Like anyone who grew up in church, I’ve heard hundreds of times that God is our Father. That He loves us deeply, hurts when we hurt, cares about our welfare and happiness and will never forget about us. I’ve always thought that if God were a Father like my dad, He must be a pretty good one.
Despite holding a generally stable and favorable view of God, I catch new glimpses of His character from time to time. Often these brief flashes give me greater insight into His healing power or His unfettered delight in us, but I get caught the most off-guard when I see the raw tenderness of His love.
My minister, Mike, was talking recently about the last section of Isaiah chapters 56-66, where God promises to create new heavens and a new earth and wipe away Israel’s former pain and disgrace. Mike has endured some pain in his life, including the death of his mentally handicapped daughter and the unexpected death of his nephew from a heart malfunction. A year and a half ago, he almost lost his younger son in another tragedya van rollover on I-20 near Putnam, Texas, that involved seven kids from our youth group and an adult sponsor, on their way back from a conference. Three of the boys, including Mike’s son Chris, were rushed back to a children’s hospital in Fort Worth. Nobody was sure how badly they were hurt, or even (for a while) if they were going to make it.
Mike talked about being in the hospital waiting room after the wreck, and a doctor friend of his (“Dr. Jim”), who had traveled from Abilene to be with the boys and their families, coming in to tell him he could see Chris. Dr. Jim warned Mike, “He’s in there. But it doesn’t look like him.” Telling the story to us at church that night, Mike admitted, “It didn’t look like him. I couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup. But I got down next to the bed and whispered in his ear, ‘Like a rabbit loves to run.’ And I could see it in his eyes it was like he started to come back, out of a coma. Because every night all his life I’d put him to bed with the poem, ‘I love that boy like a rabbit loves to run. I love that boy like a rabbit loves to run. Love to see him in the mornin’, love to say, ‘Good mornin’, son.'”
Hearing that, I was struck by two things: the depth of Mike’s sorrow and care for his son, and the uniqueness of the words he whispered to Chris. Many fathers would have whispered to their sons, “I love you; you’re going to be OK”and that’s really the message Mike’s words carried but the words Chris heard were meant just for him, based on the years of love that lay between him and his dad.
As Mike continued talking about God’s intimate love for us, I realized that God speaks to each one of us, too. He has words for everyone, written down in His Word and painted in broad, brilliant strokes all over His creation. But when He wants to speak to me, He picks out certain words, a particular song lyric, a call from a close friend, a passage in a book that rings deep and true in my soul and whispers them into my ear. The words turn a key or pry open a door in my heart and bring me back, reminding me that His love is still there, waiting for me to turn and embrace it.
Mike’s father heart, twisted with worry, grief and fear, rejoiced at a small spark in his son’s eyes, a look that told him Chris would come back, that he would make it. (And he did make it 18 months later, Chris is spending his summer playing All-Stars baseball, going on trips with his family and doing all the things a healthy middle-school boy does.) While Chris was in the care of doctors and nurses who were able to help him, it took a word from his father a specific, unique, familiar word that really meant “I love you”to call him back.
God has long used His Word the Bible to call people to Him and back to Him, of course. But I think He knows we need words that speak singularly to each of us, phrases or incidents that wake up our souls. They come from all kinds of places, and they surprise us when they reach our stopped-up ears. But they always wake us up just enough to remind us that God loves us passionately, constantly, tenderly.
Like a father loves his children. Like a husband loves his wife. Like a shepherd loves the sheep he watches over. And like a rabbit loves to run.