Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Everlasting Arms

When I was a girl, my uncle had a home in a tiny town on the Wisconsin border.  It had 2 churches, 3 saloons and 4 feed stores,  and the population was something like 100.  Growing up in California, I had yet to be enchanted by fireflies and their magic spell, or the friendly sound of cricket choirs chirping in the soft darkness. I had never heard church bells ringing on a Sunday, or a sky so full of stars it took my breath away. It was the end of summer, and the nights were no longer full of mosquitoes or the oppressive humidity that left you turning over your pillow looking for the cool spot and shifting your position to catch the faintest of breezes through the open windows (no air conditioning in those days!)

I was given the privilege of sleeping on a cot in the basement, which also enchanted me - we didn't have basements or attics in California either, and the earthy smell and cool feel of the cement on my bare feet became the instantly recognizable scent and feel of summers in the Midwest. One whiff in the years to come, and I was instantly back in Stitzer.

I sat out front on the stairs while the adults chatted inside.  There were very few houses near the town, and the quiet intrigued me.  The air felt as soft as velvet, and all sound had a muted quality, so that when you spoke, you found yourself speaking in hushed, quiet tones. God's cricket choir serenaded the dew; somewhere a back screen door slapped against its wooden frame; a lonely dog gave a single bark as if to remind his owners that he was still there, in case anybody wanted to come and give him a pat.  It seemed to me I'd sat there for hours when I first heard it, faintly, in the distance: the aching, lonely sound of a train whistle nearing an intersection (the town only had one).  It seemed to capture everything I was feeling; all the pent up emotion that had been stuffed inside for the last year came bubbling to the surface:

For on the previous Christmas Eve morning I had awakened to the sound of my Grandmother's keening, calling my grandfather's name in Swedish (altho he'd been dead for 11 years) and my mother's counterpart crying of my father's name.  He was groaning, eyes open, staring into eternity, not conscious. My mother was begging him not to die.

But he did.

I was 16 years old.

I remember nothing else about that day except that nothing seemed real.  A neighborhood friend just recently filled in the blanks for me - how I'd come to her house and in a deadpan voice told her my father was dead.  It seemed all I wanted to do was walk around in the neighborhood, it didn't matter where, just walking.  She was a good enough friend to stay with me and let me talk - mostly about my dad.  We wound up eventually in my garage where I showed her the things my father had designed and built for the upcoming mandatory science fair. For me.

I remember none of it.

I had just begun to realize my dad was a man - I mean besides being father to four children and going to work every day.  Just beginning to know him as a person.  Just beginning to ask for advice - and listening earnestly to the answers.The summer before we had painted my bedroom together, and he had taught me the proper way to move the brush so no streaks showed; how careful to be cutting in, especially on windows; how to clean the brushes with turpentine, again and again and again, until all traces of paint were gone from the brushes.

And then he was gone from my life forever.

Jesus had not yet come into my life and I didn't know where to put my grief.  For the longest time I couldn't cry, couldn't put on a show for the relatives who had come from all points to the funeral, only to find the stunned Unfeeling Daughter Who Wouldn't Cry. The sound of the train's long, low, drawn out horn in Stitzer stirred it all up. From that day forward, the sound of the midnight train sounding its horn and its kindred spirit of the single, crooning bass note of the foghorn as it sounded warnings across the bay, settled over my shoulders with a warm sense of melancholy. I felt as if the sky itself had its arms around me, that at last I was understood, and, finally, I could cry.

I still miss him.

And then, in my 20's, I met Jesus, met my Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit filled me with the knowledge that He owns me forever, and nothing I can do will change that.

After 15 years of walking with Him I got sick.  Really sick.

Then God, in His graciousness, had my doctor go to a continuing education conference the night before I saw him - and could instantly diagnose me and send me on to a specialist, when a host of other CIs with the same illness took years.  Both doctors filled out endless paperwork to assure that I was provided benefits when most others were being turned down; God put it into their hearts to fight for me. At one point one of the docs said to me, "I think I lost your benefits - this guy called me and I got into a shouting match with him.  I'm so sorry."

The next day I was notified that my claim had been accepted.

From that day forward, God has walked before, behind, and beside me.  He provides parking places close to the door on days when I am particularly weak.  Parking places in the shade when here in the desert it is over 100 degrees and as dry as an oxen's skull.  A doctor I trust who studies whatever information I give her about my disease and frets with me that nothing cures it, and I take a zillion drugs that treat symptoms only - and take other drugs to counteract the side effects of the first ones. 

He has carried me through the deaths of 5 of the 7 of us that gathered round the kitchen table of my youth.  The latest was the death of my baby brother, 9 years younger. I had changed his diaper, helped him learn how to walk.  Kept his spirits up when he had an emergency appendectomy at age 6.  Mourned with him through a series of murders he had witnessed and narrowly escaped at age 15. He had grown up to be my caretaker, doing grocery shopping, picking up Rx's, carting me hither and yon. There was no warning.

I was at a retreat I had awaited with great anticipation when the directors found me and told me I needed to call home. I did, and my remaining brother told me he had died.

I thought this blow would be fatal. It felt like my child had died.

For weeks I felt as if I couldn't breathe.  I fretted constantly about his eternal address as I knew he hadn't been walking the walk.  I found myself crying and weeping as one who had no hope.

Then God said to me, "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus..."  

For that night I was fine.  The next day the fear returned, churning up my heart, tearing at my peace.  I began to sob, the pain so deep I thought my heart would burst. I remember I tried to muffle the sounds with the pillow, burying my head in it.

And into that furor came a resounding Voice that brooked no opposition.

With the most clarity I have ever heard God speak, He said, "It is impossible for Me to lie."

In the deep silence that followed, finally, I was able to rest - truly rest - in Him.

Why am I telling you this?

Because all of us, CI or AB, act sometimes as if Scripture isn't true. We don't say it, but our actions imply it. And I was one who, not meaning to, had called God a liar by my actions.

That doesn't mean I never cried again, or grieved over his absence; it means I never grieved without hope again.  And God is so gracious that He impressed a picture on my heart of my brother with hands upraised praising Him, then turning to me and winking.  Weeks later I found He had sent the same picture to my nephew. 

It sets me to wondering how many times I have called God a liar in my life - and I'm trying to reduce that number in the future.  When I fret over something - although His Word tells me He is in control.  When I silently fume that someone is stepping all over "my rights" or when someone "sins" against me and I hold onto anger instead of comparing that "slight" to the mountain of sins I have been forgiven. I am doing it when I have been left out, yet again, and gather the hurt to my heart - instead of choosing, as Amy Carmichael did, to "see in it a chance to die" [to self] and realize I must forgive and let God.

As a CI it is more difficult than ever to relinquish control (even though any control I try to wield is really an illusion).  Anything that messes up our carefully planned days is disconcerting, to say the least, when you know that that small thing can possibly have big consequences. 

The only way I have found to fight the "fear of the precipice" that lives in every CI, is to trust Him - with gritted teeth, if necessary - and remind myself that when the day comes for me to fall from that precipice (and it will)  the Everlasting Arms will be underneath me.

The word I have chosen to characterize this year was "teachable". One thing that I have learned is that trusting Him is the basic, essential ingredient of the Christian walk.  For those of you who are joining me on this journey, I pray that your deep knowledge of the eternal Arms underneath you will give you the courage and the joy to face each day - and even the precipice - with Him by your side.

No comments: