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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Let it Bleed

Everybody gets them.
And what is our first reaction? "Quick! Put pressure on it! Get a bandage! Stop the bleeding!"
And, indeed, that reaction is often the appropriate one.
But not always.

Sometimes, when the hurt is shallow, an irritating scrape or narrow cut, wisdom says to leave it open to the air, even to let it bleed awhile and let it close on its own.
That's messy. And it takes time.
But it cleans out the wound and lets a scab form naturally
and, if we don't pick it off (admit do, too), it heals properly. It may leave a scar, but that is all.
But this is not a first aid lesson.
Well, come to think of it, maybe it is.
It's the psalms.
The psalms, with their in-your-face wounding, their constant oozing emotions. The psalms, weak and unapologetic. They are the child hanging on our legs, the weeping widow, the forsaken friend, the disappointed lover. They are tears running unwiped down cheeks. They are unabashed, aching loneliness.
The psalms bleed.

God says, in essence, "Yes, you're hurting. I know it. I've been there. Hurt awhile. You'll be OK."
And I'm starting to understand why.
There is an opportunity in the process of hurting, one that cannot be improved upon by binding up. And we have a name for it.

Compassion is the place where we meet one another in an icky place that we can't fix. Compassion is the hand we hold through pain. It is the ear that listens without interrupting. It is finding a rock willing to accept our beating of it.
It gets messy. Oh, yes.
And this is a hard place to be. No sane person enjoys watching another suffer.
It is our first reaction to rescue someone in trouble. But not always the right one.
And sometimes, we have no choice.
I'm thinking of sickness, or the process of childbirth, or mourning. There is no way out of these except through them to whatever end they bring.

Did you ever see a meat tenderizer?

Nasty thing, isn't it? But oh, the result! Well, that's us. We need tenderizing. We need to experience compassion that feels to us like being beaten along with the person suffering. Compassion allows us to suffer along with someone else. And yes--that is a privilege.

So, in the end, we fix what we can, but look out for the times when we can't, when we are borne along the waves with another, anticipating the comfort waiting for us both at a distance, someplace at the end. It makes us tender. And eventually, it heals.

So, when the occasion calls for it, don't struggle and flail:  Let it bleed.

God is a father who rocks us through our struggles, a mother who carries us beyond our pain...Many people are forgiving. A few are just. But compassionate people are rarer still. The people who simply stand by when we hurt--not trying to talk us out of it, not trying to convince us we're wrong, not demanding that we pretend to be something else--are is compassion that we ourselves must develop if we are ever to be worth anything to anyone at all--besides ourselves.
--Sr. Joan Chittister, the Psalms, Meditations for Every Day of the Year

Saturday, August 16, 2014

But It Looks So Good....
Have been thinking about sin lately. Sin, and how to recognize it.

The Bible has some specific information about that, of course--the Ten Commandments for starters. And later, Jesus expands on those first Hebrew laws in His Sermon on the Mount when He gives us a solid understanding that sin goes way beyond lying, cheating, or adultery. In fact, He is more concerned by then with our desire and ability to love and achieve holiness than to avoid sin.

But we do have to avoid sin, and in doing so, have to be able to see it coming. We have to figure out what sin looks like and I'm finding that I'm not nearly as good at that as I thought, at least not once we get beyond the obvious. I'm learning that I've made a much better Pharisee than a New Testament saint.


The problem appears to be this:
Sin doesn't always look like sin. 
It doesn't. That's why Eve was fooled. That's why the Pharisees were fooled. And that's why we're fooled.

This became obvious today while I was reading the only plain account of Jesus being tempted:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”--Matthew 4:5-6

Think for a minute that this was Jesus. He knew who He was. Satan knew who He was. He, and what He would do, had been predicted hundreds of years before. If anyone ever knew their 'spiritual gift', Jesus did. He was going to save the world.

On the face of it, all He had to do was exercise His gift. All He needed to do was show up, make sure everybody recognized Him for who He was, do what He had to do, and go home satisfied, brushing the dirt off His hands. There were a million ways He could have saved the world. Think about it. He could have snapped Satan out of existence at any moment.

Satan knew this. When they stood together, looking down at the city, Satan said essentially, "Go ahead. Declare yourself. Do what we both know you came to do. Why not? You were made for this." And Jesus may have considered it for a minute, nosed around that cheese--
The cheese already belonged to Him, after all. He would have it one way or the other. His name was on it. He would be the Savior of the World. "Just reach out," said the old tempter. "It's already yours."

But Jesus didn't, and this is the part that struck me. Instead, He said:
 “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”--Matthew 4:7

Who was He kidding? Wasn't it God who gave Jesus this job in the first place? Didn't He say, 'Go, save the world for me.'? 

And that's when it hit. 
God gives us all jobs. And He gives the gifts to do them.
Just like Jesus, we pretty much all know what we're supposed to do.
One person is a teacher, another is a chef, another a teacher or a writer or musician.
Everybody is good at something and that talent came from God. And He gave it to be used. But, like Jesus, probably not in the most obvious way.
A teacher should teach, but not necessarily in a classroom. A leader should lead, but not necessarily from behind a national podium. A singer should sing, but not necessarily in front of an audience.

What is the temptation? 
Significance, I think.
We see the gift, get confirmation from other people who see it, too, and then say, 'By golly, now I'm going to use it for God's glory.' And immediately, we head up the hill, look out onto the city, and set out to show them the wonder of what God has done. 
That can't be sin, can it?

Think again.
Jesus didn't do that, did He?
Satan dangled His destiny before Him, acknowledged Him for who He was, and waited for Him to take the bait.
And He didn't.
When offered the chance to showcase His gift, His mission, and His glory, Jesus refused, turned around, and headed back down the hill. 
And we all know where His path led. Not where anybody expected, but to the exact place required to complete the job properly.
And that's us, too, I think. 

The place God wants to best use the gifts He gave us is probably not the most obvious one--not obvious to us, and not to the people around us. But, He will lead us to the proper place to use those gifts. He will provide the vision and the way, all at the proper time.

