Are you there
behind the window?
A soul in limbo
The pane is dark
Your mood is too
Ah, Come outside outside
And touch the view
Plants and trees
Beckons your heart
To play, be free free free
Ah, there you are in the garden
Sweet birds sing, the fragrance surprises
Let’s stay out here
Till new hope arises
There is beauty and purpose in each season. Who can deny the delight of witnessing the renewal of nature itself when gusts of warmth bring on the burgeoning colours of delicate flowers and tree buds release their fingers towards the sun. We all love it when summer’s lengthy light entices us into taking long nature walks in short sleeves and lazy days abound around waterfronts and barbeques, and oh, the glorious sunsets. Who among us hasn’t ooh-ed and aah-ed as the sight of the bold reds, golds and oranges of autumn begin to herald the end of summer’s green. And then there is the season that gets the least love, especially if you are Canadian where complaining about dark cold days is a national pastime, winter. Yet even winter’s bleak skies and frigid climes has its beauty and purpose.
My soul has seasons too, though not always chronological. Soul-seasons seemingly can’t be rushed and suddenly change with little forewarning. Spring for the soul is about clean slates, fresh starts, and discovery! Summer is strength, delicate strands of hope taking form. It’s watching with confidence our projects and confidence grow. Fall is maturity, seeing our investments reach their prime. But winter, we are not so sure what benefits to the soul winter brings. It seems life is put on hold. It’s the biblical equivalent to the dry desert.
Looking back to one of my hardest soul-winters I remember the shame I felt during an illness that took months to recuperate from. My veins were alternately pierced and arm tied to an IV pole that dripped antibiotics and salt solutions for ten days into my system. I worried about the expectations of my peers and employers. I could not perform as I had in the past. It was humbling. I was sure that my ‘net worth’ was descending . I tried hard to speed up the process of healing, get myself going again. But my body and mind wasn’t ready for it yet. I think God was trying to teach me, “Slowly I am with you always.”
I understand better now that slow invisible change, both in us and in the way we see life, usually happens in seasons we dislike the most. Of course I still tend towards trying to rush my exit out of desolate dry seasons, cutting cold seasons, brown ground barren seasons and enter the seasons of colour, freshness, warmth and growth. We feel shame and quite useless (almost dead) in our winter seasons. That’s when we need to step back again and let wisdom speak. She whispers to us to embrace the moment, live into the now, possess or be possessed by the renewing power of winter! Let love lure you into the next newness.
The more I think about the rhythms in our lives, the more I realize that God’s steadfast love is the common denominator in each season and his mercies are new just the same. In his time He makes lasting beauty to break forth through the darkness or dryness or the disappointment.
A wise man named Thomas Merton said, “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” That’s something to hang onto! Go back and read that phrase again. The slow growth of maturing beauty lasts longer because it’s roots have gone deeper in the soul. Not long ago someone said to my wife, “You have changed and it is remarkable!” I began to reflect on that a bit and smile inside because I saw it too. Often we are unaware of the changes happening inside of ourselves until someone else notices. Until then we don’t properly appreciate the inner coherence of beauty being matured in us.
There is a process to any growth and it entails the mysterious miraculous. We are not simply mellowing out with age, no, God forbid! We are becoming more like original goodness in our soul and adding beauty to the world. Like the crushing of grapes, it helps to remember that the juice will one day miraculously become like fine wine! It’s a slow but real process. Stop for a moment today and reflect on what is being planted in your soul these days.
Colossians 3:11 “…where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.”
I wonder if we Christians have understood just how radical the forming of new relationships through God’s outpoured grace is? God is not just going about saving souls. His heart from the beginning of time was to establish a new kind of family from every ethnicity; love bonds the world had never before witnessed. In Paul’s letter to the believers in Colossae he writes about God’s family on earth which he calls the body of Christ. He proudly proclaims that the uncultured and uncouth barbarians belonged together in the same family with the wealthy intellectually driven Greeks! He mentions uncircumcised gentiles and Jews being invited to sit at the same table. Slaves, especially, were to be treated with respect and dignity, as family. To most this was preposterous. To Paul this equality was the fulfilment of God’s original strategy.
Nowhere do we see it more clearly than in Jesus dealings with his own earthly family. Remember the answer given by Jesus when told his concerned mother and brothers wanted a word outside with him? ‘And who are my mother and my brothers,’ he said? His next phrase was about to radically realign relationships on our planet. ‘And looking around at those sitting in a circle about him, he said, “Here are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father, that person is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34) This was cataclysmic. With those few words Jesus extended the family beyond Abraham and bloodlines! Jesus pulls us all in and throws out the divisive narrative of difference.
To take it further you might remember the time that Jesus appeared after his resurrection to a couple of friends. They didn’t even recognise Him! The account says He appeared to them in a different form to teach them to recognise Him by the spirit and not by appearance. Jesus also spoke of coming to us in the form of a stranger and complimented our willingness to take him in. (Matthew 25:35) The Lord comes to us through those who are as different to us as foreigners, but like Paul reminds, He is all and in all.
