Category Archives: Poetry

Sons & Strangers

The fish with the shekel in its mouth.

I have taught the story many times before to children of various ages, but the Lord taught it to me this morning in a way that brought tears to my eyes.

Jesus and his disciples are approaching Capernaum, and Peter is pressed by a fellow Jew for a two-drachma tax. This tax was an in-house tax among the Jewish people, not the Roman tax that Jesus will address later in Matthew 22:12. According to custom established at the time of Moses and later adapted to the Temple, Israelite males over the age of twenty were to pay two drachmas as a tribute to help keep up the Temple. This came to be known as the Temple Tax and was collected at the major religious feasts of the Jewish people.

When pressed and pressured by a leader, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?,” Peter quickly responded, “Yes,” perhaps out of a desire for approval or a desire to protect his teacher and friends from religious shame  (Matthew 17:24-25).

Either Jesus knew what had happened or happened to overhear the interaction. Either way, he used this interaction as a personal and intimate teaching moment with his disciple who would eventually be among the most prominent leaders of the early church. Jesus posed his own question to Peter:

“What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” (Matthew 17:25). 

The answer was obvious. Why would a king make his own son pay a tax? Taxes are for strangers, not sons. No such formal obligations should be made from a father to his sons. The sons, because of their connection to their father, are exempt. The Greek word used here, eleutheros, can be translated free, liberated, unbound, unshackled.

The audacity of this moment shocked me. After all, here a religious leader was pressing the One who was the living Temple for a temple tax, demanding that the One who was the only rightful son of God pay a tax to his father. The very Temple in question was intended all along to point to the One who would pitch the tent of God’s presence among us (see John 1).

The humble, yet powerful response of Jesus at this moment astounded me in a new way  this morning.

He sent Peter, the fisherman, with a hook to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, telling him to grab the first fish he could,  and promising him that he would find twice the Temple Tax in its mouth (a shekel was equal to four drachma). For Peter, who likely had seen just about everything one might normally find in the mouthes of fish, this would be a new fishing story he would never forget. But, more than the story, the powerful lesson it would write on his heart regarding his master would never be forgotten.

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Sons &  Strangers

The Living Temple approaching the Temple,
Pressed by men to pay their fee. 
The One True Son treated as a stranger,
The Same Son who would mount the tree.

Would they charge Him to enter
The Presence of His Own Father?
The One who would become tribute
For two drachmas did they bother?

What they demanded from Him
He provided with great precision,
A shekel from a fish was nothing
To the price of His coming decision.

All treasures of all time were His
Yet with His blood, He’d pay the cost.
That strangers might become sons,
That His siblings might not be lost. 

This morning, in the midst of COVID-19, let us rest in the reminder of the One who paid the greatest cost for our freedom. God has provided more powerfully for us in his life, death, and resurrection than He did for Peter with the shekel from the sea.

He Giveth More Grace

TP is not the only thing on short supply in our house. We are running low on books, despite my hoarding of library books before the lock down. We are nearly out of sidewalk chalk and snacks. But those are not the lags that leave me worried.

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At times throughout the day, patience is on short supply. While our creativity levels have been steady, I fear for the moment when what feels like an adventure to our boys starts to get old. Left to myself, my hope, willpower, and perspective have expiration dates.

While I don’t have much to offer on the former set of lists, I have good news for those who are running low on the latter set.  I’ll let Annie Johnson Flint say it, since she captures it best in a poem she penned which became a hymn.

“He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision,
Our God ever yearns His resources to share;
Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing;
The Father both thee and thy load will upbear.

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.”

Lest you think this is mere poetry, you must know that Annie was twice orphaned and was crippled from arthritis that made her an invalid. She knew limitations and lack in every possible way; but those limitations led her to an all-sufficient, ever-present, always-abundant Savior.

Maybe you haven’t the end of your rice or frozen bread or canned goods yet; maybe you  never will.  Maybe you were among the early adapters who took multiple Costco runs for hand sanitizers and TP. Maybe your hospital won’t run out of protective masks.

But your heart will run out of drive and hope and energy and perspective if left to itself. While funny memes keep us laughing (keep them coming, they are like cinnamon sugar on milk toast days), a steady diet of happy thoughts are not enough to keep us hopeful in the midst of a sustained two front war against an invisible virus and a wave of mental health battles.

If you find your heart empty, don’t rush to fill it quickly with a short hope or a sudden surge in self-will.  Please listen to your empty heart and know that it is meant to correspond to and live in conjunction with an ever-full God.

The emptiness in us corresponds to his fullness.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of  the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth….For from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. John 1:14 & 16. 

All people are invited to face an invisible virus with the companionship of the God who made himself visible.

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross…Colossians 1:17-20.

