Each year in February I remember that I bought daffodil bulbs in the fall and forgot to plant them. Next comes the reminder that I also bought tulip bulbs. By June, I will remember how I wanted to move my blueberry bushes into the garden boxes and I needed to replant the strawberry patch, but I didn’t do it at the right time and now it’s too late—or too early, as the big circle of seasons goes.
I’m not a very good gardener. I meant to do a lot of things in the last season, whatever season it was, but I didn’t prepare the way and now I have emptiness where there could have been flowers and berries and beauty. I’m not completely hopeless when it comes to gardening, and I do have a bit of nostalgia from reading The Secret Garden, but I will not be remembered for my amazing produce or lovely bouquets.
There are two stories to tell about the missing flowers in my yard. One is a grumbling narrative full of complaints and irritation with myself. I wonder if my ‘forgetfulness’ is a code word my sub-conscience uses for ‘lazy’ or ‘slothful’. To neglect such an easy door to beauty is a fault that must be labeled and conquered; a deadly sin if there ever was one. Just mark it on your calendar and put the dang bulbs in the ground! This is the story I tell most often.
The other way to tell the story is to receive all the gifts God gives, regardless of my forgetfulness. This is life—the way of noticing. Earth rotates and spins and floats on an invisible thread of grace, a whole symphony singing every morning into being and each night to sleep, and I am worried I might be lazy because I didn’t dig a few holes in the fall and drop a brown-paper-covered lump in the ground. God grows all kinds of stuff without my help or intervention, and the tulips from three years ago are still coming up, though a little stunted and weak. I went for a walk today and saw the first purple wildflowers and the green stalks of untouched creation breaking through the crusty earth—think about that! there are things in this world that have never, ever been touched by human hands—and I remembered there is always beauty I didn’t work for.
I am not the determining factor in whether or not life is good, but the voice that lurks in my mind is an ungracious reminder that I might be too lazy to deserve the goodness of God. Spontaneous flowers in spring are good weapons, and budding willows are gracious battlements. I am sheltered in a good place.
I’m one of those sleepers who is generally out within five minutes of pulling the covers back. If I try to read in bed, I last maybe fifteen minutes before my head begins to bob like a toddler who is definitely not tired. My husband will sometimes try for deep discussion at bedtime, and the steady hum of his verbalized thoughts will lull me like a baby until he pauses, when I will instinctively wake and mumble some affirmation. Mhmm. I’m listening. This is against all stereotypes of how men and women are, but my instant sleep is probably due more to my low blood pressure and personality than to my desire to be counter-stereotype. Joy Clarkson tweeted a great analogy about her own energy levels awhile ago: ‘like a sloth on a roller coaster’. Life moves at a pace I can’t always control or keep up with.
There have been periods in my life where sleep didn’t come quickly, or when I would fall right to sleep only to wake a short time later, unable to close my eyelids again for hours. There were sleepless years of nurturing babies night and day, and about every fourth week now I have several days of sweaty sleep that is restless and uncomfortable. When you desire nothing more than sleep, it seems sleep is the last thing to be found. But my default is to rest well the whole night through.
Unfortunately, falling asleep easily makes long drives difficult, as well as anything that requires extended sitting. I have a lot of reading to do for my job so I read my books while pacing the floor sometimes, and I go for walks as often as possible. I think this thins the blood and speeds up the transport of fresh oxygen to my brain, but I have no degree or medical experience to convince you to believe any of this. I’m simply saying: I do what I can to stay awake while my brain does the work of reading, thinking, writing, and communicating. I try to busy myself with enough productivity to not feel lazy.
One night last week, I woke out of a dreamless sleep to the words, “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’.” I am not one who wakes up in the middle of the night to pray, or to whom God speaks in visions—I sleep well and pray in the morning. I had not been reading in Revelation or listening to anything that would trigger this thought, and the words came clear and unmistakable out of dead sleep. In a move completely uncharacteristic for me, I got out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom, found my phone, and blindly thumbed the words into a note, hoping they would be decipherable in the morning. My eyes were too blurry and uncorrected to even see the time, but I knew God had woken me up in the middle of the night with words, and they must fit somewhere.
