In the beginning…
God’s first recorded words in the Bible are “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw that the light was good. (Genesis 1:4)
But he left darkness too.
And so it shall ever be. On June 21, we have 16 hours 41 minutes of light in Oxford, England. But we also have 7 hours 19 minutes of darkness. On December 22, however, we have 16 hours 18 minutes of darkness, but we still have 7 hours 42 minutes of daylight.
Some darkness on the sunniest day; some sunshine on the darkest day.
John drapes himself on us, heart flooded with love. On the other side, there’s Judas, serpent-heart despite his kiss. But eleven apostles out of twelve proved true. That is life too, and life is good.
* * *
Me, I am still living in summer, tasting the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. I am healthy enough; my family is healthy. My children are doing well, academically, socially and spiritually, and are happy. We are paying our bills to date. I am enjoying my work. I am happy. I am happy.
But I am also allowing myself to slow down, and feel the sadness that God left in the beginning.
It has been an intense month. Jake, our eleven year old border collie, had a vast growth in his abdomen, and inoperable tumours in his liver which makes it uncomfortable to eat. So he stopped. How dreadful to watch a dog waste away. Finally, he could no longer walk, and we put him to sleep yesterday. The vet said it was definitely the right thing to do.
I have been feeling tired, and my blood work showed severe anaemia. So I had a colonoscopy, which showed a polyp. I am hoping for minimal surgery…but I must walk on the waters,, holding Jesus’ hand through that.
We have lost our wonderful cleaner, which has thrown us. He helped with everything—housesitting, chauffeuring kids, picking up purchases, garden work, painting, car cleaning, whatever needed to be done. An almost irreplaceable Man Friday.
Financially, we are still recovering from the burglary in February, of our car and electronics etc. We were underinsured, and so we have to put our nose to the grindstone to replace what we had to “borrow” from savings (earmarked for other bills) so as to replace the stolen things.
Love’s like a hurricane, and I am a tree
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy, as John Mark Macmillan writes.
Couldn’t God have prevented all these griefs and hassles? I think, crossly.
* * *
In the Old Testament Book of Job, Job lost everything– children, wealth, health and the respect of his friends.
“Does it please you to oppress me?” he asks God (Job 10:3).
His friends insist that Job must have secretly sinned to deserve so much suffering, that he was under the Almighty’s curse—our intuitive (though unspoken) response to other people’s suffering
But Job insists he is guilty of no spectacular secret sin, “Let the Almighty answer me,” he demands (Job 31:35).
And God does. In the infuriating way only the Almighty can get away with, he answers Job in a series of questions.
“Who laid the earth’s cornerstone
While the morning stars sang together
And all the angels shouted for joy?
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?”
“Can you bind the beautiful Pleaides?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons?
Do you give his horse his strength
Who at the blast of the trumpets snorts, “Aha.”
God has put together this vast cosmos of sea and stars and snow, of lightning and lions and leviathans, ostriches, ospreys and eagles. Job, a very minor character in the complex epic of the universe, does not have the perspective to contend with him, God suggests.
God exists on another plane altogether, able to see the end from the beginning, to contain all things in his mind, to see the whole complex canvas of human existence at a single glance, and the glorious end of each contorted plot twist in our lives. While Job sees but one page, God sees the entire plot.
“Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker,
Does the clay say to the potter,
‘What are you making?’ the prophet Isaiah writes.
God is God. He chooses the plot of our lives, chooses the role we are to play in the cosmic drama. It is our task to play it well.
Job repents of his turbulent questions.
“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
My ears had heard of you,
But now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I repent.”
And Job’s acceptance turns things around. “The Lord made him prosperous again, and gave him twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10)
* * *
Darkness, trouble, hassle is a fact of life, seven hours of darkness in our brightest day. “In this world, you will have trouble,” were among Jesus’s last words, though he goes on to say, “But be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”
When God created a pristine world that he could have shaped any way, he deliberately left a bit of darkness too.
For the same reason a story-teller leaves a bit of darkness in his stories perhaps. It forces the story to a better, more beautiful, more interesting conclusion. Cinderella had to sleep among the cinders; Sleeping Beauty had to prick her thumb on the spindle; the shard of ice had to enter Kay’s heart for us to have a story.
Winter strengthens the root systems of trees, sending them delving deep for nourishment. Without it, bulbs would not burst into blossom. Eternal summer can take a toll on mental health; in Greenland suicides are more common in summer. Seasonal Affective Disorder strikes in the summer as well as in winter.
