The Bus Driver I Bruised (An Easter Story)

The first day of kindergarten I wanted to walk to the bus stop all by myself, so I put my backpack on, held my strawberry shortcake lunchbox in one hand, and told my parents to stay home. I walked a long way up our dirt road, past the gardens, past a neighbor’s house with a barking dog and up a hill to the spot where I was to wait for the bus. I didn’t know Papa and Mama were following behind, being careful to stay out of sight. The bus stopped and I climbed on board all by myself, feeling every ounce independent and brave.

32

But it was toward the end of October that we all moved, except for Papa who stayed behind. I remember the kitchen in our new home with the cupboards that I couldn’t reach. Once, I stood next to the counter, my head just about its height, while Mama and Papa looked down at me sadly and said, “Lara, we need to talk with you.” Their faces looked serious as they told me that they were getting a divorce. I remember I didn’t know why they looked so sad.

At our new house, I was supposed to wait for the bus just at the end of our short driveway but for some reason I would wake up with knots in my stomach. I just knew I couldn’t go to school. I told Mama that I didn’t feel good, day after day. Becoming a single mother, she had gone back to work and my grandmother was living with us to help out. I’m sure Grammie B noticed that after the bus left I would be all better and would spend the rest of the day playing with my little sister. Papa took me to the doctor once, and the tall, perceptive man diagnosed me with ‘anti-school-itis’ and said that I should be home for the rest of that day but to get on the bus in the morning.

But just like every day, I woke up and the thought of school made my stomach twist into knots. Once, I pretended to wait for the bus, and Grammie B didn’t notice that I ran around and hid in the pine trees behind our house. The bus came and left and I gave her quite a shock when I showed up hungry for a snack an hour or so later. She called my other grandmother to come and take me to school, because she said she didn’t have the heart to do it. So, Grammy J drove down one hill and up another, loaded me in her car and took me to school. Years and years later she would still talk about how she had to drag me inside and leave me there and of how afterwards she sat in her car and cried. She was sure to always remind me that Grammie B made her be the bad one. I think she was always relieved to see my smile when she told the story.

In a small town, with family and friends all around, people help each other out. My bus driver was named Bob. I think he might have owned a garage in town and he would pick me up and drop me off each school day. At least, he would try to pick me up. There were days that I just would refuse to go to school. He would get off the bus, kneel down and talk with me. He was kind and would smile and try to encourage me that school wasn’t such a bad place to be and assure me that he’d be bringing me home again that afternoon. But I wouldn’t go. One morning he and my mother had a talk in low voices while we all stood at the end of the driveway. He came over and picked me up to put me on the bus. I turned into a little wild beast, kicking him and hitting him. But, somehow, he got me on the bus and plopped me in a seat.  I don’t remember how many times this happened and he was kicked and hit and scratched putting me on his bus. I know that every time I lost the battle to stay home, I cried the whole way to school. Usually once I got there I ended up having a good day and rode home with a smile on my face. I would say, “thank you,” to Bob as I was getting off at home, as my mother had taught me it was important to be polite, but I would be ready to fight him all over again in the morning.

One year, after Grammie B started going to Florida for the winters, I would often get on and off the bus at Grammy J’s house.  I would be the last one to be dropped off during those times. Bob was used to just driving past my grandmother’s road because usually he didn’t have to go that way. After dropping off the last kid, his mind was already mulling over the things he’d do when he got home. Over and over again he almost forgot to make the turn. I’d have to holler down the aisle, “Bob!! I need to go to my Grammy’s house!” He’d put on the brakes fast and sometimes have to back up. He’d say, “Whoa! I was almost going to take you home with me today!” One day, after almost being forgotten again, I stopped and said more than ‘thank you’ to Bob. “Bob, you keep forgetting me. Next time you forget, I’m not going to say anything. So you better remember.” And then, I said “thank you”, and hopped off the bus. I’m pretty sure it was the next day that I rode all the way home with Bob. He got the bus all parked neatly in his driveway and started to get off when I spoke up. “Bob! I’m still here.” He looked pretty surprised, and laughed, and backed the bus back out of his driveway. Never once did he forget the turn at my grandmother’s road after that!

