the embracing cross

This past February, Andy and I went to Italy.  We walked, we ate pasta, we drank wine, we looked at lots of art.

We went to Florence:

 "David" by Michelangelo, at the Accademia

"David" by Michelangelo, at the Accademia

We went to Venice:

 "Paradise" by Tintoretto, at the Doge's Palace:  the largest canvas in the world

"Paradise" by Tintoretto, at the Doge's Palace:  the largest canvas in the world

We went to Rome:

 Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo, at the Vatican

Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo, at the Vatican

Now, I love art.  Going to museums and art galleries is absolutely my idea of a good time.  But, in Italy, after one whole day, I was overwhelmed.  

We were in Florence, and we'd been at the Accademia to visit David at 8 a.m., then walked around a town where there's an elaborately decorated church on every corner and sculptures tossed into every nook and cranny.  

We wound up at the Uffizi Gallery that afternoon, looking at the work of one master after another.  Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo--all stacked in, floor to ceiling, because there just aren't enough walls to mount everything side by side.  Oh, and over in the corner there?  That angel was painted by da Vinci.

I felt like my eyeballs were going to explode, bludgeoned to death by art.  

There was JUST SO MUCH OF IT.

Lately, I have felt bludgeoned by religion, too, because in my world, there is just so much of it.  

Now, I love God.  Thinking about God and his grace and how He loves and redeems is absolutely my idea of a good time.  I care deeply about my faith and how to live it out.  

But honestly, I get overwhelmed with religious stuff.  Think this, believe that, put your hand up for this, keep it down for that, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? 

Sometimes I think it's a good thing that the disciples didn't have social media.  Imagine the "who's going to be greatest in the kingdom" Twitter blood bath.  

I don't care too much any more about anybody's perfectly parsed 24-hour-day antifluvanomian justifisanctional middispensationalism.

I've gotten to the place where I just look to see how somebody's great theology ends up treating people.  

You say you're speaking for God?  

Here's my one question:  how do you treat people?  That's all I want to know.

If you treat people badly, I'm not much interested in what Scripture Clearly Says to you.

Jesus said it this way:  "You'll know the Real Deal by the Real Fruit."  (Matthew 7:15-20)

If God is love, and we're the branches of that vine, then we have to be love, too.

Pretty simple, I think.

So, a week after that day in Florence, we were in Rome, at the Vatican.  I was pretty wigged out on art and religion by that point, but there was no way I was going to leave Italy without taking a look at the Sistine Chapel.  

The Vatican, though, is like IKEA.  They know you only want that one chair from the kitchen department, but they are going to make you walk past every cushion and pillow and floor lamp in the place, just in case you find something else cute on the way.

Like this fabulous camel.  Totally on the wish list.

By the time we finally got to the Sistine Chapel, I could completely understand why Michelangelo had painted himself into the Last Judgment as a flayed skin.  I felt like if I saw another 8-foot-tall cherub or embalmed Holy Father, I was going to shriek. 

Then we came around a corner and found this, in a little alcove, all by itself:

 Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum

The Embracing Cross, it's called.

It's Love.

Simple.

Direct.

Unadorned.

The ultimate statement of theology:  God loves us so desperately, that He is willing to die for love of us. 

While we are sinners.  

Before we get it all just right. 

Before other people have gotten it just right, He loves them, too.

And when I don't know what God wants me to do about all the pain and suffering and insanity of the world?  

This, I think, is the cross I'm called to carry:  the embracing cross.

To know this one thing:  God loves me this much, and so I must love others.

Most days, I don't know anything more than that.

And, strangely, it seems to be enough.

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i don't want to be a hero

This week, the C. S. Lewis fan page on Facebook served me up with this little gem of an article. Yes, folks, long, long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, I was an English major, so I am sometimes inclined to read articles that mention Virgil's Aeneid.  This one turned out to be quite thought-provoking.  Here's what caught my attention:

"But for Lewis, it was in changing the subject from the adolescent theme of heroism to the adult theme of vocation that Virgil prepared the way for all subsequent Christian epics."

