Holy Ambush

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“Holy Ambush” Painted September 14 and 15 during worship services.

I love the story of the woman at the well. I’ve written about her before (here).

Jesus sent his disciples ahead so he could wait to talk to someone who was the wrong sex, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong religion, and had the wrong social standing, according to contemporary religious types.

She had her defenses up. But when she was honest with this strange man who broke with all social convention, he was open with her. He spoke plainly to her about who he was. After that encounter, she became a woman of influence.

I painted Jesus waiting for her. I usually avoid painting representations of the Messiah. There is already a very long history of artists imposing their culture on the stories told in the Bible. How does one paint someone who was both God and man? And did they really dress like Medieval peasants at that time? The metaphors nature provides are safer and less likely to attract critics whose minds snag on possible historical anachronisms.

At the end of the first worship session all I had on my canvas was something that looked like the background for the flannel board lesson my grandmother used to teach at Happy Hour Bible Club on Thursday afternoons after school. The problem was that I didn’t know what this story was going to be about. The creative imagery screen in my mind was playing a test pattern. I was blank.

I thought about sneaking all my painting paraphernalia out the side door and taking my regular seat at the next service. I worried that I was falling into the old performance trap. It would be better to admit I had no ideas than to forge on trying to look good because I enjoyed the compliments I received before. Been there. Have you seen my T-shirt collection?

Then the speaker began to teach about honesty and the Samaritan woman. The part of the story that struck me this time was that Jesus, who listened to his Father, probably knew she would be coming to the well alone. He sent the disciples ahead because this encounter would be way out of the box for them.

Then he waited for her.

Sunday morning I put the painting, such as it was, back on the easel and began to paint the picture I now had in my head. I know that 2000+ years ago Jesus wasn’t mostly white like me. He didn’t speak English, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t wear jeans. But when he invites me to sit and be open and honest with him, he speaks my language. He understands my landscape and my culture. He knows me and my history and all my shame and that wretched fear of rejection. He offers more love and acceptance than I ever hoped for.

He still waits to reveal who he really is to those brave enough to respond honestly to him. The rejected, the overlooked, the ostracized, the marginalized? They are the ones to whom he reveals his true self first. It’s a holy ambush.

Shepherd on Horseback: Guarding Against Fear and Hopelessness

 

horseback shepherd shee cowboy trail crop DSC_0122When I was a child we received official government pamphlets in the mail that frightened me. They showed red circles, like ripples, over a map of a city. The closer you lived to the center of the circles the more likely you would die from the inevitable nuclear holocaust about to be dropped on our northern Canadian city.

“It’s because of the oil and pipelines,” I heard the adults say. “They make us a target.”

I remember what it was like to be raised in an atmosphere of fear by a generation scarred by memories of WWII and The Depression. I was a powerless child who felt responsible for stopping the bomb. I was part of the generation who could not trust authority because, after all, it was “the good guys” who dropped the bomb the first time. There was no hope for the world. As young adults we sought escape in self-indulgent sexual activity and recreational drugs. We questioned the wisdom of bringing children into such a world.

The great world-ending event never happened in my parent’s lifetime — not that it couldn’t have happened, but it didn’t. Thus far it has not happened in mine, nor in my adult children’s. In fact, we enjoy a higher standard of living than my parents or grandparents did.

When I read about the history of various faith movements that went off the rails after a generation or two, the same factors keep showing up: the exploitation of power, and fear of the end of the world — situations where people cast aside discernment and agreed to rash actions because of the “extenuating circumstances.”

This morning I read a poll asking for people’s reactions to the impending end of the world due to climate change and the carbon mess my admittedly self-focussed generation brought down upon our heads. The poll gave these options. Essentially they were:

1) We will soon be doomed.  2) We’re doomed now.  3) Maybe the people who created the problem could be trusted to fix it? 4) Never mind. We’re doomed.

I listen to my grandchildren who tell me, with desperation in their voices, that their teachers say the world will end in twelve years because of carbon emissions and plastic pollution. A young friend talked about the “immorality” of giving birth to another generation born to certain death.

I recognize the same net that held me captive for so many years: fear.

The reasons for concern could be true. The reasons for hopelessness are not.

If we fail to consult the Creator, who understands his creation much better than we do, we are left feeling like the helpless children of the sixties reading the red circle pamphlets. They were burdened with responsibility without authority. When we try to solve the problem all by ourselves, we are like shepherd-less sheep each wandering off right into the danger we fear most. Our debriefing sessions, if we live long enough to schedule them, include the phrase, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Fear and hopelessness were the weapons the enemy of my soul used to manipulate my actions and willingness to surrender power for most of my life. I see him tripping up this generation in the same way. Fear manipulates their thinking to the point where many see no future for themselves or the children they will not allow to be born – even if those children, like many generations before them, carry solutions their parents could not envision.

