Recently I reflected on the events of the last seventeen months and what God has been teaching us since we moved from Chicago to a cabin in the woods north of Tupelo, Mississippi. One thing is for sure. I’m no prophet. Before we moved, I told our friends that we would be moving to Mississippi for “four or five months,” and after that I had no idea where we would be. Here we are a year and a half later and life has changed all around us–and we are still in the cabin in the woods. If you drive down the country road that leads to the turnoff for the cabin, you won’t see a mailbox. We decided to have our mail sent to my brother’s home in Tupelo because we “knew” we wouldn’t be in Tupelo very long. Ditto for not signing up for satellite Internet (which my friends says isn’t so great anyway), which is why I’m on dial-up at the cabin. Ditto for a few other things because we “knew” we weren’t going to be in Tupelo very long. Along the way, we have come to love and appreciate both this area and the many friends we have made.
So what have we learned throughout these months of continual change? Two things come to my mind very clearly. First, the will of God is not a destination, it’s a journey. I think I always believed that, but now I know it in a very deep way. It’s always easy (and dangerous) to play the “if only” game:
If only I get married, I’ll be happy.
If only I get a new job, I’ll be happy.
If only I graduate from college, I’ll be happy.
If only we have children, I’ll be happy.
If only we can retire to Florida, we’ll be happy.
If only I make more money, I’ll be happy.
If only I win this case, I’ll be happy.
If only we move to a new home, I’ll be happy.
If only I climb this one last mountain, I’ll be happy.
But life generally doesn’t work that way. Several months ago I watched Mel Gibson on one of the late-night talk shows discussing his recent rehab stint for alcohol addiction. He made a profound observation about the importance of living one day at a time. “You can’t live in the future,” he said. “That’s a bad place to live.”
There is a certain rootlessness about our life at this point that is instructive. Now that our boys are in their twenties, they are going in all directions at once. Because of the China connection, we have one son in China who is coming home to get married this summer, another son and his wife about to go there, and a third son who is contemplating going to China. It worked out that last year our family was together for a total of three days–at Josh’s wedding. So far it looks like we will all be together this year for just one day–at Mark’s wedding in late July. It has hit me that home is a matter of the heart, a moving target, not so much a place as being with the people you love most. Wherever they are–in the U.S. or in China or anywhere else–is home in the truest sense.
The second thing I’ve learned came to me a few weeks ago when a young man asked, “If you had one piece of advice to give to someone entering the ministry, what would it be?” Questions like that can be difficult because you don’t know what the person wants to hear. My policy is to say whatever pops into my head first. And so I did.
“Get to know the character of God.”
I mentioned an old hymn that I’ve never actually sung called Workman of God, Do Not Lose Heart. The opening line goes like this: “Workman of God! O lose not heart, but learn what God is like.” Nothing will sustain the servants of the Lord in hard times like knowing God’s character. And as the hymn (and life itself) makes clear, you don’t “learn what God is like” by going to seminary and memorizing the attributes of God. You learn what God is like in the darkness of the night, when you feel overwhelmed and burdened and full of fear and uncertainty. Ironically you learn that when you feel most alone, God is nearest to you. So study the character of God.
Learn his holiness.
Exult in his mercy.
Ponder his patience.
Consider his ways.
Meditate on his goodness.
Remind yourself of his justice.
Rest on his faithfulness.
Linger at the foot of the cross.
Memorize his promises.
Pray the psalms back to him.
Testify to his kindness.
Declare his glory.
Defend his honor.
Be silent before his judgments.
Get to know the Lord. Nothing matters more than this. You might even say that the whole purpose of our earthly journey is for us to get to know what God is like.
As I ponder our own personal future, I see some things clearly while other things are a mystery to me. Then I remember what Job said. “He knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (Job 23:10).
He knows the way that I take even when I don’t.
He knows the way that I take even when I can’t see clearly.
He knows the way that I take even when I get lost.
Looking back, we find it easy to count our blessings and to see the hand of the Lord moving on our behalf. So much has happened that we did not expect, but as they say on the street, “It’s all good.”
Walking with Jesus is a journey whose destination lies somewhere beyond the horizon. Even when we think we’ve arrived, we haven’t. Even when we think, “Aha! I’ve made it at last,” life suddenly changes and we take a sharp bend in the road.
But the journey itself ought to be enjoyed.
And we should use it to learn what God is like.
No one ever fully “arrives” in this life. We all press forward, forgetting those things that are behind and pressing on to the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Even Paul said, “I have not yet attained” (cf. Philippians 3:12-13). Our God is infinitely creative in the ways he deals with his children. Let this be our motto as we journey onward: Expect the unexpected.
Life with God is a journey, not a destination. That’s the lesson of the last seventeen months.