I don’t remember when Bob stopped being my bus driver. I had almost forgotten all about him until one Easter Sunday, many years later, when I went to church with my grandmother. Bob came over to greet me and he pretended to shy away like I was going to hurt him as he said, “I’ve still got bruises from you!” He still had the kind smile and we laughed about my antics as a little kid.

I didn’t go to church often but both my grandmother and older sister went to the same church as Bob. When I was a young teenager, my older sister (who had grown up and gotten married) would sometimes pick me up and bring me to this church’s youth group. I always felt a little out of place, as I didn’t know many of the kids there or what all of this Christianity stuff was really all about.

But, one night, Bob and his wife Nancy were leading the lesson. I don’t remember anything about what passage of the Bible he was teaching from, or what we were supposed to be learning. But, I’m pretty sure he paused at one point and wrote his telephone number on the blackboard. I remember he looked around the room, at some rowdy teenagers, including this one that long ago had left him with scratches and bruises, and told us that he loved every one of us. He said that he wanted us to know that we could call him anytime of the day or night. If we ever needed anything, whether it was a friend to talk with or we were in some type of trouble, he would do his best to help. He looked over at his wife, smiled, and said, “Nancy and I don’t mind if the phone rings at 2AM… you just call if you need us.”

I have never forgotten that, though up until a couple of weeks ago, it had been a long time since I’d thought of my old bus driver.

One Sunday, I told the story of ‘when Mrs. Mather was a little kid and didn’t want to go to school’ to a group of shocked five, six and seven year olds in junior church. I held the Bible my grandmother gave me when I was seven and still struggling with anxiety, and we went through Psalm 23, which was a passage she had me memorize all those years ago.

When I got home from church that day, I was still thinking about Bob. I was pretty sure I’d heard that he had passed away a decade or so ago. I typed in his and his wife’s names and did a quick internet search to see if I could find out anything more about him as everything I’ve written here is all that I remember.

I saw that his widow, Nancy Hannington, had written the ‘Morrill town news’ segment in the local paper. This is part of her article printed in the Republican Journal, August 6, 2010:

“I am sure many of you recognize at least the first few bars of “Just as I Am” from hearing it through the Billy Graham Crusades. Charlotte Elliot from Brighton, England was completely embittered over her broken health. Through a conversation with a Swiss minister in 1822 she finally asked, “If I wanted to share the peace and joy you possess, what would I do?” The pastor answered, “You would give yourself to God just as you are.” Charlotte did come to Him, just as she was. Years later, she wrote a poem for a fundraising project that was printed and sold across England. That poem was set to music and has become the most famous invitational hymn in history. Although never in good health, she lived to be 82 years old. Loved ones sifting through papers after her death found over 1,000 letters from people expressing their gratitude for the way this hymn had touched their lives. By the way, this was my Bob’s favorite hymn.

Excerpts from the above paragraph were from “Then Sings My Soul” by Robert J. Morgan.”

I love that this is what I found out about Bob.

Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me…

He gave himself to God, just as he was. He got out of his bus to help a little girl that was hurting and scared, and he got kicked and hit and beaten with as much violence as a five or six year old girl is capable of handing out. But he took my fury to help me get to the place I needed to be. And even years later, he was still holding out an offer of grace, and love, and help.

I’m so thankful for all the ‘Bobs’ in my life. I come to them just as I am. On the hard days, they let me be hurt or messed up or angry or scared. At times they’ve even taken some emotional blows. It’s those people who have seen my worst, and showed me grace, that get my phone calls when my world is falling apart. They hear my confessions and my anxieties and they remind me again and again of grace.

They point me to the One that didn’t just suffer some kicks and scratches, but that took everything I have to be ashamed of or broken by and suffered to a degree that I will never fully understand.

Long ago, one Easter Sunday, I stood in a little church in Maine, and a man came up and reminded me that I had bruised him. This year, I’ll stand in another little church. I’ll look at all the ‘Bob’s’ around me, singing and clinging to grace, and I’ll remember the Savior that I bruised and wanted to hide from for so long. I’ll remember how he left Heaven to make a way for me to be brought Home. Day and night, He bids me to come, and call on Him. Oh, Lamb of God, I come, I come!

