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.
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.”
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 - 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 forest of circumstance we are lost 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 start. 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 all their 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.
Lenten Journey: God’s Clay
“Can the pot say of the potter,
"He knows nothing"? (Is 29:16)
It’s not hard to think of ourselves as clay to be formed and shaped in the hands of God, to be made into something beautiful, even useful. The idea of working in clay is appealing, whether hand building a pot or using a wheel. Clay is smooth and pleasing to the touch.
Before the verse above, where Isaiah describes being shaped by God the potter, the prophet talks about things being turned upside down for those who hide from the Lord and take their own counsel: the pot shaping itself. Then, in the following chapter, he warns us about the illusion of “smooth things”, turning aside from God’s way to go one's own way.
All too often, life is a struggle between our plan and God’s plan. We can spend an entire lifetime fighting against God’s way because we believe our own way is best. We play both potter and pot in our personal drama and work like mad to shape ourselves according to our own vision and authority. Are we not great and skilled craftsmen, perfectly capable of shaping ourselves into whatever we think best (and perfectly content in our ignorance or arrogance)? Are not we taught by the world to be the kings and queens of our own destinies? Are not our lives our own to fashion? Seen in this worldly light, the American ideal becomes an allegory of our own stumbling lives as we navigate through the wilderness (call it Adam Land). When things don’t work out, we tend to our wounds, smooth out our clothes and get on with our next chapter.
But there’s got to be another way!
There is a way, but not where many of us look in our rush to create the Kingdom of Me, a way so shot through with potential that it’s difficult for one person to describe to another this side of heaven. And yet, we are not fully human until we have walked this path, have allowed ourselves to be shaped in the way of Christ. But we refuse to submit, driven by blind courage and dumb luck -- whether non-believer or believer (these days, it can be hard to tell the difference). Either we don’t know about God’s plan or we don’t perceive its the benefits. Or we understand all too well that God’s way could take us way out of our comfort zone and could even be painful!
But it is deep within God’s refining fire that some of his best work is done, where he only turn swords into plowshares but transform shapeless and aimless lives into ones ripe with meaning and filled with passion. This is the radical message of Jesus Christ! That by losing one life we find another. That hope can be reclaimed from the ashes.
And what a trade that is!
These things may not happen immediately, or at all, in this life, but our new life in Christ does become charged with fresh (even radical) possibility when the old life is handed over to God -- lock, stock and setbacks, through acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and the acknowledgement of him as Lord over our lives.
When we refuse God his rightful prerogative to shape us anew, we become a lot like Israel, which often refused to submit itself to the will of God and thus, in that sense, is still waiting for the elusive Messiah. Humanity is so full of pride that the only way God’s kingdom could be established, for Israel and for us, is for God to show us how it is done. Jesus, the Christ, had the power of the universe in his hands, which he could have used at the snap of a finger to show the world a display of self confidence such as had never been seen. Yet, he humbled himself before God. Christ’s hand lay softly in the Father’s hand, demonstrating willing obedience to accept his coming sacrifice and death. Even though he was afraid.
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:35-36)
In a few short hours it was done.
God, in his omniscient and loving way, sometimes thrusts us into a sacrificial fire -- either that or we have placed ourselves there through our choices. Either way, he ends up with raw material he can work with, and in time, we end up something new that's more like what we were meant to be in the first place had we not gone wandering off in Adam Land. Our Lord does not promise to save believers from calamities, although he does promise to see us through them, and if our world has already flown apart when we arrive at the foot of his cross, he helps us pick up the pieces and learn to live with, and perhaps even accept, the consequences of our actions. Being “saved” does not change us from a rusty old heap to a shiny new car in the blink of an eye. We might look like that same old junker with torn upholstery and a leak around the windshield that drips rainwater on our feet, but we have entered into an improvement process called sanctification.
Believers have no claim on perfection. We remain sinners while in this life, as certain as the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night. However, we also are Holy works in progress, full of imperfections -- even doubts. By the Grace of God, we are redeemed and become willing (as best we can) to be divinely reshaped into a life that looks more like Christ’s and less like the one we have now, a life filled with doubt, anger, bitterness, bad blood, and an overabundance of self-confidence. We may continue to labor up the hill bearing our personal crosses, but our burden has been lightened. There’s hope in the air, despite the times when we lose sight of that hope and are forced to fall on our knees when the load seems too heavy, our life too broken, and cry out for mercy.
