Saturday, March 30, 2013

A "Good" Friday?

I spent a large part of yesterday trying to live in the events of the last day of Christ's incarnated life. I read the story in Matthew and then I watched The Passion of Christ
I attended our tenebrae service in the evening. I was a wrung out by the flood of emotion as I found myself identifying with so many of the players in the drama.

I was a disciple not able to stay awake and pray. I was frightened by the strange behavior Christ was demonstrating in Gethsemane. I too wanted to fight and then flee when Judas came with a large crowd bearing swords and clubs. I was amazed by how non confrontational Jesus was and how much he seemed to know before it happened. I was shocked to hear Him call Judas a friend. I struggled to remember what Jesus had said at the Passover meal and to understand what was happening.

I was appalled by the driven behavior of Caiaphas and the teachers and the elders. I was not surprised that they really didn't understand. But, their obsession with finding a way to silence Jesus and put an end to his movement was horrific. Caiaphas needed to be in control. I don't think Caiaphas was really interested in truth prevailing. I saw him as a political manipulator and likely "in bed with" the Romans. He rigged the trial. Perhaps he was threatened and feared the loss of his power. Best case scenario is that he was loyal to the Jewish faith and was compelled to to put an end to all blasphemy. But, I doubt that was the case.

Pilate's ambivalence toward the Jewish people and even toward Jesus made me uneasy and triggered awareness of my own tendency to inner conflict. When Pilate washes his hands and seeks a way out of any part in putting an innocent man to death, I recognized my own inclinations to accuse others of my own guilt. Pilate, like Caiaphas, didn't want the boat to rock out fear he might lose his seat in the captain's chair.

I was tormented by shame and self loathing with Peter as he vehemently denied ever knowing the man he, just hours earlier, had vowed to follow even to death. I could taste the bile as the cock crowed and I realized with Peter that I too am unable to remain faithful. With Peter I felt disgusted and heartbroken and shocked by the reality that I cannot truly love.

The fear and the instinctive urge to flee and hide was overwhelmingly physical. The confusion and the conflicting behavior of the crowds of people only caused more chaos and disorder. I felt the anger and hate and fear and the sense that nothing was going right. I felt the panic on both sides of the conflict. I felt the helplessness and powerlessness generated by circumstances out of my control.

But, Jesus, in every way and in every place stood out as different. In Gethsemane, before the Sanhedrin, and before Pilate, He knew who He was, where He had come from, and where he was going. But, He was fully human through it all. He was not spared the physical, and mental pain of his march through death. All the while he despised the shame and endured the cross because He could see what came next. He knew we would not be able to grasp the eternal significance. It was not that it wasn't important that we "get it". It seemed that it was most important at the time that the scriptures be fulfilled and that the work God set in motion from the beginning of time could be completed. Understanding would come later and it seemed that Jesus knew this. So he stepped right into it all, fully aware of what had to happen, fully aware He would have to do it alone.

While driving home after the evening service, I thought about Jesus dead and in the grave, His life spent in full for us all. And I cried with Peter and with Judas as a fearful denier and a betrayer. And I confessed my longing to know with my whole being the impact of Christ's death in my stead.

God's response to my confession is to remind me of the truth and invite me to embrace it. God is love. In Christ we know God and His love. We know He loves us as He lays down His life. Love doesn't expect us to "get it". Love gives even though we don't. Love is greater than our weakness. Love is greater than our denial and our betrayal. Love is greater than our need to be in control and our fear of being out of control. Love bears all things: the pain, the suffering, the abandonment, the shame, the guilt, the failures, the weakness, the unknowing, and the grief and carries it all to the cross. Love knows that we know not what we do. Love forgives. Love puts an end to the old so the new can rise up.