The Taste of Ashes and Redemption

The Taste of Ashes and Redemption

Somewhere in my blood there’s likely pagan ancestry mixed there with the puritan. Far back there might have been grandfathers or grandmothers that danced around trees in the moonlight. I thought of this once, during a time when I was tired. If I were a pagan I could look around at the world and find objects that give me a feeling of wonder, like the ocean or trees, mountains or moon, and I could make them my gods. My gods would think the way I do so their judgments would make sense to me. I would dance to make them do the things I want, like bring the rain or give me babies or heal my loved ones. Yes, I thought, maybe I could be a pagan.

The trees would be the first gods I’d bring to life. For all my love of the ocean, I am a shore dweller. Roots appeal to me and so does the idea of being firmly grounded. When I had my babies, the midwives encouraged me to try water births. But always there came a point when I needed to be out of it; frantically I needed to have my feet on something solid. When in labor with my third son, the nurses let us leave my room and walk in the woods behind the hospital.  It was a warm day in May, and my husband and I paused beneath a hardwood tree with a wide trunk and fresh, new leaves. Leaned against it, breathing deeply, I felt the pain stop as the labor continued. Finally I felt myself grounded, with the roots of this giant tree stretching deep into the earth beneath me. Drawing from the strength of that immovable tree, I felt new life moving through me unhindered. When we went back inside to the hospital room, I tried to bring the strength and rest I felt under the old tree with me. Before long my baby boy was in our arms. My husband calls him now ‘the boy who notices things.’ Yesterday I walked with him in the woods, just he and I, and again I understood why my husband says this. This boy loves the winter snow because of the tracks. He pointed out ones made by squirrels and rabbits. He showed me how to tell the coyote tracks apart from those of the big-pawed black dog romping around us. He took me off the path to see where the squirrels have a hole in the ground to store their food, and the log they sit on to eat in the sunshine, with the debris scattered around like crumbs left on the floor by children. We followed deer tracks and saw where they’ve been biting off the delicate buds of beech trees. He remarked to me, “I am so glad we don’t live in the city.” I smiled with him, and pointed out the trees stretching out as far as we could see up the hill and against the blue-grey winter sky.

During these winter months, when I sit in front of our warm woodstove, I sometimes think of a book I read once called, ‘The Trees in My Forest’, by Bernd Heinrich.

He said, “I’m sure the BTU equivalent of energy captured by a growing tree has been calculated to the third decimal point, but to me that figure provides less meaning than the heat I feel when I burn a stick of wood in my cast-iron stove. Two or three dried split pieces of rock maple can make it glow red-hot, warming the stove and the house. Heat is a form of energy. The source of energy, captured by the trees’ leaves, is the sun. Multiplying the potential energy of those two to three pieces of split wood by the untold thousands of logs accumulating in the trees all around me, I am awed by the sheer magnitude of energy that drives life, passing from one form to the next. The energy captured by trees and other plants will eventually be tapped by bacteria and fungi, by insects and other herbivores, and then passed on to birds and other predators, like us.

Given the constant extravagant input of energy into the forest and into life, it is a small wonder that the evolution of the most extraordinary complex creatures, as well as human civilizations, has been possible. After looking at trees, and heating coffee on my woodstove, it is not difficult to comprehend how life can proceed toward incredible complexity, such as a hummingbird or moth, in a seemingly “uphill” direction from chemical chaos.”

I read those words once, before a walk in the woods. One thing I’ve always had trouble with, in thinking about scientists that don’t believe in a Creator, is how they manage to reconcile the wonder all around them in the natural world with lack of design and intention. But here, I thought, maybe this is it. Maybe they have a way to wonder enough at the world, that the world itself becomes god enough to be its own creator.

On my walk, after reading Heinrich’s words, I tried to share in his wonder; to be an atheist and to still experience awe. Just for a moment, I stood in the snowy woods with that quiet that only winter can produce all around me. I looked around me at the trees. I let myself think deep about the energy in their roots and in their trunks and branches and multiplied across trees as far as I could see in every direction. I tried to let go of every religious presupposition and just feel energy swirling around me. And there, in that attempt to empty myself of faith, something swelled in me that affirmed again that it wouldn’t work. From the core of me rose words that make atheism impossible. At the height of experiencing wonder and beauty and awe, the words, “Thank you,” swelled up beyond my control. I couldn’t stop them. There they rose; reaching beyond myself and these woods toward One my soul has started to know.

