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.

 

 

Advertisements

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)

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.

Releasing the Lover

apr14

I had a conversation last month with someone trying to explain his rekindled passion for following Christ. He talked with fervor, “Life just works better when you do it God’s way. He is the answer to my deepest longings and needs. I feel most fulfilled, peaceful, and happy when I am obedient to Him.”

I heard him, but wanted to challenge him to take things a step further. “But as we grow in relationship with God,” I countered, “hopefully we fall more in love with Him, and begin obeying out of love for who He is, and a desire not to cause Him pain, rather than for what we get out of it.”

My friend looked at me blankly. “Yeah,” he responded, “That’s what I said.”

I didn’t press the point, but I left the conversation slightly dissatisfied that I hadn’t helped him see the difference between obedience that flows out of self-gratification, and obedience that is motivated by reverence for God.

I was reminded of our exchange this past week as I talked with a pastor friend and his wife. “Many in my profession,” he explained, “think our job is to impose a set of rules or a certain lifestyle on our congregations. To teach them how to behave according to certain standards. But the way I see it, every Christian is, at the core, a lover of Christ, and my job is to help them grow in this relationship, and release them to love Him.”

Now, I struggled with this a bit, pointing out that I have been a lover of myself since I was born. This goes pretty deep. Even my decision to follow Jesus was out of a sense of self-preservation, because I had heard about hell and didn’t want to go there.

As the conversation continued, however, we talked about how Paul, in his letters, called the Christians “saints” even though they were behaving in very un-saintly ways. It’s that “old self/new self”, “already-accomplished-although-it’s-still-in-process” type of thing. While we must acknowledge, grieve, and repent every time the old self-lover rears its ugly head, it is important to live out our true identity as passionate lovers of Christ.

The more I thought about it, the more the concept captured my imagination. Better yet, it thrilled my heart. How refreshing not to think of Christianity as a set of rules, expectations, and duties. How liberating to move beyond the obedience that expects God to reward us for our good behavior. To stop approaching God for what He does for us, and begin to truly love Him for the breath-taking Being that He is.

I am, at the deepest core of my being, a love-sick seeker of God. What a difference it would make if I woke up every day with this truth firmly entrenched in my mind and my heart. What joy, as I overflowed with the experience of being loved and loving in return. Moving past external performance, I would look for new and spontaneous ways to pour out the fullness of my heart to my Beloved.

The truest thing about you and about me is that we are lovers of God. It’s what we were made for. And once we truly believe this, it changes everything.

May you, may I, be swept up in this passionate relationship, and find the freedom and courage to release the lover inside.

Question: How does it affect you to think of yourself as a lover of God?

Busyness: the Need to Achieve

Oct20

I recently overheard a woman describe how her family had helped her while she recovered from surgery. “They did everything for me, took over all my responsibilities.” Then she continued, “I felt so worthless—I finally had to get up and do something useful.”

Her statements reveal the second lie that I believe keeps us so frantically busy. For most of us our self-worth is tied up in what we accomplish, what we do.

This idea is reinforced in every facet of our society. In the workplace, in school, in sports and hobbies, and even in the home we are encouraged to excel and achieve. The mantra goes something like this: the more you acquire, the more you produce, the more you succeed—the more you are praised, valued, emulated.

One would hope to find something very different within the church system. However, we have actually amplified this compulsion to over-achieve by spiritualizing it. Verses such as “Whatever you do, do it heartily…”, “…make the most of every opportunity”, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” leave us in fear of wasting time, doing anything half-way, or showing weakness. While we reject striving for material gain or personal glory, our faith all too easily can become performance-based.

The danger is that it is tempting to confuse a life full of church-going and Christian activity with a vital, growing relationship with God. Others looking on will certainly make that assumption. And we can deceive ourselves, thinking, “My service pleases God and proves my love for Him.” Secure in our religious busyness, we often settle for shallow, fleeting experiences of God. Usually that’s all we have time for! But as Richard Foster put it in his book Prayer, God “…aches over our distance and preoccupation.…He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.” (pg. 1)

I think it is very telling that when asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) It wasn’t about doing or performing. It was about relationship, about being.

The thing about getting deep and knowing someone on an intimate, heart level is that it takes time. A lot of it. And it doesn’t actually look like much is being accomplished. One author, in his attempt to get to know Jesus more personally, began meditating on passages about Jesus’ life. The problem, as he states it, was, “I wanted to judge it by what I got out of it. When I did, it often seemed to be a dreadfully inefficient spiritual practice. But productivity and efficiency miss the point. What God wants is simply our presence… That is what friends do together—they waste time with each other.” (David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself)

In our fast-paced, results-oriented world, we often have trouble stopping long enough to truly commune with God. To sit still and hear Him. To open our hearts to Him in a vulnerable way and experience His passionate love in return. The inactivity chafes, the quietness is uncomfortable. It is hard to measure progress or find tangible results.

But gradually something does happen. Our sense of significance begins to take root in and grow out of this supernatural relationship; our value comes to be based solely on the fact that we are loved by the God of the universe—unconditionally, dizzyingly, consumingly.

And then, as Myra Perrine writes in her book, What’s Your God Language?, “When we live our lives…knowing the truth that we are already loved as much as we will ever be… then we will not constantly be trying to get it right, striving to do it better, working hard to please God and secure His love… We will be at peace knowing we are fully known, fully wanted, and fully enjoyed.” (pg. 148)

In other words, we will be freed from the lies of performance and achievement. We will find our worth in the arms of God alone. We will learn what it really means to be at rest.

Loving Her

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.”