A Fallow Year

I, the brownest of brown thumbs, have been planting things in my backyard. I planted strawberries in hanging baskets on my deck. They’re already blushing and I can’t wait to eat them. I planted peas, but they’re too shy to make an appearance yet. I also planted potatoes in a trash can. Yep, in a trash can.

As I’ve planted, I’ve learned about dirt. I learned that you shouldn’t plant strawberries where you’ve recently grown potatoes because the potatoes will have leached necessary nutrients from the ground and your strawberries will die of starvation.

I’ve been thinking about dirt a lot and how farmers would plant for six years and let the ground lay fallow for a year (Exodus 23:10). This was practiced by descendants of tribes of Israel-the descendants of God’s chosen people-and not by other tribes.

Nothing would be planted for a full year. The ground would be left to rest, to be fertilized by animal poop, and to recover the nutrients that were lost. My favorite definition of fallow is, “to be let alone.” I love the idea of just leaving the soil alone, of not touching a single grain, or tilling even a row.

Some years we just have to be let alone.

I don’t know about you, but I just survived that kind of year. A year where I got pooped on a lot and it felt like my very bones were leached dry, a fallow year for sure. So many of us on the board of Vigilante Kindness have been navigating fallowness this year, a year where nothing new was planted, a year of letting the soil sit.

I’m incredibly bad at letting the soil sit. I want to do what I want, when I want, but planting doesn’t work that way and neither does following God. That’s a sure way to kill the things you so desperately want to grow in your garden and in your life.

After a year, the farmers would come and tend to the soil. First they’d pull out masses of overgrown, thorny weeds, removing any remaining thing that would suck water and nutrients away from the new crop. Then they’d till, turning the ground over, breaking it up, letting in light, letting in air. The ground would be noticeably darker than the year before, fertile and ready for seeds.

Vigilantes, I didn’t know how to tell you about this year, how to tell you why I didn’t go to Uganda and why I’ve been quiet. I’ve been laying fallow. Maybe you have, too.

Did you know that the root word for fallow is the same root word for Sabbath and that both mean to rest? So rest I did. I didn’t go to Uganda. I didn’t start any new projects. I said no and I listened when God said no to me, which was difficult because I had some thorny pride that needed to be yanked out by the roots.

But the beauty of leaving a field fallow comes at the end of the year, comes in the recovery of what was lost, and in the eventual green of new growth.

A verse that’s been on repeat in my mind is Hosea 10:12.

“Sow with a view to righteousness, reap in accordance with kindness; Break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord until He comes to rain righteousness on you.”

Isn’t that just the best news? In the hardest of times, you can wait with expectation because the time for tending to the fallow ground is coming. Your parched bones can stand with buckets at the ready for the Lord to rain down righteousness on you.

The NIV translation says it a little differently:

“Sow with righteousness and reap the fruit of unfailing love.”

In the throes of my horribly hard year, I can say in my soul that I have known and felt the tender, unfailing love of God.

I hope you have, too. If you need a reminder, come on over, I’ll let you pick the best strawberries and I’ll feed you trash can potatoes. I’ll sit with you-dusty, dry, worn out, fallow, utterly lovely you.

I’ll remind you that you’re God’s chosen person, that it’s good and necessary to rest, and that the time will come for you to break ground again.

But Even If He Does Not

I had a record scratch moment today, one of those pauses in time when my jaw drops, my head whips back for a double take, and the record playing in my mind comes to a needle-screeching halt along with everything around me.

Believe it or not, it happened while I was reading the Bible.

Can I let you in on a little secret? Those moments don’t happen often for me, certainly not as frequently as I’d like, most likely because I don’t read the Bible as often as I intend to. Maybe those moments don’t happen to you that often either. Maybe your Bible is a bit dusty or maybe you don’t even read the Bible. Would you hang here with me for a few minutes anyway?

