Scratching the Surface

How is faith to endure, O God,
when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us?
You have allowed rivers of blood to flow,
mountains of suffering to pile up,
sobs to become humanity’s song–
all without lifting a finger that we could see.
You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped.
If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

We strain to hear.
But instead of hearing an answer
we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn.
Through our tears we see the tears of God.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?”  

This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well.
But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,
Nor has He turned away His face from me;
And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken.
Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken.
Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair.

And that is everything.
That is Good Friday and it is hope,
it is life in this darkened age,
and it is the life of the world to come.
~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”

Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge …
and sheer destructiveness break forth.

The cross stands before us to remind us of this depth of ourselves so that we can never forget.

Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”

 I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.

This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit.

The empty cross is planted there to remind us:
suffering is real but not the end,
victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”

The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion;
others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr.
He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born;
for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after,
and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last.

His birth and his death were but one continual act,
and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are
but the evening and the morning of one and the same day.
From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line.
Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter.
It can have no meaning apart from that, where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.
~John Donne
his opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

Anytime we assume God in heaven could not possibly understand
the loneliness and rejection we feel
the pain and discouragement we endure
the hatred that taints our communities
the suffering that is part of living inside these frail vessels, our bodies.
Surely, we think — if there was a God, He would do something about it:

He reminds us today
of all days
He was scraped and torn – no scratching the surface, but gouged deep.
He knows exactly what we endure
because He wasn’t spared.

He took it all on Himself — our affliction became His.

Paid in full.

Leaving the Wilderness: The Worst We Can Do

In a daring and beautiful creative reversal,
God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Isaiah 52: 13-15

When I was wounded
whether by God, the devil, or myself
—I don’t know yet which—
it was seeing the sparrows again
and clumps of clover, after three days,
that told me I hadn’t died.
When I was young,
all it took were those sparrows,
those lush little leaves,
for me to sing praises,
dedicate operas to the Lord.
But a dog who’s been beaten
is slow to go back to barking
and making a fuss over his owner
—an animal, not a person
like me who can ask:
Why do you beat me?
Which is why, despite the sparrows and the clover,
a subtle shadow still hovers over my spirit.
May whoever hurt me, forgive me.
~Adelia Prado “Divine Wrath” translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson

Emmet Till’s mother
speaking over the radio

She tells in a comforting voice
what it was like to touch her dead boy’s face,

how she’d lingered and traced
the broken jaw, the crushed eyes–

the face that badly beaten, disfigured—
before confirming his identity.

And then she compares his face to
the face of Jesus, dying on the cross.

This mother says no, she’d not recognize
her Lord, for he was beaten far, far worse

than the son she loved with all her heart.
For, she said, she could still discern her son’s curved earlobe,

but the face of Christ
was beaten to death by the whole world.
~Richard Jones “The Face” from Between Midnight and Dawn

Too many people today continue to be crushed, disfigured, beaten and left for dead–

for taking a stand, or being the wrong color, the wrong faith, the wrong tribe, or simply being different enough to trigger distrust and hatred.

And so it was with our Lord. He walked into the hornet’s nest of Jerusalem fully knowing such an overwhelming attack was coming.

Crushed, broken and delivered into His Father’s arms as His mother wept over Him.

Yet He took the worst that could be done to Him and turned it into the best that He could do for us. We are stung forever by His Love.

Waiting in Wilderness: God Will See Us Through

My Lord, my Lord,
Long have I cried out to Thee
In the heat of the sun,
The cool of the moon,
My screams searched the heavens for Thee.
My God,
When my blanket was nothing but dew,
Rags and bones
Were all I owned,
I chanted Your name
Just like Job.

Father, Father,
My life give I gladly to Thee
Deep rivers ahead
High mountains above
My soul wants only Your love
But fears gather round like wolves in the dark.
Have You forgotten my name?
O Lord, come to Your child.
O Lord, forget me not.

