The Lord your God carried you, as a Father carries his child

True love unrequited! Is this how God sees me?

Engagement ringA few weeks ago I went for a walk with my 22-year-old daughter, who has just announced she is engaged to be married. We talked as we went. It reminded me of something I wrote to her twenty-one years ago…

Meditations of a one-year-old father

My first born child,

I spoke to you when you were still in the womb: “This is your father speaking.” But you did not know my voice, and just kicked out, as if in retaliation at my desire to have you come out of your world of darkness which seemed so comfortable and right. Did I disturb your peace? What was that rumbling from beyond the confines of your universe? How dare I intrude!

And then you were born, and the joy! The joy that all around me shared, that you had come forth from that dark world, and were with us. But how fragile did your life seem in those first few moments. So vulnerable, so in need of protection. And how everyone wanted to keep us apart until you had passed all the tests that would satisfy them that you had indeed been born successfully, where I could see (and hear) that you had indeed been born. There was no further test than this—that you had come out of the darkness into the light of day. And of the truth that you were of my flesh and blood, no further test was needed than that mere minutes separated from you seemed somehow unjust.

one year old Madeleine

Even as I write, your cry breaks my concentration and I go to see what it is that disturbs your sleep. A mental note that no teddy or toy, no blanket or bedclothes calm you like the voice and caress of your father. When you are grown, may it be so with your true Father.

But after the excitement of the addition to our family came the shocking truth. You were, to be sure, my child—irrevocably. Nothing could change that. But you did not know me! Had you still been in the dark you could hardly have responded less to my overtures of love. Your instinct was unchanged—you seemed to crave the familiar darkness and found solace only in your mother’s breast. Who is this other, the hairy one who longs to comfort you to no avail? The vacant stare betrays your lack of recognition. True love unrequited! My heart has never known so deep a wound.

Slowly, the signs of awareness of your new environment appeared—but ever so slowly to one impatient to relate. The eyes took in your surrounds, began to focus, move with purpose, follow. And still there was no recognition, save only of this being a different place from that from which you had come. Try as I might, I could not solicit your love. No joke, no game, no trick; no act of caring, of protection, or of love; no soothing touch or song or word; nothing would satisfy my desire to see you draw near to me. That shattered pride of one rejected for a rattle, a mobile, or a noisy gong—mere trinkets and titillations. Was it for these that you were born?

 

father and child silhouetteAnd then the first smile. (The “experts” call it wind until six weeks at least, but to one hungry to relate, it matters not what the experts say.) Bliss! Ecstasy! Leaping and shouting and praising God! And endless repetition of the same technique so long as you had energy enough to smile. And disillusionment when a stranger did the same thing and your eagerness was betrayed as a response to the gift and not the giver.

Little by little you began to reach out and explore your world. I longed for the day (still do) when you could walk and talk and travel by my side. What new skill would you master today? Rolling? Rolling back? Sitting? Feeding on solid food? Crawling, instead of howling in frustration at looking the part but going nowhere? Crawling forward? Going up the single stair from living room to dining room? Going  down, without using your face as a brake? Getting the plug back in the bath drain hole after you had pulled it out as soon as you got in? Standing?

And now you stand, a little wobbly, but independent.

And tomorrow, your first birthday. Yet still you do not speak to me. Okay, cannot, I know. How many times have I walked with you, held you close, longed for you to tell me what is wrong, as all else is blocked out of my world by your scream of pain, or of discomfort. And I would have attended your every need had I but known what they were. “Sshh, sshh,” is the best I can offer as I gently move with you in my arms. My heart aches that you are unable to let me ease your pain. Is this how He sees me? My mind collapses like a dying star under the weight of life, and yet I do not speak to Him of my need, but only cry out in rage and pain, wondering why He does not answer the questions I have never put, but only hugs me to Himself.

What are human beings, that you care for them?

If the immensity of the truth that God cares for us is not a jaw-dropping reality, perhaps we have not quite understood it.

Last week I spent four days camping with 14 fourteen-year-olds. It was a week of rain and more rain. Heavy rain; rain in big drops; torrential rain; angled, driving rain; fireside chat-ending rain; tent-penetrating rain; shoe-soaking, toe-wrinkling rain. Canoe-filling rain.

Image result for wet camping trip

We paddled one morning on a day when the weather forecast was “90% chance of 5ml of rain.” The 5ml had fallen before breakfast, which we ate under a tarp. After breakfast we donned personal flotation devices that had been “drying” outside overnight, and paddled for four hours upstream, in the rain.

The 100 millilitres that had fallen in the catchment area the previous day was flowing at us. The tide was against us. The rain was in our faces. As the water level rose in the canoes, we resorted to bailing by hand. Backpacks in the bottom of canoes became waterlogged, all the heavier to carry on the scheduled afternoon hike. The river stretched long and straight before us. We sought respite for aching muscles by rafting up while hanging on to overhanging branches of trees on the river bank, so as not to be swept back the distance we’d covered. Four hours were spent cajoling pre-growth-spurt Year 9 boys to keep paddling, preferably with a bit of steering that produced something closer to a straight course than regularly alternating visits to each bank.

