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.
When we were kids, one of our summertime adventures was fishing in a water hazard at the Springfield Country Club. My friends and I would grind our fat-tired, single-speed J.C. Higgins bikes up a pair of seriously steep hills and arrive at our destination late on a weekday morning when there weren’t many players on the course. There were plenty of fish in the small pond we sought out at the far edge of the property, but the perch and small mouth bass were only of passing interest. We had something more profitable in mind: the golf balls lying in the muck at the bottom. The more we could fetch, the more we could sell for dimes on the dollar.
My buds worried about club authorities catching us so kept their eagle eyes out for groundskeepers and any golfers walking up from the fairway, which I recall was hidden from the nearby hole by a slight rise. My worry was of a different sort. I feared diving into the water and not coming back up because of a near drowning experience when very small and because of the Catholic Church and its emphasis on sin. Big sins, MORTAL ones that would guarantee a one-way trip to HELL in the absence of Confession, were things like murder and robbing banks, which I decided right off would not be in my future. I must confess to obsessing about what the Church called venial sins, however. These minor transgressions were said to add up quickly and earn greater punishment in the aggregate, whether smacking your brother in the head, talking back to your mom or (I assumed) stealing golf balls from somebody else's pond. I clearly recall the trepidation that accompanied each dive, during which I could either have drowned or heaped another venial sin on myself, perhaps the very one that would vault me into mortal sin territory.
“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows,” Jesus declares in John 16:33, and the trials and sorrows that haunt childhood are only the beginning, given the various forms of abuse adults regularly inflict on one another. Not much has changed since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, no longer perfect creatures living in Paradise but imperfect ones trying to make their way in a broken world. Pick up a newspaper and you’ll find nation pitted against nation, religion against religion, interest group against interest group, person against person. There’s a gnawing fear these days that things are going off the rails, evidenced not only by disruptive societal change and increasingly acrid political discourse (even families are not immune from this) but also in the growing madness of school shootings by young men who think it’s OK to act out their adolescent angst with a gun.
There's no surprise that people are fearful, a condition not unique to early 21st century America but pervasive throughout history. Theologian R. C. Sproul points out “that the number one negative prohibition in the New Testament is ‘Don’t be afraid, fear not.’ Christ says it so often “we miss it,” Dr. Sproul pointed out in a radio broadcast not long ago. “It’s like hello and goodbye. Every time he shows up it’s ‘Fear not ...’”.
I recently came across an unofficial Top 40 of worries, some humorous, some life-altering serious. Concern about narrow-minded people is high on the list, followed by personal health, relationships, terrorism, bullies and war. When I was a kid, WWII had only been done for a few years, and movie and television images of theretofore unimaginable cruelties by the Axis powers still linger in this child of the ‘50s. Add to that memories of the Cold War with its A-bombs and the apocalyptic threat of today's information-driven warfare and it’s clear than only the time, place and weapons have changed. Other concerns in the unofficial Worry Top 40 include what other people think of you, pandemics, addictions, car trouble, aliens, the devil, what your teenagers are doing at night, love and sex, people looking at your diary and “peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth”.
Not long ago, two of these worries merged into one for me, a dark green Buick my father had given us when he grew too old to drive. My mechanic liked seeing the car pull up to his shop because it no doubt paid for a generous slice of his sons’ college tuition over the nine years we had it. The car was a lemon. From the start. We found it parked along the dealer’s back fence waiting to be wholesaled. But that’s the one Dad wanted. And passed on to us. Because it looked nice, was comfortable, low mileage and had belonged to my father, I kept tossing money at it when it broke hoping the car would change its miserable ways, until the engine quit and could not be redeemed short of a major infusion of cash. Sin is tenacious like that, and we can become addicted to it. That car was an addiction. My wife said we should get rid of it many times over. Even the mechanic recommended selling it while it still ran and the air conditioning worked. I didn’t listen, however, and because of my intransigence got only $300 for the thing when it conveniently wheezed to a stop on a used car lot.
Worry is a mind game that blots out common sense and keeps us awake at night. We’re aware of that, of course, but sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter. So, like me with the car, we keep plowing ahead until something breaks down - mentally, physically, emotionally or relationally and life gets really tough. Sometimes so tough there seems no way around whatever fix we’ve gotten ourselves into. Of course, some situations just befall people, dilemmas far more serious than throwing good money after a bad Buick: a depression that knocks the pins out from under you, sudden loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, just plain thievery, a business failure and/or children who have fallen into wantonness. We beg for reprieve as our fears overwhelm us. We pray for it, and when relief doesn’t come, we lament our circumstances and shout to the heavens for relief.
When Isaiah was first called as a prophet, King Uzziah had for many years presided over a relatively peaceful period in Israel’s history. Their neighbors, however, Egypt and Assyria, had experienced a great deal of internal strife, allowing both the northern and southern parts of Uzziah’s kingdom to expand their territories. But soon after Isaiah’s calling, storm clouds began gathering in the north with the ascension of a strong Assyrian ruler. Amid the strife that followed, Ahaz, king of Judah, responded with fear (and unbelief), casting aside God’s will in favor of a political solution that seemed to his advantage: an alliance with Assyria against Israel. Isaiah’s plea to trust in Yahweh went unheeded. It was at this time that Isaiah gave Ahaz a sign: that at some time in the future a young woman would conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel, or God within – the same Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace who would bring Light to a dark world many centuries hence.
Later, under Hezekiah, Jerusalem itself came under siege, but this time Hezekiah trusted in the Lord and was delivered. However, God’s judgment awaited the people of Judah and Israel during the latter days of Hezekiah’s reign, a time during which Israel “paid double for all her sins.” Like happens sometimes to us, even after we have seen the Light and changed course.
I have to remind myself from time to time that the Lord has promised to see us through our trials but has not promised to magically pluck us from our misery and set us down in Perfect Land without regard to the consequences of our actions. Because he is a Holy God, the Father demands justice. We must pay for our sins, if not precisely in the manner presented by the Catholic Church of my youth. Those who accept the promise of Christ, compelled to do so by workings of the Holy Spirit, are forgiven and redeemed. Those who do not, people who choose to disregard God's plan, are condemned (perhaps even including those we love, which is gut-wrenching to consider). One way or another, however, God’s justice is served.
Remember the Top 40 worries? These two fears were at the top of the list, exceeded only by concern about narrow-minded people - which says a great deal about societal discourse of late:
But "take heart, I have overcome the world,” Jesus says to his disciples in John 16:33 as his crucifixion looms, the sacrificial act by which he not only provides relief for the fearful but a redemptive path through which believers at last transcend the pain and suffering of this world and find rest in the infinite presence of God.
"In me you may have peace,” Jesus proclaims. Now there's something you can count on!
Trust is a tough call these days. A discouraging share of what we hear turns out not to be true. Claims abound, from politicians, to investment bankers, car salesmen, to talking heads on TV, lawyers, doctors, public authorities and whoever it is that may be responsible for preserving our pensions. Sometimes we can’t even trust the people we know to call us back when they say they will, including relatives, friends and business contacts. Even “religious” folk can fail to keep their word. 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 environment, 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 stubbornly stay my own course, 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 (seemingly by chance) 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 that I bent down to pick up that 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, one 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.