You said to lean on Your arm
And I’m leaning
You said to trust in Your love
And I’m trusting
You said to call on Your name
And I’m calling
I’m stepping out on Your word.

Into the alleys
Into the byways
Into the streets
And the roads
And the highways
Past rumor mongers
And midnight ramblers
Past the liars and the cheaters and the gamblers.
On Your word
On Your word.
On the wonderful word of the Son of God.
I’m stepping out on Your word.

~Maya Angelou from “Just Like Job”

Once again — and again and again — bullets have been fired out of evil intent by disturbed and hate-filled men, striking down people who look (and are) just like us. 

Weeping never needs translation or interpretation, no matter what color cheeks they moisten.

Distrust and fear continue to impact us daily, settling like a shroud over the most routine activities – going to school, going grocery shopping, going to church. It isn’t just a virus that threatens us; it is being targeted in someone’s gun sight.

In order to even walk out the door in the morning, we must fall back on what we are told, each and every day, in 365 different verses in God’s Word itself:

Fear not.

Do not be overwhelmed with evil but overcome evil with good.

We shall overcome despite evil and our fear of each other.

The goal of this life is to live for others, to live in such a way that death cannot erase the meaning and significance of a life.  We are called to give up our selfish agendas in order to consider the dignity of others and their greater good. We are called to keep weapons out of the hands of those who would use them to harm themselves or others, which means better screening, longer waiting periods, improved tracking of ownership.

It is crystal clear from Christ’s example as we observe His journey to the cross over the next week: we are to cherish life, all lives, born and unborn, even unto death. Christ forgave those who hated and murdered Him.

Our only defense against the evil we witness is God’s offense. Only God can lead us to Tolkien’s “where everything sad will come untrue”, where we shall live in peace, walk hand in hand, no longer alone, no longer afraid, no longer shedding tears of grief and sorrow, but tears of relief and joy.

We shall all be free. We shall overcome because God does.

We shall overcome

We shall live in peace

We’ll walk hand in hand

We shall all be free

We are not afraid

We are not alone

God will see us through

We shall overcome

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction….
The chain reaction of evil —
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars —
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Strength to Love

Waiting in Wilderness: The Light Unseen

Six days of work are spent
To make a Sunday quiet
That Sabbath may return.
It comes in unconcern;
We cannot earn or buy it.
Suppose rest is not sent
Or comes and goes unknown,
The light, unseen, unshown.
Suppose the day begins
In wrath at circumstance,
Or anger at one’s friends
In vain self-innocence
False to the very light,
Breaking the sun in half,
Or anger at oneself
Whose controverting will
Would have the sun stand still.
The world is lost in loss
Of patience; the old curse
Returns, and is made worse
As newly justified.
In hopeless fret and fuss,
In rage at worldly plight
Creation is defied,
All order is unpropped,
All light and singing stopped
~Wendell Berry “Sabbath Poem V”

On the calendar, this past pandemic year contained just as many Sabbath days as any other year. Even so, we Christians allowed these fifty-plus precious days of rest to be broken by our own impatience and anger.

As a result of pandemic concerns and government regulations, many churches stopped meeting and even now continue to only worship virtually. Others blithely ignored the risks and continued to meet as they always had. Some tried to find an uneasy middle ground, meeting with restrictions on seating and indoor singing.

It felt like the Son Himself and His Light had been broken in half — the body of Christ divided.

The pandemic may be in its waning months but how will the church recover? Will friends find unity again after months of separation, disagreement and antipathy? Can healing reach into our pews and bond our prayers back together?

I have struggled to find rest on these Sabbath days, to look forward to meeting together with my brothers and sisters in the body. I am challenged by my tendency to fret and fuss. I need forgiveness for my attitude and I need to show forgiveness for those who see things differently.

The Lord knows what He is doing with His people, illuminating our divided hearts. Even in the darkest hour, He took on all our imperfections and failings and made them right.

