Woven into Christ (and my new word for 2019)

We’re a week into 2019, a week into new hopes and dreams and intentions, new directions and new words for the year.  As I take my next steps into 2019, I’m so grateful for the church calendar that reminds me that the new year began back at the beginning of Advent, and that the foundation on which to build this next year of my life has already been firmly laid in the story we’ve just lived through with Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
On the first Sunday of Advent, baskets full of ribbons were passed along the rows of worshippers and we were each asked to select a piece of ribbon and personalize it, writing a line of a hymn, a prayer, our name—some little offering of ourselves and our lives. Then, week by week, we watched as those ribbons were woven into banners standing at the front of the sanctuary. The weavers began from the top and bottom of the banners, line upon line of golden shades, then rich reds, slowly working their way in toward the middle. Below the platform where the worship team leads us, where the preacher speaks the words of God, was this steady reminder that as we listen and sing and pray, our lives are being woven into a beautiful tapestry.
For the first three Sundays of Advent, all we could see was bands of gold and red slowly taking shape at the top and bottom of the fabric. Even in themselves, they held beauty, a little of God’s glory imaged in the multi-toned layers of our lives.
And yet, they were somehow empty too. Incomplete. Mysterious. What was taking shape? Were these bands of color—as beautiful as they were—all there was? I was faintly disappointed. But only because I hadn’t waited long enough.
We met two days before Christmas on the final Sunday of Advent, and there,  in the middle of each banner, in white ribbon, the needed centre was finally taking shape. Or, rather, the centre that had always been there but not yet visible began to appear among us in a form that we could recognize. A name on one banner. A title on the other. Jesus. Christ.  Disappointment made way for joy as the centre was filled, the lines of red and gold now shining with new beauty as they took their proper place not as the main focus of the image, but as pointers, our lives put in proper perspective by the One at the centre.
The banners have hung at the front of the sanctuary through Christmas and the turning of the year and on into the season of Epiphany which has now begun. Epiphany—the revealing of Jesus’s glory—isn’t this what we all need every day of this new year? Our small lives gathered up into his, woven into his story, with Jesus shining forth at the centre of our lives and our communities?
I often begin the new year pondering and praying about a word for the year. This year I’ve wondered about several. There are places I’ve become lazy, and I want to grow again in discipline. But what is discipline if my life isn’t marked by love? And the truth is that unless my discipline is rooted in love, unless I really want to do something, my desire fuelled by love, my will-power falls flat pretty quickly. Or gets sidelined by fear.
Love, then. I long for my life to be marked by love. For that to happen I need to keep making my home in Jesus’ love. But as I sit with the word, I find that when it comes right down to it, even love as a guiding word for the year feels empty. It is, of course, a crucial part of the weaving of a meaningful, beautiful life. But even love finds it proper place not as the centre but as a pointer, guiding me back to the only One who can fill that central place, the One in whom everything holds together and from whom love comes. All my hopes and goals for the year, no matter how significant, only have meaning when they take their proper place around Jesus. Without him at the centre, even the best dreams are meaningless, the best goals both irrelevant and impossible.
This, this, is the Word I want written on every piece of my heart, every moment of my days. This is the Word that holds me together, weaving all the bits of life into a whole that makes sense. JESUS.

The secret of doing the impossible


Sometimes I look at someone else and think, “They’re so strong (or gracious, or gifted, or smart). I could never do what they’re doing.”
I’ve heard it from others. “You’re so brave. I could never go to Afghanistan!”
The truth is, I didn’t feel brave at all. I was terrified. But I was called. And where we’re called and willing, and for as long as we’re called, there’s grace for that calling.
And then when God calls us out of a place (Afghanistan, say) and into another, different life situation, grace keeps pace. I couldn’t now return to Afghanistan without a fresh call. That grace is gone, replaced with the grace that I need for each moment in this day and this place.
When I put someone else on a pedestal (“They’re so brave. I could never do that.”) I miss the point of the conversation between Mary and the angel. She wasn’t asked to do the impossible. She was asked to let God do the impossible in and through her. (Luke 1:26-38)
That’s all we’re ever asked.
The Joseph of the coat of many colors knew this. His boss, the ruler of Egypt, said to him, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph replied, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Genesis 41:16)
Daniel of the fiery furnace knew this. His boss, the ruler of Babylon and even more unreasonable than Joseph’s boss, also had a dream. He insisted that his advisors not only interpret the dream but first tell him what the dream was (otherwise how was he supposed to know if they were telling him the real meaning of the dream or making up an interpretation for the minor purpose of keeping their heads attached to their bodies?) Daniel said to him, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” (Dan 2:27-28) And that God who reveals mysteries did the impossible through Daniel and told the king his dream and its meaning.
The Joseph who became Mary’s husband learned this. God had to give this righteous man faith to believe something that the rest of the world thought was ridiculous. (“Come on, man! Don’t tell me you actually believe your fiancé is pregnant by the Holy Spirit!“) Or, perhaps God gave him the courage to act and take Mary as his wife even if he couldn’t make sense of the whole story. Either way, God did in Joseph the inner work needed to free him to step into his place in the Grand Story.
When the angel told Mary that God had chosen her to carry and birth His Son, Mary asked a very understandable question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) I can finish Mary’s question a million different ways when God shows me the next bit I’m asked to play in the story He is writing. “How will this be, since . . . ?”
But no matter how the question ends, the answer is always the same: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
Because here’s the thing: We are never called to do the impossible.
We are, however, daily, called to let God do the impossible in us.  And sometimes that “impossible” that God does in us overflows into Him doing the impossible through us in and for the world.
I’ll be taking these next couple of weeks to rest and celebrate and be available for what I sense God might be wanting to do in me in these days, so I’ll see you back here at the start of the new year. As we continue to prepare for the coming of God among us and in us in new ways, this is my prayer: May God continue to do both in us and through us what only God can do.

