[A non Christian asked me unabashedly about Christianity in this way: “What’s in it for me?” More on that here. I wrote the following in response. My experience inspired it. And I believe it encapsulates the essence of a Christian life–the rewards of following Christ and ultimately dying to self.]
“Lani! Slow down. You’ve got four legs, I have two!”
My beautiful black Lab can sure motor when she wants. The brick-red shale crumbles under my feet as I try to keep up. We’re hiking up a steep grade to one of our favorite vantage points. The sounds of the valley accompany us. I can see my neighbor’s barn in the distance, a little beat up but a marvel nonetheless. Artists would love it if they could find it; within the confines of a farm, it’s taken for granted.
I stop to catch my breath and look back to our starting point. I can see my house posing under a spectacular summer day. Surrounded by cottonwoods, oaks and aspens, it’s quite a sight. A picture of stone simplicity trimmed by green grass and roses, western elegance nonetheless. Seventy-five yards in front of it, a fly fisherman scours the great serpentine creek. Big fish can be found but it will require intuition and skill.
We arrive at our destination; a rock cropping that never fails to amaze me. A frenetic coloring of gold, red, tan, grey, black and brown, the synergistic moss has sculpted itself into abstract paramecia. I sit and admire the vista. Incredible. Rolling hills in the foreground, mountains in the distance. The snow isn’t entirely vanquished from the high points as stubborn orphans cling to the shadows.
My breathing has calmed. “You trying to outrun a tsunami? What’s the hurry?”
Lani is sitting like a Westminster show dog. Expectant. Searching.
I follow her gaze to an adjacent ridgeline. Grazing cows and calves are lethargically going about their business. Below them, a flock of sheep slowly enters into view from the saddle.
“Busy place.” I do nonchalant sarcasm well.
Lani glances at me briefly and then bounds across the side hill, jumping the chokeberries and oak brush, taking aim on the ruminants. If I commanded her to stop, she wouldn’t. She’s on a quest. I follow but lose her as I scramble through higher brush. I hope she’s not expecting to play with the sheep; a gun-toting shepherd might shoot her. I reach the low ground between the ridges and trot up to the flock’s main body. Lani is nowhere to be seen.
“Lani!” No here-I-am bark in response. A short distance away is a solo cottonwood. A perfect spot for shade. Perhaps she’s cooling down. As I round the tree, still peeved at my missing dog, I find her. Comfortably relaxing.
“Doggonnit Lani.” Usually she reacts to my scolding, not now. She nods serenely to her companion resting on matted grass.
“Hello. Nice to see you.” Piercing blue, sky-reflecting eyes are the mesmerizing feature of a white lamb that just greeted me warmly. Lambs don’t have blue eyes, do they?
They\’re not known for conversation, either. “Exactly when did I wormhole to a parallel universe?”
“There’s only one. That should suffice, don\’t you think?\” The lamb said. “You doing well?”
Talking to my dog isn’t strange because it’s always a short monologue––mine. Okay, I’m all in. Let’s chat with a lamb.
“I’m doing okay.”
The lamb is studying me. Is he wondering if I’m being truthful?
“I\’ve been getting an update on your life. I understand you have a new home. A step up from the trailer, yes?”
An update from my dog? Paging Dr. Doolittle.
“You can actually heat the place. And there\’s a real kitchen. It’s quite charming,” I said.
The lamb\’s warm gaze seems to be taking an inventory of my being.
“And yellow roses I understand. What about your other needs, your health?” he asked with concern.
“Blessings are everywhere. In spite of everything, Lani and I are not lacking. I teach school on occasion, I help out some friends in town to earn a few bucks, my body hasn’t crashed. I can’t complain.”
“Subtle miracles?” he asked.
“If you only knew.” That’s odd, he\’s using my term. I’ve always characterized subtle miracles as the wonders that filter through happenstance––only understood when connected retrospectively. Something that is beyond circumstance and clearly demonstrates God\’s touch. Never the mind-blowing, heaven-rending variety. Those are for Moses and Bernadette.
\”I\’m well aware,” he said compassionately.
The lamb and Lani exchange a knowing glance.
He is? How? Could an animal be an angel? Or maybe my guardian angel\’s pet? No, he\’s gotta be a messenger.
He continues: “I wanted Lani to bring you here. There are aspects of your journey worth talking about. Why don’t you have a seat?”
A broken tree limb looks like the perfect candidate. I find a comfortable spot.
A glance at Lani. “And exactly how do you guys communicate? You don\’t text.\” I flippantly remark.
She gives me a look.
“How would you characterize the dark moments of the last few years?” The lamb asked.
How do I take all that emotion and pain and succinctly answer? “Agonizing,” I respond.
“But you’ve become a man of strong faith, haven’t you?”
“Strength comes from meeting resistance, from overcoming obstacles. The stronger the opposition, the stronger the faith. You’ve been tested. Your faith was compelled to grow. Do you understand?” he asked.
I pensively nod.
“As clay in God’s hands, you had sharp edges, irregular form. As well as a hardened and misdirected will. You were determined to live your life as you saw fit. God, as potter, needed to remold you without breaking you. This shaping process, as you’ve learned, is arduous and time-consuming.”
“Was the hellish fire of the kiln necessary?” A bit of sarcasm in my voice.
“Every degree had its purpose.”
“There were times when I wondered how much I could take.” Momentarily, I lose myself in memories not so sweet.
“You received no more or no less than what was required. And now. Has your life changed by walking with Christ?”
Such a simple question. My eyes begin to well but fortunately they’re hidden by my sunglasses.
“So much of my life has been focused on empty pursuits. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising in that I was living a hollow existence. Not anymore. With Jesus, there’s fullness to my life. The chaos has been muted. The contrast is startling, thankfully so.”
