Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Butchering Day

E and I drove over to the Palouse to visit my sister and her family and get our hands on the first member of the next generation in my family, little JR. And can I just say, "Great Aunt" sounds about a thousand years older than "Grandma"? The little guy thrilled us all last night by simply rolling over.   And this guy--who won't hit the 2 month mark until January 10th-- has been doing this acrobatic feat for a couple of weeks. There were three generations of people, cheering him on and practically giving him an Olympic Gold Medal, when he got it done. I know, I was part of the middle of those generations.

Can you remember the last time a whole room full of people cheered because you managed to turn your body from front to back?...Didn't think so. But that's the thing about babies. Every single thing they do is new and first and spectacular.

That's the way it should be, after all. Even the old farmers among the family get kind of gooey-eyed over this little tyke.

It didn't take any convincing for us to take the drive halfway across the Palouse Country (or this county) today, to where my niece lives with her husband and that adorable son. L is beginning her life as a mother much the way her mother, my sister, did--living just down the road from her in-laws, because her husband farms with his father. It like a long ways out there but the sight was well worth it.

Today, you see, out at the farm where L's husband P and his father work (where his father was raised as the  male caboose in a long train of children), the whole large, unwieldy, crazy bunch of them were gathered--brothers, sisters, in-laws and children whooping it up outside, older women inside--for the main event of the winter.  Down at the shop, dozens (? were there really that many? It seemed so!) of men in dirty, sloppy, coveralls were doing the work of the day.  Today, you see, was "Butchering Day."

Last year, I asked L to take some pictures of it for me, because I'd written about such a day for my aborted novel, but hadn't seen it, nor smelled, not really had a visual except in my head.  Today, it was all that and more for that short time E, RE and I spent down with the boys in the shop, trying to stay out of their way, while getting something of a guided tour from P and his dad. When we arrived they only had about three hogs left to cut and hang. Only one still had its clothes skin still on. As P's dad gave us a bit of history about why they started doing this butchering day, I watched a man with an electric knife separate the hide from the fat.  Another man walked right past us and dumped a shovel full of entrails--all kinds of stuff that might turn your stomach if you were from the city and unused to such things (say, from Bellingham!)--dumped it right into the shovel of a front loader which will take it up into the hills above the shop to give to the coyotes.

Then, walking gingerly, we entered the back of the shop, where 26 pig carcasses, cut in half, will hang all night.  As we stood there talking, P's dad talked about how gratifying it is to him that the next generation is so interested in getting involved in "Butchering Day."  Even though the space will only accomodate a finite number of hanging hogs, they decided the communal aspect of this two day event was more important than how much bacon or ham they actually come away with.  Butchering Day--this very bloody, grimy, dirty, traditional, stinky, back-breaking job is a tradition that helps give their family definition.

This is something I've been  thinking a whole lot about recently, for a variety of reasons. It's always been clear to me that the glue in my family has been a place. Not an event (or a couple of events) but a place.  The family cabin on Whidbey Island has functioned as the tradition in our family. It's what we have in common when we have little else in common.  My sister and her daughter both married into families who have not traveled far from where they had roots.  But our family--the Crains--have roots here (in Pullman), Seattle, and New Mexico. So what joined us? What made us more than just names on the end of our parents Christmas Cards? It's that 11 acre (now) plot of land with the ridiculously small indoor space for all of us.  And the expansive outside.  It's our one place in all this wonderful creation God made.

As P's dad was speaking of the importance of this day, of their tradition of Butchering Day and of passing it on to the next generation, I thought of how we train our children to share our values of those traditions.  How will P and L train little JR that Butchering Day is something worth setting all other things aside for?  By living it out. By showing him that what we hold true on the big days--the butchering days--is no less imprtant on the days when we're just home doing laundry.  It's about being intentional, being relational, and not letting the tyranny of the urgent get in the way, not letting our calendars dictate our values.

Sometimes there's blood on butchering day. No...there is ALWAYS blood on butchering day. Blood and guts and gas and some plain old bovine odors I didn't have a hope in hell of identifying.

But God reminds me that I often pull back too soon, pull out of the room at the least little scratch.
Yes--for you and for me--for anyone who gets in the way of what God is doing, we're liable to get bruised--at least! God's sheering-- so that we bear His fruit. All in His times. That's why He's God.

I'll say this: if God has to do some deep sheering for me to bear fruit, I could do worse than say, "Your will, Lord.' After all, God and bearing fruit? That's a no brainer.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Greetings

From my family to yours, may this Christmas be flooded with the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. 
Glory to God.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Caught up in it all

My plan to write daily during advent has been sadly derailed by the craziness that I imposed upon myself just so Sunday will have every element I want for it. Because we decided to have a thrift/second-hand/hand-made Christmas, I gave myself a fairly large list of projects to complete. Thrifting is NOT in my life's blood, thay it is in Beve's, and our daughters', so hand-made seemed the best bet if I was going to engage in this way of doing gifts. However, I did not make any adjustments for the several weeks I spent 'feeling punky,' as the elders called my pre and post-surgery status.

The lack of adjustments, that is, my inability to take anything off my plate has made the last couple of weeks rather grueling. In every way. Just ask Beve. Or maybe you shouldn't. I won't tell you everything I've made recently because there are still surprises in the offing, but as I've sat from dawn to darkness as my sewing machine my focus has become increasingly short-sighted. Just as far as my own list, I suppose. And by yesterday when we sat down to a dinner that Beve and E made because I've been working, and Beve took my hand and prayed, "Thank you, Lord, for a day just to relax,"  I could hardly speak. Could hardly believe that he had watched me race from one task to the next with barely a breath...and called it 'relaxing.'  To be fair, to him, such action is usually relaxing.

Let's just say that I got annoyed. No, let's be honest. I got mad. The truth is, I got sucked into the whole Christmas as a consumer-driven holiday even though we'd planned this kind of Christmas in part to keep this from happening.  But the real absence of 'spirit' in me comes because I've allowed myself to believe that my tasks were more urgent than the time I almost always give to God. 

So here I am. Two days before the day on which we all gaze with wonder at the most precious gift ever given and I've been so busy marking off tasks from a list that I've lost my focus. Christmas. The day of Christ. The day when heaven's gates were wide open and the multitude sang in wonder all because a single baby born in an out-the-way place on the edge of an out-of-the-way town. A single birth so wondrous a star stood at attention over the place of his birth, seen so far away men versed in reading such things knew they had to set out right then to find the child who lay beneath the glow of that bright light.

I'm feeling pretty small tonight. Feeling small and sad and wishing I could get a 'do-over', maybe all the way back to October in order to do it better. To enter into this Advent Season with more intention and fewer lists. But though I can--and do--repent, I cannot go back. I can't retrace my steps. I can't go back to Monday when I didn't pick up my Bible because I didn't think I had the time, nor Tuesday because I was sure I didn't.  I must go from here. Make amends with Beve (a long conversation with him this afternoon was helpful and healing and had us both laughing by the end...), and making amends with God.

And with you.
I'm sorry I did not follow through on my plan to write about how Jesus fulfilled prophecies. I regret this. It could have made Advent a richer time. So please forgive me for having let down the side, so to speak. 

It is such things like this--at least in me--that makes it very clear how essential the Incarnation is. I need Jesus. We need Jesus.  God knew it. At day one, He knew it. How thankful I am that Christmas is coming. That Jesus is coming.

O Holy Night, indeed. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Simple words

E came home for the week yesterday, and boy, were we thrilled to see her. And by that I mean primarily me, primarily so that the 'dang dog' (which is how my mother always referred to our dogs whenever she was annoyed) will climb on top of her each morning when Beve lets her out of her kennel. Hmm, were all those 'hers' clear? I mean Beve lets Maica out of the kennel, not E.  Anyway, Maica is perfectly willing to follow Beve around for a while, but once he leaves, she hops up onto our bed and curls up on my back bone...which, oddly, never fails to awaken me. So I wake up, try to arch away from her, but moving 60 pounds of dog from the center of my back is no easy task. It never goes well.  I try shifting, talking to her, cajoling her to "PLEASE get off me."  But Maica doesn't move.

The other morning, I accidentally said, "Down." And Maica hopped off me instantly, put her head down flat.
Just the way I taught her.

Yep.  That's right. I trained her, then totally failed to use my own training with her.

