One afternoon last week as I turned my truck into a gravel lot to park and walk off into the wilderness, I heard a radio pastor begin a sermon on Romans chapter five. He said something I’d heard many times before, but never registered — at least not to the depth with which it hit me this day. He said “Christ died for the ungodly,” which are words that come straight from Paul’s letter. I’ve read them before, but somehow they reached me fresh and new. I’m guessing it’s because of my many conversations of late with non-believers. Christ died for them (as well as believers, because we all sin), if not more so. Those simple words have changed the way I see people. And I can’t stop reading this passage, over and over again:
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
— Romans 5:1-8
At the Oak tree,
Three paths are mowed into the underbrush.
The first arching to the right.
A second bending left.
And the third running straight into the autumn hillsides.
I have been on the straight path in every season
In the spring when the fields have been burned black
And the first green breaks through the soil
Turning the hillsides into what could pass for Irish countryside
I’ve walked these paths in incredible heat
Where the grass was sun-starched white
And crumpled beneath your steps like frozen snow
I was here walking one lovely Christmas Day when my children
Were spending the holiday with their mother.
The lake here and the two ponds were frozen solid
And the red berry bushes that feed the deer hung over the trail like mistletoe.
On this day, the fields are golden.
After a rainy September, the leaves on the trees have turned golden
And fire-flame orange.
Even the weeds are lovely — their feathery tops giving them the look of prize wheat.
On this center path, I walk off into all this color
Leaving my truck and all my worldly worries in the small gravel parking lot.
This is my prayer trail where, amid all this beauty,
I send my prayers up to God
Or simply give the time to Him in silence
Listening to what he has to say to me.
I have heard the Lord speak to me in chaos,
Through the background noise,
But here, in this peace, is where I feel He rests.
The creek water runs smooth and clear over the stones
Someone has placed in the rush
To allow for passing without soggy shoes or dampened pant legs.
I hop across and now, much deeper into this Garden of Eden,
I hear the rushing waters of a much larger stream,
For which there is no easy way to pass,
And the last chirps and whirs of the cicadas and other insects
Before they burrow away for the winter.
A crow gasps a low, taunting warning
As I feel the cool water slap and splash on my ankles.
This is His creation, overwhelming my senses.
Colors that burn, voices that both frighten and relax,
The scent of everything clean and natural.
You lead me on a straight path
Where all I want to do is follow your voice.
Lord, I ask that you not whisper today.
Shout what you have for me into my ear.
Send your word for me down to this fallen place
Where in this land, all around me,
Your beautiful creations are preparing to pass away.
Last night, I heard a man the world would label as a drug addict speak these beautiful words: “Sin is like walking away from your first love.” These very words, in a way, are a miracle for their clarity, but also for their truth … and especially for the mouth that spoke them. I remembered this man. A few months ago he came to our Christian men’s group for the first time. (I also remembered his name, but I won’t mention it here.) He came that first time after relapsing on drugs, and the same was true this second time. But on both occasions he was met with love and prayer. Even in his failure, the Lord used him to teach us something: no matter how far gone you might believe you are, there’s still something beautiful about you. You are worthwhile to someone.
When I was a boy, love meant one of two things to me: either romance or sex. I thought it was an uncomfortable word mostly used in the movies and around Valentine’s Day. I never saw it exemplified or acted on by my parents, except in my mother’s care for her boys. I grew up that way, tucking love into a corner of my mind that I didn’t visit much. There was no reason to, really. There were innocent crushes that came and went — the occasional girl around my age that I thought about and maybe wrote letters to, but only once handed over. For me, love was something best kept private. The first time I fell in love was more a realization than romance. Another man was in the picture with that woman and I remember the moment clearly. She had a choice to make between me and him, and I remember when it occurred to me that I didn’t care if she chose me or not — I cared about her so deeply, I only wanted her happiness. And that’s when I knew: Love found me where I was that afternoon in my early 20s. I look back on that now almost in wonderment at how much I thought I knew about the world then. Ha, it wasn’t enough to act on my heart the way I wanted to. Because of the way things happen in life, I sometimes say I never actually loved that first woman. But to claim so is to rob myself of that feeling, and those types of lies deaden you to the possibility of feeling it again. It’s rare. It should be treasured. Every love we feel shapes the chambers of our heart.