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.
I was on a sales call. My prospect sold expensive late model cars. A luxury tax had been levied on high-priced automobiles and interest rates were sky high, throwing the economy into a tailspin. Business was bad, but this was nothing new. The dealership had been through enough downturns to know that for every valley there eventually is a corresponding high. However, they had several good salespeople on staff, and since customers were few and far between, they had to decide whether to let them go or keep the team together until the turnaround they knew was coming.
“You know, you just don’t throw people away,” the wife business owner said to the husband business owner, the thought lingering in the air between them. They looked at each other and smiled. The decision had been made -- and was not lost on me. I had a decision to make, too, and in a flash of inspired decisiveness, my mind got made up.
It is said that God speaks to us in many ways, sometimes through others, sometimes directly. He has told me “No!” from time to time when the answer I had been seeking was “Yes”. No matter how the message was delivered, it was clear Who had sent it and what path I must take.
Which reminds me of the time, richly detailed in the first chapter of Luke, when the angel Gabriel showed up in the temple with a message for Zacharias. As the old priest approached the altar to burn incense, what surely must have seemed like an apparition appeared to him and began speaking. The passage reports that Zacharias “was troubled, and fear fell upon him,” which seems perfectly understandable.
“Fear not, Zacharias,” Gabriel said (no doubt in the lilting words of the King James), “for thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord … and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.”
I picture Zacharias standing with mouth agape, Bic lighter dropped to the floor, religious task forgotten. But that was not all. God had a lot more to say to his servant Zacharias through the angel. Among other qualities, their son would become great in the sight of the Lord, would turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God and prepare them for the advent of Christ. All told, less than a minute’s worth of angel talk appears in the text - plenty of time to turn Zacharias’ knees to jelly.
“Whereby shall I know this?” the priest asked, “For I am an old man, and my wife is well stricken in years.”
I imagine his voice either quavering or maybe dripping with sarcasm, in either case a response born of one who clearly had been grappling with the realities of old age for some time. No matter, Gabriel did not receive Zacharias’ incredulity lightly.
“I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold,” continued the angelic messenger, about to lower the boom on the old man, “you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in time.”
Zacharias was struck dumb and unable to say anything to the people waiting outside as he left the temple. One can only imagine the thoughts coursing through his mind as he headed home to write a note to his wife and let her know what had happened. In time, Elizabeth did deliver a son, whom his father did, indeed, call John (by tracing his name on a tablet). With that grace note, Zacharia’s voice was restored. The child was to become John the Baptist.
I think of these events and wonder what might have transpired had I not taken God’s cue after hearing my husband and wife sales prospects refuse to let good people go during a time that did not bode well for their business. My life probably would have been quite different today had I listened to myself instead of trusting the Lord. Who knows, I may even have lost my voice!
Perhaps the Lord has a message for you as you ponder some weighty decision. It may come directly or through another person – maybe even an angel. If so, I suggest you take heed, even if God's plan for you isn't what you had in mind and, on top of that, seems completely impossible. Especially if you’re like me and “stricken in years.”
Because the truth is that when God speaks, you should listen!
Some years ago I heard about a young woman who had lost some small object - a key, a ring, money; I don’t remember. What I do recall, however, is the way she set about looking for it.
At first, I was told, she was rather beside herself; the thing was valuable and appeared to have vanished. After a while, however, she made a choice that shocked me to my non-believing core: she turned her treasured object over to Jesus. I don’t remember much after that, whether she found what she was looking for or didn’t. I do recall thinking how passive and silly the woman appeared – bordering on superstitious. I didn’t get it. I didn’t know God or how God works.
In the parable of the lost coin, we see how God is thinking about people like me. Wanting us (or wanting us back). Wooing us even. Showering us with loving pursuit. Incessantly. It’s a minor miracle … maybe even a major miracle … that the Creator of the universe has his mind set on us.
“I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out,” God declares in Ezekiel.
