The crazy mystery of our words

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I walked to the hospital in the bitter cold, those mornings on the other side of the world, layered in long underwear and wool sweaters and a down coat. Some of the children I passed wore bare feet in jelly shoes. The snow hadn’t yet begun to fall, and the ground lay brown and bare, frozen into hard bumps and ridges beneath the heavy grey sky. It was a few days before Christmas.

Someone had sent a tiny Christmas tree, and we’d woven red crosses and rigged some way to hang them on the painted mud wall of the dining room where we sat cross-legged on cushions and ate off a plastic tablecloth spread on the floor. Our Christmas decorations were the only ones in our little mountain village, the only ones in our whole region, probably. There were no white lights stringing the streets, no storefront trees with baubles and icicles.

I felt it most strongly those years when I woke up on Christmas morning and realized that the world around me was oblivious to the miracle that had just happened. God had come among us, and most of the world just kept going about their daily business, unaware.

There was a sort of sadness and emptiness about it, a wistfulness, the cold, short days of mid-winter begging for the hope of Light’s coming. But there was also a sense of wonder as I quietly watched the miracle unfold. This God who came, came hidden. He came, not seeking applause or affirmation but a backwoods stable in which to meet the woman and man who had quietly chosen to give their simple, difficult, yes to a crazy miracle of love. In the midst of the great silence, I am struck by their choice, by the power of their solitary voices.

And then as I begin again to read and listen, I hear more voices calling to me, speaking hope, singing invitation.

Angels inviting Mary and Joseph and the shepherds to play their part in the Grand Story.

Old Simeon speaking his life’s desire in the moment of its fulfillment.

John the Baptist calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

I headed toward Advent this year feeling the darkness in the world around me, aching for the Light to break through. I arrived at the first Sunday of Advent service hungry for hope. The lit wreathes helped, and the colorful banners, the organ and the row of children with their violins. But it was the voices, young and old and in between, speaking and singing, alone and together, that seemed to peel back the dark and reveal the light that will keep shining for all eternity.

Could this be one more layer of what it means to be made in the image of the Creator—that we are graced with the power to push back at least a corner of the darkness with our words, to help fill emptiness with love, to speak peace into inner chaos?

I return to the Story, and the mystery grows: the Word who created all things by his word did not only speak into us the power to change reality with our words, he then, for a while, silenced himself, letting us find our voices and feel the magnitude of this gift. The Word himself became speechless while those to whom he had given the power of speech spoke for him (“Prepare the way”) and to him (“It’s okay, little one, Mama’s here.”)

As I enter Advent, I am pondering the Word and the power of our words. I am praying my longing that the Word would grow within me and speak Himself through me, that my voice would sound with the echoes of his. I am asking for grace so that my silence is not cowardice, not hiding, but grace-filled space welcoming the hearts and words of others, and that my words, wherever they are planted, bear the fruit of hope and peace, freedom and life.

Oh, Living Word, grow in me! May I not silence the words You wish to speak through me, and may all the words I do speak be an overflow of Your life within.

The Hidden King

DSCN2737As I sat yesterday in the pew of a big city church, distant echoes played in my mind, echoes of that Sunday a couple of years ago when I’d sat with a friend on a similar wooden pew near the back of a little country church. That day, the unexpected sun had filtered through the rain-stained windows. The priest, in his white robe of celebration, had 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, this week between the end of one liturgical year and the start of the next; 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.

Years have passed and faces and places have changed, but as I sit once again in this week between yesterday’s Christ the King Sunday and next Sunday’s beginning of Advent and look at the world around me, it’s the same never-old truths that still speak peace. 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. 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.

Soon I will begin again to weave crosses in red and gold to clothe the naked tree, singing along with Handel’s Messiah, finding 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 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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An edited repost from the archives as we sit again in this in-between week.

 

God’s (perfectly serious) joke

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I almost laugh out loud as I watch God’s little joke unfold.

I’m reading in 2 Kings 6 of Elisha’s calmness when he rises in the morning and discovers the city where he is staying surrounded by enemy troops.

His servant panics. “Oh no, my lord! What are we going to do?”

Elisha responds, “Don’t worry. There are way more on our side than on theirs.” Then he prays, “Open his eyes, LORD, so he can see.”

And here I’m intrigued. The hills around the city are filled with horses and chariots of fire. They are present, sent, attentive and protective. And yet they just stand their ground, up in the surrounding hills, and the one to act, calmed and empowered by the knowledge of their presence, is Elisha. The fiery horses don’t decimate the enemy troops. They don’t show themselves and make the enemy die of fright or run for their lives. They quietly encourage faith in those who see.

It seems that God’s kingdom power, made visible in those fiery horses, so vastly outweighs the power of the human armies that God decides to play a little joke while he’s at it. Why not have a little gentle fun when the situation at hand is so easily managed? And Elisha, trusting God, gets to be part of the joke. Is it hard for Elisha to hold back a smile as he prays for the God who has opened the eyes of his servant to blind the eyes of his enemies? They don’t seem to notice their blindness, and Elisha, the man whom the troops are seeking to capture, calmly carries on with the joke. This small, vulnerable man—the intended captive—is graced to carry out God’s work while the armies of heaven stand by watching and witnessing (and marvelling at?) this grace.

“Oh, no, this isn’t the right road, and this isn’t the right city,” Elisha says to the troops. “Follow me and I will lead you to the man you’re looking for.” How absolutely true. It wasn’t the right road or the right city for what God was doing, and with every step Elisha was leading them to the man they were looking for, the man who was walking just a few steps ahead of them and whose identity would be revealed when they arrived.