When you struggle to settle


It was an unusual experience. We were high up in the balcony of the theatre. The seats directly in front of us were empty except for a woman with exceptionally tall hair. In the next row up was a family with two children. The older, a young teen, leaned her head first onto the shoulder of her mother and then onto the shoulder of the woman sitting on her other side (an older sister home from college? a young aunt?). Eventually she curled up in her seat as best she could and appeared to sleep. The younger child, perhaps eight or ten, handed her program to her sister/aunt, took it back, handed it back again. She tapped her aunt’s elbow for attention and whispered something. Occasionally she looked at the performance taking place on the stage below her.
Two women to our left chattered in whispers. The whole audience seemed restless. I’ve never seen so many individuals leave during a performance. Some re-entered.
I was frustrated and puzzled, feeling in myself, too, the inability to settle that I could see all around me. Why? What was going on? I’d been looking forward to this performance of Handel’s Messiah. As I bussed to the theatre, I’d consciously released the events of my day to God, preparing to settle in, savor the music, and let it lead me into worship. But it wasn’t happening.
Gradually I began to understand.
In the moment the orchestra began the overture, I’d felt out of breath, trying to keep up, holding onto the arms of my chair as though to slow us down, to keep us together. To keep myself together, maybe. The music had slowed when the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,” and I’d breathed deeply. The choir entered, perfectly together, singing beautifully. And then we’d sped up and again I’d felt like I needed to hold on, to slow us down with my hands as though seatbelting myself in, trying to defend against a crash. Once the conductor had stopped the orchestra a few bars in and started again. I suspect the changing tempo was meant to highlight the words, to provide helpful contrast. In effect what I experienced was auditory whiplash and an unsettled soul.
Still, there were glimpses of grace—grace that I might not have seen if I’d felt settled from the start:
A single note where the tenor hung alone, opening a moment of spaciousness whose holy grace remains with me, reminding me that beyond the hustle there is a still point. Behind the rush, the show, the frothy mix of motives and emotions, Reality waits. And He is gracious and spacious and good.
My always-favorite duet where the soprano and alto remind us that “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young,” and therefore we can “Come unto him all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
And this: Three-quarters of the way through the concert, the first notes of the Hallelujah chorus sounded. Together, we stood. The people who had been restless stilled. The chatterers stopped. The teen in front of us slept on, but the two women lifted the younger child to her feet to stand with them. And as all the voices of the humans and instruments sang together, I understood all over again: Life may drag us along, stealing our breath with its speed, giving us whiplash with unexpected changes of direction or tempo. Our best attempts to make art or serve others may not turn out in the way we hoped. A performance or a project may disappoint. It is not the end of the world. Because on this truth we stand, and in this hope we once again find our center, our courage, and our voice to join with the multitude which sings around the throne:

“Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ;
And he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of kings and Lord of lords.
Hallelujah.”

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash.