No matter how deep we crawl back into ourselves during time of trial (or sin), God is there. No matter how deep the pit we find ourselves in, he is there – even as water in the pit keeps rising.
But God is waiting. Willing. Wanting … me.
“As shepherds seek out their flocks … so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” The Lord’s words.
Sheep are famously dumb. Guided by the intelligence of a stump, they will travel in circles through thickets of briars (while at the mercy of every wolf in the area) in search of some new patch of grass. That sounds a lot like us, wandering in circles in search of our own fresh patches of green. Like innocent little lambs, which is how we sometimes view ourselves, we get caught up in all sorts of thickets, while the devil sits on a tree branch grinning down at us (imagine the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland).
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” replied the cat.
“I don’t care where,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the cat.
My father-in-law, who occasionally flashed a Cheshire Cat grin, once told me, “If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter how you get there.” I think he may have cribbed that from Lewis Carroll, but no matter. The truth sticks regardless of where you hear it.
But God knows his sheep and pursues them – no matter where they go.
I recall having gone into an empty Catholic church some years ago, decades after I had left Catholicism behind in a fit of pique, and my eye was attracted to a bit of Scripture tacked to the back of a pew:
“You did not choose me. I chose you.” Which turned out to be John 15:16.
The possibility that God had chosen me, had pursued this wandering sheep through deep thickets of disdain and doubt, never occurred to me. If only I’d figured that out earlier and acquiesced to the Lord's purposes, how different my life may have been.
I once read in a little paperback called God’s Little Instruction Book that “Most people wish to serve God – but only in an advisory capacity.” In other words, “My plans are set, Lord. So please ratify them!” That’s not the way it works, I have discovered through considerable error and pain. As if to confirm the truth of this matter, the little book proceeded to quote Proverbs 16:3:
“Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.”
God’s ultimate triumph is in living his life through us, a process during which we are called to abandon any pretext that we are in control and trust him instead, turning all we are (and all we can ever be) over to the Lord and then letting him work our lives out as he will.
It can be unsettling, but the truth of Christ’s message is this: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Surrendering your life to God is not about losing all the good stuff about your present life and becoming some kind of boring religious automaton. It’s about living a transformed life – not a life of perfection, but one in which even our imperfections and disappointments can be used for the glory of God.
Non-believers, of course, will stand aghast upon hearing so radical a concept, like I did after hearing about the young woman who called on Jesus to find her vanished valuable. But we are so much more than some lost coin or wandering lamb to a sovereign God who has promised to find us and lead us to whatever patch of green he has in mind.
“For thus says, the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”
And to a wanderer like me, that’s no minor miracle!
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.
Jacob was 97-years-old when he wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok. He was a tough old bird, it would seem, because he held his own against the Messenger of God who initiated the match, which continued overnight and was still underway at dawn. The mysterious theophany, which Scripture calls an Angel of God, wearied of trying to best Jacob, so crippled him by touching his hip socket, knocking it out of joint and limiting his movement. But Jacob fought on.
“Let me go because the day breaks,” the Man says, to which Jacob replies, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” I don’t imagine exclamation points appear all that often in Holy Scripture, but a sweaty scene in which a descendant of Abraham and Isaac wrestles with the Lord would seem to deserve one. Jacob got his blessing: a new name – Israel – and an assured future for his descendants. “You have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed,” the Lord told Jacob as the sun rose above the horizon. You’d think, after that strong a confirmation, that the man’s life would have been a bed of roses going forward, but that’s not how things turned out as Jacob grappled with the future. I can easily identify with that part of his story, the part where we insist on dealing with life’s challenges entirely on our own rather than waiting on God to work them out as he will, in his own time.
The name Jacob means deceiver. Charles Spurgeon called him a believer with “too much planning and scheming about him,” so I can identify with that, too. Let’s set the scene.
After swindling twin brother Esau out of his birthright, Jacob fled to the family’s ancestral home after Esau vowed to kill him when Isaac, their father, died. He stopped along the way one night, laid his head on a rock and experienced his famous dream of a ladder set upon the earth with its top in heaven, where “the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.