So there I was poking around in Daniel, poking around half-heartedly because I’ve read Daniel a ton of times. I know the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, I know the story of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and his giant gold statue that he wanted everyone to bow down to, or else be thrown into a furnace of fire. I know this story, I can even recall the felt figures of the characters stuck on the black Sunday School felt board, while I listened and chewed mouthfuls of graham crackers and tried to figure out just who the hell this king was, thinking he could make everyone bow down to his statue.

In case you weren’t indoctrinated with graham crackers and felt board Bible stories, the basic story is this. King Nebuchadnezzar is power-hungry and wants everyone to worship his gods and bow down to this particular hulking gold image he’s had made. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse because they’re Jews who love God. They’re summoned before the king who succinctly orders them to bow down and worship the statue.

We pick up the story in Daniel 3:16.

16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from your majesty’s hand. 18 But even if He does not, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Did you catch that? They recognize God’s ability to save them from flames, but the record scratch moment for me comes in the next verse. “But even if He does not, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

image courtesy of reversingverses.com
image courtesy of reversingverses.com

But even if He does not.

I’m overcome by this phrase. I’m not sure how I’ve missed the magnitude of it all these years.

As we enter the Christmas season, my FaceBook feed isn’t filled with holiday cheer. I wish it were different, but right now my feed is stitched with posts from broken mothers who lost their children too soon, posts from friends who are helplessly watching their parents slip into the fog of dementia, posts from friends undergoing massive amounts of chemo and radiation treatments so intense that it’s all they can do to cross off another treatment appointment on their calendars.

I don’t struggle with knowing God is able to deliver us. I know that down to my bones, that God is able to deliver kids from death, to deliver parents from dementia and friends from cancer.

I know He is able.

But sometimes He doesn’t.

And that’s the part that tangles me up in my sheets at night and leaves me awake in the quiet company of only the low hum resonating from the refrigerator.

Sometimes He doesn’t deliver us.

And no crappy platitudes of “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” can stop the bleeding out from the knifing pain that sometimes He just doesn’t.

I don’t know why. People who pretend to know why God does or doesn’t sweep in for the rescue, well, those people make me want to say strings of bad words.

I will never know why God does or doesn’t step in. In the absence of that knowledge, I’m left with only one choice.

When I’m being scorched by life, I can determine my response. I ache to be like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to stand with fire licking at my toes and still be able to say that I know God is able to save me, that I believe He will save me, but even if He does not, my heart will remain steadfast.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s response infuriates the king, who demands that the furnace be cranked up seven times higher than usual and that the three men be bound before they’re burned to smithereens.

Once they’re tied up and thrown into the furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar has a record scratch moment of his own. He looks into the furnace and sees a fourth figure that looks like God in the fire with the three men. And the four of them are walking around in the fire, completely impervious to the flames. The king calls Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the furnace and, get this, not a hair is singed. They don’t even smell like fire. The king changes his tune and recognizes that God is God and that it was God who saved the three men.

And while that part is great, the thing that always thrills my heart about this story is that these guys remained with each other their whole lives, including the worst moment. They stood together before the fire, in the fire, and back out of it again.

This season some of us will sit down to dinner and fight back tears looking at an empty chair. Some of us will lay with parents and grandparents and sing sweet lullabies into threads of their memories. Some of us will breathe in and out every day during treatment and breathing alone will be hard enough.

As we stand on the edges of furnaces that feel more than seven times too hot, could we stand together? Could I stand with you and you stand with me? I won’t have any sage words to say or words you might find in a Hallmark card.

I hope to God my words will sound more like these. God is able to deliver. I believe He will. But even if He does not, let us keep standing with truth in our hearts. And if you don’t mind I’ll stand here with you because I know that God is walking in this fire, too.

