Nor Height, Nor Depth

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For I am convinced

that neither death,

nor life,

nor angels,

nor principalities,

nor things present,

nor things to come,

nor powers,

nor height,

nor depth,

nor any other created thing,

will be able to separate us from the love of God,

which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

(Romans 8:38, 39 NASB)

 

The height of the abuse of power. The depths of depravity. Neither are a match for love.

Speaking the Truth in Love

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But what I would like to say is that the spiritual life is a life in which you gradually learn to listen to a voice that says something else, that says, “You are the beloved and on you my favour rests.”… I want you to hear that voice. It is not a very loud voice because it is an intimate voice. It comes from a very deep place. It is soft and gentle. I want you to gradually hear that voice. We both have to hear that voice and to claim for ourselves that that voice speaks the truth, our truth. It tells us who we are.

~ Henri Nouwen

First Things First

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“The prayer that begins with trustfulness, and passes on into waiting, will always end in thankfulness, triumph, and praise.”

~Alexander MacLaren

There was a time in my life when it seemed I had far more wedding and bridal and baby shower invitations than available babysitters. We all knew that such events included obligatory traditions as well as some pressure to meet expectations for originality. Do it this way, but differently. I began to wish my friends, and then my friends’ children, would just announce elopements and spawning events with photos on Facebook. I preferred emailing a gift card and skipping the whole toilet paper and clothes pin games and the dressing up for awkward speeches and plastic cup toasts thing.

Now I’m older. Funeral announcements have gradually outnumbered wedding and baby shower invitations. I realize I undervalued the opportunity to celebrate beginnings. I wish I had connected with joy more.

There can be joy in the midst of sorrow when we know someone is now in the presence of the Lord, but we can’t deny the existence of sorrow. Call it a “Celebration of Life Party” if you like, but funerals are sad events. Some funerals are sadder than others. Loss is loss, even if it’s the loss of someone who didn’t stir feelings of fondness. Sometimes the saddest loss of all is the loss of opportunity to build a better relationship.

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The undeniable fact about death rituals is that they can permit and perpetuate really bad theology – what we think about God. And since what we think about God is the most important foundation in our lives, funerals and “comforting words” in the reception line have a way of forcing us to realize this is where the rubber meets the road, philosophically.

Group mourning rituals can be very similar to weddings. We still have the do-it-this-way-but-differently pressures when arranging a funeral, but with much less time to prepare, an undefined budget and no RSVP list of attendees. Maybe that’s why many people still feel the need to hire an ordained hatch, match and despatch specialist, even when church attendance occurred less frequently than visits to Santa in the life of the honoree. Some clerics are very good at nurturing and comforting in times of need. Some others? Well, not so much.

One of the saddest remarks I heard at a funeral was from a person officiating who said, “Our hope is that our friend made a good enough impression on God that someday he will be allowed to come back and help clean up the earth.”

My heart ached. But I could not judge. For many years I said I believed in God’s grace, but in practice my actions showed I believed in the necessity of making a good impression on God, so he would have mercy on me and not toss me into the trash heap of discardables on judgement day.

