Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Wonder of His Love




Was Jesus' birth and infancy just a means to an end, something he had to go through to become the Son of Man?  Was it something to skip over?  Some prefer not to envision our Savior as a helpless infant but would rather only think of him as mighty and powerful.  Yet, a divine being who would enter his own creation by taking on the form of an unborn, then newborn child speaks volumes, revealing the wonder and absolute love of God in an unprecedented way.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  The baby Jesus was the beginning of the story and the most startling paradox the universe will ever know.

But wouldn't it have made more sense for him to suddenly appear already grown, majestically descending in a flaming chariot, ready to begin his long-awaited ministry?  Surely an angelic escort would have been in order.

Instead, the infant king came to earth in greatest humility, in the womb of a Jewish peasant girl.  One of my favorite authors, Madeleine L'Engle says it so well in her book, Bright Evening Star.

"Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?"

Out of the depths of eternity he came.  Jesus, willingly and lovingly "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness...." (Phil. 2:6) "Power.  Greater power than we can imagine, abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child, still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid, unseeing, unhearing, unknowing....  The throwing away of power requires enormous power..."  Madeleine L'Engle.

Just prior to his birth, in the darkness of Mary's womb, Jesus was sensitive to the fears, stress, fatigue and anxiety that his mother felt as they traveled 90 miles on a donkey, first on dirt paths along the Jordan River, then narrow, rocky mountain trails before reaching Bethlehem.  It was a grueling trip for both mother and child, fraught with hazards.  Their journey took them through dangerous, heavily-forested areas inhabited by lions, bears and wild boars.  Bandits and robbers were a constant threat.

Upon arrival in Bethlehem, there was no room for them and the Savior of the world was born in a harsh and bleak environment, carefully and adoringly wrapped in swaddling clothes by Mary and Joseph and gently placed into a primitive manger.  Heaven was resplendent with joy but on earth there was silence.

The Son of God, second person of the Trinity, eternal and omnipotent, broke into the limitation and confinement of time for us and became flesh as the Son of Man.  He went from obscurity in the womb to obscurity on earth.  It would be years before anyone knew who he was.

Every year, I search for adequate expression, a way to magnify the significance of his extraordinary, yet ordinary birth.  Not only am I overawed beyond words by his expansive humility, but I am stirred emotionally, imagining him as a tiny precious babe.  Who cannot be moved by exquisite little toes and fingers, the spontaneous newborn expressions and sounds?  Who cannot be tenderly swayed by the Christ child needing to be fed, clothed, rocked, sung to and cuddled? Picturing this makes me smile.  It makes me cry.  I feel drawn to him in a special way and that is exactly as intended.

It is part of the divinely designed plan for humanity.  God so loved the world that he gave his only son.  Our hearts are awakened and softened by the story of Mary and Joseph and a baby in a manger. As we genuinely respond to this marvelous event declaring his unending, amazing love, the expected eternal bonding continues and is strengthened.

At the moment of the conception of God's own son, the course of history was altered forever. Surely, this is cause for worship and praise, joy and celebration of the wonder of his love.






Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Remember



When I think I fail to live up to whatever standard I, or someone else, happens to have set for me, my opinion of myself ranges anywhere from impatience and disappointment to anger, disgust or depression.

That's pretty dramatic, you say.  Well, yes, it is.  I do tend to be rather hard on myself.  And in all the drama, I assume God feels the same way.  In spite of the fact that I intellectually know better, I too often forget that Jesus see us all through the eyes of compassion.  I forget that the making of a soul takes a lifetime.  As humans, we tend to view the soul as a finished product, especially as we grow older.  And on this presumed "finished" product, we may place unreasonable demands and terrible burdens. We think somehow we should know better, do better, feel better.  And maybe we should, but at the same time there is a need to remind ourselves there is an unfinished quality about humanity that will remain so until we take our last breath.

When Jesus sees us, he doesn't see someone who messed up again or someone who ought to know better.  He sees someone, deeply beloved, for whom he died.