May His broken Light be healed, our corrupted hearts be made whole and may our singing begin once again.

Waiting in Wilderness: There is a Crack in Everything

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Ah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

The flaw is no more
noticeable, even to me,
than a new moth-hole
in my sweater, or
a very bald spot
on the fabric of
my velvet vest.

Yet when
I hold the cloth
up to the window
the sunlight
bleeds through.
~Luci Shaw “Defect”

My many cracks seem to expand with age:
do they not heal as quickly
or am I more brittle than before?

I know how my eyes leak,
my heart feels more porous.
The events of the day break me open even wider.

Yet the Light pours in
to illuminate my wounds old and new.
Let the world know
that after the hurt comes healing.

May I become the perfect offering.

Waiting in Wilderness: Becoming His Cells

The whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—
that we are his fingers and muscles,
the cells of His body
.
~C.S. Lewis
from Mere Christianity

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1Corinthians 12:27

Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes,
you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
~Teresa of Avila

When I am awake in the night to attend to those who are hurting,
some who have been hurt by illness, injury or abuse or
who hurt themselves to escape their hopelessness,
I remember, in my own weariness,
this dear one too is part of His body,
one of the cells
that adjoins the cell that is me,
each of us critical to the life
raised in the body of Christ.

Why have have so many of us Christians forgotten this in the last year?
How can we not care first and foremost for the vulnerable,
for our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,
as well as those who we don’t know and don’t yet know Christ,
by doing whatever we can,
whether it is the inconvenience of masking
or accepting the low risk of an effective vaccine,
to shield others and ourselves from potential harm
and end this painful time of pandemic history?

Pastor Tim Keller has said:
Christians are called by God to be living so sacrificially and beautifully that the people around us, who don’t believe what we believe, will soon be unable to imagine the world without us.

Thank you to David French, Michael Luo, and Scott Sauls for their insights into the role of Christ’s church during the pandemic and how we can do better in living out our mandate as the body and cells of Christ.

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary,
bless the dying,
soothe the suffering,
pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous;
and all for your loves sake.
Amen.
~Common Book of Prayer

Waiting in Wilderness: I Seem to be Lost

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always,
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.
~Thomas Merton “Prayer” from Thoughts in Solitude

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kyrie eleison, have mercy,
christe eleison, have mercy.

We are all alike in this one way
when we can barely agree about anything else –
We are all lost,
wandering weeping wretched

It is when I am shown mercy
that I become mercy,
loving where others show hate
giving where others take away
building up where others tear down.

We are found:
we become Christ where we live
because He renews in us through His sacrifice
a new life in Him.

Waiting in Wilderness: A Time of Treading Life

This is the wilderness time,
when every path is obscure
and thorns have grown around the words of hope.

This is the time of stone, not bread,
when even the sunrise feels uncertain
and everything tastes of bitterness.

This is the time of ashes and dust,
when darkness clothes our dreams
and no star shines a guiding light.

This is the time of treading life,
waiting for the swells to subside and for the chaos to clear.

Be the wings of our strength, O God,
in this time of wilderness waiting.
– Keri Wehlander from “600 Blessings and Prayers from around the world” compiled by Geoffrey Duncan

He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:4

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness,
is like being commanded to be well when we are sick,
to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst,
to run when our legs are broken.
But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless.
Even in the wilderness- especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.   
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember:Uncollected Pieces

I usually think of wilderness as a distant peak far removed from anything or anyone.  From my farmhouse window on a clear day, I can see a number of distant peaks if the cloud cover moves away to reveal them.

Or perhaps the wilderness is a desolate plain that extends for miles without relief in sight.

Wilderness is also found in an isolated corner of my human heart. I keep it far removed from anything and anyone. During my televisit computer work,  I witness this wilderness in others, many times every day.

