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Glimpses of God
 
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GLIMPSES OF GOD

GLIMPSES OF GOD
FATHERLOVE
(The final chapter in this book about God focuses on a quality that reflects so much of His character.)

Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Holy Family Hospital. l966.  Dr. Pia Santiago took a few moments to visit with the Moslem noblewoman who'd brought her grandson in for an ear examination. She kept glancing curiously at something Bilquis Sheikh was holding. Finally she asked, "Madam Sheikh, what are you doing with a Bible?"

The stately woman with luminous eyes replied that she was earnestly searching for God and had been studying the Bible and the Koran. She was intrigued by Christianity but found it somewhat confusing: "You seem to make God so... I don't know... personal."

The doctor, who was also a nun, suggested that Bilquis find out for herself why Christians felt this way. "Why don't you pray to the God you are searching for? Talk to Him as if He were your friend." Bilquis smiled. It was like being told to talk to the Taj Mahal. But then the doctor leaned closer, took Bilquis' hand, and said, "Talk to Him as if He were your father."  For some reason those words shot through the Muslim woman like electricity. In Pakistan the idea that God was a father, that He had children, was blasphemous. How could the Great One be brought down to a human level?

But what if God really were like a father? On the way home, Bilquis couldn't get the thought out of her mind. Hours after going to bed it kept her wide awake. She fondly recalled her own father who would put aside everything to listen to his beloved child. Suppose, just suppose, God were like that... Finally, sometime after midnight, Bilquis got up and knelt on the rug by her bed. Trembling with excitement and uncertainty she looked up toward heaven and spoke aloud, "Oh Father, my Father... Father God."

She was not prepared for the surge of confidence that followed. Suddenly Bilquis didn't feel alone; God was present. "He was so close," Bilquis recalled, "that I found myself laying my head on His knees like a little girl sitting at her father's feet. For a long time I knelt there, sobbing quietly, floating in His love. I found myself talking with Him, apologizing for not having known Him before. And again came His loving compassion, like a warm blanket settling around me."

Those who come into God's house are usually swept off their feet by a Father's love. That divine quality, in Scripture, seems to envelop all the others. The psalms repeatedly celebrate Jehovah's love. His hovingkindness is everlasting. It fills the earth, reaches the heavens, stands firm forever.
God's love better than life? I often wondered what the psalmist meant by that. Lately I've come to think he was declaring that if given a choice between experiencing fully God's love for a few moments and living the usual seventy-or-so years, the former would be preferable. Sound a bit farfetched? Granted, the psalms speak with a certain poetic enthusiasm. But there are also many other witnesses of God's love who can identify with those exaggerated sentiments.

Charles Finney recalled a life-changing encounter with God's Holy Spirit in this way: "No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love... These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollected I cried out, 'I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me. 'I said, 'Lord, I cannot bear any more;' yet I had no fear of death. " When Oswald Chambers found God's "special blessing," after years of agonized search he exclaimed: "Glory be to God, the last aching abyss of the human heart is filled to overflowing with the love of God. Love is the beginning, love is the middle and love is the end."

Another spiritual pilgrim, Samuel Logan Brengle, of Salvation Army renown, found that "my heart was melted like wax before fire; Jesus Christ was revealed to my spiritual consciousness, revealed in me, and my soul was filled with unutterable love, I walked in a heaven of love. "One day he told a friend: "This is the perfect love about which the Apostle John wrote; but it is beyond all I dreamed of; in it is personality; this love thinks, wills, talks with me, corrects me, instructs and teaches me."

That is God's Fatherlove. It animates all His actions and permeates all His thoughts toward us. Every divine attribute is molded by that quality. It is love that impels God to be intensely present.  Love enlarges His heart to omnipresence. And He is most transcendent precisely in that alien love that sacrifices itself so completely. The Father's love cries out for justice: "How can you do this to my children!" And His love finds ingenious ways to zap the most unworthy with an overdose of mercy.

Love moves God to humble, unassuming acts of service. And love injects His sovereignty with an irresistible charisma. He compels allegiance by His willful compassion. God's love stands constant and immovable, an eloquent call into His everlasting arms. And of course it's a Person who does the loving, and longs in his depths for love in return.

