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A Light in Darkness

December 24, 2015 1 comment

 

IMG_0654.jpgThis was a message I shared at a gathering that marked and remembered that Christmas is difficult for many.

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I belong to several Facebook groups and decided to share that I was gathering with some friends tonight to mark that Christmas is difficult and to welcome them to join us. Between the various groups, I got over 100 likes, comments and private messages. Christmas is hard for many people.

Hallmark, TV and the stores try to sell us a story that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year – that if we by the right present, hang out with the right person and wear the right clothes this Christmas will be the best Christmas we’ve ever had. And if you can’t do this – Santa will. I remember feeling shocked at a modern Christmas song that says that Santa is the answer to the prayers I’ve had all year. A bit of a strange thought to think that Santa knows my inner desires that well and rather disappointing to think that Santa – the great giver of gifts – will put something under my tree that is the answer to prayers of deep longing.

For any of us who are struggling with loss, depression, estranged relationships, poverty, illness and a whole host of other things life deals us, that kind of Christmas is empty and leaves us wanting. To quote the Grinch – maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe it’s about something more.

I’ve been thinking about the story that is the reason for the season. One of the words of wisdom we read talked about the life-light coming into the world. Christians believe that was Jesus. But what I love about the words that follow the ones we read is that God in Jesus moved into the neighbourhood. God subjected himself to be born of a woman – an unmarried Mary. Stigma and judgment still exist today when a young girl becomes pregnant but back then a woman could be killed. Without Joseph keeping his commitment to marriage, Mary and the baby would have become destitute. He was born in a manger which I am sure looked different than our tidy nativity scenes. I worked on a horse farm for a few years and while these horses were well kept, the barn stunk and I went home smelling like the stinky barn. The first visitors to great this life-light were a bunch of shepherds – people who were so poor they had to sleep out in the fields with their sheep. More than that – they also stunk and were so dirty that the temples would forbid them from entering.

Jesus had a messy start to life – not quite the beginning we would expect for God coming to earth. But the messiness didn’t end there. Around age two, Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt because the king in charge felt threatened by this young child and was out to kill him. Jesus as a young boy taught in the temple and his own parents didn’t understand him. He healed the sick and fed the hungry and the religious rulers of the day plotted to kill him.

Jesus lived in the darkness that we live in. He knows what it is like to hurt, to be sad, to be alone. He knows what it’s like to not have a roof over his head. He knows what it is like to be misunderstood by his family. He knows what it is like to be rejected by his friends. He knows political injustice that kills innocent people because of unfounded fears.

As Sufi poet Rumi says, The wound is the place where the light enters you.

I believe that Jesus came to earth as a helpless babe in a stinky manger worshipped by the outcasts and lived a life as light in the darkness so that wherever we are at, we can know a God who understands our deepest pains and longings. I believe that as we open our wounds to a God who knows us and knows what we are going through, the light enters us.

But more than that – Jesus was not overcome by the darkness of this world. The religious and political rulers of the day had their way in putting him to death on the cross. But he overcame death in his resurrection. The light overcame darkness.

And I believe that the light can overcome the darkness in our own lives. That as we let the light into our wounds, that light will fill us and we will become light. We will have opportunities to be light and show light to others walking in darkness. In the end, darkness does not win.

So we gather tonight, in brokenness and pain as Christmas draws near. As Leonard Cohen sings, there’s a crack, a crack in everything. We are not alone in our brokenness. But let us remember that while that crack is there and we may not be able to do anything ourselves to change that – the crack is where the light comes in.

Lord, come quickly

Today is the first Sunday in advent. I love advent, a time of waiting and preparing for Christ’s coming. I love how it gives a different focus than commercialism demands of us. I love that it is a time to reflect.

This year as I head into advent, my heart is heavy.

I have the picture of a young (10) refugee boy I met who found a toy gun and enacted what I’m sure he witnessed back “home” before crying out in his own language and shaking in distress because he couldn’t find his family.

I have the stories of the beautiful people I have come to know through ministry through the side door. Stories that would break anyone’s hearts. Children in our own backyards who go to bed crying.

The worldwide events with ISIS, hostages, terrorism, earthquakes, civil war, hurricanes that make home an unsafe place.

This advent, I have a lot of questions. We cry out each year, “Lord, come quickly” – and this year all I can say is “Lord, have mercy”

Today, as I write this, I am comforted in song – “Mercy Now” by Steve Bell, Canadian singer/songwriter.

“Only the hand of Grace could stay the pace
of nature’s rage against us now”

Lord, come quickly… for we could all use a little mercy now.

