FINDING THE HIGH PLACES
By NANCY PATRICK
As a young mother with a thirteen-month-old baby boy, I lived in northern Illinois with my pastor-husband and our infant son. Other than the first five years of my life spent in my birthplace of Arkansas, I had never lived outside Texas, my adopted home state. Adjusting to my role as a new mother, a first-time pastor’s wife, and a resident of a state far away from my family and support system proved extremely difficult.
I cannot begin to explain the emotional struggles I faced during our years in Illinois, but I suffered from major depression related to simultaneous multiple stressors. Probably the most intense stressor related to our son’s early health issues. In spite of all my precautionary measures (proper diet, exercise, education, nursing to provide natural immunities), I could not protect our child from every germ that passed through our community, so we spent a lot of time in the doctor’s office.
At thirteen months, our son Jason, became extremely ill with an intestinal condition that landed him in the hospital with high fever, diarrhea, and dehydration. I have never experienced such fear and sorrow as I did in that pediatric hospital unit. Seeing rooms full of sick babies, many sicker than my child, filled me with dread and apprehension.
As I sat with Jason in my lap, his IV board propped against my arm, I wept in exhaustion and doubt. As I heard someone enter the room, I looked up to see another young mother whose baby girl, the surviving twin of the son this mother had just lost, lay extremely ill in the room next door. The young woman came over to me, put her arm around me, and handed me a copy of a book that had helped her get through those difficult days.
I looked at the book, realizing I had never heard of it—Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard—and thanked my visitor. I soon began the painful journey through the allegorical book that would become an important part of the rest of my life and a teaching instrument for the spiritual journey I still travel.
Hinds’ Feet alludes to Habakkuk 3:19: “The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.” I admit that at the age of twenty-six, I knew little about spirituality. My background had taught me much about evangelism and fundamental biblical teachings but not about spiritual growth; rather, I learned rules of behavior and religious principles that stressed good behavior to please God and receive rewards while avoiding bad behavior that would reap punishment.
As I read Hinds’ Feet, I began discovering a Good Shepherd who loved me and wanted to empower me to live a life free of fear and judgment. For this to happen, I had to follow Him without a map or GPS regardless of where the path led. In the allegory, Much-Afraid, the main character, walks through hazardous paths that cause doubt and fear. When she calls out to the Shepherd to help her, he gives her two companions to aid her in her journey. Imagine her surprise and dread when she meets them—Sorrow and Suffering.
Those names scared me because they foreshadowed a spiritual life much more difficult than my previous one of following rules with expected outcomes. I follow the main character (Much-Afraid) as she traverses the deserts and mountains, encounters temptations, disappointments, disillusionments, doubts, and absolute terror. Following the Shepherd to the high places means that she must surrender her own agenda (her very life) to that of the Shepherd.
By the book’s conclusion, Much-Afraid has learned the lesson of brokenness, a lesson for which no one yearns. I began opening my heart to the book’s message in my own life. For a person who likes to control things, I found the challenge difficult if not impossible. I discovered that yielding the first time did not mean I had achieved brokenness. Throughout the next forty-five years of my life, I practiced yielding over and over. Just as broken bones mend, so do broken but stubborn wills.
As life became harder, I had to learn repeatedly that seeing the high places in the distance does not mean the path leads directly there. I can’t count the number of times I wandered in the wilderness and pleaded with the Shepherd to lead me out. He never failed me though he often surprised me with unexpected paths. One of the hardest lessons in my brokenness required that I forfeit my “right” to know all the answers to life’s questions.
Several months ago, I quoted Alfred, Lord Tennyson in an essay I wrote for Spirit. Tennyson wrote in “In Memoriam” that in spite of human intelligence and best intentions, we cannot know nor do we need to know God’s mind. God’s mind in its infinite wisdom and power sufficiently sustains us. That belief defines my faith.
Just about everyone I know has encountered some of the doubt, disappointment, and grief faced by Much-Afraid in Hinds’ Feet:
- Career malfunctions
- Marriage breakups
- Custody fights
- Financial reverses
- Sexual identity issues
- Physical/emotional health conditions
- Family dysfunction
- Spiritual crises
I recently heard the testimony of a man who had to leave his chosen career because of institutional changes. Too young to draw senior benefits yet too old to establish a new career, he shared the depth of his grief at losing his position. His grief, however, related to much more than his job; he felt betrayed and uncertain about his future.
He shared a nugget of wisdom he has learned from his experience: when people ask him about his plans, his goals, his feelings, or his understanding about why God has let this happen, he replies, “I don’t know.” Such a simple statement—“I don’t know.” Such a profound truth—“I don’t know.” And the spiritual maturity implied in that statement speaks volumes—“I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter because God knows.”
As I struggled with all my personal problems as a young woman, mother, and pastor’s wife, I found a strength previously unknown to me when God gave me a great gift—the faith to accept that I do not know the answers to life’s questions. A new peace comes when we let go of all the theories about heaven, hell, salvation, works, grace, repentance, . . . (and on it goes). With God as my Shepherd, whether I walk in the high places or the valley of humiliation, I walk in his peace.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing