Barrenness

He hears your prayers.  There is something you’ve been praying for and which you have not received.  He wants you to know that you will receive.

This word has come twice in the last four or five months from one person I know a little and one who was a stranger to me.  The second time it came with a clarification that it had to do with fruitfulness.

Within a week of the second promise, a third person brought me a word based on Luke 1:36 – that my life would illustrate beauty and life from seeming barrenness.

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Barrenness and fruitfulness.  Not, I think, the interpretation which most would assume for a woman in her mid-thirties married more than a decade but without child.  It’s not that kind of barrenness.  Though, of course, even a choice not to seek a child until obedience to him permits is a kind of barrenness.  Not perhaps the pain in barrenness of one who cannot bear.  But an obedience the real and future risk of which is the pain in barrenness of one who can no longer bear.

Even so not, I think, that kind of barrenness meant here.  Instead, these words speak to the barrenness of one who has prayed consistently for the last fourteen months this prayer:

Where the grace of God must first kill before it makes alive, help me submit willingly to what seems like barrenness, remembering that when I fight against that, there is an Ishmael that cannot be comforted and an Esau who weeps to no avail.  Let this be the wild grace which I risk.

As I have prayed it, barrenness has crept through my life.  Its tendrils are killing what lived.  And it has hurt.  It hurts still, heart strafed by this strange gift, grace of a God wild beyond knowing.  Yet, God help me, I will not have an Ishmael.  I do not want Tower of Babel, monument to my own power to bear fruit.  I want death to my works, though its cost has driven me closer to breaking point than I’ve known.

And so I have seen the barrenness spread in all my experience of ministry.  I’ve done what is right.  I’ve done what the books say, what the successful leaders tell me.  And, writhing and crying out in pain, my leadership in each of my contexts has given birth only to barrenness.  Wind, Isaiah calls it.  For we have not brought salvation to the earth, and the people of the world have not come to life.

My strength has failed me.  The degrees, the professional qualification, the reputation.  All is worthless in the face-to-face wrestle until dawn with the one entitled to demand my name but who withholds his own.  Gloriously outplayed by the one to whom all flesh must bow.

Good Christian testimonial now has me tell you the sweet ending, restoration of all that was lost.

But this is not good Christian testimonial.  This is the wildness of grace, a holding of the gaze of love until I am overcome.  This is the story of a soul screwing up courage to continue towards the mountain top with him, mountain of suffering love and hill of burning incense, of the fire that consumes.  It is about death in the following, swallowed up in him, in the word of Father’s address and of Son’s response.

No, this is not good Christian testimonial nor would I stand in your church and speak it.  For who wants to hear the stories of barrenness, of effort that is fruitless, of a ministry which gives birth only to wind?

Yet it is even so, I believe, word of truth, word of hope to those who seek a devotion without limits.

For in the barrenness which is gift of his grace, a barrenness sought with both prayerful longing and tearful trembling, he has spoken to me a word of hope not once but three times.  And this word of hope is that barrenness is not the end but rather the only beginning to a life lived in the divine life of fruitfulness.

And waiting here, between fear and faith, perhaps this will be enough.

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