The Good Shepherd has resources the sheep do not have. He is willing to put himself between them and the predator. He is willing to venture into the wilderness to save the one who foolishly got him/herself into a terrible mess of brambles. Like the shepherd on horseback I saw on the Cowboy Trail last week, he is near — and he is good.

Psalm 23 was written by a King, and former shepherd, who found himself in a terrible mess of his own making. He recognizes another option to the trajectory his foolishness started: 5) Turn to God and trust in his ways.

The Lord is my best friend and my shepherd.
I always have more than enough.
 
He offers a resting place for me in his luxurious love.
His tracks take me to an oasis of peace, the quiet brook of bliss.
 
That’s where he restores and revives my life.
He opens before me pathways to God’s pleasure
and leads me along in his footsteps of righteousness
so that I can bring honor to his name….

…So why would I fear the future?
For your goodness and love pursue me all the days of my life…

(Psalm 23:1-3, 6a The Passion Translation)

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You Can’t Make a Story Without a Problem

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I checked the weather report before I left to drive to Calgary. Mixed cloud and sun with occasional showers. Perfect.

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I like driving the Cowboy Trail when the weather is unsettled. The road runs north on the east side of the Rocky Mountains from the Crowsnest Pass. Light constantly changes in these conditions. Vistas are never quite the same. Cloudscapes and sunbeams arrange patterns of shadow and sun on the hills, telling a different story with every shift of wind. The photographer waits, anticipating drama – a story told in darkness and light.

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As part of my continuing story, this trip involved another trek to see specialists in a larger center about my complex health challenges. It’s one of those battles raging between good days and bad days, like plot shifts set in an ever changing landscape of unexpected symptoms.

DSC_0281 (5)I thought about the elements of story (a long road with few services leaves ample time for thought.) Even my little granddaughter had it figured out by the age of four.

“Every story has to have a good guy and a problem,” she said, drawing an exceptionally long-limbed princess on the first page of a storybook we decided to create one rainy afternoon. “Sometimes it has a bad guy, but it doesn’t have to. You can make a story without a bad guy, but you can’t make a story without a problem. Now what is our problem going to be? Maybe the princess has nobody to play with?”

A fellow writer had this to say about a memoire she was asked to review: “I’m happy for the writer. She’s had such a lovely life, but I feared falling into a never-ending sleep of the mostly dead before reaching the final chapter. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened to her – no disasters, no life-or-death crisis, no betrayal, no wayward children, not even a single regret worthy of a flight to a priest in another town for a trembling ten minute confession. I’ve had a hellish life myself. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but at least it wasn’t boring. I can’t relate to this book. What should I say? Reviewer dies from toxic dose of niceness?”

Jesus understood the power of story. “It’s like this,” he said, communicating a complicated concept people could not relate to by referencing something familiar.

“It’s like a Father who had two sons, but the youngest one…”

“It’s like a rich man who went on a journey and trusted a manager to look after his business while he was gone, but…”

 

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I watched the clouds along the highway and hoped for a place to stop where the views were best. A couple of times the clouds dropped their loads and the rain was so heavy I had to pull over to the side and wait them out. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. I could see nothing. But stories are like that too, especially our own, especially in the middle of a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding downpour.

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It’s hard, on the underside of a deluge, to remember that God is in the story with us. In fact, he has gone to some lengths to arrange circumstances that will give us stories.

Everything we think we know about him is merely theory until we experience him in the storm. Everything is dull until we see the light flooding the plain with hope. Every seed is dormant until awakened by the rain.

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I could pray for a nice life without stress, without doubt, without the need for divine intervention.

I could, and I have, but one night, in a dream, the Lover of my soul came to my door and called my name. When I opened to it, I saw him astride a beautiful white horse. He held the reins of a saddled bay and said, ”Come on! I want to show you something.”

We’re still writing our story together. It’s been an adventure, even when the skies have been cloudy all day, because, well, when that sun breaks through, it’s glorious.

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“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”– Jesus
(John 16:33 NIV)

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Words That Both Pierce and Heal

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No one speaks words so anointed as this one—
words that both pierce and heal,
words like lilies dripping with myrrh.

(Song of Songs 5:13 TPT)

A woman told me how excited a doctor was when he diagnosed her mother with an extremely rare disease. He was quite proud of himself.

“The problem,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes, “was that he could offer no cure. She died soon after.”

