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Posts Tagged ‘love’

Art by David Lawson.

Art by David Lawson.

Are you the observer or the participant? We don’t see much ecstasy in worship these days. Oh, there’s a lot of loud music and wild lights like a rock concert and occasionally some roaring and clapping and shouting, but the spectacle of David and the transporting of the ark is beyond words and unlikely to be repeated in our age.

When those who were carrying the ark of the Lord had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might,  while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart. [2 Samuel 6:13-16, NIV]

The journey, about 12.5 miles, was interrupted every six steps for a sacrificial offering. If this is true, they stopped about 4,000 times, and it would have taken almost a month to make the journey, assuming they stopped for 10 minutes for each sacrifice and went day and night. Not likely.

But, is the point of this story in the details or the implication?There are two distinct responses to the return of the ark: the participant and the observer.

King David led the procession as a worshiper dressed in an ephod (similar to a front & back apron), like a prophet, for Samuel also wore such a garment. He modeled, with apparent abandon, the joy of having the ark, a representative resting place for God on earth, returned to its origins, to the center of Jewish life and government. This day was his greatest accomplishment and gift to his people up to that point. He exhibited the fullness of his joy and pleasure and it burst out of him in dancing with disregard for how he might look or sound. He was that happy.

But from another vantage point was Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s wife for whom he paid the bride price of 100 Philistine foreskins, which suggests he killed many men to win her. And back in those days, she loved David as well. He was her hero, her “knight in shining armor.” But when his attention turned away from her and wholly unto his God, displaying himself transparently to everyone, she lost respect for him. She was embarrassed by his display of emotion (and evidently, he may have also displayed his private parts in his frenzy – see vs. 20-21). She watched and she judged.

It’s a dangerous thing to cast judgment on the behaviors of others, whether it is in joy or grief. We cannot know the depth of their feelings or what is needed to express them in that moment. Perhaps I don’t believe the machinations of others are authentic. So what? What does it matter? Who is harmed by displays of raw emotion or spiritual manifestations (from speaking in tongues or a whirling dervish)?

But even in less significant ways, I’m afraid we have become a culture of passive observers. I think we might be missing out on a entire array of experiences because we pre-judge even ourselves. We imagine observing ourselves and do not act.

When was the last time you experienced emotional abandon? Or unrestrained spiritual expression?

 

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Art by Lilis Boyer

Art by Lilis Boyer

The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) found its place in the Jewish canon by its sheer beauty and poetry. It is not really a complete piece at all, no matter how artfully publishers identify the man speaking or the woman speaking, it’s still just a series of fragments. We will never know the whole of it. And so it is about a fragment that I will respond.

Set me as a seal over your heart,
        as a seal upon your arm,
for love is as strong as death,
        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.
Its darts are darts of fire—
        divine flame!
[Song of Songs 8:6, CEB]

And another, repeated twice in the book:
Make a solemn pledge,
        daughters of Jerusalem,
        never to rouse, never to arouse love
        until it desires. [Song of Solomon 2:7; 8:4, CEB]

Love is powerful force that has gotten washed out by dime store romances and flimsy chick flicks. It’s been downgraded by pornography and trivialized by teen angst. Even Valentine’s Day has played a part in corrupting its message. Purveyors of cheap love are laughing all the way to the bank.

When love is roused at the wrong time or at the wrong place, the power of it and the joy are sucked out of it. It is sex without love, masking the truth of it, manufacturing a feeling but it is not transformative love. But when the moment is right, when there is a mutual selflessness, when it is about the giving away of it moreso than the absorption of it, then the power of God can be unleashed. This I believe.

I know, there are different words for love in Greek, but in the Hebrew, both verses use the same feminine noun, ‘ahabah אַהֲבָה which can be translated as love: human love for a human object (man to man, man to himself, man to woman, sexual desire, and incidentally, God to man too).

And so I ask myself and all of us, is my love toward others with the same intent as God’s love?

