eucharisteo

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Afternoon, and the beach becomes another elegant art, a mosaic of striking contrasts.  I love the seascape for the way she changes, for the intensity of her perspectives.  Across the water I see rain, a blue black bruise on the horizon blurring the line God made between the deep sea and the boundless sky.  I listen for the warning rumble of thunder. beach7.16The tide too high for swimming, we have spent the last hour gathering treasures in our hands.  In my palm, I hold three pieces of glazed sea glass—one that shines crisp green, like new grass; shark’s teeth—thirty-five, maybe forty, wet and fiercely different; and a broken bit of iridescent shell that seeks the light, reflecting gold, coral, lavendar, and blue like a memory of the sunrise. For these, I give thanks, simple things that matter only to me, a small collection meant for remembering. beach hand 7.16 Often I glance up from my wandering to collect other gifts—my childen each given over to a different shade of reverie; the sea like glistening, smoky, glass, except where the shorebreak waves rise, sculpted; the brilliant places where silver light breaks through ominous cloud; the moments when these clouds move and the sun falls warm again on my skin. bridge Zoe beach 7.16Waves crash close, and Adam studies the way the water reshapes the shore, the way the sand moves beneath his feet.  I hear Zoe softly talking to phantoms, conjuring her own adventures, carving pathways in the sand with her fingers and heels.  In turns she plays at strength and flexibility, making bridges out of her body and then trying to stand.  Riley sits on a boogie board, content to watch the sky and the sea moving and changing right in front of her.  She’s always been this way, patient enough just to see and quietly experience things as they are, peaceful enough not to wish for more or different.  This, this is enough for her, and if she gathers no more, she’ll find no complaint in the day. Riley beach 2 A break in reverie, like the sun suddenly hot, and Zoe stands at my side, offering me half of an ugly, gray oyster shell.  “Something to hold your shells,” she says, just half of a clause, and the cupped, gnarled thickness of it in my open hand, and she runs back down the beach before I can even comment.  I watch the water spray up and out beneath the smack of her heels against the smooth, wet sand.  I would never have selected this particular momento, but it’s suddenly beautiful in a way that it only could be because she gave it to me, because some thought for me brought her to my side, bright and passionate and warm.  And now, I would never discard it. shell unfilled 7.16 It makes me think of so many things God has redeemed for me, things I would never have chosen, things in His wisdom He chose not to remove from our hands.  I ponder these in my heart, too many to write down at once, too glinting and rich to be captured by a solitary glimpse.  I take out just one and hold it up, one to show with the eagerness of a well-loved child:  See, see what I’ve been given? Autism is beautiful to me, where in spaces it is ugly and awkward to unaccustomed eyes.  I know a girl—a young woman, really, now—who loves with a pure heart, who shines like a star, who works harder than most and never utters a single complaint.  She breathes peace, even when too much sensory information makes her heart race and sweat runs down her forehead in rivers and she doesn’t understand why.  She rejoices with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn, and she is comfortable with herself and with all our awkward angles.  She accepts and embraces and cherishes, and her innocent ageless wisdom shines through the shadows of my own middle-aged insecurities, like silver light breaking through and glistening on the ocean.  I know a boy, knobby and lean, with blue-eyes like the bright, boundless sky, who weeps when he worships.  He knows nothing of pretense.  He is never afraid to be himself.  And even though connecting is a dark challenge, he wants to be whereever I am (even now, in the room where I write, he composes otherworldly music on the keyboard while I type) and searches hard for words.  He has taught me that communication is a precious gift, and that it is so much more than sentences.  He has taught me that relationships are built on walking through together, not on deep and numerous conversations.  He has taught me that intelligence and creativity and resourcefulness can never be fully estimated by standard measures.  And God has used the two together to teach me to be thankful right now, to pray without ceasing, and to live by faith.  God has turned all our gnarled and damaged and difficult into a lesson that when things are hard, it’s not time to walk away. The high tide with it’s rough waves and salty gulps draws away the broken bits, revealing the most stunning treasures beneath, and that ugly shell becomes a dish in my hand, an unlikely treasure chest.  My children are so much more than that one broken thing, a discarded bit of the ugly in life that God has repurposed as a vessel for delivering rare and beautiful gifts, gifts I would otherwise never have known, treasures more lovely for the shape the disability gives them.  I tuck the iridescent gem of it safe and wander on, stopping often to look at the sky. And on the horizon, I see rain like a bruise.  All around us, life hangs heavy and ominous.  I listen closely for the sudden, electric smack of thunder, the ripping that will shatter the afternoon, even as it washes our living and nourishes new growth.  I feel the storm.  I see it, the brooding blue-black monster of it passing thickly over the sun.  I would never presume to make light of its intensity, of its potential for pain.  But the sea looks like polished silver, even so.  We collect more gifts than we can hold.  Grace spills over into our tender palms, and I whisper a prayer of thanks, laying my treasures safely in the cup of a gnarled shell that reminds me of the stormy sky.  I too have been made beautiful by love, though only God would have chosen to make a vessel of me, a dish for holding the most sacred treasure of all.  I am redeemed.  I am that empty half shell, tossed and sun-faded, filled with Glory, the treasure that reflects what God has done, the rising of His Son.

treasure shell 2

And so our yielded, weary, stormy lives testify to Truth.  With our eyes, we watch the storm gather, and with His, we see the unhindered beauty of the Light.  We wander along the shore of living, gathering grace in the most unlikely spaces, at the most unlikely times, and because He reaches and touches our quivering lips with burning coals from the altar itself (Isaiah 6:5-8), we count these gifts—our remembrances–right out loud.  We give thanks.

tend me

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“Would you like an elephant plant?” She asks, holding up a tiny plant in a square pot–terra cotta orange, but plastic—a baby that moments later I cannot find.

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I’m not sure it’s actually called an elephant plant, but it might be.  She’s not the best for remembering the names of things, and she lifts this baby thing, with it’s tangle of flat, long-slender leaves like sunstriped, windswept beach hair, from somewhere behind a couple of larger pots of Elephant’s Ears I know she’s grown from a larger plant, some broad-leafed, thriving life now indistinguishable as the mother.  This plant looks more like me, after just a few hours in the salty wind.

She asks, and it’s one of the first things she says to me in the new of the day,  just as I sit in the ocean breeze, listening to wind chimes and watching the birds; while I sit staring at the sky and its soft morning light, the streaks of pink and coral.  I get up early just to breathe in the quiet and sip coffee and tell God how much I want to just walk right to Him, maybe along those shades of otherworldly streets, maybe right out on top of the waves.  I tell Him and the salt air rushes, and the Spirit whispers, “Come,” just as He did when Peter asked (Matthew 14:28,29); just as He always does when we so desperately want to be at His side.  The wind blows my hair away from my cheeks, a breath strong enough maybe to hold me, to fill me too, and I close my eyes.  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:8).  I love this salty wind, the first element that greets me the closer I come to the ocean, because it reminds me that I am free and I can go to Him from any space and at any time because my eternal birth—my resurrected life—is of the Spirit.  The only thing that keeps me away from Him is the distraction I allow.  So I loose my hair and let the wind sweep through it, dry and warm and gentle, coming and going from unseen places, leaving only the evidence of it’s path.