If we had eternal daylight, eternal summer, unblemished happiness, we would not value them quite as much. A period of just-enough makes us appreciate how money can cushion and enrich life; a period of loneliness makes friendship precious; a period of failure sweetens success.
God left darkness and winter as facts of life. So what do we do when life does not go the way we want it to?
We fling up our hands and accept it, light as well as darkness, good as well as evil, trusting the one who sends both, light that shines in winter, the selah of darkness in summer.
* * *
We accept it, with thankfulness that our world with all its darkness is still under God’s protection.
Because, as we are told in the second line of Genesis, while all the world was darkness, the spirit of God still hovered over the water.
And so we have hope.
I am in a situation of chaos, stress and high emotion, and over me the Spirit hovers.
My dog is dying, and I am overwhelmed with sadness watching him, and over me the spirit hovers.
I want my anaemia to go and that polyp to be benign, and over me the spirit hovers.
Life will bring me light and goodness and joy, but if it presents challenges, I know this for sure: Over me the spirit hovers, always hovers.
* * *
And so I can face the future. And so I can smile.
Because as Gerard Manley Hopkins says,
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out
It gathers to a greatness,
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Ah the Spirit’s warm breast, his bright wings. So much love surrounding us, whether we feel it or not.
And so as John Mark Macmillan continues,
Then all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize just how beautiful you are and how great your affections are for me.
And I really do believe, what Paul wrote to the Romans: In all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28) Because he is super-duper powerful and creative, and so he can. Because he is good, and so he will.
And so I say with Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well,” because the Holy Spirit broods over us, strengthening us, filling us with joy. He swoops down in light and joy, but something has his “dark descending” as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, continuing, surprisingly, ‘And most is merciful then.”
Over to you
Have you seen the light shine in the darkness?
Have you experienced the brooding comfort of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the darkness?
This post is kindly sponsored by How to up your health game.
Oh they did; they sure did, first throwing him into a disused well, then uncaringly selling him on for thirty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, not caring what became of him.
And what came out of his experience of betrayal, slavery, false accusation, and imprisonment was elevation—promotion—influence–the ability to save many lives.
* * *
I used to feel stressed and a bit hopeless if I had enemies, if I thought there were people with inveterate animosity, jealousy, competitiveness, or malice towards me, who would block me, who might slander me. The thought of such people still does not make my heart sing!
But they are a fact of life. “Some are jealous of your face. Some are jealous of your lace. And some will be jealous of your grace,” as RT Kendall writes in The Anointing.
However, Shakespeare’s young Henry V puts it well, “We are in God’s hands, brothers, not in theirs.”
I sigh if I realize someone is reflexively blocking me or my ideas, putting in a bad word for me, but I am not afraid.
I do not fear them.
Because there are always two stories going on in our lives: the plot we see, and the story God is still writing. There is the story people think they are forcing onto your life–in which you may miss the chance to lead, speak, get the prize, the invitation, because someone feels threatened by you, is jealous of you, or just plain dislikes you.
Often you are unaware of these machinations, and that’s best. When you do know, you wring your hands with a sense of loss.
But all is not lost.
You were not meant to lead at that time. You were meant to quietly follow the One. You were not meant to speak at that time. You were meant to listen.
Sure, it will take you longer to achieve your heart’s desire. The Spirit is taking you on the scenic route. You are in the desert, where all voices are silent, but the voice of God; where is no trophy but his companionship; no wine but his spirit; where your progress is not measurable, and, anyway, there’s no one to praise it.
Why, even your prayers aren’t working. Every avenue of showing off is blocked.
* * *
You say: “See here, God, I have wasted my life. Look at me, mid-life and achievement-poor. Remember, God, those years I was promising; remember that award for a writer of unusual promise? Why I was in my twenties then. The snazzy university, the snazzy prizes, the early publications, the blushing peach down of promise, remember?
Well, I’ve failed, and you’ve failed me; we’ve failed together, you and I.
Yeah, you really haven’t managed my life too well, Lord, and neither have I. Let’s just go eat some worms.
My twenties are over, my thirties, my… Let’s just say “my hasting days fly on with full career, but my summer little bud or blossom showeth.”
How can you make up to me, God for the years when I wanted to build much, but instead built little?
You have behaved rather badly towards me, my God, my friend. You have let me down. You are my friend, and so I forgive you, but I am sad about this. I am.