I have no plans to write a Christian epic, but it made me think about whether I'm into adolescent heroism or adult vocation in my own life.  

And I got to thinking about one of my favorite Lewis characters, Reepicheep the mouse from Narnia.

We first meet Reepicheep in Prince Caspian, Book 2 of The Chronicles of Narnia.  Reepicheep is a  warrior mouse who charges off into battle as a valiant hero.  In the course of one engagement, his tail is cut off.  At the end of the battle, he meets Aslan, and he is terribly embarrassed at his lack of a tail.

"I am confounded," said Reepicheep to Aslan.  "I am completely out of countenance.  I must crave your indulgence for appearing in this unseemly fashion."

"It becomes you very well, Small One," said Aslan.

"All the same," replied Reepicheep, "if anything could be done . . .  Perhaps her Majesty?" and here he bowed to Lucy.

"But what do you want with a tail?" asked Aslan.

"Sir," said the Mouse, "I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one.  But a tail is the honour and glory of a Mouse."

"I have sometimes wondered, friend," said Aslan, "whether you do not think too much about your honour."

And that, I think, is the kernel of adolescent heroism:  thinking too much about our tails.

In fact, we are thinking about our tails so  much that Aslan is right in front of us, and all we can talk about is our tails.

Ouch.  Bazinga.

Now here's the thing about our tails:  they are part of the package.

Our jobs.  Our kids.  Our stuff.   A mouse has a tail, and we have this life and these things.  And these things are all normal and fine.

Except that we can find ourselves thinking too much about them.

Most of us don't know that we are all about our tails until it all goes horribly wrong, and we're seriously not OK any more.  And we all know what that feels like, right?

And then God might be saying to us, in those moments, "I have sometimes wondered, friend,whether you do not think too much about your ______ ."

We next meet up with Reepicheep in Book 3, The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader."  Here, Reepicheep has grown up a little.  And he gives one of the finest statements of faith I've ever read.

"My own plans are made.  While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader.  When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle.  When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws.  And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan's country, or shot over the edge of the world is some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise and Peepiceek will be head of the talking mice in Narnia."

This is, to me, the perfect picture of a deep and abiding adult vocation:  to pursue the love of God and the life of God, regardless.  

Whatever that looks like for each of us individually.  Whether anybody sees us make it, or whether we die trying.

I feel like the adolescent hero is my default setting.  And maybe that's just the human condition.

When I am in adolescent hero mode, I am just banging my head against the hero wall, screaming and demanding and making myself crazy that everything has to come out right in the end.

But every once in a while, and I think it must just be grace, I can get into this other place where there's peace and purpose even though there is sacrifice and pain.  I can get a hold of that sense that my face is turned to the east,  I know where I'm going, and no matter what happens, this is my calling.  And it's a really different experience.

One I am more and more motivated to pursue.

And guess what, I have a song that is (loosely) related:  Hero, by Family of the Year.  The chorus is a great little mantra:  "Let me go.  I don't want to be your hero."

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMVc0vG4K_k]

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breakfast at mcdonald's

sitag ladies Last Friday I had breakfast at McDonald's with a bunch of my chicas from Solomon Islands days.

And my friend Martha (red shirt, no scarf) had brought along some photos from another breakfast at McDonald's in Cairns, Australia in June 2000.

That particular breakfast at McDonald's came at a difficult time in all our lives.  We had just spent 5 days on HMS Tobruk, an Australian tank transport, after being evacuated from the Solomons with 15 minutes'  notice.  (Seriously.  They called at 4:45 and said we had to be at the wharf at 5:00.  My friend Roxanne said that potential looters would see that her house had been pre-ransacked, and move along.  But all that is a story for another day.  Let me know if you want to hear it.)

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When Martha plunked this picture down on the table the other morning, we talked about the other couple in this picture with Andy and me.  That's us in the front, baby faces and all.  On the other side of the table are Patrick and Sharon Smith, of Perth, Australia.

This photo commemorates the last time I saw them in person.  But three years later, they figured into one of the most profound God-moments of my life.

