If toads could talk, we’d all be a lot better informed about the world, I think. They can keep so still, they’ve probably sat by and watched most of history unfold, and no one’s noticed them. Until they startle someone with an ill-timed croak and get kicked away, or until they startle someone with some far-fetched story that gets them kissed and turned into a prince. Oh wait, that was a frog. And there is a difference, you know, because frogs jump; toads walk. Or at least they waddle. But for sure, they migrate…

The other night we had some friends over for dinner. What follows is a very brief sampling of the stories told as we basked in the post-dinner glow. Names and locations have been changed to protect the jobs, privileges, dignity and overall reputations of those involved. Because otherwise, I’d have no friends left.

If Toads Could Talk

Our conversation had turned to fascinating methods for disposing of common pests. I shared a story about my dear Great Aunt, who holds a special place in my heart for her fondness of dispatching ground squirrels with the semi-auto .22 rifle she kept leaning in the corner of her laundry room. Some laughed appreciatively at my descriptions. Some couldn’t completely hide their expressions of quiet worry. One person, we’ll call her “Friend A,” contributed by sharing a pest-control story of her own.

She talked about a friend of hers who dislikes the chemicals, poisons and pesticides normally used for insect infestations. This posed a problem on the occasion when, coming into her kitchen, she discovered her sink swarming with black ants. Washing them down the drain only postponed the inevitable; the ants simply crawled back out or came back via another route. What was she to do? That’s when she remembered the large toad that frequented her country garden. With a contented smile, she went into the garden, retrieved the plump toad and strategically placed it in her swarming kitchen sink. When she came back an hour later the ant problem had been… ‘contained’— and both she and the toad were happy.

The ‘kitchen sink toad’ inspired a great deal of mirth, but I could see the wheels turning in one guest’s head as she mentally reviewed the story. “What if the toad had jumped out of the sink while your friend was away?” came the reasonable question. I could tell the thought of an ant-bloated toad, slopping around the house unsupervised, troubled her. Still recovering from violent laughter, a different guest, “Friend B,” tried to assure her. “Oh, toads can’t really jump very well. He never would have made it out of the sink.” This seemed to satisfy her until he added, with a disconcerted look of his own—“…but they do migrate.” All conversation stopped at that point as every head in the room swiveled his direction.

“I was hunting one year up a steep hill that rises between a sharp bend in the river,” he began. “After a long, dry climb I had only one thick patch of brush left to break through before reaching the top.” Pausing for effect, he shrugged his shoulders and eyebrows—“And that’s where I saw the toad.” Because it wasn’t necessarily a funny story, just bizarre (don’t toads usually hang out near water?) a different guest took it upon himself to add some humor. “Friend C,” as we’ll call him, suddenly began imitating the things a toad in such a situation might likely think or say. He did this with the help of several excruciatingly funny facial contortions and voice modifications. When people you’ve always thought of as 'serious people' begin imitating the thought processes of stranded toads in mixed company, it’s a marvelously freeing experience.

Cowboys & Indians

You know those things you watch on TV that are so painfully funny you actually feel embarrassed for the person involved, even though you’ve never met them and won’t be held accountable for their mistakes? This is one of those stories. “Friend C,” a.k.a. ‘the toad whisperer,’ told about being asked to lead the communion portion of the service in a church he was attending. Naturally feeling very nervous about this important and never before handled responsibility, “Friend C” prepared a brief talk with diligence. “All I could think of was how glad I was that things aren’t the way they used to be,” he told us solemnly. “How wonderful it is that we don’t have to worry about sacrificing an animal every time we do something wrong, how great it is that we can simply come to God, one-on-one without a priest, because of what Jesus did as the final & foretold sacrifice, once, and for all.”

To illustrate his gratitude that ‘things aren’t the way they used to be,’ “Friend C” began telling the congregation a story about how, when he was a child, the favorite game he and his friends used to play was ‘cowboys & Indians.’ “I was really getting into it,” he said, “really elaborating on how, when we played, the cowboys always won, when a lady in the front row raised her hand sharply and interrupted, ‘Well you didn’t win this one.’”

“I was confused and flustered,” he said. “I looked at my wife and she was just looking back at me like, ‘What in the WORLD are you doing?’ And that’s when I remembered,” he said as we all sat on the edge of our seats, “that’s when I remembered that half of the audience was made up of Native Americans.” We laughed and laughed, but it was painful laughter. We all felt his pain. ‘How terrible,’ we all commented sympathetically, ‘that’s just awful.’ He told us that after he realized his error, he fumbled and mumbled his way through the rest of the service before finally sitting down, feeling about as spiritual enlightened as moldy shoe leather. Later, a sympathetic friend and one of the Native Americans attending that day, patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry," he said with a quiet smile-- "we played cowboys & Indians too.”

