“By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” – Ephesians 2:8
“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” – Annie Dillard
Everything was draped in a blanket of shimmering white. As a country kid I preferred the outdoors, so when this snow came I layered up to spend as much time in it as I could before the thaw. The air was bitterly cold—the dry kind that freezes your lungs when you take a breath. Everything was so still that my boots crunching through the surface of the snow made a muted sound as though I were in an acoustically perfect concert hall.
Our dirt road was socked in so that no one could pass, so I stood on my plat of Indiana farmland alone and uninterrupted. I walked to the end of my driveway to look out past the giant blue spruce blocking my view of the prairie when out of the corner of my eye I saw something. There on one of the pillowy boughs of that tree, amid the alternating layers of bluish-green and white, sat a gray speckled dove. I crept toward it. It didn’t fly away. It wasn’t until I was only inches from it that I realized the little bird was dead, frozen where it had nestled in.
With my gloved hands I picked it up and held it in such a way that if it wanted to take to flight, it could. It weighed next to nothing. I wondered if it was hollow. I studied it closely. A gentle breeze came and ruffled its feathers, startling me into thinking it had snapped back to life. I almost dropped it out of fear.
I started thinking about how the Bible talks about birds. I thought about how God must know the number of feathers on that bird if he knew the number of hairs on my head. (Mt 10:30) I thought about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made, (Ps 139:14) and how the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, (Ps 24:1) and how God cares for the birds of the field. (Mt 6:26) This was God’s bird. He made it. He was there when it poked its little beak out of its little shell. God aligned its DNA to produce feathers. He gave it instincts to find food. He gave it the proportions for flight. And he numbered its days—a number now expired.
In my own romantic teenage way, I found myself caring for the little creature, even grieving a bit the way a child grieves a goldfish just before the flush. I couldn’t shake the thought that God loved this little lifeless bird in ways I couldn’t comprehend.
So I decided to pray.
It started as a prayer of thanks for the magnitude of creation and for God’s attention to the tiniest details. But before I knew it, found myself praying for the bird itself. Like a priest presenting his offering to the Lord, I raised the dove up in my hands and prayed, “God of all Creation, you gave this bird life and you have cared for it all of its days. Now it is dead. If you wanted, you could bring it back to life. Right here and right now I know you could. It wouldn’t take much. Just a word. Not even that. So if it be your will, I pray that you would raise this little creature from the dead and give it new life.”
Then, through the vapors of my own breathing, I stared at the bird in my hands and I waited. What happened next changed my life and has been shaping it ever since.
Before I say what happened, I must ask: What results are we comfortable with here? Would it be okay if I testified that the bird came back to life; if I said it stood, unfurled its tiny wings, and flew away to God knows where right from the palms of my hands? Would anyone believe me? Could they? How fantastic a tale can I cantilever out over our common experience before it breaks? Can I speak of resurrection? Really?
How we answer matters because, for Christians anyway, we believe in the resurrection of the dead—not only in Jesus’ resurrection, but also in our own. Jesus himself promises, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40) The apostle Paul reasons further, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Rom 8:11)
So which is harder to believe: that God could bring a frozen bird back to life in the hands of a fifteen-year-old boy, or that Christ himself has risen and that he will also raise me?
The bird did not come back to life. It remained as I had found it—frozen solid. But as I prayed that prayer, something warmed in me. I was surprised to discover that the prayer spilling out of me flowed from something real within—faith. Somewhere along the way I had accepted that there was a God who could make the dead live. I believed he not only could hear my prayer, but that, in fact, he did. Of course he did. There in the snow I had no reservations about this whatsoever and it hit me that I had become someone who actually believed in resurrection. I was Annie Dillard’s bell and this was a defining moment in my life in which I was lifted and struck. I had changed. I had become a man of faith.
Right now that faith is being tested in ways I never saw coming and I’m doing my best to pay attention. I’m standing out on the ledge I’ve trusted all these 25 years since that winter day, tapping it with my foot, feeling for the slightest tremble, wondering if it will hold. Will this season of needles, bacterial infection, open-heart surgery, stroke, MRI’s, CT scans, syrupy IV treatments, rehab, setbacks, and progress expose that boy as a fool? Will my faith tuck its tail and run now that I’ve come face to face with my own mortality? Will I feel alone and abandoned by God? What will come of my faith now that I am more like the bird than the boy?
These are the questions I’ve been asking and here at the four-month mark I have a confession to make—a testimony. Through the pain, uncertainty, and grief, God’s grace has been sufficient for me. (2 Cor 12:9) His grace is a gift and so is the faith through which it comes, (Eph 2:8) so I can’t take credit for either. But I can tell you this: they are at work in me.
If this sounds like a boast, it is. I boast in my God because I am neither smart enough nor tenacious enough to construct this faith. I would ruin it with conditions, demands, and near-sighted expectations. Don’t misunderstand. I can fear with the best of them, and question, and worry over things beyond my control. But that has not defined this season of sickness and suffering for me. I have rested in the confident hope that my Maker cares for me—and that by grace through a faith that has proven again to be real. He has not left me alone, abandoned, or betrayed. (Deut 31:8, Heb 13:5) In my sorrow and in my tears, he has comforted me. (2 Cor 1:4) In my weakness, he has been strong. (2 Cor 12:9) I’ve only known his nearness, never his absence. (Heb 4:16, Jas 4:8) For this I give thanks. I remain a man of faith.
I have not found the promises of God lacking. Out here beyond the limits of what I ever could have imagined, I have found that they hold. Like the boy with the dove in his hands, I believe them still. I believe that all things will be made new. I believe crying, death, sadness, tears, and pain will one day cease. (Rev 21:4) I believe we weren’t just created for life, but for life in intimate and perfect relationship with the Maker and Lover of our souls. (Mic 6:8) I believe that a cross and the empty tomb three days later proclaim to the cosmos that God himself has engaged in this fight, that he has done so as a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief, (Isa 53:3) and that he has already prevailed. (1 Cor 15:56) And I believe that the day will come when Maker of heaven and earth will scoop me up, all cold and still, and warm my Spirit to flight, and I will never, ever die.
Through suffering I have been lifted and struck, and that by God. Though he slay me, I will hope in him. (Job 13:15) Where else can I go? (Jn 6:68) Christ, have mercy. I believe. Help my unbelief.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).