Long ago a woman stood underneath a tree, gazing up at its branches laden with fruit, and listened to the lying words of the devil. He planted doubts about the goodness of God in her mind, and she became the mother of all doubters.

A true daughter of Eve, I’ve had a tendency to be a great doubter. For years and years my favorite hymn was one that contained the lines, ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…” But somehow, as the days and years go by, I’m forever becoming less of a skeptic. He has loved me with a keeping strength. I feel it working, tilling my heart at times, and the worship that rises from that overturned soil is for Him alone. Long ago, with those first meager glances at the tree of Calvary, He planted a seed in my heart and now even my doubts have become tools to break apart hard ground and let my roots go deeper.

A pastor in Manhattan, Timothy Keller, once said, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

I’ve learned to notice and to lean into my persistent questions and not to leave them unattended. Some wonderful day I trust that all these doubts will pass away forever, but until then they propel me to use my mind and my heart together to seek and to know. Always, so far, these times of honest questioning have given birth to deeper faith.

Jesus has always been willing to listen to and answer an honest question.

When the hungry crowds pressed in around him they asked, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” Jesus’ answer was that they must believe in him.

Another time, when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said that it was to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

These things aren’t pretty sayings to stick on the refrigerator and feel inspired to be a better person. They are crushing if we know ourselves and we’re left to ourselves. Those who have tried to love anyone, and to love them completely, know this. The only one I naturally love with all my heart, soul, mind and strength is myself. Life has been a long and sobering revealing of that reality. This inability to believe in God and to love Him is at the core of what the Bible calls sin. From it every other sin sprouts as we work to fill a hungry place in us designed for worship.

If it were not for another tree, one without roots and branches, we would all be left to our own means to try to fill that void. We would make our own gods, each a reflection of our own hearts. We’d stay self-worshipers ever growing more self-holy. We would be designing and furnishing our own Hell.

There are so few today that see the cross as beautiful. But some, untangling and pulling weeds of doubt as they walk ever closer, fix their gaze on the tree where Jesus hung, cursed, not for His but for our own transgressions. Here we find the restoration of our worship.

I drew strength the day my son was born from a massive and glorious tree. There was something sacred and holy about that moment as I leaned against its solid trunk.

But hours later, when I held that baby in my arms, it wasn’t to the tree that I whispered my thanks.

There are times when I can almost hear the mountains, waves, moon and the great trees singing a song that causes worship to rise in my soul. But if I try to sing to them my voice is lost to the wind. They have no ears to hear my voice and no words to answer.

In the Bible the prophet Isaiah describes a man who goes into the forest and chooses a strong tree. He cuts it down and with part of it he kindles a fire, warms himself and bakes bread. Another part of the tree he carves into a god and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14-20)

About this man Isaiah said, “He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” (Isaiah 44:20)

Over and over again the Bible shows us God’s people falling down before false gods of their own making. Their deluded hearts lead them astray and they feed on ashes rather than on bread and living water. And this is my heart as well.

God has proven Himself faithful to me in countless ways. He has saved me and made Himself known to me. He has met me in prayer and He has opened up His Word and my eyes to see His story. I’ve shared in all of the blessings He’s poured out on His people, most importantly the treasure of being able to be near Him.

I’ve shared in the shame of His people as well. I’ve held lies in my right hand. Even as His child, I’ve had times of turning my back and wondering if there might be some other way. I’ve complained about His ways and tried to provide for myself because I didn’t think He would give me what I need in the future even though he has never failed me in the past. I’ve clung to the people in this life that give me a sense of security while being too afraid to draw near to the God who loves me better than my dearest friend. I’ve been bitter and full of worry. I know what the ashes of idol worship taste like.

But, amazingly, I’ve also shared in the redemption of His people. I’m a branch that has been grafted into the promises.

The passage in Isaiah goes on to say,

“Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.

I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.

Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!” (44:21-24)

The beauty of these words makes my heart ache in worship.

Once I heard someone ask the question, “Would you be happy if you could have Heaven, with all its treasures of life and wellness and beauty, with reunion with loved ones and all that Heaven contains, if only God were not present?” Like the thank you that rises beyond my control when witnessing beauty, this question forever affirms my faith.

