A Matter of Will

This year I took a simplified approach to my gardening because I knew it was going to be a busy summer. I bought the plants and seeds; I drew out a plan. I got everything in the ground in mid-May, when the soil dried out enough for planting. Of the three raised garden beds I have just outside the back door, one is planted completely with wildflowers—and it’s probably my favorite, to be honest. I don’t have to do anything but let them grow and enjoy them, and their continual beauty is an ongoing—and an easy—blessing. The other two beds require more work; they are planted with tomatoes and cucumbers, and orange and yellow bell peppers are on the way. Earlier this season I also had fresh lettuce and kale, but those are done now. And there’s a fragrant collection of spices: thyme, cilantro, parsley, basil, and rosemary.

Every year I begin with a certain optimistic plan for the garden and by midseason it is obvious to me that something other than my ideal vision will result. And some years things just go wrong—there’s not enough rain, there’s too much rain, I get behind in my weeding and finally give up. This year I’ve maintained it all fairly well, but for the last four or five weeks, I’ve been worrying about the summer squash plant. There’s something wrong with it. It’s growing okay, producing healthy vines and the beautiful, wide-open yellow blossoms I expected. But what’s growing on the vine just doesn’t look right. It’s not the right shape, and it’s not the right color. I’ve gone through a number of ideas trying to figure out what’s happened. Have I watered it too little or too inconsistently? Or maybe too much? Is the sun burning it up or causing it to grow in a mutated way? I continue caring for it and watering it, hoping the mystery will solve itself at some point.

And Friday, in the middle of a very busy day, as I was driving from one patient’s house to another, the mystery did solve itself. I realized suddenly—and I wasn’t even thinking about my garden at the time, which makes it even more surprising—that I knew what the problem is.

The summer squash I’ve been growing is actually a small orange pumpkin.

The little pumpkin is turned on its side, so I was expecting it to be yellow or green and get longer and narrower. I didn’t recognize the roundness of its shape. That seems like such an obvious and simple thing, doesn’t it? I had to laugh. That possibility just hadn’t occurred to me. The tag on the plant when I bought it had said, Summer Squash, and I was so sure that’s what would grow that my mind couldn’t even entertain an idea that it might be something else.

I’ve never grown pumpkins before, so I’m actually quite excited about this new development. And now all the worry is gone, too, as well as all the mental calisthenics I was doing to figure out what the problem was. It’s a relief to know that all is well and it is only my perspective that needs an adjustment. What’s growing in my garden is simply different from what I had planned to grow.

Elijah, as a prophet who spoke truth to power, also found that things weren’t turning out the way he’d planned. He was a faithful man—in fact his name means “Yahweh is God”—who challenged the status quo and spoke truth to power in his day. He was courageous and direct—gifts from God—and went right into the middle of a city with a temple dedicated to the rain god Baal and announced that it is Yahweh and no other who sends the rains and preserves and upholds life. A big part of his mission was to turn the people of that time—and ours—away from the idols they worship and draw them closer to the One true God.

In the passage Sherry read for us, Elijah is exhausted after this dramatic moment for God.  And of course his prophecy enrages those in power. The king’s wife, Jezebel, tells him there is now a bounty on his head, and he runs away to the hills, fearing for his life. There depleted and despondent, he sits down under what scripture says is, “a solitary broom tree,” a tiny spot of refuge, and he prays that God will just take his life. He’s done. He’s tired. He’s despairing, feeling that God’s message will never have an impact on the darker power structures of the world.

But what does God do? God understands, and God cares for what he knows is Elijah’s deeper needs.  First God causes Elijah to fall asleep there under the broom tree, which helps him let go of his despairing thoughts and find rest for his body and mind. Then God sends an angel who wakes Elijah up with a touch and says, “Get up and eat.” Elijah did as he was told and ate freshly baked bread and drank some water, and then lay down and went to sleep again. A second time, the angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Such a moment of grace and compassion in response to the cries of Elijah’s hurting and exhausted will. Elijah did as the angel said and was refreshed and revived. His thoughts about giving up, his prayer for it to all be over, were replaced first with kindness and care and then with a renewed vision, a hopeful possibility, a feeling of strength and confidence that equipped him for the days ahead.

The very next passage in 1 Kings chapter 19 is one of my favorite stories in all of the Old Testament, when God speaks directly to Elijah and tells him to stand on the mountain and then comes to him—not in the great wind, so strong it splits mountains, or in the earthquake or fire—but in clear and loving voice God spoke directly into Elijah’s heart. This is also true for us—as the wildfires ravage California, as the virus spreads unseen in our towns, as leaders do what they do in ways that confound and confuse many of us, God is still speaking. Not through the calamities but directly into the need, the care, the hurts, the yearning at the center of our hearts.