“Has life become easier?”
“Problems still remain. But they’re manageable and they don’t send me over the moon. I’m both grounded and supported by God. I’m also at peace. I know who I am and why I’m here. There’s a wonderful wisdom in that.”
“Are you happy?” he asked. This seems to be important to him.
There are seven billion types of happy. Nevertheless, I know what he’s asking.
“In that I have a right relationship with God, I’m truly happy. Joyful. But I’m really not the jovial type, so my happiness is contentment.”
I pause for a moment to gather my thoughts.
“I was telling Lani that ‘all the world’s a stage’ is perhaps more insightful than Shakespeare intended. Because of my faith, I see life as a moral drama where even ordinary events have great significance. I’m never not aware of that.”
“A sense of purpose,” the lamb said.
“Absolutely! It can be exhilarating. I tell people I view the world through a spiritual lens. That I’m always trying to find connections to God’s plan. At times, I succeed.”
The lamb gets up from the grass and walks to the trunk of the cottonwood. He peers around it to check on his charges. Content that their grazing is as it should be, he returns to his resting spot.
“Despair, cynicism, frustration. Are they still a stumbling block for you?” he asked.
“I may have a little regression now and then but never the all-out wars of before. Life can be unfair. Sure. But if you live in the shadow of eternity, this life isn’t the only life.”
“So does your life on earth have less meaning because you anticipate the hereafter?” He knows the answer.
“Not at all. The way I live my life has extraordinary consequences. It determines what my eternal fate will be. There are no throwaway days.”
“You couldn’t be wrong about this, could you? Perhaps guilty of wishful thinking? In much of the culture, Christianity is seen as a convenient coping mechanism.” Is he really playing devil’s advocate?
Of course I’ve heard this criticism. I would love to get in the heads of those people who espouse it. What are they afraid of? Are they worried about a disruption of their lives? A surrender of so-called freedom?
“Maybe I daydream too much and perhaps I’m prone to over analyze things. However, I’ve been able to embrace Christianity’s claims about God and the nature of reality with absolute conviction. They make sense to me. Their reasoned clarity never fails to impress. But don’t take my word on their truthfulness. Brilliant erudition through the ages attests to those truths. As well as some of the greatest scientific discoveries.”
The lamb stands and walks toward me. Stopping, nose to nose, care and love pouring from his eyes, he asks, “What about your nightmares?”
Wow, a mind reader too. As I try to remember the last one, I realize that my nights have been undisturbed for some time. Interesting.
“They just kind of stopped,” I said.
“I’m delighted. What about your loneliness and thoughts of hurting yourself?”
I have this overwhelming sense that he wants assurance. An acknowledgement that I trust the Lord and that I\’ve indeed surrendered my life to Him.
“Thankfully, I’m beyond that––I have a relationship with God. I trust and accept His will completely. And unlike all the other relationships in my life that have their own tidal currents, my bond with Him is permanent, glorious and faithful. And He’s forgiven me. For the pain I’ve caused, for my inimitable pride and for all the other sins I’ve committed.”
I’ve been reluctant to share these thoughts but giving them life in words is calming. I smile.
“Are you ever upset by the mysterious ways of God?” he asked.
I would love insider information, but it’s not in the cards. “If I consider the mystery of suffering, even mine, and death for example, intellectually I can understand them as part of God’s plan. But when I’m confronted with either one, well, it knocks me for a loop. However, I trust there are reasons and God is the only one that has the script. That’s okay with me.”
“You wanted to be a good man. Are you?” he asked.
“I’m always trying to be a better person. Not because I have to but because I want to. That’s what God intended. Love Him and love my neighbor, which is the thrust of the Ten Commandments. Liberating truths that free us from the slavery of immorality.”
Sounds from the flock interrupt our conversation. The lamb looks over at Lani, then to the sheep and back to me. “I think it’s time. My drove is on the move and I’m the designated shepherd. I want you to know I’m pleased with you. It appears I can worry less.”
The lamb begins to walk toward the other sheep. As he approaches a lone flower, he hesitates for a moment to take in its fragrance and then turns and looks at me with his big blues. \”God loves you beyond measure. We all do.\” He nods his head slightly and continues on his way.
Lani and I both stand and watch him. Regal, this one.
I look back at Lani. “And that was…”
I swear my dog is smiling.
“C’mon, you can tell me. Was that just a lamb or maybe even… The lamb? Epic difference, kiddo.” I\’m thinking I should drop to my knees.
The vortex from her wagging tail could blow a house down. And then Lani starts toward the saddle and distances herself from me immediately. So athletic and quick–she\’s almost doing cartwheels. Suddenly, she skids to a stop and looks back at me with incredible affection, her eyes sparkling. It’s an extraordinary moment––as if our love and companionship has been compressed into a singularity of infinite value. Then, with irrepressible joy, she turns and races for home.
I follow at a leisurely pace.
So many years ago, like a kid in a sandbox, I played in the clouds. It was as though God threw white fluffy lamb’s wool into the sky just for me; misty cumulus forms that reached for my body. I was alone in my jet, alone over the Pacific and except for ocean and sky, not anyone or anything could be seen. I could have been the only person on earth. It wasn’t frightening or intimidating. It was intoxicating. I felt important, unique, as if I were given an honor.
God presented the world to me.
I’ve forgotten those moments. They were lost in a faithless life. Yet, the sublime joy of seeking Him has been rediscovery. Although it seems everything has changed, some things haven’t. I’m as unique now as I was then. Loved now as I was loved then. And my life, the world, gifts from God, are still to be treasured.
I\’ve been to the Mountaintop.
© Marcus Allen Steele. All Rights Reserved.
Photography: See our Photographers page.