Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Going on 20 years ago, I decided to start a new business. The business would use its profits to benefit the church. I was a relatively new believer excited about using my communication experience to help God spread the word, so I went at it hammer and tong - even talked a couple of talented believer friends into falling in with me. We raised money, rented an office, bought expensive equipment and charged on down the road.
It was a flop.
There were plenty of tangible reasons for the failure, some beyond my control, some clearly not. But the biggest, most glaring reason for failure, it seems, was not waiting on the Lord. Our heart was in the right place, but it was OUR plan, not God’s plan that got worked, although we did give him lip service as we headed off in the direction we had set for ourselves. We didn’t ask him if or when or why or how come - or anything else - about what part we might play in his plans, so he let us stumble along for something like two years before things starting falling apart.
I was thinking about that chapter in my life today and whether, in choosing to write these essays about the intersection of faith and life, I am repeating my error of 20 years past. I have wanted to write on the subject for a long time but never have been called to do so beyond my personal inclinations. Going on a year ago, however, I suddenly had the time to write and so got started, just to see what would happen. Truthfully, not much happened, although I spent a lot more time studying the Word than I might have otherwise and sharpened my writing skills.
Stuck to a cabinet door in my work space is a faded sticky note with James 4:13 written on it. I look at the verses from time to time, but obviously not often enough:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. The text then directs that Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. How boastful, how willful, we must seem to God when we choose to go off on our own with some new thing, relying on our own strength (and working on our own behalf) without discerning, and surrendering to, whatever it is the Lord would have us do.
So, I’m thinking about changing course, doing what I have done in other significant life’s circumstances during recent years: stop and wait on God. Waiting is not easy for me, and perhaps not for you, because it goes against the grain of the take-charge, get-it-done-right-now American way. But waiting on God always leads to blessings “in the fullness of time” - sometimes unexpected blessings, a truth I am learning at long last, later in life. Like Abraham did, like Zacharias did.
Here’s my plan: surrender this project to the will of God but keep on digging into scripture. No more writing on the subject, however, until I’m sure that’s what the Lord would have me do. Clearly. The essays already on the site will remain, to drift with God’s breezes wherever they may, to bear fruit or die on the vine.
Because if the Lord wants my voice to be added to the manifold essays about the intersection of faith and life already out there, he’ll find a way to knock on this wooden head of mine and let me know. It could be weeks or months or years from now. It could be never. Meanwhile, I will trust in the Lord with all my heart, lean not on my own understanding and wait for him to direct my path.
Didn’t sleep well last night, something that happens every so often. My mind was awake chewing its cud far too late, so sleep got shoved in a corner and never fully took hold. I flipped this way and that, got up and remade the bed, said hello to our little cat (who had been thrashing around on the floor above, chasing something real or imaginary), hit the bathroom at least twice and finally gave into being fully awake around 2 am, after which I occupied myself with pondering and prayer and probably stayed awake longer than I might have had I not been mesmerized a preacher on the radio who talked about blessing others.
I woke up in the morning an hour later than usual, still sleepy but oddly refreshed, turned on my device to see if the world had come to an end while I was away and found an essay by one of my favorite writers, Jill Carattini, managing editor of A Slice of Infinity (blog) at Ravi Zacharias International. Jill makes me think, her theology is strong and she’s a darned good wordslinger. This time around, ironically, her subject was sleep, so I dove right in rather than put off reading her piece ‘til later in the day.
Some people describe a “sense of foreboding in the still of night that is irrationally paralyzing,” she wrote, citing the example of NPR personality Ira Glass, who was scared to go to sleep as a child. He equated the “fear of not being awake” to the fear of not being, because “sleep seemed no different than death … You were gone. Not moving, not talking, not thinking. Not aware. What could be more frightening?” Glass said. “What could be bigger?”
I don’t get that. Sleep has always been a solace for me. There’s great relief, almost joy, in letting go of the day and drifting off to dreamland. Guess that’s why I like naps so much, a habit modeled by my mother, who took a 20-minute snooze every day at 2 o’clock, and woe be it to any of us brothers foolish enough to wake her. Had the house been on fire, we might have tried to put the thing out ourselves rather than take a chance on interrupting her nap. Whether nap or night, I find sleep welcoming, just as Mom may have in seeking brief relief from four active boys. Most times, I can put down my reading, fluff up the pillow and fall asleep in a few minutes. Without worry. In fact, sleep and I have had so good a relationship that it’s never occurred to me that some people fear sleep like they fear death. As Jill Carattini points out in her essay, we as a culture are “generally uncomfortable with death and desperate for our accomplishments to distract us.” I know people like that, who must keep energized and entertained lest the chill side of their minds whisper quietly about what may happen after they die. But others appear to brush off the specter of death and sleep very well. “You die, then it’s oblivion,” one friend told me with a shrug. The possibility of a heavenly afterlife with the Lord of Light was simply dismissed.
