Today is Canadian Thanksgiving, early October, cool and grey. We invited some friends over last night to feast with us on turkey, and all that comes with turkey — fat-drenched things, sauce-laden things, sugar-laced things — and then pumpkin pie and blackberry pie, mounded with whipped cream. The power went out just before we sat down, so we lit candles everywhere and dined in golden light and shadows, almost wishing the power stayed off. It came on just in time to make after-dinner coffee.
I slept well, and late. It rained overnight and the boughs of the cedars outside my windows are silvery with damp. A lone bird walks the pathway besides the garden, plucking fallen berries. About half the leaves on my fruit trees still cling, parched and wizened, to their branches. The rest of the leaves scattered across lawn and garden, a thickness of moldering parchment that mocks my sloth for not gathering them earlier when they were still light and dry.
Behind me, a fire of maple wood and fir burns hot and loud. I stacked that wood on a sweltering day in June, to season it, and the heat through the summer made its end bead with sap so that now, pushing a length of it into my open grate, I must take care lest my hands gum with pitch and my palms the rest of the day bear dark stains.
The chair I sit in has, strapped to its back, a gift my wife gave me for Christmas last year: a massage pad. Inside are two balls that move in elliptical circles, up and down, in and out. The ellipses are designed to create a pulsing, digging motion, and if I press my back into it, the rollers grab and knead my muscles until the snarliest knot unravels. It’s like having a masseuse at my beck and call.
I’m trying to tell you I’m happy. Not shout-it-out-loud stand-on-my-head, cartwheel-the-lawn, dance-on-the-rooftop happy. Just happy: simply content, satisfied in some deep-down indescribable way. The silver cedar boughs and the turkey still digesting in my stomach and the fire warming my house and my back are not the cause of this happiness. At best, they’re an expression of it. They announce, quietly, and they celebrate, modestly, my happiness.
But they didn’t cause it.
Jesus did. Jesus does. I honestly believe that I’d know and taste this simple happiness without the turkey, the fire, the cedars. I believe I’d know it even in the distinct absence of these things.
The seed of this book, you might remember, was my discovery of winter. The death of a close friend and colleague, Carol, led my wife and me into a bleakness we’d not known before. It was a lonely place, and dark. It was cold. It was fruitless. Yet it was there, of all places, in the “fellowship of His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death” (Philippians 3:10), that we both discovered an intimacy with Christ we had not known before, either.
We met the Man for All Seasons. We met the man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. We met the man who, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame. In meeting Jesus here, even here, we also experienced a similar joy set before us. It didn’t make the sorrow any less — the Man of All Seasons, after all, gives life to the full, nothing muted, nothing watered down, nothing by halves — but it did impart a peace beyond our understanding.
One fruit of that meeting is this moment, this deep and simple joy I feel. I don’t think this joy is immune to downturns. Another loss would wound it, maybe grievously. A decline, sudden or gradual, in health, would force it to recoup. Any number of things could disrupt or damage it.
But not, I think, permanently. My discovery of winter was even more a discovery of the Man for All Seasons, who never leaves us or forsakes us.
And the light came on. I’ve been a pastor for long enough that the light should have come on long ago, but nonetheless it came on lately. The light is this: the joy hinges only thinly on circumstances. Its true source is the Man for All Seasons. Of course, I knew this from way back, but only in the Greek way, in my head. I could preach lengthy, even eloquent, sermons about it, but only winter gave me firsthand experience with it. Winter made me safe for, I’m guessing, half my congregation, that half who had been or were in deep suffering. And my genuine testimony of meeting Christ in winter made me herald of good news for prisoners. I became a watchman announcing a great light for “people walking in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2).
But there’s more. The experience gave me a touchstone for understanding something that perplexed me for most of my life: why suffering either sweetens and softens people, or sours and hardens them, with scarcely any in-between. I can think of dozens of people I know, many in my church, who have gone through bitter travail. Theirs have been trials of Job-like proportions. But they bear no I’ll will, indulge in no self-pity, and miss no opportunity to pour out grace. They laugh with pure mirth. They are tender with others, and humble of heart. They are generous with what little they usually have. And, contrariwise, I can think of a handful of people, some in my church, who have suffered trials, hard but not always bitter, that have nonetheless turned them bitter, wary, prickly, surly. Their laughter is sardonic or cynical. They often are harsh with others, and proud, and stingy with the much they usually have.
How is this? Like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, I would “puzzle and puzzle ‘til my puzzler was sore” and still not crack the thing open.
But wintertime did it.
We steward choices, in season and out. We take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ, or we don’t. What I’d missed before winter is simply this: I can take my thoughts captive and make them obey Christ only if Christ is with me and for me in all things and at all times. If Christ isn’t with me in the loneliest places, then there is no one in such places to help me capture my thoughts and no one to whom those thoughts must submit. But if He is here, even here, then even here I can live out this command.
And so what was obscure for me became clear: the people I know for whom suffering has been a deepening and a softening are people who’ve held tight, in season and out, to the Man for All Seasons. They have a holy stubbornness, like Job. They keep believing that, someday, God will show up and explain it all, or maybe show up and refuse to explain any of it but make all okay anyhow. Or they’re like Paul. Beat him, stone him, shipwreck him, half starve him, and he finds some back door to the God whose strength is made perfect in weakness.
The people I know for whom suffering has been a thinning and a hardening saw their suffering, their winter, as a sign of God’s abandonment, and let go. They may remain in the church — a few do — but they sit back like Michal watching David’s dancing, disdaining the God-hungry.
