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.
About a week and a half ago, the leader of my Thursday evening Zoom group that meets to discuss what it means to follow Christ suggested that each of us be prepared to talk about their Bible hero during our next get together.
“Oh, yeah -- got that!” one person said right away, as smiles and nods around the screen suggested an easy, enjoyable assignment. I did not share their enthusiasm. Because I didn’t become a committed believer until more than halfway through my fifth decade, I missed hearing all those Bible hero stories. Which is why I was not looking forward to my part in our discussion, which happened last week.
After some serious pondering, I decided to present not one, but three Bible characters whom I admired -- a clever feint but also a wimp-out that became obvious when I saw how well the first presenter’s story was received by the group. He painted an engaging picture of having grown up on a farm where all members of the family were expected to share in the chores, with or without the strength of his hero, Samson. My friend was not as strong as his siblings but was expected to toss heavy bales of hay onto a wagon anyway -- and keep at it until the work was done. Next came the heroes and deeds presented by other group members: Gideon, Solomon, Noah, Peter and Bezoleel, a stone and wood carver who apparently handled a hammer with such skill that he became a hero to one of the two carpenters in our group.
Then it was my turn.
“I can identify with Peter,” I began, because he vacillated between trust and fear, an all-too-human trait, regardless of his budding faith. Then there’s Abraham, who, despite a few well-documented faith fissures along the way, presented the treasured son of his old age for sacrifice at God’s command, which could have resulted in a crushing personal tragedy had not the Lord stopped things short. I also mentioned Joseph, who got himself tangled in all kinds of mess after having been thrown into a pit and sold to some traders by his jealous older brothers, only to triumph over them years later in a way that blessed not only the brothers but their grieving father.
Which reminded me of my own father, who my brothers and I considered somewhat of a taskmaster growing up. Dad expected us to carry our weight -- inside and outside the house, including the yard. He also insisted we perform our assigned tasks promptly and well. Primary chores included shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, planting, hoeing and weeding a tiny vegetable garden, taking out the trash, hauling heavy wood-framed storm windows from the basement in one season and putting them back in the opposite season -- that kind of thing. Had there been any hay bales that needed tossing around our suburban lot, we’d have been tasked with that, as well!
Mom also got her chores in, by requiring us to dust the furniture every week, vacuum the rugs, make our beds, keep our rooms tidy and do the dishes EVERY night before being allowed to do anything else. The most dreaded chore of all was the annual spring cleaning, where nearly every horizontal and vertical surface in the house (including the windows) got attended to with mop, towel or sponge. We did a lot of the work, but Mom also pitched in. She tried to make it fun, while Dad puttered around in the yard and listened to the Red Sox on the radio.
The work our parents made us do was good work, but in no way did our performance with shovel, mower, rake or dish cloth approach, in any physical or spiritual way, that of a Bible hero (male or female; if we’d had a sister, she would have been right there working alongside us). It was important work, work that -- even on so small a scale -- could rightly have been considered heroic because of the personal investment our parents sunk into us, guiding our gradually maturing lives through a process that without a doubt helped me become a more productive man. Instilling the desire and ability to work in a child (including two teenagers, one pre-teen and a little guy all at one time) is heavy lifting, but our parents made it happen. They taught us together. Mom cut us some slack, then Dad took it back.
I again am reminded of my dad when I think of my parents during their declining years. Mom wanted to die first because she didn’t think herself strong enough to take care of Dad should he fall ill. Because she had cared for elderly patients during her nursing career, she was all too aware of the limitations and frustrations that accompanied deteriorating health; she wanted no part of it and wasn’t shy about saying so. She also became frustrated when some professional caregivers didn’t do things as she would have done them and, unfortunately, appeared to find no solace in the “Faith” she dutifully had attended to throughout her life. But somehow, somewhere, non-religious Dad found a reservoir of untapped strength to care for our mother as her health worsened and then dedicated himself to this difficult, often demanding task day after day for a good long time.
Dad’s name does not appear in the Bible, and for all I know he may never have read a single page of Scripture. However, if heroes are people who display courage and the will to self-sacrifice for the good of another, our father qualifies in my book. His sacrifice was a gift -- to our mother and to us.
Even if it might not have seemed that way to us all those years back in the garden of life.
Writer Tim Challies is a blogger I read several times a week, and this morning he did not fail in providing stimulating spiritual content: a timely thought about how “we are mirrors that reflect something of Christ. We gaze upon him,” Challies writes, “and as we do so some of his character, some of his attributes, some of his loveliness is reflected in us.”
To enlarge his point, Challies quotes J.R. Miller, a late 19th, early 20th century American pastor and writer (whose insights have been described as “spiritual diamonds”) by offering Miller’s image of light gleaming off a puddle of muddy water. You can see the stars reflected in it at night and the blue sky, passing clouds and bright sun during the day -- perhaps even a spray of wildflowers. Miller suggests, in a devotional excerpt presented in the blog post, that others “see our character, watch our conduct, observe our disposition and temper and all the play of our lives, and as they behold us they perceive the image of Christ in us.”
