Our 9-year-old, Evan, recently had the assignment of writing his life’s story. Here’s how it began :
“I was born in Hermann, Missouri. The year was 2004. The house I was born in was by a village and up a private drive.”
Isn’t that a great start to a story ! There’s a story that could go in any number of directions ! If you didn’t know where we lived, that third sentence could really unleash your imagination !
Evan has also been reading two different books about the Trojan War and the adventures and wanderings of Odysseus. All over the house I’m finding little drawings of, and commentaries on, the Trojan War. One piece of notebook paper I came across in the kitchen simply had this cryptic message written on it : “Odysseus. Fought 10 years. Wandered 10 years.”
Does life sometimes seem to you like just so many years of fighting and wandering ? Have you ever felt like poor old Odysseus ? (As I watch my kids eat me out of house and home, I think about the suitors who came calling on Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, and who ate all of Odysseus’ food !)
As I look back now from what is, I suppose, a point in mid-life, I’m amazed at the adventures and ups and downs of my own life. I marvel at how the path looked like it was going one way, then changed and went another. I’m sometimes surprised at things that seemed so important to me some years ago but now seem to hold little importance at all.
I’m so thankful — as I’m sure you are — that God knows the number of our days and that He will never leave us (Psalm 139). Bart Larson reminded us candidly a couple Sundays ago that life is not fair, and that even when we become followers of Jesus it holds many injustices and heartaches while we live on this planet. How painfully that point has been driven home in our Hermann community recently.
What are you personally learning in these days of fighting or wandering or pursuit or accomplishment or longing or grieving or resting ? Here’s a quick list of five things I think I’ve been learning recently (or, at least, have been recently reminded of) :
The first is an insight a hospice chaplain recently shared with Diana and me. As someone who has accompanied many people who were dying, he said, interestingly, that his experience has been that …
1. … long-time Christians sometimes die with more difficulty than people who lived far from God but come to faith in Christ at a relatively later stage in life. His reasoning : Many people who have been Christians — or churched people — for a long time gradually drift (consciously or subconsciously) back into a state of legalism. They get caught up again in thinking they must work to maintain a good standing with God, or they still carry guilt around with them for things they’ve done wrong. In contrast, people who have spent most of their life far from God, then come to faith later in life, he said, seem to “get it” better at the end : They goofed up, Christ paid the price, everything’s going to be okay.
I wonder : do we at Emmanuel unknowingly have a tendency to fall back into legalism ? Is there a subtle feeling that I must do more for God — must be something better for Him — in order to stay on His good side ? Do we communicate such a message to other people ? Have we forgotten how to just enjoy life with God ? Are we performance-oriented with God ?
The second thing I’ve learned recently came from this same hospice chaplain (who himself is a former pastor). Speaking to me, he said :
2. “If you’re a pastor, you must be a control freak.” He said it was true of him and that, in his opinion, it’s true of most pastors. Wow ! It’s not often you have someone hit you right between the eyes and tell you exactly what you are ! Was I ever surprised to hear someone of my own profession say the thing that many of us who are pastors know but are afraid to admit ! I’m sure it’s not true of every pastor, but I realized it has been of me and probably is of some of my pastor friends … and it’s true, too, of many laypeople.
Again, I look at myself and ask why. Why do I strive so hard to make things work out in a way that fits my needs or my preconceived notion of things ? It’s not a flattering quality, and I don’t see it in Jesus at all. I see Jesus with one thing on His heart – obedience to the Father. He was in control first of all of Himself. That’s where I need to start. Beyond that, I need to – as Bart has been saying – relax and trust God.
3. Being renewed in the mind is key to a happy and victorious life. Have you ever stopped to think how much time you spend alone with your own thoughts playing through your mind ? Early in the morning ; on the drive to and from work ; on your lunchbreak ; while you work. Andrée Seu Peterson, in an article for World Magazine entitled, “The Existential Life,” writes about a person driving home from shopping : “Pulling into her driveway she has total amnesia of having spent the quarter hour nursing old grievances, coveting her neighbor’s gifts, hatching manipulative comebacks, and suffering her soul to be gnawed at by some human’s opinion of her.”
Try to step outside of yourself and listen some time to the recording that’s playing in your mind. You might be surprised at how much the thoughts you’re listening to from within yourself are : harshly judgmental ; full of doubt ; lewd ; scandalous ; angry. The New Testament urges us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). So, I’m learning to listen more closely to my own thoughts, cast aside and ask forgiveness for the wrong ones, and choose to think the kinds of thoughts God speaks of in the Bible.
4. Death can be a triumphant time of life. Is there any question that despite our attempts at spirituality, we remain earthly-minded people, fixated on the here-and-now ? While traveling to South Carolina over Christmas, we stopped at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Tennessee. We were longing for something new to listen to in the car, so I bought a CD in Cracker Barrel. Well, it had been a long time since I had listened to the Gaithers, but that’s the CD we picked up on our way out of the restaurant. And beyond that, the entire CD consisted of songs about death and heaven ! Songs like …
“Beulah land, I’m longing for you !
And some day on thee I’ll stand !
There my home shall be eternal,
Beulah land, sweet Beulah land !” (By the way, “Beulah” means “beautiful” … I think. I had a great-aunt once named Beulah.)
“I’m kind of homesick for that country
To which I’ve never been.
No sad good-byes will there be spoken,
Where time won’t matter anymore.”
“If you hasten off to glory,
Linger near the Eastern Gate,
For I’m coming in the morning,
So you’ll not have long to wait.”
Life is a marathon – fighting and wandering – and the race does end one day. What right have I to expect physical safety or health while on Earth ? None, really. Life can end at any moment. We should be ready. We are moving on. One day we will be “promoted” to heaven, thanks to what Jesus has done for us !
5. If you’re following Jesus, yours is a life that’s being healed. I’ve been struck, while reading the Gospel of Matthew, at Jesus’ invitation for people to follow Him. Surprisingly, it seems He discouraged some who wouldn’t – or couldn’t – follow wholeheartedly (Matthew 8:18-22). And then, in that same passage, those who did give up all and follow Him followed Him right into a terrible storm (Matthew 8:23-27) !
It’s true that as we follow Jesus we still go through the storms of life. Yet, what do we find sprinkled throughout these same chapters of Matthew’s gospel ? Healing. Physical healing, deliverance from demons, the raising of dead people. It is for me a beautiful picture that, yes, we still go through the storms, but what we are getting in return for following Jesus is a life that’s being healed … and ultimately, of course, eternal life. It makes all the fighting and wandering worth it.