October 20, 2017

Lisa Dye: The Fruitfulness of Contingency

rasperry-jam-jars

The Fruitfulness of Contingency
by Lisa Dye

“Christ is contingency … faith in God is, finally, faith in change.”

– Christian Wiman

* * *

Recently, on a sunny Saturday morning … the kind that sparkles and makes you feel happy to be alive … I gathered the strawberries and rhubarb growing in my garden to make jam. It would be the culmination of a labor of love for my oldest daughter who was having a birthday. I had another gift for her too, but I wanted to make this after she told me not long ago it had always been her favorite. I felt ashamed I hadn’t known. In my family, I am sort of famous for my raspberry jam, so I had given up other jam pursuits years ago, ignorant of the fact it wasn’t number one on my firstborn’s list.

If it sounds as if I live in a sweet little world where gardening and jam making are my chief occupations, I must disabuse you of the notion. They have always come last in a long list of tasks, the chief ones of which have been child rearing and working in our family business. If I want to garden and make jam, I must fight. But for the past two years I not only did not fight, I hardly set foot in the little bit of land I had worked hard many seasons to tame and cultivate.

Life had gotten in the way and I let my strawberries and raspberries get covered in weeds one season and I let drought kill off most of the patch the next. I let birds and bunnies eat the tomatoes, peppers and other things I half-heartedly planted and then whole-heartedly ignored. In addition to the ramped up activities involved with getting our youngest child out of high school and into college and stressful situations at work, I had a family wedding to plan, a husband to help through injuries and illness, a beloved yellow Labrador who got cancer and died, elder care issues and my own body and mind that has felt tired and frazzled. This spring, I walked outside after a long, hard winter and surveyed the situation.

Shambles was a good word for it. It was more than just the overgrown gardens. Fences were starting to fail. The driveway was crumbling. Paint flecked off the side of the house. I was exhausted from living in maintenance mode for what now amounts to a few years and here was more maintenance … maintenance which startled and overwhelmed me … maintenance of which I could not see the end. I turned around and went back inside feeling depressed and lamenting the fruitlessness I felt. The physical order I’ve always craved and usually managed to cultivate was gone. On top of that, the hope I might soon go back to school, write more and pray more as my nest emptied seemed laughable. I thought that was what was supposed to happen when nests empty. What I expected was … well, it wasn’t this.

At a writer’s meeting a while back, Chaplain Mike gave me Christian Wiman’s book, My Bright Abyss, and from it I began pondering the idea of contingency. If there is anything that’s certain, it’s that life is uncertain. We want so much for it to be, maybe especially as Christians. We make it about securing our eternity and trying to live in a way that invites peace and steadiness. But life in general, and maybe especially life following Christ, is often not that way at all. He has a tendency to turn over tables and call us out of boats and away from our expected comforts.

I recognized this, not from the perspective of facing tragedy as Wiman was when he wrote, “Christ is contingency,” but just from the ordinary, overwhelmed perspective most of us face most of the time and knowing that a dreaded phone call or diagnosis could come at any time and turn ordinary and overwhelmed into tragic. I know this, but I needed to be reminded.

An old friend came into our business recently to discuss some work he wants done. He’s nearing 70 now and recently married, so he’s refurbishing the kitchen in his house for his new bride. I knew his story. It is sobering and appalling and inspiring. Four years ago, on a “sunny day … the kind that sparkles and makes you happy to be alive” (yes, I stole his words), someone slammed into the car in which he was riding with his wife and daughter and newborn grandchild. Thirty days later, he woke from a coma to learn his wife had died instantly. His grandchild was unscathed, but my friend’s road to recovery lasted over a year and his daughter’s continues to this day. He said to me, “You never know when you wake up what the day will bring, so live it.”

I tell you this not to depress you. He’s not a depressed man, despite the terrible tragedy of his life. He is a man of faith … arising from a willingness to accept the good, the painful, and the uncertain. His faith comes from more than not knowing what might happen. It also comes from not knowing what God might possibly be doing that’s good when it does happen.

