Category Archives: odds and ends

When Ensemble is Enough

Every Thursday evening from 6 to 9 pm for years, I would go to theater classes at Spring Lake Community Playhouse. To most, this would seem a beautiful opportunity, a normal feat.

But for this shy little girl who was utterly tone-deaf and only slightly coordinated, those years in theater were a near-Herculean feat.  We spent one hour at voice lessons, standing around a piano or warming up our voices. But since there is no warming up a voice that is clearly broken, while others sang and found their pitch, I watched the minute hand on the clock slowly edge towards relief, an hour of dance. I enjoyed the freedom to move, or, should I say, I enjoyed as much freedom one can feel in a room surrounded on every side by mirrors. In dance class, time moved as quickly as we leaped, and in no time, we would find ourselves in acting class. Outgoing students thrived as they did soliloquies and made impromptu commercials and such. Shy students with a tendency of blushing tended to turn into little bundles of nerves.

I survived my very short season as a very unknown novice actress in a very unknown theater. And that is precisely what qualifies me to talk about ensembles and such.

I may not be able to sing and I may not be able to dance and I may turn four shades of red when people even glance at me, but I do know about ensembles.

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In my theater years, after auditions there would be an excited, nervous gaggle of children crowding around the casting list. I would wait my turn, run my finger down the sheet of paper, and sigh an earnest sigh of relief to find my name safely in the ensemble. That’s where I belonged. Those were my people, be they nameless orphans in Oliver Twist, street children in A Christmas Carol or flowers in Alice in Wonderland.

Despite my lack of talent and my fears, I actually enjoyed my short foray in the theater.  Even though I only uttered one phrase in all my shows combined, being part of something bigger than myself thrilled me. In the midst of the long practices and the ridiculously tedious dress rehearsals, I had a sense of something greater, grander than my little heart or mind could even articulate.

Ensemble was enough then. I long for ensemble to be enough now.

We live in a culture enamored with celebrities and giftedness and fame. This obsession cuts through  every field of interest and industry. In its most obvious form, this myopia is evident in the music and film industries, in collegiate and professional athletics, and in academic settings from elementary school and beyond. However, in a more subtle form, it has bled its way into our neighborhoods, and, yes, even into the Church.

If we peel back the cultural layer, we find this idolatry with notoriety and fame rearing its ugly head in churches and homes. Peeling back one more layer, we find the culprit: the human heart.

According to the Bible,  the desire to upstage reared its ugly head in the human drama shortly after the curtain opened.  In Genesis, the book of beginnings, Moses recorded what Yahweh had revealed to him concerning the origin and purpose of mankind on Mount Sinai. Moses writes that in the beginning of beginnings, Adam and Eve were discontent with the role they were given by God, desiring to have more power, more control and full knowledge. Meanwhile, as Moses was likely receiving these revelations of the fall of mankind, it was happening again, as his own brother and sister Aaron and Miriam, became discontent with their secondary roles. On and on and on, the cycle repeats itself throughout the entire Bible and continues on into the present day.

Most of us most naturally live as if the world is a stage and everyone else is merely a player in our story. Is there any way to assuage this human hunger for the fame and notoriety of the lead role?

Thomas Chalmers, a Puritan writer, wrote about the “expulsive power of a greater affection,” the notion that the only way to fight desire is with desire. According to this line of thinking, one gets rid of a lesser desire only when a greater desire settles into one’s heart, thus expelling the old desire.

If this is the case, and tradition and experience seem to say that it is, then the only way to fight our desire to be the lead role in our own two-bit story is to be invited into a greater epic story. It’s one thing to be caught up in something bigger than yourself, like I was in my children’s theater ensemble days; it’s quite another to be called up into THE story of human history, the story of God’s redemption of the world through Christ.

The screen-writer and director Himself has written each of His children into roles in this grand drama, be they two-bit parts, minor speaking roles or major roles. This realization has the power to completely transform and rearrange our little lives; it can and should endue our lives with meaning and purpose. In light of the bigger picture, the grand production, we are able to move from competing with other two-bit actors and actresses to cooperating with them to see the story come to fruition and success.

