On the first Saturday in February, Mom and Dad and I arrived home from our nighttime cleaning job to the acrid odor of something charred.
I walked in the door first. “What’s burning?”
Chad was holed up in his room, but Jeffrey ambled from the living room, red-nosed and stuffy-looking. “Benny came in and asked the same thing.” He checked the stove burners and shook his head–then realization dawned. “The oven’s on! No wonder.”
We opened the oven door to view two charred chocolate cakes.
Only they weren’t actually chocolate, Mom told us when she came in. They had started out white, intended as a birthday surprise for my aunt who was visiting from Missouri.
“As the smell got worse, I just got used to it, I guess,” Jeffrey said, laughing. “I can’t smell that good right now anyway.”
We took the two charred circles from the oven, broke them into coal-black halves, and laughed. In the rush of this February, something was bound to get missed.
Our lives are packed right now. Pressed down, shaken together and running over packed.
Grandpa had knee surgery recently. One of my sisters has an active, seven-month-old baby and out-of-place wrist. Two other sisters are pregnant. The youngest seventeen-year-old sister just returned from a trip to Guatemala and plans to start a full time job soon, besides finishing her high school and acting as baby-sitter on demand. My brothers work long hours at the meat processing plant. Then one of them spends his Saturdays doing kids’ ministries, and the other two in remodeling their recently acquired “fixer-upper.” For Dad and Mom, there are the cleaning jobs, the bookstore, the chores, the church work, the children, the keeping up with the house. For me, my school teaching and constant writing.
Our lives are busy–but I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t have a full life. Life is made of doing. For all of us, there are demands on our time, an inner pressure to perform, constant need.
Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the breadth of it. One small and needy person is just not adequate.
In spite of my best efforts, there will be the burned birthday cakes.
I don’t like to acknowledge this, like to imagine that I will be able to get it just right: best-selling books, perfect relationships, no one hurt ever, many people led to the Lord.
Too bad it is so easy to see the regrets and disappointments of every older person I know.
Too bad I grew up with a father who comments–very logically–every now and then, “It’s easy for us to see the mistakes others are making that they don’t see, so you know we must be making them, too.”
Comments like that are a bit dampening to blissful self-illusion.
In the morning after the burned birthday cakes, we went to church. Dad preached.
“There’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve got older,” he said. “I’ve learned that instead of trying to fix the problem, if I wait on God, He’ll fix it in ways I never could.
“His Spirit is on duty twenty-four hours a day, not just when we’re there. He can reach places we could never go. So often we limit Him.
“Don’t you think He is disappointed that we come to Him last?”
And sitting in the audience on one of the varnished wooden benches, facing the bare platform at the front of the church, with only a pulpit and a blackboard and a small man standing behind the pulpit, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that sooner.
Why do I struggle and fret, trying to figure out the answers and not being able to? Why do I cry for people over whom I have no control? Why do I worry about my book, wonder about the lost time, clutch anxiety about the future, when God–the great powerful God of the universe–wants me to ask?
The solution is so simple I missed it.
So foreign and new and astounding and beautiful.
Sitting downstairs in the church basement afterward, eating the casseroles and Jell-O salads the church people had brought, I looked down the folding table at Dad and Mom.
His face is all head and bone, not a lot extra, the eyes set deep in his head. Mom’s hair soft, dark and graying. She has looked tired lately. There is so much going on.
And I thought, Maybe in thirty years, I will have what they have. That stability like roots fifty miles down. Such quiet confidence. Such dependence on God.
In thirty years, I will have that too.
Today, I will ask.