Kijumi is Coming

I woke this morning to the welcome voice of thunder and the syncopation of rain. I drew back my curtain and breathed in the relief. It hasn’t rained in Gulu in a month and a half, leaving everything and everyone parched and jacketed in ruddy, red dust.
I threw on some clothes-okay, I really just yanked a skirt up under the nightshirt I’d peeled off and thrown on the floor. I didn’t bother with shoes or anything else. I grabbed my camera and iPad. I tiptoed to my mom’s room to see if she was awake to watch the storm with me, but the crack under her door was dark. So with my camera and iPad in hand, I scrambled back down the hall to the balcony outside of my room. The sun wasn’t up yet and I knew I was in for a spectacular lightning show across the dark sky. I sat on the balcony writing and snapping photos.

The storm was behind me, so I didn’t see the fingers of lightning pointing from the sky and touching the ground. Instead the whole of the sky would go from pitch black to electric pinks and yellows all at once, like a camera flash to the face. As my retinas recovered from each flash, I’d count the seconds between the turbulent thunder and the blinding flashes of lightning, counting the miles separating me from the storm, just like I do with my students at home when a thunderstorm rumbles in. To my delight the increments quickly shrunk from five seconds to one second and then the thunder and lightning were stacked on top of each other, a thrilling assault on the senses.

Not to be outdone by the thunder and lightning, the wind rushed in as well, a welcome reprieve from the stifling, still humidity. The wind whipped at my skirt and splashed my bare feet with rain. My balcony overlooks the once grand Pece stadium and I watched the field puddle.

During my first two nights in Gulu, sleeping was a near impossibility. My jetlagged body struggled to adapt to the correct clock and to the humidity that always sucks the life out of me at the beginning of my trip. At night I’d lay naked under my mosquito net, not the sexy kind of naked, the ugly, sweaty “peel everything off to survive” kind of naked. Mosquitoes buzzed around my net and I laid there sweltering.

I can only imagine what the last month and a half in Gulu have been like. I’ve seen the parched, brown crops and can imagine the utterings from cracked lips praying for rain in this unexpected dry season.

The morning of the storm, I watched the sun peek her pink face from behind the clouds as the spaces between the thunder and lightning counted back up to six, then seven, then ten miles away until the storm held its breath altogether. The soccer field drank the puddles and they vanished almost as quickly as they’d formed. Just when I thought the storm was through, a fresh slashing of rain fell, and a second helping of thunder and lightning filled the sky until the ground was sodden and swollen with rain.

Later that morning, I sat downstairs talking with an old musee. He taught me the Luo name for thunderstorm (mwoc pa-kot) and the Luo names for different kinds of rain. There’s ngito, meaning a drizzle. There’s kot paminilemu, an unexpected rain. But my favorite kind of rain is kijumi, a long, hard rain.

The musee talked about the parched crops and how this mwoc pa-kot and kot paminilemu vanquished his worries of famine. 


And here I was complaining about the heat because it made it hard to sleep. Fear of famine had never even crossed my mind. I’ve never known the worry pangs of impending famine. Hang on, I need to add that to the list of things I’m thankful for so I remember it the next time I pray. Be right back.

While I’ve not known physical famine, I have known the feeling of famine in my spirit, the ugly nakedness of feeling bereft. I know about waiting and praying with dry, cracked lips for some relief, any relief to fall from Heaven. I also know the reprieve of rain and the joy of hearing the cool whisperings of God blow into my life.

Vigilantes, it’s a privilege to know so many of you in person, to know your stories well, as if they were my own. Some of you are impossibly parched right now, famished down to brittle bones, praying desperate prayers from cracked, dry lips. I don’t have any pretty, pious words for you, but I prayed for you today, prayed that you’d be absolutely sodden with a first and second helping of rain. I want to encourage you to hold tight, dear ones, in the midst of your dry season keep praying. 

Your kijumi is coming.  

Dropping Rocks

Maybe it’s because it’s the start of a new year, but lately I’ve been thinking about new things.  Well,  actually I’ve been thinking about how God makes old, and sometimes wrecked things, into beautiful, new things.

Yesterday afternoon I was thinking in particular of the woman in John 8.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s the speed dating version.

