Family / Ordinary Life / Safe Place / Work and Rest

Psalms in the Dark

I’ve always thought of myself as intuitive because that is how I score on all personality tests. It is supposed to bless me with clarity of perception in the inner unconscious world, but it seems doubtful that I put that intuition to very good use. If I did, wouldn’t I be perceptive enough to avoid useless tests of rationally constructed logic? Consider the following:

There is this growing popularity of Sudoku, the Japanese number puzzles, which at first I thought was just the fruit of poisonous minds. Or at least ones without enough to do. Then they began appearing in our daily newspaper. After ignoring them for about seven months, I tried one and finished it in twelve minutes. I was so surprised and pleased with myself, I thought I might take that IQ test on and find out if it cost anything to join them. The next night as I was relaxing in my chair with the sound track from Grizzly Man softly playing, and my husband quietly reading a seminary text book, I tore out Tuesday’s Sudoku and almost finished it before bedtime.

After supper on Wednesday I began my third Sudoku with a jaunty confidence. Two and a half hours later Denis begged me to please come to bed. I did, but I took it with me and worked on it for another hour without adding a single number. Only then did I notice five stars at the bottom of the puzzle with three of them shaded. A crack of light entered my darkened mind: Oh. This indicates difficulty factor. The one in my hand was a 3-star. The previous night’s (with solution) was printed at the bottom; it had only been a 2-star. With logic gaining momentum despite intuition, it occurred to me that as the week goes by the puzzles increase in difficulty sort of like the NYT Crosswords so that by the time you get to the weekend they’re so hard you want to pay your own way to New York, find the editor, and force him to eat iceberg lettuce and Velveeta cheese until he can give you an eight letter word for “rugged outdoor clothing.” Carhartts! Idiot! As ANYONE north of Minneapolis would know. And I don’t want to hear, my friend, how you can do it in ten minutes while blogging, writing a movie review, and flirting with the barista. By then I was crushed, in addition to feeling slightly crazy. But I rallied and told myself, “You’ve always despised logic, so why in the name of all your precious hormones don’t you just intuit the solution? A few numbers should not defeat you.”

Have you ever considered, even for one second, praying that God would help you finish a puzzle? Well. Okay. Maybe you haven’t. But what about scoring a three-pointer from mid-court, or beating a red light? Or shooting a trophy buck? You know it’s the same thing.

At 11:30 pm Denis shut the light on his side and raised an eyebrow at me. I held the paper out for us to observe—it was covered with hundreds and hundreds of teeny, tiny numbers written in patterns, grids, and graphs. Suddenly, it was so scary because there it was: A Beautiful Mind! Remember that scene from the movie when the door of John Forbes Nash’s office opens and on every wall, floor to ceiling, are little papers with hand-written numbers and formulas, and you suddenly understood how ill he was, even though he was a genius? This was my mind on paper and it was not well. I shrieked, threw the paper and pen across the room, and turned off the light.

Calm Down
In the dark I recalled a favorite Psalm.
My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child with its mother,
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore.

– Psalm 131

Of course, Sudoku is only a symptom—a metaphor of what’s more generally wrong with me. As a mother I understand weaning a child. My baby has no idea why I’ve made her stop doing her favorite thing in all the world. But in order to grow she must give it up. I don’t love her any less. I still encircle my arms about her and look at her with shining eyes. Finally she quits her wriggling demand for milk and relaxes with her head on my breast. Sometimes it takes weeks.

There’s nothing wrong with solving Sudoku puzzles. It’s just that for the most part, I can’t. In a similar way, I often try to fix things too great for me. I push and strain trying to clean up the messes of life and am discouraged when I can’t. Often I want to ask God exactly what he thinks he’s doing here. But I am abjured by David to give up my demands. We must accept that if we minister and live in the real world there will always be certain matters in life that escape human solution—matters not resolved by efficient, practical minds or by sensitive insight either. I am redirected to quietness. To calming my soul. David turns away from inner conflict, and adjusts his focus outward: He addresses his people, “O, Israel”. It’s a place where we stand together in community, with the body of Christ, and we resolve to hope in the Lord forever and watch for glory to be revealed. We can never be certain of when or how God will appear as the One who is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” (Eph. 3:20)

The next day’s paper had a 5-star Sudoku—the most difficult. I looked at it and calmly said: “I will not do this to myself ever again.” And I put it in the trash. I think that’s being weaned? Sometimes it takes years, but slowly I bend my head to God’s shoulder and rest—even as I rejoice that Jessica, who is a bright, diligent L’Abri helper, says 3x3s are so easy she needs to do 4x4s to be challenged in the slightest. Then she adds, “Sudoku is something I can do without thinking at all, the answers are just obvious.”

That is something far “too wonderful for me.”

Falling House
Last night Denis told me we need to save more money. Then he got a far-away look in his eye like any minute he was going to excrete a kidney stone or something. It made me a little nervous. But when he said we need to make some repairs on the house, I panicked. I’m usually the one who keeps a list of the parts of our house looking seedy and down-trodden. Like the stair-well, which fortunately I can now ignore because it’s so high I’ve been able to train myself not to look up at the plaster dangling off the ceiling in large flakes. Or worry about them lacerating my skull if they fall when the front door slams. As long as the dishwasher is loaded properly and I don’t leave too many blankets flung about the living room, Denis is fairly content. So I held my breath and tried to imagine what was so bad he wanted to save money for it. I tried to keep my voice level.

