Easter Hallelujah

April 7, 2009

God the Father desires to forgive us.

He loves redemption and restoration. He looks for ways to withhold His righteous judgment, as evident in this passage from 2 Peter 3: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The story of Hosea illustrates that God’s love always precedes his wrath. 

He looks for ways to satisfy his holy wrath and set us free from bondage. In the death and resurrection of Jesus—in Easter and everything it represents—two facets of God’s character emerge.

Think of the seasons. Spring follows winter, rebirth follows death. Summer, harvest, and feasting follow rebirth. Though different, ice and snow and warm rain and sweat both bring cleansing.

God does not send his children out into the desert to die. He plans to call them back into his gardens better prepared to choose a life by his die.sunset

I also think of the cities of refuge in the Old Testament where fugitives could seek refuge. I think of fields left fallow so that the nutrients in the soil might replenish and the celebration of Jubilee every fifty years to forgive debts and redistribute wealth—to give everyone a clean start. 

God has woven into every process and practice of the natural world and Judeo-Christian culture ornate designs of death, cleansing, and rebirth. We will see baptism in every minute detail of our existence if God opens our eyes.

The prostitute Rahab is in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Moses killed an Egyptian in a fit of rage then led the Hebrews to the Promised Land. David seduced Bathsheba, had her husband Uriah, one of David’s Mighty Men, killed, and then conceived Solomon with her. Solomon built the temple. 

God redeems prostitutes, murderers, and adulterers. His power is most evident when he restores those people with the most rotten souls. Every one of us is “the worst of sinners,” and every one of us has hope. 

God can turn pedophiles, rapists, and cannibals into saints. He loves pornographers, pimps, and you.

Accepting Jesus is a lifelong confession of our sins, our bloody hands and our need of a sacrificial lamb and a joyful surrender to God’s ineffable love, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the sweet grace of an empty tomb.

Hallelujah.

You can change

March 31, 2009

You can change.

You are not simply a product of your past or environment, bound with invisible chains to your sins, failures, and family secrets.

Grace means transformation. Grace is real. Grace is true.

The fire of the Holy Spirit can sweep through your life and burn up all the garbage. You can live in freedom. You can taste purity and peace.

What you treat as unbreakable bonds are cobwebs to the risen Christ.

You can change. He can make you holy—washed white and entirely new.

Start asking, and he will come to your desire for him like a moth to a candle.

courage

March 27, 2009

Courage.

Whenever I hear the word, I think of orange sherbert with an oily sheen in a metal tin. I think I carried this image away from The Wizard of Oz. The Cowardly Lion joins the journey to the Wizard to ask for some courage.

Boldness. Audacity. Cojones.

Isn’t that a great compliment to give and receive? “He’s gutsy.” We love to share the stories of moments when we shored up against evil or injustice or fear. Standing in the void.

I’ve heard courage described as the rarest, and therefore the most precious, of virtues. That makes sense to me. 

How many people do I know whom I would call courageous? What does that look like?

Courage changes with the person. We all have our own fears. The people whom I most respect are the ones who push into their fears, their wounds, and their insecurities.

Sit down and don’t move until you’ve written down ten of your fears. Or ask yourself what conversations you don’t want to have? Think about that person whom you need to call. Just the thought is enough to make you sick at your stomach.

Ask that girl out. Break up with that boyfriend. Move to a new city. Quit your job. Sing on a stage in front of people. Tell your friends that you love them. Write letters asking for forgiveness. Throw away pictures. Buy a motorcycle. Get your hair chopped off. Get a tattoo. Take guitar lessons. 

I am tired of being paralyzed by fear, hedged in, pushed down to my knees by the odds of failure or embarrassment. 

Courage. I want it. To admit that I was really angry or clinically depressed. To confess that I am in need, that I am lonely, that I am sick of being sick. Buy that trendy hat and wear it ragged. Be ruthless in your authenticity.

Courage is the spirit coming alive within us. Courage to fight despair and cling to hope. Courage to crack and cry out, “God, I cannot do it on my own. Where are you?”

Courage, oh, Father, give myself back to me. Make me fearless. Help me to stand for the right and as I ride the prow of the ship to take the spray in the face. Help me to stand firm in the face of death. Let not my enemies triumph over me. 

