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?
Yesterday morning our last horse, Misty, died. My wife saw her laying down in the pasture, went out to investigate, and found she had died during the night. Misty had seemed perfectly normal the day before.
We’ve had horses since we moved into our house December 1991. We started with Ace and Joker (an Arabian and an Appaloosa), and then we bought Lady and Tigger (two wonderful ponies). Over time we gathered an assortment of strays who were put out to pasture in our back yard: King, Belle, Dakota, Shaq and others.
Misty was a gift to our daughter on her twelfth birthday. And now she was dead.
I don’t know why her death affected me as it did. I never connected with her. Mostly I fed her hay in the winter and held her halter when the blacksmith trimmed her hooves.
My wife interrupted me during my prayer time to say that Misty had died, and the first words out of my mouth were: “It’s the end of an era.”
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,
During my sophomore year at university, I met a freshman new to college life. His dad was a business-exec in a wealthy suburban neighborhood; my dad was the pastor of a poor church in a dodgy Detroit neighborhood. He studied performance violin; I studied physics.
His dad frequently traveled; my dad never missed family dinner. His older sisters taught him boys were naughty, and to flee from danger and dirt. My older brothers taught me that boys are fun, and that nothing is more fun than a set of bloody elbows and a pair of muddy trousers.
Nevertheless, a deep friendship was born. We played in racquetball matches, performed together in several small concerts, and sailed the Great Lakes. He asked my opinion when he switched majors from violin to computer science, and he gave me good advice when I switched from physics to history.
After school, we worked together for a few years. Then he took a job in Latin America and later in Europe. We saw each other infrequently, but our friendship always resurrected instantly.
After an absence of seven years, we met again a month ago, but he seemed distant and our former friendship felt aborted. We stumbled through family narratives, and we parted cordially. I emailed him the next day and suggested we not wait another seven years.
A couple years ago, I experienced a growing concern for a friend of mine. Something in his ministry approach seemed discordant with its purpose. I waited a few months before talking with him. (Who knows? Maybe my observations were wrong.) When a perfect example finally arose, I shared my unease.
But to say I “shared it” exaggerates my graciousness.
Instead, I bluntly confronted him. When he resisted, I pressed harder. Something inside me shouted “Stop!” while something else inside me desperately wanted to express my convictions, no matter the consequences.
I bulldozed aside objections, I plowed under every denial, and I railroaded home my points. And of course, the message was lost in its offensive delivery.
Two years later, I’m still working on repairing that relationship.
In 1983 I landed my first job in the computer industry. I applied for an open position, sent in my resume, endured a few interviews, and attended one final meeting.
In that meeting, my soon-to-be boss said, “I have chosen you for the position, but let me explain why:”
“I didn’t choose you because of your education” (I had studied 17th Century European Intellectual History, not exactly Computer Science);
“And I didn’t choose you because your grades were better” (when I say I “studied history” I don’t mean to imply I studied real hard);
“And I didn’t choose you because of your great business experience” (three years of mission work didn’t qualify as a practical MBA).
His care for my self-esteem was underwhelming; I began to wonder if the job was really mine.
He continued, “I chose you because you answered my questions differently than I would have. I didn’t agree with every answer, but your answers gave me an outlook I hadn’t considered. I don’t need more people who think like me—I already think like me—I need people who offer different perspectives.” He concluded,
“The curse of the computer industry is conformity; never lose your non-conformity.”
Most Sundays after church, my father invited us kids to critique his sermon. He disliked “Atta-boys” and he loathed a “Nice job!” He loved to observe how we thought and what we saw.
He delighted—really delighted—when we said things like:
I think your illustration of the boy on a bike didn’t explain predestination well;
I wonder if your second point should have come first, and your third point eliminated;
I think the best part of your sermon was the final, “Amen.”
His partly wanted to ensure we listened to his sermons, sure; but even more, he genuinely wanted to engage with us at a heart level by hearing what we thought. Dad encouraged honesty and offered no repercussions when we criticized, disagreed, or misunderstood.
It was my dad’s way of inviting us up into his life.