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.

When your heart grows faint


“These are the words of him who is holy and true,” Jesus’ message to the church at Philadelphia begins (Rev 3:7). The words that follow offer reassurance for the moments we realize even more acutely than usual that we are not in control.

“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open.”

As much as I love that following promise that there is Someone who holds the key to everything and is not afraid to use it, I find myself being drawn back again and again to those first few foundational words, because what comfort is it to know that someone holds the key unless we also know that that someone is good?

“These are the words of him who is holy and true.”

As Old Testament scholar Iain Provan says,

“What is this holiness? Quite simply, it is goodness by another name” (Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion, p. 65).
“In biblical thinking, then, God is good, and he intends good. He is, to quote the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, ‘for us’ (Romans 8:31)—intent on blessing his creation, on loving it faithfully, and on rescuing it where necessary” (Ibid, p. 64).

Holy and true. This combination of words is only used in one other verse in the Bible—three chapters later where the martyrs are crying out for justice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). Here, those who stared into the hate-filled eyes of death, who felt its claws and its teeth and its breath hot on their necks, now address God from the other side of the grave. In doing so, they testify that this is true: in the presence of the most terrifying injustice, violence, and  violation, when the universe seems out of control and evil seems to have won, Someone—a good Someone—is still on the throne.
The martyrs crying out don’t have the answers to why or when or how. And they don’t ask why these things happened to them. Perhaps in those moments of torture and death they saw the burning hatred of evil and felt its ravenous viciousness too deeply to need to ask that question. The searing pain of flames or blade or slow suffocation left no doubt that evil exists. Instead of dwelling there, they look back to the One who is stronger than evil and ask when he will bring justice and freedom and life. That he will is not a question. It can’t be otherwise, because that sovereign Someone is holy and true.
He is holy—perfectly, brilliantly good. He will, therefore, in the end, put to right everything in this universe that he he loves.
And he is true—he doesn’t mess around with half-truths and promises that turn to mist the moment we put our weight on them. He is solid, authentic, and trustworthy. A Rock we can put our whole weight on.

“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” (Psalm 61:1-4)

 

For the moments you can't see clearly


Life in this world often feels like a misty afternoon on False Creek. We can only see what’s right in front of us.

Here’s to paying attention to the beauty in what we can see, and to remembering that just because we can’t see what lies beyond doesn’t mean it isn’t a firm and solid reality.

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

 

When you need to remember the bigger story

There are those moments when the fog lifts and light peeks through and I see again the Grand Story in which we all live.
One of those moments happened for me ten days ago as I sat watching a small choir and orchestra play Handel’s Messiah. I’ve seen it performed live at least ten or fifteen times. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, singing along with it as I wash dishes. It always points me back to the Grand Story, to the place where light breaks into the darkness. But this night was different. More.
For one thing, it was being performed in a small theatre—the same size as the room in which it was first performed in 1742. The orchestra was smaller than I’m used to—only four first violins. The instruments were different too: the eighteenth-century trumpet was double the length of a modern trumpet, and have you ever heard of a violone? (It’s bigger than a cello and smaller than a bass.) But it was the preconcert talk that showed me where to look, this time, to see the brightest light.
Before the orchestra entered, four chairs were drawn up near the front of the stage, and the artistic director sat to interview the trumpeter, the tenor soloist, and the conductor. The artistic director asked the trumpeter how this performance with instruments from the eighteenth century was different than other performances, and she spoke of the leveling effect of period instruments. Even the trumpet, usually the strongest and brightest note in the orchestra, was quieter, less brilliant, one voice among all the others. Every singer, every instrument, was equal, each voice contributing to the drama that was about to unfold in front of us.
Just before the panel left the stage and the orchestra entered, the artistic director said to the conductor: “Here’s a provocative question: Do you have to be a believer to get the most out of this piece of music?” The conductor responded quickly, as though shaking off any religion that might cling to him. For him, it was a lovely piece of music that comes to life in the playing, as does any other fine piece, and that’s enough. I watched the tenor tilt his head and raise his eyebrows gently.
The players came in, instruments checked tuning, and the music began at a quick tempo. The angels came to announce the birth of the child with power and energy, the trumpet joining in, one voice among the voices of the choir of angels, adding its announcement that a King had been born. Each repeat that Handel had written into the music was played, giving us time to savor and soak in the drama.
The music slowed in the second half, and I felt Jesus’ torment as he was rejected and spat upon. I ached at my own part in the drama as I heard not only the singers, but also the violins and violas and cellos picking at Jesus, spitting in his face, plucking out his beard. What the trumpeter had said was right: every vocalist and instrumentalist had an equal voice, every one playing their own small but important part in the drama. She hadn’t warned me that the drama would come to life, enfolding me, and I would find myself aching with the alternating pain and joy as I played my part in the drama too.
The Hallelujah chorus, the dead raised incorruptible, worthy is the Lamb—the whole story was not just sung and played but lived before us. We entered it, felt it, became part of it.
There was a pause, the cry of “Worthy is the Lamb!” still ringing in the air and in our hearts. We breathed the air around the throne.
Then, slowly, the same conductor who had dismissed the truth of the story lifted his hands and held them out to each person in turn, inviting, impelling every voice, one by one, to join in the final resounding affirmation that the story is not only profoundly, shatteringly beautiful, but unquestionably true. And that the One at the centre of this drama and the centre of the throne is deserving of all my worship, all my life. The Amen began to swell as each voice, one or two or four at a time, joined in the chorus, singing all the fullness of that single, rich word. Amen: I agree with all my heart. Amen: this is true, trustworthy, the solid foundation at the centre of a shifting world. Amen: weave this truth into me, Lord, and I into it. Let it be so in me.
And in that conductor’s outstretched arms, and the response of each voice, I tasted the coming fulfilment of the promise:

