“Oh, that I might have my request, and that God would grant me the thing that I long for.” –Job 6:8
I used to write a lot of poetry. Back when I was young, and single, and unfettered by daily cares, my prayers often took the form of verse. Some were even fitted to music.
I don’t often feel the poetic muse anymore.
But today, as I read Job, and considered how God has worked in my life over the last few years, the muse struck. It struck rather hard. Portland has some lovely, secluded spots just asking for deep contemplation and prayer…
I wait for You, so quietly,
Amid the babbling brooks and rustling trees.
The air is still, the sun is calm,
And in this place I know You’ll come
And offer balm that heals my weary soul
And speak the words that mend and make my spirit whole…
In my few moments of free time, I’ve invested quite a bit of money and effort in researching my family tree (you can read more about that in my last blog post).
I got my saliva analyzed…
…and spent hours reconstructing what is now several hundred years of ancestors, thanks to the good folks at Ancestry.com.
I have so enjoyed reading different stories that different distant relatives have put in the files of shared ancestors, watching how the different branches of this tree migrated from various countries to the United States and then across this country, and really just discovering how I came to be.
But my favorite part?
Pictures. Pictures that show the miracle that we call genetics.
This is my paternal grandmother, Bubby Hannah…
…and this is her mother, Bubby Pauline (yes, I’m Jewish).
And here’s me:
Perky nose, high cheekbones, Cupid’s Bow lips, widow’s peak and pointed jawline…it’s all there. I am their spit and image. But it’s not just physical; my Aunt Diane, Dad’s younger sister, frequently tells me that I remind her of her mother not just in appearance, but in personality and life. She was a violinist who worked with at-risk youth at the Jewish youth center in the Bronx. I’m a pianist and choir teacher who has been a social worker and teacher most of her life, working with at-risk youth in multiple communities.
Not only am I the offspring and image of my forbears, but my very life creates an image of them and recalls their memory for others. It really is quite fascinating. This apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree…
…and this apple easily identifies the tree from which it fell.
When I was put on the calendar to preach today, I turned to the assigned Scripture lessons and read the following:
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor[a] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31, NRSV)
And what caught my eye? We too are his offspring.
What does that mean, to be God’s offspring? To understand that, we have to go to ancient Athens, where Paul spoke these amazing words.
Ancient Athens was, much like our own society today, a polyglot of religious and cultural diversity. Ancient Greeks were generally polytheistic, believing in a variety of gods and goddesses. Their observances were similar to ours:
They met for corporate worship on designated days;
They expressed gratitude for blessings;
They asked for blessings;
They gave gifts to their sanctuary.
But there was one great difference. Christians understand God to be the ultimate source of love. We rely on His love to drive the relationship we have with Him.
The ancient Greeks, however, understood the deities differently.
In Greek mythology, the gods didn’t love humans. They were fickle, subject to the same emotions and responses and poor judgment that we, as mortals, experience every day. So, rather than worship being a loving response to a loving Heavenly Father, worship for them was a way to curry favor and avoid offense. And Paul acknowledges that. In the King James Version, he calls them “too superstitious”:
Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God.
In the Greek mind, that altar was necessary to avoid angering a god they may have missed. And Paul uses that paradigm, that superstition, to introduce them to the truth. He even goes so far to use their own poet/philosopher, Aratus, to address their practice of idolatry:
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring.
Amazing…if we substitute “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “the LORD” for “Zeus”? It might sound a lot like something King David might have written…
So, if we come from God – if indeed we are His offspring – then how can anything we make ourselves be God? Their idols of gold and silver and stone were just that – idols – with no life or power or love.
We know, from our reading of Genesis, that we indeed are formed in the very shape and likeness and image of God, and as such, we are capable, even now, of very God-like things. We have the capacity for doing great good in the world, for being creative and innovative and loving and merciful. We look so much like our Father, we are destined to be like Him. Jesus Christ, who was the spit and image of the Father, even said,
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12, NRSV)
We are God’s offspring, meant to look and act and love and give and be like Him.
