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.
A friend emailed me a goose story not long ago that hung around my inbox for a good while before I opened it. It was a CBS Sunday Morning story from Lake Oswego, Oregon. The piece opens as a Canada goose lifts up from the lake and lands on the seat of a slowly moving speedboat, as if such a thing is perfectly normal. The man in the boat, Mike, picks the goose up, tosses it back in the water and then guns the boat, leaving the bird behind. Undeterred at this rudeness, the goose takes to the air in pursuit. Matching its speed to the boat through a deft combination of flaps, glides and stalls, it touches down on the seat in front of Mike and folds its wings - while the boat keeps moving. This time, the goose is allowed to remain.
Turns out the bird and the man are old friends. Mike found her as a fuzzy gosling struggling in the lake, no parent in sight. He named her Kyle and proceeded to raise her at his lakeside home. Two years later, the goose had grown and it was more than time for her to return to the wild. Except that she wouldn’t go.
“I tried to get rid of her,” Mike says. “I’ve driven her miles away and then left her in the middle of nowhere, and when I come back she’s already home before me."
Which reminds me of another “coming home” story.
Going on thirty years ago, I slipped into a church sanctuary one day, more out of curiosity than anything. After decades away from religion, God had been trying to get my attention, using hard times as a tool. There were hints of his presence woven through my difficulties, and as much as I could have used the help, I struggled with the idea of handing my troubles, my life, over to Someone I could barely comprehend. The sanctuary was still. Votive candles winked their welcome down in front by the altar, while a thin shaft of morning light filtering through stained glass reflected off the pews and made the place seem a bit less intimidating. I slipped into a back pew, like my mother did when she took us kids to church (she got woozy in crowds and needed to be close to the door).
A card on the back of the next pew caught my eye right away. “You did not choose me,” it read in bold type, “but I chose you.” What an astonishing declaration! I can’t say I knew that God had reached out and chosen me at that moment – or had chosen me before I born, especially after my having tossed him aside those many years back, but his words stuck and became one of the faith building blocks that led eventually to my acquiescence to Christ as Lord of my life.
The notion of God as a Lover who pursues – even woos - us with passion has always been mildly disturbing to me, perhaps because of my overall unease with romantic expression. But then along comes a story about a bird named Kyle and a man named Mike. Is it love or merely an imprint? Does it matter? Simply put, Kyle has chosen Mike and never gives up on him – even when he rejects her. And, for whatever reason and by whatever mechanism, the Lord appears to choose us in much the same way.
Now that’s a story worth telling!
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit--fruit that will last--and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. John 15:16 NIV
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.
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!
The journey toward faith can be rough, the road long before what Franz Mohr called the “emptiness in the heart of any human being” gets filled in. Mohr, who for many years was the concert tuner and technician to legendary Steinway-sponsored pianists like Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein, describes his spiritual journey in a lively and thoughtful book called My Life with the Great Pianists.”
At seventeen, Mohr witnessed – and then experienced - saturation bombing by the Allies of his hometown of Duren, Germany. He sat on the roof of their home and watched the first wave of B-17s come in, then retreated with his family to their bomb shelter. While his mother cried out to God for protection, something inside Franz snapped, and he cried out, “Mom, shut up. There is no God! There will be no protection! There will be no deliverance! If there is any God, how can he allow something so terrible? No, there is no deliverance. We will all die together like cattle right here.”
Their house got hit directly, and Franz clambered up through a hole in the debris and began running toward the edge of town, his hair on fire, his face burning. He ended up at a relative’s in the country. Franz’s mother and father survived the bombing; his brother Peter did not.
“Christmas 1944 was very sad, indeed.”
At war’s end, infinitely more horrible news finally burst into the light: Germany had exterminated more than 6-million Jews. Franz had watched the authorities pack Jews who were their dear friends and neighbors into boxcars for transport to the death camps (the Mohrs thought at the time to work camps). Franz asked himself, “Where was God in all of this?”
