Finding our place in his story

When we entered the sanctuary yesterday, we saw them: hundreds of little paper crosses strung between the balcony and the large wooden cross raised at the front of our place of worship. Our lives, our worship, our suffering, all connected to each other’s and to His.

It reminds me of how  a magnet held under a sheet of paper covered with scatted iron filings shapes lines of intricate order out of the chaos. Here, joined to his cross, our stories settle into place and begin to make sense.

It seems so right as we begin this Holy Week to find once again our small place in his big story. Yesterday was Palm Sunday. It was also Annunciation Day, and in the juxtaposition of the two, Mary’s yes to God’s invitation merged with Jesus’ yes, the human story intertwined with God’s story at yet another node. To Mary the invitation to bear God’s Son into the world. To Jesus the invitation to bear fallen humanity back into into intimate friendship with God. Both said yes. Both knew the deep joy and the deep suffering of their calling.

And now we too are invited to take up our crosses and follow, to enter more deeply the privilege of sharing both in Christ’s resurrection and in his sufferings.

We’ve been coloring the crosses for weeks, each Sunday School class, connection group, seniors’ gathering setting aside time for each person to color a cross in a way that expressed their gratitude for grace or shared what they wanted to bring to the cross. Each cross was a little bit of someone’s love, their surrender, their yes. And now the crosses hang as we enter Holy Week, our lives all linked to his: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Our lives all linked to his, and to each other’s. I can’t find my own cross. It doesn’t matter. I know that it’s here somewhere, here in the stringing of connected lives, the singing of worship linked to the cross and, through the cross, to the multitudes around his throne who continue to sing to the One in whom all of history finds its proper place, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

The politically incorrect gospel

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

We’re well over half way through Lent, and this week I’ve been challenged again by this awareness: the gospel is not politically correct.

There’s a big part of me that prefers to stay silent when controversy arises. I prefer to offer gentle hospitality, to listen, to ask a few quiet questions, and to trust the Holy Spirit to be the one to bring to light what needs to come into the light as He guides people into all truth.

But then I look at Jesus.

In his parables, he “told all the truth but told it slant.” But there were times and settings when he spoke the truth straight out too, and lived it in ways that made the authorities furious.

Trust can mean letting God be the one to bring things into the light, or it can mean obediently offering the words God gives us to speak and trusting that God will accompany us through all that unfolds.

Jesus has never been politically correct. Even his existence was so politically incorrect that, soon after his birth, the king tried to kill him. And, at the other end of his earthly life, religious and political authorities—usually each other’s enemies—teamed up to bring a final end to the political incorrectness of Jesus’ life. But after he was no longer physically present on earth, the political incorrectness of his story continued: “When we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense” (1 Cor 1:23 NLT). There’s no way around it: the gospel, while incredibly good news, is also offensive for a world (and, sometimes, even a church?) that prefers to think of ourselves as essentially good, as enough on our own.

Over and over these days I come up against the idea that all human beings carry the presence of God at our core. The idea subtly pervades books being widely read by people in the church, and is taught by some people whom I love deeply and from whom I have learned much about grace and community and the beautiful, welcoming love of God. But on this point we differ. And because I love both Jesus and these friends so deeply, I have to speak. Because I know they love Jesus too, and yet it seems to me that when we believe that all human beings carry the presence of God within them, we cut the heart out of the gospel. Why do we need Christ if God’s presence lives in us without him?

The way I read the Bible, human beings are incredibly beautiful, complex beings, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. It’s not too big a stretch to say we’re “god-like.”

God created human beings;

he created them godlike,

reflecting God’s nature. (Genesis 1:27, The Message)

The Psalmist says we’re made “a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor,” two attributes that, as Old Testament scholar Iain Provan points out, are usually reserved only for God. All humans are created in God’s image and placed on this earth to be “like God” to the rest of creation, tending it with care.

The arrival of moral evil doesn’t change the fact that we are all made in the image of God and are to be treated accordingly.

“Whoever sheds human blood,

by humans shall their blood be shed;

for in the image of God

has God made mankind” (Gen 9:6).

But it is first in Jesus that a human made in the image of God now also carries the presence of God fully within him, humanity and God now joined in one person. Now when we, through our trust, allow Christ to live in us by his Spirit, we who have been made in the image of God are enabled to carry God’s presence within us, becoming who we’re made to be.

“For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. So you also are complete through your union with Christ. . .” (Col 2:9-10 NLT).

As we walk these final weeks toward the cross, I celebrate again the love that created me beautiful and remarkable—“like God.”

I celebrate the love that created me not God and regularly reminds me that I’m not God and invites me to rest in the freedom of being human and being still and knowing that God is God.

And I celebrate the incomprehensibly magnificent love that knows that I’m not enough on my own and gives His own life in order to fill me with God’s presence, joining me to Himself and thus allowing me to share in the life of God forever.

Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent

IMG_1092

Sometimes you can only look down. But even that can help you see up.

