Reflection

Gently, God Chastens the One He Loves

It started the day before our house blessing party. Eddy and I had moved to a lovely apartment in Glen Ellyn two months before, and we had been looking forward to finally breaking our home in with friendship and prayer and food. I had been scrambling all week to put some finishing touches on our walls: quotes and pictures that are meaningful to me, a shower curtain that wasn’t disgusting. And my painting of the Christ of Divine Mercy.

I’ve been working on this painting since last January. It’s been a prayerful process, and although I’ve never tried to paint on canvas before, I’ve been surprised by the beauty and power of the image. I believe that it has been a gift from God. But on this day before our house blessing, it wasn’t quite finished, and I was desperately forcing it to be. It was as if I would seize this gift for myself like the forbidden fruit of the tree—before God’s good timing—so that I could be my own god. And I heard God say, “Don’t hang the painting.” I finished a few strokes and let it dry and then hid it away in the closet. I understood why, I thought; I was too proud. But I didn’t fully understand yet. That painting was only one precious piece of a mosaic I had been crudely fashioning for my own self-glorification—a mosaic that God was about to shatter (and begin to reassemble).

The next morning, Eddy and my brother and I went to church, and I was cut to the heart by the sermon. “You can’t serve God and mammon,” Jesus said. Father Stewart explained that mammon is a worldview of acquiring for our own security, opposed to the posture of receiving life and all our needs from God. Because life is so fragile, so uncertain, we all place our faith in something for a sense of security. Father Stewart rattled off examples of the things we tend to grasp at for our own security. What took me by surprise was this: “Beauty,” he said. “I don’t simply mean being good looking or acquiring someone who is good looking. I mean it more deeply. You have a deep need for beauty. You’re trying to acquire that beauty, perhaps through a home or an apartment, through a particular way of living, through food. You’re trying to acquire beauty. You want beauty.” I saw myself precisely as in a mirror and I grew weak inside.

Father Stewart described life under the mammon faith-system—my life. “In the mammon faith-system,” he said, “your goal is to acquire, secure, on your own. You have to become good at acquiring, because—here’s the deal—everyone in the mammon faith system is trying to acquire too. . . . If you’re doing well, you’re able to develop constant and regular high praise from those around you. You have to have that in the mammon system, because when you’re living by performance and acquiring, you’re never quite sure if you’ve done enough; you never have much sense of where you are in the system. You build your life on praise received. Criticism is an utter crisis in the mammon system.”

I was headed into a crisis. We went back home and finished preparing for the house blessing party. I watched myself grasp at security through artful food and drink and a home that was beauty-full with the presence of God. I saw that I actually wanted to use the presence of God in my home as a means for my own sense of glory and transcendence. It was devastating.

And then, so few friends actually showed up. It hurt, oh it hurt, not just because I felt forgotten, but because I depended on the presence and praise of others to validate my self-glorification project. And I was so busy mentally processing everything that had happened that in the end I wasn’t present with anyone there. Although I was thankful for the prayers of our friends, my heart was not in the house blessing anymore. It was a human home, and the food turned out to be just human food; no one bowed down and worshiped me for it. I knew that God meant to show me all this about myself, but I was laid bare, and later, I was angry. Why now, God? Didn’t you want our house to be blessed?

My anger spilled over onto Eddy that week and I sunk into a kind of depression. What began my redemption, though I still ached, was spending Thanksgiving with friends who love us. I needed to humbly receive hospitality and to see what a humble offer of welcome looks like. On Sunday at church Matt Woodley’s sermon enabled me to imagine myself like a disciple who had run away and could now share a breakfast of fish on the beach with Jesus. I knew that though I had betrayed God, God was not finished with me yet, and it gave me hope. One day that week I shared hot cocoa and making paper snowflakes with my coworkers; it was cheering. I needed to create something simple and humble with my hands and to feel part of everyday friendships again. I knew that all of this was from God, and it started healing me again.

On Saturday, I told my story to a friend, and she asked good questions. It was a confession before God, and it was something good. I was truly grieved and ready to repent, but I was stuck on how I could learn again to desire God for God’s sake and not for some other selfish end.