“My heart became extremely bitter,” he wrote. “I was filled with hate against the war which had shattered my world and my faith. I was filled with hate against the Nazis, who had started the whole mess. I saw war as a chain reaction of hate, hunger for power, greed, aggression, and retaliation. I thought, if only someone would repay hate with love, then this whole war business would stop.”
In time, young Franz fell in with some Communist youth, who painted a bright picture of the future - without God. Then an Englishman gave him a Bible, which remained unopened on a shelf in his room. But something the man had read to him from that Bible stuck in his mind: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Try as he might, he couldn’t erase the words from his mind.
“How I hated what that war had done to us. But in the back of my mind was one ray of hope. There might be one door open for me. There, up on my shelf, was that Bible. I really was afraid to take it down to read, because the door of hope might then close!” But he gave the Word a try, beginning on page one. The story of Cain and Abel provided immediate perspective. “I thought, here is the first family created by God, and in this family there is already war! I began to realize that man is responsible for what he does by choice, and that I could not blame God for war.”
Franz then began to fret about the “miserable life” he was leading. “I will work on myself,” he decided, “live a better life, and then go to God and simply say, ‘Please accept me.’” But “how can one live a better life?” he mused. “How can one get rid of the kind of hate I have in my heart?”
One night, after walking in frustration until nearly dawn, Franz got down on his knees just as light appeared in the east. He thought of the two criminals who had been crucified on either side of Jesus, especially the repentant thief, to whom Christ had said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Then and there, he became overwhelmed by the love of God. Kneeling in supplication, all Franz could say was, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you.” At last he was free of the immense hatred that had haunted him!
What compels people like Franz Mohr to allow God into their lives after so much suffering? It is Grace, the unmerited favor of God, the power of Christ to transform those very lives. Like a person I once knew, a man with a seriously inflated view of himself. After making a consistent mess of things in his business and family, he decided to end it all with a razor blade. Suddenly, standing on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor where he would breathe his last in a pool of his own blood, this beaten man dropped to his knees - in tears - and was overcome with awe as the Savior bloomed in his heart.
Even in a world suffering such travail as ours, travail that seems to go on and on without end or remorse, how can one not praise such a Savior, a Savior who does not need our help, only our confession and assent, to save us?!
-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.
Lenten Journey: God’s Clay
“Can the pot say of the potter,
"He knows nothing"? (Is 29:16)
It’s not hard to think of ourselves as clay to be formed and shaped in the hands of God, to be made into something beautiful, even useful. The idea of working in clay is appealing, whether hand building a pot or using a wheel. Clay is smooth and pleasing to the touch.
Before the verse above, where Isaiah describes being shaped by God the potter, the prophet talks about things being turned upside down for those who hide from the Lord and take their own counsel: the pot shaping itself. Then, in the following chapter, he warns us about the illusion of “smooth things”, turning aside from God’s way to go one's own way.
All too often, life is a struggle between our plan and God’s plan. We can spend an entire lifetime fighting against God’s way because we believe our own way is best. We play both potter and pot in our personal drama and work like mad to shape ourselves according to our own vision and authority. Are we not great and skilled craftsmen, perfectly capable of shaping ourselves into whatever we think best (and perfectly content in our ignorance or arrogance)? Are not we taught by the world to be the kings and queens of our own destinies? Are not our lives our own to fashion? Seen in this worldly light, the American ideal becomes an allegory of our own stumbling lives as we navigate through the wilderness (call it Adam Land). When things don’t work out, we tend to our wounds, smooth out our clothes and get on with our next chapter.
But there’s got to be another way!
There is a way, but not where many of us look in our rush to create the Kingdom of Me, a way so shot through with potential that it’s difficult for one person to describe to another this side of heaven. And yet, we are not fully human until we have walked this path, have allowed ourselves to be shaped in the way of Christ. But we refuse to submit, driven by blind courage and dumb luck -- whether non-believer or believer (these days, it can be hard to tell the difference). Either we don’t know about God’s plan or we don’t perceive its the benefits. Or we understand all too well that God’s way could take us way out of our comfort zone and could even be painful!