Post Script

I’m still not clear whether the toad “Friend B” saw on the summit in his story was plodding along methodically, taking the most logical and direct migrational shortcut to a different part of the river, or if he found the toad resting motionless and content in the shade, a quiet sentinel watching the progress of a lone human ascending a long hill. But does it matter? Either way, the intelligence implied is immensely disquieting. Alas, if only toads could talk.


I’ve been reading a book lately about how to write. Hey, it could be worse; I could be writing a book on how to read. Anyway, there was this chapter about character development that talked about how the direction a story takes is markedly affected by the development of the characters in the story. The author said that the more time the writer spends with his or her characters, the more he’ll get to know them, laugh at them, understand them, love them. When you ‘write people,’ when you develop the characters in your story, you’re actually forming a relationship, you’re bonding— with an imaginary person. And the degree to which you understand your characters often determines the quality of your story.

The author said lots of interesting things about these little people you’re creating. Like how protecting them from hard stuff, or how not pushing them out of their comfort zones, how not exploring their backgrounds, how all of this stuff will not only make for an incredibly boring story, but will also keep you and the rest of your readers from a potentially satisfying and life-changing relationship. Fascinating.

Then the thought came to me in the shower this morning (as odd thoughts often do)—the same principles apply to real people. The difference is, I’m not making them up; they’re flesh and blood, walking around me every day. The eerie similarity is that each of us, often unknowingly, act as goddish demi-authors all the time, because we’re the ones who get to choose how much we’re going to poke and prod and push and understand the other characters in our life story. At home, we interact with characters. At work, other characters, church—more characters. They’re human beings, but in a very real sense they’re also characters in a Story, moving on and off the landscape of what most of us ego-centric people consider the stage of our lives. The sun is revolving around us, it rises and sets around us. In this universe of ours, other people move out of the shadows as we approach and recede into darkness as we pass. How well do we know them? It’s startling to realize that’s mostly up to you.

I was not born knowing this fact. My mother and probably your mother too, often said that if I wanted friends, I needed to what?—to be a friend. This helped. What also helped was watching a missions trip team leader engage other people. She had a magic touch. I often watched in amazement as she would approach the meanest or most serious or most prestigious person in the room, male or female, and have them laughing and joking within minutes. She was fearless. But I came to see that her secret was a mindset to take the initiative, to make the first move, to be vulnerable first. This is fantastic advice for writing. Unless the writer gets off his/her behind and takes the initiative to put his fingers to the keyboard, the story will not write itself, because there are no characters, and the characters will not write themselves because, A. that would prove evolution and B. you are only a demi-god and cannot will beings or stories into existence ex-nihilo. Sorry.

But this is also fantastic advice for getting to know more about the characters God has written into and around your own life. Now chances are, unless they’re reading this too, other people won’t be the ones to pray for the sun to stand still in their universe so you don’t recede into darkness as they pass— so stop waiting for your relationships to write themselves. Make the first move. Investigate. Ask people questions about themselves, ask about what they love, about what inspires them, what are their dreams? Pick a character from your life story and risk, take the initiative to get to know them—because the more time you spend with these characters, talking with them, listening to them, laughing and crying with them— the more you’ll understand them, and the greater the odds you’ll be able love them as well. Oh, and your life story will probably get more interesting, too.

Surrounded By Grace,


I’m a good Evangelical Christian. ‘The word of the Lord’ is the Bible, before it is anything else. This is not only the most authoritative “word,” this is The Standard by which all other ‘words’ must be measured. The Bible defines what is rational, what is ‘orthodox.’ The Bible defines the rules. I remember asking my Dad once, several years ago, ‘What is the secret of confidence?’ His answer seemed overly simplistic at the time, but I now see it as astoundingly true—“Read the Bible, know the Bible” he said; “Be sure of what God has said, and you will be a confident person.” I still believe this with my whole being. The Bible is the bedrock of confident Christian living and godly ministry. Period.

So what are we good, Evangelical Christians to do about all the ‘words from the Lord’ and ‘words of knowledge’ that seem to be floating around with alarming frequency these days? I think you know I’m not talking about the ‘word’ as brought by the preacher on a Sunday morning. I’m talking about the ‘word’ brought by Joe Christian in the local coffee shop, without any prior provocation. What gives? It’s just too easy to roll our eyes and call these people strange. It’s too easy, and it’s too convenient. I think we Evangelicals too often resemble the religiously clenched Pharisees more than we do the newly healed, former cripples. “I’m not sure what the rules are,” these humbly healed say, “I just know I once was blind but now I see.” Do we see? Maybe we’re not as blind as the Pharisees were, but… are we willing to see? I think sometimes we roll our eyes at charismatic types so we don’t have to see, so we don’t have to risk making eye contact. I think we live afraid of being spiritually manipulated, just by looking. But no spirit has any claims to me except the Holy Spirit. I live in the sovereignty of God, not the sovereignty of Satan, so I feel confident God can keep me from being spiritually harmed in some way while I investigate charismatic claims. When I say ‘investigate,’ I mean listening, looking, reading— then comparing what I experience to Scripture. Does it line up? Or is it deception and distraction?

