For Dale and Annette, but especially for Zachary, Jonathan and Matthew

Once upon a time, there lived a young man in a faraway place; although Aggies like us inevitably want to call such characters Rock, we'll call him Jake. Jake was a good boy -- strong, able, devoted, hard-working, loved his family. His brother (who we'll call Ed, but he doesn't really enter into this story much) was quite different. They disagreed, as brothers do. Their parents chose sides, as (unfortunately) parents sometimes do. In the end, the conflict became so heated (something involving a bowl of soup and a plate of goat meat, but that's a story for another time) that Jake was forced to leave home. Instead of a great inheritance from his rich father, he had absolutely nothing. No wealth, no brother, no parents, no friends, and only a vague notion of what his future might hold.

And he was only 73 years old.

He walked and walked and walked. Finally he stopped to spend the night in a place that did not look any more barren or inhospitable as any other. With a literal stone as his pillow, he lay down to find what rest he could. But he found much more than rest that night. He found God.

That night he had a dream. The sky opened up and a ladder appeared, reaching all the way down to the earth and reaching all the way up into heaven. As if that were not magnificent enough, he also saw angels on the ladder, traveling up and down. And then, most marvelous of all, the voice of God Almighty thundered from the top of the ladder. He promised Jacob (yes, this is a story from the Bible, but you were clever enough to figure that out on your own, weren't you?) that He would be with him, that He would make him a great nation. He gave him the same promises He had given his father and grandfather. 

That was when Jacob fully realized the choice that he had to make. He could go his own way and do the best he could on his own. Or he could trust in God and accept His assigned path. It does not appear to have been a difficult decision to make. And we are all blessed that he did as he did.

I thought of this story when I heard the news. I couldn't get it out of my head. The story is not exactly parallel with your situation, but there are obvious similarities. 

I, like you, grew up in a family of Christians. That has certain obvious advantages. But it carries with it the disadvantage of muddying the line between the faith of your parents and your own faith. Jacob lived for years in his father's house, understanding who God was and perhaps a bit about his part in God's plans. But Isaac was the patriarch. In a very real sense, Jacob's life of "faith" in his youth were little more than doing what his father expected.

Death changes things.

Ironically, Isaac did not die in the incident that precipitated Jacob's departure. But in practical terms, Jacob lost his father that day. Suddenly, with little notice, he was forced to be his own man. Make his own choices. Choose his own path.

It's not fair, we say. It wasn't supposed to go this way. But it often does. And like the good things in life, the bad things offer opportunities. 

On that fateful night at Bethel, Jacob decided to pursue his own faith, to have his own relationship with God. And if you will forgive me preaching at you for a second, it seems to me he comes to that decision because of two realizations.

First, he realized that his father's God was a God who climbs down the ladder.

He sees the affliction of His people, and He cares. But more than that, He gets involved. That doesn't mean He gives us exactly what we want exactly when we want it; in fact, in your case and Jacob's, He promises that He will not do that. Instead, and better, He promises to give you what you need to endure life's hardships and to emerge better and stronger on the other side.

Paul prayed in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 for relief from what he called a "thorn in the flesh." He did not pray just because life was difficult. He prayed because this "thorn" was materially impacting his ability to serve the Lord. But finally, after three failed attempts, he received a specific response from Jesus. "I know you want relief," He says, reading from Hal's Paraphrased Version. "I know you want it more than anything you have ever wanted. But I am not going to give you relief. Instead, I am going to give you grace. And you will come to realize in time that my grace is all you need."

Knowing that our God descends the ladder to give us grace makes all the difference. We shouldn't be surprised, after all. Deity descended the ladder in the flesh once, in the person of Jesus Christ. If "God so loved the world" enough to offer His Son (John 3:16), if He loved me enough to apply the blood of Jesus to my sinful soul when I called on His name (Acts 22:16), surely it is not a reach to imagine that He is watching over me today and blessing me today, sending angels in some unknown way to "render service" (Hebrews 1:14), helping keep me safe in a sinful world bent on tripping me up (Psalm 91:11-12).

Surely that would be enough reason to find faith. But there is more.

The second point is this: Our God is a God who will allow us to climb the ladder ourselves. 

See, the ladder is just like Highway 6. It goes both ways.

We get foretastes of heavenly things here on earth. The fellowship offered to us through the gospel, and that we share with the apostles and the saints of all ages (1 John 1:1-3) is wonderful, surely. But it is merely a foretaste of the time when "we will see Him just as He is" (1 John 3:2). The singing, the prayers, the camaraderie of brethren -- all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not even that.

God promises that those who live their lives in faith here on earth will be given "the true riches" in the life to come. In that life, we are told, the circumstances that brought us grief and pain will be taken from us (Revelation 21:4). We will be reunited with those who have gone before (1 Thessalonians 4:17). 

I can't tell you much more than that, because I don't know much more than that. The one who went to Paradise only told us of "inexpressible words which a man is not permitted to speak" (2 Corinthians 12:4). Thanks for whetting our appetites, Paul. I suppose the word pictures given to us in Revelation and other places, plus Jesus' own assurance that He will receive us to Himself in His Father's house (John 14:1-4) will have to do.

So with this in mind, I want you to make a decision today. I don't want you to put it off. Take a look at the ladder God places in front of you, and make a choice.

Are you going to be a person of faith, or not?

I hope and pray the answer is yes, and that it gives you peace and comfort in the valley of the shadow.