No, I wouldn’t be happy if He were not present; this God that I will never be forgotten by but that I must be told to remember. No god of my creating can replace the God who formed me. Would I rather have a god in my control or a Sovereign who has made my sins lift like the mist? All the energy in the world, most literally, cannot fill my soul as He does. Only the One who has etched by hand and thought, and is the source of all, can fill me with true worship. This breaks forth just as it does with the heavens, earth, mountains and forest- yes, even every tree. My worship is restored through His redemption of my soul and with each remembrance of it. Yes, with the rest of creation I will break forth into singing, “…for the Lord has done it!

Providence and My Anxious Heart

 

“Someday you or I will die.”

“Lara, that won’t happen for a long, long time.”

“But, Mama, it really is going to happen.”

“Shhhh… it will be okay. We’ll just cross that bridge when we get to it.” 

I was five or six years old and my mother was trying to comfort me. But, I remember how I lay awake, looking into the darkness of my room, and thinking about this bridge in the distance. It didn’t matter how far away it was; someday we would have to walk across it. It was real.

I can still be overcome at times with anxiety. It rises up when I hear that my husband has to travel for work, or that one of my children isn’t feeling well, or that a snow storm is due to hit town right when I need to be driving somewhere. I start imagining awful things and grieving for sorrows that haven’t happened yet.

I’ve felt tension between how overwhelming this anxiety is and the Biblical commands not to worry. Over and over again, my Lord tells me, “Do not fear.” And yet, despite that and all my self-talk about the futility of anxiety, I still fear.

This winter, now that the cold and snow have settled in, I’m cozying up to my winter project. In the spare moments, or evenings, I’m opening old books, sitting before hundreds of pages of interviews, magazine articles and newspaper clippings. There are faces in old photographs, letters with pretty slanted handwriting, and stories on old typewriter paper. I’ve been researching the history of my family and roots in Maine, and starting to piece together the old stories.  As I do, the familiar sinks back into history; the hills and valleys, roads and ponds, set securely in their places suddenly are transferred back over the years to a time when my ancestors called them home. They were farmers and lumbermen, teachers, bootleggers, store keepers and mill workers. At times they were soldiers. Each name scratched on a family tree contains a lifetime of stories, though I’m often left with just a few dates to go with the name.

There’s something about letting my mind traverse the old stories that leaves me feeling both more grounded and somehow ethereal.  I can imagine how my own name would look, written out in one of these genealogical record books. It would be next to the name of my husband, with the dates of our births and marriage, and below would be the names of four sons and three daughters. Truly, we aren’t separate from history. This is just our moment to breathe and work and love and pray and hope. And it’s really just a moment.

I’m drawn to the old things and their reminders that others have walked the same roads we’re called to walk. My children all learn to read holding a one-hundred year old primer, turning the thick, brown-edged pages with their fresh little fingers. An introduction to the teacher reads, “…The subject matter is within the range of the experience and the imagination of most children of five or six years of age. It is full of incident and action. It enlists at once the liveliest interest of children…” And somehow, though these words were written about children learning how to read while the Great War was raging in Europe, my own children have their ‘liveliest interest’ enlisted as well. My sons love that some of the old books still have pictures of little boys with guns and hunting dogs. I love the simplicity of the stories; the focus on nature and agriculture. And there’s something time-surpassing about the human desire for ‘incident and action’ and things that speak into our ‘experience and imagination’. We all love stories.

Last week, amidst unexpected events and accidents and with my husband getting ready to board a plane, with anxiety swelling, I prayed and asked God for His grace to obey his words concerning worry. I trust that God, who delights when we know truth, is willing to teach us wisdom in our secret hearts. (Psalm 51:6) I’ve experienced this digging and exposing and thought-shifting work of God.

When I was a young Christian, I heard someone say that the many ‘fear God’ verses in the Bible really mean that we are to be in awe of Him. We’re to just be reverent. He’s our friend. We don’t have to be afraid of God.

But if we’ve never been afraid, I don’t think we’ve ever encountered his glory.

I’ve stood on a rocky cliff and felt spray from ocean waves on my cheeks as the wind whipped through my hair. I’ve heard their roar below me, and known that if I ventured too close they could crush me and pull me under. There’s something awesome and to be revered and also something fearful about the waves and the weight of the water crashing against the shore.

I’ve felt the same sensation as I watched a storm rumble in from the west on a summer day. The wind picks up, the sky darkens, and soon thunder is shaking the house and leaving a rumble deep down in my bones. Nature is awesome and fearful and seems to be telling us an old, old story.

