Over the next few weeks, I’ll be walking in the places where the influence of departed saints remains strong. Capernwray Hall was founded by Major Ian Thomas, who died a few years ago in his nineties. With a vision of creating a space where young people could gather and learn about the sufficiency and power of Christ for daily living, he purchased a castle at auction. The result has been an entire global movement of people committed to sharing the simple and profound truth that Christ is enough. Over 200 of us will gather from around the world to enjoy fellowship and remind each other of this profound message. Major Thomas was faithful to the very end of us life – still learning, still loving Christ, still looking forward to God’s next chapter. I know this because I was privileged to spend time with him during the last year of his life and realized that his love for, and hope in Christ had only continued to intensify, year after year.
Later in the summer I’ll be speaking at a conference grounds called Mt. Hermon, just south of San Francisco, in the California redwoods. While there, I’ll pilgrimage to three places:
1) My grandma, who was the head cook there during my childhood, had a circle of redwoods in her backyard. As a child I’d go there and lay on the forest floor, gazing up at the sunlight shafting through the branches, intoxicated by the scent of redwood. It was enough, just to be there, soaking it in. I must return.
2) There’s a stream that runs through that forest, where I’d go with my dad and sister (both now departed). We’d build sand castles, skip rocks, listen to the waters. Hours felt like minutes in that space for reasons I’m still trying to fathom.
3) The conference center, where the adults gather to hear Bible teaching, is where I ended up one night when I was twelve. I’d gone up to the center just to buy a little beef jerky but, hearing the British accent of the Bible teacher, sat down and listened. I liked what he said so much that I bought his book called “Limiting God” instead of beef jerky. That book became the catalyst for my relationship with the Torchbearer community, where I’ll be next week. John Hunter was the author, the speaker that night when I was twelve. I met him in 1993 in England, shortly before he passed on, also in his nineties. I’ll be standing where he stood – speaking the scriptures for adults for a week.
My pilgrimages this summer remind me of several people in my life whose faith was stronger at the end of their lives than the beginning, and this is, of all the possible ambitions one might have in life, perhaps the one most worth seeking. I want grow old like John Hunter, and Major Thomas, and my grandma – still rejoicing, still full of hope, still confident in the reality of God’s goodness and plans on my last day of life, even more so than when I first began.
Though obvious, it’s worth nothing that this doesn’t always happen. To the contrary, we all know that the Bible, and history, and our own world of acquaintances and friends are punctuated by lives that lost their hope, joy, meaning. There are lots of ways to slip into spiritual decay; the scriptures speak of losing one’s first love, of pride, lust, the comfort of materialism, and just plain weariness because we didn’t realize it was marathon and so we tried to live our faith on adrenalin, like a sprint. When I think about the saints I know who lived well right up to the end, I think of several traits they all share in common:
1. Consistency- Faith is like mountain climbing. You need to find a pace that you can sustain for a long time; settle into a rhythm, and then go. The promise of the Bible is that our transformation is a byproduct of beholding the glory of the Lord. Those I know who were still full of joy at the end of their days had well marked Bible and real prayer lives. They kept showing up, day after day, nurturing intimacy with Jesus. We live in a world where these kind of quiet, unspectacular habits aren’t upheld or celebrated. But in God’s economy, it’s the “step-by-step” nature of our faith that’s most desperately needed.
2. Patient Expectation – What moves life in Christ from tedium of religion to the adventure of reality, at least for me, has been the realization that because Christ is alive me, I should expect fruit to happen. The stunning realization that God will use me to bless others is, at times, nearly impossible to believe. I know myself too well – know my doubts and sins. The crux of the matter, though, is that it’s not about me anyway, so my shortcomings aren’t really the point. Christ’s character, life, and power to impart life, are all that matters. To the extent that I believe this I enjoy the gift of expectation – and life in Christ becomes a delightful unfolding of God’s work through me.
At the same time, though, I need patience. While the promise of fruit is real, the timing, nature, and scope of that fruit, is not for me to decide. If I fail here, I’ll get frustrated. My own expectations regarding fruit might deem that it can only happen if I’m working in a certain job, or if a certain person’s life is changed, or if I’m able to live in a certain place. I need to let go of that thinking. Nothing is certain – other than that a life wholly available to Christ will be fruitful – in Christ’s time and way. Many fail right here, feeling God has abandoned them because they want to preach, or live where it’s sunny, or pastor a large church, or small church, or make lots of money. You shouldn’t be worrying about the nature of fruit, anymore than you should be worrying about your height. It’s God’s call, not yours.
ACTION ITEM: consciously, through prayer, offer yourself to God every day, and then thank God that God will express life through you. After that, relax and enjoy the ride. It’s God’s fruit, not yours. Let it be.
3. Participation – The saints who were still going strong at the end, all of them, were still looking for next steps to take in their journey right up until they died. They were, all of them, following in the footsteps of Paul who said near the end of his life:
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already prefect, but I press on to make it my own… forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on…” Philippians 3:12-14
ACTION ITEM: always be looking for God’s next step in your life. It might be about money, time, sex, forgiveness, pride, vocation…whatever. Listen for the voice. Take the step. Enjoy the ride.
The shadows of those who have pressed on to the very end will be all around me this summer, and I hope you’ll join me in learning from them – settling in with patience for the long haul, thanking God for the fruit that will come, and always looking for the next step.
Of the three elements… which is most challenging for you? Why?