Love in the Time of Coronavirus*

hospital corridor Our lives have been interrupted. The world has rammed up against a hurdle we didn’t expect, and the plans we had for ourselves only a few months ago have been derailed. Now what?

I’ve spent my career writing stories set against a backdrop of turbulent times in American history: the era of Prohibition in the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the two World Wars, Vietnam, the civil rights era of the 1960s.

My newest novel, written last summer and as yet unpublished, takes place in part during the worldwide Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. While writing it, I had no idea that, only months later, our country—and indeed the whole world…and I myself—would encounter another deadly pandemic.

But here we are.

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What I have loved most about researching the background of my fictional stories is coming across the true stories of human courage, resilience and faith. Across the years, men and women have faced the unthinkable and not only survived but thrived, becoming deeper and richer and stronger in heart and mind and faith.

Now it’s our turn.

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Today, as I write this, thousands of people are sick and dying. Refrigerated trucks are lined up as temporary morgues outside the hospitals in New York City, the epicenter of the virus in our nation. The loss of life around the world is devastating, the grief immeasurable.

And then there are the economic ramifications. Untold thousands have lost jobs. Businesses will fail or have already closed. Homes will undoubtedly be lost. Some predict we are headed for a second Great Depression.

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I confess I do my share of worrying. Every day I worry about my loved ones and pray they won’t become sick. I have been laid off my part-time job at the university, and don’t know whether I will ever be going back. In publishing, I work primarily with two small publishers. Book sales are down, and on top of that, all small businesses have been hard hit. What is the future of publishing and will I have a place in it?

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One night not long ago, I lay awake pondering these things. Life seemed broken and I didn’t know how to fix it. This isn’t how the days were supposed to play out. A pandemic and fear and uncertainty were never part of my plans.

But then, neither were the stock market crash and the bombing of Pearl Harbor part of the plans of my parents and grandparents. What generation hasn’t seen their hopes and dreams side-swiped by the crises of life on a broken planet?

In an odd sort of way, maybe we should realize that the unexpected is only normal.

~~~

With that in mind, I’d like to offer you three thoughts. The first is this: God never changes.

Just this morning, I read these words of Billy Graham, “People change, fashions change, conditions and circumstances change, but God never changes. His love never changes. His holiness never changes. His purpose never changes. His glory never changes. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (1)

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The second is this: No matter the circumstance we find ourselves in, we can choose our response to it.

Viktor Frankl spent years in a Nazi death camp. In his memoir, he wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (2)

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And third: We can choose to entrust our lives to a sovereign God who always does what is right.

When I was writing about the Japanese internment camps here in America, I interviewed a woman named Toshi Ito. When she was teenager in 1942, her Japanese-American family was interned at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming for the length of the Second World War. This imprisonment cost them their home and their livelihood—all of life as they had known it before Pearl Harbor. But it didn’t cost them their faith.

The Itos were Christians, and had been for many years. Toshi told me that what helped her get through the experience of the camp was looking up to Heart Mountain and dwelling on the words of Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.”

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In the end, it isn’t the success of my own plans that matters, it’s the steadfast love of God that matters, and the steadfastness of my own faith. This present situation is my Spanish flu, my Great Depression, my World War. This is my opportunity, and your opportunity, to stand strong in our love for God, and to place our hope in his love for us. I pray that future generations will say we remained steadfast in our time of trial.

 

(1) Hope for Each Day, by Billy Graham, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002, p. 128.

(2) Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, NY: Simon and Shuster, 1959, p. 86.

 

*With a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of Love in the Time of Cholera

A Reminder from My Six-Year-Old Self

First writing

I still remember it, though the edges of the memory are cloudy after more than 50 years. I am sitting at the classroom desk, fat No. 2 pencil clenched in my six-year-old fist as I labor over my writing tablet. Our second-grade teacher was allowing us a few quiet moments of free time. I must have felt inspired to write.

That afternoon in 1966 I composed my first “ode to life,” if one can call it that, pencil point scratching against cheap paper as I poured out all that I loved about life. I loved my “mama and dada,” the birds that sing for us, the schools, the teachers too. I loved the whole world around me.

“But most of all,” I concluded, “I love God.”