But how much greater is the weight of glory that the Creator of the waves and the thunder holds? A true taste of God’s glory makes us tremble. I’ve certainly found that true prayer isn’t safe. There’s a true, appropriate, healthy fear; a fear with a purpose of leading us to salvation.

Perhaps there’s nothing that makes me feel more small and vulnerable than looking up into the night sky. Sometimes I pause on my way back to the house from some errand that has taken me into a dark night. As I look up, higher and higher into the heavens, I feel myself shrinking into exposed insignificance. The stars are some of the most humbling witnesses of God’s glory. And amazingly, Psalm 103 says, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…” To truly come to know God is to fear Him; a heart pounding, knees knocking, trembling fear in the face of power. But to truly know Him and fear Him is also to receive a great and steadfast love that washes our fears away. The ocean waves, with their crashing power, don’t love me. The thunder doesn’t roar promises to hold me in the palm of its hand and cover me in the shelter of its wings. But God does.

It’s this weight of power and love that is the only match for my anxiety.

Too often I’m trying to grab the pen and write my own story. I want to control the plot line, because I feel like I’m the main character. I want to keep the story pretty tame, without much incident or action, but with plenty of comfort, security and just a little poetic romance springing up from purely happy things. This is the story I want to write for all of those that I love.

But there’s an Author already and He holds the pen. Do I trust him?

He wrote a story that I don’t always understand. I don’t know why he allowed sin and suffering to stain the pages when it seems he could have kept it out. I want a beautiful ending and I want it now. But what He’s given me is a stunning climax. The crushing, fearful holiness of God met in full force the deep, steadfast love of God when he wrote himself into the story. This is the gospel.

I keep thinking I understand this. While I’m reading the Bible or listening to a sermon or praying in earnest, this greater story will suddenly break into me and I’ll feel my fears being swept away as I see Him. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything…”

But so far, without fail, my anxiety flares up once again. I start telling myself stories about all of the what-ifs and dwelling on the sad or scary things that could happen to me or my loved ones.

When that happens, and I start to sink, I’m learning that my lifeline is to spend some time sharing stories with the Lord. I need it over and over again. I come to him in prayer and tell him my heart story. I tell him how I’d like the next few pages to go. And He holds me close and whispers back the time-surpassing, fear-stilling story He’s been telling his children from the beginning.

 

A few years ago I was drawn to a tiny, old book at the thrift store. I brought it home and found an inscription written neatly inside the front cover.

Jacob Langdell, New Boston, N.H. May 29th 1862

When I typed the words into an internet search, I found that Jacob wrote the inscription less than four months before he enlisted as a soldier in the Civil War. The New Boston historical society website showed a picture of him, sitting tall in his uniform with his legs crossed. Twenty-four men from New Boston volunteered along with Jacob to serve in the 16th New Hampshire Regiment. They were sent south by steamship, and ten of them died from disease (likely malaria) while in Louisiana. From the hospital there Jacob wrote a letter home to his mother, dated January 27, 1863. I saw his handwriting, the same neat, slanted letters as in the book I held. “… if I live and prosper I shall be at home before many months. I am contented for I know that the same Providence watches over me here that does you at the north.”

jacob-langdell

Jacob Langdell, New Boston Historical Society collection

I looked again at the hands in the photograph, a farm boy’s, long and lean against his musket. I marveled that they once held this book now resting in my own, maybe even carrying it to war and safely back to New Boston once again. On one of the well-worn pages was a prayer.

“O Lord, I know not what I should ask of thee. Thou only knowest what I want; and thou lovest me better than I can love myself. O Lord, give to me, thy child, what is proper, whatsoever it may be. I dare not ask either crosses or comforts, I only present myself before thee; I open my heart to thee. Behold my wants, which I am ignorant of; but do thou behold, and do according to thy mercy. Smite or heal; depress me, or raise me up; I adore all thy purposes, without knowing them. I am silent, I offer myself in sacrifice. I abandon myself to thee. I have no more any desire, but to accomplish thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.” (Mirror of Thought, pg 112)

A century and a half after a young soldier may have done the same, I spoke these words aloud. My voice was soft as my heart struggled through each line. This was once again the whispering story of providence and the beckoning call to trust Him. Here was the only assurance that quiets my anxious thoughts and lets me rest deep in contentment. God loves me. He knows better than I do. It is safe to abandon myself to Him. He is intentional about every ‘incident and action’ that He allows into the story of our lives, and wants to use our experiences to enlist our liveliest interest in what will bring us the most joy. He’s made us to live in His story, and He’s willing to tell it to us over and over and over again.  It’s the old story that breathes new life into the present. It stirs my heart and lifts my voice so that I can say, “Teach me to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.”

