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.
What is there about sudden tragedy that attracts people? For some, it's curiosity. For others, it's their job, and still others are driven by an inner drive to help that's so strong they can't not give assistance.
Remember television footage of the Boston Marathon bombing? After a few long seconds to process what has happened, even before the runners stop running, first responders -- and even some onlookers -- are seen heading into the danger zone. For most of us, the natural impulse in a situation like that is to get out of harm's way as quickly as possible, but others stride in the opposite direction.
They are uncommon angels, people who willingly embrace the chaos and tend to the injured without seeming to consider their own safety. Blood flow is stanched, wounds are tended, a shirt off one man's back helps stabilize another man's broken leg. Evil is beat back.
It's the sort of thing that happens every day around our world, albeit at a slower pace and out of sight of the TV cameras: unheralded acts of personal kindness, prayer shaped by hearts and wrought by hands. Health is restored, minds are mended. Money is given, solace provided, tears wiped dry. Christ walks among the helpless, touching here, healing there. He bends to serve the sick and whispers hope to the hopeless, sits patiently by the bedsides of the old and neglected (who are us or one day may be us), listening to the stories of people whose hearts otherwise might break under the crushing burden of their loneliness.
It is He who carries the light. All at once. All day every day. In the dark, hidden places where hurt lingers, love is given. Freely, and without condition.
And Jesus lives.
Trust is a tough call these days. A discouraging share of what we hear turns out not to be true: claims from politicians, investment bankers, car salesmen, TV talking heads, lawyers, doctors, public authorities and whoever it is that's responsible for preserving our pensions. Sometimes we can’t trust the people we know to call us back when they say they will, including relatives, friends and neighbors. Even “religious” people fail to keep their word from time to time.
People like us. People like me.
Trust seems to have lost much of its footing over the years, having metamorphosed from a bedrock value into little more than a half-hearted promise. We want to trust. We hope to trust. But sometimes, even we can’t be trusted -- not because of some outsized moral deficiency, but because we simply forget the things we’ve promised in the blizzard of busyness surrounding us.
But God asks us to trust him, in small things and with our very lives. For many of us, however, the notion of trusting God for our lives borders on bizarre and cuts across the grain of independence that runs like a red-white-and-blue streak through American notions of success.
As worldly people, we're expected to compete in a bootstraps-tough work environ-ment, cobble our dreams together on our own and plot a course. Then, if things don't work out, we get to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again, as Ginger Rogers told a discouraged Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936). What we're taught from the time we're knee-high to a pile of self-help books is that each of us succeeds according to his or her unique talents, abilities, cleverness and drive.
But what if there's something else? Another path.
It never occurred to me in my try-this, try-that experimental approach to life that God may have a future in mind other than the one I had in mind and that if I set it aside I may miss taking a different, more fruitful path. During a particularly difficult stretch when not much was working either at work or at home, I came across a paper heart floating in a fresh puddle of rainwater, no doubt dropped there by a child from the church across the way. But maybe it wasn't an accident; could be I was meant to find that paper heart with its eight simple but revolutionary words: Trust in the Lord with all your heart. To say that it changed my life is a king-sized understatement, although change (and faith) did not come right away but slowly, finding tentative foothold in life's day-to-day cracks and crannies as my challenges continued unabated. Footstep by footstep, trust by trust, I got transformed and now am a different person, who is approaching these same problems with a greater purpose and a lot more peace.
What the several passages beginning at Proverbs 3:5 say is to trust God with your life. You no longer have to figure it out on your own, because the Creator of the universe has offered to punch your ticket and help put your future together. That's pretty awesome.
But there is a catch. You have to give something in return. And the cost is high.
Since we're talking God here, it's no surprise that he asks for the whole enchilada: his life in exchange for ours. First, we have to acknowledge him as Savior (after comprehending that we even need a Savior), confess our mess and give it over to him to deal with -- all of it: our despair, bewilderment, confusion and personal estrangements (some perhaps decades old), the entirety of our frustrating, unfinished lives. We also deed him our deepest desires, even our children (perhaps especially our children). Then it's as if Christ takes your stuff on his bruised and bloodied back and trudges afresh up the slopes of Golgotha, the weight of your sins and mine borne by this one man: sins from the beginning of time, sins more numerous than an infinity of stars. And, I would think, he also carries with him the hopes and dreams we've surrendered to him. Scripture does not speak to me as clearly about this, but it makes sense in light of Proverbs 3:6, which promises that if we acknowledge God in all our ways he will direct our paths toward a righteous end (for which he will receive the credit, the glory).
Let's look at this from another angle, because this Divine transaction can be hard to get a grip on if you haven't already experienced it.