When we were small, Mom instructed us to get on our knees before tucking us into bed. We prayed for each other, our parents and our pets and recited the little 18th century ditty, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I found the notion that God might sneak into our room and snatch one of us up during the night a bit discomfiting – but no more than thinking about what might have been lurking under the bed.
Shakespeare conflates sleep and death as Hamlet considers suicide in the wake of family treachery: “To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream--ay, there’s the rub,” he declares. But even dreaming seems no more promising to the prince than the “heartache and thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to.” The Bard himself, by the way, appears to have had more confidence in a beneficent Christian afterlife than his sweet Prince, as revealed in the playwright’s Last Will and Testament: “I commend my soul into the hands of God, my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, that through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.”
As Ms. Carattini writes, “(T)o admit there is no escaping the enemy of death is not to say we are left without an ally,” citing the claim in John 11: 25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live.”
“The one who made this claim,” the essayist concludes, “made it knowing that death would come to all of us, but (did so) longing to show the world that it is an enemy he would defeat. Perhaps sleep, then, providing a striking image of finite bodies that will lie down and cease to be, can simultaneously provide us a rousing image of bodies that will rise again.”
Now there’s the rub!
Read Jill’s essay here: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxvzKknhLPsNBRlzGCgcQjKcnGSK0
I was on a sales call. My prospect sold expensive late model cars. A luxury tax had been levied on high-priced automobiles and interest rates were sky high, throwing the economy into a tailspin. Business was bad, but this was nothing new. The dealership had been through enough downturns to know that for every valley there eventually is a corresponding high. However, they had several good salespeople on staff, and since customers were few and far between, they had to decide whether to let them go or keep the team together until the turnaround they knew was coming.
“You know, you just don’t throw people away,” the wife business owner said to the husband business owner, the thought lingering in the air between them. They looked at each other and smiled. The decision had been made -- and was not lost on me. I had a decision to make, too, and in a flash of inspired decisiveness, my mind got made up.
It is said that God speaks to us in many ways, sometimes through others, sometimes directly. He has told me “No!” from time to time when the answer I had been seeking was “Yes”. No matter how the message was delivered, it was clear Who had sent it and what path I must take.
Which reminds me of the time, richly detailed in the first chapter of Luke, when the angel Gabriel showed up in the temple with a message for Zacharias. As the old priest approached the altar to burn incense, what surely must have seemed like an apparition appeared to him and began speaking. The passage reports that Zacharias “was troubled, and fear fell upon him,” which seems perfectly understandable.
“Fear not, Zacharias,” Gabriel said (no doubt in the lilting words of the King James), “for thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord … and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.”
I picture Zacharias standing with mouth agape, Bic lighter dropped to the floor, religious task forgotten. But that was not all. God had a lot more to say to his servant Zacharias through the angel. Among other qualities, their son would become great in the sight of the Lord, would turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God and prepare them for the advent of Christ. All told, less than a minute’s worth of angel talk appears in the text - plenty of time to turn Zacharias’ knees to jelly.
“Whereby shall I know this?” the priest asked, “For I am an old man, and my wife is well stricken in years.”
I imagine his voice either quavering or maybe dripping with sarcasm, in either case a response born of one who clearly had been grappling with the realities of old age for some time. No matter, Gabriel did not receive Zacharias’ incredulity lightly.
“I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold,” continued the angelic messenger, about to lower the boom on the old man, “you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in time.”
Zacharias was struck dumb and unable to say anything to the people waiting outside as he left the temple. One can only imagine the thoughts coursing through his mind as he headed home to write a note to his wife and let her know what had happened. In time, Elizabeth did deliver a son, whom his father did, indeed, call John (by tracing his name on a tablet). With that grace note, Zacharia’s voice was restored. The child was to become John the Baptist.