In bequeathing our lives to God, we acknowledge our blindness and imperfection and trust in Christ's truth and grace. We acknowledge, as well, that we won’t always know the way but will have his lamp to guide us. Despite the sacrifice of giving up control, despite the frequent bewilderment of it all and the pain of not knowing, we trust that the Refiner’s fire will not consume us but will save us.
Because we are no longer our own, but belong to Christ.
The Lenten Journey:
Then he said to (his disciples): “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? Luke 9:23-25
It’s not easy to hand your life over to God, to deny yourself and take up your cross the way Luke describes. Truth is, such an idea cuts across the grain of our culture. We Americans value our independence above almost all else; the American way is to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make it on our own. Which, of course, makes it unlikely that we’d ever consider ceding control of our destiny to a God we hardly know (especially when a vocal portion of our society denies his presence and denigrates his followers). That is, until something happens to bring us up short: an illness or some other painful life's circumstance that seems to go on and on.
But that’s where we find God waiting. Not at the end of the rainbow but at the end of ourselves. That’s where we find the Christ of the Cross beckoning:
For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. - John 3:16 -
These words can totally transform our lives. Because hidden within the good news of Christ is the promise of redemption, no matter how lost or worthless or off-course our lives may seem. Because through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, hope has been reborn … hope that offers new life to a world loaded down with sin and dashed dreams.
During Lent, we are invited afresh to enter through Christ’s open door into the transformed life, but the transaction doesn’t come cheap. We are asked, as Jesus was asked, to give our all – even to accept the possibility of additional seasons of suffering! Suffering was Christ’s cross. He chose to deny his divinity and suffer fully and completely as a human being, so much so that he experienced despair deep enough to make him sweat blood while praying in the garden at Gethsemane.
Suffering hurts. Sometimes it hurts like crazy, whether mental or physical. Sickness, injury, just plain meanness or even confusion about which way to turn next can dash our hopes for a fulfilled life. It can overwhelm to the point of distraction, so much so that we sometimes feel left by the roadside while everybody else zooms by in their shiny new cars on their way to whatever happens next in their clearly perfect lives.
Sometimes, it almost seems as if God has abandoned us, like so much spit in the sea -- no matter how much we think about him, pray to him or do things for him and his Church. We can say we believe that God will rescue us from adversity and, at the same time, despair that he doesn’t.
Here’s a story.
It’s about a young woman named Agnes. Early on, Agnes knew that God had a unique mission for her here on this Earth, and in time, she was gratified that things seemed to be going exactly that way. She was led to a place to serve and set about doing what she believed God would have her do there.
Agnes was a schoolteacher at first, then was called to work among the poor -- a “call” in the sense that she had a clear command from God to leave one thing and do another. And “do” she did, exemplifying in her work what it means to know, love and serve God in this world. But then she began to suffer through what Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul, which, for Agnes, lasted the greater part of her ministry. Even so, she and others who shared her God-given vision brought both physical relief and the light of Christ to thousands of impoverished people born into a society that considered them little more than human refuse -- junk people.
Despite a hollowness of spirit that stemmed from feeling that she had been forsaken by God, the Catholic nun the world came to revere as Mother Teresa persevered in her mission among the poor of Calcutta. It’s hard to imagine the spiritual assault she suffered, the pain she endured.
Mother Mary Teresa died a thousand little deaths -- perhaps many times more -- in her private agony. Yet, in God’s mercy, she at long last began to see her pain as “a small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.” Her epiphany was the realization that she had been given the “deep joy” of sharing Christ’s suffering, including the anguish of what seemed like daily separation from her Beloved. She shared her Lord’s Passion, climbed the slopes of Golgotha with him every day. She helped shoulder his cross time after time after time and still was able to bless “the least of these” through her pain. Day after day, this Saint of the Gutters acknowledged the certainty of God’s Grace and the certainty of his presence in her life, even though she couldn’t feel it.
We all have our private pains, our deep, enduring disappointments -- not to mention those little discouragements that nibble away at the edges of our lives. We may despair loss of what society proclaims as “the good life” and instead suffer a bewildering blizzard of bills, health issues and relationship problems. We are overcome by lack of opportunity, lack of fulfillment, lack of love. Or we may have “the good life” and wonder if that’s all there is!
When we’re children (especially teens), we often feel inadequate, as if we’re the only person in the world who feels this way. Then, as young adults, we sometimes think we know it all and can do no wrong! We reassess as we grow older, of course, but our inadequacies can remain, lurking in the background -- as if to mock our abilities and accomplishments. Suddenly, we’re astonished to see an old person looking back at us in the mirror! Time is running out. Our lives seem to have vanished with the morning fog. We wonder where God is in all of this, because so much of what we had hoped for doesn’t seem to be happening.