Here’s a simple truth for you to embrace today: The universe tends toward diversity! God loves diversity so much that he made every last one of us different. God knows we need the uniqueness and freshness that each one brings to us. We too, like God, are free to love the creativity that diversity brings. Instead of buttressing ourselves within our own lines of sameness and like-usness, we are permitted, even encouraged, to step out and learn from each other. Be open and expectant! That is such a different posture from the closed stance we were taught which is based on fear. Next time you are in a church or meeting that is not your own look around and say to yourself proudly, “This gathering is more than a belief in the same God, these people are family!”
The apostle Peter revealed that God is building something big and beautiful out of all of us, Anglicans, Baptists, Brethren, Coptics, Catholics, Charismatics, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, and the hundreds of other kinds of Christians. We are each “Living stones to make a spiritual house.” 1 Peter 2:5 Can we plumb the depths of that sentence? Each rough-edged stone is being fitted. We are not certain how it all will look in the end, nor do we have to. That’s the glory of God. We are pretty sure, though, that the family of God, imperfect as we are, was made to teach the world the beauty of unity in diversity. We haven’t always done such a good job at this, have we? Lets keep at it!
“Isn’t everything you have and everything you are sheer gifts from God?”
You might not have given much thought to this question lately but it’s a good question. I’d rather live by a good question than a bad answer. In case you were wondering, it’s a question from the Bible. Paul wants to bring to light what should be obvious, that what we have and who we are should be understood as sheer gifts from a generous God. See if you can hold your breath and read this entire blog before exhaling! If you are a speed reader you might be able to, but most of us can’t last long without oxygen. And this invisible air we breathe second by second is gifted to us without cost by another much greater than you and I. You wouldn’t be reading this blog without that perpetual supply of that oxygen! So, no room for entitlement or conceit because life, every part of it, is a gift.
So back to the question, what’s the point of Paul’s asking? To not live by a bad answer: Conceit. Conceit doesn’t recognise gifts. The next step is obvious, too. It doesn’t recognise a giver. I found out that the more I knew the more I knew I didn’t know! So I decided trusting a God I believed was beautiful and generous, albeit cloaked in mystery. I found out I didn’t need to throw away my head to believe and I could give thanks. I simply trusted my heart and let my heart’s response inform my head. Realising that all of life is a gift made trusting the guiding hand of God become easy. That’s not a bad place to start this New Year, by enjoying the generous giver, God.
Now after the weirdness of 2016 lots of people are afraid that 2017 is going to be a harder year yet. Those crazy U.S. elections didn’t help much, right? Add to that the big bear Putin flexing his Russian muscles and aligning with the Syrian tyrant to destabilise the middle east even more than it was. And those poor polar bears so used to running around on ice at this time of the year now find themselves swimming, a lot. It’s a weird world. Not to mention that our personal worlds are full of variables too. Will we lose our jobs, our health or one of our loved ones in 2017? God forbid! Yet even if this were to occur, there is reason to not give up hope.
Though the future may seem out of our control, there is an obvious certainty that we can trust: God is bigger than we. He hasn’t lost sight of us nor control of our universe. It doesn’t mean you and I won’t have to face some hard situations. We will. And hanging tuff through that can mean being a part of the white knuckle club! Yet, humbly, I assert to you that our lives and our days are safe in God’s past movements, present moments and future mercies. We, all of us, are on a trajectory towards greater goodness, healing, wholeness of the likes that will last for an eternity! So take a big deep breath, now exhale, and know that where that breath came from, is the greatest gift of all, God himself.
The first promise recorded in the Old Testament was not by an angel with choirs, just God talking. He finds Adam and Eve in deep shame, but quickly moves the conversation to the deceiver. Seems like Adam tried to shift the blame for his bad decision onto the woman, Eve. Not much has changed, men have been trying to shift the blame ever since! However, God ignores Adam and goes straight for the deceiver and blames him. Then comes the first promise. It is surprisingly a promise of Christmas and it lifts up the status of all women. I wonder how we missed that all these millennia, right? God tells the snake that the seed of the woman would eventually overcome the shame wounds he inflicted and crush his lying head.
The New Testament begins with the same ancient promise to a startled young woman, a virgin, getting ready for marriage. After warm greetings he gets to the point, “The one to whom you will give birth will be like no other, none from the beginning of the human race to the end. He will be a Saviour, and will bring healing to the wounds inflicted by the deceitful snake.” Confused she reminds the angelic presence of the impossibility of this promise, she had known no male to fertilise her egg. The announcer must have smiled when he said, “Young lady, there’s nothing impossible for God!”