I think of these events and wonder what might have transpired had I not taken God’s cue after hearing my husband and wife sales prospects refuse to let good people go during a time that did not bode well for their business. My life probably would have been quite different today had I listened to myself instead of trusting the Lord. Who knows, I may even have lost my voice!
Perhaps the Lord has a message for you as you ponder some weighty decision. It may come directly or through another person – maybe even an angel. If so, I suggest you take heed, even if God's plan for you isn't what you had in mind and, on top of that, seems completely impossible. Especially if you’re like me and “stricken in years.”
Because the truth is that when God speaks, you should listen!
We got rained on here recently – possibly as much as ten inches in ten days, thanks to a train of tropical thunderstorms that threaded up from the Gulf and never seemed to stop.
They were welcomed at first because we needed the moisture but then became a problem as angry, deep orange blotches of weather continued to darken our weather radar map and dump their loads on Piedmont North Carolina before moving on to wreak havoc in southern Virginia. The rain not only flooded our yard but saturated the soil so much that several large trees in the neighborhood simply fell over from their own weight.
Water also invited itself into our basement. By the time we thought to check, enough had seeped through the cinder block walls to soak the carpet and made its way into piles of boxes that had sat on the floor for decades.
This was the basement we’d threatened to clean out since the kids finished college, the one chock-a-block with years of school work, report cards and drawings stretching back to kindergarten. Plus ancient records from my business, stacks of moldering old magazines, shelves full of slides and videotapes and other would-be treasures that we'd ignored for the best part of 30 years. Well, so much for that. It was now rubber-meets-the-road time.
Out went a dozen or so second hand cabinets we’d thought to make into a basement kitchen. Heavy furniture and filing cabinets got moved so carpet that smelled like a high school locker room could be cut out piece by heavy piece and get dragged around the house and up to the driveway (mostly by my 37-year-old son, who finished one nasty job and miraculously was game for another). Platoons of boxes got sorted through, some soggy, some not; some kept, some not.
In a way, it was … fun. Our adult children pitched in, including a daughter who’d arrived from Seattle for the family’s annual beach reunion the previous week. We had all threatened since practically forever to get together and dig into the 40-odd years of would-be treasures that had accumulated “down there,” and, as Providence and enough rain enough to float a boat in would have it, this was the time. So we enjoyed our togetherness in the basement and during trips to the recycling center and dump. Grandchildren spiraled in and out of the work, as well, adding their brand of energy to the occasion. And there was plenty of food.
Which all sounds like a blessing to me.
Water is mentioned or referenced something over 700 times in the Bible, from Genesis, where God moved upon the waters, to Revelation’s, “pure river of water … clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.” But when I think of water in Scripture, the picture that comes most to mind is Jesus asleep on a cushion in the disciples’ fishing boat as a storm rages on the Sea of Galilee, with “waves breaking over the boat so it was being swamped." (Mark 4:38) The fear must have been great for them to dare awaken an exhausted Jesus (the unusually fierce storm appears to have arisen rather quickly and surprised the experienced fishermen). But awaken him they did, with words that don’t shout from the pages of Scripture as much as I think they could have but clearly must have been tinged with panic.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (I would have added a few exclamation points here, but Jesus appears to have responded to the crisis with equanimity.) “Then he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still.’ And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.” After which Jesus turned his attention to the storm raging in his disciples’ hearts.
“Why are you so fearful,” he questioned. “How is it that you have no faith? And they feared exceedingly and said to one another, ‘Who can this be that even the wind and sea obey him?’”
It’s so easy to panic when unanticipated storms blow into our lives, at least in my experience. And for believers it is so unnecessary, because our sovereign God - the Lord for whom all things are possible - is on the job, even when we’re so consumed with fear that we about fall over from our own weight. I’ve been there, and I’ll be there again, no doubt. But I can count on the Lord to show up every time, even if it takes a while for me to open the door of my fearful heart enough to let him in.
A little bit of water in the basement is no big deal, as it turned out. It was only a teacup full compared to the floods from Hazel, Hugo, Katrina and Harvey - or the monster hurricane that churned up the Connecticut River Valley in 1938. Our mom remembered watching from her front steps as river water bubbled up through the sewer grates, covered the street and ate the sidewalk before it climbed up the porch, snuck under the door, filled the basement and the whole first floor before leaving a mess that must have been leagues worse to deal with than our puny basement thing.
