Missing the Blessing

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“Jesus leads the way to a new vocation. Instead of the frantic pressure to defend the identity of people, land, and the temple, Jesus followers are, to the renewal of hearts and lives, to recover the initial vision of being a royal priesthood for the whole world, which is the Messiah’s inheritance and now will become theirs as well.”       NT Wright

That initial vision is what we’ve been talking about so far–from creation up until now. The “new vocation” is really an old vocation, as old as the garden of Eden. It really comes down to one word, that vocation. God called it going out and working the earth, creating community and beauty throughout the new world.

But basically, it’s one word. BLESS.

And I do not mean that the way a good Southern woman means it

Make me a BLESSING

 

The vision comes in the beginning, and it comes again clearer in God’s plan to create a people of his own when he speaks to Abraham. Because, by this time, humans needed it clearer. They had already lost touch with what God said in the garden and required a little Creation 101. So God speaks clearly:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12.1-3 

Abraham’s call—his work and meaningful purpose in life (remember that fundamental blessing of Genesis 1?) is to bless the nations.

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Photo by Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash

The Nations Are Right Here, Abram

Yet when given the chance, he fails. repeatedly, before he succeeds. Nowhere more clearly than in the story of Hagar, one of my favorites. Hagar is a slave, a foreigner, and a woman. Talk about a triple whammy. She “belongs” to Abraham, more specifically to his wife. In some transaction, they took her with them when they left Egypt. Given those circumstances, he has a perfect opportunity to bless her—and thus fulfill his call.

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

Spoilers

Instead, when his wife Sarah says, “Hey, here’s my slave Hagar. Sleep with her so I can have a child through her,” he does.

I think we can assume consent was not part of the deal.

Hagar had no agency. No ability to choose. The power differential was completely on his side, and it was his call to choose blessing or harm. Abraham chose harm.

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Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Later, when Sarah again complains, this time that a pregnant Hagar is triumphing over her mistress, Abraham again has the choice to bless or to harm. He could choose to protect this woman and her son, to treat them as family, to apologize, to tell his wife that her jealousy has reached unhealthy epic proportions and she needs counseling, stat.

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

He allows her, the mother of his son, to be treated so terribly that she runs into the desert, preferring its certain death to her current situation.

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God’s Magic Is the Best

And that is when the magic happens. God’s magic, that is.

‘The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur. The angel said to her, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where have you come from, and where are you going?” (No, this is not the appropriate time to break into “Cotton Eyed Joe!)

“I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,” she replied. . . .

Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.” She also said, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” So that well was named Beer-lahai-roi (which means “well of the Living One who sees me”). (Genesis16)

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Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

God meets Hagar on the road. He sees her. She sees him. She, the foreign slave who one would suppose doesn’t even know Abraham’s God, is so overwhelmed by this that she worships and calls God by a new name. El roi. The God who sees.

Hagar—the foreign female slave—is the first person in Scripture to give God a name. Sit with that for a while.

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The God Who Sees

And what a name. She recognizes God as personal, invested, caring and compassionate toward her. Not simply in general but toward her, personally. She never expected that. She comprehends what it means. She does the only reasonable thing—bows in worship, speaks the truth, and allows that personal love toward her to strengthen her as she returns to whatever will come.

In the desert, Hagar is blessed beyond belief by feeling and knowing herself seen.

But notice who does the blessing and who does not.

God comes to her and blesses her.

Abraham, the one whose job it is to bless, does not.

As a result, he also doesn’t take part in God’s great action toward Hagar here in her desert struggle. Abraham never experiences this great blessing that God gives to his slave.

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Fear is counterproductive to blessing others.

Abraham has been so busy being afraid. He fears his wife and his neighbors. He fears rocking the boat of his marriage so much that he allows his own in utero son to be sent out to die. He is so afraid of disturbing the peace that he loses his peace.

Hagar finds it.

The one he refused to bless finds his blessing.

Isn’t God funny?

It makes me wonder about myself.

Wonderings

It makes me wonder about myself.

How often do I fail to bless others, and that backfires on me?

How many times is the person I failed to bless still seen by God, but I miss the whole thing?

Why would I ever risk missing such a great wonder of God?

It makes me wonder about our society.

It makes me wonder if God will bless those we refuse to bless, as a nation. If the foreigner, the abused women, the enslaved or encaged around us will see God while we stare uneasily at our clumsily manufactured peace and wonder why he seems distant.

It makes me wonder if we as a society are missing the very great blessing we could receive if we chose to fulfill our job to bless the nations. It makes me wonder if being great really means that greatness should give out the most blessings the most freely.