I know this to be true, as do many of you. The problem is that we sometimes lose sight of the big picture. We get lost in our little corner of the ensemble and begin competing and setting up our own ramshackle little stages and sets right there on His stage.  We fret and fume and fester at how no one notices us or appreciates us; we fight for attention, recognition and purpose. When we don’t get it, we sit down with our arms crossed and our hearts crestfallen.

We would continue in such a state, were it not for the graciousness of our God. Somehow, in His winsome manner, He reminds us of the bigger picture. It may be that we hear the faint sound of the chorus in the background, streams of individuals that have joined to become a rushing sea of praise and purpose. It may be that peaking from behind the curtain, we catch a glimpse of the show that leaves us longing to be back in the ensemble, back where, though we were small, we were significant and secure. How He brings us back into contentment in His company if of little matter; what matters is that we find ourselves back in His story.

For when we are in His presence, in His company, ensemble is enough.

“Not to us, Lord, not to us, but Your name be the Glory because of your lovingkindness and because of Your truth.” Psalm 115: 1

An Avocado Soul

I don’t remember eating, or even seeing,  avocados until I was an adult. I am certain they existed, but they did not exist to me. With their strange bulbous, shape and dull color,  I must have written them off, except for when they were mushed into the glorious gift of  guacamole.

Upon moving to Southern California, the avocado has taken far more of a place of prominence in my diet and my life. Avocado on toast. Avocado on salad. Avocado all by its good-fat-self. I am waiting for someone out here to make an avocado latte. But then again, I think I would have to draw the line there.

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When we were filling our raised garden beds at our old house, we looked into an avocado tree. After all, who wouldn’t want those gems growing in their own front yard where they would not break the already-strained grocery budget?

I asked a friend who has the greenest thumb on the earth, and she looked at my green self (as in naive and inexperienced) and pointed me, rather wisely,  to a blood orange tree.  It seems that avocado trees are among the harder trees to establish.  You can buy them semi-affordably as saplings, but they take coddling and copious amounts of attention and care to establish. In fact, they don’t even begin to make large enough fruit to consume for 10-15 years in perfect conditions.

Because you cannot grow an avocado tree overnight or even over-decade, it takes a long-term view to want to get in the game.

I took her advice and went with the Cara-Cara Blood Orange tree, which is already fruiting and filling our bellies; however, her advice stuck with me in the strangest way. I now think see souls as avocado sapplings. I tend to think of my own soul and the souls of those who have been placed under my clumsy care (namely my husband and children and the college students and staff whom God has brought into my life) as a nursery of  avocado sapplings of various sizes and stages.

We need patient care and constant tending. We take forever to establish. We will only bear fruit with the tender care of the Heavenly Husbandman. And it will take a long time before we are fruiting faithfully and consistently.

Yet, God, who stands outside of time, is not a harried husbandman. He has always been one to take the longest view, the eternal view. He prunes and coaches, coaches and prunes. And He will not settle for puny fruit. He will have us bear fruits that is worthy of having His name, His produce sticker, upon them. Nothing less than mature and majestic.

Everyday on my walking route with our dog Mater (who also loves avocados) I pass two towering avocado trees, fruiting bushels of amazing fruits. In addition to wanting to climb into their yard and pluck a handful (which I have not done…thank you very much),  I want so desperately to be like those twin trees. I want my soul to be established with deep roots into God’s Word like the avocado trees’ roots that run under the roads into rich layers of earth. I want to confidently wink at stubborn draughts like those trees who have water sources deep in the dropping water tables. I want to be heavy with fruit that can bless, nurture, and feed others, all the while honoring the God who fashioned their green flesh.

Right now, I look like a gangly, naked avocado tree; but one day, I will be heavy with the fruits of maturity. I have one who paid a great price for my sapling soul, and He will carefully tend me and mine unto maturity.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely,  and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.

When Fiction Strengthens Faith: Silas Marner

Fiction has a way of enfleshing fact and enlivening truth. I delight to see glimpses of Biblical and eternal truths show up in the lives of fictional characters. Of late, Silas Marner, George Eliot’s short but powerful novel, has been dramatizing eternal truths on the stage of the page.

