Someone to See the Unseen

While daydreaming from a metal folding chair, I saw my grandfather praying.

I had been listening to a class discussion which revolved around the subject of Henri Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.

But the long fingers of my memory thumbed backward through the pages of my life until my grandfather stood before me.

* * *

He stands next to the dining room table, which is spread with holiday turkeys and hams. The family gathers around him during these hushed moments which precede every dinner prayer.

Before we shut our eyes, I can see how our hands dive into pockets and toes scratch at shins. We’re all waiting together, awkwardly, for a promise.

Now, with kind eyes, he looks out over time and over all the shifting of his family. But he looks beyond us, too, and sees the military interventions, famines and perplexing social disasters which have continued to ravage our world throughout the decades. They’ve left their stains on grey newspapers like smears of gravy on white napkins.

But, with confidence, he folds up those problems and puts them in their rightful place, by using a familiar coda to every prayer that I remember:

“And we pray that there might be peace.”

* * *

My grandfather remains an accomplished academic at a well-respected Christian liberal arts university. He has spent a lifetime studying how his greatest passions — mathematics, C.S Lewis and George MacDonald — all reflect the the rhythms of God’s love.

And, in short, he has served others well during the span of his study by doing many great things.

And yet he’s always been wrapped in humility because he learned the greatest lesson of all. He learned the discipline of seeing beyond the present.

“The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”

Nouwen must have known my grandfather.

Because his eyes have turned toward the cross, too, instead of toward mathematical solutions and accolades. Because he has applied the divine story and its corollary equations to his life, he can now trust that they’re playing out on the other side of the curtain, the veil which temporarily separates today from eternity.

His life has taught me the art of seeing by faith instead of by sight. In his vision of the world, all the difficult problems and questions, which are bound up in time and family, find rest in an infinitely repeating fractal of rainbow-hued lovingkindness.

Every problem finds its rest in God.

Always, he has done his best teaching with how how he does his living. Likewise, he’s done his best leading by his serving.

Nouwen has more to say about these kinds of leaders:

“The task of future Christian leaders is not to make a little contribution to the solution of the pains and tribulations of their time, but to identify and announce the ways in which Jesus is leading God’s people out of slavery, through the desert to a new land of freedom. Christian leaders have the arduous task of responding to personal struggles, family conflicts, national calamities, and international tensions with an articulate faith in God’s real presence. They have to say no to every form of fatalism, defeatism, accidentalism, or incidentalism, that makes people believe that statistics are telling the truth. They have to say no to every form of despair in which human life is seen as a pure matter of good or bad luck.”

The one aim of my grandfather’s heart has always been “to identify and announce” something which is not immediately seen with the eye — unless, or until, there is faith.

Keats could see it, too, written on the urn:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

To identify and announce.

In a broken world in need of a superhero, I can think of no better vocation than to use our service to “identify and announce” this living “truth beauty” for the blind.

And like my grandfather, we may often need to close our eyes, with confidence, in order to point the way.

28 thoughts on “Someone to See the Unseen

  1. What a gift to have such a mentor–not just in books but in the everyday skin life. I can see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Your words are like a deep breath for me this evening. I’m looking beyond the now. Thank you.

  2. I was so touched by your writings of your grandfather. This legacy will stay with you throughout your life. Use it as a measuring tool–the generations gone by can impact us far after they are gone.

    You are an amazing writer — so happy to have made your acquaintance.

    Blessings,
    Pamela

  3. Ok, Christa said it before me, but I certainly thought it.

    “But the long fingers of my memory thumbed backward through the pages of my life until my grandfather stood before me.” BAM! Now, there’s a sentence I love.

    You’ve got great voice, Matthew.

  4. “he folds up those problems and puts them in their rightful place”….Beautiful…beautiful truths here. Your writing is like music…if flows effortlessly and it speaks volumes of truth from the heart of God. Thank you for sharing the gifts God has blessed you with and for shining light into the world. I leave here with much to think about. I’m thankful for the wisdom of your grandfather and the blessings upon your family as a result of his faithfulness!

