Snits and blessings
Occasionally, a preacher will choose a text that has some supercharged resonance in me, a line that is almost a totem, a text that is already so thick with meaning in my soul that nothing that preacher says gets through.
In those moments, I get into a snit--in silence, of course. I get almost angry--and I'm not proud of it. I tell myself that I could bring that text to life, that I know a story that would knock people socks off. Geesh, I want to say, why don't you can your sermon and tell them all the story I know?
Happened Sunday night, when the test was from Psalm 91, which starts this way: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty," and then goes on to say, "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart."
A couple of years ago, Dordt College Press released In His Feathers, the diaries and journals of a woman who would have been proud simply to have been described as a mother. She and her husband asked me to have a look at all the journals she'd been writing since being told she had ovarian cancer and to see if I thought there was a book there. I did and there was--and no more than a couple years after that initial conversation, the woman, Sharon Bomgaars, died. Another couple of years passed before the book was published.
So when, Sunday night, our preacher opened up Psalm 91:4, I went into that snit again because I told myself that whatever he'd say couldn't be more powerful and affecting than the story I knew and helped construct, the story whose heart was that same text.
Because those reactions have erupted before, I'm no longer surprised when they come. Besides, what I feel now seems almost arrogant--my story, my testimony, my reflections. So I told my bruised ego to get itself behind me and because it wasn't much more than a vain attempt to steal the show anyway.
I started to look around. The crowd was sparse; most of the people I knew and knew well. And then it struck me that very, very few of those people--if any--might have felt anything close to the same reaction I felt. Out comes the old bruised ego again. I was struck by the fact that I may well have been the single human being in that small crowd that, hearing the sermon text read, who immediately thought of a book published two years ago titled In His Feathers, and a woman named Sharon Bomgaars. Only me. Only the writer.
And that made me sad because I remembered the mission that Sharon and her husband gave me when I visited them in Jackson, Mississippi. I remembered pouring over the journals they wanted me to read. I remembered thinking that this was a story that thousands should really know--thousands, maybe millions. At one time, I had a great plans for In His Feathers. Today, I don't think I want to know how few eventually sold.
I sat there in church and, as a writer, felt like a failure. I couldn't imagine anyone else had an inkling of the marvelous testimony that to me would forever be associated with the fourth verse of Psalm 91. No one--not even my friends. I'd failed the Bomgaars in producing the goods that her story--and their story--really, really merits. I'd failed them.
Self-pity, like guilt, comes easily in this Calvinist soul.
But then I thought of Flannery O'Connor, who used to say that she really didn't know what she felt about things until she wrote them out. And that line, right in the middle of a sermon, made me wonder if perhaps the greatest benefit of writing is immediate and individual--the greatest blessing is in what I learn, not what others do. For the rest of my life, whenever Psalm 91:4 is trotted out, right there with it will be the life's testimony of Sharon and Dennis Bomgaars. I think I know what being under God's care is really about because I know their story.
It's forever attached in my soul, and that's not half bad. Even if no one else in that church knew the story that night, I did--and I will remember for the rest of my days.
In fact, it's a heckuva blessing. It's something I wouldn't know with the intensity I do if I hadn't taken on that project.
That's what came to me during the sermon, and my little snit--and the smarmy self-pity it engendered--faded.
After the service, our preacher came over and told me how much he was appreciating that book his wife gave him for Christmas, the book about the cancer sufferer, the book titled In His Feathers.
That was a blessing too.
We need to count them, like our days. That's another thing Sharon and Dennis taught me, both of them now gone.
If only I could learn.