Alabaster

He threw his head back, shaking the shoulder-length matted hair off of his sweaty face, and took a deep breath. It was then that he caught the faint scent: her perfume. He slumped down again, head drooping forward, and as his hair veiled the horrific scene around him, memories flooded his mind.

Could it really only have been three days* ago? So much had happened since then.

What a difference three days can make.

They had passed through her town and, like usual, had stopped by her house. He was always welcome there and indeed, her family would have been hurt if he had passed them by. He would not have missed visiting them for anything—especially not this trip.

He had tried to explain; tried to tell them all. But it seemed no one could grasp what he was saying—nobody but her, that is. He could tell from the pain in her eyes, and the paleness of her cheek that she understood all to clearly. He ached as she rushed from the room. This was not the way he had wanted to say good-bye.

Perhaps she would seek him out in a more private moment, so they could speak the words left unsaid between them.

She had always been the quiet one, overshadowed by an over-achieving sister and a celebrity brother. Maybe that’s the reason she seemed to listen to him more deeply than most, hearing with more than just her ears. Although he was surrounded by many who cared but rarely understood, her perceptiveness somehow made him feel less alone.

Heavy at heart, he had left their home. She had not returned, but he had to move on. On to a party that evening, and then on his way first thing in the morning. On to more celebration, but also, he knew, to incredible loss, pain and sorrow. The storm that awaited him hung on him like a shroud.

He had done his best, though, to shake it off during the evening meal. The host welcomed him warmly and his traveling companions strove to lift his spirits. They knew he was troubled, but hoped against hope that it was just a passing mood.

Suddenly there was a stir at the door. Voices raised, there was a scuffle, and then she pushed her way through. Even he was surprised. It was not her way to make a scene in public.

Her eyes locked on his as she moved toward him silently. He could tell she had been crying, but there was a solid steadiness about her that he had never seen before. Her jaw was set stubbornly as she pushed through the thick silence that filled the room.

When she reached him she knelt to be even with his face. Two dozen pairs of eyes glared at her, challenging her right to be there, but the only ones she cared about were his. He hoped she could read in them the gladness that filled his heart at seeing her once more.

With a strength that gave elegance to her every move, she pulled out a small stone bottle and in one swift downward motion broke its fragile neck on the edge of the table.

A gasp filled the room, as a pungent aroma told guests all they needed to know about the contents of the vial, and its significance.

Silently she stood behind him and tipped the bottle. The perfume ran down his hair, his face, his beard. Pandemonium broke out in the room, as guests protested the impropriety of her actions. But the two of them remained unmoved, still in the middle of the storm.

When the last drop of the precious liquid had been poured out she stepped back. The bottle dropped to the ground and shattered as her shoulders sagged and her hands fell limp to her side. She seemed spent and unsure after such an extravagant display of love.

Voices raised in volume all around him, faces filled with scorn. For a moment the stench of fear that oozed from his companions overpowered the sweet fragrance of her gift—for she had dared to acknowledge and act upon a truth that they had all been desperate to deny.

He sprang to his feet to defend her, and although his words were addressed to those around him, they were for her alone. “She has done a beautiful thing. She has done what she could.”

He saw his words sink deeply into her soul. She smiled faintly at him even as her eyes brimmed with tears. He smiled back gently. Their good-bye had been said.

For the next three days, the fragrance of that gift had lingered, in his hair, on his clothes, in his heart. Something about it comforted him, gave him courage.

Now, in his darkest hour, he threw back his head and gulped the air again. Once more he inhaled that sweetness as he filled his lungs. He cried out. “It. Is. Finished.” His knees buckled and his body sagged as his head fell limp to his chest. Broken. Poured out. An extravagant display of love.

 

Epilogue:
I sobbed upon hearing the details of his betrayal and agonizing death. I ached to have been there, to have provided even the smallest amount of comfort. I had done what I could but it was so insufficient.

I grieved for him as deeply as I had my brother, so dear was this man to my soul.

But then, just like my brother, once more he stood in front of me—whole, healthy, full of life and laughter. He assured me that I had been with him the whole time.

What a difference three days can make.

– – – – – – – –

*The timing indicated in this writing follows Mark’s account of Jesus’ last days (Mark 14:3–9). The identity of the woman as Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus is supported by John’s gospel.

 

 

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The Goodly Fere

by Ezra Pound*
(Fere = mate, companion)

Simon Zelotes speaking after the Crucifixion.

HA’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.

When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he.

Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
“Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?” says he.

Oh we drank his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company.
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere,
But a man o’ men was he.

I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.

They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book, I think,
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.

If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”

“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he.
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
’Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”

A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.

He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free.
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue,
But never a cry cried he.

I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o’ Galilee.
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi’ his eyes like the gray o’ the sea.

Like the sea that brooks no voyaging,
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea that he cowed at Genseret
Wi’ twey words spoke suddently.

A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea.
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.

I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.

*Note from the blogger:
I know Ezra Pound did not lead an exemplary life in many respects, but I cannot help but be moved by this depiction of Jesus and His “power under control” at the crucifixion. 

