Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Some 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: The Resurrected Life
A few days before Palm Sunday, I went with my daughter to pick up my granddaughter at school. They had an unusually efficient pickup system (compared to others I recall that traveled at the speed of a slug), so it wasn’t long before our six-year-old ball of energy came bouncing into the van overflowing with chatter about the class Easter egg hunt. Her paper basket was filled with candy that she was eager to dig into – but not before telling her Golden Easter Egg story.
Turns out that other kids had found the special golden eggs but she had not. Since that’s the sort of thing that can momentarily crush a kindergartner, I fully expected a pout, but my granddaughter delighted both her mama and me by saying how glad she was for the few classmates who had found golden eggs, even to the point of comforting a sobbing friend who also had come up empty-handed.
Self-effacement by a six-year-old is a great way for Grandpa to start thinking about Easter, the meaning of which all too easily gets lost amid the bunnies and baskets, spring savings events and just plain busyness that can push the holy occasion into the background. But, truth is, I can have a hard time settling into Holy Week, especially when I was younger. And since so much of who we are as adults has roots in childhood, perhaps that’s the place to find at least a partial explanation.
I grew up in the Catholic Church. Dutiful participation was expected of me and my three brothers, so we accompanied our mother to Mass most every Sunday (unless we could fake our way out of it) and also attended religious instruction classes. In time, all four of us drifted away from the Church. I can’t speak for my brothers, but my defection produced great relief. I was glad to have escaped the religious gloom that had begun taking root like some dark flower in my adolescent heart. No longer must I face the shrouded plaster Jesus hanging high above the altar during the week before Easter, head askew, painted blood running from his pierced heart (even though it was covered, I still knew it was there). No longer must I fear committing even the most venial of sins within reach of the Catholic Church (never mind mortal ones) – or ever again having to encounter our parish’s two creepy priests.
Now fast forward slightly more than a generation. Most of a life and four kids later, I was compelled to return to church because, (a) I had received more than a few Divine promptings in my business and personal life, (b) my children needed to make their own spiritual decisions, and (c) up to that time I had set a pretty poor example. We began attending a small mainline Protestant church, attracted to the congregation by a friend and his family. The folks there were welcoming but not pushy, and over some years, the darkness that marked my early religious experience gradually got replaced with light.
The denomination we chose is steeped in Easter. It’s the church known far and wide for its glorious Easter Sunrise services. But first comes Holy Week, during which believers are compelled to grapple with the idea of self-sacrifice, what our pastor calls the resurrected life and the world calls folly. During that time, we walk the path with Jesus as he follows his Father’s will toward crucifixion, from the triumphant expectations of Palm Sunday to the hollowness of Easter Saturday.
We don’t hear much about Easter Saturday, even in the Easter church. If Good Friday is anguish, Easter Saturday is terror. The prophesied Savior has been executed and buried, and his most ardent followers have fled. Their bewilderment and anguish must have been devastating. Even we, who know the happy outcome, can hardly comprehend the clash between lingering hope and the bleak reality of Easter Saturday with Christ’s linen-swaddled body lying cold in the grave. Some bible experts claim he descended into hell during that time, as suggested by the Apostle’s Creed, and that the whole of man’s sin came crashing down on him there. Others say not. Theologian R. C. Sproul notes that wherever it was that Jesus found himself on Easter Saturday, he had been forsaken by the Father and suffered the ultimate punishment, that of a scapegoat driven outside the city “into utter darkness, where the light of God’s face did not show.” Imagine what it would have been like to be abandoned by someone who is more a part of you than yourself – even if you know (and always have known) that this moment must come. We are exhausted at the very thought of it and may find it challenging to plumb the depths of Holy Week without calling on the Lord himself to deepen our understanding!
There is this, however: what a local pastor once called the “unmatched joy of Resurrection,” a time and place where our old lives are put to death with Christ and new life rises in its place. It is no idle tale that Jesus has fled the tomb. The truth is revealed with Easter’s first light: The Lord has risen. The Lord has risen indeed!
It is in this Light that we find our hope, our purpose and our rest.
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
Trust is a tough call these days. A discouraging share of what we hear turns out not to be true: claims from politicians, investment bankers, car salesmen, TV talking heads, lawyers, doctors, public authorities and whoever it is that's responsible for preserving our pensions. Sometimes we can’t trust the people we know to call us back when they say they will, including relatives, friends and neighbors. Even “religious” people fail to keep their word from time to time.
People like us. People like me.
Trust seems to have lost much of its footing over the years, having metamorphosed from a bedrock value into little more than a half-hearted promise. We want to trust. We hope to trust. But sometimes, even we can’t be trusted -- not because of some outsized moral deficiency, but because we simply forget the things we’ve promised in the blizzard of busyness surrounding us.
But God asks us to trust him, in small things and with our very lives. For many of us, however, the notion of trusting God for our lives borders on bizarre and cuts across the grain of independence that runs like a red-white-and-blue streak through American notions of success.
