Last weekend I was in Indiana for the American Legion Oratorical Competition. The bare facts are these: I wrote my speech the week before the state competition. It was not memorized for the state competition so I gave it largely ad lib. I was the only one to show up to the state competition, so I qualified to the national competition despite my embarrassing performance. I wrote my four assigned topics a week before the national competition. At the time of our check-in Friday afternoon, my prepared oration was memorized only in the most fragile sense and my assigned topics were not even sketchily memorized. I stayed up late Friday night and woke up early Saturday morning, struggling to memorize my prepared oration cold. I was stressed out.
And then the competition started. By some stroke of grace, I drew last in the panel. I sat in the holding room reciting my speech to myself over and over and over again. While the speech did not go as smoothly as it might have if I were actually prepared, it went just a'ight. I was almost looking forward to the assigned topic: though my speeches for those were entirely unmemorized, I felt decidedly more comfortable giving them impromptu-style than struggling to recall a script without flubbing. That is, until anxiety took over and I realized I couldn't remember most of the content I had planned. My mind was struggling even to remember what the text of the Fifth Amendment was. [You guys, grand juries are culturally irrelevant, I'm not even kidding.]
Once in the prep room, another stroke of grace was awarded me: they had drawn my favorite topic, Article 5, the sole assigned topic I had partially memorized, could easily articulate, and had just practiced in the holding room. Like a flood the content came back to me, and I shocked the proctor by being the only contestant to scratch out my entire outline on the paper provided. I entered the contest room with confidence, gave a speech I was proud of, did not go overtime, and left the room crumpling inside of myself with relief. I performed leagues better than I did last year, but more than being satisfied that I had done my best, I was nearly sick with gratitude that it was all over. As expected I did not advance, and I was satisfied both that God loved me and that there was a measure of justice in this world. Once back at the hotel room, my mom read me this:
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
I was in pain. Oh, I was. I couldn't control my tears Friday night, anxiety ate away in me every mile closer to Indianapolis. I woke up Saturday morning with a stress settled in the lines on my forehead, and as I attempted to accept the compliments on my performance I felt crushed even by the suggestion I had the potential to advance. Through all this I could do nothing but try to endure it, because I had brought this misery upon myself. And, when my mom read this Scripture to me, she impressed upon me the importance of not getting drunk on relief and forgetting the lesson the pain was supposed to teach. That He promises to produce righteousness and peace in those who are trained by the pain of discipline. But only in those who are trained. "Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 'Make level paths for your feet,' so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed."
In one sense, I don't entirely understand how God's discipline works. I wonder if I'm taking this passage out of context, mistaking the consequences of my own sin for the instruction of God. But at the same time, I can only praise Him for cutting at my conscience -- is it not a wonder that I even cared that I was ill-prepared? Is it not God's mercy that I regretted my negligence and desired to do my best? A small part of me wished for a sudden sickness, a fire alarm, a plane crash -- anything to remove me from the competition. But somehow I took my medicine like a big girl, reciting words until they buzzed back in my ears. When I was punished two weeks ago, I guess grounded in essence, I loved it. These have been wonderful times, straining under the weight of my mallet but gleefully watching my laziness be crushed. Kind of like the gym. I can't stand another ten minutes on the elliptical, oh, but I love it. Yes, it's a kind of sick self-help masquerading as masochism. Except not like that at all.
But oh, it's hard, and intentional, and painful! It requires resolve and mine is shoddy. It requires attentiveness and mine is always slipping. I am so weak! But I am thankful! for a God who disciplines me. Who has not given up on me. Who will stop at nothing to get my attention. Who is my very strength.
And yet even this morsel of understanding is incomplete, tinged with the bitter smell of what I still do not understand. Oh, friends, when did it happen? When did I lose all the most important pieces of myself? "Who are you that tells me I'm just a trace of the person I once was, I just can't tell if you're telling the truth or a lie, but still I control this nightmare, when I call it answers, but I can't tell it when to come and when to stay." I was too tired, and this is what I became. All that comes from waiting. Logic is the flimsiest thing I have ever leaned on.
And so, I end this Ebenezer with a little melancholy and a few questions, but also with a permeating hope. "May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it."
Listening to: "Prove Me Wrong", "Piece of Glass" and "Hold the Light" by Caedmon's Call