Neighborhood on a Hill

I left my house and walked down the street. A neighbor I’ve talked to many times was trimming her bushes. A teenage boy I have never talked to parked his car and went in his family’s house, closing the garage and locking the car as he went. I heard the beep as I walked by. Two women living together were working on their yard and preparing for errands. I waved at one as I passed by. When I came back around, the other turn to the first and asked something. Then she turned back to me, grinned and returned my wave.

I made a couple more laps through the main road in our neighborhood. A new neighbor was watering plants. I had briefly checked my phone to see what my Facebook notification was, and didn’t see that I had walked right by her until I had already passed. I called out a good morning, and she turned to see. Her response was eager but betrayed hesitant English. The two women drove by me and waved. A man and a woman were working in their yard and garage as I walked in their cul-de-sac. He looked up briefly but never said anything. I don’t think she ever knew I was there.

My family moved to a small town when I was eight. My mom still talks about when Mrs. Wingard first stopped by. An elderly widow with a severe heart condition, Mrs. Wingard had likely spent most of her day on the pie she handed to my mom. Over the few months we lived there, she showed us her birdhouses a few times and welcomed us into her home, always glad to see us talkative and noisy kids.

I can tell you so little about my neighbors now. So few of their names, occupations, likes, dislikes, or joys and heartaches. We are called to live as light that can’t be hidden (Matthew 5:14-15) and we have good news to share that every person on this earth needs to know (Mark 16:15). That responsibility doesn’t end with a wave and a cheery morning greeting. But perhaps it can start with no less.

 

What the Clouds Will Tell Us

Ask someone the most awe-inspiring sight in the world, and they might mention the Grand Canyon. They might bring up that one time they went to Yellowstone or the Bahamas or Austria or Niagara Falls. Or they might tell you about the way the trees change color in the fall or their blossoms in the spring, or the flowers that bloom every May.

For me, it’s the clouds.

The daily glories of sunrise and sunset. The puffy, cottonball-like cumulus clouds on a warm spring day. The light and wispy cirrus clouds in the middle of the sky or the flat lines of stratus clouds on the horizon. The ominous and constantly-changing cumulonimbus of summer storms—punctuated by lightning that is gone before you even fully see it and the low rumbles of distant thunder.

In the Bible, we read of Job’s struggle with God’s presence in the midst of the darkest days of his life. Where was God when his children died, his flocks were stolen or burned with fire from heaven, and his body was afflicted with painful sores?

Job’s three friends provided him with their own theories on this. It seemed obvious, really, as far as they were concerned: Why would God do this to Job unless there was some kind of sin he hadn’t confessed? They insisted Job had done something wrong.

After countless arguments from his friends and rebuttals from Job, a mysterious fourth guest speaks up. Elihu isn’t buying anything Job or his friends are saying; in his mind, they’re approaching this from the wrong angle.

“‘Look at the heavens, and see,’” Elihu says, ‘“and behold the clouds, which are higher than you’” (Job 35:5).

The clouds which are higher than you.

Some clouds can hold millions of tons of water. They can form in a few minutes or an hour, and sometimes they change shape and size and color as you are watching.

They can be oppressive sheets that insulate us in darkness, hiding from sunlight, and also glorious twists and shapes that magnify a sunset. Light and airy and wispy or dark and heavy. Just water molecules that can dump floodwaters and launch spiraling tornados and ground airplanes.

“‘Behold, God is exalted in his power;
who is a teacher like him?
Who has prescribed for him his way,
or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?

Remember to extol his work,
of which men have sung.
All mankind has looked on it;
man beholds it from afar.
Behold, God is great, and we know him not;
the number of his years is unsearchable.
For he draws up the drops of water;
they distill his mist in rain,
which the skies pour down
and drop on mankind abundantly.
Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,
the thunderings of his pavilion?
’” (Job 36:22-29)

When we question the way life is going or how the story has changed, look at the clouds. When we aren’t sure of the next step or darker days weigh heavy on us, we just look up.

Look at the clouds.

Watch them change before your eyes. Listen to the thunder and watch the lightning. Feel the winds swirl around you as they move miles-long clouds out of sight.

“‘Who can number the clouds by wisdom?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods stick fast together?'” (Job 38:37-38).

“The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
    and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
    and the clouds are the dust of his feet” (Nahum 1:3).

Three Things to Remember When Facing Regret

Recently my brother and I found ourselves in NYC, on a trip we had dreamed about for years and planned for months. I couldn’t believe we were actually—finally—in New York City. Every step was exciting, every obscure building a photo op.

As the days flew by, I quickly realized things I wished we had done differently. For instance, we didn’t plan as much time for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum as I would have liked, and we had to speed through the last exhibits in the Museum. I also wished we had called our hotel ahead of time to ask about baggage storage after checkout; had we known about that cheap option we would have chosen later flights on our departure day and had one last sightseeing opportunity.

