For the ordinary moments

The Saint John’s Wort is blooming again, a feast for bees and for the eyes of passersby. In living its ordinary life, faithfully being itself, it becomes a gift to many.

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We need each other. Often enough, the way someone else says or writes something awakens me to a new understanding of something going on in me that I wasn’t aware of or couldn’t articulate until they said it. This week was someone’s simple statement of a misbelief in their earlier life—“Ordinary: BAD!”

I get it. Maybe that’s part of why I became a doctor and worked in Afghanistan until I couldn’t anymore. I thought I had to be extraordinary to be acceptable. 

Ordinary can feel to me like failure.

Let me pause here to say this: For the most part, I like doing things well. I want to be the best me I can be, empowered by Christ, for him and for others. I want to follow the command in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. . .” I think that’s healthy.

In my better moments, I also recognize that trying to be extraordinary can actually keep me from working “with all my heart, as working for the Lord”—because I’m pretty sure that “with all my heart” means fully present, engaged, loving, which I’m not when I’m striving to be extraordinary. (In the original Greek, the phrase translated “with all your heart” is “from the soul.”)  

“Ordinary: BAD!” As I read that simple misbelief that has been unknowingly twined through my understanding of life and work and also faith, I see a baby in a manger. 

Could God have chosen a more ordinary way to come among us, stepping right into our ordinary flesh, our ordinary time, our ordinary cycles of reproduction and growth, limits and dependency and relationships?

In doing so, did he not make the ordinary holy, declaring it a place where God shows up?

“Ordinary: BAD”? 

No. 

“Ordinary: GOOD!” Very good, even.

“Ordinary: BEAUTIFUL.”

“Ordinary: HOLY.”

Since God entered the ordinary, is anything ordinary anymore?

I need this reminder. 

I need it in the moments when I’m cleaning the bathroom and buying groceries.

And in the moments I’m sad or lonely or disappointed, or slowing to savour the taste of an orange.

I need it when I’m editing a paragraph and I need it as we begin summer and I want to sit outside and relax with a novel.

God is with us—in us!—right in the middle of the not-so-ordinary ordinary.

“It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us.”

(2 Cor 4:6-7 The Message)

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” 

(Rom 12:1 The Message)

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.
 

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 Coming of our Homemaking God


We sang Once in Royal David’s City in church last week, and I couldn’t help notice how the words were about home—the home Jesus left, and the home he entered here in order to make for us a home and bring us, in him, home again:

“He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall. . .

For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heav’n above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.”

Even though I believe that the home God is creating for us will be the new earth, the point is the same. As Jen Pollock Michel points out in her beautiful book, Keeping Place, God is a homemaking God, a God who longs for us to be at home with him, with each other, and with ourselves, and is working to that end.

“The biblical narrative begins and ends at home. From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem we are hardwired for place and for permanence, for rest and refuge, for presence and protection. We long for home because welcome was our first gift of grace and it will be our last.” (Jen Pollock Michel, Keeping Place, p. 33)

The longing for home has been stronger in me this Advent than usual as I’ve scanned Craigslist and visited possible apartments and waited to see where God will place me next. But that longing for home is not unique to this year, nor unique to me.

Could it be that, in one way or another, home is what we’re all longing for? In busyness, a place to rest. In the fuss and show, a place we can safely be ourselves. In a world where wildfires and war, illness and uncertainty remind us of our transience and vulnerability, a place to feel safe and rooted and at rest. Welcome. Intimacy. Security. Permanence.

Might this be why Christmas can be both so painful—because our longings for home won’t be met perfectly until we’re face to face with the One who is our true Home—and so poignant and beautiful—because we taste the beginnings of hope fulfilled in the One who came to bring us home?

As Michel points out, we can understand the whole story of the Bible as a home story: God makes for us a home, we take leave, and he makes a way for us to come home again. This, then, is Christmas: our homemaking God leaving his home to come and find us in our wanderings and bring us back to our true home. And I’m not just talking about heaven, or about the new earth, but about something much closer, much more now.
The Spirit overshadows and Jesus makes his home not just among us but within us, in the womb of a woman, in a body like ours. God knits himself into our flesh, beginning the life-death-resurrection process of knitting us into his body as surely and beautifully as he knit each of our bodies and souls together in our mother’s womb. God entwines himself into human cells to make us once more at home in him, in our own selves, and in fellowship with each other. We are in him and he is in us. We carry our home with us now wherever we go, because God is our home and nothing can separate us from his love now that he has woven that love, woven home—woven Himself—right into our flesh.

Let Grace Be Grace: A Lenten Invitation


When I ask Jesus at the beginning of each Lent how he is inviting me to walk with him toward the cross, I’m often surprised by the answer he gives.
One year, the invitation was to focus on various aspects of being embodied. (“Isn’t Lent as a time to suppress our appetites and mortify our bodies, not celebrate them?” I’d wondered. “But isn’t the journey to the cross and through death where Jesus most fully experienced his humanity, and gave us back our own, joined to his, now host to God’s indwelling presence?” the answer had returned.)
Jesus’ Lenten invitations are always, in one way or another, about connecting my story to his story and freeing me to live the fuller, truer story of grace—which, of course, is precisely the point of Lent.
This year as Lent begins I find myself in a busy time when I’m being stretched in many ways, and the gentle invitation which overarches all the smaller daily invitations is simple and direct: Let grace be grace.
Sacrifice can be an expression of love, and discipline is essential for discipleship. But for this good girl, it’s easy without even knowing it to turn discipline into a place to hide from grace. Sometimes I don’t need another layer of discipline so much as I need to remember that it’s only a means, and that the end (which can, at times, be obscured by the means) is living in love. And so the call this year is to trust. To let grace be grace and love be love.
This year, if Lent is about self-denial, it’s about the denial of that part of me that wants to—and insists I can—earn love. (And by denial I don’t mean ignoring that part of me, but bringing it into Jesus’ presence where it slowly shrinks.)
If turning, then turning from those persistent voices that insist I need to fix myself (give up something, work harder, trust more deeply) to be loveable, and turning again and again to the Voice that says I have always been beloved and nothing I do or don’t do can change that.
If about repentance, then repentance for trying (even without realizing it) to earn this love that can only be received.
It is not to be a Lent of self-flagellation, but God-celebration, a Lent of the real, messy, honest me living loved and delighting in grace—the grace that takes my place on the cross and the same grace that meets me in the details of my life now and invites me to receive that grace, to rest in it and delight in it and let it be enough.
 
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It seems Jesus is giving the same invitation around the globe. After I had written this post, I read Sarah’s beautiful post which felt like another piece of God’s invitation to me, an echo making the invitation still deeper and more beautiful. You can read it here: Lent in Love.