Silas Marner, one of the first English novels to present an honest depiction of the rural poor, revolves largely around two main characters: a wealthy man named Godfrey Cass and a poor weaver, Silas Marner,  an outsider to the small town they both inhabited. Godfrey, who made a hasty decision to sleep with a shady lady, ended up in an unfortunate secret marriage that produced an unwanted child. When the mother of his child died in the cold, he found himself at a crossroads. Rather than claim the child, he hid in anonymity, seeing this as his chance to marry the woman he truly loved, Nancy.

Silas Marner, a solitary, sad weaver who found solace in his weaving and the treasury he was slowly accumulating over the years, found himself empty when his treasury was stolen. Then, he found himself at his own crossroads when the tiny toddler (secretly Godfrey’s son) crawled into Marner’s cottage out of the cold after her mother died suddenly.

Marner chooses to raise the toddler who has strangely chosen him. The toddler, whom he names Eppie, slowly melts Marner’s people-hardened heart.

oscar-aguilar-327798-unsplash.jpgThe Expulsive Power of a Greater Affection

Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish minister of the 1800’s, aptly described the way the gospel  works in the lives of believers. In a day and age when the focus was on getting rid of ungodly passions and desires, Chalmers explained that the best way to oust a poor or lesser desire was by replacing it with a greater desire. While I know this conceptually and have heard it expounded upon theologically, I was able to see it brought to life through Silas.

A growing love for Eppie fills the gaping hole in his heart and life that he had been attempting to fill with his earnings. Where his life had taken on the calculated rhythm of the loom over which he labored, Eppie brought life to his home and a peopled purpose to his soul.

Eliot beautifully captures the expulsive power of a greater affection.

“Unlike the gold which needed nothing and must be worshipped in close-locked solitude – which was hidden away from the daylight, was deaf to the song of birds, and started to no human tones  – Eppie was a creature  of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking  and loving sunshine, and living sounds,  and living movements; making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring human kindness in all eyes that looked on her. The gold had kept his thoughts in an ever-repeated circle, leading to nothing beyond itself; but Eppie was  an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward, and carried them far away from their old eager pacing towards the same blank limit.”

Once his heart was filled with Eppie, he no longer brooded over his stolen wages. In fact, when it is found many years later, when Eppie is a teenager, the money is of little consequence to him.

The Mercy of a Full Confession

I love the prayer, “Lord, give us the mercy of a full confession.” In our world and in the flesh’s shadowed thinking, confession is something to be avoided at all costs. However, the Christian knows what the Psalmist so clearly explains in Psalm 32: when we keep quiet about our sins, body, mind and soul waste away. Freedom and forgiveness  are the gifts that come on the other side of confession.

Eliot’s character Godfrey Cass illustrates both the heaviness of hidden sin and the freedom that comes from being seen and known.  After his bratty, black-mailing brother (who stole Marner’s money, by the way) dies, his secret is technically safe. But the weight of his past weighs down heavily upon him. Even though he “got away” with no one knowing about his ill-chosen first marriage and his child and he was able to marry the true love of his life, Godfrey walks with lead feet through life.

The irony is that now that he longs to have a child of his own, his wife cannot seem to bear a child. She feels the weight of disappointing her husband, and he carries his own hidden heaviness, both of which end up eclipsing what could be a happy marriage…until the brother’s body is discovered with the stolen gold.

At that moment, Godfrey decides to come clean to his wife.

“Everything comes to the light sooner or later, Nancy. When God Almighty wills it, our secrets are found out. I’ve lived with a secret on my mind, but I’ll keep it from you no longer…that woman Marner found dead in the snow – Eppie’s mother – that wretched woman – was my wife; Eppie is my child.”

When Godfrey fully expected to be shamed and shunned, his wife showed him forgiveness and love. Suddenly,  the wall that had been growing between them collapsed. While they remained childless, they had the joy of being fully known and loved.

There are buckets of other treasures in this small gem of a classic. But I shall leave some of them for your own finding!

 

On Pin Cushions and Preoccuption

Preoccupied: to be so engrossed with thoughts of something or someone that you are unable to engage in other things. Our word comes from from the Latin praeoccupare which literally means to “seize beforehand.”

