“David replied to Abigail, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you to meet me today! Thank God for your good sense!” (1 Samuel 25:32-33)
We were invited to dinner at our friend Jane’s lake house. Jane’s daughter, who worked at a veterinary clinic, was also there and she brought an unexpected guest. An eight-week old German Shepherd mix puppy the people in the vet’s office had named Baxter. Baxter had been abandoned and had several quarter sized bare batches of fur that might have been from cigarette burns. When Jane’s daughter put him down on the floor he ran straight to a corner of the room and hid under a table. My wife, Stephanie, picked him up and held him and looked at me and I knew exactly where this was heading. “No way”, I said. “We already have two dogs. Unh, unh. I don’t want another puppy. Nope.”
Baxter came home with us that night and has been with us the last twelve years. We’ve become good buddies but we got off to a rocky start. He annoyed the heck out of me as a puppy. The more I got irritated with him and pushed him away the harder he tried to get my attention. One day I was out in the backyard on a beautiful spring morning planting a batch of new flowers. I’ve always found working out in the yard as a way to get away from everything, work off some stress, get that good feeling that comes from physical work and a sense of accomplishment, commune with God. We had a big backyard and I planted the flowers in the corner because of you know who. Sure enough, Stephanie let him out and he came tearing right to the corner of the yard, starting “playing” back and forth over the flowers while he looked at me with his tongue hanging out and then for good measure lifted a leg to do his business. I threw down my shovel and stormed into the kitchen.
“That dog of yours just ruined a whole morning’s worth of work! I am so sick of him. He ruins everything I do out there!” Stephanie didn’t miss a beat and said to me, “You know, Honey, when you get to Heaven, God is not going to say to you, ‘Well done good and faithful servant. You had the nicest looking yard in the neighborhood.’ But he might say, ‘Well done good and faithful servant. You cared for and gave a home to one of my creatures that someone burned with a cigarette and then abandoned.” Ouch. Don’t you just hate it when someone is right like that? And yet, aren’t you thankful someone cares enough to speak the truth. In our home we have come to call that “getting hit with a two-by-four across the face.” Not literally, of course. More like the old Mennen Skin Bracer After Shave commercial from the ’70’s when someone has some Mennen aftershave slapped on their face and then says, “Thanks. I needed that.”
In 1 Samuel 25, David was blinded with rage and about to kill Nabal who was ungrateful for the protection of his fields that David and his men had provided and refused to give David any food in return to compensate them. In steps Nabal’s wife, Abigail, who gives David plenty of food and also a dose of godly counsel. She calms David down and prevents him from acting on his rage so “[he] won’t have to carry on [his] conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed and vengeance” (1 Samuel 25:31). She hit David across the face with a two-by-four and David had a “Thanks, I need that moment.”
It is ironic that before I became a believer I thought that religious people needed religion as a kind of crutch because they couldn’t deal with the reality of life. What I have found out over time is that Jesus is the most real person who ever walked the earth and that believing in him and following him keeps me grounded in true reality – God’s reality – as opposed to living a reality solely of my own making with me and my wants, needs and desires at the center. Worship on Sunday mornings is not an escape from the world. Worship through God’s word and sacrament re-focuses me on the centrality of God as I live my life Monday through Saturday. Affirmation is a wonderful thing. We all need affirmation that God loves us – in fact we can’t hear it enough. But affirmation without an occasional two-by-four leads to narcissism, and pride which is the root cause of a host of other sins against God and our neighbor.
“No discipline is ever enjoyable while it is happening – it is painful! But afterward there will be a quiet harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.” (Hebrews 12:11)
“If you are truly going to help me, show me a sign to prove that it is really the Lord speaking to me.” (Judges 6:17)
I had never stepped foot in a church until I was 33 years old. After I did things started to happen. At first I was the guy sitting in the back of the church on Sunday who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but church. I experienced a spiritual awakening. Jesus became real, the Scriptures came alive and I was welcomed into a fellowship of believers. After several months my heart told me it was time to be baptized but my mind had doubts. What would my Jewish family of origin think? Was God really leading me to take this leap of faith? Why couldn’t Jesus and I just keep this new found relationship nice and safe and cozy and private.
