Free to Not Look Back

My great-grandfather Willie was not a good man. My grandfather never told me this because he was a storyteller. Instead he painted a picture of his father for me in many tales and none of them good, not a single one.

One of the saddest was of the day when one of his older sons, Ed, was plowing in the field. He messed up somehow and Willie took the whip to him. My grandfather said he would never forget that day. Ed simply put down the mule harness, stepped out of it and walked away. He never looked back.

Boy, Willie said to my grandfather, his youngest son, You step into that harness.

He plowed the field that day, but he left home as soon as he could. He spent his life wandering, but in his old age he made his lap a gracious and happy place for all his grandchildren to belong. There’s always room, he’d say, arms out. It took a whole lifetime of traveling to reach that big recliner, and to become what he always wanted. 

Though I talk a lot about staying, there are many good reasons to leave. The people of Israel knew all about them, didn’t they? And Jesus himself had good reason to leave us.

John Blase is one of my favorite poets, and he lost his father recently to COVID. In the first piece he wrote after the death, he said: at more than one point along the way I felt concerns were greater for COVID itself than the patients and their families.

I remember exactly where I was when I read that sentence. Not a day has passed since that I have not remembered those words, and it seems to me that we are all too prone to do this with many things. If anything, any cause or institution, however worthwhile to begin with, becomes more all-consuming and important than the people, their feelings and desires and gospel-freedoms, you have a monster and a killer and a sad mess on your hands. Do not fight for something like that, and do not give the precious days of your life to it. In such a case, staying can become an idol. There are times when leaving a place or a position or an opinion is the bravest and best thing to do, God help you. 

The first passage of Scripture I ever memorized by myself was John 14 where Jesus says In My Father’s house are many mansions; if that were not so, I would have told you, because I am going there to prepare a place for you. I was seven years old. I loved the way these words sounded together and I loved the idea of mansions inside a house, like a world inside a shoebox or a tree inside a seed or God Himself inside a little girl.

I believe the main calling for all of us is to create an open and hospitable place, as Henry Nouwen said, where strangers can cast off their strangeness, because that is what Jesus is doing right now for us, and for each of us, his children.

Christianity is thought to be an easy task, but I find it hard. I have known God to show his children glorious visions of what they can be and do— to open their mind to a place that seems perfect for them— a piece of land, a church, a family, an ideal, a peace—and then tell in their lives another story altogether. Our failures and mistakes and sins often take a part in this, but they are not the whole story. There are things that happen to us in this life. God is the Maker and the Teller. This is His right. He can make of us what we wants, give and take what He wants. 

I have a good friend who is hurt by this, and sometimes it is a truth that hurts me too.

Why don’t you stop believing then? I asked her, both of us angry. Believe in God, but just believe we make our own way and choose our own lives and futures and outcomes, if it would be less painful. Or stop believing in Him altogether. 

I can’t, she said. His sovereignty is inescapable to me. I’ve can’t unsee it. Neither can I.

Right now she is feeling homeless, and she is alone and empty. She is far from the place God has surely made for her, his beloved child.

As for me, I have a home of my own. I am happy in marriage and full of a precious baby, but even so God has uprooted me from an ideal I’ve long fought for. He has showed me too that this earth is not my home, not yet. Those words that were a mysterious comfort twenty-years ago, all bundled up in a water-bed with my first Bible in my hands, the spine full of cinnamon sugar from my breakfast, come to me now, like a little kick in the side. They have a home in me forever. They are strange words, a strange truth that has come to stay, to sit at my table and work alongside me, to rise up with me and to rest:

Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if that were not so, I would have told you, because I am going there to prepare a place for you.

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