“Where are you?!” we shout to the sky.
We know God is there, yet there are moments, common to us all, when his presence fades. Agnes didn’t see the Lord’s face for many years but she persisted in her work, knowing that he was there. “Though he slays me, yet shall I trust him …” is Job's retort to three friends who thought he’d be better off dead than continuing to suffer.
So here we are in the midst of Lent, those weeks on the Church calendar when we are privileged to participate with Christ in his passion, to walk with him … often stumbling … on our own path to the cross. We retrace the final steps of a man singular in history, a man wholly human and wholly God who is about to become wholly consumed in the fire of self-sacrifice. Thus, it is in the immolation of the Christ that we find our own hope. It is from the ashes of despair and hopelessness that new life is born in our lives, as the lilies once again show their faces to the warming sun.
Sometimes a backyard workshop or auto body shop will have lots of extra bits of metal left over -- the ends of steel rods, odd angle irons, pieces of fenders, hole-riven mufflers and other seemingly useless stuff, things that have been hammered and bent and worn and abandoned. Ideally, it all gets melted down, poured into a mold and made into something useful. So it is that your new pocket knife or bed frame could once have been a bumper on somebody’s ’57 Chevy!
The smelting process reduces scrap to its basic elements. The dross rises to the top of the cauldron where it is skimmed off and thrown away. The more this firing and skimming is repeated, the purer the product -- the way gold is refined. The metal doesn’t get used up (or left out in the rain to rust). It’s transformed into something else.
When Christ was crucified, it looked like he was used up. But he rose from the grave. His old life, the old order, had passed. That’s the way God works with us. We are his raw material. In our willing sacrifice -- in effect nailing our selves to the cross with Christ, we suffer the death of our wants and desires, hopes and dreams and start becoming what God would have us be and do. We hand over our difficulties and discouragements, too, even though we may be reluctant to submit, fearful to confess, afraid of repentance, uncertain about embracing trust. Not to mention that it's all too human to think that we are innocent of grievous offense in the first place, so we why we should offer ourselves up at all?
The answer, of course, is that we all are guilty; we are born into it. There was only One true innocent, One who -- despite his own perfection -- submitted himself to a gruesome and agonizing death to absolve each of us of our sins. As a single Lamb led to slaughter, God, in the person of his Son, burns away our guilt and leaves redemption in its place. It happened in the blink of an eye to one of the thieves on the cross. It happens to us in our time -- no more, no less a sinner than that criminal, a man who did not whine piteously of his innocence but acknowledged his guilt … and spoke of the Innocent hanging beside him. With one simple act, he stepped forward in faith, as Mother Teresa had to do in living out her Truth every day. In order to truly live, we, too, must give ourselves up to Christ on the cross, knowing that we will not be burned up, but reborn. Because Easter is coming, with a Light brilliant enough to penetrate and illuminate the ages.
"Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow him!"
The Lenten Journey:
A compelling news image caught my eye yesterday: a woman, hugging a young girl after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. At first, you only see the pathos, but as the TV camera zooms into the image, a cross-shaped smudge of ash on the woman’s forehead becomes visible, applied at an Ash Wednesday service only hours before.
The fear in that picture seems like it’s been snatched out of the very air we breathe and distilled into a single image. There is so much darkness these days, even apart from events like this latest school tragedy. Our nation acts more and more like two sharply polarized, verbally armed camps than one country with myriad experiences, outlooks and aspirations but a single heart.
The hope of Easter seems so far away.
Ash Wednesday was born in the early church at a time of great hope. Jesus, the long-awaited Christ and Savior of the Jews, was about to enter Jerusalem. The waiting crowd was buoyed by expectations of a triumphant, conquering King, a hope that would soon fade into hopelessness, like the smudge of ash that stays on the forehead until it, too, fades away.
All can seem dark and desperate as Lent stretches out in the distance and we grapple with the fearful, unfinished parts of our lives that never seem to get resolved -- no matter how much we worry over them. Too often, we close off or compartmentalize these hurts, hold them away from God. We fool ourselves into thinking that he either doesn't care about us (and our issues) or can't see through our heart’s locked doors. But here comes Lent, a season of humility and self-sacrifice when we are asked to open ourselves to the Lord, make room at our table for hope and present him with an inestimable gift: nothing less than ourselves -- whole, complete, unfinished and unconditional. Dreams, warts and all. Our gift is leavening from which Holy Bread is made. And the light glimmering in the far distance is Easter.
