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.
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.”
My neighborhood was all a-glitter this Christmas, or part of it was anyway. One heavily secular display was besotted with clever animated lights that stretched through half a cul-de-sac, spilled around the house (where a fire-breathing dragon held sway) and then strewed lit-up holiday cheer across the backyard, which barely could be seen from the street. This was in contrast to another neighbor who had set out two six-foot lighted palm trees with a polar bear between them, either in a bid to be the Christmas decor outlier or to make a social statement (either way, my young grandchildren loved the incongruity of it). Further afield, a large county-owned park went all out with a massive technological light display that included fishing penguins and a full-size, bulb-encrusted steam locomotive among other seasonal extravaganzas. It took the best part of an hour to creep as far as the ticket booth (with these same increasingly tired and impatient grandchildren in the back), where we and a gazillion others trapped in the traffic then paid for the privilege of winding our way past example after example of illuminated Christmas pictographs that must have taken six months to set up. As we finally exited the park in a tea-steeped rush to the nearest Starbucks’ restroom, I was reminded of what a friend had to say about his Alaskan cruise experience a few years back. “It was my first cruise! And my last.”
There was, however, another Christmas display in our town that either was new this year or never got on my yuletide radar. It was a bit off the beaten path, which made it fun to find and that much more enjoyable when you got there. If anyone had told me I’d look forward with the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old to repeated viewings of a small frame house with 40-thousand Christmas lights hung on and around it, I’d have wondered what she'd put in her hot chocolate.
The still picture I submit herewith hardly does this display justice. The lights changed colors (how this is accomplished I do not know except it probably had something to do with computers). They pulsed to carols playing on your car radio. A waterfall of lights cascaded down the front porch steps. An elegant silver star shone high above the house. “Peace on Earth” declared itself in a simple script out front. The overall effect was enchanting (Clark Griswold would be red, blue and green with envy).
As the savings-saturated week after Christmas roars toward New Years Day, it is a blessing to have some quiet time to reflect on the meaning of peace: not the mock peace that shows up only when life’s concerns aren’t chewing at your mind, but the peace that passes all understanding. It’s a peace that endures, that enlivens your being and gives you hope in spite of the world’s attempt to crush the spirit out of you. It is Christ’s perfect peace, the one alluded to by Luke when he talks about “peace, goodwill toward men.”
Some years ago during a particularly intractable time in my life, I was on the near edge of awakening one morning when a clear inner voice assured me that the storm clouds swirling through my life would pass. Then, almost as an afterthought, the voice said “Isaiah 26”. I was not familiar with this verse so looked it up:
Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusts in thee. (Is. 26: 3)
During the more than 20 years since my early morning message, the Lord has seen fit to see me through more than a trial or two and on occasion has chosen to take me to the end of my road – or so it appeared at the time. Yet, I have never since been without his perfect peace. Despite whatever fix I find myself in, I have a deep well of peace to call on. My only task is not to mess things up by trying to push through the problems on my own, an all too inviting (and all-too-human) choice in a charge-ahead, get-it-done-now world. In a sense, I have become fearless – not recklessly so but mercifully so. Because, like the star lingering over the Christmas house, I know there will be Light to guide the way.
When confusion and doubt stalk, my green pasture is quiet time, a place in which I can clear mental space and find the peace promised by Isaiah 26:3, where Scripture calls on us to keep our minds on the Source of perfect peace rather than whatever circumstances may rise up and try to mess with our heads.
As I struggled with that very thing this morning, I was blessed to have stumbled on a radio interview with a woman who has started a home-based business with her husband in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Their online video shows a typical suburban home with a child’s bicycle on the porch, two practical cars in the driveway and – for all I know – a white picket fence surrounding the backyard.
It’s clear from their story that not every day has been filled with sunshine as this couple embarked on the path that God set before them, but their faith not only is strong and sharply focused but uniquely reflected in their product: three sizes of hand-hewn wooden Surrender Crosses with nails hammered into their surfaces. The purpose of their business, called Rad-Joy, is to “further God’s kingdom by encouraging others to deepen their relationship with Christ through a life surrendered.” Radical Joy.
The surrendered life does not come easy. We can believe we’re there and then find ourselves falling back on our old worrisome ways. As Jackie and Rick write on their web site, “We often talk about ‘giving it to God’ but so frequently choose to carry the heavy loads of life” ourselves. But that’s not how the Lord would have it. Instead, he calls us to himself and invites us to give our worries over to him:
“So do no fear, for I am with you.” Isaiah 41:10 proclaims. “Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Rick and Jackie’s Surrender Crosses acknowledge that God’s truth isn’t always easy to embrace in a world that seems determined to create as many worries as it can. Even us believers (perhaps especially us believers) will have our worrisome moments and wearying challenges, which Rad-Joy suggests we write on bits of paper and nail to a Surrender Cross, reminding us afresh of the Savior and Lord who promises to guide our steps, even on days when mind and heart don’t seem to be quite in sync.
“So be strong and courageous, all you who put you hope in the Lord, “counsels Psalm 31:24. And when your old nemesis worry shows his gnarly face, remember to Whom you are surrendered.
Oh, for the good ol’ days, when Christmas was less a debate and more a gift to be discovered and unwrapped on December 25th! Growing up, we Catholic and Protestant kids had heard about the “reason for the season” in cold, crisp (but not always snowy) New England, but in truth we didn’t know much about it, despite the belief our religious traditions attempted to imbue in us. We DID, however, know about and embrace the whole Santa-milk-cookies-stockings-presents thing, which our Jewish friends got into just as enthusiastically.
