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Category: The Spade and the Spirit

I spend time digging, because that’s where the life is. And then I write about it. Come share my thoughts.

Agnes Sanford, I Think You’re Right

Her words helped build the kingdom within me... My experience with the writing of Agnes Sanford

I’ve only recently met Agnes Sanford. At first, I disagreed with her so vehemently on a certain point that I nearly gave up on the relationship before it had begun. But I sensed that she had much more to say that I needed to hear, and that I could learn from her, so I continued to listen.

And I’m glad I did.

For one thing, I realized by sticking with Agnes long enough to hear her explain her entire viewpoint, that the reason I had so vehemently disagreed with her at first was that I had interpreted what she initially said in a different way than she actually meant it. By being patient enough to hear her out, I realized that what I originally thought she meant wasn’t at all what she was saying.

It reminds me of that old Alan Greenspan quote:


“I know you think you understand what you thought I said

but I don’t think you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”


Well, exactly.

You might be wondering what was going on, since Agnes Sanford has been gone since 1982. A book, of course.

Healing Light

I was reading Agnes Sanford’s book Healing Light, and I was reacting to Agnes’ take on the Christian view of Paul’s thorn. (It’s too much to go into here, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be seeing more about this encounter in my next book, but if you just can’t wait, you can read her words for yourself in her book.)

Even after I grasped her concept, while I still didn’t entirely agree with her, I could definitely at least see things from her perspective, and I was curious. The opening that had been created in my understanding let in more peace and more light than I had previously had on the topic. It’s not every day that happens, so I decided it was well worth sticking around for a little while longer. So I read the whole book.

And then, after I finished reading Healing Light, I had the sense that there was a lot more that Agnes knew and hadn’t said in that book, and I wanted to know what it was. I already had a copy of her autobiography, Sealed Orders, so I immediately launched into that book. Well, that’s the one I wish I had read first! I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have come so close to chucking her if I had known how she had arrived at her ideas described in Healing Light. But, that was water under the bridge. I was here now.

Sealed Orders

What a book. Sealed Orders is the story of a writer, a woman, a pray-er, and best of all, someone who expected her Christian faith to grow and who constantly held spiritual ideas in tension and watched for God to guide her. Once she received God’s Spirit, she lived by the Spirit.

I’ve seen this book called Sanford’s spiritual autobiography. I find that distinction interesting, because while it is absolutely her spiritual autobiography, it is also her autobiography. Maybe every autobiography is really a spiritual autobiography, but most people’s lives just don’t have many lines or much action for their spirits: maybe the spirits of most lives just hang out backstage, waiting for a chance to act. That was definitely not the case with Agnes.

A Writer, On Writing

I found especially interesting her tracing of her development as a writer, and how the various aspects of her full life—which sometimes appeared to her to be detours from writing, obstacles in the way of writing, or complete roadblocks to writing—in fact seem largely to have formed the very material that became her oevre.

I also appreciated her many insights into her own writing process. (In fact, I’d recommend the book to any writer, on that point alone.) One of the most beautifully described aspects I immediately recognized as true. Sanford described how the Christian writing life strengthens the writer and the Kingdom of God within:

“… when I write, the inspiration comes from God, but it comes into my own mind and is not immediately dispersed to others. Therefore, I myself am fed and recharged with life, and even if the conscious mind and the body are weary simply from the work of concentration, the inner being is deeply comforted and strengthened. When I write, I am in my own way rebuilding the Kingdom within….”1

Well said, Agnes.

