When my daughter Zoe was born, twenty-one years ago, frazzled between nursing, and impractical plans of still writing, I made a mental prayer list to pray through as I pushed her stroller round our neighbourhood.
And blush: All those items are still on my prayer list.
1 Losing Weight. I still have 12 pounds more to lose of the 20 pounds I gained when pregnant with Zoe. Another pregnancy, with Irene, didn’t help, though that weight I have lost!
2 Running an orderly house. Well, we are now doing so, though, alas, there’s still clutter. I am doing the hopeful 365 Less Things project—a concrete way of getting rid of things by shedding one thing a day–and am hopeful that I will eventually have nothing in my house that is not both beautiful and useful.
3 I wanted to wake up at 5 a.m. because I have romantic associations with 5 a.m., and am still trying! I now go to bed around 9.35 p.m. so waking earlier will gradually becoming easier
4 I wanted to write a big beautiful book—and I still do!! And though I now write pretty much every day, having so organised my life that I feel sad and uncomfortable on the days that I don’t write : that book, ah!—I work on it in fits and starts.
Ouch! Same goals, 21 years later.
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That’s what life is like for an ordinary Christian.
Oswald Chambers (of My Utmost for His Highest), aged 27; Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Bill Wilson, Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, absolutely surrendered themselves to God, once and for all.
Jack Miller made fun of Samuel Johnson’s continual efforts to wake early, saying that that was because Dr. Johnson had not learnt to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit.
And Priscilla Shirer writes that a failed diet is “a direct sign that we have not submitted ourselves completely to the Lord.”
Yup, that’s me. Just learning how to lean on the Holy Spirit. I have surrendered myself to Jesus, but then indiscipline gets the better of me, or grumpiness, or laziness, or… most of the deadly seven!
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However, there are many ways of being a Christian, many concentric circles of discipleship. There is John, the beloved disciple who leans on Jesus during the Last Supper, hearing all the secrets of the universe.
There are Peter, James and John whom Jesus took with him at the Mount of Transfiguration, when they saw his glory, and at Gethsemane, when he wanted moral support. Then there were the twelve apostles, the seventy-two, the hundred and twenty, the five hundred and, of course, the 5000 men, in addition to women and children, who listened spellbound to the Sermon on the Mount.
It is possible to walk through the Sinai desert in ten days, I’ve read. It took the Israelites forty years, as they wandered in circles, grumbling, dispirited, losing their bearings. They are ordinary believers. They are our grandfathers and grandmothers in the faith.
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Wandering in circles: That’s true of things people struggle with for forty years.
One could get one’s house decluttered and organised in six months Marie Kondo says; 9 months according to Joshua Becker. Many struggle with this for decades, all their lives.
Most people could lose their surplus weight in a year through healthy eating and exercise. I could do so myself! Yet, many battle with this for decades, or for all their lives.
One could write a book in a couple of years, at 250 words a day. But many…the blushing, flushing woman you see is me!
Mark Batterson writes in his brilliant book, The Circle-Maker, that the biggest factor in spiritual and occupational success is waking early. We all know it’s better to be awake from 6-8 a.m. than from 10 to 12 p.m. Yet, many struggle with staying up too late, and sleeping in too late all their lives. And I am still grasping at 5 a.m.
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There! I now feel thoroughly downcast over issues I have battled with for two decades when perhaps I could have had them sorted in a year.
What beauty could there be in this mess? What gold among the shards?
1) It’s given me patience, compassion and understanding of my own and other people’s struggles.
Two steps forward, 1.9 backwards is progress. Slow, but definite.
It’s made me realistic about how hard it can be to follow Jesus. And he was realistic about it. Think about his metaphor. Carry your cross and follow him. Walk the narrow path into life.
We are not all fire like Beth Moore or Billy Graham who go for Christ, 100 %, though I’d like to be!
Some of us have feeble arms and weak knees. But we are still in the fight.
2) I have learned the limits of my will, my resolve. Trying to do life on my own and failing has taught me that I need Jesus. It has taught me that it is hard for me to accomplish my goals without the power of the Holy Spirit.
Becoming a Christian for me was, initially, and for many years, an intellectual decision. I was—and am!!—convinced that Jesus was God, and the Bible inspired, and reorganised my life accordingly. Sweeping changes: tithing, prayer, Bible study, church attendance, trying to obey what Jesus taught, implementing the wisdom of Proverbs in my life, that sort of thing.
The true magic of being a Christian is now rose-tinting everything, like sunrise. I am moving from grammar to poetry, from chords to the symphony. The magic: That I can ask Jesus to change my heart. To make me love vegetables. To love to walk and run. To love to sleep early and wake early. To love order. To love the discipline it takes to write.
3) We value virtue through experiencing the opposite. The beauty of domestic order through knowing chaos. The endorphin glow after a run through knowing the misery of physical sluggishness. The joy of writing through knowing the misery of not creating.
4) My failures have given me an increased awareness of the love of God. I have had successes. I opened a letter saying I had been admitted to Oxford University to read English. Opened a letter saying that I had won $20, 000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for my writing!
But I am most conscious of the love of God when I lean into it in failure and low spirits and realise that he loves me anyway. Who knows, perhaps he loves me more fiercely because of my failures and weaknesses, as we fiercely love our toddlers, puppies and old dogs!
5) I note that I have partially failed in all those goals I had as a woozy young mum, pushing my stroller around the neighbourhood, and wryly smile.
Because failure has lost its sting for me. Honestly! My failures make me wryly smile.
Because they are not final.
They are a way of learning. Who I am. What works for me. What does not work. How to pick myself up and go on after “failure.”
I have rarely stumbled on something which has worked for me at the first attempt. It takes trial and error.
And failure has taught me to answer a question of the catechism: Where is God?
God is not over there somewhere, experienced by the perfect and prayerful and good, but right here, in middle of failures; food instead of prayer; newspapers instead of writing; coat dropped on the living room floor; hello, snooze button.
God is not only encountered in prayer and Bible study. He appears, like the beneficent beings of fairy tale, when I most need him. In the trenches of struggle.
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Yes, taking a lick at a dragon, desultory sword thrust by sword thrust, instead of cutting off his head as I might have done were I St. George or a better girl has taught me many things.
Humility for I am not as A type as I imagine. Mercy with others who struggle. The importance of persisting and continuing looking for solutions.
I see the road out of the messy beautiful desert, and I walk down its zigzag paving stones, less conceited than had I achieved my goals quickly; with more to teach, perhaps; with more inspiration to offer such as I who wander in circles until they find the straight path, but finally leave the desert, radiant, leaning on their beloved.