Something has happened. But who can I tell? Everything in me wanted to ring and ask you to come round. A waste of time, of course. You never came back from Exeter. Stranded in your sister’s house since before the lockdown began. I have no address and no telephone number.
Oh, Mary, I have missed our Wednesday mornings. We always had stories to share about the lessons God was teaching us, and I particularly enjoyed working out the meaning of the pictures that the Holy Spirit gave us for each other. And the coffee and cake, of course. Battenberg at yours, coffee and walnut at mine.
In those two hours God seemed to really exist, didn’t he? I never told you this, Mary, probably because I was embarrassed, but quite often, after you went, it felt as if God had gone home with you and left me on my own. I cried sometimes. How silly. God is everywhere, and he never leaves us. I know that.
During this strange time the phone does ring from time to time, but it has never been you. I know we are supposed to give our whole lives to God to decide what should happen, and I did pray for peace of mind and forgiveness for my lack of trust, but I cannot stop wondering why you never call me. Of course, I hope you have not got this horrible virus, and even if you have stayed well you may have just been too busy to get in touch. Perhaps you had to concentrate hard on looking after your poorly sister during the lockdown. I do understand. She is your priority. You have to decide what is the most important thing and then do it.
The trouble is that since God gave me that very clear picture, the one that finally made us decide to leave our Bible-study group, there really is nobody else to hear my news. What would happen if I went back and presented myself to you-know-who? Imagine me sitting there explaining what has happened and trying like mad not to let the excitement all burst out at once. I could not cope, Mary. The little grown-up smile that makes me feel like a toddler. The way he leans back and pats the air with his hands to make me and my feelings slow down. That sensible, kind voice saying we have to test everything to make sure it really is from God. I forgive him and love him as we are told we must, but I trust and believe that the gift my heavenly Father has provided is too important for me to risk it being spoiled.
No, you are the only one who will understand, Mary, so I am writing this to you, and believing in faith that, despite everything, the Lord will provide a way for my letter to reach you. I want you to read it and write back to say what you think.
This is what happened to me.
Sorry, just one more thing to make clear before I tell you. I have said that I miss you very much, and I do. That is difficult enough, but the loneliness of these past weeks goes so deep that it hurts inside my chest sometimes. Yes, you and I know that Christians have no need to be lonely. God is sufficient for all our needs. But that lovely American preacher on our last DVD did say that sometimes we are given a wilderness season, a generous gift from God that helps our faith to grow strong. I think I might be in one of those. I do my daily prayer and quiet time each morning, and I make sure I take the allowed walk in the afternoon, but the rest of each day in my wilderness season has been longer and more difficult to fill than any other time in my life. You need to know that. But my faith will grow.
This is what happened. One day, in a drawer I had been saving up because it was the only one left to tidy, I found an old pack of playing cards. I took them out to play a game of Patience, or Solitaire, as it is sometimes called. I played it on that little gate-legged table below the front window where we enjoy our coffee and cake on Wednesdays.
You and I are comfortable with confessing our sins to each other, Mary, so I can tell you this. I became totally absorbed, perhaps even a little obsessed, with this game. As you know, Patience follows the same pattern with each separate play but varies in the way it works out because the cards are shuffled before each game, and are in a new, random order. I seldom win, perhaps because I am so strict about only going three times through the remaining pack after laying out the first seven rows.
I filled three days of my wilderness hours with endless games of Patience. After that I began to feel guilty and distanced from God. Late on the third day I knelt in a wretched state at my bedside to confess this growing addiction, and to ask the Lord for his help in overcoming temptation.
The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.
I began my quiet time the following morning in low spirits. As I reluctantly opened my Bible I found myself sinking into a sort of swamp of unhappiness. The very thought of not being allowed to happily sit at my window and lay my cards out after finishing my quiet time and clearing away the breakfast things was almost more than I could bear.
This was the moment when the miracle happened.
The Bible verses accompanying my devotional notes came from the seventh chapter of Ecclesiastes. I could hardly believe my eyes. On this morning of all mornings, verse eight of chapter seven contained these exact words: “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.”