So, like always, we are not to look at the gift, but follow the Giver. 
I suspect that, if we're able to do that, we'll be able not only to eat our own cheese in peace, but have plenty to share.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Not Made to be Alone-Communion by Design

I don't know about you, but I don't want to be alone. 

It's scary and, well, lonely.
Fortunately, God says I don't have to be.
Remember that I will be with you always, until the end of time.--Matthew 28:20

In fact, He's been with us from the beginning of time, too. He was there, in Eden--
And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.--Genesis 3:8

And not only in Eden, but at other times with other men:
Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time, and God walked with Noah.--Genesis 6:10
And the Lord spoke to Abram.--Genesis 12:1
Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp and pitch it some distance away, calling it the 'tent of meeting'. Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. --Exodus 33:7

God wants to LIVE with men, to be intimately present to everyone. So, regardless of the continual sin of man, He literally moved in with us.
First, He settled into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Israelites' desert tabernacle:
A cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.--Exodus 40-34

Then, later, He did the same in Solomon's temple:
When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offerings, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.--2Chronicles 7:1

And although between each encounter there was some kind of separation--the sin of Adam and Eve, the flood, times of idolatry and slavery, even outright destruction, God could not leave it alone. He could not leave US alone.
And He came again, this time into Herod's temple.
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.--Luke 2:22

Jesus came. God returned to the temple, but not in cloud or flame like before. He came like a child. 

And He wasn't done yet.
He did more.
And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.--Ephesians 2:22

That's it. God's last stop. Us.
When Christ came as a man, He made a way men could be sanctified, a way we could join to Him.
Don't feel like a suitable habitation for the living God?
Think again.

God's original plan for His first tabernacle came in three parts--
First, a courtyard designated for sacrifice. A place of blood and moaning, a place of washing and preparation and repentance. A place of intense feeling. A place that looked and smelled and tasted and sounded constantly, full of suffering, supplication, and promised relief.
Second, a Holy Place designated for prayer. A place that housed sweet smells rather than visceral ones, new bread rather than raw meat and offal. A place that offered low, comforting light rather than the harsh, punishing, unrelenting sun.
Third, a Most Holy Place in which the God's Very Presence dwelt. A place of glory. A place of communion. A place of awe.

That was the first temple. But now that the temple has relocated from structures made of wood and animal skins, gold and silver, does it really look any different?
Not really.
First, God's current temple has a courtyard of flesh and blood. A place intense with feeling--easily hurt and constantly in need. A place that sees, hears, touches, tastes, and smells. A place unrelentingly tainted. A place that pulses with constant blood.
Second, God's current temple has a Holy Place, a soul that stills the outer courtyard's cacophony and prepares itself. A place that quiets, still tasting and touching and seeing, but in contemplation and anticipation. A place where we taste the Living Bread, see the Light of the World, and where we pray.
Third, God's current temple also has a Most Holy Place, a spirit that communes with God.  A place of sweet fellowship and complete knowing. A place of both perfect rest and unremitting awe.

And that's it. 
Emmanuel--God with us.
Living in you and me. Three in one. God and man. Not perfected yet, but a perfect design.
We were not made to be alone. Ever.
Christ in you, the hope of glory.--Colossians 1:27

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Blackbird Must Fly

Every morning, a red winged blackbird perches on the branches of a mock orange bush just outside our bathroom window and every morning, does exactly the same thing. He looks at his reflection in the window, opens his mouth in a two-note loud, insistent song, and flies directly into the window, smacking himself in the head. Over and over. Every day.

He's been doing this consistently for four or five springs and although he abandons the behavior by the time midsummer comes around, it's peculiar behavior nevertheless, almost disturbing. On some level, though, I kind of get it. Who of us hasn't done the same? Faced the same circumstances every day, declared loud and clear its perfection of purpose, flown off to accomplish it, and hit our head repeatedly only to do it again the next day?

I have.
And, regarding this particular purpose, this particular window, I'm stopping. Today.

You see, I am a writer. And that is a lovely thing to be, but it also presents a problem.
Writing, I have found, is not living. It's not.
Writers are observers. Their craft demands a certain amount of detachment. One cannot both fully experience something and at the same time retain it for possible later inclusion in a work of literary art. At least I can't. So I have spent the last years, during which I have tried to concentrate more on craft, at arm's length from life. I have butted up against life with a mission, and have banged my head against its glare, but not entered in. And have decided that it's not worth it.

Life, after all, is the gift. Sure, the ability to write is a gift, too, but life.....well, life was given to be lived. I should have known this from the beginning. I named the blog after the concept, the overriding demand life makes to be experienced:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees...

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains...*

Breathing is not living. It's true. Neither is watching it, cataloging it, or reporting it. Little remains of this life to me but what does, I want to live, not just write about..

 —you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods...

’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die... 

 Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.*

I don't know yet what the striving might look like, but I know it doesn't look like this. This daily push to relate significance on a schedule. The blackbird must fly.

Thank you, though, for reading. I pray that you have gotten at least some word that encourages you on your way.
May we meet again in the seeking.

Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Mary and Elizabeth: the Heart of Friendship

Hey, girlfriend!
A hug, sometimes a kiss, and smiles all around. We love our friends and love being with them. It doesn't get any better than this...or does it? We laugh, have fun, and enjoy each other, but  is there more? Are we missing the best of what our friendships can bring? 

Fun and affection sometimes relegate God to a back seat and our friendships are no exception. The sheer enjoyment we find in one another's company can leave us forgetting that these encounters, so often full of pleasure, have a higher purpose, too. We can get more than pleasure out of our friendships. We can dedicate them to God.

And we have an example.
At that time, Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed, "Blessed are you among women..."--Luke 1: 39-42

Wouldn't it be wonderful if our friendships brought not only a feeling of contentment and well being, but an encounter with the holy? I'm convinced that they can, and more. They should.