But unfortunately, it’s far too rare.
In the culture of religious and philosophical diversity that we call home, how often do onlookers watch us and have created for them an image of that “unknown God” that is absolutely counter to the truth of who God is? How many people look at those who have been baptized into Christ’s body and see:
Add your own here…
Because, although we can’t create God, just as we are created in His image, we create an image of Him for others. What they see in us, they believe God to be – and that belief could be the fulcrum, the essential factor, in their choice to follow, or not to follow, to reject or to accept, the Gospel.
Our great example is the Savior, Jesus Christ. He was the image of God for us. And as we emulate His life, we can be the true image of God for others.
So, are we, as baptized followers of Jesus Christ, as those who have dared to take on His name, His identity, and His mission, living lives that show the true identity of the “Unknown God”? Or are we confusing the issue?
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
My prayer is that this apple will lead people to the Tree of Life.
It’s that time of year again…that time when mothers are celebrated and gushed over and sent flowers and chocolates and cards and Facebook GIFs and, if they’re lucky, get breakfast in bed and have the house cleaned for them by someone else.
I generally don’t get any of those; I am one of the non-traditional, alternative-type mothers: step- of three…
…adoptive- of one (who was a senior in high school when he joined our family)…
…and foster, for a brief time, to my nephew.
I haven’t birthed any babies; in fact, if I had to accurately describe myself, it would be like, “I’m not really the ‘mom’ type”. Not that I don’t nurture and love and get all gooey over babies and children…I just prefer that said babies and children belong to someone else. I actually love kids! It possibly explains my draw to helping children in other ways; I’ve been a youth pastor and a social worker, and am still in contact with many of my former church and foster youth. Now I’m a teacher. No one can tell me that teaching isn’t a maternal sort of vocation…
And I’m a granny now, too…I see my my grandkids, who live about 2 hours away, a few times a year, and that’s pretty sufficient to get my quota of hugs and kisses and then they go home and I have my house back. It works.
Now, with that lengthy introduction, I have to say that this post is NOT about why I’m as much of a mother as any other mother; I resolved that issue years ago and am quite comfortable with how my journey has turned out. I don’t get weepy on Mother’s Day and wish for cards and chocolates and breakfast in bed.
This post is about this daughter and her mother.
My mom and I have struggled over the years. Really struggled. I come from a long line of abuse; not intentional abuse, but abuse that happens when people get damaged, and thus marry damaged people, and thus create damaged people. I was very damaged growing up, and we didn’t talk about it. Talking about it might incur blame on someone, and there’s no way anyone was healthy enough to accept responsibility for the dysfunction enough to make conscious changes.
That damage leaked into my own marriage and my own attempts at parenting (already challenged by the step- issue).
That damage has impacted and shaped every decision and every turn I have made in my life.
That damage has caused, among other things, a long personal history of never really feeling connected to anyone or anything, a feeling of being rather “tribeless”. As a kid, I never felt like I belonged in my family. Holiday meals where my mom and her sisters and my grandparents and all the cousins gathered? I dreaded them, and tried really hard to hide in a corner with a book.
I left my hometown when I was 20 and didn’t look back. I’ve been back to Yakima, Washington, enough times to count on one hand since then.
I don’t have close sibling relationships. I haven’t seen my brother in 11 years. I hadn’t seen my sister in 8 years; we did, finally, meet for lunch last year. And contact with my mother has been rare and occasional since 2006.
I chat with one cousin, occasionally, on Facebook.
I’ve struggled with that lack of connection with my husband and his family; the fact that I’ve remained married for nearly 20 years is absolutely miraculous; it must be a God thing.
About a year-and-a-half ago, as I was undergoing intense spiritual work, I felt a deep urging, though, to make peace with my mother. To my clinically trained mind, that meant arranging long, therapeutic conversations about wrongs experienced, boundaries being laid out, and forcing the revisiting of things long past. It made sense to me; one can’t forgive unless the offending party admits guilt, right? And I felt there were so many things that needed to be redressed.
