Monday, February 28, 2005

The Mountain, The Pit, Grace and Reconciliation

Luke 9:57-58 (New International Version)

The Cost of Following Jesus

“57As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Life for Nancy and me is quite good and has been for many years. To say that we’ve been blessed is a real understatement. We’ve been overwhelmed by God’s goodness to us over the years.

One of the dangers in this is complacency, thinking or believing that because things are good now they will always be good, that somehow by virtue of age and maturity we can coast, having done all we need to do to make life grand.

But we recognize that while there seems to be a hedge around us, life is full of change. Like Job, that hedge can be removed and great trials may follow.

One of the most subtle traps in life is the one that deludes us into thinking that the good things in life are rewards for good behavior and righteousness. All we need to do is the right stuff and we’ll reap the rewards of our good labor. After all, we reason, anything less would be unjust. Difficulties in life, the floods of pain and grief, are meant for the wayward, the sinner. Life’s rains are not meant to fall on the just.

Of course, time and experience teach us that such notions are presumptuous. The rain indeed does fall on the just and the unjust.

Holy Writ is full of examples to show us this is true. Abraham, for example, was a man of great faith. While he had his human weaknesses, it cannot be denied that he did his best to do what was right in life. He left a thriving culture, the Chaldeans, in obedience to God. I’ve always been amazed by his saga. In my mind I’ve visualized him as a man driving a U-Haul truck around the wilderness after having left the great seat of culture in his world. He left the known, the intellectually vibrant, the prosperous, for the unknown. All he really knew was that God had called him to look for a city “whose builder and maker was God.”

It’s very easy in the light of recorded history to see Abraham as a man of faith. But I don’t believe it seemed very easy to him as he lived his life out day by day, celebrating triumphs at one turn and then tribulations at the next. There is no series of incidents in his life more telling, in my mind, than those associated with his nephew Lot. They’re recorded in Genesis 13-14. The stories revolve around their travels together through the wilderness, from Negev to Bethel, to Ai. Somewhere along the way a dispute arose between Abraham’s herdsmen and Lot’s. In an act of real grace, Abraham, the senior partner, settled the dispute by telling Lot, the junior partner, that he could choose whatever portion of the land before them that he desired and Abraham would take what was left. He put it this way: “Let’s not have quarreling between you and me or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.”

That, to me, defines grace in a way so practical it cannot be mistaken. Abraham did what was right. Lot, seeing only dimly, chose to pitch “his tents near Sodom,” one of the ancient cities that was later destroyed because of its wickedness. His choice proved to be very short-sighted and he, his family, his herdsmen and all their possessions were seized by an unholy alliance of kings. It fell to Abraham to once more do what was right. He gathered a small army and rescued Lot. Even after this conquest he did what was right in the eyes of God. When given an opportunity to bargain with the king of Sodom to keep the spoils of war in exchange for the lives of the people he had rescued, Abraham refused, saying, “I have raised my hand to the Lord God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal.”

These were noble acts of the first order. Abraham had given Lot the first choice when the original dispute arose and when Lot’s choice proved to be disastrous Abraham rescued him, asking nothing in return for his acts of kindness and mercy.

But I believe that there was a time, even in the face of doing all that was right, that Abraham had doubts about the reward in doing so. It’s not recorded, but I believe that in reading between the lines you can see it, and you can see it without doing violence to the text. Chapter fifteen, coming on the heels of this great saga begins this way:

Genesis 15:1 (New International Version)

“1 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
"Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

I read this short statement and see a hint of the questions, un-recorded that Abraham must have had in the face of all that happened. I can almost hear him asking the questions: “Where’s the reward in doing what’s right anyway?” “Where’s my reward?” “Am I going to have to spend my whole life doing this sort of thing?”

In the face of those questions God’s statement (answer) is as timely today as it was thousands of years ago. “I’m your reward…..I’m your shield…..Don’t be afraid.”

I think of my life right now and marvel at how well things are going for me. The questions that I believe might have occurred to Abraham seem far removed from me right now. Yet, in a different circumstance not so long ago another series of questions came to mind for me.

They came to me at the lowest point in my life. I’d been a Christian for almost fifteen years when life seemed to crash in around me. I was in the middle of a divorce, the one thing that should never visit a Christian’s door. Like Job, I felt the deep sting of the circumstance I was in:

Job 3:23-26 (New International Version)

“23 Why is life given to a man
whose way is hidden,
whom God has hedged in?
24 For sighing comes to me instead of food;
my groans pour out like water.
25 What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
26 I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

I’ve often put it all this way when people have asked me about how it all felt. “I’ve been in a war and I’ve been through a divorce and if I had the choice in life to do either one or the other I would gladly get back on that plane to Saigon rather than go through the pain and alienation of those days when everything I believed in about life and myself was spiraling downward into a pit.”