I certainly did not search for those verses. No opening of the Bible at random. Nothing of that sort. The words were simply staring me in the face. I know you will understand the joy they brought. God was there. He was speaking to me. I was not alone. Hallelujah! I could almost hear an actual voice saying, “Janice, you were right to be concerned about your absorption. But the end of this concern will be much better than the beginning. Your pride deceived you into the error of believing I could not be involved in the small things of your life. Let me present myself in your games, and you will witness a mighty work.”
Oh, Mary! I had goosebumps as I sat down to begin my next round of Patience. God would be with me, and I could barely wait to see how his will would be made manifest. I am bad at shuffling, but as I did my best to mix the cards thoroughly I reflected on the fact that their order would no longer be random. It would be ordained by God himself. A thrilling thought. What would he teach me?
Laying the cards out in seven rows, one in the first, and two, three, four, five, six, and seven in each of the others was almost, dare I say, a priestly experience. My hand trembled as I began to turn over the bottom card on each of the seven rows. I clearly recall the first six to be revealed. There was a seven of spades, a nine of diamonds, a four of diamonds, a two of hearts, a three of spades and a five of clubs. It was, for me, a hug of affirmation from God. Even before I turned the seventh card I knew with delicious anticipation that there were, at the very least, three moves possible before needing to take extra cards from the rest of the pack.
Then I turned the seventh card. I stared, unable to believe what lay before me. Then, as I grasped the truth, my heart seemed to drop in my body like a stone.
Mary, that final card was a joker. A joker! I had forgotten to remove the jokers before shuffling my cards. I could see in human terms how that could happen, but what of the spiritual meaning? Where was God in this? Why had he given such clear guidance through scripture? If he truly was in charge, surely he would not have allowed me to make such a foolish mistake.
I held the card aloft, closed my eyes, and prayed for wisdom and insight.
Moments passed. When the revelation came it was like a light being switched on, or bells suddenly ringing, or a letter from a friend dropping onto the mat beneath the front door. A joker. Of course! Mary, God was the joker. I had forgotten that our God has a sense of humor. You and I often say that, don’t we? He delights to laugh with his children. That joker card, allowed by him to be placed in the very center of my game was a reminder that he laughs and smiles with me, even at the most unexpected moments.
God was the joker. I had forgotten that our God has a sense of humor.
With a grateful heart I collected my cards together, carefully removed the jokers, shuffled the pack as well as I was able, and laid my seven rows out once more.
Mary, we have always tried to tell each other the truth. I am determined to do that now. The truth is, I really thought God might let me win that next game of Patience, I suppose as a sort of reward or little present after teaching me the lesson about the joker. I wanted him to be kind to me. I wanted to be special. Yes, I know that sounds silly. I can’t help it. It just felt such a right and happy thing to happen.
At first I thought he was going to let me win. Some of that next game was like a dream where things make sense at last and you know you are heading for the place where you belong. It was amazing.
One after another, the four aces emerged from the extra pack, or came into view as I turned a new card in one of the rows. I was so uplifted, Mary. Red tens on black Jacks. Black nines on red tens. Sevens on eights. Twos on threes. Jacks on queens. God and me and the cards moving together in a perfect, swift, joyous way that made success seemed inevitable.
It was not to be.
A king appeared like a horrid full stop – the last thing I wanted to see. It ended my game.
And yet, as you will have guessed, it was another, and even more important lesson to be learned. The presence of the King of heaven will always be the most important thing in our lives. Human ideas of success are as nothing compared to that wonderful truth.
With God nothing is random. That has to be true, doesn’t it?
So, there you are. That was my exciting thing, and of course I am truly grateful for every bit of his affirmation and teaching. As long as the Lord controls the cards that are dealt into our lives we know that we can never lose in the most important sense. With God nothing is random. That has to be true, doesn’t it?
Oh, but Mary, I did so enjoy the middle part of that game. A real – whoosh! It was like flying. And at least, in the end, it was the king of hearts.
I hope you will ring. I hope you get back from Exeter one day. I only ever have coffee and walnut cake when you come. I so look forward to giving you a hug.
With much love from your locked down friend,
PS I meant to say, in the course of that game the Lord marvelously healed my obsession with Patience. I hardly play at all now.