I never heard much about the cleanup part of her flood, although she loved pointing out the high water line on the kitchen wall. But I can still imagine her fear as the normally placid river reared up and invaded her life. But her flood passed, and so do mine.
Thanks to the Lord, asleep on a pillow in the back of my boat.
Some years ago I heard about a young woman who had lost some small object - a key, a ring, money; I don’t remember. What I do recall, however, is the way she set about looking for it.
At first, I was told, she was rather beside herself; the thing was valuable and appeared to have vanished. After a while, however, she made a choice that shocked me to my non-believing core: she turned her treasured object over to Jesus. I don’t remember much after that, whether she found what she was looking for or didn’t. I do recall thinking how passive and silly the woman appeared – bordering on superstitious. I didn’t get it. I didn’t know God or how God works.
In the parable of the lost coin, we see how God is thinking about people like me. Wanting us (or wanting us back). Wooing us even. Showering us with loving pursuit. Incessantly. It’s a minor miracle … maybe even a major miracle … that the Creator of the universe has his mind set on us.
“I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out,” God declares in Ezekiel.
No matter how deep we crawl back into ourselves during time of trial (or sin), God is there. No matter how deep the pit we find ourselves in, he is there – even as water in the pit keeps rising.
But God is waiting. Willing. Wanting … me.
“As shepherds seek out their flocks … so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” The Lord’s words.
Sheep are famously dumb. Guided by the intelligence of a stump, they will travel in circles through thickets of briars (while at the mercy of every wolf in the area) in search of some new patch of grass. That sounds a lot like us, wandering in circles in search of our own fresh patches of green. Like innocent little lambs, which is how we sometimes view ourselves, we get caught up in all sorts of thickets, while the devil sits on a tree branch grinning down at us (imagine the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland).
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” replied the cat.
“I don’t care where,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the cat.
My father-in-law, who occasionally flashed a Cheshire Cat grin, once told me, “If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter how you get there.” I think he may have cribbed that from Lewis Carroll, but no matter. The truth sticks regardless of where you hear it.
But God knows his sheep and pursues them – no matter where they go.
I recall having gone into an empty Catholic church some years ago, decades after I had left Catholicism behind in a fit of pique, and my eye was attracted to a bit of Scripture tacked to the back of a pew:
“You did not choose me. I chose you.” Which turned out to be John 15:16.
The possibility that God had chosen me, had pursued this wandering sheep through deep thickets of disdain and doubt, never occurred to me. If only I’d figured that out earlier and acquiesced to the Lord's purposes, how different my life may have been.
I once read in a little paperback called God’s Little Instruction Book that “Most people wish to serve God – but only in an advisory capacity.” In other words, “My plans are set, Lord. So please ratify them!” That’s not the way it works, I have discovered through considerable error and pain. As if to confirm the truth of this matter, the little book proceeded to quote Proverbs 16:3:
“Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.”
God’s ultimate triumph is in living his life through us, a process during which we are called to abandon any pretext that we are in control and trust him instead, turning all we are (and all we can ever be) over to the Lord and then letting him work our lives out as he will.
It can be unsettling, but the truth of Christ’s message is this: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Surrendering your life to God is not about losing all the good stuff about your present life and becoming some kind of boring religious automaton. It’s about living a transformed life – not a life of perfection, but one in which even our imperfections and disappointments can be used for the glory of God.
Non-believers, of course, will stand aghast upon hearing so radical a concept, like I did after hearing about the young woman who called on Jesus to find her vanished valuable. But we are so much more than some lost coin or wandering lamb to a sovereign God who has promised to find us and lead us to whatever patch of green he has in mind.
“For thus says, the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”
And to a wanderer like me, that’s no minor miracle!
Don’t know about you, but I can struggle as the Lord works to make me more like him and less like me. First Christ leads me one way, then life drags me another. So every day becomes a prayer for deliverance from myself. Perhaps the prayer below will help you as much as it helped me to write it -- and return to it from time to time.
Prayer for Deliverance
I pray, O Lord, for deliverance
from all the things I yearn for,
from fear and doubt and anger, too.
I pray, O Lord, for deliverance.
Show me, Lord, how to become more like you.
Show me the way of the servant,
seeking neither favor nor redress
and asking only for the certainty
and trust of belief.
I pray, O Lord, for deliverance
from all my petty concerns
and from the worry and discomfort of uncertainty.