My mom walks out on the porch and tastes the morning air and lifts the baby plant up so I can see its tangled leaves like a knot, like the tangle of my thoughts, and she says, “Would you like an elephant plant?”  She still wears her pajamas, soft and faded.  Her white hair slips out from the knot on the back of her head, framing her Native American skin, her high cheek bones, her deep brown eyes, and I give thanks just to see her standing there in the morning light.  I wonder if she knows that just seeing her is a gift to me, as filling as the breeze.

I smile and nod, scanning the lines of life she’s made, the green stems and bright leaves framing the edges of the porch.  She likes plants that easily multiply.  I count four Christmas Cactuses, four Elephant’s Ears, maybe five of these she calls elephant plants, all sprouting randomly in plastic pots, an art form unique to her.  It’s funny how we live so much of life seeing each other only in the context of self.  I know who you are in relation to me, but do I really know who you are, how God has rooted you specifically, the unique impression of His fingers in the shape of you, breathing apart from me?  I have asked Him to help me see in the context of Him.   And it’s only lately that I’ve come to see my mother as sower.

“When these sprout new leaves, if you’ll just plant the sprouts, they’ll grow into a whole new plant,” she says, setting down the baby.  She picks up a few others that have matured a bit more, showing me, telling me about when and how she rooted them.  She doesn’t always see the beautiful ways she expresses herself, the clear art of her in something so easy and quiet like rooting these sprouts and tending them unintrusively.  I watch her pause briefly by these plants, so quickly it barely seems to be an intention, testing the soil with her fingers.  She gestures sometimes as we pass by, following my glance, saying something lightly, and that’s the only way I know that she tends her planting.  And yet, the evidence of her attention is clear.

The mother cactus, from which my mother has birthed uncountable gifts (a plant for each of her sisters, a plant for me, knotty winter-blooming hope for friend after friend, once even a new sprout for every one of my children’s teachers past and present), languishes, sprawling and elegant in a pot now too heavy to lift.  “That’s the mother,” Mom sometimes says, when I stand looking at the generous wealth of the original plant, the red-tipped edges of this beautiful lady still promising new growth.  And then my mother reminds me that this plant was itself a gift, a planting made by a friend when her own cactus sprouted.  “It’s easy to do,” Mom says.  “You just pull off a new sprout and put it in the soil.”  But I know that this multiplying of Life is more than the just, more than the initial planting.  I know it’s also her fingers pushed into the soil, the time she stops unseen to water, the way she watches the light.  I know Mom comes along and moves the plants out of harm’s way when the painters come or when children run free across the plank floors.  I never see her do these things, but the evidence of her presence, her life-giving, her tending, is counted in the multiplying of growth, the countless gifts shared, the new borne.

And so it is with one who is born of the Spirit.

His Spirit is like the wind, moving unseen, tending.  He plants the shoots of us deep, rooting us all new, the redeemed children of a generous King.  He makes gifts of our lives, of our equipping, plunging His fingers into the heart of us, testing our need and offering us Himself as light, as water, as blood, as nourishment.  We do not know where He has come from or where He goes, but the evidence of His tending is clear in the multiplying of growth.  He knows when and how He rooted us, and the longer He tends us the more intimately He traces the history of our living, the sprawling of our influence, the new life that He has carefully sprouted from our following.  And the longer we live in Him, the more we look like the King who gave us life, the Spirit who tends, the Father who protects and provides for us.

“Anyway,” she says, smiling, noticing my computer in front of me, shifting her gaze back toward the kitchen and breakfast, “you can have one of these, if you want it.”

And of course, I will not go home with out my elephant plant, because it reminds me of her and beach hair and the salty wind; because it reminds me of the Spirit.  I only hope the long, beautiful leaves will grow as well in my hands, in the shelter I offer them.  I know that these plants live and grow and multiply well because they live here, in the ocean breezes, under her notice, with her fingers touching them.  And so also, I live and grow and multiply well, I become a gift, a mother from which new lives are born, only because I breathe Him as air.  I am spiritually alive only because He has made it possible for me to dwell in Him, only because when I tell Him that I choose to be by His side, that I want Him so desperately, His blood-bought answer eternally will be, “Come.”

*~*~*

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15: 1-5).

together, we make a chain

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When we step onto the beach, the sea swells high and shimmers golden green in the sunlight.  A storm matures unseen somewhere off the coast, out over the great deep.  I know this, and still I cannot imagine how the water pools so high just here at the edge of the shore, why it gathers and undulates as though held on the edge of everything like a momentus breath, like some ethereal anticipation.  I taste the salty intensity, the passion of it, on my lips.  I feel the power of it tingling on my fingertips.  The waves crest angry, blinding white, crashing like thunder, sifted through God’s fingers, spilling over the edge of His hand.  The froth of them spreads over shallows and sand like a veil, like a delicate lace gown.

In moments like these, lovers of the sea grow still.  We stop and watch her, savoring her elegance, respecting her sheer strength.  We gather the sand in our fingers and let it fall out of our palms, noticing the glint of light at angles iridescent on broken bits of shell.  We walk over the glittering landscape, watching.  We gaze up, up, silently losing ourselves in the rich blue sky.  I sit in a chair and push my heels into the beach.  I don’t have to warn my children anymore to take the sea seriously.  They are old friends of the mighty lady, and they stand in a line at the edge as the lacy froth gathers around their ankles.  They stare at the waves, watching them curl and break, waiting for the tide to slide back, for the ocean to exhale.  Their boogie boards sit in a pile beside me while they wait.  From time to time, Adam presses his fingers over his ears to soften the sound, which is so loud it washes away every other.  There are no birds, no children, no swaying fronds—only waves, stunning and mighty and sculpted.

Beside us, two little boys drift slowly closer to the sea, bored with sand castles and ball tossing.  They look to be about six years old, maybe seven, still small and fine boned, not yet leggy and knobby like my son.  They twist, like reeds, chasing each other closer, closer, closer to the pounding surf.  I hear a male voice—just a word and then a part of a word, just a tone that sounds at first cautious, then chastening, then warning.  His voice is lost in the sound of the waves.  The boys do not seem to hear the man, whom I guess to be their father, and they do not yet know respect for the sea.  This I see clearly, as they chase each other closer, as they flirt with her at the flat, rushing edges; as they taunt each other with slipping and swallowing salty gulps.  In minutes, she could gather them up and throw them against the sand, all limbs and confusion.  I watch Riley and Zoe, still just girls, glancing quickly toward these boys.  They look back at me, questions shining in their eyes, on the edge of rescue.  It’s the wrong time for frivolity.

