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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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)

Magic

May24

I used to think magic was the stuff of fairy tales. Later I understood that magic had a more real, sinister expression. But in any case, I always saw magic as something far removed from my every-day life.

Until I discovered it woven into the very fabric of my faith.

The realization came as I stumbled upon this definition of magic:
Magic is the attempt by humans to control their destiny through the management or manipulation of supernatural powers in such a way that results are virtually guaranteed. 1

Although the piece I was reading described pagan practices, as I thought the matter through, I realized I had little room to judge. In truth, I have subtly been raised to believe that I can control and manipulate God. For example, God blesses those who live in a certain way, He keeps His promises, He always acts consistently with His character.

While each of these claims is true, modern Christianity has twisted them into the mistaken belief that God must behave in a certain way. I have heard (and done it myself) people demand things of God, citing “promises” in the Bible, or holding Him to His character. I have seen others blind-sided when trouble comes their way, saying like Job, “But I did everything right…”

Peter Scazzero, in his book “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” writes quite candidly:
“I like control… I also like to remind God of His need to behave in ways that fit in with my clear ideas of Him. For example, God is just, merciful, good, wise loving. The problem, then, is that God is beyond the grasp of every concept I have of Him. He is utterly incomprehensible.
“Yes, God is everything revealed in scripture, but also infinitely more. God is not an object that I can determine, master, possess, or command. And I still try to somehow use my “clear ideas” about God to give me power over Him, or to somehow possess Him.”

I see two problems with this kind of Christian magic. First, it puts us in the place of God. Any belief that we can manipulate Him, control Him, or demand anything from Him places us above Him. To insist that He fit within our finite definitions of “goodness” or “justice” or keep His promises as we interpret them is to insinuate that our judgment, timing, and understanding of the big picture reigns supreme.

Don’t get me wrong. I think God loves lively discussions and spirited debate with His children. Be real, be passionate, be persistent, reason with Him. In truth, people such as Job, Abraham and Moses actually argued with God, and were called His friends. But at the end of the day, they all allowed God to be God.

The second danger is that a faith built upon the mistaken belief that God is predictable or controllable, can be severely shaken when God does not behave in the ways we expect Him to. Believing wrong things about God creates an image of Him that is false. Indeed a “tame” god who we have comfortably “figured out” seems reassuring and safe. But, this is not God at all. As St. Augustine wrote, “If you understand, it is not God you understand.”

True faith in the one and only God of the universe demands that we fall to our knees in utter humility and risk letting go of control to Someone whose ways and thoughts are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth. (Isaiah 55:8–9)

Paul Hiebert, in his article “The Excluded Middle,” summarized the issue beautifully when he wrote, “…the church and mission must guard against Christianity itself becoming a new form of magic. Magic is based on a mechanistic view—a formula approach to reality that allows humans to control their own destiny. Worship on the other hand, is rooted in a relational view of life. Worshipers place themselves in the power and mercy of a greater being. …The difference is not one of form, but of attitude.” [italics mine]


1 From Paul Hiebert, “The Excluded Middle” and Clinton E. Arnold, “The Colossian Syncretism.”