Saturday, April 18, 2015

In a Glass Darkly

Have you ever seen a photo of yourself, or caught your reflection in a window and wondered, "Who is that person?" Sometimes I see my reflection in the mirror and I catch wisps of the flyaway, carefree girl that I am. Yet there are moments, usually in photographs, when I see the old soul inside of me. Hopefully that means I look wise and thought-full, rather than crinkled and worn down by cares. But I wonder... 

I remember not being very old, looking into the storm cloud blue eyes reflected back to me and realising I was the 'me' behind those eyes, the 'self' inside that little strawberry blonde head. I had that moment of knowing that I am myself. Sometimes we ourselves notice the way the light catches our eyes, or that fine lines are appearing where none lived before. A look we have never seen our pensive faces wear is reflected back in still water, or captured on film. For a moment we see the selves we are, we catch a glimpse of ourselves from an outside perspective.

The realisation, the knowing whisks away with a blink of our round eyes. I catch myself wondering, "Can we see rightly or are our eyes too fractured?" This question came to me first under the night sky. When I am upset or uncertain, I often look to the heavens to put myself in perspective. Planets shine strong in the darkness. Stars' light illumines my eyes and my heart as I breathe out prayers to their Maker and mine. In the nighttime all I see is shadow or—due to my astigmatism—light splayed, spilled, splitting in all directions.

Do my real eyes see reality, or only a fragmented reflection of what is real? Even the glasses I wear to right my vision do not fix the aberration that makes lights star out, especially at night. I hunger for the answer, to know if my real eyes see the world as it is. I hunger still more for the questions that arise when I stand small in the inky night. I want to see, to know, Beauty. I want to catch that pensive look of mine in a photo and be in wonder that that is me, the self I am. I yearn to be. I want to am (if one can break grammar rules in the desire to live ontology).

Saint Paul's words rise up in me; like a clarion call they ring and reverberate through my heart and mind: 'For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.' Or as another translation says: 'Now we see things imperfectly, like [fuzzy] reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.' The Fall is like an astigmatism, distorting our view of reality, of God. Even putting on the glasses of God's word and seeing the world from His side does not change the fact that we live inside the brokenness of the Fall. We see more clearly, yet not perfectly. The edges waver and star, making us blink to clear our eyes. The constant hope before us is that the Fall's breach and fragmentation will one day be fully healed and made whole. As gloriously proclaimed by Saint Paul:
In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited—yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Living Vapour

Fresh morning sun peered into my eyes as I swung my car onto the main road in town. I cruised toward a church I had never entered, realising—as I pulled between the mustard-coloured lines to park—that I did not know where to go. I stood uncertainly, looking back and forth between the looming church and the sad-looking parish centre behind it. I made the decision to poke my head in at the parish centre, as the lovely church looked a bit too imposing to enter without someone by my side. A slip of paper on the glass door confirmed that I had chosen correctly. Skirting the infant baptism class, I veered toward a room sparsely filled with ladies of various shapes, hair colours, and backgrounds.

Walking into a group of persons is intimidating enough for me, let alone a group of grown-up women belonging to a denomination I'm unfamiliar with, all of whom I had never met in my life. Yet, I was determined to attend this morning of prayer and meditation as soon as I had heard about it. That determination walked me through the double doors and to the first table where someone caught my eye and smiled. I chatted with a woman while waiting for the tea water to boil. I introduced myself to the ladies at the table where I set my things. I probably looked like a wide-eyed protestant from a mile away, but they were all kind enough to explain things for me when I asked. I tactfully neglected to ask why women's gatherings never supply protein-rich breakfasts, hoping the fruit and assorted breads would keep my morning appetite satisfied.

Soon, we filed over to the spacious church in little knots of chattering women. My tentative, shy feeling whisked away as I stepped under those dark, wooden rafters and my nostrils caught a strong scent of incense. Dust-brown pews invited us to sit in the sunlight sifting down from high windows. I chose a spot a bit apart from the kind ladies I had shared breakfast with. Quiet and reflection are hard for me to practise in close proximity to other persons. We practised two variations of lectio divina, meditating on a passage of Scripture from Isaiah, and then on the calling of Matthew, using a Caravaggio painting. We sang a few hymns in English and in Latin. I journalled and prayed and reflected over more Scripture. We were guided through a much slower and more deliberate Mass and celebration of the Eucharist.