We come together, after all, from different places, different lives. We meet to share out stories, our songs. We come to laugh together, and to cry. God has afforded us a privilege unique to women. He has made us want strong bonds with close friends, but we don't often honor them as such. Like all of our life's encounters, our friends are intentional parts of our lives. God sent them to us for a purpose--the same purpose as He sends every other circumstance and person--to draw us nearer to Him.

So what does a godly friendship encounter look like? It looks like Mary and Elizabeth's. 

First, we enter one another's homes. We visit each other in the places we live our lives. These are our intimate places, the ones we breathe and eat and love in. They expose us just by the looking. But we share them with our friends.

Then we greet one another. Not just a Hi, or even an embrace, but a greeting heartfelt enough to make a baby leap in the womb. A greeting that acknowledges that we are special to one another. Not "Wassup, girlfriend" but more like a sincere "How wonderful to see you."

Then we share. We listen to one another. Casual friends are not very good at this. Casual acquaintances talk mostly about themselves. Have you listened to your conversations? Most relationships have a giver and a taker, an alpha and a beta. True friendships share equally. Friends listen to one another as often as they tell.

Then we bless one another. We hardly ever do this. I have one relationship in which a friend prays for me every time before we part. Every time. I can't tell you what this adds to my life. I feel blessed every time. Truly blessed. What more can we do for a friend than to bless them?*

Mary and Elizabeth's love for each other wasn't substantially different from the love I feel for my own friends. As women, we are given a heart to love with--husbands, children, and friends. We spend so much time learning to love husbands and children properly, but don't think nearly often enough about what a truly godly friendship can bring.

If I really care about my friends, I will do these things for them, and with them because, each in our own way, we are all truly
blessed among women.

*Sister Fran Ferder, Enter the Story, Give Us This Day, May 31, 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The God of No/The God of Yes

One God. 
That's what we have. One God. Unchangeable. Forever.
But which one is He?
Is He the God of the Old Testament--the one who punished and destroyed and slaughtered?
Or is He the God of the New Testament who saves and forgives and loves?

The simple answer is that He's both, but that's the problem. It's not simple. It doesn't make sense. Unless we toss out the Old Testament in the face of the New, our God does not appear unchangeable. He seems almost schizophrenic.
Let God be God, some say. Trust Him today and you will understand Him later. After all, He is the God who said to Moses,
I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and compassion on whom I will have compassion.--Romans 9: 15
And it's true. He has that right. He's God.
Why, then, am I still not satisfied?

Take sacrifices, for instance.
In the Old Testament, God set up an complex system of sacrifice--a calf for this, a pair of doves for that, incense, grain--an unending stream of them so that the courts of His tabernacle ran red with blood and stank with entrails every day. And then, after Jesus, they stopped. Just like that.
Old Testament/New Testament.
One God....or two?

Was the coming of Jesus as revolutionary as all that? Really?
Well, as it turns out, yes, it was.
 As it turns out, I need to see both sides of our God, the old and the new testament sides. Otherwise, I will not know Him at all.

The God of the Old Testament is the God of No.
 After men sinned, He had to be. We lost our connection with Him. We would no longer walk with Him in the cool of the day. We could no longer share His heaven. We would die. From that day on, His answer would be No.
Do you hear me, God?
Can I satisfy you, God?
Can I properly worship you, God?
Can I draw near to you?
Will you forgive me?

All the sacrifices....they were never enough. The prayers...they could not pierce the veil.
Mankind needed the one thing they could not provide. They could follow all the rules, perform all the sacrifices, say every prayer, celebrate every feast day, but everything fell short.
In the Old Testament, men learned their hopelessness before a holy God
Nothing they could do was good enough. The answer was, and always would be, No.

Then Jesus came. And died. And rose. And established Himself as not only the perfect sacrifice, but as the perfect and eternal intercessor between sinful man and Holy God.
In that moment, God's No became Yes.
Do you year me, God?
Yes, through Christ.
Do you forgive me, God?
Yes, through Christ.
Will you take me into your eternal presence?
Yes, through Christ.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all--Ephesians 4:4-6
One God.
Old Testament and New. Not schizophrenic--just what God's perfection looks like with and without Christ. 

And that is why we have them both. Jesus may be our friend, but He will never be our buddy. He may be fully human, but He will never be like us. Never.
Christ Jesus is the only One who makes possible any rejoicing, who allows us hope in the face of our own corruption. Christ Jesus lived and died so that God would not have to destroy us, too. His own creation. The ones He loves.

Without the Old Testament, the New Testament has no real purpose. Jesus came to save us from the justifiable wrath of His Father. Without understanding of the coming wrath, His salvation has no meaning.

The temple sacrifices taught us that God meant business. And then He swept them away with the only sacrifice that could actually accomplish its purpose.
In Jesus, God's forever No became a forever Yes.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Creation Test

OK--Here's another test. (If you missed the first one, click here)
This is the creation test, and again consists of only one simple question:
What was the first thing God created?

Are they running through your mind? The plants, the animals, the cosmos?
Maybe you are thinking this:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.--Genesis 1:1
How can anyone argue about that?

Well, not so fast.
Have you ever seen this?
The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old.--Proverbs 8:22

Oh really? And what was this that God made before he made the rest? Go back a few verses:
I, Wisdom, live together with good judgment--Proverbs 8:12

It's Wisdom. God made Wisdom before anything else.
Wisdom. God begat His own Consciousness and Word. He gave them His sound and utterance.*
His own Consciousness. God's awareness of everything.
How great a gift is this? Well, you answer that.
By Wisdom we hear God's voice.
By Wisdom we can know right and wrong.
By Wisdom we have the capacity to discover.
By Wisdom we recognize justice and freedom.

Without Wisdom, God could have made the whole world and we would be completely clueless about it. We would know no inspiration, no curiosity, no wonder. Without Wisdom, we would never come to realization about the greater meaning of anything.
Look at your pet. That is creation without Wisdom. Sweet, loveable, and clueless.