God shows love to people over and over again whether its through grace or miracles or the sacrifice of the One Son, Jesus. God’s love is pours out without measure. Jesus taught, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” [Luke 6:38, NIV]

But no, not me. I confess, I am hungry to be loved more than to love. Lonely. Overwhelmed. Shaken by circumstances. Distanced by disappointment still. Hardened by losses, speaking into the wind.

I am no stronger than the one beside me. My years in Christ clear my vision and for this reason, I understand why the saints and desert fathers of old cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Art by Cyra R. Cancel

Art by Cyra R. Cancel

Or why St. Francis wrote:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Let me know and give love as strong as death.

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stillbornI just finished reading An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken at the same time I read David and Bathsheba’s story of their own first child, who only lived seven days before dying as foretold by the prophet Nathan for David’s illicit with relationship with Bathsheba and ordering the death of her husband in battle. Both stories capture a view of grief we rarely see.

He [David] answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’  [II Samuel 12:22, NIV]

For McCracken, the newborn infant, nicknamed Pudding, was their first and neither she nor her husband broke any laws or treated Pudding with anything but ultra care: the right foods, the right rest, the right attitude. It was a pregnancy made in heaven. But then, near the end of her last trimester, Pudding stopped moving, at least it seemed so to her. Many thought she might be overreacting (they were living in France at the time), and she was sent home. However, by the next day, her own concern pressed the issue and she sidestepped her midwife and went to the doctor’s office where it was discovered that the child was, indeed, dead but McCracken would still have to bear this lifeless child into the world. The depth of her pain and anguish are laced throughout this slim volume.

Back in the day, when I was still performing my one woman show, Pente, one of the women in that quintet was Bathsheba because her story is minimized in scripture; her grief and loss are summarized in the single line, “Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and made love to her . . . ” [vs 24a] but I believe McCracken’s tale captures a more realistic picture of a mother’s heart and the depth of her pain.

But getting back to my selected scripture, it is intriguing to me that David, who knew that he had sinned and who knew that Nathan was a formidable prophet whose words always came true, pressed into the 7-day period of prayer and fasting and, undoubtedly, deep confession. As long as the child lived, David did not give up even the slightest sliver of hope. David could not change what he had done but he could surrender his helplessness to God, who could still change the outcome. God’s outcome is never fixed in time. And yet . . .

The child died.

And David could do nothing more than surrender again.

We have choices beforehand, before the inevitable happens. But once tragedy strikes, whether deserved or undeserved, we only have our response to God. The pain is still there but can be muted if we wrap it into the embrace of God. Grace lives.

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Everyone Forever, painting by Minako Abe

Everyone Forever, painting by Minako Abe

I am reading through the Bible in a year. I’ve done it before. Sometimes, it feels a bit of a drudgery, particularly I Chronicles. But in this chronological plan, I get to mix up some of those dry passages with the Psalms, thoughts that always move me, either to my knees or to gratitude. Today, these words resounded deeply:

But the Lord’s faithful love is from forever ago to forever from nowfor those who honor him. . . . [Psalm 103, 17a, CEB]

Forever — endless — infinite — eternal. These are God words. In fact, it is only God who can calmly say, “always,” and mean it. And because I am devoted to this forever God, I can surrender my irregularities and my sometimes and my good intentions. I can trip and fall and rise again. I can start over again–and again–if I have to. I can claim a grace that only an infinite God can give freely. I can fail and I can succeed.. I can weep or laugh. I have been loved since the beginning and I will be loved until the end. I am a child of God and beloved.

Both Psalm 103 and 104 begin this way: “Let my whole being [soul] bless the Lord! . . . ” [CEB] That is my prayer today.

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bitternessOnce again, I am visiting the book of Ruth. I know this story well, having performed a one woman show for several years as the character of Ruth. But now, as I approach the latter part of my own life, I am more drawn to Naomi’s role.