Spiritual Love

“Therefore, spiritual love will prove successful insofar as it commends Christ to the other in all that it says and does. It will not seek to agitate another by exerting all too personal, direct influence or by crudely interfering in one’s life. It will not take pleasure in pious, emotional fervor and excitement. Rather, it will encounter the other with the clear word of God and be prepared to leave the other alone with this word for a long time. It will be willing to release others again so that Christ may deal with them. It will respect the other as the boundary that Christ establishes between us; and it will find full community with the other in the Christ who alone binds us together.

“This spiritual love will thus speak to Christ about the other Christian more than to the other Christian about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ and that love of the other is completely tied to the truth found in Christ.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Life Together
(emphasis mine)

the Good News

I cringed inwardly. “Even if you were the only person on earth, Jesus would have died just for you.” Why did this sit so poorly with me? The speaker was only reiterating things I have heard all my life. In the week that followed, Easter “media” echoed his message again and again. Facebook posts, blogs, worship songs. “Jesus died for me!”

Yet somehow this familiar refrain left me terribly uncomfortable. An inner voice kept crying, “This is all wrong. Jesus’ death was not primarily about ME. I am not the center of this story!”

My Sunday school training quickly kicked in, “No, of course not. It’s about Jesus.” But somehow even that answer didn’t satisfy.

Then it occurred to me that Jesus wasn’t even then center of His Own story.

A recent conversation with a friend echoed in my mind. “You know,” she said, “We have so personalized and individualized the gospel today. But it wasn’t always the case. The message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the disciples was that the Kingdom of God was coming. That was the good news.”

In describing His mission, Jesus often said that He must proclaim the Kingdom of God. Many of His parables began, “The kingdom of Heaven is like…”, and much of His teaching introduced a new way of living, a new way of thinking, that was out of step with the norms of his society—guidelines for citizens of a new Kingdom.

Jesus did not live to glorify Himself. He didn’t come to earth so that we could see the Father. Nor did He die so that I could be forgiven, have a personal relationship with Him, or live eternally.

He came, quite frankly, to turn the universe on its head; to bring about a new world order; to defeat evil once and for all and establish a Kingdom full of righteousness and peace.

In the process did He receive glory? Absolutely. Did those who saw him catch a glimpse of the Father? Of course. Did He provide a way for us to be cleansed of sin, live in loving relationship with Him, and never die? Thank God—yes, yes, and yes. But these are all small brush strokes in a bigger picture.

In His 33 years on earth, Jesus lived for something greater than His own personal story. In return, He invites each of us to live for something bigger than ourselves. The fact that we are given a part in the divine Story—invited to be citizens of this eternal Kingdom—should fill us with awe and wonder. It should make us feel small and humble and throw us to our knees in all-out worship.

Instead, we make Jesus’ time on earth about ourselves. This is understandable, in one sense, since His death is my only hope of life. But to distill the the mystery and magnificence of Jesus’ sacrifice down to simply what it means for me personally is to cheapen it, to miss the bigger picture, and to live small. Quite frankly, it is not Kingdom behavior.

As I walk away from Easter this year I am challenged to lift my eyes to something bigger than myself. I want this world to fade and become insubstantial, as I catch glimpses of the new Reality that Jesus brought about. I am hungry to learn more and more what it looks like to live each day as a citizen of this Kingdom.

Dance

Who heeds the poor organ grinder? None but myself and little Annie, whose feet begin to move in unison with the lively tune, as if she were loth that music should be wasted without a dance. But where would Annie find a partner? Some have the gout in their toes, or the rheumatism in their joints; some are stiff with age; some feeble with disease; some are so lean that their bones would rattle, and others of such ponderous size that their agility would crack the flag-stones; but many, many have leaden feet, because their hearts are far heavier than lead. It is a sad thought that I have chanced upon.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Little Annie’s Ramble

In the past year or so Jesus has been teaching me to dance. He has been asking me to live more lightly and freely. To find joy and delight in Him as I experience His presence in the small, every-day things. To give Him the burdens and troubles that weigh me down.

And for the most part, I am catching on. I am by nature an optimistic, positive person, so some of it comes easily. Releasing control and refusing to worry have been harder steps to master, but I’m getting better with practice. It has been a beautiful thing, learning the freedom of dancing in the moment with my Lord and Lover.

But a few nights ago, various things had piled up in my mind and my soul. I went to bed with heavy sighs and a few tears. I woke up in the morning, hoping the dawn would dispel the clouds that had hovered over me the night before. But they were still there, gray and dismal.

I heard a familiar Voice whisper in my ear, “Come, dance with Me.”

I sighed. “I can’t today. My heart is so heavy. There is no bounce in my step. I can’t bring myself to trip along merrily with You today.”

He looked at me with understanding. “That’s OK,” He said. “Just put your head here.” He patted His chest, right about where the heart is.

Gladly I buried my face into the warmth of His shoulder and felt His arms encircle me. I returned the embrace and rested against Him. He rocked me gently back and forth, and before I knew it we were moving. It was slow and rather sad, but it was unmistakably a dance.

