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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

With unveiled faces

Because I read 2 Corinthians 3 today, and it was too beautiful not to share.

You’d think I’d kind of “get” the Bible by now. Not all of it, I mean, the bits about prophecy, or free will and the sovereignty of God, those mysteries we only expect to really understand to a certain point. But, then there are bits like 2 Corinthians 3.

At first glance, it seems pretty straightforward: new covenant vs. old, and ok, that’s cool, thank you Jesus I don’t have to kill sheep anymore (because really, yuck!). I never looked deeper than this. But oh, I missed the point to such an incredible extent!

Today I read it again, and I found it, the buried (but not really, I just wasn’t blowing the dust away) treasure. It’s about transparency. Seriously, that’s what it’s about. It’s about being so confidant in your sufficiency in Christ, that you can finally expose your heart. It’s about not having to hide anymore, not having to be afraid of what people will see when they look at you. It’s about freedom.

Do you remember, in the Old Testament, when Moses came down from meeting God on the mountain and covered his face with a veil? Do you know why he did that? It was so that no one would see the glow of the glory of God fading away.

He wore the veil to hide his insufficiency.

I am still wearing a veil. I hide my brokenness, I hide my failings, the awkward, unfortunate bits of my personality. I hide it all, and in doing so, I hide what God is doing in my heart; I hide the beautiful things too. Why do I do this? Why don’t I believe everything God has said, about how He is my sufficiency now, about how he has and is changing me, bringing me from glory to greater glory?

Why don’t I believe that?

Why do I hide my heart and try to fake my own righteousness, instead of exposing it and trusting that people will see the good things that God has, and continually is, putting there? Why don’t I believe that’s enough?

2 Corinthians says my heart is a letter, and God is writing it. And it’s not really for me. He’s writing it for the world he loves. But I’m holding it back, securing it away behind a veil, because I'm scared; I don’t really believe what God has said.

And that isn't fair.

Even my weaknesses are fair game for God to write through. He wants people to watch as all my petty weaknesses are overwhelmed by the greatness of Christ in me. He wants them to see, because He wants that joy for them too.

He died to bring us that; a life of freedom out from behind the veil.

There was another veil (but really, in all the ways that matter, the same veil) in the old temple. It’s purpose was to keep people and the glory of God separate from each other. When Jesus died, in the midst of the darkness and the earthquake and the dead walking, that veil, it tore, top to bottom--higher than any human hand could reach.

And here I stand, 2000 years later, clutching the torn edges closed like a fool.

In the words of our favorite Disney movie, “Let it go”.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

After three years, these are the things I find myself holding.

Flowers in Empty Places                                    

It’s not that I forget, but after a while the tragedy of it all starts to slip between heartbeats. There are building foundations laying empty at my feet. Shattered glass and bits of lives glint all around in the dirt and weeds between them, but I’m on my way to work. To my right, painted flower petals on pieces of broken pottery blend into the real flowers growing out of the ruins of someone’s bathtub. 

At the volunteer center I laugh with the team of young people who’ve come to work with us for the week. As I show them what to load into the vans, we talk about how to act with the survivors we’re going to meet. They hardly blink as they listen, all strung-taught excitement and solemnness. It’s sweet to see, but I realize I can’t remember their names. Since the first year, the flow of volunteers has slowed to a trickle, but there have been so many of them. I can’t seem to keep the current names floating on the surface anymore.

It’s a cold day, fall closing in from the ocean. I shiver as we make our way through the straight, utilitarian rows of the temporary housing complex to the meeting room. There’s a cluster of curly gray heads waiting for us inside. I take a seat next to one of the old women, and she smiles at me, her head nodding in a polite little bow. I introduce myself in my awkward Japanese, and she gives me her name in return. It slips down to pool with the rest before I can remember to hold on to it. She tells me she’s from a town called Rikuzen-takata. Her old eyes are small between folds of sun and sea-salt worn skin. There’s a deepness in them though, filled with black water and bones when she says the name of that place. She blinks them back down and smiles. 