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara,because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” [Ruth 1:20-21a, NIV]

I have many besetting sins, as we all do, but one of the most tenacious sins is disappointment. That’s right, I call it a sin. It is my warning bell, for out of it I have seen full blown bitterness grow. Disappointment fans the flames of bitterness.

NaomiNaomi had a good life. She had the security of a husband and two sons who would care for her in her old age. When famine struck their land, the family traveled to a neighboring country to start over. Even though they had lost much in the famine, they were still a family. She could endure as long as they were together. But of course, that was not how it turned out at all. Instead, her husband died. And although she had her boys and their new wives, within ten years, the sons died as well. How could this be? All of her dreams and hopes were crushed. There were not even grandchildren to hold the family together. There was no family at all. She sent the widowed daughters away.

Despite the loyalty of Ruth, who traveled with her, Naomi lost hope. (In fact, I could imagine Naomi considered Ruth, a Moabitess after all–a foreigner, nothing but another stone around her neck.) Naomi’s deep disappointment in the outcomes of her life drove her into sorrow, grief, even despair and from those, she blundered into a growing bitterness and resentment toward God who she believed took everything away.

I can’t say my life ever hit such a deep abyss. Besides, I live in a country and in an era where women can be resilient, self-sufficient even. I am not at the complete mercy of a patriarchal society as Middle Eastern women were of that day (and some still).

And yet I have battled with my God. As a long-time believer, I imagined my life would turn out differently. I thought my aspirations had the power of God behind them. But, as the road branched and turned and twisted, I found myself continually looking back, wondering what would have been if I had chosen the other way, had I not married at eighteen or divorced five years later, if I had graduated from college in Indiana instead of Illinois, if I had not gone to New York, if I had not returned home to Indianapolis with my tail between my legs, if I had not married again and moved to Atlanta, if I had not been barren, and so on and on and on.

Oh foolish woman I know. To bemoan the loss of what could have been and not revel in what is.

disappointmentToday and tomorrow are still a wonder if I allow them to be. I am ashamed of my bouts of disappointment for they are nothing but unproductive. Disappointment prevents growth in a good way. It interferes with gratitude. And worst of all, disappointment presumes I know the better way, that my ideas of who I was to become or what I was meant to do or how my life should have unfolded were mine alone. But I surrendered that right the day I accepted the Christ spirit. In theory at least.

But surrender to the little life I have rather than the bigger life I aspired to is not always easy. Most of those dreams were self-aggrandizing. In those dreams, I was still the center of the universe.

Naomi could only see her crumbling world, she could could not see the bigger picture. We all have a bigger picture which is why it is so important to trust God in every turn of life, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is the believer’s vow to Christ. This mantra can stave off disappointment.

Through Naomi’s daughter-in-law, a child was conceived by Boaz, and the line was preserved. One of the greatest leaders was born as a result, King David, who set in motion the fulfillment of long-time prophecies of a Messiah for the world. That was Naomi’s big picture.

 

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lead by exampleIs this cultural or simply part of human DNA? We seem to continually repeat our mistakes over and over again. And unfortunately, I see this both on a national and international level as well as in my own micro-world.

When that whole generation had passed away, another generation came after them who didn’t know the Lord or the things that he had done for Israel. . . . [And] then when the leader died, they would once again act in ways that weren’t as good as their ancestors’, going after other gods, to serve them and to worship them. They wouldn’t drop their bad practices or hardheaded ways. [Judges 2:10, 19, CEB]

The learnings from one generation to another are not happening. Parents are not telling or did not tell their children about the work of God in their lives in an authentic way; instead, they pass this job to Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Weeks. In my mind, not only do we fail to tell the Bible stories, we a) water them down to make them PG and b) we don’t personalize them. Every story has a message for humanity. Every story has a message for me and my family. The Bible is not Disney World.

Miracles require effort and devotion, faith and trust. They require accessibility and openness.

