Why God calls us to take up our cross

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

As I sat back down in the pew last Wednesday, my forehead marked with a cross of ash, I noticed the little girl, two or three years old, in the front pew, her forehead beneath her fine blond hair also marked with the sign of the cross. Her mother, too, many months pregnant, bore the sign of the cross. In the pew in front of me sat an older man, and a woman in her late nineties, also marked. We are all together here, all level—men and women, infants and elderly, all dust, and all loved.
This year was the first time I remember someone commenting not only on the ash with which we are marked, but on the oil in which the ash is mixed. We are not only dust, but honored and anointed, dust shaped in the image of God and crowned with the honor of living that glorious image in the world.
A few days later, I sit again, this time with my legs stretched out on a couch in the basement office of the home where I’ve been a guest these past few days. The gas fireplace is warm behind me. I look out on a maple tree with every branch and twig weighted with snow. It’s the end of my three day retreat. It has been just what I needed, but not what I planned.
I haven’t been able to control the retreat at all. I couldn’t spend as many hours alone with God as I usually do when I come here. I haven’t spent as many hours soaking in Scripture as I had planned. I haven’t lingered over the reading from my soulcare group meeting, nor discerned God’s specific invitation for me during this Lenten period. But I have come to God as I was and I have been welcomed and rested in the ways that I needed. There has been much needed sleep, and walks in fresh snow, and the restful beauty of trees and water and mountains. There was even the gift of a power outage which encouraged an extra hour or two in bed since it was too cold and dark to get up at my usual hour. There was a roast beef dinner, and fresh scones, and hot soup, and fruit salad with papaya, and a perfect balance of time alone with God and time with people who know how to create safe and restful space. I have received and savored the many gifts God gave and the ways he wanted to meet me this time, and have had the lovely experience of being reminded yet again that my plans are often not best, and of surrendering to God’s gentle love which remembers that I am dust and cares for me physically as well as spiritually. I am leaving here feeling loved and much more rested than when I came.
Maybe, after all, God has led me into his Lenten invitation. Maybe I just didn’t recognize it at first because I was looking for a specific discipline and he was inviting me into something bigger and broader and, for me this year at least, more full of love and life.
There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate or taking on extra reading if it helps open me to God. Concrete disciplines can be helpful in training my body and soul to follow. But they can also become a way of avoiding surrender and asserting my own control. And in the end, isn’t the purpose of Lent a growing attentiveness to God and surrender to His way of doing things rather than an insistence on my own? Isn’t it about releasing my own plans and attempts to control life and opening a little further to God and his love?
There are always surprises along the way, and the surprise for me this time (though I’ve experienced it so many times before) is that God is immeasurably more kind and gentle with me than I am with myself, and he knows much better than I what I need, and delights to give it. He’s much more interested in love than in sacrifice, and he knows I can only love Him and others  as I settle deeply into his tender love for me. He calls me to take up my cross, to let my own self-determination die, not because he wants me to suffer (though for us self-centered people suffering seems an inevitable part of letting go) but because he wants me to live free in his love and in the abundant life that he offers, and he knows that no matter how hard I try, I can’t make that happen through my own disciplined attempts to control life.

“I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.
I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.”
(Hosea 6:6, The Message)

What to do in the tough times


One of the beautiful gifts of being part of Christ’s body bound together over time and space is that we don’t always need to find the right words ourselves for a particular moment or situation. Sometimes the body of Christ is his hands and feet to us, and sometimes God’s words come through the mouths of others too.
These last couple of months as I’ve been sorting and packing and trying to listen for my new address, a printed copy of Octavius Winslow’s poem has been moved back and forth from my bedside table to my kitchen table, slowly settling more deeply into my heart. I heard it first when a friend gave me the poem as I was returning for my final stint in Afghanistan, exhausted and overwhelmed, and the words remain a treasure to me still.
There are, of course, many reasons for the burdens we carry. We live in a fallen world and much happens directly or indirectly because of our own sinful choosing and the fallenness of the world around us. But God is a guard around us, and nothing can touch us without his permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; 1 Cor 10:13). In that sense at least, God weighs and shapes the burdens that he allows us to carry. And while not everything that happens to us, or that we choose, is God’s desire for us, what he does always desire is that those burdens which we carry press us deeper into his love as we learn to lean in and let him carry them with us and for us.