God has given me long time-outs on this journey. I’ve had chances to scrape off performance-based religious burrs collected along the way. I still do keep running into residual ideas still clinging to my own previously unexamined places, but I realize for many people thinking about talking to God is like preparing for a make or break interview. Prayer feels like having to make a good impression on God, so he will act in one’s favour. Sacrificial acts of piety and charity carry what we hope is a suitably subtle label: God, please note. (And a sigh: I hope I’m doing this right!)

~~~~~~~

I find myself again idling at a rest stop along the road as I recuperate from surgery this season. I find stuck to myself the remnants of an uncomfortable feeling that I’m not doing enough. I should be writing something deeply profound, or at least organizing my sock drawer. Is rest self-indulgent? What if I fail to impress? Will I will be forgotten?

My heavenly Father heard my questions (before I voiced them) and that’s when Holy Spirit showed up in a new translation of Psalm 139 that attempts to include emotional communication. It’s so rich, a gift of gold light showering down like the autumn leaves.

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I plan to feel and rest my way through meditation on this psalm. How profound is the concept that our Creator knows us down to the cellular level and still loves us? How can we possibly think we can impress (or fool) someone who knows our thoughts before we do, someone who is not bound by our chronological sense of time, and who still persists in trying to communicate his love?

At first, immersing myself in Psalm 139 felt like giving into a tendency to be self-indulgent and self-centered. I was taught that being a Christian means putting Jesus first, others second and yourself last. (We even had an acronym for this approach – “J,O,Y”) The work ethic is strong in my culture; a sense of accomplishment is a highly polished trophy passed reluctantly from one hard worker to another.

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Here, in this psalm, the Holy Spirit tells us that before we did anything, thought anything, or were aware of anything worthy of approval, we were the object of his unceasing kind thoughts and the source of his joy. We see ourselves as having value because he first loved us. We love him because he first loved us. We love others because he first loved us. First things first.

Since we can’t give what we have not filled up on, there are seasons when we need to take time to soak in his love like a baby floating in amniotic fluid. Times of rest are like celebrations of joyful new beginnings without the budget restrictions and societal expectations.

I’m learning to celebrate this time of re-alignment by soaking in these words.

Lord, you know everything there is to know about me.
You’ve examined my innermost being
With your loving gaze.
You perceive every movement of my heart and soul,
And understand my every thought
Before it even enters my mind.
You are so intimately aware of me, Lord,
You read my heart like an open book
And you know all the words I’m about to speak
Before I even start a sentence!

-from Psalm 139, The Passion Translation

There is more of God’s love, always more love, than we dare to think or imagine.

 

 

 

 

Grace-fountain Strength

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But Lord, your nurturing love is tender and gentle,

You are slow to get angry, yet swift to show your faithful love,

You are full of abounding grace and truth.

Bring me to your grace-fountain

So that your strength becomes mine.

(Psalm 86: 15, 16 TPT)

You can’t give what you have never received. If the message you have been hearing is that you are a disgusting wretched sinner who (in spite of years of failed efforts) needs to gather up the shreds of your tattered will and try harder, you need to step into the grace fountain and soak up some love.

Let the Shepherd nurture you with His tender, gentle love. Let His strength become your strength and his grace flow through you, not around you. Let the Holy Spirit living in you transform you from a wretch to royalty.

There is a war going on. Hostages of the evil one are believing his lies and acting on them in the streets. You see it.

You are not a victim. You are not without hope. You are loved by the King of the Universe.

You were born for such a time as this.

When Kindness Isn’t Kind

 

“PRAISE GOD! I’M FREE!” he shouted as he leapt onto the grassy bank from the back seat of my car.

poke kids fighting IMG_0047My grandson threw his arms in the air and did an enthusiastic Pentecostal two-step right there. I laughed, but I understood the feeling.

I took my young grandchildren to the splash park this week. We had a marvelous time and I was impressed with how well the children got along and looked after each other.

Then we drove home.

Securing three car seats in a space usually taken by jackets and stuff that won’t fit in the trunk of my car was a challenge, but we did it. It meant my grandson was squished in the middle seat between his sisters though. Opportunity for boundary violations abounded. All three took advantage of those opportunities.

Finally, after a useless lecture on the dangers of escalating a conflict with over-reaction, I put on my stern voice.

“No! You may not poke each other! If you continue this I am stopping the car right now!”

That was a useless threat thirty years ago and its effectiveness has not improved, but you know, tradition.

Finally I commanded, “I want you to do one kind thing for each other, right now!”

That’s when the kissing started. Big sister planted a sloppy wet one on brother’s shoulder. His eww inspired another then another. He leaned away but that put him in range of little sister who covered him with similar passive aggressive affection. The girls giggled. He protested. Loudly.