The geographical place for this God-moment was Papua New Guinea.  The emotional place was major clinical depression, with a side of extreme anxiety and a sprinkle of psychosis every now and again.

Even though I was really in a bad place emotionally, I was getting a lot of good support from friends and I was having this strange experience of feeling horribly depressed but knowing that God was with me anyway.

My friend Pam said, "Honey, that's not weird.  Read the Psalms."  And my friend Karen shared with me that scripture about the Holy Spirit praying for us with groanings too deep for words.

So one morning I was sitting with another friend and I said, "Even though this is really bad, I feel like God is giving me gifts right now that I don't even know to ask for."

And when I said those words--"God is giving me gifts right now"--the phone rang.  A fellow missionary I knew in passing said, "Hey, there's a guy coming to your door in a minute.  He's wearing a blue shirt.  He's got something  for you."

OK.  Weird.

A few minutes later, this guy in the blue shirt knocked on the door and handed me a plastic grocery sack.

Inside, there were three small gifts, wrapped in orange paper with purple ribbon.  (It was perfume and chocolate.  Just in case you ever wonder what God would send you in a care package.)

So I said to this guy, "Who are you?  And why are you giving me this stuff?  Are you sure it's for me?"

Turns out, he was the youth pastor at Patrick and Sharon Smith's church in Perth, Australia.  He had come to speak at an event for the missionary youth group.  And when the Smiths heard he was coming to PNG, they decided to send some gifts along for us.

Now, since we had left the Smiths at McDonald's in Cairns, Australia, we had been in Tennessee for six months, then on the PNG coast for a year, then in the Solomons for a year, and then in the PNG highlands for about three months.

That's four international moves in three years.  I had trouble keeping track of myself.  How the Smiths had kept track of me, I do not know.

And how these gifts managed to arrive on my doorstep at THE EXACT MOMENT when I was horribly depressed but saying, I have this weird feeling that God was giving me gifts I didn't know to ask for?

Glory.

That's what our pastor said this morning.  That the glory of God is His "manifest presence, undoubtedly known in a particular place."

It's intimidating to think of how we can glorify God.  We are just normal people.  How could we possibly ever make God's present manifest and undoubtedly known in a particular place?

All I know is how other people have done it for me:  with simple acts of love and care.

In orange paper with purple ribbons.

In the long dark nights of my soul, over cups of chai, over lunch, with phone calls and emails, and breakfast at McDonald's.

So, this Holy Week, when I think about how to glorify God, this is what I know to do:  love and care for the people in front of me.

And when God is glorified, I might not even know it.  But that's OK, because I am not the star of this rodeo anyway.

In all our simple, normal, loving lives, Lord, be glorified today.

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The elder sister

This summer I read Tim Keller's fabulous little book, The Prodigal God.  (I'm giving you the Amazon link so you can go right straight there and buy it right now.)  TK says about a thousand new and insightful things about the parable we call The Prodigal Son. But here's what stood out to me.  This is a story about TWO sons.

We know all about the younger son, the bad kid, the cautionary tale we all heard about in Sunday School.  He runs off and does whatever he wants, clearly out of fellowship and after his own agenda.  Bad, bad, bad.

But then there's the elder brother, who stays home and is good, good, good.

We don't pay much attention to him in Sunday School.  But TK says that the elder brother, in all his goodness, is also after his own agenda.  And we know this because of the pity-party he throws, after his younger brother comes home.  He's mad because he's been so good and therefore deserves to have exactly what he wants.  When things aren't fair, he melts down.

Put it this way.  Do we want the Father, or do we want what we want?

Now this is a scary interpretation of the parable for yours truly.  Because I am the elder sister.

Literally, I'm the eldest of seven siblings.

And wow.

I see myself in the elder brother in the parable:  doing all the right things for all my own reasons.

And, like the elder brother, all was well in my good-girl world until.

My first big until happened in 1998.

In 1998, I was doing everything I knew to be as good as I could possibly be.  We had been missionaries for 5 years.  Lived on a little island in the South Pacific.  Cooked everything from scratch.  Pounded my laundry on a rock.  Homeschooled the kids.  Felt a smidge overlooked and resentful about it all from time to time, but tried to be nice to everybody anyway.

