won·der

n.
v.
adj.

Strip Away the Weirdness and You Get Good News

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Revelation on my own. In fact, I’ve avoided it because it seemed like a book for Christian conspiracy theorists, numbers obsessives, and end-times enthusiasts — none of which I am. All those apocalyptic images of battles, beasts, horsemen, etc., are so distracting and confusing. Not to mention scary.

The Good News of Revelation, by Larry Helyer and Ed Czyewski is an antidote to all that.

The authors do not bend themselves backwards to try to make sense of those distracting images for the contemporary reader. They get down to the story basics:

Who were the people this was originally written to?

What was happening in their lives?

What did they need to hear from God?

How did Revelation give them what they needed?

I love drilling down to the core of a story, and I’ve found it so fruitful, in my own spiritual life, to use my imagination in concert with cultural research into what life was like for the people we read about in the Bible — this book was right up my alley.

Helyer and Czyewski begin each section of the book with a short story, each of which is told from the point of view of a different person who was involved in the writing, disseminating, or receiving of this communication from John. These were wonderfully grounding: a real person wrote Revelation, and real people read it and passed it along in spite of real threats to their personal safety. The stories ran the gamut from interesting to truly moving. The final one is my favorite: Lydia, whose husband was dragged away by Roman soldiers, poring over the scroll at night:

“As the rising sun made it easier to read the scroll in front of her, she traced her finger over the small letters once again. One particular line caught her eye every time, ‘He will wipe away every tear.’ She thought of the lonely nights crying by herself and those moments before bedtime where her boys cried out for their father. They didn’t feel safe. She didn’t feel safe. She didn’t know how much more she could take. While the details were vague about God’s new home for his people, she couldn’t stop reading about Jesus wiping away every tear. As good as that sounded for some day, she needed that now. She needed God to step in and deliver her. She needed God to protect and provide for her boys” (p.84).

Phillip’s response to her questions aren’t entirely satisfying, but he sums up the gist of the letter:

“Well, the point of the letter is that God is already victorious. We just don’t see it yet. However, there will come a day when God visibly rules. We don’t know what this New Jerusalem will look like, but the point is that Rome’s days are numbered. While we need to persevere for today, there will come a day when God will reward us with his presence and peace, wiping away every tear.”

All (what I think of as) the weirdness is in service to that basic message, that basic good news.

There is more to Revelation than that, of course. There are specific messages to the seven Asian churches about what they’re doing well and what they need to work on or root out of their congregations. There is prophecy, which the authors connect to the prophetic writing in the Old Testament and define as “inspired speech that appealed to the listeners to repent and to put their complete trust in the Lord;” it can reveal God’s future plans, but doesn’t necessarily give us a “blueprint of the future” (p.8). There is also apocalyptic writing that communicates the fight between good and evil via visions, symbols, and images that would be able to be decoded by those in the know, but opaque to outsiders — and that assured readers/listeners that not only will God win, but God already has.

One of my favorite writing teachers, Lisa Cron, says this about story: “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution–more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on t0″ (Wired for Story, p.1). In Revelation, John is given a heck of a story to tell the seven churches of Asia, with lots of flashy elements to get them to pay attention and to help them connect this story to stories they’ve heard before, but it is, at root, a story about what and who to hang on to, and encouragement to keep hanging on.

As I read The Good News of Revelation, other stories kept coming to mind: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson. Each of them, essentially, contains the message that there is evil, there will be difficultly, you will have to choose your path, evil will come at good over and over again, there will be pain and even death for you and those you love, it matters how you treat everyone, even those “lower” than you, good (and love) will eventually triumph. This is also the message of Revelation.

Please note that Helyer and Cyzewski do not make this connection; that’s on me. You see, I love those stories. Seeing echoes of them in Revelation may give me a way in to a book I’ve avoided. As will having (finally) read all the Old Testament prophets. As will having read The Good News of Revelation. At the glacial rate at which I’m reading through the Bible, I might be at Revelation by the end of the year; I’ll report back then.

The authors are running a Goodreads giveaway, or you can just go ahead and buy it: Amazon | Barnes & Noble.

    Sometimes Fields Need To Be Fallow

    image courtesy of Darryl Smith via rgbstock.com

     

    I messed up.

    For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been “writing” (in my head) a post on being fallow. Because that’s how I’ve been feeling: like a field with tapped-out soil that’s being rested in order to be more productive later.

