So much of life involves the careful, absentminded completion of tasks. Take wiping the table. I must pay attention to the congealing syrup; to the crumbs teetering precariously on the edge of the wood, and others scattered on the bench; to the construction paper projects threatened by stray threads of moist streaks. Yet as I watch and wipe, I am free to also engage in a life of the mind. Marveling at the solidifying powers of sugar. Thinking how one material can take on numerous forms, in physical matter and in spiritual. Pondering Ezekiel’s anguish over God’s coming judgement and the prophet’s simultaneous obedience to preach it. Wondering why Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot. Contemplating the tedious, hugely creative process of writing. Musing how slowly nerves at the ends of fingers regenerate–or even if they do–after frostbite.
We can resent the mundane and the petty demands on our time. Many of those things we deem interruptions of important jobs, of work that matters. I do this too often. For these tasks do matter, in and of themselves. Tables must be clean, for sanitary as well as aesthetic reasons. And cleaning one also gives me time to think on things freely, without a particular pattern and without a definite aim. With other, more demanding jobs, I otherwise would feel obligated to mentally shelve my meandering thoughts, out of deference to the Immediate and Important. So how precious are these few moments. How rich can be a simple scrub, a moment of pondering.
Last night at supper I told our children, “Well, fourteen years ago tonight, your father and I were eating lasagna together.”
“And cheesecake,” he added.
“Why?” asked one of the boys.
“It was our rehearsal dinner,” he said. Just this past weekend, we all attended a rehearsal dinner and then a wedding, so the connection was bright and immediate. “Oooo!” They crowed, no doubt thinking of parties and chocolate treats, and little of the import of such surface adornments.
After fourteen years, I feel the most insight into marriage we might offer the world is what we bring to it. Words of advice come to mind, but most or all of it is known to you all. Show affection. Repent and forgive each other. Stay married.
Instead, we offer you this. A child staggering out of the bathroom with no pants, yelling, “I need some help!” Another handing over a chewed-over roasted chicken leg: “Here, Mommy.” Raucous laughter. Exuberant and passionate telling and yelling. Puddles of spilled milk. Baby grins. We make eye contact over the messy table, my husband and I, and we smile. We are exhausted and yet not used up. We are in life together.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” We read this in Genesis, and Matthew, and Ephesians. The words mean what they say and do what they say. Once bound together, we are bound. We fight our union by fighting each other, by wearying of the toil of our sinful flesh ever warring against the very one our soul has loved. And yet God gives to us Himself, over and over again, and rebinds us up. We are grateful, and we appreciate all He has given us, much of which we do not even recognize. Marriage is an unending struggle, and an infinite joy, and a deep mystery. It is a breaking and a healing, over and over and over again.
A Good Wilderness started with a conversation around our kitchen table.
It was early evening, years ago, and my husband Jon and I were visiting with my sister-in-law, Jenny. The dining room light glowed over the oak table, holding back the darkness that pressed against the windows. Jon and I reminisced about life in the prior few years, memories full of our own sinfulness and folly, and that of others. We spoke of division and antagonism, public feuding and personal attacks. Loneliness. Heartache. Suffering. Hard times.
Our hands resting on the golden wood, our voices softly filling the twilight room, we shared our difficulties with Jenny. Then we discussed what we had learned through our experiences, with the benefit of time and slow changes behind us. Together we had weathered storms, bitterly regretting the ones we had made and slowly slogging through the ones we encountered. After much repentance and prayer, asking Christ for His mercy and His strength for forgiveness and wisdom to carry on, we were slowly emerging from the hardest times. Jon and I still felt lonely–often very lonely–and bruised, and we knew we would live with the scars of our experience for the rest of our lives. But we also knew that God had used them for our good.
Jenny listened carefully. Then she said, “So you live in a wilderness. But it’s a good wilderness.”
She was right. Our situation was a microcosm of how God works with both His rod and His staff and His steadfast love for sinners stumbling around in a fallen world.
As Lutherans, we are indebted to Martin Luther’s insistence that God is the only One who gives us what we need. Rather than working for our own justification and meriting righteousness of our own accord, we understand that as sinners, we are fundamentally unable to earn salvation. We experience patterns of Oratio, prayer; Meditatio, meditation; and Tentatio, temptation. As the Rev. Dr. John Kleinig writes in his beautiful book, Grace Upon Grace:
Luther proposed an evangelical pattern of spirituality as reception rather than self-promotion. This involves three things: prayer, meditation, and temptation. All three revolve around ongoing, faithful attention to God’s Word. The order of the list is significant, for unlike that traditional pattern of devotion, the spiritual life begins and ends here on earth. These three terms describe the life of faith as a cycle that begins with prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit, concentrates on the reception of the Holy Spirit through meditation on God’s Word, and results in spiritual attack. This, in turn, leads a person back to further prayer and intensified meditation. Luther, therefore, does not envisage the spiritual life as a process of self-development, but as a process of reception from the triune God. This process of reception turns proud, self-sufficient individuals into humble beggars before God. [emphasis mine]
In other words, what’s normal in our fallen world sounds instinctively awful to people, and even to Christians; that as we receive Christ and His gifts through faith imparted to us by the Holy Spirit, we will fall under attack, both internally and externally. Our inherited, bone-deep sinfulness simultaneously kills us while Christ’s justification saves us.
We know we will always have anfechtung, that terrific German word that describes the torment and affliction our souls suffer and wrestle with. This is part of our earthly life, living with the particular crosses we are given. Yet we are not left to fend for ourselves, drowning in a kind of temptation holding tank.
As Jon and I reflect upon that conversation with Jenny years ago, we see that the details of our situation aren’t particularly important now. What’s important is how we came to learn–indeed, in ways we hadn’t earlier understood–that Christ always provides for us, and for His people, in the midst of desolate places and circumstances. Pastor Kleinig explains our spiritual journey this way:
In our human lives, growing up involves the gradual shift from dependence to independence. But the reverse is true for us spiritually. On our journey we become more and more dependent on Christ for everything in every situation. We do not then proceed from childhood to adulthood; we move forward into spiritual childhood as we grow in faith and become people of prayer.
Most American Christians with any awareness know that our cultural malaise is deepening by the day. Writers like Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option and Anthony Esolen in Out of the Ashes, to name two recent examples, have documented and analyzed our current cultural degeneration, and they have provided insight into how Christians might weather our current and future storms. As a Lutheran, I desire to analyze their writings and others, share encouragement, wisdom, and resources for other Lutherans–and any interested Christians!–that will strengthen our families, churches, and communities to cling to Christ and receive His mercy and eternal gifts, no matter what may come.
Join us, and others, as we rejoice in Him, becoming like little children in faith, and gather together in the good wildernesses He so graciously provides to us.