My parents moved from Detroit to Philadelphia in September 1975. I started university the same month, and I paid my tuition, room, and board by continuing my high school janitor job in Detroit, about a half-hour drive from Ann Arbor.
That October—forty-two years ago this month—I drove my white, 1967 VW Beetle to visit my parents in their new house for the weekend. It was a six-hundred-mile drive. Three short miles from home, my poor old Beetle’s transmission shifted its last gear, grinding itself to death.
My parents picked me up, we had a great weekend, and I hitchhiked back to Ann Arbor after hearing my dad preach in his new church.
My dad was a pastor of a small church, and my parents lived paycheck to paycheck. They couldn’t afford to help with tuition (which is why I drove to Detroit on weekends), and they certainly couldn’t help with my car repair.
I was in a bind. I needed my car so I could drive to work, so I could pay tuition, but I only had $350 in the bank for repairs.
Most of my life I failed to appreciate beauty. Oh, I loved the look of sails on the sea and snow on the mountains, but mostly I liked sailing those sailboats and skiing those slopes.
Fifteen years ago, I learned to scuba dive. On our first dive, my sons and I wobbled our way to the sea in unwieldly gear, inserted our mouthpieces, lowered our heads beneath the waves, and dived. In fifteen feet of water, we entered a cloud of thousands of small yellow and white, black-striped fish. We could see nothing but a beautiful gallery of sparkling fish.
And the beauty of their colors, and the shimmer of their glory, delighted and enthralled me.
Yesterday I joined two friends to talk with a woman about her calling. And she talked only of beauty. She shared the glory of seeing a sunrise, and sparks of hope in the cracks of a frozen harbor, and satisfaction in a sunset-pond. And she spoke of the healing wholeness of beauty.
Hearing her reminded me of the first time I was captivated by beauty.
This morning I read Psalm 27 as part of my Scripture meditation. When I read verse 4, something again was awakened:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: … to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord….
And I wondered, “What the heck does it mean to gaze on the beauty of God?”
I reached my fitness high water mark at the age of twenty-four. I ran thirty miles a week, sweated three hundred pushups a day, and I brawled each week in the local boxing club.
Used with permission: www.judophotos.com
In the midst of my peak physical prowess (never mind its short duration), I met a man with a black belt in Judo. He was forty-ish, chubby, and he wheezed as he walked. I think his exercise routine consisted of lifting large bottles of beer rather than heavy barbells.
He was the first black belt of any kind I had ever met. He intrigued me. Could this chubby, middle-aged man really beat me in a friendly fight? The fool inside me challenged him to hand-to-hand combat.
Not since infancy have I spend so much time on the ground. The lawn and I became intimate allies. I huffed, puffed, wheezed, and groaned (and maybe cursed, but it’s still all a blur) as he repeatedly—and effortlessly—tossed me to the ground.
It didn’t matter what punch I threw. Each jab, hook, and uppercut finished with me staring at the sky, gasping for air, and wondering what had happened.
A friend once told me of a dark moment in his life, a time when he felt alone, frightened, and falling apart. He described his interior life like this: “I was an engine without oil.”
My friend instinctively took a common but abstract experience—loneliness—and brought it to life by painting a picture of his pain. He imagined his life as a movie screen and he projected onto himself the image of a motor thrashing about without lubrication.
In his four short words, “an engine without oil,” I saw a machine grinding to a halt as it ripped itself to pieces. I imagined hidden gears scrapping against rusted cogs, and friction, chaos, and destruction. I gasped as something inside me connected with his pain.
Metaphors speak to our hearts in ways detached concepts fail. If I say my wife is mad, we all have some cerebral sense of her state. If I say, “She’s a mother bear with her cubs,” we picture bloody teeth, razor claws, a ferocious growl, and an uncontrollable rage.
Thirty-three years ago I took a woman to a Gilbert and Sullivan play as a first date. Before the evening of our get-together, I had a collection of facts about her: she was a farmer’s daughter, she was a Social Worker, and she was cute. After the evening of our get-together, I told my parents that I had just met the woman I would marry.
What happened during those few, short hours? I had known she wanted to be a missionary, but over a glass of wine, she told me of her longing to help internationals. And I fell in love. I didn’t get new information; somehow, something I already knew became real.
She breathed life into the facts I already possessed. A personal connection trumped my data.
Western nations—Americans in particular—are information junkies. The Self-Improvement market guzzles ten billion dollars a year as we gather more info on health, personal finances, and relational well-being. Yet we remain over-weight, under-saved, and highly-divorced.
Christians likewise are data collectors. We download hundreds of sermons, stockpile libraries of books, frequent retreats, and memorize verses. Yet we remain anxious, timid, and lonely.
We don’t need more information; we need what we already know to become real.
Circumstances, commitments, and surprises (the unpleasant kind) overwhelmed me the past six weeks. I had too much to do and too little time to do it. Forces from competing goals pulled me in opposite directions.
Two weeks ago I arrived home from a retreat in Colorado, physically and emotionally drained. But I woke up the next morning in an adrenalin-induced frenzy, desperate to prepare five new sessions for a retreat that began in four short days.
The retreat topic was Hearing God. I’ve been waiting (impatiently) for years to offer a retreat on how to recognize God’s voice, but commitments (and bad surprises) had frustrated my attempts to plan it. I was woefully behind and anxious about the few remaining hours I had for preparation.
When I woke up that feverish morning, I sensed God say to me:
“If your retreat teachings are the greatest talks you’ve ever given, but no one hears my voice, the retreat will be a dismal failure. If you give the worst talks you’ve ever given, but people actually hear me speak, the retreat will be a roaring success.”
I sensed God invite me to take two days off from any retreat work—half of my limited, remaining prep time—and simply to give “my” retreat to him. The word seemed unwise, irresponsible, and a little crazy.
Last week, a delay by God disappointed me. It also shocked me awake like smelling salts.
For ten years, I’ve wanted (and waited) to write a book on hearing God. Last month, I finally finished it. And I’ve paid a professional to edit it, commissioned an artist to design it, and found a proofreader to fine-tune it and a marketing expert to promote it.
I originally planned to publish Hearing God in Conversation last May, but I was hindered by a month-long bout with pneumonia, friends with unexpected needs, and my first ever (hopefully my last ever) IRS audit.
After months (and years) of postponements, my book was finally ready for release September 1st.
Then a friend slipped a copy of my manuscript to a publisher. The publisher invited me to meet their management team. And the team offered me a contract last week. But a contract with a hitch (because we missed an important publishing industry window). If I sign their agreement, my book’s release date will be deferred by yet another year. Argh!
I was disappointed, dismayed by another delay (though thrilled that they liked the book). I asked myself: Should I publish it myself in three weeks or wait another twelve, long months?
And then one of my smart-aleck kids (never mind which one) commented, “Gee Dad, you’re writing a book about hearing God; have you asked him what you should do?”