Finally, this afternoon, when the house was still—the snow trucks had passed and even the appliances were silent—I went up to my prayer room and spent some time in scripture. I’ve been reading the book of John this week and it’s mesmerizing how Jesus comes alive in the text. You can feel his joys, his sorrows and his anger. You can even feel him breathe. Nowhere does he seem more genuine or vulnerable than in John 13. This is the “last supper” that has been immortalized in paintings. These are his final few hours with his closest followers. He knows he’s going to be betrayed later that night and the cross awaits him the next day. In those last moments together he speaks plainly—practically pleads for his disciples to understand he is the way to Heaven. He reminds them who it is that rules this world (not him or his father). He tells them about the Holy Spirit and says they won’t be alone, even when…they are. And he issues a commandment, the heart of which is to simply love. There is so much of Jesus that is fascinating in scripture, so much to learn and sort through, and things we can’t fathom, including the descriptions of him bringing the dead back to life. But it’s this moment with these men and the love and care he embodies for them that make me a believer.
My heart wants to become his heart. And yet everyday I find myself making a mess of things. Leave the stones on the ground: that should be my mantra. Learn to love like Him (it’s so hard when people are involved.) Jesus set an impossible example we can never live up to. What we can do is love the best we can, give grace, and see something of ourselves and how we want to be treated in others.
My grandparents lived in a house that seemed very much like a castle to me. When I was much younger, our whole family would gather there to celebrate Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, the occasional birthday, and of course Christmas Day. The house was painted white and it sat tall on a hill with a winding stairway that led up to a cement ledge or porch where you could knock on the majestic wooden front door. The roof-line was quite unlike the flat raised-ranch house I lived in. There were two separate windows with their own eaves at the highest point on the house, and these seemed to pass in the imagination of this Kansas boy as castle spirals or turrets of some kind. I remember the windows being ancient with handles you twisted to make the glass open out, vertically, and then wind back shut. In the winter my grandpa kept a roaring fire that my grandma loved to stoke, sending up a sudden shower of orange sparks that turned white as paper, then sifted back down to the flames. My uncle Milton always insisted on a real Christmas tree, so my grandparents obliged and it filled the room with an oddly fresh pine smell of that clashed with the scent of the worn furniture and cracking walls. We had so many children in the family then, there were always a hundred or more presents set out in shiny packaging and ribbons waiting to be torn off. And every member of the family, young or old, got their time to sit in a chair in the middle of the room, and open their presents. About 2 o’clock we all sat down to dinner. My grandparents set up a long dining room table to seat as many people as they could. And me, being one of the youngest, never ever found a place there. I was always plopped down at the children’s table—a lowly little plastic square sat some 30 feet from the main table with paper-plate place settings and plastic spoons. I sat at this table from my earliest memories until I was well into my teenage years. While my older relatives shared stories from previous Christmases, discussed the major events of the year, and occasionally argued, I sat next to the insanity of my cousins who threw their food, stuck forks in their eyes (or other places), or refused to stay in their chairs at all, drawing the ire of their parents who shouted threats from their places at the better table. Ah, Christmas. To this day when I’m in business meetings or conference calls with groups of other adults who are sharing in serious, meaningful conversations, I feel somehow removed from it all. I go back to a boy seated at the children’s table, my mind on a completely different level—full of imagination, and yet somehow separated or divorced entirely from grown-up speak. I grow antsy, like my cousins, and all I can think about is being set free—let loose to leave the chaos of that place and get on with playing somewhere else in the house. In all my years growing up, it didn’t occur to until recently that the only way to get a spot at the table would have been to marry into the family (not a possibility for me) or hope for one of my older relatives to die. Oh goodness … what dark thoughts family Christmases can bring!
Only prayer could call down a snowfall this beautiful. Someone must have knelt in solitude, morning after morning, asking for the world to be blanketed white. God obliged and now millions of answered prayers drift down from the Heavens by the hour, unnoticed as such by those of us whose hearts and minds are full with the world.
Imagine seeing life this way—as if everything and every person in it were God-sent, placed here for a purpose and with a right to love. How that would change things.