    You see, I did what I said I’d do a few months ago and sought help for my depression. It has been a beautiful, beautiful thing. I’m sleeping (mostly). I’m not having random anxiety attacks. I’m present for my family. I haven’t visited TMZ.com even once. I have enough energy to make my kids do their chores.

    But no writing. My drive and discipline seemed to vanish with my desperation.

    I wasn’t stuck, just … still. Which made sense. I’d twisted myself into such a tight, unyielding corkscrew of disappointment and frustration over my writing that there wasn’t going to be a SHAZZAM when all was made okay in an instant. It would take time. And I’d have to decide — over and over — not to follow the comfy brain paths I’d worn in during my depressed period. I’d have to choose to put good nutrients back in my tired soil.

    So I started reading again: romance, history, mystery, speculative fiction, science, memoir. While I painted and redid my kids’ rooms, I listened to audiobooks of two Harry Potter and three Rick Riordan novels.

    I let myself be fallow, and didn’t pressure myself to write much more than Facebook posts and Goodreads reviews (including for The Good News of Revelation, a longer and more reflective review of which will be forthcoming in this space).

    And I took some risks. The Japanese student who lived with us for 9 days was a good risk. Joining the adult “beginner” soccer league (that was not so beginner) was less so. Then there was signing up for the Festival of Faith and Writing.

    Which was where I messed up.

    Does anyone out there remember phones with cords? Do you remember winding the cord around itself until the only remedy was to unplug the knotted cord from the body of the phone and hold it so the receiver dangled? And when you did that, it’d slowly untwist at first, but then it’d get faster and faster? (If this is not in your memory banks, visualize a figure skater doing a tight spin that speeds up until he or she is just a blur.) Well, if all my earlier soil restoration strategies were the slow untangling of the cord of my frustration (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), then the Festival was a giant pile of soil conditioner followed by a glorious rain that spun my phone receiver around like crazy. So that I no longer feel fallow.

    I’d been so wanting to write a non-triumphalist narrative, to write about being fallow while in the midst of it. But, being fallow, I waited too long. And seeds were sown and fertilized this past weekend. Good seeds. Good fertilizer.

    Because it’s how God rolls, this even fits with my theme for the year — softheartedness. The phrase that the New Living Translation renders as “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts,” appears as “Break up your fallow ground” in the New Revised Standard Version (Jeremiah 4:3).

    That isn’t to say that I’ve already got a healthy crop growing. It’s not like I’ve forsaken online Boggle, or severely limited my time on Facebook, or even reduced the number of blogs I read (if anything, after the Festival, I have more). But I’ve written this, and actually have ideas and plans for more. I’m moving forward with submitting It Is You and revising its sequel again.

    Resistance is already dialing up to meet my challenge. After months of waking up at 5:30 a.m., last night I decided to take inspiration from Anne Lamott and do some writing before the craziness of the day started. Resistance got me up at least 8 times over the course of the night so I’d be too tired and already too harried to write. Did it work? No. But I’ve got to give props to a good attempt. Now I have to keep at it until I wear new habit grooves in my brain.

    Although I’m sorry I didn’t get you my in-the-midst post, I’m grateful for my four fallow months and for the Festival of Faith and Writing. I needed them both.

    How is your field? Fallow? Fertilized? Highly productive?

      Compassion for Jesus?

      In 1988, I did a bad thing. Well, I didn’t think it was bad, but the fact that other people did made it all the more delicious.

      I went to see the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

      Kind of funny now, I know, but back then, during the height of the furor around the movie, it felt naughty. It wasn’t playing in the conservative city where I attended a Christian college, so a friend and I drove for an hour to see it, giddy with anticipation of the blasphemy to come.

      The movie did not disappoint. A Jesus who waffled, unsure of who he was and what his message was? Check. Sexual overtones with Mary Magdalene? Check. Extensive fantasy scene in which he comes off the cross, doesn’t die for our sins and even confronts later Christians with his physical, non-dead presence? Check.

      I giggled in glee at the prospect of writing my review for the school paper.

      But then there was one scene that didn’t go for shock value, and that one scene made me reevaluate not just the movie, but my appreciation of Jesus’ story.

      The Garden of Gethsemane…

      Please click here for the rest of this post, part of the Stations of the Cross series hosted by Emily McFarlan Miller.