It was several days later before I remembered the note in my phone—because I forget and I’m slow to catch on. I was walking the gravel road I use when my blood has slowed from too much reading and my dog is vibrating from too little exercise, when I remembered the words and looked them up on my phone. They were from Revelation 22, and I read from the beginning of the chapter:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever… The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” (Rev 22:1-5; 17 ESV).
I can hear John the Revelator speaking these words, like a real, physical thing. There is a symphony to back him up—stringed instruments and a bass drum and the hum of a thousand angels. Read it again. Listen to the sound of a river that flows right out of the throne of glory, where God sits. See the tree, with leaves better than any balm in Gilead or antivirus made in a lab. All those prepositions (of, from, on, through, for) are connecting words, joining things together like God does, making connections for us. It’s breathtaking as I read it here at my desk, just as much as it was on the day I walked through firs and pines pointed upwards. I heard the words the way you do when you are hungry. I heard them out of a dead sleep.
I don’t know what flips the switch for me. One day I’m sustainably flatlining, going through life like a sleeper trying to stay awake, and the next day I’ll read something in the Word I’ve read dozens of times and all of a sudden it’s new and life-giving and shooting up through the crust of my dry brain. Something in me responds, but I don’t conjure up the willpower or desire for it. It happens on a level beyond my own trying and working and imagining. There’s no three step process you can outline for suddenly being spiritually awake.
This is the long obedience in the same direction that Eugene Peterson wrote about—the psalms we sing as we rise to the Holy City.
But if you want three steps, they might simply be: keep walking; keep walking; and keep walking. Head toward what you know is truth, even when the ground is dry, crusty, and empty because of your forgetfulness. You keep going, you move slowly, but you look for companions along the way and eventually God makes the connections. Keep lifting your chin. Remember that—to look up is to offer an invitation to all the things you might be missing. Say surprise me! and let yourself be surprised.
My family and I visited a water park a few summers ago and I rotated my time between sitting in the lawn chair with my book, whooshing down the water slide like a kid, and floating idly through The Lazy River. The Lazy River is always flowing, but never leaving. If you get in it with your tube and plenty of sunscreen on, you can float indefinitely and never leave the bounds of the water park. You always come back around to the beginning of the River, and if you’re lucky you’ll float by a family member on the shore at just the moment you need your sunglasses from your bag or a re-slathering of SPF 50. You are never away from the source, though the water is always flowing, and there is always someone along the way to help.
When I read about the river that flows from the throne, I think about how nice it might be to get in (is that allowed?) and float, after a lifetime of steady walking. I imagine plucking fruit from the tree of life as I idle down the river of the water of life. Everywhere: Life. Someone will always be along the shore to throw me my sunglasses, blinded as I would probably be by the light that is sourced in God. And the curious thing, in this imagination of what it may be like, is that I know I am never further away from God, no matter how far or long I float. I am always with Him, sheltered.
Here is my real, circular life: I am forgetful, tired, slow, and sometimes lazy. I am concerned that my laziness is actually sloth, but when I look it up sloth is defined at its core as a lack of care. And I’ve been there, but I am not there now. I am not too much of any of my faults to resist the Spirit Who says come. I am the Bride who says come, and I can show you the slow way, the way to get enough rest, the tricks to help you remember. In this circling life of ascents I am not the fastest or the first and probably you aren’t, either; but I care—for my body, because it’s where God has determined He and I will commune, and for my place, because it’s what He has appointed for me. I care for my physical life and make room in my physical place for God to be the great, good surprise.
This life will circle round and round till it doesn’t. Even when things are weird and uncertain, we are sheltered-in-place under the cover of His comforting wing, tucked in safe. Springtime and harvest will continue. The Spirit and the Bride will continue to say come while we are in these earthly bodies breaking down.
Whatever we describe ourselves as—busy, distracted, slow, or useless—there is a voice calling each one of us to Life, and it speaks to us in the middle of who we think we are, not a future version of what we hope to be.
Listen. Keep walking. Stay awake.
The featured image is (c) Julie Jablonski and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Tresta Payne learned to appreciate the beauty of God from the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her husband and four children. She builds her own MFA in creative writing through homeschooling her children and tutoring others, finding every excuse to learn and read and grow. After twenty years of homeschooling she is ready for someone to hand her that degree. She enjoys a good, deep discussion with a balance of differing opinions, and works out her own thoughts in writing. Tresta walks a lot on the wild country roads around her home, with her dog and her thoughts and the nearness of God to keep her company.
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