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.
I tell my grandchildren lots of stories, many made up on the fly. Two neighbors from my childhood appear occasionally in these bedtime tales, probably because they were so different (and so memorable) to a young New England boy who pretty much grew up with people cut from the same 1950s Irish-English cloth.
Stella and Joe were Sicilian and direct from the Old Country. We lived side by side on an ordinary street in an ordinary Massachusetts town. Stella loomed large to my brothers and me. She was buxom and booming. At full throttle her voice could be heard up and down the block, and she wasn't shy about using it. Joe was her opposite: around five feet tall and sinewy thin, He walked in a stoop--almost laboriously--and never had much to say beyond a dismissive wave.
They lived on the middle floor of a triple-decker smack beside our driveway, which meant that when Stella got mad at Joe and Joe got made at Stella, it was hard to miss what they had to say. We could hear their quarrels (at least Stella's part in the quarrel) even when the windows were closed on that side of our house.
Joe and Stella mostly stayed to themselves, unless one of us worked up some kind of mischief and became targets of a well-stocked inventory of American scold words mixed in with her Italian. Joe mostly mumbled under his breath, gestured with his hands and fingered his twirly mustache in a way that clearly signaled that we dare not ever again chase a ball or a pet past the courses of brown twine that separated his vegetable garden from the rest of the world. I leave Joe to another story, however. This is about Stella.
Stella's kitchen is where we saw her most, She spent a good deal of time there, sometimes concocting aromatic red sauces prepared from tomatoes grown by Joe in his garden, and nothing could get your juices flowing faster than imagining a forkful of pasta loaded with Stella's homemade sauce that our mom had saved over 'til winter. But this was summer, the one week of maddening hot days that would lay over temperate New England like a wet cloth during August. So Stella kept her kitchen window flung open, because that was about the only air-conditioning most of us had back then. We could hear her running water, clanking pots and scolding the green and yellow parakeet she kept for company while Joe worked his garden on the other side of the triple-decker.
"Bad Johnny!" she would shout, "No bite!" And when the bird cracked seeds and tossed husks on the floor, it was, "No seed! Johnny -- no seed!" (Note here that I decline to write the way she spoke. It sounded something like "BAD-uh Johnny! No BITE-uh!" You had to have been there.)
One day Stella left the cage door open and Johnny made his escape. The way I tell it to my grandchildren he circles the kitchen twice before flitting out the open window and across our driveway to the biggest tree in the yard, only to vanish in perfect camouflage. Stella apparently had seen this happen only out of the corner of her eye, because she was late to the party. By the time she reached the window, the bird was nowhere in sight.
"Johnny! Johnny!" she wailed, hanging an ample portion of her considerable self outside the window while gesturing toward the sky with flapping arms and an anguished look on her face. "Bad bird!" she wailed into the still summer air. "Come back, Johnny, come back!" To us kids watching from below this was mighty tasty amusement, but to Stella, Johnny's sudden freedom clearly ranked somewhere between a very bad dream and the end of her world.
Johnny eventually did come back. In my story, he flies in the window, returns to his cage and is chirping contentedly on his swing before she even notices him. Then the cage door gets latched, the window gets closed and the story comes to a happy end.
Scripture tells us that life can contain more anguish than good and that being a Christian does not protect us from either vanishing parakeets or full-out tragedy. There is no divine shield against hard times, and in a paradoxical sort of way that can be comforting.
Romans 8:28 assures us that "All things work together for good for those that love God and are called to his purpose." It actually says "We know that all things work together for good ... ". We know bad stuff could be around the corner -- or is happening now, but we are confident that the Lord will see us through it.
Abandoning one's self in favor of God's purposes (whatever they may be) and then trusting him for the results -- giving yourself over to the Lord's way instead of your own,tests our will and allows us to weave our faith into the tapestry of everyday life without demanding immediate relief from adversity.
So the next time you find yourself wailing out the window because your bird has flown – or something far, far worse has befallen you, consider what we know: that “All things work together for good for those that love God and are called to his purpose."