But in 1998, our daughter developed a seizure disorder.

And we lived in a country where the main hospital in the capital city would splint your kid's arm with a piece of cardboard ripped off a box.  (I know this is true, because it happened to friends of ours.)  So we would take her to the doctor and I would hear something like:  "Well, she doesn't have malaria or intestinal worms.  And she's still alive.  So she's OK."

And I personally felt that this was a less-than-adequate diagnosis.

Far, far worse than the lack of medical care were the seizures themselves.  They were just terrifying to watch.  And even though they would last for 3 to 5 minutes, it felt like hours every time.

The feeling that I had in my heart was that God had just abandoned us and did not care what we were enduring.

I was working so hard to be so good.  And bad things were happening.  To MY CHILD.  Which was way worse than any bad thing happening to me.

It just wrecked me.

(Eventually we took her to Australia for diagnosis.  She had a childhood seizure disorder that was well-controlled with medication, and resolved with puberty.  She's perfectly fine now, and most of the time we forget those two years ever happened.)

Right after the first seizure, our little missionary group had a spiritual emphasis weekend.  The speaker came out from Australia, and his theme was this:  "God delights in you."

He kept saying it all weekend.

And I just knew I didn't believe it.

It seemed like God was saying one thing.  That the whole essence of life is:  "I delight in you.  You will always be OK in my love."

And I was believing something else.  That the whole essence of life is:  "If I am good, then God will give me what I want (keep my kids safe) and that will make me OK."

"God delights in you" has become the altar call of my life.

When I was the elder sister, so angry and upset over things not being right and fair, the Father came out looking for me with these words:  "I delight in you.  I love you.  Come home.  There's a party going on.  Join us."

And that is His constant invitation, and choice I have to make every day.

Will I keep doing things my own way, hoping to control enough variables to make things come out like I want?

Or will I turn for home, and trust that God's love is enough for anything and everything that happens?

Here's what I have been learning along the way, and what I love most of all.

Nothing I do, or don't do, ever alters the Father's prodigal grace.  He always delights in me.

No matter how many times I find myself in a far country, or out on the back porch in a snit, He is always, always, always longing for me to come home, and ready to throw a party when I do.

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Pentecost Sunday

We just saw The Avengers movie the other day--Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, and a couple of others I can't remember.  They all have some kind of power that kicks in right when they need it, so they can vanquish evil and good can triumph. Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.  We were talking about this over lunch with our kids.  What does the Holy Spirit really mean in our lives?  And while we were talking about promptings and gifts and all those things, I thought, "Wow, this kind of sounds like super powers."

And personally, I've never felt like I have super powers.  Everyone around our table agreed to a lack of the same.

Hmmm.

So then I started to think about the times when I have known for sure that the Holy Spirit was doing something for me through somebody else.  I have several of those stories, but I want to share just one, out of my journal from 2002.  We were living in the Solomon Islands.

July 27

I can't believe we've been in the village for nearly a month already.  On the other hand, it feels like years.  I started to get bored and restless this week, feeling so pathetic and useless.  I don’t do anything spectacular.  I just teach my kids and cook.  Is this really the missionary work I was called to do? 

I really do think that the best thing I can do right now is support Andy and teach the kids, but it's not always so personally fulfilling as one might hope.  And I might as well be an alien from Mars, for all the sense my culture makes to these people.  They are so kind to me, so precious to my kids.  And yet I want more.  I want to know and be known.  To share my heart and have someone share theirs in return.

I know in my head that I need to keep realistic expectations.  But my heart still wishes for that close friendship.  I still want it, no matter how unrealistic it may be to expect it.  One of those "not until heaven" things, I guess. 

Andy, after long years of experience, can sense this mood in me from a mile off.  There’s nothing he can do, and we both know it.  But Saturday afternoon, we sneak off from the kids and go for a walk along the beach.  Even I have been known to cheer up on the beach. 

We meet up with this old lady down at the beach, wearing a bright green skirt and nothing else.  Breasts hanging down to her waist, tattoos in between her breasts.  As soon as she sees me, she cries out with pleasure:  “Oh my daughter, oh my daughter.” 

