Farther along

During recent storms (or threats of storms), I found myself looking at the weather app on my phone several times a day. Knowing that my sons were scheduled to have soccer practice that evening, I would check the predictions of bad weather even though I saw only blue skies and innocent-looking, white wisps of clouds above. On the radar, I saw our fair city sitting clear as a bell in the middle of our state. Nothing to fear, right? Then I would zoom out on the map and see ominous, swirling reds and yellows and menacing blobs of green. These storms were crowding around us, just out of view. That visual was a perfect representation of 2020. Destruction seems to be crouching at the door, waiting to pounce.

 

At the grocery store today, I found myself singing a hymn I hadn’t sung or even thought of in years. (This is one advantage of wearing masks in public—I can sing or whisper to myself but no one knows!) I was singing the song “Farther Along” as I picked out my produce and chose the right bag of shredded cheese. I was singing “Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine…” while I waited on my deli turkey to get sliced. I was telling myself, “Farther along, we’ll understand why.” And I needed this hymn today. Because of my faith, I know those spinning blobs of scariness swirling around me are temporary, but that doesn’t always make me feel less scared.

 

The history and authorship of the hymn “Farther Along” is uncertain. Some attribute the lyrics to a preacher named W.A. Fletcher, a man who allegedly wrote it while traveling in the Indian Territories in 1911. Apparently, he was sad that he was away from home for the birth of his first child. Whether the story is true or not, you can imagine Mr. Fletcher, sitting lonely and discouraged on a train, trying to cheer himself up. He was attempting to remind himself that there was a greater purpose for struggles and a reward waiting for him after all his “toils of the road.”

 

I need this kind of reminder, too. I need to know that what I see as unfair or illogical or frightening will make sense eventually. Over the more than 100 years since its first publication, there were some who objected to the chorus of the song. They took offense at the notion that “we’ll understand it all, by and by,” as if we would ultimately know everything that God knows when we get to heaven. But I think there’s a difference between knowing what God knows (just typing those words might make my brain explode) and understanding why. Maybe we don’t have to get all the way to heaven’s pearly gates to understand why the wicked sometimes prosper and the good are liable to be oppressed.

 

The Scriptures hold plenty of clues as to what suffering is for. The Apostle Paul suffered more than I’m sure I ever will, and he comforted others with these words: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8) So if you’re in the midst of suffering, comfort yourself with the promises of future glory. If you’re in that “clear as a bell” zone of the weather map with only sunny skies as far as the eye can see, bolster your faith with Paul’s words like a team filling sandbags before a hurricane. Then cheer up, my brother, and live in the sunshine.

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

Why we do difficult things

Parenting is hard. This is the eternal truth I was pondering as I rubbed the back of my ankle right after my older son slammed into it with the grocery cart. You give them a chance to prove themselves, such as saying that they can follow behind you up and down the aisles with what amounts to being a metal battering ram, and sometimes they disappoint you. Being a parent can be a really tough job, but that doesn’t make me want to quit.

 

We have a saying in our house (by we, I mean and by saying, I mean homework time mantra): “When things are hard, we try harder.” It works for memorizing multiplication facts and learning to ride a bike. When a task just seems too difficult to complete, I tell them, “Rossers don’t quit.” Those are my standard pep talk declarations.

 

Other than the obvious reasons not to give up (“Multiplication is something you will actually use your whole life! You just have to learn what 8 times 6 is!”), there are other, ongoing reasons not to quit. Each time we conquer a fear or accomplish a new skill, we add another layer to our confidence. These successes strengthen our resolve, making the next hurtle a little less daunting.

 

I love stories about people who truly overcome adversity to do really great things, people who don’t quit even when things seem impossible and the world tells them they’re no good. An example of this kind of insane rise against all odds is the story of Dr. Ben Carson, famed neurosurgeon and current HUD secretary.

 

Dr. Carson grew up in poverty in Detroit, and he was at the bottom of his class academically. The key to his eventual success was his mother. “I was fortunate enough, you know, to have a mother who believed in me when everybody else was calling me dummy,” he said in a 2005 NPR interview. “She prayed and asked God to give her wisdom. What could she do to give her sons to understand the importance of academic achievement, because we were doing terribly in school. And she came up with the idea of turning off the TV and making us read books…You know, it did incredible things for me because, you know, between the covers of those books you could be anybody, you could go anywhere, you could do anything. And it begins to broaden your horizons. And, you know, within the space of a year and a half, I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class.”

 

Cresting that hill made the next one seem climbable, and the next one, and the next one. His mother wouldn’t let him and anyone else define him as a “dummy.” She made sure he knew it would be hard work, but it was within his grasp.

 

You have to assume that if we only do easy things, growth will be minimal. And besides, our most important tasks (like parenting) are just supposed to be difficult (like parenting at the grocery store), but we’re not alone. As C.S. Lewis said, “God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain but without stain.”

Elastic

A new study finds that very tiny chameleons—like the ones from Tanzania that can sit on the tip of your thumb—compensate for their small size with incredibly long and incredibly fast tongues. They may seem like harmless, little lizards but bugs should consider themselves warned. Scientists assumed there would be some sort of adaptations for these tiny creatures but they were surprised by what they found.

 

When I heard about those chameleons and their super-stretchy tongues, I thought of that feeling you get when you’re stretched to the limit. One more thing, even something as small as a stubbed toe, would push you tumbling head-first over the edge.

 

It also makes me think of my friend who received bad news about her daughter’s health last week. There has been physical and emotional pain, sleepless nights and difficult choices. My friend has been stretched to the limit and beyond. She saw the sign THIS IS YOUR LIMIT as she passed it then kept on going.

 

But the truth is she does have a limit. We all do. We hear well-meaning people tell us that God won’t give us any more than we can handle, but I’m here to tell you that sentiment just isn’t true. In fact, it’s a lie disguised as a scripture you won’t find in the Bible.

 

The Book of Psalms is full of people who were given more than they could handle. For instance: “I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart.” And then there’s: “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” This is not from a person who is in control of the situation. This is definitely someone who cannot take it another moment.

 

My friend has been like the Apostle Paul, suffering hardship on top of hardship. When Paul said, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself,” he thought they wouldn’t survive.

 

So if there are times when we’re given greater burdens than our capacity to bear them, how is God good? Maybe our understanding of goodness isn’t Biblical either.

 

God never promised this life would be easy but He did promise He would never leave us. Again and again in Scripture He says: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

 

So my friend is allowed to be mad. She’s allowed to do the very Biblical act of crying out to God. She’s allowed to ask “why?” And through it all, the Lord will never leave her. He’s a mighty God. He can take a few accusations and some angry finger-pointing.

 

He will send comforters, both spiritual and physical, to meet her needs, also both spiritual and physical. He will weep with her and rejoice with her.

 

And His Son will say to her: “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 in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

 

My friend will be stretched farther than she ever thought was possible, and if the tension becomes too great and she snaps, God will be there for her at that moment, too.