Sunday, April 28, 2019

Of God Who is Man--"I have seen the Lord!"

When I left for Italy a year ago, I didn't know why. It wouldn't be a vacation--I knew that. More like a pilgrimage whose purpose had not yet made itself known. I only knew this: that my brief visit to Florence in January of 2017 hadn't been enough. Florence offered more--much more, I thought--and I needed to find it.

And that's not too big of a stretch. Florence, the seat of the Renaissance, was home to names everyone knows--DaVinci, Dante, Botticelli, Donatello, Galileo, and of course, Michaelangelo. So much happened there in so short a time that it changed the way we think about God and man, beauty and evil. The Renaissance was the perfect storm of man in the process of looking for God, digging himself out of the Dark Ages into a Wonderful Light. I wanted to vicariously live it--to climb out of ordinariness and taste it all.

So I decided to stay a month. Surely, in that amount of time, I would find what I was looking for.

Much of Florence was the same as I remembered it--songs and statues, pasta and paintings--so much that there is an actual disease that derives its name from taking in too many of the sights too quickly. But that was not my plan. I had plenty of time and I was going slow. I didn't want to miss whatever it was I was looking for.
I found the Ponte Vecchio at dawn,

 and the Duomo of Santa Maria de Fiore
and Michaelangelo's David
and Botticelli's Birth of Venus.
It should have been enough. 
But it wasn't. 
There was something more. And, almost a month in, I still hadn't found it.

Along the way, a local had told me I needed to go to the Museo della' Opera del Duomo. "You have to go," he said. When I told him that if I had time, he laid his hand on my arm and repeated, "You HAVE to go." And I put it on the back burner. There were other things to do first, I thought.

But three days before I was to leave, I had the time and remembered the look on his face. 

The Opera Museum is in Duomo square and bigger than it looks. It is almost all white and steel and glass, but it has something I've never seen--duplicates of its most famous exhibits made for touching. The originals still lie behind barricades, but faithful copies lie out in the open and the visitor can feel them--every curve of cool marble and plaster.

And that was where I found Him.
Michaelangelo's last Pieta.

This not the pieta at the Vatican--the beautiful, graceful Mary and sleeping Jesus. This Jesus is very dead, laying awkward across both she and Nicodemus.  He is dead weight, impossible to hold up but unthinkable to let go. 

And I walked up to touch the face of Christ. Just like that. Smooth and hard of muscle and sinew. Here was the cord that stretched beneath the skin of His neck.

 There were the muscle of His arm and there His brow. I stroked them like I once stroked Dave--slowly and with a lover's caress.

And suddenly He wasn't God but a flesh and blood man. A man given and taken by God. He had it all--blood, bone, tissue, hair, sweat, weariness, the rush of life. The bridge of His nose. His tangled hair. The way His head hung--finished but not defeated. The window of His eyes closed as He fell to the side--intact even though the spark was gone.

And I saw.

Blessed are they who have not seen and believe.--John 20:29

Maybe my faith is too weak. Maybe I am one of those who needs to see, but on this day, I touched my Savior. And even as I heard His voice tell me not to hold on to Him, that He must go to His Father, for that moment I felt the weight of Him, the genuine-ness of His flesh, and I was Mary in the garden, hearing my name spoken, impossible to mistake, in the voice I knew so well. And replying with relief and astonishment, crying "Rabboni!"

15He asked her, "Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." 16Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means "Teacher"). 17Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" 18Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the LORD!"--John 20: 15-18

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Contradiction of Intentional Poverty

"Poverty is freedom. It is a freedom so that what I possess doesn't own me...even God cannot put anything in a heart that is already full" --Mother Teresa
I am rich. I know this without any doubt.

I am rich in situation, in health, in friends, in finances, in safety, in every way I can imagine. I am even rich in spirit, with free access to the family of God and the word of God. In every practical sense, I have autonomy to make my own decisions, to go and do what I want.