And then the warning voice becomes a man, probably a little younger than me, stout and balding and hairy limbed.  His elbows bounce and his plaid swim trunks billow as he runs out to his boys at the edge of the sea.  I can see his mouth moving as he shouts to them over the thunderous sound.  He points toward the ground.  Right here.  Right.here.  No further.  He stands beside them, guarding the beach, watching over their lives, their tender bodies.  For a moment, they absorb His presence and grow still and somber.  They turn with him toward the waves and watch carefully.  But they are young and easily distracted, maybe without the memory of terror.  I watch them and think of something a dear friend sent me about a man who photographs shore break waves—beautiful, stunning pictures.  He dives into the largest waves on earth to take pictures, and still, he says that he fears the moment when wave after waves comes, one right on top of another, and he loses control and can’t breathe or find his way out.  I watch these little boys stand next to their dad and unravel, even with him standing beside.  They forget him that quickly, losing track of his pointing, his finger jabbing down, down, down, down toward the unseen sand beneath the swirling froth as he emphasizes the words.  Right.here.  No. further.  They twist and spin and fall into each other, distracted.  They drift closer, closer to place where the sea draws back and curls and crashes.  But their father is beside them still, and wise to them.  He places his strength between, gathering their hands in his own.  He is the link between them, positioning them carefully safe.  Even as the swell flattens high in front of them and the sea spray wets their faces, he lifts their thin bodies taller.  He does not remove them entirely, but holds them stumbling, trembling in the surf, perhaps not to rob them of their fun, perhaps also to teach them a safe lesson in respect for the sea and her elegant power.

I watch and gasp, my breath taken by something profound, an etheral exhale, a soul-deep recognition of God.  He–He– is the fatherly link between you and me, the steady strength wrapped around our hands, positioning us carefully when we are too naive of danger, too immature to heed the sound of his warning voice—a word, a part of a word, caught by our spiritual ears as we flirt so close to deafening distraction.  In moments aware of Him, we stand still and somber, clearly seeing the possibility for our destruction, noting our small stature, our lack of control.  We take heed and focus, but we, by comparison only with Christ, are so young and so easily distracted.  We lose our way so quickly.  We look, we see, but only for a short time, and then we unravel, twisting and spinning and falling into each other again.  I’m so thankful that He never leaves, that He knows us so well, that He remains beside when we lose track of His words, His urgency, His finger pointing down at the froth now swirling around our waists.  I give thanks that together we make a chain, you and God and me, that He lifts our tender, trembling bodies higher over the temporal quagmire, the fierce and threatening wake of the spiritual storm brewing deep, unseen to us.  A cord of three strands is not easily broken (Eccles. 4:12).  I’m so glad—aren’t you?—that He teaches us together this lesson in respect; this appreciation for His faithful and loving guidance, for His fiercely protective father-love.  Oh, you and me, how fragile and unknowing we are, how equally unprepared for the reality that our human eyes, our human minds, cannot, nor ever will, truly and fully comprehend.  What joy that fundamentally we know one very important thing, one sacrificially blood-bought truth, the one thing that makes these firmly held boys relax, looking up, up, up into father’s face with a smile:  As long as He’s with us, we’re safe.

*~*~*

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory (Exodus 33: 14-18).”

 

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”) (Matthew 1:23).

 

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (John 14: 15-17).

 

 

we can’t get close enough to the ground

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This auditorium has different lines than the one in which we usually worship.  Pews make up the rows instead of the moveable interlocking chairs with which we’re so familiar, and something makes the room feel broad.  The moment we push quietly in, there’s the impression of red velvet, though the seating arrangment feels spacious and casual, as though we have all gathered on blankets for a picnic.  It occurs to me that this fits, this blend of formality and living room comfort.  We are children of the most High God, but we’re adopted and redeemed, vulnerable, fallible, drawn together by our awkward angles, by the cracks He reshapes into something all new.  Worship is always both fiercely holy and warmly familial.  We gather around the King’s table for a feast, and it’s Thanksgiving dinner every time.  Or, it should be.  Or, it would be, if we could be but emptied of ourselves and our unknowing, of our dedication to temporary, selfish things.

We are late.  We are almost always late.  Try as we might to pick the right time to leave, unexpected things impede our progress—blood sugars, insulin reservoirs, obsessions, compulsions, routines, anxiety, seizures, lethargy; things we breathe like air.  I explain, but no one really knows unless they hold these things in their own hands.  I told Adam three times where we were going, how long it would be.  I wrote it on his schedule.  But he has this thing about a snack at a certain time, and his socks have to be exactly right on his feet, and he doesn’t like unfamiliar places.  He argues with me all the way through putting on his shoes, grabbing a tote bag and a thousand must have items he doesn’t really need but can’t just leave at home.  But then, we all struggle over leaving our stuff behind to worship. “Set the timer for…” He says to me, tapping one finger on his watch.  “Unity service until…”

When I don’t answer, because I think the answer will come out as a growl, because I worry that the words will jerk and rip, Adam starts making up his own answers.  “5 more minutes.  Set the timer for 5 minutes.  Unity service until,” and he says the hour, the minutes.  He says now.  He says it this way because he doesn’t know another way to tell me that he doesn’t want to go.  He bends toward me, urgently tapping his watch, trying to stay in front of me, trying to hold my eyes with his own while I move through the house.  This is important to him.

These rushing minutes feel like a blur as we walk into the auditorium, into the already singing.  It feels like Zoe pointedly announced her blood sugar in the last moments before we left, “Mom, I’m 45,” just as I flipped the light on on the porch, while Adam tapped his watch.  It feels like I said, “Well, you know what to do,” sending her in the kitchen for a fast sugar of some kind—orange juice or raisins.  It feels like Riley had been hard at work writing addresses on cards to go in the mail, noting mailing and delivery dates, highlighting the most immediate ones.  It feels like I had to interrupt her, like her eyes flashed stress, but I’m not finished, I need to finish, I want to get these out on time.  It feels that way, but the exact details slip away as we enter the room and the blend of so many voices, the rich river of Truth, washes over my head, my face, my hands.  Sometimes I walk in a room and I feel this testimony: the Spirit is here. And when I allow myself to feel this testimony, the temporary details lose their grip.

We file into a pew beside someone we know—me, Zoe, Adam, Riley, Kevin, and take up their song as our own.  He touches my arm, this brother, our friend, and then returns to his singing.

Adam’s eyes skirt the room.  He glances quickly out and then tucks his gaze back in again, pulling his chin down so as not to see anymore.  This is another auditorium, another building, and many of the people inside are strangers to him.  Once a year, the local congregations of our fellowship gather for a unity service.  We blend into each other, dozens of shades and shapes and personalities, all bound by the same hope.  The song leader at the front of the room has black framed glasses, a plaid shirt, a bald head.  His skin is pale.  Even his hands seem shiny.  He’s lean and tall, and unfamiliar.  Everything about him feels crisp and polished, but his voice is warm and he smiles when he sings, and he sometimes turns his head at unusual angles.  He keeps time with his hand swinging in the air in front of him, and behind him a screen flickers as we move through the phrases of the song, displaying words and images that inspire worship—a cross on a hill, a line of people with emptied hands lifted.