Hagar would say so. She knows what it is to be seen.

The Freedom of Blessing

While we wallow in fear, fear of the other, fear of the unknown, and now fear of everything (we truly all finally have pantophobia, Charlie Brown!), I wonder if it’s a mud pit of our own creation.

I wonder if we could be free of it if we chose the simple act of blessing.

As we allow this season of remembering sacrifice to envelop us, be flooded with the meaning of the body and the blood. See it before you, and remember.

  • Remember the slavery—Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the unquenchable image of God. Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the new and abundant life his death purchased. Hagar’s. Yours. Your neighbor’s. The foreigner’s. Everyone’s.

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It makes me wonder if God will bless those we refuse to bless, as a nation. If the foreigner, the abused women, the enslaved or encaged around us will see God while we stare uneasily at our clumsily manufactured peace and wonder why he seems distant.

It makes me wonder if we as a society are missing the very great blessing we could receive if we chose to fulfill our job to bless the nations. It makes me wonder if being great really means being the one to bless the most.

Hagar would say so. She knows what it is to be seen.

The Freedom of Blessing

While we wallow in fear, fear of the other, fear of the unknown, and now fear of everything (we truly all finally have pantophobia, Charlie Brown!), I wonder if it’s a mud pit of our own creation.

I wonder if we could be free of it if we chose the simple act of blessing.

As we allow this season of remembering sacrifice to envelop us, be flooded with the meaning of the body and the blood. See it before you, and remember.

  • Remember the slavery—Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the unquenchable image of God. Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the new and abundant life his death purchased. Hagar’s. Yours. Your neighbor’s. The foreigner’s. Everyone’s.

“The Good News of the kingdom of God directly counters the Empire mentality by saying two important truths: 1. Every human has intrinsic value imprinted by God; 2. There is enough. The Eucharist shows us there is overflow at the banqueting table while simultaneously reminding us that the intrinsic value of human beings is worth dying for.”– Gena Thomas

Bless. Receive the blessing. And do not allow fear to rob you of it.

The Mark of Cain

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It’s the end of February, which to me means spring is imminent. OK, I know it isn’t. This is Chicago, after all. I know, in a way no one south of Highway 70 can possibly know, that spring is never imminent and always capricious.

But I’m a gardener, so waiting and hope intermingle here.

Gardening and theology go together like Frodo and Sam, and some of my best theological moments have happened out there amid the snap peas and sunflowers.

We’ve been talking about the Garden and its theology, and how it still matters in our lives today. No story proves that better than the one we’ll explore today.

But first—Recap time:

God gave blessings/commissions in the garden—two important ones that explain and define us in ways we probably don’t realize.

  • The first blessing/commission God gave in the Garden—Live in relationships. It’s not good to be alone. Care for one another. Be responsible for one another. Create community on this earth I’ve made for you.
  • The second blessing/commission God gave in the Garden—work, have purpose, live in partnership of doing good and spreading good on this earth I’ve made for you.

Then, of course, it goes all so wrong. Within one generation, we see the setup for generations to come, including our own. We see it in five angry, dismissive words that haunt us to this day.

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Photo by Mike Castro Demaria on Unsplash

“Am I my brother’s guardian?”

We know those words. They come from Cain, the first son of Eden. Here’s the story:

Genesis 4.2-16 When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him.

Afterward the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?”

“I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?”

But the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which has swallowed your brother’s blood. No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work! From now on you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain replied to the Lord, “My punishment is too great for me to bear! You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer.

You had one job

We don’t know why Cain’s offering fell short. We have no evidence, so any speculation is just that. All we know is that it did, and that God in his kindness gave him a chance to make it right. A chance to choose blessing rather than consequences.

He does not make the right choice.

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Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

Cain kills his brother, and like his father before him, when questioned by God, he deflects. What? I didn’t do anything. Wasn’t my fault, whatever you think happened.

How am I responsible for that other person you put on this planet?

Cain violates the first blessing/commission we are ever given. He denies his blessing of relationship. He refuses to be accountable for the community he’s been given. As a result, he loses all his relationships. He is driven from the land and forced to wander as a landless, rootless nomad. He has no community, when such a rich one had been his to keep.

But he chose to turn away.

What’s a guardian?

The word for guardian, shawmar, means to keep, to guard, to protect, even to save life. It’s a  term of responsibility—the same one God gave Cain’s parents earlier—

Genesis 2.15—The Lord God placed humans in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.

So in answer to your question, Cain, Why yes, it is your one job to guard your brother. To protect and care for, to nurture life. It’s literally the first thing you had to do.