In the early Church, palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday, which symbolically heralded a triumphant, liberating Messiah entering Jerusalem, were burned and mixed with holy oil on subsequent Palm Sundays and then applied to penitents’ foreheads in the sign of the cross. The smudge of ash stayed on until it faded away, just as the buoyant expectations of an earthly conquering Savior faded away in the disciples' minds following Jesus's trial and crucifixion, the way our hopes, too, can fade with time. During the week leading up to Easter, we are reminded of the dust from which we have come and the dust of our lives, and it can all seem rather dark and otherworldly; it's no wonder that hopelessness creeps so readily into our hearts. But the Truth of Christ's resurrection exists outside ourselves. Easter always glimmers in the distance, asking again and again that we abandon our worries and woes, delights and desires to him, while first confessing our sinfulness (including the idea that we alone are responsible for our success) and then start living the sacrificed life.
What does that mean?
Living the sacrificed life means transitioning from self control to God's control. In so doing, we give the Lord permission to melt us in his sacrificial fire. We allow him to mold and shape us anew so we may serve him and, ultimately, ourselves more effectively over time. When we finally admit our sin-scarred inadequacy and surrender all -- including those secret things we've thrown into the deep well of fear all our lives, the problems that haunt our being and keep us from experiencing the freedom God wants us to have, the Lord promises to refill our well with his Living Water. The mechanism for this is Christ's Holy Spirit, the part of God that lives and acts within us. Through this process, which we can't bring about on our own, we grow to become more like Jesus. There is one important caveat, however: The Lord does not promise us an easy road after we have handed our lives over to him. In fact, the road may even get rougher for a season before evidence of a new life in Christ becomes apparent, just as one can feel really awful during physical fasting and detoxification and like a new person down the road.
As esoteric as this may sound, it is real. Real lives have been transformed, some with a surprising suddenness (Paul on the road to Damascus), some quietly over many years -- mine has been a mixture of both. Through the grace of God, Easter rises in our lives whenever we become open to it (again, the work of the Holy Spirit, who quickens our hearts to receive it). Often, however, we first must traverse the barren ground of uncertainty and brokenness that leads toward Resurrection, whether for the first time or having tiptoed toward the starting line many times but hesitated to cross.
Confessing our sins and transferring the whole of our life to Christ in exchange for the new one he promises us is a continuing journey through which we not only learn to trust God, at long last, but also find the hope that's been waiting there for us all along.
In the short interval between Christ’s resurrection and ascension, after Jesus had appeared to the disciples several times (including the memorable encounter with doubting Thomas), a man was seen on the beach as Simon, Peter, Thomas and their companions fished on the lake perhaps a hundred yards distant. It was daybreak, and they had been working all night. The man shouted out from shore, asking whether they had caught any fish.
“Cast your net on the right side of the boat,” he called out, “and you will find some.”
No doubt they were tired and frustrated, so it’s easy to imagine their reaction. But they cast their nets anyway. And caught more fish than the net was supposed to hold.
Realization struck like a thunderclap.
“It is the Lord!” John shouted. When Simon Peter heard that, he sprang into the sea and struck out for the beach, the others following in the boat, dragging the unbroken, fish-laden net behind them.
When they got to shore, a fire had been started with bread and fish on the coals. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught; come and have breakfast.” They accepted his invitation and, giving thanks, quietly acknowledged their Lord’s resurrection from the dead, the same Lord they had thought lost just days before.
The experience likely reminded the disciples of another fish “happening.” Early in his public ministry, Jesus had borrowed a boat one morning to stand away from the land and speak to a crowd more effectively. The boat belonged to Simon, who had been on the lakeshore with other fishermen washing their nets following a night during which they had caught no fish. When Jesus finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
It was an odd time of day to be fishing and they must have been tired after a fruitless night, but Simon was aware of the miracles the “Master” had been performing. So he let down his nets in obedience. “And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.”
This event initiated the discipleship of Simon, James, and John. At Jesus’ invitation, they beached their boats, left their old lives behind (presumably including the fish) and followed him. They were to become fishers of men.
In the space of a few short weeks, the three were transformed, their lives changed irrevocably. And yet, as Scripture reveals time and again, they remained shot through with doubts and uncertainties -- so much so that a major lesson yet awaited Peter following the fishing episode recounted in John 21:1-14, above.
Have you been fishing in this life, perhaps for a very long time, and have no real results to show for it? Have you let down your nets time and again only to have them come back empty? It’s easy to give up, to quit. But that’s not what our Savior and Lord asks of us.
As Savior, he has assured our salvation and set us up for the next step in our pilgrimage: sanctification, the process by which we gradually are made more like Jesus than ourselves … more Holy, more open to his lead. As Lord of our life, Jesus asks us to trust him in this, just as He trusted the Father for his steps on Earth. By way of the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Christ asks us to let our nets down at a place and time of his choosing, not our own.
Because that’s where the fish are. The ones you’ve been looking for all your life, the ones that will make you shout with thankfulness and joy, “It is the Lord!”