IMG_1106

IMG_1115_2

IMG_1101

On Wednesday, someone will smile into my eyes as they touch the cross-shaped ash onto my forehead, one creature handing another the truth that sets free. “From dust you have come; to dust you will return. Live in grace.”

I grew up in a tradition that didn’t practice Lent. We had other ways to remember Jesus’ death, week by week. But somewhere along my journey, I discovered that the discipline of Lent extends to me the great grace of being a creature. His creature.

During this forty day journey, we don’t look down to stay there, floundering in the quick-sand of our clay beginnings with all their heavy frailty. We look down to look up, notice our weakness to love His strength, see our sinfulness to revel in His forgiveness. We let ourselves feel our dustiness to turn and live more deeply in grace.

This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. I love that. It points me once again to the truth that the crowning reality of life is love. Love, not my frailty or failure, has the last word. And Lent’s purpose is to help us pause, to provide space to notice our frailty and failure so that we can then, with more dependence and delight, look up and see and savor and settle more deeply into that life-giving love.

It’s not painless to become aware of our creatureliness. When we slow enough to pay attention, most of us know the ache of emptiness in one way or another: empty arms, deep places where longing carves great caverns, bodies emptied once more of strength. We wrestle with our inability to rest, feel failure at returning again to the same struggles. But right in this place there is gift, for we can discover once more that weakness is not sin. Nor is the need to be held and loved and strengthened again and again. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with being a dependent creature lies at the root of all sin. And, where we do sin, there is grace great enough to swallow that sin, trading it for his all-sufficient love and righteousness.

And so I turn back, free to be small, and ask my Creator to return to me the joy of being His creature. (It’s a big weight off not to try to be God!)

Isaiah helps, offering many grace-gifts to us creatures. (Just have a look at chapter 40, or 41, or 42.) He frames the first seven verses of chapter 43 with the twice-spoken reminder that we are created, formed, made. The verses between offer joy-gifts of living as creatures of our loving Creator:

  • We forever belong  (“You are mine.” v. 1)
  • We are known (“I have called you by name.” v.1)
  • We are accompanied (“I will be with you.” v. 2)
  • We are protected by His presence  (We don’t get to skip the troubles; we’re sheltered in them.  v.2)
  • We are treasured (“since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you. . .”  v.4)
  • We are being made whole, all the parts gathered together, healed and restored in loving relationship with Him (v. 5-6)

It’s here, small and safely held, willing to be fully human rather than trying to be our own God, that we’re finally able to offer our bodies—these fragile, treasured, vulnerable bits of clay—back to the One who asks us to rest in His hands.

IMG_1156_2

IMG_1157

IMG_1165

My Creator, at the start of this day—Your loving gift—I offer my body to you again. All its strength, and all its weakness.

May I not draw back from its weakness but allow the full force of its weight to press me into your hand.

May I not withdraw from its strength but let each breath, each word, each step become a gift of love to You.

Teach me how to live the rest of surrender to being held while I pray, play, and do the work given me.

Help me learn that the way to take up my cross and follow is to let myself be taken up and carried.

An edited repost from the archives.

Related posts:

The real call in Ash Wednesday

Jesus’ 21st century hands

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

I walk past the billboard declaring, “Mental health affects everyone. On January 31st, let’s talk about it.” When my brain finally makes the connection, I find it mildly ironic that January 31st is the day my lease ends, one factor in the saga of the past few months that has tipped me into a depression for which I’m having to take antidepressant medication for the first time in my life.

The timing has not been convenient. (Is a disruption like that ever convenient?) Almost everything about moving requires making a series of decisions: choosing where to move, what to pack and what to sell or give away, trying to sort out what I’ll need for the next three months and what can be tucked away in the boxes that aren’t to be opened until after I almost certainly need to move again in three months’ time. (To where? That will be another matter for discernment and decision.) All these decisions are a problem for someone in the midst of a depression where even the simplest daily decisions seem almost impossible.

I’ve needed my friends: one to look at possible apartments with me, another to help me see how to fit my few remaining pieces of furniture into my temporary new room to make a little corner that can feel like home, and to pack some things and suggest a few concrete next steps for me to take. One to bring a meal and pray and sit with me for a few hours when I could no longer bear to be alone with my thoughts. A friend from my spiritual director course will help move furniture and boxes on moving day, and another from Regent days will help clean. Most have done several of those things and I have been so touched by their sacrificial love. I want to love like that.

I still find it hard to need help.

I find it harder to need help for mental health limitations than for physical health ones. (Why is that, I wonder?)

I’ve thought my resistance to needing help is because I care about the needs of others and don’t want to bother them with mine. I suspect the deeper reason is pride, an extension of the lie in the garden that it’s possible to be like God, limitless and without needs.