A diagnosis of “wilderness of the heart” doesn’t require a psychiatric manual: 
there is despair, discouragement, disappointment, lack of gratitude, lack of hope. 
One possible treatment to tame that wilderness is a covenantal obedience to God and others. It reaches so deep no corner is left untouched.

There come times in one’s life, and this past year especially, when loving God as commanded seems impossible. We are too broken, too frightened, too ill and too wary to trust God with faith and devotion.  We are treading life simply to stay afloat.

During this second Lenten pandemic, God’s love becomes respite and rescue from the wilderness of my own making. He is the sweet cure for a bitter and broken heart.

Waiting in Wilderness: Swallowed with All Hope

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.
~Dan Albergotti “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” from The Boatloads.

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah 4:4

Most of us feel as though we were swallowed into the belly of the whale a year ago. We are treading water in the dark, disoriented and not just a little angry. All we can see of the outside world is a bit of blue sky through a tiny hole above us.

We try to imagine what life was like before the pandemic swallowed up our light and hope but if you are like me, you are grumpy.

Yet the belly of the whale is not forever. It is a time of contemplation with little distraction other than our own emotions. We’ll soon be regurgitated back onto the shore of our trivial pursuits and busyness where suddenly it will feel too noisy with too many demands.

This quiet time is meant to teach something to each of us, even if it is just to count the ribs, gaze into our own darkness and contemplate how we were trying to escape when God asked something of us.

I think of all the things I did and could have done, but resisted when the Lord asked me.
It is time that I stop being angry and start to listen.

1. Courage, my soul, and let us journey on,
Tho’ the night is dark, it won’t be very long.
Thanks be to God, the morning light appears,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

Chorus: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

2. Billows rolling high, and thunder shakes the ground,
Lightnings flash, and tempest all around,
Jesus walks the sea and calms the angry waves,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

[Chorus]

3. The stars have disappeared, and distant lights are dim,
My soul is filled with fears, the seas are breaking in.
I hear the Master cry, “Be not afraid, ’tis I,”
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

[Chorus]

4. Soon we shall reach the distant shining shore,
Free from all the storms, we’ll rest forevermore.
Safe within the veil, we’ll furl the riven sail,
And the storm will all be over, Hallelujah!

Waiting in Wilderness: Moving Mountains Closer

I tell you the truth,
if you have faith as small as a mustard seed,
you can say to this mountain,
`Move from here to there’ and it will move.
Nothing will be impossible for you.
Matthew 17:20

How pale is the sky that brings forth the rain
As the changing of seasons prepares me again
For the long bitter nights and the wild winter’s day
My heart has grown cold, my love stored away
My heart has grown cold, my love stored away

I’ve been to the mountain, left my tracks in the snow
Where souls have been lost and the walking wounded go
I’ve taken the pain, no girl should endure
But faith can move mountains of that I am sure
Faith can move mountains of that I am sure

Just get me through December
A promise I’ll remember
Get me through December
So I can start again

No divine purpose brings freedom from sin
And peace is a gift that must come from within
And I’ve looked for the love that will bring me to rest
Feeding this hunger beating strong in my chest
Feeding this hunger beating strong in my chest

~Gordie Sampson & Fred Lavery

It is winter in Narnia… and has been for ever so long
…. always winter, but never Christmas.
~C. S. Lewis from The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe

We’ve been traveling through a wilderness of the pandemic for nearly a year, even as the calendar has changed from spring to summer to autumn and in December back to winter. In this winter wilderness, we struggle with the chill of isolation from each other and from God, the endless discouragement and fatigue, and the hot cold of resentment and anger.

We are called in the gospel of Matthew to leave behind our helplessness when overwhelmed by pervasive wilderness. He tells us to believe, even if it is only the tiniest grain of faith. Our cold hearts love and hunger for God.

So if we can’t make it to the mountain in the distance, our faith can move the mountain closer. God hears our plea and brings His peace to us by bringing Himself as close as the beating heart in our chest. There will be a Christmas again and there will be Easter.