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He loses family as a result.

About that second blessing . . .

The second blessing, meaningful work, take a huge hit as well. It’s difficult to farm the land when you’re going to roam it constantly. It’s a challenge to produce enough to feed yourself especially when, “No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work!”

Work will be too impossible to even hope for meaningful. The scarcity mindset Cain already had—there isn’t enough of God’s blessing to go around—my brother is getting more than I get!—will worsen.

Hasn’t it?

Maybe the actual mark of Cain was a symbol on his forehead, but I think the real mark of Cain can be found in all of us when we’re certain we need to compete with our brother rather than care for him.

The real mark f Cain is in all of us when we're certain we have to compete with our sisters and brothers rather than care for them.

Mommy wars.

  • At least I work/stay at home. I breast feed. I use organic. I co-sleep. I babywear. (Is that a word?) I won’t put my child in a nursery/will have my child to church from day one.*

Where does it end? This is not a competition. But it is. Because Cain taught us all that there’s only so much “good on you” to go around, and we must have our share. “Our share” is always more than hers/his.

No, we don’t. There is enough to go around. There’s more when we decide to be our sister’s guardian rather than her competition.

Popularity wars.

You know it never ended. It’s just escalated to Instagram rather than 7th grade locker notes.

  • Her kids are dressed better than mine.
  • Her vacation is more exciting than mine.
  • Her house is definitely cleaner than mine.
  • Her Bible study habits are even better than mine.

Cain taught us all that someone has to be better—there isn’t any room for both their life and mine to be satisfying.

According to research, girls from a young age already isolate other girls who seem to be too powerful, courageous, or self-assured. They don’t want other girls to have that edge, so they “cut them down to size.” Adult women—have you seen it? I have. Sometimes, we’re the worst at holding back other women.

Cain taught us that if someone else gets ahead, we’er automatically behind.

We’ve been carrying the mark of Cain ever since.

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Think about all that Cain lost in that transaction. We lose it, too. We lose relationships when we decide to compete rather than encourage. We lose the opportunity to work together when we push someone else back in order to move ahead. We lose all the things Cain lost—community and meaningful, cooperative work—when we choose scarcity and competition over being our brother or sister’s guardian.

What would change in our lives if we instead chose the role of shawmar? Keeper, guardian, protector, lifesaver?

It would be so good for us all to leave behind the mark of Cain.

 

*(PSA Insert: The only place this argument is acceptable is “I vaccinate my kid.” For the love of all that’s holy and ALL your brothers and sisters—vaccinate your child. The end.)

Be Transformed

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Photo by Johan Van Wambeke on Unsplash

The airplane winging us back home after a dream trip in Nova Scotia had barely left Boston when our middle child casually said, “I’ve decided I don’t want to go back to school this year.” It was August. Exactly one week before school would start. Did I mention she was entering her senior year of high school?

Obviously, I probed that statement a bit. It turned out she hadn’t gotten into the classes she wanted and had instead been placed in courses in which she had no interest. She couldn’t participate in the elite choir. She only needed one and a half credits to graduate. To her very logical mind, why sit in six hours of classes she didn’t want when she could take one at home and be done?

Logical perhaps, but quite a wild pitch when tossed at your parents at thirty thousand feet.

Fortunately, I had navigated several tricky back-to-school plans by this time, so the ball didn’t fall completely foul on us.

When the Path Doesn’t Fit

When we started the education odyssey, we expected our kids to do as we had: propel forward through thirteen years of public school, graduate, and go on to college. Simple. Clear. A normal path that worked.

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Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash

But it didn’t. The reasons are not my story to tell, but in some seasons that path layered too much pain and pressure on one child or another, and in other seasons being at home proved a struggle. Between our two oldest girls, we went through years of public school, private school, homeschooling, and back again.

The funny thing is, until we had to explore other options, I didn’t know we had them. I assumed one path was the only path. I believed we had to conform to that “normal,” or we were the problem. It never occurred to me that there were a myriad of options out there, and maybe we weren’t the ones who didn’t fit. Maybe our kids’ needs in different seasons required different solutions. Maybe our kids fit just fine, and it was the mold that didn’t.

This realization freed me to take each new situation as it came and act according to our reality then, not our reality when the girls were five. What worked for the giggling kindergartner boarding her first bus no longer felt right for a high school senior, who would be embarking soon on a new season life.