Christians, like many Muslims, believe in a virgin birth. What differentiates us is the belief that Jesus’s birth was of incorruptible seed. He was more than a prophet. He gave us more than a compendium of good sermons and an example of love. He was begotten of the Father, the Word that began it all now made flesh. Now that’s a pretty big promise to live up to! The snake reappears to cast doubt again on God’s promise, this time in a desert. We call it the temptation of the Christ. Don’t confuse Jesus name from his title. Jesus was the baby born of Mary and the greek title ‘Christ’ meant messiah. The snake in the desert kept pushing Christ for proof to his title, “If you are the one, the Christ, then show it now!”
In the end Jesus did not compromise to his archenemy in the hot sands of the Judean wilderness. He would not resort to feeding himself miraculously. He wasn’t willing to prove God’s protecting power. There would be no miracles to save himself, not would he bow to the lure of prestige and power. He would stay true to himself even if it meant great suffering would await. He left with his ‘Christ’ identity intact.
This post was inspired by two images, first an inspired painting that depicts a pregnant Mary consoling the ashamed Eve. Please see the snake wrapped around the heel of Eve and the head crushed under the seed of Mary. The question I started with and want to bring some clarity to us all is “Did God keep His original promise made in the garden of Eden?”
The painting gives us an answer. The promise began to take shape in Mary’s belly, to a hard birth behind an overcrowded Inn in a stable, to a miserable neglected town called Nazareth, to a baptism in a river that led to the Dead Sea, to a desert testing, to three years of incredible happenings, to a betrayal and abandonment, to a the gruesome cross, to a dark tomb shut tight with a Roman seal, and to the miracle of all, resurrection.
Today I was rearranging my dresser in our tiny Parisian bedroom and came about a memorial service bulletin. That was my second inspiration for this writing, the image of my Mom’s beautiful face still free of the ravages of old age and cancer graced the front with her smile. She passed away on January 1, 2015. For a moment I missed her voice, her smile and her calling my name. And I remembered the promise. I’ll hear her voice and see her smile again. God’s promise to the world is more than an escape from hell. It’s the redemption of all things. I am not sure what that looks like, but I am certain that it includes the healing of our shame wounds that always lead to a death. Death gets outdueled, swallowed by a greater power, life!
My theology training took three years of study and thirty-four years to live, it taught me that Jesus, the Christ, came to release us from the fear and sting of death. The shame wounds you and I now bare, both inner and maybe outer, caused by our own choices, will be healed, redeemed. How to say it better than a letter we call first Corinthians, “this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”
The ancient promise spoken by God in first in Genesis 3:15 and later repeated by an angel to Mary is one of ‘joy to the whole world’. It reaches as far as the curse is found. It is for my mother, and for your’s. It is for you. And it is for me. It is for the people of war-torn Syria as much as it is for the people on the shimmering snow covered hills of Sweden! Sounds unbelievable. It did for Adam and Eve. It did for Mary too. I guess we all need to hear some smiling angel say to us, ” Hey there young man, young woman, is there anything too hard for God to do?”
My favorite scene from the 1965 Charlie Brown classic Christmas Special is of Linus on stage recounting from Luke’s gospel the true Christmas story. The epic words, now forgotten by the vast majority, still ring out as truth to the humble of heart, “… and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not!”
Wow, the glory of the Lord and an admonition to not fear in the same breathe! It is hard to imagine with so much gone wrong in our fearful world that the glory of the Lord is on humanity. Yet the Good News of a true light among us, Jesus, remains. God deliberately shone His light and humanity came face to face with glory. And all those beings we were taught to fear in the darkness, those creatures with whom we fought and who fought with us, came face to face with God’s light. And it taught us not to be afraid.
The fear effect of darkness is a belief that something, someone, maybe everyone is dangerous. What God’s glory was meant to do was to show us that those creatures we rejected as bad were people like us. Light does that. It has forced us to see them, and ourselves not merely as walking trees or enemies hiding in the darkness, but as living under a great light. The incarnation has re-humanised us all. And in this great re-humanisation we are now allowed to enjoy and love the beauty that is revealed in Christ and in others.
We have a friend who is homeless. He was given a place to sleep in the warmth, yet recently he chose to go back and live on the street. He told us about the man who finished his shift very early in the morning and brought hot coffee and fresh bread to the homeless group of which he is a member. They never see him. He does it before they all wake up. And we might add that he does not leave a pamphlet from the church. But his good works are visible and precious, and come from a place of God’s glory in his heart we are sure!
Paul has an inspired way of making God’s truth so accessible and once wrote: Do everything you need to do without grumbling or arguing, so that you can be children of God, blameless, sincere and healthy, living in a torn and sick world, and shining there as lights in one Dark place. For you have in your hands the very word of life. (Philippians 2: 14,15)
When a light shines in a dark place it is there for all to see. It doesn’t even have to say much! Not only this Christmas, but daily we get to manifest the presence of this risen glory of God upon us to all those taking care of their business. It may be in Thailand where people still like to bow before the images and give them drinks and food. It may be in a chic neighborhood in Paris where Gucci bags are a common sight. It may be in the cubicle next to you in the office or your neighbour across the fence. We get to shine. What a wonderful job description. We shine the light of another and say, “No need to fear!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to each one of you!