It's a conundrum almost impossible to grasp until you’ve been there, but as you apply this truth to your own experience, you will get it in time and come to know with deep, abiding certainty that God is with you as much -- or more -- in your storms as your good times.
Came across a thought by Richard Foster this evening in his discussion of Christian simplicity. He was discoursing about the spot in Luke 6 where the disciple is talking about not laying up one’s treasures on Earth but in heaven. Treasures are whatever you tend to hold too close, he wrote, in relating a story about his young sons' cherished objects:
“When I looked into what these objects were, I was frequently amazed, for they may have been only some shiny stones, or an odd-looking stick, or a pile of rubber bands. But for my children, these were coveted treasures.”
My own son had bins of small metal cars that he played with incessantly. Now his sons play with them. I have pictures of my son and his son down at floor level gazing over rows of these colorful little objects – the same image in each case but taken thirty years apart. One of my daughters took possession of an old t-shirt of mine when she was maybe three or four and proceeded to love the thing to shreds. She called it her Blue Daddy’s Shirt (caps intended, because this truly was a treasured object). I don’t recall what become of that heavenly scrap of cloth. For all I know she has it yet, secure in some private stash in Seattle, where she lives with her own child, now seven and busy secreting away his own priceless stuff.
We all have our hidden places and treasured things. Bureau drawers are full of them. Up and down our streets, throughout our towns and cities and across the world: buttons and coins, commemorative pins, nubs of pencils and dried flowers; photo booth pictures and the diminutive pocket watch your mother wore around her neck when she rocked you to sleep lie in wait of memories -- small riches of every sort. And then there are those other treasures. They are the big things, the consequential: houses and mortgages, savings, investments, love, marriage, children, retirement, death, family and friends, identity, education, attainment, position, privilege, power, reputation, wealth and justice – or the lack of them. They may not seem like treasures but can be the ones we grip most tenaciously because they define and rule us. As Foster suggests, “whatever we fix as our treasure will take over our whole life.”
It seems natural to want to hold onto our stuff, whether physical things or wishes, hopes, fears, beliefs, and attitudes. The story is told both in Matthew and Luke of the wealthy young man who approached Jesus and asked what he must do to attain eternal life. The Lord replied with a short list of commandments, to which the man replied, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?”
That’s when Jesus lowered the boom.
“If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor and then you will have treasure in heaven,” the Lord said. The man went away sad.
He wasn’t being asked to sell all his possessions because the poor needed them (even though they do). He was being asked to release and let fall away the thing that was most encrusting his life and to trust in Him instead. In the case of the wealthy young man, it was money. In my case or yours it easily could be wealth that makes us anxious … or even the absence of wealth.
But Foster explains: Now “that the Kingdom of God has burst upon the human scene,” we can live “scandalously free from anxiety … in a new, glorious inner liberty … knowing that all things needful will be provided.”
Imagine placing your burdens on the Lord who promises rest for the weary and heavy laden. Imagine discovering that those things that used to matter so much no longer matter so much. Imagine letting go the leash of worry. Imagine barnacles that cling falling away. Imagine a life with infinitely greater fulfillment, a transformed life. Because when we seek first the Kingdom of God and trust in his (divinely ordained) purposes, we can be certain that our path will be guided by Providence and that everything we require for our journey will be provided.
Now that’s exciting. That’s freedom!
* Freedom of Simplicity, Richard J. Foster, Harper Collins, 1973, pp. 40-41
Late one Sunday afternoon, during a pause between worrying about one thing then another, I flipped through a couple of Reddit pages and came upon a video that turned my low mood into one of such high delight that I had to watch it several times.
It didn’t run much more than a minute. There was no voice over, just video, some light ukulele music and a few titles in what looked like made-up words but could have been Dutch.
Scene 1 was a grocery store shelf. We see someone inspecting half a dozen or more small mottled bird eggs nested in a cardboard container wrapped with plastic. Hands turn the package over, looking at it this way and that, as if saying, “Well, what do we have here …?”
