Do you think that our universe is random; that the things that happen in our lives are but a manifestation of some great cosmic pattern? Or, like me, do you believe in a God who takes an active interest in our lives, one who will walk before us, beside us, and guide us in the smallest of things?
“What is wrong with me?” I wrote my friend Mary this morning, before I wrote my blog post. “I’ve wasted most of this month. I haven’t known what to work on next, and I don’t feel led in any one direction.” Poor Mary is privy to my innermost thoughts, my rants, and the ravings of a lunatic widow in frequent letters.
I have been praying. During the month of January I have given myself many moments of quiet solitude. I have “been still.” And yet I had spent most of the month wandering around my house aimlessly. What is wrong with me? I have wondered, even as I recognized the symptoms of situational depression. If grieving my husband weren’t enough, this month added both the news of Jacob’s cancer recurrence and a virulent form of influenza to the mix. Factor in snow and cold and very little sunshine, and it is no wonder I have struggled with depression. I felt like a lost sheep, wandering around in a meadow, with no direction from its master.
“I’m not even reading good books,” I continued in my letter. “All I’ve been reading are books about grief.”
After my morning’s blog posting, I headed to my book shelves determined to read something other than a book dealing with grief. Was it pure coincidence that I chose a book I was certain I could not possibly identify with; a memoir about an unhappy marriage. I’d heard good things about This Is Not the Story You Think It Is…A Season of Unlikely Happiness, by Laura Munson, but I wasn’t expecting any life-changing insight from it. Not only had David died a very happy husband, this book wasn’t about grieving a dead husband, nor would it be research-related for either of the two topics I’ve been struggling to choose between as my next project.
Just 24 pages in, I came across this passage, taken from a book the author remembered as getting her through hard times, a fourteenth-century tome in which the Christian mystic author asks the reader to choose one word to fasten upon their hearts. That one word, working in us, is meant to bring us through the hardest times;
“…fasten this word to your heart so that whatever happens it will never go away. This word is to be your shield and your spear, whether you are riding in peace or in war. With this word you are to beat upon the cloud and the darkness above and beneath you. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought, driving it down into a pool of forgetting. …” from The Cloud of Unknowing
One word. Surely a coincidence I picked up this particular book to read this morning, out of a shelf of fifty others. And right after I’d chosen the word HOPE to concentrate on this year.
When the mail came, it brought the newest issue of “The Sun” magazine, which I snatched up to read as I performed my morning toiletries. (that means I read it in the bathroom, if you must know, and I don’t expect to loan it out to you now that you know my secret) Immediately, I turned to a letter to the editor that referred to a previous issue’s topic of depression. In the letter, a James Hillman was referred to in a manner that I found intriguing. Apparently, before his death, this psychoanalyst had bemoaned our society’s tendency to treat every depression with medication.
“Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life. It moistens the dry soul, and dries the wet. It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness. It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression…Depression lets you live down at the bottom. And to live down at the bottom means giving up the Christian thing about resurrection and coming out of it; ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ No light fantasy; and then the depression at once becomes less dark. No hope, no despair. That message of hope only makes hopelessness darker. It’s the greatest instigator of the pharmaceutical industry ever!”
I just shook my head. Hadn’t I referred to hitting the bottom this morning, in losing my spouse? Oh, ye of little faith, what were the odds that I would read about “depression, despair, and hope” on the very same morning I had written and lamented about each of those topics?
“What if you needed an illness to slow you down and make you stop and think for a while,” someone had suggested to me just a few days before, when I’d mentioned how little I’d gotten done this month. I’d shrugged off the suggestion; Illness was one thing, depression was another. Surely I didn’t need depression. God did not seem to be leading me in any certain direction, and that was becoming increasingly frustrating. I wanted to write and I couldn’t seem to get past the first four chapters in one book, or the proposal with the other. Outside of my regular couponing column, I’d only written a few sentences in the last month.
What is wrong with me? I wondered again, and why have I hit a roadblock in my writing? I thought then of where I’d left off in the book about grief, and wondered what should come next. Would the book simply be about grieving? Of course not, but that is all I’d written about at this point, though the reader could see the beginnings of my faith journey. But what about David’s faith? How did he get to where he’d appreciated a daily blessing in the hospital before he died? Suddenly, I knew there was much more to the story than what I’d written so far. I didn’t even go downstairs, where I knew Abby would want a story read, or a math problem explained. Instead, I pulled some pages out of a notebook from Emily’s room and sat down on my bed and began writing.
Could God be in the tiniest details of our life, right down to the books and magazines he nudges us to read? What an intriguing concept, but one that seemed too trifling to mention to anyone else. Our God is a mighty God. Why would he bother? And yet, those two choices of reading material this morning were a breakthrough of sorts. I didn’t want to stop writing, now that I knew the direction I must go.
I wrote several pages before I needed to meet Abby’s math tutor at the library. There, I eagerly settled in at a table, ready to continue with my writing. But when I put my book bag down in front of me, I noticed how heavy it was, despite my having emptied it of children’s books downstairs. An unfamiliar book fell out on the table; Stunned by Grief, by Judy Brizendine. I couldn’t recall having checked it out, and certainly didn’t remember reading it. I skimmed through the first few pages, chock-full of helpful information and advice for anyone who has lost someone. I skimmed through the first chapters, already having faced most of the situations mentioned. Around page 150, I began writing things down. I recognized myself in paragraphs like these;
“Learning to rest in God does not come naturally. In fact, our inborn tendencies are opposite. We aim to be self-sufficient and in control of everything. Sometimes we drive ourselves crazy striving to get ahead-juggling, maneuvering, and stressing over all the balls we have in the air. Slow down and take a deep breath. God does not want us to fill our lives (or even a twenty-four hour slice) with anxiety and turmoil. He wants us to be at peace and to trust him completely…” (page 188)
“Many times, as believers, we waste significant time and energy by trying to handle things our way. We forget that God’s thoughts and His ways are not the same as ours. By trying to keep control in our hands, we miss the fullness of life God promises us in Him. We create pain, discomfort, and unnecessary heartache for ourselves by not trusting in God and his provisions for us. God can give us power for living and complete peace if we allow Him to work in us. Satan, the great deceiver, will try to trap us into becoming anxious about everything. If he can agitate us and create apprehension, then we will not be in a place of trust where we can hear God’s voice. The enemy will then have succeeded in diverting us from God and setting our minds on a turbulent course.” (page 189)
“What is the matter with me?” I’d asked my friend Mary this morning. “Why can’t I see which way God is leading me?” Even while I asked the question, I knew I had been juggling two different book ideas and struggling to work on both, not succeeding on working on either one.
I flipped through some more pages and then took the book over to the copy machine to make copies of the pages with headings like these; God is Our Hope, Worry is Unproductive, and Remain Faithful to God. I hadn’t been to the library in three weeks. Surely the book was overdue, and there was too much to take notes on. After copying several pages, I took the copies and the book to the front desk. “Do you want to check this out?” the librarian asked, and I informed her I was returning it. “But it isn’t checked out to you,” she said, and I wondered anew how it had gotten in my bag. Why was it in there if I hadn’t checked it out? And, why hadn’t I recognized it or read it if it had been in my bag for the last three weeks?
Does God care about what we read? What we write? Does he guide us even in the smallest of things if we but listen?
I believe he does, and today…I listened.