God had a plan for Elijah, and in order for that plan to unfold in a way that would be a blessing to others, God had to help Elijah let go of what he thought he wanted in a moment of despondency. He needed to let go of his will and relax into God’s will for him so that the better day could arise. His ideas were a mistake, borne of his exhaustion and discouragement. In that moment, he just didn’t want to go on. But God knew what was causing Elijah to see life that way, and so God intervened, sending nourishment and rest. It reminds me of something I heard pastor Charles Stanley say in a sermon probably 20 years ago. We can use the word HALT to notice when we need to stop and let God tend our spirits. When we get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (that’s HALT), we are vulnerable to a despondent view of life. We lose our hope. We’re tempted to give up.

Many, many people are experiencing this kind of soul weariness today. People’s hope is dipping low. We’ve had enough of crisis and chaos. The onslaught of information is overwhelming. In his book, Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr says something interesting about that (and remember, this was written in 2003, so we can only imagine that things have accelerated since):

“In our culture, we suffer from, among other things, a glut of words, a glut of experiences, and yes, a glut of tapes, books, and ideas. When we have too many words, we tend not to value them, even if they might contain life for us. We find it hard…because we’ve heard it all before, from many directions. We can’t absorb it all. I am told that if you imagine the amount of information available to the ordinary person as one unit at the time of Jesus, it took until the year 1500 for that to double. Soon after the invention of the printing press, it doubled every hundred years, then every fifty, then, in this century, every ten years. At the end of the second millennium it doubled every seven months. We are all on overload and understandably confused and conflicted. This prompts many to move “over and out” into dogmatism, skepticism, or …numbness. We desperately need some disciplines to help us know how to see and what is worth seeing, and what we don’t need to see.”

This is so relevant to what we’re living today, isn’t it? I would also offer that while it would be helpful to have disciplines–like medicine and science, economics and politics–that help with those things, our current climate has also caused us to distrust those outer voices to some degree. There is such a multiplicity of voices claiming such opposite views that it greatly adds to our confusion instead of lessening it.

But there is a voice that helps—and it is not in the earthquake or the wind or the fire. It directs us and teaches us to look out through eyes that see the world in a truer way. Again, from Richard Rohr:

“When we can see the image of God where we don’t want to see the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own.”

Suddenly we realize it’s a pumpkin and not a squash we’re looking at. Suddenly, after some rest and some dinner, we feel more hopeful about God’s presence in this time.

Paul wrote his letter to the Romans to encourage them and reinforce the most important things about their life of faith together. The early Roman church was a mixture of Gentile and Jewish people, some slaves and some free. He wanted his early hearers to understand they had a reason to hope, the best reason: Christ himself was forming their spirits, the mystery unfolding could be trusted, and God’s will was a work of love—his good, pleasing and perfect will—emerging faithfully in their community.

In Romans 12:2, ““Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will,” Paul is telling the people of Rome how to reconnect with the Godly vision that is wider and broader and more true their own, limited by their personal will and influenced by their emotions and perspectives. He shares a deeper understanding that within them and among them, the work of God is unfolding across time. This is the vision that helps us when we meet obstacles in our lives, when everything seems bad, when things don’t work out as we planned. There is a bigger plan unfolding. If we listen, if we can let go of our own wills for a moment, we get a sense of what God wants for us, for our future, for our world.

I was talking with one of my favorite patients Friday afternoon—who just turned a young and vibrant 105 a week ago– and she told me that the last thing she says to God every night as she drifts off to sleep is, “Thy will be done.” After a day with her favorite people, books, and shows, she is ready to put the unfolding of her night in God’s hands. It is a sweet way to tune ourselves to God’s natural order of things. God is the one with the true plan, the unlimited vision, the heavenly eyes that see blessing and goodness and life everywhere. When we can look out of those eyes—likely after we’ve rested and received nourishment from spirit—the world will look a whole lot brighter and we’ll be more sure than ever of the Companion who guides our steps and accompanies us on the way.

It’s understandable when we, humans that we are, feel overwhelmed and discouraged by circumstances in the world around us. But there is a sure way out of that darkened thinking. Paul reminds us not to let ourselves be conformed to the pattern of the world, to remember God’s perfect will—so much bigger and truer and more loving than our own.

God will gives us rest and nourishment and then re-establishes our hope, not for our own purpose alone, although God does care about our daily lives. The larger unfolding work of God needs us all—needs us loving and in tune with life, full of light and trust—working to make real, evident, and tangible right here in this messy, confusing, and often chaotic world, the perfect love of God. When we align our will with God’s—“Thy will be done”—it has a real chance to show up and bless and change our hurting world. This week, let’s let pumpkins be pumpkins. Let’s notice when we’re feeling frayed—too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired—and turn to God for rest and help. And at the end of the day, let’s agree to thank God for all the blessings of our waking hours, and then let ourselves drift off to sleep, secure in the loving and never-failing arms of our Heavenly Father. “Thy will be done.”


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