Acts of God

Dear Friends:

Change can be very hard for me, I confess. It often costs too much in terms of people and things that are dear to me.

I am a calculator of risks by nature and by profession. Change for the sake of change does not appeal to me, but fear of the unknown is also abhorrent to me. My inclination when faced with a new prospect is to ask, “What is the worst that could happen?” and go on from there to plan and to implement.

This inclination to manage risk no doubt led me to a career in the law. The ordering of responsibility and obligation in a business transaction appeals to me. “The party of the first part will do this and that and the party of the second part will pay this much when that happens and if it doesn’t work our the matter will be resolved by the process set forth herein.” A place for everything and everything in its place, neatly signed or initialed, of course. A good contract keeps the peace.

The hard fact is that any effort to manage risk and change, how ever well informed, can be derailed by human error. It is possible to plan, train and check for that to reasonable limits. But there are vagaries of accident, illness, storm, flood, rebellion, crime, war, earthquake, tsunami and volcanic eruption that yield to no human device or strategy.

A good lawyer can’t control everything and, oh, does this ever tick us off! If something unexpected and uncontrollable blows the deal after we make it lawyers like to blame God. We call such occurrences “acts of God” because we like to think God’s the only one big enough to override and “wash out” our best laid plans. We reduce uncontrollable change to a “boilerplate” excuse: “The client’s failure to perform its obligations will be excused for wars, riots, insurrections, labor strife, strikes, transportation delays and acts of God.”

Here is a legal definition of an “act of God:”

Any misadventure or casualty is said to be caused by an “act of God” when it happens by the direct, immediate, and exclusive operation of the forces of nature, uncontrolled or uninfluenced by the power of man and without human intervention, and is of such character that it could not have been prevented or escaped by any amount of foresight or prudence, or by any reasonable degree of care or diligence, or by the aid of any appliances which the situation of the party might reasonably require him or her to use. Inevitable accident, or casualty; any accident produced by any physical cause which is irresistible, such as lightning; tempests, perils of the seas, an inundation, or earthquake; and also the sudden illness or death of persons (Black’s Law Dictionary).

So it is with the perspective of an experienced business attorney that I read these words from the opening of the Book of Joshua. “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant saying, “my servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” (Josh. 1:1-2).

It is hard to imagine a bigger change than this one for the people in that time and place. For eighty years, Moses led the Israelites, communicating the will and way of God. They had developed a rhythm–manna to eat six days of the week and more manna for the seventh; cloud by day and fire by night; personal and public hygiene, worship, water from the rock–even the miracles became routine. Now, Moses was dead in fact, but Joshua had to be told that it was true and it was time to move on.

Who was Moses to them? The name means “to draw out.” He pointed out to the Israelites that they were in bondage, far from God’s purpose for them. He told them what they could do to be free. He helped them, confronting their enemy Pharaoh, risking his life for them in that initiative. He had a direct connection with God and conversed with him as a friend.

More than once, Moses saved the Israelites from death. He told them how to live as free men and women. He was crotchety and angry with their stubbornness and whining, but he stuck with them through their most stupidly fearful moments.

Moses was the only leader that a whole generation had known. He had failings (don’t we all? ), but they were the failings of passion, of a heart in the right place even when his actions didn’t show it. He promised them better things–a better place to live, prosperity, health and peace–and now he was dead and his assistant got the word to move on. That’s real change!

Businesses are often valued on the basis of their leadership. What was Jack Welch to General Electric, Thomas Watson to IBM,  Lee Iacocca to Chrysler, Henry Ford to Ford Motors, John D. Rockefeller to Standard Oil? What is Steven Jobs to Apple and Bill Gates to Microsoft?

Nations have been identified throughout history for particular defining leadership like France with Napoleon, Britain with Churchill, Germany with Bismark, China with Mao, the United States with Washington and Lincoln. What was Israel without Moses? This was the challenge for Joshua.

Each one of us faces the same challenge, sooner or later. Who is your Moses? Who helped you out of the pit of bondage, took your side, and shook you out of your slumber?  Who showed you the way to better things and how to get there? Who has meant survival to you and who is going to get you through now that your Moses is dead and gone?