The next morning, when she hopped onto my bed, and put her first paw on my back, I was instantly awake and  ready. "Down, Maica," I said. She didn't even put her second paw on my back but curled up beside me and we both went back to sleep.

Ahh.
But how foolish of me to have spent all that time pleading with her unintelligibly (at least to her), while there was a simple, clear way to make her understand.  A way she'd learned from my own training.  All this time my ongoing frustration had an easy solution.

E and I laughed about this tonight.  How often I make things more complicated than they really are. How often do I think it takes paragraphs of words when what it really takes is a single word of trained obedience to make all the difference? What is true with dogs, is true for all of us. I remember training our children to say please, thank-you, excuse me, and sorry. These are words that serve us well--with each other and with God.

But we have to use them. We have to be willing to simply use these words when they need to be used. Excuse me. Sorry. Thank you. Please.

And some of those canine words come in pretty handy too. No. Stay. Sit. Down. Heel.
Good.

It's still nice to have better options for Maica in the morning than my bed.
Yep, I'm glad E's home.
And will be glad when SK gets here Friday.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Three times, no charm

Some very dear friends have been in town this weekend.  They have a wedding to attend and officiate, so by happy-circumstance of living here, we've had some quality time together.  It's like a lush oasis in the desert that is our daily lives to simply sit at a table with people and have conversation that begins and flows and doesn't get lost in the middle or interrupted by odd non-sequiters or someone drifting to sleep in a wheelchair. Nor by having to hoist wheelchairs in and out of the car to move, through doors (try doing this sometime and you'll see how difficult it actually is to open a door from behind a wheelchair). As I say, a lush oasis.

Some seasons are deserts.  You all know this. Our visiting friends are living through their own desert, one in which they must constantly be hyper-vigilant. "On" all the time, as she put it, because of the kind of ministry in which they have found themselves.  It stretches them almost beyond their powers of endurance. Just like the c are-giving of Grampie and Thyrza sometimes stretches us.  Even such ministries we feel called to can stretch us as tightly as a rubber-band, you know. Right to the point of breaking.

Thinking through the conversation we had with our friends who just left to rest before prettying themselves up for this wedding, I thought of the wilderness experience of Jesus. (Matthew 4, Luke 4))  This forty days alone in the desert was a picture of the forty years the people of Israel spent wandering.  Only this time, rather than wandering and complaining and not being victorious, Jesus faced down the evil one. He proved Himself utterly faithful--the One TRUE One of all those whom God had made (and kept) His covenant with His people since Abraham was first called.

 Jesus' responses to the enemy in the wilderness is very important in understanding how Jesus would fulfill the prophecies about the Messiah.  It is absolutely true that Incarnate God was capable of  turning those stones into bread. But exercising His power for His own ends was obviously NOT God's plan for the Kingdom.  Miracles for their own sake is never the point. In other words, miracles are never selfish, gratuitous or showy. Jesus is either moved by compassion, and asks the person to be quiet about the healing, or wants to reveal something about the Kingdom--like with the man lowered through the roof by His friends (Mark 2), where Jesus speaks of forgiveness of sins being more important/difficult than healing the lame, then, to prove the point, tells the man to rise and walk.

After forty days out in the desert without eating, Jesus was hungry, we're told. Really. Well, duh!  Like the way new parents are a little tired. So the enemy didn't need a PhD to know the best, first way to tempt Jesus would be through His tight-as-a-drum, grumbling-so-loud-you-can-hear-it-in-Jerusalem stomach. But the enemy never simply gives gifts. Not on your life...I mean, he's always after that life--and Jesus' life more than any other's.  "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." It was like he was saying, "I dare you, I double-dog dare you; and I know you want to. Listen to your stomach.  Come on, it's just a few stones."
 So Jesus answers:
"People do not live by bread alone; but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." This comes from Deuteronomy 8:3. In the wilderness, GOD gave His people bread (manna). They had to learn to rely on Him for their food. Jesus' answer to satan comes straight to the heart of the matter. Rather than trying to fix His hunger Himself, Jesus relied on God for His food. He relied on God for all His provision. As we should.

Ok, then. Round two. It's like the enemy had this list of ways meant to get at Jesus. Oh wait, that's exactly what he had, because that's how he works with all of us, going at us this way and that, looking for a way in so that we crumble to his schemes.
The second temptation is related to worship (though only the Luke version--which has this the 3rd temptation-- makes this clear).  Throwing Himself off the tallest point o
f the temple, which was about 100 feet to the valley below. Ridiculously high, anyway.  satan slyly quotes Psalm 91 (one of my personal favorites) to tempt him into saving Himself from death seems like a ridiculous thing for satan to attempt, when you really think about it.  It's perhaps the single most ridiculous thing satan ever tried. Well, I suppose the whole wilderness experience could be lumped into that, but this temptation alone. Jesus save Himself from death? Throw yourself off the temple, then let angels save you. It really makes me laugh.  Hard to imagine that satan could be taken seriously about this. But I guess he sometimes does things in our lives that would look exactly this way from the outside. Just as ridiculous. Just as impossible. But he does his darnest and we sometimes fall prey to him.
Jesus, because He didn't even need those angels to protect Him (though they would have!), didn't fall prey for a single moment.  "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."  Jesus knew before it was all said and done, He'd be standing on the edge of a higher precipice than that temple ledge and looking down with the weight of humanity's sins on His chest. Killing Him. And He wouldn't call on angels. "Into your hands I commend my spirit, Lord," He'd be saying that day still three years ahead.  Jesus knew all that. He saw the cross before Him and knew it wasn't about the whole world worshiping Him but Him dying for the whole world.

Finally satan gets to the heart of the matter. He takes Jesus to a "very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the word and their splendor."  Imagine a spot like this. Imagine a place from which you could see everything from the Alps to the Great Barrier Reef to the Sahara to Mount Rainier to wherever you call home. Imagine seeing it all at once and being thrilled by the glory of the heavens and the great splendid diversity of this glob.  For a moment, it simply takes one's breath away. Jesus had had that view before, of course.  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning."  Jesus had been right there when Light and Darkness separated, and water and earth parted. When animals were created, He was there, and when the animals were named, He was there. So this moment with satan wasn't Jesus' first view of this lovely planet we call Earth. But it was His first with human eyes. And it was into His human eyes and human face that satan looked and said, "I'll give all this to you...if you bow to me and worship me."

Another ridiculous temptation, since Jesus already knew who'd made the world. Since he knew any authority satan has over the world is only temporary and was only three years away from being destroyed. Still, Jesus didn't give all this away to satan that day in the wilderness. I might have been tempted to show my hand. Jesus simply answered, "Away from me, satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and worship Him only."   And at those words, the enemy disappeared and angels appeared. Attended him. I assumed this means they tended to that rumbling stomach.

The critical words are:
Humans don't live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God.
Don't put the Lord your God to the test. Worship the Lord and Him only.
Away from me, satan! Worship the Lord your God, and Him only.

God can supply all your needs.
The enemy has no authority.
In wilderness or oases, ONLY God. In all things.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Power and Might

The other night Beve was telling me about a teacher who'd come into Beve's office to talk about several things. Such things happen with Beve.  Not only students and their parents but teachers and administrators come into his office, close the door and talk to him about things as if he was a priest and his office a confessional.  I'm not sure what this teacher was talking to Beve about--I'm not always privy to the hardest of my husband's conversations--but after a bit the teacher reminded Beve of an evening we'd spent at their home, sharing some Indian curry together. He said he could hardly remember a night they'd enjoyed more. When Beve told me that, I said, "Of course. We're fascinating people, after all."

Ok. Maybe we aren't. Maybe we're just ordinary people like all the rest of you bums out there.  That's the truth of it, and I'm not going to pretend for a single moment that it's not. That ridiculous commercial on television about 'the most interesting man in the world' made me roll my eyes the first time I saw it.  There is no such thing. Such monikers are subjective, as they should be. What might seem interesting to me wouldn't to a person who cares about race cars, and sure as today Vacation Beve comes home in an hour!, what is fascinating to a person interested in bugs (come to think of it--of any kind: insects, computer or illnesses) would put me to sleep in an instant.