“Therefore God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-10)

 

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Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash.

The gift of the in-between

 
The wheels of time turn and here we are once again in that week after the end and before the beginning.
Yesterday was the last Sunday of the church calendar year, the day we particularly remember that, all appearances to the contrary, Christ is King over the world. Next Sunday we begin a new year with Advent, that time of waiting for the Light to come, tiny at first but carrying the promise of burning away the fog and destroying the darkness.
I’m sensitized to the in-between this year as my time in my old home is coming to an end and I don’t yet have a new one. There’s a letting go without a new earthly place to rest, and I’m aware of the empty space at my feet.
I prefer planning to surprises, even pleasant ones. I like control, and predictability, and stability. In-betweens don’t offer much of that, so mostly I’m not a big fan of in-betweens.
But, between the long hours of feeling like I’m living a nightmare, I’m aware of something deeper going on. There are moments when I taste freedom, and the joy that comes with it.  And I’m glad God loves me enough to take me through these places, because things happen in these uncomfortable places that don’t happen when things are predictable and comparatively secure.
Here, for example, I see reality. I realize how much of my sense of security has been in things other than God, and I see that the ‘security’ offered by those things is no more substantial than empty space at my feet.  Here, too, God invites me to sit down and know that He remains rock-solid even when all I want to do is back away from the edge and the empty space. Here He invites me to trust. Presses me to put all my weight on him. And so sets my heart a little freer from its attachments to all those things that don’t really provide security so my heart can belong to Him alone.
I read yesterday of a significant in-between moment in the lives of the people of Israel. After God led his people out of the slavery of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and cared for them as they wandered for forty years in the desert, he had them pause just before he opened the Jordan for them to cross and led them into the promised land. The purpose of the pause? To set the people apart once again as wholly God’s, marking their bodies and souls as God’s through the act of circumcision. After the people were circumcised, God said, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” (Joshua 5:9) What was the reproach of Egypt? This, I think: that their bodies and souls belonged to someone other than God. In Egypt, they were not physically free to be God’s alone and get on with worshiping and living for him (Ex. 3:7; 5:1-4, etc.) And in the desert, their hearts were still tied to Egypt (Ex. 16:3). So before God took them into their new earthly home, he grounded them in their deeper, truer home. He called them back to choose Him—choose Life!—and marked them again as His chosen and precious people, people under his rock-solid care and guidance and love.
This, I think, (I hope!), is what is happening to me. Before leading me to my new home, God is “circumcising my heart,” cutting away attachments to what is not Him so I can be more freely and fully His. And this, I think, is one of the big gifts of these in-between times, these large or small time-outs when ordinary business is interrupted with illness or an unwanted email or anything else that upsets our plans and makes us uncomfortable. Here we are both invited and helped to see more truly and choose more freely and shift our trust to the only One who is worthy of it.
It is a mutual process. I choose to lean in and let God do the work of freeing me. I choose to be His. But only He can set my heart free. I love how this is reflected in Deuteronomy 30. In verse 2 and 10, we choose to love and obey the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our soul. And in verse 6, at the centerpoint of those two, is the most wonderful promise for the zillion times when my desire to be freely and fully God’s only underscores my own inability to make it happen:

“The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”

Thank you, LORD. Your kingdom come, your will be done in me.

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Photo by Connor McSheffrey on Unsplash.