The doorway into not-so-ordinary time

As I enter the sanctuary, it looks like it is dressed for a party. Red, apricot, and gold streamers twist their way from the wooden cross standing tall on the stage to the edges of the balcony where we bow in prayer and stand to sing praises.

Streamers of crosses have laced the sanctuary during the Lent and Easter seasons.

They have now been gathered and draped over the large wooden cross still standing on the platform, our lives that have been being woven into the life of God as Jesus walked this earth no longer strung out across the sanctuary, connected to his cross but still at a distance. Our little crosses, our little selves, are now pulled close, cascading from his cross like a bride’s long veil or the pouring out of a waterfall, pooling in a basket at the foot of the cross, the overflow of his life now pouring through us, springs of living water to quench a parched people.

It’s as though the streamers are summoning us into the party already going on in heaven, drawing us in toward the cross, toward the dove, toward recognizing the magnificent mystery that is taking place. The cause of this glorious, holy celebration? The marking of that moment when Jesus’ life became ours.

We’ve been living the milestones along the way for months. Waiting through Advent to see the mystery of God, God!, in human flesh. Walking with Jesus, watching as He lived God’s life among us and lived our life in God’s moment-by-moment presence, showing us the union that we were made to live.

A dove tops the cross, the sign of God’s pleasure in his Son, descending at his baptism, now also falling onto us, into us, at Pentecost, proclaiming that we also, in Christ, are now bearers of God’s full acceptance and delight.

The streamers are shimmering in the light.

It’s the perfect day for a party, this day of Pentecost when all that Jesus has done for us through Advent and Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, come together, and we receive the pouring out of all that God is coming not just to us in flesh (that in itself was astounding), but into us, God’s Spirit filling and animating our flesh. We no longer simply witness God’s life lived among us, we can welcome God’s life lived in us. We are now Christians—not simply observers of Christ at a distance, but united with him, and through him, with God. In us God continues the wonder witnessed first and perfectly in Jesus: God’s Spirit and human flesh come together once again in a human body, Creator and creature united. Should we not celebrate?

How is it that the church calendar calls these next six months “ordinary time”? Could an event such as Pentecost be the door into anything ordinary? Can time ever again be ordinary when we walk through each day with God himself walking it not just beside us but within us?

As we enter these months of (not-so-)ordinary time, let us walk in the awareness that God himself now lives each moment within us. And let us celebrate.

The crazy mystery of our words

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I walked to the hospital in the bitter cold, those mornings on the other side of the world, layered in long underwear and wool sweaters and a down coat. Some of the children I passed wore bare feet in jelly shoes. The snow hadn’t yet begun to fall, and the ground lay brown and bare, frozen into hard bumps and ridges beneath the heavy grey sky. It was a few days before Christmas.

Someone had sent a tiny Christmas tree, and we’d woven red crosses and rigged some way to hang them on the painted mud wall of the dining room where we sat cross-legged on cushions and ate off a plastic tablecloth spread on the floor. Our Christmas decorations were the only ones in our little mountain village, the only ones in our whole region, probably. There were no white lights stringing the streets, no storefront trees with baubles and icicles.

I felt it most strongly those years when I woke up on Christmas morning and realized that the world around me was oblivious to the miracle that had just happened. God had come among us, and most of the world just kept going about their daily business, unaware.

There was a sort of sadness and emptiness about it, a wistfulness, the cold, short days of mid-winter begging for the hope of Light’s coming. But there was also a sense of wonder as I quietly watched the miracle unfold. This God who came, came hidden. He came, not seeking applause or affirmation but a backwoods stable in which to meet the woman and man who had quietly chosen to give their simple, difficult, yes to a crazy miracle of love. In the midst of the great silence, I am struck by their choice, by the power of their solitary voices.

And then as I begin again to read and listen, I hear more voices calling to me, speaking hope, singing invitation.

Angels inviting Mary and Joseph and the shepherds to play their part in the Grand Story.

Old Simeon speaking his life’s desire in the moment of its fulfillment.

John the Baptist calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

I headed toward Advent this year feeling the darkness in the world around me, aching for the Light to break through. I arrived at the first Sunday of Advent service hungry for hope. The lit wreathes helped, and the colorful banners, the organ and the row of children with their violins. But it was the voices, young and old and in between, speaking and singing, alone and together, that seemed to peel back the dark and reveal the light that will keep shining for all eternity.