One morning Jesus went to the temple.  Swarms of people followed Him because, you know, He’s the Son of God and they were smart enough to recognize that they should listen up.  (Hang on, I’m making a mental note to myself to be as smart as they were.) So Jesus sits down with the swarms and starts teaching them.

Then these religious scholars and Pharisees drag a woman into the temple.  They’d caught her in the middle of sleeping with someone who wasn’t her husband and by many accounts was in fact someone else’s husband.  So they stand her up in front of the crowd and tell Jesus that this woman should be stoned to death because she’d broken the law as given to Moses.

I love Jesus’ response.

He doesn’t say anything.

Not a peep to the religious scholars.

Not a word to the crowd of people.

Not a single syllable to the woman.

He bends down and with His finger starts writing in the dirt.  Who knows what.  Maybe He’s writing out their names and sins.  Maybe He’s writing out the names of the prostitutes the religious scholars had been visiting as of late. Maybe He’s writing out all the good things He sees in this woman.  There are lots of speculations, but nobody seems to know for sure what He scribbled in the dirt that day.

The Pharisees pester Jesus and He tells them, go ahead, whoever is sinless can pelt the woman with the first rock.

Then He goes back to writing in the dirt.

Now, you and I might believe different things and that’s fine with me, but one of the things I believe is that God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are all part of the same being.

That means the same God who made Eve, the same God who made the very first woman out of dust and bones way back in the beginning of it all, is the same God who was writing in the dirt on the day this other woman was dragged into the temple.

I wonder if while Jesus was writing in the dirt if He remembered that other time His hands were dirty.  I wonder if He reminisced about sculpting Eve’s heart and the mud under His fingernails as He crafted her shoulder blades and made tiny mud pie toes.

I don’t know if Jesus was thinking of Eve while He was writing in the temple dirt.  I like to think He might have been thinking of how when He created womankind in the form of Eve, He created her and she was flawless and new, bursting with possibility.

I think Jesus sees that Eve in all of us.  The Eve before the apple, the Eve whose first breath came straight from the mouth of God.

Even when we lie.  Or let bad words fly.  Or glut frosting out of the jar for breakfast.  Or cut each other to the quick.  I think God still sees brand spanking new, bursting with possibility Eve in us. Even when we’re standing naked in the temple, clothed only in the absolute worst version of ourselves.

Jesus sees something different, someone flawless and new, someone He made out of dust and bones.

After Jesus tells the scholars and Pharisees that the sinless person can pitch the first stone, the Pharisees and the religious scholars walk away.  I wonder if they had the rocks in their hands.

image courtesy of pastorblog
image courtesy of pastorblog

Imagine the thud, thud, thud of all those rocks dropping to the ground as they walked away.  It’s the sound of a second chance.

With all the Pharisees and religious scholars gone, this woman was left in the presence of Jesus.  And maybe the swarm of people He was teaching.  I’m not entirely clear on that.

So there she is with Jesus.  Can you even imagine being near Jesus when you were just ripped from bed with someone who is not your husband?  I don’t know about you, but I’d have been simultaneously sweating bullets, peeing my pants and crying, ugly crying.

But Jesus in all of His goodness and grace simply asks the woman if she sees anyone left accusing her.  She somehow summons her voice from the pit of her stomach and tells Jesus that there’s nobody left to accuse her.  And Jesus tells her He’s not accusing her either.  He tells her to go on her way and stop sinning.

Did she stop sinning?  Nobody knows.  If she’s anything like me, she probably tried her best and blew it a lot along the way.

Here’s where God’s grace leaves me undone.

Even when we are at our worst, God doesn’t want to point His finger at us, to poke His finger in all of our tender, shameful places.  He doesn’t want to stone us to death with our mistakes. He wants to sit down, get His hands dirty and stay there with us until there’s nobody left with rocks aimed for our heads.  Then he wants us to walk a new path, one bursting with possibility.

Sometimes I’m the woman in this story, but more often than not, I’m the one pointing my finger and picking up rocks, as if judging your flaws somehow lessen mine.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to see people all fresh and new the way God perpetually does.  But this I know for sure, when I see someone wrecked and tangled in the sheets of sin, I’m going to do my best to be quiet, drop my rocks and wait it out in the dirt with them.

