Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD. Psalm 31:24
You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me. Psalm 71:21
Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard; Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip. For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried; we went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a place of refreshment. Psalm 66:7-12
Well, there is no place of refreshment and enfolding like that of my sister Jenny and Tim’s home in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. And yesterday Jenny and I raked up 18 bags of red, gold, orange and brown leaves while Tim roofed for a friend, and then we settled down to grilled pork chops with creamy fennel sauce, roasted carrots right out of the garden and perfect crust apple pie with organic vanilla ice cream. Layered into that day somehow I graded, well, really wrote all over a bunch of Odyssey compare/contrast essays and curled up with lots of cups of coffee, I read my friend Dana Mahan’s 400-page memoir of growing up in a trailer park, Poor, White and Trashy, the story speaking for a people without a voice, from those endless trailer parks which line south, west, central Tucson, the story of a young man seeking himself in a hard world, the story of the power of faithful men walking alongside. And, and the story of a redemptive, pursuing God.
No wonder Jesus told so many stories. It’s all about our story. His story.
Refreshing and enfolding was His Word as well, handled so gently yet honestly by Jay, the pastor at Mile High Vineyard. And Jay has a pretty tough teaching schedule each weekend, six times, but it’s because he handles it easily, like Legolas and his bow, an arrow shot strong and accurately into the heart.
This thing called the Church is intended to show what people can be like, if God has His way. In Acts 2/4, it describes the body who enjoyed the favor of all the people, and the LORD was adding daily to their numbers. It was attractive and terrifying, but not boring. The story of the people of God is a story of a people has been set free by the power of God, that none of us is better than the other because of our own merit. We don’t stand in judgment of others, but welcome others with humility and mercy. All are one because of what Christ has done. I put my weakness in front of people; it is only through Christ that I have hope. What if the people of God were known for being humble. What if we just yielded, and that became our story?
It’s all about our story. His story.
Which reminds me about another story I read yesterday, told by my brother Tom, who also handles words with a piercing deftness. A story about his sixteen-year-old son and a conversation.
“I don’t know if I really love God, Dad.” The statement fell flat in his bedroom. Sixteen years of careful (and conservative) Christian education, replete with twelve years of ABeka-anchored elementary homeschooling, obligatory Sunday school attendance, and fairly consistent daily mealtime devotions slowly drained from the room. He continued, “I mean, how can you truly love someone that you never have really met—someone who has never made it beyond something-that-you-study or read stories about?” I resisted the slight father-vertigo feeling to engage him in the memory of the “day he invited Jesus into his heart,” and let his statement stand.
And Tom laid this conversation before God, I have this retreat, a sanctuary to which I retire (daily) where I read Scripture, pray, and write (to God), but it’s also a place I go when I need a to do a bit of complaining, wondering, meditative wrangling, even emotional and spiritual wound-licking, a place that has changed locationally throughout the years. Back when I was a tougher dude, it was mostly outside in our back woods or up-and-down our street. The car headlights of my early-morning-commuter neighbors would often pick me out as I tramped along Coventry Drive during snow, wind, or whatever freezing-pelt a New Hampshire early morning could produce. Now, I’m much more mature, uh—contemplative, I guess—so a cushy chair by the woodstove usually will suffice. It’s a place I’ve often told God to meet me. I fancy, like Moses’ Tent of Meeting, or the Hebrew tabernacle of old, that it has switched around from place to place through my forty years or so of spiritual/theological wilderness wandering.
Early the next morning, I entered my sanctuary and put Evan’s question out there. “So how does my son get to know you? Where are you, God, in the midst of his 21st century millennialistic, postmodern-restructuralist mindset? How will Evan ever come to know You? He’s sixteen, and hasn’t seen or heard anything from You. It’s all been about what he’s been told. What in his life shows that You care—or much more, desire some love relationship with him? What in his life even proves that You exist?”
It’s the word that my hand kinda-sorta automatically wrote in my spiral notebook.
And then I thought back over the (especially last few) years regarding my own doctrinal strayings, my rejections of denominationalisms, my private failures and half-lived determinations. Through all the chaos of unwillingness to have God as “He has always been,” I could see very easily in my metaphysic efforts that all-important thread to be alive, challenged, fully invested as one who pursues The Voice.
I looked outside the window to where the flaming foliage began to coalesce into predawn light. Trees, woods, a half-light, that has seen me these many years, pursuing my life within so that I might live and love a significant life without. The memories, the notebooks, the margins of my Bible littered with decades-long annotations—struggles and triumphs.
And then, with Evan: the living-room talks, the backpacking, the Santa excitements, the fort building, the costume closets, the silly songs, the wood cutting, the sledding and snowshoeing, the thousands of photographs, the laughter, the determined resolve, the arguing and wrangling, the shouted anger against fraternal betrayal, hours of family videos that show a life filled of a dad loving his “rollicking rooster of a boy.”
“He knows you, Tom,” I wrote.
“You have become Me because I have tabernacled with you.”
“You, most-beloved son, have become Evan’s Emmanuel.”
“Dad, how can I love someone I’ve never met?”
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.…and now this mystery of Christ dwells within you….
And so the design, the blueprint, of Who It Is I Am Becoming, slowly merged from the basement darkness into the early morning light, casting familiar features from around the room. I looked again to what I had written in my spiral: “You, most-beloved son, have become Evan’s Emmanuel.”
“You can know God, Evan, because you know me”: It’s what I wish I had said.
It’s all about our story. His story.
And one very awe-some aspect of Dana’s story is that it is interwoven with faces and street corners and conversations that I was present for, yet unaware that at this moment the mystery of Christ in us was showing another sixteen-year-old boy what Jesus looked like. Jesus-in-Jason meeting Dana every Tuesday night for dinner and talking for five years, for instance. Or my brother Scott with a rough voice and tough hands, tough like the work of a handyman with a good reputation. Up on a ladder, replacing some shingles. Down in the basement, fixing some pipes. Overalls and gloves, a cap turned around on his head and a bandana dangling from his back pocket. Or Old Man Caywood, with his flowing white hair and his courteous manner, Ringing his bell, wearing the cap of a conductor, and stopping the trolley car to let people either on or off as the need arose.
And somehow my Vineyard Community, the place I have called home for thirty-five years was Emmanuel for Dana, complete with its bumps and holes and fissures. Every one of them, from the youngest to the oldest, the poorest to the richest I had met, in one way or another, while a member of the Vineyard.
My church, and more than my church. A cradle, a temple, a home. How could I ever recount, which words would I employ to explain, describe all that place had managed to accomplish in me, from the first day I stepped through its doors, until the last day when I walked back out?
And it is all about our story. His story.
And at the end of Jay’s sermon, he wound up with the three words that started this little journey of mine three months ago: Humbly, with integrity and with courage. You bring the whole of who you are to God, and live with integrity, with no hidden shadow. Take ownership of what is true. We are to live with courage and make a difference in the world.
May my life speak humility, integrity and courage. Then I too will be part of the redemptive story of what God is doing in this world. And afterwards I went up for prayer. And a friend of Nicole’s from long ago Chicago Hyde Park Vineyard, placed her hands upon me and prayed for peace.
And I give you peace, not as the world gives. My burden is light and my yoke easy. Do you believe this?
And it is all about our story. His story.