Just one beat later, she continues:

“I build the Kingdom within through constant prayer and listening. In fact, in writing novels I hear the words my characters speak, and I see their movements, and simply write down what I see. This, however, does not mean that the writing is perfect! Far from it! Never, so far as I know, are we relieved of the responsibility of using our own minds.”2

Well, now Agnes is treading on my holy ground. I recently wrote about the difference between me at work creatively and Christ working in me, and brought in some thoughts from Dorothy L. Sayers on the topic. So I was especially interested in how Agnes Sanford continued describing her process:

“It is still necessary for a writer, no matter how inspired he may be, to develop and use to the utmost his critical ability. One does not do this in writing the first draft, for that would stop the flow of creativity, but after it is finished, then the more laborious part of one’s work begins. Then one deliberately turns the mind over and releases its critical aspect. One becomes an editor rather than merely a creator, and one probably rewrites and corrects many times….”3

Indeed. As if God has said to the writer, “Here is the clay of ideas I have selected for you to use; take it and fashion it.” And the writer will be enlivened by the Holy Spirit to do so, but there is a style, a perspective, a voice, that is her own. She has been made by God, so of course any work she dedicates to his honor will also bear his imprint, but he has given her her own capacity for shaping and making an imprint on it, as well.

Am I Still Dead?

How does this mesh with my former question about being dead and Christ working through me? Before I give my own response, let me say I think I have recently discovered how Dorothy L. Sayers might weigh in on the conversation at this point if she were still alive to do so. Sayers wrote (albeit, on another subject):

“In this matter, as in so many others, Christianity displays its usual propensity for making everything as awkward as possible. It outrages the tidy-minded by occupying a paradoxical position.”4

Oh, Dorothy. Not to put too fine a point on it.

But she’s right.

I think the answer is that even though I am dead5, yet I live—a living which includes writing—because I have been raised and am alive through believing in Christ.6,7

And I have to tell you, after reading Sealed Orders, I’m feeling a lot more raised, because Agnes Sanford’s story helped rebuild the Kingdom within me.


Related Article

I Can’t Ask Dorothy L. Sayers



1 Sanford, Agnes. “Chapter 13.” Sealed Orders, Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1972, p. 202.

2 Sanford, Agnes. “Chapter 13.” Sealed Orders. Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1972, p. 203.

3 Sanford, Agnes. “Chapter 13.” Sealed Orders. Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1972, p. 203.

4 Sayers, Dorothy L. “Dante and Charles Williams.” The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays. New York, N.Y.: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1978. 180-204. Print.

5 Galatians 2:20

6 John 11:25-26

7 Colossians 3:1

No Cucumbers in the Desert

I was peeling a cucumber yesterday and thought of the whining Israelites and their cucumber craving. This cucumber was part of our weekly CSA farm share pickup, but I won’t be eating it. I have a large number of food sensitivities, so cucumbers are just one of dozens of foods that I like but won’t be eating any time soon. I don’t complain about it. You can ask the people who know me: I don’t whine about the foods I can no longer eat.

Photo of cucumber, garlic, and onions
Photo / AmyLu Riley

Not so the Israelites. They fell into grumbling about the food they could no longer eat—foods they had left behind in Egypt, the land of their long slavery—while God was in the process of rescuing them, refining them, and forming them into something new. He was preparing them for a new place, for a new way of life with its own good things.

The riffraff among the people had a craving and soon they had the People of Israel whining, “Why can’t we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna.”

Manna was a seedlike substance with a shiny appearance like resin. The people went around collecting it and ground it between stones or pounded it fine in a mortar. Then they boiled it in a pot and shaped it into cakes. It tasted like a delicacy cooked in olive oil. When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna was right there with it.

Numbers 11: 4-9 (MSG)

There are no cucumbers in the desert. But there is usually no manna there, either. And it was all they really needed. 


There are no cucumbers in the desert.

But there is usually no manna there, either.


You know what else wasn’t in their particular part of the desert? Enough quail to feed more than half a million people for a month (Numbers 11:21-23). But God had quail flown in (Numbers 11:31-34). So much quail. And he struck the people with a severe plague because he was so angry with them for rejecting him again (Numbers 11:10). Graves of Gluttony is what the Israelites named the place in the desert where they buried the people who had rejected God in this weird way that sounds so harmless: craving meat from Egypt and wishing they were back there (Numbers 11:34).