“And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: ‘I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'” As if that wasn’t assurance enough of blessings to come, the Lord added: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” Jacob was impressed and, I would have thought, completely transformed by the Divine awesomeness he’d just experienced. But it wasn’t long before he returned to the planning and scheming noted by Spurgeon.
His destination was Haran, where he was taken in by his mother’s brother, Laban the Syrian. All sorts of deception proceeded from there, and it’s hard to tell who was the biggest schemer in the long run, Jacob or the uncle – despite all the embracing and kissing that greeted his arrival. The bargaining began within a month, and for Jacob, the prize was Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, who was “beautiful of form and appearance.” Jacob agreed to serve Laban for seven years in return for Rachel’s hand, “and they seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her.” When the time had been fulfilled, Jacob asked Laban for permission to marry Rachel. The uncle complied, but after nightfall brought Rachel’s older sister Leah to Jacob’s bed. Jacob discovered Laban’s deceit in the morning (one wonders why it took so long) and confronted Laban, to which he replied something about it not being right to marry off the younger daughter before the older one. Jacob agreed to work seven more years if Laban would include Rachel in the marriage deal, which he did, leading to years of tension between the two sister-wives about childbearing (Leah started off strong, but Rachel appeared barren, although she eventually begat Joseph). Jacob and Laban also went round and round about wages and livestock and speckled chickens – each trying to deceive the other, the net of which was that Jacob became “extremely prosperous”, to the chagrin of Laban’s sons, who felt cheated.
“Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you.’” Jacob complied, driven no doubt by the tension mounting in Haran plus fear that Laban would not allow his daughters to leave. So he, his wives, children, servants, camels and livestock snuck away in the dead of night. Laban and his forces followed, put out at not getting to say goodbye but likely also burning with anger at their stealthy departure. Unknown to Jacob, however, the Lord had come to Laban in a dream and asked that he “speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.” As a result, their meeting turned unexpectedly cordial and Laban pronounced a now-familiar blessing on Jacob as they parted: “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from another.” Jacob then journeyed on to meet his brother Esau.
It's interesting to note that God was active on many fronts during this time Jacob's life. For instance, Laban left for home frustrated that he could not find his “gods”, stone idols he presumed had been stolen by Jacob (Rachel had hidden them in some saddlebags). But now, because of his dream, Laban had begun a conversation with Jacob's God, a relationship which seems to have continued, although Scripture does not say so directly.
Now we find Jacob, a man of advanced age (at least from our perspective) walking overland toward his father’s home with a vast entourage of people and animals and fear in his heart. “He doubts, yet he believes,” wrote Spurgeon. Having just been rescued from his father-in-law by the Lord, Jacob now is afraid of his brother, with “fear and faith battling together,” so much so that he divides the livestock gifts sent ahead to Esau in similar droves – ewes with ewes, rams with rams, camels with camels and so forth, each separated by some distance so as to arrive at different times and thus “appease him with the present that goes before me.” As mentioned earlier, this wrestling with fear noted by the great Victorian-era preacher strikes uncomfortably close to home. Spurgeon, in fact, claimed to know a person like that. “I will not say that I live with him,” he related, “but I will confess, with sorrow, that I have sometimes been that very person.”
Finally, Jacob sends the last of his group over the Jabbock. At last alone, he settles down with that rock for a pillow and ends up grappling with the Lord for his blessing until dawn. He ends up crippled – and more dependent on God, but he had seen the Lord face-to-face and had his life “preserved”.
“Now Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and there, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men.” So what does Jacob do but divide his entourage in two that one half may flee if the other half were to be attacked by Esau’s forces (“maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children behind, and Rachel and Joseph last”). This may strike one as prudent but also can taken as another nod to fear. The meeting with Esau turns out well, however, with lots of hugging and kissing and gift-giving and bowing down. Beyond that, Jacob and his offspring (eventually 12 between Leah, Rachel and their handmaidens) would go on to found the “company of nations” that the Lord promised his wrestling partner later at Bethel.