If you are too quick to fill your emptiness (or your children’s emptiness or boredom) with new lists of fun indoor activities (again, keep them coming…just don’t rely on them or your ability to implement them to sustain you), you might miss out on being refilled by  the living water from the fountain of life.

Only empty things can be filled. We have an upper hand in these COVID-19 days.  As those who will know emptiness like we have not known before in a land that has smacked of abundance for most of our lives, we have a front row seat to the glory of God as seen through his sustaining grace.

As we get deeper into hard days, and closer to empty pantries and toilet paper rolls, may we know that, spiritually speaking, our Father’s full giving has only begun.

Poetry Offers Space for those Sheltering in Place

In a time when possibilities, once seemingly limitless in our nation, have suddenly become far more limited, poetry offers perspective and possibility while refreshing place.

I have long believed that poetry would make an eventual come-back in our culture, but now I see a window of actual opportunity for such a thing to happen. In a culture awash with words, often empty words from the unrealistic promises of advertisements, the economy of words in poetry forces meditation and musing. Each word packed with levels of meaning, each phrase stretchy enough to become a space and place all its own.

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Take it from American poet Emily Dickinson who spent the majority of her life in a chosen quarantine without COVID-19. While she was particularly quirky, she knew a thing or two about limits and possibilities. In her poem I Dwell in Possibility, she expresses the freedom that the poetic form offers as compared to prose.

I Dwell in Possibility  (466) by Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

While we are cramped in similar places and limited in our movement, poetry offers movement and imaginative space. It frees us from a merely pragmatic existence and imbues meaning into the seemingly monotonous. 

Scottish writer and poet George MacDonald had the gift of expressing himself through a world of words. In the following excerpt from his book of poetry entitled The Diary of An Old Soul, he puts into words what so many of us have experienced in the recent weeks.

“Therefore, O Lord, when all things common seem,
When all is dust, and self the centre clod,
When grandeur is a hopeless, foolish dream,
And anxious care more reasonable than God,-
Out of the ashes I will call to thee-
In spite of dead distrust call earnestly; –
Oh thou who livest, call, then answer dying me.

We are a shadow and a shining, we!
One moment nothing seems but we see,
Nor aught to rule but common  circumstance-
Nought is to seek but praise, to shun but chance;
A moment more, and God is all in all,
And a sparrow from its nest can fall
But from the ground its chirp goes up into his hall.”

As I have processed with family, college friends, and women from our church, the shared sentiment is a sudden swinging between the poles of levity and gravity, fear and distrust, belief and unbelief, peace and anxiety. One minute we are trusting the Lord and enjoying his purchased peace in the midst of the storm, but then the next, for no apparent reason, we are cowering in fear, hoarding toilet paper, and doubting God’s wisdom and goodness.

I love the phrase, “We are a shadow and a shining, we!”  as it poetically captures the distinctly Christian paradox of humanity which holds both brokenness and beauty, sin and sonship.

Two weeks ago, all seemed normal as circumstances and schedules ruled our lives. We had baseball and soccer practices that called us, coffee dates that consoled us, and work and home to divide our time. Then, as if out of nowhere, COVID-19 changed the filter. Suddenly, the things we took for granted became great gifts: hugs, toilet paper, work and paychecks. Suddenly, the God who had all but fallen into the background came again to the forefront, and the sovereignty of God that our self-assured and self-reliant culture tried to shrug off became a prized reality. The Heidelberg catechism went from a dusty old creed to an anchor line of hope nearly overnight.

MacDonald’s twin phrases, “When grandeur is a hopeless, foolish dream/
And anxious care more reasonable than God,” perfectly captures the feelings many of us have right now. Anxiety seems more reasonable than faith right now, but, as believers, we cry out to the living God to save us.

More poetry which creates space and perspective to come in the coming days of quarantine. Until then, rest in the reality that while we are both shadow and shining, our God is sovereign and good.

Love’s Lonely Offices

Today love will be celebrated with saccharine candies,  glittery cards, and helium balloons, and well it should be in a world laced with hate and envy and self.

I loved making a soccer field Valentine box with my middle schooler. In fact,  I cherished it knowing it may be one of the last we make together before he thinks such things cheesy.  I set out sweet treasures for my boys last night. My hubs and I have some sweet things planned for the morning.

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But today I am also thinking about love’s lonely offices. The uncelebrated, unnoticed, unseen acts of daily love that keep families and churches and cities alive in the midst of the entropy of a broken world.

In his poem Those Winter Sundays, Robert Hayden dropped a line that has been stuck in my head like the thread of a spiderweb.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires ablaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

The last two lines have been playing on repeat in my mind for over a week. What do I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

As I continue to step further into parenting, as I watch my mother-in-law care for her sick husband, as I wade into a new Church leadership role, I continue to notice more of love’s lonely offices.