I have never, in ten years, had anyone call me by a kinship term; I hardly know how to respond. 

Is she really calling me her daughter?  But she doesn’t just say it once—she keeps repeating it. 

She puts both arms around me and hugs me, holds me. 

I’ve had plenty of women hold my hand out here, but I’ve never, ever had anybody hug me. 

She goes on and on, talking and laughing, holding my hand now, so happy that I am there.  While I of course am doing nothing spectacular—not even leading a Bible study.  She is just thrilled that I am there, doing nothing, saying nothing, just there.

July 29

This morning I was thinking about her again and I was reminded of Elijah, under his broom tree, telling God to go ahead and let him die.  I thought about Elijah, so tired and alone, no longer asking for a blessing, just asking for an end.  Seeing great things happen through him, and too exhausted to ask for anything to happen in him.  And the angel came and touched Elijah. 

And I thought that this lady was my angel with her hard old hands and her great soft breasts and her tattoos and her pipe of tobacco and her pleasure at my existence.  And I realized that, like Elijah’s angel, she was the answer to a prayer I hadn’t even had the heart to pray.

Now if you asked May, she would probably tell you that she's never had super powers either.  But the rest of us can see the Holy Spirit prompting and gifting and empowering like crazy.

My son put it this way:  "Well, I guess it's just that you show up like you're supposed to, and then God does something more."

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these little wonders

So I was thinking about manna this week.  How it appeared to feed those who needed it, in the right place, at the right time, just the right amount.  How it couldn't be kept or hoarded.  How you had to gather what you needed right then and there, and go to bed and wait til tomorrow. I was thinking about manna because life lately has been just what I need.  Right place, right time, right amount.

Spring.  Flowers.  Butterflies.  Baby birds.  Friday night fireworks after the Rangers game.  Birthday parties and wedding showers and cookouts and laughter.

These small hours.  These little wonders.

And how I would love to hoard them all.  To trap them, keep them, lock them up.

But I know what I really need to do.  Love these moments, savor them, receive them with gratitude, gather them up for today.  Then lie down and sleep, and wait til tomorrow becomes today, and the manna comes again.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsT2URr1Igc]

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I put my hand over my mouth

I am not especially good at living with paradox.  It's too disorganized for me.  By definition, there are no straight answers or to-do lists.  I want to think it all through, box it up with the correct label, and put it in storage.  But it just won't stay. Lately I've been spending a lot of time with people in pain.  I guess that's what counseling is anyway.  But I've also started volunteering as a chaplain at our local hospital.  And so I spend a lot of time being with people who are wrestling with sickness and pain and even death in an immediate way.

I keep running up against this problem.  People God loves, who are in pain.  People God loves, who suffer injustice and abuse.  And it just makes me kind of crazy.

So a couple of weeks ago, I was supposed to arrange a lesson for our Sunday School class but then I forgot and so at the last minute I grabbed this Rob Bell video called "Whirlwind."  It's about the book of Job.

Job, the man whose life epitomizes pain and suffering and loss.  Everything he values is taken from him.  In one horrendous incident after another, he loses his wealth, his family, his health.  Then his friends show up to tell him that "Everything happens for a reason.  God is good, so if bad things are happening to you, it must be your fault.  If you'd just admit what you did wrong, this mess would fix itself."

After 36 chapters, God finally responds, but He doesn't give a point-by-point sermon on the theology of suffering.  Instead, He composes a poem about the wonder of nature.  Around 100 verses of it.  He starts off with the sea and the clouds and the dawn and the light and the snow and the rain and the stars.  And then He goes into the lioness and the ravens and the mountain goat and wild donkeys and oxen and ostriches and horses and hawks and the hippopotamus and crocodile.

Here's the thing Rob Bell does in "Whirlwind" that just gets me in the heart.  He quotes it all.

When you read it in your head--well, when I read it in my head--it's so easy to skim and skip and try to get to the point.