What I take from this 5,000 year old story so rich with complex human relationships is how thin our trust in God often is in the face of threatening situations or seemingly intractable circumstances – despite the Lord’s promises and blessings. It's easy to understand why even believers so often choose to devise their own escapes from the difficulties that cross their path (is it not the American way?). Spurgeon describes this two-sided sword as doubting and believing at the same time. Not only that, we want our problems to be solved right away, lacking what might be called Spiritual patience.
Then there's the relative perspective of time. These days, dramatic life situations that can take decades to work out are presented and resolved in the span of a two-hour movie or 13-part TV series. It took something like two years for Jacob and his entourage to journey from Haran to his meeting with Esau. The longer faith journey chronicled in Genesis 28-33 spanned 23 years can be read in about 20 minutes, even with discernment.
My prayer on this early January day in 2018 is that God will slow me down and bless me with greater trust during the coming 12 months (while perhaps allowing me fewer clever schemes of the sort I like to dream up). This heartfelt hope can't possibly expressed better than by C. H. Spurgeon:
“If this New Year shall be full of unbelief, it will be sure to be dark and dreary,” he declared from the pulpit of Metropolitan Tabernacle in London as the clock ticked into 1884. “If it be baptized into faith, it will be saturated with benediction. If we will believe our God as he deserves to be believed, our way will run along the still waters, and our rest will be in green pastures. Trusting in the Lord, we shall be prepared for trials, and shall even welcome them as black ships laden with bright treasures.”
One of the knottiest issues Christians have to grapple with in conversations with non-believers and even fellow believers is the “one way” idea. That God has finally, completely and intentionally fashioned a single path to redemption in the person of Jesus Christ, who redeemed a great many people while on Earth and uncounted millions since. He also upset more than a few cultural, political and religious apple carts, was executed in a mean and visible way and yet lived again to redeem … even us.
“I am the way, the truth and the light,” Jesus declares from the pages of Scripture. “Nobody comes to the Father except through me.”
There lies the stumble stone for people who are repelled by the idea that Christianity claims the exclusive path to God, inferring (of course) that all other would-be paths to God are invalid. Such an audacious statement either must be true on its face or completely without merit, as many skilled and holy Christian apologists have argued. But neither is it my intent – nor within my ability – to unpack the logic of this truth exegetically, except to wonder why God would have bothered creating just one more path among many and then have played it out in such an extraordinarily cruel way.
I choose instead to present the reality of Christ’s singular way from a completely different perspective, one with the power to bring me to tears given the magnitude of its truth, the image of which has enveloped and guided my life now for a long time.
Abraham plays in my imagination, Abram as he was known then. I see Isaac, his beloved son, carrying kindling up a mountain where his father planned to light the fire that would consume his boy (Isaac thought he was to participate in an animal sacrifice). Now, in the cruel garden of my mind, I see my own son, or perhaps one of my daughters or grandchildren. I am forced to choose between them, to mark the one who will be sacrificed to the flames. I am expected to do so as a matter of faith, trusting in God that no harm will befall any one of my precious offspring. But I do not have the courage of Abraham, I do not have the faith. I cannot choose. I would rather die myself in some piteous, wretched manner than sacrifice my son. MY SON …
God had a problem, symbolized by Abraham’s dilemma: How can I redeem my people? How can I forgive them of their lifetimes of sins against me? How can I see my justice done? I could wipe them out and start over. I could kill their sons – as cruelly as Herod killed those boy toddlers in his deadly search for the newborn Savior.