And so I begin to see that His love is the music to which everything on earth moves. His melodies permeate every moment, and are suitable to every occasion. To dance with Him doesn’t merely mean to gambol giddily, always happy and carefree. It means, instead, to cling to His love in every situation, mindful of the beauty of His song, whether merry or melancholy. To heed and respond—loth that music should be wasted without a dance.

Life

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ sermon/essay “The Weight of Glory,” which opens with these lines:

“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.…”

His ideas were still rolling around in my head during a discussion at church this past Sunday.

We were studying Leviticus, and the focus was on blood and the regulations surrounding it. With broad brush strokes through the Old Testament, we concluded that, to the best of their understanding at the time, life resided in the blood. The literal Hebrew phrase in many passages is, “its life, its blood”—which led to the translation “lifeblood” in some cases. To lose blood meant to lose life—in other words, to die.

Of course the discussion propelled us forward into the New Testament, to Jesus, His death, the impact of His words as he held aloft the cup at the last supper, solemnly proclaiming it to be His blood, inviting us to partake.

I can’t adequately reproduce the breadth and richness of that discussion in these few lines, nor could our words then fully explore the depths of this holy mystery. But many were struck with the conviction that we, following Christ’s example, were called to death.

This is very true, and very biblical. Die to ourselves, to the world, to the flesh.

But something nagged at my mind. “This is my blood, poured out for you.” Lifeblood. Life. Life poured out for you.

What if we were to look at our Christian walk, not so much as dying, but as pouring out our lives. I know it might be semantics, two sides of the same coin, but what a difference it makes in my outlook.

One seems inward focused, the other outward. One seems like a truncation, an ending; the other a beginning with limitless potential.

Our lives are not, indeed, meant to be preserved, protected, held in reserve. Instead, we are to pour them out into others, into the world around us. Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t begin and end in His death at the cross. The gospels record again and again that He poured Himself out continually into the lives of those around Him. Yes, He gave His life, and that process began years before Calvary.

What’s more, we aren’t even called to give out of our own resources. The truth is, on our own we have nothing to offer. If we try to pour out life in our own strength and wisdom, we will ultimately be depleted, offering only death and disappointment. But Jesus, as the source of all life, once again offers His Life to flow through us to others. In relationship with Him we are tapped in to the limitless spring of Life, which will never run dry.

“This is My blood, poured out for you.” Take it in, drink deeply of My Life. Then pour out Life to others.

I think C. S. would back me up.

Loving Her

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I spent the month of August living with and caring for my grandma, who is in the early stages of dementia. It was a bittersweet time as I grieved to see how this disease was robbing someone I loved of reason and functionality, while at the same time enjoying the moments when her old spark and personality shone through.

I grew up near my grandparents, and we were very close. In their presence I always felt completely loved and secure; they showed me what a healthy marriage looked like; they impressed on me so many of the life values that I carry to this day. My grandpa, even more than my grandma, played a vital part in my formation as he stepped in and took on roles that my own father left unfilled. Grandpa has been gone six years now and we all miss him. Especially grandma. We can trace the beginnings of her decline to the dark days after my grandpa died.

As I cared for grandma I did it in honor of the person she has been, and in love for the ways she touched my life. But some days were more difficult than others. Sometimes she was unreasonable. Sometimes she was despondent. Sometimes—out of her confusion and growing inability to regulate her emotions—she became angry and hurtful. At those times I felt my patience and resolve wearing thin.

But then I thought of my grandpa. I thought of how he had worked hard to provide for her. How he had shielded her from some of the harsher realities of life. How he had loved her tenderly as a soul mate and friend. I thought of how he would grieve to see her present decline and I could picture how gently he would treat her if he were here. And in those difficult moments I could still care for her because I loved him. Because I honored him. I would think, “This one is for you, grandpa.”

As time went by, I began to realize a deeper application for this lesson. You see, I have been struggling with the church for a while. With growing alarm I am coming to see that the body of Christ is sick. Disease and dysfunction rob it of reason and vitality. It can be viciously hurtful to both insiders and outsiders alike. And my response has been to become disillusioned and distant.

But in that month with my grandma, I heard Jesus asking me to love the church, His bride.

I must first of all love her because I am her offspring. There are still glimmers of life—still hope—because something dead could never reproduce. And, as imperfect as she might be, I have been formed and shaped by her.

But even more than that, I must love her because I love Him. He who is so dear to my soul gave Himself for her existence. She is His cherished and precious bride, who He longs for and continually nurtures. With eyes of love He sees her potential beauty, even when she is being downright ugly.

So many questions remain as I consider loving the bride of Christ. What is the essence of the church? How do I recognize it? Is it a building? An event? An institution? No way. Is it the individuals, is it the group? Yes and yes, but… ???

And what does love actually look like? How do I love this schizophrenic, harsh and healing, deeply damaging and sometimes life-giving entity that I can’t even define? Is love tough? Is love tender? Yes and yes, but… ???

I am at a loss for answers. But I do know that as I sat by the pond behind my grandparents’ house I found myself walking along another shore with my Lord and Lover, and I heard Him asking quietly, earnestly:

“Do you love Me? …Tend My lambs.”

“Do you love Me? …Shepherd my sheep.”

“Do you love Me? …Take care of my bride. Love her.”