As worldly people, we're expected to compete in a bootstraps-tough work environ-ment, cobble our dreams together on our own and plot a course. Then, if things don't work out, we get to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again, as Ginger Rogers told a discouraged Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936). What we're taught from the time we're knee-high to a pile of self-help books is that each of us succeeds according to his or her unique talents, abilities, cleverness and drive.
But what if there's something else? Another path.
It never occurred to me in my try-this, try-that experimental approach to life that God may have a future in mind other than the one I had in mind and that if I set it aside I may miss taking a different, more fruitful path. During a particularly difficult stretch when not much was working either at work or at home, I came across a paper heart floating in a fresh puddle of rainwater, no doubt dropped there by a child from the church across the way. But maybe it wasn't an accident; could be I was meant to find that paper heart with its eight simple but revolutionary words: Trust in the Lord with all your heart. To say that it changed my life is a king-sized understatement, although change (and faith) did not come right away but slowly, finding tentative foothold in life's day-to-day cracks and crannies as my challenges continued unabated. Footstep by footstep, trust by trust, I got transformed and now am a different person, who is approaching these same problems with a greater purpose and a lot more peace.
What the several passages beginning at Proverbs 3:5 say is to trust God with your life. You no longer have to figure it out on your own, because the Creator of the universe has offered to punch your ticket and help put your future together. That's pretty awesome.
But there is a catch. You have to give something in return. And the cost is high.
Since we're talking God here, it's no surprise that he asks for the whole enchilada: his life in exchange for ours. First, we have to acknowledge him as Savior (after comprehending that we even need a Savior), confess our mess and give it over to him to deal with -- all of it: our despair, bewilderment, confusion and personal estrangements (some perhaps decades old), the entirety of our frustrating, unfinished lives. We also deed him our deepest desires, even our children (perhaps especially our children). Then it's as if Christ takes your stuff on his bruised and bloodied back and trudges afresh up the slopes of Golgotha, the weight of your sins and mine borne by this one man: sins from the beginning of time, sins more numerous than an infinity of stars. And, I would think, he also carries with him the hopes and dreams we've surrendered to him. Scripture does not speak to me as clearly about this, but it makes sense in light of Proverbs 3:6, which promises that if we acknowledge God in all our ways he will direct our paths toward a righteous end (for which he will receive the credit, the glory).
Let's look at this from another angle, because this Divine transaction can be hard to get a grip on if you haven't already experienced it.
In the early Church, palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday, which symbolically heralded a triumphant, liberating Messiah entering Jerusalem, were burned and mixed with holy oil on subsequent Palm Sundays and then applied to penitents’ foreheads in the sign of the cross. The smudge of ash stayed on until it faded away, just as the buoyant expectations of an earthly conquering Savior faded away in the disciples' minds following Jesus's trial and crucifixion, the way our hopes, too, can fade with time. During the week leading up to Easter, we are reminded of the dust from which we have come and the dust of our lives, and it can all seem rather dark and otherworldly; it's no wonder that hopelessness creeps so readily into our hearts. But the Truth of Christ's resurrection exists outside ourselves. Easter always glimmers in the distance, asking again and again that we abandon our worries and woes, delights and desires to him, while first confessing our sinfulness (including the idea that we alone are responsible for our success) and then start living the sacrificed life.
What does that mean?
Living the sacrificed life means transitioning from self control to God's control. In so doing, we give the Lord permission to melt us in his sacrificial fire. We allow him to mold and shape us anew so we may serve him and, ultimately, ourselves more effectively over time. When we finally admit our sin-scarred inadequacy and surrender all -- including those secret things we've thrown into the deep well of fear all our lives, the problems that haunt our being and keep us from experiencing the freedom God wants us to have, the Lord promises to refill our well with his Living Water. The mechanism for this is Christ's Holy Spirit, the part of God that lives and acts within us. Through this process, which we can't bring about on our own, we grow to become more like Jesus. There is one important caveat, however: The Lord does not promise us an easy road after we have handed our lives over to him. In fact, the road may even get rougher for a season before evidence of a new life in Christ becomes apparent, just as one can feel really awful during physical fasting and detoxification and like a new person down the road.
As esoteric as this may sound, it is real. Real lives have been transformed, some with a surprising suddenness (Paul on the road to Damascus), some quietly over many years -- mine has been a mixture of both. Through the grace of God, Easter rises in our lives whenever we become open to it (again, the work of the Holy Spirit, who quickens our hearts to receive it). Often, however, we first must traverse the barren ground of uncertainty and brokenness that leads toward Resurrection, whether for the first time or having tiptoed toward the starting line many times but hesitated to cross.
Confessing our sins and transferring the whole of our life to Christ in exchange for the new one he promises us is a continuing journey through which we not only learn to trust God, at long last, but also find the hope that's been waiting there for us all along.