John 12:24 - Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Andrew Peterson has become one of my favorite authors. He is a powerful storyteller.
From a distance, he seems like a kindred spirit primarily because we have experienced a similar kind of pain. In his latest book, “The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom,” Peterson describes what it was like to struggle through the pain of a midlife crisis. I know that pain well.
As a matter of fact, the years between 38 and 41 were without a doubt the toughest of my life. In so many ways, life was good. I was married to the love of my life. My kids were at a great age. My parents and mother-in-law were still living and in good health.
Yet, with all of that goodness in my life, the lights went out emotionally. I was dogged by a sense of waste - wasted life, wasted education, and wasted opportunities. Vocationally, I felt stuck in a dead-end job. Each day it was hard to get out of bed, and periodically, the bottom would fall out emotionally, and I would find myself weeping for no good reason.
That is why I could resonate with Peterson’s experience. “Some people buy Corvettes,” he wrote. “I tumbled into a depression that lasted a couple of years (107).” To make matters worse, he was a Christian ministering on a public stage as a musician. Each year he leads a Christmas tour called, “Behold the Lamb of God.” He calls it a unique tour, one of the great blessings of his life. It is a tour “about the story of the Bible, told during the Christmas season, with a band of old friends who have come together each winter for twenty straight years (108).”
And yet, during the season of darkness, it was draining and hard. One afternoon it all came to a head. He and his band were in North Carolina preparing for a show. Peterson walked the halls of the church on his way to a sound check. He knew he was in trouble, so he called his wife to ask for prayer. Listen as he tells what happened next:
…as I walked the empty halls of the big church building toward the stage for a sound check. I could hear the echo of the band on stage, all of them goofing around and waiting for me to show up. Every step was more difficult than the last. As I turned to walk through a corridor to the stage, my head screaming with accusing voices, I spotted the open door of a janitor’s closet. Without thinking, I ducked inside and stood in the dark behind the open door … I remember praying, “God, please. Please send me some light. It feels so dark, and I just need some light (108-109).”
Right after he prayed, someone from the church happened by. Seeing a partially open door, they did the natural thing and pressed it shut. And there Peterson stood, a man who prayed to God for some light, was pressed both literally and physically into deeper darkness. “It felt like God was playing some cruel joke. I literally tumbled to the floor and began to sob.”
I wish I had no clue what he was talking about, but I do. I remember days where it seemed like prayers for light were answered by periods of darkness. I can remember many times where I tumbled to the floor and sobbed. You feel like a freak. You feel defeated. The harder you paddle the further you drift. To make matters worse, you are a person of faith. You know God. You are not supposed to be caught in the grips of despair, but there you are. The shame becomes almost unbearable. And even worse than that, you are a Christian Leader. So, you have to mask the pain, which in turn, makes you feel like a fraud. You are a man scared of a day in the janitor’s closet where people find out just how messed up you are, just like it happened to Andrew Peterson and countless others as well.
Over time, with the help of many friends, he got better. So did I. Yet, there was a problem that remained. How was one supposed to make sense out of such a senseless time? How do you explain to yourself what happened when the lights went out? You are driven to know, because you are afraid it might happen again.
For Peterson, that answer came while giving an object lesson to his daughter. They were planting some seeds in the family garden. He writes:
We knelt in the mud as I explained to her what we were doing…I hefted the trowel in my hand, then stabbed it into the earth. I did it again, then again. I tore a furrow into the ground about a foot long, then laid the trowel aside and parted the dirt with my fingers.
“What do we do now, Papa?” Skye asked.
“Now,” I said with a smile, “we plant the seed.” I gingerly took the little thing from the packet, pressed it into the mud, and covered it over. It was like a funeral. It was like that day in the janitor’s closet when I asked God for help and instead of lifting me out, he pushed me deeper. This is how seeds grow (115).
This is how seeds grow. Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).”
In a moment, I understood what happened. In the depths of despair, it felt like God had forsaken me. I wanted to be lifted, he pressed me down deeper. But it was a pressing of love. He was not being mean or forsaking his child, he was helping me grow, preparing me for a deeper, more meaningful life. He was positioning me to be fruitful.
That’s what a master gardener and good Father does. So, I don’t have to fear another season of darkness. If it comes, I am not forsaken. It just means God has another sphere of usefulness he is preparing me for. He is training me to bear much fruit and that fruit will remain.