What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—
1 Corinthians 2:9
I chomped down on a hard block of pink bubble gum fresh from its wrapper and chewed and chewed and chewed some more until my jaws hurt and I had myself a soft, gooey wad which I then positioned between my top and bottom teeth. Then I shoved my tongue right into its center and blew. And blew. And blew that big glob of gum right out of my mouth and onto the toe of my dirty white Keds.
“It’s fine,” Grandpa said.
I reached down, took the gum in my fingertips and gave it a thorough inspection. I looked at Gramps and declared, “Besides, God made dirt and dirt don’t hurt.”
“That’s right,” he said, “and what you don’t know won’t hurt you, anyway.”
Grandpa and I were in the garage pulling camping gear and fishing poles down from the rafters. Our annual trip to the Kern River Valley was just days away and I couldn’t sit still for one second. It was my favorite camping place: just north of its namesake river in a great expanse of grassland sprawled out as far as my 8-year-old eyes could see. It laid there all soft and lazy like a Saturday morning. The Sierra mountains surrounded it, kept it like a cup in the hand, or a mother’s hug. I liked the comfort of being wrapped up that way, away from the big and noisy world. And I felt royal, silly as it sounds; a princess in my own little kingdom.
Grandpa jarred my thoughts. “Get inside now and help your Grandma.”
“But…,” I started.
“Girl, I don’t want any ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ about it. Do as you’re told.”
I sat at Grandma’s feet tucking clothes she’d just folded into our bags and thought more about my favorite place, how deep and narrow streams meandered through that great green expanse, how they cut apart and made new streams all shooting out this way and that like the veins on Grandma’s legs. I thought about the eagles overhead and how from way up there the valley might be like a giant tree with its roots sprawling out and going deep, water trickling through it all.
But down low where I was the view was limited. The height and depth, width and breadth of the topography obscured the whole of things, the vast expanse of my little kingdom. Light-tipped mountains cast dark shadows around in a big wide circle as the sun moved across the sky. What was hidden earlier would slowly stand out all shimmering and bright. I’d take a running jump over one stream or another to hide myself from the fish hiding from me.
On this morning I’d found myself a deep fishing hole in a roundabout swirl when grandpa came along and asked if he could pull up a spot beside me.
“Luck?” he asked.
“Nope. Not a bit.”
Grandpa dropped his pole beside me and looked around in a wide circle.
“I need a rock,” he said. “Something to prop this pole on.”
“I’ll go,” and in just two shakes of a cat’s tail I returned proudly holding out the biggest rock I could find. Grandpa took one look and smiled. Then grinned. Then turned red. Then burst out in a belly laugh that always made me do the same, even if I hadn’t a clue what for. We stood there laughing our fool heads off, Grandpa crying, as I handed over his rock.
“That’s a good rock, kid.”
“Yes, sir-ree. Finest rock I ever saw. Thank you.”
It occurred to me somewhere down the years that that rock was nothing more than a sun-dried cow pie. But Gramps propped his pole on it just the same, remarking more than once what a great rock I’d found.
Grandma fished from time to time, but mostly she stayed in camp crocheting or reading, working crossword puzzles, fixing up three squares a day. We never ate so good as we did out on those wilderness days: fried chicken, potato salad, big fat slabs of watermelon that dripped down my chin.
“Be sure and spit those seeds, Girl. Don’t want no watermelon patch growing in your belly, do ya?”
So I spit and grandma frowned, said, “Willis Lee, that’s no way for a young lady to act,” to which Grandpa only said, “Oh, Mother,” then winked at me.
In the evening after our bellies were full and we’d stuffed them yet again with grahams and marshmallows, Grandma would climb up into the camper while Grandpa and I fed a roaring fire, scooting back each time we threw on a log to avoid melting the soles of our shoes, the skin of our faces. Sometimes I’d get sent off to fetch more wood with a warning not to go out of the light of the fire lest the Boogeyman get me.
“Willis,” Grandma might say if she heard him. “Aw, Josephine,” Grandpa would say.
Me, I stayed in the light.
Eventually, we’d quit feeding the fire, let it burn down into orange embers, grandpa poking at it with a charred stick from time to time. We’d lean back in our squeaky metal chairs and watch the moon climb higher and higher, brighter and brighter. Living in the city, we never saw the moon like we did way out here by ourselves. And when we were all content with the world Gramps would tell me a story or two, most often about the man in the moon.
