We are a funny people: planning, mapping, strategizing. We purchase gym memberships and anti-wrinkle creams, free-range this and organic that, paralyzed by anxiety of our inevitable aging and death, fearful of missing out on a life-changing blurb awaiting us on social media, and agonizing over insufficient retirement funds. So much preparation for worldly things, while prone to disregarding our soul’s eternal future.
Fellowship with God on streets of gold or scorching flames and torment without him will be our forever. One or the other. There is no middle ground.
We rage against our story.
What beauty might erupt, if this year we chose instead to press into our own narrative, divinely written by God our Maker? Palms held loosely open, (Your will, God, not mine) humbly and graciously accepting his path, trusting him implicitly by way of adoration and bowed obedience?
Our past, present, and future is mysteriously braided together by God himself. His plan unfurls through our unique stories.
Just imagine if we treasured our fleeting lives enough to surrender them fully and generously to the Lord, no strings attached.
Not so long ago, I bumped into a woman whom I had not seen for a bit. One minute into the conversation I slipped away. My feet did not move, and I may have nodded at appropriate moments, but after a short time, she lost me.
Honestly it was not really a conversation at all. It was more of a soliloquy revolving around her children’s accomplishments:
4.0 this, President of that, Honors Society Member and Dean’s List and Straight A’s and Star Athlete and on and on and on it went. It had been awhile since I had seen her, and it pained me afresh to recognize that her children’s worth is so poorly measured by fleeting accomplishments, tangled and jumbled in earthly awards that fade in due time. I could picture her pressured offspring, burdened by weighty backpacks of accumulated winnings, soul-exhausted with their lot in life, and feeling quite powerless to escape.
As she rambled, a familiar feeling floated upward in my mind. Suddenly, I was nine years old and swinging my legs in the shiny wooden pew of my childhood church.
It was a chilly January morning, and the promise of a brand new year glowed brightly as the sunshine danced its way through the sanctuary windows. There was a delicious excitement in the air: a brand new calendar flush with possibilities. That magical sensation in which wrongs may be righted and the sky is the limit and this year, yes this year will be golden! (Of course this feeling crashes and burns as winter unfolds, and the snow turns to dirty mush along with our resolutions and we wail: Where is spring?)
I was holding my own hymnal that day, feeling quite grown up as our minister asked our congregation to please stand and sing: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. As the organ sounded, and the richness of those words sprung forth, their meaning jolted my soul. Especially verse two:
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth His Name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
My heart quickened, as my eyes filled. This Christ Jesus was wonderful, and I knew him.
I considered the words: Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. The Holy Spirit was at work.
As the next verse began, a new voice joined in, one or two measures behind our congregation, and terribly off-key. I peeked over my shoulder, and saw Jimmy swaying in the back row. He was standing, as always, next to his mother, who smiled gently as she sang, looking both tired and peaceful.
Jimmy had been born late in his mother’s life. His father abandoned the family soon after Jimmy had been born with Down’s Syndrome, meaning that his mother was left to raise two boys alone, which she did, working many odd jobs to remain afloat. Eventually, her older son labored to support his mother and brother, which was of great comfort.
And then, one evening, in the depths of night, a harsh and insistent knock interrupted their sleep. Jimmy’s mother rushed to fasten her robe before opening the front door. Two policemen stood before her, caps in hand, bearing the grim news that there had been a terrible accident, and her older son had died.
I knew all of these things as we sang A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and as I peeked at Jimmy, who continuously missed words and syllables, I was fairly certain there was no voice as sweet. His face was glowing. Jimmy loved his mother and he loved God. It was that simple. He sang loudly and without embarrassment, worshipping his Creator.
His mother clearly delighted in the sweet abandon of her son, never shushing him despite pointed stares and a few grimaces from others. She was a soft-spoken woman, who had humbly accepted her hard story, full of broken edges and dark spaces. In her crucible times she clung to God rather than raging against him. And guess what? Her life did not grow easier, yet was magnificent.
I might have been quite young, but the tranquility of her soul spun brightly, and I knew with certainty that I wanted precisely what she possessed.
Which is interesting because she lacked all worldly treasures: money, beauty, high achievements, a pretty home, good health, an intact family, and popularity.
It simply did not matter. She delighted in the one matchless gift she held dear: an unshakable faith.
During this same time, several women at church grew edgy with each other, (smiling prettily through gritted teeth) as their children reached high school. It became an obvious game of Let’s See Who Can Outdo One Another With Our Children’s Accomplishments. I meandered through the congregation after the service, waiting for my parents to finish talking, and overheard snippets of conversation amongst these competitive women, which revolved around things that did not matter. I felt confused as I tried to reconcile the Win! Strive! Compete! with this God of merciful grace, whose yoke is easy and burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
I eventually put on my thick winter coat and stepped out of the narthex into the biting New England air. Jimmy’s mother was ahead of me, graceful and quiet, nodding her hellos to a few folks while pulling her coat tighter in the freezing temperatures as she ushered her son through the parking lot. He looped his short arm through hers, and she turned and smiled at him so dearly, and with such a tender mother-love that my heart ached. I knew her life had been marked by tragedy, yet here she stood, in the cold sunlight, dressed in a threadbare coat while stunningly cloaked in utter devotion to God and her son.
Oh, the common ache of mankind! To be known and loved unconditionally.
How devastating to neglect this staggering fact: if you are in Christ, you already possess this unconditional love. You are known and fully treasured by God himself. What an imperishable delight: one that cannot be withdrawn.
Nor can it be earned. God’s love is a majestic gift. We are his image-bearers, and therein lies our complete worth.
Gym memberships and slim physiques, beautifying lotions, new clothes, straight-A children, fancy houses, scholarly degrees, popularity among mankind, successful jobs, and fat bank accounts are no measure of anyone’s worth. All of these things are fleeting.
Jimmy and his mother acquired none of these earthly treasures. Their lives echoed Lamentations 3:24:
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I will hope in him.”
Their faith in Christ Jesus sparkled as brightly as the New England sunshine casting its rays on the snow-covered hilltops. Mother and son delighted in God, praising him for his unending goodness. They were the rich ones, indeed.
I snapped back to the conversation with the woman in front of me. She had paused, inquiring if I was doing well?
I nodded, adding that this past year had been both broken and beautiful. God is faithful, I added, meaning it whole-heartedly, always at work.
I think it was her turn to fade away, as she fumbled for her tweeting cell phone. We said goodbye with an awkward wave. I watched her retreat into the distance, clothed in her expensive coat and handbag.
She had everything, and nothing at all.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; (2 Corinthians 4:7-8 ESV)