        Blessed Are The Listeners

        I recently told the story of The Wise Man and The Foolish Man (who build houses on rock and sand, respectively) in children’s worship, but forgot to add the line I wanted to include at the end:

        In Jesus’s story, the wise person is the one who listens and follows, not the one who knows the most. Which means that even you (kids) can be wise, because anyone can listen to what Jesus says and follow it.

        It isn’t a perfect fit, because “the one who listens and follows” is like the wise man who builds his house upon the rock, which he presumably does because he knows that rock makes for a firmer foundation than sand. The wise person has to know who to listen to, but once that’s in place, the wise person is the one who listens for and listens to the voice of God, and follows it.

        Not the smartest person in the room. Not the one with the degree. Not the one who makes all kinds of pronouncements about what you should and shouldn’t do. Not the one with the “best” theology. A wise person can be and do and have those things, but those things aren’t necessarily a sign of wisdom. Nor are they sufficient as a proof of wisdom.

        Listening and following are.

        There is some of this in Proverbs, too. I’ve written before about how crabby Proverbs makes me (Spotten on Wisdom), but I appreciate this:

        “But the wise, when rebuked, will love you all the more. Teach the wise, and they will be wiser. Teach the righteous, and they will learn more” (9:8-9, NLT).

        The wise person is teachable.

        Again, not the most knowledgeable, but the one who learns when faced with their unpleasant realities.

        Proverbs 10:17 People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger.

        I think of King David, a man with many unpleasant realities, but who God called a man after His own heart. When Nathan confronted him with his sin with Bathsheeba and Uriah, his response was simple, direct, and unescapable: “I have sinned against the Lord” (1 Samuel 12:13). Again, when he was fleeing the son who was trying to usurp the throne and a relative of Saul yelled curses at him, instead of agreeing to let his soldiers shut the man up, he says, “My own son is trying to kill me. Shouldn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it” (2 Samuel 16:11).

        On the other side, I think of poor King Saul who, when he went about business as usual, was smacked down by Samuel:  ”What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to His Voice? Obedience is far better than sacrifice. Listening to Him is much better than offering the fat of rams” (15:22). Saul never really “got” that lesson, and lived out his kingship in paranoia and fear.

        “If only you would listen to his voice today!
        The Lord says, “Don’t harden your hearts…” (Ps. 95:7-8a)

        Here again my theme for the year: softheartedness. We (you and me, both) cannot truly listen if our hearts are hardened to what God has to say. I daresay we cannot be wise if we are hardhearted.

        Can we expand this listening as wisdom idea to encompass not just God, but God’s children — our families, friends, spouses, people we love, people who make us uncomfortable, people we disagree with, people who are different from us? I think we can. After all, it’s usually through our relationships that we are forced to confront our unpleasant realities. God doesn’t only communicate with us through the Word, but also through other people. How can we be teachable if we don’t have a listening attitude? How can we have soft hearts to God and hard hearts to God’s children?

        What if we got better at listening than telling? At asking more questions instead of crafting tighter arguments?

        Listening is intimate. We have to quiet our egos, our need to be right, our need for other people to acknowledge how right we are. Being teachable means that we know we need correction. We have to fight against our natural urge to defend ourselves. And then there’s the following. Being wise is not an intellectual state. We have to live out our softheartedness with other people and their unpleasant and glorious realities. These things are the heart of wisdom.

        Moreover, these things are the fuel for the louder things we usually associate with wisdom: The demand for justice for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the debtor — all those who are considered “at risk” in or are ground down by our culture. The perceptive analysis of a state of affairs, whether in your own or someone else’s life, or in the life of the wider church, nation, or world. The call for us all to be more faithful and loving followers of Jesus.

        Wisdom is complicated: listening and speaking, being teachable and teaching, all while softheartedly following God.

        I’m writing this to, at the very least, remind myself to pursue the heart of wisdom and let anything I say, any argument I make, grow from its roots there.

         

         

          That’s not how you’re supposed to do it

          Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasseh (17th-century painting by Guercino)

          But Jacob crossed his arms as he reached out to lay his hands on the boys’ heads. So his right hand was on the head of Ephraim, the younger boy, and his left hand was on the head of Manasseh, the older … “I know what I’m doing, my son.” (Genesis 48: 14, 19)

          Jacob was 147, blind and dying. It was time to deliver his parting blessings to his children and grandchildren – a holy and emotional moment.