Ten blocks to go. Nine… eight…

Later, as I was telling his Dad about my amusement at his son’s actions (the joyful exclamation part, not the misbehaving part – that’s between us) I remembered times when I was equally as happy to be freed from the “kind” ministrations of people with a self-serving agenda. False kindness can be like sending truckloads of used junk to disaster areas that have no place to put it as an excuse to clean closets and feel good about ourselves at the same time. Perhaps well-meaning, but not well thought out.

Boundary violating kisses I have known often started with:
~I’m telling you this in love.. (because even I realize the action is not exactly communicating “love”).
~I have a ministry opportunity for you…
~This worked for me so it will obviously work for you…
~I know you have a weight problem, but I made these cupcakes just for you…
~I read this on paranoid tendencies.com and you need to implement the findings immediately…
~Thus saith the Lord, if you do not heed the advice of this, his servant, it will not go well for you…
~This is what you need to do because, in my opinion, this is how a good Christian dresses, or worships, or prays, or votes, or diets, or donates, or handles Hallowe’en…
~I’m just protecting you. These are the teachers/preachers who disagree with me or give me an icky feeling. Shun them.

One day I finally realized I was free to jump out of the confines of that harassment. “Praise God! I’m free!”

Kisses can be loving and kind. Sometimes these were about good things the speaker learned and wanted to pass on. He or she meant well, but, it was still a bit self-serving. It’s difficult to untangle a desire to help from a desire to be in control. I’ve done it too – and suffered the consequences. When you remove people’s power to self-govern they tend to express exasperation in unexpected ways. We with a yearning to teach also need to learn to share knowledge and still honour people’s ability to think and decide for themselves. One size does not fit all.

I have noticed in the scripture that Jesus responded to individuals differently. He didn’t heal the same way every time. He didn’t use the same tone of voice with everyone. Even now he speaks to his beloved according to their needs and temperament and meets them where they are.

Maybe a brother or sister needs a kiss. Maybe they need to be noticed and a friendly poke or a holy kiss, or a culturally appropriate side hug is the perfect response. But maybe they need respect and space to work it out with the Lord on their own. Maybe they need freedom.

You are perfectly free to ignore this if it doesn’t minister to you. Just sayin’.

The Struggle

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“…you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”

~Flannery O’Connor

I know the Bible says in 1 John to “Love not the world, neither the things of the world.” I’m not talking about loving or cherishing the things of the world or the approval of others as idols or replacements for having our needs met by God. When I talk about cherishing here I mean extending oneself to care deeply for people who don’t, or can’t, care back. I mean seeing value and the image of God in every person with an opinion, regardless of how irritating they can be at the moment.

Miracles, signs and wonders pale in significance to the wonder of the supernatural ability to love the ones whose threats strike fear or those with followers who seem to oppose everything you think or say or do.

It’s easy to become defensive or to retaliate when you are misunderstood and misrepresented. I don’t want to be identified with “them” – or “them” either. Sometimes I want to hide from conflict and leave a note on the door of my bomb shelter: Call me when you’ve worked it out.

But we don’t have that option. Love compels us to walk into the middle of the struggle, armed only with the grace we ourselves have received and the humble authority it produces.

Thank God, his grace is more than enough. It’s abundant. It’s powerful.

Breadth, Length, Height and Depth Perception

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“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”

~ C.S. Lewis

I’ve been trying to capture the sun. It’s not easy.

Smoky haze filled the valley this week. A forest fire about 45 minutes drive away closed a major highway. Massive fires that have emptied towns in the central interior of British Columbia are hundreds of kilometers away, but winds carry the smoke here. Even people in the US Pacific Northwest are complaining about air quality because of the fires.

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Forest fires are a seasonal hazard in this part of the world and, I suppose, like people who live in areas prone to hurricane, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, and earthquakes, we have learned to keep an eye on the situation and, for the most part, get on with life.

 

From our vantage point we see the sun turn an amazing neon orange red colour as it lowers in the evenings. I tried to capture it with the cameras I had available (a cell phone and my trusty Canon point and shoot) but neither could reproduce what I saw. I even tried shooting through sunglasses lens. No luck. Neither had the capacity to handle the wide contrast.

Amazingly, the image my camera registered was the opposite of what I saw. I saw a glowing orange/red ball against a pale grey/blue sky. It saw a white sun against a glowing orange/red sky. I could not see what either the phone and camera saw, nor could the man-made devices record what I saw.

 