~~~

The words of the six-year-old resonate deeply with one who has now turned 60. If only I could have kept that truth as the central pillar of my life! But like so many others, I suppose, as I grew up I began to move away from the simplicity of loving God to the complexities of loving the world, and consequently experienced all the heartache that entails.

I didn’t live a wild and dissolute life—not at all. My whole life was spent in what I hoped was sharing the Gospel message, first as an editor with Billy Graham’s “Decision” magazine, and then as a writer of inspirational fiction. And I never stopped loving God; He was in fact the love that would not let me go.

But the problem was this: As an adult I tried to build my life on the pillar of success rather than on the pillar of God’s love. After all, isn’t that what the world tells us to do? “Seek success. Be the best. Achieve at all costs. Be somebody!”

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Years of senseless striving followed, filled mostly with feelings of intense failure. The very irony of trying to be somebody is that it blinds us to the fact that we are all born somebody simply because God created us and we are His. Our worth as men and women and the meaning of our lives are found only in Him.

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Another memory: I am sitting by a roaring fire, singing songs with the Vanderbilts. Yes, the Vanderbilts of the Biltmore House. The great granddaughter of George Vanderbilt, the original owner of the Biltmore House, is a woman who goes by the nickname of Dini. Her father-in-law, also named George, is a friend of mine.

Some years ago, George invited Bob and me to a large gathering at his home outside of Asheville NC. While there, Bob and I joined George, Dini and others gathered by the fire. Dini offered me her chair, saying it was more comfortable than the one I had just sat down in. Someone had a guitar, and we all began to sing. Mostly gospel songs, like “I’ll Fly Away.”

Some glad morning, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away, to that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away… When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.

So there I was, with some of the most successful and wealthiest people in America, while my own accomplishments and worldly assets would barely fill a gnat’s ear. But what difference did it make? We all had the one important thing and we were all going to the same place.

George has told me this many times: “When you get the news that I’ve died, the first thing I want you to say is Hallelujah!” Certainly, George enjoys his kinship with the Biltmore House, but his heart is set on another Home.

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Rubbish, is what the Apostle Paul called it—all his accomplishments, successes, worldly possessions. All rubbish compared to knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8). We all have work to do in this world, but work was never meant to be a means of self-advancement but a gift of service to God and others.

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Another man of God, David Wilkerson, said this: “We are not called to be successes—to be free of all trouble, to be special, to ‘make it.’ Many are missing the one focus that is central to their lives: to become fruitful in the likeness of Christ.”*

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Now at 60, I am fully back to the first love I knew at 6. Thank God and Hallelujah. There’s nothing quite like coming home. Peace prevails as I cast aside the thought that my life has to be a success story. Instead, I realize the one thing that matters is loving God most of all, and so I live my life as a love story with Him.

 

* God is Faithful by David Wilkerson, p. 349.

 

“That’s Not Your Story”

20191108_082431 As my husband and I started to leave the library, I had to turn my eyes away from the “New Books” section situated by the door. On one of the shelves, prominently displayed, was the newest book of an author I know, a novelist who has been regularly putting out bestsellers for a couple of decades. As for me, not only had I never had a bestseller, but I hadn’t even put out a new book in six years.

I was tempted to envy. But as we stepped outside, I told myself—once again—“That’s not your story.” I wasn’t talking about her book. I was talking about my life.

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My mother had a little rhyme she liked to quote, one she had learned from her mother. The words were a familiar part of my childhood: “As a rule, man’s a fool, when it’s hot he wants it cool, when it’s cool he wants it hot, he’s always wanting what is not.”

Or, in my case, she always wants to be what she’s not. Being myself was never good enough; I wanted to be someone else, someone with talent and intelligence, someone successful, someone who was capable of doing all that I would never be able to do.

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It has taken me years to understand that this is a rotten way to live: maddening, counterproductive, and completely opposed to what the Lord desires for us.