God pulled a fast one on me today. I mean, He was really sneaky. On Friday mornings I take my leave of the Main Street office where I normally work to read in an undisclosed location. On this particular morning I happened to read something about ‘words of knowledge.’ I don’t know exactly who is reading this but, if you’re at all like me, you have assumptions you make in your head despite your best intentions, mostly about people, their beliefs and their practices. When I hear someone say “I was given a word of knowledge from the Lord,” for instance, I usually assume bad and sinister things. Like commands to go bathe a chicken in the Sacramento river as a sign of Redding’s need for repentance. Or something like that. I know that’s not fair, and I’m working on it; sorry. The author of the book in question described ‘words of knowledge’ as the Holy Spirit revealing to human beings certain insights about a person or situation in an ‘on the spot’ kind of way. Now honestly, does that definition sound so bad? Don’t we hear stories all the time about God doing that kind of thing for our friends and in the lives of missionaries? But just to be safe, I run this definition through my own spiritual grid—“Why do you need some ‘other’ word from the Lord when He’s got a bunch of ‘em already written down? Just go read the Bible for a while. Soak it up. Then when you need to minister, the Holy Spirit will speak in some way through those words.” I still believe this. Without doing this, you’ll be a sucker for whatever spiritual breeze happens to be blowing by that day. But I also believe that if I’m doing this already, I’ve got more leeway to get a little risky. “Holy Spirit,” I prayed in my heart this morning, “You alone have rights to me. If You want to give me on the spot “insights” into a person or their situation today, I’m willing to receive it. But you know I’ll test it. Just no chickens please (nervous laughter). Amen.” Then I forgot all about it.

I was back in my office working later this afternoon when a friend came in for a quick cup of coffee and a ‘hello.’ We chatted for a few minutes about trivial things, and as he was preparing to leave, I asked him about how a friend of his was doing. Only I couldn’t remember his friend’s name. So I squinted real hard and voiced the name that suddenly popped into my head—“Emma. How’s Emma doing?” I knew it was the wrong name the moment his face fell ten stories to the carpet. He looked at me like I was holding a chicken in one hand and a map to the Sacramento River in the other. “What?” I said with more than a little alarm. “No,” he said very slowly, “that’s not my friend’s name. But Emma—she’s a whole ‘nother story.” And with that, he sat back down and proceeded to share a hidden burden with me that would never have otherwise seen the light of day in that casual encounter. And talking led to prayer. And prayer led to a visible strengthening in my friend’s posture and composure, a visible change of hope and encouragement in his countenance. He gave me a big hug before he left, and with that, a quick ‘hello’ was transformed into a moment of healing. I sat down at my desk, shaking my head in quiet wonder, when out of the blue, the memory of that morning’s prayer came back to me like a burp of raspberry chocolate. “Wait a minute,” I said out loud to God, leaning back heavily in my chair; “did you just—?!?” I hadn’t even seen it coming.

I think a lot of the time, we just get hung up on a name, or a title, or a phrase. Hearing “a word of knowledge” sends off all sorts of alarms in our heads, so we throw up a wall. Honestly though, I think this kind of thing, like the story I just shared, happens to us Evangelicals all the time, we just don’t recognize it. Or we call it something else. “I felt like God was saying,” or, “It was impressed upon me that,” or, “ I just had a sense that,”—all these are good examples of ways I think we’re saying the same thing. Now look, there’s a couple really simple ways to test if this is from God or not, whether you’re the one who’s giving the ‘word’ or the one deciding whether or not to ‘receive’ it: 1) Does it line up/agree with what God has already said in the Bible? That’s a no-brainer. If no, = NOT FROM GOD. 2) Is it true??!! If not, it’s not from God, period. But if it is true, and it leads to healing and hope and His glory, it's from God. Did coincidence lead to a time of prayer for this broken situation that visibly touched and encouraged my friend? Or did God? I vote God. Did this simple intervention—literally one ‘word’— contradict or overstep the boundaries of Scriptural authority in any way? No. Was it “true?” Did it touch on something in my friend’s life that led to healing and a chance to glorify God? Yes.

We read the Bible and we ask the Holy Spirit to guide and direct our day, to empower our living, and then we walk by faith. We expect Him to comfort through us, touch lives through us, all of it. And He does. Am I saying you have to go out today and squint, to concentrate really hard before you talk to anyone, waiting for the magic words to come? Well let me ask you—did I have to “try” to “do” anything? Did I have to draw attention to myself to get this ‘word’ across, or proclaim with a wild look in my eye that God had a message for my friend while announcing it in trembling vibrato? Are you kidding me? “All” I did was spend time in the Bible and in prayer this morning. God didn’t even give me the chance to mess it up. God pulled a fast one on me today, and I'm grateful. Are you willing to let Him pull a fast one on you?

Surrounded By Grace,
*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~