“See, that right there,” he’d point, “See him?”
I’d look down his arm, across the back of his hand and off the tip of his finger just like an arrow pointing the way.
“Those two dark spots are his eyes, and down low there, that wide place, that’s his mouth just ah smiling atcha. He knows more than Santa does, ya know. He knows everything about you ’cause he watches over you all the time. He never leaves his place up there in the sky, and from way up there, he can see everything.”
I suppose that ought to have scared me a little, the thought of someone watching my every move, but the way Grandpa laid it out it was a comforting thing.
The next morning we were up and out early. So early, in fact, frost still clung to the valley floor like a silken silver rug. Oh, what a marvellous thing to behold my kingdom at dawn. Our breath puffed out into the crisp morning and I couldn’t resist the urge to make like a cigarette in my hand, drag and exhale a time or two before Grandpa said, “Don’t you never. It’ll stunt your growth. You’ll quit growing right where you are this very minute. Believe you me.”
Gramps was of the mind that if a girl was old enough to fish, then a girl was old enough to worm her own hook. Dozens of red smarting point-pricks later, I considered myself a pro, just like Gramps. And this year I was going to clean my own catch. Grandpa was of the mind that if a girl could bait her own hook and catch her own fish, then a girl was old enough to gut her own fish. Now that might make some girls cringe, but not me. I was pretty sure God got interrupted when he was making me and forgot I was supposed to be a boy.
Within that first fresh hour, we’d caught our limit. Kneeling by the water’s edge Grandpa motioned me over with a knife in his hand.
“Here, Girl. Let’s go.”
I knelt beside him, my knees damp and cold against the morning earth, my heart beating right along, a smile spread wide across my face.
“Don’t go getting all excited now. Can’t have you cutting your finger clean off. Grandma wouldn’t like that.”
“Ohhh,” I drug out long to emphasize the silliness of his words.
“Don’t ‘oh’ me. Pay attention now.” He tucked the very tip of his knife between the two belly dorsels of the trout then slid it all the way down its belly to its tail still flapping at the end. The perfectly white belly opened up to reveal its flesh just the slightest pink. Not one drop of blood fell.
Then Grandpa spoke as he handed over the knife. “Not too deep now. We don’t want to get into that gut right there, you see. Spoil the meat.”
Under his eye and a “careful, careful” now and then, I followed his movements just as good as any kid could. Any girl, for sure.
“Nice. Now, slip your finger up in there, make a hook with it, and pull the innards out all together, all at once.” He demonstrated on his fish, revealing a handful of stringy red and brown globs, and one odd white puffball on top of it all. I thought of our marshmallows all puffy just the night before.
“That there’s its bladder. Keeps it afloat.”
I did just as he said, just what he did, careful, careful, and into my hand fell a blood-stained pile of orangey-yellow orbs like a multitude of tiny suns.
It took a moment for it to sink in, what they were. What I’d done.
“Grandpa! I killed a momma! I killed her babies!” And I burst into a sobbing pile of tears right then and there, knees planted down in mud and blood and guts.
“Oh, now, Child. Calm down. You didn’t kill no babies. Stop your crying. Look here.”
Grandpa scooped up that stretched skin-thin sac, made a little slit with the tip of his knife and let all those eggs spill into the palm of his hand. Then he leaned out over the slow stream and let his palm break the surface of the water. One by one the water carried the eggs away, swirling and floating, bobbing here and there before slowly sinking out of sight.
“See there, Girl. Good as gold. Not to worry. There’ll be babies swimming around in no time.”
And I smiled, gave him a hug, felt right with the world again.
Now those tiny eggs had no more chance of turning into thriving trout than Grandpa had of becoming the Man in the Moon. In fact, those eggs were nothing more than easy fish fodder moments after their false birth.
But I didn’t know that then.
Just like I didn’t know until years later the depth and breadth of my own story; how my mother just up and left. Ran for the hills. How she wasn’t ever coming back.
But, what we don’t know won’t hurt us.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.
The topography of this child’s life built by my grandparents shadowed me from crushing loss and sadness. Instead, I was able to stand on high places and in sunshine. Instead, I had a childhood, a joyously naive and innocent season where I was a princess in a kingdom where only goodness and giggles dwelt.
I think God works a lot like this.
What if we knew everything that this world, this life had in store for us? What if we were handed all the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and ‘what-fors’ right from the start?