Could this be one more layer of what it means to be made in the image of the Creator—that we are graced with the power to push back at least a corner of the darkness with our words, to help fill emptiness with love, to speak peace into inner chaos?

I return to the Story, and the mystery grows: the Word who created all things by his word did not only speak into us the power to change reality with our words, he then, for a while, silenced himself, letting us find our voices and feel the magnitude of this gift. The Word himself became speechless while those to whom he had given the power of speech spoke for him (“Prepare the way”) and to him (“It’s okay, little one, Mama’s here.”)

As I enter Advent, I am pondering the Word and the power of our words. I am praying my longing that the Word would grow within me and speak Himself through me, that my voice would sound with the echoes of his. I am asking for grace so that my silence is not cowardice, not hiding, but grace-filled space welcoming the hearts and words of others, and that my words, wherever they are planted, bear the fruit of hope and peace, freedom and life.

Oh, Living Word, grow in me! May I not silence the words You wish to speak through me, and may all the words I do speak be an overflow of Your life within.

When you want to make a difference in the world

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There are those moments in life where you are given the gift of seeing Jesus do in your own life what he promises to do in everyone who believes in him. All of a sudden you know by heart what you had known by word. You know by experience what you had known by faith.

One of those moments happened for me recently. In the middle of a conversation, I found myself a bit short of breath. I was surprised, since I didn’t otherwise feel anxious. As I explored the experience later, it turned out to be a huge gift that opened up for me greater understanding—experienced understanding—of Jesus’ words:

“‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:37-39)

During our conversation, I had felt a bigger-than-me compassion for the person across from me. As I prayed about the experience later, I discovered that there was some anxiety underneath—was I listening well? asking good questions? being helpful?—but it had been swallowed up by the love flooding through me. Only the tip of the anxiety, masked as shortness of breath, poked through like the tip of a rock in a rushing river, a gift left to remind me that the love flooding through me hadn’t come because I had managed to pluck out all the rocks and make the river bed smooth. The love was sheer gift, not my own, and not dependent on anything I had done except to believe (and even the ability to do that was a gift).

And I saw all over again:

My job is never to be the river, just the banks between which the river flows.

The freedoms are many:

I don’t have to be afraid of myself, not even my rocky places. God is eager to pour himself into and through me, rushing over and around the rocks, covering and caressing and smoothing them into submission. God’s love pouring through me wears the channel deeper and shapes the banks according to the pattern of the water’s flow, doing in me what I can never do no matter how hard I try to shape myself into Christ’s image.

And so my calling is not to walk bent over, scouring the riverbed for rocks. Persistent worry about flaws, limitations, and even sins makes as much sense as my scouring the rocky bed of a river trying to pick out every little stone so the water can come. The water floods in as a gift to all those who drink deep of Jesus, not as a reward for those who have managed to make the riverbed perfectly smooth. (Thank God!)

My calling is to lift up my head and drink deep of Jesus’ love and then get on with loving others with the love he pours into me. 

When mystery eludes your grasp

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My breath made clouds in the early morning light as I ran along the seawall, my mind wandering back to the month I recently spent pondering the mystery of Christ in us. I felt I understood less at the end than when I began—not, I think, because my understanding had decreased, but because I’d freshly glimpsed how great the mystery is.

I slowed to a walk as a woman approached, her unleashed dog close at her side. The dog’s loving eyes were attentive to her every move. A slight point of her hand toward a crow on a huge fallen trunk and the dog saw and leapt and ran, wholly intent on pursuit. The crow flew and the dog raced and then, moments later, returned, panting, to his mistress’s side. My eyes met the woman’s and we shared a smile at the dog’s joy in the chase. I pictured God smiling too at the start of my month of pursuing mystery, a tilt of His hand gently directing my attention toward it, knowing I’d delight to chase it, happy for me to be free, to run, to play, to explore, my whole self alive and engaged in the pursuit for moments, days even, then, panting, the mystery having flown, returning to my Master’s side, eyes on His face, His hand, grateful once again that I don’t have to comprehend the mystery to live it.

I’m glad I couldn’t pin down the mystery, glad it’s still out there, wild and free. Glad I can chase it again, and know it will once again escape my full (small!) understanding.