I watch Adam’s face as he absorbs the song leader, the singing, the people.  His bottom lip trembles, the corners pulling into a frown, and he shifts back and forth on his feet.  He’s still struggling over the details.  He leans over Zoe’s back and I lean toward him, and into my ear, he whispers, “Unity service, until…”

“7:30,” I whisper back, running my hand along the strong line of his jaw as I move away from him.

I know why this feels so hard to him.  It’s a lot at once when none of the details escape him, when he has no ability to prioritize any of the sensory information.  And worship has always shattered him because he has none of the careful fascades behind which the rest of us stay hidden.  He feels God tenderly.  He always has.  He used to weep after every service, and I would hold him where he crumpled on my lap or stand where he buried his head in my shoulder, and ask, “Why are you sad?” He could only say, “Because I’m crying,” and I didn’t know if this was because he didn’t understand his own feelings or just didn’t know how to explain.  We had circular conversations.  I’d reply, “Well, why are you crying,” and he’d say, “because I’m sad,” and none of it would stop his tears.  And then one day, he managed to say something else, just a desperate wail, just a calling out that escaped like a breath, but clear.  Jesus.  And then more tears.

Once, on our way out the door, he said, “Singing hurts.  Singing is finished,” and it reminded me of something I once heard articulated by an eloquently verbal adult woman with autism as she explained why people with autism have trouble looking into another person’s eyes.  She said, “There’s just so much information there, so much feeling, and it’s terrifying.  It’s too much.  We’re not equipped to handle it.”  I wonder if it’s this overwhelming of his soul with feeling, the pure, yielded experience of bigness and too much and deep love of God that he alternately loves and fears?  And isn’t that how it should feel to feast on Thanksgiving dinner at the King’s table?

Adam tries hard to flatten his lips, to keep them from drooping at the edges.  He touches his own chin.  He rubs his eyes.  He shifts, back and forth, swallowing.  Zoe sees all this and moves down to sit by her dad so that I can be next to Adam.

I pull him close to me, squeezing his shoulder with my hand.  “It’s okay,” I whisper into his ear.

He swallows, and the crinkle between his eyebrows deepens, and he lifts my fingers off of his shoulder with his hand, as though he can’t quite manage my touch.  He tries to sing, but he has to stop every few moments to swallow, to control his face, to keep the emotion from seeping out.  Alternately, I turn to worship and look over to measure his feelings.  I feel so tender toward my son that I can hardly think of him without swallowing back my own tears.  I know him.  I feel him.

And then, it’s time to pray.  Another man moves to the front to the auditorium, but I don’t see him because my eyes are on Adam.  We stand in rows, and everyone closes eyes and bows heads just slightly in the familiar way.  But my son cannot get close enough to the floor.  He bends at the waist, leaning until his arms rest on the back of the pew in front of us.  He clasps his hands together until his knuckles are white.  He squeezes his eyes shut.  The expression on his face is so vulnerable, so open that it rips right into me.  For him, this is not just some ritual.  I think if he did not believe he was supposed to stand with the rest of us, he might just kneel or lay flat on the floor.

Sometimes when I pray uncluttered, when I really open up my soul to the conversation, God feels so immense, so heavy, so terrifyingly tremendous that I press myself against the floor.  I can’t get low enough.  I can’t open my eyes.  I can’t even remember then what I meant to say.  The only thing I can manage in those moments is surrender.  Empty before Him, I can only plead, Fill me.  Use me.  Change me.  But that kind of prayer is rare for me, because most of the time I can’t empty myself of self that way.

Still, when I see my son press himself lower, when I watch his face, I know this is what he feels, this unfathomable depth, this intimidating presence.

I’ve noticed lately that he almost always does this when we pray together in worship.  He alters his posture low.  If we’re sitting, he will bend almost in half, as though his legs are just in the way of the floor.  And everytime I feel him do it, I am gripped and overcome that such a sweet, tender soul should humble himself in such a way before God.  And we think we know more of God than he does because we can use words to speak of Him.

There are those who think Adam doesn’t really understand, that he doesn’t know why we worship.  I see it in their blank expressions when I share these things, in the limited way they evaluate a boy who has trouble communicating.  I’m not sure I would believe it either if I didn’t know Adam and love the same God, if I didn’t worship with my son, if I didn’t work so hard to understand, to hear.  It is our limitation–not his–if we believe that because he can’t reach far enough into his mind to retrieve words, he really doesn’t know much of God. My son can’t tell the story of the resurrection.  He can’t explain with carefully shaped phrases that he lives because God breathes right into him.  But he weeps when he worships and speaks The Name through his tears,  and when he prays, he can’t get close enough to the ground.  I say he knows far more of God than I do.

This man up front praying flows, his words tumbling, propelled by the current of Spirit.  His voice sounds light, gentle.  The words dissolve the moment he speaks them, borne away.

I swallow hard and close my eyes and yield.

When the leader says, “Amen,” let it be so, Adam straightens next to me, suddenly stilled, his face placid.  The song leader returns to his place, and the Truth washes over my head, my face, my hands.  And beside me, Adam sings, now free of the anxiety that made him shift on his feet.  Down the row, I see Riley reach out in front of her, her hands flat and empty, as though she moves to gather something up in her arms, to grasp it in those blank palms.  That’s when I realize my own hands are open too, and that my children are teaching me what it means to worship with an emptied, uncluttered soul.  And I can’t get close enough to the ground.

press on {when you’re ready to grow}

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So maybe today–maybe in this—it’s time to press on, even though it’s hard, and it hurts, and you want to give up.

“But I’m dying,” she says to me, gasping, sweat gathering like a halo along her hairline.  She’s waiting for me to say she can quit, but I am not so easily convinced.

“You’re not dying.”

“But it’s hard for me to breathe…I…just…can’t…catch…my breath, see?”  I can’t help but smile, even with her dying, beside me, because she reminds me of myself at her age, parsing running into feet, stop signs, mailboxes.  I remember my dad pointing ahead of us, urging.  “Come on, just run to there.”

“You’re talking, so you can breathe,” I say, smiling wryly at her.  Her cheeks are red and wet, and she keeps threatening to cry, sighing into a whimper, her breath catching in her throat.  “Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.  It just takes some time to get the hang of the breathing.”  Learning to breathe must always come first, just drawing in the sweet Life force, letting it fill, trusting the nourishment of cell and tissue.

The further we go, the slower she runs, until I’m wondering how a person can have such a conservative stride.  I look through the trees at the lake, gathering up the sight of sparkling light on the water.  I’m a collector of eternal things.

