The Eaten Years

O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.  The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.  I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Joel 2:23-28,  excerpt from Joel 2:23-32, lectionary text for Sunday October 27, 2019

I’ve been spending the week in this text, yet only now, as I open my computer and paste the biblical passage into a file in order to write electronically some of what I’ve already written in my journal, do I realize I’d mis-read, or mis-remembered, the line that has rung in my head these past days.

‘I will repay you for the years consumed,’ was the line I had recalled.  

A literal consumption within the book of Joel, of course:  the crops all eaten by a plague of locusts (1:4), the destruction and ensuing famine lamented in detail in the verses that follow.  I was going to mention the locusts, of course, duty-bound to make plain the book-context of the particular line.  But here, they already are.  The hopper, the destroyer, the cutter, eating the years.  It was the eating that had hooked my mind, the image of years consumed — the implication of years wasted, with no growth to show for the time.  

The text — the mis-remembered line — is in my mind as Paul and I go to the boat.  Clouds hang low, but rain isn’t due in till later.  We will try.  Pack the lunch, make the drive, stow the bags aboard.  Paul starts the outboard as I stand ready to cast off the bow lines.  Is that a tiny drop of water on my neck? I wonder as Paul straightens and says in disgust, ‘Is it raining?…’. We stare at the water.  It is dotted with circular ripples.  Rain. We’re still for a moment.  Frustrated.  Why do we even try?  Do we just go home?  The drops are tiny, the fall light.  Don’t read them as the day’s refusal of our plans.  Pull on windbreakers, cast off lines, and enter upon the water.  The sky is overcast and the light dull, but the water gleams — a strange silvery shining.  Hoist the mainsail, pull out the jib, set a course.  The breeze is steady and out of the northeast so we sail straight down the river and out its mouth into the Bay.  Out past the fish trap, far enough out to see Thomas Point Light, and across to Bloody Point, and both ends of the Bay Bridge.  This isn’t productive time, I think, but it is not a waste.  It is a grounding.  A re-grounding of self and soul.  Water and wind and the light glinting so wonderfully weird.

We have to tack back when it is time.  Criss-crossing the wind in wide angles in order to return from whence we came.  The breeze is slighter when we regain our own river.  The pace of our passage slows.  The wind is shaped by the land, flows in odd currents.  We tack across to make a mark, and even as we do, the wind direction shifts, so that we find ourselves sailing back downriver, losing the distance we had gained.  A short loss, really, lasting only the necessary angle till we could tack back again, resume our progress towards the goal of home.

But the text still in my head.  Time consumed, eaten, wasted.  That stretch sailing backwards not waste really, but adjustment in response to circumstance — the wind shifting even as we were shifting course.  But there was the surprise and slight dismay of finding ourselves for that moment going in an unanticipated, unintended direction.  Years eaten, non-productive, lost.  Lost to circumstances (the wind shifting mid-tack), lost to negligence, lost to fault. 

Yet maybe only non-productive within a particular window, and that window too small to accurately reflect the whole.  That tack is but a short stretch, and even that wrong way takes us across at an angle that allows return.  I cannot see what the end point of any particular angle may be, so I must remember that the sail is not over.  The story is still unfolding.  Even the becalmed stretches (so frustrating at times — the resentment of being powerless to command the wind only slightly tempered by awareness that we have a motor, after all) — even these not ‘waste’; it is only that their end is unknown.

Conversations with friends.  Conversations in community.  How to measure productivity in maternity or scholarship or ministry outreach?  How to measure the return on investment of time and energy and funds?  Society’s gauge does not capture the whole.

The book of Joel is not really depicting this sort of ‘waste,’ I know.  The locusts were sent in judgment, the loss real and the loss deserved.  The issue in Joel is divine punishment tempered in response to repentant plea, turning over into grace that stretches so wide as to heal the land, restore the harvest, refill the granaries — and the empty bellies.  ‘You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied.’  ‘My people shall never again be put to shame.’  That line — that promise — repeated.  It matters that much.  ‘My people shall never again be put to shame.’

The years were eaten.  Their emptiness was shame.  Now widen the frame.  That was then.  This is now.  The story continues to unroll.  The eaten years are wondrously repaid.  The shame of their emptiness is entirely removed.  And maybe — maybe — what had seemed a gap, a waste, a tack backwards that was unintended and undesired, proves to be a key re-angling of the route that allows passage forward, and home.

The LORD promises this and more:  I am in your midst.  Be glad.  Rejoice.  Praise God.