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When Letting Go Means Holding On

September 28, 2019

Denise Stair-Armstrong


I suspected something was up, when I opened my eyes one late Summer morning 1990, in my beloved island home Jamaica, and found the words

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”,

replaying incessantly in my mind. My Bible’s limited concordance was no help. I was sure I could find the specific reference for the passage which was so often quoted in the charismatic church settings of my young adult years but I could not, and soon gave up, sitting back frustrated against my bed’s headboard. As I let go of the Bible, letting it fall on my lap, its pages flopped over… to Jeremiah 29 and my eyes lighted on the very passage, verses 11 to 14, for which I had spent all morning searching, and with that God got my full attention. The series of events which had led to that moment, and my response in it, set the course for the rest of my life which it seems had the theme of ‘letting go’ from that point forward.

I loved my island home and so had fully embraced our church’s vision to pray and work for national restoration, for return to faith and trust in God, and help for our failed economy. As I understood it, our political leaders at the time had experimented with a model of government called Democratic Socialism, in a bid for self-determination away from our colonial past, and from other countries, which they had deemed to be imperialist in their posture towards our little tourist destination. They and the entire country paid a huge price as the stabilizing business class consequently fled the island, and American interests in particular, feeling threatened by the growing leftist influences in the Caribbean at the time, removed the other supports which had held our tiny economy aloft.

But there was also somewhat of a spiritual revival happening among many of the nation’s youth at that time. A handful of hope-filled spiritual leaders re-seeded our generation with a vision of our tiny island that was couched in the worship and purposes of God, for our land and for Caribbean people even beyond our shores and not merely in economic buoyancy. Not even scarcity and inflation at home, juxtaposed with the reports of ‘greener grass on the other side’, from those gone abroad, could successfully lure us. It was ‘Jamaica for Jesus’ and ‘Operation Reconstruction’, and I for one had signed on the metaphorical dotted line. As one pastor put it, “We did not merely have a hold of the vision, the vision had taken hold of us”. And letting go was not even a consideration.

Love for country filled our hearts and the spirit of faith in a good God and of resourcefulness, which already formed the bedrock of the soul of the ordinary folk of the island, bubbled to the surface and found expression in a ‘tu’n you hand mek fashin” movement ( meaning “improvise from what’s at hand’), that fed our native pride in a healthy way, regardless of whatever else the agenda of the politicians may have been. Independence festival celebration songs were written outlining the lush glory of the landscape, the toughness of the people, the beauty of our women, skill of our athletes, giftedness of our musicians, all of which made the sheer privilege of being Jamaican abundantly clear to those of us thus inclined. Others with a more materialistic view of things figured they would pursue success beyond the shores and bring it back home, or else send it. The former perspective was mine.

So, I barely gave it a thought when my father visited me, at the teachers’ training college where I was in residence, with the option to be included in the migration application being filed for our family by his sister in America. The prospect of being free to live and serve at this strategic time in my homeland, unhindered, as an idealistic school teacher and through the performing arts of my church’s outreach, was too much to pass up. So, I declined the opportunity, later bidding farewell to my parents and sisters, happy that they were flying away to a certain success in America leaving me nothing to worry about but serving God and country. I felt I had everything firmly in hand; and God smiled.

It was three years later which found me having my Jeremiah 29:11 awakening, on a day which ended with a proposal for marriage to an American, and my acceptance of the same. We had met quite by chance two years earlier in the home of parents of mutual friends, on a visit to my family, though we now acknowledge the Divine appointment that it was. I had gotten to know and love this devout, articulate young architect intern primarily through our exchange of letters, despite my early efforts to ward off any such affiliation. Though love and marriage are effective crowbars to pry open fingers fused to a noble task, the pain of the resultant letting go was not made by them any less intense. I had committed to letting go but so much was new and unknown that the in-between place was daunting. I had been mercifully released by my pastor with the assurance that ‘the nation was bigger than the shores’, an expression I clung to though I hardly knew all it would eventually signify.

As I flew from my parent’s dwelling on the east coast to my full engagement in Kansas a few months later, my heart quaked again at the prospect of life in America. I broke open my handy pocket Bible and soon discovered another shimmering promise, ‘“So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” Hebrews 10:35-36 NIV, and I was steadied.

I had a promise in each hand, one from the Old Testament  and one from the New, the blessing of my spiritual and my physical parents, the love of a godly man to warm my heart away from my tropic land and its people, yet it would take years before I came to terms with consequences of my decision. My husband had wrestled similarly as he had observed and understood the opportunity cost of my accepting his ring, his name and his country. At the point of our engagement we both felt the weight of the decision and balked at the brink for a day. Unknown to the other, we each had encounters of surrender with God, before we sealed the deal, in which we knew our union would be an act of obedience beyond our natural desire for each other.  We had to let go of each other in order to receive the other from Him. And for that we had to make sure that faith in Him was firmly in our grasp. This would be training for the walk to come, through childbearing and rearing, through the toil and trouble that come with human relations, through the bitterest of struggles— the kind experienced in the household of faith.

But then through the reaching out instead of withdrawing, the leaning in instead of away, we find the escape, the holding on by letting go.

I wish I could say that the journey has been sure and steady, smooth and easy. Rather, it has been oft challenged with fears, doubts, regrets and inner turmoil, but none of these have been able to stand for long in face of the promises and the integrity of the One Who called us out and bid us let go. He has proven to be the same faithful God of the Jamaican sunrise, who gave me bold step and grace in the sometimes violence riddled neighborhoods of my paradise homeland, who supplied all my needs, including a thorough Fine Arts education in a third world nation with working class parents. He it is, who through less than ideal circumstances even in First World America, is teaching me the art of letting go; Who is training my fingers to fight and my hands to wage war with words on the page. The early morning hours or dead of night have seen some Battles Royale as tears have turned to prayers, have turned to memories of truths, have turned to Swords in hand,  which wielding and clashing over lies’ clouds have  released the sure Promises, falling and washing over pages, bleeding life, blessing and beauty all the way into tomorrow.

The exquisite featured image is from Julie Jablonski and used with her permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. We are grateful and rejoice in celebrating her beautiful work.


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  1. Oh, what a lovely piece this is.

    Somehow it has managed to open my heart in a new way to the people of Jamaica, and has deepened my appreciation for those who come to America in both hope and fear for what this upheaval will mean to their lives.

    My thanks to the author for the beauty of her writing and depths of her thoughts.

  2. Dear Ellie,
    I am so glad for the effect this piece has had on you. It feels like icing on the cake to know that it endeared you to my island homeland. May the Lord bless all your endeavors for His glory.

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