The Father's awesome attributes are seen most sharply through the prism of love. But those attributes also help define the word. The human experience we call "love" isn't a summary of God.Rather, His qualities fill out the meaning of that frail word. The human experience of fatherhood is no complete summary either. God has none of the typical male limitations. As is evident from the witnesses quoted above, He's not short on expressing affection. Rather, His qualities define what it means to be Father in Heaven.

God's Fatherlove surpasses human categories.It's not something one comes to know casually. It's usually encountered through experience, from the inside. We grasp it best not by observation but by doing. Our own acts of compassion sometimes open an unexpected window into His.

Macomb, Illinois.McDonough County Hospital.l981 Jerry and I walked into Room 311 at the worst time. Barbara, our step-mother, was trying to suction Dad, holding his restless tongue flat with a suppressor, wiggling the tube gingerly down his congested throat. "If only I could keep him suctioned for one day," she explained reflexively in greeting, "maybe the pneumonia.." and then paused to thank us for flying out from California. Her drawn face makes it clear she'd been fighting a losing battle for some time.

I had come with anxious expectations. After the stroke, how pale and emaciated would his face be? I did not want to see those familiar ruddy features wasting away. But it wasn't his face, still holding a bit of color, that shocked. It was his terrible struggle for breath, chest and abdomen heaving, never a moment's rest. I wasn't ready for suffering.

Then Barbara broke down. The frustration of struggling alone was too much. She'd promised herself she wasn't going to cry, but helpless, grateful tears came in our presence. Jerry and I, white-faced, jumped in to the fray. Trembling, we tried to get the tube down deeper to the deadly, ever-forming mucus and watched his eyes roll and his head shake in vain. His limbs were weak, his moans strong. It was Saturday, a cold autumn day in Illinois. Jerry had to go pick up Dan, who was flying in from Colorado, at the airport in Moline. Outside the room he began weeping uncontrollably and stumbled toward the car. He continued sobbing on the interstate past miles of broad, flat farmland full of dead leaves. Jerry remembered. Dad had been a man of few fears. We three boys grew up under the umbrella of his steadfast moral courage. But he had expressed one apprehension: He didn't want to die in a hospital---life taken away in small clinical pieces.Jerry remembered and wept.

Back in 311 Barbara talked to Dad incessantly. She wiped his forehead, smoothed the sheets, suctioned, adjusted the oxygen tube, and poured out hopeful, devoted words on her husband of three months. Every groan became a sentence she completed. She repeated his name, nodded yes, yes, encouraged every breath. By sheer force of will she created conversation in that brain flooded with sinister blood.

But I grew weary with the struggle and imagined Dad is too. If only he could sleep a little. Barbara said the doctor had left floor nurses instructions not to resuscitate Dad should he stop breathing. I wanted to know why. Out in the hall the doctor outlined the damage caused by a ruptured artery in the brain.

"So what are his chances of recovering?" "I would say almost none." "You're saying his brain is dead?" "Well even if he recovers from the pneumonia... you must think of what you are going to have left. In order to recover your father must regain basic functions. He must be able to swallow, to eat, he must be truly alert, recognize people. Otherwise he will just be a vegetable I'm afraid."

"What about words, talking? Barbara has heard him say a few." "Well on occasion a patient may say a word, or move a limb, but it could just be some reflex action; it doesn't really mean the brain is functioning adequately." I still wanted to know how the doctor was making his evaluation. "Okay, you did a brain scan. Can you tell exactly how and where the brain is damaged?"

"Well a brain scan doesn't really tell you about the future. Some people with minor damage will never recover. There are other people with half their brains gone who are functioning normally. The key is still function--the ability to eat and be alert."

The doctor left us with the suggestion that at some point the family might start thinking about when it would be appropriate to stop artificial support systems. So we stood numbly in the hallway as visitors walked by. Finally Barbara sobbed, "I just wish I could have known him longer." I embraced her awkwardly and think, yea that's the rub, three months together and zap. I mumbled a few words about heaven.