I pray, O Lord, for deliverance,
to be a blessing, first to myself and then to others.
Show me, Lord, the way to your cup,
and grant me the Grace to drink of it freely.
Give me the strength, O Lord, to surrender
in my struggle and accept your peace.
I pray, O Lord, for deliverance
from all the things I yearn for.
I pray, O Lord, for deliverance
© 2009 by Brian E. Faulkner
Some days it's not easy to write, especially when words seem to have deserted you for the time being. It's not easy to go to school when a test looms or there's a bully on the playground. It's not easy to go out and jump your car battery on dark mornings when you'd rather stay in bed than go to work. Some days, it's even hard to pray. We've all been there. We may be there now.
Maybe especially believers, because when we cede our lives to Christ, we expect things to turn around like we’ve taken some kind of magic pill. Trouble is supposed to vanish like a lifting fog, and as soon as possible! But then, when illnesses don’t get healed and businesses still go bust and marriages crumble and your kid's college application gets lost in the mail and life’s disappointments continue unabated, what’s a believer to do?
Proverbs 3:5 suggests that we should trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding, which is where I go to get buoyed up when the world presses its weight down on me, those all-too-frequent times when neither reason nor prayer seem to be working. I know the truth of that verse from long experience, which goes on to say that if you acknowledge God’s presence in all your ways, he promises to make your path straight – though sometimes his "straight" can seem more like a maze to you.
When doubt assails and discouragement stalks the corridors of your mind, know that the promises of God are real promises. You don't have to feel they are just then, but know they are. And then behave like you believe them, because your behavior is part of your testimony.
When I was in the Army, a very long time ago, there was a middle-aged man who worked the morning chow line at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was a civilian who was getting paid to do the job, not a soldier who’d been shanghaied into doing it. This guy acted like he resented every scoopful of scrambled eggs or cream chipped beef he ever plopped on a soldier’s tray. So I decided to experiment on him.
“Good morning,” I offered the next day, rather matter-of-factly. He said nothing.
“Good morning,” I suggested the following day, with a bit more energy. The rest of the week went on like this, and on toward Friday he looked up with at me with a glare that said “Stop bothering me with this Good Morning routine.” It took ten days or so to get a reluctant smile out of the guy, which finally became a pleasant one that I actually missed on his days off.
Joshua Warren writes about a time he gave an upbeat national television interview when his heart wasn’t in it:
“My body was exhausted from an intense treatment for a chronic illness; a doctor had just reported that my dad would probably be dead in six months; and I felt like I was failing as a dad because I was spending too much time at work. I was lost in sea of depression and I couldn’t find my way home.”
But he put on a smile anyway. All appeared well.
“I pulled out my earpiece, thanked the producer, left the studio and felt the weight of the world creeping back onto my shoulders …”
We’ve all had days like that, when we have to put our best face forward despite the worries churning inside. And we’ve all had days when its hard work to muster a smile – at least if you’re anything like me.
A couple of years ago, my vacuum cleaner stopped working and not for the first time. Vacuuming has a way of wiping me out, so I was more than a bit grumpy, an attitude I decided to take along on a trip to the vacuum cleaner store, where I was prepared to vent years of frustration on whichever clerk was unlucky enough to greet me.
When I arrived, Clerk #1 was chatting on the phone and ignored me. Grrrrr! Clerk #2 was doing a demo for a harried-looking couple with a bored child – and I had to admit, her demo was unusually good and filled with useful product benefits. After a minute or so, she looked up from the pile of dust she’d just tossed on the carpet for her prospect to vacuum up, caught my eye and walked to the service counter. How can I help you today?” she chirped.
“My vacuum isn’t doing a good job. “
“How’s that?” (gently stated)
“It picks up practically nothing – just blows air around. I have to pick stuff up with my fingers.”
“How long has it been doing that?”
“Years. Almost forever.”
At that, she reached down under the counter and retrieved something, which she held up between two fingers, swinging it tantalizingly back in forth in front of my eyes. A belt, about four inches around.
“I think your belt is broken.”
“I didn’t know I had a belt.”
“If the belt is broken, the beater bar won’t turn and the motor will just suck air. Like you said.”
Hmmm … “How much is a belt?”
“Two for ten-bucks.”
“How ‘bout one for five bucks? I only need one.” (with only the tiniest hint of grumpiness).
She placed the belt in one hand as I fumbled for my wallet with the other.
