“Sometimes a Light Surprises”

Today I ran as far as I could, trying to rid myself of how overwhelmed I was feeling.
I can’t run that far, friends.

My response to dealing with one hard thing is to become anxious about all the other potential hard things awaiting me. And I can pretend all I want that I’ve conquered worry and fear and anxiety. It’s just not true.

Today, as many times before, there came a point when I was exhausted from running. Exhausted from trying to stuff my fears back down into myself; trying to deal with everything quietly and on my own; trying to excuse my worrying as only an unfortunate habit.

Every time I reach this point, Phillipians 4:6-7 runs through my head, over and over. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

It sounds so easy. Just stop being anxious, Jo. Tomorrow will worry about itself. You know this.

Sometimes it seems like it’s the very things we know best with our heads that are hardest to keep solidly in our hearts.

Take a look at a hymn written by William Cowper (1731-1800), who also wrote “There Is a Fountain” and other great hymns:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
to cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it may.

It can bring with it nothing
But He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe His people, too;
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice,
For while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

Isn’t it an encouraging hymn? Listen again to these words: “Set free from present sorrow, we cheerfully can say, ‘Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.'”

That Cowper guy, he must have really known about worrying and what the biblical response ought to be. Well, yes, you might say that, but let’s look closer.

William Cowper was friends with John Newton–even wrote hymns with him–and there are accounts of their interaction. Cowper struggled with depression for much of his adult life, at one point even attempting suicide. John Newton encouraged him through these times, but Cowper thought that he had committed an unforgivable sin in trying to take his own life.

Eventually, he stopped attending church, although he remained close friends with Newton until his death in 1800. Several hymns written in the latter part of his life attest that William Cowper still trusted in Christ, but did he ever get rid of his depression?

William Cowper, struggling with depression, penned these words: “Yet God the same abiding, his praise shall tune my voice, for while in Him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.”

Was he relieved from all worries and cares in his life? Or did he just pretend he wasn’t struggling? Likely neither was the case. Not until William Cowper met his Savior face-to-face, was he relieved of his crippling depression. We can see from his hymns that he knew the right answer, and I think that he probably returned again and again to the comfort he found in Scripture.

What can we say about dealing with depression, or anxiety, or worry, plain-and-simple? Can we fix ourselves by somehow having enough faith, or by pasting on a smile and pretending we’re not anxious?

Here’s a better question: what are we to do with our anxiety and cares, when they come? We don’t ignore them, or think God won’t listen because well, here we are again, worrying about that same old thing, worrying about a new thing altogether, not having learned the lesson from last time.

God listens, friend. Go to Him. Tell Him. 

Do you know that He meets the poor in spirit right here, wherever they’ve stopped running because they’re exhausted from handling everything on their own? My weakness, your weakness, William Cowper’s weakness–all these are opportunities to learn more and more what God’s peace is like.

And no, in this life we may never stop dealing with worry or even depression–but the point is that God is able to draw us to Himself even through tough moments when we are vulnerable and overwhelmed.

He inspired William Cowper to write a powerfully encouraging hymn, all the more powerful because the author proved in his heart (again and again) what he knew with his head.

 

Thanks for reading! Reach out in the comments or through email if you’ve got thoughts on this topic and want to have a conversation. I’d like to be praying with you:)

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Write, Jo, Write

Ever feel like you don’t have anything to say, actually? I do. Right now, I feel that. I have been reading blog after blog which talk about how to get people to read my words, but none of them tells me how to write words that are worth reading.

So much has already been written–adding more words can feel like shouting into the whirlwind. Unless I know why I’m writing, it’s hard to feel motivated to just add something. But that’s what I’m doing, anyway. I’ve heard that, to be a writer, you have to write.

OH.

Is that all I’m missing? Self-discipline? Is it really just a matter of setting aside the time and doing it?

Probably five times since the New Year, I’ve started out writing about Thomas Hardy and optimism and the Darkling Thrush, and I’ve only gotten a sentence in every time.

It’s a great post (I hope), but it’s in my head–just stuck there–and driving me crazy.

Dear writers reading this–let’s start writing, okay? Let’s keep writing, but let’s remember why. What is it you need to say?

So write something imperfect (like this mess of a blog update), and then write something better afterward. Stay tuned for Thomas Hardy:)

To Tune a Heart

“Come, Thou Fount of ev’ry blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace.”

