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.
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.
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!
Oh, how we hate having others tell us what to do! We value our independence, yes, and are conditioned from childhood to “stand on our own two feet,” but also are asked to live our lives within boundaries set by society - our parents, teachers, etc. By the time we finish our "education", we’re so tired of being told the ways things are supposed to be that we fairly leap out into the world and begin charting a new course, one of our own making, and sometimes stray so far from the values prescribed by our upbringing that, within a few years, we hardly recognize ourselves. The way we look, think and act changes, often to the dismay of our parents, who forget that they once trod a similar path and grappled with many of the same issues as they roll their eyes at their offspring’s behavior today.
This experimentation with life at the borderline may be one reason we bristle so at the idea of organized “religion,” especially the oh-so-dogmatic and narrow proclamations of the church. We begin scratching the itch of other ideas, fresh ways of relating to the Cosmos, and encounter spiritual paths far different than the one we were taught because, after all, there are easier paths to God, aren’t there? That old Sunday school God seems so outdated in a world of otherness: rational thinking, diverse opinion and "fairness".
So we stumble around in our exuberant blindness, preferring to come to grips with the world on our own rather than have Somebody Else direct us, not comprehending that God has a plan, a great gift, wrapped up for us and ready to go. Instead, we slash at life’s briars and brambles, chopping our way through whatever bewildering forest we find ourselves in, using improvised tools rather than the precision ones God has crafted for us. We keep tripping and falling but are expected to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again,” as a popular song from several generations back once suggested.
Which works pretty well, until the problems begin. That’s when we discover -- sometimes suddenly, often painfully, that life doesn’t always follow an easy path. Hope gets shattered in so many ways: accidents happen, jobs vanish, health deserts us, people disappoint. Beautiful dreams vanish as if they'd never existed, and we are left confronting dashed desires with little understanding or appreciation for what has been going on or where to turn next. Or maybe nothing dramatic happens and life goes on pretty much as expected -- except for that gnawing feeling of emptiness creeping up on us from behind. We drift off the path. Relationships weaken and falter, the ones that were supposed to last forever. We forget (or perhaps never knew) about God’s promises, and sometimes all that just seems so far away. Didn't God promise to bless us? At least that’s what we recall hearing in Sunday School.
God did promise to bless a man named Abram, although we forget that before the blessing came trouble. Abram, along with his wife Sarai and their extended family, decided to flee the land the Lord had promised him. Famine was afoot, so they packed up and moved to Egypt, and lest you think that sounds easy, Abram was 75 years old and they had to haul their families and their considerable belongings with them. Eventually, he had a major tiff with Pharaoh over Sarai and was sent packing “with his wife and all that they had” back to the place they had started from in the Negeb Desert.
So much wandering and wondering.
Then Abram received another promise from the Lord, even after a good deal of whining about not having an heir. Consider God’s astonishing response to the future Patriarch: “Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants for ever. I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (Gn 13:14)
Even later, after rescuing his brother’s son Lot and defeating a group of warring kings. momentary difficulties from which the Bible spares us the difficult details, the Lord reminded Abram that his “reward shall be very great.” (Gn 15:1)
God’s promise had been spoken (several times now), and Abram had been put through a good fire or two, but still he persisted in going his own way instead of waiting on the Lord. It’s HARD to wait! Waiting does not come naturally or pleasantly to most of us – certainly not to me. The older we get, the more we grouse and grumble about what has yet to happen in our lives and the easier it is to take things in our own hands and try to make them happen (the way the world has conditioned us) rather than wait on God.
When Ishmael, Abram’s son by his wife’s handmaid Hagar, was born (this was barren Sarai’s strategy to take things in her own hands and produce an heir), Abram was 86. It would be thirteen years before he heard again from the Lord. Abram was a year shy of 100 when God reminded him of the promise: “I am God almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly … and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham … I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you …” (Gn 17:1)
Then God added icing to Abram’s cake, promising to give Sarai, whom God had renamed Sarah, a child (the name change expressed the Lord’s new covenant relationship with Sarah). Abraham must have thought that the promise of a child the best joke of all time, because “he fell on his face and laughed.” By that time, Sarah was 90, and the likelihood of this old couple having a baby was as remote as their youthful dreams. And, besides, there was Ishmael, the son born to Hagar, to consider. Here’s this perfectly good kid already growing up, so why can't he carry on the line? Nope. That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen. God had other plans for Ishmael. And for them.
