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.”
-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:
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!"