Oh. I see.  You hate change also, notwithstanding all those wonderful books, articles, seminars, tapes, verses, refrigerator magnets and cute calendars urging you on to new and better things. In fact, to be honest, even when our own Moses tries to take us through the discomfort of change we are likely to rebel, resist and try “to kill the messenger.” (See Exodus 16:1-3; 17:1-7; 32:1-35; Numbers 11:1-35; 13:25-14:1-45; 16:1-50; 20:1-13, 22-29).

Human nature is a mash of pride and insecurity that causes you and me to think, “I may have my bad times right here, but I am making it with the help of my Moses, aren’t I? Why do I need to move on if it means trading off the known for the unknown? “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” isn’t it?”

As good as the promised land sounds, there are reports of hostile giants there (Num.13:25-33).There are so many questions and uncontrollable circumstances. We are tempted to play it safe with what we have right here and right now. We are angry with the act of God. We demand of God, “Why did you take our Moses away from us?”

“My servant Moses is dead,” God replies in a matter-of-fact manner. “Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving them” (Josh 1:2).

There are two points in God’s instruction to us that should reorient our priorities. First, God makes reference to,”My servant Moses,”  We thought this was all about us. We trusted the operating instructions that Moses gave us. We thought our lives depended on our perfection in following the formula.

Now we find out who our Moses was really working for. If our Moses was following God’s instruction when he brought us to this place, it follows that the death of our Moses must be part of God’s plan. Our present situation is in God’s plan. Our moving on must be in God’s plan.

Specifically speaking, you and I are not at the mercy of some act of God. You and I are an act of God and that act is no misadventure, no accident, and no excuse. You and I owe our very lives at this moment to God’s sovereign grace.

The second point of interest is  found in God’s instruction to cross the boundary and go where we feared to go before this. God says the place where he is sending us is his gift to us, not a punishment or mere consequence.

Again, specifically speaking, you and I thought that achieving the goal depended on our Moses. You and I now find out that the future does not depend on Moses. Our Moses is gone, but God’s providence continues. He cares no less for you and me. In fact, our dependence on our Moses, however well intentioned and loving, may have distracted us from an intimate, growing relationship with the Lord.

God told Joshua in the next verses. “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses…No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you . . . .  I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh.1:3, 5, 9). We can’t ask for more than this. We are called to proceed with assurance in the leading and the providence of the Lord alone.

There is a passage in the writings of the French theologian Fenelon that puts all of this in perspective:

The best place to be is where God puts you. Any other place is undesirable because you chose it for yourself. Do not think too much about the future. Worrying about things that haven’t happened yet is unhealthy for you. God Himself will help you, day by day. There is no need to store things up for the future. Don’t you believe that God will take care of you?
A life of faith does two things: Faith helps you see God behind everything that He uses. And faith also keeps you in a place where you are not sure what will happen next. To have faith you cannot always want to know what is happening or going to happen. God wants you to trust him alone from minute to minute. The strength He gives you in one minute is not intended to carry you through the next. Let God take care of His business. Just be faithful to what God asks of you. To depend on God from moment to moment–especially when all is dark and uncertain–is a true dying to your old self. This process is so slow and inward that it is often hidden from you as well as others.
When God takes something away from you, you can be sure He knows how to replace it . . . . Eat in peace what God gives you. ‘Tomorrow will take care of itself’ (Matthew 6:34). The One who feeds you today will surely feed you tomorrow (Francois Fenelon, The Seeking Heart [Sargent, GA: The SeedSowers, 1992], p. 85-86).

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in Him” (Ps. 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,


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The Cellist

Dear Friends:

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
For now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle dove
is heard in our land.

Song 1:11-12

Mike Kirby spoke to me after the Good Friday worship service. To be exact, that would be Michael A. Kirby, Ph.D, Professor of Pathology and Anatomy in the Loma Linda University School of Medicine. He’s a soft-spoken, productive scientist who is researching brain development.

Ironically, Mike himself suffered a fast-growing cancer that metastasized into his brain and came very close to killing him. He was the subject of many prayers around the University. I remember the tone of the prayers getting quieter even they grew more desperate and hope was seemingly ebbing away with very little time left for Mike.

