Writing is kind of like the weather; the ability to write is- more often than not- beyond the writer’s control. “At present, I can’t write a thing” Flannery O’Connor once wrote in her prayer journal, “I wonder if God will ever do more writing for me.” Anyone who has ever put the pen to paper- or, for that matter the brush to the canvas and chisel to the stone- in an attempt to grasp that spark of ingenuity knows it is like trying to sword fight with the beam of a flashlight.
Psalm 4 finds David in a state of “psychological anxiety.” From his angst, David compares himself with those whose “grain and wine abound.” The implication of such a comparison is that David’s kingdom wasn’t experiencing a plentiful harvest; combined with the level of distress David expresses (hear my prayer 4:1, who will show us some good? 4:4), it’s reasonable to assume that Israel was experiencing a severe drought. This was no small matter.
In the Ancient Near East, a plentiful harvest was indicative of having found favor with the gods. Famine or drought, on the other hand, resulted- directly and almost without fail- in a plunge in the confidence in leadership that people had in their king.
Of course, this is not much different than today. Poor fortune is, somehow or another, chalked up to ineptitude or immorality (sometimes both). Banks are hesitant to give a loan to someone who went bankrupt; reporters rarely ask the coach of a winless team about how much respect he gets from the players (usually because he’s too busy packing his office into a cardboard box to even give an answer); when I positioned my parents’ care atop a poorly placed collection of neighborhood mailboxes, they took away my license.
The times have changed but the assumption remains that someone who fails somehow, to some extent, brought it upon themselves. It doesn’t matter if the market was bad or the mailboxes in the rear view were much closer than they appeared. David’s kingly success was dependent on the weather, which he could not control. And yet, he was judged as though he could.
I’m not King David (no murders, no affairs). But I have been required to write papers. And stories. And articles. And sermons. And that one wedding toast which…well, nevermind. There have been deadlines. I’ve felt the panic of uncontrollables beginning to control my life: “Uh…hey God, I have like, literally, no idea what to write.” *snaps fingers*
So where is God in the writer’s block? The drought? Where is God when the uncontrollables suddenly begin to control our success or failure?
David’s answer is simple but profound: you have put…joy in my heart…for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. Despite the political unrest, despite the public faith in his kingship, despite all these things, David is able to rest in the assurance of God’s joy.
A high school classmate of mine is in a band that recently made it big. Like, really big. I hear him on the radio at least a few times a week. And I don’t have a commute. Each time it comes on, I’m been forced to ask myself: is my joy really greater than his?
On the flip side, it can be easy for David’s rest and peace in God to become a holier-than-thou badge: “well, you may be successful and all, but lookit me: I know God loves me without any worldly success!” This kind of resolution may help for a short time. But eventually I’ll have to deal with the fact that I still get jealous whenever his song comes on the radio. Joy cannot be created, connived or controlled. It can only be accepted, accepted as a gift from God.
If I ever become a writer (whatever exactly that entails), I hope that writing will become for me another reminder of how little control I have. I hope that writing will be to me as the weather, which can change in a minute and can ruin even the biggest, best and most important aspirations. A public personae easily being among them.
David sits in uncertainty. He rests in uncertainty. He sleeps like a baby in uncertainty (In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone…make me dwell in safety 4:8). He is able to do this, because his identity and his worth is rooted in something larger, something stronger, something much more permanent.
Unlike those stupid mailboxes.
I have a confession to make: I littered this week. It was just an apple core (okay- sorry, I shouldn’t be justifying it). I ate it while driving to a meeting. I didn’t want to have it left sitting in my cup-holder. So I casually dropped it out the window of my car, hoping- praying– that the butterfly effect wouldn’t mean that I’d just killed the remnant of some exotic orangutan in Malaysia.
I dropped it just before coming around a bend; I figured I’d be well out of sight within a couple seconds and I wouldn’t have to give my transgression another thought. But then traffic stopped. And- because God’s justice and humor are mixed- I came to a halt with my side mirror perfectly focused on the apple core lying in the street. The pavement suddenly looked remarkably clean and kempt; the core was it’s only blemish.
Thus was my sin, resting on the street like a pimple on the tip of one’s nose come school picture day.
I also saved a life this week. This too while driving between meetings. I’d seen her from a distance, lying halfway across my lane, in just the spot so that car wheels wouldn’t hit her- unless she tried to move further. I threw on the hazard lights and dashed between cars. I lifted her and carried her from the road, gently laying her in the grass. She didn’t say anything, but her eyes caught mine. And in that moment, I felt brave.
I think she was a box turtle. Possibly an eastern painted. I’ve never been able to tell the difference.
I was out for a walk when I came upon a small pond. It’s situated just off a local back road, between the pavement and some forgotten railroad tracks that parallel it’s northern shore. To be honest, it’s less of a pond and more of a disgusting scum hole. The water is murky and mud of various colors populates its shores. Leaves are slowly rotting in the shallow parts, creating a consistency similar to that of old porridge.
If Satan has a septic tank, I found the overflow.
As I passed the pond- onto greener (and cleaner) pastures- I couldn’t help but notice some bubbles disturbing its otherwise morbidly placid surface. I looked closer and saw the outline of a fish, no more than a few inches long.
Remarkable, if you think about it. That a pond so vile could be a portal for the miraculous; the boy has five loaves and two fishes- but he hasn’t showered in days.
The human necessity to be a necessity is often overlooked. No one wants to be a leech. We might like the benefits of such a role. But no one wants it on their name-tag.
I’ve been struggling this week- well, most weeks really- struggling with the fact that I don’t measure up. No one’s ever told me as much- at least, not directly. But I’ve not made any progress on some of my writing projects; a friend was in town but didn’t have the time to visit; when I look in the mirror I see wrinkles, flab and pimples jeering back; on the graduation program there’s no sigma cum whateverthehellitis next to my name.
And in the void of affirmation, a mutant whisper rises from the shape of an apple core, lying on the road: “You’ve no merit, no purpose. And you’re deeds smell like a scummy pond.”
But there’s at least one turtle that might beg to differ. My accuser stands ready; but the defense is rising from the ashes.
A little hero is all I am; it’s all we are. And even this only during the shining hours, our greatest moments. Moments when we transform into small ones, but heroes nonetheless. Our best intentions dash between traffic where we might slip on an apple core. But still we run. And the smelly ponds we’ve become may reek but they’re also a lifeline for the least of these.
And isn’t that enough?
If I live this life for the sole purpose of picking up a turtle from the middle of the road, if I’m the pond and that’s my fish, my calling, my cross—isn’t that enough? Won’t grace bridge the gap between redemption and errant but earnest hearts?
When I returned home from one of those meetings or walks- I really can’t remember which- my wife greeted me with a hug.
“I’ve missed you,” she said.
How puzzling. “I was only gone an hour.”
She didn’t say anything but held the hug for another moment, another breath. And the rising of her chest against my own felt like bubbles drifting to the surface of a placid pond.
“I saved a turtle today.”
She looked up and smiled. “My hero.”