And that's the trick of it. If I am to become like Christ, I must become poor.

For your sake He became poor so that through His poverty, you might become rich.--2Cor 8:9
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.--Matthew 5:3

I don't even know where to begin sometimes. He has given so much. Everything I have came because God brought it into an undeserving life. I can't, I won't, refuse to take or keep it and thereby denigrate the Giver. What I have was first God's, and He transferred it to me as a trust for me to use in His name. And, in the process, He has filled me up past where I think I know how to administrate it all.

How do I use it and not hoard it? How to I scatter bread upon the waters and be sure I am not casting it to the pigs?  How do I remain comfortable in Him without becoming comfortable in the company of so many earthly good things?

Somehow, in the face of all these riches, I have to feel the pinch of poverty. Surrounded by all He's given, I have to know how poor I really am without Him.

Wealth and comfort are gifts from God. They are. They surround me with ease, but can become a shroud if I forget where they came from and what I am supposed to do with them. I have to give them away, and rightly, to the proper people in the proper situations where they are used to glorify Him. And all the while maintaining focus not on the things or opportunities, but on Him.

Sometimes I screw this up. I see the shiny thing (or place or person) and, oh, I reach out for it, and because I am rich in so many ways, most of the time I can have it. Right then. When I want it most.

But I know I've done wrong when, as soon as I take hold of the thing, it turns to ash. The pleasure is gone. The charm of anticipation turns into the disappointment of possession. I have a fur coat like that.

I remember wanting it so badly. It was soft and beautiful and warm. And Dave, because he loved me, bought it. And I pulled it out of the box, and there it was, as beautiful as it had always been, but by the time I put it down again, the luster of it had gone. I still have the coat, but never wear it. I do lend it out sometimes, but keep it around mainly to remind me of the misuse of love, of gifts, and of money.

So, this is the solution as far as I know it:
For me to become poor, I have to know that I am not as rich as I seem.
For me to become poor, what I give has to cost me to the point that I feel the lack of what I've given.
For me to become poor, I have to always be at the point of depending on God, not on the comfort of my riches.
For me to become poor, I have to do things that may not look like they make sense, but force me to maintain my connection to God.
For me to become poor, I have to remember that my need for a Savior never wanes.

I am not Mother Teresa. God has not called me to that kind of practical poverty. But He calls me to poverty nevertheless, the kind that bears all the outward trappings of wealth, but must, at the risk of my soul, be borne with constant understanding that I am as much a desolate waif before Him as any street urchin or condemned criminal.

Mother Teresa serves from a place of intentional poverty, and I serve from a place of apparent wealth, but our service must be identical before God. Today, when we remember the Last Supper and imagine watching the bended head of God as He washed his friends' feet, we recall that He became nothing before us, although He was God. I must become nothing before Him. It is my only rightful place.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

I'll Never Let Go? Really?

OK. This is the thing. I keep imagining that scene near the end of Titanic--Rose holding onto the frozen and very dead Jack, saying "I'll never let go" as she opens her fingers one by one and Jack sinks down into the North Atlantic. Contradiction? Oxymoron? Delusion? I mean, she's letting go precisely as she says she will not. What's up with that? It didn't made sense.

And then Dave died. Three years ago today. Just like Jack. And I had to figure out what to do next. I mean, the last time I saw Dave on this earth, he was sitting right next to me. Alive one minute and not the next. No heartbeat. No pulse. No breath. And I had to let go. It was unthinkable. I had to do the one thing I could not. I had to open my hand and let him go.

Well, that's when I began to understand Rose. That's when I learned that letting go is not only a function of fingers or an action of hands.
  • Letting go means that there comes a day when the bundle of Dave's clothes, the last he ever wore, the ones I slept with for months, first get hung on a hook in my room and then, years later, get packed away.
  • Letting go means lifting Dave's Vietnam Vet baseball cap off the hook in the sunroom where he hung it himself and laying it in a box with his clothes, closing the lid, and carrying it downstairs. 
  • Letting go means selling his books, giving away his tools. It means finally dismantling his computer. 
  • Letting go is realizing that the things of his that once comforted me do not do so any longer. They have taken on new weight; they have become so heavy that they no longer comfort. They have become a burden.
I'll never let go.

