all the million other reasons

My friend Nicole and I often recount the impossibility of our becoming friends. We love the silly madness of it – Nicole was looking to transfer schools during our first semester at Hope College and I was reveling in independent bliss with my new best friend Meghan.

Meghan and I were next door neighbors in the dorm and fast friends. It just so happened that we were assigned to the same Bible study group, where we learned that someone named Nicole wanted to transfer.

Meghan and I decided Nicole would be our friend, even though we knew very little about her. One day, we were biking from a football game and we spotted Nicole on the sidewalk. In our excitement, we fell over in front of her while trying to explain that we would all soon be friends. There are many surprising things – like that it was actually Nicole we saw (there weren’t many Asian students) and that she didn’t run in the other direction when we made a scene.

But we love that story because here we are in the present, remembering that first year of Bible study and the following years of friendship. Here we are, right now, playing phone tag because our friendship is the kindred kind.

And from such an unlikely beginning.

I have always recounted stories like these (it seems I collect them like kids collect seashells at the beach) and praised God for His sovereignty. How amazing that He cared about all the little details – all the punctuation in the writing of our beautiful story of friendship.

Recently, I rediscovered a friendship from childhood and I was praising God in the same way – expressing wonder that He would bless us in such an unlikely and surprising way. My new/old friend lost no time in being the iron that sharpens iron. She mentioned a Tim Keller sermon that had changed how she thought about unlikely circumstances in her life. Instead of thinking about all the reasons things happened for her benefit as God was writing her story, Keller challenged my friend to think about all the million little things He was doing in the stories of the people around her and in the greater and bigger story of Creation.

Think about that for a second.

God is, indeed, working out all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). But, I can only look back on my life and see the tiniest number of reasons why God might have worked the way He did. Naturally, we rush to explain that what we didn’t know then and do know now gives us a glimpse of His perfect plan. What about all the other hundreds of people who have stepped in and out of my little story… couldn’t some of the unlikely details and detours of my life play a part in their stories?

Most importantly, when we marvel at the way God is sovereignly writing the narrative of creation and holding it together in Christ, we must never be at the center.

Every unlikely detail of our lives followed by every unlikely consequence are sentences in a story about God’s grace and God’s love toward us.

His name and renown are always at the center of the story, even though we are the recipients. My unlikely friendship with Nicole might have started because our bikes tipped over by Holland Municipal Stadium, but there might be a million other reasons God started our story the way He did – for His name’s sake. I will never know all the reasons God blessed my life the way He has, but the little I do know has produced joy in overwhelming abundance. Maybe that’s why we don’t know all the million other reasons – the joy at His goodness would be too much.

Here are some reminders from Josh Etter at Desiring God that we are created, saved, and sanctified for God’s name’s sake.

We are created for God’s name’s sake:

Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, every one who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory (Isaiah 43:6-7).

We are saved for God’s name’s sake:

I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out (Ezekiel 20:14).

We are sanctified for God’s name’s sake:

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; for how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another (Isaiah 48:10-11).

tragic beauty

It wasn’t the best decision I’ve ever made – running so soon after the rain on the river path toward the lake – but it felt like a good decision when I started out.

The first few blocks confirmed it, like my feet had been waiting to pound pavement all day long. When I got to the bridge, the sky was speaking of the storm that had just rumbled through.

The river rushed by just underneath the bridge, the sun streaked through the gray overhead, and the path stretched empty in front of me. I got emotional, there by the river that was breaking its boundaries and threatening flood.

What is it about the stillness after the storm?

Storms feel destructive and powerful and foreboding… at least in tornado season, or hurricane season, or after a tsunami. Storms can be a cold violence, but then those bright rays peek through the gray and the air is quiet. The settled stillness is peaceful – like two rowdy men in a back alley brawl called a truce and the alley is full of empty again. All the punches have already been thrown and resolution stretches to fill the silence with peace.

I saw the mountain of debris in between my strides – tree limbs, plastic bags, and bits of unidentified things trapped between a bridge and a bank. Debris is one of those words that sounds more beautiful than what it defines (maybe that is many words in French?). “The remains of something broken down or destroyed,” doesn’t sound beautiful. It sounds like ruin. The debris that gathered under the bridge didn’t make sense together – the massive pile of natural and unnatural odds and ends were not supposed to be blocking the river the way they were.

I realized I had slowed my pace and was taking a mental picture of the floating mass. I was thinking about Oklahoma and trying to imagine what a town would look like after being leveled in an instant.

Isn’t there a mysterious sort of beauty after a storm has passed? When the stillness swallows up the storm’s screeching and the gray clouds let the light back in.

Maybe I’m making little sense. But we often use the phrases “tragic beauty” and “beautiful scandal” in a way that assumes they make sense. In literature and movies and conversation and news stories, we all recognize there is beauty within and around and in between the debris of tragedy.

I kept running while my brain ran to find reasons debris could be beautiful. The path was deserted – just a solitary man on a bike crossed in front of my running feet. When I got to Gray’s Lake and had run halfway around it, I realized the reason the paths were empty: it was closed due to flooding. The ducks could not figure out whether to swim in the streets or the river. They didn’t even move when I passed. And then in the middle of the bridge (that runs across the lake), I found myself running inside a storm.

That’s when I thought it was a stupid idea to be on a run, but you can’t do much but run when you are halfway across the bridge in a downpour and a couple miles from home. I laughed a little bit, prayed a little bit that I wouldn’t get struck by lightning, and thought a little bit about how peaceful it had seemed moments before.

The rain died down and I navigated the flooded paths while wondering if I could get arrested for going around wood barricades. The lake returned to its placid state and the stillness swallowed up the last of the storm’s brawl. The park looked like a photoshop creation, with all the green hues and perfect dew drops on perfect blooms.

I ran back past the mass of debris trapped underneath the bridge by 5th Street and thought about all the natural disasters with all their masses of debris that sometimes stretch the length of a city. How can we call that beautiful? That stillness after the storm?

I was in middle school when a very powerful windstorm hit our rural area. Everyone was in a productive panic (I think rural areas are especially good at this) and the children were all sent home from school early. We arrived at home and my oldest brother looked out on our property (with several less roofs on buildings, as they had been flung into the fields) and said, “Wow. God is awesome!”

The post-storm calmness had claimed the horizon and what my brother saw when he looked out from our front porch was God’s awesomeness.

It doesn’t make any sense. How can something destructive uncover something beautiful?

Sometimes things just don’t make sense. Sometimes they are swallowed up into the greater mystery of a world beyond us, a reality beyond this, and an eternity that is beyond the reach of disaster.

Sometimes what is unsteady and unpredictable in the world is at its brightest contrast to what is forever and true.

Is that how beauty peeks through with rays of sunlight when the storm settles down? Does tragedy in this world somehow shake us from temporary sight to see something eternal?