Forbearance

Scottish-born author Robert Louis Stevenson was no stranger to being stuck at home. Although he was an acclaimed travel writer and author of some of the 19th century’s most exciting works of fiction—Kidnapped,Treasure Island, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—almost all of his 44 years were spent suffering through sickness. Just like his mother and his grandfather, Stevenson continually nursed a weak chest and a persistent cough. He nearly died several times, barely surviving particularly cold winters or after making long voyages.

 

In his poem “The Land of Counterpane,” it’s easy to imagine Stevenson as a weak, sickly boy as he writes: “When I was sick and lay a-bed/I had two pillows at my head/And all my toys beside me lay/To keep me happy all the day.” He had to learn how to find contentment and entertainment while confined to his bed.

 

Though Stevenson was raised by devout Protestant parents, he later proclaimed as a young adult that he was an atheist, telling his father that he couldn’t continue to live a lie. In his final years, Stevenson retired to a Samoan island where he hoped the warmer climate would improve his health. During those last four years, his feelings about religion seemed to change. Stevenson wrote Prayers Written at Vailima, a collection of devotions meant to be read at various times of the day. One of these prayers is simply called, “For Success.”

 

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety, and the quiet mind. Spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies. Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving to one another.”

 

In spite of how his late-19th century wording might fall on modern ears, something about this prayer especially resonates now. This man with all his unfortunate flaws and unique talents and the tragedy of his battles with sickness and seclusion, can speak to us in these extraordinary times.

 

One word in particular stood out to me—forbearance. It’s not a word I use in regular conversation, but desperate times calls for descriptive vocabulary. I’m already in the practice of daily praying for patience, but now I pray for forbearance. It’s a word with more weight, like the thud of two feet being planted in place to prepare for the attack of an opponent. To forebear is to abstain, to bear up against, to control one’s feelings. There’s a sense of delaying, of waiting, and in the waiting, an endurance. I can imagine a young Robert, lying in bed with toy soldiers and books carelessly thrown around him on the sheets. He looks out the window and sees a world he misses. He wonders what lies beyond what he can see, both down the street and in his future years. A century and a half later, these are my thoughts, too.

Tag team

When my twin daughters were newborns, they kept me moving. Seeing as how they were helpless in every way, there was always something to do for them. After a few months of being their mom, I realized something funny—they mostly alternated in their fussiness. One would be happily staring into her blurry void, a slobbery, toothless grin plastered on her face, while the other one would be screaming bloody murder. Then, a few hours later, they would change it up. Happy Baby would morph into Grouchy Baby and Angry Baby would switch to Cheerful Baby. It was as if they were professional wrestlers, tagging in and out of the ring (where I was the all-time opponent).

 

This memory about my now almost 18-year old daughters recently surfaced to my mind as we were all quarantined together. I noticed that all of the people in our home have been alternating in their emotions. One of us would begin to feel hopeless and scared about the virus and the shortages and the cancelled events, but not all of us felt these emotions to the same extent at the same time. Slowly, the frightened one would breathe deeply and pray silently, and the wave of nauseous panic would subside. Without verbalizing it, we were tagging in and out. It was as if we were announcing, “It’s my turn to cry in the bathroom, so ya’ll hold down the fort and play a few hands of Skip Bo like we’re just on Spring Break, without a care in the world.”

 

1 Corinthians 12 talks about this idea of all of us coming to the table with different strengths and weaknesses, different skills and challenges. The Apostle Paul uses the analogy of a body:

 

“Yes, the body has many parts, not just one part. If the foot says, ‘I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,’ that does not make it any less a part of the body. And what would you think if you heard an ear say, ‘I am not part of the body because I am only an ear and not an eye’? Would that make it any less a part of the body? Suppose the whole body were an eye—then how would you hear? Or if your whole body were just one big ear, how could you smell anything? But that isn’t the way God has made us. He has made many parts for our bodies and has put each part just where he wants it. What a strange thing a body would be if it had only one part! So he has made many parts, but still there is only one body.  And some of the parts that seem weakest and least important are really the most necessary. If one part suffers, all parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. Now here is what I am trying to say: All of you together are the one body of Christ, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it.” (TLB)

 

We were never meant to be alone—just a pinky toe or an earlobe, disconnected from the body—and this is more true now than ever, even if it might be more difficult to practice in our current situation. When I alternate in the peaks and valleys of the next weeks and months, I’ll need to be encouraged by the strength of the part of God’s body (or person) at the opposite side of the curve. Then, when my strength has been renewed and I can mount up with wings like eagles and run without being weary or walk without being faint, I’ll be able to be that source of encouragement to others.