I had the opportunity to go to Portland for a conference last summer. My mom drove 5 hours just to have lunch with me. As I was driving to the restaurant, I started rehearsing everything I was going to say, and my anxiety grew and grew and grew. Then, right before I got out of the car, the Holy Spirit spoke, loud and clear:
“Just LOVE her.”
That was the first time I’d seen my mom in several years, and I nearly cried when we met. I was nervous, and felt awkward, but I started seeing her through new eyes that day.
This was a woman who had survived – a lot. My dad was mentally ill and terribly unstable; she kept their marriage together until he died and functioned very much like a single parent, before and after his death.
This was a woman who had sacrificed – a lot. One example: for five years she squirreled away grocery money so that she could finally buy me a piano when I was 14. That gift changed my life and really set me on my path towards discovering my purpose.
This was the woman who had successfully brought me, and two others, into this world, and had done her very best to guide us into adulthood.
This was the woman who introduced me to my Heavenly Father, and who taught me from before birth to love His Son, my Savior, Jesus Christ, and to follow Him no matter what. When I was away at summer camp, and after I left home, her letters to me always ended with, “Remember who you are, and whose you are.”
As I looked through that new lens, all the wrongs – wrongs not imagined, wrongs very much real and visited multiple times in multiple therapy sessions – suddenly became not so important. And that burden, the burden of finding my own sense of justice – fell off my shoulders. Forgiveness happened. I haven’t picked up that burden again, but keep working towards increased peacemaking and relationship-building; not just with Mom, but with my brother and sister.
But even so, connection with my family has been difficult. The feeling of being on the outside, looking in, has remained so very strong.
Over the last year, I’ve spent many hours on Ancestry.com, researching my lineage. Sent my DNA off to be analyzed and everything.
I started with my father’s side; I always felt more like a “Berko” than an “Ozanne”, so it was a natural place to start. I had a great time seeing pictures of relatives of whom I’d heard brief mentions growing up, and seeing pictures of the grandmothers whose resemblance I bear. Lithuanian (not Hungarian, like I’d thought) women are beautiful.
I went as back as far as I could. The records stopped in the late 19th century, probably due to the Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe. I’d figured as much.
Then it was time to do my mom’s side.
Then I dove in…
…so far, I’ve made it clear back to 1801, to the Channel Islands between England and France. I don’t know any of the people that I’m finding…but they’re my people. One entry discussed my mother’s maiden name; the very surname Ozanne, given in the 15th century, from the Hebrew word, “Hosanna”, denotes a family history of being Christ-followers.
More recently? Quakers. I come from a lineage of people who took a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ very seriously.
The more I discovered, the more names that kept popping up, names and dates and births and marriages and migrations…the more I felt that sense of connection, of history, of belonging. These are my people, and I love them. I can’t wait to keep searching.
And as that sense of connection grew, my heart – so separated from and often cold towards my mother’s family – has started to warm, and I have realized that my mom, her mom, her grandmother and great-grandmother (and the paternal side, too, but this is about Mother’s Day), are part of a story that is so much greater than any one of us. A story so great that it makes miniscule the imperfections and slights that have plagued my own life.
For the first time in my life, not even knowing the particulars of that story, I feel proud to be part of it.
This is a work of God.
Malachi 4:6 says:
“…and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers…”
The heart of this daughter has been turned back to her mother.
