Saturday, January 2, 2016

Who Are We, Anyway?

Someone sent me a mask for Christmas. It came from Italy, almost halfway around the world, and I keep looking at it. It wasn't until this morning that I started to understand why.

It started out on New Years Eve, and a talk about the lives we'd built for ourselves over these 50 or 60 years, and not our dissatisfaction with them, but our downright confusion. We've become, in great parts, what we've set out to be--capable, thoughtful, faithful in measures more than we'd ever expected--but now, well, now it all seems a bit silly and out of place.

Oh, we still mess up (and I did, spectacularly, later that same night) but that's not the problem.
We recognize our instances of falling short with ease. It's the instances of success that make us pause. Our successes haven't taken us where we know we have to go. In fact, they seem to take us farther from it.

That's where the mask comes in.
The mask reminds me that we are still trying to figure out who we were meant to be.
 You'd think that, by now, we'd have gotten farther in this basic truth, but well, we haven't. And this is why--

After spending our whole lives learning and building, it seems like our business now is to dismantle it--to take apart the entire construct we've worked so hard on, looking for that essence, that kernel of what's really important.

The mask doesn't represent something that's fake--it's the layers of our life. 
It's the good things we've made day by day that, suddenly, we don't need any more. In fact, they've become hindrances. It's the taking charge, the steadfast patterns, the suddenly useless knowledge that's beginning to weigh us down rather than propel us through our days.

It's God saying, 'I've shown you what I can make of you, but I'm not done yet. Now I'm going to show you what I've put in you.'

He warned us about this, you know.
I will put my Spirit in you...--Ezekiel 36:27 

Somebody asked me on New Years Eve for one wise saying to share to take us into 2016 and I, clumsy and self-conscious, said that God wants to show us that He is in us. What I should have done is gotten out the mask, because that's the whole point.

God has made us wonderful, but what we've had to do to build our lives has covered it up.
Now, it's time to strip all that away. Now, He wants to help us uncover the kernel He's deposited, that Spirit He's incomprehensively given and nurtured. He's asking us to take off the outer shell we no longer need, to pare down to the simple, unguarded core.

It's taken Him all our lives to teach us to trust Him. 
Now, He wants to show us who we really are in Him.

So they asked him, "What are you? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "No, I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." So they said to him, "Who are you so that we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?"  He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'"--John 1

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

No Beast of Burden, Reflections on an Empty Yoke

Burdens. We all have them. Heavy by definition. Awkward, uncomfortable, ill-timed, strength-sapping, discouraging sometimes. I keep thinking I can dodge mine by careful planning but it doesn't work. God isn't following my script. He keeps writing His own and I'm left with them. The burdens.

He says they are light and momentary.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light.--Matthew 11:10.
 It doesn't feel like it. Not today. Maybe not ever.

I know what God says. Walk beside Me. Let me help you.
But He doesn't get it.
I am not a beast of burden.
A yoke is made for animals. I am a human being. He made me that way. I walk upright. I think. I dream. I have dominion. He gave it to me. He put me in charge.
Why, then, do I feel so helpless?

It's the burdens that keep me there. The cares. The problems. The misunderstandings. The intentional hurts. My arms and back tire of them. My neck hurts. 
My neck. Where I'm supposed to wear the yoke. That darned yoke.

For a farmer, a yoke does two things. 
First, it provides an efficient way to get work done. It harnesses and employs the work of two strong beasts focused on one task simultaneously, sharing the load equally between them. 
Second, and maybe more important, it makes those beasts docile. Before being confined, they roam or butt or buck. Within the confines of the yoke, they know they are mastered. Once there, they calm down and settle into what the farmer wants them to do.

That's the problem. 
I want that calm but I don't want that confinement.

It's better, I think, to bear the whole load than to be mastered.
There's only one problem.
It's not working.
The burden is crushing me.
And I still don't want to let go.

My problem isn't a new one.
In the 12th century, Baldwin of Forde had something to say about it:
The Lord advised and instructed us to put ourselves under His yoke and His burden and thus, through obedience and patience, to become His docile creatures...

