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.
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!
Jacob was 97-years-old when he wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok. He was a tough old bird, it would seem, because he held his own against the Messenger of God who initiated the match, which continued overnight and was still underway at dawn. The mysterious theophany, which Scripture calls an Angel of God, wearied of trying to best Jacob, so crippled him by touching his hip socket, knocking it out of joint and limiting his movement. But Jacob fought on.
“Let me go because the day breaks,” the Man says, to which Jacob replies, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” I don’t imagine exclamation points appear all that often in Holy Scripture, but a sweaty scene in which a descendant of Abraham and Isaac wrestles with the Lord would seem to deserve one. Jacob got his blessing: a new name – Israel – and an assured future for his descendants. “You have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed,” the Lord told Jacob as the sun rose above the horizon. You’d think, after that strong a confirmation, that the man’s life would have been a bed of roses going forward, but that’s not how things turned out as Jacob grappled with the future. I can easily identify with that part of his story, the part where we insist on dealing with life’s challenges entirely on our own rather than waiting on God to work them out as he will, in his own time.
The name Jacob means deceiver. Charles Spurgeon called him a believer with “too much planning and scheming about him,” so I can identify with that, too. Let’s set the scene.
After swindling twin brother Esau out of his birthright, Jacob fled to the family’s ancestral home after Esau vowed to kill him when Isaac, their father, died. He stopped along the way one night, laid his head on a rock and experienced his famous dream of a ladder set upon the earth with its top in heaven, where “the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.
“And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: ‘I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'” As if that wasn’t assurance enough of blessings to come, the Lord added: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” Jacob was impressed and, I would have thought, completely transformed by the Divine awesomeness he’d just experienced. But it wasn’t long before he returned to the planning and scheming noted by Spurgeon.
His destination was Haran, where he was taken in by his mother’s brother, Laban the Syrian. All sorts of deception proceeded from there, and it’s hard to tell who was the biggest schemer in the long run, Jacob or the uncle – despite all the embracing and kissing that greeted his arrival. The bargaining began within a month, and for Jacob, the prize was Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, who was “beautiful of form and appearance.” Jacob agreed to serve Laban for seven years in return for Rachel’s hand, “and they seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her.” When the time had been fulfilled, Jacob asked Laban for permission to marry Rachel. The uncle complied, but after nightfall brought Rachel’s older sister Leah to Jacob’s bed. Jacob discovered Laban’s deceit in the morning (one wonders why it took so long) and confronted Laban, to which he replied something about it not being right to marry off the younger daughter before the older one. Jacob agreed to work seven more years if Laban would include Rachel in the marriage deal, which he did, leading to years of tension between the two sister-wives about childbearing (Leah started off strong, but Rachel appeared barren, although she eventually begat Joseph). Jacob and Laban also went round and round about wages and livestock and speckled chickens – each trying to deceive the other, the net of which was that Jacob became “extremely prosperous”, to the chagrin of Laban’s sons, who felt cheated.
“Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you.’” Jacob complied, driven no doubt by the tension mounting in Haran plus fear that Laban would not allow his daughters to leave. So he, his wives, children, servants, camels and livestock snuck away in the dead of night. Laban and his forces followed, put out at not getting to say goodbye but likely also burning with anger at their stealthy departure. Unknown to Jacob, however, the Lord had come to Laban in a dream and asked that he “speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.” As a result, their meeting turned unexpectedly cordial and Laban pronounced a now-familiar blessing on Jacob as they parted: “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from another.” Jacob then journeyed on to meet his brother Esau.
It's interesting to note that God was active on many fronts during this time Jacob's life. For instance, Laban left for home frustrated that he could not find his “gods”, stone idols he presumed had been stolen by Jacob (Rachel had hidden them in some saddlebags). But now, because of his dream, Laban had begun a conversation with Jacob's God, a relationship which seems to have continued, although Scripture does not say so directly.
Now we find Jacob, a man of advanced age (at least from our perspective) walking overland toward his father’s home with a vast entourage of people and animals and fear in his heart. “He doubts, yet he believes,” wrote Spurgeon. Having just been rescued from his father-in-law by the Lord, Jacob now is afraid of his brother, with “fear and faith battling together,” so much so that he divides the livestock gifts sent ahead to Esau in similar droves – ewes with ewes, rams with rams, camels with camels and so forth, each separated by some distance so as to arrive at different times and thus “appease him with the present that goes before me.” As mentioned earlier, this wrestling with fear noted by the great Victorian-era preacher strikes uncomfortably close to home. Spurgeon, in fact, claimed to know a person like that. “I will not say that I live with him,” he related, “but I will confess, with sorrow, that I have sometimes been that very person.”
Finally, Jacob sends the last of his group over the Jabbock. At last alone, he settles down with that rock for a pillow and ends up grappling with the Lord for his blessing until dawn. He ends up crippled – and more dependent on God, but he had seen the Lord face-to-face and had his life “preserved”.
“Now Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and there, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men.” So what does Jacob do but divide his entourage in two that one half may flee if the other half were to be attacked by Esau’s forces (“maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children behind, and Rachel and Joseph last”). This may strike one as prudent but also can taken as another nod to fear. The meeting with Esau turns out well, however, with lots of hugging and kissing and gift-giving and bowing down. Beyond that, Jacob and his offspring (eventually 12 between Leah, Rachel and their handmaidens) would go on to found the “company of nations” that the Lord promised his wrestling partner later at Bethel.
What I take from this 5,000 year old story so rich with complex human relationships is how thin our trust in God often is in the face of threatening situations or seemingly intractable circumstances – despite the Lord’s promises and blessings. It's easy to understand why even believers so often choose to devise their own escapes from the difficulties that cross their path (is it not the American way?). Spurgeon describes this two-sided sword as doubting and believing at the same time. Not only that, we want our problems to be solved right away, lacking what might be called Spiritual patience.
Then there's the relative perspective of time. These days, dramatic life situations that can take decades to work out are presented and resolved in the span of a two-hour movie or 13-part TV series. It took something like two years for Jacob and his entourage to journey from Haran to his meeting with Esau. The longer faith journey chronicled in Genesis 28-33 spanned 23 years can be read in about 20 minutes, even with discernment.
My prayer on this early January day in 2018 is that God will slow me down and bless me with greater trust during the coming 12 months (while perhaps allowing me fewer clever schemes of the sort I like to dream up). This heartfelt hope can't possibly expressed better than by C. H. Spurgeon:
“If this New Year shall be full of unbelief, it will be sure to be dark and dreary,” he declared from the pulpit of Metropolitan Tabernacle in London as the clock ticked into 1884. “If it be baptized into faith, it will be saturated with benediction. If we will believe our God as he deserves to be believed, our way will run along the still waters, and our rest will be in green pastures. Trusting in the Lord, we shall be prepared for trials, and shall even welcome them as black ships laden with bright treasures.”