Wisdom had to come first because, through it, God made a way to know Him.
And how did we figure this out?
By using God's gift of Wisdom.
Thank you, Lord.

*Tertullian, (c. 200), Adversus Praxean, 6

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Taking the Sin Test

OK--Today we're taking a little test.
You should know this--
Who committed the first sin?
{Jeopardy theme: ta da da da ta da...}
OK--time's up.
Adam and Eve?
{Annoying buzzer} Nope. Wrong.

Here's the answer:
How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High. But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.--Isaiah 14:12-15
It was Lucifer, God's angel.
And what did Lucifer want? To make himself the Most High. He wanted to be God. Yikes.

That's awfully hard to imagine. I mean, he's an ANGEL, right? How bad can that be?
Evidently, not good enough. And, in a way, Lucifer got what he wanted--he got his very own kingdom to rule in hell and, temporarily at least, he also got to hold sway here on earth. He's became pretty powerful after all that. And all through sin.

Well, then, what about Adam and Eve? What's the deal there?
Well, think about it.  When Eve told the serpent that God had warned her and Adam from eating the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden because it would cause their death, good ol' Lucifer essentially said, "Hey! Look at me! I didn't listen to God and I didn't die!"
The serpent said to the woman, "You surely will not die! "For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."…--Genesis 3:4-5
In essence, Lucifer gave Eve the same line that had been his own downfall. "Take a bite, girl. You can be God."

And we all know what happened next.

Why does this matter? Because it clarifies that we are still doing the same thing we've always done. Listening to that same whisper, succumbing to that same voice.
And it's still saying the same thing.

It's saying that what God is offering isn't good enough. 

And how does it start? The same way it always did.
It starts with discontent. 
"I don't want this, God, I want something else."
"Please change my circumstances, God."
"You must have made a mistake, God."

Now, God does not want robots. He doesn't want people who blindly accept what He's teaching us.
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.--Acts 17:11
 And He doesn't expect us to roll merrily along when tragedy strikes or when misfortune comes our way:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.--Matthew 5:4
 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done.--Proverbs 19:7

But we must live with a fundamental understanding that God does what He does because He means well for us. 
He loves us. He intends good through our circumstances. No matter what happens or what our situation looks like.
We have to trust Him.
Lucifer didn't. Eve didn't. And you know what happened to them.
If we are to live the way He has mapped out for us--in communion on the road to holiness--we have to achieve a real, basic satisfaction with what we cannot change. When we approach life with discontent rather than gratitude, we end up right smack in Lucifer's lap.
And that low hiss begins to sound like a lullaby.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

To Pour or not To Pour--It's Not in the Rules

One of my favorite pictures in the Bible is the one of Mary Magdalene pouring perfume on Jesus' feet:
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair.--John 12:3
When a disciple objected, saying that the money should instead have been given to the poor,  Jesus told him,
You will always have the poor, but you will not always have Me.--John 12:8

It's lovely--a wonderful exposition not only of the love Mary bore for Christ, but also for Christ's affection for her and her helpless effusion. The poor are important, He says, but not as important as individual, intimate relationships with our God.

But then I think of Christ's discussion with His disciples regarding compassionate care when He said to them about those sick, or in prison, or naked:
Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for Me.--Matthew 25:40

Well which is it?
Are we supposed to spend all of our extra energies lavishing the perfume of worship and praise on Christ Himself, or are we supposed to use that energy serving the poor? Is Christ best served outwardly, or is our direct worship more important than any service?

Well, when I think about this, I think that the answer must be yes and yes.
After all, He clearly states both of these. He doesn't exclude one from the other. And if we try to do so, we run smack into legalism.

Why is it that we are always trying to boil down what Christ gave us into a bunch of rules?
Do this and don't do that. And some of them are so petty.
Christ is risen, so He can't be on a crucifix anymore.
Dunk, don't sprinkle.
He's Jehovah, not God or Christ, or Lord.
Worship on Saturday, not Sunday.
No instruments in church.
Don't drink, don't gamble, don't dance.

Why don't we get it? It's just not that simple. Christ and life in Him can't be reduced to rules. Like here. It's not just about what we give to whom and when. Ask Cain and Abel. Then both gave to God an offering from the best of their labors--Cain the crops he'd grown and Abel the animals he'd raised--but God did not accept Cain's offering.
The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his gift, but on Cain and his offering, He did not look with favor. --Genesis 4:4-5

Why not? What was wrong with it?
Well, I think that Cain and Abel's situation is the same as Mary's. Everybody brings what they have when they have it, but the thing offered does not necessarily make for an acceptable sacrifice. God needs more:
The Lord loves a cheerful giver.--2Corinthians 9:7
Give generously and do so without a grudging heart.--Deuteronomy 15:10

This is what made the offerings of Abel, and Mary, and whoever clothes or feeds the needy or does anything else for God: Abandon.
That's it. Christ watched Mary pour that nard on His feet and it wasn't the perfume, it was the love with which she brought it that  filled Him with joy. And it works the same for us. If we are going to give, give passionately. And He means it:
Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.--Revelation 3:16

We have to abandon ourselves to the opportunities God brings, whether He brings a bottle of perfume our way or if He brings a stranger with an outstretched hand. Then our offering to Him becomes an outpouring of love, not the fulfillment of a requirement.

I remember when the book of Mother Teresa's personal letters, Come Be My Light, was published in 2007. It shocked a lot of people to learn that this sweet, holy, devoted lady was spiritually desolate most of her life. Always faithfully appearing before the Lord in prayer every day, and devoting all of her practical life to ministry to the poor, she nevertheless suffered from frequent spiritual desolation. "There is no God in me," she wrote. And sometimes, you and I get there, too.

Mother Teresa gives me hope that all I have to do is show up, whether with nard or with a hot dish or an overcoat. When Christ presents Himself, I can love Him while He is near. When He is not, I can love His people. As long as the love is passionate and without reservation, He will accept my gift.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

For His Eyes Only

I've come to accept that there are some things about God that I just won't get in this life. I won't get to understand the Trinity. I won't comprehend the real nature of love. I won't even get to know whether God really cares whether we dunk or sprinkle. But it never occurred to me until recently just how much Christ invested in His relationship with His Father, a relationship from which we are pretty much excluded. 

