Someone gave me a composition notebook for my fourteenth birthday and told me to write blessings in it, to number them. I think the goal was 10,000, but I lost count after awhile, and the “thanksgivings” turned into little observations of the world around me:
The house is quiet this morning.
Elsie learned to roll over.
I had time to bake cookies for the neighbors.
I’m not dreading school as much.
Fall weather, finally!
We got our bathroom painted.
Our friends are doing well after losing their baby to a miscarriage last week.
The practice reminded me of something we did as kids in Vacation Bible School, called God Sightings. After dismissal each afternoon, we had to go look for things God made or did or surprised us with, then bring them to our teacher the next morning, who wrote them on a piece of paper and sticky-tacked it to the sanctuary wall. One year, we taped together a pyramid of pages that nearly reached the auditorium ceiling.
God Sightings put me in the habit of walking outside, down to the gate, and looking closer to find things like hawks and lizards— then running back the next morning to tell the other kids where I’d seen God’s grace.
In a way, it reminds me of how Paul spent his life.
The apostles were eyewitnesses of Jesus, called by him to retell the story of what they’d seen— their own, unrivaled “God Sighting.” Paul wrote a letter to the Galatians, who were having trouble believing the simple truth of the gospel, and to reinforce it, he reminded them he’d seen Jesus with his own eyes:
“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12).
Paul had a lot of sound doctrines up his sleeve, but he started by telling the Galatians a story— his own story of wickedness, then light from heaven and grace and freedom. It was a true story about what he’d seen. It was real. (And, as C.S. Lewis noted, “Reality… is usually something you could not have guessed.”)
“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism,” Paul began, “how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. But when he who had set me apart before I was born and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone…” (Gal. 1:13, 15-16).
In Acts, Paul had told King Agrippa his story this way:
“And the Lord said… ‘But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles— to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light…’” (Acts 26:16-18).
A tremendous and surprising grace traded the weapon in Paul’s hand for a pen. He wrote to the Galatians about what he’d seen and heard on the road, how it threw him off balance and broke something inside him. He’d witnessed the Light, and like John the Baptist, he would spend the rest of his life telling people in the darkness about it.
“He was not the light, but he came to bear witness about the light.” ~ John 1:8
Paul was “astonished” by the way false teachers had blinded the Galatians to the pure truth of this gospel, beating it into something “different” (Gal. 1:6).
“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified,” he said (Gal. 3:1).
In other words, “You’ve seen the truth for yourselves!”
Tim Keller writes in his commentary that “a Christian is not just someone who knows about Jesus, but one who has ‘seen’ him on the cross,”[i] which takes a different set of eyes— a Spirit-given, imaginative vision the Galatians didn’t see. Like Nicodemus the Pharisee, they were blind and earthbound:
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony” (John 3:9-11).
What was Jesus’ testimony? What couldn’t Nicodemus see?
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Salvation from sin doesn’t require Nicodemus’s religion or the Galatians’ circumcision or our own grit or sweat or works. We only have to “look” up in faith to the Savior lifted on the cross, and “live” (see Num. 21:9). Redemption then, is a reality we’ve witnessed and now bear witness to.
That is, if we have eyes of faith to see it.
Thanks to VBS, I knew what to do when I opened the empty notebook at fourteen. Before I could give thanks for anything (or even write it down), I had to go hunting for what was true and real in the world around me. If I wasn’t out looking, the pages stayed blank. And so, as the seasons faded and changed, I got better at this practice that felt like sleuthing for beauty:
Anna’s smile, healing.
Learning to build a fire.
Wind song in the chimney.
Taste of eternity.
At some point, I left the notebook in the drawer and started putting these down as “things that make me happy” (“ttmmh” for short), piling them on my blog. The idea was the same: Look into the world, watch how it dances and sings, see where God’s grace surprises and delights you, and tell about it.
But more than that— it was an exercise in thinking bigger.
“God Sightings” sent a roomful of VBS kids out into the world, looking for his gifts; but they also made us look up, to the God who gave us hawks and fall weather and fog, whose voice is in the wind song, whose grace shimmers in the crevices of places we would have never thought to look.
“God Sightings” and “thanksgivings” and “things that make me happy” are the ways I’ve learned, like Paul, to bear witness to the truth— the wonderful reality of a gracious God. And it’s a reality that neither Paul nor the Galatians nor Nicodemus nor you nor I could have ever guessed, that has its ending sealed in “eternal life.”
I’m not an apostle, I know, and my ttmmh lists are incomplete— because there are sorrows as well as blessings, blindness to God’s grace as well as sightings, things that make me anxious, irritated, and weary, as well as happy. The real world is barren and dark.
But beyond my “sightings” of the worn-out world in front of me is a God who is making it all new again. My calling is to bear witness to something more real than the darkness, because the truth is that we’re bound for a better country, a bigger kingdom, another, more beautiful world. And if grace in the gospel has come to you and shone down on the road all around you, then this is your calling, too:
Tell of what you’ve seen.
[i] Tim Keller, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. (2003: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York, NY), 59