Living under religious laws is like that. Performance-based religious systems are quite good at telling you what you are doing wrong and why, but without empowering grace to change the heart, well, nothing changes. The law is like a doctor who can tell you what you’re dying of, but can’t fix it.

I have learned that truth hurts, especially when I’ve been avoiding it for too long. But I’ve also learned that unlike people who have knowledge without power, the Lover of my soul never puts his finger on a pain in my heart that he doesn’t intend to heal. Like a surgical laser, His words both pierce and heal and the result is always greater freedom.

For if you embrace the truth, it will release more freedom into your lives. – Jesus

 

Bloom Anyway

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Looking back, I am unimpressed with the amount of time I spent trying to impress people who didn’t impress me. Sometimes you just need to bloom where you are planted while the storm rages.

It always blows over eventually.

People who manipulate with fear and intimidation are often fearful and intimidated themselves.

Confident peace is a weapon they don’t understand. It frustrates them.

Bloom anyway.

Fear and intimidation is a trap that holds you back.
But when you place your confidence in the Lord,
you will be seated in the high place.

(Proverbs 29:25 TPT)

When God Says No

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I’ve learned that God is not nearly as restrictive as the culture I grew up in. He doesn’t place fences around fences around fences out of fear of one of us accidently going too far – at least for those who desire to grow in relationship with him.

The more we look to the Holy Spirit to guide us with his love and empower us with his grace, the more rule-making and rule-keeping becomes superfluous. In fact, rule-keeping can keep us from a closer walk with God, for we tend to focus on definitions of right-and-wrong behaviour rather than a love-based relationship that shows in our choices. When we rely on study alone and forget that the scriptures tells us we can, indeed, hear the Shepherd, we don’t bother to listen. (for Weeding Out the Noise click here.)

My own sheep will hear my voice and I know each one, and they will follow me. (John 10:27)

But sometimes I forget to ask him. Sometimes I start to walk in self-confidence instead of Holy Spirit-confidence. It looks good to me so away I go. Sometimes I barge ahead when I need to stay close to God and pay attention to the wisdom from above. Not all is as it first appears. Not every well-intended action is wise. Not everyone has the same assignment. Not all my own unexamined motives are pure.

More than once I have gone along with projects that looked good and ignored warning signs. The road may be right for them and suited to their personal equipping, but it’s not for me, at least not now. Often, I have found myself bogged down in burdensome tasks because I was led by my own desire to alleviate suffering (or my own privilege-guilt) without paying attention and asking for discernment in this particular situation. I wanted to do something – anything. So I did.

It didn’t turn out so well.

I once joined a group of people who seemed to be forging the way for greater things to be done in this city. I was happy to learn from them, even though they seemed to concentrate more on looking for historic strongholds of evil and what the devil was doing than looking at what Jesus was doing. Then I had a dream.

In the dream I was travelling down a local country lane which is called Hidden Valley Road. I came to a red light where there is no red light in real life. When the light didn’t change, I assumed it wasn’t working and kept going. Then a barbed wire fence appeared across the road. Now my curiosity kicked in. What was it I was not supposed to see?

In the dream I crawled under the fence to peak at what was around the bend. Suddenly a rockslide tumbled down the hillside in front of me. Boulders covered the road missing my toes by millimeters.

“What was that about?” I prayed after I woke up.

Over the next few days, I came to realize that when I asked the Lord to guide my path he would. He was saying no. Exploring the hidden valleys of darkness was not for me. My assignment is to talk about his goodness and his mercy. I longed for a group of friends in which I felt I could belong and be understood so much that it was difficult to drop out, but I did.

It wasn’t until months later the wisdom of stepping away was confirmed.

Most of the time I hear the Lord say that he gives us much more freedom to grow than we have this far taken advantage of. But greater freedom comes with greater responsibility to stay close to him. When he says no we need to stop immediately, even when we don’t understand the reason or fear offending someone.

I am learning to hear his voice. Sometimes I am wrong, and I need to admit when I have missed it, but God is good and there is grace for the maturing process. The faith walk in real time means taking risks, taking responsibility, and learning how to respond more quickly the next time.

But solid food is for the mature, whose spiritual senses perceive heavenly matters. And they have been adequately trained by what they’ve experienced to emerge with understanding of the difference between what is truly excellent and what is evil and harmful.

(Hebrews 5:14 TPT)

Refresh

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“Are you weary, carrying a heavy burden? Then come to me. I will refresh your life, for I am your oasis. Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. For all that I require of you will be pleasant and easy to bear.”

(Matthew 11:28-30 TPT)