Where was I?
Oh yeah,  the evening we spent with this teacher and his wife was interesting to me because they are Orthodox Jews. Our conversation revolved around their faith which, of course, interests me; I cannot imagine NOT being interested in those whom God calls "the people for my Name." We read and study the same book--at least part of it.  There is one essential point of departure--we believe the Messiah has come, that the prophecies have been fulfilled. They are still waiting.  I do not for a single moment lose sight of this difference. HE is the great love of my life.  Still, there is much we can learn from our Jewish cousins about studying scripture, about the rhythm of living the year with God.  I would love to have a Mezuzah at the doorway of my home. That's a scroll with the words of Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 written on it.  This passage of scripture is called the Shema and the most important passage of scripture in the Torah to Jews.
  "Hear O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give to you are to be written on your hearts. Impress them to your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your house and on your gates."

Powerful words. It makes sense to do what God tells us to do here, doesn't it?  As much sense as wearing a cross around my neck, I think.

But I've often wondered why it's been so difficult for Jews to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, as Peter put it.  All these prophecies.  Part of it has to do with the kind of King they'd been expecting. Kings come in power, with might and majesty. They don't show up as babies. Even if Isaiah says they will, I suppose.  Or at least they'll grow into Kings of power and might and majesty.  Jesus' power and might and majesty was all there, however. It was simply a leashed kind. It was restrained. Like a very powerful animal reined in. You know that animal could take out the whole mess of accusers if He was inclined. But He wasn't. That wasn't His purpose.

Isaiah 42: 1-2 says this better than I can: "Here is my Servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on Him and He will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise His voice in the streets. A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out."

It's all there. The power and justice, but the restraint and care.  These verses describe the Messiah who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth and baptized in the Jordan river by His cousin John. Like they were written after His life, they describe Him. Don't they?  Jesus did not shout or cry out--not at the people who judged him and mocked him. Not when they were singing His praises one day and calling for His death just five days later.  He stood there. But there too is the compassion He showed to those who most needed it, to the woman who touched his cloak and the one caught in adultery. He did not snuff them out when they were barely hanging on for dear life.

This IS the Messiah. This IS Jesus.  He is the One whom the prophets foretold.  When John the Baptist was in prison, waiting for his head to be served on a platter, he sent a couple of men to Jesus, asking if He was truly the One for whom they'd been waiting. John had known when he'd seen Him at the river, but anyone in a dark prison, contemplating death (and not even knowing how that death would come) might begin to wonder, so I have to give him a pass for his doubts. Jesus simply told those friends of John, "Tell him what's been going on. The blind see and the lame walk." Jesus didn't proclaim Himself with power, but left John to infer the answer for himself.

I'll do the same.  Jesus. Not the Mighty and Powerful as expected. But mighty and powerful as God intended.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Character

In this school year (which is the way we always mark our calendars, no matter that the year changes half-way through each one) five young couples close to us will become parents.  That's a whole lot of new life.  Recently, when I spoke to my niece, who is the first of these women to set eyes on her baby, we talked about the days of infancy she's in with her son.  They are hard going with sleepless nights and a lot of exhaustion because that baby only has one way to communicate at the moment and it's a very loud one.  And he's so small his needs are the largest thing about him; they actually consume my niece's whole life at the moment. And he's a good, easy baby. This is just the nature of infancy.

It takes time to get to know a child's character. I remember sitting on a bed in my parents' house where E and I had come after getting out of the hospital (her VERY late (21days) arrival meant Beve had to leave 10 hours after her birth to be best man in a wedding across the state, then go from there to Oregon to work at a basketball camp. It was just the beginning of learning how our plans often had to be thrown out the window when it came to kids). I sat on that narrow hospital bed where my blind grandmother had so often listened to the Bible on tape, or knelt to pray for, watching E exercise those extra-long limbs that had been folded up inside me far too long and wondered who in the world she really was behind that mask of a face. I didn't have the faintest idea about her character. She could stare but couldn't even smile, could cry but couldn't laugh.  But somehow, looking at her, it seemed like it was all there behind the intensity of her gaze at me. Like everything she was was simply waiting to be revealed.

I don't have the faintest idea if this makes sense to anyone else, but it's the way I felt about each of my children: that who they were was stamped in them from the beginning, and even in the earliest days, there were deep and extraordinary differences based on the specific characters God had given them when He created them 'in the secret place,' as the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 139.  Beve and I both remember the strong sense of, "Ta-DAH!" we had from SK when she was an infant, even though she was our tiniest baby. She was so present, like she was certain we had all been waiting for her to show up.  And, of course, in a sense, God knew we had been. Or at least that we should have been.

But even in this age of ultra-sounds, we don't get to know who our children will be. Yes, we can discover their gender, but that doesn't tell us much about character.  It takes getting to know that child for us to get that.

Mary and Joseph, on the other hand, had a whole lot of foreknowledge about the baby God had planted in Mary's uterus. In the Psalms-- 89: 36-37 says He'll be faithful ('a faithful witness'); 100:5 also calls Him faithful and adds goodness to His character.  Isaiah 9:7 calls Him just, compassionate and gracious, and 11:2-4 says He's full of truth, wisdom, understanding, is compassionate and gracious.  Isaiah 42: 2 says the Suffering Servant will be meek and lowly and chapter 53 speaks of all the acts He'll do because of these things He is (but we'll look at that on its own another day).

It's a pretty extensive list.  Imagine looking at your brand new, barely out of the womb baby and knowing this much about Him. These are what you can expect of Him as He begins to smile--and not just from gas!--and laugh and speak.  When he talks and walks and plays with his younger brothers and helps around the house, these are what you see. But you knew you'd see them because they were written down hundreds of years before He was born. So when you see them, you smile quietly, if you're Mary, and treasure them, because you know who He is and what it all means. It's a smile with a sword in it, after all. You were told that too.

But those words about the Messiah, the ones Mary treasured, the ones she saw from the earliest, hidden days, they are really for all of us, so we'll know Him when we recognize Him when we see Him walking across the dusty roads of Galiee to wherever we find ourselves this very day.  That's the point of the old prophecies, after all. They aren't simply parlor tricks, a way of God showing off what He is able to do.  He could knock our socks off with a lot more than this if He was so inclined. That's not the point. The point, and it's a sharp one, is to draw our attention with laser focus, on the one man who was also God. Jesus. He had all these traits because these are the Holy traits of God's character. On earth as in Heaven.

He is good and just and compassionate and gracious, wise and true.

I think of two different verses when I list out His character this way: first, Philippians 4: 8 where Paul exhorts us to think on whatever is true, lovely, trustworthy, noble, etc. That is what God is, and what the Incarnate was while He walked on this earth. Basically, He's telling us to think on Christ rather than thinking on whatever it is that is tearing apart our insides and making us crazy or sleepless or angry or whatever else we are. Secondly, (maybe you're way ahead of me), Galatians 5: 22-23. The Fruit of the Spirit.  Not only are we to think of the character of God, but we are to develop that character in ourselves.  And how do we do it? Not by huffing and puffing, I can tell you that. It's called the fruit of the Spirit, folks. That means we need HIM to develop the fruit in us. That fruit manifests itself in all of these character qualities. We don't pick and choose. I know I'd like to. A little more patience, but do I have to be generous too? Sigh.  No, it's all the same fruit from the same tree. The tree of God's presence in our lives.

His character in our lives.  So we can see it. Just the way Mary saw that character every day in Nazareth as she watched that child grow up. That's the character we're after in our lives. God's character growing up inside us.


Hometown

Hometowns.
Some of us were born, live and die within shouting distance from the same grocery stores, churches, and schools. We know the roads backwards and forwards and can pretty well name every person who ever lived in every house in town (if the town is small enough, that is). But a whole lot of us aren't born the same place we end up. And the place we think of as our home town isn't even the place we carry with us on every passport as long as we live.  I'm one of these nomadic types. I was born in a place I only lived three weeks before flying away in the arms of my mother for my dad's next naval assignment.  It wasn't until about half a dozen years ago that I was even in San Pedro, California again, and that was only because E was playing in a basketball tournament down near there in the greater Los Angeles area.  So  obviously, San Pedro isn't my home town. Nor is Ypsilanti, Michigan my hometown, though my youngest sister was born there, and has to carry that hard-to-spell name with her ever after.  I was eight when Dad finished his PhD at the University of Michigan and we left for Pullman, Washington. Pullman, the place where I grew up, and had the most halcyon of child and youth-hoods, graduated from high school, got married, and buried my parents (at least symbolically), is my hometown.