But it is deep within God’s refining fire that some of his best work is done, where he only turn swords into plowshares but transform shapeless and aimless lives into ones ripe with meaning and filled with passion. This is the radical message of Jesus Christ! That by losing one life we find another. That hope can be reclaimed from the ashes.
And what a trade that is!
These things may not happen immediately, or at all, in this life, but our new life in Christ does become charged with fresh (even radical) possibility when the old life is handed over to God -- lock, stock and setbacks, through acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and the acknowledgement of him as Lord over our lives.
When we refuse God his rightful prerogative to shape us anew, we become a lot like Israel, which often refused to submit itself to the will of God and thus, in that sense, is still waiting for the elusive Messiah. Humanity is so full of pride that the only way God’s kingdom could be established, for Israel and for us, is for God to show us how it is done. Jesus, the Christ, had the power of the universe in his hands, which he could have used at the snap of a finger to show the world a display of self confidence such as had never been seen. Yet, he humbled himself before God. Christ’s hand lay softly in the Father’s hand, demonstrating willing obedience to accept his coming sacrifice and death. Even though he was afraid.
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:35-36)
In a few short hours it was done.
God, in his omniscient and loving way, sometimes thrusts us into a sacrificial fire -- either that or we have placed ourselves there through our choices. Either way, he ends up with raw material he can work with, and in time, we end up something new that's more like what we were meant to be in the first place had we not gone wandering off in Adam Land. Our Lord does not promise to save believers from calamities, although he does promise to see us through them, and if our world has already flown apart when we arrive at the foot of his cross, he helps us pick up the pieces and learn to live with, and perhaps even accept, the consequences of our actions. Being “saved” does not change us from a rusty old heap to a shiny new car in the blink of an eye. We might look like that same old junker with torn upholstery and a leak around the windshield that drips rainwater on our feet, but we have entered into an improvement process called sanctification.
Believers have no claim on perfection. We remain sinners while in this life, as certain as the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night. However, we also are Holy works in progress, full of imperfections -- even doubts. By the Grace of God, we are redeemed and become willing (as best we can) to be divinely reshaped into a life that looks more like Christ’s and less like the one we have now, a life filled with doubt, anger, bitterness, bad blood, and an overabundance of self-confidence. We may continue to labor up the hill bearing our personal crosses, but our burden has been lightened. There’s hope in the air, despite the times when we lose sight of that hope and are forced to fall on our knees when the load seems too heavy, our life too broken, and cry out for mercy.
In bequeathing our lives to God, we acknowledge our blindness and imperfection and trust in Christ's truth and grace. We acknowledge, as well, that we won’t always know the way but will have his lamp to guide us. Despite the sacrifice of giving up control, despite the frequent bewilderment of it all and the pain of not knowing, we trust that the Refiner’s fire will not consume us but will save us.
Because we are no longer our own, but belong to Christ.
The Lenten Journey:
Then he said to (his disciples): “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? Luke 9:23-25
It’s not easy to hand your life over to God, to deny yourself and take up your cross the way Luke describes. Truth is, such an idea cuts across the grain of our culture. We Americans value our independence above almost all else; the American way is to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make it on our own. Which, of course, makes it unlikely that we’d ever consider ceding control of our destiny to a God we hardly know (especially when a vocal portion of our society denies his presence and denigrates his followers). That is, until something happens to bring us up short: an illness or some other painful life's circumstance that seems to go on and on.
But that’s where we find God waiting. Not at the end of the rainbow but at the end of ourselves. That’s where we find the Christ of the Cross beckoning:
For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. - John 3:16 -
These words can totally transform our lives. Because hidden within the good news of Christ is the promise of redemption, no matter how lost or worthless or off-course our lives may seem. Because through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, hope has been reborn … hope that offers new life to a world loaded down with sin and dashed dreams.
During Lent, we are invited afresh to enter through Christ’s open door into the transformed life, but the transaction doesn’t come cheap. We are asked, as Jesus was asked, to give our all – even to accept the possibility of additional seasons of suffering! Suffering was Christ’s cross. He chose to deny his divinity and suffer fully and completely as a human being, so much so that he experienced despair deep enough to make him sweat blood while praying in the garden at Gethsemane.
