Out of Many, One

The book of John contains a prayer that Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane—on the night he was arrested. I know I’ve probably quoted from it before because I just love it so much. Granted, the one we know as “The Lord’s Prayer” has always been the more famous, but this one is definitely the more heart-wrenching. It came from his tortured heart rather than his desire to teach his followers how to pray, and for that reason, it has always been my favorite.

In his great hour of need, he pours himself out to his Father, and incredibly, he thinks of us. Toward the end of this touching entreaty, he says: “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me because of their testimony. My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father—that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are—I in them and you in me, all being perfected into one (John 17:20-23, NLT).”

In reading this prayer, perhaps God’s original design for us can become more apparent. It helps us to see the truth more clearly—because despite the division we see among us, the truth is that we were meant to be one. Each time I pass a stranger on the street, I think of it. Every human life that has ever been or shall ever be, from every race and every place, is a piece of myself that’s gone missing. No matter the fear or confusion this world casts upon me all the time, deep in my soul, I know this truth. Difficult though it is to believe, there once was a time—in this world—when God truly had His way with us. We knew Him. He was with us—and we were together. But that was before the Fall—before we used His gift of free will against Him. For one brief, resplendent moment, we were as a shining window of stained glass. A vibrant and beautiful work of art, all telling the same story—reflecting the glory of our wonderful Creator. But then, we touched forbidden fruit and ever since, we’ve never been as we ought to be. We’re like jagged pieces of broken glass that only He can make whole again.

It’s hard enough to experience this brokenness in the world at large. It makes us fearful and it makes us hateful—because we can’t recognize each other anymore. We can’t recognize ourselves in each other anymore. Jesus said that the world would hate anyone who belonged to him. So, that much, I suppose we should expect. But what no one ever seems to want to address is the brokenness within the Church—his own body. We’ve all experienced it, and at worst, it has caused us to actually renounce the Church. But how can this be, since in so doing, we renounce ourselves?

We create denominations because we don’t know how to reconcile our differing perspectives over doctrine. We become prideful and competitive with each other, as though our life in Christ were some cosmic race to be won. We stubbornly hold to deep convictions over things that probably don’t matter that much, while grossly compromising with the world on the things that matter most. And if this claim is confusing to those of you who will read this, here are some examples from my own life. My grandmother attended a congregation where they took communion on a weekly basis, and their reason for doing so was simple. Jesus gave a simple command. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Period. He didn’t actually say “Do this once every seven days”, or “once a month”, or “once every season” or “once a year on the anniversary of this night.” No specification appears to have been given regarding the frequency with which we are supposed to take communion. The denomination that my grandmother’s congregation was affiliated with prided itself on being, quote, “the church of the Bible.” They scrutinized every detail they knew about the early Church and endeavored to replicate it entirely. Since Jesus gave no specification regarding the frequency with which to take communion, they reasoned that it was better to err on the side of caution and to take it every time they met. To me, this always seemed logical enough, and I saw absolutely nothing wrong with it. As I got older and had more opportunities to attend congregations outside of this one, I eventually discovered, of course, that not all congregations adhered to this same tradition. Some took communion once a month, some seemingly every six months, or particularly around the holidays, etc, etc. I might have seen absolutely nothing wrong with this, either. But unfortunately, the party line of my grandmother’s denomination was that “we alone are the church of the Bible.” They held very deep convictions about every facet of their tradition, and they actually believed themselves to be the only ones who were truly obedient to the teachings of Jesus. So, among other things, they had a big problem with anyone who said it was okay to take communion less than once a week. They harshly alienated any and all other groups of believers who held to a different standard on the issue—and I see now how completely tragic that was. It was really no different that the pervasive attitude of the religious elite in Jesus’ time. They cared so much about the letter of the law that they neglected the spirit of the law,  and I can only pray that they see their mistake.

On the other end of this spectrum lies the rising tide of our increasingly ambiguous world culture, which demands acceptance of all points of view, religious, or otherwise, as equally true and valid. On the surface, it seems to be the the only way to live anymore. If we want to live in peace with everyone—and if we really want to demonstrate the love of Christ—we must first surrender any convictions we have about him. This wave of confusion is poised to crush and drown his Church—and not even we can see it coming! I’ve actually known fellow Christians who have said to me that while they believe Jesus to be the Son of God, they no longer believe that he is the only way to lasting life and salvation. After all, there are just too many other cultures and religions out there, and what kind of a closed-minded, judgmental bigot would I be if I actually suggested that he were the one true God? I cannot express in words how utterly heartbreaking such things are to hear. We are supposed to be his body. His body. No one else’s. And what is to become of us if we bind ourselves to another, when we belong to him? What is to become of the world if we are too frightened to teach others about him? And how are we ever to have our brokenness mended without crying out to him in longing? Jesus! You are the only one I want and the only one who can save me! Please, come. I beg you!