They reach their destination and the would-be captors find themselves captives in the city of the king of Israel.

God’s magnificently gentle, perfectly serious joke continues.

“Oh no, don’t kill them,” Elisha instructs the king. “Feed them and send them back to their master.” And so the army which comes to take Elisha captive is taken captive by that same praying, trusting man, and is set free after being honored and cared for, nourished and tended.

(And for some reason, despite the extravagant hospitality, the enemy soldiers don’t seem tempted to come back for another meal. Problem—which in God’s eyes was never much of a problem—solved.)

 

Oh LORD, you change times and seasons,

You set up kings and depose them,

You free your people and feed your enemies

And You do it all with such creativity and freedom,

Such lovely humor and grace.

 

Open our eyes to see you at work in the world around us

and give us the faith to join in your perfectly serious joke.

 

LORD of the nations, we pray

make America great again—

great in faith and love and peace,

in joy and courage and generosity.

And let all whom you grace to stand and watch,

to walk and speak and lead hungry captives to the banquet

do so gently and humbly

delighting in your limitless love

and your vibrant joy

which erupts again and again in rich hospitality.

When you feel hemmed in

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“Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet. He spoke to me and said: ‘Go, shut yourself inside your house. And you, son of man, they will tie with ropes; you will be bound so that you cannot go out among the people. I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to rebuke them . . . but when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.” (Eze 3:24-27)

Sometime in our lives, we all find ourselves hemmed in. Week after week a writer is wordless, or just as a book is almost finished the possibility of publishing is threatened. One who defines himself by his service tangles with a band saw and winds up casted from fingertips to shoulder. Kids cling. A hospital bed beckons. Laundry hampers or do-lists or inboxes fill faster than they can be emptied.

There are times a whole nation can feel hemmed in. A shooting, a quake, an impending election.

But there is this: a baby is squeezed through an impossibly tight space, hemmed in for an eternity of minutes on its way to meeting the one who has loved and carried and labored to bear it into the world.

Can I trust that the tightest of hemmings is a path into freedom, an invitation into a new way of knowing the one who knows and loves me first?

Might I only learn who God is and who I am by passing through these hemmed-in places?

Maybe it’s when I can’t serve that my heart learns I’m precious apart from my serving.

Maybe it’s when I have to keep loving that my heart learns his grace is sufficient.

Maybe it’s when I realize I can’t control the future that my heart learns to trust the one who keeps holding and loving no matter what comes.

I’ve been soaking for a month in the picture from Psalm 139, “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” I’ve found myself cupped and treasured, God’s hand beneath, his other hand above, hemming me in behind and before, laying his hand upon me in blessing and protection. I’ve loved that place of finding myself treasured and protected and held.

But when the hemming feels harsher and less comforting, can I remember that beneath the surface situation, the same strong and gentle hands still holds me?

Freedom comes only in learning to trust, and for most of us there is no such learning apart from being hemmed in and herded out of our cozy spaces.

Like a camera lens, my mind zooms out from what I see around me to the One who sustains it all, this whole universe held like a hazelnut in his hand, then zooms in again until I see myself held. Cupped there in his great hands, I reach up to stroke the fingers that form the roof above me, loving him as an infant who gently touches her mothers face. I turn over and curl up, settling into rest, placing my small hand on his great one, an offer of my small love, my choosing to trust this hand that holds me.

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The winds are blowing and the branches almost bare, but a few leaves still cling, reminders of the love that falls and folds, curls and cups, encircling us everywhere.

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When you want to make a difference in the world

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There are those moments in life where you are given the gift of seeing Jesus do in your own life what he promises to do in everyone who believes in him. All of a sudden you know by heart what you had known by word. You know by experience what you had known by faith.

One of those moments happened for me recently. In the middle of a conversation, I found myself a bit short of breath. I was surprised, since I didn’t otherwise feel anxious. As I explored the experience later, it turned out to be a huge gift that opened up for me greater understanding—experienced understanding—of Jesus’ words:

“‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:37-39)

During our conversation, I had felt a bigger-than-me compassion for the person across from me. As I prayed about the experience later, I discovered that there was some anxiety underneath—was I listening well? asking good questions? being helpful?—but it had been swallowed up by the love flooding through me. Only the tip of the anxiety, masked as shortness of breath, poked through like the tip of a rock in a rushing river, a gift left to remind me that the love flooding through me hadn’t come because I had managed to pluck out all the rocks and make the river bed smooth. The love was sheer gift, not my own, and not dependent on anything I had done except to believe (and even the ability to do that was a gift).

And I saw all over again:

My job is never to be the river, just the banks between which the river flows.

The freedoms are many:

I don’t have to be afraid of myself, not even my rocky places. God is eager to pour himself into and through me, rushing over and around the rocks, covering and caressing and smoothing them into submission. God’s love pouring through me wears the channel deeper and shapes the banks according to the pattern of the water’s flow, doing in me what I can never do no matter how hard I try to shape myself into Christ’s image.

And so my calling is not to walk bent over, scouring the riverbed for rocks. Persistent worry about flaws, limitations, and even sins makes as much sense as my scouring the rocky bed of a river trying to pick out every little stone so the water can come. The water floods in as a gift to all those who drink deep of Jesus, not as a reward for those who have managed to make the riverbed perfectly smooth. (Thank God!)

My calling is to lift up my head and drink deep of Jesus’ love and then get on with loving others with the love he pours into me.