 And even as I say it, my hands let them all go, one by one.
 That's when I know that Rose was telling the truth.

Dave is more than his things. He always was, of course, but after he died, it took awhile to separate them. In fact, Dave is more than his own body. Now, Dave exists in a different place than he did when he lived. I don't mean heaven, although he is certainly there, wherever it is. But he exists apart from his stuff, even his corporeal self, and, increasingly, apart from me.

You see, Dave is beginning to sink into the ocean.

I gradually realized this all along but understood it in a new way couple of weeks ago, when someone asked me out on a date and, well, I accepted it. Now, anyone who knew Dave, and especially Dave and I together, knows that after him, there is no second act. He was my great love story. There will never be another. I don't even want one. But, honestly, I would occasionally like to go out to dinner.

And that's when Dave spoke to me. He did. Not through some ethereal, other-worldly voice, but through the faithful recollection of his friend Zach, who was there to hear the invitation and my acceptance, and who took me aside to say that Dave knew this day would come, that I would some day want to spend time with someone else. Zach told me that Dave had entrusted him with a message for that day--for this day. And, with Zach's voice, Dave spoke to me. He told me he loved me and part of that love was wishing me companionship when I needed it. Dave told me that my happiness was as important to him now as it ever was. Dave told me that, if the man was a good one, and kind to me, to go on a date.

And I did. And it was fine, but when I came home, and walked in the door, I had something so say to Dave in return.
"This has nothing to do with you."

It didn't. It still doesn't. And that's when I understood Rose even better. Dave is alive in me, but he is not alive. Simply by virtue of breathing, I will do things in which he can have no part. I do not have a choice in this. I retain my earthly life and Dave does not. Even more, the life I'm given comes from God and, whether I understand it or not, is His gift to me. Just as I bore witness for Dave while he lived, I bear witness now to God's life in me after Dave is gone.

There's Dave, drifting away, still reaching out, our fingertips only inches apart, but the space between them increases by the second. Dave is gone and must sink into the deep. When that began in earnest, however, when I increasingly knew the howling desolation of being left alone, that's when I remembered the Heart of the Ocean, the precious, fabulous necklace Rose kept after Jack had gone. The necklace wasn't Jack, but she held it for years as a reminder of their life together until she finally opened her hand and let that, too, slip from her fingers.

We all hold on. And each year, when this day comes, I relive the night Dave died--tortured dreams surrounded by fitful sleep, waking up every two hours thinking, "This is when this or that happened", knowing again the tearing pain of separation, renewing again the unthinkable. But with increasing quickness, each time I am rescued. Not by my own memories, nor by my own resolve to move on, but by assurance from a Companion who is perfectly constant and who loves without pause or recrimination.

It is in His name I have been able to open my fingers one by one, both hand and heart, and let go. After all the good that Dave brought me, what God brings me is what sustains now, and brings strength, and resolve, hope and peace. Whatever good I have been able to do since Dave's death, whomever I have loved, and wherever I have walked for the sake of someone else is because of what God is investing in me.

So now I have a double blessing--a temporal one from Dave and an eternal one from God--not the Heart of the Ocean, but the heart of God, one that beats forever. And now, it is God's voice, not mine, that says,
I'll never let go.

Comfort her, comfort her, all things good,
While I am over the sea!
Let me and my passionate love go by
But speak to her all things holy and high,
Whatever happens to me!
Me and my harmful love go by,
But come to her waking, find her asleep,
Powers of height, Powers of deep, 
And comfort her tho' I die.

--Tennyson, Maud 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What if I Could Not?