One night I tossed and turned in bed until I finally got up and went into the family room around 2 o’clock in the morning. The house was silent except for the clock ticking on the mantel over the fireplace. I had never prayed out loud before and I felt foolish at first speaking out loud with no one else in the room. But I believed God was listening. My prayer wasn’t eloquent although it was from the heart. “Lord, I know we’re not supposed to ask you for signs but I really need one. Please help me. Show me a sign that it’s your will for me to be baptized. I believe it is but I need something tangible from you to help me know this is all real and you really are with me.” A peace came over me and I went back to bed.
The next morning Stephanie took our two boys, ages 5 and 6, to the eye doctor for eye exams, along with our 1 year old daughter. We were going through a rough patch financially and the kids had been passing around one virus or another for weeks. We had $200 to pay for both boys if they needed glasses and hoped that would be enough. Lack of sleep and sick kids can be tough on young parents. After the boys had been called back for their exams Stephanie found herself opening up to a kind and compassionate couple in the waiting room. A minister and his wife. The kind of people who make you feel at ease and genuinely listen so that as you talk you feel unburdened. Stephanie excused herself to take our daughter to the restroom and when she came back the couple had left.
The receptionist called Stephanie to the checkout window and gave her the bad news. Both boys would need glasses and the bill came to $400. “But, that couple you were talking to you in the waiting room? When it came time to pay their bill they gave me a check to help you pay yours. They didn’t ask how much your bill was. They just looked at each other and nodded and wrote a check for $200.” Exactly half the amount of our bill and exactly half the amount of our shortfall.
When I got home from my job as a computer programmer that evening Stephanie excitedly told me about “the Eyeglass People”. And then I told her about my prayer the night before when I asked God for a sign. Believe what you will, I had no doubt He had given me an answer. The sign he gave me through the Eyeglass People was “You give me what you have and I’ll take care of the rest – and it will be exactly what you need.” When we went to church on Sunday I said to our priest “I’m ready to be baptized.” God has been true to His word ever since. He’s been doing it a long time and always will.
“For Christ himself has brought us peace. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” (Ephesians 2:14)
When Stephanie and I were married we decided that religion would not be a big part of our life. She had been raised in a family of nominal Roman Catholic faith. I had been raised in a Jewish family where no one ever prayed, read the Bible or talked about God. For the first seven years of our marriage questions about religion never came up. Until one afternoon when our then six year old son came in the house from playing outside with a friend. “Daddy, Johnny saw our menorah and Christmas tree through the window and wants to know are we Jewish or are we Christian?”
I answered him the way most Dads do when they don’t want to deal with their child’s question “Go ask your mother.” So he did. Stephanie came to me and said, “We need to do something.” She said she would be willing to convert to Judaism but I would have to take the lead. I didn’t want to do anything because I didn’t believe in anything. Better to be an honest agnostic than a religious hypocrite, right? So I did nothing hoping it would all go away over time.
Then one day Stephanie said, “If you’re not willing to take the lead then I will. I’m going to take the kids to church and you need to come with us. Whatever we do we need to do it as a family.” Church? No way. Jewish people don’t go to church. But how could I not go with her when she had been willing to convert for my sake? A neighbor had invited Stephanie to the small Episcopal church she attended and the Sunday morning arrived when we agreed we would all go. I still remember the day like it was yesterday even though it happened over 25 years ago.
I stood in the kitchen looking out the window into our backyard. “What was I thinking? Why had I agreed to do this?” I was certain the church would be full of people who would not want me there. I associated Christians with the Holocaust. I thought they looked at all Jews as “Christ killers”, a term I heard growing up. I knew nothing about Jesus other than something bad happened to him 2,000 years ago, some Jewish people were involved and for some reason there were people who hated Jews ever since. I saw the Cross as a symbol of hatred and persecution. I got into the driver’s seat of our minivan, slammed the door shut and said, “Just don’t think I’ll be doing this every Sunday! I’ve got better things to do.”
When we got there the people seemed genuinely glad to see me. I heard the gospel read and Jesus referred to as “rabbi”. I didn’t realize that Christians even read from the Old Testament. Eventually, I didn’t know it but Stephanie and her new friends began to pray for me. There were times when I sat in that little church and the Holy Spirit washed over me and I wept. Not tears of joy or sadness – it was more like a cleansing. I began to understand the Bible as one story from Genesis to Revelation. One Sunday as I walked out of the church the priest asked me what I thought about all this. All I could say at the time was “All I know is that I leave here feeling a lot better than when I came.” That’s been true ever since.
