Tuesday, July 21, 2015

When Life is Hard Slogging

About seven years ago I directed a dreadful Christmas play called Why the Chimes Rang.  It began as a good idea but turned into a bad-dream project that muddled on and on, growing huger and more complicated, with every aspect of it, from the singing to the costumes to the behavior at rehearsals, steadily degenerating into chaos as time went on.

Or at least that's how it is seared into my memory, which is why I haven't directed a play since.

One of the characters was a young mother who was hungry and lost on a winter night.  The actress was supposed to come down the church aisle, unsteady and desperate, clutching her baby in her shawl as the winter winds blew the snow down on the village.

She had one line to say: "Oh, I am so weary and cold."

Thankfully the girl who played this part had a sense of humor, because for some reason she COULD NOT GET THAT LINE.

"Oh I am so tired and hungry!" she would say before collapsing into the snowbank which I think was a pile of quilt batting from the sewing circle, covered with a white sheet.

No no.

Back up the aisle, turn around, and toward the front again, into the wind.  "I am so weary and tired!"

No!  "WEARY and COLD."

"Oh, I am so cold and hungry!"

I'm not sure if she ever got it right, even on the night of the program.  I should have let her ad-lib, I guess.  Who would have noticed?

I am thinking of this scene now because sometimes there are seasons of life in which it feels like we're all weary and cold, fighting our way into the winter wind, and our shawl isn't enough protection at all, and we are about to collapse into the snowbank with our baby in our arms.

Sometimes life is just a lot of hard slogging, on and on, and we grow weary in body and soul, which makes us extra weary and cold in spirit as well, and it feels we will never reach the front of the church, and for sure we won't hear the miraculous chimes when they ring in the steeple on Christmas Eve.

This is such a season.

I've had more sickness this summer than I've had in years.  Bouts of bronchitis, weeks of just feeling unwell that makes a normal day's work feel like climbing Mt. Hood, all of it complicated by a certain affliction that my children say is entirely TMI but it involves a sudden sense of flames radiating out of one's ears and breaking out in perspiration from every pore, and it comes upon women my age uninvited.

That this combination should land in the middle of summer, of all times, and the hottest summer in years, and just when everyone is working long days to the point of utter exhaustion, and also while my dad is here, just feels wrong.  Other times, there'd be someone around to pick up the slack.  Now, there isn't.

Life becomes a hard climb uphill, day after day.

As I said, there's the relentless heat, so unusual for an Oregon summer, and the early and intense dryness of it, so the grass has died, the lilac leaves--normally hardy through the heat of August--already look curled, and all the flowers wilt quickly as soon as my back is turned.

Harvest.  Animals to feed.  Yard work.  Jobs and school and vehicles. Fruit to pick and put away.

Summer is wonderful but it is also hard, and I sense in my spirit that I am not the only one facing a hard path to joy, that others face relentless spiritual forces as well, that many of us are short on rest of every kind.

Tests must be studied for, late at night, for summer classes, and the summer job means your friends go swimming and you stock shelves, and worn-out belts and motors must be fixed high in dusty warehouses in motionless heat.

Young people with long hours of alone time on combines and in deserted warehouses day after day end up with too much time to think and no outside voices to counter the inner noise.  Condemnation, temptation, depression--whatever the spiritual weakness, it shows up here.  And sometimes just a weird outlook on life, and then they start having arguments in their heads with all the stupid people on NPR or with Rush Limbaugh or that opinionated sports dude.

Then they think, "Wait.  I am arguing with people on the radio."

It's the season when young people apologize.  I first noticed this years ago, when a young friend was driving combine and then wrote me a note apologizing for how she had said something, and she's afraid she left the wrong impression, but really she meant it like this, and she feels very badly about this.

Combine syndrome, I named it.

Last Sunday two young people came to me separately and apologized for lying, kind of.  One wanted to leave this impression and not that, but it wasn't honest.  The other had answered a question impulsively but, she later realized, not accurately.

And I felt their soul struggles in the hot sunshine and I saw their difficult journeys and I wanted to say, "It's just a hard hard season, all around, and a tough trail, just now. Be gentle with yourself."

The day I found myself lecturing Caitlyn Jenner, I knew I had a bad case of combine syndrome of my own.  In case you're the last person in America to know this, the athlete Bruce Jenner has taken steps to transition into a woman and now goes by Caitlyn.  This news has been all over social media, news media, everywhere. And I was actually thinking about this, and harping in my head: "It is none of my business what you do with your life, but you're in your sixties and if you want people like me to take you seriously as a woman, how about you transition into someone named Edith with gray hair and a bit of a belly and some HOT FLASHES, OK???"