This is my niece Jocelyn. She's sitting here, a little over two years ago, between my younger son and her husband, and she's smiling.

She's not smiling today.

Today, she is dying. Not fighting for her life anymore....just dying. Her liver has failed, her other organs ceasing to function one by one, and her blood has ceased to clot. She's 38 years old.

She is more than 600 miles away. I can talk to her if someone holds up the phone, but she can no longer respond. Her mother says that she squirming with discomfort. She knows. There is no doubt that she knows she won't live much longer.

The problem is this: The ones who love her struggle not only because she is way too young for this to happen, but because she has, for at least the last ten years, professed to be an atheist. She is a young woman without hope for any future, any life beyond this one.

She and I have talked often about this. She was churched as a youngster, even tried to worship for awhile, but the contradictions in her church and the hypocrisy of the people who worshiped there became too much for her. She gave up. She just gave up. And, in recent years, although she would tolerate, even sometimes ask, for prayer, she still would not profess to any belief in God. She saw the contradiction, of course, but would not open her heart.

And here we are today. The end of her road.

And it is Sunday. This morning I went to church.  As I moved into the usual pew, and stood at the appropriate time to say, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty", I was struck nearly dumb. So simple a phrase, so easy. I've said it pretty much all my often, it has become automatic, taken for granted as normal. But it isn't normal for everybody. What would life look like, particularly the end of life, if I could not? What if I could not honestly say I believe in God?

I can't imagine it, frankly. Unlike Jocelyn, who said that God made no sense to her, I can make no sense of a world without Him. And I am frozen by the enormity of it all...the vast implications of a simple phrase, the everyday working out of it in ways that have become so much a recurring part of my life. I marvel at the symbols that carry such heavy implication, yet are so ridiculously common-- pieces of wood and thorn, bread and wine. No wonder some struggle with belief.

We are seemingly given so little. Small, fleeting representations that are monumentally life-altering. Out-of-the-box game changers. Leaps of faith. A word in the right place or time that sinks to the core. A conviction that honoring my creator trumps all other endeavors. Loving for no other reason.

This is why, I'm thinking today, that just being good is not enough. It keeps us pinned to Earth. It does not provide for the God who explains everything we don't understand. It does not give us a reason for having lived. It does not answer the whys pretty much everyone seems to ask when their last day arrives. If God is not real, everything lofty and important dies in that last breath. Transcendence doesn't exist. Without Him, we are left to squirm.

I told Jocelyn this morning that she should trust now. Rest in God, and trust, and everything will be all right. Even now. Even when she has come to this. She can still open her heart and I pray that she does. God is loving and merciful. He will meet her there. This is the day.

And I will raise you up on the last day--John 6:40

Sunday, November 4, 2018

What Food We Are Offered

The part of my house I like the best is the kitchen. Some years ago, I designed it with meticulous care, measuring up each cabinet and drawer with relish and precision, planning exactly what I would keep in them and sizing them for their specific purpose. And all the planning paid off--everything fits where it belongs, and I wouldn't change a thing.
I took great pleasure in this not just, I think, because of its order and beauty, which it has, but because it brought a fresh vision for what I would make there. And the space has rewarded me with many meals shared in fellowship with people I love. I wouldn't change a thing about it.

I can't leave behind the notion of the importance of food in our lives. Of course, in practical thought, we'd die without it, but most of us realize that food is more than fuel, more than filling our stomachs. In very real, maybe even mysterious ways, food is love. I really think so. Who doesn't have fond memories of  meals prepared and shared together? Of chicken soup, or turkey dinners, or birthday cakes made with loving hands? Food is life in many more ways than one.

My camera files are filled with plates of food I've made, either alone or with friends and family, arranged carefully on dishes or in bowls, and presented with satisfaction and anticipation. These are my offerings to the ones I care most about, or ones I want to know better. I want the food to say "I care about you" when words fail.