It is also undoubtedly commonplace. I’d wager that many of us—if not most of us—wish to be someone we’re not, wish to live somebody’s story other than our own. Just look at the original disciples of Jesus, those earliest of saints who were so explicitly human. When Jesus told Peter about the role he was to play in the church, the first thing Peter did was point a finger at John and say, “What about him?”

To which Jesus essentially replied, “His story isn’t your business. You’ve got your own story. Keep your eyes straight ahead and follow me” (John 21:15-23).

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Among the many roles God holds in our lives (savior, provider, sustainer, comforter) is that of author. He is the original author, painstakingly and lovingly plotting the story of each life, beginning with conception and ending—or, more accurately, not ending—with the physical death that ushers us into eternal life.

Even while he’s knitting us together in our mother’s womb, he’s planning the way in which the story will unfold. Psalm 139:16 offers this remarkable truth: “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me when none of them as yet existed.”

I have to pause and consider these words with no small measure of amazement: God knew about all the days of my life before I was even born. That’s because he himself is writing my story. And that can mean only one thing: it’s a good story.

I look at others too—especially those bound to be most overlooked by the world—and see God’s hand at work there as well, writing something beautiful. Though the overarching story of this planet seems a mess, the plot one of grief and chaos, God is sovereign over all of it—the largest world events and the smallest individual steps. In the end, and always, his will is done.

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Part of living my life as a love story with God is realizing and believing that I am who he wants me to be and my life is as he planned.

With that in mind, I look back over the years and notice something wonderful happening. The failures, losses and disappointments fall away while the goodness rises. I see the manifold blessings that have marked my path, even though it was a path I so often at the time didn’t want to take. But God guided me into the hard places so I could see his everlasting goodness dwelling there. It is a path both laid out by him and leading ever to him.

How often now the words of Psalm 16:6 come to me: “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.” With this thought, thankfulness fills me. This is my story and it is good, because it is being written by God. He makes my life a love story with him.

When Half-gods Go…

sun behind broken window

 

When half-gods go, the gods arrive.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Give All to Love”

 

A recent news item alerted us to the fact that Kate Middleton might have ventured out in public with her dress on backwards. Thank heavens the media was working overtime to keep us apprised of the situation.

I have to wonder, though. Once my mother slipped her sandals onto the wrong feet and walked around the house for a time before realizing her error. I don’t remember reading about that in the newspapers.

Even worse, my grandmother showed up at work one morning without her skirt. She had remembered the blouse but left home without the rest of the outfit. There she stood in the middle of the office wearing only slip and panties from the waist down. The skirt wasn’t simply on backwards; it wasn’t there at all! And yet, where were the media reports of this 1940s wardrobe malfunction? Instead of the news wires humming with this sensational story, there was nothing. Bupkis. Crickets.

Ah, but of course. My grandmother was only a middle-aged widow with a teen-aged daughter at home and a son serving his country in the war. What is either noble or newsworthy about a life like that?

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But, you see, I can’t help but notice that those royals across the pond generate a whole lot of hoopla just by doing what the rest of the world does every day: celebrating a birthday, getting married, having a baby, and wearing or not wearing clothes, as the case may be. One of them can barely sneeze without causing an international sensation.

Their every movement, real or otherwise, is carried out under the hungry eye of the world. We demand glimpses into the lives of people we believe so much greater than ourselves.

Actually, no; the truth is: we demand gods. Preferably, we’d each like to be a god (our greatest temptation since the Garden), though barring that—or perhaps in addition to that—we invest a great deal of time and effort into making them. After all, we have to have something to worship, don’t we?

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God (the real and only one) had a reason for not wanting ancient Israel to have a king and it was this: He alone wanted to be their king. He was well aware of humankind’s starry-eyed tendency to worship royalty, and  He wanted the Israelites to keep their eyes on Him.

I find it interesting to note that when God relented and gave Israel a king, He insisted that any human ruler was never to be regarded as better than his fellow Israelites. He was to be considered their equal, no greater than even the lowest and most common (Duet 20: 17).