But the Lord spared Mike and restored his health. He is a gift to us. He is a much-respected and loved man. Another one of my friends and colleagues says, “Some people you can summarize in one word and for Mike Kirby that word is ‘kind.’ He is a kind man.”

What a wonderful thing to be known for your kindness. The world, indeed, our University, needs more kind men and women. Mike is a blessing of grace.

I work with Mike from time to time on legal and policy matters involving research affairs. I invited him to our “Remembering What Jesus Did for Us” service and he came.

He waited for me afterwards and said, “Thank you for inviting me. This was great. You know there is nothing that can speak to the soul like music.”

“That’s true,” I said. “That’s how God reaches our hearts. Do you do anything with music, Mike?”

“I played the cello when I was younger,” he said. “When I was sick, I missed the music and I told my wife, “I’d like to play the cello again. We found one and bought it. It takes about 20 years to break a cello in. But I played it and found it to be healing.”

“Do you ever play in public?”

“Well, I played for the Office of Research Affairs’ Christmas Party. I was a little nervous at first, but it went OK.”

“The Office of General Counsel sponsors an annual Christmas breakfast with a carol sing and worship,” I said. “Maybe we could play something together.”

“Maybe so,” he replied.

We went our ways, but I’ve kept Mike and his cello in mind ever since as I begin the early preparations for the Christmas breakfast.”

On Wednesday of this past week, I was sitting by Mike in the Research Oversight Committee. When the meeting was over, I said, “I’ve been thinking about us playing the cello and piano together at the Christmas party. I’ve been working on some songs. Can you improvise?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said.

“If we work off music, piano music, for simple Christmas carols, will that work alright for you?”

“Yes, I can play the bass line,” he replied.

“That will work,” I said. “How about other parts?”

“Yeah, I can play the alto or tenor part. The cello has a wide range.”

“OK, I said. “How about the key? What is a good key to play in for a cellist?”

“Bass clef,” he said.

“I understand that’s the preferred range, but what keys are you most comfortable playing in. I know string players often like playing in C or in the sharps,” I said, dreading his response. I have a psychological block in playing in the sharps on the piano for some reason.

“Any key is fine,” he said with a non-committal tone.

“How do you feel about playing in public? I mean, you told me that you were a little nervous when you played for the Research Affairs Christmas party.”

“Oh that’s no problem,” Mike said. “That just goes with the territory.”

He stood up and said,”I think I have some music in my office. I’ll get it and you can see what I am talking about.”

He left and I waited at the conference room table. I was feeling pretty good about encouraging a friend in developing his musical talent. At least that’s what I was thinking.

Mike walked back in and opened a well-worn folio of music on the table in front of me. To my utter, jaw-dropping amazement it contained the complete cello scores for all nine Beethoven symphonies, plus a Leonard Rose sonata.

I play a passable recreational piano, but the music I was looking at requires a technical competence at the professional level if it is to be played as it was meant to be.

“Do you play this music, Mike?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied quietly. “I used to play in the Phoenix Symphony. When I was an undergraduate at Arizona State University, I played in the orchestra there because they gave me some scholarships so I kept playing. Playing is how I ate in graduate school. I was in a string quartet and we would go from restaurant to restaurant and play so we could eat. I played in the Indianapolis Symphony under Izler Solomon. He was fabulous. I learned a lot from him.”

There are moments when the interjection “wow,” an expression of great amazement, wonder, or pleasure is the only word available and appropriate. As in, “Wow, Mike. You are not in my league, or better put, I am not in your league. ‘Wow’ is all I can say. I’ll be in touch about the Christmas program.”

A great sense of delighted peace filled me as I walked out of the Research Affairs Office into the unusually mild July day. Something that my friend Joyce once told me came to mind.

One spring day on a hike through a nature preserve, Joyce asked me, “Kent, do you realize that most wild flowers are never seen by any one but God? People see the blossoms along the roads and paths, but most of them are out there in the fields and meadows beyond human view. They are just as beautiful as the ones we see but they are there for the delight of God alone. Our opinions and approval don’t add or take away anything from his enjoyment of what he has made.”

Joyce’s observation is indisputably true and it says a lot about the unconditional grace of God. Mike’s musical gift has been unknown to most of us at the University, but no matter. God gifted Mike in the joy of his creative power and I suspect that if no one ever heard Mike play but God it would be enough for the two of them.

