A Year of Fear & Formation
“We also celebrate in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint….” (Rom. 5:3-5)
I was outside constructing a duck pen when my wife, Abigail, told me she was pregnant with our fifth child. I said the right things in response, but after she left, fear welled up inside me. It was mostly fear about money—children do not come particularly cheap after all—and I was sure my business would make less profit than the prior year, that being the established pattern. There were other fears, too: there was fear about our growing responsibility to our children, fear about not having enough time, and fear of social judgment for having so many kids.
As I sat down and ruminated on this fear, the words of Isaiah 41:10 came to me:
“So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
There it was, the most common admonition in the Bible, God whispering to my soul, “Do not fear.”
In the moment, I thought only of myself and my myopic, self-absorbed perspective. In a short time, however, the significance of those words repeated to me on January 1, 2020, would take on a far wider scope than I could have imagined, echoing throughout the year to come, “Do not fear. Do not fear. Do not fear.”
“The significance of those words repeated to me on January 1, 2020, would take on a far wider scope than I could have imagined.”
There was another sign cautioning me that a storm was coming. For the previous five years, I had worked as a self-employed automotive detailer, and weather had been one of the persistent nuisances of my job, few things being worse than setting up for work only to face a sudden deluge. Then three and a half years into the job, a strange thing happened: I stopped getting rained on.
At first, this was simply a curiosity. Time after time, I would arrive at my job site in the rain, only for the rain to abate, or I would work under cloud cover while the rain held off until I finished. If the rain did come, I was under shelter and able to continue, or working on a vehicle where I could simply climb inside and shut the door. At first, I thought nothing of this. It was convenient and financially beneficial certainly, but nothing more. Still this strange weather proofing persisted.
I used to check the weather almost religiously, trying to time my jobs accordingly, yet as this strange pattern prevailed for weeks and then months and then for more than a year, I began to ignore the forecast entirely. It didn’t matter if I drove to work in a downpour, there would be no rain when I arrived at my job or there would be some way for me to complete the work, without fail.
As this pattern persisted day after day, I began to suspect and then became certain that there was a spiritual element to all of this. I couldn’t understand why—rain seems so trivial a matter for the God of the universe, though that triviality has never stopped Him before. Still, I recognized that there was something strange here and concluded that when this spiritual umbrella closed, it would be some sort of sign.
At the start of 2020, the rain came. After a year and a half of ease, the soggy, wet contrast was jarring. Something had changed, or was coming. Though I had no idea what this meant, I could not deny the premonition.
“After a year and a half of ease, the soggy, wet contrast was jarring. Something had changed, or was coming.”
Around this narrative of fear and money and rain, the global backdrop of Covid-19 was metastasizing. Concern about Covid in the United States festered in January as Wuhan, China, went into quarantine, swelled in February as the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency, and burst in March when the W.H.O. declared Covid-19 a pandemic. In short order, the U.S. President declared Covid-19 a national emergency, states issued “Stay at Home” orders, and businesses shut down.
The tension in grocery stores was palpable as people donned masks and shrank from human proximity. Our church went remote, as did our community. My business, which was inextricably linked to rental cars and hence our local tourist industry, slowed to a trickle.
In this growing tension, that admonition came again, reiterated in the words of promise God spoke to Abram in Genesis 15:1,
“Do not fear, Abram.
I am a shield to you…”
Here it was again, this charge, “Do not fear,” along with a promise: “I am your shield.” Yet even as I grasped this promise, my pregnant wife began to bleed and days later the doctor announced that the new member of our family growing inside her had died.
My wife and I had to decide whether she should wait and try to finish miscarrying naturally or her doctor should perform a D&C, in hopes of decreasing the risk of infection and accelerating recovery. We opted for the D&C, but with the fear over Covid, my wife had to go into an almost empty hospital alone, to have the body of our little human removed from inside her, while I was left with our children. While the bleeding happened over several days, the revelation of miscarriage and surgery were sudden; both happened all in one day.
“With the fear over Covid, my wife had to go into an almost empty hospital alone, to have the body of our little human removed from inside her.”
Even as I watched my wife’s grief, unsure what to do or say to help, I rushed to get past the moment, to put my head down and power through, knowing that in this pandemic time we just needed to survive, that whatever emotions I felt or didn’t feel needed to be locked away somewhere while physical needs like work and income took preeminence.
