Modern Fortitude

The word fortitude popped into my brain this week. Not a word I use much. Sounds rather Puritan and stuffy, not characteristic of the fun and spontaneous image I like to curate.

I love words but sometimes when they come to me, even I don’t know exactly why or by what path I retrieved them. Why fortitude? A word I rarely use. A word most people rarely use these days according to my brief internet search.

I’m not even reading Jane Austen right now. Jane is a likely person to use a word like fortitude, but I’ve been reading twisty, suspenseful thrillers the past month or so.

According to the internet, a bastion of truth, the word fortitude has gone from 0.0013% usage in 1840 to 0.00013% usage today. Its darkest days were the 1990’s where it dipped to 0.00006%. I’m not awesome at math but I know another zero after the decimal is a big decline.

It begs the question, was fortitude ever really popular?

Is it popular now? I’m not sure fortitude will ever rise to the best lunch table at the local high school, but current circumstances guarantee a rise in usage. Just this blog post should raise the graph line a speck!

So, what does it mean? I actually had to look it up. Even though I am using this word to describe what I need right now, I’d been going on intuition more than precise definitions.

For-ti-tude: courage in pain or adversity.

And, there it is folks. What we need for these times. This is what I am asking God for these days…courage in pain and adversity. Fortitude.

Because we are all in some degree of adversity having experienced radical changes in our daily life and behavior from how we greet people to challenges figuring out how to live and work the way we were used to living and working.

I think of the British with their reputation of the stiff upper lip. Is that what it means to have fortitude? Many times that is what is expected of those that display fortitude. Literally, they’re lip doesn’t tremble because tears are imminent.

They don’t cry.

Well, I’ve failed then. I’m not courageous in pain or adversity.

Ha. You must know me well enough, I hope, to know that I reject this flat, emotionless view of fortitude.

Fortitude, I believe, is equally displayed in the tearful, plodding act of living out the life God gave us for this day. This day, this year, it is a pandemic, political strife, relational divisions based on ideologies, and all the collateral damage that lies in the wake.

Its not doing just what your emotions tell you to do, but walking forward in life by faith that God through His Spirit can give you just what you need for what His path for you entails.

Notice, I say His path for me. Not my path for me though the sweetest days are when my path for me and His path for me are one and the same. Those moments, because lets be honest, they’re usually not days, are full of meaning and purpose and joy even as they can also be filled with pain and adversity.

So, yes, I am in need of fortitude, not the stiff emotionless upper lip variety but the continuity of courage that life always requires, no matter the season.

But when times are universally difficult, hopefully words like fortitude can give us a sweet reminder to rely on Jesus to provide the courage and hope we need to walk, often tearfully, through pain and adversity.

Before Surrender

We stood there on the tallest point overlooking a historic town, an historic river. Clouds puffed in the sky and I snapped pictures of the scene before me. Rolling hills, a picturesque river, quaint buildings, and boats on the water. All was at peace that warm summer day.

That tallest point? A fortress more than 500 years old. That town? Passed back and forth between warring kingdoms for most of its existence.

The people who faced each other across the river were not always part of the same kingdom either. The vacation boats on the river now used to be vessels of war, of conquering. Hence, the need for a fortress to fight off invaders.

Surrender is a word that comes up frequently in my spiritual life as a Christian. Surrender. Surrender anything that stands between me and the Lord. Surrender my way for His.

Recently, I’ve sensed that my romantic view of the word (picture hands raised and a white bird flying up to the blue sky while sunlight shines down ready to accept the glowing bird), fails to grasp the brutal reality that surrender is more a battle front term.

Back track a little and before surrender comes division and a battle of two or more opposing forces. Similarly in my own life, a battle usually rages until I face that I’m losing, big time. My way, my army, my kingdom is weaker than the one I ultimately fight. God.

Then, there’s an honest reckoning, a realization that I will not win. I cannot win. I will be defeated. At this point, I face a choice. I can continue fighting a losing battle out of pride or I can make some tough calls.

I can be…

A Captive: I lose the battle but think I should have won it. I nurse the idea that I could have won it if I’d just done a little something here differently or fought a little harder there. My allegiance has not changed. I’m still fighting. Life is full of strife as I live in rebellion to the King, constantly seeking a way of escape.