Meanwhile, Riley has to slow her steps to stay beside us.  Her cheeks are just as red, but she runs silently, smiling carefully when I catch her eye.  I have to watch her to make sure she’s okay, because she never complains, never believes in can’t.  She has a broader view than most of us about what’s possible.  Even when she appears to be struggling, she remains steadfast and determined, always denying any limitation to her progress.  “It’s okay to run ahead of us a little if you want to, Ri.”  I can tell that trying to match her sister’s pace only complicates her run.

So she moves ahead, and I watch her sunlit ponytail swing.

Zoe groans.  “Mom, can we take a water break?  My head hurts.”

“Zoe, it’s two miles.  Let’s run to the next marker and then we’ll take a water break,” I gesture ahead of us toward the red mile marker staked in the ground beside the path, mottled by light squeezing through the leaves overhead.

She grabs her side, curling the fingers of her other hand into a fist.  “I can’t do this,” she says.

“Yes. You can.”

I can’t. I thought this would be fun, but it just…hurts.  Why do you like to do this?”  Her mouth curls into a sneer.  She feels misled, and also a little irritated that Riley and I don’t seem to be suffering as much as she. But we are a bit more seasoned as runners.

This was to be Zoe’s first 5K and her first training cycle.  She’s never done any running, except in play.  I didn’t expect it to be easy for her.  And no, I didn’t prepare her for the way burning pain precedes muscle growth, nor did I tell her that she would have trouble breathing at first, that her most difficult task would be learning patience with discomfort.  I didn’t tell her because I knew that her immature perspective prevents her from valuing anything that isn’t fun or painless or working out as she expects.  I knew that the finish line inspired her desire to do this, not the race itself.  I hoped maybe she had grown just enough to be ready to persist.

But alas, she has not.  Not yet.

The further we go, the more jagged her steps become.  She surprises me by being extremely expressive of her complaint.  She grunts and wails and alternately gasps.  She gets anxious, and I have to speak softly to her and remind her how to breathe so that she doesn’t hyperventilate.  She stops running and walks ten steps.  “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

I’m well familiar with that particular voice.  Most runners have a mantra to use to fight back when not threatens.  I tell my legs to be quiet and silently remember scripture, His divine power has given us everything we need…everything we need…everything.we.need…The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still.  The Lord will fight for you.  I collect gifts by the dozens to distract me from unwanted thoughts of lack.  I have used these strategies to train for and run two marathons, three half marathons, and at least a dozen other races.  But in fact, I breathe similarly through the crazy, sometimes painful living of most days, running the race set before me.  All of life is training, after all.  And thought must be reshaped and sculpted lean just like muscle, sometimes painfully torn and rewritten. Thought must be well-nourished, well-fueled, intentionally directed and persistently trained.

I exhale, appraising my daughter carefully.  “You can.  You have to stop thinking that way and determine that you will.  You have to see the finish before you get there.  Breathe.  Look at the trees.  Relax.”

She stops in the middle of the path, glaring at me.  “I.don’t.want.to.do.this.if.it.hurts,” she says to my back, because I run on, hoping she will gather herself and continue.  I circle back and drop into a walk beside her.  That is the immature view:  If it’s hard, I won’t.  But she’s still such a shoot.  There’s time.

“Okay,” I say, taking a sip from my water, looking ahead of us at Riley’s back, a magenta dot bobbing into the curve in the path.  “But we’re going to have to walk a little faster or we will lose sight of your sister.”

When she sees that I have accepted her refusal, she relaxes her hands and walks a little faster.  For a few minutes, we walk companionably without speaking.  I gather up the color of algae growing on the trees, the delicate petals of a few flowers beside the path.

“But I don’t want you to be upset.  You’re not upset with me?” She asks, turning to look at me.

“No.  It’s okay.  I don’t want to force you to do this.  I want you to do it because you want to.  Maybe one day you will, maybe not.  It’s okay either way.”

“Well, I might want to try it for the next race you do.  I just didn’t know it was going to hurt. I don’t like doing it if it hurts.”

“I know.  I felt the same way when I was your age.  Papa had to really push me to get me to run at all, and he only did it because I wanted to participate in a race at school.  I get it.  It’s okay.  But you know, growing is often a painful process.  New things…new strength, new ability, new knowledge, new life…come at a price.  They take work.  And not giving up.”

It’s interesting to me, the way we learn long suffering, how it slides into every part of our lives slowly, saturating each one until we learn the story of sacrifice.  Birthing is itself a pressing through.  We imagine the fleshy soft new life in our arms, the gurgling, the tiny fists wrapped around our fingers even as pain spasms tissue-deep and spins out of our mouths in uncharted, otherwordly sounds.  We learn to remain in the smaller things first and gradually God lengthens our endurance until it encompasses far more than transitory mile markers.  At first we learn faithfulness to those we love, to those who build us, and then, before our Father will be satisfied, we learn to remain with those whose broken pieces split our fingers.  We learn to love our enemies even when they hurt us.  We learn to offer others what they don’t deserve, what we have never deserved: long suffering, steadfast, sacrificial love; compassion; grace.  And eventually, we learn this truth that never lessens the gripping agony but only serves to make us more determined not to give up:  that the most painful lessons, the hardest training, produces the most satisfying difference.

The lesson is everywhere, really—-the slow molting that sheds old skin for new, the disassembly of caterpillars that makes butterflies, the burning of forests to bring new shoots, the death of seeds to birth new blooms, the sacrificial death of a Savior to redeem a world.  Seasons of pain and terrifying change give way to what is new and fruitful.  Perserverance must finish its work (James 1: 2-4).

Zoe looks ahead at the path, the bridge, the leaves of the trees moving in the wind.  I can see her wrestling with the girl she now is and the woman she wants to become.  The expression on her face is sharp, unyielding, the seed of strength. She turns to me, grimacing, a smoldering spark.

“But it doesn’t have to be now, does it? It doesn’t have to be this?”

“No.  It doesn’t have to be now.  It doesn’t have to be this.  Another time will come.”

God accomplishes these things well in His own time.  He’s not contented with stasis.  Love won’t let Him leave us tiny and unfruitful.  If we deny one opportunity for growth, another will come until at last we take an entirely new shape, until we learn how to press on.

when my children come to me

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In the middle of the afternoon, when the sun burns so hot we can almost see the scorching heat and the grass curls brown and crackles beneath our bare feet, we eat peaches that taste of sunshine.  The sticky juice runs down our chins.  We spoon up blueberries dripping with sweet milk and push out of our chairs to walk down the back steps and stare up at the rich blue sky.  For a moment we say nothing.  We are each one temporarily lost, riding clouds that look like ocean waves.

“Mom, I’m ready to go to the beach,” Zoe finally says, with a raw voice I understand.

I put my arm around her shoulders and smile into her eyes like the sky, and I say, “I know.  Soon.  But first, just a few more weeks of school…and: homework.”

