The art of the incarnation

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I’ve loved reading the facebook posts of an author-friend as she’s been editing the manuscript for her latest book. She treats each character differently:

“One of them might–if she’s lucky–get a yell of “Incoming!” from me before I demolish one of her scenes; another gets treated very gently with lots of slow work.”

Her process intrigues me, and helps me understand: a huge part of art is learning to know your characters and understand the nature of your material. Learning to work with rather than against. Not to conquer or overcome, or to reshape it against its nature, but to listen to it, learn from it, honor its uniqueness in the way you work with it.

Watching her has given me a picture of the way God works with us, his poiema1—differently in each life, but never randomly, always honoring the nature of our being.

“Let me teach you, because I am . . . gentle. . . . For my yoke fits perfectly. . .” (Matt 11:28-30 NLT)

I listen to Israel’s refrain: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter.” (Isaiah 64:8).

We know how this works. The most sensitive and skilled sculptor we can imagine knows his material almost perfectly. He has worked with it, shaped it, paid attention to how it responds. He knows how to work with it to bring out the best in it.

But he only ever knows his material from the outside. Even the best musician doesn’t become music; the best painter doesn’t become paint.

And this is where the analogy gets turned on its head, as every analogy does when God’s love is involved. The God who knew everything perfectly, who not only created us but created the clay from which He shaped us—the God in whom we exist—wasn’t content with even that degree of closeness to his material. He wanted to know us from the inside. He wanted us to know that He knew us from the inside: knew what it was to be tired and hungry and sick, to need a bath and have his mouth water at the smell of baking bread and long for the comfort of a hug. He wanted us to know that, knowing us, He loved us. And so the potter became clay, the poet the poiema. God became flesh.

 

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1For we are God’s poiema. . .” (Eph 2:10)

Advent: the continuing mystery

 

They drove across town to pick me up. Through the rainy darkness I could see her hand waving inside the car to let me know it was them. Limp with a cold, he sat in the passenger seat. We chatted and drove through the dinnertime dark, waiting at one red light after another, and, in scratchy voice, he asked questions—good questions and hard questions, the kind Jesus asks.

She served up supper out of the crockpot and poured the cranberry juice, and the smell of lime and cilantro, sweet potatoes and meat made my mouth water. And after a second helping of berry crumble and vanilla yogurt we sat around the fire, feet toasting on the hearth, and laughed and shared songs with memories—the toe-tapping southern joy of the Cotton Patch Gospel’s Jubilation and the beautiful faces and solemn holiness of Brahms’ Requiem—and it was all so full and free and my soul was filled up like my stomach had been. And as I glanced over and caught her laughing eyes I saw all over again: The Word became flesh, and since that time the Word has not stopped wearing flesh in the world.

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We’re not just on holy ground, we are holy ground, Christ alive in us.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)

“. . . we are members of his body. . . . the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Eph 5:30-32)

The hidden King

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We sat, last Sunday, on the wooden pew near the back of the little country church. The unexpected sun filtered through the rain-stained windows. The priest, in his white robe of celebration, reminded us that it was the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year.

When we’d planned those few days away, I’d forgotten that they fell between the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next, between the celebration of Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent.

In the calendar it’s only one week a year; off the page it can feel like more. Isn’t this where we live large chunks of our lives, clinging with both hands to the promise that Christ is King while being plunged into the reality of how this King comes, the God-man so small and silent that in those first days of his coming among us even the woman carrying him couldn’t discern his presence?

The priest raised the wafer and reminded us of the words of this King, “This is my body, broken for you.” Such a strange king he is, this King who conquers his enemies with love and nourishes his children with His own bruised and broken body.

And I think of the senseless violence and another new widow and I need to remember that this King who wore our flesh and sweated our blood and cried our tears will tenderly hold a reed that’s bent double with grief. And that this King who comes quietly among us will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.

He comes into our violent, grieving humanness, this King, entering and owning it, living it and lifting it to a place where it is no longer a barrier to entering His presence but the very place where He comes closest.

And as I weave crosses in red and gold for the empty tree I sing along with Handel’s Messiah and I find here the words I need to receive and sing and live all over again.

“Comfort ye my people.” The voice is gentle and low, and comes with His promise: “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill made low, the rough ground shall be made level and the rugged places a plain and the glory of the LORD shall appear and all mankind shall see it together.”

And the baby comes—this one who is Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God and Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. I need to hang out here and savour each of those names that our world needs, that I need.

The angels sing “Glory to God” and “Peace” and it’s only a few short years later that the angels watch and grieve with the whole universe to see Him bringing that peace, bent and broken under the weight of our pain: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The mocking is excruciating—“He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him if he delights in him”—but it’s the silence of unanswered prayer that is heartbreaking: “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart. . . . See if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” The music slows and lets me linger there a while before it moves me on with that three letter word that can speak hope into the most desperate of situations. “BUT Thou didst not leave his soul in hell.”

The nations rage on but the King has risen and the choir sings “Hallelujah, for the LORD God omnipotent reigneth” and who can help but stand and join in as the Hallelujah continues? “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. KING OF KINGS, LORD OF LORDS.”