At some point in life, each of us will have regrets about harder things than travel plans. Most of us already do. When the what-ifs and if-onlys in plague our memories, here are three things it helps to remember.

We Are Not Perfect

We will not lead perfect lives. We are not strong enough or wise enough to do everything right, and to be human is to belong to that globally inclusive club of Those Who Mess Things Up. As Christians, we know that one of the Gospel’s central truths is that we will never be perfect—and we don’t have to be.

It is one of the ironic things of life that this truth is more liberating than condemning. Since we know that we and everyone around us will fail sometimes, it is not as much of a shock to us when we do.

God is Bigger Than Our Failures

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).

No matter how serious our mistakes and problems, they cannot be greater than the power, grace, and love of God. Far from it: our greatest failure became His deepest gift of redemption. I mean, really. Think you’ve messed things up? Talk to Adam and Eve in the garden, with fruit juice staining their hands and nakedness taunting their conscience.

He knows our hearts. He knows we will never be perfect on our own. No matter how many mistakes and failures occur between now and heaven, our imperfections are covered by His perfect grace.

Because our perfection no longer depends on what we do.

When We Fail We Lose Nothing

So we should have done it differently, and we didn’t. We may be frustrated with our own ineptness, or, in a more serious situation, grieve what could have been had we done things right. We may need to apologize and seek forgiveness, depending on the mess we made this time.

But then we move on. We don’t have to live in that failure, or build up layers of restitution until we earn our way out of debtor’s prison. All the important things are still true, untouched by our inability and failure and stupidity.

God is still on His throne. We are still His people. He is still writing our story and everyone else’s, and no matter what glitch we think we caused in this chapter, He has already made it into something good that we will see with time.

Our faith is founded (partially) on our failure to be good. Catch that? Our faith is founded on our failure. Through the sacrificial death of Christ, our perfection is found in our identity with Him. Our failures can’t touch that.

In all those little and not-so-little messes of our own making, our identity stands strong and firm in the righteousness gifted to us by Christ. We don’t lose any standing with God or drop a rung on the ladder to heaven. Our relationship with Him is a gift, and will stay that way regardless of our stumblings.

When Those Regrets Come

As we travel through life, there will be problems in the journey. Dreams-come-true morph into mild disasters and our best efforts disintegrate into Have-I-Ever-Told-You stories.

We will have regrets. As we lay them at the feet of the God who sees our faltering efforts and knows our weak human hearts, we can trust He will keep us from stumbling too far and that His grace can cover all our if-onlys. Each of our regrets drives us to Him who does all things well, and who welcomes us with all our failures still attached.

“A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War”

I have always been interested in World War II. The clear line between good and evil, the many stories of heroism, even by people who seemed so normal and ordinary before the demands of war loomed over them. There is just something epic and heroic about it.

Despite that interest, I have never really cared to learn about World War I. The endless, pointless trenches, the deadlocked armies with no real cause, the victory that only spurned another international war less than twenty years later. I never really understood any of it.

According to Joseph Loconte, however, two incredible literary masterpieces were influenced by the horror and meaninglessness of WWI. It was during the horrendous conflict of World War I that two writers were shaped for their future classics, and without their wartime experiences, we may never have known and loved their works.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War opens with a description of WWI that is hard to imagine—and stomach. The early 1900s were a time of extreme optimism in the Western world, as the general opinion was that mankind was improving and socially evolving to a higher being. Many actually promoted war as a short and effective force of change. Needed change, the progressive minds thought. This change involved finding higher and better answers to questions of life, origin, and God—and, therefore, morality.

It was also a time of technological advances. Factories sprang up, and cities around those factories. More could be made with less time, effort, or money, and a whole generation had more time on their hands. Countries now had access to factory-produced, higher-grade firepower in more quantities than at any other time before.

Philosophy and technology had combined in a deadly way, and WWI would decimate an entire generation. “Between 1920 and 1923, Britain delivered four thousand headstones a week to France” Loconte writes. Millions died—and even more millions were injured. “In France, the casualty rate (dead or wounded) was an astonishing 75 percent.” The day’s belief in human progress had been shattered by the bitter reality of death rates and irreversible injuries.

In its place it left a gaping hole, experienced as despair by veterans and grieving loved ones alike. The loss and disillusion shook many who had been so confident.

But it was in that despair that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien found a hope that can meet any hopelessness.

Throughout the pages of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, Loconte shows examples from Lewis’ and Tolkien’s works that illustrate how WWI affected them. We see their love for nature (in defiance of industrialization), their love for simplicity (over technology), and, overall, their still-standing faith when it seemed the rest of the world had lost theirs. We are given glimpses into Lewis’ spiritual wrestling and conversion, impacted in no small way by WWI and Tolkien.

