below the line of sight

The last several days I've been reminding myself, "things are not as they appear to be." Maybe that will be my meditation for the lenten season this year.

I imagine that Jesus might have steadied himself with similar words during the days that led up to his death. First there was the public adulation as he entered Jerusalem, but there was not much in the crowd's support that Jesus could trust in. And then it ended with his arrest and trial, which painted a picture of Jesus that was far from the truth. His closest disciples fled, or even denied him. And the overwhelming impression we are left with is that Jesus had failed as a prophet and leader, and that the religious and political powers of his time had won. They remained in control and he was crushed and disgraced, his followers scattered.

But things were not as they appeared to be.

Paul once wrote to the Corinthians that "we walk by faith, not by sight." Those are some more words I've been holding on to recently. It may look like those in power are the ones in control, like the weak are crushed, the suffering ones forgotten. It may look like the opinion of the majority (in any group) means everything, and that to lose their favor means to lose your value and purpose and even your source of livelihood. But what really matters is what God is doing. And God usually works below our line of sight. Eventually it will become clear what God has been doing, and who he has been using as his servants, and everyone will see the results of that. But in the meantime it is important for us to walk by faith and not by sight.

I've been trying to become more aware and pay better attention to what God is doing (below the line of sight). Reminding myself that things are not as they appear to be and take another look at the situations that seem to be so depressing or frightening. So I can continue to have the energy to respond, not to the distracting appearances, but to what's really happening, what God is doing.

It also seems to help when I find myself in the position of the stranger, the unimportant one, the vulnerable, the helpless. As many of us do (some more often than others). These are the ones more likely to walk by faith rather than sight, the ones hoping desperately that things are not as they appear to be.



only God is great

Men of low estate are but a breath, men of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath. (Ps 62.9)

I remembered this line from the Psalms the other day. Mostly it was the part that I recalled as "great men are an illusion" ("delusion" is even better, and some translations say men of high status are "a lie"). I was thinking about our accomplishments and being honored and valued by others for our contributions to the community.

Part of the "lie," I think, is that being honored or having higher status in society means only that this group of people values your abilities or accomplishments. Which is not the same as saying God approves of what you have done. Or that you or your accomplishments are truly great or important in the grand scheme of things. Actually, gaining widespread approval of people may actually be a sign that we are not pleasing God. As Jesus said once to some men of status in his society, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." (Lk 16.15)

But the main part of the lie seems to me to be that there are really no great men. Even the greatest of us, most highly lauded for our contributions, are quite small and insignificant when we take a wider view of things. Whatever work any of us has done to save lives or help others always seems like a drop in the bucket when we step back to gaze out on the ocean of need. Jesus once said only God is good. I'd also apply it here and say only God is great, only God's contribution is significant ultimately, only God's help is enough, only God's achievements are worth exalting.

The psalm also says lowly men are "a breath." All of us are "lighter than a breath." But this is not an insult or condemnation—unless we're trying to pass ourselves off as important or think our achievements carry weight. The advantage that the low status man has is that he probably already knows that he's a breath.

The thing that is valuable or important in God's eyes is communicating the truth of this, as Jesus did. Saying openly and honestly, "only God is good." Demonstrating by our lives that we do not trust our own abilities or work (and don't encourage others to trust them either) but depend on God completely. Like children with a great Father. And so direct the attention and honor of others not to ourselves but to God. The only one who can truly be their help, the only one they can truly rely on.


a february frost

Yesterday morning we were out cutting some fallen trees for firewood and I noticed an unusual feathery frost on all the branches. Hoarfrost. Apparently it's caused when objects become colder than the surrounding air and water vapor begins to crystallize on them.

It was everywhere, making the snow glitter and the trees light up all silver in the sun. And when the wind blew a little, the large flakes rained gently all around us, our own personal snowstorm.


discerning the body

In preparing to lead communion this morning, I happened across Paul's interesting phrase, "discerning the body." Meaning discerning Christ's body in the bread and wine. But that also seems to be a great phrase to describe how we need to recognize the body of Christ in people, discerning the body that is the one, true community.

When I was writing about "strangers and exiles" the other day, I mentioned that we can at times feel like strangers even within our religious "home" community. Jesus found much rejection and the fiercest resistance against him in his own religious community, and also often felt at odds with (or opposed by) his intimate community of disciples. Yet were these not the people of God?

I guess I'd say yes and no.

I've often heard people describe the kingdom of God as "the reign of God," or all those who have submitted to the sovereignty of God, who obey him as king. Which we Christians do. Sometimes. And then sometimes we don't.

So at those times when we are not obeying God, it seems fairly clear that we are not representatives of his kingdom, we are not living as his people. And any of us can (and do) step away from the kingdom in this way at times, and so act no longer as the living body of Christ but against it, like Peter did just before Jesus turned and rebuked him: "Get behind me Satan!"