When my heart and mind are already occupied with other things, there is no space to being present to others, primarily God Himself.

Sure, I may be bodily present; however, in a state of preoccupation my soul is not spacious enough for the people that God places in front of me, be they my children, neighbors, or strangers.  In a worried, frenetic, preoccupied state, souls have all the welcome of a pin cushion, according to Henri Nouwen.

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When God occupies my thoughts, however, He tunes me to the times set directly in front of me. Among the great privileges of the children of God is the ability to leave the things that used to preoccupy our time and energy to the God of abundance.  Our Father will look after our needs, so we need not obsess about them and the details; rather, we are invited to make space in our hearts for the needs, concerns, and delights of others.

After all, is not that what Jesus so poetically tried to show in his lilies and sparrows speech in the Sermon on the Mount? You need not be preoccupied with all those things, even the important and necessary things. Those who do not know Yahweh must chase after those things, but those who are adopted into God’s family are invited to a whole different way of living in light of the Fatherhood of God (Matthew 6).

I cannot be a place of safety and hospitality to others if my own heart has not been stilled and filled with God’s presence and peace.

I know this. I write about this. Yet, I forget about this all the time. Before I know it, my heart has returned to its pin-cushion place, all crowded and cramped with concerns  which were meant to be recycled into prayer.

I don’t realize that my heart and soul are preoccupied most of the time. But my children and husband do. They see the blank stare and hear the “uh-huhs” that are dead giveaways that my heart and mind are elsewhere. They are the compassionate cues from my Heavenly Father that I have been living like an orphan again: worrying and fretting when I could be praying and trusting.

In stillness before God, I am able to invite Him to walk with me into my pin-cushion heart. Embarrassed by the accumulated clutter, yet safe enough in His secure strength, I am able and ask Him to help me remove all the pins gathering there. One by one, the Lord pulls out burdens that were not mine to carry, pins of past failure that needed forgiveness, and an unnecessary pricks for all kinds of possible future scenarios.

Suddenly, my soul becomes spacious again. Yes, there are still needs and errands and responsibilities; however, there is also the fresh reminder that I have One indwelling me who provides and guides and gives wisdom and energy.

I’ve no need to be preoccupied with my next hour or my next week or my next month. My Father, who both created time and stands outside of it, is already there. But more importantly, He is here.

And He has people who need a spacious place to process their own pins, some of whom do not even know yet that there is a loving Father who dwells in abundance who wants to know them.

By God’s grace, may we become those whose hearts have space for others. May daily time with our Heavenly Father provide the removal of pins that prohibit us and others from experiencing His doting care until the day when we shall bodily dwell with Him without the presence of pins. Amen. 

 

 

From Flimsy to Firm: Theological Ossification

Babies are born with 350 soft bones, which explains not only their arrivals from such tight beginnings, but also their talent for eating their own toes. Through the natural though no less miraculous process of ossification, these bones fuse and harden into the 206 bones of the human skeleton.  Babies could not begin life with the sturdy, rigid structures we know as bones; likewise, humans would not survive if their bones remained pliable beyond those early days.  It turns out that God knows what He is doing.

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Our God is a brilliant biologist and an incredible artist, and as such, He often allows for beautiful parallels between the physical and spiritual realms. Bone ossification is no exception.

Paul Brand, the famous missionary doctor who spent his life working with leprosy patients, draws a fascinating parallel between bone ossification and the process by which his theological views were slowly firmed into skeletal bones over time.

“As I watch bone ossifying, or becoming hard, in x-rays, I am reminded of my own skeleton of faith. As a newborn Christian my faith was soft and pliable, consisting of vaguely understood beliefs about God and my need for Him. Over time God has used the Bible and other Christians to help ossify the framework of my faith. In the same way that osteoblasts lay down firm new minerals in a bone, the substance of my faith has become harder and more dependable. The Lord has become my Lord; doctrines that were cold and formal have become an integral part of me.”

One of the most important things to note about ossification, whether biological or theological, is that it is a process. Processes don’t happen overnight; they cannot and must not be rushed. Additionally, organic processes are usually imperceptible and subtle. Those undergoing bone ossification, either initially as infants or later as those whose bones are healing, are not aware of what is happening below their skin; however, the process is doing its intended work all the while.