One intriguing way of traveling the Lenten road that a friend suggested several years ago involves writing all the things that make you weep in the night on a scrap of paper and then burning them. Are you haunted by lost love or dashed opportunity? By an illness that digs deeper instead of getting better? Does loneliness consume you? Do you mourn the death of a loved one, like those lost so tragically yesterday? Write them down, light a match and watch the smoke take your worries toward heaven. You will not be lifting your concerns to God thinking they will vanish overnight. You are placing them on Christ’s shoulders … just as he asks … to carry along with him as he undertakes his journey to the cross, where hope first will be dashed and then be reborn when Easter’s glorious light at last spills into the morning and warms our hearts.
In the meantime, please pray for the families who are hurting today in Florida and for people experiencing the sudden loss of loved ones all over the world.
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Mt. 11: 28-30
Since writing the essay about Jacob wresting with God early last month, I have thought a great deal about whether trials are merely troubles with another name or treasures in disguise. Personal disappointments are neither unusual nor unexpected in this life because the world does not exist to meet our every expectation. And neither does God exist to meet them, no matter how much we may want to believe otherwise. So, how do I place my next discouraging experience in context? Will it be just another trial or a treasure to be pondered and valued?
I suggest both, each tangled up with the other.
In the days before his arrest, Jesus counseled his disciples to expect a time of trial and compared coming difficulties to the travail of a woman in labor. Their Lord, who claimed nothing less than equality with the Father, seemed to be saying that they would be sorrowful and “weep and lament” after he left them. They were glad he no longer spoke to them in confusing parables yet seemed more confused than ever given Christ’s chilling statements about what was to come. But we know what they didn’t: that the dawn of Easter was waiting on the far horizon.
Last month, I quoted Charles H. Spurgeon, who said 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 black ships come in the night, their looming threat can batter our faith against the rocks as we toss and turn in the wee hours. But morning comes at last, spilling its bright treasures over the horizon and banishing the night – even the stars. We awaken, and hope is reborn.
I can draw this picture in my mind, even write of it. It’s another thing to live it. Awakening at 3 am with some worry terrorizing your heart can shake even the most ardent believer’s confidence. To be sure, Jesus promised his faithful (but all-too-human) followers that they would see trouble – shortly to be personified in Christ’s cruel death on the cross, but he also promised the disciples that he would see them again and that their hearts would “rejoice.”
Incredible hope is expressed in the first half of John 16! Its promise is revolutionary, that in fairly short, order the disciples would be able to petition the Father directly -- in Jesus’ name. As theologian R. C. Sproul observes*, “His atoning sacrifice is about to open a ‘new and living way’ by which believers may approach God’s holy presence ...”
The mechanism for this is revealed in the chapter’s opening verses with introduction of the Helper, who Jesus says “will guide you into all truth … will tell you things to come … (and) will glorify me.” Thus, Christ introduces an advocate who will come into the world as Spirit to help direct the disciples in God’s way following the crucifixion and ascension.
This Advocate, this Holy Spirit, is with us yet, although his presence can seem so amorphous we forget he is there. But, as Sproul points out, the Holy Spirit is not an “it” … a thing … but a living embodiment of God the Father and God the Son, just as water, ice and fog are one in one another. (The ice-water-fog analogy works pretty well for me, the only difference being, short of some arcane quantum explanation, that the three entities can’t be made up of the same molecules at the same time).
I know I'm not alone in feeling so at sea sometimes, despite Isaiah’s counsel that God’s perfect peace will guard my heart, even (or perhaps especially) if I keep my mind on him rather than whatever situation happens to be dogging me at that moment. Spurgeon speaks of “halting-places, where we may rest and take refreshment, and then go on our way singing” … where “we shall have strength enough, but none to spare; and that strength will come when it is needed, and not before … When we come to the place for shouldering the burden,” he says, “we shall reach the place for receiving the strength (because there is) a bridge across every river of trial which crosses our way … (and) we shall never have a need for which our gracious Father has furnished no supply.”
These promises may be the “bright treasures” of which Spurgeon spoke in that New Year’s sermon 134 years ago, gifts from God that we can hold close when the dark ships come in the night.
“These things I have spoken to you,” Jesus tells his disciples at the end of John 16, “that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
* The Reformation Study Bible, New King James Version; R. C. Sproul, General Editor (John 16)