It is a strange thing, but I feel what I think is faith when I am in my steady zone … when my garden is in order, so to speak. My weeds are pulled. My plants are watered. My fences are keeping the creatures out and my scarecrow is very scary to the birds. My husband is well. My business is humming along. My laptop is buzzing with prolific, writerly production. But that is not faith. It is just a brief moment of refreshment that lets me pretend for a bit. Faith is accepting contingency, both when it emerges as the unpleasantly known or when it is still the pleasantly mysterious and enticingly curious unknown.

At a family gathering not long ago, I talked with my son-in-law’s dad, who heads the operations of a family farm. I asked about all that his sons, brothers and nephews were doing during their planting season and marveled at the size and scope of what they managed compared to my little patch of neglected earth. I thanked him for indulging my questions and said, “I always pray for your fields, for their fruitfulness, for the unity of your family in working together and for your safety as you do.”

He laughed a little. “Well, we just try to work hard, and the Lord’s always taken care of things.” It was a simple and succinct point-of-view, but I knew their story too. The statement came out of a lifetime of sowing seeds into an unknown future … sometimes into seasons of bad weather, bad markets, bad health and bad accidents. Contingency is the nature of life and farming. Maybe that’s why Jesus talked about vineyards and fields and the risky investment of talents and such. Maybe the big picture he was painting is that we don’t know what strange circumstances he will use to bring forth fruit and we have to trust him even when fruit doesn’t seem forthcoming. We have to keep living and sowing seeds into the unknown.

raspberry-2Something else I need to be reminded of is that God is the true gardener. I am a laborer in his field. It is easy to lose that perspective. Maybe because when I am working in my garden, I am the one pulling up weeds and planting seeds and watering it when the rain is slow in coming. I am the one caring for my people and working at my job and all the details of my life. I forget whose garden I attend. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1). So if he decides a season of drought or even devastation is in order, then perhaps the fruit that will be born is not the order and ease I am trying to reap, but increased faith. We are used to planting strawberries and getting strawberries, or tomatoes and getting tomatoes. But we worship a God whose creative powers defy human understanding and can bring forth good fruit from the terrible and the unknown. He’s the gardener and he can do that.

Gardeners … and God … also prune. Pruning, if you have never done it, seems antithetical to the objective, almost an act of plant murder. It is a radical cutting off of parts that seem, at first glance, to be essential. The rare times I do it, I wince and pray I have not killed the thing. After the dismal assessment of my raspberry patch in early spring, I spent three days pulling out weeds and leaves and debris and discovering a few scrawny canes that still lived. I took my snippers and whacked off the top third of the plants and did the same to the new plants I put in the ground. Then I held my breath. The new canes still look like barren little sticks and will for a year, but the established plants are flourishing and loaded with oncoming fruit. “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2). It is true that we are, at times, hindered or hurt or nearly killed by some hard thing God does to us in life, but his purpose is always fruitfulness and he knows what it takes to get it.

At little farther on in the passage Jesus told his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last …” (John 15:16). What is fruit that lasts? This morning, I read this in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The kingdom has come in the person of Christ and grows mysteriously in the hearts of those incorporated into him” (CCC, 865). God is growing his kingdom in us and it appears in infinite and unique ways according to how he has made us and where he has us planted. The import of that thought needs to settle into our hearts. We are not little island gardens growing fruit for our own personal fulfillment, though happily God often blesses us with the enjoyment of his goodness. Rather, he is bringing his kingdom to Earth in the strangest of ways by the strangest of means, a Savior who died and lives in us, through the way we love our people, through the way we do our work, through the way we trust him and submit our small weak branches to the contingencies of wind and weather and the pain of Divine pruning.

Christian Wiman writes, “Faith never grows harder, never so deviates from its nature and becomes actually destructive, than in the person who refuses to admit that faith is change … but what a relief it can be to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck.”

Those flashes of his enduring love get us through the crises of contingency at times. Not long ago I went to bed upset over several circumstances. Beyond that, I was struck low by the words that day of someone close to me, but I awoke the next morning comforted by a dream. In it, I worried about my garden. It was the darkest of nights. I knew storms approached. I knew creatures attacked the few berries emerging after all my labors. I looked out every window, but saw no light, not even the usual lights from neighboring houses, not the moon or stars or any kind of light at all. My own house was dark and I felt my way from room to room. I cried and pleaded with God to bring the morning so I could see my garden. After a while, the sky lightened. I peered hard and began to see shapes and shadows. At last, I saw my garden was full, completely full, of tall healthy plants of all kinds. They were loaded with exotic, ripe fruit … fruit I did not recognize … fruit I had not planted … fruit that had grown in the dark.