It is prelude of greater things to come, a magnificent healing in our family. I know it.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday! And what is Good Shepherd Sunday? Well, from that fount of all contemporary knowledge (no, you weren’t mistaken, that was sarcastic), Wikipedia, here is a fairly accurate definition:
In the Episcopal, and many other “liturgical” churches, the Scripture lessons are predetermined by the lectionary, or the established schedule of Scripture readings over the course of three years. Apparently, it’s set up so that, if you follow it daily, you will read the Old and New Testaments (additional, alternative Scriptures not included, although on occasion they do sneak in some of the Apocrypha) over the course of three years. There’s an Old Testament reading, a Psalm or other poetry/wisdom passage, a selection from one of the Epistles, and, last but certainly not least, a reading from the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The one that gets the most attention, with lots of pomp and procession as THE BOOK is carried into the midst of the congregation who are all standing in reverence, of course, is the Gospel reading. The one that gets the least attention and is even sometimes skipped, is the Psalm. But it’s the Psalm that got my attention today, because it’s what’s been getting my attention all week. Fitting, I suppose.
On Good Shepherd Sunday, what do you think a suitable psalm would be? It’s kind of a no-brainer: “The Lord is my shepherd” immediately comes to mind, and you’re right. Today’s Psalm, dutifully read in responsive fashion, was Psalm 23.
I have warm, fond memories of Psalm 23, hearkening back to my nearly-faded-from-memory toddler years. Psalm 23 was very important to me, because, in Sunday School, if we could memorize and recite 50 scripture verses, we would win our VERY OWN New Testament. Not that my home didn’t have shelves upon shelves full of Bibles, but this New Testament spoke to me, called my name: “Han-nah, you want me!”. It had a little girl and boy with Jesus on the cover and by golly, I was gonna get it.
And I did. I memorized 50 scripture verses, straight from the hallowed pages of the AUTHORIZED King James Version. (On a completely unrelated side note, I didn’t deviate from that narrow path until I was 18, when I gave in and went New International. I have since returned to my King James home. I once had a sweet Baptist friend who called the NIV the “Nearly Inspired Version”…my apologies to those of you love it…really. Whatever floats your boat.) Those 50 verses included the standard John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It included Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and have fallen short of the glory of God”, as well as the rest of that evangelical super-highway, “The Romans Road” (Billy Graham, eat your heart out). I don’t know what else it included, except for this: Psalm 23.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” I could recite it, but I couldn’t quite understand it. To my little 3-year old brain (and this 3-year old knew exactly who Jesus was), it didn’t make any sense that I should not want the Shepherd. That’s what I heard every time I repeated it: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.” Of course I wanted the Shepherd! Who wouldn’t want the Shepherd, what with all the green pastures and still waters and tables placed and oil running over and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever! Who wouldn’t want that?
Nonetheless, 50 scripture verses later, I got that New Testament.
I loved it well. I made sure I would always remember why I got it,
practiced writing my name in it, and, as any 3-year old girl would, promptly fell in love with the handsome shepherd boy depicted there.
But it it took me a long time to really understand what Psalm 23 meant. I certainly missed what I now know really is the message of that Psalm…by the time I could really read the Living paraphrase of that psalm on the back cover, I’d moved on to my first King James Bible, an 8th-birthday present; it was white bonded leather with GOLD LETTERING ON THE COVER and a ZIPPER! I don’t have that white Bible any more; somehow part of the Noah and the Ark story went missing and I stopped using it, but I still have this very loved and worn Living New Testament; it’s been with me for just over 44 years now and sits in my living room with my collection of Bibles in multiple translations. When I look at it, I feel immense gratitude for being taught to love the Savior at such a young age.
And, those same 44 years later, I am reminded that, still, I sometimes don’t know what that Psalm really means. Life gets hard. As we follow Jesus Christ, we often forget that He warned us, basically, “If you follow me, you’ll get what I got. It ain’t a rose garden; in fact, it’s usually more thorns than roses on any given day.” We like to skip to exaltation and glory without putting in our slow-going, right choosing, intentionally-placed-there, seemingly unending wilderness time, much like my piano students want to skip to being awesome without putting in the requisite thousands of hours of slow, correct, intentional, and seemingly unending practice. And we whine, and pray for deliverance, and wonder just when the wilderness will end.