It was the first time in my life I had referred to it as a present consideration. For some reason they move Dad to 309. I couldn't decide whether that's good or bad. After he was settled in, Barbara wiped his forehead, smoothed the sheets, suctioned, adjusted the oxygen tube, and poured out her hopeful devoted words.

She told me the pastor plans to come at 3:00 for an anointing service. I wondered how I should pray. It seemed that an "if it be thy will" petition was very near to no petition at all. I was quite willing to wield some hard-hitting promises and pound on the door of the Lord like that persistent widow in Jesus' parable. But I didn't want to see Dad go on suffering pointlessly.

I was also willing to cooperate passively and give him up into God's hands. Should I fight in petition or should I rest in submission? For some reason, looking at Dad's heaving thorax in Room 309, I wasn't willing to settle for a safe medium. I wanted to go one way or the other. After praying about how to pray I recalled the doctor's words concerning function. Maybe that could be a sign. We could ask God to give us an indication about how He wants us to pray. And it wouldn't be something arbitrary.

Yes, there were two specific things: swallowing and recognizing people. If we could see some bit of progress in these areas then we would know to petition for recovery all the way in earnest. If not, we would rest in prayer. Barbara and I had a long talk about this and we agreed that our part in the anointing would be to ask for these particular signs. The pastor and an elder arrived, old friends of the family. The pastor took out his tiny bottle of oil and rubbed a little on Dad's pallid furrowed forehead. He placed a hand on his numb shoulder and began to pray quietly.

It was a very mild petition, just laying things out before the will of the Lord. Suddenly Dan walked in the room, the firstborn, tall and broad-shouldered. Everyone looked up and saw his face was white as a ghost. He strode over to the bed, bent down to kiss Dad and saed, "I love you." It turned out he and Jerry and Mom had just walked into Room 311 and found an empty bed, newly made. For a moment Dan thought he had arrived too late. After the relief of finding the right room, he wanted to make sure he got the good word in.

There were polite hugs all around, clumsy words of encouragement for all present. My brothers said they would stay with Dad and urged me to go out for some food. I persuaded Barbara to take a break too. Driving up the gravel road to Dad and Barbara's country house I spotted the red barn he had built for his horses. While Barbara fixed a bite I walked over to take a look.

Beneath a covering of leaves the grass looked terribly green, green as the tall stands I'd seen at Dad's boyhood farm near Texarkana. I stepped inside the barn and smelled the pungent hay. The horses were gone. But every beam stood sturdy as ever. Solid oak.He'd put up most of it by himself.

Dad built well. I remembered all the times I relied on him. I remembered well then. I was five, slipped off his back while he was climbing out of the swimming pool. I couldn't swim, but they say I just lay in the water calmly (sinking), sure that Dad would fetch me out again. And of course he did. I was twelve, walking with him in the woods he loved. It was always easy to talk. I had so many questions about right and wrong. And he lived the answers. I was twenty, coming home from college on vacation. We would sit out on the porch looking at sunset. When I shared how my faith was growing, his eyes would sparkle. It was getting late. Shadows settled over the cornfields bordering Dad's place.

I took a last look up at the sturdy oak rafters, breathed deeply the fragrance of wood and hay, and walked out into the dusk, grateful for good shelter. Back at the hospital Jerry and Dan reported that Dad had slept awhile, breathing rather restfully for the first time. It was exhilarating news. That night the three of us kept a vigil in Room 309, watching over the helpless man who changed our diapers. He still heaved sometimes, but was definitely sleeping more than struggling. On occasion he snoozed very quietly. His shallow but regular breathing sounded wonderful. We didn't talk much, mainly played an extended version of the five-letter-word game. But our night watch felt good. We changed his position at regular intervals, fiddled with the blankets and jumped up whenever he groaned. Slowly I began to understand why Dad always got up around 2 a.m. to check on us and smooth our blankets--even after we were older.

This was the only time I had been up in the night for the one who was up so many nights for me. This was unexplored territory. In its strange stillness I came face to face with the power of his love for me. I knew then that I will love my children with the same unquenchable desire. About 10:00 Sunday morning, Dan, Jerry and I returned to the hospital after a few hours of sleep.Nurses had disconnected the oxygen. Dad was breathing just fine on his own. They believed he'd licked the pneumonia. One said, "A miracle is just what we needed around here."