“No! I cannot do these unspeakable things,” God may have thought. “I will kill MY Son instead. My Son, the Light of the world, the One who existed since before there was time. I will commit the unthinkable act. I will choose Him. I will have him beaten without mercy, place a crown of thorns on his innocent head and twist it until the blood blends with his tears. I will turn my back on him. And then I will hang him on a Roman cross in the bright light of day. He will die slower than any sacrificial bull or lamb or goat and will have his side pierced by a sword to prove that he is dead. I will sacrifice my Son willingly so that others, in embracing His singular sacred act, will -- in turn -- sacrifice their own lives on my altar and be born again.”
I do not picture God as a remote, larger than life character but more like a person you’d meet on the street. He would look a lot like me. Or you: kind of average, approachable. And after a few obligatory comments about the weather, he probably would get right to it:
“I do not ask your son of you,” He would say, “or one of your daughters or a grandchild. That is far too much to ask. Instead, in my great mercy, I ask you only for your obedience and surrender - in total trust. I ask you for yourself, given over completely and irrevocably to me and my purposes: your hopes, your dreams, your future. Even the ones you love so much more than yourself: your children, your grandchildren. All of it, holding nothing back. Like Abram.
“That’s step one,” he would conclude, giving me one of those smiles that only Michelangelo could paint.
“Because until you do that, it’s all just words.”
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.
In the short interval between Christ’s resurrection and ascension, after Jesus had appeared to the disciples several times (including the memorable encounter with doubting Thomas), a man was seen on the beach as Simon, Peter, Thomas and their companions fished on the lake perhaps a hundred yards distant. It was daybreak, and they had been working all night. The man shouted out from shore, asking whether they had caught any fish.
“Cast your net on the right side of the boat,” he called out, “and you will find some.”
No doubt they were tired and frustrated, so it’s easy to imagine their reaction. But they cast their nets anyway. And caught more fish than the net was supposed to hold.
Realization struck like a thunderclap.
“It is the Lord!” John shouted. When Simon Peter heard that, he sprang into the sea and struck out for the beach, the others following in the boat, dragging the unbroken, fish-laden net behind them.
When they got to shore, a fire had been started with bread and fish on the coals. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught; come and have breakfast.” They accepted his invitation and, giving thanks, quietly acknowledged their Lord’s resurrection from the dead, the same Lord they had thought lost just days before.
The experience likely reminded the disciples of another fish “happening.” Early in his public ministry, Jesus had borrowed a boat one morning to stand away from the land and speak to a crowd more effectively. The boat belonged to Simon, who had been on the lakeshore with other fishermen washing their nets following a night during which they had caught no fish. When Jesus finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
It was an odd time of day to be fishing and they must have been tired after a fruitless night, but Simon was aware of the miracles the “Master” had been performing. So he let down his nets in obedience. “And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.”
This event initiated the discipleship of Simon, James, and John. At Jesus’ invitation, they beached their boats, left their old lives behind (presumably including the fish) and followed him. They were to become fishers of men.
In the space of a few short weeks, the three were transformed, their lives changed irrevocably. And yet, as Scripture reveals time and again, they remained shot through with doubts and uncertainties -- so much so that a major lesson yet awaited Peter following the fishing episode recounted in John 21:1-14, above.
Have you been fishing in this life, perhaps for a very long time, and have no real results to show for it? Have you let down your nets time and again only to have them come back empty? It’s easy to give up, to quit. But that’s not what our Savior and Lord asks of us.
As Savior, he has assured our salvation and set us up for the next step in our pilgrimage: sanctification, the process by which we gradually are made more like Jesus than ourselves … more Holy, more open to his lead. As Lord of our life, Jesus asks us to trust him in this, just as He trusted the Father for his steps on Earth. By way of the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Christ asks us to let our nets down at a place and time of his choosing, not our own.
Because that’s where the fish are. The ones you’ve been looking for all your life, the ones that will make you shout with thankfulness and joy, “It is the Lord!”
I tell my grandchildren lots of stories, many made up on the fly. Two neighbors from my childhood appear occasionally in these bedtime tales, probably because they were so different (and so memorable) to a young New England boy who pretty much grew up with people cut from the same 1950s Irish-English cloth.
