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Steady Til Sunset

By November 18, 2015 2 Comments

The intermittent chirping woke me up a little after 5 a.m.

At first, the timing of the “cheeps” was spaced far enough apart that I could never get a good handle on which room exactly the noise was coming from, even as I wandered around in the dark trying to figure it out.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t at home but visiting an out-of-town friend.

With nothing obviously on fire, I pretty quickly realized that the warning beeps were the batteries in the smoke detector bidding adieu. I kept searching—but in vain.

Turns out, even if I had found the offending device, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it anyway. It seems there was a code that had to be entered that I had no way of knowing.

Of course, I could have just gone and woken up my friend, sleeping on the upper floor at the opposite end of the house. But I didn’t want to.  I figured if she couldn’t hear it, there was no reason for both of us to lose sleep.

And as I lay back down, it occurred to me that the still-beeping alarm was a metaphor. (Not a perfect one, I realize, but it was 5 a.m. and I’m an English professor, so I tend to think lots of things are probably metaphors.  Work with me).

I thought about the hard seasons in which so many people I know (myself included) find themselves. (I commend to you Debra’s blog from Saturday that poignantly explored part of this territory). And I wrestled again with how we help each other through.  We know that something is wrong (there’s an alarm going off, after all).  Maybe it’s a big something (the house is burning down) or maybe small (the batteries need changing), but whatever it is, we clearly hear the need for help. Yet it’s not our house, and so we can’t fix it—even if we want to.

It made me think, too, about who might serve as models. About Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Arguably the strongest character throughout the trilogy, he repeatedly wants to ease Frodo’s burden and carry the ring for him.  But Frodo always refuses.  Finally, as they make their final ascent to destroy the ring, Sam understands: he can’t carry the ring, but he can carry Frodo and in so doing bear his burden, too.

Or maybe there’s a paradigm to be had in Exodus 17. Here, Moses must keep his arms raised to ensure victory over the Amalekites, but as his arms grow tired and he lowers them, the tide of the battle shifts. Though no one else can take Moses’ place doing this hard work, Aaron and Hur hold Moses’ hands “steady til sunset” (NIV), and in so doing give him the strength to get through.

Presence and support often seem very weak indeed, especially to a Martha like I am. I want to fix it and fix it now.  I want to fight the battles and protect those I love from difficulty and despair, guilt and grief.  So what do we do? Besides the important step of acknowledging our inability to take away whatever is causing the alarm, we can decide to be present even while the alarm is sounding. To not let the alarm scare us or cause us to run away.

Even if that means losing some sleep in the process or being discomfited by the sound of the distress.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


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