Holy Week Reflections (2018) – Fruit on the Road From Bethany

fig-tree-1    I think Jesus liked figs.  At the top of His last week, He curses a fig tree for its leafy show without fruitfulness, just as He had referenced another fig tree in a parable earlier in His ministry.  In the parable, the keeper intercedes for the tree, buying it some more time for fruit-bearing.  The middle-years can find you seeking to buy more time for fruitfulness. But perhaps neither time nor seasons are the issue if eternal fruit is the goal.

     My own words, to the college-aged young man sitting beside me on the flight back from my Grandfather’s funeral in Jamaica, have come back to try me often.  In response to my questions, he had described several opportunities and gifts that he had possessed but that he did not pursue because, as he put it, “He didn’t have the time for it”.  After listening to him repeat this several times, I finally could not help but ask “So, what are you saving up all this time in your life for?”

     Before I knew it, I was again filtering someone else’s life through my own impatience-pocked spectacles – striving to get a young college-aged student to view life through the eyes of a woman in the midst or near the end of her parenting years.  My craving to see ‘tangible fruit’ from my life, other than my precious children, was a false hunger pang.  And that stripling’s life story was his alone to live in the timing determined between him and His Maker.  My stated quest was for eternal fruit, but maybe I also just wanted what the world would regard as worthy fruit and, then again, perhaps those are distinctions only the Almighty is capable of making and is evidently quite willing to assist us in discerning.  The definition of fruitfulness for women in Jesus’s day was generally assumed to be homemaking and childbearing.  Yet, a careful reading of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, reveals more.  1 Samuel 1:9a reverberated when I read it this Holy Week.  It was as if I were seeing the words for the first time – “So Hannah stood up…”.  The sound echoed again in my heart, when I later read in the Gospels that, at the start of Jesus’ last week before His great atoning mission was fulfilled, Mary of Bethany, also stood up, and taking expensive perfumed oil, anointed Jesus.

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     The action of both these sisters required risk and resolve and sacrifice – it required their ‘standing up’.  Was it false hunger pangs, as I assumed mine to be, that stirred them to unusual action?  No, there was more, much more.  They broke with the ‘status quo’ to pursue a heavenly vision that met them in the midst of their day-to-day lives.  They were devout women who, while faithfully doing the ‘day to day’, refused to deny that the need to accomplish something more than their lot dictated pulled at their souls.  They both exhibited unwavering trust in God despite what they observed in the natural.  They knew and obeyed God’s Word, as their worshipful declarations and devout lives demonstrated.  They remained faithful to their families, despite the trials of polygamy and singlehood, respectively.   And in the process of offering up their prophetic hunger to God their desire was purified:

     Through Hannah, instead of just another Hebrew male child, Israel received a judge, Samuel, who was also one of their most significant prophets.  For Mary, the oil, believed to have been intended as her future dowry, was sanctified through her hands, as sacrificially she poured it out on Jesus’ head – anointing Him with the fragrance that would follow Him throughout His approaching ordeal.  For such a time as that, Israel did not need another happily married young woman but a bold young hand-maid, willing to carry out a prophetic act that would bless the Savior.

     Initially, their action resulted in harsh judgments and misunderstanding of their hearts and motives: Hannah’s husband thought she should be satisfied with him and her ‘lot’ of infertility; Eli the priest thought she was drunk, as she stood silently pouring out her desire and resolve before the Lord.  Had Jesus not intervened, Mary could have been thrown out as improper for touching a man, and was indeed derided for wasting what could have been sold to aid the poor.  But, in both instances, heaven smiled and gave a hearty stamp of approval and wove them into the Divine Tapestry of God’s eternal story and redemptive work.

jesus-crucifiction1-e1522547095147.jpg       The lives of these two women reminded me that a Divine alchemy takes place when we turn over our lives, humble or privileged, to Jesus’ use: a ‘barren’ home-maker can alter the course of a nation; a young unmarried woman can see beyond learned priests and teachers and wordlessly declare the obvious – that God’s Redemption sits among them.  Even the surrendered ‘time’ of a young roving college-aged kid might yield vast eternal returns.  The trail was blazed when the Holy Son of God, in obedience to His Father, ‘stood up’ saying “Here I am.  Prepare me a body…” and, in complete trust, gave Himself away for the redemption of a rogue race, bringing many sons to glory.  With such fruit, God is pleased.

