This night came slipping in like the world was pulling a dark blanket up over her sleepy head. I left the children in the yard at sunset, the dog bounding along beside me into the woods. I chose music loud and fast. “Stress to strength, stress to strength” has been my determined chant this fall. And I ran, trying to only think the things that would make me run hard and steady, while the sun slipped behind the trees and then the hills. The dark came creeping silently in behind, claiming its bed between the trunks and branches, settling into all the crevices of the woods.
I stopped and turned off my music in front of three pointed pine trees. They stood still and quiet, their branches without definition in the dark, like paper cutouts reaching their tops into the blue-blackness of the sky. There below, I became as quiet as they were and I was reaching, too.
This fall I’ve felt my limitations. Homeschooling five middle children and keeping up with my oldest in high school and not forgetting about the preschooler trying to slide between the books and other kids to make his way into my lap. And, still a wife, too, discovering that even after seventeen years of holding one man’s hand, there’s room to know him more and love him better. And, beyond our family in the woods, there’s our family around the country and concentrated in little Maine towns. There are the people in our church and in our town and at the school and in the store and I just want to do well by them all. And, sometimes, as I near forty, I wonder about myself. There’s a little restlessness that sets in and I question, as this world keeps turning and waking and sleeping and waking again, am I as awake as I can be? It’s like my head has suddenly poked out of the baby years, with the sleeplessness and round belly and knowing exactly where I should be. Sometimes I even think about taking some classes (in something?) or creating a part time job (doing something?). But then, that restless peering ahead seems silly, like I’m trying to grab something else with already full hands.
Once, a little over a year ago, I lamented with God about my limitations. I woke to an email from a woman I’d met after she visited our church. She’d been recently diagnosed with cancer and she was being crushed by fear. She wrote, “Will you pray with me today?” I wanted to drop everything and drive to her house and hold her in a hug and pray hard. But the day was already planned, dotted with things I couldn’t get out of and with my kids needing me, too. I could only briefly write back and tell her, “I will try to call you later today.” And, that felt so lame and I drove to town and toward my commitments in what felt like the wrong direction. As my three youngest kids chattered in the back seat, I prayed for my friend and I prayed for me, too. It was with an overwhelming sense of being too small in this world, and too helpless, and too caught in mundane things, that I prayed, “God, please bring encouragement.”
The last thing on our list that day, that felt small in comparison to praying with someone struggling with fear and cancer, but huge to a seven year old, was a promised stop at the pet store to buy a fish. My daughter had kept her room clean for a month to show that she was responsible enough to care for a pet. This was the long awaited day and I needed to be faithful to my word and to this little one. It was just after we’d paid and little hands were full of fish supplies and the fish himself, swimming in his plastic bag, that I turned and saw a miracle from our limitless God.
In a town I don’t usually shop in, in a store I rarely visit, at an hour that wasn’t planned, I turned and saw the woman I’d most wanted to hug that day. She was talking to someone who worked at the store, her parrot on her shoulder, his claws freshly clipped. When I said her name she looked at me, the surprise and disbelief I felt mirrored in her face. We laughed and spoke of providence as we stepped outside the store and into the late morning sunshine. The pet store is in the middle of town, surrounded by cars and people steadily flowing through the patterns of traffic lights. But, in the midst of that chaos, we found a holy place. Just outside the front doors of the pet store was a landscape display to encourage the sale of plastic ponds and waterfalls. Inside a man-made pool, large fish were getting fat from the treats a quarter could buy from a dispenser. My friend and I both pawed through our bags and found quarters to push into the eager hands of my little ones. While they fed the fish and watched them swim, the two of us sat on rocks at the edge of the water, looking at the waterfall tumbling down and feeling like we had found a tropical oasis in which to rest together. Most of the world disappeared and the only real place was this pool in the middle of a pavement desert. I couldn’t have planned this experience, sitting with my friend beside the water, her parrot perched on her hand, my little ones content. We had a moment to really share and to pray together and that moment was big enough to stretch forward and reach me again tonight in the woods.
Sometimes I feel like I’m grasping for something high and beyond reach. Something ethereal. But, God is not just a wisp in this world. He’s not a self-improvement plan or an answer to a midlife crisis. He’s not just a comforting Bible verse or an emotional response to a praise song.
Sometimes I’m just pounding out life, trying to run hard and fast and turn my stress into strength. To fill my head with thoughts that will keep me moving and not let me slow down or quit. Craning my neck to peer ahead and figure out what I can do to make this life I’ve been given significant.
But, stop. Slow down. Turn off the loud distractions. We’re limited but we’re cared for by a limitless God.
Do you see with me the weight and the hope in that?
Oh, Lord, may we learn to see you in our mundane and to be peacefully faithful.
“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.” Matthew 11:28-29