©Schreiner/The Odes Project
You who sometimes were brought so low, Rise up, RISE UP
You who were in silence: now raise your voice , Rise up, RISE UP
You that were despised be lifted up, Rise up, RISE UP
For the right hand of the Lord is with you right now Rise up, RISE UP
Open your hearts, All you who are saved, IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER
Through all generations, abiding in His love, IN THE NAME OF THE SON
Now and forever, Let your love abound, IN THE NAME OF THE SPIRIT
For the right hand of the Lord is with you right now Rise up, RISE UPChorus:
Christ in us, this wondrous mystery
Christ in us, from age to age
Christ in us, the hope of glory
For You have sealed us in your nameYou who sometimes were brought so low, stand tall, RISE UP
You who were in silence: may you shout for joy, RISE UP
You who were despised may you be lifted up, RISE UP
For the right hand of the Lord is with you right now Rise up, RISE UP

Listen here:  Rise Up! (Ode 8)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A few Maundy thoughts

Beginning in chapter 12 of the Book of John, the Pharisees begin actively plotting to kill Jesus and Jesus, knowing this, rides right into Jerusalem and into the center of the plot. With this hostility as His backdrop, to His disciples, Jesus predicts His death and calls His disciples to follow Him. To the crowd, the challenge is made to walk in the light while they still have the light. Then He leaves and hides Himself. The tension is felt by everyone. Jesus has left them holding the weight of His words:  Time culminating, light dissipating, judgment, death, salvation. and eternity.

In chapter 13, “knowing that it was time for him to leave this world”, Jesus communes very intimately with His disciples in what has come to be known as the “upper room discourse”. He knows from where He has come and where he is going. He knows His disciples can't possibly grasp the depths of what he is talking about but he presses on. Though what is set before him to do in the next days should justify complete self absorption, silence, and isolation, instead it is here in this place, in His last hours with these chosen friends, that Jesus, in an act of greatest humility, washes their feet.  Songwriter Michael Card describes this act in his song entitled The Basin and the Towel .

And the call is to community
The impoverished power that sets the soul free
In humility to take the vow
That day after day we must take up the basin and the towel

And the space between ourselves sometimes 
is more than the distance between the stars
By the fragile bridge of the servant’s bow,  
We take up the basin and the towel

The example has been laid before them and the tone set for the rest of the evening. After this call to community through his example of humble service, Jesus speaks grievously of how He will be betrayed by one of the very ones whose feet He held and washed. And if this is not enough pain for Him to bear, He has to bring to light a truth not yet realized … Peter’s denial. One of those that He was most intimate with would, out of fear, deny that he ever knew Him. And another would hand him over to those who seek to kill him.

I can not imagine the all body. mind, and soul pain that Jesus endured that night as He anticipated what lay ahead. I can imagine the chaos in the body, minds, and souls of his disciples. The next days for them and for us are cataclysmic. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Onward and Upward into the Light

I have come full circle. It is time once again for me to pursue my staff and coax from them a yearly evaluation and begin the process of turning toward a new fiscal year. I am a few weeks into my annual turning from the descent into the middle of winter and darkness, the sluggishness of hibernation, and the spent energy of the seasons of Christmas and of Epiphany. I have made some tentative steps toward and with the increasing light. I am walking or riding my bike most days, slowly gaining new fitness lost. Epiphany, though historically is considered a season in which we celebrate the birth of Christ the Savior, for me is really a journey through the night and then on toward a slow awakening. In each cycle of 24 hours after the winter solstice  my body senses movement as the daylight increases. Between January and February the daylight increases by almost an hour for each 24 hour cycle. Even though, I know Christ has been born, it is as though He has been hidden away in the month of January, to be revealed to me at some other time.

Yesterday was Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. In New Orleans there was a big party, the last day of celebration, the end of the season of Epiphany. It marked an end of the celebration of Christ's birth and a turning of all attention toward and our participation in Christ's last days before his death. I ate my pancakes and contemplated the journey ahead through Lent.

Lent, with its conjugation with the increasing light, has become a longed for season in my life of cycles. I know and look forward to the time of turning from what was and toward what will be. I am not afraid to repent. I am grateful for the continual call to look intently and thoroughly at myself, knowing that I may strip off these filthy clothes through this process and that my naked. raw self will be clothed in Christ's blood stain garment. The light will purify me in the end. Lent and it's 40 days of desert dwelling is not to be dreaded because I know the know of the end of the story.