But for those with capacity to notice, the banks were a delight to behold. Towering tree-crowned cliffs rising up out of deep and mysterious looking waters. Scurrying water dragons. A side inlet leading to a serene billabong teeming with birdlife. Bubbles plopping on the water surface as rain and drips from riverside vegetation intermingled their percussion notes. Gnarly gums lured us from midstream for a closer inspection. Hidden waterfalls beckoned the curious with their siren call. Curvaceous caves told the story of the river’s history. Extraordinary, palette-stretching hues of green, and the long and the short, the thin and the thick, and the flat and the rounded leaves of the Australian bush bore testimony to the marvellous variety of creation. Reflections on the water at times pulled our gaze way beneath the surface.

Being in such a setting, surrounded by things that dwarf me and my strength, warranted reflection on the wisdom of 3000-year-old poetry. The futility of our attempt to prevent the rain from the skies soaking all we possessed reminded me of the magnitude of those skies. The feat of paddling eight kilometres or so against the elements seems worth crowing about, until we compare that distance with the 40 trillion kilometre distance to the nearest star. And that’s just the nearest one! Even without understanding how far away the stars were, the poet David expressed his awe of God, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8)

How astonishing indeed that the creator who can make widespread rain fall at will would care for a creature utterly helpless to stop the rain in even one place! If the immensity of the truth that God cares for us is not a jaw-dropping reality, perhaps we have not quite understood it. When we do understand that immense truth, it is cause for confidence when we are faced with experiences and obstacles that threaten to make us feel helpless and overwhelmed. We can respond to such feelings by echoing an ancient declaration:  “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121)

In all your ways acknowledge Him

Not worrying is a possibility, but only if we trust that God is in charge. The question is, do we?

It’s the time of year when university classes begin. I’ve been challenged this week by a conversation with a student who is contemplating how to leverage the present to get the best out of the future. That’s not a bad thing to be contemplating. Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager found at the beginning of Luke chapter 16 offers pretty strong support for the idea of planning for the future.

Without deliberate planning and acting about the future, I would never have married, would never have been employed, would never have taught well, would never have worn any clothes. All of those are good things that require forward thinking and planning. The Bible is clear, though, about the need to acknowledge that we aren’t in charge of our own destiny.  When we plan for the future, the danger is that we succumb to the false idea of human autonomy that’s reared its ugly head ever since the events of Genesis 3. James 4:13-14 puts us firmly in our place by reminding us we don’t run the show.

Now, if you don’t run the show, you might be tempted not to bother about anything. Better off to seek the easy life than to wrestle with worrying about things beyond your control, you might think. But self-centred irresponsibility and self-centred arrogance are both problematic. We have neither the power to make all things happen nor the authority to disclaim all responsibility. The delusion of control and the temptation to disengage are equally deceptive in offering to free us of worry. Both are temporary anaesthetics for the pain that can accompany the privilege of choosing about the future. They might mask the pain, but cannot deal with it, leaving us only worry-bound after all.

Is it okay to worry? Jesus says don’t, because it can’t lengthen your life, which is in God’s hands anyway (Matthew 6:25-27). Philippians 4:6 tells us we are not to be anxious about anything. It would be odd if we were to ignore the commandment not to worry, or were to suggest that it’s really okay for Christians to worry because it’s unrealistic to expect never to worry. Not worrying is a possibility, but only if we trust that God is in charge. The question is, do we?

We are liberated from worry neither because we have all the power to make things happen, nor because we have no responsibility. What liberates us is the great freedom derived from knowing that God will guide the next step of the way after we have taken the one immediately in front of us. Remembering that, is the recipe for worry-free, careful, God-honouring preparation for the future.

God is an extraordinarily generous guide, who lights the way as we go. As Psalm 119:105 says, let his word be a lamp to your feet and a light to your path. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path (Proverbs 3:6). The rest is mere detail. He uses our choices, the good and the bad, to shape us into the people he wants us to be. Looking back, I can see that he has done that in my life, even as I have taken wandering, tottering, false steps along the way. I am sure he will do the same with you, no matter what choices you make, if you seek to honour him in all things.

The fool says there is no god

“There is no god” is an arresting opening line for a psalm, but saying “there is no god” is an awful way to begin the rest of your life, at any age.

I met with Mike and Mel yesterday. They are ex-students of mine, concerned about a friend, Mark, also an ex-student. Mark expressed Christian faith all through school and actively encouraged others to do the same. He also struggled for the past few years with issues of anxiety. He wrestled hard and well with the reality he faced, and seemed to come to terms with the fact that sometimes the thing you ask to be taken away is not taken away. Mel and I had the privilege of sitting with him as he came to the realisation that a thorn in Mark’s flesh might be left there for the good of others, not just himself.

