Tag Archives: What Is Possible with God

The Power of Story

The Power of Story

On Monday evening, May 9th I spoke at a church south of Washington Square in New York City. The general theme was centered around why people find stories so compelling. One place to start is with John Eldridge’s wonderful book Epic: The Story God is Telling.

In the Prologue, Eldridge quotes Frodo, one of the central characters in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”

Have you ever wondered what kind of story you are living through? I have and I have often wondered how the plot will work out in the end. Of course, the story is not fully told, but every day confronts us with decisions, forks in the road, that will determine very different outcomes. 

We often talk of life as a journey and it is, but for me the journey at some point in the past translated into a pilgrimage. Whereas I thought of my life much as a tourist would, seeing things but not experiencing them. I was passing through more than living in and that worked well for me until one day when I realized I had fallen into a story without a happy ending. I no longer could escape into some kind of make believe bus that would transport me to safer ground. I had entered a very dark place with no exit, and it was then that I realized I could not escape on my own. I turned from trying to save myself to accepting the reality of God’s grace. Suddenly, I entered a very different story and I am still traveling on that very different road. To quote from a song I like:

I set out on a narrow way, many years ago

Hoping I would find true love along the broken road.

I got lost a time or two, wiped my brow, kept pushing through

I couldn’t see how every sign pointed straight to you

And every long lost street led me to where you are

Others who broke my heart, they were just northern stars

Pointing me on my way into your loving arms.

This much I know is true;

God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you.

http://www.ncawards.co.uk/images/image011.jpg

Writing on the Window

Once a year I fly from New York to London to attend the London Book Fair. After crossing the Atlantic for much of the night, it is normal to feel out of sorts on arrival. This year I was fortunate because the customs line was unusually short; even my luggage appeared after ten minutes. It was a quick train ride from Heathrow to Paddington Station, followed by a taxi ride to Kensington. After a short rest, life began to seem bearable again.

Shortly after arriving at the hotel, I received a message from my good friend and business associate Jonathan Williams. He asked if I would be interested in attending a publishing event that evening with him and his wife Lesley at a place called the Stationer’s Company. I deferred the decision, as I was not sure what my plans for the evening would be.

http://www.london-footprints.co.uk/Photos/livstationersr.jpgEventually, I decided it would be good to go and so around 6 pm, I grabbed a taxi and headed off to the financial district of London near St Paul’s Cathedral. It turns out the Stationer’s was founded in 1403 and originally served as a guild for authors.

The event that evening was nothing to write home about, and in fact, during the presentation, my eyes began to close and my mind wandered. As I looked around, I noticed a stained glass window nearby and began to study the images. Just then, to my surprise, I noticed a reference to Isaiah 40:8 inscribed in the lower part of the window. As I recall, the passage itself was not there, just the reference. I later discovered the passage said this:

The grass withers and the flowers fade

But the word of our God endures forever.

The verse itself was unfamiliar, though I am sure I have read it countless times. What stunned me was the power of the two short lines. It was as if I had been hunting for this verse for years. Finally, I found this hidden treasure in full view; it was as if I had been purposefully given a map and instructions to go to this event to find something very important.

I have oft told the story of how in a desperate moment I entered a church in New York and prayed a simple prayer and how that moment lead me a few weeks later to go out and buy a Bible. This act in turn would lead me in a new direction, ultimately to my writing Getting to Know Jesus. For a person who knew little about Jesus and less about the Bible even into his middle years, it has been a remarkable pilgrimage.

In my earlier years, I did not see the purpose of life clearly. Perhaps the underlying theme of those years can be summed by the prevailing philosophy: “Let us eat and drink, you say, for tomorrow we die.” (Isaiah 22:13) I have always been acutely aware of the tragic divide between our temporal existence and our immortal longings. We know the truth about our mortal existence, but we avoid the implications like the plague.  We long for the grass to flourish and the flowers to last because as Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes God “has also set eternality in the human heart.” The mortal heart cries out in this desert wasteland as our immortal longings seek fields and grasslands that never give way to decay, remaining fresh and beautiful forever.

When I reflect upon the arc of my life clearly, I see that I fruitlessly battled the tragedy of time without the comfort of knowing the truth of Isaiah’s declaration that “The word of our God endures forever.” If you choose to live in the world of withering grass and fading flowers without knowing the truth of God’s Word, then life will be a tough struggle indeed.

The truth is we live in the temporal, but long for the eternal. If we believe in only temporal things, life will be a scramble. We will thirst for more, but find that satisfaction dwindles. The turning point for me came when I embraced the wisdom behind Isaiah’s verse: “But the word of our God endures forever.”