It is said that of all the musical instruments that the cello’s sound most closely approximates the human voice. It takes no leap of faith or logic to think that the Lord could speak healing into Mike’s brain and heart through the bow and strings of his cello. “God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:3).

I thought of Mike, sick unto death with cancer, remembering that wondrous voice, heeding its call, taking up the cello and reconnecting his damaged body and pain-ravaged soul to his Creator.

There is a prayer of “sighs too deep for words,” Paul said, “and God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26b-27). I know my own seasons of distress and grief, I have played the piano alone in the darkness at midnight as a prayer and the Lord has used the chords and the familiar paths of melody to restore my soul and comfort my troubled spirit.

Only God and Mike shared the prayer in the bass clef, but when I left my path to chase a stray song I stumbled across the sacred echoes of their communion. I was humbled to a quiet, thankful reverence by glimpsing “the hope [that] does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

That hope has an unbreakable tensile strength that we can cling to without fear of failure because, through all the struggles, tears, fears, disappointments, afflictions and frictions of life in a jaded and broken world, the very thought and sound of God’s love ringing in the long forgotten places of our hearts announce his true intentions for us. Listen . . .

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
For now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle dove
is heard in our land.

Song 1:11-12

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,


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What She Did for Love

Dear Friends:

When it comes to leadership, it is worthwhile to consider the difference between power and authority. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” in counsel to Zerubbabel, the Governor of Judah, about the difficult task of rebuilding the temple (Zech 4:6). The Holy Spirit carries with it the authority of God for conviction and inspiration. “We love because he first loved us” is a succinct summation of this point.

Power, on the other hand, carries with it the inherent stigma of coercion and distrust. The use of power says a leader must compel others to do what he or she cannot persuade or trust them to do.

The difference is summarized nicely I think in this quote from a 1999 address from the then National Security Adviser to the President of the United States:

There is a difference between power and authority. Power is the ability to compel by force and sanctions; there are times we must use it, but as a final, not a first resort. Authority is the ability to lead, and we depend on it for virtually everything we try to achieve. Our authority is built on very different qualities than our power: on the attractiveness of our values, on the force of example, the credibility of our commitments and our willingness to work with and stand by others (Samuel L. Berger, National Security Adviser to the President, Speech, November 4, 1999).

When the High Priest Caiaphas said to the Sanhedrin about Jesus, “It is better for one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50), he was appealing to power, not exhibiting authority. Caiaphas’ comment and its implementation illustrate that when the preservation of bricks and mortar and image and influence become more important than the cost to flesh and blood, leadership has been corrupted from stewardship of souls to ownership of them in competition with the God who alone gives life.

When the door permitting light and movement toward God and grace is slammed shut on the musty, windowless, lifeless room walled by tradition, brittle commitments of the past and self-preservation, then leadership is nothing more than a cheap and hollow substitute of power for the authority of love.

An obscure and disgraceful episode in the life of David demonstrates the essential difference between authority and power.

The unlikely protagonist of the story was named Rizpah. She was a concubine of King Saul to whom she bore two sons. Saul died in battle with the Philistines and his weak son Ish-Bothshesh came to rule eleven of the tribes of Israel. Saul’s nemesis, and God’s chosen king, David ruled Judah to the south.

The strong man of the kingdom was Saul’s general, Abner. As Ish-Bothshesh was weak, Abner gained in strength in the royal household. To show himself as the heir to Saul’s power, he began an affair with Rizpah who had no power to protest. Ish-Bothshesh objected. “Why are you sleeping with my father’s concubine?” he asked Abner. (2 Sam. 3:7).

Abner responded with a self-righteous, angry tirade about his faithfulness to the memory and legacy of Saul. He ended by telling Ish-Bothshesh that “Just because you accuse me of an offense against this woman, I’ll show you. I’ll turn over everything left of Saul’s kingdom to David. (2 Sam. 3:8-11).

Great treachery followed. Abner attempted to make good on his threat by going to David and turning over the kingdom, but after their meeting, Joab, David’s jealous thug of a general, assassinated Abner.