Over and again during the morning I was drawn to a stream of soft light pouring onto the altar floor. At first I could see lingering incense smoke illumined in that shaft. While the aroma of incense dissipated throughout our time in that hushed sanctuary, it did not leave my memory. I remembered how the light had caught the final tendrils of sweet-smelling smoke as I stepped in through that dark doorway. The beam of light had taken the invisible trail of vapour, giving it form and substance. I thought about how our prayers are to rise to the Lord as a sweet aromatic waft of incense. That is all we are, a breath of wind, a curl of blue smoke, nearly invisible—until the light rounds out our contours and gives us substance. Only the Light, Jesus Himself, makes our prayers visible, real, and dimensional. We—who are but a puff of smoke and then we are gone—He makes solid, visible creatures. He rounds out our spirits, souls, and selves by shining His light not on us, but through us. "...Blaze again like fire in every leaf", says Malcolm Guite. It is the Light shining through the smoke, through the leaf, that shows the substance of the thing pierced by the Light.

Truth is multi-fa├žeted, like a luminous jewel. This day the truth I saw was that both our prayers and our selves are but a vapour, then they are gone. Both need the Eternal Light to shine through them to make them solid, real. Like the ever diminishing scent of incense, our prayers fade and need to be re-kindled. We must daily speak joy. We must continue to cry the mercy of God. We must bring our requests again to God...Not because He forgets, but because we do. We so quickly forget our wraith-like wreathes of praise, the persistence in our petitions, the Kindness that leads us to repentance. Our prayers either rise into the Light Himself, or they flit away into the rafters, losing substance and depth.

As I stepped out into the crisp air and noon-day sun, my eyes re-focussed from cool semi-darkness to overwhelming brightness. The sunlight that had peeked into my green eyes in the morning, now laughingly showed me the world boldly, clearly. The light revealed the depth and the contours of all around me. Light in our world only shows what is there, but I am learning that the Light Himself makes things real by shining upon them, through them. I climbed into my car and tilted her toward home, reflecting on my need for the Light to illumine and enliven me.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Speaking Scary

"Don’t let the sun set till you’ve done one thing that sort of scares you."

—Ann Voskamp

Clear Colorado skies are a rich cyan blue, beckoning me to jump into an adventure. Sometimes I receive the call of all that glorious wild and go for a long drive in the mountains, looking for a pull-off where I can tromp. I like adventures, after all. Some days, though, I stay home and watch the cotton-clouds sail over my roof on the breeze, content to look out the window as I write. Whether it is pen to page or keys clicking their rhythm, I can soar to those azure heavens or plumb the depths of pain with words. Some words are hard to wrestle onto the page, but others are plain scary to pen down. What will people think if I write that? Words don't seem to care what others think, they demand entrance into the worlds—of story, of prose, of conversation. They teem with life-giving substance, building worlds, building others up, furnishing frameworks for ideas and dreams. In order to craft a believable story one needs the right words—the sort that steal us away from the concrete planet our feet rest upon and fly us into a place so rich and vibrant that it becomes more real to us than the trees swaying o'erhead.

Words can draw us in to something bigger than ourselves, be it uncharted lands or the love of God through His very own Book. Yet words can be scary, too. They can paint nightmare images, twist into hideous lies, or wound our hearts. However, it is God who gives us the scariest words. They are the sort that breathe life: I was wrong. I forgive you. Can we try again? Help me! God, I trust You. Yes. I love you. These words are hard to say because the monster of pride or the fear of the unknown chokes us. What if we trust God and horrific things still happen to us? What if we speak out our love and it is taken advantage of or rejected? What will people think of us if we admit that we were wrong? What if we tell someone our hurts or struggles, will they run away? If we tell someone we forgive them, doesn't that mean we have to live like we have forgiven them? These words are hard, the implications are far-reaching, and they can scare us.

Yet maybe our world would be richer, the earth beneath our feet more dear, the sky above fully alive, if we spoke these words more often. Maybe our love would grow if only we dared to share it, in word and in action. Perhaps we would free others from the tyranny of stagnation if we forgave them and were able to see that they could be much more than we ever thought. If we speak and act on these frightening words, our view of God would likely deepen, allowing Him to be God and reminding us that we are frail. We might find ourselves in deep waters, in broken places, being honest about our hurts. Still more, though, we might find that the Word Himself speaks to us in these places, breathing His very life into dead places, healing hurts and hearts.