You can imagine how well the Israelites did with that one. Just look at us.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about half-gods—as well he should have because the world is full of them…and they are all man-made. Royal blood is a human concept, not a genetic reality. The blood that flows through Everyman’s veins is the same stuff that pumps through the heart of any royal.

The half-gods aren’t limited to royalty, of course—there are oh-so-many half-gods populating the world! Movie stars, athletes, politicians, academicians, Nobel-prize winners, Pulitzer-prize winners, New York Times best-selling authors, and on and on and on, ad infinitum, as achievements catapult more and more mere mortals to the heights of Mount Olympus.

And of course our own selves if, because of our achievements, we feel inclined to consider ourselves better than everyone else.

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There’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrating human achievement. Sure, those who work hard and develop their talents ought to receive a degree of recognition.

The problem comes when God is left out of the picture.

The problem comes when we say So-and-so is an amazing person without recognizing that So-and-so was created by an even more amazing God, and that without God, So-and-so would never have had any gifts and talents and abilities to begin with because So-and-so wouldn’t exist at all. Without God, we are all nothing.

The irony is that we take our God-given talents that were meant to glorify God and use them to make little gods of ourselves and other people.

And in so doing, we take the God who is everything and reduce Him to nothing.

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I recently asked my 21-year-old daughter if she knew who Princess Diana was. She had to think a moment, which in itself was telling. Ask anyone of my generation and the answer would be: “Of course I know who Diana was! Who doesn’t?” None of us escaped the tsunami of publicity surrounding the woman who became famous for getting married.

Finally, my daughter, one generation removed, said simply, “Isn’t she the one who died?”

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Let me take the words of the transcendentalist philosopher Emerson and put a Christian spin on them: “When half-gods go, God arrives.”

Only when the half-gods go, when they are put in their rightful place, can God reign supreme in our lives.

May God forgive us for allowing a whole world of mortal half-gods to take our eyes off Him. And may we someday be able to say with the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psalm 73:25, NASB).

 

Photo courtesy of pxhere.com

Sometimes You Cry (And so does God)

rain_drops_ Something happened recently that made me wonder for the first time in my life whether God is cruel. Rather than a loving Father, was he actually more like Zeus, that tempestuous Greek god who sometimes entertained himself by hurling lightning bolts toward earth?

Our pastor’s teen-aged son Thomas had been on dialysis and in need of a kidney for some time. Finally, the perfect donor was found, a family friend. We all rejoiced, called it a miracle, an answer to prayer. Our pastor’s wife, Sarah, was enduring her own health crisis. She had just been through chemo and was facing radiation, but thankfully a break in the treatment afforded her the strength to be with their son when he received his new kidney.

The day of surgery was girded by prayer. By mid-afternoon, an email was sent out: All went very well. Both Thomas and donor were doing fine. When Thomas awoke, he whispered to his mother, “I’m so thankful it’s done.” And everywhere, you can be sure, God’s people rejoiced.

Early the next morning, the second message came. Thomas had undergone emergency surgery. The kidney had somehow developed blood clots and couldn’t be saved. The transplant had failed.

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I stared at the flashing cursor on the screen, feeling stunned. And that’s when the thought came to me that maybe God is cruel. Had this been some sort of joke, a Zeus-like lightning bolt aimed at good people who had trusted him?

I was angry. I was scared. In that moment, and for the next few hours, I doubted the very foundation of my life. And I did something I hardly ever do: I cried.

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Once upon a time, a ship got caught up in a deadly storm at sea. The storm lasted not just for a night, or for several days, but for two full weeks. Wind and rain pounded the ship so violently and relentlessly that finally, as one man later wrote, “All hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”

That man was Luke, the author of the book of Acts. He was traveling with the Apostle Paul, who was a prisoner being taken to Rome. Finally, the ship ran aground near the island of Malta, and while the ship was lost, all the men survived. They were welcomed by the inhabitants of the island. A fire was built for them, and they were fed.