I know that the evaluation process is a good thing. It is a time to put off with the goal to put on the new. I will call my staff to look and examine with the goal being new growth. The light will increase with each new day. I will increase my walks and bike rides in distance and intensity. Christ will turn his face toward Jerusalem and I will follow once again. I know his death and mine with Him is a goal and a doorway. I do rejoice. Christ was born to die and be raised again. I am a part of his creative order. I will keep turning and the light will increase and we will cycle through from life to death to life. Upward and onward into the Light.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Preparing for Ashes: Looking Back at the Necessity of Pruning

John 15-16    Women's Bible Study
Blacknall Presbyterian Church
    March 13, 2003

Beginning in chapter 12 of the Book of John, the Pharisees begin actively plotting to kill Jesus and Jesus, knowing this, rides right into Jerusalem and into the center of the plot. With this hostility as His backdrop, to His disciples, Jesus predicts His death and calls His disciples to follow Him. To the crowd, the challenge is made to walk in the light while they still have the light. Then He leaves and hides Himself with His disciples.

In chapter 13, “knowing that it was time for him to leave this world”, Jesus communes very intimately with His disciples in what has come to be known as the “upper room discourse”. It is here in this place, in His last hours with these chosen friends, that Jesus, in an act of greatest humility, washes their feet.  Songwriter Michael Card describes this act in his song entitled The Basin and the Towel .
And the call is to community
The impoverished power that sets the soul free  In humility to take the vow
That day after day we must take up the basin and the towel

And the space between ourselves sometimes is more than the distance between the stars
By the fragile bridge of the servant’s bow,  We take up the basin and the towel

The example has been laid before them and the tone set for the rest of the evening. After this call to community through his example of humble service, Jesus speaks grievously of how He will be betrayed by one of the very ones whose feet He held and washed. And if this is not enough pain for Him to bear, He has to bring to light a truth not yet realized … Peter’s denial. One of those that He was most intimate with would, out of fear, deny that he ever knew Him.

I believe that this caused Jesus the deepest grief possible as that denial broke their unity. It was not until they met on the beach after Christ’s resurrection
that that fracture was bound and restoration began. When Jesus asked Peter 3X, “Do you love me?”, he was calling Peter back into the relationship. When He commanded Peter to feed His sheep, He was calling Peter again, giving Him the invitation to remain and to obey His command to Love One Another.

Last week we heard Margot speak from Chapter 14 of the of tenderness and compassion of Jesus in response to the disciples’ grief over what He had been saying and their confusion over what had been happening. Jesus speaks of Himself as the way home to the Father and He promises the Holy Spirit…the counselor…the Spirit of truth…the one who would show them the way and teach and remind them.  Then He speaks these amazing words: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you….do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. He declares at the end of Chapter 14 , “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.”

Jesus has been doing, saying and predicting hard things. He has been asking them to follow Him to death. He talks about going away and coming back. He speaks of the prince of this world coming. In spite of  the comforting words spoken prior, can’t you feel the angst in the room. Can’t you hear the unspoken questions? Can you feel the tension in the room mounting as Christ’s words pile up.

As we come to Chapter 15, the subject matter begins to take on a heavier weight.
Here we will hear Jesus discuss 3 relationships:

His relationship with His Father….the vine and the gardener
His relationship with His disciples….the vine and the branches
His relationship and the disciples’ relationship with the world

Unity or lack of unity in Relationships are the leading players in the drama of
creation. It is in relationships that we see and participate in the fleshing out of the triune God.. It is also in relationships that we see and participate in the brokenness that results from  sin.

I am the TRUE vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the Word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself: it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

Grape harvest in Northwest PA  where we lived for almost 16 years would take place around the first of  November. In a matter of days the vineyard in front and back of our house would be stripped bare. The season would be over. The vineyard would lay fallow….but life would not end.

At some point not long after the harvest, I might look out my front window, across the mile and a half toward the McDonald’s on Rt.20 or off the back deck toward Lake Erie a mile away. Somewhere across this orderly array of vineyard rows I would see through the snow that was falling sideways, a lone trimmer. Bundled in his Carhardt coveralls, with trimming tools hanging from his shoulder and waist, he would begin to move slowly and meticulously from branch to branch. He was skilled and thorough. He knew exactly what to do in order to make sure each branch that had produced fruit in the previous season would be able to do so again in the next. He trimmed each branch to just the right place so that the branch would still draw life from the vine. The portion no longer useful would be pulled and piled between the rows. And the branches that were no longer producing fruit would be cut off from the vine entirely. It was a process with a purpose…that fruit might be produced by way of the life line of the vine through the branches.