What is one scary word or phrase you need to say before the sun sets? Is it I was wrong or I trust you, or I love you or I believe, please help my unbelief? Sometimes the scariest thing I do in a day is tell God that I trust Him and that I'm saying yes to what He asks of me. He asks hard things sometimes. Often. And they usually include other people—not always the kind I like to be around or who are easy to love. Sometimes He asks me to be still—both to be silent and not to be restless. I strive a lot with God and with others—for God to ask me to stop striving is difficult. To say yes to Him is hard—it is scary. But it is always good. Will you join me in saying scary things to God and to others?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Caiaphas Bows to Bentham

How they had waited, constantly plotting
To remove that rabble-rouser from the streets;
His uprising had led to blood-shedding,
Now he was in a cell, his own blood clotting
From wounds he had received—
Death soon would be his reward;
Another disappointing zealot, rotting

So, the leaders went on about their feast,
Their underhanded work done by Roman law,
As the lamb was chosen for the Passover
And those same rulers devoured the beast,
They began scheming to trap their next victim,
That bold, would-be-messiah the people favoured,
Treated like a king, turning them from the priest

Long had they sought to catch that pest
In word or deed, yet always he managed to hide,
Or to walk away from their upraised stones
Having exposed the sins their own hearts caressed,
Leaving them in consternation over this and
Much more, forgiving sinners as if he were God—
Surely for blasphemy they could make an arrest

Now, in the confluence of time and place,
During the Passover supper, the moment came,
One of the rabbi's followers could be bought,
He was willing to sell his master without a trace
Of remorse or guilt as the silver crossed his palm—
At last the trap had sprung! The messiah-king
Would no more be a threat to the Jewish race

"It is imperative to sacrifice one to save all,"
So the high priest had said, a grimace on his face;
Now they had removed the rabble-rousing rabbi
From before Caiaphas, to deal with the Roman law—
His beard plucked out, his back shedding blood;
How little they knew they had sent the Lamb
To be slaughtered, the Sacrifice, once for all

To their chagrin, Pilate offered a deal,
The zealot-murderer, or this taciturn king,
One he would free during the feast, one condemn,
He asked the people which sentence to repeal,
And to his horror and disbelief, as one they chose
The militant man, to be released into their midst
A man who was known to cause strife and to steal

The religious men shook upraised fists,
Unable to have both firebrands extinguished—
Still, it was expedient that one man might die
Not the whole race, so there hung Jesus by his wrists
The very Lamb of God, Who takes away all sins
The only One who could possibly save all men—
Priest and Sacrifice, Servant and King—very God he is.


*About the title: Bentham is the founder of modern Utilitarianism

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Hushed conversation is weaving itself all around me, yet I am nothing but a loose thread in the tapestry, cut off while still in the picture. A battle is waging within me, to go or stay. Do I keep my promise to the religious leaders, or keep faith with the master? If I break either faith or promise I will break into pieces. My palm craves the silver I have been offered, yet I recoil at the repercussions of my foolish pledge. I waver like the flame on the table. What will they do to the teacher if I tell them where he is? Oh, I know—I know what they have tried to do at least twice before. I've seen the stones in their hands, in their glances, in their very hearts. My own heart is mostly stone, so I should know. 

A movement interrupts my indecision; the master is handing me a bite of bread dipped in the bitter herbs. Confusedly, I receive the bread and eat. He does not now say to do this to remember him. He only looks at me and tells me to act quickly. He knows! In that split second I quiver, then recklessly plunge into my choice. Swallowing the bread, I rise to slip into my sandals, feeling something evil slip into my soul as I melt into the night. The darkness is not around me, but in me. My choice was brief, the consequences are about to reverberate into history. I walk in a do-or-die fashion to the house where the shepherds of my people are feasting on a slaughtered lamb. I rap upon the door quickly, decisively. Flickering light shines out along with a man's peering eyes. I tell him what I know, offer to lead these men where they want to go, to find another lamb to slaughter. Sooner than I planned, a throng of men have gathered with various weapons and various reasons to find the master. 

I hold out my hand, boldly saying I will not set foot toward the final destination without the bounty price. There is some grumbling—greed is always slow to let go its treasure, but hatred and envy will cow even greed to give up its store when power is within grasp. Silver rushes into my hand, satisfaction washes over me as I pocket the pieces. I turn on my heel, ready to walk the dusty, covert path to the half-hidden garden. I have given the men with me the sign they need—I will greet the master with a kiss. Then my work will be done and I can slip away from the madness.

Time is doing something I can't comprehend. It warps and swivels in and out, quick then slow. How have we come so far so fast? My heart thuds and breath is hard to slide into my lungs, we are here—any minute now I will see the master. I must remember to greet him as planned. There! That rag-tag band of bumblers I have spent the last three years wandering with are up ahead. Ah, there is the master, steely-eyed, hard, always seeing through me. I walk toward him, thinking of all those times I was supposed to give money to the poor and had pocketed it instead. I suddenly knew clearly that all along the master knew that the money was ending up in my account. He always knew. Even now his knowing eyes fell upon me, and he told me—unflinchingly—to do what I had come to do. Through dry lips I greeted him, kissed his cheek, and kissed my sham-life goodbye. 