Suffering hurts. Sometimes it hurts like crazy, whether mental or physical. Sickness, injury, just plain meanness or even confusion about which way to turn next can dash our hopes for a fulfilled life. It can overwhelm to the point of distraction, so much so that we sometimes feel left by the roadside while everybody else zooms by in their shiny new cars on their way to whatever happens next in their clearly perfect lives.
Sometimes, it almost seems as if God has abandoned us, like so much spit in the sea -- no matter how much we think about him, pray to him or do things for him and his Church. We can say we believe that God will rescue us from adversity and, at the same time, despair that he doesn’t.
Here’s a story.
It’s about a young woman named Agnes. Early on, Agnes knew that God had a unique mission for her here on this Earth, and in time, she was gratified that things seemed to be going exactly that way. She was led to a place to serve and set about doing what she believed God would have her do there.
Agnes was a schoolteacher at first, then was called to work among the poor -- a “call” in the sense that she had a clear command from God to leave one thing and do another. And “do” she did, exemplifying in her work what it means to know, love and serve God in this world. But then she began to suffer through what Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul, which, for Agnes, lasted the greater part of her ministry. Even so, she and others who shared her God-given vision brought both physical relief and the light of Christ to thousands of impoverished people born into a society that considered them little more than human refuse -- junk people.
Despite a hollowness of spirit that stemmed from feeling that she had been forsaken by God, the Catholic nun the world came to revere as Mother Teresa persevered in her mission among the poor of Calcutta. It’s hard to imagine the spiritual assault she suffered, the pain she endured.
Mother Mary Teresa died a thousand little deaths -- perhaps many times more -- in her private agony. Yet, in God’s mercy, she at long last began to see her pain as “a small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.” Her epiphany was the realization that she had been given the “deep joy” of sharing Christ’s suffering, including the anguish of what seemed like daily separation from her Beloved. She shared her Lord’s Passion, climbed the slopes of Golgotha with him every day. She helped shoulder his cross time after time after time and still was able to bless “the least of these” through her pain. Day after day, this Saint of the Gutters acknowledged the certainty of God’s Grace and the certainty of his presence in her life, even though she couldn’t feel it.
We all have our private pains, our deep, enduring disappointments -- not to mention those little discouragements that nibble away at the edges of our lives. We may despair loss of what society proclaims as “the good life” and instead suffer a bewildering blizzard of bills, health issues and relationship problems. We are overcome by lack of opportunity, lack of fulfillment, lack of love. Or we may have “the good life” and wonder if that’s all there is!
When we’re children (especially teens), we often feel inadequate, as if we’re the only person in the world who feels this way. Then, as young adults, we sometimes think we know it all and can do no wrong! We reassess as we grow older, of course, but our inadequacies can remain, lurking in the background -- as if to mock our abilities and accomplishments. Suddenly, we’re astonished to see an old person looking back at us in the mirror! Time is running out. Our lives seem to have vanished with the morning fog. We wonder where God is in all of this, because so much of what we had hoped for doesn’t seem to be happening.
“Where are you?!” we shout to the sky.
We know God is there, yet there are moments, common to us all, when his presence fades. Agnes didn’t see the Lord’s face for many years but she persisted in her work, knowing that he was there. “Though he slays me, yet shall I trust him …” is Job's retort to three friends who thought he’d be better off dead than continuing to suffer.
So here we are in the midst of Lent, those weeks on the Church calendar when we are privileged to participate with Christ in his passion, to walk with him … often stumbling … on our own path to the cross. We retrace the final steps of a man singular in history, a man wholly human and wholly God who is about to become wholly consumed in the fire of self-sacrifice. Thus, it is in the immolation of the Christ that we find our own hope. It is from the ashes of despair and hopelessness that new life is born in our lives, as the lilies once again show their faces to the warming sun.