Jesus did this. He spent time sharing his heart story with the father. The night before he was going to die on the cross he prayed in such distress over the wrath he was about to bear, that his sweat contained blood. He was honest about his desire to be spared from this suffering if there was another way to save us, but he was willing to be obedient to the point of death. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Jesus drank that cup of wrath and has handed me the cup of communion. There is nothing left to fear. Jesus died profoundly alone on the cross. But because of this, as for me, God draws near even in the darkness. There will never be a bridge that I’ll have to cross alone. My fears are really calling out a question to God. His answer is the only thing that will quiet them as He holds me close, and in all His glory He says to His child, “I am with you always…

Embracing An Honest Conversation

Though it’s hard to believe, there was a time in my life when I really savored a good debate.  I think it was back when I knew everything (you know, when I was in high school).  These days, if you have something controversial you would like to discuss with me, please submit it in writing and wait patiently for me to get back to you in a day or so.  Or, on the other hand, maybe I’ll just bake you cookies and hope you don’t bring it up again.

Anyway, back in those simple days, there was one guy in all my classes that loved a good debate as much as I did.  We’ll just call him Jimmy.  Since we happily and energetically argued about anything, it was no surprise that when I decided that I believed in Christianity this became the ultimate source of fodder for debate.  I thought that I really needed to convince Jimmy of the truth that I now held as of eternal importance and he was delighted to find a topic that he could get me really riled and emotionally distraught over.  As a new Christian I took some interesting approaches.  I wanted to show him how much it hurt God’s heart to have his name used in vain.  So, the lucky day we were paired as partners in chemistry class I decided to exclaim, “Jimmy!” or “By Jimmy, now you’ve done it!” whenever something would go wrong just to let him see how it felt to have his name used as a swear word.  So he could, you know, empathize with God.  He thought God would find it very amusing.

The challenging thing about Jimmy was that he asked really good questions.  There were the classic questions like, “What about the people in the jungle that never heard of Jesus?  Can you really say that they are going to be damned to Hell?”  Then, there were some surprise questions like, “Why do Christian girls wear fancy underwear on dates?”   Let’s just say the conversations were unpredictable and lively.  And, since I had gone to church consistently for maybe three months and I started every day reading a chapter of the Bible and ‘Our Daily Bread’, I believed I should have an answer for every single question.

Somehow I convinced my friend Jimmy to start reading the Bible.  As much as he enjoyed the debate for debate’s sake, I think he also really did earnestly desire to find out what was true.  When he came back with his assessment after reading the Gospels (the four books that tell the story of Jesus’ life) and some of the early letters to the church from the apostles (they didn’t have blogs or mass email back then) I was really taken aback.  Jimmy said, “I really liked Paul.  He was a nice, humble guy.  Jesus seemed so arrogant, though.”  Jesus was arrogant?  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Or could I?  Deep down inside, though I would never have admitted it to Jimmy, I knew what he meant.  It was much easier to read what other people said about Jesus than to read what Jesus said about himself.  Some of the things he said made me feel uncomfortable.   In the first century those things made the religious leaders of the time so uncomfortable that they decided to crucify Him.  There wasn’t much I could say to Jimmy about Christianity after that.

After what I saw as my evangelistic failure with Jimmy, I was happy to meet people in college that were excited about sharing their faith.  I started attending a Christian group that met on our campus and found some older women (they were like twenty two or something) that taught me how to use a little booklet to share the basics of Christianity and hopefully lead people to say a prayer when we got to the last page.  I lived with my sister in an apartment off campus my freshman year.  She was not a Christian.

I came home armed with the booklet and asked sweetly, “I was just learning something, can I, umm, practice it with you?”  An older sister always eager to see me learn something new, she good naturedly agreed.  So, we sat at the table in our little apartment and I shared each point thinking that this would be the moment it would all make sense.  We got to the last page.  She didn’t say the prayer.