I discarded grief and began filing for unemployment. Rather, I should say I tried—again and again and again. The state unemployment office was so overwhelmed that I was unable to log in for weeks. Eventually, I was able to log in and retroactively file for the prior dates; I would file for a total of ten weeks. However, I would receive no response, despite innumerable phone calls.
In the midst of the unknown, my wife and I decided to develop our urban farm. After dabbling with chickens and ducks for a couple years, it made sense to further diversify our revenue streams, especially since I appeared to be mostly jobless for an indefinite period of time. About a week after my wife’s miscarriage, we got our first order of chicks and started incubating our own duck eggs.
In the midst of 2020, the homestead was a reprieve. Our order of chicks was a so-called “surprise” package, meaning it included a wide assortment of breeds, and part of the fun was to learn to identify the breed of each chick. This was a way for me to get a crash course in chicken breeds, and I spent hours each evening obsessively poring over pictures of chicks and chickens trying to discern what breeds of chickens we received. I told my wife, “At least the homestead is a respite.”
“It made sense to further diversify our revenue streams, especially since I appeared to be mostly jobless for an indefinite period of time.”
Then a major hurricane storm blew inland. As I went to bed that night, I was worried about what we would do if the power went out. We did not have a generator, our chicks needed a heat lamp, and our incubators were full. At two in the morning, a text notification from our electric company woke me: our power was out.
I threw blankets over our incubators to try to retain what heat I could and bundled up before walking to our chicken coop in the midst of the pouring gale, where I caught all 40 chicks and put them in a tub inside our house, along with several glass jars filled with water heated on our camping propane burner. For the rest of the night, I replaced the jars as the water cooled, while the weather raged.
In the morning, we had five trees down on our power lines, though no damage to the house. One friend came and took our incubators to plug in at their house and another brought a generator, which we ran for the next three days until power was restored. Most of our birds survived, but it was like an assault to the one area where we were thriving.
“It was like an assault to the one area where we were thriving.”
Meanwhile, my wife’s miscarriage wasn’t resolving. The lab work following her surgery revealed that she had retained placenta tissue. That tissue could go septic with potentially fatal results, and she might need a second operation. Consequently, my wife had to go in for weekly sonograms to check the amount of retained tissue. Each week, she drove to the doctor’s office where medical staff would inspect her vacant womb and judge whether the risk had abated, effectively extending the miscarriage process week after week after week, for six weeks total.
In many ways, this pregnancy had separated my wife and me. We had conceived this child deliberately and with faith that growing our family would honor God, but even during the pregnancy I had been divorced from it by medical Covid precaution. I never attended a checkup or witnessed a sonogram, could not accompany my wife to the doctor when she was bleeding and discovered there was no heartbeat, was barred entrance to the hospital for the D&C, and couldn’t accompany my wife to the doctor as they fretted over her stalled recovery. My wife grieved the child she carried. I essentially missed the pregnancy entirely and could not grieve.
“My wife grieved the child she carried. I essentially missed the pregnancy entirely and could not grieve.”
At the same time, the government had promised stimulus checks, but our check was missing. For some reason I could not log in to the government website that would enable me to add a bank account or check the date of issue—this was now the second government website I could not effectively utilize.
Finally, I realized that there was a clerical error made by our accountant four years ago in our tax filing, and that a couple numbers in our address were transposed, which meant the government had our address wrong. Once I realized this, I was able to sign in to the government website only to learn that our check would be mailed to the wrong address and I had to contact the Post Office and hope they would intercept our stimulus check.
At this point, our stimulus check was an unknown, I had almost no business, half the invoices I had mailed to my customers were overdue, and I had heard nothing from the unemployment office. There was no end or resolution in sight, and our bank account steadily drained.
Finally, on May 19, the Post Office intercepted our stimulus check, which affectively gave us two additional months of financial runway. However, I still would not hear anything from the unemployment office until June 29, at which point they denied my claims to unemployment without explanation.
“I realized that there was a clerical error made by our accountant four years ago in our tax filing.”