I don’t manage to follow the conversation for long. The elderly are always hard to understand, with thick, countryside accents and archaic vocabulary. As she tells me a story, her cloudy eyes distant, mine wander to craft projects tacked to the wall behind her. Next to them are pictures of school buildings behind crowds of smiling children, and flashing festival colors--snapshots of daily life before the tsunami came. High in a corner above them, a wide, photo-edited smile beams down from an autographed poster of some obscure singer. Under her name and the white gleam of her teeth, she’d written “you can do it!” in a cheerful, looping scrawl. 

There’s the skeleton of a sports gym still standing in Rikuzen-takata. A memorial, ringed in wilting flowers, mourns silently outside the front doors. The building had been a designated evacuation center, but it wasn’t far enough from the ocean. Gaping holes with jagged, twisted edges mar the walls, and inky mud covers everything. It stains the jumbles of clothes, books and photographs pushed in piles against the walls. There’s a car, half-buried and crumpled, in the middle of the court, surrounded by an audience of empty, mud-encrusted seats. Survivors say the water rose so high inside, people were holding onto the rafters in the ceiling. 

I’ve heard it was the younger people who were caught in evacuation centers. The older generations ran to the mountains instead. From the largest hole in the stadium wall, where the car was swept inside, you can see a school, listing and broken against the hills. It wasn’t back far enough either. I don’t know if that’s why we meet so many elderly people in these places, and so few of their children and grandchildren. We’re not supposed to ask though. As the woman beside me finishes her story, I re-fill her coffee cup instead, counting the minutes of the passing hour until it’s time to pack everything back into the van and move on.

 As we leave, she is the only spot of color in the gray afternoon. The clouds loom heavy and ominous in the sky, and behind the gray walls of the temporary housing units, the ocean mirrors them. They evened out the ground with gravel, and the pavement that winds between the straight lines of the compound is just this side of black. As the van pulls away from the parking lot, she follows, waving. Her shirt and smile are small and bright, like a children’s song. The gray looms around her; the walls and the clouds and the sea all bending hungrily around her graying head. She can’t see me through the tinted glass around the back seat of the van, but I wave and smile too, because it feels like she shouldn’t be alone in the middle of all that.

We take the team to another town, tromping over its bones to a furrow in the ground that used to be a train station. The team gathers on the old platform, cameras clicking, voices a little hushed in the broken emptiness of the place. I find myself down in the furrow between the platforms, dodging the spiders that have made the place their home. Small and bright, flowers at my feet catch my eye. Kneeling down, I wipe the dirt away from painted red petals and sunshine-yellow swirls as they trace the edge of a shattered bowl. I set it back down with a strange reverence, the flowers tilted up toward the gray sky. There are blue flowers, half buried a few steps away, and beyond them the curving tail of a tiny dragon hidden in the weeds. They seem too precious to leave, but there are far too many of them to carry away in my pockets. I pick up one sunny piece and steel myself to leave the rest. When I stand up, there’s an aching hollow place my chest. I tighten my grip on the jagged edges in my palm until I can feel my heartbeat against them.

Just a not about the pictures: These are mostly representational. For example, the woman in the picture below the 
description of the woman from RikuzenTakata is not the same woman. Also, photo credit to Deborah Quek, The Butterfly Project (Burton Sue) and Lina Oshio's iphone.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Stay by my cradle 'till morning is nigh

When I was younger, I used to have night terrors. I’d lie awake in my bed at night, too terrified to sleep. It felt like something terrible would happen as soon as I was unconscious and defenseless. It was embarrassing – what kind of teenager is still afraid of the dark? I think I've gotten a bit more secure now, because I can readily admit, it happened again a couple nights ago. It’s funny though, because do you know when the fear stopped? While I was sleeping (which, unfortunately wasn't until the wee hours of the morning, but nevertheless…). I had a picture in my head, when I woke up to the weak dawn light. It was of God, standing over my sleeping self with a drawn sword.
“It isn’t your job to keep yourself safe, sweetheart. That’s what I do.”
Sometimes God waits until we stop trying to defend ourselves to step in and fight the battle that was always His to begin with. Not because He likes to see us afraid, but because He wants us to know it’s all, always Him. That’s a truth I can rest in, because He’s a lot stronger than I am. Also, He doesn’t need to sleep. I really do. When I don’t I get all grumpy.

