Sunday, April 5, 2015

The One He Loved (Holy Week series, final part)

The Resurrection
John was still falling through the cracks on the morning the tomb was empty. He did not dare to reach for something to hold on to. He did not dare search for a firm place to plant his feet. He ran instead. He ran like a mad-man through the breaking morning until he stood still next to the open grave.  His rapid breath hung white and empty like the dead-man's wrappings folded mockingly inside. His closed his eyes, rapid heartbeat echoing in the mouth of the tomb in tandem with the shuffle of Peter's feet inside.
On the walk back, Peter spoke fast and loud, somewhere between incredulous and jubilant. John walked quietly and fisted his hands in the sides of his clothing to slow the fall.
And then He came in the evening, and He smiled, and all the falling stopped.
He came again and met them on the beach. He had died, and he had walked through walls and now he made them breakfast like a carpenter for his friends. He looked up at them, standing awkwardly and quietly at a distance, and his eyes laughed. He drew them in close with his smile and his words and he told them to eat with him.
For a moment everything was as it had been, except the marks on the hands that passed John the bread.
“Does it hurt?” John asked, almost gasping, as he finally caught his breath from the long fall.
The carpenter shifted in the sand to lean against him, shoulder to shoulder with his head tipped back;
like death didn't matter anymore and he would be there beside John forever.
Hope spread through the broken edges. Gulls wheeled above their heads and the waves broke on the shore.

The Ascension
A little while later John stood on another hillside beside his mother and watched Jesus rise through the clouds. His words stayed, echoing in all the hopeful places where the cracks used to be, and John waited.
He waited until there was a sound of rushing wind, and all that warmth, all of the campfires and the bright lights and the dusty sandals cluttered together and that happy lean settled somewhere deep in his heart. It spread through his bones like fire, bursting across his face and his eyes and his hands and his feet. It poured out of his mouth and filled his mind with songs that sounded like waves breaking on the beach and children who were not dead anymore laughing; all the songs Jesus had sung humming through his veins until his heart beat to their rhythm.

The Revelation
The years passed, and much, much later John was an old man alone on a beach and waiting for death. In his heart, cracked hands passed him bread and fish as the gulls wheeled above their heads. The bright lights and resounding voices came, but in the midst of it all there was a gentle lean.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The One He Loved (Holy Week series, part 2/5)

The dark day.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

On the night they came to take him away, he did not look like a carpenter. He should have—he didn’t shine, and his feet were dusty on the ground, but his face was too-still, like calmed water, in the flickering torchlight. They waited as Judas kissed him for the change, for the sky to light up again, or the earth to shake.
Instead he went with them. John watched from a distance, all the abuses, and him in the midst of it  
Wine in his glass, still and deep.
“It was water,” they whisper.
At last, they marched him up a hill. When they laid him down, finally, John wanted the miraculous-- one last lit-up sky to snatch him away from the hammer fall. But the sky stayed dim. John closed his eyes when they lifted him up against it.
At the end, John watched life drain away like a kiss on the cheek. All the cracks the dead man on the tree had drawn through his life gaped open like wounds. John felt himself falling through them. His mother wept and John tried to hold her, but he was falling so quickly. The sky darkened and the ground shook, but,
“Too late,” John whispered over the weeping rocks and crashing sky.
He turned away, arm wrapped around the woman who was crying too. His eyes caught those of a soldier, blood flecks drying on his cheek.
“….the Son of God,” John saw him say.
“Too late,” John whispered as he turned away.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The One He Loved (Holy Week series, Part 1/5)

The three years.

When his stark humanity slipped and the eternity leaked through, John was afraid.

The brilliant, warm man who laughed and ate and sang with him, he felt like he could stay. John wanted that, for the days of them all together to stretch on and on. But in those pauses, those cracks in the days that let the brightness through, their moments suddenly felt frail -- short and small and always slipping away. At any moment that something else beneath the surface would snatch him away, and leave John in the old world, before come with me and I will make you....

So secretly he treasured the ordinary moments more than the miraculous ones. He lost himself in the laughter and the shared meals and the raised voices and dirty feet, and he pretended that it would last. But then he would look up, and see those still, ancient eyes in the carpenter's sun-worn face, and he would feel again the moments ticking by.

Someday He would go back, and John did not know what he would do then.

(To be continued tomorrow in 'The dark day' )

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Slipping through the cracks

I saw this video today: (yes, you should go watch it right now) and it made me think, and then I wrote what I was thinking, and then I haven't posted anything on my blog in too long, so it became a slightly-strange Christmas blog post.
The format is all funky, because this is how I write when I'm not actually planning for other people to read it.
Hopefully it makes a bit of sense.
Merry Christmas! 

