Dark

Even when I don’t see it, You’re working.

Even when I don’t feel it, You’re working.*

Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things. (Ephesian 4:9,10 NASB)

*From “Waymaker” by Osinachi Kalu Okoro

Creative Meditations for Lent, Prompt word: Dark

Courage: Behold the Man

Photo: The Lithostrotos (Roman Paving) under the Ecce Homo Convent in Jerusalem

Anyone who has spent time with children has heard this cry, “NO FAIR!!!”

Anyone who visits social media hears it often from adults. Sometimes when reading about injustice toward children and other vulnerable people, my outrage mode becomes so overheated I have to shut it down and walk away before I open the door to something nasty that is glad to feed on my anger and unforgiveness and takes the opportunity to cultivate more.

When I am the victim of injustice myself and feel misunderstood, mistreated, and rejected I do not do well in the self-defense department. My rage usually turns into embarrassing crying. Crying when attempting to confront, with calm assertiveness, someone who has treated me unfairly infuriates me even more. I look like a weak, hysterical, blithering idiot and end up running away. (Now there’s a accusing voice popping up from my past.)

Worse yet is when I strike back with cutting words or, in one case, with a one-fingered gesture in the face of an entitled person in the middle of ridiculous road rage meltdown. (I shocked myself.) I had the opportunity to test the acceleration ability on my car that day.

Luke tells the story of how Philip explained a passage from Isaiah’s scroll to the Ethiopian eunuch. It describes Jesus.

He was oppressed and treated harshly,
yet he never said a word.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
Unjustly condemned,
he was led away.

(Isaiah 53:7, 8a NLT)

The amount of courage it must have taken for Jesus to resist defending himself when he had so many powerful tools available is hard for me to comprehend. Only a love stronger than the drive to preserve one’s dignity and one’s life can account for such silence. This was not angry passive/aggressiveness nor self-punishing passivity. Jesus demonstrated physical and moral courage many times in his confrontations with authority figures who blocked the path to God with man-made traditions and religiosity. He was very capable of standing up to injustice. He cornered hypocritical religious authorities with his words. He took time to make a whip before turning over opportunistic scammers’ tables at the temple. His action in that circumstance was not because he suddenly lost his temper. Taking the time to make a whip showed he intentionally engaged in a dramatic act that opposed injustice.

Before the time when he was betrayed, mocked, whipped, and nailed to a public torture device he said this: “No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.” (John 10:18 NLT)

I see him looking, without shame, directly into the eyes of those who thought they were protecting their power base, facing the faces in the mob who called out for his death, gazing into my own eyes as I worry about what people will think, and saying with his compassionate silence, “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you. For you.”

Creative Meditations for Lent, Word prompt: Courage

But I Call You Friends

Old Friends

In my grandmother’s day, people did not call each other by first names without permission. Sometimes that permission was not granted for years. I use the word much more freely, sometimes calling a person “my friend” after merely agreeing me once or twice on social media. To the women in my grandmother’s circle the friend designation carried a certain responsibility. Friendship meant loyalty. It meant standing up for each other and contending for another woman’s welfare if called upon. Grandma knew a lot of people. She was an extrovert before the word was invented. The word may have been invented to describe her. She knew a lot of people, but she had only a few fast friends.

People I have met who are well-known enough to have fans tell me that many of their devoted followers are quick to claim close relationship without permission. (Neither confirming nor denying anything here.) Photos — especially selfies — do lie. Six seconds in the same camera frame backstage do not a friendship make. Fans can turn on a celebrity in a minute if they feel personally disappointed by a cancelled concert or even a change in marital status. Fans think they know a famous person when in truth they do not. Most of what they perceive is either from P.R. staff or media coverage published by people who really don’t know the heart of the famous person either.

Jesus was a famous person. He spoke to crowds but he didn’t need them. He had compassion but found the mass of neediness exhausting. He knew what was in the hearts of those who wanted to use him for their own purposes. When he did not give them a political solution to their deeper spiritual problem many former “fans” turned on him.

The night before they did though, he had Passover supper with the men who knew him best. He said, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.”

A person offering friendship shares more than opinions. A friend shares his or her heart. He told them straight out who he was and what was about to happen.  

The disciples didn’t fully grasp what it meant to be a friend of the Messiah. Most of them disappeared when the going got tough. One of them even betrayed him, trading the inside information he was trusted with to tell the authorities where they could find Jesus away from the crowd that could potentially get in the way or make a scene.

Betrayal is part of the risk of friendship. Being a friend means we give another person all the ammunition they need to deeply hurt us. Real betrayal only comes from those close enough to truly wound us. Jesus taught us how to be fully human by allowing himself to be vulnerable to the kind of pain only those we love can inflict.

