The answer to the question “Where do you want to go today?” would never have been Los Angeles for my wife and I. The reasons don’t matter. What matters is that when we married we lived in California and had hopes of returning to Washington state someday, where clouds, rain, snow, and water and glorious mountains abound. Instead, two years into our marriage, and feeling a call to the study the Bible, we moved to Los Angeles so that I could attend seminary. We considered many options. We prayed about it. To our dismay, Los Angeles came out on top. So we went, not knowing what we’d find, but having a clear sense of God’s direction, a direction which, by the way, overruled our human desires.
Things didn’t always go well during our early days down there in the beautiful sun, and not so pretty smog:
1. the first week, while trying to open a bank account, I was mistaken by the teller for a bank robber because I matched the description of an at large thief.
2. Our car was stolen.
3. Our first apartment flooded.
4. Another car we owned was destroyed by the repair shop
5. Some 6th grade thugs on bikes tried to rip off my wife’s purse from her while she was walking home from work.
6. It was smoggy and hot; so hot that one day, when the air conditioning failed in our upstairs apartment, we came home to candles bent over, melted so they looked like the St. Louis arch.
Somewhere in the thick of all this disappointment, we came to realize that, even though we weren’t geographically where we wanted to be, we were where we belonged. We knew it, and decided that if this is where we were, then, by God, we were going to learn to enjoy it. And we did:
1. We went to the Hollywood Bowl for concerts and picnics
2. We made lifelong friends
3. I took a job as a youth pastor in a church, and the experience yoked my heart to youth, a link that’s never been broken.
4. A holocaust survivor lived in our apartment complex. He helped me with my Hebrew studies and shared stories of survival. Those stories led me to study Bonhoeffer, and eventual Sophie Scholl and the resistance movement among Christ followers, and this study was critical in overhauling my theology, from a fixation on the rapture and escape from this troubled world, to the necessity of bringing the presence of Christ’s future reign to light right here; right now. Germany became a place of fascination for me because of him. How could a “Christian” nation so miss the mark? Where were the courageous pastors? I hoped to visit someday.
5. I learned to preach, and was good enough that I was selected to preach at a student chapel as a contestant for a preaching contest. (who knew there were such things… who knows why there are such things?)
That sermon was taped, and after I’d graduated, and turned down ministry job offers in Los Angeles, a small church on an island in Washington state contacted me, asking me if I’d come up and preach. They were looking for an interim pastor, and liked my sermon, the one that was sitting around at the seminary only because I was in a silly preaching contest. Would I be interested in considering their position? I visited, landing in Friday Harbor on a Friday evening. By Sunday afternoon, I’d been offered a job. Four weeks later, we moved to Washington state where, three weeks after that, our first child was born. All that was 29 year ago.
Five years after that, a group of students were staying with us on that island when the Berlin wall came down. One of them was from Germany. She was watching Tom Brokaw at the wall with us, in tears, telling us stories of separated families that could now be reunited. Three years later, I’d visit, shaped by a holocaust survivor and a student who’d never met half her relatives because they lived in east Germany. Now I’ve been teaching in Europe, nearly every year for twenty.
I’d have moved anywhere had I known in advance the priceless lessons I’d learn, the experience I’d get. The problem, though, is that God doesn’t tell us in advance. He just says, “Go” or “Stay here” or whatever it is that God says to us as we try to listen, try to follow. Only by looking in the rear view mirror can we see what God was doing back then. And sometimes the fog doesn’t clear, even with the rear view mirror, for years. But when we know, there’s always this sense of “of course…isn’t that just like God. Using that to prepare me for this!”
Since we don’t know this stuff in advance, though, we just need to follow. And that can be o so hard to do because it requires faith and obedience, not negotiation, pre-nups, conditional clauses, and contracts. Our capacity to say yes when God calls is ultimately rooted in whether we believe God is both good and for us. I’ve been young, and now am older (though not yet old) and I’m happy to report that God is worth the risk, worth the faith, worth the adventure. God is sending you places you don’t want to go, at least sometimes, in order to shape you for a life of joy, generosity, hope, and peace. The sooner we learn to listen and say yes, the sooner we get there.
As we enter a season of gratitude, I pray for grace to see retrospectively with gratitude, to see that one of the glorious effects of the gospel is that you have the capacity to use the unchosen, the unwelcome, and even the darkest moments, to shape in us a unique capacity for expressing light. May we be granted eyes to see this, and trust you, not only with our past, but with our present and future. In the name of you, who are our hope.