Child of My love, lean hard
And let Me feel the pressure of thy care;
I know thy burden, child, I shaped it;
Poised it in Mine own hand, made no proportion
In its weight to thine unaided strength;
For even as I laid it on, I said,
I shall be near, and while [s]he leans on Me,
This burden shall be Mine, not his [hers];
So shall I keep My child within the circling arms
Of My own love. Here lay it down, nor fear
To impose it on a shoulder which upholds
The government of worlds. Yet closer come;
Thou art not near enough; I would embrace thy care
So I might feel My child reposing on My breast.
Thou lovest Me? I knew it. Doubt not then;
But, loving Me, lean hard.
(Octavius Winslow, 1808 – 1878)
 

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Photo by Laura Lee Moreau on Unsplash

The challenge and glory of change

We speak of four seasons but isn’t each day a shifting and merging and flowing like the colors in the rainbow blend into each other or a baby becomes a toddler becomes a teen with no clear break in between?
In my corner of the world the bushes have started to burn and the leaves to let go their firm hold on the trees while flowering hearts still bleed. Roses bud and bloom and fruit all on the same morning. Flurries are predicted for later this week. I suppose this is fall, but it carries the lingering notes of summer while it leans toward winter.Do we live any day without changing a little in one direction or another?
I run past the roof under construction and somehow it seems right that there are both trees blazing glory and containers collecting garbage out in front. And more than a single warning sign.
There’s a part of me that thinks the signs have it just about right. Change can be a lot about letting go and throwing out, recycling and relearning and the pain-filled messiness of becoming. Danger: construction zone. I wish I could have a redo of an hour last week, find some kinder way to offer thoughts so that both of our becomings might have been less painful.
I grieve the leaving of another beloved pastor.
I mourn another aspect of illness.
Even good change involves loss and to heal we need to feel and we need to grieve. But creation seems to remember what this human often seems to forget: Change is not only loss, and there can be brightest glory in the letting go.
I see another tree and on it the One who shone brightest in the dying.
Every death into Christ carries the promise of resurrection, every letting go an invitation to let go into God and find ourselves more deeply loved than we could have imagined.
Each truly beautiful person I’ve met has had their share of suffering. They’ve been rolled and polished like pebbles tumbled by the waves. They’ve let go of possessions, certainty, dreams. They’ve learned to live with hands held open, reaching for the hand of God rather than clenched around anything else. It’s a lifetime’s learning.
Change can be messy and grief-filled. But change can also be grace, opening us to God, re-tinting us so we blaze glory. Change can make us more human, more awake, more fully alive. It can show us who God is and who we are and keep us clinging close, our imaged glory flaming to life as we fill with light from the Source.Why do I fear the little daily dyings that life holds when the One in whom life holds together holds me?
The sun sets to rise again, and with its rising, always new mercies.
Leaves fall and new buds spring.
An infant leaves the comfort of the womb to begin a fuller, freer life outside.
What, today, am I being asked to let go of so something new, in its time, can spring?
Knowing myself rooted in the One who is Life, can I let go with hope, maybe even with celebration?

God's Art

There’s a stretch of beach near me that I’ve only recently discovered. As sunlight slowly slips around the corner, herons watch, waiting for breakfast. Ducks paddle and preen. Leaves and rocks and bits of broken shell shine in the morning sun as though awakening to a kiss, awakening once more into the miracle of finding themselves loved just as they are.





I pause there to savour the beauty. But it’s when I round the next corner that I stop. The sun hasn’t yet reached this spot, but there’s a piece of God’s art lying large as though calling me to come and look, and to look until I see not only the art but the heart of its Maker. Lying on its side in the sand, its bulk stands taller than me. Judging by its girth, this tree-giant had for hundreds of years been a living thing. Judging by its multi-layered beauty, it had then been long tossed and tumbled, sharply carved and gently caressed, honed and hollowed and hallowed and polished by the hand of God wielding waves. One night, perhaps during a fierce storm, or one morning at high tide, this giant had finally come to rest. Now it lies in a living gallery, freely offering its beauty to all who care to pause and look. It comforts me, this reminder of the grand Artist who holds me, holds you, holds this whole world and all the forces of life and death within it, and can turn it all into art.

