Once upon a time…isn’t that how all stories really begin? At some point in time, something happens, and a new story starts. Every day is a new story, a new “once upon a time”, because this point in time has never occurred before. So, today, we begin the story of A Pleasant Afternoon.
“One always feels better when one has made up one’s mind.” ~ C.S. Lewis ~ “The Last Battle”
There are few things more uncomfortable than living in-between. Most of us expect life to be here or there, but not in between. We wake up each morning with certain expectations. We will eat breakfast, go here or there, do this or that, meet this person or that person, eat lunch, do more things, eat dinner, do more things, and then it’s time for sleep. We have a plan, a somewhat predictable idea of what each day is going to look like, with a few unexpected surprises thrown in for good measure. We don’t really mind the surprises because, after all, life would be boring if every day was completely predictable.
Sometimes, however, life leaps suddenly into an unfamiliar place, where nothing looks the same. It can come in different ways. For some, it’s news of a loss: a loved one is taken suddenly and life becomes strange and unrecognizable; a relationship is broken and the once comfortable companionship is gone; a job is gone and financial pressures threaten to consume every waking breath. For others, it’s not necessarily a loss, it’s just change: a new baby joins the family; a move to a new place; a milestone birthday; a long-worked on project is finished and an emptiness settles in. I’ve come to recognize this unfamiliar place as “in-between”.
A while back, on an afternoon that certainly couldn’t be described as pleasant, I found myself on the shore of a section of the Land of In-between. It wasn’t a planned destination. In fact, I had no intention of ever visiting this particular part of the planet. Like many of life’s surprises, this journey was one in which I had rather not participate. This new place was foreign in many ways, but there were spaces that did seem vaguely familiar, however, not in a pleasant way. I felt more than a little uncomfortable. The climate was not to my liking; I could tell that immediately. The landscape seemed like Narnia, under the spell of the White Witch, where it was “always winter and never Christmas.” My wardrobe, selected for a completely different latitude, all of a sudden was ill-suited for this new environment. Changes were necessary, and I was not a happy traveler.
I quickly decided that this was going to be a temporary experience, and set out to find my way back to where I’d been, or at least somewhere I felt more at home. As the days turned into long weeks, and the weeks became even longer months, it became apparent that this sojourn was not the brief excursion I had hoped. I found myself feeling like a castaway, and homesickness became my shadow as I woke to another day in a place I didn’t want to stay.
Gradually, after much exploration, a new idea began to occur. I noticed that I was not alone in this place, and that others had learned to survive and even thrive, here. What I had thought, upon first exploration, was a barren country had more to be discovered than the shoreline I first encountered. Would it be possible to make a home here, to stop looking for a way out, but instead find a way to put down roots, even flourish?
Once the seeds of hope had the tiniest drop of water, I began to recognize guideposts and roadmaps left by others in places I had passed before but hadn’t noticed. The works of favorite authors came alive with clues I had over-looked when reading them under different circumstances. The Scriptures suddenly seemed to overflow with examples of those who had found themselves in unpleasant afternoons in unfriendly places, but who managed to flourish mightily.
For years, I claimed to live by 2 Peter 1:2 ~”His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”(NIV) I stood before dozens of people, even hundreds, and said there was nothing that couldn’t be overcome by this Truth. What began to dawn on me was how I interpreted “everything we need”. I realized that I had substituted my own paraphrase, which read more like “everything I think I need and in the way I prefer“. And like many others, I had overlooked the “how” of the verse…”through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” Everything I needed to thrive in my new circumstances was to be found through knowing Him. Too simplistic? The preceding verse reads: “Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” Would that really be possible in the situation I was in? Surely, in order to have the grace and peace I had once enjoyed it required a change in circumstances. I remembered a well-loved verse in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:”I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…” and the one following: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13 NIV) Upon further examination of the word translated as “content”, I found this definition: “sufficient for one’s self;independent of external circumstances” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon). Paul certainly lived much of his life in what I would describe as In-between. He was really content there? Could I know the secret he knew? I found another clue in another of his letters:”I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you many know him better.” (Ephesians 1:17) I began to see a pattern. In yet another letter, Paul explains: “…since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience…” (Colossians 1:9-12 NIV) And finally:”My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.” (Colossians 2:2-4 NIV) Interestingly enough, all three of these letters were penned while Paul was in prison, an example of living In-between if there ever was one. Paul repeatedly emphasizes his prayer that the believers would grow in knowing God better, through Christ. Never does he mention a change in circumstances as pre-requisite for thriving. That is not to imply fatalism. Far from it. Paul’s life in no way exhibits helpless acquiescence. However, there is a recurring theme of joy and fulfillment, no matter the situation. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18. NIV) Could that apply to my stay in In-between?
Elisabeth Elliot writes in “Keep a Quiet Heart”: “The secret is Christ in me, not a different set of circumstances.” Her words are not empty platitudes, but are colored with the reality of a life filled with learning to respond to loss and difficulty with grace.
I decided that I want to live with “grace and peace in abundance” for however long my home is in the land of In-between. Psalm 91:1 reads: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, shall rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” Surely the shadow of the Almighty reaches even here.