Over the course of the fierce PA winter the trimmer would make his way through the vineyard. There was no mechanical substitution for this work. It was lonely and it was slow. But it had to be done and it had to be done thoroughly for the branches to have a chance to be healthy.

There was a vineyard down the road from us that had not been tended for  several seasons. The branches had not been trimmed and had grown out of control…long and wild. There were so many branches and so much foliage each season that in time this vineyard produced no fruit at all. This vineyard eventually was cut down. Ruined by unmanaged excess that had “looked” good with all its foliage and proliferation of branches, only to have fruit production choked off.

In contrast, the vineyard trimmed and cared for through the dreary frigid days of winter would be able to produce its fruit  in season, in keeping with the purpose drawn from the vine.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up and thrown  into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory that you bear much fruit showing yourselves to be my disciples.

In these 2 short paragraphs Jesus uses the word REMAIN 8X’s. In the next paragraph He will use it 3 more times. Can you sense the urgency in His message? This was a crucial time in the spiritual development of the disciples. They desperately needed to “get it”. What was to come would test them to the limit.  

Let us try to understand this command to remain by first looking at the results of remaining.  Let’s look again at the image of the vine and the branches and at barrenness and fruitbearing in the context of remaining.  vs2 : He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.   vs4: No branch can bear fruit unless you remain in me.  vs.6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers. And in contrast: vs2 While every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.  Remain in me…I in Him….bear fruit….remain in me. Don’t remain…wither…be thrown into the fire.

May we say then, that to Remain means: to abide, continue to choose to stay, go on being, endure, persist, in order to produce fruit.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear fruit. Is it adequate to say it to remain means to BE IN and STAY IN relationship with Christ such that fruit bearing the image of the Vine is able to grow? May we also say that to remain means to be in and stay in a healthy relationship with the church, with one another, with the Body of Christ?

Let’s look at this from a different angle. Doesn’t to remain imply that these disciples, and now we who believe, are already in Christ, in this intimate relationship… as branches growing from the vine. Sometimes we get confused and think, if even unconsciously, that we are not there yet, that we have to get into Christ … as though the branch had a life of its own and could somehow grow itself into that connection…. No, you believe, you are there. It is Christ that has taken hold of you. He has loved you first. Now, your response…remain. “BE “ in that relationship…sharing thoughts, emotions, intentions, and power. Stay in that relationship. Relate…in Christ, Him in you. Stay connected.…and bear fruit.

Ask yourself: Am I connected to the vine? How do I know? Do I believe? Do I bear fruit? What does my fruit look like? Does it look more and more like Jesus…or does it look like the world? Is  my love for Jesus manifesting itself in footwashing behavior? If it isn’t …have I drifted away…am I denying I know him because I am afraid of the consequences? Or worse, am I grievously betraying Him out of selfishness or greed….

Is it possible for you to step outside yourself’s center and look at you, the branch? Maybe you need someone to help you do that. Are you willing to take the risk to allow yourself to be seen honestly with the goal to bear more fruit? Can you trust yourself to the Father to care for you? Can you trust the Father with your productivity? or lack of? Or do you want to be the gardener?

Don’t leave. Don’t go off on your own fueled by fear, selfishness or greed, as you will not be able to bear true fruit apart from Christ. You may be able, for a while, to produce a lot of foliage through your good intentions….good programs, “right” deeds, even fine preaching, teaching, or acts of service. But, the true fruit bearing the image of Christ  is only possible through remaining.

Remaining is a state of being, thinking, believing, living with conviction and commitment, responding to and with the vine so that the fruits of faith rooted in Christ’s love will grow through the branches. It is a relationship. It is community. The Father…Jesus….the believers…the Gardener, the vine, the branches…One.

How does that community happen? The One who already holds you asks you to come, just as you are. You choose to “stay home”. You confess and claim by faith …you say it outloud…over and over… “Jesus’ blood is sufficient to cleanse me of all unrighteousness…To create in me a clean heart…to renew a steadfast spirit within me…to restore and sustain me…..And make me able to remain…You CHOOSE TO TRUST. You lay down your life. What does this mean to you? How do you see this fleshed out in your life?