          While blessing the two sons of Joseph, his favorite son, he crossed his hands. In ancient Israel, the right hand was the “good” hand (maybe because they wiped after going to the bathroom with the left hand?), so it represented the greater blessing. The younger son was about to get the blessing that was supposed to go to the older.

          Even though he, himself, was a younger son who’d eclipsed his older brothers, Joseph didn’t like that one bit. He grabbed his father’s hands and tried to rearrange them to the expected position. But Jacob said it was no accident.

          Which follows a pattern in their family.

          Isaac was Ishmael’s younger brother, but Isaac inherited Abraham’s household. Jacob was Esau’s younger brother, but he tricked Esau out of the blind Isaac’s blessing. Joseph was one of Jacob’s younger sons, yet his brothers bowed down to him.

          In theory, any son could succeed his father as head of household; in practice, it was considered the oldest son’s legacy. But over and over in the Old Testament, a younger son received the greater blessing.

          That’s interesting, but what does that have to do with us?

          God is not bound by our norms. There are different norms now, depending on where you live, but our societies and cultures still have expectations and molds they expect you to fill depending on your gender, education, neighborhood, racial or ethnic identity, wealth or poverty, physical prowess or disability, intellectual capacity, etc. God has always called people to bust through these molds, and blessed the people who did, in His name.

          Even religious cultural norms. God is not bound by those, either.

          You might be the one being told, “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.” If so, you’re hopefully flush with passion and leaning on God’s guidance for how you’re working out your faith.

          But what if you’re the one saying the confused and anxious, “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it”? What if you’re Joseph, the once-rebel who now has a stake in maintaining the cultural status quo?

          There is anxiety for both the rebel and the gatekeeper, but the same path is open to both of them. Pray. Read the Bible. Pray some more.

          It takes a lot of trust to not be threatened when God calls someone to behave in a different way than your cultural norms dictate. Just as it takes a lot of trust in how God is leading you to oppose your dominant culture. Trust that God knows what He’s doing. Because He does.

            Finding myself in Joseph

            Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Guido Reni 1631

            I recently heard a sermon about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife that focused on how Joseph dealt with his sexual desire for Potiphar’s wife — he refused to act on it because it would be a sin against God, and when pressed, he fled. A fine message about how to deal with desire for someone you shouldn’t have sex with. With one problem. Nowhere in the passage does it mention that Joseph felt desire for Potiphar’s wife.

            True confessions: instead of listening with my full attention to the sermon, I was thinking about how I’d characterize what the story was really about.

            This is the first story of Joseph after his brothers faked his death and sold him to slave traders, who sold him to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s palace guard in Egypt. Joseph quickly became Potiphar’s favorite, because everything he did succeeded. So Potiphar gave him more and more responsibility until Joseph was running the entire household, and Potiphar “didn’t have a worry in the world, except to decide what he wanted to eat” (Genesis 39:6, NLT).

            After Joseph started running the household, the Bible tells us that Potiphar’s wife began to desire Joseph, and “invited him to sleep with her” (39:7). Oh, to have more details. Is “invited” the best translation of whatever that ancient word is? An invitation takes place between equals. It’s a hospitality word. It makes me imagine it as part of the day’s rundown of household work: “I’m craving fig cakes, so make sure we have enough. My favorite tunic is getting thin, so I need more flax. Get me some purple thread. I have a palace event to go to and my robes need more embroidery. And, if you have time, take care of me in bed, as well.”

            Whether it’s the correct translation or not, there remains the fact that Joseph and Potiphar’s wife are not equals. She owns him. He may be spoken of as Potiphar’s slave, and he may be running the entire household, but the fact remains that Joseph belonged to the household, and as the woman of the household, she owned him. As a slave, he had no right to determine what happened to him. His owners got to dictate everything about his day and his night. And you better believe that Joseph never forgot that fact — he used to be free to do as he wished, even more so than his brothers, since he was the favorite and coddled son, and now he was a slave. God was blessing the work he did, but he was still a slave, subject to the whims of his owners.

            So Potiphar’s wife’s “invitation” had the weight of her power over him behind it. Which makes it terrifying, not attractive; an occasion for fear, not desire. This isn’t a pleasant seduction, and it doesn’t really matter how attractive she may or may not have been. If he does what she demanded of him (let’s drop the whole “invitation” charade), then he’d be violating the trust of his owner, who would then be free to do anything to him — throw him in jail, cut off the offending member, kill him. So he refuses. She continues to pressure him, day after day, and he tries to avoid her. Until one day, when nobody else is around, she grabs his shirt and demands that he do the deed. He runs away, leaving his shirt behind. She cries rape, and Joseph is thrown into jail without a chance to defend himself. All his responsibilities and all his success gave him no advantage, because he was a slave.