But if I love anyone, I love you. So yes, I will follow you because, you’ve sure ruined my appetite for following other paths of glory.
I believe you can restore the years the locusts have eaten. The prophet Joel said so, and Christians have attested to it. But I don’t see how. Jesus, let’s be honest here, I sometimes feel as if nothing can compensate me for those wasted years, the years in Joseph’s dungeon.
I really do.
Though they were what you gave me, and I accept them because I love and trust you. I accept them from your hands in trust as I accept the full years of your goodness.
* * *
And you, Lord, reply:
“Child, child, friend, beloved, Anita, what you wanted was a lesser good, and so I withheld it.
You saw the success of your writer friends—their whirl of book readings, teaching gigs, speaking gigs, lectures, prizes, prolific writing, book contracts, money, fame, fascinating friends, travel. All the trappings of a career. And you wanted it too.
And I knew you wanted it.
But I also knew you better than you knew yourself. Don’t make that face. I truly do.
You were not ready for the busyness of travel, deadlines, speaking, teaching, crises, midnight oil.
Fame and glory–what made you think it would make you happy? I knew it would not. It would not. Rushing to planes, trains and automobiles has never made you happy. Rush has never makes you happy, or busyness, or deadlines. You love quiet unscheduled days at home, or in your garden.
But I promise you this: You will write the books you want to write. You will not die before your pen has gleaned your teeming brain.
All the things you deeply love and want to explore and preserve in words, I will ensure you explore and preserve them,
All the things I kept from you, I kept not for your harm, but that you might find it in my arms.
You are sad that success came later than you wanted it, but trust me.
The bright lights of the big cities would have obscured me.
The noise would have silenced my whisper.
A hammer had to be taken to all those idols.
There had to be a gotterdamerung, a ragnarok. You wanted to be Ms. Famous Writer, to dazzle the world with your creativity. You wanted fame, glory, money, success, as you saw your friends get it.
You had but one shot at investing in your children. I slowed down your career so you could teach them all you had to teach them. And could your marriage have withstood the rush in peace, not pieces? Did you want to be Ms. Divorced Famous Writer? You did not.
You have reached mid life with a full heart and full spirit, into which I have poured and poured and poured myself and my words. And now it is time to write.
* * *
“Oh God, could you not have poured both? Both yourself and the other things I wanted?”
“But then there would not have been room for me. I had to pry your fingers from other things, so they would clasp me. Had to silence other sounds, so you could hear me.
I gave you not what you thought you wanted, but what you love, quiet and peace and silence. And in the quietness of your country garden, I shaped you, I formed you, I made you into a woman of integrity, a woman aligned with me, a woman I can trust.
You sometimes feel you’ve wasted your life.
But child, you’ve given your life to me. It’s now my story, not yours. I am the author, not you.
Accept the plot twist I chose. Forgive me, as I forgive you. It was not time before. It’s time now. It’s time.
* * *
Lord, I accept the plot you chose. I accept my years in the wilderness. I accept your judgement that they were necessary. I forgive you.
And I will go forward in joy, in alignment with you, your joy filling my heart.
* * *
Open your hands wide, and I will fill them. Your heart has been reformed in the silent years.
Now I know, and you know, that while your hands are full of my blessings, your eyes will be on me and your heart will be full of me.
* * *
Have you experienced a period of great silence? Have you experienced God more deeply as a result?
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Hagar, Egyptian maidservant of Sarah, has a hard life. Impregnated, basically raped by Abraham, she is bullied and persecuted by a jealous Sarah—so much so that probable death in the desert feels preferable. (Genesis 16)
And in the desert, the runaway slave, with only the clothes on her back, sees the Lord.
And she returns to her mistress, who is “very wealthy in silver and gold, sheep and cattle and male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants and camels.”
The rich get richer; the poor get poorer. It sure seems as if Sarah has won and Hagar has lost, doesn’t it? Perhaps.
* * *
It is Hagar, not Sarah who sees “the Lord who sees me.” It is Hagar He advises. Hagar is promised not only life, but descendants too many to count. She goes back to Sarah, under the Lord’s protection, bearing his promises.
And Sarah knows nothing of this. Her maidservant has returned, that’s all she knows.
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine St-Exupery wrote.
Our secret life with the Lord determines our happiness, and the course of our lives. It is, however, invisible.