But in the space of just a few months since, Mark has decided he no longer identifies as a Christian. Why the change? Maybe it really is that Mark found it easier to do the work of freeing himself from anxiety when he let go of the idea of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it’s that he doubts the reality of a God of power because he’s watched Mel continue to struggle with her tendency to get stressed about things, and hasn’t seen that struggle come to an end, as he thinks it should if God is real. Or maybe, as he suggests, it’s simply to do with the major stress of transitioning out of school.

Just before the end of school he changed church, from one that emphasises the work of God’s Spirit to one that emphasises teaching of God’s word, but he’s adamant that that wasn’t a cause. And I thought there might have been truth in the suggestion that he had standing in his old church and no immediate recognition in his new, so he’s cheesed off but knows it’s immature to use that as a reason for drifting away from church involvement, so instead just says he’s an atheist because that’s a jolly good reason to express disinterest in church. But he says that’s crap, that you actually feel more part of a church when you’re not leading. So God only knows the answer to why he’s changed course!

Image result for turn away

Understanding the reason really isn’t anywhere near as important as facing the reality of faith abandoned, and hope along with it. That is, except for the fact that recovery of faith probably involves identifying and addressing that reason. And maybe the reason is a warped view of God—a view that says God has to have his Spirit do as I want. The sort of view that says “I know what God should be on about,” and has to be rebuked, as was the blameless and upright Job, with a reminder that the creator of the universe is accountable to no human’s expectations (Job 38:2-3). Maybe the problem is not perception of independently having overcome anxiety, or a single character flaw in a faithful friend, or leaving school, or changing churches, or loss of status. Maybe the problem is the myopic, God-denying, autonomy-seeking vein that has run deep in each of us since Adam and Eve.

3000 or so years ago a songwriter began a song with the words “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no god’”. It’s an arresting opening line for Psalm 14. But saying “there is no god” is an awful way to begin the rest of your life, at any age.

So I asked Mel, “What should we do?” “Pray,” she said. So we did, because Mike and Mel and I all care about Mark. God has used Mark’s struggle with anxiety to grow our ability to care. That doesn’t make his struggle any easier. But it does make sense of his struggle. And it makes real the claim that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. (Romans 8:28) But there is no such promise for those who don’t. Because the vision that cannot see beyond my own pain to a God who deals with a bigger picture, cannot but end up cursing God. Even Job’s wife knew doing that meant death (Job 2:9).

In the face of a living and real God, the person is foolish indeed who says, “There is no god.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit

“If there were one thing you could change about your life, what would it be?” I asked. I guess he’d spent at least 11 years thinking about the question.

Was chatting this week with a guy we’ll call Brian. Would be unhelpful to him to use his real name. Finished his education before high school to work on the family farm, which was repossessed by creditors in bad times. Ended up on the streets of Sydney. Then was sentenced to 11 years behind bars. Now in transition housing, but with little education and the stigma of being an ex-con, the future is not looking easy.

I sensed that he was glad to talk with someone who’d treat him with respect as a fellow creature made and loved by God. I don’t think he would ever have expressed it with words like that, but his eyes did the talking. We enjoyed a game of table tennis on his home turf. He’s very good with the paddle. But his home turf is tough soil – a path, or rocky, or at the very least full of thorns, I thought. Substance abuse, tight security precautions, and police visits are daily routines.

Image result for table tennis player rear view

A fellow resident, Dean, was loitering around the table tennis table coming down off ice and starting to get pretty loud and confrontational. His language was colourful the way the ocean is moist. The very good staff did a great job of looking after him, as they do every day. A calmer fellow called Rob had a game of table tennis as well but wasn’t too keen on playing for long – “It brings back memories.” For me the game brings back wonderful memories of winning a doubles competition with my dad when I was 10, and of watching my son at the other end of the table over many years grow too good for me to beat him any longer. But Rob learnt table tennis, very well, in prison – “you’ve got lots of time on your hands”.

“If there were one thing you could change about your life, what would it be?” I asked Brian. “That sentence.” Just two words, but coming from a deep place, and without hesitation. I guess he’d spent at least 11 years thinking about the question. But my intent had been to ask about his future, what role I might play in making it brighter, perhaps. So I clarified – “What about the future?” “I’d like not to lose my temper. That’s what got me the sentence.”

Sounded like a statement of genuine remorse, even repentance. Deeper sorrow and more genuine desire to change than any time I’ve said sorry. I walked away from the table thinking Brian was possibly in a better place than I am with God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Why not?

On the road…

“You think lots,” I’m told. “Why not share some thoughts?” Indeed! Greedy if I keep them to myself. Hoping they might be helpful for someone. Nothing lost by sharing. Happy to hear your thoughts, figuring they might be helpful for me too. Not sure of the road more than one step ahead, but pretty sure it’s going to be good. The roadmaker has prepared it well (Ephesians 2:10). Check out some of the road I’ve been on so far in Working for God.

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