We view this world in reverse with our human eyes. The darkness and the cold seem inevitable—waiting patiently to overwhelm the light. But the opposite is true. Darkness will someday be extinguished. It is the light that is eternal, and it is embodied in the one who loves us (for all eternity) and always meets us with bottomless grace.
Whomever prayed for the snow … I love you. God loves you. But you already know this, don’t you? You must have a gorgeous heart, and I can see that you use it.
In the same mode as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, here are a few people who left deep marks on my character.
MY GRANDMOTHER VIVIAN
Sense of humor. Life is sweeter when it’s not taken too seriously. Be unequivocally dedicated to my faith and my principles rooted in our Lord Jesus Christ. You can be a man (or woman) of faith pursuing doctrine and theology yet share in the joyful love and compassion of our Savior.
MY GRANDFATHER FLOYD
Commitment to his wife and to his family. Silent leadership by being present, consistent and firm.
MY MOTHER LOIS
A woman’s strength is no less greater than a man’s. No matter how unfair life treats you in matters of work, of health or simple fate, complaining is not an option. Never give up and never be fueled by anything other than the beautiful things in the world.
MY BROTHER MICK
Being a father has less to do with having a child and more to do with offering guidance and inspiration.
PROFESSOR JOHN LOFFLIN
The act of good writing takes some natural talent, but it is more dependent on work ethic. Putting words down in a way that moves people needs to be approached with craftsmanship, not unlike the artist or even the blue-collar workman—a bricklayer—who through continual practice refines and perfects his work. And even still, the greatest work is the kind that comes out without prompting. Take notes on the world and learn from what you see.
Reading only a few short paragraphs of my work, she recognized a talent I would have never explored and encouraged me to pursue. This occurred during those lost teen years when I didn’t feel I was particularly gifted, had no real interests outside of myself, and longed for a way to connect with the whole of the world.
Exemplifying faith. Always putting her family first and not getting lost in the race to find someone to love as many of us do after our relationships end.
Any task is worth doing to perfection and with an extraordinary amount of love.
MY CHILDREN, ANNIE, CHARLIE AND CAROLINE
For pursuing their passions and putting in the hard work necessary to achieve extraordinary highs.
MY COUSINS, AUNTS AND UNCLES
Treat others as your equals. They always included me and treated me with love and respect even though I was so much younger than them.
Be myself and take comfort in that. Recognize the world around me and try to better understand my place in it.
A tragic background can be something to embrace. Take pride in your misfortunes. See the characters around you for what they are and the ways in which they enrich your life—make it unique.
Listening for the softest voices.
Close enough to hear silent prayers.
He is everywhere around us
and yet no one has ever seen Him
but the one and only Son.
When the world awakens at dawn,
He shows himself in heaven-breathed hues,
shot vivid across the sky.
The marks of his hands streaked through the clouds.
His spirit descended from Heaven like a dove,
burned like fire on His Son’s first followers,
and now it overflows in us.
His light fills the universe
and yet He still cares to think of us.
With only His voice, He made all we know.
Created everything we can see.
And a realm we can only sense.
On my knees, I send a few words back your way.
Humble words of love and praise.
I know they won’t be lost,
For you care especially for the wanderers,
for the ones who pray incessantly,
Through tears and heartache and joy.
Listen for the softest voices,
Draw close to hear unspoken prayers.
You are everywhere around us.
Go on revealing your face.
I woke this morning to the sound of pouring water. Just before opening my eyes, I heard a cup being poured out—maybe over something … or someone—and then it was gone. There was a quick splash followed by running water, and then it was over. Disappeared. I heard it plain as anything, and now I am sure the Holy Spirit was speaking to me.
This is the second time I was awakened by a clear but inexplicable sound while lying in bed. The first occurrence was a blaring alarm days before Christmas. The noise filled the whole house.
My daughter was staying with me that morning, too, and it startled me. I was about to run upstairs to see if she was safe. But when I opened my eyes, it stopped. I didn’t know what it could mean then. Was something trying to stop me from hearing the Lord?
Lately I have been under heavy spiritual attack. I won’t reveal the details because they are deeply personal, but I will say I was being bombarded with thoughts not consistent with my faith. And I abruptly put an end to them. How? Strength that can only be found in Jesus.
