When Things Go Wrong

I stood by the edge of my garden and looked with disgust. My carrots, lined in a row with their tops blowing in the wind, appeared to be healthy and strong. The waving tops with their nice green color belied the growth below. I pulled them from the ground and found them to be never more than half a pencil’s width, longer than a six inch ruler, tapering to a wisp.

It was harvest time and I had been watering and weeding the garden all year long. My spinach had died in a late spring frost. The beans had been eaten by the deer.   All that remained were carrots and potatoes.

With my right foot, I pushed the tines of my tool deep into the ground at the side of the first potato hill. Then I pulled back and pushed down on the handle, pulling the depths of the hill to the top with one swift move. Up came clusters of potatoes – Yukon Golds – surrounded by a web of roots.   Though the plant above had dried in maturity, the tubers below remained smaller than peanuts in every hill.

As I looked from potato hill to carrot row, I thought about the asparagus that had not grown and I remembered the raspberries that had flourished for one year, but failed to return the next. It was a garden that failed to produce and I stood at its edge with disgust and dismay whirling through my veins.

So, what do you do when things go wrong? …when what you expect fails to materialize? …or your hard work produces less than desirable results? What do you do when your heart is broken or expectations are dashed?

I’ll tell you what I did with my garden. I found something that would grow really well in that spot. I tilled the land, smoothed it with a rake, and sowed the seed, and began mowing it a few weeks later. To this day, it grows fine grass.

But gardens don’t really matter much when compared to the very real struggles that we face from time to time. A failed garden is an irritant and a disappointment. The return of a dreaded disease is an altogether different thing.

I sat with Tom, almost twenty years ago. His mother lay in the hospital after her second heart transplant. His teenage heart was breaking under the weight of hearing from the doctors that the transplant hadn’t been successful. His mother was dying.  He looked at me and said, “I expected differently. Last time she made it through. It was tough, and it took a long time, but she made it…”

I visited with Wes in Pennsylvania, where my wife and I served our first calls as ordained pastors. Wes had already lost one leg to diabetes. The doctors had told him that he was going to lose the toes on his right foot because of gangrene. I had seen the streaks of red on his leg and hoped all would be fine. But the infection moved too quickly and instead of losing a few toes, Wes lost the leg, to just above the knee. He asked, “What am I going to do with Toots? How am I going to keep her safe if I can’t get around?” Toots was his wife, who suffered from dementia.

I sat with Becky, in St. Paul, and listened to her pain. Molested as a child, now raped as a teen. She cried in her pain and asked, “Isn’t it supposed to be getting better? Why doesn’t God fix this world?”

What do we do when things go wrong?

It’s the same question God poses in the love song sung by the prophet Isaiah. What more shall I do? I did not get what I expected. Instead of good grapes, I got wild stinky berries. Instead of righteousness, came injustice and cruelty.

We identify with this God, who openly laments for the disparaging results too often present in our world. God sings a love song of regret. What am I to do? And the questions are raised: Is it too late for the vineyard? Is there anything more God can do?

The vineyard over which God laments is the people of God, Israel. He plucked them up out of their slavery in Egypt and planted them in a land of rich resources. Nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, he hoped they would flourish and become a people known for justice and righteousness.

God’s heart breaks whenever “the way it ought to be” is replaced by “the way it has become.” God cries for the vineyard: Greed leads to desperation on Wall Street; fear leads to war in distant lands; neighbors build fences to maintain boundaries; the powers of despair are unleashed and dulled in and through unrestrained alcoholism, drug abuse, dishonesty, violence and mistrust.

The vineyard is a mess. We stumble about and wander in its ruin. And as we do, God is with us, crying over its destruction. God is not distantly detached from this world, absent and without concern. God grieves that which is wrong, weeps for that which is lost, and mourns the ruin.

The prophet’s voice, singing the lover’s lament, calls the people back from the brink: It’s not too late. In the midst of all that is so wrong, God is still compassionate. God has not yet torn down the walls, laying bare the vineyard to the power of the invader. It’s not too late.

The prophet always comes to evoke a future that’s possible, but not a future that’s necessary. Return to the one who first planted the vineyard. Return to the one who cries for the vineyard’s demise.   Return to the one who weeps with you in the failed expectations of this messed up world, who howls with despair at the ruin of what God created to be good, who looks with dismay at what has become.

You know, so often, when we enter into the times of despair, we feel a disconnect from God. We recognize that we are in the midst of a spiritual drought, the soul becomes thirsty and the waters of baptism seem a thing of a remote past.

Scripture calls us to remember that we are God’s pleasant plantings, that God’s love for the vineyard is strong. He, who brought the Hebrew nation out of slavery in Egypt, sets you free from sin, death and the powers of destruction through the work of Jesus Christ. In Holy Baptism God declares His eternal love for you. He looks you in the eye and says, “You are mine.” When we hit rough patches in life, God wanders the rubble and says, “return to me, lest you be overrun.” He gives us Jesus, who is the “cornerstone that has been rejected.” And on this cornerstone, God is building new life.

To this God we are always called to return. Daily, we are called to come back. When things are going well, we are called to go again to the one who gives us life. When things are going poorly, we are called to renew our connections with God.

What do we do when things go wrong? It might be tempting to run from God and to be angry with God. But turning our backs on God, we forget that God weeps for the destruction, sends his Son into the ruin and begins building for us a sure foundation on which we can build.

When things God wrong, we remember the first work done for us by God and trust that God does not leave us when we face immense pressure. We remember the new life given us through Jesus and return to that which is central to our faith: The absolute trust that God walks with us through this damaged world, and in Jesus begins to rebuild the world as it ought to be.

We are vines planted and loved by God. No amount of despair can change that fact. When things become difficult in this world, we turn our eyes to God in faith, echoing the words of the apostle, Paul, who, in a time of great personal suffering encouraged God’s people by writing, “ I have not already obtained the resurrection from the dead, but, “…I press onto make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the price of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10-14, paraphrased and edited)

The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, in talking about the difficulties of life wrote the following earthy words of hope:

Love has pitched her mansion
in the place of excrement;
for nothing can be sole or whole
that has not been rent. (From: Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop)

Madeleine L’Engle, the renowned American Author, played with Yeats’ image as she reflected on the pain she suffered after her husband’s death in 1986. She wrote,

The place of excrement. That’s where we are this summer. How do we walk through excrement and keep clean in the hart? How do we become whole by being rent? This summer is not the first I have walked through the Place of excrement and found love’s mansion there. Indeed, we are more likely to find it in the place of excrement than in the sterile places. [for] God comes [to us] where there is pain and brokenness, waiting to heal, even if healing is not the physical one we hope for. (From, Two-Part Invention)

People of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ forever. God loves you and does not forsake you. In your times of struggle, return to your Lord and trust that God is with you. God will not leave you or abandon you in your time of need.

Summer Berries, by Nana B Agyei, used by permission under Creative Commons (CC by 2.0) license.

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