Even so, it's easy to look the world in the eye and disbelieve. “After I have grown old and my husband is old,” Sarah exclaimed, laughing to herself after having eavesdropped on Abraham’s conversation with the Lord, “shall I have pleasure?” (Gn 18:12)
The Lord heard Sarah's doubtful laugh and inquired of Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” He might well have added “in time,” because so many years separated the time when Abram and Sarai fled to Egypt as a young couple and the birth of Isaac, when Abraham was over one hundred. In between, there were times of trial and torment, happy everyday life, multiple changes of direction dictated by circumstance and growing doubt that God’s promises would ever come true. Not to mention the stubborn decisions to take things into their own hands because they were tired of waiting, although Abraham did pass the Lord's final test on Mount Moriah with flying colors and the world was transformed as a result.
As so many biblical stories reveal, God frequently allows us to work ourselves into situations from which there seems no escape, little hope for redemption short of his sure hand. But we love our independence and, therefore, often find ourselves flopping around like fish on a hook. We miss out on God's great blessing, the gift he's been waiting for us to open since the beginning of time. We miss out on being used by God. We miss what could prove to be the most satisfying -- and surprising -- adventure of our lives. So, when doubt, despair and discouragement seem overwhelming and life isn't working out the way you might have imagined, consider ceding everything you are and everything you'd ever hoped to be to God. Then watch what happens.
Because it's true. Nothing is too hard for the Lord.
Some of the most anticipated events in our New England town during the 1950s were patriotic observances that began on Memorial Day and stretched through the Fourth of July, especially the annual veterans' parade. We kids would string red, white and blue crepe paper strips through our bicycle spokes and attach playing card “motors” to them, held in place with clothes pins borrowed from Mom’s laundry bag. That way everybody could hear us and see us as we rode beside the participants.
We got up with the sun those days, polished off breakfast faster than you can say CHEERIOS! and, with our ribbons and noisemakers firmly in place, rode up White Church Hill to King’s Highway, where the parade got assembled at Veteran’s Park. It was fun watching people gather – from the high school band with their pretty girls twirling batons to vets from both World Wars, several from Korea and even a few ancient Spanish-American War veterans. There were boy scouts and girl scouts, civic groups and local dignitaries in convertibles. In a surprisingly short time, someone with far greater organizational skills than I’ll ever possess sorted a couple hundred milling folks into good marching order and made a parade out of them. It was thrilling to see them step off to a Souza beat and head down the road toward the center of town.
First stop was a cemetery beside the old Meeting House. That’s where things got exciting and serious just about simultaneously. The moment of silence demanded our attention, but the 21-gun salute shocked our ears, and no more had the hot shell casings spun to earth than we were on them, to the chagrin of a gaggle of oldsters standing off to the side tisk tisking about how thoughtless we were. From there, it was down the hill and past spilled-out streets of parade-goers until the assemblage finally reached the town common and disbanded following a final 21-gun salute.
What I remember most from that time is how the veterans looked and the awe they inspired. Sure, they were twice as tall as me and wore spiffy uniforms with medals on the front. Or could be I recall them in light of my own service beginning ten years hence (we trained with the same M1 carbines). I did not see combat during my three-year Army stint, although all too many young men of my generation did, fighting and dying by the unnecessary thousands in Viet Nam for reasons that seemed fuzzy at the time and even more indistinct now.
But some wars clearly are worth fighting. Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear a television interview with a gentleman who was reflecting on a day more than 70 years gone when he and a bunch of others from his generation got hold of the bold idea that they could drive 7,800 well-entrenched enemy soldiers from the cliffs overlooking what came to be called Omaha Beach during the Invasion of Normandy. The Germans held the high ground from which to put their eight artillery bunkers, four big guns, 35 pillboxes, six mortar pits, 18 anti-tank weapons, 85 machine gun nests, 45 rocket launcher sites and six tank turrets to good use. But the Allies had superior numbers and had set out on a must-win mission. The Germans were routed, but the price was catastrophic: two-thousand Allied lives lost at Omaha Beach alone (the landing point that experienced the most resistance). But within two months, all of northern France had been liberated.
It’s hard to imagine the D-Day experience from wave top height: dropping from a heaving LST into water so deep that you choked on the salt and nearly drowned before taking your first steps toward a beach that was so far away that men falling along the shoreline looked like dots in the distance. What thoughts (and heartfelt prayers!) would have worried your mind as you worked your way toward the sand that day, thankful to still be alive but burdened by so much equipment that you could barely keep your footing in the bloody surf as the heavy artillery fire from Allied ships screamed toward shore and death whispered your name from the bluffs above the beach?
