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

 

Feeling Weak and Overwhelmed: A Prayer

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When I’m feeble and overwhelmed by life,
guide me into your glory, where I am safe and sheltered.

I’ve been feeling frustrated with my attempts to love people who act in an unloving, disingenuous manner – especially those who make skewed assumptions or condemn on the basis of association. I feel weak, overwhelmed – and, at times, I respond in an unloving, disingenuous manner myself.

Last evening my friend shared a song written by King David. Psalm 61. With tears in her eyes, she said that after reading it she felt loved. She has a beautiful heart and when she shares, I listen. I read the psalm again today.

It looked like King David had all the advantages — looks, charm, talent, connections, physical strength, intelligence, wealth, authority. He had seen God act in mighty and miraculous ways to set him on the throne, yet he still felt feeble and overwhelmed at times.

The greatest advantage David held was his ability to recognize that God was God and he was not. Being able to acknowledge his weakness kept him clinging to the Source of his provision. When he forgot from whence he came, and gave into the temptation to use his authority for self-aggrandizement, (like the time he resorted to betraying his faithful warrior, Uriah, on the battlefield, as cover-up for his own self-indulgence, for example) things went very badly for him. It broke him, but never cut him off from God. Repentence is re-alignment.

Paul wrote about his own intimate relationship with the greatest power in the Universe. A messenger of satan hung around even after the apostle prayed three times to have it removed:

“But he answered me, ‘My grace is always more than enough for you, and my power finds its full expression through your weakness.’ So I will celebrate my weaknesses, for when I’m weak I sense more deeply the mighty power of Christ living in me. So I’m not defeated by my weakness, but delighted! For when I feel my weakness and endure mistreatment—when I’m surrounded with troubles on every side and face persecution because of my love for Christ—I am made yet stronger. For my weakness becomes a portal to God’s power.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 TPT)

History demonstrates that power, unaligned with the Source of light, corrupts. Only the weak and the humble whose strength lies in submission to God can be trusted not to use it to worship themselves. Self-worship is also known as pride or entitlement. “I deserve the best on the basis of my superior attributes.”

The concept of humility is almost completely foreign to today’s public relations schemes and media manipulation. I’ve known Christian leaders who have been told that if they want to build a big church they should not to be open about their own weaknesses.

“People want a strong leader who sets an example,” a seminary prof said, “They want someone with a reputation they can trust without question.”

In other words, people want a god, or at the very least – a self-made man or woman worthy of emulation.

Alas, when leaders who follow this advice find themselves feeling weak and overwhelmed, they don’t always recognize the circumstances that threaten to drown them as a gift to prod them back into right relationship with the One who truly made them. Often they double down and resort to offensive defensiveness instead of humble prayer. A self-made man or woman has only the illusion of self-made resources to fall back on.

When King Herod accepted the adulation of the people, “The words of a god!” things did not go well for him either. (Story in Acts 12)

Those who work with light or fire or electricity or explosives know they themselves are never equal to either its creative or its destructive power. They also know, that with respect, yes, even fear, they can become a part of something greater than themselves, something greater than they ever imagined.

Power and authority in the Kingdom of God comes from knowing one is loved simply because God loves, and not as reward for any superior endowment of attribute or accomplishment. It is God’s infinitely powerful love, the dunamis power of the Holy Spirit flowing through one that allows a person to love powerfully. When we dwell in the shadow of the Lord, we are safe and sheltered. In him, we can love as he loves.

Lord, in weakness be our strength. May our feebleness be a portal to your power. Keep us in Your glory.

O God, hear my prayer. Listen to my heart’s cry.
 
For no matter where I am, even when I’m far from home,
I will cry out to you for a father’s help.
When I’m feeble and overwhelmed by life,
guide me into your glory, where I am safe and sheltered.
 
Lord, you are a paradise of protection to me.
You lift me high above the fray.
None of my foes can touch me
when I’m held firmly in your wrap-around presence!
 
Keep me in this glory.
Let me live continually under your splendor-shadow,
hiding my life in you forever.
Pause in his presence
 
You have heard my sweet resolutions
to love and serve you, for I am your beloved.
And you have given me an inheritance of rich treasures,
which you give to all your lovers.
 
You treat me like a king, giving me a full and abundant life,
years and years of reigning,
like many generations rolled into one.
 
I will live enthroned with you forever!
Guard me, God, with your unending, unfailing love.
Let me live my days walking in grace and truth before you.
 
And my praises will fill the heavens forever,
fulfilling my vow to make every day a love gift to you!

Psalm 61 TPT

 

Keep Pouring Out Your Unfailing Love

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But you, O Lord, your mercy-seat love is limitless,
reaching higher than the highest heavens.
Your great faithfulness is infinite,
stretching over the whole earth.
 
Your righteousness is unmovable,
just like the mighty mountains.
Your judgments are as full of wisdom
as the oceans are full of water.
Your tender care and kindness leave no one forgotten,
not a man nor even a mouse.
 
O God, how extravagant is your cherishing love!
All mankind can find a hiding place
under the shadow of your wings.
 
All may drink of the anointing from the abundance of your house.
All may drink their fill from the delightful springs of Eden.
 
To know you is to experience a flowing fountain,
drinking in your life, springing up to satisfy.
In your light we receive the light of revelation.
 
Lord, keep pouring out your unfailing love
on those who are near you.

(Psalm 36:5-10 TPT)

Resting in Greatness

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Ever lift Thy face upon me

As I work and wait for Thee;

Resting ‘neath Thy smile, Lord Jesus,

Earth’s dark shadows flee.

Brightness of my Father’s glory,

Sunshine of my Father’s face,

Keep me ever trusting, resting,

Fill me with Thy grace.

 

Jesus, I am resting, resting

In the joy of what Thou art;

I am finding out the greatness 

Of Thy loving heart.

 

(From Jesus, I am Resting by Jean Sophia Pigott. 1845 -1882)