Over the next month, I would appeal my claims and have fruitless conversation after fruitless conversation with state employees who clearly had no idea what they were doing. Each call, I had to start over again with a new employee, until finally I discovered that my unemployment was denied because my tax records for the prior year were misfiled and I was recorded as not making any income in 2019. To the best of my understanding, when the state website was updated in order to handle the drastic spike in unemployment applications, my prior tax records were somehow misplaced and my claim was denied.
Somewhere in all of this, I started hearing a voice in my head, a voice suggesting that I should kill myself. The words came over and over again—in the silence between actions, in the lulls between chores and work—repetitive and incessant, like an echo, resounding through days and weeks and months that dragged on into the unknown: “Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself.”
I knew the voice wasn’t me, and I knew I wouldn’t comply. In the midst of the chaos and shock of 2020, I accepted that this was simply going to be a part of this phase of life, this dark encouragement counterbalanced against the divine admonition, “Do not fear.”
As I watched my wife grieve her miscarriage, I knew I couldn’t comprehend her grief and I knew I couldn’t add to it. I had been separated from the pregnancy already before the miscarriage. I was separated from the loss, and I was separated from my wife. I also knew that her grief was so overwhelming that I couldn’t add to it by sharing about this voice urging my destruction, recognizing that this would be one grief too many for her to bear. I kept silent.
“I knew the voice wasn’t me, and I knew I wouldn’t comply.”
When it performs its duties, the Church has traditionally been the place where such destructive voices are exorcised. Our church doors, however, were shut now, and there was no one to gaze beneath the mask. I should have called for help, but in the shock of wave after wave, I stayed quiet. I faced my demons alone. Separated even from our church body by government regulations and compliant leadership, I told no one as the voice echoed into a bleak future: “Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself.”
Needless to say, I wasn’t a model of tranquility in the midst of 2020. As the storm endured, I became increasingly angry, anger being perhaps a more comfortable mask for the fear lying underneath. With everything welling up inside of me, I was afraid that my emotions would get displaced onto my wife or children. This tension built to the point that I began to have impromptu rage-filled prayer sessions when I stormed out of the house and paced the back yard, snarling under my breath. I can only imagine that I resembled the Gerasene demoniac, pacing and raging, the trees in our backyard standing in for tombs. At other times, I would shut myself in my car and yell.
I’ve long been of the opinion that profanity is a symptom of derisory linguistic capabilities. Still, God has long heard me curse in my prayers, though I was always careful not to swear at anyone, especially God. That changed in 2020 when the dam broke in my prayer life and I cursed God, at the worst even taking His name in vain—using God’s very name in attempt to demean Him.
“I can only imagine that I resembled the Gerasene demoniac, pacing and raging, the trees in our backyard standing in for tombs.”
These were long, angry, bitter prayers—prayers unbridled and unbecoming, both vicious and vindictive. They spilled into daylight and darkness, springing from deep bitterness and growing ever more irreverent. These profane prayers gradually built to a crescendo and finally God answered, not audibly, but in the quiet of my soul after the emotions had raged.
His response was nuanced and gentle. At the time my firstborn son was having these full-on tantrums where he lost all control of himself. After my last tirade, it was as if God whispered to me, “You’re acting like your child.” That was all He had to say.
Hebrews 4:12 describes the word of God saying, “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” With just a few words, God sliced cleanly through my emotions and I understood that I need to remember whom I was addressing with such little reverence.
It was as if God had abbreviated His entire speech to Job into a few words that I could register instantaneously. This is the essence of the book of Job: when we are overwhelmed by our suffering, we can grieve and reason and even rage as we try to comprehend the reason why, but we must trust the Creator who knows all and has the perspective we lack. Through those few words—“You’re acting like your child”—I was awed by God’s gentleness, a gentleness that I in no way deserved.
“After my last tirade, it was as if God whispered to me, ‘You’re acting like your child.’ That was all He had to say.”
God is a God of judgment, but He is also more. He swallowed Korah and his followers with an earthquake, crippled Egypt with plagues, and destroyed the earth with a flood. However, He is also the same God who pardoned David of adultery and murder, welcomed a harlot into the Messianic line, and fed an exhausted Elijah breakfast, twice. The paradox of justice and mercy makes God’s tenderness for those who repent all the more compelling. I did not deserve a whispered rebuke, and yet that is what I received. My anger evaporated as the sun pierced through the storm, and I was left simply chastened.