I find this epiphany comforting in much of my life. I don’t have to be the person I once was any more than my girls had to be the students they once were. (Glory hallelujah, when I look back on the person I was at seventeen. Or thirty-seven.) In fact, God promises this: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul tells us that our old, ill-fitting labels, assumptions, and beliefs can disappear. We have a new life to begin, a new creation to live into. God wants to re-create us without the hindrances we allow to pull us back into old molds that don’t fit.

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I need not continue the bad habit I had last year. My responses to hurtful things can change—they are not static. Past choices define nothing but the past—and a new mold awaits me if I choose to step toward it. This goes deeper than a bad habit or a new school, too. As a childhood sexual abuse victim, I know the damage from remaining a victim and the freedom of moving into healing release. For some of us, painful memories try to lock us into molds that will break us if we don’t break them.

Perhaps a new year is a time to break a few molds.

Be Transformed

Again, Paul has something to say to this possibility: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) Literally, “pattern” here is mold. Another translation says, “Don’t let the world shape you into its mold.” Our culture would love to tell us we will always be victims, we will never change those things about us we don’t like, we will always have to tread the same path we’ve been on until we don’t care anymore that it’s chafing and biting at the parts of us that no longer fit.

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God has better plans for me and you.

Just as my daughter wasn’t the same as a kindergartner and as a seventeen-year-old, so I need not accept a label from my past at any age. I’m free to make a different choice, and those choices will change over the long haul. Like my kids’ schooling, some combination of options will finally be my best road. The mold of Jesus’ likeness calls me—and the road there will curve, wind, and climb in different ways I don’t even know yet, but it will always lead true.

Our middle daughter did not go back to school that fall. She took ballet and went rock climbing to fulfill a year of physical education. I taught her English (my own area of expertise) for the other half credit. She went to the local community college and got a jump start on university courses. Finishing her last year in public school, even though it sounded like the normal thing to do for a high school senior, turned out to be a wrong option for her. She has a master’s degree now. Seems her wild pitch turned out pretty fair after all.

Notice the wording of Romans 12? Be transformed. Paul doesn’t say “work your way into change.” He knows only the Holy Spirit can create lasting change. He understands that we need to walk toward it, opening our hands and hearts, not striving to recreate ourselves but allowing and desiring God to break us out. Change isn’t our job—it’s our release.

(This post originally appeared in The Glorious Table, a great site for all kinds of writing voices!)

The Angels’ Song (Don’t Be Afraid)

“Don_t be afraid!” the angel said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” Luke 2.10

Perhaps you’ve read that “Don’t be afraid” is in the Bible 365 times—once for every day of the year.

Don’t be afraid

It isn’t true. It’s a nice Hallmark-worthy sentiment, but it isn’t Scripture. However, it is true that “Do not be afraid” occurs a hefty 70 times in Scripture—indeed more than any other command. That doesn’t include variations close to it—have courage, don’t be discouraged, fear not, don’t worry, etc. Simply—

Do not be afraid.

For people who tend to think of God’s commands as cumbersome, restricting, or difficult, this might come as a revelation. God’s most common commands are positive ones.

Praise him. Be thankful. Rejoice. Remember.

Not exactly cumbersome.

We might recall the words of the long-winded Psalmist who told us:

“The commands of the Lord are radiant.” (Psalm 19.8)

Where have we gotten this notion that they’re a burden?

Why be afraid?

Since God went a-calling in the garden asking Adam and Eve where they were hiding, we’ve been afraid. To be fair, there is reason.

We have failed him.

We have disappointed him.

We have chosen to run away from him.

We have caused his creation—of other humans and earth—utter destruction.

Yet his most common command is—“Don’t be afraid.”

What does it mean?
What doesn’t it mean?

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Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

It doesn’t mean “There is nothing scary out there. No worries. Hakuna Matata.” Let’s tell the truth—life is scary.

It doesn’t mean if you have enough faith, all is rosy and cheery.

It doesn’t mean you don’t have enough faith if you worry.

It doesn’t mean that if you have fears you’re a terrible Christian.

Let’s look at a few places God says it.

Exodus 14.13  But Moses told the people, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today.” (Just as the Egyptian army descends, and God prepares to part the Red Sea. No worries, people. Just sit and chill. That raging army is not scary. It’s fine. Everything is fine.)

Joshua 1.6 Be strong and courageous—Do not be afraid or discouraged. (Just before he is to lead the Hebrews into the promised land)

John 14.27 I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. (Just before he goes to the cross and leaves them)

Luke 5.10 Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” (As he begins to gather his disciples into a life-changing adventure)

Luke 1.30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God!” (As she is asked to be part of the most dangerous undertaking ever imagined)

Luke 1.13 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.” (John the Baptist, that is)

Matthew 28.5-6 Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead.” (As the world is about to be turned upside down)

Can you see a pattern here?