I walked over to the bed, Dad saw me and smiled. I grabbed on to the faint twinkle in his eyes for all I was worth. A good sign. Then he asked for water. I held a paper cup to his lips, he gulped, and swallowed, yes swallowed twice. We were jubilant. Two signs. I remembered that I could now pound on the door without reservation. But of course I'd jumped the gun and was already been petitioning very pointedly. We spent the day congratulating Dad on his imminent recovery and exercising the languid limbs on his paralyzed right side. Each of us spotted more signs of recognition in his eyes. That night my brothers and I took turns keeping watch at the hospital. Dad slept like a baby. Monday it was time to fly back to our other homes. Dad was making gains by the hour. We said goodby in good spirits. At the airport the three of us reminded each other how fortunate it was we arrived right at the critical time. We were glad we'd been there to witness and participate. Our farewell embraces were strong and sure, no longer those of awkward, self-conscious children. We clutched at roots, almost torn up, that now bound us more visibly together within the miracle of a Father's love.

Fatherlove is discovered from the inside. We are given a moment of recognition, and our hearts respond: Yes that's the way God is. In my night watch at the hospital I was privileged to see a Heavenly Father rescue the one who had showed me what He is like. But what about people who have no father to suggest such a being, or worse, have a father who models a terrible distortion of the heavenly one? How are they supposed to get a hold on Fatherlove? A house on Crown Haven Court. Southern California. l987. Darryl knew it's time for the kids to go to bed. His wife had reminded him for the second time. But their cries of delight and the pure joy in their eyes were too much. They promised to play more quietly. The game went on. It was Jimmy's turn to throw a paper wad across the room to the trash basket in the corner. Suzy tried to knock it down with one hand before it gets there. Somehow they've hit on one of those games that are SO much fun for a few unrepeatable hours. Darryl's turn to throw. The kids laughed at six-foot-four Dad winding his long arms up for the "pitch." But his throws were hard to intercept. One more try for Suzy.

Everything darkened and fell quiet on Crown Haven Court except for one house where the muffled squeals and snickers flowed on until almost midnight. "Just this time." When Darryl finally crawled into bed and tried to sleep he could remember vividly other voices late in the night. Very different ones. His father's voice, ragged-edged, booming over Joey in the next room. "You WILL play in that church next week.Don't you dare disobey me."

Years before Joey had been taught by their fanatical father that walking into a Catholic church was equivalent to dropping into the fires of hell. Joey, the most sensitive and conscientious of the children, had accepted wholeheartedly the harsh black-and-white lines his father laid out on the world. But now Joey had become a budding organist. People were noticing his talent; even the big Catholic church in town noticed. They wanted the boy to play at services. The proud father, abruptly forgetting his previous tirades, thought that would be wonderful---and ordered his son to do it. Joey believed it was terribly wrong. From his bed in the dark he begged, "I just can't Dad, I can't. Please, please don't make me do it." "So you're going to disobey your father?" the man thundered down. "I'll make you eat your own vomit, boy." "Please, Dad.Please." Darryl would never forget that wrenching struggle. It went on for weeks. The father threatened and berated, jabbing at his son's tender conscience. The boy agonized between two terrible sins: disobeying Father and playing music for the "antichrist." Finally this gifted child-musician, who longed so much to do only good in this world, broke under the strain.

Taken to psychiatrists, he was pronounced a hopeless case. The doctors recommended that he be committed to an institution. After that, the father bitterly complained about the "mental case" in the family. Fortunately the mother did not abandon her son. Finally separated for good from Dad, she nurtured Joey back to health. But the damage went deep. The boy would never fulfill his potential as a musician. From then on Darryl saw his brother as a shadow of what he could have become. Anger. That's what Darryl remembered. And fear of that man with creased forehead and heavy eyebrows who conducted regular bullying sessions in the guise of religious instruction. Darryl would never be able to erase the long night of his childhood in the hands of a monster who consumed his own kind. He became the angriest of the sons, the most bitter, though these emotions were well hidden. He'd seen his own flesh-and-blood destroyed. How was it possible to forgive that? Predictably, Darryl turned against everything his father stood for---and ended up reflecting him. He adopted his mother's religion, but served his father's God, an endlessly demanding Lord.