Some people desert the Shepherd in the middle of the wilderness: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want [anymore]”. It reminds me of the account given by John, in his gospel. John 6 has Jesus feeding the 5,000 off of a few tuna sandwiches – now we’re talking green pastures! The crowds followed Him willingly. But when tuna sandwiches turned into the idea of true loyalty to Jesus Christ (who was starting to suggest that He, Himself, was the Messiah), and the difficulty that following Him often entails, the change of heart and mind and walking away from what we think we know and understand…well then, we have 6:68: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” When the green pastures turn into rocky cliffs, many turn back. “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes” (Numbers 11:5-6).
(Another side note: how many remember Keith Green? Can’t continue without leaving this; he really nails it.)
As I was considering my own personal wilderness (and we each have our own, tailor-made, in fact), which happened to coincide with a mindless browse through my Facebook news feed post, this popped up. I’m sure it was just a coincidence…(yes, more sarcasm). Take five minutes out of your life and watch it; it’s really good:
Belly deep alfalfa. I love how Mr. vander Laan depicts our understanding of “green pastures”, and how he shows, so clearly, what this psalm is talking about. The Living paraphrase nails it: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.” How would my life have been different if, at the age of three, I had absorbed that, instead of the images of belly deep alfalfa in my spiritual life? And for sheep in Israel, there is never belly deep alfalfa, only the sparsely scattered tufts of grass, just enough for them to keep going.
Mary Poppins is another fount of all wisdom…probably more reliable than Wikipedia! In that scene where she’s giving the kids some cough syrup (that magically tastes like their favorite treats, which are different from person to person…wonder if she went to Hogwarts?), Michael starts begging for more, to which she replies:
My dad used to, at holiday gatherings (usually at my mom’s folks’ house with her family), stand up and, in his booming New York accented voice, declare, “Thou hast prepared a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Yes, there’s a double entendre there…but he generally meant that he was grateful for the immense amount of food he was about to pack into his belly (which was sizable). As disciples of Christ, we so often are deluded to think that God’s provision – materially or spiritually – means that we will never want for anything, that said table prepared for us in the presence of our enemies means that we are feasting as gluttons while they starve.
But that’s not what scripture says. It says that, as we follow the Shepherd, who leads us into those green pastures (which look an awful lot like rocky wildernesses!), we will have everything we need. If we don’t have it, we obviously don’t need it but, like children, we often think that we need many things we don’t. Nonetheless, our Shepherd, our Savior, knows exactly what we need, and He delivers all our needs right when we need them the most, just enough to get us over that next rise, where our next need will be fulfilled. And He does this, truly, to the amazement and often conversion of onlookers, and He does this to bring glory to His, and our, Heavenly Father, as He brings many, many children of God to glory.
It really reframed how I look at what has been a very long journey, or what I think has been a long journey, through the wilderness. But, in the distance, I can smell the water, I can see a slightly more abundant patch of grass. We’ll get there. He won’t leave me, and I truly do, and will, have all that I need, in this life, and in the next.
Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need…Your goodness and failing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with You forever in Your home. (Psalm 23:1,6 – The Living Bible)
I have a confession to make: five nights ago (April 3) will mark the first time I cracked open my Scriptures since MARCH 7. My resolution to read through the entire Old and New Testaments has been seriously challenged as of late. Oh, I could cite so many valid (to me) reasons for this: grad school end-of-term chaos, getting my grades caught up and posted for mid-term progress reports in my day job, utter exhaustion from just having way too much on my plate…but really? Here’s the actual reason:
Yes, I made it through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, surprisingly. I made it through the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan and all the judges, the exciting history of Israel’s first monarchy, the ups and downs of David’s reign, and the aftermath of his egregious sin with Bathsheba. But by 2 Kings? My brain just couldn’t take anymore long names! And one night of being “too tired” to crack open those five chapters was enough to arrest it indefinitely.
