This mouth is writing checks this heart can’t cash.

You may know this story, but it’s worth hearing again.  So listen.  Once upon a time, a very long time ago in a not-so distant land, when there were still witches and fairies and trolls and Prince Charmings foolhardy enough to show their faces in public, there was a husband whose wife was dying.  The Husband was terrified of what would happen to him if he were left alone in the world, and one day he heard, over the wall he shared with his neighbor’s garden, a woman talking about the herb she was growing there, that it was rumored to heal any illness, no matter how dire.  This man was honest, and good, and he wanted to find out how to get some of that herb for his wife.  But they were very poor, and he was ashamed that he couldn’t care for his family.  So one night, very late, when the clouds were dark over the forest nearby and even the animals were silent, he vaulted the stone barrier into his neighbor’s garden and stole one of the plants there.  He took it home, made a tea with it, and gave it to his wife.  Miracle… the next day, she felt much better.  But after a few weeks, she began to feel terribly sick again, and the man knew he needed more tea for her.  So he stole again.  Once more, a third time, with more ease and perhaps a bit less caution, he snuck into the neighbor’s garden for the herb.  This time, however, as he stood over the little plant in the moonlight, snipping what he needed for his wife, the woman who’s garden it was rounded the corner of her house.  “Are you stealing my herbs?” she asked.  The Husband, caught in the act, tried to explain his situation, his wife’s health, his own poverty.  The woman, who was actually a witch, wondered whether they had any children.  “No, my wife is so ill, we’ve never dreamed of it.”  “Well,” replied the witch, “I can’t let you keep stealing my plants.  So you may have them, as many as you wish.  But, make me a promise.  If you ever have a child, she will be mine, and I will raise her as my own.”  The Husband was certain,  in his heart, that this promise would only ever be one-sided, and so he crossed his heart, and his fingers, and took the little herb home.  Over and over during the next year, he visited the garden, and every time, before he took his herbs, the witch asked whether he had any news for her.  “Never,” he said.  “No child.  Thanks for the herbs.  My wife is quite well.”

Then, his wife bore a daughter, beautiful with copper hair and big blue eyes.  He and his wife kept her, secretly, afraid that the witch would find out and take her from them, along with the supply of herbs from her garden.  Except, you can’t keep secrets from witches.  On a sunny day, in the girl’s third year, the witch heard the child laughing on the family’s front walk, snatched her from the porch, and locked her in a tower.  The Husband, terrified that his daughter had disappeared, went over to the garden to see whether the girl had wandered there.  Encountering the witch, he was torn – what to do?  Admit he had a child and have to give her up, or pretend there was no daughter and lose her in any case?  The witch, aware of his dilemma, said to him, “You knew, when you made that promise those years ago, what would happen.  How could you believe I wouldn’t call upon your debt?  Now, you have no daughter.  But your wife will live.  Take your herbs, make your tea, live with your decision and with your promise.  Our bargain is complete.”  And the Husband turned and made his way back home.  You know the rest of the story.  In the pretty version, there’s a dragon, and long hair, an ivory tower, a prince, and a rescue.

It was between night and morning in the darkened parking lot of a catering company downtown.  I had worked an 18 hour shift that day, partly for the money, but mainly for the sense of numbness having tired muscles and aching feet bring to my mind when it’s jumping from problem to problem.  It had not been a good spring, and I was in a bit of trouble, feeling lost and desperate and entirely sure that whatever was around the corner during the next few weeks was going to be awful, no matter the path that was chosen by and for me.  So, at around 3:30 in the morning, I sat in my battered navy Mazda with the windows up, heat on, my head on the steering wheel.  One of those moments when it feels as though if you just sit still enough, time won’t move and no decisions will have to be made.  But they do, regardless, and as I hunched in my seat, I argued with God.  Now, at this point in my life, I didn’t really know what I thought about God.  Entirely unsure whether God listened or really cared, I was a bit fed up with myself and with where I had arrived in my life, feeling lonely, and God was about the only one I had around to take it out on.  Earlier that week, I’d decided that there was really only one thing to do for things to work out the way I wanted them to, but in this particular case, I was pretty sure God (whoever That was), the God I’d sort of figured out for myself, anyhow, would not be very pleased with me if I did it.

So I made a promise.  I said, out loud, in my car, “God, if you let me do this, then I’ll do whatever you want.  I’ll go to graduate school and I’ll make the world a better place.  I promise, if you let me not listen to you on this one thing, I’ll listen to you forever.”  I didn’t say amen, I didn’t cry, I didn’t cross my heart.  I started my car and drove home.

A few years later, the decision of that week still influencing me, still altering the course of my life but under the surface like a riptide, I found myself called to go to seminary.  I fought it, a bit.  I told God that there would have to be a full-scholarship.  God said, “Check.”  I said, “I’ll have to quit my job.”  God said, “Okay.”  I said, “I’m going to be angry and bitter with church people and those silly self-righteous colleagues who judge and act like those ‘other’ Christians I know.” God said, “Huh.  We’ll see.”  And I ran out of excuses and went.  Only last year, in the midst of a conversation with a friend, did I remember the promise I’d made in that parking lot.  It flashed in my mind and I realized I’d done with my promise what the Husband had done.  I’d made a one-sided promise.  I’d tried to trick Someone with more expertise in the game of planning, and creating, life than I had.  I’d attempted to out-God God.

What I’ve found, over time, is that God doesn’t much appreciate that.  Now, I think it’s more complex than simple disappointment, on God’s part.  I wonder if God doesn’t use those moments, when we’re the least beautiful and the most cunning and the absolute worst we can be, spiritually and ethically.  If God doesn’t take advantage of them and turn them into the possibility for good.  Yeah, I didn’t get abducted and stuck in a tower.  Hell, I’m no princess anyway.  But I put myself in one.  I locked myself up.  Who are we in the story with the Husband and daughter?  Maybe both those characters.  Maybe the witch.  It’s a complicated story.  But I know, in my own life, that I feel like the Husband, making promises and hoping I won’t be called to the table to pay out.  And God’s tended to let me do that and then come around the back way and use it for good.  Sometimes, that’s been years later.  But it always happens.  What I suppose I’m saying is, you can only run from promises for so long.  Just know that when you get tired of running, it’ll be okay.  You’ll keep your promise.  It just might not look like you wrote it.  It will be better.


1 Comment »

  1. Jared Said:

    I hope you keep up with your blogging…you certainly have a gift.

    (I keep trying to remind myself that being around all these wonderfully talented people is a reason to feel good, not inadequate 🙂 )

    I’m glad you’re a part of our life here at MTSO…Glad God won out on that deal.

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