Sometimes a backyard workshop or auto body shop will have lots of extra bits of metal left over -- the ends of steel rods, odd angle irons, pieces of fenders, hole-riven mufflers and other seemingly useless stuff, things that have been hammered and bent and worn and abandoned. Ideally, it all gets melted down, poured into a mold and made into something useful. So it is that your new pocket knife or bed frame could once have been a bumper on somebody’s ’57 Chevy!
The smelting process reduces scrap to its basic elements. The dross rises to the top of the cauldron where it is skimmed off and thrown away. The more this firing and skimming is repeated, the purer the product -- the way gold is refined. The metal doesn’t get used up (or left out in the rain to rust). It’s transformed into something else.
When Christ was crucified, it looked like he was used up. But he rose from the grave. His old life, the old order, had passed. That’s the way God works with us. We are his raw material. In our willing sacrifice -- in effect nailing our selves to the cross with Christ, we suffer the death of our wants and desires, hopes and dreams and start becoming what God would have us be and do. We hand over our difficulties and discouragements, too, even though we may be reluctant to submit, fearful to confess, afraid of repentance, uncertain about embracing trust. Not to mention that it's all too human to think that we are innocent of grievous offense in the first place, so we why we should offer ourselves up at all?
The answer, of course, is that we all are guilty; we are born into it. There was only One true innocent, One who -- despite his own perfection -- submitted himself to a gruesome and agonizing death to absolve each of us of our sins. As a single Lamb led to slaughter, God, in the person of his Son, burns away our guilt and leaves redemption in its place. It happened in the blink of an eye to one of the thieves on the cross. It happens to us in our time -- no more, no less a sinner than that criminal, a man who did not whine piteously of his innocence but acknowledged his guilt … and spoke of the Innocent hanging beside him. With one simple act, he stepped forward in faith, as Mother Teresa had to do in living out her Truth every day. In order to truly live, we, too, must give ourselves up to Christ on the cross, knowing that we will not be burned up, but reborn. Because Easter is coming, with a Light brilliant enough to penetrate and illuminate the ages.
"Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow him!"
The Lenten Journey:
A compelling news image caught my eye yesterday: a woman, hugging a young girl after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. At first, you only see the pathos, but as the TV camera zooms into the image, a cross-shaped smudge of ash on the woman’s forehead becomes visible, applied at an Ash Wednesday service only hours before.
The fear in that picture seems like it’s been snatched out of the very air we breathe and distilled into a single image. There is so much darkness these days, even apart from events like this latest school tragedy. Our nation acts more and more like two sharply polarized, verbally armed camps than one country with myriad experiences, outlooks and aspirations but a single heart.
The hope of Easter seems so far away.
Ash Wednesday was born in the early church at a time of great hope. Jesus, the long-awaited Christ and Savior of the Jews, was about to enter Jerusalem. The waiting crowd was buoyed by expectations of a triumphant, conquering King, a hope that would soon fade into hopelessness, like the smudge of ash that stays on the forehead until it, too, fades away.
All can seem dark and desperate as Lent stretches out in the distance and we grapple with the fearful, unfinished parts of our lives that never seem to get resolved -- no matter how much we worry over them. Too often, we close off or compartmentalize these hurts, hold them away from God. We fool ourselves into thinking that he either doesn't care about us (and our issues) or can't see through our heart’s locked doors. But here comes Lent, a season of humility and self-sacrifice when we are asked to open ourselves to the Lord, make room at our table for hope and present him with an inestimable gift: nothing less than ourselves -- whole, complete, unfinished and unconditional. Dreams, warts and all. Our gift is leavening from which Holy Bread is made. And the light glimmering in the far distance is Easter.
One intriguing way of traveling the Lenten road that a friend suggested several years ago involves writing all the things that make you weep in the night on a scrap of paper and then burning them. Are you haunted by lost love or dashed opportunity? By an illness that digs deeper instead of getting better? Does loneliness consume you? Do you mourn the death of a loved one, like those lost so tragically yesterday? Write them down, light a match and watch the smoke take your worries toward heaven. You will not be lifting your concerns to God thinking they will vanish overnight. You are placing them on Christ’s shoulders … just as he asks … to carry along with him as he undertakes his journey to the cross, where hope first will be dashed and then be reborn when Easter’s glorious light at last spills into the morning and warms our hearts.
