Healing in his wings


On Friday morning, I sat at the breakfast table with my blue pottery mug of lemon-ginger tea. I’d sat there first with my bowl of cereal, but I had a little extra time before the Good Friday service, and the sun pouring through the windows, warming and soothing me, summoned me to sit longer and savor its gentle, healing welcome.

Most often in this temperate rain forest where I live, I experience the sun as a gentle force, a longed-for and welcome presence. But as I sat at the table on Good Friday, I was reminded that the sun that welcomes me with its warmth is an unthinkably immense, brilliant force with the power to nourish life or take it, to turn darkness to light, ice to steam, and clouds to clear skies. It summons leaves to bend toward it, holds planets in their orbits, and turns winter to spring with its coming.

If someone asked me what I most love about Jesus, I’d probably name his gentleness. That’s what has made me feel safe enough with him to love him. He always summons me back again, welcoming me to come and find myself loved no matter my condition.
But on this devastating, triumphant weekend, I saw again the strength that lies behind the gentleness. A strength to bring unending life into the darkest and most hopeless of dark places, the blackness of death itself. A strength that announces victory with his last breath, shatters the grave, and restores hope to the hopeless. That brings long-forgotten prisoners out of their tombs, and sets the captives free. A strength with the authority to judge, but the will  instead to heal both captives and captors who are willing to be healed.

“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23; c.f. Jonah 3:10-4:2; 4:11; 2 Peter 3:9; John 3:17)

This is blinding light, all-powerful holiness, but a holiness that is for us, intent on healing and setting right all that is wrong, on freeing and making whole and bringing to life again all the good that has been crushed and crucified. Easter weekend is where we see most clearly that God’s holiness is another name for his goodness, that his holiness and his love are two entwined sides of his same brilliant and overflowing life that he is always pouring out for our hope and healing.

“The Lord of Heaven’s Armies says, “The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all.
But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.” 
(Malachi 4:1-2 NLT)
 

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Photos (in order) by Julia Caesar, Kent Pilcher, Johannes Plenio, Lukas Budimaier, and Nick Scheerbart on Unsplash.

Freely God's

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Am I giving myself to others for the sake of God, or am I giving myself to God for the sake of others? I’m only just recognizing the difference in those terms, and it’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.
I didn’t go home for Christmas this year. Every time I considered it, it felt too tight and pressured, and after a busy term I was so hungry for time alone with God. God gave many special gifts, including a few times with other people, loving and being loved in practical ways, but perhaps the biggest gift came when I realized that for the first time in three months, I felt like myself, and then, a few days later, realized that I could have equally well described what I meant by “I felt like myself” in a different way: “I felt freely God’s.” That is exactly where I want to live all the time—as God’s, fully and freely—and I was getting to taste what it felt like! And in that moment when “being myself” equated to “being freely His,” the question (which has been a huge struggle for me all my life) of whether it is selfish to make the choices that let me be me disappeared. What is less selfish than doing what enables me to be freely God’s?
It was soon after that that I began, slowly, to see the difference between giving myself to others for the sake of God and giving myself to God for the sake of others.
When I give myself to others first, even if I think I’m doing so for God’s sake, I put others on the throne. I surrender my God-given stewardship over my own life to the wishes of others. Or I put myself on the throne. I decide who to give to, and when and how. When I give myself first to others, I’m either clinging to control, or I’m inappropriately surrendering control to others, or both.
But when I give myself to God for the sake of others, the One who knows and loves me best (and knows and loves others best) gets to guide. He who is gracious and generous and infinitely creative in his solutions may ask me to help meet the need of one person while asking me to trust his goodness enough not to have to be the one to help with something else. When I give myself first to God, I’m surrendering to the only One who can rightly handle that control. I’m surrendering to love. This is the way of trust. And of freedom and peace and the burden that is light.
Jesus lived this second way, giving himself to his Father for our sake: “I’m consecrating myself”—setting myself apart for God—”for their sakes . . .” (John 17:19) His eyes were always on his Father, doing only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19; 8:28), his will neither his own, nor surrendered to us, but surrendered to his Father (Luke 22:42, John 5:30; 6:38).
I’ve tried to live the first because I thought it was the way of love, the way to please God. It turned out that I can’t love that way. I too quickly slip into fatigue, and from there into resentment and crankiness.
I’m just starting to learn how to live the second. It’s a daily challenge, and a bit messy. (One poor person got three emails from me as I was trying to get the courage to step out of a commitment: 1) I need to leave. 2) No, wait, am I hearing right? Maybe I should keep praying about it. 3) Umm. . . yes, God has added several more layers of confirmation to the already high pile. I really do need to leave.) It makes me wonder: Was I really living the first way only because I thought it was the way of love? Or was I living it because I felt insecure without the affirmation of others?
It’s a challenge to switch my gaze from the faces of others to the face of Jesus, but it’s also freedom and joy and true, unshakeable security. However hard the switch may be, and however long it takes, I know I don’t want to go back.