            I have another reason for recognizing that the situation is not one of desire on Joseph’s part: I’ve been Joseph. Not so dramatically, thankfully, but with enough resonance that I could empathize with him.

            In my 20s, I worked for a stockbroker. I started out as a temp, doing basic data entry, but when they discovered the depth of my administrative skills, I was given more and more involved tasks to do, until I was working as an assistant for a newly-hired stockbroker. He was less than ten years older than me, fairly established in his career (or as established as anyone in that highly volatile field can be). He’d been fired from his previous employer, under some kind of cloud, and the previous employer was trash-talking him to his clients and trying to make sure his clients didn’t move with him to the new firm. Things were in flux, so I had a desk in his office. I ghost-wrote beautiful, heartfelt letters to his clients that helped convince them to move with him to the new firm. Anything he gave me to do, I did it, quickly and very well. He could count on me, so he gave me more and more responsibility. I was hired on full-time.

            And then it started. If he had to show me something, he’d pull his chair up right next to mine until our arms or legs were touching; if I scootched away, he’d pull my chair back until we were touching again. If he had to pass me in a doorway or hallway, he’d brush up against me. He’d talk about my hair or my clothes in very flattering ways. After one letter that meant two extremely wealthy clients would stay with him, he kissed me on the top of my head. He called me endearing terms with more affection than he exhibited when he spoke about his wife. He made a point of mentioning that he had an empty apartment on the upper east side. He was attractive and fit. He praised my work effusively. He was rich.

            Did I feel desire for him? No.

            Discomfort and anxiety, yes. Sure, the early compliments were nice and I was flattered by his praise of my work, but once the rest of it started up, even the compliments made my stomach twist. His actions towards me were expressions of his power over me as his employee. I experienced them as coercion, not invitation. I was not remotely tempted to take him up on his implied offer.

            I tried what Joseph tried, just keeping away from him, keeping my distance. But he was my boss, and I wanted to keep the job, so there was only so much I could do. I put up with it for not even 3 months before leaving — letting them know exactly why I was leaving and getting some “severance” pay for my troubles. Because I was an employee and not a slave, I had rights.

            Joseph was not so lucky. God used it all for glory, but those weeks (or however long it was) when Potiphar’s wife was hounding him had to be full of anxiety, if not outright fear. He was not fighting desire for a woman — he was fighting to keep his position and his life. In some ways, though, Joseph was lucky: he was a man. A female slave in that situation didn’t have the option of “no.” She’d be raped and tossed aside when she became inconvenient — think of Hagar, “given” to Abraham and then cast out into the desert with her young son. Heck, even wives didn’t have the option of “no” — think of Sarah, told to masquerade as Abraham’s sister and entering the households of a couple of foreign kings (and what was asked of her there?) because Abraham was afraid they’d kill him if they knew she was his wife.

            So I submit that the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is only about sex on the surface. Underneath, it’s really about power and powerlessness, coercion and fear.

             

              Softheartedness

              It’s all over the Old Testament:  the people of God are hardhearted, and it’s a big problem.

              This is what the Lord says to the people of Judah and Jerusalem: “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts! Do not waste your good seed among thorns.” Jeremiah 4:3

              I said, ‘Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you.’ Hosea 10:12

              They made their hearts as hard as stone, so they could not hear the instructions or the messages that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies had sent them by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. That is why the Lord of Heaven’s Armies was so angry with them. Zechariah 7:12

              It leaks over into the New Testament, too.

              For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes— so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’ Matthew 13:15

              Hard hearts are associated with empty worship, allowing or perpetrating injustice for the oppressed, and lack of mercy in business and other interpersonal dealings. It doesn’t have to do with whether emotions are sufficiently mushy. It’s a spiritual condition.

              I bring this up because this is what I’m working on in the new year: the stubborn nub of hard heartedness in me. That part of me that not only needs to be right, but needs for you to acknowledge my rightness and punish yourself accordingly. This is not a helpful need. It has blocked progress in our attempts at beating back our marital Big Nagging Issue. Not to mention the stupid bickering about some nothing item.