I know some people have disagreed with me about telling our children about my past, particularly the darker side, but I have always felt  it was important for them to know that I am a different person today because of my faith, and that essentially, my lifestyle before Christ would have led very quickly to illness and death.

But I also think about our church and how we depend so heavily on our charismatic pastor and we are not raising up leaders to serve with him so that we don’t follow the footsteps of the Israelites who only succeeded while a particular leader was in place. It is everyone’s responsibility to tell the story, to walk the walk, to lead and train and grow. As the pastor tells his story, we must also tell our own.

authenticityOne of the ways to do this is mentoring (or discipleship). I have generally avoided this practice because it sounds so daunting, to take on a tenderfoot on the journey, to help someone else grow, to embrace him/her as family. I’m already struggling with my own adult children after all, how can I take on another, and what if I fail? But here’s the truth: all I have to do is “bring them along” when I go and do. I can’t pretend to be more than I am (nor should I assume I am less). New believers learn by being around old believers. New leaders step up when they watch old leaders in every day life, every day challenges, every day decisions, every day blunders.

Jesus didn’t turn on the leadership persona or the faith role just when the disciples were around. He lived and breathed what he knew. He healed because he could. He told stories because they meant something to him. He expressed mercy and grace because that was part of his genetic code.

We do not have to be infallible to demonstrate love and grace. In fact, authenticity goes farther. Mistakes confessed give hope to those who believe they are not worthy or that they are “too late” to change or that they can’t change. Our frailty revealed is courage demonstrated.

Generations ahead are depending on us now.

 

 

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NaziriteI ever realized that women could become Nazirites until this reading of Numbers. All this time, I had assumed that this vow was made only by men. And clearly, the rules for the Nazirite have the feel of being for men what with the growing of hair and abstinence from drink. Nonetheless, women could do take such a vow as well.

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from . . .'” [Numbers 6:1-3a, NIV]

In a nutshell, the Nazirite abstained abstained from alcohol, fermented drinks of any kind, grapes, or raisins; refrain from cutting one’s hair; and finally, avoid defilement by a dead body (or place that a dead body has been).

When I looked up additional information about the Nazirite vow, I was surprised to find that it evolved over time into three types of vows, depending on their length. In general, such a vow was made for a minimum of 30 days and for the common person, my guess is that this was the norm. However, there was a permanent vow (in which the Nazirite would cut his/her hair once a year for convenience) and there was a “Samson” Nazirite who was permanent, but did not have to abide by the dead body rule.

I believe, over time, these permanent Nazirites became known as monks. But isn’t it interesting that the Christian monks (and nuns) in later centuries were known for shorn hair and not long hair at all. Another reason why the Nazirite tradition ended was the loss of the Temple where the many sacrifices had to be made at the end of the vow. No temple : no end.

It’s a fascinating topic really and even includes some references to Jesus entering into a type of Nazirite vow at the Last Supper. But, of course, that is speculation as are many ideas about this tradition.

In any event, this ritual had to do with setting apart and holiness (see Holy Objects & Holiness post). The person perceived a need to separate himself or herself from the norm, even to the point of stepping away from family obligations (as might be the case in the event of a relative passing away). These vows were quite serious and if one was broken, the person had to “start over” again.

Jesus made some references to vows or promises in Matthew 5:37 in which he told the people to allow their “yes” to be yes and their “no” to be no. I believe he was alluding to people who made promises they did not mean or were unwilling to keep.

wedding ringsBut I would add, if we do make a vow, then we should treat them with more respect. Marriage vows have become the most abused of all. It is not enough to say, “well, I meant it at the time,” for that changes nothing except to imply that one did not know one’s own mind at the time or the implication of the promise. I would recommend people stop using the marriage vow at all if the intent is not binding. Or, perhaps like the Nazirites, the couple, if the vow is broken, starts over again.

Of all the many things that women were excluded from in Old Testament times, this is not one of them. Both men and women can experience holiness and set themselves apart for God. And secondly, their vows are still binding.

 

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