Driftwood

Struck down, it passes through the waters,

makes its bed in the depths.

Twisted,

tossed,

tangled

in the cords of its watery grave

it is hallowed

by the hovering Holy,

hollowed by the Hand

that holds

in the deep dark

summoning

from the struck-down-but-not-destroyed

a masterpiece.

 

Each wave winds

crevice curls

wind wrinkles into kairos

a beneath-the-surface

moment of creation,

of transformation,

of slowly-increasing glory.




For further reflection: Genesis 1:1-2; Isaiah 43:1-3; Psalm 18:4-6, 16-19; 139:7-8, 11-16; 2 Cor 3:17-18, 4:7-9; Eph 2:9-10

The Hidden King

DSCN2737As I sat yesterday in the pew of a big city church, distant echoes played in my mind, echoes of that Sunday a couple of years ago when I’d sat with a friend on a similar wooden pew near the back of a little country church. That day, the unexpected sun had filtered through the rain-stained windows. The priest, in his white robe of celebration, had reminded us that it was the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year.
When we’d planned those few days away, I’d forgotten that they fell between the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next, between the celebration of Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent.
In the calendar it’s only one week a year, this week between the end of one liturgical year and the start of the next; off the page it can feel like more. Isn’t this where we live large chunks of our lives, clinging with both hands to the promise that Christ is King while being plunged into the reality of how this King comes, the God-man so small and silent that in those first days of his coming among us even the woman carrying him couldn’t discern his presence?
The priest raised the wafer and reminded us of the words of this King, “This is my body, broken for you.” Such a strange king he is, this King who conquers his enemies with love and nourishes his children with His own bruised and broken body.
Years have passed and faces and places have changed, but as I sit once again in this week between yesterday’s Christ the King Sunday and next Sunday’s beginning of Advent and look at the world around me, it’s the same never-old truths that still speak peace. This King who wore our flesh and sweated our blood and cried our tears will tenderly hold a reed that’s bent double with grief. This King who comes quietly among us will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.
He comes into our violent, grieving humanness, this King, entering and owning it, living it and lifting it to a place where it is no longer a barrier to entering His presence but the very place where He comes closest.
Soon I will begin again to weave crosses in red and gold to clothe the naked tree, singing along with Handel’s Messiah, finding here the words I need to receive and sing and live all over again.
“Comfort ye my people.” The voice is gentle and low, and comes with His promise: “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill made low, the rough ground shall be made level and the rugged places a plain and the glory of the LORD shall appear and all mankind shall see it together.”
And the baby comes—this one who is Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God and Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. I need to hang out here and savour each of those names that our world needs, that need.
The angels sing “Glory to God” and “Peace” and it’s only a few short years later that the angels watch and grieve with the whole universe to see Him bringing that peace, bent and broken under the weight of our pain: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The mocking is excruciating—“He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him if he delights in him”—but it’s the silence of unanswered prayer that is heartbreaking: “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart. . . . See if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” The music slows and lets me linger there a while before it moves me on with that three letter word that can speak hope into the most desperate of situations. “BUT Thou didst not leave his soul in hell.”
The nations rage on but the King has risen and the choir sings “Hallelujah, for the LORD God omnipotent reigneth” and who can help but stand and join in as the Hallelujah continues? “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. KING OF KINGS, LORD OF LORDS.”
The story turns back to us and we’re raised along with Him. “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I see a widow running to her husband—and another reunion, and another—a mother to her daughter and a son to his mother and a brother to his brother.
And while we wait, groaning, for that day, the soprano sings of Christ sitting at the right hand of God making intercession for us and, oh, don’t we need to know He’s still with us in our trouble, bringing us to His Father? Seeing him there, His people together cry “Worthy!”
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. . . . Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever!”
The amen rolls from the bass up to the tenor and on up through the alto to the soprano and they pass it back and forth, never letting it drop, the whole of creation caught up in echoing the praise of this slain Lamb, this hidden King who will one day be hidden no longer.
I’ll be singing my way through this drama over and over as we wait for His coming. I need to remember who it is that is coming, growing in small and hidden ways, strange and strong and mysterious ways, active within me and within the world long before I can sense His presence.
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An edited repost from the archives as we sit again in this in-between week.