This being the month of the twentieth anniversary of the Word of Grace messages, I am going to share with you the message that is my personal favorite.
This is the story of an experience my brother Terry and I shared in October of 1996. It was a sacred moment on a Southern California hillside. The Holy Spirit opened our hearts to new depths that night and taught us there is a communion of souls going well beyond the limits of words.
How very good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.
The October moon climbs the sky in full, golden glory. It pulls the tide of my heart over the whitewashed, adobe wall of the retreat center. I resist that tug, earth-bound by the material. My pen is missing.
It isn’t just any pen. It is a $70 gold-plated Sheaffer Classic fountain pen. It is my favorite. I love its rasp as it pushes words across the pages. Words are gifts, but writing them down is work. The sound and heft of this pen remind me of both.
There is some guilt associated with this pen. I bought it on sale for $45–bargains are in the deluded mind of the purchaser. It took mechanically-challenged me two months of ink-spattered failure to learn how to place the cartridge correctly. I put it away for weeks until I happened to read the instructions on the back of the cartridge package and got the idea.
Tonight, when I went to meet with the retreat leader, I took my journal, my pocket New Testament, my Bible, and I put the pen in my jacket pocket. After I returned to my room, I opened up my journal and reached for the pen–it wasn’t there.
I looked around. The pen wasn’t with my other stuff. “Shoot, I must not have zipped my pocket.” I tried to write with a $2.49 Pilot Varsity fountain pen (best writing pen and most reliable pen I’ve ever used). The thought of the missing pen would not let me rest.
So I am retracing my steps. At some point I left the walk and crossed the lawn. I don’t remember where. I see no gleam of gold in the moonlight. The retreat leader crosses the walk ahead of me. I pick up my head and quicken my step around the corner and out of sight. This is a man who once spent five months in prayer in a cave eating nothing but potatoes and water. He probably thinks that a 79-cent Bic ballpoint will do just fine and he’s right.
My pen isn’t in the empty conference room. Turning out the light, I step outside. To my left, in the dappled shadows of the porch, sits my brother Terry. We exchange nods. It is the third evening of a five-day guided silent retreat. Terry and I haven’t exchanged a word for two days and three nights.
He sees me slowly zigzag across the lawn. “Did you lose something?” he calls out.
“Yeah, my pen. It’s my favorite.”
“The gold one?” he asks.
I say, “Yes,” knowing that he means my $5.00 Pentel roller ball (I am a pen junkie) that he borrowed on the first night. I don’t correct him because he probably won’t approve of a $70 pen either.
I am across the first square of lawn before I realize that Terry is behind me and also looking.
The moon is higher now, flooding light over us. Down the ridge-line, across the valley, I see the tallest hill that interested me during the day. It looks like it has antennae on top. My heart longs to wander beyond the walls, to explore the hills in the night.
I glance back at Terry, thinking, “My brother loves me. He is restless tonight and I’d like to do something special with him.”
But I don’t want to break his silence, and I move ahead of him continuing the search. I wait for Terry to catch-up to me in the rose garden, thinking I should get back to my prayer and the journal. The Spirit speaks to my heart, “The pen is gone for a reason. You came out here for more than a pen. Terry is waiting for something. Ask him.”
I whisper to my brother, “Are you up for something silent, but crazy?”
He looks at me quizzically. “Sure.”
I gesture at his legs clad in shorts. “Are you warm enough?”
“Let me put on my long pants.”
“Knock on my door when you are ready,” I tell him.
Terry is a hospital executive. I am an attorney. Seven years separate us in age. We have different personalities and paths for our lives, but the spiritual riches we’ve encountered while following Christ are a shared bounty. I love my big brother and cherish the journey that we’re taking together.
I open my door when I hear his door open and we walk into the night without a word.
We cross the highway and start up the grassy slope beyond. It is steep. I lean into the hill and push for traction off the soft clods of a fire break. Terry follows a few steps behind. I suck air deep into my lungs to regulate my panting. Terry does the same. We stop to rest and I think that we are both a lot older than the last time we climbed a hill together.