“Put that away.”
“You’re GIVING me this belt?”
“Yes,” she said, eyes darting back to where her prospects had finished cleaning up the demo carpet and were about to convince their kid that the upright vacuum they were about to buy was, in fact, a dust robot.
“Why … thanks!” I said (really meaning it). “You’ve made my day.”
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that, “since we have received (Christ’s) ministry, we do not lose heart … For it is the God ‘who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts …” He goes on to speak of a “treasure in earthen vessels,” and even though we may be “hard pressed on every side,” we carry the life of Christ in us ready to shine forth -- despite our earthly distresses and discomforts.
“So let’s be good to the cashier,” Joshua compels in his article, “our child’s teacher, the person driving poorly in traffic, our co-worker and/or our parents. Let’s give others the grace we all need (because) everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Including the grumpy guy working the chow line. And possibly even the grumpy guy inside me!
Our fuzzy little calico cat woke me up earlier than expected this morning. Usually she stays curled in back of the radio on my bedside table and waits for me to stir. Not today. It was clear by the note in her voice that she wanted me to rise to the new day on her timetable, not mine. She had no idea (and possibly did not care) that it had been well after midnight by the time I’d fallen asleep, after too much Netflix and “just one more chapter” in a page-turner of a book about American helicopter pilots out to snatch a spy from deep inside Russia. Nor did she appreciate my two trips to the bathroom as the night wore on. I whisked her off the bed a few times, but she was back in a flash. I checked the clock to confirm the early hour and turned away. She tapped me on the head. I turned back.
“Go away …” I pleaded, guarding my head with a pillow, which she immediately began kneading with her paws. Cats do that to show affection, they say, but I’ve always found it irritating.
“Stop it!” I said in a not so appreciative voice, flipped her to the floor again and began drifting back into the ozone. That’s when I remembered my very strange dream and decided that the cat (whose name is Onion for no good reason that I’ve ever figured) had done me a favor by rescuing me from deep inside what wasn’t quite a nightmare but certainly bordered on one.
The dream was of home, the house and street where I’d grown up and left more than five decades back. I’d dreamed about the house many times over the years, sometimes in snippets that resembled the 8mm movies my dad had taken of me and my brothers as we turned two and four and fourteen and eighteen and finally flew away. Other times, my dreams involved driving down our street and not being able to stop at our house because strangers lived there. My parents sold the place during the late ‘80s and moved to Florida. Strangers do live there now. What's more, they've constructed a two-car garage on our side yard, the one where we used to play baseball. And they've thrown up a tall wooden fence all around. Fine and good for them, but it doesn't do a thing for my prying eyes.
Today’s pre-dawn dream about our house was more disconcerting than disturbing, if one can even draw a line like that. The town was overgrown with elm trees that reached out for my youngest brother and me like brooding branches from a horror film (the real trees were cut down long ago to thwart the spread of Dutch Elm Disease). Rod Serling couldn’t have come up with a darker, more misshapen setting, a twilight zone of shadowed gray light within which our street played a twisted version of itself as we made our way along looking for familiar landmarks. There were none, no neighbors and houses we recognized. Most alarming, our house also was nowhere to be seen. And if that wasn’t unsettling enough, the street proceeded to transform itself into a tall concrete bridge. We could look down from it and see other streets and houses and cars below -- and (oddly) a pack of smirking coyotes staring up at us, as if to ask what we were doing in their dream.
A man came along (a pleasant fellow, kind of young, not at all macabre) and pointed to our house number tacked on a gatepost. A staircase beckoned us to descend (to a place where we presumably would find the house itself), and just as my brother started through the gate, I heard a small cat crying in the distance.
Time to wake up …
For some reason, this nightmare scenario got me wondering about home, and that got me wondering about heaven-as-home and what to expect there – after I’d fed and watered the cats, of course. Scripture doesn’t have much to say on the subject and only mentions the famed streets of gold in one Revelation passage, which describes an elaborate, be-jeweled second Heaven in which people will “need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” That certainly appeals. But what appeals more is Christ’s oft-cited promise in John 14:
In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
I don’t picture rows of McMansions lining golden streets but, rather, a simple “abiding place,” as suggested by the original Greek.
“Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone,” writes C.S. Lewis, “because you were made for it – made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.” I think of homes I have visited and felt truly at ease. I think of my family’s home when I was, say, nine or ten (with all our neighbors present and accounted for and no smirking coyotes). I think of a place that’s been tucked deep in my imagination since I was a young man, a warm and welcome home created “stitch by stitch” just for me. With family close at hand, an endless supply of good books, a cozy nook to write in – and maybe one little cat to awaken me each morning, without doing the kneading thing on my pillow.
That’s Heaven enough for anybody, don’t you think?
Oh, how we hate having others tell us what to do! We value our independence, yes, and are conditioned from childhood to “stand on our own two feet,” but also are asked to live our lives within boundaries set by society - parents, teachers, etc. By the time we finish our "education", we’re so tired of being told the ways things are supposed to be that we fairly leap out into the world and begin charting a new course, one of our own making, and sometimes stray so far from the values prescribed by our upbringing that, within a few years, we hardly recognize ourselves. The way we look, think and act changes, often to the dismay of our parents, who forget that they once trod a similar path and grappled with many of the same issues as they roll their eyes at their offspring’s behavior today.
This experimentation with life at the borderline may be one reason we bristle so at the idea of organized “religion,” especially the oh-so-dogmatic and narrow proclamations of the church. We begin scratching the itch of other ideas, fresh ways of relating to the Cosmos, and encounter spiritual paths far different than the one we were taught because, after all, there are easier paths to God, aren’t there? That old Sunday school God seems so outdated in a world of otherness: rational thinking, diverse opinion and "fairness".
So we stumble around in our exuberant blindness, preferring to come to grips with the world on our own rather than have Somebody Else direct us, not comprehending that God has a plan, a great gift, wrapped up for us and ready to go. Instead, we slash at life’s briars and brambles, chopping our way through whatever forest of circumstance we are lost in, using improvised tools rather than the precision ones God has crafted for us. We keep tripping and falling but are expected to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again,” as a popular song from several generations back once suggested.
Which works pretty well, until the problems start. That’s when we discover, sometimes suddenly, often painfully, that life doesn’t always follow an easy path. Hope gets shattered in so many ways: accidents happen, jobs vanish, health deserts us, people disappoint. Beautiful dreams vanish as if they'd never existed, and we are left confronting dashed desires with little understanding or appreciation for what has been going on or where to turn next. Or maybe nothing dramatic happens and life goes on pretty much as expected -- except for that gnawing feeling of emptiness creeping up on us from behind. We drift off the path. Relationships weaken and falter, the ones that were supposed to last forever. We forget (or perhaps never knew) about God’s promises, and sometimes all that just seems so far away. Didn't God promise to bless us? At least that’s what we recall hearing in Sunday School.
God did promise to bless a man named Abram, although we forget that before the blessing came trouble. Abram, along with his wife Sarai and their extended family, decided to flee the land the Lord had promised him. Famine was afoot, so they packed up and moved to Egypt, and lest you think that sounds easy, Abram was 75 years old and they had to haul all their belongings with them. Eventually, he had a major tiff with Pharaoh over Sarai and was sent packing “with his wife and all that they had” back to the place they had started from in the Negeb Desert.
So much wandering and wondering.
Then Abram received another promise from the Lord, even after a good deal of whining about not having an heir. Consider God’s astonishing response to the future Patriarch: “Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants for ever. I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (Gn 13:14)
Even later, after rescuing his brother’s son Lot and defeating a group of warring kings. momentary difficulties from which the Bible spares us the difficult details, the Lord reminded Abram that his “reward shall be very great.” (Gn 15:1)
God’s promise had been spoken (several times now), and Abram had been put through a good fire or two, but still he persisted in going his own way instead of waiting on the Lord. It’s HARD to wait! Waiting does not come naturally or pleasantly to most of us – certainly not to me. The older we get, the more we grouse and grumble about what has yet to happen in our lives and the easier it is to take things in our own hands and try to make them happen (the way the world has conditioned us) rather than wait on God.
When Ishmael, Abram’s son by his wife’s handmaid Hagar, was born (this was barren Sarai’s strategy to take things in her own hands and produce an heir), Abram was 86. It would be thirteen years before he heard again from the Lord. Abram was a year shy of 100 when God reminded him of the promise: “I am God almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly … and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham … I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you …” (Gn 17:1)
Then God added icing to Abram’s cake, promising to give Sarai, whom God had renamed Sarah, a child (the name change expressed the Lord’s new covenantal relationship with Sarah) . Abraham must have thought that the promise of a child the best joke of all time, because “he fell on his face and laughed.” By that time, Sarah was 90, and the likelihood of this old couple having a baby was as remote as their youthful dreams. And, besides, there was Ishmael, the son born to Hagar, to consider. Here’s this perfectly good kid already growing up, so why can't he carry on the line? Nope. That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen. God had other plans for Ishmael. And for them.