But when Rob Bell quotes it all out loud, it's an overwhelming barrage, a verbal landslide.  And by the time he gets to the ostrich, I'm saying, "Stop, stop, I'm still trying to figure out the raven!"

Which is exactly the point.

"I put my hand over my mouth."

There are billions of things I just don't know.  I don't know when the mountain goat is going to give birth.  I sure don't know why so many bad things happen to good people.

I know Creation groans.  I know it's horrible and I hate it.

And somehow, somehow--I know.  I know, for sure, that my Redeemer lives.

And lately I have started to think that what I'm really being called to do is to live in the paradox.  To experience this pain and this hope together, without trying to quantify it or explain it.  Which, it seems to me, is way harder and more exhausting than my preferred box-it-up-and-label-it method.

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Credo

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=fKyljukBE70] God delights in you.

There is no way you're an accident.  There's no way you're a mistake.

And there is no way, no possible way, that you are unloved, uncherished, unseen.

Whatever else is going on in your world today, know this for sure.

The purpose, the power, the love that knit you together in your mother's womb is still at work in your life in the same divine, incomprehensible, creative way.

With God, all things are possible.

And He delights in you.

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Easter Monday

The Chronicles of Narnia are my favorite books in the world.  They were the first books I ever bought with my own money, when I was in 7th grade.  I have read them aloud to my own children so much that they can predict the passages where I will cry while reading. Reepicheep's speech about going down with his nose pointed East.  A stable that's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  Further in and higher up.

But most of all, where Aslan un-dragons Eustace.

Eustace, as you know, was the kid nobody liked.  He wandered off while being bratty, and found a dragon's treasure cave.  He fell asleep in the cave and woke up a dragon.  Which was fun for a while, until it wasn't any more.

Then he tried to un-dragon himself, but he couldn't.  Finally Aslan came, slashed off the dragon skin, and threw Eustace into a pool of clear water to grow a new skin.

So yesterday was Easter, and our pastor reminded us of this scripture in Romans 8:11:  the power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in you.

And we all just sat there.

As we often do, when the pastor says something profound.

On Easter Sunday, we're all into Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia.  And the Easter lilies and new dresses and egg hunts and ham.  I love all that stuff and it's a wonderful day.

But on Easter Monday, we wake up to the same job and the same marriage and the same crazy relatives and the same problems we had during Holy Week.  And the power that raised Jesus from the dead seems like...honestly, not much.

So here's an important thing I learned a few years back.  When I look at scripture and it says cool stuff and I look at my life and I see that my life doesn't match up to the cool stuff that scripture says, then the problem is not with the cool stuff in scripture, but with me.

And the problem I think I have with the power that raised Jesus from the dead is that I would like to tame it.  I want to control it.  I don't want it to come in and make too much of a mess.  I want to keep it clean around here.

C.S. Lewis says this about Aslan, "He is not a tame lion."

He will slash you open if he has to.  We know that this is true.

And I would prefer to un-dragon myself, thank you very much.

And so, the power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in me.  Little and stunted and squashed down into a corner, I think.  Because I am afraid of what it will do if I invite it to be what it really is.

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easter lilies

I’m walking through the garden when tears spring into my eyes.  I don’t know why, until I realize that I smell Easter lilies.  Resurrection after death.  Redemption after pain. I am missing home this Easter season, thinking about how much I love the Good Friday service with the lights going out and things getting quieter and quieter, until finally “It is finished” and everyone files out, in silence, to go home and wait for Easter.

But my favorite part is later, the part the congregation doesn't see, when the choir members unwrap the Easter lilies and put the butterflies on the nails in the Cross.

This work that choir does in the dark and quiet has come to symbolize to me the work that God does in the dark and quiet of our lives when we are living through our own Good Fridays.

When all the lights have gone out, everything is quiet, and it seems that the story has ended so badly--I have this picture now of God in a royal blue choir robe, tiptoeing through my life, setting out Easter lilies and leaving them to unfurl during the silent Saturdays.

And when they are open for Sunday morning, with their fragrance spilling through the sanctuary, the soundtrack will always be the Widor Toccata.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtj300j129k]

(Written at Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea, 2006)

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