Oh He tells us about it, all right.
I and the Father are One.--John 10:30
...just as you are in me, Father, and I in you...John 17:21
In fact, He uses it as an example of the closeness He wants to share with us. But He also makes it clear that we're not there yet. What He has with His Father is something very special, very different, and we are, by its very nature, left out of some stuff.  After all, they are both GOD, and we're not.

Nowhere did this seem so obvious as when I realized during this Easter season (head slap) that Jesus rose from the dead in the presence of God His Father alone. Nobody else was around--not His best friends, not the women who loved and served Him, not the Pharisees, not Pilate and his government officials, not even a passing shepherd or centurion. Nobody.

What gives with that, I wondered? Where was everybody? I mean, this was the single most important thing Jesus did. Lots of people die, but HE ROSE! Only Him!

And then I started to get it.

Jesus became a man, and the most of what we can grasp about Him is connected with Him as man, not with Him as God. We understand love as human beings, the same way we understand obedience, charity, worship, prayer, and everything else. We don't know the first thing about being God. Jesus shared the God-part of Himself with His Father alone. It had to be that way. 

Why do you think He was always going off alone to pray? When He was alone with His Father, He could be Himself--fully God and fully man.  Only once did He share that with anyone human:
Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John...and let them up to a high mountain by themselves.  There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.--Matthew 17:1-2

THAT's who Jesus really was. And it freaked them out. They right away wanted to start a building project, right there on the top of the mountain. They didn't get that Jesus. And if they, who knew the man Jesus better than anyone, failed so miserably to assimilate that little display, think what they would have done if Jesus had arranged they be there when He walked out of His grave, looking for all this sad world like His true self.
"C'mon, guys. Meet at the gravesite just after midnight. I've got a surprise for you..."
Not hardly.
After Friday, they'd already had as much as they could take. They were long gone.

No, this moment, like some of the most important moments in our own lives, was too intimate to share. After all, we do the same thing in our own lives. The consummation of marriage, often the birth of a child, and often, too, our first real glimpse of God--they all occur away from prying eyes. We treasure them for this. No one knows, and they don't need to. We might share the fruit of those moments, or some of the less private parts, but when hushed privacy cloaks a special moment, it becomes a sacred touchstone and in that context, Jesus reserving the holy moment of rising for His Father alone makes perfect sense.

We get to share the result, though, and to that end, Jesus' arms are wide open, filled with the fruit of His dying and rising. We don't need to see it. We get to know it. And He did not withhold any part of that experience. He lets us touch the holes in His hands and feet. He lets us eat with Him. He walks with us on our own Emmaus road.

Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ lives, and we are beckoned to join Him.
I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.--Psalm 27:13

Saturday, May 24, 2014

His Back is Enough

Moses wanted to see God.
He did. Or thought he did.
He'd been up on the mountain with God's presence and with Him in his tent in the Israelite camp.
The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.--Exodus 33:11

It didn't really happen that way, though. Not literally. I know this because God also said to him:
I cannot show you my face, because no one may see Me and live.--Exodus 33:20

We're not talking about the skin and bone face--the one our eyes and nose inhabit. We're talking about a metaphorical face, an entity that exhibits our emotions and helps us communicate. And we have more than one face like that. There's an old saying that a man has three faces: one he shows to the world, one he shows to those closest to him, and one no one but himself ever sees at all. So God must have faces, too. Like the one He shows without showing it--the one Moses saw on the mountain, the one that friends see. But it's not God's literal face. No man gets to see that and live.

So when Moses wanted more of God, he declared,
Now show me your glory.--Exodus 33:18
And he got it. God said,
You will see my back, but my face must not be seen.--Exodus 33:23
His back. God turned His back on Moses.

Now, as I think about that, I wonder whether that isn't the part of God I see most often, too? His back. God going away. God after He's finished doing whatever it is that He wants to do in my life. God stepping back, saying, "See--I made this."
See! I am doing a new thing!--Isaiah 43:18

It isn't easy to see what God is doing while He's doing it, you know. While God is doing something, I'm usually looking for Him somewhere else. When I'm looking for Him to heal my friend, He's increasing her faith instead. When I'm looking for Him to open the way for a new job, He's arranging a raise for my husband so I can volunteer instead. When I'm looking for Him to save my son's marriage, He's planning for a daughter-in-law who loves Him. I never see it coming. Never. 

And why does this surprise me?
Eye has not seen and ear has not heard and has not entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love Him.--1Corinthians 2:9

What God has planned is better than what I have planned. Period.
So, if all I get to see is His back, well, that's OK. After all, how bad can it be? So what if I don't see it until it's all over? So what if He leaves me scratching my head, saying, "So THAT'S what You were doing."

So what if all we get to see is God's back? His fingerprints, His trailing, glorious echo. I'm good with that. His back is enough.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

God Has Free Will, Too

God gave me free will--a very good thing--at least I think so.
Why? Why is free will a good thing? What does it let me do?
Well, free will allows me to choose without being forced. In essence, free will allows me to do exactly as I want to do. I like that.

Here's what free will sounds like:
"I want vanilla, not chocolate."
"I want to marry Bob, not Tom."
"I want to go to Tahiti, not Atlanta."
"I want to sleep late, not go to church."

The goal of free will, from my point of view, is to figure out, then act on, what I really want. From God's point of view, however, free will is a bit different. God wants me to want what He wants.
I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.--John 15:5
Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.--Ephesians 5:17
I am in my Father and you are in Me and I am in you.--John 14:20 

Until I do, however--until I want what God wants, He will not stop me from making my own choices and, in the meantime, I make some pretty crummy ones. And, while I'm making these crummy choices, God is what?  He's patient. He's long-suffering. Remember what its' like when our own kids insist on doing what we know will lead to a crash-and-burn? Like that. It happens to everybody.

