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.

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.

Learning to see

I walked into the room and sat down in a comfy chair across from my spiritual director. The table next to us held a glass of fall flowers, the small cross that I love to hold, and, behind the candle, a small, colorful painting.

I almost always love the way my spiritual director arranges the physical space for our times of listening together. The colours, the ways the various items offer reminders of life while holding space for needed lament, and the reminder of the presence of Jesus in the midst of it all—together they offer a hospitality that helps settle me and open me up to God. But (confession time) I used to groan inside every time my spiritual director chose to use this particular painting as part of the arrangement. I couldn’t look at it without recoiling from it. I didn’t want to look at it long enough to try to understand it. I didn’t say anything. I just looked elsewhere to avoid what looked to me like a red misshapen face or a miscarried fetus, a small green face layered with distorted orange-red like a frightening Halloween mask. I quietly wondered what beauty my gentle spiritual director could possibly see in such a fearful image.

But this time, instead of turning away, I found myself turning toward it. I’d begun to notice the change in me the last time she displayed the picture. That time, instead of focussing on the fearful red, I’d seen, instead, the white face, quietly attentive to the small one. I hadn’t spent long with the image that time, but this time those beginnings of different seeing drew me in so I could hardly take my eyes from the picture. This time, as I struggled to find words to tell my spiritual director about an experience in which I’d found space to be myself and had felt loved, I ended up motioning toward the image and saying, “It was like that. Safe.” Now the image showed me the most tender scene I could imagine—the larger person with the white face holding the small one, offering a calm, steady gaze in which the child could begin to learn that she existed and mattered, and was seen and loved and safe. This time, instead of turning from the image, I turned again and again toward it, hungry for the gentleness it portrayed, and aching to feel once more the hand cupping my head and see the face that never leaves or looks away but keeps steadily loving, quietly holding me in being and making me who I am.

Intimacy by Valerie Sjodin. Used by permission Valerie Sjodin ©️ www.valeriesjodin.com.

At first, I was so absorbed by the beauty of the interaction that I didn’t look at anything other than the faces. I kept turning to see that white face tenderly looking at me, the hand cupping my head. But later, as I looked again at the painting, another surprise was waiting. The red that I’d first interpreted as death and distortion was, in fact, a heart—the life-giving love that filled the relationship. It wasn’t the love that was distorted. It was my seeing. And once my eyes were taught to see, I didn’t want to stop looking.

I could also now see, and delight in, the mystery in the painting—the flowing, fiery colors shaping themselves into the heart that frames and sustains the interaction. This is not a love that I can create or control, or even fully understand—and that is part of its beauty. It’s vast and wild and tender and freely pouring itself out to me, and never going away.

I wish I could find the words to do justice to a book I read this summer that offered me a fresh glimpse of this tender, fiery, mysterious love that takes my breath away with its magnificence. The book is called Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, and in it Gregory A. Boyd reminded me of something I already knew: Jesus is the perfect revelation of God—a God who loves so deeply, and is so committed to our freedom and flourishing, that he stoops low to be in relationship. That relationship includes meeting us where we are and willingly bearing our sin as he not only acts toward us but lets us act on him. But God’s willingness to stoop and let people act on him did not begin with Jesus. All through the preceding history, God stayed in relationship with his people, continuing to love even when they saw him through dim eyes and could only understand his character in light of their culture around them. Like a parent with a tiny child, God let himself be understood in the only ways the child could understand him at that stage, and slowly, as the child grew, continued to reveal more and more of himself. There is no other way for a child to learn, nor, for that matter, for anyone to learn the heart of another. We have to start from what we know, and slowly, with experience, grow deeper into the truth.

. . . God has always revealed his true character and will as much as possible while stooping to accommodate the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people as much as necessary. In his love, God was willing to allow his people to think of him along the lines of an ANE [Ancient Near East] warrior deity, to the degree this was necessary, in order to progressively influence them to the point where they eventually would be capable of receiving the truth that he is actually radically unlike these violent ANE deities.

. . . [B]y making gradual changes, God beguiled his people into the gospel, wherein it was revealed that God would rather be killed by enemies than kill them.” (Cross Vision, 73-74)

And so we are invited to look and keep looking into the face of love which is gazing on us, and to slowly learn to see there both who God is and who we are.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

And now, may we each live in the blaze of this blessing which God himself commanded his priests to pronounce so that his people would always know that the face that looks upon us is one of blessing and grace and generous peace.

“The Lord bless you

and keep you;

the Lord make his face shine on you

and be gracious to you;

the Lord turn his face toward you

and give you peace.

(Numbers 6:24-26) 

When Jesus shows up in the kitchen

A few weeks ago I was, with help, finally finding a couch and hanging my paintings, making this new apartment feel like a home. We found the only places the paintings would work. My friend Linda’s lovely painting of the woods got a home on the wall around the corner from the patio door where it looks like a third window looking out into the woods. I’ve always loved the woods, and to have a “window” which lets me see into the woods instead of the kitchen of the home a few feet away is a gift.

The other, Patricia Jagt’s painting of a sunset that had been particularly significant for me, only worked on the wall over the look-through into the kitchen. I wrestled with that. Tricia painted it for the place of honor over the fireplace in the home we shared for a while, and though we only tried the fireplace once and the place smelled like smoke for a week, still the fireplace made a perfect base for the painting to rest above, constantly calling me back to the words Tricia wrote on the back, articulating the promise the painting seemed to hold: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Now that painting hangs over the look-through into the kitchen. When I sit on my couch I see not just the painting but, below it, the lived-in clutter of dishes drying in the rack, family photos on the fridge, the top of the toaster and kettle and microwave.  I can no longer see the painting without seeing the everyday details of my life.

