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With Calm Assurance

by Patricia Lull

In high school I wrote a feature column for the school newspaper. During my senior year those of us on the editorial team decided the paper needed an edgier tone. My column was renamed “Lull Before the Storm.” At 17—with our country divided over the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and The War on Poverty—this seemed like the only honest way to report on important matters in our school. The wordplay on my last name also hinted at the meteorological calm that precedes a raging summer storm.

Decades later it is easy to laugh at that youthful bravado. The profiles I wrote were pretty tame, as much chatter as insight. But the quest for a calm perspective in the midst of crisis remains part of our life as we mature in Christian faith.

This month’s Bible study pro­files Abigail, wife of Nabal. The text in 1 Samuel 25 chronicles a pivotal moment in which her quick think­ing saves the lives of her extended household, earning her a place in the panoply of biblical heroines and heroes. Faced with news of her husband’s brutish denial of hospitality to the hungry troops of David’s rebel army, Abigail quickly resolves to right a wrong situation. Her quick and purposeful response reverses a near calamity.
Few of the challenges we face will ever be highlighted in a home­town feature column. Yet we, too, face moments of decision and challenge. What does it mean for us, like Abigail, to act with calm assurance amid the challenges of daily life? (back to top)

In recent years we’ve again experienced much strident debate and a sluggish economy in this country. While there are encouraging signs of increased engage­ment in community life and evidence of an economic rebound, most of us can name family members or friends who have been looking for work for months, even years. We are aware of church members who are still bruised by the debates of recent years. Many of us are cautious not to stir things up too much in our communities and in our congregations.

But facing challenges, navigating crisis, living with boldness and vision are simply part of life for us as people of faith. If we learn to respond with calm assurance in ordinary times, it’s more likely that we will be able to act with confidence and wise judgment when we face bigger and more onerous decisions.
We don’t know anything about Abigail’s growing up years. The Bible is silent about who she was before this scene, but we can guess that her actions are rooted in years of practice in hospitality, kindness, and an astute reading of people.

None of us automatically respond to really bad news or chang­ing circumstances in a calm, purposeful manner.
The characteristics of calm assurance, decisive action, and patient waiting need to take root in us over time. They need to seep so deeply into us that they become the way we face life in all its unpredictability.
Twice I have received phone calls informing me of a dear rela­tive’s sudden death. The voice on the phone pleaded for me to come immediately. There wasn’t time to cautiously chart out a plan. I needed to act quickly to be of help to my family.

Once, I went to work and resigned before the day was over. Twice I have moved across several states to begin a new call on only a few weeks’ notice. To respond to the pull and tug of one’s vocation—especially when it means a huge disruption in one’s home life—requires a keen under­standing of one’s true home with God.

You have your own version of such times. An unanticipated pink slip tucked into the weekly pay check. A phone call from a grown daughter, asking if she and her three young children can come live with you—tonight. A notice that your husband’s National Guard unit will be deployed again just when you thought he was home to stay.
Many of us have Abigail-like stories of how a near calamity was averted or a new beginning forged out of a precipitous ending. Those are part of our own legacy of faith, giving testimony to our trust that God’s grace is sufficient in our own time of need. (back to top)

Staying calm before the storm

How did I learn to respond with calm assurance when my life seemingly changed in the blink of an eye? What experiences earlier in your life give you a foundation for acting with calm purpose today?

While I make no promises that these steps will work for you, here are five lessons I have learned when I have found myself immersed in chal­lenging circumstances. Each one fits with an aspect of Abigail’s story, too.

Remember who you are. Growing up, when one of my siblings or I was going away from home, our parents would say, “Remember you are a Lull.” It was short-hand for reminding us of our identity within a par­ticular family and a quick refresher on the values that shaped our family life. It was also an admonition to behave in a way that reflected well on our family, a caution to stay out of trouble.

In my darkest hours, when I have been hard pressed by sad or threat­ening circumstances, my first response is to pause and remember deeply who I am. I am a baptized child of God. I have been assured that noth­ing—not grief, not job loss, not the ending of a relationship, not a hor­rendous medical diagnosis, not my own mistakes or failures—can shake the firm foundation of being held and beloved by God.

I no longer have parents to coach me as I go out into the world each day. Whether the day holds leisure or important decisions to make, I begin each day by marking myself with the sign of the cross, saying aloud—Patricia, you are a child of God. (back to top)

You, dear reader, are also God’s beloved daughter or son. In good times and bad, we are called to practice this daily recollection of the deepest truth about our lives.