* * *
I love the Bible, and I love teaching it. Last year, as I led a Bible study I said, “Ask and you shall receive,” “Give and it shall be given you,” nothing radical or reactionary, just word for word from the Sermon on the Mount. An academic in my group challenged me, “You say that because you live in the West. What about the starving people in Africa?”
And I asked, “Do you think everything Jesus said would not be as true and as valid in Africa as in Oxford, England?”
And an older, wiser woman, who has been to Africa on mission, numerous times, said, “Our African brothers are SO generous, and they have nothing.”
I am silent.
So are the righteous forsaken in Africa?
* * *
I am convinced that the same Gospel, the same promises are true for the world’s poorest as well as the world’s richest, but I am silent, because unlike Heidi Baker, who knows from experience that the same Gospel which is true in Southern California is true in Mozambique, I have not yet worked with the poorest people in Africa (though I have worked with the very poorest in India, with Mother Teresa, full time for 14 months, and hung out a little with the poor in Cambodia).
Hagar, the loser, ran away and came back starving. That’s what Sarah might have thought.
But the truth was that Hagar had been comforted by the pre-incarnate Christ himself, had received his promises, had returned at his command, and under his secret service protection.
We cannot say the Gospel does not work for the poorest because we do not know their secret encounters with God, the way he comforts him, the tenderness with which he looks at them, what he promises them in this life, or beyond. Certainly the way Christ looked at Hagar was so profoundly moving that that became her name for God—“ Lahai Roi. You are the one who sees me.” She is content to return to slavery and abuse because “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
God sees. God knows. At a difficult patch in my thirties, I was mentored by Lolly Dunlap. Discussing something difficult she went through, or I was currently going through, she would say, “God sees. God knows.” And sometimes, as it was with Hagar, that is enough. We are seen by the One who sees us. He has things in hand. He will bring about a kind of justice. The promises to Hagar mirror the promises to Abraham, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count,” (Gen 16:10).
* * *
The apparently forsaken Hagar has seen God, received divine consolation and a divine promise. She returned to abuse, strong in herself. Her eyes had seen God, and were watching God.
It comforts me. There is so much suffering in the world about which I can do little or nothing, so many stranded starfish on the beaches, gasping for the ocean.
Christ comforts us in our afflictions, and sometimes most deeply in our afflictions,
Father and Fondler of Heart Thou has Wrung
Hast thy dark descending and most are merciful then,
Gerard Manley Hopkins writes.
And, perhaps, most probably, just as he has his dark descending of comfort and mercy to Hagar, and to us, so too he descends to all the wretched of the earth.
* * *
At an Oxford party last week, I was talking to a World Vision Jerusalem worker, and mentioned I had been to Israel during the intifada in 1990. He said, “Oh, that was the easy time. The treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis is profoundly disturbing now. It’s very cruel.” He described it. I was in shock, in tears, in the middle of that 60th birthday party.
Can I do anything about it? Well, yes, a little because I know Someone who can. Lahai Roi, the God who sees: Please comfort those children of Ishmael.
Other situations sadden and disturb me. The treatment of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, some of whom have been waterboarded 183 times in one month, and put into inhumane and humiliating stress positions for prolonged hours.
Those in North Korean prisons
The women flogged under Sharia law.
The Indian and Filipina domestic workers in the Gulf, who have their passports confiscated, work long hours, are physically and sexually abused, and are often not paid.
Bonded labourers in India whose debts are transferred from generation to generation at exorbitant interest.
The Afghani single women and widows forbidden to work by the Taliban who become almost catatonic in their depression.
Lahai Roi, God who sees, comfort them. Intervene.
While we do need to share our money wisely, (the Biblical suggestion of sharing 10% with priest, widows, orphans and aliens is a good one) and raise awareness, and pray, it is some comfort to me that not a sparrow falls but his eye is on it. Not a human suffers, but his eye is on them. And how he comforts them, what he whispers to them, what promises he makes to them, we do not know.
* * *
Hagar was neither a Christian nor a Jew, but her plight did not escape the eyes of the benevolent one who saw her. She went back to slavery and abuse apparently unaided, but, in fact, having had a secret encounter, received secret comfort and bearing a secret promise.
And the same God looks on the 21 million languishing in slavery, with the same blazing eyes of love and comfort. He sees. Perhaps he speaks to them in their hearts…
And so we commend the Hagars of this world to his protection, because we cannot do a whole lot more, because as we trust him in our afflictions, we must trust him in theirs, and pray that he will wipe every tear from their eyes, in this world, and in the world to come.