At first that drove me crazy. Crazy enough that I tried to switch the paintings around and find another home for this one. But I couldn’t. And so instead I followed the wise advice in Sharon Garlough Brown’s Sensible Shoes series, “Linger with what provokes you.”

And as I did, the painting took on another layer of promise: my life doesn’t have to be like that picture-perfect wall over the fireplace—all whiteness and beauty and space—for Christ’s glory to be revealed in me. Now every time I sit on my couch, I’m reminded of the truth that when Christ is in us, he goes with us into the everyday places, the places that may sometimes feel a bit cramped and dark, the kitchens that, no matter how much I tidy, will still look lived in because they are. And here he lets his glory shine, a foretaste of the fuller glory that we’ll enter with him someday.

Now I love it that this painting wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Sure, part of me would still rather have it on a pristine wall above a fireplace—part of me would like my heart to be that pristine wall—but its new home is the place I need to see it day after day. I love it that Jesus knows that and wants to give me the gift of this reminder every day: we are the home Jesus has chosen for himselfNot just the spotless walls over the fireplace, but also, and maybe especially, the bits of our hearts that are lived-in and messy, where we do the everyday work of feeding ourselves and others and washing the dirty dishes.

Jesus does, after all, seem to have a particular fondness for revealing his glory—his grace and his love—amidst the shame of wine shortages and dirty feet and betrayals that show up around a meal.

____________________

For further reflection:

Here are a few of the stories that involve Jesus and a meal:

The wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11); the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17); the woman at the well (John 4:1-42); Jesus anointed (Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-11); the last supper and washing of the disciples’ feet (Luke 22:7-38; John 13); the miraculous catch of fish and Peter’s reinstatement (John 21); the road to Emmaeus (Luke 24:13-35); the appearance to the disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:36-49);  the promise that Jesus will continue to eat with us if we invite him in (Rev 3:20; John 14:23); the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9; Luke 14:15-24; Luke 12:37) and, of course, Jesus as the good shepherd who feeds his flock (John 10:9 and Psalm 23).

Which other stories would you add to this list? What touches you most deeply about Jesus in these stories? I’d love to hear!

Where heaven enters your story

When I think of John the Baptist, I tend to think of the tough, slightly intimidating prophet clothed in rough hair and eating insects for supper with a side of wild honey which he has harvested with his own hands. He’s brave and a little scary, his skin as tough as his words. It’s hard for me to relate.

But this week, with the help of a painting, John’s story is touching me in a different way, and making me kneel in worship at another aspect of the Christmas story. In Bette Lynn Dickinson’s beautiful painting (above), Zechariah and Elizabeth stand close together, marveling at the gift they have been given, this miracle baby born in their old age. The train of baby John’s swaddling clothes flows away into the distance, paving the path Joseph and Mary and the donkey walk, making smooth the way for the Lord. Our Lord, still hidden in Mary’s womb, rides a donkey into Bethlehem as he will later ride into Jerusalem, his way made smooth with coats thrown onto the road before him.

As I look at Bette’s painting, I am struck by the smallness of John, his fragility, his humanness. It’s this little baby held in Elizabeth and Zachariah’s arms, this fragile gift who can do nothing for himself, who will grow to smooth the rough places, preparing the way for the Lord. But it’s not just a task for when he’s strong and grown. At the most fragile time in his life, when he still needed the safe, cushioned warmth of the womb to survive, this baby was already preparing the way for the Lord, leaping inside his mother at the approach of his unborn cousin, Jesus. How amazing that we in our human frailty, as well as our moments of strength, can go before the One who goes before us—the One who invites, summons, and does for us everything we cannot do for ourselves—to prepare his way!

I love the way Bette’s Advent paintings all show our story interwoven with His story. The infant Jesus doesn’t just descend from heaven, invading earth to save it as one unconnected to it. He grows as a shoot from the apparently hopeless, severed stump of Jesse, the slowly unfurling fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and Isaac and David. To be sure, Jesus is fully God—Emmanuel, God with us. But he is also fully human, with (very!) human ancestors; he is Mary’s biological son, David’s great, great grandson. Heaven doesn’t just touch earth, visit it, or invade it. Heaven enters it in the fullest way possible, God weaving God’s self into every cell of a human being, and thus into the personal histories of us all, for we are all, through Adam, connected to Jesus’ story and he to ours.

Baby John, tiny and helpless, miracle and sheer gift (as every human is!), this vulnerable little package of flesh and spirit, is filled with Spirit and given the honor of going before the Lord, smoothing his way. John’s story is interwoven with Jesus’ story, John himself filled with Jesus’ Spirit to enable this interweaving. Our stories are all interwoven with Jesus’ story, each of us graced with a unique way to pave his path or bear him into the world, a way that flows as much from our own personal set of frailties as our strengths. Yes, John was specially chosen and  called. But so are you. And so am I.

 

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Painting by Bette Lynn Dickinson. Used with permission.

Advent may be almost over, but it’s not too late to let Bette’s beautiful Advent paintings and accompanying devotional help you soak in the wonder of the Christmas story. Explore Bette’s work here, savor her Advent devotional, “A Pregnant Pause” here, or sign up here if you’d like the devotional deposited directly into your inbox.