Jesus showed them that real love means the willingness to lay your life down for a friend. He demonstrated this love by laying his life down for his friends. His action requires response. He says to us, “Real love looks like this. I gave everything for you. Are you willing to give everything for me? I call you friend. Can you call me friend knowing what it means to be a friend of the Son of God?”

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:9-17 NIV)

I hear him saying “I love you so much I went through hell and back for you. I offer you my friendship. Now let me ask you, are you my friend or just a fan?”

Aroma

Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. (Ephesians 5:2 NLT)

I love the scent of poplar trees when the sap begins to flow. It reminds me of paddling down a sun-dappled river with my friends when I was a teenager. I have to stop in a pine forest just to breathe the fragrance in the air. It carries memories of carefree Saturdays in the mountains with my family when I was a child.

My friend feels differently. The aroma of spring sends her to the pharmacy for tissues and antihistamines in preparation for allergy season. I understand. Personally, I hate the smell of motor oil. It reminds me of the disappointment of a broken car being worked on in the garage instead of taking us on another adventure. I’m obviously not a mechanic who enjoys hours tinkering under the hood.

Many passages of scripture tell us that certain aromas carry a sweet fragrant aroma of a sacrifice which is pleasing to God. I wonder if it the aroma metaphorically carries the attitude of worship to him, the way the aroma of freshly baked bread carried the message of motherlove to me.

Some passages of scriptures continue the metaphor of aroma and tell us some smells are good and some are bad. Evil rebellious people are like a bad stink to God:

All day long I opened my arms to a rebellious people. But they follow their own evil paths and their own crooked schemesThese people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away. (Isaiah 65:2 & 5)

A life filled with sacrificial love is pleasing aroma to God. False love (aka manipulation) smells, well, off. We say something smells fishy when we are around people whose services seem self-serving. Something is off. We detect a stink under the rose water. In contrast, the kind of love Christ demonstrated is a pleasing aroma. God discerns the attitude of the heart.

In dream symbolism the nose often represents discernment. It’s that sense that detects what usually cannot be seen. Some people have told me they can discern what spirit is operating behind the scenes in room by pleasant and unpleasant smells. Apparently demonic spirits can stink like latrines or decaying flesh.

I once detected the beautiful scent of orange blossoms while in worship with friends. No one was wearing that fragrance. It was wonderful! Have you ever sensed something like it? Let me know in the comments.

Creative Meditations for Lent, Prompt Word: Aroma

Endurance

The Garden of Gethsemane


For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
(Hebrews 12: 2, 3 NIV)

Jesus never asks us to do something he has not done himself. As I meditated on endurance, this scripture came to mind. Many translations use the phrase “despising the shame” which I’ve never really understood. I guess I always thought it meant “despising the fact that shame was heaped on him.” Today I discovered the word in Greek, kataphreneo, also means “to disdain or hold in contempt.”

Jesus came to restore us to the Father, but also to show us how to be human. I wonder if his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26) was about facing the final rejection on earth. In an honour/shame culture, crucifixion was not only excruciatingly painful physically, but deeply painful emotionally. It was the worst possible fate because it was the ultimate symbol of rejection, designed to publicly dishonour.

Jesus was rejected by the people he was going to save. The disciples closest to him failed him when they fell asleep at the moment he wanted their understanding and support most. Crucifixion was the opposite of a good death. It was a shameful death and brought dishonour on his family and friends as well as exposing him to the cruel taunts of onlookers.

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, satan waved in his face the tempting prospect of physical comfort of bread, then recognition if he proved his identity, and then honour and recognition from the kingdoms of the world if he set up a test for Father God. (Matthew 4)

Jesus often prefaced important statements to the crowds, “Verily, verily!” (“I’m telling you the truth!” in language more familiar to us now.) How he must have longed for acceptance and to be heard and understood. Laying down his God privileges and living as a human who did only what he saw his Father doing, Jesus endured deep emotional torment. He endured because he chose a higher value, to obey God the Father even in the middle of shame, rejection and dishonour. He overcame shame by holding shame itself in contempt.

That last night he wrestled shame to the ground. He held in disdain shame’s history of breaking the strongest men. I wonder if he held in the contempt the very contempt that caused him so much anxiety that he sweat blood.

Jesus’ higher value was checed, God’s lovingkindness, beauty, favour and mercy that endures forever. The battle over temptation to choose another way other than God the Father’s way was won when he said, “Nevertheless, not my will but Your will, Father,” and laid down his life. He broke the power sin has over us.

Jesus Christ was perfectly surrendered to the Father’s plan of salvation. He remained sinless. Walking deliberately to the way of the cross, his endurance was motivated and strengthened by the joy of what he would accomplish for you and for me.

There is no greater love.

Consider

Consider

Someone told me there were paved trails with good views of the city up by the Pioneers’ Cemetery. I was thinking I would do something on “When I consider the heavens…” from Psalm 8 for today’s photo meditation for Lent using the word prompt, “consider.” I went there to look for a good shot of the sky and the sunset over the city and the lake. But the sun disappeared. The foreground view was filled with warehouses and industrial sites. I hadn’t intended to spend time looking at the gravestones. That feels like a macabre activity, but they caught my attention.

