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.

 

The God who is for us

On this Canadian Thanksgiving day, all the other things I’m grateful for are finding their proper, smaller place next to this:

All three persons of the Triune God stand turned toward us in love and blessing, extending grace and peace. 

Grace and peace to you from the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come; from the sevenfold Spirit before his throne; and from Jesus Christ. He is the faithful witness to these things, the first to rise from the dead, and the ruler of all the kings of the world. (Rev 1:4-5 NLT)

The trees lift their arms in celebration, calling us to join in the worship of this God who loves us more deeply than we can imagine.

The God who blesses

This morning, just this truth, written over and over into the story right from the first few lines: God is a God who blesses. He is good and he intends good to his creatures.

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . .“See, I have given you . . . everything . . .

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. . .

When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them “Humankind” when they were created. . .

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “. . . I give you everything. . . . I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you. . .”

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 1:27-29; 2:3; 9:1,3,9: 12:1-3 NRSV)

We only glimpse a tiny, unfinished corner of the grand work of art that the Creator is shaping. But no matter how messy or dark or unfinished that corner may seem, this truth remains: God is a blessing God, and he can be trusted.

“For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” (Psalm 100:5)

“Surely goodness and mercy shall [pursue with the intent of overtaking] me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. (Psalm 23:6)

So, friends, we can enter this day, this week, confident that, whatever we may see or not see at the moment, our good and kind Father, fully intent on blessing us, is shaping our days.

‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

“What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)

 

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 need a little comfort {The End of the Story}

Gratitude flowed through me yesterday when Pastor Andrea called us to worship with the Easter refrain, “Christ is risen!” and we responded, “He is risen indeed!” Somehow, until we arrive each year at that Second Sunday of Easter, I seem to forget that the forty days of Lent are matched on the other side of the pivotal weekend with fifty days of Easter.

For forty days of mourning, God gives fifty days of joy. Or, more truly still, for forty days of suffering, our extravagant God gives fifty hundred1 (Mark 4:8, 20; Mark 10:30), or a whole eternity (Rev 21:3-4), of joy.

When we’re in them, the days of suffering can feel like an eternity. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we need the season of Easter, and the mini-Easters of every Sunday all year, to let this truth sink deep: God can be trusted with suffering.

“Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” The psalmist repeats it to be sure I’ve understood: “He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” (Ps 126)

This is one of the assurances of Easter. God never wastes suffering. We might waste it, complaining our way through it, or denying it, trying to avoid the pain. But God doesn’t waste it. Instead, He invites us to plant our suffering, to plant ourselves deep in Him, to let ourselves be planted with Him—that grain of wheat that fell to the ground and died—and wait to see the harvest that God will bring forth (John 12:23-28).

“I say to myself, the Lord is my portion;

therefore I will wait for him.

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,

To the one who seeks him.

It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

(Lamentations 3:24-26)

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1Yes, I know, 40 x 100 is forty hundred (or four thousand), not fifty hundred, but fifty hundred is my sister’s favorite number, and I figured our extravagant God who gives us a whole eternity of joy wouldn’t mind me rounding up a little :-)

Photos compliments of former colleagues in Afghanistan.