What the story says to me is this:

When you are rescued by God from one place, and he is carrying you on his back to a new place, this is not the time to whine about wanting cucumbers like you used to have. That is a sign of ingratitude. It demonstrates a focus on the wrong things. What the Lord does not put before you, he does not intend for you. If God has provided manna for nourishment in the desert—when he could have provided anything—or even nothing—be grateful for manna and shut up about cucumbers.

The Israelites’ problem had started earlier. As most things do. This particular episode had been brewing since they left Sinai, the mountain of the Lord (Numbers 10:12, 10:33), during the second year after their dramatic rescue from Egypt (Numbers 10:11). You can hold your breath for a year, but after that, when it starts to look like your situation isn’t improving, it gets harder. And, of course, the enemy always provides plenty of opportunities for ingratitude. A well-placed comment that doesn’t even sound bad can quickly flip the switch of ingratitude and complaining (Numbers 11:4-6 and 11:10). Those sound like minor infractions, until I see that God linked the Israelites’ whining (Numbers 11:18) to rejection of the Lord (Numbers 11:20), and treated it an offense punishable—and punished—by death (Numbers 11:33-34).

The crux of the problem was not the whining, it was the rejection behind it:

“… you have rejected the LORD, who is here among you, and you have whined to him saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?””

Numbers 11:20 (NLT)

They didn’t want the God they had, a God who would make them march across the wilderness of Sinai and Paran and feed them manna (Numbers 11:6-9). They wanted cucumbers and melons and onions and leeks and garlic and fish and oppressive slavery (Exodus 1:11-14) under a regime that had killed many of their infant sons (Exodus 1:22). They wanted golden idols of beef to worship (Exodus 32) and meat to eat. But manna and marching was all this God seemed to offer. They had been rescued by a God who didn’t appear to be rescuing them. Their lives still weren’t perfect. What good was freedom from cruel slavery—without cucumbers!?


What good was freedom from cruel slavery—without cucumbers!?


Moses, their human liberator, was very aggravated with them (Numbers 11:10). God, their divine liberator, was extremely angry (Numbers 11:10). And I’m wondering if maybe, even though I don’t grumble about cucumbers or fish or melons, I’m no better than they were.

After all, I said I wanted God to lead me, and I said I would follow. When things became really imperfect-looking at some point, I assumedas the Israelites probably didthat it was just a short-term jaunt through the desert, a quickish (or maybe even medium-ish) jaunt from point A to point B. But after a few years, when I notice I’m not at B, and I can’t even see it from here, and I’m not even sure that B is where this God is headed at all, I find myself at the doorway of a tent in the wilderness (Numbers 11:10). I can either whine about cucumbers and the other things that aren’t in the desert, or I can be grateful that the Lord is here with me (Numbers 11:20), and that he keeps putting just enough manna on the ground for each day (Numbers 11:9).


AmyLu Riley is the author of Jesus as Healer: Miracles and Meditations in Luke. Her upcoming book explores questions of gritty faith for the not-yet-healed. Sign up for email updates.


Scripture quotations marked MSG are taken from THE MESSAGE, copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Can’t See It from Here

image of earth with a lamp

“Start talking.”

It was like that showdown scene in the movies. The situation had reached crisis pitch and someone was being called to answer for the ways things had gone. Job was demanding that God answer for his mortal suffering.

As for me, I would speak directly to the Almighty. I want to argue my case with God himself. – Job 13:3 (NLT)

But that wasn’t quite how things played out. God had listened to every word Job had said to him and about him, and God did respond, but not to answer for anything. God would be the one asking the questions.

Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them. – Job 38:3 (NLT)

And then God gave Job an earful. Through God’s questions to Job, God demonstrated his detailed care for his creation—and that humankind is not capable of comprehending what the all-knowing, all-powerful God is doing (Job 38-40). God’s message to Job in a nutshell: I’m God and you’re not.

Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have all the answers? – Job 40:2 (NLT)

Like Job, I get it backwards. I think that God should tell me specifically why my problems are necessary and what he is doing—and that I could understand the answers. But God’s reply to Job reveals to me that I could not comprehend it. We simply can’t see it from here.

However, that doesn’t mean God wants me to stop communicating with him about my pain, or that he will not communicate with me. The Psalms (Psalm 40 being a prime example) encourage me that God wants to hear what I have to say, even when my immature soul and my unrefined spirit are babbling nonsense to him.

Just as he did with Job and with the Psalmists, God will take my chin in his hand, and redirect my gaze to where it needs to be to see that he is my advocate and that he is saving me. He is the one who can help me. He loves me and I just need to trust him, even when his methods appear… painfully awry.


Do you—like Job—have some questions for God about what he is doing? My upcoming book (release date not yet announced) is for those who are traveling a difficult road and need for God to gently cup their faces in his hand. Subscribe to my emails for book updates.

I Can’t Ask Dorothy L. Sayers

Writer AmyLu Riley explores the question of whether artists, such as Yo-Yo Ma, are the makers of their own creative work

Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker has gotten me thinking of something about which I wish I could pick her brain: whether I’m really the one doing my own creative work. I imagine we’d have a lively discussion, and that Dorothy would surprise me with her input. But I can’t ask her, so I’m going to write about it, and look for my answers elsewhere.

In The Mind of the Maker, Sayers explores how God the Father, Son, and Spirit are active in the work of a human artist, and in what proportion to each other, and—by extension—how they contribute to and affect the end product of that artist. Sayers also explores the ways and degrees to which an artist is expressed in his or her own work. By all appearances, Sayers assumes the artist to be a central actor in the making of his or her own creative output.

But my question is one that Sayers doesn’t touch on at all in The Mind of the Maker. It is this: In light of Galatians 2:20, does the human artist—submitted to the Father, Son, and Spirit—actually do his or her own work?


In light of Galatians 2:20, does the human artist—submitted to the Father, Son, and Spirit—actually do his or her own work?


Allow me to explain what I mean.

In Romans 7:18, Paul wrote, “And I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh….” And in Galatians 2:20, he wrote, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Since Scripture asserts that there is no good in me and that I am dead and that it is Christ who lives in me, then when I create something, is it even I doing it? And if so, how is it I? Does God alone do the creating, using my mind and body as instruments? And if so, then what part did I really have in it? None? Am I, as Mother Teresa said, but a pencil in the hand of God?

What if I—my person, and my creative capacity—am a unique combination of some several selected facets of God (chosen by him to be instilled in me); and when he creates anything through me, it is all him doing the creating, and the process is only unique to me because the end product was only that which could arise as a function of his limiting himself to working through only those facets? It would be a way of his creatively focusing his own expression, as an artist might choose to work only in charcoal rather than using a full rainbow of oil paints plus orchestral music and a laser light show all at once. Yet, it is still all Christ living through me in that case. I would have had nothing to do with the selection of what facets were instilled in my own being for use in my projects. In that case, my only actual involvement would have been that of my will having given permission for my participation in the process of creation that was done through me. (And perhaps not even that. Election is a factor which may even negate the idea that the giving of my own permission really had its source in me. But that is not a point that needs to be followed up here.)

I am still left wondering how much of me is really even doing my own work.

My mind scans the Scriptures for any answer. I think of Bezelel and Oholiab being given artistic ability to make the articles and furnishings of the Tabernacle and to teach others to help them with the work (Exodus 31:6). But everything they made was according to specific patterns and instructions given by God, and derivative of what already existed in heaven. So did it even matter whether it was Bezalel and Oholiab—or any other two people—who did the crafts? Wouldn’t the pieces have looked exactly the same, given this situation, regardless of whose hands they passed through? I can think of two possible answers for that.


