Three weeks ago today I was on a ladder in the backyard doing yet another of those absolutely imperative tasks that must be completed before vacation: spraying the peach trees. I had already had that conversation with myself about how stupid it was to get up on a rickety ladder with a heavy, awkward sprayer when you’re home alone and the cell phone is far away on the kitchen counter…am I effectively setting the scene for disaster? But it had to be done, remember. And I was being careful. That is, until I jumped down the last few rungs and landed with my right foot in a hole. I both heard and felt it snap, and though the pain was already making me ill, I managed to get back to the house (calling out loud for God’s help!) and wrench off my Wellington boot at the kitchen door. I called my husband in hysterics who promptly abandoned a lunch meeting to come to my rescue and race me off to the emergency room. Four hours later it was confirmed that my ankle wasn’t broken, only severely sprained. My relief was short-lived, however, as the nurse cheerfully assured me that a bad sprain can hurt like a fracture—and take longer to heal.
But I really didn’t care at that point. I just wanted to be at home where my sweet mother was already waiting with our dinner for that night and the tea kettle on the boil. The memory of the next day is rather blurred with pain medication, but somehow or other my husband single-handedly got us packed and ready to go to the beach for a week. (God bless him!) Thus commenced an idyllic (albeit unusual) vacation by the sea, with nothing to do but read and write in my journal and keep my foot up. It was easy to be cheerful (most of the time) with my extended family waiting on me hand and foot and precious nieces and nephews frolicking about and the absolute absence of responsibility. It was easy to laugh when we went to a dinner dance on a neighboring island one night and all I could do was sway in my husband’s arms balancing precariously on one strappy silver sandal.
But all vacations must come to an end, and last Monday found me propped up on the sofa at home with a mountain of laundry tormenting my mind and a houseful of disgruntled pets and my sweet husband kissing me goodbye, saying, “Now, honey, I’ll be back before you know it—don’t move, okay? Just rest…” He’s got to be kidding. I’m going to go mad…
I have been so incredibly blessed—my mother has been here almost every day; dear friends have brought me meals and flowers; kind phone calls have urged me to ‘enjoy’ my forced retirement. Philip has outdone even his own dear, wonderful self in his patience and forbearance. He has gone smiling on all manner or ridiculous household errands, he’s deadheaded my flowers and watered my plants and taken full charge of our menagerie. He even finished spraying those dumb trees. He’s been a saint. And I’ve been…something else.
In everything we go through, there’s an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. Some hidden strength or gifting; some deep reservoir of faith; some embarrassing deficiency. I’ve discovered what a brat I am. I don’t like being helpless. I don’t like having to ask someone for every little thing. I don’t like having my plans upset, even temporarily. I like being capable and efficient and getting things done. I love rest and refreshment, too—but I want them on my terms. And so, in this light and momentary affliction, I’ve been an impatient patient.
One of the graces of our Christian life is serving other people. Being the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need. Bearing a cup of cold water in His name, be it literal or figurative. There have been needs in the lives of those around me that I’ve felt both a compunction and a capacity to meet. God’s grace is always abundant in such cases, and I’ve often found myself as refreshed as (if not more than!) the recipient—simply because the power at work in such moments of grace is above and beyond both of us. It is God that works in us, both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
But there is another grace; a grace I’m largely unacquainted with in my bustling, capable little life. It’s the grace of being served; of being on the receiving end of this divine courtesy. Of allowing God to meet my needs through those whom He stirs into action; giving Him the chance to work in the lives of others the way He’s worked in mine when He has given me a task of service in the Body. Lying passive as those who love me assume my cherished responsibilities. I had absolutely no idea how much grace it would require to sit here on the sofa and read for days on end!
I believe that these two graces are intended to offset one another with great beauty in God’s ideal. That the giving and the receiving alike are to be done with humble hearts and graceful accord, like the harmony between wind and sail, or the action of a breeze upon the willing strings of an Aeolian harp.
Sheldon Vanauken, in his gorgeous masterpiece, A Severe Mercy, characterized true kindness as being willing to ask and receive as well as perceive and do.
“We, in fact, defined courtesy as ‘a cup of water in the night’. And we considered it a very great courtesy to ask for the cup as well as to fetch it.”
Being weakened—even by something as transient and annoying as a sprained ankle—can remind us as few things can how utterly needy we are before God and how much we depend upon His help for our very existence. I’m having to ask Him many times each day to help me behave like a Christian—like Christ—as I’m stuck here brooding over all the things I want to do but can’t. I’ve had to ask His forgiveness—and Philip’s—more times in the last three weeks than probably the last three months before. But, like Christ, Philip loves me and forgives me, and he brings me that cup of tea I just griped over. And Christ Himself, the very being of love and courtesy and mercy wipes the slate clean and helps me start again.