Or not. Miller’s words sound more like a caution to me, just as Pastor Scott spoke to me about my sin this past Sunday morning, the murky reality hidden beneath the bright surface of my life (how did he know about the unkind words I had just spoken to someone that very morning?!).
All this reminds me of the rich young ruler described in both Mark and Luke, whom Taylor Caldwell introduces to us from an extra-Biblical perspective in her historical novel, Dear and Glorious Physician. Lucanus, a Greek slave who, by adoption into the family of a Roman nobleman, finds himself -- after decades of devoted medical practice among the Empire’s poor -- in the stateroom of a man of “learning and power and influence and wealth” whose ship was “inlaid with ebony and pearl and gilt.” The dying man, perhaps only in his 20s or 30s, has “lain like one stricken by a mortal illness for two months,” the ship’s captain tells Lucanus. “He has not moved from his bed. is dying moment by moment.”
Lucanus concludes that the man suffers from an illness of the spirit, and upon examining him, observes tears seeping from beneath shut eyelids. When the man finally is able to talk, he describes a “Jewish rabbi who was teaching the people in the dust of the city and the byways” and performing great miracles, perhaps the same individual Lucanus has been seeking and had disparaged for most of his adult life. His patient, whose name was Hilell (meaning “He has praised”), tells of encountering the supposed Messiah along a roadside near Jerusalem. As the rich young man steps from his chariot and approaches a small cluster of people surrounding Jesus, he is aghast at how “poor and humble” the man appears, “as of a beggar.”
“Could this be he of whom (the people) speak?” he asks himself, “the man who had so ignited Herod?” He looks askance at the ragged and barefoot children standing in the background. Their mothers, “poor women in rough striped garments with jars on their shoulders,” thrust their offspring toward the rabbi, who welcomes them.
“Hillel opened his eyes,” Caldwell writes, and Lucanus saw that they were full of torment as the man continues his story.
“I stepped down from my chariot and approached Him, and my servants called to the people to open a passage for me. He watched me approach and smiled at me like one recognizing a brother … and waited. My servants shouted to ‘make way for Hilell ben Hamram, who is great in Israel, for he has the rule of a town and his family is renowned and has much gold.’”
Hearing this, the women and children stepped back in fear. The rabbi gazed at the man in silence, who was close enough to Jesus that he could have reached out and touched him.
And then came the familiar question we recognize from the Gospels:
“Good master,” Hilell said, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
After an exchange in which each presents his views about keeping the Commandments, Christ lowers the boom on his wealthy questioner after a period of silence, during which Ms. Caldwell’s character observes to himself how unlearned the rabbi appears and how vulgar the sound of his accent is.
At last, Jesus responds:
“You lack one thing,” the Lord tells him. “Sell all that you have, for you are rich, and give it to the poor, for then you shall have treasures in heaven.”
Yikes! You’d think the man had been asked to give up everything he owned, disclaim his privileged position and then follow behind this raggedy beggar, accompanying the very people and walking in the very dust he disdained!
“I told myself this was madness,” Hilell reflects in the novel. So, he returns to his chariot and drives off, for as Scripture says, “he became very sorrowful because he was rich.” Yet, he had just looked incalculable richness in the eye and turned away empty.
The rich young man depicted in the Bible and described with some creative license by Taylor Caldwell asked Jesus a critical life’s question but did not comprehend the revolutionary nature of the Lord’s response: to abandon whatever he valued most and follow Christ. He was blinded by his own wealth and an image of personal perfection (having kept all the Commandments “from my youth”) and so turned his back on a life that could have sparkled with meaning and purpose well beyond any further wealth he may have accumulated.
From time to time, I see an attractive reflection in a pond or puddle and wonder if this is God’s way of speaking to me. If preoccupied with some Earthly task or concern, I can totally miss Christ’s calling card and walk on by with little thought, but sometimes I am blessed to stop. And wonder. What if I had stopped and listened to what the Lord had to say to me way back when? How would my life have played out had I not been so insistent, so entrenched, with doing things my own way? How differently would my flower have unfolded? How immeasurably more rewarding (not necessarily in the checkbook sense) would my life, and even the lives of those I love, have been had I heard -- and heeded -- Christ’s message back when I wanted nothing more than nothing at all to do with God?
Hilell was driven close to madness by missing out on what Oswald Chambers calls “the compelling purpose of God,” which we share with Jesus: the fulfillment of His purpose on this Earth and not our own. We, too, are to do the will of the Father, and from time to time, God reminds us of this truth by presenting us with a momentary reflection of his Son here on Earth and of the realization that it’s far better to mirror the life Christ offers to us than dying moment by moment as we drift along on winds of our own making.