In the process, though, I've spent a lot of time saying No to God. 
While I'm saying No, however, I forget that  He can say No to me, too. I don't like that very much.
When I say No to God, I expect Him to be OK with that. He gave me free will, right? Well, God has free will, too. That's why it's a relationship. God will love me, but He will do it the way He wants, not the way I want.*

He did it to Paul, right?
Three times I pleaded to take [the thorn in my flesh] away from me. But He replied, "My grace is sufficient for you."-2Corinthians 12:8-9
Translation: I am not going to love you that way. I am going to love you with myself instead, with my very own presence. You will keep your thorn, but you will come to know me intimately.*

Not a bad deal when you think of it. God told Paul No to something small, but Yes to something much bigger. It's like asking for a scooter and getting a Lamborghini instead.

God said No to Jesus in the garden, too. Jesus wished for the cup to pass from Him, that horrible cup of pain, but God said No. Instead, He perfected all mankind through that suffering and made it the source of salvation for everyone.

He does the same thing for us. If Mother does not get well, if we don't get the job, if the godly husband I want is still not showing up, God is saying No, but it's OK. God always has a Yes to go with it. Don't see God's Yes in your life? Look around for Him. His hand is out, full of blessing. If not satisfaction, then comfort. If not health, then holiness. We so rarely ask for the eternal gifts, and these are His best ones.

*Henry Cloud and Jim Townsend, Boundaries, 1992, Zondervan

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Humpty and the King

I keep trying to understand why some people believe and some do not. It has nothing, apparently, to do with intelligence, because lots of very smart people have no faith in God. It has nothing to do with exposure, because, in this country at least, an overwhelming majority of people have heard about creation and Christ. It has nothing to do with behavior, because many very nice folks refuse to consider faith in God as the only logical reason to behave decently.

So what is it? Why do some believe and some don't?

The simple answer is that some have heard the call of Christ and some have not, and that is true. God is clear about that.
I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion--Exodus 33:19
Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God--John 8:47

But even that understanding does not satisfy. I look at unbelievers and they seem so....well....happy. They do. Life is often easy for them. I hear sometimes about how unhappy life is without Christ, but the evidence often does not seem to bear that out. In fact, it looks just the opposite. Once belief does come, the believer is plagued by a stubborn, inconvenient truth by which an unbeliever is not troubled. 

The believer knows he is broken. 
Irretrievably, unrelentingly broken.
And there is nothing he can do about it.
He's like Humpty Dumpty. All the king's horses and all the kings men can't put Humpty back together again.

And, in case you haven't noticed, brokenness is not fun. It makes none of us happy. And yet, that's the first step on the road to faith. It's a step down, not up.
What gives?

I remember a few years ago, when our parish priest was baptizing several adults, he told them that they were mistaken if they thought that their newfound faith would make their life easier. "It will make your life harder." he told them, "Do it anyway." And he was right. Faith does make life harder. I no longer measure myself against other people to figure out how I'm doing. I have to measure my behavior and motives against a holy God. And I always, always come up short. The unbeliever just has to look around to see whether he's doing better than the next guy, and that's not too hard.

We've all seen them. The alcoholic who is absolutely convinced that he's in control of his habit. The mobster who has a good handle on his life by declaring that "it's only business." The serial monogamist (of either sex) who knows that her life is OK because she's 'not hurting anyone.' They are happy, satisfied, undisturbed. And sometimes, I am jealous of their comfort. I don't get to have that. 

Instead, I'm laying at the bottom of the wall in pieces, looking up at a God I just realized has given me the dubious privilege of seeing the true state of my life and thinking, "Gee...thanks a lot. I could have done without this, God." And I'm tempted to think that He's the one who pushed me over.

But He's not. He just helped me to see. And he follows that sight with an immediate solution. He extends his hand with a remedy, the same one Peter extended to the cripple in the name of Christ at the temple gate:
Rise up and walk.--Luke 5:23
The man had been a cripple his whole life. Sure, he knew that he wasn't like everybody else but, well, begging may not have made for a bad living. It didn't require much effort, and no one expected too much of him. In some ways, it made for a pretty comfortable life.

Then, one day, he discovers he's broken...and there was Jesus.
Imagine his surprise.

Humpty never did get put back together again, but we can be. In the instant we know the extent of our brokenness,we are reassembled not only as good as new, but better than new. The King Himself does what all His horses and all His men could not.  
See! I am doing a new thing--Isaiah 43:19
And behold! The new thing is me!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Taking off the Mask: Wearing Truth

I'm a hypocrite.
I admit it. So are you.

This is why:
Every time I sin, I have lied about what I believe. I have lied to whoever has witnessed my sin but, worse, I have lied to myself.

Here's how it works: I say I want to do the right thing, that I don't want to sin. And then I do. How does that work? Is someone twisting my arm to take a third piece of cake? To snark at my husband? To spend time at work on the phone with friends? Really?
Even the writer of Hebrews knows:
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of death.--Hebrews 12:4

This is the truth--
I always do exactly what I want to do. 
Every time.
The devil never makes me do it. He can't. I have to cooperate. I have to agree. We all do.

Think about it. Imagine someone who is a compulsive thief. He says he loves God and wants to obey Him, but just can't seem to stop himself. We call this behavior an addiction and it probably is. Addiction is a real thing, but even an addict lies to himself and we often let him. Even given the physical pull of addiction, at some level the addict likes his behavior. He enjoys the thrill of cheating, the belonging of gossip, the comfort of the drug. They not only feel like they can't, but deep down do not want to give it up.

We choose our sin.

Here's a more honest approach. Just say it.
Adultery is exciting.
Gossip makes us feel important.
Food makes us happy.
Anger vindicates us.

Our faults and habitual sins are not mitigated in the least when we go to church on Sunday or read our Bible but don't change. Unaltered sinful behaviors do not characterize a Christian. They indicate a Pharisee.