Toward the end of The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis writes, “When things go wrong, you’ll find they usually go on getting worse for some time; but when things once start going right they often go on getting better and better” (169). This was the case for me in 2020.
About a week after my humbling, on August 17, I received five weeks of unemployment, for missed work in April and May. It was not a lot of money, but from this general point our finances stabilized. In September and October, I would have strong business months again.
The storm wasn’t abated in entirety, but life began to improve and with it my perspective. I can’t place the moment, but the voice in my head urging my destruction went quiet.
Over time, I came to recognize God’s provision, even within a period of trial. For instance, Abigail, my wife, was offered the chance to teach summer classes for the online homeschool she works for, which enabled her to pick up some of the financial burden my work woes created. Likewise, someone asked me to sell their car for them and keep the profit beyond a certain amount, which ended up bringing in a few thousand dollars in probably the most financially efficient task of my life.
“The storm wasn’t abated in entirety, but life began to improve and with it my perspective.”
Toward the end of the year, I would copy Hebrews 12:5b-11 in my journal, sensing that it was God’s answer as to why 2020 was permitted to be so difficult for me and my family:
“’My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him;
For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines,
And He scourges every son whom He receives.’
It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
“He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.”
At the start of 2022, I felt this impression, through books, sermons, and other circumstances, that God wanted me to reflect and write about 2020. I was indisposed. I would start and struggle, perhaps make a little progress, and then stall out. It was a bit like performing minor surgery on myself, opening old wounds and bleeding the puss out.
In addition to all the emotion, there was the simple fact that I was out of writing practice. In many ways, I was at the peak of my writing prowess at the start of 2020. I was creating quality content at a rapid rate and even wrote extensively about the book of Job, knowing that I would need this close analysis of Job—a book that has long been a favorite of mine—going into what I realized would be a season of suffering. However, once I got into that season, I shelved my writing dream for the second time in my life, because I pragmatically knew my full energy needed to center around providing for my family’s financial needs.
Consequently, when I began writing in 2022, I was not only writing about a deeply uncomfortable and intimate topic, I was also completely out of habit. The pump was not primed, I had sand in all my pipes, and what finally, reluctantly came bubbling forth was this miasma of mangled meter, entirely unflattering. It was if I had gone into labor, but all I brought forth was this mound of afterbirth with no baby. I was searching through the blood and placenta and feces trying to find the reason for joy.
“In many ways, I was at the peak of my writing prowess at the start of 2020. I was creating quality content at a rapid rate and even wrote extensively about the book of Job, knowing that I would need this close analysis of Job.”
It was such an arduous process that I would set the writing aside for weeks or months, reticent to return and reengage. Yet that persistent reminder to write would return, goading me to continue. Then I would proceed to labor and search in the afterbirth.
One thing became clear to me: 2020 was not as neatly wrapped up in my mind as I had told myself. The pain and tears that came through writing made that all too apparent. I realized I had been covering for God. I was trying to reason away the suffering and make a defense for Him. Only God doesn’t need my defense. He is perfectly capable of explaining Himself.
In May of 2020, I had sent my wife and our children to visit her family in Texas and Nebraska because she desperately needed the distraction. While they were gone, I spent a day fasting. I took my fishing rod and went to a nearby river. The river was high, the water fast, and the trout fishing perfect, but God was silent. I ended up so frustrated that I went home and broke my fast early.
Almost three years later, I came back to the same river to pray, and this time the storm waters had abated and the riverbed was visible. It wasn’t trout season and I hadn’t brought my fishing pole, but I was still intrigued by studying the river because knowing the riverbed is a critical advantage in trout fishing as it teaches the water depth and current patterns, revealing where the trout lie. I was filled with this childish delight as I followed the riverbed learning how past precipitation had formed the river.
“I was filled with this childish delight as I followed the riverbed learning how past precipitation had formed the river.”
I was struck by this river as metaphor. When I was there in 2020 the water was deep and pushing its bounds, as the very land was being shaped through rain and flood. In 2023 though, the turbulent waters had subsided and I could see clearly what storms had accomplished: the channel cut deep, sediment ripped away, and flaws worn smooth.
For more from Luke, visit his website https://postjadedmk.com.