Agreed, but it still feels like defeat, like giving up, like copping out.
And I don't want to become docile.
I was made to lead, not be led. I am a person of intelligence and decision. He gave those to me. I'm supposed to use them.

If you're looking for a neat answer to this, you won't get it today.
I know the promise. Probably, so do you.
Again, from Baldwin:
Patience enables us to rise above tribulation and not be crushed beneath it. All who become gentle under the yoke and burden of Christ find that God is also gentle with them.

Why do I think myself so smart and capable when I'm still dragging and snorting, pushing the empty yoke around with a streaming snout, flanks worn, running and stinking with years of sweat? Why don't I just give it up and push my ragged head through the thing?
I don't know, but I do know one thing. I'm tired of this. It's got to change. 
And so I've determined my advent discipline this year.
To admit that God is God.
To let Him master me, tame me, rule me.
To figure out this yoke thing.
To give in, if that's what it takes.
To give up the burden and admit I can't do it any more.
To become gentle with Him and finally, finally, let Him be gentle with me.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Picking Up Sticks
Sometimes, I just don't know what to do next. 

I mean, the instruction book for life is pretty plain--worship God, repent, pray, hope, help others, look for heaven.

But sometimes, it's not enough.

I worship but God still seems far away. I repent but the list of my sins grows. I hope but it fades in the face of living. I help others but what I do rarely seems to have any lasting effect for either them or me. As for looking for heaven--well, I can barely manage earth.  Sometimes, it's just not working for me.

Then I realize that it doesn't matter.

It doesn't.
My disappointment, after all, is all about my feelings. I get dissatisfied because as much as I pray, as much as I hope, as much as I love God and understand what He's done both for me and the ones I love, there's still a huge gap between God's best and my reality.
A crevasse. A desert. A black hole. And it's not going away.

I can't create the heaven I want on the earth I'm given. And in the end, there's only one thing to do.
Pick up sticks.

That's right. Pick up sticks.
In those days, Elijah the prophet went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the entrance to the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her, "Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink." She left to get it, and he called out after her, "Please bring along a bit of bread." She answered, "As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now, I was collecting a couple of sticks to go in to prepare something for myself and my son. When we have eaten it, we shall die." 
This woman knows she is dying. The country has lived through years of drought and she has no more food. She has enough left for one more meal for her and her son and along comes Elijah.

Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son." --1Kings 17

What? "Oh, by the way," he says, "You're dying anyway. You might as well give me some of your last meal. It won't make any difference in the end."
Thanks a lot, bud.

I can't imagine she was thrilled with what Elijah, who spoke for God, told her to do, and sometimes, neither am I. Giving him that little she had left was not going to solve anything.
But she does it.
She goes and gathers the sticks, builds the fire, bakes the bread, gives some to Elijah, and then something happens--
She left and did as Elijah had said. She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.--1Kings 17

She has enough. Just like that. Not enough just for that day or that week, but for a year. Enough until the drought ended, until her season of starvation was over.
That's what God does. He provides enough. When we finally come to the place where we have nothing left and know we're going to die without Him, He brings enough.

I wonder what would have happened if she didn't gather the wood, didn't make the fire, didn't bake the bread and share it with Elijah? I don't know for sure, but I suspect we wouldn't be reading about her today. She would likely have died, and her son, too. Starved for the lack of doing the one thing that was left for her to do. Because, when she did that, the only thing she could, God did the rest. God did what she could not.

And that's what I have to do.
What I can.
No matter how things look. No matter how I feel. 
Because that is when God shows up with flour and oil that never run out. 
That is where I find the cup that, in spite of circumstances, overflows.
No matter what else is going on, no matter how hard or sad life gets, no matter how many things there are that I want to change and can't, there is always one thing left that I CAN do. And that is all God asks of me--to do what I can so that He can do what I can't. As long as there is one more thing for me to do, God is waiting for me to do it.

So, excuse me please. I'm needing God and I still have some sticks to pick up.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Seeds of the Spirit

Nearly 7AM and it's still dark. Indian summer come and gone. Leaves turned gold and red, then brown, and now coming down in nearly constant showers, swaying as they fall, settling in crinkly heaps where the wind gathers them, dead, in airy eddies. Autumn.