When I was drawn into the faith as an unchurched teenager, I was a disjointed mixture of heresies and half-truths. Not only did I not know what I thought about the Bible, baptism, the sacraments, Calvinism and the like, I did not even know that I was supposed to be thinking about them. All I knew was that I was desperately needy and that the gospel had awoken a part of me that I never knew existed.

My exhaustive knowledge of Christianity consisted of two things: I knew God loved me and I knew that I wanted to follow Him.

Rather than shaming me for being flimsy and cartilaginous, the Church and the community of faith surrounding me made space for the process of ossification. They welcomed a new believer with little to no sound theological framework into their family of faith. They modeled for me a hunger for the things of God. Long before I could define the sovereignty of God, I caught the concept from those who lived their lives under it. People had me praying for lost loved ones long before I had a theological framework for evangelism or prayer.

While they longed for me to have a firm theological framework that could stand up under suffering and opposition, they did not try to force a whole skeleton of bones into me in an unnatural or hurried way. Conversation by conversation, church service by church service, Bible study by Bible study,  God, through His Word and His body, strengthened my theological skeleton.

I am truly indebted to those who loved me enough to allow me to be theologically flimsy for a season but would not let me remain as such.

Are we making space in our lives, both individually and communally, for those with flimsy theological skeletons, or are we merely pointing out the flaws in their thinking? Do we expect new believers, especially the unchurched, to simply be born with healthy skeletons intact? Are we willing to be instruments by which God relationally and patiently strengthens their theological bones bit by bit? As Churches, are we doing our part to strengthen the theological skeletons of the covenant children in our midst?

May God continue to strengthen the theological bones of His bride that she might be able to stand firm beside Him.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1: 6.

An Hachiko Heart

Y’all. Our dog is insane. We brought this mixed breed pup home when he was just a tiny brown little buddy. He had extra folds of skin on tiny face and huge paws, which should have alerted us to the thoroughbred of a dog he would eventually become. He has a ridiculous underbite which completely counteracts his scary bark. He has a whip of a tail that is his only real weapon, wielded in excited love for any and all who enter our home (except the mail man or woman, who are his sworn enemies).

He was named Mater after the affectionately annoying TowMater from Cars which was popular with our little toddler sons when he came home to be a part of our family. The name fits shockingly well.

Besides the goofy name, he puts up with a lot of ridiculousness in our mad house. He is regularly dressed in costumes and brought into forts and battle scenarios, but he does so in as regal a way as possible.

I walk him nearly every day. Scratch that. He daily drags me around the neighborhood as he chases stray cats and the love and affection of all passersby. On the rare occasions that I am out late, Mater waits for me at the front door.

Even though his breath smells something fierce and he takes our already full and frenetic house to a whole different level of Seismic silliness, I love this dog.

And I learn a lot from him. More than I care to admit, I see myself in him.

Despite the fact that we walk the same route everyday and he knows what to expect, he refuses to stay next to me or comfortably near me. He pulls at his leash until he is nearly exhausted (yes, we know you can train them otherwise, but what with potty training two humans and such, his training fell to the wayside). Then he finally slows down and decides to stay by my side.

Daily, I laugh at him until I remember that I do the exact same thing with the Lord. In excitement or self-reliance or impatience (depending on the day), I run ahead of Him and yank and pull. When I am finally tired enough, I slow down to remember that it is God’s presence that is my joy and my delight. I start to follow the pace He sets for me. Then I wake up and play out the whole scenario yet again.

Thinking about our goofy Mater reminded me of an even more loyal, precious dog, Hachiko. Hachiko was brought from the countryside to live in Tokyo with a professor named Ueno Hidesaburo. The dog would daily meet his owner at that station from which he would arrive back home from his work commute. One day, the professor died mid-lecture, but Hachiko continued to arrive at the station daily at the time his owner would have arrived.

He continued this act for 9 years, 9 months and 15 days. His loyalty has been heralded in all of Japan.

I find my heart longing to be to the Lord as Hachiko was to his master.

Grant me an Hachicko heart, 
Wanting nothing more than thee, 
Willing to wait and wait and wait,
Longing in Thy presence to be. 

