There’s a beautiful pick-your-own strawberry patch in Vermont that I love to visit with my children every summer. It’s been many years and many lovely trips, but there is one moment that will always rise above the rest as the most memorable. I had four little ones; a baby strapped to my back and three others under the age of five. We went early but still the strawberry patch was busy with mostly older ladies and couples who were all serious about getting their berries for the freezer and jam. A few gave the kids quick smiles as we passed and went right back to work. I got down to business as well and started picking as soon as I had everyone settled in spots with plentiful red berries. I kept my children in my peripheral vision and they all seemed content and plopped berries in their little boxes. It was one of those ‘this is the way life is meant to be’ serene moments. Until, my oldest started yelling…. and I do mean yelling… “MOM!!! He’s peeing on the strawberries!!” I’m sure my head wasn’t the only one that quickly turned and saw my little country-raised three year old peeing across three rows of strawberry plants. The next fifteen minutes are fuzzy. Somehow four kids and a half-filled flat of strawberries made it into the van and part way home without me making eye contact with anyone. I remember driving along thinking, ‘I can never go back there… ever…”
But, somehow, this week found me picking berries at the same farm, with much older children and a toddler (diaper securely fastened!). My kids are great, hard workers, and they also love strawberry jam, so they were motivated. We were there at lunch time, and the field was full of children and their mothers. One little boy, uninterested in picking, had wandered off; it looked like he might have found a friend his age and started running around the field. His mother noticed and yelled, “Oliver… Oliver, get back over here!” Her voice was loud enough for everyone in the berry patch to hear and her tone showed her obvious displeasure. With drooping shoulders he slowly made his way back over to her. She directed him back to picking berries. “See… look at those kids over there.” She pointed to my group of pickers. “Look at how those good little kids are picking berries. Why don’t you start picking like them?” I cringed. I wanted to go over and grab Oliver’s small hands and say, “Little One, don’t feel bad. On a different day you might have seen these ‘good little kids’ running around like wild things and maybe even peeing on the berries.”
This time, we left with three full flats of strawberries and a few quart baskets held in little hands for the ride home. And, as I drove, my thoughts were still on Oliver and his mother. My thoughts were also on my own children and my own heart when I call them or need to correct them. I prayed for us; I want to laugh and play and rejoice loudly but when I need to speak harder words to do so with quietness and close proximity. When I call my children back from wandering, I want to use the same tone that I would use if it were their birthday and it was time to have cake and ice cream. I delight in my children, even when they are straying, and I want my voice to carry that truth.
As I drove, and pondered the value of quietly correcting my children, I thought of times when my husband has had to speak with one of our boys after church when they were getting a bit too rowdy. I’d see him draw the boy away from the crowd; a father’s hand on his child’s shoulder and his knees bent to look in the boy’s eyes. In that moment, his words aren’t heard by anyone else because they are low and gentle. Instead of seeing the boy’s shoulders droop, I’d see them get taller. I’d see him want to be a man and to do what is right. Most people don’t notice the interaction at all. There isn’t a scene, there aren’t raised voices. There is no public shame. But the boy is noticed and spoken to and corrected in the quiet presence of his father.
And, I thought, isn’t this just what God does with us?
I spent the summer I turned fourteen with my grandmother. I had a little upstairs room all to myself with a window that looked out over a farm pond, a long field and the sunset. It’s the first time I remember really reading the Bible. I didn’t have commentaries, the internet or even a church family to learn from; just a leather covered New King James version and a lot of time on my hands. Maybe in hindsight it would have been good to start with one of the gospels, like Luke or John, that would have been easier for me to read and gain some context for understanding the rest of the Bible, but I didn’t do that. I just picked it up and decided to read straight through from the beginning.
And, miraculously, that young teen understood and fell in love. It was the start of not just time in a book, but of a relationship with the Author. They were my first moments of being that child with my Heavenly Father pulling me aside and leaning over me; telling me the hardest, sweetest, most beautiful story ever told. Pointing out the ways He’s seen my heart and my actions straying and correcting me with a patient gentleness; assuring me of His love for me now. And, I think most significantly, showing me His attributes and His character and allowing me to know Him. There in that westerly facing room, still a child and alone but for the Spirit of God, I fell in love with the Word of God, both written and manifest in Jesus.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
I remember those moments so well that it’s hard to believe so much time has passed since that first summer. The other night my family was all outside playing; I had been tagged and was frozen. I stood admiring my family and the beautiful place we get to live. I looked up at the pointed fir trees, felt the glory of God in nature, and I wondered, ‘what would I believe if I had never read the Bible?’ I tried to separate out everything I had read from what I felt right at that moment. Later I wrote about it in my journal:
What if I didn’t have God’s Word? That is what I wondered as I stood frozen in our game of ‘ball tag’ tonight. I’d know that there is something more powerful than me. I would know that the world was designed and created. I would know there is a battle between life and death. I would feel it even in myself… the struggle to stay on the side of life with goodness and kindness. I would know that there is beauty… and that I can’t quite enter into it… that it is something outside of myself in an almost painful way. I would know love… the deep love of a mother. I would see the amazing design in each of my children… I would know they came from me and yet I didn’t make them. I think I would know there is God because of prayer… I would want to speak to him and hear him. But I think I would be afraid. I wouldn’t know if God was good or bad or if He loved me. I would be so crushed by His power and the unknown.
And then, while still pondering, I thought of that little children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Just from studying his creation I would know a lot about God and myself. But I wouldn’t know the gospel… I wouldn’t know that God had entered into His beautiful and yet fallen creation in order to redeem us or of the staggering depth of his love. I might know things about him, but I don’t think I could really know or trust him.
After the game that evening, I sat by our small pond and watched the row boat that had drifted from shore. It was floating aimlessly. I thought of how without the Bible I would have been floating through life on the currents of my feelings. So often, my time in the Word has been that time of being pulled aside and corrected by my Father. The Word exposes my sin; not just the actions but my thoughts and the bent of my heart. I might come to the Word saddened by the evil in the world, or the wrongdoing of others, but when God speaks to me it’s about the tangled knots of sin in my own heart. It’s my own sin that I see crushing Jesus on the cross, and the work Christ did there becomes devastatingly personal in a heartbreakingly beautiful way. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) God lifts my eyes to see not just my sin there with Jesus but the death inside of me dying with him. The Word made flesh, dying a fleshly death, so that in me, the Word can bring life.
I return to the Word, and to the cross, over and over and over again. This summer I’ve been reading through the book of Hosea, part of the Old Testament and written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. And yet it is all about Jesus. From beginning to end the Bible contains the cross, the ransomed life and the Father calling to his wandering children.
Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
He has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
His going out is sure as the dawn;
He will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:1-3)
It’s raining again this morning as I sit here reading these ancient words. While the rain pours down outside my window, watering my tomatoes and green beans, the words from this long ago prophet are once again watering my soul. Since I first picked up that Bible as a young teen, there have been a lot of spring rains, many wanderings and many returns. Throughout it all God has remained the same. He has never been the loud and frustrated parent. He has never been embarrassed by my lack of maturity or ashamed of my fumbles. But He has continued with his effectual call, desiring me to return to Him and to His Word. I don’t think it will ever cease to amaze me that it’s not just for our salvation that He calls to us, but it’s for our and His own delight.
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.