Did you know crucifixion was reserved for those who did not matter, for those who had lost all status? This manner of execution was viewed as highly offensive and vile and it was not customary to write of it or speak of it publicly. In fact, the Bible narratives contain the longest and most detailed accounts of a crucifixion that exist in ancient literature. The intention for those crucified was that they be forgotten.  They were considered not worthy of remembrance. Interesting, when Jesus inaugurated the communion ceremony which was to symbolize his death, he said, "Do this in remembrance of me."

The victims of crucifixion suffered mockery, taunting, betrayal, humiliation, helplessness, rejection, bleakness, desolation, abandonment, brutality, gruesome torture.  It was an excruciatingly slow death of exposure and asphyxiation, with the last vestiges of dignity cruelly stripped away.

Jesus sees us, not as someone who just can't seem to get it right, but as someone for whom he died such a death. He told us his crucifixion was to be remembered. The biblical account has been preserved throughout the centuries for that very reason. We often view his words "Do this in remembrance of me" as a command.  And certainly it is.  But in the context, at his last supper surrounded by his cherished companions, Jesus knew he was about to face abandonment by most of them and a death with horrific consequences. Those words were not lacking in emotion, but spoken from deep within. It was a heartfelt plea to them, and to us centuries later, to remember him. To remember the enormity of the price he paid because his love for us is profound beyond measure.

That evening, he saw each of his disciples as he sees each of us, as someone for whom he died.  It was at the cross, the fullness of his love was revealed.









Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Eyes of my Heart








Within the past few months, I experienced a complicated, serious, infectious illness that backed me into a corner where surrender to God's sovereign will became my only option.  As I struggled to process and accept my dilemma, I fervently asked God to open the eyes of my heart so I could see Him more clearly.  Little did I know, His presence would be magnified through His beautiful children--family, friends, neighbors and strangers.

While feeling especially alone during one of my bad days, I came across this story in a book authored by Sue Monk Kidd, God's Joyful Surprise. She writes:

"One of my favorite sermon stories is about a little girl who went to play with her friend Marcy.  She was late returning home and her mother met her at the door.  'Why are you late?' she asked.  'Marcy's puppy got lost,' the little girl replied.  'Did you stay to help her find it?' the mother asked.  'Oh, no,' she said.  'I stayed to help her cry.'"

So with a desperate need for additional support, maybe even someone "to help me cry," I did something I would not normally do because I don't particularly like to be transparent in a public format.  I posted a brief, rather timid message on my Facebook Timeline requesting prayer.

I was not expecting to be overwhelmed, but that is exactly what happened.  The generosity of heart, the immediate willingness to pray for me, the sincere concern for my well being from my dear Facebook friends brought a burst of tears to my eyes.

The eyes of my heart were opened wide and I saw and encountered God through others.  As they entered His presence through prayer on my behalf, they brought me into His presence as well.  Their prayers became my prayers.  Intercessory prayer is loving cooperation with what Jesus, who will never leave us or forsake us, is already doing in a person's life.  It is meant to expand and intensify His presence in the mind and heart of those who pray and the individual on the receiving end.  I truly was comforted by their concern and lifted up by their prayers.

To be the recipient of a chorus of prayers is both unique and humbling. The effect is profound and long-lasting.  Usually this sort of intercession is an infrequent occurrence since it's prompted by a serious and traumatic event in someone's life.  More often than not, there aren't a lot of details provided when the urgent call for prayer goes out.  Having all the facts isn't necessary because the pivotal purpose of the prayer being offered is not to fix something.  It's simply enough to know someone is hurting and to express heartfelt compassion and empathy, to be with a fellow human being in spirit, "to stay and help them cry."

What a fascinating, miraculous dynamic!  With this form of prayer, we "experience God in spontaneous community," to again quote Sue Monk Kidd.  She goes on to say, "Every prayer is important, primarily to the one for whom we pray, but it's important for us too.  For in intercession we yield ourselves to God, sharing in His compassion and opening ourselves to His presence."

Monday, March 30, 2015

They Fell Asleep...




Jesus died on the cross for our sins, yes, and this is humbling beyond words.  But what is essential to remember is he suffered because he loved us, not out of duty.  The road to Calvary speaks volumes of that love, clearly revealed in Jesus' final hours on earth.