What a time to think of growing things. And yet, and yet... That's what I'm doing.

Instead of the beauty of Fall, I'm thinking of fruit. Bursting, juicy, warm from a high summer sun. Ripe and perfect. Strawberries, peaches, grapes. And flowers--spreading roses and extravagant hydrangeas. Gone now, but remembered well. They are summer, lush and dripping. Already missed.

But they have left something behind. Usually brown, sometimes red or orange, the fruit of summer has left a kernel of itself, a promise. Seeds.
They don't look like much. I know that come next year, they will burst open into flower and then, after the grace of fertilization, will produce an apple, a zinnia, a plum, but now, well, they just sit there looking dead.
For now, they're just seeds.
They need time.

In the growing dark of these days, seeds don't hold a lot of hope. Not yet. Hard and as dim as these predawn hours, they don't change, not for months.
But they are fruit. Fruit in the making.
And that's the point of fruit. It takes time. 

So it is with all kinds of fruit--even fruits of the Spirit.
Fruit is not a gift, something that once unwrapped, is instantly available, full and bursting, ready to eat. Fruit takes preparation, nurturing, time. We have to wait for it, watch it develop day after impatient day,
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.--Galatians 5:23

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Fruit, not gifts.
Pray for them, but don't expect them to come in an instant.
When they come, they come as a seed, a promise, something to be developed slowly over time.
At their start, we get seeds of the Spirit. 
In time, with God's favor and patient grace, we eventually have fruit.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Abraham's Dirty Laundry
Whoever thinks about Abraham anymore? I don't. Not hardly ever.

But I did today.

I had a dream last night...a dream of disarray, of inconclusion, of hoplessness, of incomplete instruction and unclear future.

Well, a dream of dirty laundry, actually. Piles of it everywhere. I couldn't walk without tripping over it, rags and sheets and t-shirts. I kept tripping every time I took a step. I felt tied up. Strangled by it. And I was alone in the house, abandoned with no one to help. No one to tell me what to do. Nowhere firm to step.

Then I woke up and read about Abram.
So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the LORD.--Genesis 13:18

There really is a connection, at least a perceived one. 
Abram had been following God's instruction. He'd been going where God sent him, but nothing good had happened there. God told him to go to Haran and made him a promise there, but nothing changed. God sent him to Canaan, and he got nothing but famine. God sent him to Egypt, and he got in trouble with the Pharaoh. God sent him to Bethel and Lot got the best of the land they found there. 
No fulfillment of the promise God kept making. Just more promises. He didn't even have his final name yet.

And what did he do? He built an altar. A place to worship. A place to remember. Remember what, I want to know? Nothing had happened yet. Nothing good, at least.

It felt like my dream of laundry. Piles all around. Endless work. Enough to trip over. All the promises God makes but no indication of Him keeping them. Roadblocks. Hopelessness. Confusion. 

And Abram built an altar.
Not because of what God had done, but because he needed it. 
He needed a stone that didn't move, that he could kick at or cling to. 
He needed to remind himself who God really is. He needed something concrete, that didn't move like tents, like sheep, like nephews who take the best for themselves. 
The altar was not just a place to worship, it was a place that wouldn't move or change. A place like God Himself. He needed a place to hang on.
Kind of like this:
Abram had plenty of dirty laundry in his own life until God finally brought the fruition of His promises. And so do I. 

I don't like waiting. Not necessarily because I don't trust God, but because I rarely know what to hang onto while I'm waiting. I don't have a place to build the stone altar Abram did. But I have to have one anyway, so I'm going to have to build my own altar in the place Christ taught...

Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God's love and keep you strong.--Ephesians 3:17

I don't build my altar out of rocks. I carry it with me wherever I go. My Rock. My touchstone. My love. My trust. The only altar God wants anymore. And the only one I need. 