It mattered to them. It made a difference to Bezalel and Oholiab as individuals, and to each skilled worker who received such gifts, that they were chosen to do the work and that the gifts were worked through them. It mattered to their experience of God and to their personal relationships with God.


First: It mattered to them. It made a difference to Bezalel and Oholiab as individuals, and to each skilled worker who received such gifts, that they were chosen to do the work and that the gifts were worked through them. It mattered to their experience of God and to their personal relationships with God. It also mattered to them because it shaped the course of their lives in a daily way while they worked on their assigned projects, and probably, if I had to guess, for a long time after the Tabernacle was completed.

Second: Each person’s unique human stamp would have necessarily been put on the work.

One reason for this uniqueness is the human artists’ lack of perfection, which would have varied in each person. Even being gifted as they were by the Holy Spirit for the task, and working with excellence, their human imperfection would have meant that Bezelel and Oholiab could not have perfectly made the prescribed copies of what exists in heaven (Hebrews 8:5). They may have come close—the work perhaps even being so excellent that no human eye would have ever detected any flaw at all. (It is doubtful even that human would have been able to notice any deviation from the original in heaven—not having conscious memory of having seen the original, and having only human eyes with which to see at all.)

However, work may also vary from one artist to the next in ways that is not negative:

Work of two artists may also be of the exact same level of quality, yet different. I must allow for the possibility—although I do not know if this was the case—that some image of a pomegranate rendered by Oholiab may have been distinguishable from an image of a pomegranate worked by Bezalel (Exodus 28:33), in that same way that a famous musical composition, played impeccably by two different accomplished pianists may still somehow be distinguishable as being played by this one, or that one—not even as objectively or subjectively better—but just in a noticeably different style.

Work of two gifted artists may be of excellent quality, yet there are times when the creative output of one of the artists is perceivable by everyone to be unmistakably superior. Even an untrained eye or ear can recognize this (as anyone who has listened to The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s The Messiah can appreciate). However, this principle is not limited to original composition. It is even true in the execution of some “pattern” by two different outstanding artists, such as in the previous, visual arts example of a pomegranate, or in the performance of the same musical score by two musicians. Isn’t it easy to distinguish between the playing of Yo-Yo Ma—and any other cellist alive, no matter how accomplished?

None of this answers the original question, however, but just brings me back to it. If two pianists are equally good, yet different, I still don’t know whether that difference is because of their own contributions, or solely because different facets of God are on display through them. If Yo-Yo Ma is a better cellist than other cellists (and I think it is so), is that difference really Yo-Yo Ma himself? Or is it the genius of the divine working through him?

This is where Dorothy would jump in.



Copyright 2018 by AmyLu Riley. All rights reserved.
Cello image © Jeffbanke | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Reflections on an Icy Tree

ice-covered tree

If all the leaves had never turned,
had not been stripped away,

We would have missed majestic ice
that dazzled here today.

Tiny prisms of green, then blue, amid the silver-white,
Now gold, and glowing amethyst, blaze brightly in the light.

The sleeping tree, life in its roots,
has not produced this splendor.

Its gems are made of rain and cold;
its fire, an icy ember.

The storm, we dread,
lament the chill,
The spring, we’d rather see.

But winter–and these precious jewels–
must come to every tree.

Now the strength sleeps at its source,
not dreaming yet to rise.

There is a time for everything–
for leaves, for ice, for trees.

In its season, ice has come.
And soon will come new leaves.

An ice-tree outside my window today made me think of the dazzling spiritual beauty of a friend in a difficult season of her life. The beauty with which God has adorned her spirit during this season has called attention to his artistry even in the most intense, harsh conditions. New life will arise from this season: even as she relies fully on her rootedness in Christ to sustain her spirit, those who find Christ through the message of the gospel she has shared with them will also have new, eternal life in Christ. – alr