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Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

God is about to do something . . .

God doesn’t tell people “fear not” when there is nothing to fear. He often says it when there is a great deal to fear! In fact, a lot of the time, ‘fear not’ is followed by something God is going to do in the person’s life that’s kind of terrifying.

Fear not really means–do you trust me?

Thus we come to another song of Christmas. This time, it’s a very familiar song. It’s a song quoted by the great theologian Linus VanPelt as the most important song ever. Let’s look at the angels’ song.

Luke2.8-15 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 

And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

OK, we don’t know they sang those words. That’s tradition. But we’re going with it.

They have one job

Angels’ one job is to be messengers of God almighty—used when he wants to tell humans something important. They possess all the glory and holiness and terror that entails.

The universal human reaction is fear, and justifiably so. Yet—the angels always say—don’t be afraid.

God’s first message when he plans to enter the world is

—don’t be afraid.

What a first message. So many things he could have told us to prepare us for his coming. Yet he chose those three words—don’t be afraid. It’s as if he knows humans well.

  • He knows he holds all the cards.
  • He knows his perfection, his holiness, is scary to us.
  • He knows people are afraid of what might happen when he shows up—in their lives and in the world.

Something usually does happen!

So his first words are so often—don’t be afraid.

God’s first message when he plans to enter the world is—

The angels herald his entrance into this world with loving concern for his people. They speak to the shepherds of peace. They tell them not to be afraid of the God who comes with lovingkindness  and mercy. With a grace that knows we are deservedly scared and assures us his coming to us face-to-face is good news.

He comes with peace on earth and mercy mild. God and sinners, reconciled.

Oh, those angels know.

The angels sing the finale.

They sing the song to end, or begin, all songs.

They sing the last words before the Word is revealed.

They sing the good news to end, or begin, all good news.

But it’s old news to us

We are so used to this angels’ song.

It’s on our Christmas cards and our playlists.

But what does it tell us about the savior, and about us?

If the angels are sent to tell us the Savior is born—in a humble place, to humble people, for all people—that the God of the universe has put his life in the hands of a girl who just grew up quickly herself—what does that mean?

It means He wants to be with us.

He wants to be with you.

He didn’t send a telegram or tweet his love out to the universe.

He came.

God with us.

That tells everything.

Remember what we learned in Hebrews a while back?

“The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.” (Hebrews 1.3)

It meant that Jesus is the exact image of God—the precise imprint of his character here on earth, like a coin given from the emperor.

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Photo by Virgil Cayasa on unsplash.com

This sacrificial, humble, giving baby who only wanted to be with his creation to show it the way out of darkness and craziness and enveloping confusion is the very expression of God’s heart.

It’s who God is.

Don’t accept substitutes.

Don’t accept people telling you who or what God is or does or feels if it isn’t what you see in Jesus. Jesus, above all, shows us a God who wants to be with his people. It doesn’t matter what those people have done or believed or lived or are. None of those things matter about the person next to us, or far from us in anther country, either.

If that’s not what other people’s God looks like, their God is suspect, according to Hebrews 1. He should look exactly like the One born as Emmanuel, God with us, humbled into a tiny baby’s body to bring peace and good news.

The angels tell the shepherds “don’t be afraid.” God is on the move. He is about to do something scary–and so incredibly, beautifully merciful you will not comprehend it as long as you live. Don’t be afraid. Trust him.

Go and see. Don’t fear to see what God is doing. Don’t  be afraid to take part. Go and see. You will never be the same. That’s both scary and beautiful. Take in both. Don’t shy away from one and choose to embrace only the other. You’ll come away with neither. The angels’ message is the same to us as it was to the shepherds.

Don’t be afraid. Go and see what God is doing.

Five Images of God

Because we’re just returning from a thankful Thanksgiving together, and because chapter three of my thesis is of the devil and allowed me no time to be prepared, today is a rerun of an old favorite, May you feel God in these images.

Images Speak

Words enthrall me. This is not news. I am a lover of words, and words that paint pictures draw me into their world. They may say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in my experience, the best words are worth far more than a picture. The best words let us feel them and imagine them on our own.

Words and images intertwine for me. As a lover of the imagery words can create, I get excited about images of God. What images does the Bible give us, what pictures does it paint with its words to show us God in ways that sing to our souls?

And–in keeping with the Live Free Thursday prompt–how does pondering images of God offer rest to our souls? It does to mine, when I think of God as these five things.