    • Yes, God’s heart longs to make music through His children. He has invited each of us to join Him in the orchestra pit — until He raises up each individual instrument, together, in perfect glory and harmony.

      Thank you so much, Lorraine, for playing your encouraging “note” here today. May you continue to move with His Presence.

  5. Thanks, Matt, for a beautiful tribute to your grandfather and for the reminder that those who’ve gone before us still speak. We’re currently in a sermon series at church on heaven and what it means to fix our hearts there, and to lay up treasures there. Your reference to “the other side of the curtain, the veil which temporarily separates today from eternity” struck a chord in me today. We were created for something more. I want to live in that reality!
    Ruth

    • Your comment catches me, too, because our sermon today highlighted the tension involved when we have one foot planted in the kingdom, and the other in the world. I hear a fire in your voice as you point to the “reality” that you most want to live. I’m encouraged.

      Indeed, we are so blessed by the voices of those who have gone before us — as well as those who, arm in arm, stand in agreement with us today. Thank you for your comment — and your voice. Keep speaking this week. The world longs to hear it.

  6. You had me at the word “grandfather” because I write about my grandmother and the wisdom she imparted to me a lot. I think I would like your grandfather quite a lot, too.

    I think God has illuminated a primary struggle in my faith through you words — one that I am actively working on, but is so crucial to my outlook and vitality that I find through Him. This lines sums it up: They have to say no to every form of fatalism, defeatism, accidentalism, or incidentalism, that makes people believe that statistics are telling the truth.

    Quite literally, the other day, I almost pledged to stop reading the newspaper because the main headline was something like “Drought could last until 2040.” I mean, really? Lovely, fatalism.

    But I didn’t read the article and instead, I lifted up my head and said, You are in charge, Lord. And I left my worries there. Quite a different response than what I would have had a few weeks ago as the wildfires raged…

    I’m passing on your blog to my husband, too. I think somehow, y’all might become great friends.

    • Nouwen would be proud. It takes guts, transcendent guts, to retain our vision in spite of the violent shaking all around us.

      Sometimes faith is like a neck brace. It’s uncomfortable much of the time, but there’s still a healing purpose in wearing it. Thank goodness for people like our grandparents, who taught us the wisdom of keeping our vision steady and seeing beyond the
      tightness and discomfort.

      Thanks for passing my blog along to your husband. I look forward to a new great friend!

  7. Matt, you’re timing and insights are interesting. I’m reading a piece this weekend on fractal-theoretic analysis of searching in uncertain spaces. All the wonderful touchstones of past conversations come together in this piece, Macdonald, Lewis, Math, and Philosophy. Well played. One wonders about the timing that God brings to the insights into which we are both delving this weekend. I wrote a piece yesterday on my grandfather and his influence on my writing. It remains where it lays. Well done on your remarkable reflections. (Go Keats!)

    • So true. We’ve both been blessed by the leaders who have gone before us. I am thankful for how they have blazed trails of light for each of us, kicking up wild sparks of truth to guide us. It is interesting how our paths are converging. We stand together in the thick of the blessing. And I look forward to wherever the gift leads.

  8. This is a prime post which began in Matthew and ended in a revelation – of a man who is among the “dearest on earth to me” and with whom I have peeked behind that same curtain. I so appreciate the fitting tribute and the upward way to which your grandfather, you and I trod with a common faith. May God bless you and yours as you seek your way to the “servant of all” quarters from which we will be lifted up if we faint not.

    • He is a very dear man. And I know that you know. Thanks for adding another layer of light to the influence he’s had on so many lives. When the heart is open to reflection, the influence spreads like light, far and wide, and all the way to China.

  9. Matt, this is beautiful and inspiring. Like you.

    “His life has taught me the art of seeing by faith instead of by sight. In his vision of the world, all the difficult problems and questions, which are bound up in time and family, find rest in an infinitely repeating fractal of rainbow-hued lovingkindness.” . . .Wow.

    Keep them coming. Your writings enrich my life.

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