Give me courage to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Courage to live with grace and power.

Foxes from the last several days: 

· I talked to a good friend from Nashville on Sunday night. How strange it is to know someone your whole life yet only brush the surface. Each one of us is a mystery. Each one of us is created Imago Dei—in the image of God. I’ve known her my whole life, yet “for who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” We surprise each other, we surprise ourselves. Our minds and bodies both make us human. Together they contain the galaxies of our souls. What a simple pleasure to make forays into someone else’s galaxy!

· This friend and I are both writing children’s books. Mine is entitled “Grabbling.” I drew from a story that my grandmother tells about fishing with her hands in Mulberry Creek. When I read the first draft to her, she just laughed and laughed—one of my favorite sounds. Putting the story down on paper and thinking about it brings me great pleasure. Also, the prospect of receiving Rachel’s book in the mail to read for the first time. E-mail, cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter are poor substitutes for receiving a package in the mail.

snake

· I spoke briefly with my friend John tonight. He and I haven’t talked since Christmas. When I think back over a sequence of minute events over the past two weeks that led to our conversation, I remember that I no longer believe in coincidence. We needed to talk, simple as that. Some of my stories and scars may give him hope. Thick trees and cool grass and bright flowers put down roots in the scorched places of our hearts. Ash feeds the soil. Our suffering feeds our own sanctification and can even be a catalyst for healing in other people’s lives.

· A tiny garden snake on the sidewalk in front of the house.

· A pedal falling off my bike and Lindsay coming to pick me up.

· Listening to my friends Aron Wright and Daniel Ellsworth play the WDVX’s Blue Plate Special.

· Eating the last of Justin’s candy cigarettes.

mono no aware

March 17, 2009

The summer before my senior year of college, I spent two months working with Warringah Church of Christ outside of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. My friends Benji Jones and Hunter Harris were also helping out. Within a few days, we’d discovered that your average Australian lives by a different rhythm than your average American. We’d gone expecting to every day to be full of service—home maintenance projects, church work, and vacation bible school. 

What we found instead was plenty of down time. Hunter and I had both brought our bouldering shoes, so we’d take a bus out to Malibu beach and do some bouldering on the house-sized rock there. We’d take a bus or ferry across the bay to downtown and eat dinner or go to a movie. We went surfing a few times and went on plenty of hikes around Manley and Bondi beach.

Near the famous shell-shaped opera house is the Royal Botanical Gardens. After meandering through it one day, we bumped into the Art Gallery of New South Wales

I am always surprised by what I take away from such places packed with beauty, history, and creativity. My favorite was an exhibition of Japanese art. I’m a sucker for the placards next to each piece. Where else would I learn that the Japanese see in the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms the transience of all life. 

One phrase in particular has stuck with me: mono no aware.

We were staying with the Walmsleys at the time, and lucky for me, Yuriko Walmsley could translate the words. She said they were archaic, no longer used. They meant “the sadness of things.”

Mono no aware imprinted in my memory because I have seen it in my father’s eyes. I have heard coyotes sing it in their dirges to the moon. Even in moments of exuberant joy, it stands in the corner and follows our laughter with a hint of regret. Nothing stays the same. We are but a vapor. We are sound and fury.

Like water, sadness runs through everything.  
I ran across a lovely letter written by the poet Franz Wright the other day. He was commenting on a poem my friend Anna Laura wrote and posted on her blog.

He wrote:

Haven’t we completely misunderstood the true nature of happiness? I am not even sure I understand these terms anyone: sadness, happiness! I mean this literally, even though I would like to be happy as much as anyone else. But happiness can clearly not be expected to last or remain the same, anymore than this life of ours can. I am not even sure I can tell the difference between happiness and sadness anymore! There are moments of sadness and loneliness when I love my life every bit as intensely as I do during moments of great joy.


Just some 3:30 a.m. thoughts. There is a sadness in your words, but this seems to give them a kind of poignancy and beauty that I respond to and recognize.Maybe we just need to give up all thought or intention of attempting to control these things-it is so obvious that that is impossible!-and just allow ourselves to be carried, or guided, without bitterness, with trust? I don’t know, but this is how it seems to me at the moment.