Sabbath rest

By the time Moses marched the Israelites out of Egypt, they had gone through a lot: Mass murder of their baby sons and harsh treatment as slaves. The frightening experience of watching (from a safe distance) as God sent plague after deadly plague, culminating in a final act of punishment which required blood smeared across door frames to ensure survival. The sea was parted and they walked across dry land while the pursuing Egyptians met their watery fate.

 

Then the Israelites found themselves in the wilderness. Missing the comforts of their old home (though minimal), their stomachs rumbled and they grumbled, “You have brought us out here in the desert to die!” So God sent manna, honey-flavored flakes from the sky which settled on the ground like dew. They were told to take as much as they needed, about 3 lbs. for each person in their family, then bake it or boil it according to their own particular taste. Moses told them not to keep any of it until morning or it would spoil. The Lord was teaching them to rely on Him.

 

On the sixth day of the week, they were told to gather twice as much. The Lord saw their stress level and their arrogance, so He told them, “Tomorrow is going to be a day of sabbath rest. So prepare the manna however you choose and save whatever is left to eat tomorrow.” Sure enough, this time the manna didn’t spoil or become infested with maggots. But some hard-headed people still went out to gather manna on the sabbath morning. The Lord saw their surprised and frustrated and worried faces, so He said to Moses, “When are they going to start obeying me?! I’m giving them rest! It’s what they need! Everyone is to stay put on the seventh day.” And that was that—the Israelites kept the Sabbath.

 

I told my young son this story on Sunday—the grumbling, the manna, the worrying, and the gift of the Sabbath. An hour later, my sister sent me a beautiful poem written earlier this month by poet Lynn Ungar about our present misfortune. It reminds me why we should keep the sabbath today.

 

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

Masks

For Read Across America Day, my youngest son was supposed to dress up like a book character. We had plenty of notice about this activity, so I started asking him early on what he wanted to be.

 

“How about an elephant like the Elephant and Piggie books?” I asked.

 

“I was an elephant last year.”

 

“Oh…that’s right, then how about a pig?”

 

Eye roll.

 

We’re reading through The Littles book series (tiny people who live in the walls of the Biggs’ house) at bedtime, so I suggested he be Tom Little. “Tom looks just like a regular person, but he has a tail. That would be easy.”

 

“Mom, I am NOT wearing a tail to school. People will make fun of me.”

 

He was pretty adamant that he wasn’t going to dress up as any book character, claiming that he would be the ONLY ONE with a costume and EVERYONE would laugh at him and he would be SO embarrassed.

 

The night before Read Across America Day, I tried one more time to see if he had changed his mind. There was a picture book on the floor—Jack B. Ninja, a play on the nursery rhyme “Jack Be Nimble”—so I pointed to it and said, “How about a ninja?”

 

Once I described an all-black outfit we could easily cobble together from things in his drawers, he agreed. “But I need a mask, like in the picture,” he said.

 

It being 8:30 on a Sunday night, I wasn’t thrilled about going out to the store, so I looked around the house for something to make a balaclava-type mask. I found a pair of his older brother’s black compression shorts that were too small and ripped at the waistband. I cut it up and sewed it together like I was the birds and mice in the Cinderella movie. Ta-da! Ninja mask!

 

The next morning, the kid who was too embarrassed to go to school dressed as a pig or a boy with a removable tail, instead wore his older brother’s underwear on his face. Life is funny, isn’t it?

 

Wearing costumes can be fun, but it’s understandable why he was particular about who or what he would pretend to be all day long at school. It can feel inauthentic, phony.

 

Jesus warned his followers about hiding their true selves behind masks in Luke 12. “Watch yourselves carefully so you don’t get contaminated with Pharisee yeast, Pharisee phoniness. You can’t keep your true self hidden forever; before long you’ll be exposed. You can’t hide behind a religious mask forever; sooner or later the mask will slip and your true face will be known. You can’t whisper one thing in private and preach the opposite in public; the day’s coming when those whispers will be repeated all over town.” (The Message)

 

We all put up a façade at some point, but it’s just a matter of time before our true identity will be revealed. Jesus recommended being the same person in private and in public. Don’t fake kindness and Christian values just on Sundays. Assume that those whispers will eventually spread like wildfire, so make them whispers you want heard by others. And this applies to everyone, even ninjas.