Maybe to remain means you choose to draw from Christ, the Vine, what you need to be able to forgive the one who hurt you through neglect or denial or betrayal, because you know the one who forgave you. Maybe it means you draw from the Logos the energy you need to remain until your heart or legs or mind are healed, knowing the One who laid His life down for you. Maybe it means you allow the trimmer to cut away that which is causing you to die…bitterness, anger, malice… in order to save your life. But, primarily, you choose to believe in Christ and who He is and stay in Him even though everything may be crumbling around you. In believing, you remain.

 What would it mean to these men Christ spoke to?

It was imperative that the disciples remain, that they believe, that they love one another.
Things were changing. The True Vine had come into the world. History was on the edge of a cataclysmic event. Jesus knew that these men needed to know what it meant to remain. So He says it again…and again.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in His love. (this is the first he speaks of obedience in this vine and branches/remaining discussion) I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. (so, Jesus is bringing remaining and obeying and Joy together). To remain  means to believe and bear fruit…and what is that fruit?…obedience and joy …..and Christ’s command that we are to obey is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

His example is right before their eyes. Jesus and the Father  have lived in a perfectly harmonious relationship marked by Jesus remaining in the Father’s love and obeying. He has fleshed this out before the disciples in the years they have been together. Now He calls them to live out this same relationship of remaining, believing, and obeying out of and through love. And His promise to them is Joy….complete Joy.  Joy that is founded in the Way and the Truth…in Jesus.  Joy that supersedes circumstances. Joy that is greater than our own hearts’ capacity to experience or truly understand. Joy that cannot be stolen by war in Iraq, destructive disease, or the horror of terrorism. Joy that is indestructible as it’s origin is founded in the One who indestructible.

Remain…obey my commands…love one another…joy
They are all connected…inseparable.

But, can’t you hear the disciples thoughts? …our thoughts? “Lord, this is TOO BIG.  I am weak…just a person…Not like you. I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can take up this responsibility. I don’t know if I want to take on this responsibility.  I am afraid I will fail.” Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook. He can’t. They have to “get it”. He can’t let them retreat into their fear and selfishness. Nor will He let us. He gives this command: Love each other as I have love you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

It is the call to community. He knew they would need one another. He knew they had to take up the basin and the towel of humility and wash one another’s feet. He knew they would have to love one another to the extent that they would even lay down their lives for their friends. It is no different for us today…no different.

It is no different  when the Lord calls you to love your sister  who persistently blames you for the family chaos. It is no different when the Lord says, Go again and love that friend who is unable to love you or receive your love. It is no different when the Lord says forgive your mother for her inability to love you well. It is no different when the Lord says Let the past be the past. Let what was die. Release the captive. Cancel all debts. The command to lay down your life is no easier now than at the time Christ spoke it. He knows that.

Jesus was telling the disciples that they were to choose to release their firm grasp on their own lives and on how they thought their lives should be. Christ calls these men to be like-minded with Him. He calls them His friends. He is going to lay His life down for them. He chose them, He revealed everything He learned from the Father to them. He appointed them to bear fruit. He has been their connection to the Father to whom they may go and ask for that which is in line with all that Christ is. He is paving the way for them to take up His role in the world and understanding this command was vital. So, He says it AGAIN: Love each other.  The key to this command being obeyed is found in Christ. It is Christ that makes this possible. I have loved you. NOW, remain in my love.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Preparation for Receiving Ashes

Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Psalm 32:1

Silence is not golden. But, without the inspiration of the Spirit to confess our sins, we think it is. We think that if we cover ourselves with silence and hide in our fear driven lack of understanding that we won’t be seen as a sinner. Instinctively, we take on the mindset of Adam and Eve and think we can protect ourselves through silence and denial. But, that’s not how it works. The psalmist discovered this.