Even so, it's easy to look the world in the eye and disbelieve. “After I have grown old and my husband is old,” Sarah exclaimed, laughing to herself after having eavesdropped on Abraham’s conversation with the Lord, “shall I have pleasure?” (Gn 18:12)
The Lord heard Sarah's doubtful laugh and inquired of Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” He might well have added “in time,” because so many years separated the time when Abram and Sarai fled to Egypt as a young couple and the birth of Isaac, when Abraham was over one hundred. In between, there were times of trial and torment, happy everyday life, multiple changes of direction dictated by circumstance and growing doubt that God’s promises would ever come true. Not to mention the stubborn decisions to take things into their own hands because they were tired of waiting, although Abraham did pass the Lord's final test on Mount Moriah with flying colors and the world was transformed as a result.
As so many biblical stories reveal, God frequently allows us to work ourselves into situations from which there seems no escape, little hope for redemption short of his sure hand. But we love our independence and, therefore, often find ourselves flopping around like fish on a hook. We miss out on God's great blessing, the gift he's been waiting for us to open since the beginning of time. We miss out on being used by God. We miss what could prove to be the most satisfying -- and surprising -- adventure of our lives. So, when doubt, despair and discouragement seem overwhelming and life isn't working out the way you might have imagined, consider ceding everything you are and everything you'd ever hoped to be to God. Then watch what happens.
Because nothing is too hard for the Lord.
A friend emailed me a goose story not long ago that hung around my inbox for a good while before I opened it. It was a CBS Sunday Morning story from Lake Oswego, Oregon. The piece opens as a Canada goose lifts up from the lake and lands on the seat of a slowly moving speedboat, as if such a thing is perfectly normal. The man in the boat, Mike, picks the goose up, tosses it back in the water and then guns the boat, leaving the bird behind. Undeterred at this rudeness, the goose takes to the air in pursuit. Matching its speed to the boat through a deft combination of flaps, glides and stalls, it touches down on the seat in front of Mike and folds its wings - while the boat keeps moving. This time, the goose is allowed to remain.
Turns out the bird and the man are old friends. Mike found her as a fuzzy gosling struggling in the lake, no parent in sight. He named her Kyle and proceeded to raise her at his lakeside home. Two years later, the goose had grown and it was more than time for her to return to the wild. Except that she wouldn’t go.
“I tried to get rid of her,” Mike says. “I’ve driven her miles away and then left her in the middle of nowhere, and when I come back she’s already home before me."
Which reminds me of another “coming home” story.
Going on thirty years ago, I slipped into a church sanctuary one day, more out of curiosity than anything. After decades away from religion, God had been trying to get my attention, using hard times as a tool. There were hints of his presence woven through my difficulties, and as much as I could have used the help, I struggled with the idea of handing my troubles, my life, over to Someone I could barely comprehend. The sanctuary was still. Votive candles winked their welcome down in front by the altar, while a thin shaft of morning light filtering through stained glass reflected off the pews and made the place seem a bit less intimidating. I slipped into a back pew, like my mother did when she took us kids to church (she got woozy in crowds and needed to be close to the door).
A card on the back of the next pew caught my eye right away. “You did not choose me,” it read in bold type, “but I chose you.” What an astonishing declaration! I can’t say I knew that God had reached out and chosen me at that moment – or had chosen me before I born, especially after my having tossed him aside those many years back, but his words stuck and became one of the faith building blocks that led eventually to my acquiescence to Christ as Lord of my life.
The notion of God as a Lover who pursues – even woos - us with passion has always been mildly disturbing to me, perhaps because of my overall unease with romantic expression. But then along comes a story about a bird named Kyle and a man named Mike. Is it love or merely an imprint? Does it matter? Simply put, Kyle has chosen Mike and never gives up on him – even when he rejects her. And, for whatever reason and by whatever mechanism, the Lord appears to choose us in much the same way.
Now that’s a story worth telling!
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit--fruit that will last--and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. John 15:16 NIV