In the biblical narrative, Abigail knew who she was. Though she was married to a mean-spirited husband, she belonged to a culture that prac­ticed deep and generous hospitality to strangers at the door. She knew that those cultural bonds had been shattered and acted quickly to remedy that grievous failure.

Be willing to take the first step. In the midst of conflict, it is tempting to point toward someone else as the source of the tension. Sometimes that is the case. But we don’t control the deeds, reactions, or even the words of others. We do control our own willingness to step toward someone else and to invite a conversation that might transform that conflict into an occasion for mutual learning and forgiveness.

Again, I want to credit my parents for teaching me the importance of owning up to my mistakes and learning to say I was sorry. But in our family we also practiced pre­emptive reconciliation. One of my mother’s favorite idioms was, “It takes two to tango.” Long before I understood that the tango was a complex and intimate dance form, I absorbed her wisdom that many sibling squabbles were caused by more than one kid’s actions. It’s the same in our world today.

When I find myself embroiled in a compli­cated, contentious relationship, I’ve learned to ask myself what I can do to unknot the nasty tangle of misunderstanding and disappointed expectations.

Abigail didn’t wait for her hus­band to apologize for his brutish behavior. She didn’t wait for David and his armed troops to arrive at her door so she could explain that she knew better than Nabal. She took the initiative to go forth as an ambassador of reconciliation, a woman riding out from her house­hold to intercept an enraged army.

Stay on the high road. A few years ago, a mentor modeled the wisdom of this for me. As adults, we grow in our capacity to view situations from more than one per­spective. We also come to recognize our own capacity to be vengeful and spiteful when we perceive we have been treated unfairly.

When a conflict explodes, we can lash out and respond with vin­dictive accusations or we can choose to refrain from adding to the volatil­ity of the disagreement. Staying on the high road is a choice to respond in a more temperate manner. As my mentor taught me, you can never reclaim the high road once you enter the fray, fighting as you perceive your attacker to be fighting. (back to top)

In ancient times, Abigail could have summoned the household staff, ordered them to prepare for battle, and resolved to go head-to­head with David’s troops. Instead, she chose the higher moral posture, heading out to redeem the situation with her own offering of food and apology. We can only imagine who her mentors may have been.

Time your truth telling. I grew up in a verbally gifted family. From an early age each of the Lull chil­dren was encouraged to express an opinion in our dinner table discus­sions. As the baby of the family, I’m sure many of my opinions were ill-formed and childish. Occasionally, my siblings remind me of some of the sillier things I said as a child.

But growing in confidence to speak one’s mind is not the same skill as judging when the timing is right to speak. When tempers are flaring and the exchange is pitched at the volume of shouting, it’s not likely that an alternative perspective can modify anyone’s understanding. I have learned to quiz myself, asking “Can this be heard?”

Abigail carefully timed when she would speak to Nabal, her angry and impulsive husband. Returning home from her reconciling visit with David, Abigail finds her husband drunk and oblivious to the calamity that has been averted. Only in the morning, when he is sober, does she tell him the truth of what has occurred.

Choose your battles. This one is still tough for me even though I realize the prudence of this practice. I’m scrappy by nature and enjoy an honest debate. A willingness to challenge, provoke, or champion an unpopular position are good strengths—except when they are not. Responding with calm assurance requires learning which issues demand a response and which ones do not. (back to top)

How do we learn which battles to choose? Knowing one’s deepest values and commitments, learning to listen well to those with whom we disagree, being willing to apologize, and respecting all people help us learn to discern between debates for debate’s sake and speaking up when silence is not an option. We know that relationships matter just as much as being right. But there are also times when we must speak up, times when we can only pray for boldness and courage to overcome our reluctance to act.

Abigail knew such a moment when the young servant informed her of her husband’s scandalous dismissal of his hungry neighbors. She quickly rallied her staff and gathered up bountiful provisions to feed and appease David’s men. She went forth ready to seek forgiveness, eager to fend off a military battle with gifts befitting a peace accord. It was a battle well chosen, a battle won.

What lessons would you add? Knowing that each of our lives is a work in progress, we don’t need to wait until we are in the throes of a tense situation to try out new ways of responding to the ordinary annoy­ances of life. In fact, ordinary time is the best time for stretching and strengthening the muscle of calm assurance. Like Abigail, we may even surprise ourselves.

The Rev. Patricia Lull is the executive director of the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches. You can read her occasional blog at news.spacc.org/category/executivecorner/patricia.

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