The Hebrew word translated as “consider” in most translations of the Bible means “to see, perceive, regard, observe, watch, study, discern…” You get the idea. I perceived something I hadn’t really taken note of before and that was the number of graves of women in their twenties and thirties. I had seen graves of young mine and railway workers before, but I hadn’t really considered how young many of the women were when their bodies were laid in those graves. It seemed that if a woman made it past childhood disease years and childbearing years, she would had a good chance of living to an old age of sixty or more.

Then I saw it. I am in my sixties. By standards of a hundred plus years ago, I am one of the lucky ones who has lived to an old age.

The verse, “Teach us to number our days that we might gain a heart of wisdom,” (Psalm 90) came to mind. There is something about taking time to consider, to contemplate, to pay attention, that helps us gain wisdom. I realized that I can be thankful for many years that others never had. In fact, the fewer years seniors can reasonably expect to have ahead of them, the more valuable those years become.

I also realize that no matter how many years we have, they are never enough. We are meant to be eternal creatures. Jesus offers us eternal life. He restores us to our original settings. That’s what this season leading up to Resurrection Sunday is all about.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Eph. 2: 4, 5 NIV)

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” These are the ones who recognize their spiritual need, the ones who have tried and know they can’t make it on their own. To the spiritually downcast he gives a promise: “for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

The psalms written by the Sons of Korah are about the journey back from rebellion and shame. This is in Psalm 42.

I say to God my Rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?”
 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

Sometimes God plants a glimpse of higher things right there on the ground where the downcast can find it.

Look up. Your redemption is coming closer.

When the Right Time Arrived

shed tin roof ch rs DSC_0093

It was a mess. A world of division, compromise, corruption, and religiously followed traditions and rituals detached from roots of love and relationship. A hodge-podge of imperfect plans by imperfect people.

Tyrants, sycophants, miscreants, occupants,

masters, slaves, overlords, conscripts,

builders, destroyers, collaborators, rebels,

haves, have-nots, hopeful, hopeless.

This was the society Jesus was born into, because the time was right.

As they had many times before, the people not in control cried out for a saviour. They wanted freedom from the will of Roman conquerors. God sent them a saviour, but not to free them from man-made power ploys gone astray. He sent them Someone who could save them from something much more enslaving – their own sin.

As he had done before, he sent his answer in a form few recognized. He sent his son who set aside his godhood to live as a human. He sent a baby.

I often wonder why he chooses the weak of the world to confound the wise. Why does God frequently skip the well-bred, the educated, the credentialed, and those endowed with position and privilege when he wants to turn the tides of history? More than once people have said, “This can’t possibly be from God!” More than once they have been wrong.

“I see your plight,” he said. “This is my response.”

Then he sent a wanderer and his half-sister wife,

a wheeler dealer opportunist,

an insensitive spoiled brat turned slave turned foreign government official,

a stammering old man with a stick,

a stern mother,

a slave bride with a hammer and tent peg,

a scared unimportant farmer from a long line of scared unimportant farmers,

a lewd, crude, rule-breaking strongman,

a boy raised in a temple with a weak mentor and drunken, corrupt priests as companions,

a shepherd with a slingshot,

a runner given to depression,

a reckless prince with a bad driving record,

a left-handed messenger with a knife up his skirt,

a bizarre performance artist,

a beauty pageant queen who slept her way to influence,

a ploughman,

a child king with clueless teachers,

a eunuch in service to a despot,

a choir director,

a poet.

For the greatest mission of all time he introduced the bearer of his heart as a helpless baby. A baby.  A baby who so terrified the principalities and powers who knew their time would soon be up, that Herod killed every child close to fitting the toddler’s description.

Not even the ancient prophets who each told bits and pieces of the truth they held could see the entirety of God’s plan. Jesus gradually explained it, to those who could listen, over three years. Many heard and believed. Many did not. Before his death and resurrection the book of John tells us the Messiah spoke plainly to the credentialed experts whose education put limits on their understanding.

I tell you the truth; I AM before Abraham was born. (John 8:58 The Voice)

We are subject to change. He is not.

Trust him. He created the plan. Keep your eyes on Abba. Expect the unexpected.

When the right time arrived, God sent His Son into this world (born of a woman, subject to the law) to free those who, just like Him, were subject to the law. Ultimately He wanted us all to be adopted as sons and daughters. Because you are now part of God’s family, He sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts; and the Spirit calls out, “Abba, Father.” You no longer have to live as a slave because you are a child of God. And since you are His child, God guarantees an inheritance is waiting for you.

(Galatians 4:4-6)

Holy Ambush

Samaritan woman painting ch rs crop MG_0710

“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.