Then I thought: God help us.  Saeed Abedini is still in prison.  Christian people are dying in Nigeria.  There are still silent little orphans in toy-less cribs in Jamaica and China.

And I have followed the rest of this country down this rabbit hole of insanity.

I laughed at myself, which is what you learn to do at my age, especially if the choice is down to laughing or crying, and I went back to the Word and ate it hungrily.  And that is what I have been telling the discouraged young people in my life: you need more Jesus, and you need to counter the crazy voices with Scripture, even if it's a dusty note card tacked up by the sacker or a podcast on the combine.  And you need to talk with real people with real voices who speak real words to you.

So one morning I made Dad's oatmeal and then escaped to Jake's Cafe in Harrisburg and met a friend for breakfast.  A fellow mom who has kids the ages of mine and adrenal issues.  And those two hours were like a huge icy Kicker from Dutch Bros on a 100-degree day on an un-air-conditioned tractor.  Had I not been in this season, with all this work and all these challenges, I wouldn't have appreciated it half as much.

At least I know this, among all the hot flashes and hot days and the dry straw swirling and the hard uphill journey--the season eventually ends.  I've been here before, and I know this for a solid fact.  It doesn't last forever.  One day when you least expect it the farmer will tell you you're combining the last field today, and you'll have time in the afternoon to go swimming, or you can sit up late with friends on a Sunday night because you won't have class the next day, or a cloudy day turns into a scattered rain, and maybe the lilacs will be ok.

The day will come when the sackers won't be working night shift any more, the blueberries will all be in the freezer, the farmer won't need you to do flail-chopping until next week.  Your mind will think normal thoughts again, the confusion will pass, the guys on the radio will be only an occasional noise in the background.

And finally finally you'll reach the front of the church and get your line right, or at least right enough, and the long long walk will be done at last, and the chimes will ring in the ancient belfry, and as you sit on the pew and rest you will know that it was scary and hard and it seemed it would never end, but you are stronger, better, wiser, braver for what you've just been through.


  1. Ahhhhh just the best dose of honey this morning. We are on a furlough which means a lot of travel, and a lot of living out of suitcases, and whatever I need seems to always be in another bag. And I am actually organized! But its a season. I will soon be back in Kenya, unpacked, yes I will.thanks for the reminder. It shut up the head voices that say I am too old for this!

  2. Hot and dry weather, all by itself, can make life feel impossible. Something about being miserable while watching every living thing suffer wrings the life right out of the best of aspirations. I sooooo get this. Blessings on you and yours.

  3. Yes I am there! 3 young kids, a very busy husband, miles from my family and home of origin. I have been challenged by many random bible verses and people that the best antidote to those voices is worship to God. It's changing my mental status:)

  4. Thanks for this. You're ministering to others out of your own need.

  5. A beautiful post. I needed this today on many levels. Blessings.

  6. Usually, this sort of malaise is associated with the unending frigidity of an Ohio winter, or the unrelenting rain of an Oregon winter. It is interesting that the bright summer has a trudge of its own.

  7. Audrey Brock7/22/2015 7:53 AM

    Thank you! I have a grandson on a combine this summer and will relate the story to him. In regards to the play "why the chimes rang", in 1941 our school in Colo. put this play on at Christmas. My little brother, first grade, was the little boy that brought his last penny to the manger and then the chimes rang out. Brought back a sweet memory. Audrey Brock

  8. I've been in a summer funk for about a month now, and these words were balm to my soul. Thank you.

  9. Oh I loved this. I laughed, especially when you laughed at yourself in your rabbit hole of insanity. Oh my. Btw, I have just finished your book Footprints on the Ceiling, and I think I will recommend it to everyone I know. It's so real.

  10. Love how you are bringing the young people - and all of us - back to Truth. How we need it, every day, but especially on the rough days.

    Thank you,

  11. So what do you do with "should I clarify this or was that the truth or do I need to make this right" thoughts that bombard. How do we discern the Holy Spirit prodding us or the enemy's harassment?

  12. Good question, Rob. For myself, I've learned to look at the tone of the urging. Is it gentle, persistent, patient, specific, and hopeful? Or is it harsh, oppressive, frantic, vague, and shaming? Not foolproof, but it helps.