And the Cross became to me no longer a symbol of hatred and persecution but of God’s incredible love and forgiveness both for Jews and Gentiles. “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us” (Ephesians 2:14). Been thinking of inviting someone to church but haven’t gotten around to it? Invite them. You never know what God and some faithful prayers can do once they get there.
“Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
I’ve been enamored with cardinals since childhood. With their fire engine red body, jet black face and eyes, and orange beak the word that comes to mind to describe them is “regal”. The Amazin’ Mets of the ’60’s were my team but whenever the St. Louis Cardinals were on TV I pulled for them because they had the coolest uniforms – two cardinals perched on opposite ends of a baseball bat. I secretly had this desire to walk up to one of them and actually hold it in my hands but knew that could never happen because no bird would ever let a human get so close.
In 1994 I believed that the Lord was calling me to go to seminary and become an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. So I began what’s called “the ordination discernment process” – three years of meeting with peers, ordained leaders, internships, to articulate an answer to the question “Why ordained ministry and not something else?” Three years is a long time but the decision to leave behind life as you and your family have come to know it is a big one. About a year into the process I quit. Like Moses at the burning bush I knew I was standing on holy ground but presented to God a laundry list of reasons why He had made a poor choice for a priest. At the time I thought that to be a priest you had to like to be the center of attention, play golf, tell funny jokes, and tell people what to do. I told Him and begged Him to let me serve him any other way but that one. But all I heard in response was silence. Running from God can make you too tired to keep going and too afraid to stop. Over time, feelings of guilt and fear grew. I began to dread the day I would meet God and have to answer for my cowardice and deal with the consequences of rejecting His will. It was during this time that the Lord used a cardinal to bring me back into His will and to teach me that His will is never separated from His love.
One Saturday morning I went to the church office where my family attended church to use the printer. I needed to make copies of a handout for a Passover Seder dinner I was going to lead in a few days at the church. Holy Week was approaching. The days when Jesus went to Jerusalem and died on the cross for our sins. All of a sudden I heard a loud crash against the floor-to-ceiling windows in the parish hall right outside the office. I immediately thought that one of the skateboarding kids I had seen in the church parking when I came in that morning had lost control of his skateboard and crashed into one of the windows. I rushed out of the office to catch the perpetrator before he ran off and to look over the damage but the parking lot was empty and the windows weren’t damaged. There was no one around and as I was about to head back inside I saw lying on the ground at the base of the windows a male and female cardinal that had crashed into the glass. At first glance I thought they were dead but they were still alive. I went back inside to call someone who might know what to do to help them but when I picked up the telephone receiver I heard a voice not my own say, “You help them.” I found a piece of cardboard, hurried back outside, knelt down by the female and slid the cardboard under her not sure what to do next. When I slowly raised her up she immediately took off and flew away into a hedge of bushes.
I went over to the male and he looked more seriously wounded. He was lying on his side and his chest was heaving up and down as he gasped for breath. Images of Jesus – regal and innocent sufferer – hanging on a cross on Good Friday filled my mind. I slowly raised the cardboard and gently turned him so he was no longer on his side. We were face to face. His eyes blinked calmly and stared straight into mine. He allowed me to stroke the feathers on his back and near his face with my finger tip. It occurred to me in that moment that God had granted me a desire of my heart from childhood to hold one of these redbirds in my hands. It was as if He was saying “OK, what more can I do to prove to you that I love you and you can trust me?”
I felt my heart that had grown cold since I quit the discernment process months before and insisted on going my own way begin to thaw. I was drawn back to the love of God that drew me to Him in the first place. Like the Prodigal Son “who came to his senses” and realized he needed to go home I knew that it was better to walk with God wherever He asks us to go and do whatever he asks us to do than to run from Him and go it alone. We don’t know what the future holds but we do know who holds the future. And then the cardinal flew off to find his mate. And I went home to tell my wife, Stephanie, what God had just done. And we decided to get back into the discernment process to follow the Lord wherever He might lead us.