I don’t know what it was that inspired me to pick up my Bible before bed and pick up reading, but I did. (Well, yeah, there’s the Holy Spirit. Touche.) Right where I left off in the middle of horrible Israelite rulers, people who couldn’t remain faithful to their covenant with God, and invading armies that never gave them any peace. The same stuff that rather made me zone out and abandon my plan before…but I kept reading, all the way to the story of King Hezekiah. One of the few decent rulers who at least attempted to follow the Lord, he himself struggled with similar issues as I. Specifically, when he was facing the armies of the Assyrian king, Shalmeneser, he was dumbstruck as one of the enemy’s spokesmen came with this message (roughly translated for you, the modern reader):
“Yo, Hezekiah! Just who do you think you believe in? I’ve conquered the WHOLE WORLD – where is this god you put your trust in?”
And Hezekiah wilted.
I often wilt. I wilt when people – especially people I love – attack and ridicule my belief in and love for God, when they attribute all of what I consider absolute proof of His existence and love for me (and everyone else, for that matter) coincidence, fantasy, brainwashing, mental instability, yada yada yada… it just makes me quake in my shoes and ties my tongue. Eyes get pretty damp, too. I’ll bet Hezekiah was feeling pretty damp…
After he wilted, though, he consulted the prophet. Not just any prophet, the prophet of prophets. The overly-eloquent, poetry-addicted, succintness-is-not-my-style prophet, the prophet who’s words continue to shake hearers to their souls (although we don’t always understand why…):
Actually, you should say his name like this: “I-SAI-ah!” Use your best James Earl Jones voice for it. There, you got it.
And here’s what I-SAI-ah! said:
Thus saith the Lord, Be not afraid of the words which thou hast heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.
Don’t be afraid.
What? This loudmouthed, arrogant, know-it-all Assyrian king is mouthing off all over the place, roaring like a rabid hyena and causing all sorts of bedlam and distress, and all God has to say is “Don’t be afraid?”
It kind of reminds me of that Disney cartoon, The Three Little Pigs, with the wolf hollering: “I’m gonna huff and puff and blow your house in!”
And all Hezekiah got was a “Do not be afraid.”
Then I guess that’s the answer: do not be afraid. So there are those who don’t believe and holler and bluster and call you addled? Do not be afraid. So you don’t always have a witty answer that will shut their mouths and give you the last word of victory? Do not be afraid. And if you keep reading, you’ll see that God assures Hezekiah that Shalmeneser will get his. And history tells us that, although he was successful in sacking Samaria and exiling those in the Northern Kingdom, he did not succeed in taking down Jerusalem. In fact, the prophecy that “I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” was fulfilled in 722 AD when his brother killed him and seized the crown.
So, be not afraid. Haters are gonna hate. Be not afraid. God has my back, as He has the backs of all who put their trust in Him.
Here’s one of my favorite songs I listen to when that fear and anxiety threatens to overwhelm me; thank you, David Haas:
Be not afraid. He will bring you Home. He loves you and you are His. Be not afraid.
Oh, and get back to the Scriptures…who knows what the next chapter has?
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, mostly because life has been so busy and, even though God is very much alive and active and always communicating with me, I haven’t been much about the journaling lately. Thank the Lord for emails and Facebook messages…eventually I’ll print those out and paste them in my hard journal; my conversations with friends are as close to documenting what the Spirit has spoken to my soul over the last month or so.
But today the message was so strong and loud and persistent that 1) I snuck a Facebook post in the middle of the sermon (#seethebigpicture), and 2) I knew I had to blog it before the muse drifted away. So here we are. Today is the 5th Sunday of Lent and we are traveling with the Savior ever closer to Jerusalem, where His destiny – our Atonement – waits. In fact, where we find ourselves today is so close to Jerusalem that His closest pals, the 12 disciples, wonder what He’s thinking. As we look at John 11, we find ourselves in Bethany, a little suburb outside of the metropolis that was Jerusalem, along with a trio whom some consider to be Christ’s closest friends outside of The Twelve.
But not at first. No, at the end of John 10, Jesus and The Twelve have gone beyond the Jordan, after the religious leaders thought they would kill him in the Temple for yet another mouthful of blasphemy (what was Jesus thinking? SMH…). We’re not sure just how long He was “beyond the Jordan”, but after whatever length of time He was there, He received communication that may have, for all intents and purposes, changed everything:
“Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick” (John 11:1-3).