Just like that, one word splits the moment, and we walk back up the steps, resolved.  I know the longing they feel, like a calling from the sea, the whip of salt air through their hair.  I have heard my children, and that’s why I wash peaches in the thick heat and drizzle blueberries with sweet milk, and sit the elegant bowls in front of them.  It’s why we stop and walk outside barefoot in the prickly summer grass just to look at the sky.  It’s the reason I carve moments for them out of tiny gifts of grace.

It begins with a hasty countdown scrawled on our dry erase board, just where I can see.  13 more days. And then, 12.  Zoe writes it first, in her unbound, loose hand.  She decorates the letters with stars.  I read it and smile, and make note of her waiting.  Then Riley starts maintaining the count, which is really more her forte, diligently changing the numbers, rewriting them a bit more tightly.  Riley accepts what is.  She doesn’t wish, unless it’s for someone else, but she starts to speak in terms that etch scrolling lines around her hope. “Mom, it will be her birthday while I’m at the beach.”  I treasure up the words, the way they light a spark in her eyes.  And as she drops these lines more frequently in our conversations, I squeeze her shoulders and whisper, “almost…it’s almost time.”  The echoing of the two in unison makes me feel more urgent for their freedom.

And then in another day or so, Adam comes to me, appearing wild-eyed and hazy from some reverie involving music and numbers and feeling that raises a wrinkle just over the bridge of his nose, and says, “July.”

“What about July?  What happens in July?”

Trip.”

I put down whatever I’m holding and narrow my eyes.  I already know what he means to say.  “I am going on…”

“I am going on a trip.”  A smile breaks free, lifting the heavy weight of the afternoon and our work.  He makes me smile too.

“Where are you going?” I ask, savoring the sound of his voice, the fact that this longing motivates him to speak to me voluntarily.

“I am going on a trip,” he says again, and again the contagious smile lights his face.  His body surges with enthusiasm I can feel.

“I know.  But where?  Where are you going?”

The room cannot contain that smile.  “Grandma and PaPa’s house.”

“Yes.  And what will you do at Grandma and PaPa’s house?”

“I will go to the beach.” He says the whole thing, and the words I and go come out low like the trough of a wave, the others like the crest.

He says this in the afternoon, and in the morning, before school, he asks me, “May I have some come home, please,” and I have to remind him to say I want to stay home instead. So I ponder a third voice begging for freedom.  And in the afternoon, I put fat peaches in their hands and sprinkle blueberries with a tiny dusting of sugar that glints just a bit in the heat.  I beckon them to leave papers on the table and come see the blue sky.  I am touched by their unified speeches, by their unique way of telling me together—but each in a rare voice—that they feel tired and long for time unraveled and skin that feels of the sun itself.

When my children come to me, I hear the things they say and the things they don’t.  I feel the heart that beats beneath the words, the yearning, the wish.  And my desire is to say yes and it’s time, even when it isn’t.  Not yet.  As the days build and time comes, and they speak more frequently of the same hope, my heart aches still more to meet their need.  I bend toward them and imagine ways to give them glimpses of what they long to know. And somehow, the mutual calling out, the shared yearning, bonds them to each other all new.  They reach out and touch each other on the shoulders.  Zoe finishes her homework.  Her pencil snaps against the table, and she grabs Adam’s hand and pulls him out the door, and they race to the trampoline, collapsing giggly and sweaty on the hot, black round.  And I love them still more for the way they love each other.

So, in the evening, when we gather to pray, I suddenly know that this is how it is with God too, when His children come to Him.  He hears us as we begin, our voices falling like rare chords, like drizzling rain in isolated patches.  He hears what we say and also what we don’t.  He feels our hearts, sifts through them, looks right deeply past our careful facades and hears the yearning, the wish, the hope. And the more urgently we speak in unison of our desperate need, the more He longs to say yes and it’s time, and the more He imagines ways to give us glimpses of the things of which we deeply long to know.  He bends toward us and places fresh, fat grace gifts in our hands.  The juice drips sticky from our chins, tasting of His glory, the heat we ache to feel in our souls. He bids us pause in our labor and beckons us out to see what He’s done and what comes. And somehow, our mutual reaching, the blending of our hearts in prayer, bonds us more solidly to each other.  We learn to love each other all new, tied by our shared longing, sealed together by our Father and His hope, by the echo of our speeches.  Rising up from prayer, we touch each other on the shoulders.  We embrace.  We offer each other our strength, our joy, our clasped hands to run along together.  And in these sweet, carved moments, He loves us still more for the way we love each other.

I’m slow with that

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She’s such a shining, starlit soul.

She walks through the kitchen, where I gently lift lettuce leaves with my fingers, sorting the torn pieces into salad bowls.

“Mom, what’s that?” She says, with a casual turn of her hand, a subtle gesture toward the line of butter yellow bowls.

I know she doesn’t really mean, what’s that, but the question makes me smile, because when God dotted the earth with bits of angel-bread to feed his desert-wandering children, they said the same. What’s that? “Manna” literally means, “What is it?” And nearly every day after school, Adam stands in my kitchen pointing at a pot of something simmering, and asks that same question. His inquiry is about assigning a label, their’s about the wonder of provision like dew on the ground–so much wonder the awe becomes the label, and Riley’s is a substitution for objection, a thought quickly processed away from complaint.

I tell you, she’s a starlit soul.

I want to honor her evasion, so I stick to the question. “Salad,” I say, watching her face.

“Mmmhmm,” she says, nodding.

“You okay with salad?” I ask, scattering a few plump blueberries over each one, reaching for the knife, to slice a carrot.

“Yea, I’m okay with it. I’m okay with salad.” She stands beside me watching, and I stop my slicing and let the hunk of carrot roll a little on the cutting board. I reach for her, laying a hand flat against her back. Together we appraise the salads, the scrolling blue and coral flowers twisting along the sides of the bowls. “I’m a little slow with salad.”

I breathe out quickly, a short burst through the nose. Right. Slow. These days she eats certain foods so slowly it seems she will never finish them. But she hardly ever says, “I don’t like this.” And on the rare occasions when she truly struggles to find something palatable, we discover it after the meal, when she gathers a dangling thread of Zoe’s distaste and says, “Yea, it’s not my favorite.”

“Do you like salad, Riley?” I suspect the answer is no, not really but it’s her heart–not her mother–that will not allow her to say so. From time to time, I start these conversations, just to tell her it’s okay if she doesn’t like a certain taste.

“Yes, I like salad. I’m just slow with that.”

“Mmmhmm, ” I murmur, resuming my slicing, gripping the carrot with my fingers, pressing it against the cutting board. “You know, it’s okay if you don’t.”

She nods. “Mmhmm, I know.”

I gather the bits of carrot to scatter them and reach for a cannister of pecans.

“What’s that?” She says.

“Pecans. For the salad. But it’s not enough. Do you like pecans?”

“Yea. I like pecans.”

