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.

Christmas’ surprising announcement

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The cheerful postman wearing a Santa hat delivered Mom’s package, and as I opened it and hung the ornaments she had sent, I found myself both grateful for her care and sad about not being with my family this year (though I know it’s right, and I’ll enjoy being adopted for the day into a friend’s extended family here.)

I let myself feel the sadness and gave thanks for the gift of family that I want to be with, then lit the Advent candles and put on Handel’s Messiah. I suppose I was looking for Someone to be with me in my loneliness. Someone who had experienced loneliness himself.

I was surprised how quickly peace began to settle in. Perhaps it was simply that Someone was with me and in feeling his presence I didn’t feel alone anymore. But that wasn’t the first thing I noticed.

At first I thought that peace had come as I’d heard the choir sing and had been reminded that the story is not about me, lifting me out of my too-small focus.

And then I realized that was exactly backwards: the story is, incredibly, about me, and it was that reminder of immense, tender love that comes looking for me that was settling me into peace.

This is the good news of Christmas—we matter this much.

To us a child has been born and a Son given. To us angels sing good news and God announces the arrival of comfort and presence and peace. To us God comes and makes his home not merely among us but in us.

I reread Mary’s familiar song and for the first time I notice how unashamed she is to celebrate what God has done for her.

He hasn’t forgotten me! she sings. “He took notice of his lowly servant girl.” (Luke 1:48 MSG)

I matter! she sings. “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (v. 48-9 NIV)

And so do you and you and you! she cries to all generations. “His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.” (v. 50 MSG)

As crazy as it seems considering our earthy beginnings, the One who has always been at the center brings us right in to stand with him at the center of this story. Christmas happened because of you and God’s love for you, because of me and his love for me. The omnipotent God left his home to come among us, weak and needy, to die and rise to make us his forever. What could announce with more startling force God’s own conviction that we matter?

Christmas is about me and my mattering. But not just about me, but about a love so big, a story so beautiful, a God so worthy of praise that I can take my small but significant place beside Mary and the angels and sing Hallelujah! to the One who loves (loves me!) like this.

 

Taking it deeper:

What arises within you as you read the question, “What could announce with more startling force God’s own conviction that we matter?”

What, if anything, is keeping you from stepping confidently into sharing God’s conviction that you matter?