 

The Danger (and Safety) of Burning Evergreens

IMG_0867    A few years ago, having given in to our nature-loving daughter’s pleas, we once more purchased a natural evergreen for our Christmas tree. Truth is I could hardly wait for the twelve days of Christmas to pass to move the shedding alpine from the living room. Then, in my pragmatic, Jamaican, ‘Tu’n you’ han’ mek fashi’n’ mode (patois for re-purpose and recycle), I thought cutting up and then burning the tree in the fireplace was a perfectly frugal and efficient idea.

     Mercifully, the outdoorsman and the Eagle Scout in the house were quick to put the quabash on that evidently hazardous suggestion. To which I am sure our first-born safety guru gave hearty agreement. They explained that the pine-oil in the needles and branches makes them super flammable & fast burning and that the creatine produced would leave a sticky deposit on the walls of the chimney — a nightmare to clean off etc. So, limbing it and saving the trunk for our Easter Cross, we hauled the bramble off into the woods where our cul-de-sac dead-ended.

     This event came to mind recently for two reasons. The first was the ease with which we now put away our Christmas tree – because it is artificial! – a few quick folds (after removing ornaments of course!) The other was the Bible read-thru journey on which our church has embarked; reflecting in Exodus 3, I have become freshly enamored by Moses’ encounter with God in a bush that burned but that was not consumed. Trying to picture the scene, I have wondered, was it flame-colored like the animated movies and book illustrations portray? Or was it ever…green, though burning with God’s glory, flaming fiery golden, all around it?

     The speaker I heard address the story recently on the radio was not my favorite, as far as style of delivery, but I listened and was blessed to share in his revelation that God did not speak out of that burning bush that was ever…green until Moses turned aside to see.

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     Bushes catching fire in the dry heat of the Judean wilderness was not an uncommon occurrence, he rightly explained. But mercifully, in God’s eternally good providence, Moses was paying enough attention to notice that this one was not being consumed. How long did Moses watch it from the corner of his eyes, I wonder? All day? Half-a-day? How long did it take him to decide that the trouble of securing the sheep prematurely or else of risking leaving them untended for a while was worth taking a closer look at that bush? Again I am filled with gratitude for the persistent, pursuing love of the Divine Trinity who hovered in radiant glory upon that bush until Moses, like a fly to a flame, was drawn irresistibly.

361C9377-7D34-4060-8B8E-C643F6A60914    Except, this was no fatal attraction that ran the risk of crisping a critter, setting a forest aflame or of burning a house to the ground, like my burning evergreen bid threatened to do a few years ago. Rather, it was God’s redeeming love and His holy restraint revealed simultaneously. He was following up on promises made Millennia and centuries before – from Adam and Eve to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and now his progeny – that would have repercussions for the redemption of all who will believe in the Messiah issuing from this people. That Burning Ever…Green was not about saving energy, but saving Mankind from the consuming fire of God’s righteous holiness; not to destroy but to restore fellowship with Himself and secure a return to the sweet communion of Eden. Praise the Lord!

     Despite the trouble of using a live Christmas evergreen, from purchase to disposal, I must admit that like fresh flowers, its fragrance and vibrance add an amazing element of life to Christmas decor. My reflecting on it in the light of Scripture, proved the radio preacher right – turning aside from the daily grind, in faith-filled anticipation of encountering the God who is there, ever seeking our errant hearts, prepares us to experience a foretaste of that Day, while yet here on earth. Elizabeth Browning and Ann Ortlund lyricized about this (the latter inspired by the former):

     Omnipresence

“Oh praise the Lord!

The earth is cramm’d with heaven!

Oh praise the Lord!

And Christian look around!

For ev’ry bush with Fire is flaming!

And ev’ry place you walk is Holy Ground”

Praying a season of constant turning aside to see the Lord, during this first round of Ordinary Time.

Song of the Ages, Pt II: Join the Song

     My spiral of despair slowed as I studied Scripture on the bath-stool Christmas Eve morn. Could the glory of Christmas handle such a down and dark day in the story of my life? Noah lived in a generation of dark days. From sin’s cacophony and the rising dirge of the antediluvian age’s dreadful death march, one man’s song rose up to God, and God was close enough to hear it.

     167px-Noahs_Ark“Make yourself an ark”, He whispered to Noah.  “I am about to take this entire planet down (my paraphrase)”.  The chapter on that corrupt age had come to a close but God’s unstoppable plan moved forward in the heart of one man’s story.