In the meantime, please pray for the families who are hurting today in Florida and for people experiencing the sudden loss of loved ones all over the world.
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Mt. 11: 28-30
Since writing the essay about Jacob wresting with God early last month, I have thought a great deal about whether trials are merely troubles with another name or treasures in disguise. Personal disappointments are neither unusual nor unexpected in this life because the world does not exist to meet our every expectation. And neither does God exist to meet them, no matter how much we may want to believe otherwise. So, how do I place my next discouraging experience in context? Will it be just another trial or a treasure to be pondered and valued?
I suggest both, each tangled up with the other.
In the days before his arrest, Jesus counseled his disciples to expect a time of trial and compared coming difficulties to the travail of a woman in labor. Their Lord, who claimed nothing less than equality with the Father, seemed to be saying that they would be sorrowful and “weep and lament” after he left them. They were glad he no longer spoke to them in confusing parables yet seemed more confused than ever given Christ’s chilling statements about what was to come. But we know what they didn’t: that the dawn of Easter was waiting on the far horizon.
Last month, I quoted Charles H. Spurgeon, who said in his New Year’s message of 1884 that “If we will believe our God as he deserves to be believed … we shall be prepared for trials, and shall even welcome them as black ships laden with bright treasures.” When black ships come in the night, their looming threat can batter our faith against the rocks as we toss and turn in the wee hours. But morning comes at last, spilling its bright treasures over the horizon and banishing the night – even the stars. We awaken, and hope is reborn.
I can draw this picture in my mind, even write of it. It’s another thing to live it. Awakening at 3 am with some worry terrorizing your heart can shake even the most ardent believer’s confidence. To be sure, Jesus promised his faithful (but all-too-human) followers that they would see trouble – shortly to be personified in Christ’s cruel death on the cross, but he also promised the disciples that he would see them again and that their hearts would “rejoice.”
Incredible hope is expressed in the first half of John 16! Its promise is revolutionary, that in fairly short, order the disciples would be able to petition the Father directly -- in Jesus’ name. As theologian R. C. Sproul observes*, “His atoning sacrifice is about to open a ‘new and living way’ by which believers may approach God’s holy presence ...”
The mechanism for this is revealed in the chapter’s opening verses with introduction of the Helper, who Jesus says “will guide you into all truth … will tell you things to come … (and) will glorify me.” Thus, Christ introduces an advocate who will come into the world as Spirit to help direct the disciples in God’s way following the crucifixion and ascension.
This Advocate, this Holy Spirit, is with us yet, although his presence can seem so amorphous we forget he is there. But, as Sproul points out, the Holy Spirit is not an “it” … a thing … but a living embodiment of God the Father and God the Son, just as water, ice and fog are one in one another. (The ice-water-fog analogy works pretty well for me, the only difference being, short of some arcane quantum explanation, that the three entities can’t be made up of the same molecules at the same time).
I know I'm not alone in feeling so at sea sometimes, despite Isaiah’s counsel that God’s perfect peace will guard my heart, even (or perhaps especially) if I keep my mind on him rather than whatever situation happens to be dogging me at that moment. Spurgeon speaks of “halting-places, where we may rest and take refreshment, and then go on our way singing” … where “we shall have strength enough, but none to spare; and that strength will come when it is needed, and not before … When we come to the place for shouldering the burden,” he says, “we shall reach the place for receiving the strength (because there is) a bridge across every river of trial which crosses our way … (and) we shall never have a need for which our gracious Father has furnished no supply.”
These promises may be the “bright treasures” of which Spurgeon spoke in that New Year’s sermon 134 years ago, gifts from God that we can hold close when the dark ships come in the night.
“These things I have spoken to you,” Jesus tells his disciples at the end of John 16, “that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
* The Reformation Study Bible, New King James Version; R. C. Sproul, General Editor (John 16)
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.”