And then some wonderful things began to happen. Paul prayed over a sick man, a man of some prominence on Malta, and he became well. When the news spread, others who were sick came to Paul, and he prayed for them, and they too were healed. The islanders marveled as they witnessed the power of God. In turn, for three months, they generously provided for all of the needs of the shipwrecked crew (see Acts 27 & 28).

Once upon a time, a raging tempest left a ship’s crew devoid of all hope. But in spite of what they felt and how it looked, there was hope. Paul and Luke and the others were brought by that very storm to a place they never expected to be, a place of healing, and rejoicing, and hospitality and camaraderie. A place where good things happened.

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A basic tenet of Christianity, a message every evangelical Christian has heard: God works all things together for good—all the storms, the shipwrecks, the trials and tragedies, the failed kidneys.

Something else to consider as well: Sometimes while he is working all things together for good, God cries.

Certainly he did when he was here on earth. You see, when I was angry about the failed surgery, I ranted at God, telling him he has no idea what it’s like to live in this world, to face the daily struggles, the heartache, the loss. But he stopped me with the words: Yes, I do. Don’t you know that by now?

 Jesus, God in the flesh, experienced everything we experience. While on earth, he was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He knew temptation, hunger, disappointment, loss. When one of his closest friends died, Jesus wept—even while he was walking toward the grave to raise Lazarus back to life. Even though he knew the ending, he still suffered the grief.

Even though he knows the ending to each of our stories, I believe he grieves with us today in all our sorrows, because we belong to him and he loves us.

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When the surgery failed, our pastor wrote: “God is no less faithful today than he was yesterday. God is no less loving today than he was yesterday. Our faith is unshaken even if our understanding is reeling.”

God’s goodness is unlimited. It’s our understanding of his goodness that’s limited. We simply can’t always know what he is doing, what island the storm is taking us to for our own sake and for the sake of others. But God knows.

Just as Jesus told Peter, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:7).

Until we do understand, we trust. And we believe in and hold on to God’s love, because it’s the one thing that sustains us through all our trials, and brings us to the good places we are meant to be.

 

Meeting God on the Horizon

Do you really believe that what you believe is really real?

~ Del Tackett, The Truth Project

Child's drawing When I was a child drawing nature scenes, I—like most children—harbored a strange perception when it came to the meeting of earth and sky. In truth, they didn’t meet at all. The sky was always a blue strip across the top of the page while the earth was a corresponding ribbon of green across the bottom.

In between was a whole lot of nothing. Just a huge patch of non-color in which hung the sun and into which the trees shot up their branches and the flowers their blooms. It was in this place of nothingness that the people made their homes and walked their dogs and had their picnics and lived their lives.

At that young age, I didn’t understand that there was something called a horizon, a place where the human eye perceives a meeting of sky and earth, a point at which blue touches green and all the gaps are closed and the picture is complete.

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I wonder how many of us wander around in that place of non-color all our lives because we think that God’s heaven—with all of its accompanying mercy, goodness and joy—is up there while earth is down here and somehow, for some reason, “never the twain shall meet”?

How many of us live as though there is no horizon, no place where God’s Spirit leans down and touches the human soul?

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I have lived that way myself. I have lived as though God only watches from a distance while I am tempted to despair, that he looks on in indifference while I have unmet needs, that he makes no move in my direction when I feel crushed by loneliness or feelings of isolation.

I’ve lived in this place of non-color and nothingness, though thankfully God allowed me only to pitch a tent in this desert rather than to build a permanent place of residence. He has helped me pull up stakes and has walked with me, pointing all the time toward the horizon, saying, “Meet me there.”

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Heaven and earth do meet, and that’s the whole point of our existence. A maturing of faith, a growing in our knowledge of God, assures us that God is not up there but down here, right here with us, around us, in us, touching us, closing up all the empty spaces, making us complete.

In our despair, we find within our hearts a glowing nugget of hope that can’t be denied. In our need, we receive provision—an unexpected check, a loaf of bread, an anonymous gift. In our loneliness, we sense a love that wraps itself undeniably around our soul and, even in the darkest hour and sometimes even in spite of ourselves, never lets us go.

