Grace grows best in winter
Margaret Clarkson was a Canadian hymn writer who died in 2008, at the age of 93. Her long life was a great gift to the church, not only for her excellent hymns, but also for her helpful reflections on suffering. These were not the musings of someone pondering the mysteries of affliction from the safe vantage point of health and strength, but rather the mature spiritual insights of a woman who had struggled with pain and affliction and disappointment all her days. She was born into what she described as ‘a loveless and unhappy’ marriage, which led to her parents’ divorce when she was only 12 years old. As a result, her early years were traumatised by fear, tension, insecurity and isolation.
Her suffering was not only psychological, for, at the age of 3, she was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis which continued and developed through her entire life, leaving her in constant pain. She suffered from migraines, so that her first words were, according to her mother, ‘my head hurts’. Her various health problems developed through her life so that most days involved a struggle with pain and discomfort. To add to all that, with the passing of time she realised that she would remain single, a further deep disappointment, which meant relinquishing her own dreams for her life.
Significantly, her book of reflections borrows a phrase from Samuel Rutherford for its title: ‘Grace grows best in winter’. Let me share a few of her insights.
She describes the restrictions and confines of a life that is constrained by sorrow and suffering as a life circumscribed by ‘hedges’. In this she is using the imagery of that great Old Testament sufferer, Job:
‘Why is light given to a man whose way is hid,
whom God has hedged in?’ Job 3:23
So Clarkson writes: ‘Thus it is to those who find themselves hedged in by physical infirmities or by thorny barriers of other kinds to whom I write these pages; and I myself speak from within the confines of one of God’s hedges.’
The key to note is her perspective, as a Christian, that the events over which she has no control, and which have brought such difficulty into her life, are not meaninglessly random, but are part of the mysterious plan of a good and providential God. They are God’s hedges. This, of course, does not make the pain any less real:
‘Hedges are thorny; hedges are sharp; hedges are thick and high. Hedges sometimes cause severe allergic reactions in those who so much as touch their innocent-looking leaves. Hedges shut life out and shut pain, fear, and loneliness in. Misunderstanding and frustration thrive within their prickly walls. To live surrounded by an insurmountable hedge is difficult indeed. No wonder Job longed for death!’
There is no doubting that this was written by someone who has known what it is to plunge into a deep darkness of weakness and frustration and anguish. Yet she goes on to write:
‘The hedge can cut off the world and confine on every side, but it cannot shut out our view of the skies nor prevent the soul from looking up into the face of God. Indeed, because there is so little else he can see, and because he needs God so badly, the hedged-in Christian, if he will, may possibly learn to see God more clearly and to know him more truly than his brother who seems to be free to live life more fully.’
In our Sunday morning studies in the Old Testament life of Joseph, we have looked afresh at a young man whose early life was blighted by disappointment and suffering and injustice. His life seemed truly ‘hedged-in.’ Seemingly destined for greatness, according to his dreams, yet he was sold into slavery by his brothers and subsequently cast into prison unjustly. For fourteen long years Joseph watched his youth disappearing, with nothing but disappointment and frustration marking his way. Yet as we read this story, we discover that these were years during which God was transforming Joseph from the proud, self-centred 17 year-old, who infuriated his brothers with his insensitive arrogance, into a steady, God-centred man of humility, who acknowledged that even his gift of interpreting dreams could only be fruitfully used under Divine help. Grace does indeed grow best in winter!
I am sure that the story of Joseph is given to us, in part, that we might see how, through the years of perplexity and pain, when Joseph had no idea why his life seemed to be so blighted by cruelty and disappointment, God, in His providence, was indeed working His good purposes out. Joseph could not see it in the midst of the years, but we can because we know how the story ends.
When it comes to our own lives, we don’t know the bigger story, but it is the same God who works in our lives as worked in Joseph’s and so we are called to trust and accept. Happily, Margaret Clarkson has something to say about acceptance which can become the ‘wellspring of serenity, security and joy’:
‘….acceptance is not submission, with its overtones of submerged rebellion; it is not resignation with its dangers of ensuing self-pity and the development of a martyr complex; it is acceptance in the fullest sense of the word. Acceptance is taking from God’s hands absolutely anything He chooses to give us, looking up into His face in love and trust, even in thanksgiving. Acceptance is knowing that the confines of the hedge are good, even perfect, however painful they may be, simply because He Himself has given them.’
Attaining such acceptance is not easy. In fact, it is something we can only realise in our lives with God’s help, asking Him in the midst of our sorrows to grant us the kind of acceptance that will quell the torment and bring us peace. I am sure that seizing hold of what God tells us in His word and allowing His Spirit to work it deep into our hearts works such acceptance into us. Singing hymns which convey that same truth connects with our emotions and, unsurprisingly, some of the best have been written by Margaret Clarkson. For example, her hymn ‘O Father, you are sovereign’ has the verse:
O Father, you are sovereign,
the Lord of human pain,
transmuting earthly sorrows
to gold of heavenly gain.
All evil overruling
as none but Conqueror could,
your love pursues its purpose-
our souls' eternal good.
Let me give her the last word:
‘Have you sought God’s grace of acceptance, or are you still fruitlessly picking yourself against the thorns of your hedge, seeking a way of escape? God’s way of escape is to make you able to bear it. Seek His gift, for only with acceptance comes the blessing His peace’. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Yours with gratitude for our late Canadian sister,