I knew about the dreams they scattered in pieces at the foot of Your cross.
The dreams of political freedom.
Dreams of fame, of proving them all wrong.
(all they thought freedom could be)
But there were other broken dreams before that day, weren't there?
In fact, you slipped into the world through the cracks of quieter, simpler dreams.
Because I don’t think her little-girl dreams included the shame of a pre-marriage pregnancy.
And I doubt his dreams included holding his fiancĂ© in a barn as she gave birth to a baby that wasn't his.
Surely they didn't dream of doing it all alone.
And these were all such simple dreams, good dreams,
Sweet expectations,
Bent, broken and scattered.
But then in the dark, You slipped through the cracks.
The Better-than-we-knew-to-dream-about.
I have my dreams to, You know.
I think they’re pretty good ones, to be honest.
And…. Sometimes I find them bending, cracking along the fault lines.
(Some are already in pieces)
And You know, how I fight You on those.
It’s silly though, because I know You’re like this, all that about ‘beauty from ashes’ in the songs I sing, it means this.
It means you slipping through the cracks in my dreams too, with Your better than I knew to dream for.

And there's Thomas, on the other side of the cross with empty hands and a broken heart; “I will not hope again,” until You slipped through the cracks in the closed doors again and You said His name.

There were others too, before Bethlehem, even.
Widowed Ruth, with all her broken dreams.
Rahab, who surely didn't dream to be a prostitute.
David's dead sons.
Joseph's pit.
And we look back to find all these broken dreams, become the very path you took to get here, to get to us.
To be our Immanuel - God with us.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Dancing in front of the dragon

I made a lot of older friends when I was a kid at church. At first there was just the one couple, but then, truth be told, I had trouble telling the difference between heads of curly gray hair. In my quest to spend the church service sitting next to my friends, I ended up with more friends.

The problem with knowing a lot of older people, is you don’t get to keep them very long. I went to one of the first funerals when I was a teenager. I sat up close to the front, facing memorial flowers and black and white photos of a pretty young woman I didn’t recognize. We sang her favorite old hymns, and in the middle of “In Christ Alone,” I closed my eyes and saw the monster.

There’s a reason why people are so terrified of death. It’s strong and absolute. It looms at the end of every relationship, every life; it hangs over every moment with it’s inevitability. There is no winning against it. The most we can hope for is a life of delaying it.

Death really is the Great Enemy.

We come up with lots of comforting ways to talk about it. We talk about life being a circle. We talk about carrying the people we’ve lost in our hearts. None of that takes away the dread though. It’s not that those things aren’t true, they just aren’t strong enough. They don’t change it, that big, dark, looming end.

I had another friend named Stella. She lived in a retirement home by herself. She had no children, but she loved her nieces and nephews. And they loved her. The nurses adored her too, but I think theirs was a knee-jerk reaction to the way she adored them first. But then, I don’t think you could not love Stella. She was like sunshine, and the warmth would get down into your heart after a little while.
Through my years in college, and life in Mexico and Asia, we kept in touch. I’d send emails to my mom for her, and Mom would take her laptop to the retirement home and read them to Stella. When I got home I’d go see her, and we’d sit and talk for hours.

She’d often say, “I keep telling God I’m ready to go anytime now, I don’t know why God keeps me here.”

“I’m glad you’re still here, Stella,” I’d say, and every time I left I’d beg God to let her stay until I got back.

And He did.

Until one day I showed up to see Stella, and the nurses told me she wasn’t doing well. I walked into the dining room, and the others at her table looked sadly down at their dinners as I walked in. Stella looked up at me, after a moment, and for the first time since I’d met her, she didn’t smile.  She was confused. She decided after a moment that I was her sister, who had died years before. She wanted me to get her out of the nursing home.

“It’s okay, Stella,” I told her, “They love you here.”

I went to see Stella every day that week. When she lost the ability to walk, I pushed her up and down the halls in a wheelchair. When she couldn’t leave her bed, I sat next to her and held her hand. A week later, her nurse called. I still have the voicemail saved on my phone. “You don’t have to come in today,” the nurse said, crying, “she’s gone now, hunny.” 

So in the end, it was Stella gone on an adventure and me left behind for a while. Because that’s what it seemed like, for Stella--an adventure.

Sitting in my car, listening to the nurse’s tear-filled voice, I remembered Stella’s sunshine. And I realized suddenly the quiet, earth-shaking victory--how the sunshine didn’t grow dim when Stella talked about dying.

This is what God does.

He fights our monster, he defeats it, but for now, he leaves it there. It’s defeated, yes, it’s power, chained, but it looms over us. The shadow of it is dark. Sometimes it steels over us, heavy and heart-shatteringly sorrowful.

But there’s that sunlight still, right there on the other side of the shadow.

Ultimately we pick the pieces of our heart up. We turn around, and we face the monster, and we hold our sunshine and sing in the monster’s roaring face.

This is what God makes; sunshine victors singing in the face of our greatest enemy.

And it’s beautiful.

Years before, there at that first funeral service, I blinked at the flowers and I looked up at the church lights, the cross on the wall, the sad, light-up faces shaping the lyrics of that song.

“No guilt in life, no fear in death—“ they sang, “This is the power of Christ in me!”

 And I saw us as we really were there, in the face of the monster, singing into it’s gaping jaws.

There was our greatest enemy, and we sang, victorious.

