Beautiful One

In my mind, I hold a blurry picture of my Savior’s form. Always before me, it appears as the synthesis of every image I’ve ever known. Every painting. Every cinematic portrayal. Every person who has ever inspired the resounding of His name within my heart. No matter what subtle differences there may be in how we each perceive Him, we tend to imagine the same basic features. Cascading dark hair. Olive skin. A face shining brighter than the first light of morning. We see His youth, and above all else—we see His beauty.

Yet, it occurs to me that, in all of Scripture, there is really only one passage that describes Him physically. It is a prophetic passage written, ironically, a great many years before He was born. It is incredibly poignant, and every time I read it, it makes me wonder all the more. “My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.” (Isaiah 53:2-3, NLT)

Reading that will surely leave us with a much different picture in our minds than the one we’ve dreamt of on our own. It has to. And isn’t it just our way? Isn’t it just our way to assume that He must’ve been outwardly beautiful, given the truth of who He was? And wouldn’t it have been just His way to purposely veil Himself within a shroud of ugliness—if only to test our hearts? I think so. It reminds me of a fairytale.

But it’s not an easy idea for us to accept. The poison in our humanity won’t let us accept it. For us to do so, we must be in sync with God—joining ourselves to Him in body, mind, and spirit. For, only then shall we see as He sees. Only then shall we envisage true beauty. His beauty.

Don’t Cling to Me

It might be kind of late for an Easter post, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Jesus’ exchange with Mary Magdalene as they stand alone by His tomb on that morning is one of those simple passages in Scripture that has always haunted and puzzled me. I’ve never really liked it, and I’ve even found myself wishing that I could rewrite the scene—to make it more tender somehow.

On the surface, it just seems so cold. There she is, already lost in grief at the death of  the Man she loves. And that grief has just been made far worse for her upon her realization that she can no longer have the comfort of even drawing near to His body—because someone has apparently stolen it. Then, as she starts to cry, a stranger appears—invading her privacy and even asking her why she’s crying. That, alone, must have been so awful for her. But then, this stranger finally allows her to see him for who he truly is, and in her love and elation, she runs into His arms! She runs into His arms as He tries to hold her back. “Don’t cling to me,” he harshly admonishes, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17, NLT). And that’s basically all that’s been written to describe the encounter between the two of them. The conversation comes to an abrupt halt. Then, He goes His way and she goes hers—back to tell the others what has just happened.

I don’t know. Maybe this is just me trying desperately to ease the discomfort I’ve always felt upon reading this—but I thought of something recently that I hadn’t considered before. This was probably the last time that Jesus ever felt Mary’s embrace—as a human being—before returning to God. In the Old Testament, we read all the time about how perilous it was for a human being to even see God’s face. But, for thirty-three fleeting years, God, Himself, was a human being. Not only could He come close enough to His creation to let them see Him, but He could actually touch them. Hold them. Kiss them—without causing them to die! For thirty-three years, He was able to be on their level, and to express affection for them in a way that they could understand. And He could feel their affection for Him, too—not just as God, but as man. He could feel their affection as His divinity lay ensconced in flesh and blood.

Mary Magdalene was no exception to this. Chances are, she probably enhanced the experience for Him—because He’d known her so personally throughout His time on earth. So, He awakes from His death, knowing that He cannot stay—that He has to leave His humanity in order for His Spirit to, at last, indwell the ones He loves. Knowing this, He comes upon her as she weeps at the tomb. And maybe the sight of her compels Him to reveal Himself—because He can’t bear to watch her cry. But when she goes to touch Him, He immediately relents. He feels the warmth of her flesh upon His. He feels the caress of her hands as she reaches up to touch His hair, and in that moment, just maybe—He can’t find the will to leave her. He knows He won’t be able to experience this again until He comes for her a second time, so instead of holding on, He pushes her away. He pushes her away because He loves her so much—and because it’s just too hard to say goodbye.

Like I said, I don’t know. I’m sure there are lots of other theories as to why Jesus reacted to Mary’s touch in the way that He did. As I pondered the question in my mind, this is just what came to me—as I felt the tears springing forth from my eyes.