From a human perspective, it literally took blood, sweat and tears for Jesus to resolve to face the cruelty, rejection, degradation and violence of an execution by crucifixion.  Let's reflect for a moment on the emotional agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, where just prior to his arrest, Jesus offered up supplications with loud crying and tears. Before we rejoice that Jesus, as the Son of Man, was destined to choose the Father's will over his own pain, we should take a hard look at the desperate struggle that was involved.

The peaceful garden, thick with twisted-trunk olive trees, where they often went was familiar to Jesus and the disciples.  But this time something was different.  They had never seen their master like this, severely distressed and troubled, as though he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.  They glanced at each other, wondering what to expect.  As they entered through the gate, Jesus asked the group, with the exception of Peter, James and John, to sit down and wait for him there.  Then as the full moon illuminated their way, the selected three followed Jesus deeper into the recesses of the garden.

Finally, unable to contain the crushing sorrow any longer, he uttered, "My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch."  Wait.  Did you catch that?  Grieved to the point of death? These are words laden with mental anguish and affliction of the soul. The Jesus turned from his three companions and went a short distance. Tears streaming down his face, he fell to the ground, crying out to the Father as he began to wrestle with the preordained plan to redeem humankind.  His voice echoed in the dark night, heart-wrenching pleas from the pit of his being.  Could there be another way?

An hour passes.  In the moonlight, he noticed Peter, James and John across the way and approaches them.  Did he hope to be comforted? Did he expect a show of concern and support?  He had asked to so little of them.  He simply wanted them to be there for him in his hour of great need.  But what did his best friends in the whole world do?  They fell asleep.

Jesus leaves them and the battle in the garden continues, waves of emotion threatening to drown him with their force.  An angel appears to strengthen him.  The fervency and agony was so intense, his sweat mixed with blood.  Again he reached out to his slumbering friends. They looked up at him through drowsy eyes.  He searched for a glimmer of reassurance.  But they didn't know what to say to him. With a disheartened sigh, he told them. "It's OK...go back to sleep.

Exhausted, Jesus returned to his special spot.  After a final time of ardent, earnest prayer, the saga of blood, sweat and tears was unequivocally over.  He went to fetch his friends, finding all three sound asleep again, totally oblivious to his grievous personal struggle. As he studied their faces, remembering the camaraderie, his heart filled with compassion.  His love for them had not lessened. He awakened them with renewed determination in his voice.  Startled, they looked around, confused. For the past few hours, through groggy sleep, they'd heard him sob uncontrollably.  Now they stumbled along after him, trying to match his rapid pace as he headed back to the garden entrance to meet his betrayer face to face.

So here's the question that deserves an answer.  If Jesus' closest companions, his friends who were literally there in his very presence, feel asleep in the midst of all that transpired, how much easier is it for me to miss the point as well?  Is there a tendency to gloss over the words of the story--words heavy with raw emotion and feeling?

To stop, reflect and unpack events described in the Gospel accounts leading up to and including Jesus' ultimate sacrifice is to measure the length and width, height and depth of his amazing, unconditional love. It is meant to be taken personally.  It is intended to touch our hearts. In the final analysis, it is an invitation to respond.

"Only one act of pure love, unsullied by any taint of ulterior motive has ever been performed in the history of the world, namely the self-giving of God in Christ on the cross of undeserving sinners. That is why, if we are looking for a definition of love, we should look not in a dictionary, but at Calvary."  (quote by John R. Stott, The Cross of Christ)

Friday, December 19, 2014

One Small Child

This sweet photo of my grandson, Chris, soon after birth , captures the essence of the vulnerability and helplessness of a newborn child. 


Hearing a newborn cry out for the very first time is emotional to the core.  Especially if, for a few heart-pounding moments,  that cry is delayed due to complications at birth.  This happened with one of our daughters who was not breathing immediately after delivery and had to be stirred to life. When she finally cried out, that soulful, unmistakable sound was music to our ears.  The cry of a tiny infant resembles no other.

When Jesus was born and took his first breath, I like to think his poignant, emotive newborn cry resounded throughout the vastness of the entire universe. Why?  Because suddenly heaven erupted into euphoric, jubilant rejoicing and praise. A tear in the fabric of the firmament revealed a glimpse of the celebration of a great company of herald angels who knew earth had finally received her king.