    I feverishly scrolled, in my mind and on App, to examine the stories of others: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Seth, Enoch, Methuselah, Abraham, Job, and on and on. They each had a part to play and did, in their generation, but more importantly, their stories helped chronicle where and how God kept writing, kept framing and advancing the big picture — conducting, cosmically, His Song… of the Ages.  God over all, He has straddled time and epochs yet simultaneously has dealt with humans in personal fellowship. And still, He is helping us write our stories, sing our songs — little tunes testifying of the faithfulness of  Creator God towards His fallen creation. He still rescues the “whosoever” that calls on His Name, causing all their lines to be blended into the orchestration of His vast Symphony of the favored planet, earth, for His own glory.

     My view expanded as I acknowledged: God’s song is unstoppable. Mordecai said as much to Esther, “(paraphrase) If you neglect your opportunity, choosing to hide out in selfish anonymity,  judging God unfair, you will miss your ‘time such as this’ — you alone and your potential progeny will be the ones to have dropped out of the picture”. In fact, “You and your family will perish”, he warned.  Esther chose well.  The Jews were saved yet again; the line of Messiah was preserved and a Jewish orphan, turned Queen of the greatest nation at the time, had taken her part in The Story.

     In Noah’s day, they had come as a group — one man’s faithful fellowship with God securing his family, and then the animals, two by two. Today we must come one by one: menopausal and post-menopausal mamas, infertile couples, confused Millennials striving to understand life in a rudder-less, compass-less world where all the boundary stones have been overturned, defaced or totally removed. God’s invitation goes out to oppressed victims of societal injustice and tyrannical reign,  those on the fringes of society’s systems, cogs in the machinery of the power hungry who think they are gods or who use God’s name in vain ambition’s pursuit. Even distant philosophical seekers, rich in this world’s knowledge and store, are drawn, however imperfectly, by Creation’s testimony: be it that of microscopic entities too small to be seen with the naked eye or the bold declaration of burning balls of gases in or on the edge of our galaxy.

     Each of us must heed and choose to head out, following in faith until it becomes sight, taking up the thread of his or her own tale in his or her own generation and fitting it to that Great Tapestry. Each must bow, in daily consultation with the Divine Paraclete, placing and sorting life’s threads spread o’er time’s eternal loom, letting the lens of His Word set all in perspective for another day’s journey. Only thus will we find ourselves increasingly beholding the light of God in the face of Jesus Christ and His image in fellow humanity.

     So today, headache, neck-ache, soul-aches and all, I must choose.  I take my thoughts captive, possess my soul in patience and like Esther, yield my destiny to Christ—the only way to secure it.  Only in Christ is ‘all well’.  Only in Him does everything have the capability to be ALRIGHT.  He alone can turn Winter to Spring, bring life from death, turn pain and sorrow to joy and dancing, ultimately causing all things to work together for good to all those who choose to join their little aria to His Grand Opera of Love.

That Great Song crescendoed one day—an appointed time in history, sweeping up in amazing confluence many smaller melodies, in an animal shed in the Middle East—the event we now celebrate as Christmas. The Incarnation is the ultimate rescue plan, the Ark of arks to save us all, designed to fling the door of God’ s grace wide open for all to come. As the truth and perspective provided by the instruction of the Divine Paraclete, through the earnest songs of simple peasants and faithful seniors of an oppressed race, settled the tossing vessel of my soul this Christmas Eve morning, I beheld the Light of the glorious Gospel afresh.  Evil will not triumph, ultimately, and is in fact simply being co-opted as backdrop to the resplendent light of the Hope in the humblest soul that is looking to Christ.

It’s so much easier to walk when you can see.  Grateful, I realized that once more He had tuned my ears to the song He is always ready to sing over me every morning of every season. The mad dogs were leashed, my thoughts taken captive to the written and the Living Word, my soul possessed in patience to once more join my aria to the ‘Song of the Ages’ *.

 

 

*  Song of the Ages is the title of a song I wrote just prior to this and my previous blog.  Go to my ‘Poetry‘ page to read all of the lyrics to this song.

Song of the Ages, Pt I: The God Who is Near

     Confronted by my weakness in every aspect of my being, I sat dejected and desperate this Christmas Eve morning in my bathroom.

     “God, help me! I am in pain. I feel unable to control even my own thoughts”, I wrestled internally.