The story turns back to us and we’re raised along with Him. “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I see a widow running to her husband—and another reunion, and another—a mother to her daughter and a son to his mother and a brother to his brother.

And while we wait, groaning, for that day, the soprano sings of Christ sitting at the right hand of God making intercession for us and, oh, don’t we need to know He’s still with us in our trouble, bringing us to His Father? Seeing him there, His people together cry “Worthy!”

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. . . . Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever!”

The amen rolls from the bass up to the tenor and on up through the alto to the soprano and they pass it back and forth, never letting it drop, the whole of creation caught up in echoing the praise of this slain Lamb, this hidden King who will one day be hidden no longer.

I’ll be singing my way through this drama over and over as we wait for His coming. I need to remember who it is that is coming, growing in small and hidden ways, strange and strong and mysterious ways, active within me and within the world long before I can sense His presence.

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Related:

Handel’s Messiah performance

Handel’s Messiah text with Scripture references

Isaiah 42

When advent feels empty

Free to be human without fear

When winds whip wild

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Last year when we stepped through the door, the late November sun was streaming gold through the huge windows, lighting a path across the little table and straight-backed chairs in the kitchen nook. No one had been there for a week and the rooms were cold; still, there was a warmth about the place, a welcoming, as though an unseen host waited. As though, knowing we were coming, he had built a fire and was calling to us after a long, unproductive night in the boat, “Come and have breakfast.” I sat at the table and let the sun warm my tight shoulders.

I’d gone with my Bible and journal and plans for how I’d spend the time. I felt instead like someone was feeding me, resting me, opening his arms and gathering me into his lap. I wanted nothing but to snuggle in and be still.

As you read this, I’ll be there again. This time though, if the forecast is right, we’ll have climbed down slippery stone steps and, instead of a sunlit kitchen nook, the wind will be whipping rain against the windows. I don’t know whether I’ll feel the same warm hug. I do know that the same unseen host will be waiting, the One who—whether or not I can see or feel or hear him over the winds—is always calling “Come.”

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

The surprising gift you don’t dare refuse

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We’d just found our housemate unconscious on the cold cement floor and my heart was raging mad. Not at her, but at our guests who cared more about having to wait forty minutes in their warm, comfortable vehicle than about our friend’s life.

I wrote that story last week. Some of it, I think, was good writing. Some felt weak. This morning I realized why. I was afraid of my anger. I tried to soften it, cover it, apologize for it when I needed to let it be seen. It was part of the story and, in this case, a marker of real wrong at work in the situation.

Satan has two tactics when dealing with our anger. The first is to whisper that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for feeling angry, that our anger is bad and dangerous and to be feared, and that we’ll never please God if we feel angry. And so we try to destroy or hide our anger instead of allowing it to energize us in the battle against Satan and toward relationship with God and each other. If he fails at that, Satan tries to turn our hand to train the powerful weapon on other people or back on ourselves, taking a tool intended to spur us to action in the service of life and teaching us to use it in the service of destruction instead.

In one sense, anger is a product of the fall: we didn’t know anger until after the fall. There was no need for this energy-full emotion that makes us feel what is wrong, involving us in the reality of it and spurring us toward making it right.

At a much deeper level, our capacity to feel anger is part of our imaging of the God whose infinite love and longing for right relationship includes anger against anything that threatens to destroy His beloved creation.

It’s a deep and daring trust that is willing to feel God’s anger, knowing it will call us to action.

Anger can kill. It requires great respect and caution. But the reality is, we will feel it. We’re meant to feel it. In this broken world, there’s no way to love without sometimes feeling anger. I watch Jesus turning over the tables of crooks in the temple, restoring His Father’s house to a sacred place of relationship. (Luke 19:45-46) I see him indignant at the tomb of Lazarus, his anger over the destruction Satan had brought on his friend paired with decisive action: “It doesn’t have to be this way!” (John 11)

Surrendered to the Holy Spirit, controlled anger can help push us up the hill of our apathy and fear to act in ways that bring holiness in the world. I hear the anger in the voices of some of the most godly men I know when they don’t just speak of other men enslaving women in prostitution, but act to do something about it. I once stood up to a gynaecologist who was verbally abusing one of my junior residents; it was anger over the injustice that fuelled my small courage.

Carefully handled, anger can be a gift. Join me in letting God teach us to use it well?

“Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (Eph 4:26-27 NRSV)

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For further exploration:

Since our anger—like every other part of us—has been distorted by the fall, there’s no doubt that this powerful emotion needs a trigger guard and cautious handling. We’re given guidelines and constant Holy help:

  • Never train your sights on other people. (Eph 6:12)
  • Learn when to let it go. (Eph 4:26-27)
  • Hand it over to the One who can handle it before it gets too hot to hold. (Psalm 94, 109, etc)

Here are a few questions that help me in the handling of the gift of anger. What others would you add?

  • What is underlying my anger in this situation? (Love? Fear? Envy? Hurt pride?) Is there sin I need to confess?
  • What does this anger show me about what really matters to me? To God?
  • What might be God’s invitation to me here?