The next morning, I went to church in the stupor of a cold, and I was too tired to pay attention. When it was time to receive the Eucharist, I zombied through it. My body remembered to cup my hands in a posture of receiving, and my mouth remembered to say “amen,” but I was not very conscious of what I was doing. When I returned to my seat, I noticed that something had changed inside of me. I realized that I felt Jesus there, embracing me. I have never felt anything better than being with him. I was exultant. The joyous love of God was bubbling up inside of me, and I was so happy, because Jesus is so good. Oh my Lord Jesus, he is so good. And that’s how I knew I could desire God again for God’s sake—as a gift to be received.

And, with thanks to God, this is not the end of the story of our home. Now, more than ever, I am confident that God greatly desires to fill our home and our hearts with the gift of God’s presence. Perhaps not climactically, but in small, humble, human ways, through friendship, shared meals and prayers, and when the time comes, a painting of our beloved Christ.

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Reflection

thoughts on holy saturday

I walked away from the Good Friday service last night with a goofy grin on my face. It was the same kind of goofy grin I wore on the day after my wedding. The privilege of intimacy brings an uncontainable joy. This Good Friday, I received what I had been dreaming of all year, and maybe, in some way, all my life. I received the privilege of bowing before the cross.

The cross is the symbol God chose out of all things in the world to display his glory. I have fallen so short of the glory of God. These past few days, I have realized, predictably, that I am so much less like the woman who anointed Jesus than the disciples who fell away when things got tough. Holy Week is only a microcosm of the whole year, and of all of life; how can I be that dear woman now, when I have been those disciples all along? And on these, most holy of all days, I’ve felt the grumpiness of my soul, and my selfishness. When I arrived at church, on Thursday, and on Friday, I knew that I had nothing to give. No costly perfume, no tears. I’ve fallen so short of even a faithful human being, let alone the glory of the Faithful Human Being. But this is the very power of the cross.

It is God’s power in the cross by which that gap was bridged, is being bridged, and will (amen) finally be bridged. In the cross I find God’s power to restore me to himself. Only by his death on the cross, and my death there, will we finally be united in new, glorious life. So the cross is the very power of God.  At the cross, his blood and water anoint me, and I am accepted, called beautiful.

I understood this last night, and could hardly bear the wait for my turn to embrace the wood of the cross. I cried in my seat, just imagining it, yearning for it. And finally, after watching hundreds and hundreds kneel before the cross, they released my row. I ran down the steps, beaming, and joined the line, and I sang the songs a little too loudly. I made it to the cross, and I knelt there, and I took up too much room, because I pressed my face against it rather than just a hand, and I knelt there, and felt the presence of God. No words, no tears, no costly perfume, just me and the glory of God that I’ve so longed to meet again—his love, his joy, his peace—anointing me. The only, the best place on earth. And I kissed the wood at the foot of the cross, and walked back to my seat, overjoyed and triumphant. Yes, by his cross, I can be the dear woman who kissed his feet.

All my life, I thought that the day my knees would bow before Christ and confess him as Lord would come at some eschatological moment. But I did not dream that Christ is present, even now, and that I may bow before him, here. A real, physical bow before the living Christ. The cross is the window through which I behold the crucified God, and the place at which I kneel before him. I know that I must make it my practice to daily kneel before the cross, the glory of God. How else will I attain it?

And now, it’s Saturday, a day to rest, a day to reflect. Today we wait. But this waiting is unlike the first. We’ve already read the end of story, and we know how it ends (or, begins). We do not huddle together in a closed room out of fear. We wash our faces, and don clean clothes. We enjoy the sunshine and the warmth of this spring day. Our waiting is in anticipation, even joy, because we heard his words: It is finished. And we know, a new thing will begin.

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Reflection

welcome home

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Pompeo Batoni, oil on canvas, 1773
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

A reflection on the beginning of Lent

For months and months, I’ve been reflecting on glory— the glory of God—and that mysterious promise that we humans will one day attain it. All have fallen short of the glory of God, Paul says, implying that we humans were intended to participate in God’s glory. We can (and must) still hope for it, for Christ in us is the hope of glory. I’ve been dreaming of that glory, of my union with Christ, his love for the world flowing through me without ceasing. I’ve dreamed of the day when I’ve grown to my full height; all my gifts and talents mature and excellent, useful for love.