Now it’s not as important for me to tell you how and why it happened. There’s nothing I can say to justify what happened. It was what it was and I’ll leave it at that. But I do believe it’s important for me to tell you how I felt during those dark days.

It’s funny how certain facts remain with you. I remember sitting in my apartment the night the divorce was finalized. It struck me just how far I’d fallen. A few short months before I was a valued member of a Christian community. Now, with case number DR 83-5335 duly signed and sealed, I was anathema, cut off as I had been told “from the land of the living.” I came home and cooked a hamburger for myself, my reward of sorts. Then, when my comeuppance meal was done I sat alone in the darkness for hours, reliving all the mistakes and sins that had brought me to this place. I would occasionally get up and turn the lights on to watch the roaches scurry back into the darkness. Then I, like they, would turn the lights off and return to the safety of the darkness. The irony of the metaphor didn’t escape me. I too was now running from the light.

While the darkness didn’t seem especially inviting to me, it did seem just. I’d been told by people who seemed to know that I’d gotten what was coming to me. As I sat I pondered my next move and the thoughts ended in a perverse crescendo. There in the darkness I realized how much like our earthly marriage our relationship with God is supposed to be. Just before I went to bed that night I said what I thought might be the last words I would ever utter to the Almighty. “Good night Lord,” I said. “I guess You’re next in this series of divorces.”

In the days that followed everything seemed to confirm my worst fears about myself. I began to get “prophetic” hate mail from former friends, Job’s comforters to a man. I was amazed by how much insight they had gained about me in such a short period of time. It was revelation unbound. The letters would begin with words like these: “The Lord showed me a long time ago what you were really like” or “I’ve always sensed that weren’t all you pretended to be.” I had no defense to offer. All I could do was agree with what I was being told about myself and continue my downward spiral.

I began to wonder whether there was even a bottom to the pit I’d fallen in. Where was it all going to end? I was to soon find out. I came home from work one night to find that the lock to my apartment door had been changed. I hadn’t paid the rent. I called the landlord and he, “graciously,” allowed me to get the few things I owned from the apartment before I left. I was a cold January night and I now had nowhere to go. I had only a bit more than two dollars to my name, not even enough for a night in a downtown flop house.

I drove to the Metro North Mall and walked around for three hours until the stores closed. Then I made my way to downtown Kansas City. At about ten-thirty I pulled into a parking lot near Union Station, turned off the engine and crawled into the back seat of the car. I tossed and turned for minutes that seemed to be hours. It had all come to this. I’d hit bottom; I had nothing left. I had made my fate and now I was going to have to live with it. The only thing left for me to do now was to say my final goodbye to God. “So, Lord, what heavenly case number is this one gonna’ be? DR something or other? I tried my best but I guess it wasn’t good enough…..I only got what was coming to me. This is my reward and it’s only fitting.” I wiped the tears from my eyes and turned over in the back seat, expecting no response. But a response came. There in the darkness I heard those words God had spoken to Abraham centuries before: “Don’t be afraid. I am your shield, your very great reward.” Then more came. “I love you, Philip, I’ll never leave you or forsake you. I’ll heal the wounds others who don’t know you like I do have inflicted on you.”

The end I’d expected never came. Instead, in that short moment in the cold and dark, a new beginning came. There was no divorce; there was only a turning point, reconciliation. There were no accusations, only promises of restoration.

That was close to a quarter of a century ago now. God has been true to His promise made to me on that cold December night.

Since that night I’ve seen that it was God’s grace that pulled me out of that pit and it is His grace that sustains me on the mountain I seem to be standing on right now. I’ve learned that I can never presume on that grace or assume that I am now enjoying the fruit of my own righteousness.

I’ve hesitated for some time in writing about those days. Being vulnerable often means that we have to share from our emptiness as well as from our abundance. But I hope, and somehow believe, that someone may be reading what I’ve written from what seems to be their bottomless pit. I pray that my experience from here on the mountain will be a message like that of the prophet of old, to you, dear reader:

Micah 7:8 (King James Version)

“8Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD shall be a light unto me.”


Diane said...

All I can manage to say is....WOW!

Thanks for your transparency. I felt a bit down tonight and I needed to read this.

Tom Reindl said...

I can relate to this story, Phil, at least to the despair. I thank God again for His timely answers.