If I can do that, eventually, my laundry will look like this:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Songs in the Dark

Like many of you, I'm going to sit down to a table this Thursday groaning with way too much food and celebrate with my family amid a practical example of the plenty we've been given. And plenty it is--food, drink, shelter, safety, wealth, health--a very long list. But something's been nagging at me, that little voice that says that I'm missing the point, and by a long shot. Is Thanksgiving just for us, I'm wondering? What about people who are lonely, or hungry, or poor, or in constant pain? What are they supposed to be doing on Thanksgiving Day?

The simple answer is that they are, like us, supposed to be giving thanks, too. But for what?

Well, this is my considered answer. Everybody, whether in plenty or in want, is supposed to be giving thanks for the same thing. It has much less to with the people around the table and their prosperity or good fortune than with the understanding of their thanksgiving in the first place.

Habbakuk got it:
Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there should be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.--Habakkuk 3:16-17

There is only one thanksgiving to which we are called--thanksgiving to God for Himself. 
Any unbeliever can be thankful to their own deity--karma, fate, circumstance, personal fortitude--for the plenty of their life. It's easy. It is only the person of faith that can give thanks in want.

Think about it.  

Sooner or later, everybody has trouble. Without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, trouble brings misery with it, but with the Spirit, trouble brings focus. While not devoid of sadness and difficulty, Spirit-led troubles include a sense of purpose and direction. They take us someplace. Our circumstances, whatever they are, are a gift from God. Do we give thanks, then, for illness or hunger, or loneliness or poverty?  Yes, for these, too. God, after all, either brings them or allows them. Whatever our condition, it came to us through God.
Rejoice in the Lord always.--Philippians 4:4

Troubles are God's assurance that we are ready for more of Him. If I am ill, God changes me to find His healing, even when He doesn't bring a cure. If I am lonely, He calls me to His side. If I am afraid, He calls me to trust.

So it's Thanksgiving and what are we to be thankful for? Give thanks to God for God.

Thanksgiving is not about plenty, even when we have it. Thanksgiving is about the places in our lives where we are starving for God's riches. It is where God opens His arms to us as only He can. It is about how we find God more in what we still need than in what we already have, about resting in Him when everything else has fallen short.

It is a sweet, poignant "Thank you" sung in the dark.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All the Saints

Today is All Saints Day, one of the sweetest festivals of the church. It is when we remember our place among all those of faith who have come before and those destined to come after. The line is long, the crowd very dense and they are all so, well, so great. They have done so much, suffered so much. Many still do. How can we measure up to that? What kind of place in heaven can we find compared to them?

Mechthild of Magdeburg (1208-1282) expressed it well:

To the extent we desire that God be praised, recognize that we have been given, and properly carry out God's will, we are like the prophets and the holy fathers who through great virtue overcame themselves in God.

To the extent that we learn wisdom and through it change other people and stand true to God in all trials we resemble the holy apostles who went out of themselves even unto death.

To the extent that we are patient in all distress and in the measure that we hold fast to our Christian faith, even in the face of death, we resemble the holy martyrs, who have marked out for us through the shedding of their blood the true path to heaven.

To the extent that we bear resolutely the difficulties of Holy Christianity, both those of the living and those of the dead, we are like the holy confessors, who remained watchful in great toil and heard confessions with sympathy.

To the extent that we remain unconquered in battle and preserve our maidenly honor we are like the holy virgins, who have not lost true victory.

To the extent that we have deep sorrow and to the extent that we perform many kinds of holy penance we are like those holy widows who, after sinning, attained such great honor.

To the extent that we have all the virtues about us we are like God and all His saints, who have followed God with complete devotion.*

We are not asked to be saintly in the context of someone else's life. We are asked to become saints within the life God has given to us. The opportunity for martyrdom that put another man or woman in a den of lions or in front of an assault rifle may never come to us. We may never encounter the victims of a earthquake or a deadly virus or desperate hunger. We may never meet a people unreached by the gospel.

But we can be saints within the circumstances God has marked out for us to the extent that we yearn for righteousness with the same fervor as those who have done these things. We can love with the same compassion. We can work with the same zeal. We can rejoice with them in the same holy God.

All Saints Day. My day. Your day.

*From The Flowing Light of the Godhead