“We all gave,” said the old man on TV. “Some gave all.”
By D-Day, many of my parents’ generation had already faced the cannons, leaving hundreds of thousands of them strewn dead across two theaters of battle. I was one year, one month and five days old on June 6, 1944, and my dad had been drafted that very day. He told us much later that “If you’ve never heard grown men cry, you should have heard the men around him cry that day” as they assimilated news of the invasion. It’s hard to imagine what it was like to look into the eyes of your young wife and firstborn son, wondering if you’d ever see them again. As it turned out, Dad stayed stateside and put his language aptitude to work for Uncle Sam by conversing with high level Japanese prisoners about “everyday life in this country”.
For thousands of families, however, everyday life on D-Day was filled with concern, either about sons and daughters already serving or those about to enter the war because,in those days, worry knocked on nearly everyone’s door. In the Pacific Theater by then, the Japanese had been driven at great price from places with names like Guadalcanal and New Guinea but were far from beat - although American spirits were about to be raised by a decisive naval victory in the Philippine Sea. Consider what it must have been like to be only nineteen and serving on a ship that’s the target of every enemy submariner that could find it, whether Pacific or Atlantic. Or, after only six months’ training, being asked to strap one of the world’s most powerful fighter planes around yourself and take off to meet another young man, now your enemy, who spent every moment of his flight thinking about how to shoot you down before you shot him down.
Stories from World War II now lie at the edge of our collective memory, with hundreds of its veterans passing every day. Most of those who survived the war have already gone. The stories of those that remain fade with the relentless advance of age, and yet all of these vets were incredibly, astonishingly young back between 1941 and 1945. They were sons and brothers, neighbors and friends, dads and moms. They were the kid at the corner store and somebody’s sister’s boyfriend. And America called on them for nothing less than to help save the world.
I vividly recall experiences related by a friend who enlisted in World War II. He lied about his age and then so impressed the brass with his stenographic skills that he was asked to take notes during high-level D-Day planning sessions that were so secret he was locked in his room under guard until the invasion got underway. He later served on the beach, rose to the rank of colonel, became successful in the railroad business after the war (because of his novel approach to problem solving) and went on to establish a travel company that toured aging WWII veterans to the sites of their wartime experiences in Europe and the Pacific. His name was Hal Ryder, and it’s easy to tear up thinking about him. He was a man who loved his country and the veterans who had fought for it with a passion that could not be quelled short of his own unexpected passing.
My friend Hal was only one. There were millions of Hals, Hals who came home and Hals who did not. Hals who survived and prospered, Hals physically and emotionally crippled by their war experiences.
Again, the words of Jesus in John 16:33 come to mind. You may recall them, the ones that talk of trouble in this world but also speak of Christ’s peace, a supernatural peace available to those who suffer in battle, in prison camps, in cities used as battlegrounds - or anywhere in this world where brutality and injustice prevail, a gift equally available to all. Even so, it’s hard to think about peace when hope has been crushed by sudden death, lost love, ceaseless despair or intractable illness - or when one's mind no longer seems to work right. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a God drifting somewhere above the clouds and indifferent to our needs, a God that’s hard to get a grip on (and thus is easy to ignore). It’s even more difficult to imagine a heavenly Father who stoops to lead us through our trials and sorrows, setting his glory and majesty aside in the process. But this is precisely the God we have!
During Old Testament days, God spoke through both circumstance and the Prophets. If Israel went off the rails (by worshiping other gods or going their own way instead of Yahweh’s), God’s hand always set them back on the straight and narrow, often in ways that seem especially cruel to us today (destruction by one’s enemies, plagues, cities set on fire, 40 years in the wilderness, etc.).
God requires justice! But how is His justice reconciled with His love?
The answer is imbued in the long-awaited Christ, the man Jesus who arrived on Earth as a babe some two-thousand years ago and, when his time had come, gave his all on the cross to save us from ourselves (crucifixion is a gruesome, protracted way to die). He is justice demanded and received – justice personified – and yet also a man fully human who set aside his Divine nature to experience our needs and sorrows, a man who also placed his trust completely in the Father. It is this Lord Jesus, this Christ, that opens the door to the Father. It is through faith in him that we are freed from God’s judgment and come to understand that even our trials have a purpose: to drive us back to the Father’s arms. We are invited, as heirs with Christ, to pace our burdens on his bruised back – no matter how grinding those burdens may be.