The birth of Jesus as a tiny, helpless and vulnerable baby is unlike any other event in human history. There is such richness to be gained by honoring and worshiping the babe in the manger.  Not the least of which is the recognition of the astonishing humility of the Creator of all that is.  He "made himself nothing" (Phil.2:7) and miraculously became a part of his own creation.  It is nigh unto impossible to find words to adequately convey exactly what that represented.  In her book Bright Evening Star, Madeleine L'Engle, using her poetic literary style, comes close.  She writes:

"Power. Greater power than we can imagine, abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child, still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid, unseeing, unhearing, unknowing.  Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose, slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough, and it is time for birth....  Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ, the Maker of the universe...willingly and lovingly leaving all that power and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years to show us what we out to be and could be...."

And so it was, the Holy One, out of the depths of eternity, broke into the limitations of time and space for you and for me.  Fully human and fully God, this was divine love incarnate in a baby.  A real baby with a little wrinkled brow, wispy, raven-colored hair and enormous questioning eyes that stared into the eyes of his young mother, Mary. She wrapped him snugly with swaddling clothes and held him tightly so he would feel secure. I'm sure her heart melted with each soft gurgle that came from his mouth.  And as she cuddled and nuzzled her beloved new son, did tears of joy trickle down her cheeks and fall tenderly onto his? That's easy to imagine.  When she kissed her little baby, as she surely must have, she kissed the face of God.

The incarnation, in it's entirety, from Jesus' conception and birth to his death and resurrection, was planned from the foundation of the world. The instant he was born, he was the Son of God, the Son of Man and the Savior of the world. It is significant that almost half of his 33 years on planet earth were spent either as an infant,or as a child or as an adolescent.  He didn't skip over those years, rushing to achieve manhood.  Every minute of his life carried profound meaning. The wonder of Jesus' nativity is more than worthy of thoughtful reflection, grateful worship and highest praise.

"One small Child in a land of a thousand
One small dream of a Savior tonight
One small hand reaching out to the starlight
One small Savior of life."*


*Words from song One Small Child by David Meece







Friday, July 25, 2014

Aww....





There's a photo circulating on Facebook of a super-cute, fluff-ball of a kitten who thinks his name is "Aww..." because that's what everyone says when they see him. Very few can resist having a softhearted reaction to a kitten.  And what about a newborn baby or adorable toddler?  It comes quite easily doesn't it? So why is it often challenging to have this same gentle reaction towards everyone we cross paths with? Oh yeah, that's right.  We're not all cute little things, are we? We sometimes have our off moments and can be downright annoying. So when that happens, instead of going "aww..." we're wondering why in the world did he or she say that?  Or what's their problem anyway?

It's so human to misjudge or misread someone.  Wouldn't it be remarkable if we could read hearts like Jesus did as the Son of Man on this earth? Things would be decidedly simpler. But since that's impossible, the next best thing is to sympathetically assume he or she has a reason for getting up on the wrong side of the bed or falling short of our expectations of them.  The underlying motives for people's actions are not always bad, for the most part, they are completely understandable.

In her fascinating book My Stroke of Insight, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, an advanced brain scientist, speaks of the relevance and necessity of being sensitive to the plight of others.  She describes suffering a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain.  Losing her left brain consciousness and functions caused her to fall out of sync with the external word.  But Jill retained right brain consciousness allowing her to continue processing information as a scientist.  Within a few hours, she observed her mind deteriorating to the point she could no longer walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her past life, including family or friends.  Ten years later, after her long recovery, she documented her experience in her book.

It was easy to judge Dr. Taylor as less than what she had been before because she could no longer function like a normal person.  Even though everyone was a stranger to her, she could read volumes from facial expression and body language.  Hospitalized immediately after the stroke, she felt safe with some medical staff and unsafe with others.  One staff member, oblivious to her needs, spoke loudly to her as if she were deaf. Others were impatient, brusque and abrupt in handling her.

Yet she remembers another's eyes were soft and kind as she reassuringly touched her foot, then her shoulder and came close to her face so she could hear as she spoke softly.  Dr. Taylor says, "Although I could not completely understand her words, I completely understood her intention."