My friend Stella. She was born October 6, 1913, and passed into the sunlight on April 18, 2011.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

And everyone's chains came loose

There’s this park where I go to talk to God sometimes. I go there because it was built over the bones of a prison. The prison was called Sugamo, and during the war the Japanese government locked up people like political dissenters, communists, and pastors there. After the war, under American occupation, suspected war criminals took their places in those cells.
(keep reading, I promise this isn't a history essay!)

Sugamo prison, then and now - that's right, they built Sunshine City on top of it! 

History mostly forgot, but there was a little old Irish missionary woman named Irene Webster Smith (here is the book about her you should read: who went into that prison too. She went on behalf of the Christian wife of one of those men facing execution, to tell him about Jesus. He listened, he believed, and he started telling others. Irene went back with Bibles, and 14 men faced execution carrying them.

That happened.

War criminals sat in cells where praying Japanese pastor had sat before them, and they heard about a God who loved them. As they faced death they came face-to-face with God, and many of them met Him soon after.

That happened.

So I go to this park, and I pray, because when I talk to God, I want to remember that He does the things we think are impossible. I want to remember that He saves the impossible people, I want to remember that no one is beyond the reach of His grace. And I want to remember that I am never beyond the reach of His grace, that it extends into all the broken, hopelessly unreachable places in me too, and it is making them into something beautiful.

Because sometimes I lose sight of that.

The world gets so loud and insistent, with all of its measurements of value, beauty and success.

And as soon as I start listening, it steals my peace and leaves me quietly reeling.

I don’t think most of the people who come to this park even know about the prison. There’s nothing but an engraved memorial stone to remember it by, shamefully tucked away in a corner. It doesn’t even actually mention the prison, instead it says simply, ‘Pray for Eternal Peace’.

So I find myself going there when I’m looking for peace – the seeing God kind of peace. Other people go there for all kinds of things. They skateboard, and dance, and hold hands on the benches. There’s an impressive population of friendly stray cats there too, and everyone goes around petting them and feeding them scraps.

Cats everywhere!

But there’s something else tucked shamefully away in the corners of this park -- tents. Today one of the homeless men who lives in them was sitting on the ground in the sun. He had one of the stray cats cradled in his lap, and she made that happy-cat face as he stroked her head. He smiled, and I smiled, and our eyes met for a second.

‘Pray for eternal peace’

Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. A t once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone's chains came loose. - Acts 16:26

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Cue the quiet symphony

One day while I was walking home, I noticed an old woman walking in front of my carrying a heavy-looking package. I started to pray for her, sort of off offhandedly, and when I got to the generic, “please bless her” part of my little prayer, God whispered back, “I am. Through you.

Oh no, I thought, really? Right now? She's going to think I'm so weird.

It took an awkward couple minutes of walking uncomfortably close to her before I worked up the courage to say a word.

“Can I help you carry that?” I asked.

She sort of jumped, blinked in surprise at me over the top of those white face masks everyone is wearing against the pollen in the air.

She wouldn’t let me help her, but she really wanted to talk. She showed me where she lived, in an apartment building right next door.

I went home, and she nestled into a corner of my heart. She lingered, God whispering the crinkles around her eyes across my thoughts; but I couldn’t seem to find the courage to go to her house.

And there was always so much to do.

I made cookies, determined to bring her some. Three days passed, the cookies sitting, undelivered on my counter.

I bought a pretty box.

I put the cookies in the box.

The box sat on my counter.

Finally one night, I was prepared to talk myself out of visiting once again. It was too late, I decided, elderly people go to bed early.

I tried to continue my evening, I started cooking dinner, but in the middle of it God whispered; “Just go see if her apartment light is on,”

It was too clear to ignore, so I turned the stove off on my half-cooked carrots, threw a coat on and walked out into the street. I peered around the corner to her apartment building, and I laughed.

Hers was the ONLY apartment light on.

Even then, it took me a while to get to her door. I lingered in the hallway of her apartment building, praying, ridiculously nervous. I lingered some more in front of her door. And finally I rang the doorbell.
She wasn’t home, but her husband was.

“I’ve heard about you!” he said.

Today I came home early, and she came to my door. She told me she’d come often after we’d met in the street, but no one had ever been home. She’d even asked our neighbors about me.

We talked for a while in my Genkan. She’s funny and kind, and very patient.

She scolded me and bent down to wipe my feet because I’d gone outside in my socks.

Her name is Etsuko.

“I was so happy that you remembered me” she said as we parted, with all those lovely crinkles around her eyes.

We’re having lunch next week.

This is what God does. All these tiny miracles, the God of the universe weaving his voice into the small things. The inconsequential people. Me.

This is what God does.

We keep looking for the revivals, the lightening, the earth-shaking, head-turning, glory we think He should look like.

But so often it isn’t like that at all.

Instead, He’s whispering love into the life of the old woman next door.

He’s convincing me to press ‘pause’ on my selfish insecurities long enough to step into the symphony he’s writing in the life of someone else.

This is what God is doing.