I started this post in the fall, when our New England leaves were at their peak of color. Now, outside my window, the trees close by are just opening their buds, and the mountains are starting to show streaks of green.
“A Walk in the Woods’ took a long winter’s nap, but like the rest of the world outside, it’s stirring again. This will be one post, in two parts- or perhaps two seasons. 🙂
Last weekend, my daughters and I made the trip from New Hampshire to Maine, and back again. We had a wonderful time visiting with family, celebrating my niece’s soon-expected baby, and we also experienced beautiful scenery on our drive. Our little Subaru cruised through a world that was changing from green to golden and crimson red. Color was leaking out of the deciduous trees and spreading across the mountains. It was breathtaking. The glory of God was all around us.
Part way home, we noticed this roadside sign:
“FALL FOR JESUS
HE IS TRUELY
UNBE LEAF ABLE.”
I love puns. And, I love people who have fallen for Jesus. And, I am so thankful for spellcheck when I write. So, please don’t take this as critical of the dear people who created this sign. But, this is part of why sharing my news, about a new venture, is hard. In our present American culture, it’s difficult to separate ‘Jesus’ from either a swear word, a power grab, or (dare I say it) hokey-ness. The gulf between what is true, and what has often been communicated, is as large as the difference between this fall season church sign and the glorious display on the mountainsides. Our words fall so far short. (No pun intended.)
There’s another reason why it’s hard to share my news. It’s because I know that Christianity seems unbelievable to many people, for good reasons. There are some glaring problems with belief in a good God, and in the idea that there’s a large, bestselling book that contains His story in an inerrant way. And, truthfully, I’m pretty sure that the most compelling problems aren’t in the historical or bibliographical facts. They are in our own hearts.
Not long ago, my dog and I were on our favorite walk in the woods. She was bounding ahead of me, and it might have been her big paws that caused the distressing scene. I’m not sure. But, there, in the middle of the previously serene woods, on the path before me, I found a frog with its hind legs and part of its torso squished. It was writhing in pain. This little creature was suffering in a way that caused all of me to cry out, “Wrong! This is so wrong!”
I stood there, and let myself really take in this scene.
And, I got angry. Truly, even vehemently, angry at God, who was supposed to be loving and strong.
That moment, even if I was ignorant of all the vast writhing in this world, was enough. Because if there is a good and sovereign God, then how can any amount of suffering exist?
This is a real question, and our Christian answers sometimes, again, fall as far short as a hokey roadside sign.
And, we ask ourselves, are their even any mountains of glory?
I sat alone in the back of a full church.
The day before, I had finished the final exam for my fifth seminary class. I’m now a quarter of the way to a degree in biblical counseling. On the test, one of the essay questions concerned the ‘problem of evil’ and the Christian response. My mind went back to that writhing frog in the woods.
And, the orthodox answer to the problem of evil is one that doesn’t remove mystery.
We don’t know.
But, on Saturday, I sat in a church, full of people singing God’s praises. And, at the front of the church, a casket was draped in flowers.
I didn’t know this man well. The last time I saw him was years ago, at a birthday party for a mutual friend of our daughters. He and his beautiful family, a wife and two girls, came to our church years ago, before settling into a different congregation. So, other than what came to me through Facebook, or the occasional more personal updates from a shared friend, I hadn’t heard much about Mark’s journey.
Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare, degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s but more aggressive in the areas of the brain it affected and in the speed of decline.
Like a fly on the wall, I felt removed from the crowd of mourners by the distance of my relationship, and yet I felt pulled into the sacredness of their worship. The pastor described how when Mark lost his speech, he would raise two hands in worship during the songs on Sunday. And, then, it was one hand raised. And, then, when neither hand could be lifted, a single index finger was raised in praise.
In the face of suffering like I have never known, or watched a love one experience, his faith in God’s goodness only seemed to increase. And, in that sanctuary, celebrating his life, the problem of evil faded in my heart, as it was overwhelmed like a flood by Mark’s example. The realness of the goodness of the God we worship was so thick, it was impenetrable by my doubts.
Being the questioning cynic that I am, I tried. In that church, with a casket up front and hope rising in song all around me, I said, “Is it possible that this isn’t real? Could this be make-believe?”
But one thing suffering does, at least in the life of one who has looked hard and long at Jesus, is that it washes away all cushioning barriers of questioning, and it brings us to the raw core of our belief.
Things are not the way they were created to be.
We hold what is wrong with the world in our very hearts, and in our decaying bodies.
But, there’s something else at play. We know that there is more.
There’s Someone with us.
He exists. He is good.
He mourns with us, even over the suffering of a frog in the woods.
And, he is more angry with suffering, evil and death than I will ever be.
Rather than the one I should accuse, He is the One who wrapped those things up in his very body on the cross. And, they couldn’t overcome him. He won the “very good’ back for us.
Restoration is here and it is coming.
And, this changes everything.
Before I signed up for seminary classes, I looked up other counseling programs. I knew that I wanted to spend the next season of my life moving toward hurting people, and I wanted to be equipped to help others. There was a program through our state university system that would have been a similar cost, the same time commitment and would have led to a license to do mental health counseling. I filled in a form to receive more information, and my telephone rang. I didn’t pick it up. The next day it rang again. I still couldn’t answer.
I saw clearly that there were two roads stretching out before me. Both of them could be beneficial. But, I knew the one I wanted to take. It was the glorious display on the mountainsides. It was leaning into the mystery, and entering into suffering with the hope of the gospel of Jesus.
But, truth, guys.
Part of me was still so scared that I was buying into a hokey roadside sign. I’m ashamed to say it.
It took me over a week of ignoring phone calls, before I picked up and told the kind lady from the university that I had decided on pursuing further education through another institution. Umm. Yes. A seminary.
And, I haven’t been sorry. I’ve been absent from this blog, but I’ve been busy writing papers. I’ve been asking hard questions, and pondering big ideas, and I’ve been learning that our faith goes deep. At least where I live, if I tell a stranger that I’m a Christian, they will more quickly think of a political platform than they will of the gospel and theology. They will think of the churches on the roadside, and the thirty character snappy line on the board out front. They’ll think it doesn’t have anything to do with them.
But, just because we’ve fallen short in describing it, and we’ve fallen short of Mark’s example of displaying it, this does not mean that the mountains of glory do not exist.
I think they do. (Really, I do.)
And, it’s this hope that causes me to raise my little index finger for now, and praise the God of the mountains.
I’ll end for now, and plan to not be gone for so long this time… so many stories to share…