I reach for some walnuts to cover the salads that are still bare. “Walnuts?”

“Umm, I’m pretty slow with walnuts. I’m not slow with pecans, but I think I’m pretty slow with walnuts.”

“So, if I gave you a choice – - salad with pecans or salad with walnuts – - which would you choose?”

She points at a bowl garnished with pecans. “Pecans. I’m not slow with pecans.”

She’s such a starlit soul.

It astounds me, the way her heart wipes out certain words and phrases, the way the shape of her refuses negativity. Can’t, won’t, don’t, these find no belonging in her life. She can; she will; she does. It just might take a little more time. And so she lives, unafraid of challenges, enduring discomforts without comment, pressing on without wishing anything other.

Our Riley cries most often over the negativity she perceives in the rest of us. Arguing of any kind, even a banter in fun that seems a little too real, causes her pain. We’ll slip out of our reverie and find her hiding her tears, unwilling to complain about our behavior and unable to stop her own grief. If we joke at all in the negative, she protests, correcting our words and smoothing them into something more affirmative. She shines.

Sometimes I think one of Riley’s greatest gifts to me is this showing me– in a way far more poignant than she might ever tell–what the Word of God means when He says, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life (Philippians 2:14-16).”
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Even when life pricks her heart hard and tears run down her face and we ask, “Riley, why are you sad,” she denies that she ever could be. “I’m not sad.”

“Why are you crying, then?”

She drags her palms across her cheeks, blinking, shaking her head, and saying in a genuinely bewildered, if wavering voice, “I don’t know. I really don’t know.” It isn’t that she doesn’t understand sadness. No, she weeps over everyone else’s. She cares. She asks, “Why?” Instead, the profound truth is that her heart shines so brightly that it can’t accept the shadows long nor ever fully embrace them. In the light, no darkness remains (1 John 1:5), because the light at once obliterates and illuminates and radiates. I suppose that this is what it looks like to say that “in him it has always been ‘yes’ (2 Corinthians 1:18-20).”

My daughter’s only refusal is made against letting the darkness abide. She thinks on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable,” anything that is excellent or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8)” and by example teaches the rest of us to do the same. She will not compromise on right –not the justification of opinion, but the undebateable direction of truth.

She’s a starlit soul, and so too will I be as love matures into obedience. May I live can, and will, and does—the stunning life of faith–even if it takes a little more time, a little more pressing through, a following with little room for giving in.

oops!

mistakes

Well, that’s what I get for writing on my phone!:)  I inadvertently posted a “preview” of tomorrow’s post while it was yet unfinished, so if you try that earlier link and can’t find it, that’s why. The finished and edited version will be up tomorrow, so if  you get my posts via email, you’ll need to use the new link that publishes tomorrow to access the post. Thanks to all of you who encourage me by finding my writing worthwhile!

why church is for the birds

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Before the light splits apart the sky or steals soft through the clouds, revealing their lines, the only sound we hear is birdsong.

I fold my legs up in the chair, drawing near to God, and it’s as though He wraps around me and breathes, Listen.  In the darkness, hidden from view, the birds sing so loudly that their chirping captivates, so loudly that their vibrance registers as thought.  They fill the silence.  There is nothing else but their song.  It wipes away every other sound.  I hear what must be at least fifty voices, some echoing, some uniquely dissonant.  I search the darkness, trying to see the lines of grass blade and trees and fence, wondering if I can catch sight of these tiny, hidden forms.  Yet unseen and without any particular harmony, their strong voices marry in beautiful tone, as though they believe it depends on them to call forth the day.  Their song fills empty spaces, or at least, gives shape to Creation lost in the last of the night.  Their song speaks of freedom.

I quickly give up on seeing the birds, understanding that their collective invisibility makes them bold. Together, they are hidden, massively undefined.  The size of each one individually could never really match the sound of them together, and when at last I see one, tiny and elegantly perched on the fence post, that one will not be singing anymore. Somehow I’m sure that their collective expression is Fuller even than they. For a few moments, Kevin and I just sit, listening, held by their voices.  We open up scripture and let Word take dancing shape in their freedom song, this song that calls forth Light.  Soon, Riley will appear with her computer and read us the weather.  She will search for us, carrying a tumbler of ice water in one hand, seeing us with her sleepy eyes, talking with a voice unused these last hours.  So much has been restored in the darkness, in the still hours before waking.  More has been resurrected than we see in the early morning as light obliterates the empty sky and reveals the newborn art of day.

Riley will sit across from us chomping ice, and we will strain our ears not to let distraction interrupt our focus on this beauty, this shapeless and yet deeply visible serenade. And then, one by one, the birds will fall silent and disappear into the trees or take flight.  I don’t know where they go.  They’re gone before I see the lot of them, and this is how it’s meant to be, that I only know they exist because of the powerful sound they make together in the darkness.  So, for a few reverent moments, we are altogether lost in the concert.  Their song speaks of freedom.  It speaks to us of truer things.

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This is the testimony of their song, the freedom notes flung far and wide, the formidable melody of these masterfully sculpted birds:

Ours is a song celebrating freedom, and we should sing it loudly, as though the coming of the morning depends entirely on the blending of our discordant voices.  Our collective invisibility should make us bold.  In the darkness of lost and uncertain times, in the last of the night, we are altogether hidden with Christ (Colossians 3:3), and massively undefined.  The testimony of each one of us individually could never match the sound of our singing together, the beautiful marriage of our rare tones, some echoing, some uniquely dissonant.  Alone and entirely visible, we each forget how to sing.  Truly, our collective expression is Fuller than we, because it is the fullness of He.  This is how it’s meant to be.  No one should know that we exist except for the powerful sound we make together in the darkness, the sound of singing that fills the empty spaces.  Our song is the testimony to all that has resurrected in these still hours, while yet we strain to make out shape and form and color.  We sing of the coming Dawn, of Light that shatters the sky to reveal the masterful art of all things new, all things redeemed.  This, then, is the timeless relevance of the Body, not our individual preferences or forms or differences of opinion, but the bold and vibrant Truth over which we lose our”selves” in collective worship.  Together, we become the deeply visible shape of our living and risen King. The sound of our testimony should rise, flung wide, stronger even than distractions set against it.

So, may we live to be united and unseen, yet powerfully, beautifully heard.

*~*~*

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I started writing this post on Wednesday, only to discover on Thursday that the graceful and prolific American Poet Laureate Maya Angelou has now ascended. Perhaps this week the birds owe at least some of their volume to the celebration of her flight. While here, she touched this place with beauty, and now unseen, her voice remains, singing of freedom.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

~from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

this always happens to me

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This always happens to me.  The thought settles hard, a bitter weed looking to root.

Late afternoon, and I feel weary with trying.  We tumble out of the car like the dust we feel, and I am gripped by an overwhelming urge to lay in the grass and extend my arms and lose myself in the sky. I walk around the car and stare at the wildly errant blades, the way they manage to wobble in the wind without bruising each other.  The sun feels warm on my back.  I wonder if they would notice, if I just lay down right here.  Just for a moment.