We must never let the darkness use our desire to emanate love by tricking us into forsaking Love. For, without Love there is no love! We can’t even begin to know what love is until we know Him.

 

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The Nature Within

“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15, NLT). I find myself captivated by this verse. I identify with it, and I think that in some way, there has never been a more compelling piece of evidence for the skeptic than the experience of it. If we were able to peer into each other’s minds, we might discover, perhaps comfortingly, that we have all experienced this—often, on a seemingly incessant basis. In the absence of Truth, how could we even begin to explain this phenomenon—this thing that Christians call sin?

Even in knowing, there isn’t much comfort. More likely, there are only intensified feelings of  frustration, self-loathing, and shame. And if we experience those things often enough, we might eventually come to the place where we start to rage, not against the destructive patterns that caused such feelings, but against the feelings, themselves. Sick and tired of trying to squeeze ourselves into a mold that we clearly aren’t meant for, we might ultimately choose to embrace the patterns in our lives that had previously caused so much stress. Unapologetically, we declare that this is who we are, and at once, the striving ceases. We might even be praised for our courage and determination to love ourselves, as waves of calm wash over us.

The problem is that in doing so, we sell ourselves short. We surrender to the distorted version of us that sin created, rather than continuing to reach for the hand of the beautiful God who can remake us all into what we were truly meant to be. This is exactly what Satan wants, and every time we choose it, we play right into his hands.

The verse I quoted was not the end of Paul’s musing on the subject. For, beginning in verse 21 of the same chapter, he writes:

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord… ~Romans 7:21-25, NLT

It’s never going to be easy. It’s war. But if the apostle, Paul, who devoutly led the early Church at the time of this writing, was not exempt from this conflict, then we won’t be, either. It’s normal. And the comforting part about it is that it’s not for us to end. We are absolved of that responsibility. All we have to do is keep reaching for Him, and He is sure to carry us the rest of the way. He loves us, and if there is one fundamental truth that we can never afford to let sin take from our awareness, surely it is this.

 

 

 

 

Render unto Me

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about milestones. More honestly, though, I’ve been feeling quite accosted by them. Maybe it’s the stress of having turned 30—and of truly realizing for the very first time just how rapidly my life is flying by. I’ve come to a point where I’m beginning to feel a tremendous amount of pressure to attain certain things that didn’t seem so important not long ago. Should my husband and I buy a house soon? Should we have a baby? It used to seem like we had all the time in the world to figure things out, and now suddenly, it’s as though we’re racing the clock. A mortgage will take another 30 years to pay off—meaning that, if we literally bought a house within the next 24 hours, we’d be 60 years old by the time we finally finished paying for it. The typical retirement age is about 65, so we definitely don’t want to still be in debt by the time we get there! Likewise, a baby will take 18 years to raise—meaning that if we had one right this second, we’d be 49 years old by the time he or she graduated from high school. Not to mention, I’ve already heard plenty of things about how risky it can be for a woman to conceive past the age of 35—leaving us less than five years to safely consider this incredibly life-altering choice. Seriously? It was 2012 the last time I blinked!

Everywhere we turn, it seems like we are constantly striving to hit that next milestone and to attain the status that our world demands of us at every crucial fork in the road. Five years ago, it might have been marriage. Five years before that, it might have been a career. And we’ve just kept forging on—always goal-oriented and never truly satisfied with being exactly where we are. It’s just the way life works—but oh, is it ever exhausting! And when I stop to think about it, I understand how futile it is. I realize how much time I’ve spent wishing my life away and focusing so much of my attention on the pursuit of things that can never last. In that moment of truth, everything stops. And the only thing I want is to follow His voice.

Our Savior never troubled Himself with the pursuit of such milestones. Career? He was born into a caste system with His occupation chosen for Him before He could take His first steps. Marriage? Although this has been an issue of some debate, the general consensus seems to be that He never hit that target, either—which means the prospect of having children probably never entered His mind. And I’m fairly certain that He never owned property. He lived with His parents until He was thirty years old and basically spent the rest of His life being homeless. Yet, what a beautiful life it was—the most beautiful life that has ever been and ever will be.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for us to want all those other things. But why should we define the value our lives by whether or not we attain any of them? Why should we consider so essential that which He never experienced? Is it not enough just to live every day as He did—giving ourselves completely to God and being thankful for anything He chooses either to grant or deny us (in His timing, not ours)?

Above all things, He would have us remember that our lives are not our own. On the temple grounds in Jerusalem, He once rebuked our thoughtlessness this way: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God” (Luke 20:25, NLT). In the context of our modern world, I can hear Him saying the exact same thing. No matter what anybody else says about what we should or shouldn’t be doing—about what’s important and what is not—His image is the only one we bear. We belong to Him. So, we shouldn’t consider ourselves at liberty to be led by anything else. We shouldn’t waste another precious moment.

 

 

 

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.