Scene 2 finds the spotted eggs being placed in what appears to be a home-brew incubator. Soon, one egg gives a little wiggle. The shell breaks open, and two pink feet emerge (rather large ones compared to the size of the egg). A soggy-looking brown chick then makes its way into the world, where a man cups it in his hands.
In the next scene, the chick – that we know from the title to be a quail – is dry and fluffed up. And then is shown running on those big feet up the man’s chest, where it tucks itself under his chin and settles in the fellow’s curly black beard.
I recall standing on a beach many years ago. It must have been late autumn or early winter because an ice-edged wind was blowing from the sea and I was dressed more for snow than sun. Suddenly, a tiny bird flew in from the sea and landed on my shoulder, a songbird that somehow had found itself in flight over more ocean than it had bargained for and was hauling buggy back to shore. It stood there catching its breath for no more than ten seconds before flitting off toward the dune grass.
I recall the passage in Matthew where Jesus talks about how our heavenly Father feeds the birds without their having to plant or reap or stow their food in barns, which I take also to include little birds that almost get made into omelets and those that wander too far out over the ocean.
“Are not you more valuable than they?” he asks his disciples, who had been busy scratching at their own concerns. “Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air …”
It’s such a lovely and comforting image, worth recalling when worry comes and steals the sense out of you. Prayer on the wing.
A stolen Sunday nap this day found me drifting in memories of a New England mountain lake where my family used to vacation during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Seen from the air, which I was privileged to do thanks to a friend with a pilot’s license, the lake sparkled like a glittering blue diamond set in the surrounding hills. From a rowboat in its center, I often became mesmerized by glowing shafts of sunlight descending into the water until they could be seen no more. I wondered if they would ever reach the bottom.
This lake appears more and more in my dreams as old age sneaks up on me. It may be that I’m yearning for a return to a time when life was unmarred by anything more demanding than rowing the boat back home in time for a picnic lunch with my mom, dad, brothers and friends from across the inlet. Much of my young life was spent either at the lake or thinking about being at the lake – at least that’s how it seemed, although the truth was that our vacation never lasted more than a single week per summer in a rented cottage.
For some reason of late, I have folded memories of that lake into thoughts of the disciples in the days between Christ’s crucifixion and his reappearance on the road to Emmaus. It’s easy to imagine how they must have felt during that difficult time. Their Messiah, whose promise had been brighter than sunlight, had been taken away and put to death in an especially cruel and public way, sending the disciples sinking into the depths of despair. All seemed lost. Black clouds troubled their minds, wind and rain whipping their tranquil lake into a froth of confusion. They were about to become mere fishermen again instead of soldiers in a commanding cause led by a God-man whom they believed had come to save them from the Romans. He had been the Promised One, but now it appeared that the Light of their world had been extinguished, lost even to hope’s most feeble grasp.
But we know about the Easter they did not, that the darkness of Good Friday was but the beginning of Light, that hope was not lost but about to be born anew in the reappearance of their risen Savior.
The storm abates. The sun appears, sending its life-giving light deep into even the darkest waters of our lives. There is no need to despair, because that darkness has been vanquished by the Light of Christ. Forever.
Prayer: Lord, lead us out of the darkness of our lives and into the light of your Truth. And help us live accordingly.
This past weekend my four-year-old grandson Augie got himself crammed into a van with his grandmama and a gaggle of female relatives as the only male allowed to join them for a three-day visiting and shopping extravaganza known as Girlsweekend.
Augie was game because (1) he doesn’t get to see his grandmama that often, because (2) he mostly stays at home with a younger brother and a mommy on the cliff’s edge of giving birth to another boy while Dad teaches math at a nearby college, and because (3) he wanted to have fun, which from all reports he did, mostly in the company of his lively girl cousin Opal, who’s close to his age and every bit a match for his verbal acuity.