Accepted!

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“God came as a baby!” I overhear one mom saying to a new mom looking a little worn out with the care of her totally helpless newborn who needs to be changed and fed and cuddled night and day. A friend writes it in a newsletter, “He came not as a triumphant King, but a tiny, vulnerable baby, so that we would see He knows our weakness and our struggles.” Another friend explores the wonder of it on her blog: God needy?!
I’m hearing the familiar truth this year against the backdrop of a question I recently read, a question God seems to be asking me, “I can accept you as you are—but can you?”
I hear it in a multitude of versions:
I can accept you as you are—with your tendency to withdraw when you feel like you’re failing—but can you?
I can accept you as you are—with your fear and your questions—but can you?
I can accept you as you are—even with your struggle to accept your own limited, sinful self and rest in My love. Can you?
At first a little voice in my head asks if it’s really God I’m hearing. It sounds like the gentle, welcoming voice of the God I’ve come to love, but what about those verses about being perfect? Does God really accept me as I am, or does he want to change me? Slowly I’m realizing that acceptance and change are not only not mutually exclusive but necessarily intertwined. It is only in finding myself accepted as I am that I can change in ways that are deeper than the masks I wear. When I accept that I’m accepted, I begin to relax. My defenses come down and I open to love, and that love reshapes me from the inside so that I become loving too.
Jesus accepts Zacchaeus as he is, inviting himself over for the meal which makes public Jesus’ acceptance of him, and that love turns Zacchaeus’ grabbing, hoarding nature into one which gives and loves and makes right.
Jesus accepts Peter as he is, a tempestuous follower who in one instant is brazenly slicing off an attacker’s ear to defend his Lord and in the next denying he ever knew him. And through Jesus’ acceptance as he looks at Peter rather than looking away after Peter speaks those words of denial, through Jesus’ acceptance as he gives Peter a three-fold chance to reaffirm his love coupled with Jesus’ own threefold affirmation of acceptance, Peter is transformed into a rock who will not again deny his Lord even when it costs him his life.
“I can accept you as you are”—isn’t that the point of Peter’s vision of the unclean animals . . . and of the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles . . . and of the whole book of Galatians—that we don’t have to follow the law or cut off parts of ourselves or otherwise make ourselves “perfect” in order to be accepted? That, in fact, we are missing the whole point of the gospel if we insist on trying to make this sort of perfection a prerequisite for acceptance? Only in Galatians is the severest possible curse—“let them be eternally condemned”—leveled, (twice!), and it is against those who preach that we can’t trust this love, that we are not accepted unless we first shape up.
I look back again to the baby—God accepting us so fully as to become one of us, taking on our flesh with its limitations and eccentricities, and continuing to wear it—complete with scars—into eternity.
This is the point of the cross, too—not judgment (we would then be on that cross), but an acceptance deep enough that Jesus hangs there in our place, arms open in embrace.
The God who became needy, accepting us in our neediness, became sin, accepting us in the worst of our offenses.
The table-top tree stands in the corner, dressed with tiny red and gold crosses, reminding me that the incarnation which we celebrate speaks the deepest of acceptance. The manger scene sits underneath, and a dove with the word “Peace” perches near the tree’s top, inviting me to respond, to surrender to the peace that comes with knowing myself accepted as I am.

