Yesterday afternoon, I had a long conversation with a woman I’ll call Belinda. Belinda used to go to our church, years ago, but moved away after the sudden death of her husband. She has three handsome sons, and has done some pretty amazing and brave things – like traveling around the world for a year, with her kids, on a personal mission trip – because of her love for Jesus and her firm beliefs. She contacted me on Facebook and asked to speak with me because she wanted to see how I was doing.
In the course of our call, she came to realize that Mark had never made a personal proclamation of faith. Let me restate that: he’d been baptized; he’d been confirmed (and in that process you state your faith); he did VBS, he did mission camps, he did it ALL: he was raised in the church. But he had never come to me or Steve and said “I’ve decided to fully trust God” (or some variation thereof; in fact, Mark would probably have found a way to say something really offhand instead…like “the Dude and me, we’re good”).
My kids are college-aged. And they are virtual “PKs” (preacher’s kids) because of our long involvement with youth and family ministries, in particular, at our church. From my own personal experience, I am well aware that often, when you grow up in a household where church is what you “do”….you get to a point in your young adult life, usually during the college years, where you push away. Where everything you’ve been taught to believe is up for examination. I also remembered where my “heart” had been during my confirmation retreat (focused on a cute boy in my group) and how long it had taken me to even begin to take my spiritual walk seriously; you have to get to a place where you accept and own your faith vs. simply doing it because that’s what your family does. So neither Steve nor I had fretted much over the fact that both our kids were not attending worship services at their respective universities. I knew it would leave them feeling untethered, which is very hard. And God knows we all need Him most in our college years, especially in the current day, with social media there to track every misstep. But each of us has a path, a journey to follow, which no one else can walk. I’ve prayed and tried to trust God with them during these significant years of growth and questioning.
HOWEVER. None of this was making me feel particularly good late yesterday, as I talked to Belinda and I knew that trying to get people to accept the saving grace of Jesus is the focus of her life’s work. I’d been experiencing flutterings of fear over the last several weeks, fear that I kept shoving into a mental box and trying to bury in the back of my cranial closet…maybe why I hadn’t heard from Mark was because he wasn’t home yet? Not truly safe? I kept thinking about what a GREAT, exceptional kid he is, how much joy he brought to so, so, SO many people, about all the good fruit that fell and continues to fall from his tree. I kept arguing his defense (to whom?): sure, he was normal! Imperfect in a million ways! Aren’t we all?
But I couldn’t hold it back – the conversation with Belinda blew the lid off the box and all that fear rushed out, choking me. WHAT DO I BELIEVE? WHAT KIND OF GOD DO I BELIEVE IN? How narrow is the gate? How wide is God’s love and grace? You never know when your life is going to end. What if it’s during a low spot, a doubting time? Do we worship a “Gotcha God” who likes to catch us out, lets us die when we’re most unsure? How wide, God? Don’t you, the God of Infinite Love, come rushing to meet us even before our minds are fully changed, even before we’ve decided to leave the pig food behind – the life or habits or whatever that isn’t ultimately satisfying our souls – and come creeping back home?
So I did all I knew to do: I ended the phone call with Belinda, and I dialed up Mark and Sarah’s youth leader, Kathy H., and I asked her the question, through my tears. And she started crying, too. She misses Mark so, so much.
“MANY, MANY TIMES!” she said. “I saw his face, Emily. At Creation, during worship, at 30 Hour Famine. Do you know that every single retreat we went on, Mark would ask for ’30 minutes with God?!’ ” (quiet time in the woods, and no, I didn’t know that…)
Deep, deep breaths.
God has us all inscribed on the palms of his hands. He is good, He is faithful, we are never alone.
My soul quieted. The storm faded into the distance. I knew it would rumble for a long time, though; it’s hard for me to get past my fears and simply trust in the massive, unending goodness of God.
Upon reflection, I know the truth: none of us can really, really know another person’s heart; only God has that ability. But I also know that all you need is a mustard seed, and to know the sound of His voice.
Mark was loved, Mark knew love. Funny, smart, kind, imperfect, sometimes-selfish Mark struggled like we all do…to understand, to “get”God’s role and presence in today’s hurting, violent world. But he didn’t give up trying, and he lived a life that included serving, that included sacrificing – his time, his money, even eating – for others. Mark knew what he was growing toward, imperfectly, as we all are.
This morning’s verse offered more salve:
Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. John 12:26