Ish-Bothshesh suffered a fearful paralysis of nerve and spirit when he heard that Abner was dead. Ish-Bothshesh, in turn, was assassinated in bed by two of his subjects thinking to curry favor with David. Violence and war followed until David conquered the whole kingdom and established Jerusalem as his capitol. He then went to work through a combination of military strength and political dealing to consolidate his power.

Nothing more was heard of Rizpah for several years, that is until. . . .

A three year famine afflicted Israel. David asked God what caused it. God replied, “There is blood guilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death” (2 Sam. 21:1).

The Gibeonites were a remnant of the Amorites, a people that Israel had sworn to protect when they entered the land of Canaan. Saul broke that promise when he tried to exterminate the Gibeonites in an attempt to purify Israel. God expects his people to honor their word even when the result seems less than God would want (Psalm 15:4).  Saul’s attempt at ethnic cleansing  led to disaster for the Gibeonites through bloodshed and the Israelites through starvation.

David did not wait for God to give him instruction on how to solve the problem. He went to the Gibeonites and asked them what could make up for the harm done them. They told him “You couldn’t pay us enough money to make up for this and we don’t want to kill Israelites.”

David asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“This is between us and Saul because he tried to destroy us. Hand over seven of his sons and we will impale them on poles on the mountain.”

David had made a promise to protect the children of Saul’s son Jonathan, so David spared Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth. He took instead five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab and Rizpah’s two sons by Saul. He handed them over to the Gibeonites who impaled them on the first day of the harvest so looking up from the fields they could see the corpses and know that Gibeah was avenged.

Rizpah took sackcloth and spread it out on a rock beside the poles. Throughout the harvest and into the winter rains she kept vigil there, day and night, shooing away the vultures and wild animals that came to feed on the corpses of her sons and their nephews. It must have been horrific for her.

We have seen scenes like this in the television pictures from places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Sudan and Iraq. A woman, deprived of home and love by the intrigues and power games of arrogant and violent men, confronts the death by torture of her children who are innocent of any crime except being born into families burning with ancient prejudices.

Where is the grace in this? Rizpah is the grace. She did the only thing she could do and it was everything. No mother ever gave birth that her children could suffer this fate. And when, in spite of Mother’s love and royal birth, evil ravaged them anyway, she kept them precious in memory and honored in rest by refusing to let the indignity visited upon them in life follow them into death. She had committed to bring them into the world and she would stay with them through hell itself as their life ended and beyond.

Rizpah’s path took her from a position of privileged mistress of wealthy and powerful men through the disruption of war and political deal-making  to the Palestinian mountainside where her sacrificial love transformed this squalid story into a testament of the Gospel. It brings her sons to life in our memory nearly 3,000 years later. Her’s was a pure act of grace; a gift of herself for no purpose but love.

God did not tell David to practice human sacrifice to end the famine. David exercised his power to “cut a deal” with the Gibeonites, but to no good result. His political act did not end the famine. It simply stained his kingdom and his legacy with the blood of innocents.

Rizpah’s vigil rebuked David. Word of her love, transcending famine, politics, horror and fear, shamed David to action. He had the bodies of the boys cut down and gathered up the bones of the rest of Saul’s family and gave them a state burial. Grace triumphed over disgrace. The authentic authority of love proved stronger than political power and death. It was only then, when love, not power, had its way that God ended the famine in Israel (2 Sam 21:14).

This story reveals the difference between power and authority. Abraham Lincoln said that the true test of a man is not how he handles adversity but what he does when given power. David, given power, went to God to discern the problem but he went to his own strength for the answer.

David had the power to take five children and two grandchildren of his defeated predecessor and sacrifice them for a political solution to a spiritual problem. But those five boys were the sons of mothers. They were flesh and blood. In the raw exercise of power, whether in war or peace, flesh and blood become commodities for the schemes of the powerful. “Might does not make right” is a concept we learn in childhood but too easily forget as adults.

I am in my thirtieth year as an attorney and administrator. I am privileged to represent religious organizations, educational institutions and hospitals. These are nonprofit organizations intended for helpful solutions to the basic needs of humankind. Even in such places with spiritual missions and altruistic ideals. one given authority to lead must deal with the temptation of power.