This helps me understand the confusion I've faced when someone I've known and trusted as a brother, as one flesh in the same body, then acts in ways that seem so much apart from the Jesus I thought we both knew. Or the confusion I cause when I do the same. The body hasn't turned on itself (it is Christ's body, after all, and he never turns against himself). But we are always free to step away from the body and act against it. We are also always invited to return to the body, the one community of Christ, but only as we submit to be made one with Jesus, to let his spirit (rather than our own) fill and guide us.

Discerning the body is then the same as discerning the spirit. Looking for and recognizing where the spirit of God is working in people, and seeing how the spirit is calling me to work together as one body with them. The body is not fixed according to persons or membership. The body exists where the spirit of Christ is, and the spirit "blows where it wills."

This means the membership of our Christian community is not fixed either, or a given. Just as many in Jesus' religious community turned against him (and we see the same repeated again and again in church history), so also there will be times when we have a hard time recognizing the body where we have seen it before. But then we may soon see it again in the same people. And we may encounter the body of Christ where we never saw it before or never expected to see it.

What is assured is that the body of Christ will always be like Jesus, never against him. And that this one, true community, the people we need and desire at the core of our being, will never be far from us if we are with him.



more strangers and exiles

Better is one day in your house
Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere

Closely connected with the image of "strangers and exiles" is the vision of home. It appears in the song I quoted yesterday; those lines at the end are from Psalm 84, which speaks of the desire for home with God: "My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord." It reminded me of some journal entries years ago about finding our home with God, in the presence of God, wherever we are.

I think much of the value of the "strangers and exiles" experience when we are among the various human social groups is how it stirs that longing for true home. And may spur us to seeking home (and community) in the presence of God.

The words of warning about becoming "strangers and exiles" (including Jesus' words about the world "hating" his followers, such as Jn 15.18-21) can be challenging to us or reassuring. Challenging if we have become too comfortable and assimilated by the societies around us. Reassuring if we are experiencing rejection or animosity for trying to follow Jesus closely. And if these words also help us turn towards home in God and help us see and embrace the community he offers us anywhere and everywhere, wherever his spirit inspires love (or works for our good) in the people we encounter, then we have found what we truly long for. A home not bounded by walls, a community not limited by human failings.

As Jesus said:
"Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life." (Mk 10.29-30)


wayfaring stranger

I'm planning to use the "strangers and exiles" idea for worship this Sunday. And there's some good music by the psalters (who played here two summers ago) that works with that theme. Here's a favorite, "Wayfaring Stranger," their version of a well-known old spiritual:

Wayfaring Stranger

I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger
trav'ling through a world of woe.‭
‬Ain't no sickness,‭ ‬toil nor danger
in that bright land I'm headed for.‭
‬I'm going there to see my Father,‭
‬says he'll meet me when I come.‭
‬I'm only going over Jordan‭;
‬I'm only going over home.‭

‬I'll soon be done with earthly trials,‭
‬my body sleepin‭' ‬in the ol‭' ‬churchyard.‭
‬I'll drop this cross of self-denial,‭
‬and enter on my great reward.‭
‬I'm going there to see my Father
says he'll meet me when I come.‭
‬I'm only going over Jordan‭;
‬I'm only going over home.‭

‬Better is one day in your house
Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere


settling, revisited

Yesterday I looked back at some journal entries from the months soon after we moved here. And one of the entries caught my eye, specifically the thoughts about settling down and the importance of being "strangers and exiles." Somehow it resonated with some of my current feelings.

I noticed that my concern then about settling down mostly had to do with material wealth or security. Being owned by what we own. Which is an important concern, because the accumulation of wealth and stuff does becomes a powerful temptation and distraction from following Jesus. But since then I've become more aware of the security we seek in groups of people, the powerful temptation to depend on "the power of the people" (described in the essay I wrote last spring, "Are we the people?"). And this may be the more dangerous part of settling down, the social aspect.

The imagery of "strangers and exiles" even seems to speak more directly to the social aspect, as those terms refer primarily to our relationship with the people around us. As I wrote before, this imagery is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. It's perhaps easier to interpret this as meaning we are to be strangers in the world, i.e. on earth (with our home in heaven). But Jesus spoke of his followers as distinct from "the world" meaning the people around them, society.

It's also easy to interpret "the world" as meaning those outside "the church." But Jesus (and his disciples) found the heaviest resistance within their own religious communities. Jesus even (often?) felt alienated within his own gathered disciples, most notably when he told Peter to "get behind me Satan!" So I think it's important to keep the "strangers and exiles" imagery in mind even in our relationships with those we tend to think of as our own community.

That's not to say, of course, that we can't have deep connections and real intimacy. Wherever the spirit of God is, real love and unity and peace can be found between people. But the spirit "blows where it wills." And, to avoid bitter disappointments, we should be careful that we are not expecting of human societies (including families, circles of friends, communities) something they cannot provide: they cannot truly be our people, our home.