The Mercies of God in Childhood
Just before Thanksgiving I had flown to Greenville, South Carolina, to visit my stepmother and to help my father make some adjustments to living alone after she had moved into a nursing home. When my visit was over I left his house with enough time to drive by some of the places where I grew up. Everywhere I looked I saw the mercies of Christ.
Just beyond the old Coca-Cola bottling plant, boarded up now, was the office where my mother sent me to a dermatologist because I had acne so bad in high school. He would burn me with a lamp, then rub dry ice on my skin and then poke me until I looked like a boxer when I drove home. And I thought as I drove by: It was a mercy. It cut me off the fast track of popularity and girls, and made me look to God for help and hope. It was hard and it was good.
I drove through what was once called the “black section” and I remembered with shame my own participation in racist attitudes and behaviors. I felt shame again. But then I thought about the path where God has led me until today, and all I see is mercy. I have sinned and God has had mercy.
I drove by Billy Shaughnessy’s house and looked at that front yard where we used to play tackle football (never touch or flag, always tackle). And I recalled that Saturday morning when we tackled Billy and broke his neck, but after weeks in a brace there was no paralysis. And I thanked God for his mercies, not mainly that I have not been killed or seriously injured, but that I have never killed anyone else or injured them permanently. That too is a great mercy from God.
Two blocks later I parked in front of the house where I grew up, 122 Bradley Boulevard. I got out so the smells would mingle with the sights. My mother and father designed and built the house in 1951. I was six when we moved in. I grew up there. All my childhood and teenage memories are there. I don’t know who lives there now. I didn’t have time to ask. I just looked. The blue spruce is gone. The crabapple tree is gone. The shrubs are all different. But the dogwood tree is still there forty-eight years later – about twelve inches thick now instead of four inches. And I thought of all the lonely and happy days sitting out on the grass under it, looking over Dellwood Valley to Piney Mountain and composing poems, because that seemed to give some shape and meaning to my feelings. O what a mercy from God that he met me there again and again, and gave me hope.
Finally, I drove to the cemetery where my mother was buried in 1974 after being killed in a bus accident. I was a little ashamed that it took me five minutes to find the brass headstone. But shame gave way to the sweetest gratitude as I stood there alone and let myself have a good fifty-four-year-old cry – as I poured out my heart in thanks to God for his mercies to me in twenty-eight years of faithful mothering. Yes, the loss at twenty-eight was hard. But God was good.
O how many are the mercies of God in our lives – even in the hardest experiences!
ARE THOSE MERCIES ALL OVER AND PAST?
Now what gave all this a relevance for other people is that it forcefully raised the issue of God and sin and salvation and faith – and whether a sinner like me can hope for anything that is permanently satisfying. It happened like this. All those experiences – and I recounted only a fraction of them – all those remembered mercies of God – were overshadowed by a moment that had happened earlier that morning. My father had left to go to a meeting, and I was about to leave on the drive I just described to you. I stood there on the sun porch looking out over the backyard of a house that I have visited now almost yearly for twenty-five years – my father will celebrate his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary December 6. That’s twenty-five more years after thirty-six years of marriage to my mother.
I thought to myself: LaVonne (my stepmother) has left this house and will probably never live here again. Daddy is alone, and who knows when he will move out, or go to be with Jesus. Soon, I will stand here for the last time, clear out the things that are his, and this twenty-five-year chapter of life will be over. I will never enter this house again, and the question rose in my heart – almost like a cry of rebellion – Lord, is this all that life is – the accumulation of memories? The closing of one chapter after another? And as we move to the end of our lives, more and more life lies behind and less and less lies before, so that the closing of every chapter becomes more and more painful?
Or does this very ache in our heart – this reflex of rebellion against the closing of chapters – signify that we are made for something more? Something future? Something permanent? Has God, as Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “set eternity in [our] heart”? Is this immense longing in my heart to experience something precious and deep and true and beautiful and personal and satisfying that is permanent and not passing away – is that longing just an evolutionary, chemical development with no more personal significance than an upset stomach?
And at that moment, standing on that porch, I rejoiced that God has made known to us in his Word, the Bible, that we can belong to a kingdom, and a family that is permanent, and that not even death will separate us from him and from all those who trust him, and that his mercies will be new every morning forever and ever, and there will be no more sense of loss. No painful endings anymore.
JOHN PIPER Pastor
Bethlehem Baptist Church
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