In that searching they found a hope that is bigger than world wars and unmeasurable tragedies, and a foundation that stood firm no matter what headlines tried to shake it.

With over 600 footnotes for about 200 pages, Loconte’s work is researched to the extreme. The quotations from Lewis’ and Tolkien’s writings—both their books and their letters—give a deeper insight to the works that have been loved by so many.

“All the horrors of all the ages were brought together,” Winston Churchill said of the Great War. Lewis and Tolkien found hope that withstood the horror, and they decided to share it with others. By probing for their thoughts and documenting the worldview depth behind their works, Loconte has further shown that faith to us.

“Safer Than a Known Way: Discover How Liberty in Christ Lies in Surrender”

Pamela Rosewell had three reasons to hesitate. The twenty-one-year-old from Hastings, England, worried that if she followed God completely, He would call her to great lengths in her newfound faith. She could not risk being called to 1) travel outside her native England, 2) speak in public, or 3) be single for the rest of her life.

Anything but that.

Unlikely Stories

When I first cracked the cover of The Hiding Place and finished its last page that same night, I was hooked. Since then I’ve been thrilled to find each new glimpse into the incredible story of the watch shop on the Barteljorisstraat and the unassuming family who lived upstairs.

After devouring several resources on the most exciting points of Corrie’s life, I read The Five Silent Years of Corrie ten Boom, learning for the first time in detail of the stroke-induced silence of Corrie’s last years. What a surprising ending to such a vibrant life. The Five Silent Years was written by Pam Rosewell, Corrie’s personal travel assistant and eventual caregiver, who later wrote a second book: Safer Than a Known Way.

Corrie’s story is an unlikely one of an ordinary family of middle-aged and elderly Christians simply trusting and obeying God—and spearheading Haarlem’s resistance to Nazi horrors. Pam’s story is of an ordinary young woman intent on leading a normal and easy Christian life—and finding excitement and joy in parting with what she thought she could never give up.

For both of them, their lives were much different than their expectations. For both of them, their God was faithful.

“There Were Changes Ahead That I Could Never Have Imagined”

It really started with Sylvia.

Pam’s eighteen-year-old sister Sylvia begged her to attend a Christian conference. At 21, Pam wasn’t interested in her sister’s religious enthusiasm. “I wanted to follow Christ from a distance,” she wrote later. “To follow closely might mean He would ask of me something I could never do.”

But she went anyway, determined to participate as little as possible.

It was a determination she would not be able to keep. Despite her strongest intentions, just a few hours into the event, Pam wholeheartedly surrendered every part of her life to God. “I knew that [my surrender] was real and that it would last…God had revealed His love to me and had moved into my life on this particular night, giving me grace to surrender.”

But this was only the beginning.

Always an Adventure

Pam’s first international trip was a year-long mission assignment in Africa. Soon after, she began working with Brother Andrew in Holland and eventually agreed to accompany Corrie ten Boom on her travels all over the world. Her earlier commitment to never leave England’s shores had given way to an exciting life full of new people and places—and Pam was surprised to find that, most of the time, she actually enjoyed it.

Years into her travels, churches began inviting her to speak about her experiences to their congregations. “Although I continued to be nervous,” Pam wrote, “public speaking had lost its terror. People listened and responded. I saw that God used me and this fulfilled me deeply.”

Pam had now faced two of her three fears. God had been with her in her fears, and He had used those experiences she had dreaded to enrich her life more than she could have expected.

Through all of these things, Pam was single. She spent years caring for a woman who had been single all her life, and, in light of all she had learned through facing her first two fears, lifelong singleness was very possible for Pam.

Once Tante Corrie (as many called her) asked Pam if she was content to be single. Pam realized she was. Whether or not her singleness would be lifelong (and you’ll have to read the book to find out!), “I had to believe that this difficult way that I was now taking was…His perfect way for me.”

Safer Than a Known Way

Why do we always give our surrenders with caveats? Why do we think we have any right to ask God to meet our stipulations?

Even when we think we have surrendered wholeheartedly, we usually haven’t. As soon as things start unraveling, we grumble and question and give our human reasons as to why we shouldn’t be in this situation.

This isn’t what I had in mind. This isn’t what I expected. This isn’t what I signed up for.

If we would only give it all away—all the doubts, all the questions, all the fears.

Pam did. Soon she found herself facing the very things she had vowed to never risk. But in that road, in that way, she found so much more than just a neat and comfortable little Christian life. This life was so much better.

“Yet God has fulfilled my life through the very things I feared…I would so much like to tell people that they have nothing to lose in trusting God with all their lives…Only the Lord sees the end of my story. It is not in my control. But I do know this: when I surrender to Him, I am safer than if I had chosen a known way.”