When the Time Comes

The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was about thirty years old when his ministry began, and little else is recorded about those first thirty years. We know some things about the circumstances surrounding his conception and birth. We know that he spent a part of his early childhood living in Egypt, due to King Herod’s designs on his life. We know that his parents lost him in Jerusalem for three days when he was twelve, and we also know that he studied and practiced carpentry prior to his baptism. What remains beyond those things is mostly left to our imaginations, and I guess, in a way, that’s kind of nice.

I’ve always liked to imagine his life being simple—unremarkable to those with no wisdom of his true identity. I can picture him growing up with his brothers and sisters, making friends, and maybe even falling in love. I can see him going to school and learning the family trade. I can see him coming of age beautifully amid the joys and sorrows of daily life. But I think the hardest thing for me to imagine is the way in which, at some point, he must’ve begun to realize God’s plan for himself. How hard must it have been for him to discover how different he was from the people around him? How hard must it have been for him to discover who he was —and the reason why he’d been born? Did it happen slowly, across time and experience, or did he have some great, defining moment that led him to the revelation? We don’t know. But we do know that he eventually came of age. We can sense the separation between life as he’d known it and life as it began for him in his thirtieth year—as though everything that had come before were building to it all along.

Maybe we all have a separation like that; maybe not. But if we are willing to yield ourselves to God with each breath we take, how can we help fulfilling his plan? How can we help growing up beautifully?

Walk with Me

This will probably be one of my shorter posts. I have something to share, but for those who will receive it, I’ll spare the personal details and focus on the simple truth. I have often heard the testimonies of other people who speak profusely of the joy they feel in knowing that God guides their steps. God has given me joy throughout my life, but only in these recent days have I finally begun to understand this particular joy. I’ve come to recognize the difference between walking in my own will and walking in His. And this difference might seem pretty basic in a logical sense, but it’s not just about what we can perceive intellectually—it’s about what we can experience.

Regrettably, I’ve chosen to walk within my own will throughout the vast majority of the precious time I’ve been given on this earth. In consequence of that choice, I’ve experienced a lot of strife. I’ve been victimized by fear, I’ve stumbled in frustration and resentment, and I’ve grieved in terrible heartache. I’ve spent so much energy trying to break down the wrong doors and wondering why they won’t just open, when, all the while, He has been waiting for me to take His hand—wanting so much to lead me down the path He cleared for me long ago.

At a certain point, I hope we all become broken enough of our own stubbornness to finally take His hand, because when we do, we will all know what it is to experience miracles. We will see our fear give way to trust, our frustration yield to peace, and our heartache transform into the most wonderful joy—a joy born of love experienced both from and for our beautiful Creator.

We have a God who cares for us, I think, far more than we have the capacity to understand. The desire of His heart is to make us whole—to provide for us and keep us safe so that we’ll never have to know the pain of being without Him. “Look at the lilies and how they grow,” Jesus said. “They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are (Matthew 6:28-29, NLT).”

I have felt the hand of my God as He lovingly adorns me with all that I need for my warmth. In spite of every false security the world has ever seduced me with, that Hand is what I’m thankful for.

Thoughts of Heaven

I had a conversation with a friend recently that prompted me to think about heaven. It occurred to me that if I were to ask a group of people to describe heaven, each person would probably have something unique to say—something personal that might give me an idea of what matters most to him or her. It can be a mystifying thing for us to envision, and unfortunately it can sometimes be used as a means of coercion as well. We may be told that unless we follow a precise set of rules, we’ll be denied entrance into this beautiful place and forced to endure unimaginable terror. This was a part of the elementary view of heaven that I had as a child. Heaven was the place we went to if we were good in this life, and hell was the place we went to if we were bad. As a Christian, more specifically, heaven was the place we went to if we believed the testimony of the gospels, and hell was the place we went to if we didn’t.