     Surgeries, medication, doctor visits, MANY doctor visits, had brought me more questions than answers, “God, where are you?” I questioned.  Please, I cannot go on like this.  I know you are real, I’ve seen you at work over the years, in my life, in our family, but what of now?  What of this?  Where are you?”  The last question hung in the air, for I knew that my own devotion had fallen off.  I was not doing the things that I had done at first, the things I knew to do.

     crying-out1So, I opened my mouth and voiced my petition, instead of just thinking them. I felt immediate relief, however small.  Solid ground — the sound of my own voice calling out to the God who is there — was like a patch of ground to stand on in the swampy morass that tended to be my brain in the early hours of morning, as the effects of fluctuating hormones, pain and semi-sleeplessness drove me desperate from my bed to the bathroom to get a grip.

     My ceaseless, anxious thoughts — C.S. Lewis’ mad dogs, my despised bedfellows in the wee hours of my middle-age mornings — had followed me into the bathroom.

“God, you are the Great Shepherd, right?  You keep your own.  I get it, about the brokenness of our physical bodies due to the fall, physical illness being just a part of the human journey to be coped with — You may or may not heal …but this struggle with my mind is another story. Your Word tells me that ‘None can pluck us from your Hands’. That must mean You are in this, somehow. I am not left to the devices of my enemy”.

     My thoughts raced again, collided and fell apart in scrambled heaps on the floor of my ‘menopausally’addled brain.  This frame of mind was not new to me.  I recalled previous seasons of panic and anxiety that had held me hostage for months.  I remembered having been just as desperate then for relief, and the similar vein of prayers.  Yet, here I now sat unable to recall exactly how or even when I had emerged from previous sloughs of despond and fear. I despaired afresh over my carelessness, my inattention that had let my mind drift from the truth.  I cast about in my head trying to regain a thread with which to lash my mind to the mast of the tossing boat that had again become my world.

     I was not even being able to fain control, unable to be that duck: calm on the surface but paddling like crazy below.  The battle resumed inward, “What of the list of believers (growing to my knowledge) who apparently wound up in error and or shipwreck — Hannah Hurnard, and hymn writer Nahum Tate, my most recent and troubling discoveries. Are you not able to keep our minds?” I questioned.  Yet even as I recalled the Faithful who suffered with depression: the Spurgeons and Mrs. David Livingstones, preachers, missionaries, writers of great hymns who yet suffered mentally, physically and emotionally?  I felt panic rising, and groped for a cord of truth to steady myself — “I have not sold my children a bill of goods about You.  I know you are real, and that You care.  Save me!  Save my soul!”  I whispered my scream in the early quiet.

     Aslan-Shasta2From the corners of my mind, quiet witnesses from the Scriptures began to speak up.  Jesus’ words to the disciples when they had asked about people who had died due to falling towers and the vindictive actions of Rome’s tyranny, and to Peter when he had asked about the destiny of the apostle John — Your answer: “What is it to you?” Essentially, “Mind your own life story”.  C.S. Lewis set that principle to classic allegorical narrative in His Narnia series, ‘The Horse and His Boy’ volume. “I speak to you only of your own story”, the great Christ figure, Aslan the Lion, had explained to the young character when he had questioned Aslan’s seemingly harsh dealings with another.

     I turned my heart to consider the most recent pages of my story …words, thoughts, songs, insight given as I had read and reflected on Scripture; ideas that had comforted and given perspective.  A song written earlier in the week had been cycling, again and again in my head, like a playground taunt as I tossed sleepless.  I could not turn it off. “You, write a song?” My enemy taunted, “Those ideas, thoughts, worth anyone else’s time or attention?  How ostentatious!  How helpful they have been to you right now?  Is this a trustworthy brand of truth?” The vile voices argued that I was living a lie — that I was incapable of living the truths my mind apprehended in the Holy Bible.

“Join the song of the Ages,

Join the dots, look at history’s pages.

Jesus Christ, Sovereign One, Straddling time, Son of David, God’s

own Son!” *

The song persisted, nonetheless.

     Resolutely, I turned on the Bible App on my iPad and clicked to my current reading passage in Genesis, where the Song of the Ages starts.  I had recently begun reading again, from the beginning, determined to fill in the gaps I had become too comfortable living with.  Gaps the enemy now romped in, splashing me unexpectedly with doubts and unanswered questions that I feared were unanswerable.

     jesus-in-the-gardenI was at the Flood.  The Scriptures record that God, Creator God, was exceedingly troubled that He had made Man.  My mind drank in THAT contradiction — the Eternal Creator exceedingly TROUBLED.  It was the second time in my scriptural study that I had noted an unsettled emotional state being experienced by the Divine One.  Jesus, in the New Testament, as He had approached the time of His pending suffering and death on the Cross, had declared to his disciples that His soul was deeply troubled.  Jesus’ situation, I felt I had somewhat understood.  After all, He was about to bear the full weight of Mankind’s sin and separation from the Father.  I got that.  But Creator-God?  Exceedingly troubled?