We know this one, right? Written by Robert Robinson in the 1700s, tune by John Wyeth (as I literally just now learned)? What a hymn, friends–what a concept: that our hearts must be tuned like instruments to praise our Master Craftsman. The hymn goes on–

Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount–I’m fixed upon it–mount of Thy redeeming love.

Here I raise mine Ebenezer–hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.
Prone to wander–Lord, I feel it–prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart–O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.

This is helpful stuff. But what on earth is an “Ebenezer?”

Other than a type of Scrooge, I mean.

I looked it up in our huge, Random House Dictionary of the English Language (because I’m stubborn and because I wrote this long paper once about posthumanism), and I didn’t learn the definition. [I did, however, learn what an ebeniste is: a French cabinetmaker, if you were wondering].

SO I caved and went to the online OED, which defined “Ebenezer” so:

1a. The name of the memorial stone set up by Samuel after the victory of Mizpeh: see 1 Sam. vii. 12. Used appellatively in religious literature in fig. phrases, alluding to the sentiment ‘Hitherto hath the Lord helped us’, associated with the origin of the name.

Okay cool–so I looked up 1 Samuel 12. It’s a great passage, all about Samuel giving the Israelites a reminder of what he’s been telling them all his life: Trust God. Serve the Lord. Fear Him.

But I don’t see any mention of a memorial stone. It’s kind of a sad passage–the people have demanded a king, even though God was their king–and God has given them Saul, and Samuel says that if the people and their king will continue to follow God, all will be well. But the people have a habit of forgetting, and it’s pretty clear Samuel knows this.

He ends with something that’s a cross between a blessing and a warning:

“Do not be afraid,” Samuel replied. “You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless. For the sake of his great name the Lord will not reject his people, because the Lord was pleased to make you his own. As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right.

But be sure to fear the Lord and serve hm faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away.” (1 Samuel 12: 20-25)

Wherever that memorial stone is in the passage–that same idea pervades Robinson’s hymn: that God tunes our hearts by reminding us what He has done.

Fount of blessing. Streams of mercy. Redeeming love. Let these reminders bind our hearts to our Savior, who rescued us before we knew how lost we were, back when we were wandering aimlessly and serving useless idols.

What’s reminded me of this is a poem by George Herbert (my favorite poet) called Denial. I’ll give the whole thing, but especially note the rhyme and meter and how they change:

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears,
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
My breast was full of fears
And disorder.

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come!
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untuned, unstrung;
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast;
Defer no time,
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

Do you see how crazy the meter is in here? And the rhymes go back and forth in each stanza until the last line, when there’s an effect of brokenness: Disorder. Alarms. Discontented. Untuned. Unstrung. 

And then. The speaker’s prayer is that God will “cheer and tune [his] heartless breast,” and that, being in tune with the will of His Father, his offering will be acceptable.

Teach us some melodious sonnet, God–and let us remember what You’ve done throughout history to glorify how good and great You are. Mend our feeble spirits, and let our hearts be satisfied with Your mercy.

Turk’s Cap

[Lately, I’ve been working through some things I haven’t dealt with before, but I’ve known people who have lived their lives within the framework of anxiety. So, that said, I am offering something that touches a topic I haven’t thought through as much as others have. There’s a lot I don’t know, so I ask for patience while reading this whatever-it-is. I’m hoping it’s helpful, not hurtful. Here goes.]

 

Turk’s cap, brilliantly crimson,
Perfectly formed, set against green–
It could be Christmas if it weren’t
High summer.

White moths and big tadpoles,
Hummingbirds relishing the shade
Of my father’s butterfly weed.

I wasn’t always anxious–I remember,
I’ve thought of myself as brave,
Plucky
Stouthearted
(at least I’ve wanted to be).

Maybe anxieties can be developed
Same as allergies.
You’re free, then one day, later in life, you aren’t.
You feel constrained
Helpless
Absolutely idiotic
Quite possibly you are insane.

You know the right answer even before the tears come:
Don’t worry
Do NOT fret (don’t you dare!)
God is good.

And God is so good.
But you still might cry.

What is wrong with me?  you shudder.

Nothing.
Not a damn thing
Except being human like everyone else.

Tears need no reasons;
Anxiety asks no one’s permission
Before it attacks.

Here is something
Reminding me I am not invincible.
Huge emotions besieging all my cool logic
Sometimes winning
Or subsiding,
Only forcing a few leaks from my eyes
Randomly.

I am small
and helpless.

You are great and good.

Hide me til it passes over.