With so many different kinds of spirituality in the world—so many ideas that promote goodness outside of Christianity—many of us feel an attraction toward ambiguity about our beliefs. We’d rather agree with any philosophy that endorses peace and kindness than stand behind the tenets of one religion that compels us to look down at other people and declare them condemned. It’s natural for us to feel this way. After all, it’s not our place to condemn anyone.

When I look back upon my life up to this point, I realize that I wasn’t completely brought up to be a Christian. My parents were never very spiritual, and they didn’t make us go to church, but they didn’t discourage it, either. They wanted us to make up our own minds, and I will always respect them for that. Nevertheless, I did eventually decide that I wanted to become a Christian, and the more I came to understand what, exactly, that meant, the more passionately I wanted it. It’s probably most common to think of Christianity as a religion, but to me, it wasn’t a religion at all. It was a relationship. And I was in love. From the moment I first came to know Jesus of Nazareth, I was so completely in love. How could I not desire a relationship with Him? Creator of my life. Lover of my life. Life itself. This is who He is. And if He is all these things, then He must be Heaven, too. That’s the truth my heart came to understand. When I think of heaven, I don’t see a kingdom with pearly gates and angels playing harps on white clouds. I see Him. I see myself wrapped up in Him forever. And when I think of hell, I don’t see a torture chamber made of fire and brimstone. I see myself parted eternally from the One I love. It breaks my heart to think of all the people who don’t understand it this way.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said a prayer for every one of us who would ever believe in Him—every one of us who would ever belong to Him. “I have given them the glory you gave me,” He said, “so that they may be one, as we are— I in them and you in me, all being perfected into one (John 17:22-23, NLT).” That’s what heaven is. Oneness. Intimacy. I knew that in the beginning of my conversion, and I know it now. I pray that I’ll know it always, no matter how the world tries to sway me. I know who He is. I know who I am. And His heaven is the only one I’ll ever want—because no other heaven will ever give me Him.

 

Speak In Me

I often wonder these days, in the midst of my conversations with other people, if I’ve ever truly allowed God to speak through me. There are moments when an opportunity will present itself—a precious opportunity where I can actually be the vessel through which God reaches out to someone else whom He loves. Sometimes, I only recognize these opportunities after they’ve passed. At other times, I’m completely aware of them as they’re put in front of me, but my fear will cause me to shrink from them. And then, there are those times when I find myself emboldened enough to say His name. I’ll reference His words and try with all my might to influence someone for the better. But even in those times, I’ll be unsure. Was it really Him speaking, or was I merely attempting to speak for Him? If it really was Him, then why did I have to try so hard? Why didn’t the words just come?

When God first appeared to Moses, He asked him to go and speak to the Egyptian king. Moses was terrified, and the Bible says that he pleaded with God. “O Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after you have spoken to me. I’m clumsy with words.” But in response to this, God said, “Who makes mouths? …Who makes people so they can speak or not speak, hear or not hear, see or not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and do as I have told you. I will help you speak well, and I will tell you what to say (Exodus 4:10-12, NLT).” The Bible is full of events and assurances such as this one. In the book of Acts, Luke records that the Holy Spirit rendered believers capable of speaking in foreign languages. “And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other tongues, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability. Godly Jews from many nations were living in Jerusalem at that time. When they heard this sound, they came running to see what it was all about, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. They were beside themselves with wonder. ‘How can this be?’ they exclaimed. These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking the languages of the lands where we were born! (Acts 2:4-8, NLT).”

I studied Spanish for a total of four years, and I can promise you that I am nowhere near fluent. In fact, it’s been so long since I last opened those textbooks that what elementary knowledge I gained is, by now, locked away in such an obscure part of my memory that it would be quite challenging to recall it. Learning a foreign language is hard work—but the  people Luke mentions in Acts spoke many languages all at once, and seemingly without effort. They were able to do this because it wasn’t really them speaking at all. It was the Spirit of God speaking through them. I’ve heard other stories like this. Though they aren’t recorded in Scripture, they are just as real, and they make me ache to experience them myself. Someone told me recently that when he was in college, he heard God asking him to go into the gym, where he would find someone alone on the basketball court. When he saw this person, he was supposed to talk to him about Jesus. Anxious though he was, he went into the gym, found the person he was looking for (they had never met), and told him what he’d heard God say. Then, he watched as this other person began to stare at him, with eyes and mouth wide open, before finally saying that he’d prayed the night before for someone to come and talk to him about Jesus. An experience like that can leave no doubt of when we are being led by God. But what about the others? What about those more obvious moments when a conversation seems to leave an opening for God to enter in?

