Our daughter sighed in a dreamy voice, “I want this vacation to last forever.”
Those were strong words, considering how unlike the typical Disney-Mecca Pilgrimage our vacation had been. Her favorite entertainment had been tossing around a watermelon in a pond, sleeping on friends’ floors, and stopping at a playground with a bucket of store-bought ice cream. An unimpressive vacation, though, is exactly the kind of the place where hope surprises us like a water balloon to the forehead.
Along that vacation’s 2,000 miles of driving we listened to a lot of CDs. Midway through a CD of folk songs from the library, while everyone sang along, we charged into these words:
“In this bog there was a hole, a rare hole, a rattlin’ hole. A hole in the bog and the bog down in the valley, oh.” (By Nerissa and Katryna Nield. Please enjoy it here!)
Every verse of the song added something to that hole. First a tree in the hole, then a limb on the tree. A branch, twig, nest, a bird, an egg. And in the egg…
Here it grew quiet. My kids said they had sung this song in music class like this: “And on the egg there was a germ.” How disappointing. Would we sail through all this suspense to find nothing more in the bog than a tiny seed of illness?
The version on our CD continued, and instead of a germ came this brilliant masterpiece of a lyric by some forgotten old-time folksong writer: “And in this egg there was some hope. A rare hope, a rattlin’ hope.”
In that moment, I could feel hope bursting right through its eggshells.
Mountaintops and Valleys
Hope hadn’t always been what I expected to find in holes in bogs. Many of us trudge through bogs expecting nothing but mud and germs. We expect to find God on mountaintops, but the valleys we treat as in-between misery to trudge through to the next mountaintop.
For years, God handed me one spectacular mountaintop view after another, both figuratively and literally. I graduated valedictorian of my high school class. Well aware that this was a high point of my life, I delivered a graduation speech about clinging to the excitement of mountaintop days like graduation. Six years later I found myself graduated from college, married to a fabulous man, and standing on a literal mountaintop in Nicaragua that would be our home for a year. Later we lived amidst mountain vistas in Northwest China and South Africa, and the years were filled with mountaintop experiences: seeing Chinese students come to faith, getting a first book published, finishing our graduate degrees, and having two kids.
Sure, there were valleys between those, but most were shallow, and the path onward to the mountains lay within sight. My husband suffered from giardia, malaria, and a sense of worthlessness in Nicaragua, but we still had the joy of seeing fruit of our hard labor. We saw projects fail in South Africa, but there were always new projects and experiences to charge ahead into.
It wasn’t until the year we moved back to the United States for the foreseeable future, back to the land of the mundane where I had no job and no plan for the rest of my life, that I sunk into the deepest hole in the darkest bog and widest valley I’d ever crossed.
A close friend was going through a divorce, and everyone else seemed too busy to talk. Our kids’ friends had four-bedroom homes with jungle gyms in their basements, and we had a tiny two-bedroom apartment with no video games or hundred-dollar dolls, and our kids were soon made well aware of their inferiority in kid-cool-measures. The world I could see looked lonely, harsh, and wrong.
In those days I came upon Lamentations 3:19-33. I shared it with my newly divorced friend and clung to it like a life raft in the Pacific.
If ever there was a bog, Jeremiah was in it when he wrote Lamentations. At Israel’s defeat he watched thousands killed, mothers eat their own babies, his people taken into exile, and God’s holy temple destroyed. Despite his warnings these people have turned their backs on God. His life appears to have been lived in vain.
Then, smack in the middle of the book, Jeremiah rolls out some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible. The whole book is in a traditional form carefully crafted with the heart of the poem, the nugget of purpose, set in the center. He cries out
My soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord. …
For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.
There’s no bog so deep that those words can’t speak into it a rattlin’ hope. Back in those days of feeling my soul “downcast within me,” I decided to take God at his word—if his compassions were new every morning, I would count them every day.
Thirteen years earlier, my husband and I had started a similar list we called “Amazing Days.” There we’d tracked crazy experiences—inviting over truant teenagers, hosting an all fried food dinner, and eating deer brain soup in Nicaragua. Now I unpacked our old list with a new angle: counting compassions. Compassions didn’t have to be incredible. They didn’t have anything to do with mountaintops. If Jeremiah could say after the defeat of Israel, “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,” I could count on his unfailing compassions where I was, too.
In the car on a shoestring vacation with my family singing of the Rattlin’ Bog, I could look back and see how hope planted in my bog year had gestated and grown. My husband had a job he loved, I had started an exciting PhD program, we were settling into ministry and friendships where God’s work around us shone plainly.
Nobody makes it through life without a few boggy valleys, but valleys are exactly where God loves to plant hope. And hope, the rare rattlin’ hope, hatches in its timing.
I wrote this article for a magazine over a year ago. The magazine closed down as I was writing it, and I forgot about. I’m glad I found it and was able to share it with you here!