Thursday, July 2, 2009

What We Have (and don't have)

I’ve not been home in PA much in recent days. Originally I was to be in Arkansas at a Leadership Conference with the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. That was preempted by my dad needing to move from his home of 59 years into a retirement home for seniors, so I spent several days in South Carolina helping in this great transition.

This move triggered both thoughts and emotions in me and my dad. Again, this had been his home for 59 years. He and Mom built it together, moved into it in 1950 and I was born in 1951. Wherever I have lived over the past forty years since leaving for college, from Florida to Massachusetts, out to Kansas, but mostly in Pennsylvania, that house in Spartanburg, South Carolina was a constant, abiding “home.” There was a place where I could return that was familiar. There was an address and phone number that connected me to a root that went back to my very beginning. And if I had such an awareness, Dad’s sentiments were far deeper. When I left forty years ago to start out on my own, the home-place was where he and Mom remained. And when she died in 1996, the home they had shared together was one big thing that helped Dad feel connected to the good years he had spent with her.

This past Friday night we spent the last night “at home.” That day we had packed up small things; on Saturday morning a half-dozen men from Dad’s church came in their pick-up trucks, loaded the big things Dad was taking, and in one caravan trip, transported it all to the independent-living apartment that is now Dad’s home. We spent Saturday night at the new place. Transplanted.

On Sunday morning I (and my wife and son, who helped in the big move) went to church with Dad. This is the little country church where Mom and Dad raised me. It was where I surrendered totally to Jesus when I was fifteen years old. This congregation is one big reason why Dad did not move to Pennsylvania to be close to me and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The pastor had given me the privilege of preaching the morning message (as a special treat for Dad, who is a beloved patriarch in the church). I did not prepare it as meticulously as my usual sermons, but the gist was as follows.

I have no such inclination but my daughter loves to tackle 1000 or 1500 small-piece picture puzzles. This image came to me as one way to think of life. Each day is like one piece of the huge picture of our lives. Can you imagine trying to put a huge puzzle together without being able first to see the big picture of what it’s supposed to be? Add to that image the further complication of the picture being, not one focused subject but instead, a collage of various scenarios –– the kinds of things that occur throughout life.

Christians believe God has given us a “big picture” to help us understand the meaning of human life. While none of us has an individual blueprint of life, we do have Jesus Christ as the ultimate paradigm of God’s purpose for human life. We have a context to understand suffering and death; we have a reason to believe the awful things do not have the last word because Jesus is risen and has ascended into heaven.

Many of the daily pieces of our lives do not seem especially significant; they are neither grand nor terrible, but rather serve as the “background” for times that get more attention. Some days are stressful, but we can handle it. Some days are wonderful, so that we may actually say, “I wish all of life was like this.” (Christians should understand these times as God’s encouragements along the way, and as a reminder of what the triumph of goodness will be like.) Other days are truly horrible –– tragic accidents, bad medical reports, financial collapse, emotional breakdown, and.... death. We live in a broken world.

When people do not live in faith they try to “make the best of it.” They focus on the happy things and do everything possible to insulate themselves with security, comfort and pleasure (think here of the advertising industry!). On the other hand, faith in what God has given us in Christ provides a way to understand and to exercise patience and hope.

I have thought of this in the categories of WHAT WE HAVE and WHAT WE DON’T HAVE. Christian faith causes a great reversal here. Living apart from what God has done and promised usually means looking at temporal circumstances and making our judgements from this perspective. Christian faith has a different focus. Paul said it this way in his second letter to the Corinthians: we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (4:18).

So I began to think about those categories of WHAT WE HAVE and WHAT WE DON’T HAVE as I looked at my life and Dad’s big move. The first thing that came to my mind was something else Paul told the Corinthians (in the first letter): you do not have many fathers (4:15). This was in the context of Paul’s deep love for the Corinthians and how he was a father to them in the faith. Dad has been a “father in the faith” to me. Both he and Mom nurtured me in a godly home. When I sensed a calling to Christian vocation Dad supported me financially through the many years of college, two masters degrees and a doctorate. I have a father who has loved and supported me in the faith.

A profitable personal Bible study might focus on the phrase “we (do not) have,” Here is a sample from the verses surrounding the 2 Corinthians verse I quoted earlier:
we have a hope (3:12)
we have this ministry (4:1)
we have this treasure (4:7)
we have a building from God (5:1)

This last one was a bridge to another verse, in another letter, I’d had on my mind. In the angst of leaving the “building” he’d lived in for 59 years (and the one consistent home I’ve known), I was reminded of the “building from God” that is promised us. Of course the context here is our physical body. Someday when we die and lay aside this “tent” of clay, we will ultimately find that God has prepared a resurrection body for us in continuity with Jesus, who has gone ahead of us through His bodily resurrection.

Yet a larger issue comes into focus. This is what the writer to the Hebrews says: For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (13:14). And in a similar context, describing people who live in biblical faith: They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them (11:13b-16).

This is the larger picture from God that gives us hope and peace when the temporal things around us change. A house of 59 years can be a wonderful thing. It has been for Dad and me, but that is not our ultimate joy. We are looking for the city that is yet to come.

It has not escaped me that this has happened so close to July 4th, a big national holiday. We are blessed in this country. Our temporal advantages are indisputable. And yet, for Christians, we desire a better country. Whether it is our family house or our country, here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.


God has given us a way of looking at this –– seeing the pieces of the puzzle according to His design, and I’ve been reminded in a new and fresh way.

No comments:

Site Meter