Maybe we don’t need dreams to tell us what God has already promised, that in him we bear fruit. Still, I am thankful for any reminder he gives … little flashes of his enduring love showing us he is at work in ways we cannot see, in every contingency that seems bent on destroying fruitfulness and faith, but by his grace, bears them in the end.

Comments

  1. Robert F says:

    This morning I woke up with my normal emptiness and fear. The sense that everything is impermanent, that nothing endures, that neither pain nor pleasure nor hope nor despair leave any trace in the wash of time, was so overpowering that prayer could only be an ephemeral thought, not an open possibility. This is my spiritual life, this is my struggle.

    Buddhism teaches that everything is contingent, that even the statement, “Everything is contingent,” is contingent. Process, not being, is what there is. As a Christian, I no longer affirm that central Buddhist tenet. But as a Christian, can I say that Christ is contingency? Is that not like saying that Christ is immanence?

    I can only hope that Christ is not ONLY contingency, though contingency obviously is a very big part of faith. I hope that something endures, and perhaps my greatest fear is that nothing does. That everything washes away in time, with nothing enduring.

    But perhaps it is so.

  2. Robert F says:

    I read Wiman’s book, but I’m not sure if he is saying that Christ is only contingency. If he is, Lisa, then God is flux. And if that is so, the world must be constant change. And if the world is nothing but constant change, then there would be no fixed spot, no stable ground, from which change could be experienced. It presents an epistemological problem.

    If he is saying that contingency is part of Christ, not all of Christ, then I can go along with that. Then something that endures is subject to changes that do not alter its essence or identity. I’m inclined to say that the first truth definition we can make about Jesus is that he is the son of the Father; then contingency is contained in his Sonship. Then I would say that God is love; then flux and change are contained within God’s nature as love.

    But if Wiman is saying that Christ equals contingency, then I can’t see how he can be correct, because then Christ would have no identity.

    • Robert F says:

      In other words, if Christ equals contingency, then contingency is God. But our Christian faith affirms that God is love, and not in the sense that God equals love, but in a way that the reverse statement, love is God, is untrue.

      • Lisa Dye says:

        Robert, it seems that by writing this I have emphasized the fear and emptiness you say is normal for you. I apologize, for that was not my intent at all. I understand the feelings you are expressing, because I have regular bouts of them, so I can tell you that compassion is also rising up in me right now. In fact, I wrote what I did in an attempt to bring comfort and encouragement. That is always the reason I write.

        I think Wiman is more poet than philosopher, so I’m not sure we can take the statement that “Christ is contingency” other than a poetic expression. My m.o. is often to latch onto a phrase and apply it to something that is happening in my life. I did that here. If I did not think that living in Christ was not the safest place in all of time and eternity to be I would not have clung to him for the last 38 years. He is a Rock, but he brings us through a life of contingency … all the grounds of sinking sand.

        My good friend talks about our “upside down God.” She is one who has experienced much tragedy, but also has much faith. It seems paradoxical to find his love in the midst of pain, but strangely, it can be so. I will pray that for you.

        Something else to consider … and I think this has been true for me … is that sometimes these feelings of pain and fear that we try to deal with philosophically and spiritually are problems that really arise in the physical. I was born feeling afraid. Yes, my environment growing up perpetuated it, but I can also see a family history of fearfulness. Still, I often try to explain God and the universe out of a place of fear and maybe I should just stick to explaining myself out of it:) At any rate, I trust him. I have to walk through fear much of the time to do it, but I think he knows how some of his children especially struggle in this and loves them with a particular compassion.

        • Robert F says:

          Thanks for your thoughts, Lisa, and the beauty and gentleness with which you express them.