And I think sometimes of the food that God has offered us, our New Testament manna, His own body, presented to us on a plate as we gather to worship:

 Image result for the body of christ on a plate

 "This is my body...."
The moment when food becomes something else--love of a very different kind. Sacrificial love given at a cost way beyond hours spent in the kitchen. That plate holds a promise. That plate becomes, for the moment it holds the bread of heaven, holy ground. That meal, on that plate, feeds us unto eternity.

And this morning I read,
And when the daughter of Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod, and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatever you will, and I will give it to you. And he swore to her, Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you, even to half my kingdom. And she went forth and asked her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightaway with haste to the king, saying, I want you to give me in a charger the head of John the Baptist.--Matt 14:22-24

Do you know what a charger is? It's a serving plate. A big serving plate. Chefs still call them that--chargers. But think of how it would look to any observer...could a plate bear anything more revolting? Death instead of life. Evil rather than nourishment, as though it were something we would actually eat:
Image result for John the baptist head on a platter

The very place we expect to find something tasty and filling and sometimes even beautiful, we find instead....this. Death. Blood.

And so does God surprise us again. He turns, with the help of man-made evil, something beautiful into something violent. And He gives us a sneak peek at what to expect from Him in the future. It will be His death that He serves up to us soon. His sacrifice. His challenge to recognize what He's doing.

He's turning our world inside out.

Think, He says. Recognize Me. Even as John dies, even as I will die, I fill your plates with what you most need. See the faithful nourishment I provide. Body. Body and blood. Not always beautiful, but always perfect and always holy.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

With Feet Firmly in Both Worlds

Image result for the narrow way
I'm confused. I'm a Christian, supposed to be freed by Christ. Then if I'm so free, why do I feel so bound? Bound, as is rooted in the physical world rather than liberated in the spiritual one. Bound. Caught. Confined. Limited. Anything but free.

Being stuck is not my favorite thing. And I'm stuck. But I know not everybody feels like this. I can tell.

Contrary to what my Christian friends sometimes say, people who absolutely don't believe in God don't seem stuck. They're pretty carefree, in fact. And why not? Nobody's judging their every move. They don't have to measure up to much. Just being as nice as the next guy is good enough. It's pretty easy.

And folks just as rooted on the other end, the ones you and I might call saints or seers, well, they live in peace, too. The physical world fades clearly into the background for them. The live pretty much on a spiritual plane unknown to lesser beings. They're happy. Oblivious, sometimes, it seems, but happy.

So it's easy to be ungodly and easy to be holy. But here in the middle--not so much. This is where the tension lives. And this is where we spend most of our time. The middle ground, where both sides tug at us, and we live here. With feet planted firmly in both worlds.

How did I get here? First, there's sin. What have I done wrong and not despised? What does God clearly forbid that still secretly makes me smile? Surely they're not as bad as the letter of God's law dictates. They make good stories, at the very least. What's the big deal? I don't do most of those things anymore. I'm better now. But that doesn't matter. What's wrong is still wrong.

And then, what do I love that clearly belongs to the earth? What pulls on me whose other end has no constructive place in heaven? Animals? My kids? Art or music? The doing of good deeds? Those aren't bad. I mean, even unbelievers help out other folks and love their kids and their dogs, and as much as we do. What I love may even cause me to think of and thank God. But even if they do, they're not God.

I'm thinking that the rationalizations we nurture and emotional and physical ties we retain are the milk of faith. They're presentable on the surface, but they're not helpful. They're the spiritual slack we cut ourselves, and they don't get us where we say we want to go.

If we want full view of God, we have to brush away whatever blocks that view. Somehow, we need to release everything to His care. Cut loose our deluded past and the excuses we make for it. Unleash our confused present and the comfortable talismen with which we block our clear vision.

Take a baby, for instance. Dang, she's cute. The way she smells, the sound she makes, the way she looks into my eyes. But what do I see when I look at her? When I reach for her, am I reaching for God? And if not, how in the world do I look beyond her? She's so there.