Oddly, my life bears a resemblance to Jesus' earthly one.  He too, was born in a place he barely lived, though Bethlehem was likely his home for several months before those visitors from the east came through, bringing gifts, stirring up the pot and Herod, and forcing God the spirit the little family away in the dark of night.  The place Jesus learned to crawl and walk and speak sentences was somewhere in Egypt, where Joseph presumably made cabinets and tables for Egyptians and Mary cared for their family and they waited for God to tell them it was safe to return from their exile.  And when they returned, it wasn't to Bethlehem they came back to, but Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary were from in the first place.

All of this was foretold--that He'd be born in Bethlehem, but also that He'd be called a Nazarene. Isaiah 11:2.  It isn't that Joseph and Mary read the prophet and knew they had to go back to Nazareth to fulfill God's plan. They were just doing what came naturally to them--to return to their hometown. God knew all along that their home town was exactly the right place for the Incarnate to grow up.

This really appeals to me.  Later in His ministry, when people hear Jesus speak, they ask, "How can He be the Messiah? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  I've heard people say similar things about my hometown. But most of the time, when folks say such things it's because they have no idea how important a hometown is.  What it is.  For Jesus, Nazareth was the only place He could grow into the Son of Man.  I can't tell you why this is so, I can only tell you that God the Father who is purposeful intended this. He told us it was His intention, and He did it. So there was something about Nazareth that was important for Jesus' human growth.

And make no mistake, that human growth is nothing to sneer about. We often forget that this is a man who lived 33 years without every doing a single thing wrong. Without a single mis-step or wrong motive or selfish act.  I think about what it was like raising children, how difficult some days were--and I had pretty good, easy, compliant kids--and I can't imagine one who always, always obeyed.  So imagine that moment when Jesus was 12, when He didn't turn up at the end of the evening on the way home from Jerusalem.  Twelve years of never having to worry about a kid doing the wrong thing--EVER--and suddenly He just doesn't show up for dinner? Wow. I'd be shaking in my dusty sandals, I can tell you that. And even then, He was in the right place, and they were the ones in the wrong. Imagine that--your twelve-year-old holds you to a higher standard.

That's what it was like to live as His parents, I think. And maybe that's what it was like to live in town with Him. Maybe what was most needed during those 30 years of growing up and preparation for ministry was an out-of-the-way place where He could be hidden and quiet and not have too much attention.

Kind of like living in a small town among rolling wheatfields.  You have to be going there in order to get there, if you know what I mean. But once you do, it's worth the trip. That's the truth about my hometown. And I think it's true about Nazareth as well.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Down this road before

Three year ago this December, I was sitting in a skilled nursing facility with three of my siblings listening to our mother speak in long nonsensical sentences. We nodded attentively, tried to make some kind of sense of her rambling paragraphs of words and had to keep our eyes from each other for fear we'd start laughing at any minute.  One afternoon, for no apparent reason (or at least one that I can pull up from my memory) she suddenly lifted both hands and began singing the Hallelujah chorus.  And then the four of us laughed.  You would have too, I promise you.

Tonight, Beve and I sat in Grampie's room in a skilled nursing facility, listening him talk about a trip to New York he was convinced he was due to take today. Oh, and was it morning or evening where we live?  Could we make a decision about that with him? His conversation was long and meandering, incoherent and dreamlike, though he wasn't asleep.  Beve and I couldn't look at each other, for fear that we'd laugh.  And I was waiting any minute for his hands to raise and the Hallelujah Chorus to come out of his mouth.  I'm telling you it was he was that much like Mom, even down to the vacant gaze in his eyes, that until recently I thought was merely the way my own mother looked as Alzheimer's claimed her brain.  But apparently the disease looks the same on every face.  Before we left this evening, Grampie had agreed with our decision that it was evening not morning--honestly, it was like we'd had a meeting and voted on it and he was going along with the majority vote!.  So he decided he'd go to bed. Began removing his clothes right there in his wheelchair, while I was sitting in the room.  The real Grampie would never have done that--he was private for himself, and respectful of me. This old man doesn't even notice such things. If he needs to undress, or use the urinal, he's just going to do so. No matter who might be around.

It unnerves us a little.
More than a little.

When we got home, Beve asked me how far along I think Grampie is. He's about where Mom was when she moved into the Alzheimer's unit once and for all.  "The journey is just beginning," Beve answered.  "No," I told him. "The journey began years ago. We've been in it a long time.  It's just that every turn in the road is a little harder."

Yep, I've been down this exact road before; I recognize the terrain.
And I hate that.

I intended to write a post about the Nazarene today. In fact, I wrote that post. It's all set to be posted. But this is the glaring reality of our lives--this and nothing else.  Every now and then I watch a TV show where some young couple, right in the midst of caring for their children is completely overwhelmed, and is blessed by the generosity of others because of the work they're doing.  Today I happened to see the Ellen show, where a young at-home mom was given a car.  I usually feel very glad for these harried, overwhelmed people, and I thank God for the bounty of our lives. But today, I thought of the heavy lifting we've been doing. No, make that Beve. This fall, the very heavy lifting has been his.  At times I wonder how we can continue in this. How he can get up each day, face the needs of the damaged kids who are his people group for seven hours and the elders who take up the evenings. Day after day after day.

There are moments when I think we can't do it another moment. Times when I want this cup taken for us. How much can a person endure?

God knows. God knows the difficulties with the elders and the complicating difficulties with family members. He knows what how much we can endure far better than we do.  Most of the time, when I think about the Incarnation, I think about Jesus' work on the cross.  And certainly that was the primary goal of God becoming a man. However, He also came to teach love and demonstrate it in action.  "LOVE!" He said. And He showed it.  Put no limits on it.  "Do good to those who hurt you."  "Love one another as I have loved you."  And serve. The Messiah was called 'the Suffering Servant.'  (See Isaiah 52: 13-53:12)  It isn't merely through His death that He suffered, but also through serving beaten up, sin-mangled humanity.  The Incarnation teaches us how then we shall live.

And that Incarnation can be/should be/will be worked out in our lives through the Holy Spirit. He doesn't merely teach us how to live, He doesn't merely practice it as model, He gives us the means by which we can live it ourselves. Holy Spirit come. Again I ask, give me power to know how wide and high and broad and deep is Your love, and to practice it--to the elders and to all those You put in my life.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Down at the riverside

"...The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him--
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord--
and He will delight in the fear of the Lord." Isaiah 11: 2-3

"Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on Him..." Isaiah 42: 1

"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, 
to proclaim freedom for the captives,
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the day of the Lord's favor." Isaiah 61: 1-2

Mary's cousin, with whom she'd spent half her pregnancy, had had a baby late in life, a baby also given by God in a rather supernatural fashion, with angels appearing out of nowhere, a papa made mute from disbelief, the little tyke still as a stone in the womb until Mary and her own full womb appeared on the horizon. Then, in a way in which only God could have had a hand, the one baby recognized the other and began to dance beneath his mama's skin for the first time.  And his mother knelt before her much younger cousin in awe and wonder for the thing which God had done and was going to do--for both of them and the whole world far beyond what they could ever imagine.

Thirty years later, that second cousin of Jesus was a rather wild and woolly creature, living off the lean of the land.  Barely fit for proper society, more like a street person.  Eating what he could lay his hands on out in the wilderness and preaching all sorts of 'last days' anxiety-producing prophecies.  But there was something about his words that rang true.  We think WE live in the final days, but there must have been something about that time and place, something in the air in about 28 AD or so (to use our calendar, which they did not!) that made people worry.  John's words, "Prepare for the way of the Lord," brought them out to the side of the Jordan river. And his words, "Repent and be baptized--everyone of you--for the forgiveness of sins!" sent them down into that water in droves. 

What was different was that John really was the one preparing the way of the Lord. His voice really was just ahead of the One whose shoes he knew he wasn't fit to tie. His birth had been foretold by God, his ministry was the prelude to God's one great master plan of salvation. So there was something different about his teaching than all the other teaching in all the centuries before or since.  No matter that he looked like some grizzled, dirty desert wanderer in need of a good scrubbing.