There is a a relief, a kind of grace, in admitting who we really are. Try it sometime.
Substitute "I struggle with nagging, but can't seem to stop" with "I don't dare stop nagging him. Nothing will ever get done." Admit that we care less that nagging is wrong than about getting the garbage taken out.

God knows this is hard, but He wants us to examine our real motives:
I desire truth in the inner parts--Psalm 51:6

Before we can turn our true face to the world, we have to turn a true face toward God and toward ourselves.
What are we really afraid of? The Christian mask we are wearing will have to come off sooner or later. We might as well take it off now. The Christian truth lies underneath.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Modern Disenchanted: Hey, Jesus--Wassup?

Judas Iscariot is a hard one to figure.
He had to have been fairly smart and, at some point, to have inspired some measure of confidence. The apostles let him handle the group's money, after all. We tend to think of him as evil, but he couldn't have been, not completely, not at the beginning.

What happened to Judas?
Maybe he fell victim to the same weakness that some popular pastors do--the allure of intelligence, the confidence of skill. He sure went wrong somewhere, that's for sure, becoming at best, the cartoon thief who shakes your hand while picking your pocket. At worst, well, we saw his worst. He betrayed the Son of God. And people still do--by desertion, by betrayal, by ignoring the promise He made regarding His church.

I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.--Matthew 16:18

Judas' most revealing discourse with Jesus comes in the upper room after Judas had already concluded negotiations with the Pharisees and agreed to hand Jesus over for thirty pieces of silver, a paltry sum for such an act. All the apostles are sitting down to supper and Jesus tells them all that He knows what's coming--that He's been betrayed and Judas looks right at Him and asks along with the others,
Surely not I, Lord?--Matthew 26:22

Who does he think he's kidding? He sounds like a gangster who, thumbs hitched in his drooping jeans, saunters into his rival's hangout slurring, "Wassup?" As if he doesn't know. He's not fooling anyone, at least not for long.

Tertullian, a theologian who lived around 200AD, had something to say about what plagued Judas and so many others:
At the height of a man's sin is his refusal to recognize Him of whom man cannot be ignorant.*

Judas refused to recognize Jesus for who He was. Disappointed, unable or unwilling to understand, and eventually marginalized because of it, Judas blamed not just Jesus, but the whole bunch. He turned his back on all twelve of them.

Judas' rejection of Jesus is the same as modern men rejecting the organized church founded by the same Christ because it fails to live up to their expectations.  Judas went off the reservation so completely that even when he realized he was wrong, it didn't save him. He sealed his fate not because he'd sinned but by what he did next.
Then he went away and hanged himself--Matthew 27:5

Had he asked forgiveness, had he added repentance to his conviction, he could have shared heaven. But it didn't happen. And, as modern men do the same, they end in the same place.

This is the hard reality. Churches will behave badly. They all do it at one time or another. But the good ones recognize their wrong, admit it openly, ask forgiveness of those they have wronged, and change. The process of forgiveness and restoration is the same for groups as it is for individuals and some make it. Some don't.

We may have to change friends or change churches when things go bad, but we do not get to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We are not smarter than the church God left us. We are not better or more clever than the Body of Christ.

We all share Judas' basic failing. We all have the potential to do exactly as he did. The test is what we do when we're tempted to think we are too smart for God, when we are so sure of ourselves. It is that moment when we stand in the shadow of the hanging tree, where even Judas discovered what he should have done.

*Apologeticus 17

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Time's Up, Death

There are some people I have a hard time just being around. I'm not sure why, but some folks just make me edgy, like I have an itch I can't scratch, or like I'm sitting on a particularly uncomfortable lump. When I'm around them, I just have to MOVE....preferably to somewhere else.

I'm not proud of this. Whoever they are, God, after all, gave them life, just like He gave it to me. My life is not better or cleaner or more presentable to God than is theirs. They are flawed. I am flawed. And, deep down, I pretty well know that Jesus does not love me any more than He loves them. We are joined by our common, and commonly imperfect, humanity. 

But I just don't like them.

I occurred to me, however, that although Jesus loves us all equally, there are some things He simply cannot abide, either. 
Like Death. 
Yes, Death.
Jesus hated death. He warred against it. He undid it. And eventually, He defeated it.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.--1Corinthians 15:26
He Himself also partook of the same that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, Satan.--Hebrews 2:14
I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades.--Revelation 1:18

This is no gentle Jesus. This is the guy on the white horse, the one with the sword, the one so bright I can't even look straight at Him. This Jesus is a warrior and every bit as powerful and terrifying as His Father. This is the Jesus who walked out of the grave and confronted Death himself.

And it was no contest.

Because Jesus didn't really have to fight at all. He just had to show up. The conquering didn't require any hewing and hacking. The outcome was never in doubt. All He had to do was to withdraw His permission.

Death existed only by God's express permission, but when His time was up, it was up. Jesus put His perfect thumb on our side of the scale, and Death fell off the other side. All done.  Death had already obeyed His command a number of times in full view of anyone who happened to be around. He chased Death away from Lazarus, from the son of the widow in Nain, from Jarius' servant and, of course, from Himself. Death has been warned. Christ will not allow it to exist either in His presence or outside of His express permission.

Why is this so hard to understand?
Maybe because all of life's other terrors happen while we still live. Yes, we get sick, but we usually get well. Yes, we might lose our job, but the possibility of getting another one is still open to us. But death, well, we just END. We disappear from the face of the earth. Death is a lot scarier for us than misfortune or hurt or loss. 

But not for Christ. They are all the same to Him--one cause, one temporary tolerance, and one permanent solution. Death to God is no stronger than a bug to us. Swat it and it's gone.

And He's done it. Our body may still die, but we will live. We will live with Him and laugh at Death. You know the old taunt:
Where, O Death, is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?--1Corinthinians 15:55

Talk about a knight in shining armor...