Father of lights

43160-533652_4624500284437_1219894898_nOr more literally, Father of the heavenly lights. The maker of the sun, stars, and moon. The creator of mist, fog, and filter that never, ever completely block the light of the sun but only amplify its raw power. The one who said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1.5)

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.(James 1.17)

I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. (John 8.12)

The Lord is my light and my salvation, so why should I be afraid? (Psalm 27.1)

IMG_9266I love light so much that none of my windows has curtains. To know that the Father of lights has called me into His light that, yes, shows all my flaws and errors for what they are, but does so with the healing precision of a laser surgeon? That’s what it feels like to laugh freely in sunshine and turn my face to its warmth. That’s God.

A hen with her chicks

I watch birds all the time outside my window. I see them, tucking their heads inside their wings to fend off the unholy Chicago winter winds. I worry for them, as I notice a hawk sitting in the tree eying my feeder, waiting for one to stray. I hear the tiny peeps of baby robins when spring nest-building inevitably ends up in the eaves of our porch, and I watch the new parents feeding their young. I know how hens shelter their chicks for protection beneath their own bodies, willing anything to harm them before it reaches their helpless, dependent offspring.

I know how I still would if need be for mine, who are by no means helpless and dependent.

IMG_5296God wills so much more than that for us to run to his protection. He loves so much more strongly. The image of Him folding himself around me, keeping me from myself and my own tendency to stray too far from the safety of his words, brings gratitude. The realization that He did, in fact, put His own body between me and death brings awe.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. (Matthew23.37)

An eagle

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At first, this might look like the same thing as a hen. Both are birds. Both care for their young in these images. But the eagle does something different than the hen. She fights. He soars. An eagle will not simply protect her young passively, but she will take on any enemy that comes near. Also, he will not leave those eaglets in the nest but will force them into fearful, vertigo-inducing flying. Eventually, soaring.

The image of God fighting for me I cannot even fathom. The knowledge that I have no knowledge of all the times he has kept harm from me is humbling. The idea of him then ensuring that I can go out and fight my own battles, that I have been equipped to soar and dive and live freely because he takes me on his wings and lets me feel what it is to fly? It makes me brave, because what other response can I make?

As an eagle that stirs up her nest, that flutters over her young, He spread abroad His wings and He took them, He bore them on His pinions. (Deuteronomy 32.11)

A Teaching Parent

Have you ever taught a child to walk? This image is so potent if you have. You watch them getting ready. They pull themselves up, and you hover near, ready to catch their faltering little bodies. They venture one step, fear and excitement both in their tiny eyes. You watch. You wait. You want to jump up and keep them from crashing down. Sometimes you do, but not always. They know your hands are always there, but they also want to try on their own; you have to let them. And when their sense of adventure wins out and they toddle across the floor, you cheer them on. You encourage, you clap, and you envelop them in a hug at the finish line of their first steps across the room. You know this story if you’ve done it. You will always feel it.

IMG_3200Can you imagine God at that finish line for you? Cheering? Clapping? Screaming, “You’ve got this!” God proves in his story of the prodigal son that he is perfectly willing to be undignified for us when he runs to his son, robes flapping in the breeze. So yes, he screams.

He grieves when we walk the other way. He beams the joy of a parent when we take our steps in the direction he sees best laid out for us, however faltering they may be. God as a teaching parent makes me want to try.

I myself taught Israel how to walk, leading him along by the hand. I led Israel along, with my ropes of kindness and love.” (Hosea 11.3-4)

It’s difficult to choose just one more . . . Rock, bread, shepherd, but I will settle on . . .

Potter

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter. We are all formed by your hand. (Isaiah64.8)

He is creating masterpieces. Some of them are more difficult to mold than others. (Oh, don’t I know that.) There are streaks of darkness in the clay where hard things happened, layers of color where dreams interwove. Each creation is different, each one handcrafted perfectly. I cannot begin to grasp the significance of God sitting at a potter’s wheel caring enough about the final testament of my life that he folds in the beautiful and out the muck. Individually. By hand. Again, I am awed, humbled, and grateful.

IMG_6897What images of God speak to you? Which one do you need today to know how much he loves you and is surrounding you right now? I’d love to hear.

Final Instructions

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Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Bold Living—Together

Coming to the end of Hebrews, one might expect the writer of such a epic letter of hope and instruction to wrap up with a flourish. To say something so profound, so inspirational, that generations to come will walk boldly forward in their faith with the words ringing in their ears.

But the writer does not. Strangely, s/he ends rather anti-climactically, with an encouragement and an admonishment to live together well.

“Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.” (Hebrews 12.14-17, NLT)

So, that’s the punch line? The final word? After all this?

Don’t Try This Alone

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

It is. See, the writer knows something Western Christians forget. The final truth is—we can’t do any of the amazing things in chapters 1-11 alone.

Bold Living prioritizes healthy relationships and cares for them with integrity.

The writer knows what looms ahead for these poeple.

  • Things are going to be hard.
  • Stress will threaten to fracture them.
  • Persecution will tempt them to betray one another.
  • Complacency will suck them back into their old life.
  • Some will want to pull up anchor and go.
  • Some will lose their hope and vision.

So this ending. This is how you hang together. Because to paraphrase Ben Franklin, you’ll hang separately otherwise.

This is maintenance for how to keep the fractures, cracks, and small roots from breaking it all apart. It’s not a sexy ending. But it’s a necessary one.

It’s still true, isn’t it? In marriages, friendships, and churches? If we let the small roots get in, they will crack it wide open.

Tiny Cracks

Lots of stresses from outside still pressures us. Time, competing values, money, other relationships, envy—it all gets in the cracks.

That’s how earthquakes destroy—they don’t break open bedrock. They follow where the weaknesses already are. Where the cracks already exist. Then they widen them and wreak havoc.

Ephesians 4.23 warns us—“Don’t let the devil get a foothold.” I know from experience with rock climbing that a foothold need not be a large thing. It can be a tiny crack. Anything the accuser can leverage and widen to climb into our lives.

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Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

What are those little cracks?

Bitterness

“Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.”

The first sign of trouble in a relationship is always bitterness. Disagreement happens. Disagreements are healthy.  Churches that never disagree are unhealthy places where everyone has to fall in line and no one feels safe.

Marriage that never disagree mean someone isn’t being heard.

If any relationship has no disagreement, there’s a balance of power difference and it’s not a real relationship. We are free, and that means to not be alike.

In every dystopian novel or sci fi movie I’ve ever known, it’s the ones that are all the same we have to be scared of.

But bitterness isn’t healthy disagreement. It’s unhealthy resentment. It’s poison in the cracks. When we see that root, we know trouble is on the way.

  • He should know.
  • I always do all the work in this friendship/church/marriage.
  • How could they not invite me to do that?
  • I’m not appreciated, valued, heard.
  • All our problems are her/his fault.

We tell ourselves these stories until we believe them ourselves.

And then the relationship falls apart, and we blame the other party.

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Bitterness  takes hostages, too.

Gossip

Bitterness becomes gossip as the words in our head become words on our lips. We start to believe our thoughts, and then we tell others. It does as the writer relays—it “corrupts many” as the infection of bitterness spread throughout the body.

  • Please pray for my spouse. You wouldn’t believe what she/he did.
  • I’m not real sure of their parenting skills. How could we help?
  • Do you think the pastor really is doing the best things for us?

The only cure for infection is to get it out. Someone has to go first in honest discussion of what’s happening. Someone has to be willing to lance the wound. Talk about your hurt. Be honest with your needs.

Someone has to pick up the trowel and start patching the cracks.

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If Christ has forgiven us, recreated us, made us witnesses, why not let it be us?

“So stop telling lies (to yourself as well as others). Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.” (Ephesians 4.25)

Then, choose to speak words of life.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4.8)

Perhaps an even bigger tree root, however, is the final one.

Apathy

“Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau.”

We are our brothers and sisters keepers.

Work together. Watch one another. It’s our part in the body to live like a body, helping one another toward holiness. Watching out that no one is left out.

Work at peace and holiness. They don’t just happen. We’re not supposed to be only friendly and fun. We’re supposed to help one another be holy. It’s our deep calling to help one anther cross the finish line. We are given the job of making sure we all are living in God’s grace. It’s a holy calling, this depending on one another.

It requires time and intention to be in one another’s lives—not intrusively like a Pharisee, but completely, like a brother or sister. We in the Western culture are not so good at this. We value our privacy. We idolize our time. We live in our bubbles. Yet I believe that one of the biggest dangers to living in Christ is simply being apathetic toward checking in on one another’s faith.

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My older brother ran cross country in high school. I idolized him, and when he ran, I tried to run along, as far as the track coincided with the observers. I ran, though I couldn’t come close to keeping up, until the finish line. I loved my brother. I wanted to follow him. I wanted to be there when he crossed that line (often first).

I want to be there when my brothers and sisters cross the line. I want to cheer them on. I want to run beside them, pacing them, letting them know I’m there for the whole race, if need be.

