Praise God for Knocking Me Upside the Head!

This weekend, Warren and I have run away from Columbia and immersed our family – us and five of our kids – in a southern Missouri rural area where cell service is spotty and an Internet connection is almost non-existent. (If I end up posting this to ESI today, it will be because we drove thirty minutes to the nearest “big town” where I found a reliable Internet connection.)

As part of my vacation, I brought with me a book I’ve been slowly reading all summer, one that my husband has recently written about on ESI, That Distant Land by Wendell Berry. The stories resonate with me for several reasons.

First off, all the short stories contained in this book are about characters living in a small town, in a close-knit community of mostly farming folk…and I am a Missouri girl with a large extended family, many of whom still live in the tiny, struggling towns that dot our state. I have always loved visiting those small towns and the “otherness” of life there. Berry’s stories take me back to my childhood in that way.

Berry’s stories also resonate with me because his characters are all flawed, and it’s out of the complicated human emotions and heart attitudes that he weaves within his stories that several intriguing truths reach out and grab me.

In one story in particular – “The Wild Birds” – an older man, Burley, is talking to Wheeler, a slightly-younger peer of his, trying to get him to understand the rationale behind a particular decision he’s made. In short, Burley’s trying to rectify what he belatedly perceives as a “hidden sin” in his life, something he’s only recently, as an old man, come to understand. He says, “I’ve never learned anything until I had to, Wheeler. That’s the kind of head I’ve got.” When Wheeler asks him how long it has taken him to see this “hidden sin” clearly, Burley responds, “Years and years. Pret’ near all my life I’ve been figuring out where I am and what I’m responsible for – and, as I said, pret’ near always too slow and too late. Some things haven’t got my attention until they knocked me in the head.” (Pg. 357)

I read this particular story before I went to bed last night, and had a hard time going to sleep, mostly because I couldn’t stop thinking about how I, in many ways, am just like Burley.

While I’d love to be able to say that I’m smarter than that and have proactively learned to avoid some mistakes simply by foreseeing that “No good will come of this,” the truth is that, much more often, I have learned the biggest lessons of my life as a result of hindsight and its inevitable, attendant regret. It seems that I, too, very often don’t learn anything until I have to.

Is it just me, or can you also look back on your life and recognize moments when God was trying, ever so patiently, to get your attention gently, without a great deal of pain, and you simply refused to acknowledge Him until he “knocked you in the head?”

God often takes us to low places and allows real trial to come into our lives in order to sanctify us. Peter and James both tell us that trials are designed to make us more like Christ (James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 4:1-2; 12-19). The writer of Hebrews tells us that difficulties in our lives are God’s discipline, administered not because He is punishing us for the sake of punishment, but because He loves us and wants us to be more like Him (Hebrews 12:7-11). It seems a common human weakness that we simply cannot see our sin clearly until we are pressed into a situation where there’s nearly no way out of it without having our sin brought into focus for us in a way we couldn’t see before.

In the midst of trials, I have often wished God had used a gentler way to administer His discipline. I have often thought, “You know, Lord, if you’d wanted me to work on my pride, You could have shown me that without making it quite so painful.”

I continue to see, with increasing clarity, that this simply is not true.

As pride is the root of all sin, I most often see trials these days – big and small – as the means by which God is whittling away my pride…my sense of independence, control and self-sufficiency, my belief that my way is the right way, and my need for others to see me in this same way. Yes, I see trials these days in this light…but it’s taken me years to get to the place where I can see it at all, and this realization still most often comes to me in hindsight.

In the past, my stubborn refusal to see my prideful heart clearly has threatened my relationships with people I worked with, family members, my own children, my spouse. And despite seeing over and over again that my sinful pride has the ability to damage the connections I have with everyone around me, I have been slow – very slow – to proactively apply the lesson to the current day.

I was finally able to go to sleep last night when I let go of the remorseful thoughts tying me to the character of Burley Coulter – a man so slow to learn lessons that, as an old man, he is seeking to rectify wrongs with people long dead – and instead turned to thoughts about the goodness of God, praising Him for the fact that He knows who I am, sees clearly how very much I need to be saved from myself – and has done so, through His Son (Romans 5:8).

And praise God that, more and more, though ever so slowly – because of my stubborn hard-heartedness – He is giving me the sight to see myself more clearly too.

Thank you today, Lord, for using the collected short stories of Wendell Berry to knock me upside the head. Please keep it up for as long as You need to.

Hebrews 12:11-14
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

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