Darryl tried so hard to please Him. An easy prey for fanaticism, he went off to a small school in the West Virginia mountains to cut himself off from the world and serve God every minute, every second. At one point it became a 24-hour-a-day effort.Darryl concluded that if Jesus prayed all night and came away refreshed he should too.So he denied himself sleep in order to pray and study Scripture---night after night. As his body and mind weakened, he kept hoping against hope that he could somehow achieve that supernatural refreshment with the Lord. Finally, a few verses in the psalms interrupted Darryl's ordeal. He read of God as a Father who has compassion on his children. A father of the fatherless. Someone who would care for us even if our parents forsake us. Darryl realized that if he were a compassionate Father he wouldn't put his kid through this. He wouldn't demand this kind of abuse. Darryl began listening to friends who were both sane and pious, and fanaticism began to loosen its stranglehold on him.

Then he ran head-on into something called Justification by Faith. He found Scripture loudly declaring that God accepts the ungodly on the basis of Christ's accomplishments and that He cherishes the believing sinner as if He had all the perfection of His own Son. God forgave. God was gracious. He was not endlessly demanding, but endlessly giving. This discovery rose like a dazzling sun in Darryl's life and he walked right out of the long night. God's graciousness illuminated everything. His Fatherlove seeped down deep. That's why Darryl could play that silly game with Jimmy and Suzy until almost midnight. Darryl is one of my closest friends. I like watching him with his children. Like most parents I yell at my kids too much (instead of talking to them). I have to struggle against getting uptight and impatient. Darryl seems different. He has high standards; a lot of people might consider him strict. But he disciplines with such grace.

He wins his children over to goodness. When little missteps threaten to blow up, my friend's good humor eases the family out of a showdown. I find in him much to learn from. I had a father who mirrored a heavenly one. Darryl could envy an orphan. But what a Father he discovered! And what a difference He has made! One day Darryl told me about a little incident in his home that illustrated for him what our Father God can mean to us. Bedtime had rolled around again with that stolid finality that energetic children instinctively distrust. The kids wanted "cozy time" with Dad: "Please, just a few minutes." Darryl gave in. Jimmy and Suzy piled into bed on either side of Dad and snuggled up. Darryl told them a story and then turned out the lights. "Time to be quiet. Try to go to sleep now." Then a little ritual began. Suzy slowly reached a hand out, felt Dad's face, and gently pulled it around toward her. Now she could sleep. Jimmy had heard something suspicious. He quietly reached out his hand and turned Dad's face back toward his side of the bed. This little game went on for a while until both were sound asleep. It was pitch dark, the kids couldn't see a thing. But each wanted that familiar countenance looking their way as they drifted off into the mysterious night. Each wanted Fatherlove beaming in their direction. Darryl saw a picture of God in all this, of course. And I saw more. This was more than just a symbol. This was Fatherlove made flesh and dwelling among us. It had appeared right in the midst of that abuse and suffering which breed their own kind, generation after generation. Grace had disrupted the inevitable cycle. Somehow, out of an angry, bitter wasteland, a compassionate father blossomed and bore fruit. I thought of two immeasurably different night scenes. A child listening in terror to threats and abuse raining down on his fragile brother. And two kids nestled against the rock of Fatherlove.  Victorious Warrior. Wise Shepherd.King of Kings. Consuming Fire. These are not absolute categories. They're more like nicknames we have for our God.

Nicknames aren't used officially. We can't speak of God authoritatively or exhaustively; we can't manipulate Him by our definitions. But a nickname does describe accurately some quality we've observed in a person close to us. And we do have many divine qualities to describe---many great names---because God has acted so eloquently in our world. Immutable. Omnipotent. Omniscient. They are best seen as terms of endearment, special names we call out to the Father who cherishes us. And in the end, all that matters is that His face is turned toward us in the dark.

(Fatherlove brings this book about God to a climax.)
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