What a world it would be if we all just dropped our rocks.

My Right Ear

It was my right ear that heard the voice in my bedroom.  We laid in bed with the cool of night tucking in the corners of our sheets.  It was that blissful period of silence when all the words of the day had been said, when his fingers curled around my hip and the only sound was the syncopated rhythm of our breathing keeping track of the seconds that tiptoed by as we edged into sleep.

My left ear-my good ear-was pressed against my pillow when my right ear, the ear marred with scar tissue from countless childhood ear infections, the ear that struggles to hear anything, heard the voice whisper in our bedroom.

“What did you say?” I rolled toward my husband.

“I didn’t say anything,” his words were thickening with sleep.

“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I heard a voice.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“I swear I heard a voice.”  I sat up in bed and looked out the window into the backyard to see if it had come from there.


Even the blackberry bushes that scratch along the fence were still.

My husband patted my hand.

“I’m not saying you didn’t hear a voice.  I’m just saying it wasn’t me and I didn’t hear it.  What did it say?”

“It was a whisper and it said, ‘Let go.’  I swear I heard it.”

“Maybe you’ve watched Frozen too many times,” he laughed.

“I haven’t seen that movie yet.”

“What did the voice tell you to let go of?”

“I don’t know.  It didn’t say anything else,” I shrugged.

He rolled over and I laid back down and tried in vain to close my eyes and rest.

His breath fell into the familiar pattern of sleep and I slipped from bed into the living room where I flicked a blanket over my legs and stretched out on the couch.

“Okay, I’m listening.  Let go of what?  And when am I supposed to let go of it?”

I felt silly talking out loud, but I figured if the voice was going to audibly speak to me, then I’d better say something back.

I waited to hear the voice again.

I waited all night, my arms goosebumped with anticipation, but the voice didn’t speak again.

Now here’s where you and I might have differing opinions, but I hope you’ll hang in here with me anyway.  The most rational explanation I have is that it was God speaking to me.  Believe me, I know how crazy that sounds.  Like ‘Go Build An Ark, Noah’ kind of crazy.

I believe God still speaks today.  I really do.  But the truth of the matter is often times, most times, really, I think I don’t hear His voice because I don’t listen.  I don’t take the time to get still and earnestly listen.

So it’s no surprise to me that He waited until the rare moment that I was quiet and spoke into my scarred right ear, the ear that is constantly a beat behind and causes me to pepper conversations with, “What?  What did you say?  I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear you.”  The ear that causes me to utter the geriatric phrase, “Speak into my good ear.”

Since the night I heard the voice, I’ve continued to ask what exactly I’m supposed to let go of and when I’m supposed to let go of it.  God hasn’t spoken to me again, at least not audibly, which is equal parts relief and disappointment.  I really don’t want to be the crazy lady who hears voices, but I also, with every fiber of my being, don’t want to be the girl who misses out on hearing God.

I heard God whispering on a Thursday night.  The following Sunday morning we sang a song in church and part of the chorus was, “You are God.  You are God.  Of all else I’m letting go.”

Maybe that’s it. God is God and I should let go of the rest because in the light of God being God the rest really just doesn’t matter.  If only it were that simple to put into practice, right?  Right.

It occurs to me now as I lay here under my mosquito net in the early morning hours, with the sounds of Gulu waking up filtering up though my window, that maybe there isn’t one particular thing that I’m supposed to let go of, but maybe the point of God whispering to me in my bedroom that night is that now I wake up each morning and ask, “Ok, what do you want me to let go of today?”  Maybe it’s not about letting go of one thing, but about being willing to let go each day and focus on the fact that God is God.

Even still, I go to bed each night and lay on my side with my left ear-my good ear-pressed against my pillow, leaving my scarred right ear at the ready because if God wants to speak into it, I don’t want to miss His whisperings.