The Adventure of Advent


I smile at the photo Mom sent of Dad enjoying the little person on his lap. Mom and Dad had a call hours after Dad had hand surgery. A friend of a friend was at an Indian airport on his way to Canada with his wife and young child and they didn’t have a place to stay when they arrived in 2 days time. Did Mom and Dad have any ideas? And so the little one arrived with her parents and together they spent their first days on Canadian soil at my parents’ home. I smile again when I read Mom’s email and see how what could have been an overwhelming first day for this little girl’s mother in a new land became, instead, a day filled not just with challenge but also with laughter as the challenges were shared by someone familiar with the landscape of life here:

“. . . it is really quite busy around here!  An incredible day for Anaya’s* first full day in Canada too!  We just had to laugh with all the challenges.  Power went off just as she was preparing the Indian omelette for breakfast.  Then she wanted to come to the store with me, so she put on Caroli’s down coat from Afghanistan and helped me brush the car, laughing and shaking her head at snow and how long it takes to get wet snow off the car.  Then discovered all the traffic lights and stores were out of power but it took us a while to get through the gridlock and back home. Then [our eldest grandson] arrived for lunch (because his college was out of power) and stayed the afternoon, etc. so now (after very late supper) Dad and I are on our way to bed (leaving them up since they slept this afternoon- with the jet-lag).  Baby was awake from 2-4 last night. But it somehow all feels fun thanks to God’s peace and strength, and they are very grateful. We think they are hoping to have their place by Saturday or Sunday so we’ll see what God has in mind!

As I read Mom’s email, I felt like I was seeing in pictures a line from Malcolm Guite’s Advent and Christmas devotional, Waiting on the Word. I’d pulled the book off my shelf a few days early, unable to wait until the start of Advent to begin to savour the rich layers in Guite’s book. In the introduction Guite reminds us that while during Advent we often focus primarily on the first coming of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem and his final coming in glory as King, these two comings frame the time in which we live, a time filled with many other advents.

“’Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age,’ says Jesus. ‘Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do it unto me’; ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’ In our encounters with the poor and the stranger, in the mystery of the sacraments, in those unexpected moments of transfiguration surely there is also an advent and Christ comes to us. Perhaps that is why the other sense we have of the word ‘advent’ is to find it beginning the word ‘adventure.’” (Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Wordp. ix-x, bold mine)

Adventure. Yes. That’s one descriptor for the story Mary entered when she gave her yes to mothering the Son of God. And it seems a pretty good summary of the life we enter when we, along with Mary, give God our yes. Adventure. There’s room in the word for courage and laughter, seeking and finding (and sometimes feeling a bit lost on the way), suffering and perseverance and hope. An adventure is not predictable. It involves risk. That can even be part of the fun of it—at least when we know we’re accompanied by a trustworthy Guide who knows the landscape well and will be with us every step of the way.
__________
*Not her real name

How to tell true love


You’ve probably noticed by now that smallness is a common theme around here. You’ve probably guessed some of the reasons for that. One of the most obvious is that I’m regularly aware of my smallness.
But there’s also this: I’ve long suspected that one of the best marks of real, trustworthy love is the way it relates to smallness.
On the one hand, real love is gentle and protecting, patient and kind. Small people and small things are safe in the hands of Love. Safe, and cherished, and treasured.

“Love is patient, love is kind. . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor. 13:4,7)

On the other hand, real love has no need to sustain the power differential. It doesn’t need to be needed to satisfy some ego need in itself. It doesn’t need to keep smallness small. I’ll never forget Dr. J.I. Packer saying in a theology class that the best definition of love that he knew was “the resolve to make the loved party great.”

“Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. . . it is not self-seeking.” (1 Cor. 13:4-5)

To say it more simply, real love guards and protects us in our smallness. . .

“You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; . . .“

. . . and takes us beyond our smallness too:

“. . .you stoop down to make me great.” (Ps 18:35)

In less than a week, Advent will begin, and we’ll be given four weeks to pay special attention to how unafraid God is of our smallness. Unafraid, and unashamed to share in it. God chose for Jesus’ birthplace not a palace but a stable. For his mother, a young, vulnerable woman, not married, not rich, not highly educated. Jesus set aside his strength and invulnerability and entered our weakness, showing us that we don’t need to fear smallness. And he continues to live his life in small, weak people. People whom he makes great by joining himself to us in our smallness and lifting us up with him to share in the life and love of the Trinity, and the mission of God in the world.
A friend comes for supper and shares pictures of her trip to Israel. I’m most struck by pictures of the Bell Caves. In one picture, the 96 year old man who co-led the tour rests in a wheelchair, hands folded. In another (professionally taken, so I can’t post it) he stands, straight yet tiny in the vastness of the cave, as a beam of light descends through the bell’s apex, blessing him, crowning him.
It images for me what happened in another small town in Israel some 2000 years ago. The light of God’s face which had been shining on us for millennia (Num 6:23-27) descended to live among us where we could see God’s face turned toward us, his smile now visible to our human eyes. And, in that smile, those eyes—God’s love now lived in human flesh—we could know that God joins us in our weakness so he can lift us to our full stature, beyond our full stature, making us co-heirs, crowned with God’s glory and grace.
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Photo by Julie Hindmarsh. Used with permission.