I did keep trying with other people though.  This actually led to some good conversations and it was kind of fun to approach strangers and ask them if they wanted to talk about spiritual things.  Most people actually do like to discuss big questions and big truth.  Do most people like being read a booklet?  Not so much.

I didn’t give up on it completely though until I went on a summer missions trip to an inner city.  I was helping with children’s programs and kept a bunch of the kiddie version stuck in my purse to easily pull out and share.  I did share it; a few times to a few precious children.  And, then I realized I was lying.  You see, in the adult version, one of the essential truths is that ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’   I hadn’t thought about what that was really saying until I saw the way it was simplified for kids.  There were two drawings of the same child.  In the first, before he knew Jesus, his life was a mess.  I think they had him doing poorly in school, missing the ball in soccer and his parents were mad at him.  In the second picture he had asked Jesus to become the center of his life and everything was wonderful.  Good grades, happy parents, goals in soccer.  Really?  This is what I was going to tell the little girl who lives with her grandmother probably because her father is in jail and her mother is on drugs?  The little girl that didn’t speak to me for the first week and now won’t let go of my hand?  The little girl who snuggled next to nineteen year old me and whispered that she wished I was her mother?   Was I going to tell her that if she prayed a prayer to ask Jesus into her heart that her life would be wonderful?  I trashed the booklets.

You see, I realized I had a problem.  I thought I had to protect Jesus from the truth.

The truth is not always so pleasant sounding.  It goes something like this: God loves you and you might get cancer.  God loves you and you might struggle with infertility.  God loves you and you might get in a car accident and end up paralyzed.  God loves you and someone with evil intentions might break into your home.  God loves you and your child might die.

God loves you and you are going to suffer.

The truth also is that there are some really hard questions that I don’t necessarily have good answers for.  How can God be completely powerful and still be completely loving when there is so much pain in this world?  Why does He let suffering continue so long for the sick and dying when we can barely cope with seeing an old dog suffer and we try to give it a peaceful end?  Is God less humane than His creation?  What about Hell?  What about the unending, painful, crushing, tormenting punishment for still aware, thinking, feeling souls?  Can we brush that off?  Should we as Christians say that it shouldn’t give unbelievers pause when they think about the validity of what we believe?  There are hard questions.  I don’t have all the answers.

So should I just lose heart?

I still believe there is a beautiful, freeing, exhilarating story to tell.

With all my heart (and mind) I believe that the Bible really is true.  It’s a collection of reliable books that tell the history of the world, of the ancient Jewish people and the accurate history of Jesus and his church.  I believe that Jesus lived and was murdered and that he was resurrected so that we could be saved from the disease of sin and the terminal diagnosis that comes with it.  I believe that God hears and answers prayer.  I believe His love is so much greater than we can fathom.  I believe in a lot of hard to understand doctrines like the trinity and the sovereignty of God and the reality of Hell.  I believe in the Holy Spirit working in hearts and his church to spread a powerful message called the gospel.

And, I totally get why a lot of really thoughtful people think these things I believe are foolish.

The apostle Paul was a highly educated, respected religious leader.  He wanted to see the followers of Christ wiped out.  And then, he met Jesus.   The message he once thought foolishness became a great treasure.   He left his respectable position behind and spent the rest of his life sharing the message.

It was Paul who said, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.  But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”  (2 Corinthians 4:2,3)

Like Paul, I want to renounce underhanded ways and embrace honesty.  I don’t want to soften what the Bible says to make God look better as if I could have written a better story.  In the story God authored, Jesus suffered great humiliation and the shame of the cross.  Why?  Because of his love for those he had come to save.

Do I love others enough to be thought a fool?

“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”2 Corinthians 4:7

God places His story, the treasure of the knowledge of the gospel, in jars of clay. Remembering that it is the surpassing power of God that transforms his message from foolishness to shining light, I’m suddenly free to trust Him with His own message.  I’m free to give up the debate and really listen to other’s stories and also to their questions, sometimes admitting that I have the same ones.  And ultimately, I can love others enough to plainly share the truth even if it makes me a fool in their eyes.  

I really don’t enjoy a contentious debate the way I did in high school but I’ve come to really love an honest conversation.  I’d love to hear where you are in your own journey of faith.