3. A Hollow Invitation
The old ferryman’s words were familiar and well-worn, like the pole in his hands that had smoothed silken over time. Over the years they had shaped themselves into a lilting chant, a call that winged its way over the water…
I shared the first part of “The Ferryman” at an arts guild meeting last year. When I finished, someone asked where I’d gotten the idea for the story.
I hesitated. “Well — I’ve been praying for one of my family members to come to Christ for a little over twenty years now.”
“During that time I’ve thought about what it is I’m calling him to. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve been so intent on getting him ‘across the water’ that I’ve missed living in the freedom and the joy of Christ. Is the fullness of life real and immediate to me, or… am I just singing a tired old song back from the days when it was?”
In my early days as a Christian, my prayers for my family stemmed mostly from a concern about what was going to happen to them after they died. I told Bible stories from memory to a little brother who sat wide-eyed across from me on my bedroom floor. I wrote letters and slipped them into Daddy’s briefcase, and I posted Scripture verses on the refrigerator for Mom, trying to relate what I was learning at church and at school, trying to persuade them of their need for Christ in a silent campaign of written words. At the heart of it was an unceasing drumbeat of urgency that pounded through my waking hours and sleepless watches of the night.
That drumbeat undulated with the ebb and flow of new life chapters over time. Sometimes it faded into a distant sound; at others it hammered in my ears as I saw some new aspect of the love that God has for us. And I waited, trying to remember that His timing was not my own.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promises, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9, NIV)
I waited with my forehead pressed against the glass of others’ journeys, willing them to move.
Soon, however, I began to notice passages in Scripture that said I must leave loved ones to follow Christ — that I must put my hand to the plow and not look back, and let the dead bury the dead, and take up my cross.
I didn’t understand why these injunctions were given.
I only knew that they were achingly hard to follow.
Conversations that began innocuously enough about my day or about plans for the future frequently ended up in tangles around some matter of faith. My voice would choke up miserably in my throat, because I could hear how strange my thoughts sounded to uncomprehending ears. It is madness, from most angles, to talk of the power of prayer in the face of tragedy, or to look to divine help for material needs. It’s irresponsible to choose a low place over a high one, and it is truly odd to claim kinship with strangers in the name of religious connection. All of these things make no sense without the context of the gospel.
But “putting my hand to the plow” meant… that I was not to wait for those I loved to approve of my choices. I went on learning about God — from church sermons, from Bible studies, from authors who called back to me down the long road of obedience and trust, and from mentors at my school, in addition to His Word and presence in prayer — even as sorrow weighed my steps down, and even though I couldn’t seem to share this knowledge in any meaningful way.
It’s impossible to collapse the changes, the growth, the continual swelling up and beating back of spiritual pride, the misconceptions I held and the righting of them, and my concurrent life events along that journey into a sentence. But as I followed Him clumsily, I began to see more.
Like a river-bound ferryman climbing up a mountain into the range of sights he never imagined.
Beauties in the Redeemed Life
The eleven-year-old girl who gave her life into Jesus’s keeping had no inkling of what was to come. I didn’t know then that my rediscovery of Narnia in high school would leave me permanently ruined as a cracked vessel — a crackpot?– of Joy. I could not see the moment when, at 21, I would watch the light falling across the kitchen table in my college apartment, and suddenly realize how long I’d been free of a particular sin.
If I had been told long ago that I would someday see my husband actually “go wherever God leads,” as he lovingly warned me he would before we were married; that we would marvel as our church banded together to watch over Lucy when Little Jo was born and I went into emergency surgery; or that my purest experience of joy would come in my late twenties as I lay in bed crumpled in mounting pain — at best I would have answered with a quizzical half-smile.
But this is the kind of beauty that comes to mind now and causes me to speak of Home with growing conviction. The motivation behind my invitation to others has shifted: I don’t merely want them to have the safe status of being a child of God, but the full and glad ongoing experience of being His.
As I think of and pray for family members and friends, my hope is that they will someday encounter the awe of realizing that the omnipotent God is a loving one, who sacrificed His Son so that our sins might be forgiven and never more allowed to drag us through despair.
I desire for them the awareness that they are never alone,
the release from fear of scarcity and of death,
the fellowship of relationships bound by Love Himself,
the surety of walking through suffering and being sure of His presence,
the deep comfort of the Spirit as they approach the throne of grace with confidence in every hour of their need,
the relief that comes in obeying their Father when His kindness leads them to repentance,
the keen sight to see the connection between things that move them and eternal realities,
and even gladness in aging as they come closer to Home.
I’ve come to echo Paul’s better prayer more and more as I taste and see what it means:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14-19, ESV)
It’s absolutely right that those who accept Christ are “saved from” — from the deadly hold of sin and selfishness and the just punishment that follows our original condition. But we are “saved for” as well — so that we may “have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10, ESV) — and I haven’t always borne this in mind. The modern church’s interest in a believer’s testimony may drop off after the point of conversion, but the real wonder and beauty of the story begins then.
For the chief beauty of heaven isn’t its desirability over hell.
The beauty of our Home is everything beyond the river-crossing into faith. It is heralded in the colors that captivate our sight, in the music that breaks our hearts with gravity, merriment, triumph, and tenderness. My breath catches and my head bows every time I read this description of its majesty:
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. . . . But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24, ESV)
This is the city where God will be with us — where the Maker of gardeners and artists and engineers and storytellers and caregivers dwells. “And its radiance is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23, Phillips). He who became flesh with “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him” (Is. 53:2b) will be the splendor that extinguishes the need for other lights.
He is the beauty that makes our heartache over others a right and worthy pain.
I know that we cannot give those whom we love the eyes to see or the spirit to respond to Christ. But our invitation, our song, and our welcome to others will be truer if we are extending them fresh from the joys of our home country, and from walking with the one who is its King.
Let the air of it remain on us, then — so strong and so bracing that it incites others to ask about hope. Chipped and fragile as we are, let there be a glimpse of the wide grace and new freedom that awaits them, so that those who seek Him hear no mere call of detached Christian duty but a high and sweet note to come further up and further in.
Sund, Sheila. “First light of the New Year.” Flickr, licensed under CC by 2.0, 10 Mar 2018.