Once again I’m learning what I’ve experienced so many times before: it’s only in the places of weakness and vulnerability and opening ourselves to receive that we learn how loved we are. Grace is not a concept; it’s a person and an action, embodied once in first century Palestine and continually enfleshed as His body lives on in 21st century Vancouver and around the world. I receive grace not just in letting Jesus lift my sins, not just in baptism and bread and wine, but in boxes packed and sinks scrubbed and hands laid on my shoulders to pray in moments when presence and touch matters more than words. As often as not, it’s through Jesus’ 21st century hands that I experience God’s unfailing kindness.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash
Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Two days before I was diagnosed and started on meds, a friend took me for the first time to a new soul care group. New groups are often a struggle for me, but this group of six people felt like a gift from the moment they opened the door and welcomed me into an evening of colour in a long stretch of darkness. We ate delicious tortilla soup and kale salad and walnut bread, and by the time we lingered together over prayer and communion, the couplet in the prayer we were praying had settled deep in me:

Let me not run from the love that you offer,

But hold me safe from the forces of evil.

Someone read it again, aloud, this time in plural: “Let us not run from the love that you offer, but hold us safe. . .”

Safely held. Those two words have lingered with me through the almost two weeks since that meeting, through the diagnosis and the new meds and the receiving of help and the still not knowing which address I’ll be travelling from when I meet with that group three or four months down the road. Part of our safely held is Jesus’ 21st century body, and being in this together. Safely held in the hands that hold the universe, yes, and, when I don’t run, in each set of hands through which our present and active God chooses to offer himself to me, packing, scrubbing, praying, hugging, and feeding me with his unfailing kindness as he also, in his kindness, continues to give me small ways to pass his love along to others.

Photo by a-shuhani on Unsplash

The One who leads us into the new year

As we climb into the car I’m awed by the delicate ferns hand-drawn on the windshield. New every morning. God strews new beauty across the world each night. Does he do it for the sheer joy of creating? Or for the joy of surprising his beloved with never-fading, never-stale love? Does he smile when I sit in awe, letting the marvel of his unfailing kindness sink deep?

We run at the park and as the sun finally peeps her face above the horizon I pause. I have to. The tiniest lights are sprinkled across the grassy field, strung up and down each blackberry vine, draped on each twig of each bush. Winter’s barrenness has been transformed into a delicate, magical fairyland, only better because it’s real. It’s as though God’s joy could no longer be contained and he poured it all out like a child with a bottle of silver sparkles, making everything shimmer with glory. It’s as though his love could no longer be contained and he sprinkled it all over everything, willing me to notice and enter into his delight.

Above photo by Dapo Oni on Unsplash. Used with permission.

Today a new year begins. At the start of a year I often sense myself drawn to a word to focus on during the year. Until now, that word has been some way I wanted to grow: courage, for example, or faithfulnessLast year, my word was trust. I’m not ready to leave that word behind. I need another year with it, or, more probably, the rest of my lifetime.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve sensed myself invited to carry a different sort of phrase with me into the new year. This phrase is not about who I am or what I need to do. It’s about who God is and what He does. Isn’t that how trust develops, after all, not by looking at myself, but by looking at God? Not by trying to create trust, but by letting it grow naturally as I keep paying attention to His actions and discover that He is trustworthy?

The phrase comes in a psalm I’ve lived in and mostly memorized, but somehow these couple of words have never caught my attention before like they have now. They come in the last verse, a sort of summary of God’s character that has been lived and noticed throughout the psalm.

“He shows unfailing kindness to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.” (Psalm 18: 50 NIV 1989)

This unfailing kindness is not just for David, nor even just for David’s biological descendants. We who are in Christ are all now David’s descendants, grafted into David’s line as we’re grafted into Christ. And the unfailing love is not a matter of who we are anyway, but of who God is. At the heart of God’s character is hesed, that wonderful Hebrew word that is sometimes translated love, and sometimes lovingkindness, and here in Psalm 18 is translated with that phrase that has caught my attention: unfailing kindness.

Kindness: God’s love is a practical love, at work on my behalf in ways that extend beyond the essentials, overflowing into extras that will make my moments a little more special.

Unfailing kindness: I don’t need to fear that this is a honeymoon, that God’s kindness will disappear once he has me hooked. His kindness will not fail. It’s a kindness that paints even ordinary moments (if there are such things) with extraordinary glimpses of beauty, wakening me to newly painted ferns frosted on the windows and sparkles strewn across the grass. It’s mercy new every morning, touching even the coldest and most barren of places with the tender truth of his love.

It’s a kindness that arranged (even in this busy travel season with mostly full flights) for two empty seats beside mine on the five-hour Toronto-Vancouver segment of my return flight, offering space for me to stretch out and nap between a lovely but busy time with family and a return to house-hunting and packing. It’s a kindness that is going before me into the future, an unfailing kindness that I can trust even when I don’t yet see exactly how that unfailing kindness is shaping the future.

The certainty of that unfailing kindness  is freeing me to enter this new year with deep joy, trusting the truth of the words written on the front of the journal my sister gave me for Christmas, words that showed up again in a hand-written card from a friend: The best is yet to come. That statement doesn’t imply the absence of challenge or suffering. It does declare that no matter what this year holds, there is someone stronger entering it with me, inviting me deeper into his heart that beats with unfailing kindness, bringing beauty wherever he goes.