But if I do reach for her, and bask in the pleasure she gives, I've stopped short of what I might otherwise have. If I see past her, if I release the moment completely to God, then I miss this feeling, this satisfaction, this fun.  But then, if I aim for the pleasure of the baby, what's the difference between that pleasure and any other kind? Is it substantially different from sexual excitement or drug-induced euphoria? Plain pleasure, regardless of its earthly source, ties me to the earth.

Pleasure is a such a lovely stopping place,though. So nice, but not holy. People in all walks of life have had to give up pleasures to get where they so desperately wanted to go. Athletes, artists, folks on a diet. And then there are those looking for even more...missionaries, monks, Jesus Himself. They didn't live in pleasure. Instead, they find their victory amid privation, even misery.

And that has to be our road, too, if we are truly going to throw off the bonds of this world. We have to find what we want among the bones of what we might have had.

You will have trouble in this world.--John 16:33
Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.--John 14:1
No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of heaven.--Luke 9:62

In the end, we will continue to be bound to either earth or heaven. In order to gain heaven, we have to throw off the bonds of earth, even the ones we love and make us happy. If we want to be free, we have to throw off what ties us to this place. We are given so much. The challenge is to hold it loosely--very loosely, always ready to grasp instead what lasts forever.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why Daniel Didn't Die

The king spake and said to Daniel, O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions? Then Daniel said unto the king, O king, live forever. My God hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lion's mouth that they have not hurt me:--Daniel 6:20-22a

Good old Daniel. Don't you just love to hear this story? It pushes all the buttons--that gut-wrenching fear when we are faced with tragedy or trouble or doubt as Daniel is cast into the midst of a pack of hungry beasts all set to tear him limb from limb and lick their lips when they have finished making a meal of him; our admonishment from God to depend on Him, to pray, and to be confident that He will save us or someone we love as Daniel watches the lions approach--their hot, fetid breath, their plate-size paws taking step after step closer; and then the perfect working out of that confidence, God's ultimate rescue when Daniel is spared--our assurance that our prayers, too, will be answered.

But then I hear what Daniel says next:

 forasmuch as before Him innocence was found in me: and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt. --Daniel 6:22b

Wait a minute. Daniel didn't need to be saved. He already was. He was already innocent before God and knew it. Even if he were chewed to bits, he knew he would simply be delivered into eternity and before the Lord he loved. Many of God's children had already done this through the ages. They had died in His service in the arena, at the stake, or beneath the sword. Why should Daniel expect any different? What was different about him?

Well, probably nothing.

So, why, then, did he live?

I suspect it was this, the king's reaction:
I make a decree, that in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God and steadfast forever and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and His dominion shall be even unto the end.--Daniel 6:26

As much as I like the end of this story, the saving of Daniel's life, I don't think that was the result that mattered. God loved Daniel. He'd created him for a purpose, and this was it. Daniel was about to fulfill God's will for him and, in his case, it was to live, to bear witness to His power before the king so that the king would believe.

But that's not true for everyone. It is not always the living that draws people to God. God had, and would, and will still sacrifice one life to save another. Remember Jesus? Oh yes, even Him.
Image result for christ on the cross

Sometimes, it is in the dying that God's will is done. God will, without doubt, continue to either allow sacrifice or spare from it , to grant prayer or to refuse it, in order to produce exactly the result that His intervention with Daniel did: faith and salvation in an unbeliever. That is what God wants more than anything.

God can and does grant our prayers, but not when a greater good is produced by denying them.  As believers, we will still die, but God would have even our deaths accomplish something in His kingdom.

This is sovereignty. This is ultimate power over creation. This is what it means to be God. And somehow, even as we bow before Him, we have to understand that we are safe in God's hands--safe not as in the ultimate preservation of either our own flesh or the flesh of someone we love, but in His Everlasting Arms.

photo credits:, cocorioko