God, the “Father of lights” and the source of all wisdom, is with us “in all things,” no matter how protracted our sufferings. As James puts it in the first chapter of his letter to the churches in Asia, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
In the end, it boils down to self or self-sacrifice – follow Christ or follow your bliss. Each of us has that choice to make.
“God has charged himself with full responsibility for our eternal happiness and stands ready to take over the management of our lives,” wrote 20th century preacher A.W. Tozer, “the moment we turn in faith to Him.” What that means, in essence, is that in exchange for our commitment to follow him, God sets a course for us (he also proscribes boundaries for our behavior, which can rankle us, because we’d rather hop on our bright, noisy bikes and ride off to whatever adventure may appeal, like we did when we were ten, rather than acquiesce to a path not of our own making).
I’ll be the first to say that trusting God with your life does not come naturally. But when you finally give in and give over, it’s hard to imagine any other way.
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.”
One of the knottiest issues Christians have to grapple with in conversations with non-believers and even fellow believers is the “one way” idea. That God has finally, completely and intentionally fashioned a single path to redemption in the person of Jesus Christ, who redeemed a great many people while on Earth and uncounted millions since. He also upset more than a few cultural, political and religious apple carts, was executed in a mean and visible way and yet lived again to redeem … even us.
“I am the way, the truth and the light,” Jesus declares from the pages of Scripture. “Nobody comes to the Father except through me.”
There lies the stumble stone for people who are repelled by the idea that Christianity claims the exclusive path to God, inferring (of course) that all other would-be paths to God are invalid. Such an audacious statement either must be true on its face or completely without merit, as many skilled and holy Christian apologists have argued. But neither is it my intent – nor within my ability – to unpack the logic of this truth exegetically, except to wonder why God would have bothered creating just one more path among many and then have played it out in such an extraordinarily cruel way.
I choose instead to present the reality of Christ’s singular way from a completely different perspective, one with the power to bring me to tears given the magnitude of its truth, the image of which has enveloped and guided my life now for a long time.
Abraham plays in my imagination, Abram as he was known then. I see Isaac, his beloved son, carrying kindling up a mountain where his father planned to light the fire that would consume his boy (Isaac thought he was to participate in an animal sacrifice). Now, in the cruel garden of my mind, I see my own son, or perhaps one of my daughters or grandchildren. I am forced to choose between them, to mark the one who will be sacrificed to the flames. I am expected to do so as a matter of faith, trusting in God that no harm will befall any one of my precious offspring. But I do not have the courage of Abraham, I do not have the faith. I cannot choose. I would rather die myself in some piteous, wretched manner than sacrifice my son. MY SON …
God had a problem, symbolized by Abraham’s dilemma: How can I redeem my people? How can I forgive them of their lifetimes of sins against me? How can I see my justice done? I could wipe them out and start over. I could kill their sons – as cruelly as Herod killed those boy toddlers in his deadly search for the newborn Savior.
“No! I cannot do these unspeakable things,” God may have thought. “I will kill MY Son instead. My Son, the Light of the world, the One who existed since before there was time. I will commit the unthinkable act. I will choose Him. I will have him beaten without mercy, place a crown of thorns on his innocent head and twist it until the blood blends with his tears. I will turn my back on him. And then I will hang him on a Roman cross in the bright light of day. He will die slower than any sacrificial bull or lamb or goat and will have his side pierced by a sword to prove that he is dead. I will sacrifice my Son willingly so that others, in embracing His singular sacred act, will -- in turn -- sacrifice their own lives on my altar and be born again.”
I do not picture God as a remote, larger than life character but more like a person you’d meet on the street. He would look a lot like me. Or you: kind of average, approachable. And after a few obligatory comments about the weather, he probably would get right to it:
“I do not ask your son of you,” He would say, “or one of your daughters or a grandchild. That is far too much to ask. Instead, in my great mercy, I ask you only for your obedience and surrender - in total trust. I ask you for yourself, given over completely and irrevocably to me and my purposes: your hopes, your dreams, your future. Even the ones you love so much more than yourself: your children, your grandchildren. All of it, holding nothing back. Like Abram.
“That’s step one,” he would conclude, giving me one of those smiles that only Michelangelo could paint.
“Because until you do that, it’s all just words.”
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.