I’ve been placing batch after batch of roasted tomatoes into my deep freezer that sits like a sleeping white polar bear in the back of my garage.
All throughout the autumn and winter, the stored tomatoes will remain right there: available, ready, nourishing. During those bitter cold days, warm tomato soup awaits.
But I can guarantee you that I won’t remember I have stored those tomatoes. It happens every year. I go about my days and weeks and months forgetting the stores I have. I’ll stand in the kitchen one day in late November and remember. The tomatoes! I have roasted tomatoes!
I think about all I have stored up of God’s goodness, faithfulness, and nourishing words for days when my emotions and inner life feel stark, cold, and bitter. I’ll stand there in the emptiness and remember: God’s here in abundance! He’s here!
Today I remind a student writing about life’s roadblocks that “the impeded stream is the one that sings.” Wendell Berry wrote this in his poem “The Real Work”:
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
I love thinking of that stream trickling and singing because of the rocks and branches blocking her path. There’s something so beautiful about coming to a roadblock, a detour, and a true obstacle that leaves you baffled with no sense of where to go or what to do. So you begin to make your way–as best you know how–following God more deeply and more authentically because you have come to the end of all your possibilities.
I love thinking of our “real work” as this posture of not knowing what to do but keeping our eyes on God–the best, most real, and most true journey of our lives–and singing as we go.
“The Real Work” by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words. © 1983
I wake up and scroll through my phone to learn about a Wendell Berry quote I had forgotten. At the end of his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Berry says simply:
It’s a beautiful line in a beautiful poem. I think about what it would mean to “practice resurrection” each day in my own soul, in my tasks, and in every deadened area of my heart.
So all morning long, I think about that lovely and compelling phrase, “practice resurrection.”
Meanwhile, I’m working on a new project, and I am in search of a great commentary on the book of Ephesians. I text my husband on campus to see if he might retrieve one from his office library.
Then, I hear a knock at the door. A friend from far away who knows I loves verbs has sent me a book in which she claims there’s a section on “God’s verbs.” I unwrap the packaging to find a Eugene H. Peterson commentary on Ephesians.
I needed a commentary, and one arrives. How strange and convenient, like God received my text instead of my husband. But then I notice the wonderful title:
I think about these disconnected facts: my loving Wendell Berry’s poem; my needing an Ephesians commentary; my having a friend far away who knows I love verbs.
And then, the knock on the door where all disconnected things become connected under the power of a great and loving God who knows what we need, what will delight, and how to make sense of what seems like disparate, chaotic facts.
I love the way we open the door to God’s intervening, harmonizing, answering work.
Last night at our gathering of grad students, one friend arrived with a bowl of homemade cookie dough. He turned on the oven, we got out our baking stone, and we we began to bake the warm oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.
All throughout the evening, I’d waltz around with warm, gooey cookies on a platter for guests. Then I’d return for the next batch to emerge from the oven.
I realize the joy of warm, baking things. I realize that walking around with warm cookies on a platter is a recipe for joy.
They were delicious.
Last night I shared with women at church my journey to “train my mind in hope” based on the biblical principles of Jeremiah’s choosing to call to mind the new mercies of God (Lamentations 3), David’s cry that God would “show [him] the wonder of His great love” (Psalm 17), and the truth of Romans 15:13 that God is a God of Hope that can fill us with hope till we overflow with it. I wrote about this journey in Guarded by Christ: Knowing the God Who Rescues and Keeps Us.
As part of my journey to fight despairing feelings and dark moods, I thought: I will ask God to show me the wonder of His love. I will look for it and record these new mercies. I will believe that Jesus is my Hope.
And you know the rest of the story: I blogged these new mercies for 6 years without stopping (except for that one day in Kansas).