The Scriptures are replete with the word wait. In the slow unfolding of the Old Testament, God’s people waited with bated breath for even a glimpse of the coming Messiah. After the Coming of Christ to the earth for the first time, God’s people have the great privilege of looking back upon the face of the Messiah who came through reading the Scriptures.

Yet, we, too, wait. We wait for His second coming when tears will be wiped away and death will be no more. More than the sweet effects of His coming, we long for Him, our Master. We long to see the lines on His face and touch the beautified scars in His strong hands. We long to walk bodily beside our Master for the first time.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food and feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.” Isaiah 25:6-9. 

Plot 59

A life remembered for an Olympic platform ended in plot 59. On crude cross fashioned from repurposed scrap wood, shoe polish spelled out his name. Born and buried in two very different Chinas, Eric Liddell’s life ended in a prison camp, far from the athletic prowess and pomp by the world tends to remember him.

Though he is best known for his story as captured in the movie Chariots of Fire, the remainder of Eric Liddell’s life secures for him a legacy that continues to send ripples far into eternity.

Born to Scottish missionaries living in China, Eric always called the Chinese his people. As such, he stepped away from his burgeoning athletic career when it was at its height of potential to head back to China as missionary of the London Missionary Society.  There, he taught in a Bible college where he met his much younger wife, Florence. After a long engagement during which Florence was trained abroad as a nurse, the two were married. Shortly thereafter, the couple welcomed two daughters, Patricia and Heather.

During their early years as a family, Eric spent the majority of his time as a traveling missionary in the remote villages far away from the safety and comfort of the missionary   compound where his family stayed. When the tensions between the Japanese and the Chinese escalated during World War II, the families of the LMS missionaries were sent to safety.  Eric Liddell bravely packed up his family on a Japanese ocean liner to head to Canada while he himself stayed in a tenuous China in hopes that things would resolve quickly.

Ever the optimist and the committed missionary and pastor to his remote people, Liddell had no way of knowing how bad the situation in China would grow.  He and all other ex-patriots were sent to Weihsien, a former Presbyterian missionary compound turned Japanese internment camp.  Separated from his family and missing the birth of his third daughter, Maureen, Liddell served as an in situ pastor, missionary, friend, honorary uncle, peacemaker, and confident to the other internees.

Multiple years of the malnourishment of prison camp life and a brain tumor that was undiagnosed, led Liddell to an early death.  Even up until the day he died, Liddell was teaching others the way of discipleship to Christ, despite immense physical and emotional pain. The last words he spoke were, “It is complete surrender,” and the last words he scribbled in his journal were, “All will be well.”

At his funeral, the Salvation Army band that was also interned at the camp played his two favorite hymns, Abide with Me and Be Still My Soul, whose lyrics he had made watchwords of his missionary life.

In a world and culture obsessed with fame and fortune, Eric Liddell modeled a life hidden in Christ and committed to His glory. At great cost to himself and his precious family, Liddell ran a very different race than the one the world and his own flesh might have marked out for him.

Rather than use his worldwide platform as an Olympic gold medalist to cushion his nest egg and/or his ego, Liddell stood on it to declare the gospel to audiences who would have never stepped foot in a church. He ran from fame and wealth into obscurity and poverty because of a greater affection for His Savior who modeled downward mobility.

A quiet life lived in daily, costly surrender to Him landed him in Plot 59 outside an obscure prison camp. No matter. The athlete had completed his most significant race.

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For I am already being  poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I  have kept the faith. Henceforth, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which  the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. 2 Timothy 4:6-8.   

 

A Terraced Heart

In South Carolina, lawns were typically flat and flourishing. San Diego yards, not so much.

What San Diego yards lack in size, they make up in depth and character. It is not uncommon to have a yard that backs up to a deep canyon. Resourceful homeowners with canyon-views learn to terrace their yards. Their hard, creative work results in beautiful, multi-level yards marked with nooks and crannies.

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Psalm 84
This past week, I have been studying and meditating on Psalm 84. This well-known psalm boasts three main, “Blessed are those” statements, each coupled an image. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, shown poetically by the sparrow nesting in the house of the Lord.  Blessed are those whose strength is in you, pictured by  saints on pilgrimage to God’s Temple, and blessed is the one who trusts in you, imaged by the content doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.