The trip went well, I am told, until Augie suddenly began crying on the way from one spot to another, locales likely to appeal to middle-aged women, their grown daughters and a prospective daughter-in-law. He got so wrought up so fast that the ladies didn’t quite know what to make of it. The culprit proved to be a sliver lodged in his right index finger, an unwelcome fellow traveler that clearly had joined the Girlsweekend already in progress. His mother had told him that the thing would work itself out … in time. But my mother used to say that, too, and sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn’t, which caused Mom to take a hot needle to it.
Augie clearly had not forgotten about his sliver and no doubt had been fingering the bugger since he boarded the van. Finally, he’d had enough and let the ladies thus assembled know about it. After a fair piece of soothing, he quieted down.
“Don’t worry, Augie,” they assured. “Those things DO eventually work their way out.”
My grandson was having none of that, however, and startled one and all by pleading in a heart-rending voice, “Will someone please pray for me? Will someone please pray for me?!”
I suspect (but do not know on account of I wasn’t there and because the van was mostly filled with Bible-believing churchgoers) that a whole lot of praying got done rather quickly for the relief of Augie’s sliver, which got soaked in warm, soapy water that evening and seemed a lot better.
I know you’ve felt like that. I certainly have.
“Will someone please pray for me?!” I want it. I need it. And sometimes forget to ask.
But the Bible says we don’t have to ask, because the Spirit “intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26) – a most heartening thought. So from tiny fingers with slivers to life’s biggest, knottiest conundrums, true believers can take comfort in knowing they’ve already been prayed for.
If Augie had known this, his wound might not have seemed so great. At just over halfway between four and five, he has only begun to grasp the intercessory reality of the living Christ, who knows what it’s like when life hurts like crazy. All he knew right then was that there was a whole van full of people who loved God -- and loved him -- right there for the asking.
And that was good enough.
(written in fall of 2015)
What if you woke up one morning and realized, as sure as the dawn tapping on your window, that you’ve missed the boat? That your ship has sailed without you.
As your heart sinks toward the pit gathering in your stomach, you wonder – perhaps for the first time, but probably more often than you can count – what your life was meant
to be, what you were destined to have accomplished but have not.
This is not about having a bucket list or mere goal setting. It’s learning how to live as perfect a life as possible this side of Heaven. It’s about letting God define your purpose in this world rather than trying to figure it out in your own strength.
The Bible calls this losing your life in order to save it.
Some years ago, a friend of deep and abiding faith had P-E-R-F-E-C-T put on his license plate. He was not at all arrogant. In fact, he was as humble, loving and genuinely imperfect as most of us can be, but because of those seven bold letters shouting from the back of his car, people read him wrong.
One Scriptural description of “perfect” that I came across recently defines what I’m getting at: wanting nothing necessary for completeness except that which God will provide. As in “Let patience have her perfect work so that you will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:4) That’s what my friend was getting at on his license plate.
If you’re anything like me, and I believe we’re probably more alike than not, it’s likely that this is the first time you’ve come across this idea. You may have heard about God’s saving grace and Christ being the narrow gate through which you access this grace, borne on the wings of forgiveness. And you’ve probably heard about making Jesus your Lord as well as your Savior. But what does this have to do with that ship … the one that appears to have set sail without you?
Everything. As astonishing as it sounds, God has a divine plan for each one of us, no matter how many years we’ve been woolgathering on this ancient planet, a perfect way of living. And he wants you to know what it is.
Another friend used to tell the story of listening for the train. He grew up in Chicago, and there was a railroad line nearby that his parents told him to stay away from, which (of course) he did not. I can imagine him and his friends discussing how they’d wait ‘til the last second before jumping off the track to let the train roar by, which (of course) they did not. What my friend did do, however, was put his ear to the cool steel rail, where he discovered that, in time, he could detect the vibrations of an approaching train long before he could see it.
Sometimes God blinds you with light like he did Saul on the Damascus road, but most often he speaks quietly, whispering in the background of your life, tugging at your heart in quiet, unexpected ways ... the train in the distance.
I’d like to think that my Chicago friend eventually found his ship and set sail putting his prodigious talents to work for God’s purposes. Had he done so, I am convinced that the world today would be a greatly improved place. Had he not, what a fabulous waste. There is (of course) a good possibility that he still has his ear to the track and is listening.