And I’ve been living lately, too. I’ve chased after my own comfort and independence instead of my union with Christ. I’ve watched as the energy inside of me to love has withered up, dry and fragile. Things that once gave me joy have been made a trudging through resistant soil. The skills and talents I’ve been given, buried under dust. I’ve been fading, scrambling to redefine myself, and then wearing thin all over again. I have utterly exhausted myself, but I have not yet rested, nor climbed into the lap of Christ.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

On Ash Wednesday, it was made clear to me that I cannot have life without utter dependence on the presence of God. My sin in this regard is humiliating, but it is also what the ashes smeared cross-shaped on our foreheads represent. We are all made of dust, we all fall short of the glory of God, and we are all utterly dependent on the mercy of God. In my cries for mercy, I felt the welcoming arms of the Father. And this, my friends, is what Lent is about. Lent is a welcome home to all prodigals. Lent is our repentant journey home to the Father before we celebrate the great feast of resurrection.

This Lenten season, I want to take a journey into greater dependence on God. I want to give up my desperate scraping for independence and my habit of distracting myself from my own feeble condition. I want to pursue rest. I want to learn to lay down my weary head on the breast of Jesus Christ my Lord. Journey home with me, this Lenten season. Walk with me, with a contrite heart, into the healing presence of God.

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Prayer

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany from the Book of Common Prayer

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Reflection

seeing jesus

From the the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

From the the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

It’s been months since Holy Week, and the weeks of ordinary time drag on, very ordinarily, very humanly, with their rhythms of work and food and sleep. The in-breaking kingdom of God feels more like a dream I had, that’s faded, and only sometimes returns to mind. I see ordinary things all around me, like a mossy green 70s recliner, and theology books, and a worn out refrigerator, and ordinary people, like the college students and immigrants with whom I share the sidewalk. And I think, Where is God in all this? Where is Jesus?

Jesus. Several nights in the past few weeks, I’ve lain awake, remembering the glimpse of Jesus I had on Good Friday, and weeping for his return. I knew this day would come, and so I had wept then too. Jesus was then (oh, where have the words fled?) full of sublime compassion, on his knees, beckoning to me. His beauty was wild, wild like the allure of a forest that can be explored without end. His beauty was also love, love like water quenches a fiery thirst, pure water after a long, hot hike, cooling your throat, running down your chin, splashing your clothes, and then like jumping in an icy, frothy creek for the pure joy of cool relief. C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory says, “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” Yes, to be united with it, with Jesus (Oh, Jesus), is why I wept and I weep. And I knew this day would come, when Holy Week was over and I had lost sight of him again. Now it seems like I’m left with the mossy green 70s recliner and trying to make sense of how it and the refrigerator relate to Jesus.

I’ve often wished that I had lived in the first century, in Palestine, that I was Mary or Martha, or even the woman with the hemorrhage (no, that’s a lie), so that I could at least breathe his air or brush past his clothes.  If only I could spend a day getting covered in his dust. If only I saw his face, I’d finally know him. But would I?

What if Jesus was, after all, human, like the kid next door whom you never thought was anything special? What if you looked into his eyes, and saw love, yes, but human love? What if you looked into his eyes, and couldn’t see God? Maybe this is why thousands of Jews ate his divinely multiplied lunch, and then, just went home. Maybe this is why not even the disciples seemed to know who their Rabbi was. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16, Peter finally gets it, finally declares, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus says, “Happy, blessed, are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in the heavens.” Peter’s eyes, it seems, his flesh and blood and brain, weren’t enough to reveal Jesus to him. To see Jesus as he is? That kind of revelation only comes as a gift from the Father.

Whether we are first century Jews brushing past Jesus on a crowded street, or twenty-first century Americans studying him in theology books, to see Jesus, really see him, requires the eyes of faith all the same. Ordinary time, human time, with its ordinary, human things, and ordinary human people, can be for us the sacrament of the kingdom of God, of the presence of God, just as the presence of God came in what we saw to be an ordinary human in first century Palestine. We must pray for an apocalyptic opening of our eyes, for faith, that good gift of revelation from the Father. Jesus says to his disciples, “Ask, and it will be given to you… because if you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Let us pray, “Let your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” and also for the eyes to see it.

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