        • “Christ is contingency” appeals to my poetic sense. At the same time it appalls my theological and intellectual sensitivities. So, my learned reaction when I encounter a statement that has that affect upon my soul is to take a step back and say, “Here is Mystery.” Mystery demands that I hold apparent opposites in a kind of tension that does no violence to either–at least in the moment.

          When we use the term “Christ” I think we are talking about someone who was named Jesus who grew up in Nazareth in Galilee who is more than just a Jew named Yeshua. Christ is cosmic. We know that the cosmos is in constant flux, and at the same time we perceive that the cosmos is a constant–we can only theorize otherwise. So, given the Cosmic Christ, the kind of Christ that Paul spoke of in the first chapter each of Ephesians and Colossians, part of the tension is resolved when I think about ALL of the created order/cosmos existing within the One who is before all things and in whom all things are held/inhere together.

          Christ Himself must be the “singularity” who has capacity for all change to inhere within Himself.

          To say that my faith is contingent in nature bothers me not at all. And, I think based on experience that to “grow in faith” really means to become ever more dependent on Christ in opposition to the idea of ever-growing independence of the Self.

  3. Scott Fisher says:

    Thank you for a beautiful and encouraging reflection. God used it this morning help refresh my spirit as I am feeling depleted and stressed by some circumstances.

  4. Thank you for this perspective. This is one I will remember.

  5. I am always so moved by your open heart to write about your struggles. I would almost say that deep down we struggle with these very things, if we are honest. Too much I walk about with a glaze (if I may) with the usual response “I’m good”. How refreshing! If we were more open to the heart surgery of the Spirit and each other, we can be encouraged and be uplifted in the midst of our circumstances – living above our circumstances in the joy of the Lord. Yes, even in the dark. Didn’t God say that in the dark, even his light cannot be dimmished?

  6. I’ll be mulling on this for a bit, Lisa. Thanks for this perspective. For some reason – maybe it’s the “randomness of life” theme – your insights reminded me of Michael Spencer’s brilliant essay, “There is always a Day Before.”

    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/holy-week-there-is-always-a-day-before-imonk-classic

  7. Good job, Lisa! This ties in with yesterday’s post by Damaris as you speak of the “little flashes of his enduring love”. Light(s), love, anchors for our soul from the other side in this world of contingency.

    I have just moved to what I hope is my final home this side after 30 plus years struggling to grow grass suitable for the peculiar requirements of golfers. I find on the one hand a yard needing many of those same techniques to maintain a crop I can’t eat or sell, and so far do not have the goats, sheep, and chickens for it to make sense. On the other hand I am tending the flower gardens that came with the place and am finding the most pernicious weed of all is that same grass I nurture in the front yard. Well, not exactly the same, but close cousins. I yank and pull, it grows and grows.

    This morning I am toying with the idea of digging up part of my front yard and planting greens, which don’t seem to be available much here in markets. It’s not like I don’t have more than enough to do as is.

  8. Thanks, Lisa. In reading the description of your dream in the second-to-last paragraph I saw my garden was full, completely full, of tall healthy plants of all kinds. They were loaded with exotic, ripe fruit … fruit I did not recognize … fruit I had not planted … fruit that had grown in the dark I was immediately reminded of Deuteronomy 6:10-12. Different place, different people, different context but the same God who is the ‘gardener’ and graciously provides beyond our striving.

  9. Thank you for sharing – this was one of the more encouraging things I’ve read in a long time! I actually have a copy of My Bright Abyss – I’m going to dig it out and give it a go!

  10. Christiane says:

    Hi LISA . . .
    ‘contingency’ is a concept too complex for me to fully comprehend,
    but not these eloquent words:

    “Something else I need to be reminded of is that God is the true gardener. I am a laborer in his field. It is easy to lose that perspective. Maybe because when I am working in my garden, I am the one pulling up weeds and planting seeds and watering it when the rain is slow in coming. I am the one caring for my people and working at my job and all the details of my life. I forget whose garden I attend.”

    These words have great meaning for me. Especially in my latter years, when the ‘letting go’ process is underway often against my own careful plans and my own determined will. I needed to read your post today.

    I thought you might like this, which perhaps may also have a meaningful connection to your own thoughts:

    ” . . . It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned.
    It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting.
    But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers, and not masters.
    Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time…”

    ? Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek

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