When I read his words, I thought, mono no aware. The sadness of things. John Keats wanted “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” on his tombstone. The sadness of things. A wife and her baby killed by a drunk driver. The sadness of things. Our loves lost, our fears realized, our dreams trampled, our families splintered—the sadness of things.

Each morning when I arise, if I will continue to breathe and move in this sad, beautiful, broken world, I must continue to believe that God has written my name and yours on the palm of his hand.

Sweet freedom

March 13, 2009

When I was leaving my house this morning for work, I noticed a mockingbird in a skirmish with two bluejays. One of the bluejays gave up and flew away over the roof of the Church of God next door. The mockingbird and his other nemesis looped around and through the Blueberry Tree. They would both land as if to catch their breath before the mockingbird would lunge at the larger bluejay and they would begin their aerial combat all over again.

I’m unsure what kind of tree it was that was their battleground. My friend Caroline dubbed it the ”Blueberry Tree” simply because blue berries have begun to appear on the tips of its branches. Spring starts officially on March 21st, the Vernal Equinox.

Everywhere I see splashes of yellow, green, and pink. Delicate flower petals, new grass, and blossoms on the trees.

Rebirth.

We need it. Our moods are tied into the seasons. Sunlight keeps us healthy.

I wonder if the mockingbird feels it and responds in its own way—chasing the intruder around the block. That’s what was intriguing about the spectacle. The numbers were in favor of the bluejays, two to one. They are much larger than the mockingbird. Yet, he was routing them like a couple of amateurs.

He was bold. He was persistent. He was fearless.

He reminds me of Paul’s words to Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1.6-7)

Power and love and self-control. 

Maybe that’s where the metaphor breaks down. The mockingbird wasn’t loving on the bluejays. 

However, I still believe that we are the Blueberry Tree, the Spirit is the mockingbird, and the bluejays are anyone or anything that that tries to convince us that God is aloof, immobile, or impotent.

Again, I think of Paul:

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4.4)

Jesus did more than disarm the dark powers of this world. “He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2.15).

What does that mean for us?

Hope.

We were dead, but now we are alive. We move and breathe in sweet freedom.

Lazarus: Part II

February 26, 2009

Jesus waits two days longer before he divulges his plans to return to Judea. The apostles cannot believe it. During the Feast of the Dedication, some Jews in the temple picked up stones because Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.”  They wanted to kill him for blasphemy.  And here the crazy man wants to walk right back into the net of their accusations. First, he sharpens a stick and aggravates the brood of vipers, and now he plans to stick his hand in their nest.

They glance at one another, shrug, and bend to pack up their waterskins. Jesus watches how slowly they move.  “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” he says.  “If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

Thanks, Jesus, they mutter. Thanks for clearing everything up. Our fears are assuaged, and our bones are ready to receive the shock of Mosaic justice.  “The man’s a genius,” Peter thinks, “the Son of God Messiah.  But why does he always talk in code?”

Now here Jesus is saying they are going to awaken Lazarus out of sleep. Why travel all the way to Bethany to interrupt a man’s rest?  Confusion ensues. Jesus tells them to put down their water skins and cloaks, and he says, “Lazarus is dead.” Oh, they say, then why did you say he was asleep?  Jesus’ face spreads into his quiet smile, the one mourning their incomprehension but rejoicing at their simplicity.  He is silent for a moment then says, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.” He stands up. “Let us go to him.” Enough chitter-chatter. You’ll understand when we get there. You’ll see what I mean when you see what I do.  They follow, kicking rocks.

Thomas lets Jesus get far enough ahead then calls a huddle, as though Jesus were unaware that people always coalesced into groups as soon as he turned his back-not always to plot his destruction but sometimes to feel camaraderie, to agree amongst friends that Jesus’ words are difficult to understand. They want to understand.  Jesus speaks word whose meanings they know, but they seem to be arranged into another language.

Thomas questions the rest. They all shake their heads, No, we have no idea what he is talking about.  Thomas furrows his brow but resolves, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.”  We all must die someday, he thinks, and what a way to go. Going down in glory, becoming legend amongst comrades, dying that the Rabbi might be saved. Their eyes share the shrewd squint now of secret purpose. They march after Jesus, nervous but determined. They are men, after all, and willing to die for a worthy cause.