She describes how, as she lay on a hospital bed unable to speak, she perceived sounds, touch, light--any incoming stimulation--as highly discordant and unbearably painful.  Vulnerable and confused, Jill recalls desperately wanting to tell those around her: "... Bring me your gentle spirit.... Be kind to me.  Be a safe place for me...."

Her mother arrived on day three after the stroke. Of course, Dr. Taylor didn't recognize her when she walked into the room.  But her mom went straight to her bedside, lifted the covers and crawled into bed with her.  Jill explains how her mom "....immediately wrapped me up in her arms.... I felt perfectly content all wrapped up in my mother's love.  She was kind and soft and obviously freaking out a little, but overall, I thought she was nice and I liked her."  Her mother understood exactly what she needed--tender loving care in the wake of a life-changing calamity.

We usually have no idea what difficulties or life lessons the person standing next to us may be experiencing. So assume for the moment there are valid reasons for their conduct, rather than superficially judging and reacting negatively. This gives us time to mellow out, allowing for a more gentle response on our part and the opportunity to reflect the graciousness and tender mercies of Jesus.

Quoting Maya Angelou, beloved and celebrated poet and author: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."



Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I Doubt It!





It's taken me years to accept there is room for doubt in my life and it can turn out to be a good thing. There was a time when I felt I had all the answers, tied up in a neat little package. Not just answers to the big questions of life and death, but answers to all the in-between questions as well .  Admittedly this gave me a feeling of security and control over my existence.  But it left no space for dealing satisfactorily with doubt, mystery, time and chance, miscalculations or the unexpected sharp curves that life tends to throw at us.

I didn't see the need to "question the answers" provided dogmatically and authoritatively by others in whom I had put all my trust.  This is not uncommon as many people do automatically accept the belief system of their childhood.  And then one day I began to ask questions and discovered my cherished answers were seriously lacking.  But, in the asking, the bottom of my neat, organized, knowledge package came apart and everything fell out. I was left to pick up the pieces, some broken, and realized they would never fit together perfectly again.  It was like starting all over and I felt very vulnerable, yet the process was so very necessary.

Here's the thing: we can't presume to spell out what God himself has not spelled out.  To quote author Philip Yancey, speaking of his own personal experience which closely resembled mine: "The church environment I grew up in had no room for doubt.  'Just believe!' they told us. Anyone who strayed from the defined truth risked punishment as a deviant...."

It shouldn't come as a surprise--no matter how many rules we follow or who we are, life and all its highs with joys and triumphs, and lows with loss and pain, happens to all of us.

Philip Yancey's book, entitled Reaching for the Invisible God, has a basic premise:  God's invisibility guarantees we will experience times of doubt. A relationship between an invisible God and visible humans will always involve an element of uncertainty. To pretend that doubting never happens or that it is an indication something is very wrong with us isn't necessary.   Unavoidable, seemingly-unaswerable questions that arise from time to time, especially in seasons of sore trial.  Some answers will be opaque.  So do be prepared for mystery.  A finite mind will never be capable of completely grasping the infinite. We often see through a glass darkly. Life is not destined to always be easy or predictable.

Quoting Philip Yancey again: "The only thing more difficult than having a relationship with an invisible God is having no such relationship."  And strangely enough, the closer our relationship, the more questions we may have about his involvement in our lives.

Though some things may remain clouded, that which is absolutely crucial in order for us to establish a deep and lasting relationship with God can be clearly seen and understood. During times of uncertainty, we have only to open our eyes wider to "see" the invisible God in the marvels and intricacies of his creation, nature and the cosmos.  There is goodness, which comes from God, all around us if we would only look for it. There are miraculous interventions, all shapes and sizes, that surround us. And knowing in advance how perplexing his "invisibility" would be for us, the Son of God actually came to earth in visible flesh to live with us for a period of time to show us who God is and what he is like.

Maybe it's just me, but it has been stimulating and liberating to ask questions, ponder and meditate on life's penetrating issues such as death, eternity, suffering, the existence of God. I am no longer reluctant to doubt and question nor am I afraid of the obscure.  Even though I don't have all the answers as I once thought, I have a more profound certainty than ever before. You would think it would be the opposite. Having all the answers is not a requirement nor is it meant to be.  I have found seeking to personally connect and bond with the Creator of Life and the Universe is what counts.  Of that, I have no doubt.