Eugene Peterson wrote: “Because leadership is necessarily an exercise of authority, it easily shifts into an exercise of power. But the minute it does that, it begins to inflict damage on the leader and the led” (Introduction to 2 Corinthians, The Message).  This what happened to David. It is tempting to a leader to do something just because he or she can do it. Doing something usually turns out to mean doing something to someone.

When we use someone else to make our point we exercise power. When we convince someone to agree with our point we exercise authority. The authentic difference is found in love and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Henri Nouwen addressed the difference between the coercion of power and the authority of love in a passage that has fundamentally changed my thinking about my own leadership:

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?” (Matthew 20:21). Ever since the snake said, “The day you eat of this tree your eyes will be open and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5), we have been tempted to replace love with power. Jesus lived that temptation in the most agonizing way from the desert to the cross. The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.
One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love (In the Name of Jesus (Crossroad: New York, 1989) p. 59-60.

About a thousand years after Rizpah’s stand for love against power, another Son was nailed to a cross on a Palestinian hillside by power brokers. The night before Jesus died it was observed that “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1). He stooped and washed the feet of his disciples including those who before the next morning would betray him for power and flee from him for fear of power. But Jesus chose the authority of love over power.

When he finished washing and drying their feet he asked, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right , for that is what I am. So if I, your teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:12-15).

Rizpah did not live and Jesus did not die in vain. Their stories call us to live and love under the faithful authority of Jesus Christ by His grace alone.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,


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Walking Together

Dear Friends:

It is an odd place for a California business lawyer–a conference center in the Smoky Mountains, teaching a seminar called “Your Relationship with Christ” and giving talks at night to a group of young adults on gospel themes.

After I finish speaking most nights, Patricia and I change our clothes and shoes and walk around the lake on the grounds. The path is paved and well-tended.

Lightning flashes off to the south and east beyond the Blue Ridge in the general direction of South Carolina. Rain spatters us here and there.

The darkness cloaks the young couples slipping by us, the girls trailing perfume into the warm, humid air.

There is something about camp meeting for 16-19 year-olds, give or take a year, that mixes the fervent preaching, stirring gospel songs, the freedom of being away from home and routines, hot sun and balmy nights, and the presence of interesting members of the opposite sex into an intoxicating emotional brew. The cynical world would call it “infatuation,” but these sweet innocents call it “having fun” or “getting serious” depending on their particular personality and frame of mind.

It was so for Patricia in Arizona and for me in Central California on camp meeting nights many summers ago, and for our parents before us.

From the shadows of the gazebos and benches along the shore, we can hear murmuring of hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, and endearments. One them, most likely the girl, is no doubt frequently checking a luminescent watch dial so as to comply with parental curfews back at the cabins.

The setting of the time is not hard to imagine. “Mom, we are going to walk around the lake after the meeting to get some exercise.”

“Well, OK, but you be back here and your “good nights” said, by eleven o’clock sharp!”

“OK. I promise.”

One night, Patricia forgets her flashlight. “Do you want me to go back and get it?” I ask twice, knowing that she has problems with her peripheral vision in the dark.

“No,” she says. “I think I’ll be OK.”

But she’s not. The shadows are erratic and make it hard to pick out uneven places in the path. There are blinding headlights from the adjacent road. It is a slow, tentative effort that takes us around. My own eyes are adjusting to my first pair of prescription glasses.

At times, Patricia can follow the gleaming whiteness of my untanned, bare lawyer’s legs as I walk ahead of her, limping on an arthritic knee, leaning on a walking stick for relief.

On the far side of the lake, where the woods crowd the shore and the lighting is sparse, we hold hands and match steps — fiercely independent, both of us — more used to walking alone than together, but in need of the light of companionship in the darkness. Together, we make it around without incident.

Forty years ago, it could have been us out there, slipping into the night like it was day on strong, tanned legs, knowing exactly where we were going together and why. We didn’t know that the path might get darker, not lighter. We hadn’t a thought that our knees might be fickle and our bright eyes might not see through the shadows.

God asks, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Am 3:3). Thirty-four years ago, Patricia and I stood before witnesses and pledged so easily “to have and to hold each other in sickness and in health, for better and for worse.” Now, stumbling along in darkness deeper than we had imagined back then, the pledge has come due and it proves good in our hearts and on the path.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8)

Under the mercy of Christ,


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