise a Lord Anyway story which does not end with everything sad coming untrue.
So, we are touring Sweden last summer (for the silly reason that we were in love with Norway, which we’d visited the previous summer) and go to Gothenberg. The evening before I google it, and read that Sweden is generally safe, though there have been a rash of thefts from motor homes in Gothenberg.
Now, we are in a motor home in Gothenberg, but are really the most naive, trusting family, and firmly, though unconsciously, believe we lead charmed lives. “Mathias luck” we say when something that looked dreadful and unpromising turns out well, after all: we board a plane minutes before take-off, and are put in first class since the only coach class seats are at the back of the plane, that sort of thing!
Well, not today. We visit the Botanical Garden. My spirits sink low, I suddenly feel deeply depressed, and I feel a yearning to go back to the motorhome, the husbil, and nap. In retrospect, the Holy Spirit was warning me, and I will listen to my intuitions in future. But we have just walked to the greenhouses, and I feel silly to go back. After an hour, I cannot bear the sense of depression, and the longing to return, and we do so.
The motorhome had been broken into and systematically stripped. My laptop, on which I had not backed up the last 4 months work, including on a book I was writing—vanished. Roy’s laptop with expensive software and precious family photographs he had painstakingly taken: vanished. Irene’s iPod: vanished. My brand new iPad, which I had just used a couple of times: yes, vanished. And, of course, my wallet!!
The Swedish police are uninterested. They refuse to come to the scene and ask if anyone had seen anything. We go to the office, and it’s like a scene out of Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Surreal. They ask if there were signs of forced entry. We were shell-shocked, and hadn’t checked, so say No.
Turns out that that was an expensive error. We had two sets of travel insurance. One didn’t cover us because there were no signs of forced entry. One had an exclusion for thefts from cars.
We replace everything out of pocket, and upgrade to top of the line computers: I buy a MacBook Pro which I love. We even replace the iPad, because I can get so much email and social media stuff done on it in the car.
* * *
And so the next six months look different from the ones we had envisoned. For one, it cuts into our cash reserves. We are self-employed and keep the recommended 6 months salary liquid. Well, we had been getting lax, and the replacements set us further back.
In 2010-2011, we had gone to Prague in autumn; Granada in December, and Rome in February. In 2011-2012, we go to Lee Abbey in October, and make a retreat. In December, we go to Ffald-y-Brenin, the Celtic retreat centre, where Irene, 12, has a spiritual experience and changes deeply. Well, it was a healing, sacred experience for all of us. And we spend a week in London over the New Year. In February, we go to the New Forest, and stay in a beach flat.
And we enjoyed all these simple holidays, and grew spiritually—though the complete rest and change and re-setting of the brain was not as dramatic as when we went to Europe, and had intense stimulating, educative experiences through looking and walking and wandering!
Besides, Irene broke her iPod addiction. When we replaced hers, she wasn’t addicted!!
* * *
God can make anything work out for good. That is one of my core convictions.
The day before the theft, interestingly, fascinatingly, had been one of the most important days of my life. While the rest of my family swam on Silvik Beach, Gothenburg, or sat on the beach and read, I sat on the massive rocks and prayed. I didn’t have any agenda, I was just resting in the presence of God.
And it was one of those days when I felt Jesus right next to me, lying next to me on the rocks, on his side, looking at me, smiling.
And without my asking him anything, or for anything, he began to speak. He told me what his plan was for this blog and what he was going to do with it. Really, Jesus, really? I said, again and again, in delight (Not aloud!:-) and I felt him look at me, with laughing, amused, equally delighted, affectionate eyes, and say “Yes.”
I felt him give me a very simple strategy for how to manage my writing, blogging and time, so simple and so brilliant, and so effective that I would never have thought of it myself. I have often heard God speak advice, for instance, in our business, and that is the hallmark of the guidance God gives me: it’s simple, it’s brilliant, and I wouldn’t have thought of it myself.
So I return to the motorhome, buzzing with enthusiasm and excitement. I have heard God speak before, several times since I was 21, and what I have heard him say has always come to pass. I have no doubt this will too.
And the next day, the laptop disappears. We have another six days in Sweden. Gosh, it’s the first time in years, that I have found myself stuck with no writing materials, no mobile broadband or WiFi
Well, actually, those days turned out to be crucial. God had told me what he was going to do with my writing and with my blogging. But now, minus a laptop, oh the irony, all I could do is pray. “All I could do” is activate the nuclear power of God, continuing to ask him, in every deeper layers, for guidance and blessing.
The prayer was crucial for clarifying the vision and driving it deep into my heart.
And what other good came of it?
* * *
Habit. Iron chains. Powerful, either for good for bad.
I had some pointless habits. From when I was establishing our business, and trying to keep in the black, I looked at bank accounts, credit cards, incoming cash etc. every day. And then, when we were safely black, I continued doing that, first thing in the morning. What an uninspiring start to the day! No wonder, I’d often sleep in!
We use print on demand technology. The printer prints books as orders from bookstores, bricks and mortar of online come in. Once a day, starting from 8 a.m. and ticking on for hours, they show each book that’s been sold as they print it. There is something fascinating about watching the numbers tick upwards, and knowing how much money (or not) you’ve made that day. Which gambles have worked, and how well.
It’s addictive watching it.
But quite unnecessary! And how distraction
The lost laptop help me break the habit of looking our finances, and looking at our sales first thing each morning. Instead, I read a 2-3 pages of a Christian book—which helps me get going. I have never looked at sales again, but ask Roy every few days.
* * *
I was different. More focused, more in love with my work than I have ever been. I began to turn down invitations to parties (though I enjoy meeting people one on one). I dropped out of groups, both Writers in Oxford and one of my church small groups. I wrote seriously, well, and in a focused way.
Am I happy I lost those laptops, which cost almost £3000 to replace? No. But I did enjoy the quieter holidays of otium sanctum, holy leisure, rather than the very busy holidays of otium negotissimum, very busy leisure. And the simpler holidays, and the few months of quieter living have helped us replenish our savings to a sensible level. So I can say, Praise the Lord, anyway.
I am, however, going to visit Istanbul next month, and am very excited about it. Yay, PRAISE THE LORD!