     But I was forgetting that this was Father-God of the earlier chapters of my reading in Genesis, who had come down daily in Eden, in pursuit of fellowship with his children, who had watched them increase in wickedness, after the fall, to where the Scripture records in superlative terms that “EVERY thought of man’s heart was ONLY evil CONTINUALLY.”  The God whose very name and character is love, who keeps watch over mankind, is quick to hasten to the side of the one who wants to ‘walk with Him’ — Abel, Enoch, and now Noah — the only one in his generation who ‘called on the name of the Lord’ and thus found ‘grace’.  This God was emotionally invested in His interrupted fellowship with Man! I took comfort in that fact and leaned in to catch the tune the Master Composer was weaving this final day of Advent, assured that the One who wove the story of a peasant girl, grungy shepherds, and rich wise guys into Earth’s redemption plan also had a place for this dark thread of my current journey.


* These are words from a song I wrote for this blog titled Song of the Ages.  Got to my ‘Poetry‘ page to read all of the lyrics to this song.

How Six Geese inspired Worship

How Six Geese inspired Worship
On the sixth day of Christmas my True Love gave to me “SIX GEESE A-LAYING”. 
It was an obediently fertile mind that, looking upon the common goose of the Medieval world, saw a means of observing and preserving for instruction in righteousness, the six days of Creation. 
And how fitting for us in the season of the celebration of His Incarnation, by whom it was all made and by whom it all consists, to revisit and devotionally consider how He did it.
“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Colossians 1:16-17 NIV
From days one through four He spoke the light, the sky, and celestial bodies into existence. Then He commenced creating living things — marine-life and birds on day five. He continued on day six, creating land animals — wild and livestock. Then finally, bending down, He lovingly formed Man with His own hands and breathed life into him.
What painstaking attention was paid by the Divine Creator to fashion, for us, the boundary of the dwelling called earth, “…in the hope that we might grope (search Him out in all the works of His hands) and find Him since He is not far from each one of us”. Acts17:26-27.
My own biggest find, this reading of the Creation account, was that our Heavenly Father created the heavenly bodies for the express purpose of letting them “serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years,”
Genesis 1:14 NIV
Here’s to marking the sixth of the twelve days of Christmas as a day fit for magnifying and worshipping our great Creator.

"FIVE GOLD RINGS!"— Heirlooms, Cheers & Prayers

“FIVE GOLD RINGS!”—Heirlooms, Cheers & Prayers
“On the fifth day of Christmas, my True Love sent to me FIVE GOLD RINGS!” — this portion of the well-known, though not- so-well-understood carol, is arranged musically as the climax. The notes, highest of the song, are grandly slowed and extended, connoting a rousing cheer being raised in a room full of Christmas revelers with mugs of wassail held high.
Such a picture is fitting when one considers that the ‘five gold rings’ represent, in this encrypted catechism, the first five books of the Bible’s Old Testament, The Pentateuch. What would the Christian Faith be without Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy?
These 5 books, chronicling Man’s beginning as well as the origins and unique place of the Jewish people in history, also record the process by which they received the designation, God’s Chosen People. Their Holy Writ forms the firm footing of the Christian Faith and are among the Scriptures Jesus read and referred to in presenting Himself to us. He is the Messiah they pointed to, pre-figured and demonstrated our desperate need of.
Representing this treasured heirloom, gifted to us as it were, through  our Hebrew spiritual forebears, the musical capstone of  ‘five gold rings!’, is a fitting response. Yet, ironically, thanks has not been the response over the centuries to the Jewish people. 
My own meditation on this verse this Christmas season was colored in somber shades by the even more jarring irony of current news out of the United Nations — the vote and condemnation of  the tiny modern Jewish nations’ right to build new settlements in land rightfully  theirs and necessary for securing themselves against the entities which hate their existence and thirst for their annihilation. 
To our shame, this decision went un-vetoed by America, previously Israel’s main supporter and defender in the UN, Israel being the only democracy in the entire Middle-East.
As I write this piece the church bells of the nearby Methodist church are chiming over our neighborhood the tune of another much-loved Christ as carol invoking Israel,
“Oh come, Oh come Emanuel,
 And ransom captive Israel
 That mourns in lonely exile here
  Until the Son of God appears.
   Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel
  Shall come to thee oh Israel”
As you enjoy the ” five gold rings” of our faith this Christmas, remember those who delivered it to us. Yes, Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.