              That part of me that keeps me safe in my pharisaical bubble of sureness that “I’d never do that,” whenever I see some that that annoys me.

              The part of me that retreats into hermit-ness way, way too often.

              The part of me that became so disappointed at the struggle of life this past year that it interrupted my spiritual habits, my gratitude for what I have, my ability to recognize solutions. I wasted way too much time in “It wasn’t supposed to be like this” land.

              So there it is. I’ll be working on becoming more spiritually soft hearted, which encompasses listening better, watching deeper, loosening the packed soil of my heart for God to work in. Other than praying for it (and being on the lookout for what God will show me), one of the practical things I’m doing is getting help for my depression — I’ve been clutching it to me like a bad friend for too long.

              I have a feeling this year is going to be a doozy.

                More Than We Can Ask or Imagine

                Today we’re going to talk about one of my favorite Bible verses, but first, we’re going to talk about this.

                What can we do with a mandarin orange? We can eat it. We can make it into juice. We can put that juice into muffins. Maybe we can even toss it in the air and catch it. Really talented people might even be able to juggle a bunch of them at the same time. Can you imagine anything else we can do with it?

                How about this … can you imagine it as a lamp?

                First, cut the peel around the equator and loosen it all the way around.

                 

                When you peel the halves away, try to keep the center thingy attached to one of the halves, but if you can’t manage it, you can pluck it out and stick it back onto one of the halves.

                Now, mostly fill the half with the “wick” with oil (olive oil, canola oil, any household oil) and light the wick. It might take a few tries, especially if the wick is too high above the surface of the oil.

                Look at that. I made a mandarin orange into a lamp. Did you think I could do it? Is this what you imagined it would look like?

                This orange lamp reminds me of … me. When I was your age, I was really, really shy. I would’ve been too shy to come up in front of church in front of everyone to listen to a children’s message — just like some of you have been, just like some kids who are sitting with their grownups right now.

                But here I am. Up front. Not just listening, but talking. And sometimes dancing. And doing it happily. I couldn’t have imagined that when I was a kid. I don’t know that I ever even asked God to help me be better at being in front of people. But God kept giving me gifts and passions and starting me out small and building me up until here I am.

                So here’s the Bible verse, from Ephesians 3, verse 20 (from The Message):

                God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.

                That was true for me. And I know it’ll be true for you.

                Because I could turn this mandarin orange into a lamp and I’m not very amazing, but God is totally amazing. I wonder what amazing things he’s going to do with you as you grow up….

                I have one more thing to show you. First, I have to cut a hole in the other half of the mandarin orange to make a lid.

                Look what happens when I put the lid on.

                Did you know that the peel had all these little circles? They were invisible before, but now we can see them.

                That reminds me of me again. When I was your age, I had no idea I could dance. I didn’t even want to dance. I wasn’t taking lessons or anything. But as I got older, that changed, and I discovered I loved dancing and I could to it and I did it more and more, in classes and then in church, until it became a big part of how I serve and worship God. I didn’t know it was there … but God did.

                I wonder what’s already inside of you that you have no idea about … but God does.

                I wonder what God imagines for you.

                I can’t wait to see.

                This is the text of the children’s message I gave at my church on January 5, 2014. 

                 

                 

                  for when you enter the darkness

                  And Moses entered into the deep darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:21, NLT)

                  In the few months before this moment, the Israelites had experienced the 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the daily gifts of manna and quail, water pouring from a rock, and a miraculous defeat of the Amalekites. They were camped at the base of Mount Sinai. Moses was getting a workout, climbing the mountain to talk to God, going back down to tell the people what God said, taking what the people said back up the mountain to God, and then back down, etc.

                  It didn’t take much of this before God decided to speak to the people directly. He became present on the top of Mount Sinai in a thick cloud accompanied by thunder, lightning, earth shaking, and fire.

                  What was so important that God wanted to thunder it to the people directly? The Ten Commandments, with their four ways to love God and six ways to love people. The Israelites hadn’t been in charge of themselves for many, many generations, and they needed guidance at the most basic of levels, but they were too terrified to hear anything straight from the Lord Himself, so Moses went into the deep darkness where God was to listen to the rest of what God wanted to say.

                  Deep darkness. Where God already was.

                  Biblical darkness is usually a metaphor for the sin or death or evil that God’s light illuminates. Over and over, the Bible tells us that God is the light, that God brings light, that what God illuminates itself becomes a light. Later in Exodus, we learn that Moses’ face glowed so much from all the time he spent in God’s presence that he had to wear a veil so as not to freak the people out.

