Beware the expert who has stopped asking questions.
Beware the expert who has stopped asking questions.
Have you heard this one? How many counsellors does it take to change a lightbulb?
But the lightbulb must really want to be changed.
One of the words suggested for a photographic meditation in the season of Lent is “broken.” Contrary to my usual practice of looking for beauty in the midst of the ordinary, I looked for the less-than-lovely. For the sake of this exercise I gave myself one hour to photograph only the broken.
I love photography because it has trained me to pay attention to the goodness of God, particularly his creativity and generosity in nature. I have changed. I used to be overly aware of disorder. Seeing only the broken took no effort, and the loss and heartache it symbolized began to feel overwhelming.
This is not the way it was meant to be.
Yesterday we gathered with friends to study the book of Matthew. The more time I spend reading about Jesus’ words and actions the more ideas and practices I realize I need to unlearn in the quest to know him. I’m trying to imagine what it was like for him to live in a broken world among broken people when he was the only one who understood the way it was meant to be. He knew what was in people’s hearts, and yet he loved them. He did what he did for the joy set before him – for the hope of establishing a new normal.
This passage touched my heart:
Jesus walked throughout the region with the joyful message of God’s kingdom realm. He taught in their meeting houses, and wherever he went he demonstrated God’s power by healing every kind of disease and illness.
When he saw the vast crowds of people, Jesus’ heart was deeply moved with compassion, because they seemed weary and helpless, like wandering sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35, 36 TPT)
I thought about the type of compassionate responses offered to broken, weary, helpless, people falling through the cracks in my own country. We offer borrowed money to feed, drugs to numb, unrestrained sexual pleasure to distract, adversarial court procedures that throw gas on broken relationships to pacify, and physician-assisted death for those who have lost hope for themselves or their offspring still in the womb.
Compassion without hope can be a cruel kindness.
Many religious folk have lost hope as well. They may raise funds to offer material relief, or pray that a person will be comforted in their incurable condition, but they seldom act with the type of merciful power Jesus demonstrated. They would never admit it, but their responses to broken people are not much more effective than the Pharisees who saw doubling down on the rules as the way to prevent hopeless suffering. They take a stance at the other pole on the cruel kindness playing field. They see the world in terms of “us and them.”
“Later, Jesus went to Matthew’s home to share a meal with him. Many other tax collectors and outcasts of society were invited to eat with Jesus and his disciples.
When those known as the Pharisees saw what was happening, they were indignant, and they kept asking Jesus’ disciples, “Why would your Master dine with such lowlifes?” (Matthew 9: 10, 11)
Jesus told them, essentially, that if they thought they held the copyright on normal, they wouldn’t value what he had to offer.
“…Healthy people don’t need to see a doctor, but the sick will go for treatment.” Then he added, “Now you should go and study the meaning of the verse:
I want you to show mercy, not just offer me a sacrifice.
For I have come to invite the outcasts of society and sinners, not those who think they are already on the right path.” (verses 12 and 13)
Earlier in Matthew we read about the narrow road to knowing who Jesus is and the significance of what he has done for us. It starts with step one, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Being poor in spirit means admitting that our methods of coping with brokenness are not working. It means we recognize our powerlessness. It means looking at the mess we think “is what it is” and recognizing our inability to conceive of how effective God intended us to be. My own heart is convicted.
It means admitting, like the old Gaither song says, “All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife.”
It means turning to The Great Physician and asking him to heal us, body, soul, and spirit.
It means that we who make excuses about living in a way that does not demonstrate the way Jesus said the Holy Spirit would empower us to act, also need to admit our poverty, and turn to follow him more closely. Sharing his heart means not only feeling the deep compassion he feels for the broken, but also aligning with him to do something about it.
If we really want to be changed The Great Counsellor is willing.
“The sense of mystery must always be, for mystery means being guided by obedience to Someone who knows more than I do.”
This is a digital manipulation of a photo I took of barren trees beside a winter road (see the little branches?).
Many times it is difficult to see how God can use things that appear dead in the cold dark season we are in, but He has a plan to make something beautiful of our lives.
How does he do it? It’s a mystery.
Although sometimes it feels as if this season will never end, yet will I praise You, Lord.
So much to do, but the snow falls softly and the silent forest calls.
The Fruit of Silence
The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.
~ Mother Theresa
~ Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ setting Of Mother Theresa’s poem
The season of rest lingers.
I walked by the off-leash park the other day. I watched the dogs for a while after their owners released them. Some stay close to the gate at first, but they soon run for the open field. They expressed such joy in freedom.
I’m thinking about “motivation.” It’s the word suggested for meditation today in the Lenten Snapshot challenge I am following. At first I thought about taking photos of the obvious, symbols of motivations for doing what I don’t want to do, like scales or a boot to the rear. But I tend to look for something different, so I began to think about my motivation for extending myself to do what I actually do want to do and don’t have to do.
In the past few years my motivation has changed. I used to base my actions on wanting to please God, please my family, and not annoy my neighbours too much. That meant subjecting myself to other people’s standards, and to some extent, “God’s standards” as defined by other people’s standards (aka their interpretation of the Bible.)
My friend helped me realize that my quest has changed. We were discussing why I can’t seem to make progress on the novel I’ve been writing (mostly in my head) for years.
“You realize this story is about you,” she said.
“Of course, I do. I only know what I know –or think I know– and that is going to come out.”
“Your heroine was born in a prison, right?”
“Yes. And then she ends up in a cloistered convent against her will and eventually tries to escape.”
“You are the one who was born in a prison and kept in a kind of convent, you know. You were cloistered by legalistic religion. You are the both the writer and the reader. You hit writer’s block when you changed your audience to a demographic that would be marketable. You need to free yourself from asking ‘What would please this audience?’ and get back to writing your way out of convention to the place of your own freedom.”
I doodled on the paper in front of me because that’s what I do when I’m thinking.
“You’re good,” I told her. Believe it or not, I ran out of words.
She put her finger on an inconsistency in my life, a misalignment. My motivation used to be guessing at what other people wanted and then fulfilling that need to make myself useful, and thereby avoid rejection. I’m changing. I am looking for freedom.
My motivation is changing. This verse to “the foolish Galatians,” who were trying to gain sanctification by going back to earning approval via the old covenant laws, inspires me to do what I do, to worship, to paint, to take photos, to write, to walk in the countryside, to sit around the table talking to kindred spirits. The Passion Translation (which I am calling the emotional content version) puts Galatians 5:1 this way:
Let me be clear, the Anointed One has set us free—not partially, but completely and wonderfully free! We must always cherish this truth and stubbornly refuse to go back into the bondage of our past.
I took photos as I walked around another park yesterday (aptly named “Idlewilde”). Winter snow and ice still cover the hills and lake. Trees rest in a dormant season that seems particularly long this year. But I find freedom in what I see. I see rest.
I am more motivated by freedom from performance-based Christianity, freedom from trying to meet expectations that do not come from my loving heavenly father, freedom to be a human being and not a human doing, freedom to rest and know I am loved perfectly by the One who created all this.
I hear him say, “Be still. Cease striving. Know Me. Know that I am God. I will be exalted in the earth. I will be acknowledged by the nations. You are not in charge of fixing the world, nor my P. R.. You only have to extend the love you have known by the power of the grace you have been given.”
He takes off the religious leash and says, “Now run, girl. Run.”
“I don’t see him that way,” my friend said. “He’s more like a desert rose.”
“That’s what I always thought,” I told him, “But in the dream I was talking on the phone when I heard a gun go off. In my ear! It was so shocking and so loud everyone else in the banquet room heard it too. They dropped their desserts and scattered in every direction.”
“I don’t think Jesus would do that,” my friend insisted. “He has certainly never been like that for me. Perhaps you should pray some more about it.”
“Well,” I continued, not wanting to argue about how much prayer was sufficient, “the next thing I did in the dream was to run to the place where the phone call originated to make sure everyone was alright. I saw a gun leaning up against the cupboards in the kitchen. “
I could tell my friend had already lost interest, but I kept going.
“You did it!” I said to the man who I knew represented one aspect of Jesus in my dream symbolism. “You shot the gun! Why would you do that?”
“Got your attention!” he said. “And you quit talking and came looking for me.”
My friend shrugged, “I still don’t think Jesus would use a gun.”
This is part of a much longer dream that came to mind this week, not because of all the discussion about guns in the media (although that may be a backdrop), but because God is again grabbing my attention in unexpected ways.
Earlier this week another friend mused about what Jesus was doing on the days he didn’t use to go see Lazarus, after being told his beloved friend was deathly ill.
Jesus was acting unpredictably, that’s what he was doing. He may have been doing something we don’t know about in his private conversations with his Father and his compassionate heart may have been in deep pain (we know he wept in public later) but whatever he was doing he was not bowing to the will and expectations of people around him, as much as he loved them. He listened only to his Father and his Father said, “Wait.”