Waking up at odd hours of the night to spend an hour getting her husband out of bed and to the toilet and back, my Amma knows austere and lonely offices well. She has opened my eyes to the quiet faith and uncelebrated fortitude of caregivers to the aging and sick.

Being around our church more, I see the pastoral leadership team bearing the weight of the congregation’s needs and sufferings. I have an inside vantage point to the wrestling in prayer and planning that happen behind the scenes on a daily basis, another window into love’s lonely offices.

Watching friends serving the foster care system set up visitations and caring for children that are not theirs. Love’s austere and lonely offices.

A smaller example, yet significant in its own little way: I spent time writing notes in my boy’s notebooks for school only to be told, tenderly, but still painfully, “Yeah, I saw that. All those notes always say the same thing.” A little example of love’s little yet lonely offices.

The world is full of austere and lonely offices, but they are all glimpses of the Love’s most austere and lonely office, the office of Christ.

In the poem, the image of the father waking with tired and blistered hands to stoke the fires of warmth for his son are both moving and memorable. Yet, the image of the Creator God sending His beloved, dear Son-self into the hatred and hardness of our broken globe trumps the former image.

The image of Christ in the garden, laying with His face to the ground, in agony while His closest friends slept. Love’s austere and lonely office.

The image of Christ lifted on a Cross, perfection pounded by imperfection’s penalty, forgiving the offenders. Love’s most austere and lonely office.

In an eternal string of days, our Christ sets the table, serves His children, offering them the meal of Himself, his body broken on our behalf that we would be made whole. Often, the meal is skipped, if not scorned. Yet Christ faithfully serves in His austere and lonely office.

What a joy to know that as we go about our own nuanced versions of love’s austere and lonely offices, followers of Christ are not alone.  Far from alone, Christ’s brothers and sisters are empowered and enabled by the Spirit and strength from His lifetime of love’s lonely offices.

The Father’s sending, Christ’s sacrifice and the Spirit’s closer-than-the-air nearness transform our lonely offices into lovely offices, chances to join the Trinity in an eternal office of love.

 

 

 

 

The Cattle on a Thousand Hills

As those who recently spent time in Texas, I can at least say that I have seen the cattle on a thousand plains. And as those who raise financial support for a ministry, I can say that I have prayed this phrase countless times (mostly out of context) to remind my anxious soul that God always provides, for all that is on the earth is His! However, this past week, the Lord brought the phrase to mind in a different light.

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“Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills, I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.” Psalm 50:7-11. 

In context, God offers the powerful imagery of owning the cattle on a thousand hills to rebuke His people who were quick to do due diligence to the letter of the ceremonial law while their hearts were far from Him. In essence, God says, “I don’t need your sacrifices of bulls; all the bulls are mine anyway. I want what only you can offer me: your dependence, your honor, your worship.”

In juxtaposition to the rote, heartless sacrifices offered by God’s children to their Father, the Spirit brought to remembrance a heartfelt sacrifice from an unimaginably generous and forgiving father on behalf of His child.

But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” Luke 15:22-24. 

I am certain that the father did not consider it lavish to sacrifice the fattened calf to celebrate his wayward son’s long-awaited, oft-cried over return. While the father from the Parable of the Prodigal Son gives us a window into the heart of God the Father, the Cross of Christ gives us a far more focused glimpse into the nature of our God.

The earthly father killed the fattened calf to celebrate the son’s return. Our heavenly  father killed His obedient Son to enable a path for all the other wayward children to return.  I imagined God thinking about the cattle on a thousand hills as possessions He would gladly give up to celebrate the return of more of His children.

The Cattle on a Thousand Hills

The cattle on a thousand hills- 
All of them are mine.
I’ve no need to brand them-
I am their Maker Divine.

Yet, I’d gladly give them
Upon a thousand returns.
For a thousand more children,
My entire being years. 

I’d slaughter every cattle,
But I already gave Myself.
To purchase their pardon,
I gave up all my wealth.

Like the generous father,
I’ve a robe to wrap them in;  
I’ll cover them in my robes,
For I’ve covered all their sin.

A thousand thousand children
for a thousand thousand years;
This is my rightful reward
For all Golgotha’s tears. 

Birth is Just the Beginning

Every Advent, I try to write a poem to help re-apply the Christmas Story to a heart and mind grown familiar with the tale. This year, I am down to the wire on all things: wrapping, packing, and writing.

Lately,  I have found myself thinking about Mary, the new mother who was likely scared, elated, and everything in between. After the long journey that was forced upon them late in her pregnancy and the birth in the back room with the livestock, I imagine Mary had quite a lot to process.

Every mother experiences that moment when the adrenaline wears off, the meal train grinds to a halt, and a new reality sets in.  Life will never be the same. All those months of preparation for the child have come to an end, but new life as a mother is only beginning.