I don’t know about any of you, but if I receive an intentional message about someone’s illness, it’s usually pretty serious. I’ve only received a few phone calls about urgent health conditions, and those calls usually indicate imminent death and “let’s gather round” is either implied or stated directly. As Facebook was not even a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s ancestors’ eyes, we can be pretty sure that someone went out of their way to deliver this message to Jesus, with the understanding that He was being asked to come.
So the next little bit really disturbs me:
“When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was. Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again” (John 11:6-7).
Not one verse earlier, the text clearly, directly, no-questions-asked states that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They weren’t mere acquaintances; they were friends – and not the Facebook type. These were people who opened their home to Him, had dinner ready when He came knocking, and, based on other passages, understood who He was and His mission, and fully supported Him. But He didn’t go. He waited two days and then, walking, as they did 2000 years ago, made His way to Bethany. But it was okay, because as He Himself said in verse 4, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.”
But it wasn’t okay. Because when He got there, Lazarus was gone. Dead. Putrefying in the family tomb. Just look at the sisters’ reactions when He does arrive:
“Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house. Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world. And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee. As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him. Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met him. The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there. Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.“
For some reason, even knowing how this ends, this is one of the most heartbreaking passages of Scripture I can ever read, because it echoes the cry of my own heart when I don’t understand why God doesn’t jump when I call. Why He doesn’t resolve situations when and how I think He should, why He lets me sit behind a piano at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church every Sunday, weeping the same prayer over and over and over again. The tears of those two sisters are my tears: “Lord, if You had only…Lord, if You would only…” And as He wept with those two women – not because He didn’t know the outcome, but because He fully felt and experienced their pain with them – I have to believe He weeps with me; not because He doesn’t know the outcome, but because He fully feels and experiences my pain with me.
But that’s not the point. He gave us the point in verse 4 – this whole scenario was to what? To bring glory to God, and to glorify the Son of Man. And so, without much further ado, He raises Lazarus to life. 4 days after the fact. That’s pretty amazing. The crowd goes wild, and gives praise to God. But that’s not the glorification to which verse 4 alludes; it’s what we find just immediately after this:
“But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done. Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death” (John 11:46-53, emphasis added).
Jesus waited – not to test people’s faith, not to create a spectacle, not to prove anything at all – but to set in motion the events that would make the Atonement possible. It was this event that unified the Pharisees in their plan to kill Him. Verse 4 wasn’t talking about the glory that people gave God at Lazarus’ resurrection, it was talking about the glory the God receives as He, even to this day, gathers together His scattered children, which was only made possible through the tragic beauty of Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane, death on Calvary, and triumph over the grave on Easter morning. Yet in the middle of their pain, in the depths of their self-centered (and naturally so) tears, no one could see the bigger picture.
It’s the same in our lives. God often waits so that His glory may be revealed and that many people may believe. I have to remember that. My struggles – those things for which I plea to be resolved – are not necessarily all about me. If God is making me wait (and I don’t like to wait), it surely must be so that His glory may be revealed and so that many, many people may believe. God can see the big picture; with faith, so can I.
UNANSWERED YET? – THE PRAYER
Lyrics: Charles D. Tillman, 1894
Performed by Michael McLean
Unanswered yet? The prayer your lips have pleaded In agony of heart these many years? Does faith begin to fail, is hope departing, And think you all in vain those falling tears? Say not the Father hath not heard your prayer: You shall have your desire, sometime, somewhere, You shall have your desire, sometime, somewhere.
Unanswered yet? Though when you first presented This one petition at the Father’s throne, It seemed you could not wait the time of asking, So urgent was your heart to make it known. Though years have passed since then, do not despair; The Lord will answer you, sometime, somewhere, The Lord will answer you, sometime, somewhere.