I am wondering if this new sound means I won this battle or at least a skirmish. I never fancied myself as one of these Christians who “hears” things or who has any sort of spiritual gifting, necessarily, beyond my writing. But I am beginning to wonder: Lord, what’s my purpose? Let me hear you clearly. I’ll do whatever you ask!
My house becomes a spiritual retreat of sorts on Saturday mornings. The world is reduced to the space between my walls and the knowledge revealed to me in prayer and scripture readings. This morning I was reading a familiar passage in the book of John—a story I’ve read and heard taught numerous times. In John 2, we are told the story of Jesus revealing his glory for the first time by changing water to wine. For many of us believers, this seems a curious way for our Messiah to introduce himself to the world. Why use your power in such a trivial way, saving newlyweds from embarrassment at their wedding reception? Certainly the Son of Man has larger concerns than this. Why choose this moment to stand in God’s glory?? But as is often the case with scripture reading, this story came across to me in a different way today. Repetition of the word “servants” (see below) began to stand out to me and then it came clear. This passage is to be read as yet another parable, and we are to put ourselves in the place of the nameless servants. We must do what Jesus tells us, without question. And when we do, He reveals himself to us. We are then to share what we know about Him (what we know to be so beautiful and glorious) with those who have never felt his glory!
John 2:5 — But his mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
John 2:7 — Jesus told the servants, “Fill the jars with water.”
John 2:8 — He said, “Now dip some out, and take it to the master of ceremonies.” So the servants followed his instructions.”
John 2:9 — When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the servants knew), he called the bridegroom over.
My walk toward the Lord began on a path paved with something far lesser than gold.
His plan was a secret to me, so I didn’t realize when I took my first steps toward Him. For years I was lost and wandering, trying to find something that brought purpose to my life. I thought I could find my own way without any instruction. I found myself in the strangest places, none of which were holy. My feet were dirty with dust from the road and the filth of the terrible houses where I deliberately set out to ruin myself.
The walk was tiring and at times I slipped into dazes. Once I awoke to find I was piling debris on the street—pulling litter from the roadside into huge heaps ahead of me. My hands and arms and even my face and chest were marked with bloody scratches where I tried to climb over or crawl under my own mistakes. I tried pushing high with my hands, and then low with my shoulder. I couldn’t budge the pile. The shadow loomed over me.
My strength gone, I dropped to my knees and put my head on the pavement. My lips began to form a prayer, not of desperation or hopelessness, but rather one of gratitude. He broke me there on the street where I knelt. I was overcome with an awareness of my blessings. Everything he had given me became so clear, the gift of my children especially. How could I not praise him for it all? How could I not recognize where it was that I was walking? Straight into his heart.
When I opened my eyes, I was still kneeling … but now in a city. I was in the middle of its greatest street—golden, as pure as transparent glass. He led me here through a path of complete submission. Heaven was opened to me and for the children I am raising. On this golden street of a golden city, I closed my eyes to it all so I could pray again to my Lord. One day I hope not only to visit, but to make my home along this very street. I don’t know its name, but I understand where it is now.
By mid-afternoon, the ground thawed and the first snowfall lie in thin rows at the trails’s edge. I set out with a backpack and my Bible into the wilderness where out greatest enemy lives. My Lord and Savior met his tempter out here 2,000 years ago and won a victory where his predecessor, Adam, couldn’t. The spiritual battle is the same all this time later. The stakes are nothing less than eternity.
I am so familiar with these paths I could walk them with my eyes closed. While it might seem good to know the enemy’s lair, the tragedy is that I keep returning here to fight the same battle. No stronger than the last time I lost, boasting the same weaknesses and few strengths. My prayers lag and wane even though I am perfectly secluded and in a quiet place to send them Heavenward. I have no angels to nurse me back to health should I manage to survive.
Coming closer to the source of evil, I pass under the limbs of devilish trees. Crooked and thorn reminders grow just off the path. Finally, in a clearing, my heart starts to fill with His truth. My own strength is not what I need. My heart is a conduit to His. Enduring love, faithfulness, grace, courage, Whatever I need. Whatever I ask for. I can wield the same power of the one who defeated Satan before. When he steps out from the overgrowth to attack me, I will remind him of his losses. First, his defeat against my Lord, and now him losing the possession of my soul.