Prosey Poesy

This post was supposed to be a smarty-pants book review of Eric Metaxas’s If You Can Keep It, but I got about halfway through and got annoyed by what I was writing, so I’m taking a break on that particular ramble.

Instead, here are two sort-of poems. They’re lazy poems, rough poems, slapped-down-on-paper poems which I really should heavily edit before putting them anywhere people can read them. The second one isn’t even finished yet. But since when do I edit things I write? I’ll get to them in a minute.

Last semester, I read a lot of Flannery O’Connor’s works, both fiction and non-fiction. I even wrote a smarty-pants paper about disability in her life and in her short stories. It’s a topic I probably had no business writing about, but it got me thinking a lot about the Christian response to suffering. Long story short, O’Connor seemed to agree with this guy named Pere Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher/priest who wrote about what he called “passive dimishments,” or suffering that cannot be avoided or escaped, but must be endured. This sort of suffering, for the Christian, is to be accepted (Flannery wrote that she hoped to accept suffering in her own life “if possible, with joy”).

Important note: when a miserable situation occurs and a person can mitigate his suffering, he should do whatever he can not to suffer–just in case you were thinking this was starting to sound like grim fatalism. Passive diminishments are different in that they are instances where there is not really an option for improvement, so the options are either to accept reality or to be doubly miserable, refusing to learn and grow from the (perhaps undeserved) “diminishment.”

Anyway, I started thinking about my own life, and how I haven’t suffered at all to speak of, but other people have, and I may someday soon. In another post on here I wrote about the future in terms of a Story, in which the characters may not know the impending plot twist, but the Author does and, if he is a good author, will write the story so that even surprising events are somehow right and meaningful in the end. [Click here for that ramble: On Wanting to Know]

In that frame, as you might expect, I was thinking of how God as the Author of creation knows his plans for his people–Psalm 139 uses similarly literary language, saying “…in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.” It’s a comforting thought if you know God as a merciful, mighty Father whose plans are perfectly right and good.

And yet it’s kind of scary at the same time. I can say til my face turns blue that I trust that what the future holds will be meaningful and worth-while, but when something actually arises that is too hard for me to handle, how am I going to respond? Last week I was sick off and on for several days and I was so impatient to be well and up and around–doing something useful–finally realizing in the middle of the last round of sickness that I hadn’t done a dandy job of honoring God in the middle of feeling crummy.

And other people have ailments far more serious than the stomach bug.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking of–that episodes of the stomach bug and even the persistent, eternal common cold can prepare us for some harder thing in the future, if we’re willing to accept those things we cannot avoid as being given by a good God for a good purpose in the future. I’m not saying the bad things that happen are good in themselves, just that nothing God gives is, or ever can be, pointless.

I’d like to hear your thoughts if you want to share them. Here’s the poem:

Forbearance

I want my works to justify;
I wish my words expressed me.
In suffering I’d like to rise
And rejoice in times that test me.

But I can hardly keep the faith
Through little trials that come.
Complaint and doubt bestrew the way:
I choose the hard road home.

I haven’t suffered much, and still
I tend to worry and despair
That some thing waits unseen, unknown
For which the present should prepare.

And since I have not suffered well,
But struggle to accept
The daily, inconvenient Given—
God’s promise made and kept—

How can I, then, expect to be
A martyr or a saint
When daunting grace draws near to me
And my weak soul grows faint?

I curse this inability
To say with grace some worthwhile thing:
Moses-like, I have a tongue
Unfit to praise my God, my King.

My rhymes are forced, as are my works,
And dead: they have no power
To justify or plead my case
When comes the darkling hour.

Then bless, my soul, this living hope
Which cannot be defeated:
My Intercessor, Savior, Friend
Who, long ago, entreated

Me to come to Him, when I
Was sick with fear
And, casting doubt aside, has granted
Love and cheer.

Cheer that stays through charcoal dusk
And crows aloud at morning;
Love that wonders at all things
And gives herself, an offering.

An offering of praise and thanks—
A quiet, glad assurance
That all is grace, that God is good—
I learn from this forbearance.

And here’s the prosey excerpt thing:

The man of acts says he is pierced by a great thorn—
I believe it. Scholars consider what Paul meant
And what shape the thorn might have taken.
I think it is enough to know there was a thorn,
Even in the side of one so earnestly following his Lord.
Enough to wonder at the curious way God governs,
Giving weaknesses as if they are gifts, and planning
For His children paths utterly unpredictable to human hearts.
Blessings that do not look like blessings
Til seen with new eyes.

Thanks for reading.