In Bethany, Jesus learns that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. Martha comes out to meet Jesus.  Should she walk down the road toward him and hold her tongue?  Should she summon her strength and assume a stoic resolve?  She can see the wrinkles from squinting radiate from the corners of his eyes.  She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” while she thinks, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Lord, it is your fault. Lord, you are directly responsible. My brother, your friend, is rotting in a tomb up there in a cave in the hills, because, for all your metaphysical posturing, the fact is you simply did not come. You did not show up when we needed you most.”

Jesus replies to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha feels her frustration and grief, the fermenting emotions of the past week, about to burst her resolve like new wine in old wineskins.  She chokes out, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus puts a hand on each of her shoulders.  His eyes are wet.  Dust swirls around them. The disciples close around to listen.  She wishes they would leave.  Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Fly, Man, Soil, Girl

February 24, 2009

Two foxes from yesterday:

· A dead house fly on the sidewalk, his abdomen a lacquered black and his legs sprouting from it like tiny, crooked weeds. How did that fly survive so long in the cold? Where did he come from? Why did he catch my attention?

· An older homeless man with the heebies jeebies. By heebies jeebies, I mean his body was gyrating and twitching as he was walking south on Broadway. I’ve seen him before. Summer or winter, he is always wearing the same clothes—a long-sleeved blue button-up shirt tucked into dark slacks. Black leather shoes. He has charcoal skin, and his hair is gray wool. The way he’s dressed, you might think he was going to make a deposit at his bank, but if you watch him, you will think immediately, “He’s not right. There’s something wrong with him.” He gesticulates, throwing an arm into the air as if to punctuate the climax of an oration. He quivers, and his head jerks to one side. His flesh always seems to be moving. Something tortures him, writhes inside of him. He reminds me that scripture talks about demons. I want to pick him up and carry him somewhere safe. I feel my powerlessness every time I see him. Once, I walked right past him, huddled underneath an awning at Three Rivers Market, his shirt soaked to a dark blue, rain coursing down his face. He held his thin body and

doorway1shivered, and I wonder, What is God’s answer to the question of this bankrupt soul? What is my answer to that, my own question? I am not the Good Samaritan, but I want to be.

Two foxes from today:

· Workmen on Market Square came with tillers and churned the pale, withered grass and packed earth into a rich brown. Spring is coming, and I feel my spirit rise like sap.

· A yellow school bus held up the right lane of traffic as it stopped in front of Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries. A slender girl ran off the bus into the arms of her older sister. I’d never thought about that: homeless families with children who go to school and when their classmates ask, they have to say they live at KARM. They have to say that they’re homeless. I ask God, “Why are children homeless?” knowing that He may never answer. I may never understand, yet I believe that the Father desires that I ask and still trust His Goodness. Mysteries of Mysteries. Lord, please come lift that girl and her family out of poverty. How can I participate in your works of redemption here and now?

Dirty, white sweatshirt

February 19, 2009

I was driving down Broadway yesterday. I’d eaten lunch at home and was returning to the office. A drizzle had fallen all day, one of those days when I don’t mind working because the weather is nasty.

A man and woman were walking across the bridge where Broad arches above the railroad tracks. Each was carrying a black plastic bag in one hand. The man was closest to the road. He was black. His left cheek was swollen, and he had a purplish bruise underneath his eye. Somebody must have punched him.

She was white and pudgy with curly blond hair down to her shoulders. She was wearing a dirty white sweatshirt.

They were smiling. They were holding hands. The pair didn’t seem to notice the damp or the overcast sky or people’s pity or disgust as they drove by. 

The outcasts of our society. Chances are, they suffer from addiction, mental illness, poverty, or a combination of the three. They can carry all their belongings in one hand. Yet, they offer one another a simple token of intimacy. Love finds us all. 

I could be one of them. I was one of them, at least in the existential sense. We’re all searching for a home. We all want to find love. Their affection gives me hope for all of us.

I want to participate. Here I am. Send me.