It wasn't only in his mother's womb that John recognized the Messiah when he saw him approaching.  That day down at the riverside, instead of dancing, however, John stood still when Jesus stepped up to him to be baptized. "Me baptize you?"
"Yes," Jesus told him.  "It's the proper order of business--in order to fulfill righteousness."
So John agrees, though I imagine some trepidation in him, some kind of shuddering about the weight of it all. After all, he alone knew what he was doing.
And  we have this sacred moment of one cousin lowering the other into the river and bringing in back out, as an imitation of the dying and resurrection three years ahead.  And as the water covers Jesus, then drips off his garments and beard and hair, hairs on every head and neck and arms stood up because Heaven itself opens. I don't mean the clouds parted and the sun broke through, though this is as close an analogy as we're likely to get, but very Heaven itself, where God dwells, and the angels rim His throne. And the Spirit of God flies in--like a dove--and settles on Jesus.  And God's speaks. Yes, God speaks. We know it's God because only He can say these words:
"This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased." Matthew 3: 17

This moment marks the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry. And definitely 'fulfills righteousness.' These three prophesies about the Spirit being poured out on God's servant quoted at the beginning of the post are part of what is called 'The Servant Songs, four Messianic passages in Isaiah.  That day on the River Jordan, the 'pouring' of the Spirit is fulfilled. By water and from Heaven. 

This is the moment which marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. There have been 'discussions' over the centuries about what else it might mean, whether others at the river heard the voice, all kinds of things. I think that sidesteps the central issue. Jesus marked Himself for ministry by His baptism and God stamped it with approval. Set Him on the track toward Calvary.  And the Spirit settled in to aid with power and might for the earthly ministry.

What that all means is, this is a Triune moment.  A moment when the whole Godhead appears at once. There aren't many of them, so we should pay careful attention. God the Father saying He's pleased, Jesus the Son, obeying in submission, and God the Spirit landing the Incarnate to assist in ministry. This is how THEY work. 

And it's how God wants our lives to work. He calls us, we obey Him, but we don't do it without the Spirit landing on us to give us the same aid. Jesus told His disciples, "But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you." John 16: 7

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Magnifying glasses

My sister,  RE, called this morning. Last night she and her husband went to some fancy dinner with a bunch of local big-wigs in the farming community.  In my hometown a boy man who graduated from high school with Beve and me has become become just about the biggest-wig of all in those parts. He's practically a dynasty, all by himself. And I have to say, I'd never have guessed it. If I had to pick him out of a line-up of boys from our class I'd never pick him to be the successful wheat baron he's become. Just goes to show how off our nose for success can be sometimes. Anyway, last night his company put on the feedbag for the local farmers.

So my sister's text this morning was, "You'll never guess who I had dinner with last night." Beve and I both gave it a pretty good shot, though Beve had to throw in a couple his favorite kind of guesses. Today's included Barack Obama and Michelle Bachman (one of which I'd enjoy dinner with, the other whom I wouldn't--I'll leave you to guess which I mean).  Of course, even our more reasonable, possible guesses were off/ Instead two old friends, also from our high school graduating class, sat at their table.  One was a man who inched his way next to RE in the buffet line to make sure she gave Beve his greetings. They were pretty good friends back in middle school before he went one direction and Beve went a different. He bears a pretty distinctive name in our home town--the basketball court at WSU is named for his grandfather.  These days he's CEO for our old high school buddy/wheat baron.  His 'date' for the evening was PH.  PH. I was maid of honor at her wedding. She was matron of honor in mine. Back then, and for many years before, we were very close friends. And if I'd been a betting person, I'd have wagered she'd be the one person I'd be seeing the rest of my life.

Such has not been the case.  In fact, I haven't seen her since SK was a baby. 22 years ago.  Since then, that marriage I'd stood beside her and witnessed caused her a lifetime of heartache. And she didn't feel she could even tell me about it. Beve and I were at a basketball camp in Olds, Alberta, Canada when a mutual friend asked me how she was holding up since her divorce.  I immediately wrote her.  And her letter back broke my heart.

She hadn't felt she could tell me about her divorce because she felt intimidated by what she perceived as my 'perfect' life, my easy marriage and strong Christian faith. She was certain I would be more judgmental than compassionate about her life, and even if I wasn't, my very life felt like a judgment to her.

These are the moments when I'm reminded of how small the world is in which I was raised.  There are people who have always found it odd that Beve and I married.  They knew one or the other of us, or niether of us, or merely thought they did, and those things didn't match.  Beve was a single-minded, uncomplicated boy who cared about two things--basketball and Jesus.  I'm not sure what I was.  But I do know I didn't have my name in the paper every weekend, and was certainly never called, "Mr. (or Ms.) Everything."  But the truth is, Beve wasn't a jock.  And I've always said that if we'd ever had a single real conversation back then, we'd have realized how much our hearts, humor, and everything else aligned.

But our lives are not perfect.  PH was wrong about that.  Very far from it.  There are heartaches aplenty.  We squabble like siblings about minor things like why he always leave the condiments on the counter and why I throw away the papers he wanted to keep.  And we have fought about finances, how to handle this situation with a kid or that one. I'm rather feisty, he's rather stubborn, and we fight.  We're just plain, ordinary people, who have lived together for a long time and are used to each other's foibles, flaws and quirks.

And we've seen a whole lot of marriages fall apart over the long years of our life together.  In our early years, I think it is true that we both fell pretty strongly on the judgment side of things.  In this and most areas. I feel badly about that now.  The longer I walk with Christ, the less I'm willing to stand in that place.  I can list with the best of conservative Christians all the scripture about all kinds of things we should not do.  But somewhere on that list I must put myself as well.  We all fall short of the glory of God. What Jesus Christ did, when He preached the Kingdom, when He died to save us from those things that condemn us, is love us. And call us to love each other.  This is clear. Over-riding every other thing.

I was just thinking the other day that the magnifying lens of that gospel must always be turned on myself and away from others. You know what I mean?  You know how one side of a magnifying glass makes things look closer and the other the opposite?  Well, I must peer very closely at my own life, and hold myself to His standard in everything I do.  And hold others lightly. Leave them to God.  Love them to Him.

I have always felt very sad that PH felt my life--my very life--condemned her.  And I pray that she has moved past that now. And I'm glad to hear--via RE--that she's finally content after all the difficult years.  I pray that I have a chance to tell her to her face one of these days that I'm glad.

Ok, so that was a long, stream-of-consciousness post. Tomorrow, back to the prophesies.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sudden light

The last couple of days were spent with my grown-up daughters in the  Emerald City, where we did all kinds of grown-up things: go to their favorite frozen yogurt shop, have a lovely Thai curry made by my older daughter, sit in their well-decorated living room (wow, the taste of these women and their roommate!), go 'thrifting', and eat Indian food for lunch. Though quick, it was very fun to be with them, both separately (at times) and together; they live their lives well.

Seattle was sunny and clear yesterday, with the crystal blue sky one often hopes for, but rarely sees, during the dreary, rainy season. Now don't start, you non-Northwesterners--I already know that it rains here nine months of the year. However--HOWEVER--when the sun is out and the mountains glow white with snow and dark with evergreens, and the Sound shines in the sun, it ranks among the most beautiful places on this earth.

Yesterday was one of those days.

When I made my way up I-5 in the Friday afternoon early rush-hour traffic, I sang along with the Christmas carols on the radio, loving the sight of the scenery. When the mountains loomed north, they were as bright as the day, and they lifted me into a sense of all being right with God's creation, even the traffic, and certainly my soul! Then the road began to dip and clouds began to obscure the sun. By the time I hit south Everett, the freeway (and I suppose surrounding area) was in a deep fog. It was quite odd to think that just above that fog the sun was still bright and the sky still cerulean, because surrounding the sardine-packed traffic was dull-gray.

Then a sudden break in that cloud, just as I got to the Snohomish exit brought a shaft of light, but only for a single moment. Whether it closed or I sped past, I don't quite know, but it was gone as quickly as it came.

By the time I was halfway home, the fog had completely disappeared and once again I was driving in sun. And here in Bellingham, when I stood in our backyard, throwing tennis balls for Jamaica, though the ground had not defrosted, the jagged peaks of the Canadian range were glowing in the sun, and the bay was shining as well. It was as if that fog had never been at all.