It’s not as easy to feel warm and peaceful about Christmas these days, despite the twinkling lights and soaring chorales, given (a) the event’s near manic commercial aggressiveness and (b) the hurt feelings that have arisen in recent years as people with other traditions (or an ideological ax to grind) work to substitute Christmas greetings with Holiday greetings or some other expression of seasonal sour grapes, and America complies so as not to offend -- without acknowledging or perhaps even realizing what “holiday” means in the first place: Holy Day. And so the season of Great Joy finds itself sunk in controversy at the insistence of an increasingly vocal minority, with the Great Good of it all but lost in the murk of political correctness and orgy of consumption that kicks off just after Halloween, blasts through Thanksgiving practically without pause and finally screeches breathlessly to a halt at the Christmas Eve finish line.
Compared to “how things used to be,” it can all be just plain disorienting to those of us who came up in a more sanely paced time. But it’s only that way if you let all the hullabaloo and nay-saying creep into your heart. I simply choose not to.
So, have yourself a blessed and serene Christmas filled with peace, joy, love and hope. Give from deep pleasure, wrap yourself in family, allow others their space and reflect the Light. Remember that Christmas is not a season but a Flower that opens in your heart, a Promise that applies to men, women, children, babies, relatives, friends, acquaintances, business associates, poor relations, incessant skeptics, old humbugs, politicians, talking heads, advertising execs, kittens, puppies and anyone else who may choose to partake.
“And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
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.”
What is there about sudden tragedy that attracts people? For some, it's curiosity. For others, it's their job, and still others are driven by an inner drive to help that's so strong they can't not give assistance.
Remember television footage of the Boston Marathon bombing? After a few long seconds to process what has happened, even before the runners stop running, first responders -- and even some onlookers -- are seen heading into the danger zone. For most of us, the natural impulse in a situation like that is to get out of harm's way as quickly as possible, but others stride in the opposite direction.
They are uncommon angels, people who willingly embrace the chaos and tend to the injured without seeming to consider their own safety. Blood flow is stanched, wounds are tended, a shirt off one man's back helps stabilize another man's broken leg. Evil is beat back.
It's the sort of thing that happens every day around our world, albeit at a slower pace and out of sight of the TV cameras: unheralded acts of personal kindness, prayer shaped by hearts and wrought by hands. Health is restored, minds are mended. Money is given, solace provided, tears wiped dry. Christ walks among the helpless, touching here, healing there. He bends to serve the sick and whispers hope to the hopeless, sits patiently by the bedsides of the old and neglected (who are us or one day may be us), listening to the stories of people whose hearts otherwise might break under the crushing burden of their loneliness.
It is He who carries the light. All at once. All day every day. In the dark, hidden places where hurt lingers, love is given. Freely, and without condition.
And Jesus lives.
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.
Came across a thought by Richard Foster this evening in his discussion of Christian simplicity. He was discoursing about the spot in Luke 6 where the disciple is talking about not laying up one’s treasures on Earth but in heaven. Treasures are whatever you tend to hold too close, he wrote, in relating a story about his young sons' cherished objects:
“When I looked into what these objects were, I was frequently amazed, for they may have been only some shiny stones, or an odd-looking stick, or a pile of rubber bands. But for my children, these were coveted treasures.”
My own son had bins of small metal cars that he played with incessantly. Now his sons play with them. I have pictures of my son and his son down at floor level gazing over rows of these colorful little objects – the same image in each case but taken thirty years apart. One of my daughters took possession of an old t-shirt of mine when she was maybe three or four and proceeded to love the thing to shreds. She called it her Blue Daddy’s Shirt (caps intended, because this truly was a treasured object). I don’t recall what become of that heavenly scrap of cloth. For all I know she has it yet, secure in some private stash in Seattle, where she lives with her own child, now seven and busy secreting away his own priceless stuff.
We all have our hidden places and treasured things. Bureau drawers are full of them. Up and down our streets, throughout our towns and cities and across the world: buttons and coins, commemorative pins, nubs of pencils and dried flowers; photo booth pictures and the diminutive pocket watch your mother wore around her neck when she rocked you to sleep lie in wait of memories -- small riches of every sort. And then there are those other treasures. They are the big things, the consequential: houses and mortgages, savings, investments, love, marriage, children, retirement, death, family and friends, identity, education, attainment, position, privilege, power, reputation, wealth and justice – or the lack of them. They may not seem like treasures but can be the ones we grip most tenaciously because they define and rule us. As Foster suggests, “whatever we fix as our treasure will take over our whole life.”
It seems natural to want to hold onto our stuff, whether physical things or wishes, hopes, fears, beliefs, and attitudes. The story is told both in Matthew and Luke of the wealthy young man who approached Jesus and asked what he must do to attain eternal life. The Lord replied with a short list of commandments, to which the man replied, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?”
That’s when Jesus lowered the boom.
“If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor and then you will have treasure in heaven,” the Lord said. The man went away sad.
He wasn’t being asked to sell all his possessions because the poor needed them (even though they do). He was being asked to release and let fall away the thing that was most encrusting his life and to trust in Him instead. In the case of the wealthy young man, it was money. In my case or yours it easily could be wealth that makes us anxious … or even the absence of wealth.
But Foster explains: Now “that the Kingdom of God has burst upon the human scene,” we can live “scandalously free from anxiety … in a new, glorious inner liberty … knowing that all things needful will be provided.”
Imagine placing your burdens on the Lord who promises rest for the weary and heavy laden. Imagine discovering that those things that used to matter so much no longer matter so much. Imagine letting go the leash of worry. Imagine barnacles that cling falling away. Imagine a life with infinitely greater fulfillment, a transformed life. Because when we seek first the Kingdom of God and trust in his (divinely ordained) purposes, we can be certain that our path will be guided by Providence and that everything we require for our journey will be provided.
Now that’s exciting. That’s freedom!
* Freedom of Simplicity, Richard J. Foster, Harper Collins, 1973, pp. 40-41