A Deserter: I turn and run from the battle. I live to fight another day thinking I can still win. I live on the run not knowing when I will need to turn and fight again. Life is about escape and hiding from the more powerful and ever pursuing King.

A Defector: I change sides because I reckon that the other side is better, more worthy of allegiance. Now I use my weapons for another King and His kingdom. I live at peace in the protection of the King’s fortress, guarded by Him and sent to do His work. My former identity as an enemy combatant is known, yet I am not sidelined out of suspicion or fear. I’m fully accepted.

The choice to surrender now starts sounding more like a laying down of arms than a moment with a dove.

Sometimes I figure out things fast and lay down my weapons before serious blood is shed. But there are times when I don’t and I come in wounded to my own surrender, a little beat up in the battle. A bit chagrined that I misjudged my allegiances so poorly.

This week it was about a kid’s homework, surrendering a better grade to preserve our relationship. A few weeks ago it was about choosing to happily do a task I didn’t fully want to do.

Every day it is choosing to step out and follow Jesus, rather than stay on my own path, fighting for my own way.

Frozen Green Tomatoes

A woman thrust the tomato plant into my hands when I displayed a mild level of interest. The pastors set up a garden behind the children’s wing and these were the leftover tomato plants, a bit bedraggled and needing a good home.

I couldn’t promise them the good home, but we have dirt in our backyard. I came home and put them in a large planter on a lark. Growing things is new for me.

We left a few weeks later for a 6 week trip during which a turtle died but our tomato plant flourished. It was a stunning discovery. It was large and hanging over the edge of the planter!

In adjusting back to the U.S. after so long in our former familiar culture, I needed a project to focus my attentions on. I would see this tomato plant through until it produced tomatoes. Picture a woman making a solemn vow.

I bought a cage, plant friendly insecticide, tomato fertilizer. Every day I checked on the plant which continued to grow. I read blogs and did weird things like shake the tomato plant vigorously so it would pollinate itself. Bees are scarce and I began feeling mildly panicked about our loss of the bee population in respect to my tomato plant’s chance of success.

Imagine my joy when I discovered small yellow flowers! Flowers lead to fruit. Tomatoes are a fruit! Tomatoes should soon come.

They did not. The flowers wilted and died without fruit. I got mad at the plant that failed to grow under my helicopter gardening. I stopped watering it and left it to itself in the 90+ degree September heat.

It sprang a tomato. Then another. What a tease! Fine, I thought. You’re doing so well on your own, I’ll let you continue that way. So I did.

The tomatoes kept growing bigger and still green. I began checking on them again, these very expensive tomatoes.

Then it froze this week. 2 nights in a row of a bitter cold. I neglected the tomato plant. It lay out there cold and bare with no blanket to cover it. With Christmas and busyness beyond the norm, the tomato plant got the shaft.

I don’t expect any ripe tomatoes now. Just frozen green tomatoes turning to mush. May it yet surprise me.

About halfway through this tomato story, I began to wonder why I was writing this up? What does a tomato plant have to do with anything? Probably not much but its served as a visual reminder of principles my heart needs to know. A kind of wrap up on a fall of life and ministry.

So, here is what my tomato plant taught me…

  • Only so much is really under my control, and its a very little much.
  • Faithfulness in what is my part of God’s will is not promised to yield
  • Expectation of fruit is highly motivating, yet faithfulness is more steady a motivation
  • When fruit fails to come, its easy to get discouraged, resentful, and unfaithful to my task
  • God often chooses to remind me to trust Him for fruit by bringing it in unexpectedly and unrelated to the proportion of my efforts
  • Fruit purposely left on the vine and untended in harsh conditions is evidence of neglect and unfaithfulness
  • Yet, God can surprise and often uses harsh conditions to temper His children and make them hardier. He doesn’t waste anything.

Who knows, maybe I will get more than I deserve, more than frozen green tomatoes. It is supposed to reach back up near 70 this week.

But even if I don’t, my tomato plant experience revealed quite a bit about my spiritual life. I plan on trying again.

Gardening seems to be a God-given method to teach me His ways.