***I haven’t blogged in a long time – almost 3 years, in fact. But I’m signing back in to the old blog, because lately, I’ve felt that there are some stories I have to share. Throughout my life, my family and friends have shared their very personal stories of how God has been good to them. Those stories have been an anchor for me when my faith was slipping. I hope these stories can do the same for the people I love.***
Before marriage and kids, when I had a lot more alone time on my hands, I used to spend weekend afternoons roaming around the University Bookstore near my home. This place was pretty much my heaven on earth – books, art supplies, Stumptown Coffee and Top Pot donuts. I could live there. I spent most of my time in my favorite sections – kids’ books, poetry, and fiction.
One Sunday afternoon, I was perusing the new fiction section. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road was new in paperback at the time. It looked interesting, so I picked it up and read the synopsis on the back: A father and son journey together across a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The reviews described the story as relentless, brutal, and compassionate.
I thought, “This sounds a lot like something I’ve read before.” It was a children’s book by Russell Hoban, called The Mouse and His Child – a story about a pair of toy mice, a father and son, who journey across a garbage dump in search of home. The story made my heart ache so much that, when I finished the book, I put it away and tried not to think about it. But after reading about The Road, I thought, “I need to give The Mouse and His Child another chance.”
I left the bookstore without buying a book. Instead, I went home and cracked open The Mouse and His Child. But I was reluctant to dive back into a book that had once made me so sad. So I read the inside cover, the author bio, the introduction, all the little extras. Then I read the epigraph – the short quote that the author chose to place at the beginning of the book. It was a stanza of a poem by W.H. Auden, and it went like this:
The sense of danger must not disappear
The way is certainly both short and steep
However gradual it looks from here
Look if you like, but you will have to leap
For the second time that day, I put down the book I was reading to look for another. Just a few months before, I had received a compilation of Auden’s poetry as a Christmas gift. So, I pulled out the poetry book and found the poem in question. It was called “Leap Before You Look,” and it was quite good. I read it a couple of times before going to bed that night.
The next day was Monday, and during my quiet time before work, I decided to read the poem again. I hoped a little poetry would help get the day off to a good start. It didn’t. I had a dreadful morning. I can’t recall what was so awful about it, but I do remember that by lunchtime, I was near tears. I thought, “I need some poetry to calm me down.”
This may sound like a strange method of self-comforting, but it really works for me. Because I can’t read poetry quickly. It forces me to quiet myself, to read each word and let the sounds and rhythms of the poem reach me. I genuinely think it lowers my blood pressure and calms my heart rate.
So I googled, “W.H. Auden – Leap Before You Look,” printed out a copy, and took it with me on my lunch break. Over lunch, I began to memorize the poem. It stayed with me all day. That evening at the gym, I set the copy of the poem in front of me on the exercise bike and memorized the rest of it. Its rhythm and rhyme scheme were easy to recall, and I found that, by the end of the night, I had it down. And the more I repeated it, the more I loved it.
Later that week, my mom met me during the middle of the work day for a lunch date. My mom is one of the few people I know who gets as excited about poetry as I do, so I had to share this discovery with her. In fact, as we sat on the restaurant patio, I recited the whole poem:
Leap Before You Look
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.
The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.
The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.
Much can be said for social savior-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
“Isn’t that great?” I asked.
She smiled a big, genuine smile. “Yes, it is,” she said.
The poem stuck with me. It rattled around in my head for a month. I felt like it was written especially for me. And the strange, literary rabbit-trail that had led to its discovery made it seem all the more significant. I felt like it meant something personal, I just didn’t know what.
It was on my mind one afternoon when I was alone at work. I was feeling antsy, like there was some change that should be happening in my life, but I didn’t know what it was.
I prayed, “God, I think that you led me to this poem. It means so much to me. It has so much to say about courage, about being bold, about change. But I don’t see you leading me to a change. I think I’m supposed to stay in this job for now, live where I’m living, stick with my boyfriend, stay close to my friends. I don’t see any purpose for this poem in my life, so why did you give it to me? Did you give it to me, or is that just my imagination? I don’t get it.”
And there was no answer. And I was frustrated.
That same night, I went to dinner at my parents’ house. Family dinners at home could be long and loud, with lots of conversation and laughter. We’re all quiet people, for the most part, but when we’re together as a family – my parents, my brother, my 2 sisters and I – we have a lot of fun. But that night, my youngest sister, Stephanie, and I were the only siblings at home, and no one was as talkative as usual.
After dinner, my dad asked me and Stephanie to come talk for a minute; he had something he needed to tell us. He went on to explain that he and my mom had come to a big decision; they believed that God was asking them to step down from leadership in the church they had planted 13 years earlier. My dad said he believed that God had big plans for the church, but that he felt God telling him that someone else would need to lead the church into those plans. It was a very hard decision. No one was asking them to leave; there was no animosity or bitterness between them and people in the church. They simply believed that God had asked my dad to step down as senior pastor. And they didn’t know what was next for them.
My dad said, “Once we knew this was what God wanted us to do, the main question was timing. We prayed about it, and ultimately we felt that sooner was better than later. I simply needed to resign. Actually, Elise, I don’t know if you remember this, but you shared a poem with Mom about a month ago, that really had an impact on our decision.”
“I don’t know if you remember this …”
I almost laughed out loud. “Yes,” I said, “I remember it very well.”
My dad went upstairs, found a copy of the poem, and read it to us. “Although I love you, you will have to leap. Our dream of safety has to disappear.”
We were all teary-eyed. My parents were leaving the church they had planted. My sister was processing the news that her family was leaving the church she’d attended almost all her life. And I was overwhelmed by God’s clear answer to the question I’d asked in frustration that afternoon, “Why did you give me this poem?” His faithfulness amazed me.
In the days that followed, I pondered God’s goodness in leading me to the poem and using it to guide my parents. I thought about how, when I was wandering the bookstore, I hadn’t been doing anything specifically “spiritual.” I was just doing what I loved to do. At the time, I hadn’t thought I was following the prompting of the Holy Spirit; it was only later that it seemed to be so.
Throughout my life, I have wondered why I am so passionately drawn to art and literature – rather than to more practical things. Why not teaching, nursing, counseling, missionary service, pastoral ministry? Why is it that my heart swells when I read poetry and fiction? Why do made-up stories touch me so deeply?
But as I thought about the poem, I began to wonder, “Is it possible that God can use this for the sake of others?” Could God use my curiosity about new books? My love of children’s literature? My fascination with rhythm and rhyme? As I prayed that day, God’s answer was remarkably clear:
“I made you the way I did on purpose. And I didn’t do it just for you.”
And that is why I am sharing this story. Because I think God gave me this experience on purpose, and he didn’t do it just for me. I want to tell you, if you ever wonder about the deep, passionate loves God has given you, that God gave them to you on purpose, and he didn’t do it just for you. Whatever it is, he can use it for his purposes, and you can know the joy of being used by God in the way he planned from the beginning.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
Be joyful: He made you on purpose; he invented you in love, and he did it for his own happiness and for the good of others. You are loved.