In many ways it made perfect sense that grandpa had mounted a rubber eagle to the dashboard of his sedan. I smiled at the bald crown of the toy bird as we moved through traffic. A driver in an adjacent vehicle studied the dashboard curiously. His eyes darted from the eagle to grandpa to me. I knew how it looked, but grandpa wasn’t losing his mind.
“Do you know that eagles can see from up to two miles away?” Grandpa commented. “They can dive up to 100 miles per hour! And their feathers are stronger than airplane wings! Didn’t our Lord do a marvelous thing?”
Grandpa had a knack for noticing details of creation—snowy landscapes, gurgling streams, blades of grass. Bending over, studying a cluster of wild flowers, he once said, “These wouldn’t exist if some birds hadn’t eaten some seeds, flown around, and eliminated them with precision over the dirt. None of us could have orchestrated all that!Thank you, Lord!”
It was as if grandpa knew how to peek over God’s shoulder. I’m not sure how he did it, but he always gave me a boost. I’ve never seen wild flowers the same since. I’ve never seen people the same, either. Grandpa had a way of seeing them—not just skin, hair and faces—really seeing them. They lit up when he said hello. Whoever happened to be around—clerks, waitresses, street artists—stood taller when he stopped for a chat.
“Is that your baby?” Grandpa once pointed at a photo taped to a cash register, and the clerk nodded yes. “What a beautiful girl. Didn’t our Lord do a marvelous thing?!”
“How is your day going?” He once asked a young waitress who shrugged with discouragement. “If God is for you, sister, who can be against you?” She smiled, perhaps for the first time that day.
“Did you know that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel while standing up?” Grandpa once studied an artist’s painting that clearly needed some work. “He wrote a poem about it because it was such a frustrating project.” The man smiled. “God has given you real talent! Keep it up!”
“You know, Amy,” Grandpa once commented while walking along a California beach, “I always try to figure out what people are good at. Then I find a way for them to be good at it in church.”
Growing up, I’d heard stories of grandpa’s creative pastoral endeavors. Barbershop quartets, dancers, accordion and tuba players offered joyful sounds and steps unto the Lord. Talent mattered; devotion mattered more. According to some, it wasn’t always pretty! Whether polished or awkward, Grandpa—Reverend Fredrick Fels—spotlighted acts of amazing grace..
“Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good,” Grandpa used to say. He meant that religious idealism causes souls to shrink from God. Grandpa knew that everyone—even a pastor—walks on feet of clay. So he preached, prayed, and trusted the Spirit to grow souls from glory to glory. After retiring from sixty-plus years of ministry, Grandpa spoke of his vocation winsomely: “I loved it! I wouldn’t have spent my life any other way.” Smiling, he joked about the messiness of human transformation by God: “It would have been the perfect job if it hadn’t been for the people!”
A few years before he passed away, Grandpa gave me a copy of The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. I read and reread it trying to figure out how Grandpa could have such devotion for God and love for flawed people.
Deep down, I knew something in my faith wasn’t clicking. Was there some way to come nearer to God?
While I had no aspirations to attach an eagle to the dashboard of my car, I wondered—might a trip somewhere with snowy mountains and gurgling brooks put me in a better position to experience God? Perhaps paying attention to some blades of grass would increase my devotion. Maybe it would all come together if I acted extra friendly with clerks, waitresses, and street artists. When nothing changed, I threw up my hands, “This is ridiculous!” I told God. “What on earth do you want?”
The words of a seminary professor came to mind: “Either we grow discouraged and cynical over our inadequacies or we throw up our hands and become fools for Christ. Either we stop trying to control everything, and calling all the shots, or we invite God to be God.”
While bending over a bunch of wild flowers, one day, I started to see what I’d known all along: I could not have orchestrated all this.
It occurred to me that growing one’s faith is as possible as commanding the birds to eat seeds, fly around and eliminate them with precision over the dirt.
“Thank you, Lord,” I whispered as the mountains seemed close enough to touch.
“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” -Isaiah 40: 31, The Message