                  But here, God is in the deep darkness. And Moses joined Him there. God didn’t need to make the darkness light to be present there.

                  Sometimes we enter times and places of darkness, whether emotional or physical. And we feel like God can’t be there because we feel no light penetrating. But God can be present in the deepest darkness – already waiting for you. He may bring His light, or He may just be with you. But God is there.

                    One vulnerable risk led to my favorite Thanksgiving

                    I apologize ahead of time to my families: my favorite Thanksgiving was not with you. While I’ve had some lovely 4th Thursdays in November with you — eaten great food (including my triumph of a turkey last year), laughed, and even heard some good lines that have lived on (“You’re not my uncle, you’re just a random person,” and “Dong Wong’s thongs,” among others) — the Thanksgiving that shines the warmest in my memory was one from our early married, New York City, days.

                    It was our second non-family Thanksgiving. After we got married, the plan had been to spend Thanksgiving with one side and then Christmas with the other. It took only one season of that for us to realize how nuts that was, and we spent the November holiday in New York, with our friends. I know it was the second one, because I was working for a college textbook company, not the sexual-harrassing-stockbroker I worked for after quitting grad school.

                    On Wednesday, at the very end of the day, after everyone with clout was already gone and it was just recently-hired assistants and other down-in-the-pecking-order folks left, one of my co-workers approached my low wall. I don’t remember his name (because I’m a terrible person*), so let’s call him Guy. Let’s say it in our heads in the French pronunciation so it sounds less generic: Gee (still hard-g, people).

                    He spoke quietly, so I had to lean across my desk to hear him. His Thanksgiving plans had fallen through so he was wondering whether I had room at my celebration. We were friendly, but not particularly friends. What he had done was so vulnerable, so risky, that I immediately said there was room, even though the meal was not at my house and none of the other people knew him. A few minutes later, a mutual work friend told me the real deal: he’d planned to go to one of the editor’s houses, but the editor’s spouse had just found out/figured out that said editor had been having an affair with a co-worker (not Guy); Thanksgiving was no longer going to be a cozy, welcoming affair, and Guy was disinvited.

                    The place was in Williamsburg before it was gentrified, in a warehouse just a couple of blocks from the East River, in a neighborhood of warehouses. There was often a semi-truck rig idling outside. This was not a fancy converted warehouse, so get the visions from Dwell Magazine out of your heads. I was the only female person there. There were old rock-and-roll-band friends of my husband, one of the first friends I’d made after moving to NY for grad school, possibly another guy who lived there and maybe a friend of his, my husband, me, and Guy. The guys were in charge of all the food except for the pumpkin chiffon pie (a pie I bring every year, wherever I am; it is a ridiculous amount of work, but it is that good).

                    I may have had a moment or two of horror at how little cooking had been done when I got there, but, for once, I went with the flow. I believe I drank enough wine that I didn’t get too hangry (so hungry I was angry). One friend had recently bought a lovely and simple mezzaluna in Chinatown, and I happily rolled it back and forth over bunches of herbs. I tried really, really hard not to get all take-over-y in the kitchen. Not sure how successful I was, but I tried.

                    And laughed. My main memory of that day was of warmth and of laughter. We’d been at it awhile when Guy arrived (probably with more wine), so he got a good welcome. Not sure if we actively commiserated with his sucky situation or just folded him into the festivities, but the cooking and snacking and drinking went on for hours. This group of guys sometimes had some tension (anyone who’s been a band can probably relate), but I think having Guy there diffused all that; we were all our best selves, coming together for him.

                    Then we ate. And ate. It was all so delicious. After dinner we played the dictionary game — someone chose a word out of the actual dictionary and we all came up with definitions, which we shared and voted on before finding out what the real def. was. It was raucous. At the end of the evening we went for a walk by the East River. Happily, the molasses smell from the nearby sugar factory overwhelmed any other East River odors. We stayed until the frigid wind blew through our remaining alcohol haze.

                    I smiled the whole way home on the subway. Actually, probably not. It took 45-60 minutes to get to Astoria from Williamsburg. But it was still good.

                    * It should be noted that my husband’s memory for names is so awesome that it’s almost a superpower, yet he can’t remember this guy’s name, either.

                    If things aren’t too hectic where you are, I’d love to know about your favorite Thanksgiving.