That’s the kind of church the writer of Hebrews imagined. That’s what s/he wrote to hold on to. Those were the final instructions, and they were better and more important than we think.

Where’s the Party?

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

I am not a party person. I am so far on the “I” side of the Myers-Briggs scale I nearly fall off it. I love being a pastor, and I love my people, but socializing with a roomful of acquaintances on a surface level feels like I imagine purgatory would feel, if I believed in it.

Nevertheless, I enjoy a well crafted party with people I love. We’ve had our share this year, with the youngest’s wedding right in the middle of 2019. A shower. A wedding. A reception back home. All of it. And all of it we crafted carefully, with their tastes and our budget in mind.

We planned themes, grew and arranged flowers, drilled holes in centerpieces and hand-letters signs that told people exactly where to put their cards and how to play the date night game. While we did much of the work ourselves, we had a dress, a caterer, and a photographer that knocked it out of the park.

We missed nothing. It was a wonderful day.

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Time to Party

As we’ve been walking through Hebrews, off and on, these last few months, we come to a passage that also knocks it out of the park. So far, Hebrews has been shopping, setting the table, making menus, crafting decorations, and sending invites. The writer has missed nothing.

Now—in chapter ten—it’s time to party.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10.19-25, NLT)

Verse 22 is the party—“Let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him.”

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

Bold Faith

We are not simply to come to the party either but to come boldly. “Go right in” is the phrase people use when they know the person invited belongs. It’s what we say to friends—come on in, and use the side door (the one for friends). You know you can walk in anytime. We don’t offer that privilege to strangers. Only those who  have our complete love and trust get the “come on in.”

Other translations use the words “confidently,” “with full assurance,” or “boldly.” Literally, it’s “free and fearless.” It means the same—go toward God as you would anyone who invited you in like you belonged there. Because you do.

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For many, boldness is not our default. When it comes to any relationships, fear predominates. Fear that we will not be accepted. Fear that we can never be good enough. Fear that we don’t deserve forgiveness. Fear that our love will not be reciprocated.

Fear drives so much, and has since Eden.

God puts that fear to rest here. If we’re told to come boldly to the one who made us, who knows us best, whom we’ve actually offended the most, but who loves us everlastingly and unconditionally, then where is the place for any fear at all? If that relationship is restored, what is there to fear in any other?

What would it be like to live free and fearless?

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

  • Relationships fail us.
  • Spouses leave, or don’t fulfilled their vows to honor us, protect us.
  • Friends betray us to move up social ladder.
  • Relatives abuse you in ways no one talks about.
  • Coworkers throw you under the bus to cover their butts.
  • Your child screams swear words at you, and you believe growing up means breaking apart.

Trust is fragile.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

If the only metric we have to measure relationships is human ones, and we are human so it is, then we project all that on God.

  • God becomes the girl who wouldn’t let us sit with her.
  • The kid who bullied you.
  • The spouse who betrayed you.
  • The relative who abused you.
  • The father you could never please.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

Two years ago, I went to a friend’s home in London for a writing retreat (I know, rough), and two of the other women voiced their life’s dream to got to Paris. They begged me to go, too, since I’d been a few times and could be a guide. So we made a day trip, and our first stop (OK, after Laduree and Berthillon) was Notre Dame. Notre Dame was my first love of buildings, and I couldn’t wait to see my old friend.

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We saw a long line near one door. Very long. One of the other women nosed around and found another door on the other side. No one was lined up there. So, maybe the other line was for the tower? Because my friend is bold, and because she has an auto-immune disease that makes standing for a long time difficult, she decided to use the door with no line. Boldly, we walked right in.

We gaped round the altar, stood in awe at the familiar rose windows, and walked the checkered floor I love so well. Yes, we cut the line, we realized later. But the door was open. And we decided to walk through it without hesitation.

That was the last time I saw my favorite place in one piece. I’m so glad we chose to go through the door.

This is the exuberant, joyful, excited boldness God wants for us when he talks about us coming near to him. Without fear, with excitement, believing this is the best dream of our lives. Because the door was opened, and all we have to do is walk in.

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We do not have to measure God by the instability of human relationships. God invites us—and he invites us as He would a friend.

Maybe when trust is hard is the time we most need this party. Not a fake it, put up a front, false happiness party—a party that says what matters will stand.

A party that defies death, decay, rising smoke and tells it all—you do not win.

Because it is finished.

Death—you have no victory.

Despair—you have no home here.

Fire and smoke—you cannot take away what matters.

Restoration is beginning. Reclamation is here. New beginnings are ready—don’t despair—come to the party.

Come boldly.