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The Wonder Report: March 18, 2022
Even the Suffering
Something happens during Lent that must surely have been by design from our early church mothers and fathers: Lent begins in winter and ends in spring. How else would we endure 40 days of fasting and grief if the days weren’t also growing longer and the temperatures warmer? Sunday marks the official beginning of spring, and I am ready for it.
In this week’s Wonder Report, I wanted to hit pause on last week’s theme about wholeness to add a few more thoughts about the role of suffering in our lives. I said last week that “all the parts of your life will fit together in the loving plan of God, even if it doesn’t seem like it now.” Does that include suffering? Some of you brought this up in the comment section last week, and I sensed that I needed to say more.
But I’ll also confess that it will be just a little more, because though I’ve suffered significantly in my life, I don’t have all the answers for the kind of suffering that’s happening in the world right now. In fact, in light of that suffering, this issue of The Wonder Report will be a series of signposts, pointing us toward hope even in a dark time. It feels very appropriate for Lent.
Let’s get started.
1. The Land of Dead Trees
A wooded lot sits just across the street from our new house, tucked between subdivisions and nestled among retention ponds. The woods is filled with majestic oaks and canvassing hickories, with buckeyes and mulberries. I discovered it during a walk with a friend a few months before we moved. As we walked through trails that criss cross the four acres or so of woods, we crunched black walnuts beneath our feet, careful not to twist an ankle.
When I learned that a new branch of the Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Public Library would be built on the site, I was thrilled to learn that the wooded area would remain intact as a small nature preserve. Passing through the woods this morning, however, I found it looks more like a war zone than a nature preserve. Limbs and tree trunks littered the woods. Whole sections of the lot now stood empty, decimated by chain saws and logging crews.
I remember the day it happened: we had just unpacked our moving boxes a few days earlier. A light snow had fallen overnight. I was longing to get outside and into nature, but since we live in a brand new neighborhood, there are no old growth trees or messy margin areas along our normal walking routes. I could go to the woods, I thought, but when I got there, I saw large trucks with bucket lifts parked near one entrance, and signs warning of tree cutting blocking another. Even as the roar of chainsaws filled the air, I snuck around to a side entrance just to step into the woods a few yards. And just for a few minutes. I left wondering what it would look like once they were done.
When I saw the tree skeletons covering the ground this morning, I couldn’t help but feel sad. The small forest is now just a shadow of what it had been just a few weeks ago. But I also knew the change was temporary … and by design. The trees had been removed to keep the public safe, but also to keep the woods safe.
When the library acquired the property and determined to preserve the woods as a managed habitat, an arborist was hired to inventory the vegetation and mark dead trees for removal. Later, a local tree care company was contracted to take them down.
Most of the fallen trees were Ash, likely victims of the emerald ash borer, expected to kill 95 percent of all Ash trees in Indiana by 2027. Many were rotting or likely to fall on their own in an area where the public would increasingly visit. Other invasive species were also identified for removal, like honeysuckle, which competes with new vegetation for light and water in early spring, often choking out young oak trees and other native species.
But the arborist’s report didn’t just highlight what should be removed. He also made recommendations for what should be added. Where the canopy was thinned by falling ash, he suggested adding Sugar maple, American beech, and Sweetgum trees, among others. As the honeysuckle is eliminated, he encouraged the planting of Grey dogwood, Viburnum, Spicebush, Witch hazel, and native grasses and perennials.
This small patch of land that had been neglected by its owners and ravished by predators would one day flourish again, but not without sacrifice and not without pain.
As I was walking in the woods this morning, I was thinking about the role of suffering in our wholeness, how God, like the arborist, also helps us flourish through careful pruning and sometimes even pain. In the midst of suffering, we commit to survival anyway, despite the costs. Later, in hindsight, we realize that our survival was because of hardship not in spite of it.
That awareness doesn’t explain the tragedies of modern life, though; it doesn’t make it “worth it” or answer the question of why. But it is a grace that falls softly over us when the worst is behind us and we find ourselves in relative safety again. We recognize that we are different because of what we’ve been through. Our priorities have changed. Not because we belong to ourselves and can make meaning out of tragedy all on our own. In fact, trying to account for suffering on a human level is fleeting and futile. It rarely makes sense.
But when we remember that we belong to God, creator and sustainer of the universe, and to His son Jesus, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, we see things differently. We realize that even the worst parts of our lives will eventually fit together in the loving plan of God. Even then, “all that you have been and are is still present and real; it is held together in that unifying gaze [of love],” as Rowan Williams writes in Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life.