And it was suddenly clear that this is what the Word of God is for us. And what it was for the people of God all those years they were waiting for the Messiah.  They lived in a fog, with only infrequent shafts of light to give them a sudden glimpse of God's plan. Then they sped on their way, holding onto the hope of that light.

One of those shafts of light comes from Micah 5: 2--"But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people of Israel."

Bethlehem.  The city where David was born was also destined--set apart--to be the place where the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father (Isaiah 9:7f) would be born.  What a glimpse God gave His people. Telling them the place is a big one.  And because the Jews knew this, when the Magi came from the east, Jerusalem became all excited about these strangers and their questions. "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." Then Herod, who thought he was the king of the Jews, got so stirred up he asked the Jewish leaders about the whole thing, heard this specific prophetic glimpse from Micah, and ended up killing all the little boys in Bethlehem, just to be sure he got rid of that dratted Jewish king who was out to usurp him.

Talk about living in a fog.  Herod killed babies because he was so foggy-brained he believed he could actually out-think God. Seriously?  It's a gruesome story, and has troubled Christians from the beginning.  It does me. We can't pretend otherwise.  And I think we have to leave it to God to sort all that out. There has been a whole lot of killing in the name of Christ since he was on this earth that began with this story and has had NOTHING to do with Jesus' and His gospel. So we must leave it in God's hands-- or, I should say all of them. There are conundrums and mysteries that are His alone. Above our pay-grade, as others have said.

And there are implications of such stories that do apply to us. What we must understand is that we can't circumvent God's plans. We can't be Herod, and try to out-think God.  Because God was out in front.  God showed Joseph another glimpse of light. Just enough to get him out of bed and on the move. That was all it took.

We often want the whole picture. We want it all spread out in front of us like a sunny day with bright blue skies. But perhaps we should be praying for shafts of sun--maybe shafts of Son--for sudden illumination for our drive. Bethelem. Just let the name alone be a Light shaft to remind you. God is Sovereign--right down to the time and place.

"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." Psalm 119:105

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Immanuel

"What's in a name?" a young girl asks, leaning over a balcony built on a stage in perhaps the most famous monologue of all time. "That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet;
                                    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
                                     Retain that dear perfection which he owns
                                     Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name.
                                     And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
                                     Take all myself."

Juliet's conclusion is that the name of her beloved is merely a label, not organic to the actual living, breathing person whom she has met, touched, and immediately begun to love. The name is her enemy, the person is her love. It a rose is call ragwort, it would still be fragrant, and if Romeo Montague was Homer Simpson he would be beloved and we'd be calling men Homers when they woo us well. Or so she claims.

And in fact, in 21st century America names are mostly labels. Our reasons for naming children are pretty arbitrary when it comes right down to it. Most people no longer choose family names to pass from one generation to the next, though I do know a family whose oldest son is the 10th generation to be named George. Inexplicably, however, they call the boy Jordy, which is neither his middle name nor a derivative thereof.

In the Old Testament, however, there is always purpose to names. From the beginning naming was important.  Adam's first task was to name the creatures who shared the earth with him. And meaning is the most important component of the name. In fact, a person's name is a description of a person's inner character and presumed to influence the person's behavior. A person's name is a revelation of the nature of that person.

So the name of the coming Messiah was no small thing. In the passage in Isaiah where God tells Ahaz that the virgin will conceive and bear a child, He says, "...and [she] will call Him Immanuel."
Immanuel.
This is just about the most weighty name a person has ever been given, standing behind just one. That ONE was so big and powerful, though, Moses had to take off His sandals to hear it. When Moses asked God His name, God answered,
"I AM WHO I AM."
Though I'm no scholar (and far wiser ones than me have debated its meaning for centuries), I know a couple of things about it. Like all other Old Testament names, it describes God's very nature. No, it's actually the SAME as His nature. His NAME is equal to HIMSELF. It's a name of faithfulness and unchangeableness (if that non-word makes sense to you), a statement of God's very being.  And it's a promise to Israel--to be present with them, to keep His covenant, His end of the deal, no matter what they did, and they did plenty!  And, it's personal. It's God's personal name, His divine, personal name. The four letters that make up the Hebrew are YHWH, and are considered by Jews so holy they are not to be uttered. Christians over the centuries have added vowels to them, or truncated them to other names of God so that they are pronounced either Yahweh or Jehovah.

So when we think of the name Immanuel, we must understand it as a desciption--a definition--of the Messiah.  What He will do. It actually is a description of the Incarnation, isn't it? God the second person of the trinity, present with us.  This is what the Messiah is.

And it's what Joseph understands when the angel appears to him in Matthew 1:18-23.  The baby Mary is carrying is the Immanuel, the Messiah, the 'God with us.' This baby is also given a human name Jesus, which means the Lord saves.  It contains a form of the Hebrew YHWH and the verb meaning salvation.
God--the I AM THAT I AM--saves. WILL save. That's the whole point.

As I say, pretty powerful.
And standing right behind...or perhaps to the right hand of the great I AM.  I AM the one who saves.
Jesus, the God in our presence, saves.
Talk about fulfillment of prophecy.
 I'm thinking we should take our shoes off at the stable. God is in our midst.
Come, oh Come, Immanuel. Indeed.
Or, perhaps, thank you that you came.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

At my door

Wow, what a great day I've had (hope you can read the sarcasm font with which I'm writing). I was rudely awakened about the time Beve left for work, which is sometime before God created light, when a very cold, needy Springer Spaniel pounced on my stomach. Beve helpfully left the light on so it was shining right in my face, and between it and the 60 lbs of dog (the breeder promised she'd only be 35 lbs. but we should have known that even our dogs would be giant-sized.) I gave up the fight for sleep and sat up.  Because I almost never go to sleep before about 2 AM (though I give it the old college try, I promise I do!), getting up at 6 is pretty brutal.

But that's just the start of this lovely day.  Before I'd even finished my first cup of tea, there was a knock on the door. I glanced outside and noticed a woman's head, and thought it belonged to a friend. So I made the mistake of opening the door.  And...tell me you know where this is going! One of two places, right?  It was a couple of friendly Jehovah Witnesses.

For the most part, I make it a practice not to engage with those who come to my door sharing their version of the Truth. It's the very opposite of the reason many people don't like to get into such conversations, however. I don't feel a bit intimidated, but know that within moments it'll become my version of a spiritual pissing contest. Yep, I said that.  And that's exactly what happened this morning. The man asked me what I believe about the way the world is, whether it seems like the end is near.  I agreed that it definitely does seem that way, but that every generation since the first thought that Jesus was about to return, and that scripture wouldn't have said He'd come like a thief in the night if He didn't intend us to be surprised by it.
"But don't you think things are different now?"  The man asked me.
"I think we need to live as though we only have a day left, and treat the earth as though it needs to last another thousand years," I told him.
When the man (who always does the talking, while his wife stands looking demure and sweet beside him) began quoting scripture at me, I told him the chapter and verse he was quoting. I just couldn't help myself.
We had quite a conversation.  I got chilly, standing there in my pjs and sweatshirt, talking the same language but with differing perspectives.  Their main concern is about the Kingdom being on this physical spherical thing we call earth.  And for me, the Kingdom has far less to do with this planet than with the sphere of God's reign. I don't really care where it is, here or there or anywhere, so long as He's there and we can worship Him.

I didn't say this. Dang it. I didn't think of it until after I'd closed the door and heard their car drive off.  They had tried to give me a book entitled, "What the Bible REALLY says," which I politely refused. And he asked if they might return for another conversation, since I am clearly a 'earnest Bible reader.'  Again, politely, I told them that if their goal is to win people for Christ and His Kingdom they might make better use of their time with others who do not already know and love Jesus Christ. The man began to say, "But you do not..." but his wife pulled at his sleeve and he turned away. That was the only glitch in the smoothness of their conversation.

It's an interesting thing to contemplate, however. To them, I am the one who is in need of correction (at least), and to me, they are the ones in error.  And there are other such peoples in the world who would likewise see me so, and see these kind and earnest Jehovah Witnesses as equally in error as me.  Such folks have come to my door as well. Others have met me on street corners.

