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.
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 - our 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 bewildering forest we find ourselves 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 begin. 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 their families and their considerable 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 covenant 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 it's true. 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