“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away…my strength was sapped.” Be it conscious or unconscious, a deliberate act or an uncontrolled reaction, a crooked choice or a simple misdirection, sin is a fact of our lives. We are all sinners. We have all fallen short. (Romans 3:3). Denial of this reality does not make it cease to be true. Placing our hands over our eyes in God’s presence does not mean we cease to be sinners. Sin is radical and pervasive and in the end it buries us. It is a fact. “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)

But, heaven has come down. Christ has come and stood in our stead. He took on the sins of the world. He bore the consequences and he went to that grave of all graves carrying all sin. After He made amends for us he was raised to new life and opened the door for us to freedom through his resurrection. We, on this side of His resurrection, know to an even greater depth what the psalmist discovered. There is a cure for the sin sick soul. Forgiveness and the love that inspires it are more pervasive than sin. When God covers our sins they cease to be. We, who acknowledge Christ as God’s antidote for our deceit, can know the blessing of His forgiveness.

During the Lenten season we are encouraged as the psalmist did to acknowledge who we are as sinners. The psalmist learned from experience that sin that is not confessed buries you, but, sin acknowledged leads us into the reality of God’s merciful forgiveness that makes a new life possible. We, on this side of the resurrection know by faith that God has covered us with the life of His Son. We can now respond in faith to who Christ is and boldly approach His throne of grace. We are blessed by divinely inspired faith and its response of discipline. Our new life has been made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. Confession is our act of faith and trust. In confessing we acknowledge that we need a Savior who can bring us out of our small dark grave of sin and into the light of life. As we practice our God given freedom to confess and acknowledge our sin we also are declaring the work of God in Christ as complete. Confession is God’s means for us to discover the blessings of His love for us.

“Heaven came down and glory filled my soul. When at the cross the Savior made me whole. My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day.” 

Thank you, Father, for sending your Son to bring me out, to cover my sins, and set me free.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Word by Word

I received a CD from my son for Christmas on which I have heard Anne Lamontt speak about writing. It is entitled "Word by Word" and she speaks in her humorous, penetrating and honest way about the writers need to "just do it" and do it truthfully one word at a time. She calls all who attempt to put words together and hope it makes sense to do so from the foundation of truth. A wonderful statement that she made was, "When you start to speak the truth, miracles begin to happen."

The key is getting started. Typing the first word comes after setting aside the time and turning toward the task. Typing the first word is like putting on the gardening gloves. Here is another Lamontt image, that of writing being like gardening. I am not much of a gardener, but I understand the analogy. You put on the gloves and you begin, one task at a time ... weed, prune, mulch, water, feed, dig up, plant anew, wait. Writing like any true creative process requires much attention and patience and trust and abandonment and what you hope for is that what is true finds a voice.

I told my husband just this morning, that I write so seldom because it requires so much discipline. Then, I rambled on to compare writing to praying and then to my efforts to rehabilitate my strength, flexibility, and endurance after breaking my foot almost 6 months ago. All of these I want to do and in doing so I know I will express the truth that is within me. But, it is asks of me. One would think after circling through life for all these years that it would become easier to just "do it" and answer the call. But, it is like having your third baby without drugs. You know how hard it is going to be. You know the blissful ideology bubble burst the first time around. The only reason you continue is because you remember your joy will be off the charts ... eventually. And you can't not have that baby anyway. It is what you do. It is who you are ... a creator, a giver of new birth, a speaker of truth, a light on a hill.

I can't not write, even though the effort requires much from me ... looking, exploring, paying attention, practicing, trusting, forgiving, starting, stopping, circling. I can't not rehabilitate my foot and end up not running or biking just because it takes so much time and patience and disciple. . I can't not pray, even though it feels like all the above. 

So, word by word, step by step, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, and prayer by prayer.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Is My Love Not Enough?

God is not a man, that He should lie,
nor a son of man, that He should change His mind.
Does He speak and then not act?
Does He promise and not fulfill?
Numbers 23:18-19

“Ann, Is my love not enough? Do you think you must do something to complete it?” This was the Lord’s question to me many years ago as I prayed frantically, in my crazy Mama way, for my son who had withdrawn from college in the midst of a battle with depression, chronic pain, and abuse of prescription drugs. A couple of years later my daughter withdrew from school with the same enemy of depression chasing her home. Our years have been laced with “trouble”, to use Jesus’ own word. We have known sorrow, distress, disunity, loss, change and other forms of “trouble”. “Trouble” in this life is a given. This life is messy. There are things that happen, like the Shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that are incomprehensibly awful that we are tempted to think God isn't paying attention. We are in between Christ’s two comings. But we are invited to live within the Promise Christ made: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.

