Sometimes I hear God best in surprises. Seemingly unrelated circumstances suddenly unite, and their merger stirs something in my heart. Like a succession of waves on a beach, one last surge dissolves my sandcastles.
This last month I talked with:
A despairing man whose ministry seems stagnant, and all his work seem fruitless;
Another man who keeps a tally in the front of his Bible of all the souls he helped save;
A group of friends who mused on our all-absorbing attraction to superhero movies;
Each discussion hinted at some deep longing for significance, expressed in meaningful ministry, “souls I helped save,” or that desire to be superhero (ish) ourselves. Wanting a life that matters doesn’t contradict Scripture. We are made in God’s image, and he is the God of all glory.
And yet. Last week I read about the baptism of Jesus. A voice from heaven cries, “You are my beloved Son; I delight in you.” My first response (and probably my second and third) was: “That’s exactly what I want, to hear the Father say to me, ‘Well done. I am pleased with you.’”
Then a thought flashed through my mind: Is it possible to have as much joy when the Father affirms Jesus as I would have if He so affirmed me? Can I simply take joy in the joy of Jesus?
I once visited an executive at a Christian publishing house. He wondered aloud how he should counsel an employee of his who was pregnant out of wedlock.
While he was “wondering,” the woman herself burst into his office in tears. She had shared her situation in confidence with the executive, and then she discovered he had asked several people for their “wisdom” in counseling her (just as he was asking me).
And now her secret was public knowledge.
He apologized to the woman and they agreed to talk later. After she left, he said to me, “I just hate secrets. I’ve always identified with Nathaniel in Scripture, ‘A man in whom there is no deceit’” (John 1:47).
This morning I read this quote in Flannery O’Conner’s Mystery and Manners:
To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.
My executive friend may have hated deceit, but it felt like he was full of self-deceit.
One evening years ago, I babysat my three sons, which meant I read a book upstairs as they wrestled each other downstairs. A shriek rang out and I raced down to find David, my five-year-old son, holding his head as blood gushed through his fingers.
One of his brothers had pushed him off the sofa, and he hit his head against the corner of an end table. It opened an inch-long gash on the side of his temple. As blood pulsed freely, he sobbed uncontrollably.
Without thinking, I said, “David, I think that gash is going to give you a scar.”
He instantly stopped crying, ran to a mirror, and began to examine his wound. He pushed aside his hair and pulled apart the two sides of the torn skin. As blood spurted out of his widened wound, he exclaimed,
I recently heard a popular Christian speaker tell of a “rich spiritual exercise” he began practicing in secret. A friend of his encouraged him for years to try it, and for years he resisted. Finally, he gave it a shot. And he loves it.
The friend who introduced him to the spiritual practice is an Eastern Guru, and the exercises themselves are born out of Eastern Mysticism. At first, the popular speaker feared mixing eastern religion with Christianity, but afterward he spoke of the wonderful, inner-peace he feels. “The proof,” he preached, “is in the pudding; ‘We’ll know it by its fruit.’”
When he indulges in these practices, he asserts he “is more kind to himself, has learned to receive, has discovered his self-worth, grown in self-love,” and is “growing in heroic self-care.”
He concluded, “It’s only stupid if it doesn’t work.”
Several years ago I met with a woman distraught over her son’s rejection of Christianity.
She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”
When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I could barely afford ramen noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel. For a bit of manual labor, they provided me food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)
The weekend before I departed, I heard my first talk ever on being a man. On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and unsuccessfully tried to play the man.
During a two-hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)
A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; and she suspected me of manipulation. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.
To her, I was a jerk. And everything I did or said reinforced her judgment.
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?”