I have long, long, long loved this woman very deeply. Lore Ferguson Wilbert lives on the edge of a river in New York, in small black house with a screened-in porch. She hasn’t always lived there, but it is the place she’s landed and feels most at home in. She has been writing publicly for 22 years, beginning on the cusp of her twenties—amidst grief, suffering, loss, and doubt. Writing, she says, has been her best form of sanctification, and I have returned so often to so many of her words as a lifeline. Writing publicly, she also says, has also been her best form of humiliation and, as she so gently and beautifully offers, when 22 years of your life are saved for anyone to see, it’s obvious when you’ve gotten a lot of things wrong. Still she practices, still she writes, and I savor her words. It is such a grace to welcome Lore to the farm’s table today…
What’s in Your Hand?
“The humble understanding of yourself,” Thomas a Kempis wrote, “is a surer path to God than the deep inquiry into knowledge.”
“Few of us venture deep into the stories of how we hold what we hold within us.”
Understanding ourselves is, in a sense, a gateway to deeper spiritual formation. Personality tests, Enneagram numbers, acronyms—these all can help us understand how we function best in the world. But few of us go beyond the gate and into the ways we became who we are or what made us this way. Few of us venture deep into the stories of how we hold what we hold within us.
We would all rather talk about what we should do with the thing in our hand, not just what it is and how it came to be there.
In Exodus 3, we find Moses. Having fled Egypt after murdering an Egyptian, he is now in Midian, shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law. Moses is up in the hills of Horeb when we find him struck speechless by the sight of a burning bush.
God finds him here and gives him a directive: you’re the one for the job. But Moses fumbles about with self-doubt, a list of all the reasons he should be disqualified: “What if they don’t believe me?” he asks. “What if they don’t listen to me?”
I sympathize with Moses. I understand these sorts of questions.
They are the kind that rumble through my brain and heart with the regularity of my morning tea or afternoon slump, which is to say daily. And when they do, I lean on affirmations from the past or encouragements from yesterday. I ponder my personality and gifts and strengths, the reasons I could be the person for the job.
The thing about Moses, though—the baby spared from Pharaoh’s massacre, gathered from the rushes and reeds, raised among kings—is that he was given every opportunity to be anything he could want to be except the thing he actually was.
And when the opportunity came for him to be the Hebrew he was, it went sideways. It ended in murder. He had to flee to the wilderness, wear rough linens, serve someone else’s land and goals, and care for livestock. When God asks him, “What’s in your hand?” and Moses looks down at his hands, the staff isn’t there because of all the things that went right in Moses’s life, but because of all the things that have just gone wrong.
Changes the way we see what’s in our hands, doesn’t it?
Instead of searching for the gifts that make me special, I begin to see the crosses that I’ve carried, the weights that have pulled me down, the fears, doubts, questions, and struggles I’ve weathered.
When God asks what’s in your hand, he is asking, “What did you not expect to carry into this life?”
“What heartbreaking proof do you hold that your life did not go as you planned?”
Maybe it’s the lineage of your family. Maybe it’s the color of your skin. Maybe it’s the place where you live or the church you call home or the home you call home. Maybe it’s your age or your gender. Maybe it’s all the things you’ve never done and wanted to do. Maybe it’s your empty nest or maybe it’s your full one. What is it? What’s in your hand?
What heartbreaking proof do you hold that your life did not go as you planned?
I used to dream of marrying young, my body fertile and my husband strong, of having hordes of children and grandchildren, of reading books to them aloud while they tangled in patchwork blankets at my feet. I dreamed of hanging their little outfits on clotheslines next to a front porch surrounded by lilacs. This was a real dream of mine. I’m not ashamed of it. Dreams come in all shapes and sizes, and for a time, this was mine.
Instead, I married in my mid-thirties to a divorced man, and we’ve lost pregnancy after pregnancy until my reproductive system is almost too geriatric or too broken or too fragmented to keep trying.
“This was not the story I wrote for myself.”
This was not the story I wrote for myself.
This is the shepherd’s staff in my hands. This is the gnarled piece of wood I hold. This is the given life, not the chosen one.
Yet, along with the grief that hits at times, I have learned that God uses what’s in my hand still. He has not given me the life I envisioned. Sometimes he surprises me by how he uses our childlessness to make a space for others or how he uses our grief to make space for another’s grief. When our grief is palpable and present, mourners find their way alongside it sooner or later.
What’s in my hand?
Nothing a personality test or spiritual gift examination or personal evaluation of my strengths would list. Nothing to brag about. Nothing that impresses anyone much. In my case, the thing in my hand is actually nothing. It’s an absence, an emptiness, a lack where I thought something would one day be.
What’s in your hand?
What cross are you bearing?
What unexpected parcel of your story comes to mind?
What are you holding that you never wanted to hold?
What story are you sharing that still shocks you that it’s yours?
What takes you into the wild places alone?
What comes to mind when you stand before the burning bushes of your life?
Whenever I picture Moses, I see him with a shepherd’s staff. Despite a season of shepherding that barely lasts a chapter in Scripture, I cannot unsee the staff he uses to astound the Pharaoh in Egypt, split the Red Sea, break water from a rock, and help the Israelites win against the Amalekites. He, as a picture of Jesus, is a shepherd of the people, an advocate of their Father in heaven, a messenger from God. The prince turned shepherd used what was in his hand to do the bidding of his true Father.
What is the unlovely thing about you? The thing you begrudge?
That’s it. That’s the answer to the question.
Lore Ferguson Wilbert is the founder of Sayable.net and the author of Handle with Care, winner of a 2021 Christianity Today Book Award. She has written for Christianity Today, Fathom magazine, and She Reads Truth and served as general editor of B&H’s Read and Reflect with the Classics. Her newest book, A Curious Faith: The Questions God Asks, We Ask, and We Wish Someone Would Ask Us invites readers to go beyond pat answers and embrace curiosity, rather than certainty, as a hallmark of authentic faith. Reflecting her own theological trajectory toward a more contemplative, expansive faith, Lore invites readers to foster curiosity as a spiritual habit.
A Curious Faith explores questions God asks us, questions we ask God, and questions we ask each other. Christianity is not about knowing good answers, says Lore, but about asking good questions–ones that foster deeper intimacy with God and others.