Writing all this trivializes it. I see that. I’m not saying it well. There are infinite variations in everyone’s wintertime — differing stages of life, scales of pain, histories of woe, the company we keep, the temperaments we landed with, how healthy or sick our churches are. I know that. But there does appear to me, amid all those variables, this one constant: wanting to know Jesus not just in power of His resurrection but equally in “the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings.” That passage, from Philippians, more than anywhere else uses the language of “holding on” and “pressing on.” Best I quote it in full: “I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participate in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not already have I attained all this, or have already attained my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:10-14 TNIV).
“This one thing I do.” The one thing is really two things, or two things joined in one seamless, indivisible act: holding on and pressing on.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
The title of this chapter is called, “PERSEVERING.” Ever since I became a child of God, my life has been constantly filled with episodes of persevering through difficult times. From very young, I wanted to be an Air Force pilot, but a year later I developed a need for glasses although it was a slightest prescription. But I wasn’t giving up hope — “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) — that some surgery on my eyes would get me back up to snuff and I would be good again to pursue my dream.
Then, I became a diabetic at the age of 13. We were told I got it when a little virus struck my pancreas. For the life of me, however, I can’t remember getting sick during that time. I probably had 1 to 2 colds, but never anything that qualified as a virus, so that was what I was told in the hospital. I was devastated, although I tried to best hide my feelings on the matter. I remember being in a disappointed and frustrated in the way my life was going, so I rebelled against everything my diabetic diet was supposed to consist of — you know, things without sugar listed as one of top three ingredients on whatever food I chose to consume.
And roller skating was a big part of my life at that time. I cried out to the Lord, “Why did I get this horrible disease! This is most definitely going to ruin my chances to serve You in the Air Force.” But no answer. (It wasn’t till the last couple of months that I found out that one of the vaccines I got when I was younger is to blame, most likely.)
About 4-5 months passed by, I was going to church regularly. I remember a Sunday night service featuring a missionary in which I made my first declaration to God about serving Him no matter what the cost. I would gladly serve as a missionary when I graduated from a Christian college — I was thinking going over to Russia or in Africa or the Philippines where I would serve the Lord and let Him take care of the finances — for the rest of my life. Meanwhile, I thought, “Maybe God isn’t calling me to go serve in a foreign land; maybe, just maybe, God was calling me to the inner-city youth?” since I just finished the book, The Cross and the Switchblade. If you don’t know the powerful story of “The Cross and the Switchblade,” I am going to recount the sum of the book in a few sentences. It is the story of a Pennsylvania preacher who just happen to “hear” God’s call on his life to start a missionary work to drug infested, gang-ridden teens to whom most of them were kicked out on the street or left by their own volition. The powerful message of that book was fresh on my mind leading up to my commitment to Jesus Christ shortly after I began preaching at the ripe old age of 14, and my main target was teens.
The missionary had an alter call for those who knew they wanted to give their life over to Jesus Christ, I was one of the ones who accepted that alter call. With the alter call to give it all up for Jesus back at that Sunday night service and “The Cross and the Switchblade” fresh on my mind, I wasn’t surprised when God called me into ministry at the age of 14.
Directly after school one day, I was in the outside basketball court with a bunch of my school friends. Scattered over about a half hour, my friends began to disappear since there rides were here to pick them up from school until I was the only one left. Not to shortly later I was playing basketball all by myself, and that’s when the Lord Jesus Christ chose. Out there, all by myself, is when the Lord chose to use me throwing a basketball up to the basket and it came down like the ball was filled with cement. It is common for a basketball to fall on the ground like cement; however, knowing the story of Samuel of his calling (I Samuel 3), I wanted to answer my calling that I knew Christ was calling me too. “But,” I thought, “I knew God had called me. But to what?” as I pondered. It took me a few weeks to determine that I was going to be a youth pastor after much prayer.
God had determined that I was to spread His gospel of what I thought was going to be the youth, so I was excited. Where I had just read “The Cross and the Switchblade” and my commitment to the Lord to do whatever He asks, just a year before, I determined that I was going to be a youth pastor. I spent much of my free time pursuing that goal as I preached in all sorts of youth events including fall/winter retreats, youth summer camps, quarterly youth group gatherings, special youth gatherings, etc. With the Lord’s help, I increasingly got better and better where I won a competition (when I was 15) in a summer camp. I chose rather than to pride in my accomplishment to use it as a furtherance of my calling. Furthermore I gained respect from the top tier of the Northern New England District of the Assemblies of God.
Four years went by, and just 3 weeks before I graduated from high school, I dreamt that I was in the hospital. In a hospital bed in a hospital room, I could speak and couldn’t move although my thoughts were conscious. I suffered through that dream for approximately 10-11 hours, waking up on a beautiful May Saturday morning. “That dream disturbed me. Glad it was only a dream,” I thought, and I went about my day keeping quiet about the dream I had.
It was exactly 3 weeks before my high school graduation, and I had various things to plan — one of which was getting a 1986 Dodge Charger Turbo. And then it happened. I was graduating with one week left until my 18th birthday — in the U.S. when you finally reached your 18th birthday, you are free to go out and live your life as you want. Mine was going to be in service for Christ as I was going to be a youth pastor as soon as I finished my training at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. However, 18 days after my 18th birthday, 25 days after my graduation, I found myself in an incident where I had to completely rely on God.
More of this true story when I blog again in two weeks — PERSEVERING: Holding On, Pressing on.
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger of TrueLifeChristianity.com ~