Many have walked with me through my trouble. In turned I have been honored to walk with several loved ones through a variety of “trouble” … divorce, unemployment, fear regarding prodigal children, struggles regarding sexual identity, all kinds of sickness (both physical and mental), and through the dying of loved ones. More than half of my extended family, including myself, have known depression intimately.  Over the last two and a half years my Father, my brother-in-law, my Mother-in-law, and my brother lived years with cancer, yet each died. And just recently, my brother’s wife found out she has breast cancer and will have a double mastectomy after Christmas. These are valleys shadowed by death. Perhaps they are somewhat like yours.  In each, I have heard the Lord’s question repeated: “Is MY love not enough?”

IS God’s love enough to ultimately transform, redeem, renew, heal, complete and bring meaning to what seems so senseless and incomprehensible? Is his love enough for the parents of those children shot? His question to me is repeated over and over. Everyday He challenges us to see Him standing in the midst of all the “trouble”, especially when it seems He has instead hidden Himself.

Brendan Manning, author of The Lion and the Lamb, offers this perspective on suffering:

"There is an intimate bond between the sufferings of Christ and the conflict and suffering in each Christian life. The daily dying of the Christian is a prolongation of Christ's own life. ... Our daily dying (in all its forms)… is our personal participation in the fellowship of His sufferings.

The redemptive value of Jesus' suffering lay not in the suffering itself but in the love that inspired it." (for in itself suffering has no value)

I do not believe that brokenness, loss, depression, cancer, or any other imperfection of the human situation, in body or soul, that brings suffering, is God’s will. In fact, I believe Christ came in all heavenly authority to declare he is victorious over all forms of suffering, even suffering unto death. His miracles of healing, restoring sight, casting out demons, making the deaf hear, cleansing the lepers, making the lame walk, and raising the dead speak to HIS authority and HIS will to unify, redeem, bring life out of death, and make right all that is wrong.

In this life, there is much I don’t understand and may never be able to grasp. But, I have grown in my conviction that Christ’s love is indeed enough. I don’t always feel it but, I choose to believe Christ enters into our suffering. As He entered the lion’s den with Daniel, God enters into the places in our lives where we are powerless. He is in the furnace, walking in the fire with each of us. When we are not capable of perceiving His presence with our physical senses, it is nonetheless a fact that He is there. It may be that the complete healing to our physical bodies or the total recovery of our finances or the renewal of our marriage or the healing of our grief or the salvation of our children and much more that we long for will come in our day and it just as likely may not. Nonetheless, His love IS enough and as those in the furnace did in the book of Daniel, we can choose to step out and declare, “We do not need to defend ourselves…. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it…But, even if He does not…” (and these are my words)... His love is enough.

One of my most favorite Bible verses comes from the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy:
"We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders - great and terrible - on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised".

That which is promised is embodied in Christ and in His love that is enough. He is our Promise. And we are His people, moving in and through this place in between His two comings. We are within the Promise, which is Christ Himself, and we move toward the Promised Land. We are held by the Promise and we hold the Promise within us. We are being moved through this wilderness, spending our time living to die to what was, trying to let the past be the past so that the promise that is within us might be released through the decay of the old life and our new life will released to grow up out of the humus. He brings us out. He brings us in. He sets us free. His love is enough to do this.

But, in this place, in this life in which we have “trouble”, we must wait actively for the culmination and the complete realization of Christ’s promise. We ache. We moan. We groan. We cry. We wail. We scream. We lament. We weep. We present our sorrow as an offering. We choose to believe. We practice our faith. We rejoice. We worship. It is what we do as God’s people inspired by the Promise to move toward the Promise. When we left our “Egypt” the moment we first chose to take up our own cross and follow Christ, the Promise went before us and even now He leads us, teaches us, and forms us through our wanderings. There is purpose in this life of wilderness wandering. It is where we die to what was. It is our cocoon of transformation. It is where fear and unbelief give way to courage and faith. It is where we are brought out, set free to move forward. It is where the cloud of unknowing is spun about us and the crucible of the love of the Almighty forms the new out of the old.