I don’t know where the
Darkness comes from.
From deeper shadows outside,
Or my own
Faith-lacking, shallow-beating heat?
It doesn't really matter though
Because You,
Like dawn breaking,
Soft and unstoppable,
Pour across my quaking,
Restless shoulders
And rock me to sleep
In the safe, still, constant dawn of
Always with you.

“Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 8:37-39

Friday, January 10, 2014

Break open my fish bowl

I remember the first time I came through Narita airport. Stepping through the terminal doors felt like stepping out onto a stage, in the middle of a play. Everyone around me seemed to know their characters and lines, and there I was, caught without a clue or a script, but trying so hard to pretend I knew my lines. Every interaction felt like a scripted scene, the people around me distant, like characters on a TV screen. I was only half there, really, peering out at it all from behind a glass wall. I loved it though, the excitement. It felt like magic.
It doesn’t feel like magic anymore. The glass wall cracked and shattered quietly somewhere along the way. I don’t remember where, exactly, but I remember it hurt. Even now, my hands sting from the little cuts the broken glass made when it fell. It hurts, but I’m coming to think maybe this small brokenness isn’t such a terrible thing after all.
Today I passed my ticket to the bus driver, and a spark of static electricity along with it, jumping finger-to-finger. He jumped and I apologized, chuckling, and he did too, smiling under his hat as he handed my ticket stub back. There was no glass wall. There was no script. Just two people momentarily together in a funny moment.
That’s all we are, really; people standing face-to-face with an ocean between us until the glass breaks. It’s so strange, the things we allow to divide us. Language? Temporary. Culture? Even more temporary. Economics? Education? What do any of these things matter against the weight of eternity? Because people, the real us that we are when there’s nothing else, that is eternal. That matters. That’s why Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman, in the face of Jewish culture. That’s why he chose fisherman and harlots for friends, and healed the children of Roman oppressors. Because people are more important, so much more important than the things that separate us.
 I don’t want to forget that. I want to remember the scars much deeper than mine that broke his hands to crush what separated us from Him. I want to hold this truth like a sledgehammer against every glass wall.

In-flight Eggs

I flew back to Japan today. In most ways it was a really good trip; uneventful and about as quick as a flight from Seattle to Tokyo can be. In fact, my greatest complaint with the entire journey was with the eggs. I don't mean to be picky, I am extremely grateful for the ease of the rest of the trip. I'm convinced though, that even if there had been some tragic event, the eggs still would have been stand-out terrible.
I don’t know why I fell for it again. I swore a year ago to never again choose to eat eggs on an airplane. There’s something about airplanes and eggs. Put a perfectly normal omelet on an airplane and suddenly it turns into something else, shaped vaguely the way you expect it to be on the other end of the digestion process and colored an unnaturally bright yellow. And the taste. I can’t talk about it yet, I need some time to recover.
This time was even worse than usual. They tricked me with their terminology, you see. Usually, they call the airplane eggs an “omelet”. Got that once, never again. This time around, they told me it was “scrambled eggs and vegetables”. Sounds pretty good, right? Certainly reeled me in. It even sounded somewhat nutritional! Ha. There was one, sad little cherry tomato buried under the most horrible piece of brown not-meat I have ever seen. And then the eggs themselves. So. Bad.

Don’t make the same mistake, my friends. Just say ‘no’ to airplane eggs!