I heard the voice of Jesus say

Rock from St. Beuno's Church in Wales. Many pilgrims pressed their thumbs on engraved cross and then crossed themselves as they began on this journey

Rock from St. Beuno’s Church in Wales. Many pilgrims pressed their thumbs on engraved cross and then crossed themselves as they began on this journey

Holy Week is one of my favourite times in the church year. There’s nothing like slowing down and walking through the week from waving palms to seder to stripping the altar to the crucifixion to the eery silence and darkness until Easter morning. I have found memories of Anglo-Catholic services rich with meaning and symbolism, putting a nail into a wooden cross, a silent retreat on holy Saturday where I had to contemplate the space inbetween when the resurrection light has not yet pierced the darkness.

This is the first Holy Week though in which I am doing more than passively walking through. Preparing for a neighbourhood egg hunt on Saturday (exciting – but wow, lots to think about!), reflecting on a passage for Good Friday, teaching piano. Oh and I discovered that I need to get a bunch of things done for school including figuring out placements and bursaries.

I was cleaning out the sanctuary with increasing excitement (there’s lots of places to hide eggs!!) and anxiety (there’s a heck of a lot of work to do!) and kneeled before the altar wondering whose crazy idea this was (not mine alone, but I approved the idea!).

In an overwhelmed moment, I turned to God and said, “I can’t do this.”

I left that prayer feeling like maybe that’s the point. To realize ***I*** can’t do it.

Rather than get back to work, I longed to play on the badly out of tune piano in the corner. I closed the sanctuary doors so it was just me and God who could hear what came from these shaking fingers. The hymn book I found was falling apart. After playing a few easter hymns at the beginning, a page fell… and it opened to a celtic song that is one of my very favourites.

I played it.

I heard the voice of Jesus say “Come unto me and rest.”

“Lay down thou weary one, lay down, Thy head upon my breast”

I came to Jesus as I was – So weary, worn and sad

I found in Him a resting place And He has made me glad

So it wasn’t exactly audible in the physical world.

But… Tonight I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto me and Rest. Lay down thou weary one, lay down – thy head upon my breast.

Just plain hard to get

One of my assignments that I am working on is based on journal entries over the past few weeks and see what God is teaching me in terms of missional spirituality. It is fascinating to see themes throughout what at first seemed like random thoughts. There is one theme that speaks of my heart’s deepest questions at the moment. How do I trust God? This was a particularly poignant question as I sought to walk beside a dear friend who is hurting so much. The only answer to my constant worry and fear was to trust God. And I have struggled with this. Seems so basic – trust God. God is good, God is great, God is faithful – I know all these things. Or at least, I thought I did.

Let me explain.

I hear so often in church land “Trust God, and everything will be fine.” I believe that is a true statement. But not in the sense that it is so often offered. Trusting God is not a recipe for an easy life by any stretch of the imagination.

Here’s what trusting God has looked like in my life:

  • Praying as a young teen for safety, staying up reading Scripture hoping that God would protect me. And the abuse continued.
  • Telling a pastor couple that I need help which resulted in a phone call to children’s aid as there were young children in the home.
  • Trusting that I did the right thing and that God was at work- meanwhile my parents dump my belongings in the back parking lot of where I worked, long hurtful letters from my mom and other relatives, and a birthday present wrapped in a red plastic bag with the inscription “We won’t be needing this anymore”
  • attempting a reconciliation process that blew up in ways unimaginable and therefore put an end to a process that I thought God wanted me to pursue
  • after prayer and consulting many, I pressed charges. While I have wavered in whether this decision was right, I don’t have any doubt any more. One of my most intense experiences of God’s presence in my life was in testifying. After testifying for 3 full days, I needed a break and told my friends that I simply could not continue. Somehow (and I believe this was God) I got back up there and the defense closed the cross-examination when his last line of questioning proved to be based on an argument that was proved false. As I stood up there, I had a powerful experience that God was there with me. Doesn’t make sense unless you’ve experienced this sort of thing in impossible situations but God’s presence was unmistakeable.
  • decisions to keep pressing on and trust God through a lengthy appeal process. I wandered from God several times during this wait and faced many dark days. But when the decision came in and the lengthy account of the panel of judges’ account said everything I had hoped it would, I knew God’s hand was all over it.
  • believing that God would work a miracle of reconciliation and restoration and not being able to hug goodbye my Grandma and Grandpa

this is just a glimpse. God also allowed me to make my own bad choices and suffer the consequences. Some of these decisions were more severe than others. In hindsight, I see God never failing to leave me and staying by my side even when I told him to leave me alone. I can see that God answered my young cries in a way that I never asked – protecting the deepest part of me, the most precious aspect of life – my relationship with God and my soul. Sometimes people comment that it is amazing that I am following Christ after all I have been through. Perhaps, but I do believe that God would not let me go, even when I tried to escape him. Moreover, I see how God is using my experiences to help and bless others… and each time this happens, I find myself thankful for my painful experiences as I know how to sit with pain, I know what it is to hurt, and I know what it is like to have God hold on to you and not let you go. I am also realizing that my experiences shed light into what Christ experienced and somehow, there is a beautiful aspect in sharing in the wounds of Christ.