When I recognize those openings and make the choice to say His name, I wish I could know what’s happening within the people I’m speaking to. Can they hear Him, or can they hear only me? Is my voice overshadowing His because I’m choosing to speak on my own, or has He reached them in spite of me? I don’t ask this because I want some feeling of success for myself. I ask this because I want Him with me. Whenever I speak, I want Him to be the one to guide my tongue, because I know that wherever He is, I’m safe. And if I know He speaks through me, then I know He’s where I always need Him to be—inside of me wherever I go.

 

Fisher of Men

Have you ever considered the obstacles that Peter must’ve faced in fulfilling Jesus’ desire to make him a “fisher of men?” I don’t know nearly enough about 1st Century culture to be able to comment on the specific challenges of doing so. I don’t know very much about fishing, either, but I do know that catching a fish seems to require some kind of bait. The fish has to be presented with something to which it is attracted in order to ultimately become ensnared. Having been an expert fisherman prior to knowing Jesus, maybe Peter drew upon this knowledge in his attempt to become the fisherman he was truly meant to be—but how can we apply it today?

Obviously, it takes something a little different than a worm on a hook to capture a man—especially in the way that Jesus has in mind. Far more than just a physical capture, Jesus aims for a spiritual capture—a capture of the heart and mind that transcends the physical world in its entirety. Such a capture often requires the presentation not of a physical thing, but rather the presentation of an idea to which someone may be attracted. The cultural acceptance of an idea has a tendency to be very fleeting. An idea that was widely accepted two-thousand years ago—or even less than a hundred years ago—might be considered today to be old-fashioned, backwards, or offensive. So, the obstacles to capturing someone’s heart are constantly changing. Thankfully, though, Jesus Himself, remains as He’s always been.

The sad fact is that there are all kinds of fishermen out there, competing with God for our hearts. Some even claim to be in league with God, although the messages they propagate stand in complete opposition to what Jesus taught. They tell us what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear—granting us the “freedom” to live on our terms rather than presenting the true life our Creator longs to give us. We live in a culture today where self-love appears to be more highly esteemed than sacrificial love. We’re told that we have the right to be happy, even if we have to hurt someone else in the process of becoming so. And in the bounds of our fallen nature, this is a very liberating idea—far more attractive to us than Jesus’ assertion that one must lay down his life in order to express love in its highest form.

I don’t know about you, but this assertion on Jesus’ part has always put me to shame. It has put me to shame, in part, because I know it’s true, and also because I know that apart from intense intimacy with God, I will never be capable of such love. So, how is a “fisher of men” supposed to lure people to God with such a bitter bait, especially in a culture with so many competing fishermen who are presenting a bait much easier for us to swallow? It might be very challenging to convince someone that denying himself would prove more gratifying than indulging himself, but it might not be so difficult to convince him of the satisfaction that comes from intense intimacy with his Creator. Maybe that’s the key.

We all try so hard to fill this mysterious void in our lives. We think that if we had more money, or nicer things, or more attractive physical features, or more value in the eyes of other people that this void would finally be filled, and the competing fishermen in this world will reinforce such erroneous ideas when the truth is that God is the only Person with the power to fill this void—because He made us with the need to be one with Him. When we finally understand the extent of His power over us in conjunction with the depth of His love for us, we will ultimately come to understand not only that we have no rights outside of His will, but that we never want to do anything displeasing to Him ever again—because we love Him, too. In loving Him, we will want to submit to His commands, even when it’s hard. We will want to surrender our lives to His purpose no matter how far away from Him the tide of public opinion will seek to carry us. We will know that our union with Him is the only thing that matters, because He—the God of love and Love itself—has captured us.