Would we still go along for the ride?
What if God answered our every “how” and “why” and “what for” in nitty-gritty detail, not just the triumphs and sun-tipped mountain tops, but all the valleys and all the shadows, all the giants and fires and seas and armies along the way?
Could we handle it? Would we want to?
Or would we take the easy way out, run for the hills? Say, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll take my chances over here.”
Look, you scoffers,
wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
that you would never believe,
even if someone told you.
What about Noah or Job, Abraham or Samson, Joshua, Jonah, Daniel, David?
What about Peter? If he knew he would sink like a lead weight would he ever have stepped out of that boat in the first place? And in the end, truly denying Jesus. Would shame have sent him packing long before?
And Moses, poor Moses. All that time and all those miles shoved smack-dab between God and those whining, complaining, can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees Israelites, only to watch milk and honey flow over there in the Promised Land, so close he could taste it.
What if, surrounding that table on that very last night Jesus spilt the beans, laid it all down and out, came clean with every last gory, stain-soaked detail of what was to come? I’m pretty sure Judas would have been the first to bolt, and I’m guessing Peter would have been right behind him.
The way I figure it, had I known back then what I know now, I’d surely have tucked tail and run right along with the rest of them.
I like to believe I’m brave and strong and fearless, but when it comes right down to it, I’m a coward more often than not. Or maybe it’s more about being uncomfortable. Being unsure. Maybe it’s about not having all the facts first, the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and ‘what-fors’. Maybe it’s mostly about being afraid of the outcome, how the story ends.
And it all boils down to the flesh, our sin-wrapped, rely-on-ourselves flesh.
Because we really do know how the story ends; don’t we?
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
Jesus never lied and neither does God. But, he’s not of a mind to divulge each and every detail, nitty-gritty or otherwise. He simply says to us: “This way. I’ll be right beside you. I will show you.” He takes us by the shoulder, turns us in the right direction, then gives us a little shove.
“Don’t ask why. I don’t want any ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ about it. Just do as you’re told.”
And we do what we know to do as best as we can. We walk and we wait. And we watch.
Or rather, He builds all this in us as we go by faith, details not included…
…and slow but sure become royalty in a never-grow-out-of, no-man-can-take-away Kingdom.
Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes, you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
Spring became summer and the days grew warmer. With no air in the house, Grandpa drove me and Grandma to Malibu in the evenings when “all those dadgum kids” had gone from its sandy shore. Grandma loved to watch the sunsets, her toes in the sand and a thermos of coffee in her lap. Me and Gramps, we’d roll up our pant legs and tempt frothy waves back and forth, to and fro while Grandma called out, “Don’t go too far, young lady” and “Willis, you hang on to her”. Grandpa would chase and I would giggle, dart past him when I could, slow down just enough to be snatched up from time to time. Moms and dads walked by hand in hand, dad throwing a stick for the dog, kids wading in the same white waves we ran from. A bright red Frisbee landed near Grandpa. He picked it up and flipped it back to a set of boys down the way. The sun slipped lower.
We made our way back to grandma and the blue-checked blanket. She poured Grandpa some coffee and we sat side by side, sifting sand through our toes and Grandpa said, “Now listen up. It’s getting close.”
I peered out across the ocean split right down its middle by a golden glow that lifted and fell with the tide rolling in. And there, just beyond that undulating sea, the sun sank further still, just a hint of sky showing between it and the top of the water. Grandpa said, “Shhh. Listen. In just a minute you’ll begin to hear it. Just you listen now.”
Grandma said, “Willis” and he replied “Aw, c’mon, Mother. It don’t hurt nothing.”
And he told me my favorite story, the same sunset story I’d heard so many times. He said I’d hear the cool ocean hiss up steam the moment the boiling sun touched down upon it, and as it sank into its sea-shell slumber, the ocean cooled the sun and the sun warmed the sea, and that’s how they worked, together like that. And all that hissing steam rose up and filled the sky so it didn’t feel left out and got to play, too (see those wispy clouds just over there?). And the steam went up higher still into the heavens and then someday, someday real soon all that sun-steam and sea-water would come down together through the sky and quench this earth of ours, making things grow and green again.
“There she goes! Hear it, Girl? You hear it?”
“I do, Grandpa. I really do! I hear it just fine.”
And to that a wink and smile as wide as the horizon, the three of us sitting there together, a single silhouette against a crimson sky.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.