What (many of us) grown-ups have forgotten

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I sit with the friend who most intentionally helps me listen for God’s voice in my life and confess that lately I’ve been coming up against the hard truth that every single thing I’d like to be able to think about myself is not true, not the way I’d like it to be. I’d like to think of myself as disciplined, but the chocolate in the kitchen drawer could tell another story. I’d like to describe myself as gentle, but then I hear the harsh voice in my head berating me again.
She listens and questions and shares how she’s been back in the story of the little boy’s lunch again and has been realizing, That little boy probably had no idea that what he was offering was utterly inadequate. He’d simply overheard the adults asking if anyone had any food. “Here, you can have mine,” he’d said.
I picture Jesus smiling at him as he accepts from the boy’s hands the five little rolls of bread, a bit crumbly and squished, and the two small fish that have been sitting all day in the hot sun. Jesus smiles at the boy and winks, the two of them sharing a secret. The little boy smiles and winks back. He doesn’t yet know the whole secret and he might not be able to put into words the part that he does know, but somewhere deep down his heart knows the truth that the worried grown-ups have forgotten: Placed in the hands of Jesus, what I have to offer is enough for whatever Jesus wants to do with it. 
Babies hold out soggy cheerios in their newly-mastered pincer grip and toddlers extend dandelion bouquets in chubby fists with full confidence that their offering will bring delight. Only grown-ups are ashamed of their gifts.
Little children seem to know something else we adults have forgotten: It’s not really about the gift at all. It’s about the relationship. The children are offering their love, their trust, themselves, to someone who loves them. What could be not to love about that?
Jesus isn’t critiquing our soggy cheerios; he’s savoring our love and our trust.
Here, you can have me, I say to Jesus, watching him smile and open his arms to receive the gift. I can’t keep myself from smiling back.
And so during August I’m setting aside (as best I can) the part of me that thinks I always have to do more to make my gift acceptable. I’m stepping back from blogging and other writing so I can be fully present to Jesus and family and friends, giving myself rather than what I produce and polish. And while some critical adult voice in my head says, “I can’t believe you’re going to write that,” the little girl part of me that is smiling at Jesus smiling at me shrugs and takes Jesus’ hand and skips off, borrowing my parting words from Lynn Ungar’s poem, “Camas Lilies”:

                                         “. . . Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through with blooming.”  

What time is long before it’s money

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When I told my doctor that my Lenten practice of taking time to be still in God’s presence before bed had enabled me to stop needing the sleeping pill I’d been on for seven years, I was surprised at her response, “But contemplative prayer takes so long.” Assuming I would want to eliminate the time involved and assuming, I suppose, that I was only continuing the prayer because it helped me sleep, she offered me instead cognitive-behavioral therapy, or another type of pill.
One part of her was onto something: The complaint, “It takes so long,” often runs through my head or escapes my mouth. Centering prayer. Imaginatively entering a Gospel story to encounter Jesus there. Housework. Love. Caring for my high-maintenance body with its routines of salt drinks and carefully timed medications, a morning run and an afternoon nap. All of them can feel like they’re filling up my hours with distractions that keep me from accomplishing something more significant. It’s easy for me to chafe at the time involved.
Another part of her was wrong: I choose to be still in God’s presence not because it helps me sleep but because it helps me receive God’s love and love him back. “Be still and know that I am God,” he summons, knowing that for me to be still before him, even for twenty minutes, I have to stop trying to be God, stop trying to figure out how to run even my little corner of the world. I need that practice. I want that gift. There’s a lot of relief in not having to be God.
Last week, as I was pondering the number of times “It takes so long” had escaped my mouth, the question came: What am I here for?
If my life purpose is to accomplish tasks, then centering prayer, Scripture memory, housework, love are all things to be done quickly, delegated, or resented as a waste of time which get in the way of my true purpose.
If, however, my life purpose—my desire and goal, and the purpose for which God created me—is to love and be loved, then these places that “take too long” may be the very places that guide me into my true purpose. They awaken me to my need of love. They slow me down enough to notice love. They teach me to enter and savor the spaciousness in love, and enable me to offer that spacious love to others.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said when Judas berated Mary for pouring a year’s wages of perfume on Jesus’ feet. “It was intended that she save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7-8). I’ve always understood Jesus’ words to be about money: there’s a place for love that is incautious, apparently wasteful, in its extravagance. Now I hear his words also to be about time. “A year’s wages”—that’s a lot of time wasted (says Judas), or fulfilled (says Jesus).
People say time is money. But that’s only true if money is the supreme yardstick against which we measure everything else.
Time, like the rest of creation, is first of all love. Time is a beaded necklace of moments carefully threaded by the divine hand, each minute a tiny locket specially hollowed and hallowed to hold holy encounters of love.