Unanswered yet? No, do not say ungranted; Perhaps your part is not yet wholly done; The work began when first your prayer was uttered, And God will finish what He has begun. If you will keep the Spirit burning there, His glory you shall see, sometime, somewhere, His glory you shall see, sometime, somewhere.
Unanswered yet? Faith cannot be unanswered; Her feet were firmly planted on the Rock; Amid the wildest storm prayer stands undaunted, Nor quails before the loudest thunder shock. She knows Omnipotence has heard her prayer, And cries, “It shall be done,” sometime, somewhere, And cries, “It shall be done,” sometime, somewhere.
I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, right about the time that hippie-style “Jesus Folk” music was becoming a staple in *gulp* dare I say it? – stodgy – mainline, evangelical churches. Hymnals were being replaced by songsheets and the occasional overhead projection; organs, pianos, and, in our case, brass bands were being supplemented (not replaced) by guitars; and defined song selections gave way to pick-your-favorite sing-a-longs (this was, you realize, years before “seeker-sensitive” and super-tech-savvy productions happened; we still hadn’t become production-oriented).
At the time, it was all very hip and wonderful. Now, though, as a solidly middle-aged person who has run the church gamut multiple times, I tend to gravitate toward the grander hymns of the faith and have to admit, nothing stirs my soul like a well-played organ (especially if that organ is playing Kingsfold or something else by Ralph Vaughn Williams). Nonetheless, there are some of those “pick-your-favorite” sing-a-long songs that, on occasion, really stir my soul. Here’s one of them:
Today was just such a day. Started yesterday, actually. Maybe it’s the “late-winter-bucket-of-suck” time of year, maybe it’s the grad school schedule I’m pulling on top of full-time-plus work, maybe it’s the 20 pounds I’ve packed on since September, maybe it’s all of those things. Whatever it is, I’m tired. So, so very tired. Waiting for this particular season (meteorological, professional, spiritual, personal…again, whatever…) to pass and for spring to bloom in my heart and mind and soul and, for Pete’s sake, in my yard! Right before I went to sleep, as I was getting in my read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year chapters (5 on a good day, 15 on a catch-up day; that was last night), this is what popped up on my phone:
Timely, right? Nonetheless, I cried myself to sleep, praying, “Hasten the day, Father…please, hasten the day.”
Now, if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll remember that, on occasion, I’ve been known to treat Facebook posts like fortune cookies. Sometimes, it’s amusing; other times, it’s absolutely uncanny. This morning has been uncanny. First, while I was slapping on my pretty-for-the-public face:
Just like a 19th-century preacher to slap me in the face. They were good at that, you know. (Smith Wigglesworth smacked a corpse – well, kind of threw it against a wall – it got up and went home. True story.) But let’s not leave it to revivalists; here’s what came from, for cryin’ out loud, Toby Mac:
My season of waiting. Waiting for spring – new life, new purpose, new vision, new hope – to burst through the cold, unyielding, frozen ground of winter. But winter is when all that life gathers energy to explode at just the right time. And while I wait, I must remember that the Lord Himself is renewing my strength…not to run forward, but to wait. The mounting up, and the running, and the walking all come after the waiting.
When I was in the 4th and 5th grades, I attended a little Christian school where we had chapel every morning. One of the “pick-your-favorite sing-a-long” songs we sang frequently was a musical setting of Isaiah 40:31. The emphasis wasn’t on mounting up, or running, or walking. Look at the lyric structure and notice how it begins and ends:
They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength:
They shall mount up with wings as eagles,
They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Teach me Lord, teach me Lord, to wait.
The emphasis is on not the forward or upward or explosive motion, it’s on the waiting. In waiting on God is our strength renewed. And in remembering this, I feel my strength and resolve and joy being renewed. It’s like Proverbs 15:23 says so beautifully: “A man hath joy by the answers of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!”
God’s word to me today – word spoken in due season – is truly good, and His mercies, so tender and compassionate and tailor-made for me, are new every morning! Great is His faithfulness!