Sometimes I go back and read what I was thinking and doing on a certain day. On this day, one year ago (2015) I talked to a researcher studying Native Americans and marveled over the beauty of hearing someone’s story of why they do what they do. Another year (2014) on this same day, I was thinking about empowering my children instead of micromanaging them. Still another year on this same day (2013), God was beginning to teach me the most life-changing truth from Ephesians. Back then, I wrote:
I’m learning another path to freedom from comparison, jealousy, insecurity, and even fear. Two Bible verses inoculate me against these kinds of temptations: 1 Corinthians 3:6 tells me that “the Lord has assigned to each his task.” Ephesians 2:10 reminds me that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
I realize that some of us are simply appointed for certain externally beautiful, prosperous, joyous things, while others seem appointed for suffering, disappointment, loss, or failure. Is God not still in charge? Is God not still assigning–with great care, specificity, love, and purpose–our task (whether pleasant or challenging)? Is our prepared “good work” suddenly less meaningful because it looks different from another’s?
In 2012, I looked at a baby dangling from the carrier on her mother’s front side. I thought of how Jesus holds me so tightly to him so I can just dangle and kick my feet with joy. In 2011, I was fascinated with Chamberlain’s quote on great deeds as I walked the Gettysburg battlefields. Finally, way back in 2010, when I felt so much younger and immature, God was beginning my education in hope and beauty. I considered what happens when we lose something we can’t recover. A student had deleted her entire paper from a campus computer.
But beauty does arise from the ashes. I see it every semester with every lost paper. I see it in my own life with every thing I’ve ever lost. There’s a way to start again on the fresh page, remember what you had, and press your fingers down on the keys. You start letter by letter, word by word. Soon, you’re not just back where you started. You’re beyond in a beautiful far country that you never imagined existed. And the loss got you there.
Looking back, I know that I can run faster and longer and into much more dangerous territory because of how God has strengthened my soul to know Hope every single day. On this day, there’s something to learn, something to marvel over, and something that invites worship.
And guess what it was? I was walking my daughter partway to school, and we saw a hot air balloon. We called out to it and it answered. Helllllooooooo!! We laughed and smiled and thought about what it must feel like to float above the neighborhood, skimming the tips of the burnt orange trees.
Would you consider daily recording your own experience of God’s new mercies? It will train your mind in hope, and you’ll never be the same. The old despair won’t have the same kind of power over you because you know how to turn it, always, into beauty and worship.
I’m trudging across the campus with a bag full of library books to return. My arms ache and the morning sun feels much hotter than it should. Finally, I reach the book return and unload each book one by one. The feeling of sudden lightness, of relief and ease, and of simple comfort takes me by surprise. I had forgotten the feeling of a light load. I recall some stunning statements in the Bible about carrying heavy burdens:
- “Cast all your cares upon him, for he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
- “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble and heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
The words of Libby Miller from Camp Greystone return, as they often do, when I’m experiencing the burden of a heavy load–either emotionally or physically. Libby pulled me aside on a day when I was stressed out, overburdened, and weighed down by so many tasks.
She said, “Heather, stress comes when we try to assume responsibility for things that aren’t our responsibility.”
What could she mean? I sat there, staring into space with that stressed out, frazzled, exhausted and hollow look I get when everything feels like a weight on my soul, and then I snapped back to reality. She was right. I had a list of things to do and people to manage and care for, but the truth was that God was in charge of me and everything concerning this list of tasks. God was responsible for my life, my tasks, my situation. In Christ, I find rest for my soul. I take all the weary burdens, and I cast them into His care and keeping.
Libby Miller spoke that sentence to me 21 summers ago, and it returns to me every few months. I’m so thankful for wise sentences!
I recall the truth: Jesus is working on our behalf and inviting us into His rest that’s easy and light.
As I walk today under a pelting of fat green and brown acorns that I then crunch underfoot, I remember one of my favorite poems, “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The sun casts beautiful patterns through the barely green leaves. The sidewalk collects her own design of light and leaf. It’s dappled and stippled and so lovely that I feel joy rise up in me. Hopkins writes:
Glory be to God for dappled things –For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.All things counter, original, spare, strange;Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:Praise him.
I turn the words in my mind like I would a fresh acorn: dappled sunlight and the stippled sidewalk. I think about the way the light arrives as it does because of this particular time of day and season. It feels like the last day of summer with the heat that feels strangely chilly by the time the wind blows. And even though it’s bright and green here still in most places, I smell the acorns and leaves begin to settle into rest.