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Other people in the valley talked about how remarkable it was. Many posted photos on Facebook, taken from their locations between the Idaho border up to Radium Hot Springs. The pictures looked dramatic and lovely but none of them looked like what I saw.

I began to think about perspective and perception. To those in airplanes flying high above the smoke the sun appears to be the same as always. Down here in the forest by our home, it shone with a strange warm diffused glow even at midday.

smokey forest ch rs IMG_9003I tried putting a sunglasses lens in front of my camera lens to see if it would change the way the camera saw the neon colours of the sun. It did, but not the way I hoped. Now the sky took on a muddy dark colour and the sun was still blown out white.sun dull sky IMG_8936Where we are positioned in time and space affects how much we see. This is perspective. How we interpret and remember what we see is perception. The lens of experience will alter one’s perception. My little camera did not perceive what my eyes perceived. It did not have the capacity.

I remember a time when experience handed me a dark lens. A group of musicians invited me to participate in informal monthly concerts. Some of these people were professionals working on new pieces they wanted to try on small audiences before they hit the road. Others were music teachers who needed motivation to hone their skills.

I had dropped out of the classical music scene about five years earlier. My babies slept poorly and I couldn’t find time or a place to practice that wouldn’t have the neighbours banging the walls.

Okay, the real truth is, I quit because I was discouraged. It wasn’t fun anymore.

Singers will tell you that three weeks without practice makes you feel like you have to start training all over again. Getting back up on a stage after a long absence felt like a daunting challenge. I was nervous.

I sang my first set of songs, nothing difficult, three simple Schubert lieder. Before I finished the last song, a man in the audience I recognized as the concert master of the city orchestra got up and walked out.

My heart sank. I knew I wasn’t good enough to be there.

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I had another longer aria to sing later in the program. It was all I could do to force myself to go through with it, but I did, putting on a good theatrical face. I assumed the applause was because people were being politely generous. I took a bow, but all I wanted was to dash out the door for home and go throw myself on the bed for a good cry. On the way out the concert master blocked my way.

“There you are!” he said. “Listen, I was so excited when I heard you in the first half I couldn’t wait for intermission. I rushed out and called some friends and told them to get down here. I’ve got some people I want you to meet…”

I was shocked.

Later I realized that my experience up until that point had mostly been singing for teachers, examiners, critics, and judges, in tests, auditions or contest situations. As a matter of fact, my performance had once been torn to shreds before an audience by an adjudicator in a music festival (more aptly called “music court”) on that very same stage. I won the competition, but the trophy didn’t make up for a sense of humiliation that poured liked a sweaty flush of embarrassment over my head. Up until the concert that evening, I had rarely sung for an audience who were there simply to enjoy themselves at the end of the work week. My years of experience in competitive environments formed a lens of expectation of criticism.

neon sun IMG_9056The lens was like the sunglasses lens in front of my camera. It cast the shadow of darkness that felt like rejection across my perception. What I saw when the concert master walked out was a negative reaction that pointed to to my failure. I was unable to imagine that his action was actually a sign of approval.

Music is not the only area affected by negative expectations. Past experiences of feeling condemned and unable to measure up to religious standards caused me to see through a lens that didn’t provide a capacity to imagine God could possibly approve of me. It took a long time to change that lens. I know I’m not the only one. It’s a story I hear frequently.

The idea that God considers a close relationship with us to be the reward that Christ earned is one that doesn’t register for a lot of people. We all have different ideas about the nature of God depending on our perspective from whatever point in time and space we occupy on this road. That changes as new positions add new understanding. But when our ability to perceive has been darkened, it needs healing. It needs a new lens. We need increased capacity to handle the light God wants to pour into our hearts.

Analogies break down at some point and my singing performance story runs aground here. This is not about performance. This is about seeing ourselves as God sees us and seeing who he really is and how he feels toward us without negative expectations. He loves us because he loves us and there is nothing we can do that can change that fact.

Part of Paul’s prayer for the believers in Ephesians was that they would be strengthened to have an enlarged capacity to comprehend this brilliant love, to see it as it truly is – glorious.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-17 NASB)

Last night the sun peeked under a cloud on the horizon before it set and I snapped one last photo. The colour of the sun I saw was reflected on the deck railing.  Around 11 p.m. we stepped outside to say goodbye to our guests. In spite of a forecast that said there was a 0% chance, it was raining. Showers of blessing in fire season. Thank you, Lord!

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