Back in the 1950s, my grandmother watched Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Life Worth Living television program religiously. In fact, nothing would stand in her way -- except possibly the Boston Red Sox. Had a game been on at the same time, the good bishop may have been out of luck. Sheen was a pioneering radio and TV broadcaster, perhaps the earliest true televangelist, and so great was his popularity (and preaching skill) that he won two national Emmy Awards during his career. Up to 30-million viewers tuned in each week to hear him ad lib his sermon. He had a wonderful voice and an assuring manner, and although born in Illinois, sometimes revealed a hint of Irish brogue (at least to my ears).
That would have been the clincher for my grandmother, who was born every inch a Doyle.
In time, Sheen was named an archbishop of the Catholic Church and eventually put in line to become a saint. My grandmother knew none of this, of course, but she considered the bishop she invited into her living room every Tuesday evening at eight o’clock on a par with John F. Kennedy (who could do no wrong) and Carl Yastrzemski, Boston’s left fielder and RBI king over 23 years with the Sox.
For some reason I associate the song If Everyone Lit Just One Little Candle, What a Bright World This Would Be with Bishop Sheen’s program. It was a hit by Perry Como back then, so the song and Sheen likely had no real connection except in my mind. What I recall more clearly, however, is an image of a lone candle lighting the show’s open.
The word light appears 272 times in the King James Bible and infuses Holy Scripture with its presence: Jesus is the light of the world; The lord is my light and salvation, etc. I was reminded of these truths anew this late winter morning when I noticed well over a dozen turtles sunning themselves on two logs in the pond in back of my house, the big ones on the big log, the small ones lined up helter-skelter on the smaller log. They had pulled themselves from the cold muck at the bottom of the pond and risen into the light, attracted by the warming sun. This may not be as poetic as Bishop Sheen’s words would have been, but the analogy works for me!
A luminary of a different sort, J.K. Rowling, wrote in one of her Harry Potter books that “We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.” Do we rise to the surface following the “light of a star” (per Bishop Sheen) or are we content to lie in darkness, as Nietzsche wrote in comparing man’s struggle toward the Divine with a tree: “The more he seeks to rise into the height and light, the more vigorously do his roots struggle earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep.”?
It’s a lot easier for most of us (certainly me) to remain dozing deep within our selves than it is to allow the Divine to lead the way -- in contrast to the turtles lined up on their logs that clearly have no more choice in rising toward the sun than they have in breathing. I may have gotten Bishop Sheen mixed up with Perry Como’s hit song way back in my mind, but there is truth to be had in linking the two, because when we give way to the illumination of that One Little Candle, it leads us out of our self-imposed darkness and into the Light.
Where life ... we learn in time ... is really worth living.
Had a chance encounter with my amiable neighbor one April morning as he returned from his morning walk while I rescued our newspaper from the ditch. We soon were chatting about one of my favorite backyard scenes.
Newspaper securely in hand, I led him toward a spot on my property where the yard fell away toward a small lake – more a decent-sized pond. By this time, spring had grown somewhat long in the tooth, . My favorite dogwood tree was now weeks past its glory and not easily picked out among its new-green neighbors.
In autumn, I told him, that dogwood leaps into view, its leaves painted in crimson delight. Its reflection shimmering on the pond’s surface reminds me of Monet. Had I the talent to do so, I would rush for my brushes and capture the impression so completely, so memorably, that art students would be discussing the work’s fragile beauty a hundred autumns hence.
It was impossible to adequately describe the lingering image to my neighbor -- that glowing tree, set against the deep hue of the pond as shafts of sunlight illuminated the early morning mist rising from the lake. I like to think that’s how it may have been in the first days of this world as God set about creating it and found the words to describe his work for all eternity:
“Let there be light!” he said. And there was … and God saw that the light was good.
I get that. Maybe not all of it, but enough to have gotten my morning (and perhaps
my neighbor’s morning) off to a good start.
And that is good.