“Modern life is weary, and we are all heavy laden. When we accept and embrace our belonging to Christ, that inhuman burden is no longer ours to bear,” writes Alan Noble in You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World*. “Because we belong to Him, God uses all things to work together for our good, for our salvation, for our growth in union with Him.”
I wonder … what are the worst parts of your life, the ones you barely survived? The ones you couldn’t have navigated on your own? You don’t have to list them here, but think about them. Do you believe that God has somehow used those to help you become who you are today? Does that question make you uncomfortable? Why do you think that is? Has anyone ever suggested that those terrible things happened because God wanted to transform you? How did you respond? Are there things that happened to you that seem beyond God’s ability to hold together in a unifying gaze of love?
2. VISIO DIVINA: “Landscape with Hermit” by Circle of Jan Wellens de Cocq.
Over the past several years, I’ve occasionally participated in the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, listening to a passage of scripture that’s read aloud over and over again as a way to hear from and commune with God.
More recently, I’ve been intrigued by a related practice: Visio Divina. Rather than using a passage of scripture, participants gaze upon works of art as a way to connect with God. The painting above by Jan Wellens de Cocq seems like a great piece to use for this practice during Lent.
According to the gallery label from the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, the subject of Landscape with Hermit “derives from depictions of hermit saints such as Jerome and Anthony who retreated to the wilderness to lead lives of penance and prayer. In this work, a pious monk kneels before a crucifix outside his crude shelter in the hollow of a blasted tree.
“The desolate landscape, with its jagged rocks, fires, shipwrecks, and ruined buildings, is symbolic of the sinful world. This type of infernal landscape owes a great deal to the works of Hieronymus Bosch and was probably painted by one of his best known imitators, Jan Wellens de Cocq.”
Here are some helpful instructions from The Upper Room if you’d like to try Visio Divina:
Look at the image and let your eyes stay with the very first thing that you see. (You can see the full image on the screen by following this link and then hitting the full screen option to the right.) Keep your attention on that one part of the image that first catches your eye. Try to keep your eyes from wandering to other parts of the picture. Breathe deeply and let yourself gaze at that part of the image for a minute or so.
Now, let your eyes gaze at the whole image. Take your time and look at every part of the photograph. See it all. Reflect on the image for a minute or so.
Consider the following questions:
What emotions does this image evoke in you?
What does the image stir up in you, bring forth in you?
Does this image lead you into an attitude of prayer? If so, let these prayers take form in you. Write them down if you desire.
Now, offer your prayers to God in a final time of silence.
3. Should we tell the truth or preserve innocence? by Matt de la Pena and Kate DiCamillo
In 2018, children’s author Matt de la Pena wrote an essay for Time Magazine about whether we should shield young people, particularly young readers, from the truth when we write, and he presented his thesis in the form of a question to another children’s author, Kate DiCamillo, who wrote her answer back in the form of another Time Magazine essay. The pieces are a few years old now, but boy are they relevant to us today. I hope you’ll take the time to read them both.
In addition to the stark message of hope and love they provide, I also wanted you to read them because I have an idea for summer, an idea I’d like to invite you to join me in. And it started because while I walked to the woods this morning, I also listened to a podcast with one of those authors, Kate DiCamillo.
The podcast was On Being, and the host Krista Tippett had invited DiCamillo to be her guest because in 2020, Tippett read a New York Times essay by Ann Patchett, who had decided during the early days of the pandemic to read one of DiCamillo’s children’s books and ended up reading them all.
“It was one of the most satisfying literary adventures of my life,” Patchett wrote. “It was also incredibly calming, which is why I mention it now. There’s something about being able to read an entire book in one sitting that’s emotionally very satisfying. Not only are the books beautifully written, the stories have gorgeous arcs. They twist in ways you never see coming and do not shy away from despair or joy or strangeness. They are, each one, sui generis, each one extraordinary.”
So before inviting DiCamillo onto the podcast, Tippett decided to do the same thing — read DiCamillo’s entire body of work — and now, because I was so moved by it all, I’d like to do the same thing. And I wondered if you’d like to join me?
Just to be clear, there are a lot of Kate DiCamillo books — 25 at last count, though many of them can be read in one sitting, as Patchett mentions. And there’s really nothing to do now except think about it. I’ll share more details later. But maybe we could think of it as a summer reading program for adults. And possibly even even have prizes!
Mostly, I think we could all use the hope and love these stories offer. And if they make the world a better place and change our lives, like they did for Ann Patchett? Well then that’s even better.
I wonder … Is a Kate DiCamillo reading club something you might be interested in for summer? Let me know.
We’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. As always, thanks for joining me here. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together. It’s my favorite part of my writing life.
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Until next time,