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We have to allow God to be more than a pleasant thought or wishful thinking. He has to be more than an idea, a theology or a vague concept. We have to allow him to be what he is: Lord of creation, God of all mercy, a Father who through the death of his own Son Jesus tore open the curtain to the Holy of Holies and allowed us to enter into his presence.

We have to let his heaven touch our earth, every moment of every day. We have to live our lives on the horizon.

And we can. Because he himself brings us there. He created us to dwell with him there. On the horizon, he fills our lives with his love.

~~~

The joy of Jesus must rush through all the corridors of your mind. The heart must know He has come to guide, comfort, and help in the hour of need. There must be no doubt, no question that God has chosen to come and commune with His servant….I want God’s total presence. I want to flow in His river of love.

                                                                                             ~ David Wilkerson*

*From David Wilkerson, Have You Felt Like Giving Up Lately (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1980), pp. 55, 56.

Scattered Thoughts on Flying Blind

seagull_flight My friend Jamie Britt is completely blind and has been since birth. She has never seen sunlight, rose petals, mountains, the colors of a rainbow. She has never seen colors at all, and tells me she has no idea what they are. She has never seen her mother’s face, nor even her own face in a mirror.

Being a visual person, I can’t imagine going through life without working eyes. I’d sooner surrender any of my other senses than go through life without sight. Sight is what most strongly connects me to the world, what grounds me in place and time.

And that’s why, for me, the most challenging part of being a Christian is putting all my hope in what I can’t see. Believers walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). For that reason, we’re told not to bother putting too much stock in what we see around us because it’s temporal. Only what can’t be seen is eternal, and that’s where we’re to place our hope. (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Thank God for working eyes, but apparently they’re no help at all when it comes to what really matters. When it comes to the eternal, I’m flying blind.

~~~

I can’t see my Father’s face. I can’t see the branches on the Tree of Life, nor the water in the river that flows from the throne of God. I can’t so much as see a distant light in the window of one of the mansions Jesus spoke about, even though my heart’s navigational system is carrying me there.

And it’s not just the place that’s beyond my view. I can’t even catch a glimpse of what I’m destined to become, because what we as believers are destined to become doesn’t yet exist in this world.

~~~

I read many biographies and autobiographies, mostly of historical figures. The title might be something like “The Life of So-and-so” or “So-and-so: A Life,” as though the book is the summation of what that person has done and the final account of what that person became.

But any completed biography is only the prelude to one’s real life. That’s it. At the time of death, the person has only reached Chapter 1 of the real story. Because we can’t fully become in this world what we were created to be. We can only make a start here. The Apostle John, who walked with Jesus in the flesh, tells us that “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” We won’t be our true, complete, real selves until Jesus returns, and then, “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

~~~

Walking by faith until that time isn’t easy. In fact, it’s a real struggle. My human eyes tell me that I’m getting old, that I haven’t accomplished much in this world, that some of my dreams will go unrealized, that in the end I will slip away unnoticed. As I go through the day-to-day routine of my existence, I sometimes find myself wondering, what’s it all for?

I don’t know. And that’s the thing: I don’t know because I can’t know. At least not fully. I do know in part, because Jesus said those who have ears to hear should listen to his words, because they hold the key to life. I have heard the words of Jesus and they point my heart to that place I cannot see but that I know is there because his words are true. His words are Truth. He has told me that he is preparing a place for me and that when he comes for me, I will see him as he is, and when I see him as he is, I will be like him.

That’s when the real story begins. That’s when my eyes will be opened.

~~~

I try to imagine what it would be like for Jamie if suddenly she could see. What would it be like after a lifetime of darkness to see a color, a face, a ray of sunlight? Everything would at last take on shape and brilliance and form, appearing for the first time as it really is. Wouldn’t you and I—if this were us—spend long hours just looking at everything, gazing in amazement at what had been around us all along?

What a day that will be, the very first day we walk by sight, taking in the fulfillment of what God has prepared for those who love him.