When I was a kid we sang a song with the line, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon this little child.” I have experienced Jesus’ gentleness. I have seen demonstrations of his meekness, but desiring to follow him on a trail that just gets steeper has taught me he is anything but mild. He will kick the sides out of any box we design to define him. He will grab our attention by shocking or offending us if he has to.
The roots of word define mean to determine the ends or limits of something. You can’t define God. His majesty has no limits.
Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. I can imagine the women running outside to see if Jesus was coming yet. I imagine Lazarus asking where Jesus was as he gasped for breath. I can feel hope dying like a sputtering candle as they realized it was too late and disappointment growing like a monstrous dark shadow that filled the room. Where was he? Why wasn’t he coming?
When Jesus did finally show up Martha’s first words were an accusation. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Mary stayed behind in the house. Was she too devastated to move? When she did speak to him, her first words were the same as her sister’s. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
When I have found myself in situations where the Lord didn’t grant me what I asked when I asked for it, I heard my own voice cry out, “If you had been here, things would have been different.” Then the truth at the root of my pain: “You are not who I thought you were!”
Can I admit that moments in which I have discovered people were not who I thought they were, have been by far the most painful events in my life? Of all the stories in the Bible, this is the moment in which I sympathize with Bible characters’ dismay the most: Mary and Martha deep in grief and baffled that their friend and master did not come until it was too late. Intentionally.
In such moments doubt forces me to ask, “What if he is not who I think he is? What do I do with the profound sense of insecurity and fear that disappointment triggers in me?”
I throw myself at his feet and weep.
Where were you? Why did you let this happen?
He doesn’t answer. These are not the questions he is waiting for.
Who are you? What am I supposed to do now?
Yes. These are the questions he will answer.
In order to see the majesty of God, Mary and Martha had to let what they thought they knew about him die. Dying to self means acknowledging that God is God and I am not. I get to let go of my right to define him by my own limited understanding, or to use him to fulfill my own agenda.
The women only said what everyone was thinking. In John 11 we read, “Yet others said, ‘Isn’t this the One who opens blind eyes? Why didn’t he do something to keep Lazarus from dying?’”
Jesus let his disciples in on his purpose before they started the journey the Bethany. He made it plain to them, “Lazarus is dead. And for your sake, I’m glad I wasn’t there, because now you have another opportunity to see who I am so that you will learn to trust in me. Come, let’s go and see him.”
They didn’t understand.
Jesus told Martha her brother would live, but she didn’t believe him. She thought he was talking about the afterlife. When he asked for the tomb to be opened she protested that his corpse unapproachable because he had been dead four days. She didn’t have a grid for what he was about to do.
Jesus looked at her and said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you will believe in me, you will see God unveil his power?”
Their concept of who Jesus was, even though the women believed he was the Anointed One, was too limited. He was about to show them something about himself they could see in no other way. He offended them to reveal more powerful love than they had ever imagined.
The period of time between losing the surety of what we think we know about God and the revelation of something greater can disorient us to the point of wailing. In the beginning of my dream everyone was partying, enjoying the abundant life. Then the gun went off. When I returned to the banquet hall, the dessert table was empty and the crowds were gone. Basic nutritious food was on a high shelf. I had to stretch to reach it.
The gun has not only gone off for me lately. It’s blasted for a number of people I care about. Life changes due to car accidents, divorce, loss of careers, loss of reputation, loss of property, loss of health, loss of loved ones or betrayal of all kinds can all cause us to cry out, “Where were you? If you had been here…”
Sometimes we can be in this disorienting pain for a long time. Battles with doubt occur daily. We don’t always win.
But Jesus said we have the choice to stop doubt in its tracks. We can remember. What did Jesus say after the biggest most confusing disappointment of all when he lay dead in a tomb himself only a short time later, when he entered the room full of stunned, disoriented, grieving disciples?
“Be at peace. I am the living God. Don’t be afraid. Why would you be so frightened? Don’t let doubt or fear enter your hearts, for I AM! Come and gaze upon my pierced hands and feet. See for yourselves, it is I, standing here alive. Touch me and know that my wounds are real. See that I have a body of flesh and bone.”
Did Jesus just kick the sides out of the box you had him in? Did a gun just go off in your ear? Doubt need not win. You can have faith because the Faithful One has no limits.
What aspect of Himself is He about to show you next? Annie J Flint, the hymn writer penned:
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
~Annie J. Flint