Our shadows against the illuminated ground are the difference of night and day.
We take a right on the ridge and walk down a saddle on a hard dirt road. Below we can hear engines accelerate, squealing tires, sirens and an occasional indistinct voice.
When we ascend the hill it turns out to be a big knoll commanding a view of what must be the ocean, dark and flat to the south, the blackness of the Camp Pendleton Marine base to the west, mesas and ravines in broken patterns to the east, and mountains on guard to the north–360 degrees of horizon. The antennae turn out to be two spindly, old Yucca plants stretching out of a patch of prickly pear. We stand in silence taking it in, Terry a bit higher on the slope than I.
Something flutters in front of me. A bat, I think, or a night hawk. It is gone and then there it is again–a moving shadow crossing the moonlit landscape. There are two of whatever it is.
I point. Terry follows the line of my finger and also sees the movement coming straight at us. Over our heads in swift, smooth flight are two great horned owls. They swoop past us in a moonlit flash of golden eyes and glowing feathers. They settle on the yucca above us, one over the other, the big one on top, in the same positions that Terry and I stand on the hill. Maybe 30 feet and no more separate us.
Terry and I turn carefully in unison to watch. I am afraid that any movement will break the spell.
Silhouetted against the eastern sky, the owls begin to call to each other in deep, thrilling tones–who-o-o, who, who, who-o-o, back and forth at intervals, a conversation.
“O God,” I pray in my soul, “this is amazing grace. Thank you for calling us here. Thank you for this brother of mine.” My mouth is parted in wonder. All my thought, feeling and physical being converge in focus. The moon shines down. The moment is perfect.
Unhurriedly, the owls unfold their tremendous wings and take flight, one after the other, rising in slow, swirling flames of gold, bronze and copper ignited by the moon. They spiral up above us, coming together, then moving apart, then together again, exchanging calls in a dance of joy for the moon, the stars, and the night air on which they float and glide in freedom between the earth and heaven–a reverent and wild expression of praise for the God that made us all.
Then as one, these night visitors return to their hunt over the fields, gliding away from our view.
Our world remains hushed for a long moment of benediction. I whisper to Terry, “That is one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen.”
“Pure gift,” he says.
He walks down to me, puts his arm around me and kisses my forehead. He squeezes me hard. I squeeze back. We hold each other for awhile, brothers by blood and in spirit, called to this time and place to witness the delight of God.
We start back, walking side by side with ease, down hill, around corners, back to the retreat center. Only one thing more is said. I whisper to Terry, “A Psalm says, “the moon is a faithful witness.” He murmurs, “M-m-m,” in response.
The same Psalm is the first place in Scripture that God is called “Father.” In it God speaks his love to and through David:
He shall cry to me, “You are my Father, my God and the Rock of my Salvation!… Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm… It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies. (Ps. 89:26, 28, 37).
Two brothers stand side by side on a moonlit hilltop in silent communion, as naked in soul before God as each of them was in body on the day their mother bore them into the world. The golden pen is forgotten. For the deepest secrets of God there are no words.
O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
Please note that the content and viewpoints of Mr. Hansen are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.
Kent Hansen is a Christian attorney, author and speaker. He practices corporate law and is the managing attorney of the firm of Clayson, Mann, Yaeger & Hansen in Corona, California. Kent also serves as the general counsel of Loma Linda University and Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.
Finding God’s grace revealed in the ordinary experiences of life, spiritual renewal in Christ and prayer are Kent’s passions. He has written two books, Grace at 30,000 Feet and Other Unexpected Places published by Review & Herald in 2002 and Cleansing Fire, Healing Streams: Experiencing God’s Love Through Prayer, published by Pacific Press in spring 2007. Many of his stories and essays about God’s encompassing love have been published in magazines and journals. Kent is often found on the hiking trails of the southern California mountains, following major league baseball, playing the piano or writing his weekly email devotional, “A Word of Grace for Your Monday” that is read by men and women from Alaska to Zimbabwe.