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.

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) 

Shepherded into Shalom

“He tends his flock like a shepherd;

he gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11)

I’ve long loved Isaiah 40:11. And I’ve always felt a little left out of it. I’ve wondered if it really applied to me, or if I just wanted it to so badly that I was stretching it to make it fit. I am, after all, neither a baby, nor a mother carrying or nursing young.

But yesterday God used a little stuffed lamb to answer my questions.

(As an aside, I’m often surprised by how God speaks, but if he can speak through a donkey (Num. 22) and surprise Elijah by showing up not in wind or earthquake or fire but in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19), why should he not speak through a stuffed lamb?)

My sister gave me this little stuffed lamb some years ago. The lamb arrived with a tag saying her name was Shalom. It sounded to me like a perfect name. (Isn’t the wholeness and peace of shalom always a result of knowing we are, as Psalm 100 reminds us, sheep in the care of a shepherd who is faithful and good and whose love endures forever?)

Shalom stayed tucked in my cupboard for years, then somehow managed to creep out and sit on my bed during the day. She looked at me pleadingly every time I came near. Finally, the longing in her eyes won me over and, though I never would have let on to anyone, I let her creep into bed with me at night and snuggle up close. She loves that.

Recently I’ve stumbled upon a wonderful new book called Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller (a fellow Regent College grad). I already had suspicions, but as I’ve read the book I’ve become increasingly sure this little lamb represents some hidden, vulnerable part of me that is begging for care. I hear the question: Isn’t this all a bit too sentimental? But I’ve learned that I can only pass on the love that I let myself receive. And as Kim writes, “When lovingly held within healthy boundaries in our hearts, vulnerable parts of our souls can transform into beautiful aspects of our humanity —channels of empathy and grace.”  So I’ve been paying attention, trying to learn more about that vulnerable part of me and what it needs from me and from God.

Sometimes its needs and longings feel overwhelming to other parts of me that are listening. But yesterday something shifted as I picked up Shalom and Isaiah 40:11 immediately came to mind. I’d been thinking about submitting my manuscript to an agent and I recognized that some part of me was frightened that if I stepped back into a busier, more public life, the shy, vulnerable part of me would get lost and trampled again, its needs neglected. My own attempts to comfort that part of me and assure it that it was seen and would be cared for were not enough. It was still frightened that it wouldn’t matter.

And that’s when it felt like God himself was speaking deep into me in his gentle whisper, comforting me with the reminder that he tends his flock like a shepherd, and gathers the lambs—including the hidden, vulnerable parts, of each of us—in his arms and carries them close to his heart. And that he gently leads the stronger parts of us that are doing their best to get on with life, valiantly care for the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, and love others who also have (sometimes prickly) protective as well as vulnerable parts.

As God reassured me, I realized that even though most of me knows better, that hidden part of me had still felt I needed to protect myself not just from the busy world but from God and his demands. I’d needed his reassurance that each part of me matters to him and will be gently cared for. Faith, after all, is a life-long journey of intentionally opening ourselves to God and letting him teach every part of us what he is really like.

God tends his flock like a shepherd, a good shepherd who knows what each of his sheep needs and provides it. Sometimes we need to be carried, sometimes protected from a predator with a rod, or guided by a staff, or led to still waters, or accompanied through a dark valley. The promise is not that God will always care in the same way for every person or every part of us, but that he will always be attentive and loving, caring in the unique ways that each of us, and each part of us, needs in that moment.  

“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.

Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his;

we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;

give thanks to him and praise his name.

For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;

his faithfulness continues through all generations.

(Psalm 100)

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The second photo is mine. The others, in order, are by Mónica Obando MolinaBiegun WschodniRod Long, Yoal Desurmont and Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash.

 

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.