An Encounter on Park Avenue

An Encounter on Park Avenue

My routine for getting to work in the morning is predictable: I walk through Grand Central Station to 42nd Street and start down Park Avenue on foot, rain or shine, hot or cold. Before I began using my feet to get to my office building on West 20th Street, I would catch a subway. My initial reason for walking was health, but that wasn’t it exactly. The clustered morning crowds, pushing and shoving to get onto the departing train had finally lost its appeal. As I would battle for a place on the next southbound local, Ezra Pound’s short poem “In the Station of the Metro” would often echo in my mind:

In the Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound

In the Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound

My homebound journey was different. By the time the day was done so was I. My mind fixated on getting to my destination in the fastest, most convenient way possible. Often that meant catching the #6 subway at 23rd Street on Park Avenue.

One day not very long ago, I left the office in my usual haste and headed for the subway stop. I hit Park Avenue at 20th Street and turned north to get to the underground train that would quickly deliver me to Grand Central and the waiting trains heading out to the suburbs.

As I walked up Park Avenue, I noticed a man sitting on the steps of a church. I had noticed him before. He had an empty cup in his right hand and while he was dressed well enough, he clearly was looking for money. I passed him by, but then stopped short as I remembered I had some quarters and other coins in my pocket.  As I dug for money, I looked the gentleman in the eye and he unexpectedly uttered: “You are a good man.”

I suppose there was a time when I would have agreed with his words; after all, wasn’t I about to give this man some money from my own pocket?  I said nothing as I searched for the change. When I finally found the coins, I dropped them into his Styrofoam cup. Then he said it again: “You are a good man.”

An Encounter on Park Avenue

I could have said nothing at all, but I could not be silent. Instead, I spontaneously said, “No I’m not. I am no better than you.” He looked at me to see what I might have meant. I don’t know what he was thinking, but my remark got me thinking. At the core he and I were both beggars; it was just that his apparent condition was more extreme than mine, at least for the moment.

When I reflected on this encounter during the train ride home, I recalled two instances where Jesus taught on the issue of poverty through the eyes of God. The first story involved a rich, young ruler who wanted to know how he might earn “eternal life”. He addressed Jesus as “Good teacher” but Jesus replied by asking “Why do you call me good?” He then said, “No one is good but God.” (Mark 10:17-18)

The second instance is a parable Jesus told to “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else”. Jesus contrasts the prayers of a religious leader with the prayer of a repentant tax collector. The leader prays, “God, thank you that I am not like other people-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector.” Meanwhile, the tax collector simply prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus then says to those listening: “I tell you that this man (the tax collector), rather than the other went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So what did I mean when I said, “I am no better than you”? While it is impossible for us to discern all the complex motives of our own hearts, I was definitely not being falsely humble. I really mean it. In the eyes of God this man and I stood before Him as equals, though in the eyes of the world, we did not. In the past I might have adopted the world’s view, which would have made me equal in self-righteousness to the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, even though I had seemed to perform an act of generosity. I had clearly changed because I recognized in this encounter the need of two men for a savior, not just one.

Doubt, Faith, and What is Possible with God

2013-11-03 10.34.21Now that I have blogged the story behind the story of the book GETTING TO KNOW JESUS (pub date 12/2/2015), I want to share my sense of trepidation behind this wonderful odyssey.

I am sure you have experienced a sense of doubt and even fear when you are about to set out toward destinations unknown. This is the way I felt right before leaving for Alaska a few weeks ago. I worried about all the bad things that might happen, most of them concoctions of an overactive imagination; if permitted, our minds can transform a tiny sound in the dark into a fearsome attacking grizzly or an intruder in the night.

But launching a book is so much worse than travel because the doubts and fears are reality based. I know this from my years of experience in the book business. Books are published daily that rarely live up to the author’s high hopes. The title comes and goes without creating even the slightest blip on the publishing radar screen and the indifferent world moves relentlessly on.

Doubt creeps in because I do know the facts of publishing life and I know even worthy books may disappoint. So what keeps me going?  Why do I set sail on a sea of troubles despite everything I know about the difficulties of reaching my hoped for destination?

Well, the answer is pretty simple. I see the publication of GETTING TO KNOW JESUS as the next step in a mission that may end up defining the very meaning of my life. Sometimes mission supersedes mere economic or practical calculation. If we all spent our waking hours assessing probabilities, we would never emerge from our shaded bedrooms.

rich_young_ruler_hofmannAnd then I look to the greatest model of all, Jesus, who faced incalculable odds at every turn and used prayer always when faced with a crossroads decision. In several instances in the gospel accounts, Jesus tells us plainly that if we are foolish enough to bank on our own powers, we will undoubtedly realize those fears that inhibit our will to act. He says, referring to the Rich Young Man who would not follow Jesus when invited, “With man this is impossible [to turn from this life to God], but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) (The September 14 podcast is about the story of the Rich Young Man.)

It is not my strength, my writing, my career or anything else I might claim as my own. I proved conclusively in 1989 that my life apart from God was a shipwreck. No, my hope rests not on my own strength; it is on the power of the Holy Spirit that will guide me wherever He wills and by the power of His spirit I will truly follow wherever it might take me. Ultimately, it is faith that neutralizes doubt.