There is meaning in the suffering, the losses, the changes, the pain of brokenness, and the silence pressed upon us by that which is too huge to bear. Some days, I can see a glimpse of that truth, as if there is a break in the clouds and the Promised Land is in view… as if the air is clear and the vista uncluttered. On those days, my faith seems alive, but, this is not always true. In fact, more often you will hear me question the plan of God that takes me along this circuitous path that seems to simply take me through my past over and over again. It is not unusual for me to cry out “God, why did you bring me here just to have me die?” But, some days, I hear His words, “I have brought you out….to bring you in … to try you and test you …to see what is in your heart.” There is meaning. The Way, the Truth, and the Life define my existence. There is a future. There is a destination. There is the promise…Christ in us the hope of glory…the good news of life after death. And the journey, the wandering, the pain, the brokenness, the loss, the change, and the sorrow are all captured and saturated by His love that is enough.

Through the life of Christ, through the living Word, the sword of the Spirit piercing our hearts, the Promise Himself becomes the destination of our faith. And the journey that seems to go nowhere at times is defined. Though it cannot always be seen or felt and we may cry out in fear and loneliness along the way, we can remember and contemplate Christ’s question and challenge to believe: “Is my love not enough?” We are invited into his perfect love. The challenge is to welcome Him, invite Him to come in and take up His abode within us. The challenge is to get up each day and declare with our mouths it is true, HIS love is enough. Christ IS a participant in our sufferings. We become participants in His sufferings. We become one. In this relationship, we join with Christ in His creative work of transformation…the work of life-death-life.  And this is not just for our own benefit. As we are transformed, as the old dies and gives way to the new, we are able to become conduits through which this love will flow, impacting the lives of those He chooses for us to love.

This all sounds quite “spiritual”, doesn’t it? And of course it is. But, we are not completely “there” in this life, are we? This is not Heaven. More often than not I have been guilty of retreating into my longings for the Promised Land. I want to be there, in the perfected, and not here in the process. Often my longings insulate me from participating in my present life. At times, this has been necessary, but in the long term such a choice only keeps me from the joy along the way.

When our children were small we found great fun in reading books outloud. One of our favorite books was Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary. At one point Ramona hears her kindergarten teacher request that they “wait for the present”. Ramona hears the word “present” and plants herself in her desk, determined she will wait , staying put, sitting still as long as she must to get the present. She waits and waits…through recess, through lunch. Finally, the teacher is determined to try to understand why Ramona won’t leave her desk. As it becomes clear that Ramona has misunderstood what the teacher meant by “present”, she recognizes she has missed a day of life waiting for what was always there.

We wait for the “present” because we cannot fully believe that the journey through our life in Christ, in His presence, is in fact just as great a gift as the destination. The story of Moses and His relationship with God throughout the wilderness journey toward the promise land shows us what should be, what can be. Moses was not satisfied for God to be outside the camp. He reasons with God, “How will the other nations know that you are with Your people…that we are your people?”  So God comes to the tent of meeting and the Word says that Moses “spoke to God like a man speaks to another man”. The “present” was God’s “presence”.

It is in living daily in His presence that redemption and renewal become reality as our minds are transformed. It is in speaking with Christ along the way that our hearts begin to burn with understanding as He reveals what is true. It is in the fellowship of His sufferings that we come to know that His love is indeed enough. It is enough to lead us through. It is enough to gather us, to strengthen our feeble hands, to steady ours knees that give way. His love speaks into our fearful hearts:

“Be strong, do not fear; your God will come,
He will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution He will come to save you.”

A highway will be there…
The redeemed will walk there…
the ransomed of the Lord will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will over take them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

from Isaiah 35

The chorus from Michael Card’s song, The Promise, says it so well:

The Promise was love and the Promise was life
The Promise meant light to the world
Living proof Jehovah saves
For the name of the Promise was Jesus
The Faithful One saw time was full
And the ancient pledge was honored
So God the Son, the Incarnate One
His final Word, His own Son
Was born in Bethlehem
But came into our hearts to live
What more could God have given
Tell me what more did He have to give
What more could God have given
Tell me what more did He have to give
At last the proof Jehovah saves
For the name of the Promise was Jesus