Stella and Joe were Sicilian and direct from the Old Country. We lived side by side on an ordinary street in an ordinary Massachusetts town. Stella loomed large to my brothers and me. She was buxom and booming. At full throttle her voice could be heard up and down the block, and she wasn't shy about using it. Joe was her opposite: around five feet tall and sinewy thin, He walked in a stoop--almost laboriously--and never had much to say beyond a dismissive wave.
They lived on the middle floor of a triple-decker smack beside our driveway, which meant that when Stella got mad at Joe and Joe got made at Stella, it was hard to miss what they had to say. We could hear their quarrels (at least Stella's part in the quarrel) even when the windows were closed on that side of our house.
Joe and Stella mostly stayed to themselves, unless one of us worked up some kind of mischief and became targets of a well-stocked inventory of American scold words mixed in with her Italian. Joe mostly mumbled under his breath, gestured with his hands and fingered his twirly mustache in a way that clearly signaled that we dare not ever again chase a ball or a pet past the courses of brown twine that separated his vegetable garden from the rest of the world. I leave Joe to another story, however. This is about Stella.
Stella's kitchen is where we saw her most, She spent a good deal of time there, sometimes concocting aromatic red sauces prepared from tomatoes grown by Joe in his garden, and nothing could get your juices flowing faster than imagining a forkful of pasta loaded with Stella's homemade sauce that our mom had saved over 'til winter. But this was summer, the one week of maddening hot days that would lay over temperate New England like a wet cloth during August. So Stella kept her kitchen window flung open, because that was about the only air-conditioning most of us had back then. We could hear her running water, clanking pots and scolding the green and yellow parakeet she kept for company while Joe worked his garden on the other side of the triple-decker.
"Bad Johnny!" she would shout, "No bite!" And when the bird cracked seeds and tossed husks on the floor, it was, "No seed! Johnny -- no seed!" (Note here that I decline to write the way she spoke. It sounded something like "BAD-uh Johnny! No BITE-uh!" You had to have been there.)
One day Stella left the cage door open and Johnny made his escape. The way I tell it to my grandchildren he circles the kitchen twice before flitting out the open window and across our driveway to the biggest tree in the yard, only to vanish in perfect camouflage. Stella apparently had seen this happen only out of the corner of her eye, because she was late to the party. By the time she reached the window, the bird was nowhere in sight.
"Johnny! Johnny!" she wailed, hanging an ample portion of her considerable self outside the window while gesturing toward the sky with flapping arms and an anguished look on her face. "Bad bird!" she wailed into the still summer air. "Come back, Johnny, come back!" To us kids watching from below this was mighty tasty amusement, but to Stella, Johnny's sudden freedom clearly ranked somewhere between a very bad dream and the end of her world.
Johnny eventually did come back. In my story, he flies in the window, returns to his cage and is chirping contentedly on his swing before she even notices him. Then the cage door gets latched, the window gets closed and the story comes to a happy end.
Scripture tells us that life can contain more anguish than good and that being a Christian does not protect us from either vanishing parakeets or full-out tragedy. There is no divine shield against hard times, and in a paradoxical sort of way that can be comforting.
Romans 8:28 assures us that "All things work together for good for those that love God and are called to his purpose." It actually says "We know that all things work together for good ... ". We know bad stuff could be around the corner -- or is happening now, but we are confident that the Lord will see us through it.
Abandoning one's self in favor of God's purposes (whatever they may be) and then trusting him for the results -- giving yourself over to the Lord's way instead of your own,tests our will and allows us to weave our faith into the tapestry of everyday life without demanding immediate relief from adversity.
So the next time you find yourself wailing out the window because your bird has flown – or something far, far worse has befallen you, consider what we know: that “All things work together for good for those that love God and are called to his purpose."
It's a conundrum almost impossible to grasp until you’ve been there, but as you apply this truth to your own experience, you will get it in time and come to know with deep, abiding certainty that God is with you as much -- or more -- in your storms as your good times.