So how do we measure? By what standard do we evaluate truth? When a person comes knocking on our door and wields the same book we hold sacred, how do we weed it all out?
I found some common ground with these folks on my doorstep this morning. They spoke the Beatitude, "the meek shall inherit the earth," and I know those words to be true and God-breathed.  They (or, he, I should say) quoted John 15:13, "greater love has no one than this, that he lays down his life for his brother", which is powerful and never fails to sing to me (in no small part because in the Bible I used all through-out high school and college, inexplicably beside that verse, at some point I wrote Beve's name. Talk about prophetic!).  Jesus did this because we needed it. This very advent we're leaning in toward the day we celebrate God coming down for this holy purpose. So I could and do agree with any man and woman who can and does hold these words to be true and from God.

But let me be clear. I believe that Jesus Christ alone is the one True thing. We need nothing else (see John 20:31). No other book, no additional clause. It's not the earth that Jesus came to save, it was us. The end. We don't share the gospel or the Kingdom or the good news or whatever else you want to call it to the ends of the earth so that we can live on this earth eternally. We share the gospel because He is true. Because He is God. Because He is. Because. That 'because' contains it all.
The end.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Lineage

Lineage in the Bible is a big deal. I mean it's THE big deal. You can spot it even if you're no more than a casual reader of the Book, someone who barely went to Sunday school. All those "begats" give it away, don't they? Begat. Now there's a word.  A King James word, I should say. One we don't throw around in any context other than scripture any more. I certainly wouldn't say that  my dad begat my sister who begat my niece who begat her son, even though it's true and we're all thrilled as we can be about the little boy so recently breathing outside his mother, who begat him.

But the people of God paid a whole lot of attention to lineage. To which tribe a person came from, to where a person fit in the grand scheme of things.  There were the Levites, for example, who were set apart from the day of the burning bush forward to be priests for the whole people.  And when that people came into the land, and grew whiny (as they always did) and tired of God being their only king, they began to complain that "All the other kids have one," or something like that, pulling on God's apron strings, tugging this way and that for a king. Saul. A man who 'stood head and shoulders above the rest', was handsome and powerful-looking, was just about the coolest thing they'd ever seen. Yep, they could follow him, yes they could.  And they clamored for Saul until God threw up His hands and gave them what they wanted.

The thing was, Saul wasn't the king God really intended for His people. His was not the throne God meant to establish over Israel.  God's choice for His people was based on internal things that only God could see. And eternal things that only God intended. David's heart mattered to God because God intended to use David as seed for His Son.

The prophecies about the Messiah coming from David's lineage are abundant in the Old Testament.  Just this morning I jotted down about a dozen places where there are specific references to David's seed, or David's descendant or David's son being Lord. Or David's throne being established forever. 2 Samuel 7:10 says, "Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever."  This promise is twofold, of course. It reveals the special relationship God had with David--whom He called beloved--and it points to Jesus Christ, through whom that throne, house and Kingdom woul,d find fulfillment. 

This is the amazing thing about those lineages in the Bible. All those 'begats' actually trace lines back so we can see that the prophecy has been fulfilled.  In Matthew, the lineage in chapter 1 is Joseph's, which makes sense because it's his point of view from which we see the events of Jesus' birth. He's the one to whom the angel speaks. He's the one who is told to take Mary and the baby and flee to Egypt.  And the lineage of the father was always more important than the mother. Sorry, but that's the way it was. And, because I have beloved adopted brothers, I love the idea that it's Jesus' adopted father through whom he is David's seed in Matthew. Jesus is King David's multi-great grandson through his adopted father Joseph, just like we're children of the King through adoption. This is what Romans tells us. Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, but we're adopted by His Spirit.  There's a symmetry to this that pleases me.  

It must be noted, however, that in Luke's gospel, the lineage is Mary's. And also extends back to David.  (Actually both go all the way back past him to Abraham, and in Luke it goes back to Adam, which is quite the journey!) The gospels make it completely clear that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, wife of Joseph, is of the lineage of David. Is his seed.  

Of this seed, David says, "The Lord says to my lord:
                                         'Sit at my right hand
                                         until I make your enemies 
                                         a footstool for your feet.'"
This is Psalm 110:1, recited by Jesus in Matthew 22: 44.  Jesus recognized that He was the fulfillment of this Messianic Psalm, and wanted the Pharisees, the other listeners, and us to recognize it as well. Jesus is the One who sits on David's throne forever, the one to whom David himself was awaiting and now is worshiping day and night. 
 
It's a great family in which to be adopted. I'm glad to add my little name to that family tree.  To know that with the fulfillment of the promise and by His Spirit, we all have a chance to be grafted in.
  
"For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by Him we cry, "Abba, Father." Romans 8: 14-15

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mary

Back when I was young and beautiful and traveling through Europe, I managed to be in Germany about the time when groups of children were practicing "Stille Nacht" for their Christmas Eve Services.  I spent about two weeks in Konstanz, Germany that December, staying with some friends of friends. My friend  (the original SK) and I did a whole lot of sightseeing based from Konstanz, and a few outings with the family. One particular evening we went to church with our host family for a Bible study led by the young pastor, who weekly held one such study for the English-speakers among his congregation.

I'm pretty sure he regretted opening that can of worms that night.  Or that the nice friendly American had brought her two house guests, because it was NOT my most stellar moment. Not by a long shot.  In fact, if I'd been in his shoes, I'd call what that young American woman did "hi-jacking" the whole study. Even as I write this I seriously cringe. But here goes:

The study that night was the Virgin Birth.  Isaiah chapter 7 is where this prophecy is found.
'The Lord spoke to Ahaz, "Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths of in the highest heights."
But Ahaz said, "I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test/"
Then Isaiah said, "Hear now, you house of David. Is it not enough to try the patience of human beings? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call Him Immanuel..."'

For some inexplicable-to-me-now reason that night I chose to argue with that pastor that it wasn't necessary that Mary be a virgin. Necessary being the significant word. My point, and in some very broad sense it's true, was that God can do things any way He pleases and He simply chose to use a virgin to carry His son. I mean I argued this up one side and down the other. God was using the virgin as a SIGN, a symbol. And, by the way, it shouldn't be called "the virgin birth," but "the virgin mother!" (which I still actually do believe). The end. I'm mortified to remember it, especially since that poor pastor was using his second language--English--to try to help me (and the other more teachable people around the table) understand.

I've long since repented of that night. Of course. Looked back on it with horror. Don't know what got into me.  So here's the real story about Mary and her virginity.  Only a virgin would do.
Genesis speaks of part of Eve's 'curse' as being desire for her husband, and travail in childbirth.  Therefore, in some strange sense, these things we imagine to be blessings also contain trouble and strain and pain between us. They strain relationships. My guess is that Mary, the betrothed of Joseph the carpenter, was a very good girl. A girl that the people in the small town of Nazareth knew as a good girl. She wasn't wild or rebellious or given to flights of fancy. That's my guess. I think God used a 14 year old who was stable and clear-minded and trustworthy. A girl others whom inspired trust and not disbelief.  And I think He used such a girl because it was going to be hard enough to believe this thing, and would be impossible if her character was at all questionable.

Only an innocent could be the mother of the Incarnate, but not only because of this strain, but because she knew, she absolutely, positively knew that no man had touched her.That's the thing about this sign. No man touched Mary, yet there she was, pregnant. She didn't have to question because she was not pregnant and then she was--without ever having sex. Without anything other than a conversation with an angel and God, the Holy Spirit entering into an egg in her and creating the life that would be Jesus.

Yes, God could have done it some other way. He could have come down in a space ship, I suppose. But He told his people through a prophecy Ahaz refused to ask for that THIS would be how He'd do it. A way so miraculous no one would think it up. No one would be able to manufacture it.

The virgin would conceive and give birth to a son. Mary did conceive. She sang her heart out to God when He told her, because she understood what He was telling her. She knew Isaiah. Her soul magnified the Lord, her womb, already filling with the One whom she'd name Immanuel, magnified the Lord. She knew, and He--two cells dividing--knew that with that one prophecy being fulfilled all the rest were on the way to fulfillment as well.

She was His handmaiden, His instrument, the very womb of God. It's no wonder she's called the blessed mother. An ordinary teenage girl was the most important part of the most important thing God's ever done.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bones

Last night Beve and I spent four hours at the after-hours medical clinic with Thyrza who's grown increasingly ill this week. Our day just wouldn't be complete without a trip to some kind of medical building or another these days, apparently. That's how it feels, anyway.  One of the things the doctor ordered was a chest x-ray, and we had to stick around while the results were read and put online for him to read.  So we were sitting in the small examining room when he turned the computer monitor around to show us the pictures of her lungs.  And what appeared were compelling images--and very helpful images for what I want to share today.  Fortunately, Thyrza's lungs were clear, but that wasn't what drew our attention.  It was the sight of her ribs and backbone.