While in other seasons of life, my heart has grabbed on to the first and the third images, this week, my heart and attention were captured by the middle verses and accompanying imagery.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose hearts are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion. Psalm 84: 5-7. 

A Terraced Heart

The Hebrew word mesillah translated highways above comes from the root word salal. Salal can also be translated as lifting or ladder. A heart full of pathways, a laddered heart, a heart set on pilgrimage to more of God by the strength of God.

In the past when I have thought about a heart full of highways, the image that came to mind was the Autobahn in Germany, a well-paved, smooth, clear highway to the Lord. However, the introduction of the imagery of climbing and ladders shifted my image to one that seems to more appropriately show what pilgrimage to the Lord looks like. A climb, a curvy, circuitous route.

While those on pilgrimage on to the actual house of God would have climbed upward, I often feel like my walk with the Lord looks more like a downward climb to the heart of God. After all, in the gospel, we learn that the way down is the way up.

While it takes great strength to climb upward, it takes equal or more strength to travel the path of downward mobility that leads to the heart of God.

As I thought about these verses, our dear friends’ stunning canyon-facing yard came to mind. The initial level is a beautiful patio. Many people would be content to stay there, leaving the rest of the steep yard uncultivated. However, our friends have slowly, over the course of a decade, begun to terrace their yard downward, level by level. The result is that every time you visit their home, you are shocked to find yet another terrace, cultivated, beautified and planted.  They are not even 3/4 of the way down their property, and their terraced yard is already a maze of hidden spaces.

I long to have a heart that resembles their terraced yard. One that refuses to settle with what I know of God and have experienced of His presence. I long to continually,  by His strength, descend deeper into the untamed and wild places of my heart and the world around me, and begin to experience Him there.

A Place of Springs

The pilgrimage pictured in Psalm 84 is one through the Valley of Baca which literally means weeping place.  Often the pathway to the presence of God leads us through pain, disappointment and suffering, our own proverbial valleys of weeping. However, the psalmists paints a portrait of the tears we shed in those valleys of weeping becoming pools of refreshment for those who will pass through the same valley after us.

What depths of hope and purpose we have in the midst of our downward pilgrimages to better know and be conformed to the heart of God.  Each downturn is a chance to cultivate gospel-terraced hearts; each  valley of weeping is a chance to create a refreshing pool for those who suffer similarly in the future.

May we know the happiness, the blessedness of those who move from strength to strength, deeper into the heart of God!

 

Kindertransport & the Christ

Gil and Eleanor Kraus. Up until a week ago, those names meant nothing to me. Yet, their bold endeavor to rescue 50 children from Nazi-occupied Vienna ranks with Schindler’s List in rescue attempts.

A Bold Rescue
A Jewish couple from Philadelphia with two children, they lived a comfortable life even in the aftermath of the Great Depression.  However, after being approached by the leader of a Jewish humanitarian organization, Gil began to follow his heart and his legally-trained head into a series of decisions that would forever change not only their lives but also the lives of countless desperate families.

One of the uniquely  painful policies of Nazi Germany was that Jews were encouraged to leave Germany to emigrate to other countries; however, having been severely persecuted and stripped of their livelihoods and money, many were unable to actually get out. The United States, which was in a largely isolationist mindset trying to pull its own people out of the muck of the Great Depression, had stringent quotas regarding people allowed to immigrate from each nation. However, even those stringent quotas were not filled in the years of the Nazi reign.

As a lawyer, Gil Kraus came up with a plan to use some of the unfilled visa spots from previous years in a last ditch effort to at least save the lives of 50 children whose parents had received permission to come to the United States but were unable to pull off the emigration for various reasons, mostly financial and logistical.

Eleanor spent months doing tedious paperwork and countless errands which enabled 50 spots for children to legally enter the United States without their parents. Gil pulled strings and sat through disappointing conferences with US officials, trying to come up with an air-tight rescue plan that would be legally-solvent.

Both risked their own lives, entering tense, Nazi-occupied nations and leaving their own children under care of others, that they might be able to rescue 50 children. Even when they arrived in Austria, they knew there was no guarantee their plan would work.