Saturday, May 3, 2014

I AM: The Ultimate Selfie

Everybody's taking them.
They can be kind of fun, like when we get to see our daughter's pregnant belly shot, or when we get to put heads together with that friend we've long missed. Selfies can also help us see ourselves the way others see us, and for that, they may have value. Most days, I wouldn't be caught dead in a selfie. They show what I really look like...yikes.

But, whether I want to show myself off to someone else or not, I'd better know who I am. I need to know where to find my own borders--the boundary lines that mark off who I am from who I am not. I may not make beautiful material for a selfie, but I am. Just that. I am. I exist. I have been given a real, palpable life and corporeal flesh.

Most of us don't know where to begin to think properly about ourselves. We can turn around our little camera phones and snap them, but of what have we taken a picture? Of whom? What am I? Wife? Mother? Writer? Lover of God? Teacher? Citizen of the United States?  Yes, all of these, but they aren't really who I am. These are what I do or where I live. I am more than these.

I am that unique signature that doesn't change regardless of how old I get, or where I live, or what I do. I am someone separate and particular before the Lord. I soar and invent and love and fail and sin in a way peculiar to myself alone. I am the whispers of my heart, the flight of my soul. No one is completely like me. I am known to God by my own unique name. I am created in the image of my own Creator.

Jesus knows me this way. He knows me according to who He made and recognizes me by what He did to me and gave to me. In return, He wants me to recognize Him the same way, but He has a much clearer understanding of who He is than I do. And He didn't hesitate to say so:

I AM the Bread of Life--John 6:35
I AM the Light of the World--John 8:12
I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life--John 14:6
I AM the Door--John 10:9.
I AM the Good Shepherd--John 10:11
I AM the Resurrection and the Life--John 11:25
I AM the Vine--John 15:1

I AM...
Strong statements. So strong they got Him killed.

This is the bold Jesus I can't help but follow. He gives us a picture of value and strength and confidence and, to the extent we can follow Him, the original from which we can stand in reflection. We can look like Christ, all parts of Him.  We will not BE God, but we can LOOK LIKE God.

When Christ talked about Himself, he never flinched or hesitated. He behaved outrageously and to be sure, to say that we can be like Him is an outrageous statement. But I can say it anyway. I can say it because I have God's permission and example to say it.

Christ said,
Before Abraham was, I AM.--John 8:58

I say:
Because You are, I AM.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

You Can't Change Anything From Inside the Limo

Things change.
They do. Always. I can't do anything about that.
I don't always like it, though. Like when kids grow up and move away. Like when parents or friends or spouses die. Heck, I don't even like it when a favorite restaurant changes their menu or skirt lengths go short again.
But sometimes...sometimes I just know things HAVE to change. And, even worse, that I'm the one who's supposed to help change them.

I can't even imagine how Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela felt. Yikes. They changed BIG things. My convicted changes aren't that big--not even close. But they're big to me. And, like those famous men, I have to figure out how to implement them. Whether it's school reform, or property taxes, or how my church runs their Sunday school, change sometimes calls me to work, and I am going to need a plan.

My first big experience with this came in business. I worked for a company top-heavy in wealth and privilege. The men and women who worked in our factory worked hard--really hard--and got none of the perks I saw handed out liberally to managers and executives--bonuses, both cash and non-cash. It wasn't right, I thought from my entry level office desk. If I ever got the chance to change that...well, I would.

Eventually, I got the chance.

When I got promoted to Vice President, I had big plans. I would shine a new light into the executive offices. I would make the changes I'd always seen needed making. But then, on my next business trip, the company paid for a limo to pick me up at 5AM and take me to the airport. Instead of sending it away and driving myself, I settled deep into the leather seats and napped. And a few months later, when I realized that the bonus I got that year would pay for my younger son's college education, I didn't cash the check and distribute it to those hard working men and women on the shop floor like I'd planned to do. Instead, I deposited into our savings account.

Were these things evil? Not really. But they serve to demonstrate something I learned the hard way then and in the long years that followed. Even after I'd stopped joining the excess and started fighting it, the big boys didn't care that I didn't want to play with them. It didn't matter to them at all, as long as I didn't interfere with their fun. And I didn't interfere, but not because I didn't want to. I didn't stop them from their greed because I didn't have the clout to do it. They couldn't care less what I thought or did. To them, my example was not eye opening--it was, maybe, faintly amusing. Finally, I did the only thing I could decently do. I gave up and got out.

This is what I learned: real change does not generally come from the inside.  Not unless the changer is also in charge. Kings can exert change. Sometimes very disciplined presidents and CEO's can. But not the rest of us. If we want to change something, we have to step out of it first. I saw this in business, but I also saw it in the school where I later taught and in the church we attended. There, too, we tried to enact change from the inside and found that it couldn't be done.

God knows this, too.
Example: Right after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem to waving palm branches and cries of 'Hosanna', what did He do? He marched right over to the temple and chased out the money changers for the second time.
It is written--My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!--Matthew 21:13
And what happened?
The scribes and the chief priests heard it and sought out how they might destroy him.--Mark 11:18

Jesus didn't become a temple honcho first. He came in almost incognito--a young guy from a small town, but with wisdom and a mission He thoroughly understood. He could see clearly from the outside, whether from heaven or from Nazareth or from the back of a donkey, the kind of corruption so rarely visible from inside.

Obviously, I am prejudiced by my own experience. The hierarchy surrounding my own situations chewed me up and spit me out. Just like Jesus. Well, almost.

And that's my takeaway from all this. The people Christ criticized destroyed Him, or tried to. When they were finished with him, He was certainly very dead. But the same as He did, I rose up from each of my experiences remade, better than I'd begun. And amazingly, in the process, some of the things that needed changing did change. Not directly from what I did, but they did change, and some are still changing.

Just like Jesus, I left each of these situations an outcast, but not untouched, unchanged. And I learned to trust that God will use my actions in His own way. I also now know not to trust reformers with a stake in the status quo, but only those who have nothing to lose by changing it.
They have the vision. They follow the right example.