But Adam’s blood sugar ran too high at school and needs to be rechecked, and Riley waits for me to help her through her homework, and Zoe is only half way finished with the story she began telling me on the way home.  And I have supper yet to finish.  And miles to go before I sleep. That line from Frost always resonates at this time of day, when the afternoon feels heavy and the light is dying.

Still, it’s not really any of our every day chaos making me want to lay down and dissolve into the ground today.

I read an email at a stop light on the way home, just a quick lump of words that tasted of the parched dirt, and I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.  Blank space lingered where there might have been some display of affection, some encouragement, some enthusiasm even just for me, and it isn’t just the message that hurts but its addition to the echo of evil that has most recently been whispering.  You are insignificant. None of this following you do really matters.

Of course, that’s a lie.  I know that in some solid place, but the suggestion still hurts.  It starts as a whisper and gradually builds to a growl.  A friend ignores me instead of speaking, and I feel excluded, and I look hard for words.  This goes on for weeks, pricking me and then cutting, a splinter first, then a knife.  In the email, it isn’t the words written that slice but the ones that are so obviously missing—the ones that acknowledge we have a relationship, and you matter to me, and you are more than just another thing to handle.  In my lifetime, it’s been the absence of words and presence and inclusion—ostracism—that has hurt me far worse than the things people say.   Recently, I read that the brain processes this social pain with the same part of the cortex that it uses to process physical injury, and I thought, yes, that’s true.  I’ve felt that twisting hurt more times than I care to count, and today, the email feels like the final punch before the knockout.

silence

I stare at the grass a moment, and then I gather myself and walk inside, but it all feels harder, like slogging through mud or walking through darkness, because of the ache brewing deep.  In the moment when I think, I’m not sure I can do this today, I whisper a prayer, just a few words that have become more tender to me than any others:  Jesus, please

I lift my hands and seeing my son, I ask him for a hug.  “I need a hug, Adam.  Can you give me a hug?”

He stops mid-whirl (he always deftly incorporates spins into his walking) and looks at me for a moment, then moves purposefully toward me.  He wraps his arms around my shoulders and stands very still, gently squeezing.  I swallow a sob.  Hugging has never come naturally to my son.  In fact, he prefers fist bumps and high fives.  Something about the closeness bothers him, not to mention the requirement that he stand still.  But I see that he has enough love for me to do this thing that is uncomfortable, to see right into the truth of my need and offer me this small sacrifice.  I am always reminding him to hug with both arms, please, but this time, I don’t have to ask.  And this time, I don’t have to plead for more time.  He waits on me to release him.

I stand in my son’s arms and something rests on my heart, the remembrance of a passage about a man who desperately needed a healing touch.  He had leprosy and probably hadn’t been touched for years.  He lived isolated from his family, excluded from society.  He had been ostracized because of his disease, forced to yell unclean when someone ventured close.  Scripture says that this man fell in front of Jesus and begged to be made cleanif you are willing, you can make me clean.   If you are willing, he said.  Most people were unwilling even to come near him.  His life had lost significance, or so it seemed.  But Jesus cares first about souls and second about bodies, so he reached out his hand and touched the man, though he did not need to do so to heal the body.  With a touch, Jesus conveyed not just physical healing but spiritual wholeness, significance, assurance.

leprous

I stand in my son’s arms, wrapped up in his self-sacrifice, and this passage rests on my heart like a healing hand.  It’s as though the Savior has touched me, laying his hand on my ugly, self-centered despair, and I have reached for Him too, my skin melting into Him.  Suddenly, as His power blows through me, I am no longer blind or bleeding or standing rotting in front of him.  Just like that, embraced in the breath of a prayer, I am whole and healed and seeing.

And this is what I see: This always happens to me.  The words are a clue, revealing the truth, a light shined in the shadows all  the countless times I’ve said them.  I look along my life, seeing all the way back to friends on a playground turning their backs, to girls and women choosing each other and not me, to outright and intentional disownment, to my raw transparency met with bare silence.  This has always been the enemy’s strategy.  I see it even in the challenges my children face, in their struggle to connect and communicate, in the sometimes lonely feel of disability.

Alienation.  Loneliness.  Ostracism.  Silence.  Invisibility.  Insignificance. Separation. 

All of these are the tactics of a ruthless enemy who uses our fear and insecurity, our omissions, our blunt dismissals, and our silences to write nasty fictions all over the blank and empty spaces that isolate and destroy and spread doubt.  Clearly now I see the ugly scars left by ripping claws.  I have spent a lifetime blind, a lifetime with a flow of blood that never stops, and suddenly now with His healing I see beyond the temporary details to the truth.  Knowing doesn’t dull the pain of circumstances, but it does take away the enemy’s ability to hide behind them.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). The clear view throws light into the deep shadows and refocuses the fight.  This strategy, no longer carefully hidden, has lost its convincing power over me.  No matter the circumstances, I know the truth, and the truth sets me free (John 8:32).

But healing means the empty spaces now swept clean must be filled full, or something more terrible will return to fill them (Luke 11:24-26).  And so, He engraves Truth on my soul, an ornate and holy script, Word to fill every silence, every blank neglect: I reached for you when you were dead in sin, when disfigurement and death and disease held you apart from me (Romans 5:8).  I touched your rotting skin with my own fingers to heal you.  I gave you my life.  That is how visible you are, how important, how significant. I am always willing.  I, the Logos—the Word—obliterated years of separating silence and took on flesh to take your place (John 1:14).  My name is Immanuel, God with us—God with you (Matthew 1:23).  You are not alone (Deut. 31:6).  I adopted you as my child (1 John 3:1), brought you to my table (2 Samuel 9), gave you an inheritance that cannot be taken from you (1 Peter 1:4).  You are not excluded.  I died to bring you home (John 14:3). You are mine.  

His is a wild, passionate love, a claiming touch, a touch that heals and fills. This, then is the Truth to hold in the hands, the Truth to make my hands His own, the Truth worth the scars left by nails. I stand in my son’s arms, swallowing a sob, and I am healed by the touch of Truth.  And I see that becoming like Him, this dying to self, this loving all the way to sacrifice, this living as vessels moved by His healing hands is a gift instead of a loss, an offensive strategy instead of a dissolution.   Because the truth is that it is the enemy’s ultimate goal to sell us all the same lie.  His goal is to keep us eternally apart.  He uses different details, the ones that penetrate to each person’s most tender places, but from time to time, we all feel ignored, neglected, insignificant, and excluded.  The enemy hides behind our carefully erected walls and our perfect masks.  And only our moving well past comfort to lay willing hands on the ugly pain of another—only this vulnerable being Jesus to each other—will redeem us all from the bitter lie that has slowly taken root.

This always happens to me.

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