“So what repairs did you have in mind?” I was hoping it was just the bathroom window, which we already agreed needs to be replaced because it no longer rolls in tight against the frame. When it was stuck a couple of summers ago, I stripped the threads of the handle by gripping it with both hands and cranking as hard as I could. Now you can see a tiny strip of skylight all around it if you look closely at the edge. And worse, you can feel cold air pour into the shower when you stand there in the morning waiting for that blast of hot water to save you. Anyway, that window is old and warped—one of those Anderson awning windows so it can’t be completely my fault. (We should buy Marvin Windows, not just out of loyalty to our son, Jerem, who works for Marvin’s, but because they make the very best windows in the whole world. However, they cost that much, too.) We had a man from Larson’s Windows out for an estimate last week. He’s so good at what he does. Just stood in our bathtub, whipped out his measurer, squinted his eye and said $850.00. Just like that. When we hesitated over triple thermal pane glass he said, okay, a hundred dollars less, but you won’t want to go cheaper than that. Er, I guess a guy could save a little more with a slider instead of a roll-out.

It wasn’t the window that was bothering Denis. He told me, sotto voce, that before the L’Abri conference in mid-February, he’d gone up to the attic where we store boxes of his out-of-print book: The Rest of Success. A number of years ago the publisher let us buy up remainders. I don’t mean to get side-tracked. But do you see the irony of that? “The Rest of Success?” Still, we’re so lucky to have this big attic that is the third floor of our house and can hold so much stuff it’s going to kill our kids when we die because they’re going to have to stand up there wondering why I saved those lamp shades. BECAUSE, I’ll tell you now. They’re antique 1930’s Flapper-girl bedroom lamp shades, and could be worth a lot of money. But probably not enough to repair the roof.

Anyway, up in the attic Denis noticed that two full boxes of books are completely soaked with water. WHAT?! I wanted to scream. For many thousands, we just had our roof REPLACED five years ago! I needed to breathe into a paper bag.
Denis tried to calm me saying: It’s winter. No rain right now. We’ll wait and I’ll go up there and try to see where it’s coming in the next time it rains.

Are you kidding? This is Minnesota! Due to global warming, have you not noticed the two inches of rain we got in early January? Or the snow that’s fallen and melted about twenty times this winter instead of remaining on the ground until Memorial Day?

In bed that night I stared at the ceiling. The Rest of Success boxes are sitting right above us. I can’t stand this breach in the very roof over our heads. It’s like being told you have a mushroom growing out of your foot and the doctors will keep an eye on it until it begins to giving off spores and showing signs of spreading to your calf, then they’ll see if they can remove it. Of course by then it will be too late and you will die.

I thought of the things we think we need. New shoes because my heel is hurting, which, when I looked up on the web, Dr. Footdoctor said was plantar faciitis, oh great. A new car because how long can our ten year old Taurus keep driving across country? I can keep on slamming the glove box shut. So what if it spontaneously falls open on my knees about five times a week? It’s not much to ask when the roof needs fixing.

Songs of Joy
For some mysterious reason the Psalm that scrolled across the ceiling that night was both comforting and beautiful.

Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts!
We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple.
You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior,
The hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas,
Who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength,
Who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations.
Those living far away fear your wonders;
Where morning dawns and evening fades you call forth songs of joy.

— Psalm 65

By his Word and his unfailing provision year after year, I am utterly convinced of God’s care for His people and of our ultimate destination. But I feel convicted by lack of joy. There is a Haiku poetry feeling to part of the Psalm—a powerful simplicity that condenses and intensifies the presence of God everywhere.

Where morning dawns
And evening fades
You call forth songs
Of joy.

Farther than my eye can see, horizon to horizon, if we listen, we can hear God, coaxing us, inviting us to sing. Sufjan Stevens is one who hears songs of joy. (Sufjan’s brilliant, creative music defies categories and is not found on the Praise Music scene.) He completely redeems, what for me was an—I’m sorry—annoying old hymn. With banjo and simple vocals, so quiet, so profound, he sings “Come Thou Fount.” I didn’t mean to cry, to be taken by joy with a hymn I knew so well and formerly resented from my childhood. Every word of every verse came back unbidden.

Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace.
Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it. Mount of thy unchanging love.”
(Verse 1.)

It’s not as though Psalm 65 or “Come Thou Fount” repairs our roof or heals my friend’s body which is being hijacked by cancer. I know that. It is meant to give sorely needed hope and perspective. It invites us to look beyond the confines of our own lives and be assured that even if it’s the end of a particular chapter of life, it is simply not the end of the story. Now and then we catch glimmers of another dimension all around us—a stream in the desert, a child snatched from danger, a song of joy. Sometimes in small ordinary ways we experience the presence of God, as in the ability to get out of bed in the morning and keep our children alive. Other times we know for certain in the way a particular thing has fallen out, by its timing and our lack of control over it, that a we’ve witnessed an unusual gift of grace. A miracle really, though we hesitate to call it that.