After the shepherds left, the story had only begun.

There would be a flight from infanticide. An unexpected prophecy of maternal pain from Simeon. A strange visit from scholars from the East. Long middle years of normalcy and monotony, broken up with moments of perplexity like finding her adolescent Son confidently teaching grown men in the Temple. Swift tides of change as her son matured and veered from His father’s trade toward the less stable itinerant teacher track. Her Son’s sudden spike in popularity, quickly followed by threats and near-death escapes. His fate seemingly riding on the fickle waves of public opinion.

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Isolation. Relief. Confusion. Frustration. All culminating in anguish unspeakable as she watched her first born Son suffer in excruciating pain, as she heard His name mired in undeserved shame.

Elation when her grief became glee as the younger Mary told her the joyous news of the  Resurrection. Equal parts excitement and hesitation as the disciples told her about His Ascension back to the Father from whence He had come.

I wonder, if you found Mary later in life, what she would have said about that first night with her Son in light of all that came later. I wonder what the first few years were like after her Son’s ascending back to the Father in an even more mysterious and miraculous way than He had come. I wonder if she and John sat around and laughed while crying, telling stories about Jesus, the son, the friend, the Christ.

I imagine that His Ascension, like His birth, was a beginning. A beginning of a life simultaneously longing to be with Him again, yet presently attesting to His life, death and resurrection alongside the inchoate church.

Tears fill my eyes as I imagine that first hug between Christ and His mother when we all receive glorified bodies in the New Heavens and the New Earth. A third new beginning that will never end.

No mother knows what her motherhood journey will entail. The process unfolds just as organically and often imperceptibly as her child seems to grow. Yet, Mary walked in faithful obedience, trusting that the God who had sought her out would sustain her.

Birth was Just the Beginning

Travel. Travail. A baby’s wail.
Birth was just the beginning. 

Sleepless nights. Fleeing flights. 
A momma’s heart is spinning.

Long days. Quick years. Real fears.
Her love on His heart imprinting.

Horrendous cross. Unthinkable loss.
The mother’s hope is thinning.

Reunion. Resurrection. Perfection.
The pair cannot stop grinning. 

His Ascension. Her heart’s tension.
This, too, is just the beginning. 

Oh, that we would faithfully walk out the days He has ordained from us from before there were days. That we would trust Him with our beginnings and ends, that we would live in light of the new beginning that will usher in our eternal tomorrows. That we would remember His coming, His cross, and His coming again.

 

 

 

Recharged

When I am spent, I find my soul seeking refuge and refreshment in nature. The compounding stress of carlines,  deadlines, and headlines crushes out a fresh sense of wonder and expectancy in my heart.

I cannot say it better than the wordsmith Gerard Manley Hopkins did in God’s Grandeur.

….And for all this, nature is never spent;
     There  lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though  the last lights off the black West  went
     Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the  Holy Ghost over the bent
       World broods with warm breast  and with ah! bright wings! 

Awe is not automated. It is not the result of a formula, though I wish it were. The recharging of a soul is far more nuanced than the electrical re-charging a phone. And such we should expect, considering the comparative significance of souls to stuff.

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This Fall was an incredibly busy and bustling season for our family. The busyness was necessary and intentionally selected  personal, familial, and organizational development.   It was productive and powerful;  yet, it has left me trying to kick the leader’s addiction to adrenaline. All Fall I have sighed, wanting slowness. But since the slower Winter has come, I have found myself inwardly rebelling against the stillness.

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This past week, multiple appointments were cancelled, leaving me a few  precious pockets of time to explore my favorite regional park with my favorite four-legged companion.  Those few hours did what coffee shops and books have failed to do for the past few weeks. God used them to begin recharging me.  I should not have been surprised,  as Psalm 19 so clearly describes the way they sing the Creator’s restorative song.

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Awake!

Today the Scrub Jay delivered to me
A message of momentous import.
But, fluttering, he fled the scene
Before I did respond to his report. 

The heavens declare the glory of the Lord;
Awake,  slumbering soul;  get on board. 

Clumps of mud collected on my feet,
Bidding me to slow my hurried pace.
Bristles of breezes tickled my cheeks,
Gently guiding me to lift my face.  

The skies shout out His great name.
Awake, slumbering soul; do the same.

The droplets mustered for the Master,
Gathering, awaiting word to descend,
As Brave blades of fresh green grass,
Coaxed by His command did ascend.

Creation listens to His gentle direction;
Awake, slumbering soul; pay attention.

While nature may not be one of the sacred pathways by which you connect with God, I challenge you to look into Gary Thomas’ Sacred Pathways to find the unique ways God has wired your soul to recharge in Him.