There was an exchange of words between the guards with us and the teacher. Suddenly, all the Jews around me fell facedown. What had he said? I heard the guard repeat the question, clearly hearing the reply this time: "I have already said that I am he." Even the darkness inside of me trembled at the power and authority in this claim, in that voice. The teacher was calling himself God Most High. The man was crazy! A scuffle—some words—the teacher touching a servant's ear—and then he was being dragged away. I blinked in the darkness as the torchlight disappeared around the bend and bushes. The others were gone, pelting in every direction but toward their master. Darkness settled upon me like a cloak. With a start, I realised I was free to go where I pleased. I had my time to myself, a pocket full of silver, and I no longer needed to pretend about who I was.

Just who am I? I wondered, as I walked toward the city. And what will I do now? I shrugged—it didn't matter. I was my own master with my own money. And my own conscience, I added. But who was I to worry about that? Had I even allowed my conscience one twinge since the time I began to look for a way to hand the teacher over to those religious men? Nope. If my conscience had ever even so much as twitched over anything, it was so long ago it was forgotten. 

Exhaustion caught up with me, laying me down in a quiet spot until the sun had winked open its eye and the noise of confusion dragged me awake. How had I ended up so close to the home of the priest and the temple? The further away I could get from that place, the better. Curiosity welled up inside me, however, and I nervously walked closer to the knot of men arguing and jeering. There was the teacher, haggard and bruised, being taken somewhere else. But what caught my eye was that impetuous jughead, Peter. He looked horrible. He was grubby, his eyes were bloodshot, and the tell-tale tracks down his face said he had been weeping, not merely sniffling. 

Almost before I knew what I was about, I slid next to Peter and demanded what was wrong with him. He turned toward me with a strange look of disdain, consternation, and pity co-mingled. Without any preliminaries he whispered something to me. I leaned in to catch his words, "I know," he said in a broken voice. "I know now what it feels like to be a betrayer." He turned away to follow his master, leaving me reeling and alone. I began to pace to and fro for quite some time. All I could hear were those words, echoing: I know now what it feels like to be a betrayer. That's what I was, a betrayer. Betraying the teacher. Betraying Peter and all the rest, too. A betrayer. All you are is a bastard betrayer! I shook away the accusation, turning my attention to anything but my roiling thoughts. I surfaced into the last half of a comment being made, something about the blasphemer getting his own. Wasn't it just like the people to betray their king? Last week they were shouting Hosanna, save us—today they were screaming to crucify their so-called saviour. The speaker slapped his companion on the back as if it were a good joke, then the pair sauntered away to hear the next round of gossip. 

I stood rooted to the earth, one phrase ringing in my ears, Isn't it just like the people to betray their king? Betray. Betray....Betray. The word haunted me, jarred on all my senses. Then, like a thunderbolt, another word swooped into my brain—crucify. How long had I been pacing? In that amount of time the teacher had been brought before some Roman who had the power to crucify him. I knew that news and rumours ran rampant, intertwining, making it hard to tell fact from fiction. Crucify. The word clawed at me, eating away all the grand lies I had fed myself. I had known all along about the stones those religious ragbags had held once-upon-a-time. What did I think they were going to do once they had the teacher in their grasp? But crucifixion...? Crucifixion was barbaric. I felt sick all the way to the pit of my stomach. I felt hot and cold and rash. Betrayer, my thoughts mocked as I stalked toward the temple.

Heads swung up from prayers, eyes opened wide when my wrathful gaze scoured anyone in my path. Where were those deplorable holy men? There! Before the eyes and ears of bewildered onlookers I spat out words I never dreamed of saying, "I have sinned." what? Those grey-beards were startled, too. "I have—" I faltered at the word, "...betrayed an innocent man." Their eyes narrowed into little slits, like snake's eyes. "That's your problem—you deal with it," one retorted. I clenched my fist around a heavy burden—slivers of silver. I screamed a curse and threw a handful of those wretched coins at the feet of the rattled men in front of me. Again, and a third time, I pulled those bits of metal from my pocket and slammed them into the ground. Deliberately, I turned my back on them and walked away. Betrayer. I heard the word ripple through the men interrupted from their prayers. I walked outside, shattered. I had chosen to break faith—and now I had been broken by empty promises and deceitful men. The betrayer had been betrayed.

...Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.  —Matthew 27:5