They conducted heart-wrenching interviews with Viennese families, each seeking to get their child or children one of the coveted spots to safety. They had to select, from among hundreds, the children who would be most likely to be allowed to both leave Austria and enter the United States to live apart from the only family they knew.

Once they arrived in the US, the children stayed at a Jewish summer camp until arrangements could be made for foster families to host them until, God willing, their parents (or who was still alive among them) were able to eventually join them. Some were reunited with one parent a decade later. Some never saw their parents again.

These sad, yet hopeful shipments of parentless children out of Nazi territories came to be called kindertransports. As I read the story of these particular rescue, my pillow became wet with tears. As a mother, I cannot imagine the strength it would take to pack up your child and send them away to safety, knowing that you may never see them again. Eleanor Kraus vividly remembers the parents standing on the train platform with forced smiles of comfort and bravery, unable to wave for fear that they would seen wrongly as honoring Hitler.

A Costly Salvation
The heart-gripping thought of parents saving their children at such grave emotional costs to themselves and their own children gave me an even greater picture of the gospel.

God, the Perfect Father, who had only ever known perfect relationship and nearness to His Son, sent Jesus to the earth, knowing full well that He would treated unjustly and would die a torturous death. He did that to secure the most daring and unthinkable kindertransport of history.  His sacrifice and risk, far greater than the huge sacrifices and efforts of the Kraus’, secured salvation for those who would flee to Him through faith in the gospel.

The costs to the Kraus family and their supporters were great. The cost to Christ and the Father were infinite. The spots on the Kraus kindertransport were limited. The space on the Father’s kindertransport are as abundant as His children. The Kraus kindertransport provided earthly safety and opportunity. The Father’s kindertransport provides eternal security and endless opportunity.

What an undeserved, unearned, unthinkable salvation we have received. We have been shipped from the dominion of an enemy even more cunning and crafty than Hitler. We have been carried by, by costly grace through faith, to the safety of the house of the Father. May such a salvation shape the way we live every moment of our ransomed lives.

 

The Velveteen Years

Today, I found a  beautiful old copy of the Velveteen Rabbit on the 25 cent rack at our local library. I bought it, of course, because I love all books, but also because I was having a velveteen rabbit kind of week. As I sat this afternoon and read the beautiful old copy over a cup of coffee, I was reminded of this blog post that I wrote four years ago.

Four years later, I feel more patchy and less the kind of beautiful I pictured I would be in my mid-thirties. Yet, the dailyness of walking with God and seeing both His beauty and my sin, has made me more real. More than that, the gospel has been made for real to me.  I cling to it more, depend on it more, find my confidence increasingly therein.

“What is real,” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

We have the great privilege of working with college students. While I wouldn’t trade our calling for the world, it can be challenging sometimes for me to interact with fresh-faithed, prime-of-their-life, beautiful, in-shape college girls. Challenging only because I find myself comparing my well-worn, patchy faith with their conquer-the-world faith. Seeing their energetic personalities and their well-toned bodies makes me take double-takes at my tired momma-self and my more squishy body.

Velveteen-Rabbit-Artwork

Compared to these young ladies who are fresh-out-of-the-box I feel like a Velveteen rabbit. But then I remember that all the loose ligaments, all the patched up prayers, all the physical and spiritual dents and dings I carry around with me now are proof of being loved greatly. I remember that I am in the process of becoming Real.

Anne Lamott shares a similar sentiment in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

“Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life – it has given me me. It has provided time and experience and failures and triumphs and time-tested friends who have helped me step into the shape that was waiting for me. I fit into me now.”

My favorite word in the New Testament is the Greek word ginomai, which means to become. It is a process word, not a product word. Ginomia gives me hope; it reminds me that God is a God of a process and that we are all works in progress. Ginomai reminds me that I am deeply loved by my owner, that I have been bought at a great price and that somehow, against all odds, there is a God who sees me all unraveled and yet loves me still. He is making me Real, making me into the one He has created me to be in Him.

And, in the words of a wise Skin Horse, “Once you are real, you can never be ugly.”

Here’s to the Real One who is making us Real.