I've seen x-rays before, plenty of them. Over the course of mothering my son, there have been plenty of opportunities to grow familiar with the way bones look in that shadowy imagery of x-ray. J's shoulder alone has been x-ray-ed so many times, neither of us could probably count them, but I'd guess if one radiologist was in charge of all of them, he'd have bought a boat by now.  Anyway, despite the weakness in J's shoulder, his bones have always had the appearance of strength to them, even when he was an 11-year-old boy. There's substance within the shadow, if that makes sense.  Health and youth and strength.

And just last month, when we looked at the x-ray of Grampie's partial hip reconstruction, it was still the power of his frame that stood out in those pictures. The largeness of that new non-bone growing onto bone, by muscle and tendon and the amazing rejuvenating ability of the human body (even at almost 87)--that's what stood out on those pictures.

But last night, Thyrza's 93-year-old frame appeared to be the substance of lace.  Fragile and gossamer, woven by silk worms. When the doctor pointed out how porous those bones are now, she said, "But I take calcium every day."  "Thank God you do," he told her. "Imagine how they'd look if you didn't."  No wonder she's so cold all the time, I thought. No wonder she can hardly walk, I could hardly imagine how that backbone could hold her up.

Later, as I was about to sleep, and talking to God about the evening, and thinking about the words He might give me for this blog today, I got to thinking about Thyrza's bones and prophesy.  There have been many men and women who have made predictions about the world. And those predictions have either come true or not, but for the most part, they are the substance of a spider's web. They catch some people within, but are also easy to destroy by the flick of a human hand.  They have no power or foundation behind them.  No ability to last. Because they are created by the smallest of threads--a human's imagination.

But prophecy in the Word of God has two functions. One is local. That is, God is always speaking to His people where they are, in that time, for that moment. And the other function, which happens far less often, is to predict the future.  We must be clear about the less often part.  God is far less interested in telling us about the future than we are in learning about it.  He cares about today.  He wants our bones strong. He wants our foundation sturdy. Healthy and true.  Only now and then does He speak about tomorrow, and only then obliquely.

That said, the future-predicting Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, which abound, are essential proofs, to let His people know beyond a shadow of a doubt that The ONE is THE ONE.  And even then, He predicted that some would not know Him. Yep, God knew it all.

So tomorrow--the Virgin Birth. And the one who had the only incontrovertible proof anyone ever had. Mary. Think about that, if you'd like for this day.

And think about how the bones of those Messianic prophecy are strong and true and will hold. Have held. They stand the test of time and point to only one person through-out all of history. God knew we needed sturdy bones.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Preparing

Several years ago I helped teach a confirmation class at the church we then attended.  My portion was the "Jesus" section of the class.  No big deal, right? That was all I had to teach. Just Jesus.  That's a little like saying, "The only thing you're responsible for is EVERYTHING!"  Because, frankly, He's the whole ball of wax. I mean, we can talk about other things, but if you're in a class in which you're going to stand up in front of God and the whole congregation and profess to faith in Him, it doesn't much matter what else you know, because if you don't have Jesus right, you might as well have stayed home and watched the football game.

Anyway, in preparing to talk about Jesus, I did what I always do--I studied long and hard, and overprepared.  There are over 300 prophecies in the Old Testament about the Messiah, and I looked them all up. I wanted to be clear with these earnest (and pressured-to-be-there-by-their-parents) kids about who the Messiah was expected to be and how only one man--Jesus of Nazareth--could fulfill all 324+ of those prophecies.  It was quite a study.  Made me in awe of God and His master plan that was already taking shape before the ink was dry on his first words of creation.  The students, I must admit, weren't nearly as impressed as I was. After all, they got the tiny-fonted three-page list I created before 9 AM on a Sunday morning.  They weren't quite awake to what God had done.

And perhaps that's the case with most of us. We aren't quite awake to what God has done. Last week, while Beve's brother and wife were here, we were talking at one point about reading scripture, and Beve's brother said he doesn't often (ever? did he really say ever?) read the Old Testament.  I know I was a little aghast at this, but the truth is that for many of us, the 'real' story of Jesus begins with Matthew. Or Luke.

But God was teaching His people about the coming Incarnate in no uncertain terms for hundreds--thousands!--of years before Jesus ever took a breath, before the first cells began to divide within Mary's womb.  God was already on the move.

So this month, as we wait and watch and prepare to for His birth, I thought I'd spend some time with the words of the Old Testament that foretell of His coming. It would take almost a full year if I took a single prophecy a day to write about, and though an interesting idea, I'm probably not disciplined enough for that long a project.  Instead, because Matthew is known as the Jewish gospel for its emphasis on the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophesies, it seems right to 'merely' look at Old Testament words that find their fulfillment in the book of Matthew.
We'll see how this goes.

For today, I'll leave you with this thought: when God first cursed the serpent for how he had lied to, tricked and manipulated the woman, He said, "I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel." Genesis 3: 15

Right there is the first mention of the coming Messiah, the One who would crush the enemy's head.  The enemy might hurt the One, but only the heel. Crushing the head means destruction.  That's what Jesus did.  Matthew1:21 says, "She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins."

It's very encouraging toknow that God was preparing all along for how He'd save us. He wasn't flying by the seat of His pants, trying this solution then that one. He always knew what it would take, and was always on the way to it.  From the moment of the first sin, He was ready with the solution.  Jesus Himself, the fulfillment.

Come, Emmanuel. Wake us up to what you've done. Prepare us again for your coming. Help us wait, expectantly. And help us recognize you when you arrive because you've been telling us all along who you are.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The difference between us

First, I just noticed that the end of my last post was mysteriously cut off, so you might go back and re-read it. Sorry about that.  This new-fangled computer contraption continues to get the best of me. Where's my pen and paper when I need it?

Beve and I have been talking a lot lately about the differences in how we make decisions.  He told me yesterday that I'm a whole lot more cautious than he is.  This surprised me because, in my mind, I'm the quick thinker.  He has to ponder things, look at then from every angle.  And even afterwards has a whole lot more buyer's remorse than I do.  But he brought up a very clear example of my caution.  About 24 years ago, we were asked to foster (with the view to adopt) a special needs 14 year old boy.  Beve was quite enthusiastic about this idea.  It was a natural outpouring of the work he was already doing as a junior high counselor.  On the other hand, I was an at-home mom with a baby and a two year old.  The disabilities were significant enough that he would require a great deal of help in every way, and our home was very small with one bathroom that was almost adequate for his wheelchair, though the steps up to the house wouldn't have been.  It all seemed very overwhelming to me during a time when I was very overwhelmed on a daily basis.  I'm not trying to make excuses for myself.  I just couldn't do it.  And until last night, I never knew how much that had meant to Beve.

We are made of different things, my husband and I. He's a social creature. Made for actions-- for opening his home and life and going and doing.  He's his parents' child through and through, but also created greatly by the fellowship of believers with whom he grew up in Christ. There was always room around the table for one more. There has always been space in our lives for many others. Both for a moment and for a season.

And though I am also a social creature, I am my parents' child.  I need solitude like some people need caffeine.  It is the air I breathe.  There have been seasons of people living with us over the course of our marriage, and each one has required something of me that it doesn't require of Beve.  He understands that.  He knows that his character expands with the adding of a person to our home, while mine contracts (We've had about 10 people live with us at different times, for periods of 1-5 months).

Yet we speak of it again--and this might be the longest sojourn with others yet. The suggestion was mine this time, though I told him quite honestly that I did so for him. Last night he told me I am giving him mixed messages and I said, "Of course I am. Those are the only messages I have to give."  Everything in me is mixed.

The key is not whether to do what Beve wants or what I want but what God wants. What is HE calling us to do?  Often I spend so much time thinking about what I can do and what I want that it takes me a long time to get to what is best and what He wants.  He will give strength and grace and compassion and space and peace and love for His will. I believe that.  I know that in quietness and trust, I will find strength to do that will, no matter what it is. And so will Beve. We will find it together. Then He will be glorified.