In the process of the chase, my prayer has shifted. Oh, I still ask, “Help me to understand,” but alongside that prayer is another, more intent on knowing God than on understanding Him: “As You lead me into all truth, guard me from ever thinking I’ve got You figured out. If I ever think I’ve got You under my paw, it’s certainly not the true God I’ve apprehended.”

2016: To play or be played?

IMG_4514I sit slumped in my chair, waiting for the small, informal worship service to begin. Eventually I decide I want to play too—my dearly loved brother is playing, after all, and some others with whom I really enjoy playing—so I go to the back of the room to get my viola and join the worship team. I open the case. My viola is gone, and the end of the bow is lying outside the case, the stick shattered where the case has slammed on it, the hair hanging limply between the two broken pieces. Chips of wood are scattered inside and outside of the case. I cry out in grief and anger and fear. What has happened? Where is my viola? Who would do this?

Slowly the initial shock wanes, and I begin to look around. I see a second case on the table, and open it to find my viola safely hidden in it. It’s not gone after all! My heart lifts a little, then sinks again. What good is it without a bow? The worship is about to begin. How can I play?

Something inside me rebels against the sense of helplessness and my reason kicks in, determined to fix this situation. No big deal, I tell myself. I’ll just get another bow. Maybe it will even play better than the first. Where can I find one?

But the next morning as I pray about my dream I begin to sense that I’ve missed the point. This isn’t about replacing one means of control with another. It’s about realizing that I am not meant to be playing the instrument at all, any more than I, the clay, am meant to be spinning the potter on the wheel.

I am not the artist but the art, not the violist but the instrument lovingly tucked under the master’s chin:

“This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles. . .” (Acts 9:15)

“If a man cleanses himself from [ignoble purposes] he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” (2 Tim 2:21)

“. . . offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom 6:13-14)

I talk often about God, and think and write about him, and it’s easy for me to slip into a subconscious posture in which he is the instrument and I the musician, analyzing, explaining, exploring his tone and his timbre.

Then He breaks my bow—through a dream, or a discovery that the mystery of God is (still!) too big for my little mind to comprehend—and I discover again that I am neither God nor expected to be.

I often ask God at the start of a year if there’s a word He wants to work a little more deeply into my life in the coming year as I allow it to question and shape me. This year He gave two.

The first was courage.

Courage. Yes, Jesus, I want to be a woman of courage. Please do this work in me. But. . . oh dear, why are you giving me this word now? What fearful things are you going to ask of me this year for which I’ll need courage? My mind races to the possibilities, all too big for me. But as I talk with a friend who helps me listen, I sense that this is about more than whatever specific external situations or choices might require courage. This is about the way I relate to God. This is about trusting Him, not my own reason, my tidy theology and carefully considered categories.

The invitation to courage keeps turning up everywhere.

At my soulcare group the next evening the leader has chosen Mark 6:45-52 for us to pray with. The disciples have been sent on ahead, rowing hard against the wind. Joints creak and every muscle burns. Their hair is soaked with sweat and they taste the spray of waves. The moon glints through a hole in the clouds, dimly lighting the scene. Are they even going in the right direction anymore?

Someone screams and points. They all see it—a ghostly figure coming toward them on the water, a sure sign of their imminent demise.

“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” There’s that word again. Courage. And linked to it is the second word I had been given, the place I find my courage: Jesus.

“It is I.” Though you don’t recognize me at first, it is I who am breaking your bow, unsettling your reason, coming to you in the middle of the dark night, in the middle of soul-straining winds, in the middle of a way-too-big-for-you-to-swim lake, walking along the surface of the water in which you can barely stay afloat as though it were as smooth and solid as glass. I come to you in a way which shatters your reason so your trust will be not in your understanding but in Me.

The unsettling is scary at first, but there’s a goodness in it too, and a peace, when I turn and look at the one who speaks. “It is I”—the Jesus whom I’ve come to know as so gentle, so passionately loving. The Jesus who, when his friends cried their fear from the boat, immediately reassured them with his words and, though he’d been planning to pass by them, instead climbed into the boat with them. It’s this Jesus who is unsettling me from my too-small assumptions to help me learn that He is more wonderful than I’ve ever dreamed.