Fear seems to be built into us. Even in the best of times, it lurks deep in our being. Like a stranger hiding in the bushes, it could leap out at any moment and snatch our predictable lives away. Well, in a sense, that’s what’s happened. In little more than an eye blink, we find ourselves facing a rapidly spreading, fear-inducing new virus, one that's flung our everyday expectations into an existential abyss while medical experts develop schemes to retard its spread, governments struggle to explain it and change continues to engulf nations, cities, neighborhoods, homes and lives.
Your favorite restaurant closes without warning, and the folks who worked there--people we knew and liked--stand on the sidewalk bewildered, without a job; families get quarantined; flights get cancelled; cruise ships can’t find a port that will take their passengers while churches close their doors, sports figures stand idle and governments grapple with economies that have fallen into a tailspin. People suffer. So we practice “social distancing” to "flatten the curve" and relieve the suffering, although we aren't quite sure if social distancing includes our parents, grandchildren and kindly Aunt Esther, who lives by herself on the far side of town. What’s more, the kids are housebound, bored with their digital babysitters and threatening to go over the wall (as we consider for a wild moment whether to let them). Overarching all of this, of course, is a word that heretofore had remained quietly in the background, except for its occasional appearance in history books, research studies, science fiction and chilling apocalyptic movies. Until now:
Pandemic. And there are so many questions!
Will there be work? Will there be school? Will there be travel? Will there be groceries? Will I get the virus? Or my family? Will there be toilet paper, for heaven’s sake?!
Even normal fears can upend our world--accidents, sickness, money problems, shattered relationships and other personal tragedies. But when something truly abnormal comes along, a turn of events so unlikely that it seems practically impossible (like a black swan), we can be stunned into becoming even more fearful.
It's fascinating to note that the word fear appears almost 400 times in Scripture (KJV). And, as if to punctuate that fact, Jesus promised his followers that they would see trouble. Yet, here’s something even more fascinating, pointed out by noted theologian R.C. Sproul in a radio broadcast shortly before his death in December of 2017: “The number one negative prohibition in the New Testament is ‘Don’t be afraid, fear not.'” Christ says it so often that “we miss it,” Sproul says. “It’s like hello and goodbye. Every time Jesus shows up it’s ‘Fear not’.”
Jesus knew all about fear. Picture him splayed on the ground, face down in the dirt of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, abandoned by his sleep-besotted friends and in anguish to the point of sweating blood. Jesus knew the cross was coming and, in his humanity, was still afraid. His disciples had no hint of the cruelties that soon would beset their Teacher, but neither could they see the new Truth glimmering unseen over the horizon, a Light that eventually would comfort them and, in time, reach through the centuries to comfort us, as well: "… the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding." (Philippians 4:6-7)
I experienced several emergency hospital stays during 2019. As I lay there connected to one medical device and then another, I felt unusually calm as the peace of God expressed in Philippians made its home in my heart. Isaiah also has spoken of peace to me over the years, especially during difficult times (26:3-4), so I knew that if I kept my thoughts on God instead of dwelling on my immediate circumstances, I likely (although not certainly) would be home from the hospital and recuperating within a few days.
Charles H. Spurgeon, the acclaimed Reformed Baptist preacher, told Londoners in his New Year’s message of 1884 that “If we will believe our God as he deserves to be believed … we shall be prepared for trials, and shall even welcome them as black ships laden with bright treasures.” When fear comes in the night its presence can batter our faith against the rocks. Yet, we know morning will come at last and spill its welcoming light over the horizon, pouring it into our lives, extinguishing the chill of night and banishing the darkness--just as Christ’s divine Light has done in the past, does now and promises to do in the future. It is this Light, this Bright Treasure, that gives believers the confidence to say with our Lord, even in the time of coronavirus,
As I was working on this essay, Pandora presented me with Natalie Cole’s version of one of the most recorded songs in American musical history, George and Ira Gershwin's “Love is Here to Stay”, written in 1937 during the waning years of the Depression. These lines caught my ear:
The more I read the papers
The less I comprehend
The world and all its capers
And how it all will end.
Nothing seems to be lasting …
(It all sounds so familiar here in the Spring of 2020 …)
The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time may go!
But our love is here to stay.
Sure, it’s a love song. Yet here we are in a situation where love is very much in order, a time when so much of what we’ve come to know as “normal” has flown far afield--so much so that it’s no stretch to suggest that at least some of the change being stirred up today will blend into a "new normal" that may in itself prove discomforting. But there is a Truth that never changes. Come what may, Light undiminished also reigns, an unchanging Gospel Truth anchored in a Love that over arches plagues and pandemics, failed businesses, fractured families or even diminishing freedoms.
“These things I have spoken to you,” Jesus tells his disciples at the end of John 16, “that in Me you may have peace (despite the world’s) tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
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 above the ceiling 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 by 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 word slinger. 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?