But in the words of singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, sometimes God is “just plain hard to get.” As I watched my friend suffer this semester, I knew that I needed to trust God. But if the God I entrust her to is anything like the God I have trusted in my own life, there is very little comfort. This God allows a whole gamut of things to happen. Trusting God seems to be more about pledging your life to the one who died on the cross and walking the way of the cross than about security and safety. The hope from trusting God is that God can use and redeem anything in this life for His glory. There is peace in knowing that God is here no matter what. But as I wrestle with fear for my friend – or my own life – I am bereft of comfort. For if Christ, the perfect son of God who trusted in God, was despised, rejected and suffered – how can I expect anything different?

Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape? […] Well, I memorized every word You said/ Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath/ While You’re up there plain hard to get.

Let’s face it – sometimes God is plain hard to get. And if that’s the God we need to trust, it’s no wonder I have trouble trusting.

But I do know one thing. In my suffering, I have met God. And here the conclusion of Rich Mullins’ song ring true:

You’ve led me here/ Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led/ And so You’ve been here all along I guess/ It’s just your ways and You are just plain hard to get.

Lyrics are from “Hard to Get” by Rich Mullins

Something’s wrong with the world

In thinking about this lenten season, I have been tossing around ideas of things that I could give up or add to my life in an intentional way. there is an abundance of things that I could do. But the only idea that has really struck a chord is actually not all that spiritual in any way – I want to devote the next few weeks to writing. And then I had the idea of reflecting on “secular” music that speaks of themes that come up throughout lent. It’s no secret that I am rather media deprived and whenever I come across a song in the “secular” world that speaks truth, I get excited and find myself reflecting on it throughout my weeks. So much so that I have been thinking about whether we can distinguish “secular” and “sacred”. That is, if something speaks truth, beauty, wisdom, etc – could this be of God, even if the artist is not a believer? that is, if God is the God of all truth, beauty, wisdom, etc – is it possible for these virtues to exist without him? So this lenten season, I am going to reflect on musical offerings. I invite you to join me as I seek to find the sacred in the ordinary parts of our life and not necessarily in the walls of the church.

Something’s wrong with the world. That’s really not hard to see. What is harder to see perhaps is that I am part of what’s wrong. Theoretically, I know I am a sinner and there are moments when my heart faces this reality. But it is pretty easy to walk around thinking that I am basically a good person who has a few rough edges but generally doesn’t do much that is wrong.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of this day on the calendar, realizing that I really don’t know much. So these thoughts are more my own triggered by the Holy Day, rather than being a commentary on the day. We were exhorted to live a holy lent. It is a time of repentance – of turning around completely and surrendering more of our lives to God. It is a time of facing honestly who I am in the presence of a loving God who is infinite in mercy. As I begin to reflect on how sin taints who I am, I am overwhelmed. Sin runs deep. It infiltrates my desires, motives, actions, thoughts, longings – everything. Even when I do good, my motives are mixed. Oh to love as Christ loves!

And then, I think about the sin in the world and how I take part in what’s wrong with the world either by the things I do or the things that I leave undone. The Roots, in their song Dear God 2.0 present a list of the state of the world. Here are just a few things that they mention:

  • Everybody all in everybody’s dirty laundry
  • Air quality so foul, I gotta try to breath
  • Everybody checkin’ for the new award nominee
  • Looking at all the poverty
  • More beef than broccoli
  • Corporate monopoly
  • Stock market topplin’

Does my talk build up people or tear them down in gossip? Do I think about how I consume in terms of using the world’s resources and contributing to environmental problems? Do I spend time focusing on accolades – mine or others – rather than on God? Do I notice poverty, work towards ending poverty, or merely turn a blind eye? Do I feast and have my fill in luxury, or do I care for my body through what I eat? Do I support companies that have unethical practices? Do I invest my money in Christ’s kingdom?

I think these lines from the song are rather poignant:

Lord, forgive me for my shortcomings

For going on tour and ignoring the court summons

All I’m trying to do is live life to the fullest

How much of our sinful lives are driven by our desire to live life to the fullest? How much is driven by a false idea or a doubt that God’s ways are actually what bring us towards healing and wholeness? Like Eve in the Garden, as she (and Adam) thought God might be keeping them from a wonderful aspect of life – the knowledge of good and evil. Sin is so often the the perversion of something good – we desire love, but look in the wrong places. We desire intimacy but sell our souls to cheap sex. We want to make an impact in the world but get enticed by pride, greed and the like.

Something’s wrong with the world. As a sinner, I am part of what’s wrong with the world. Because, so often, all I am trying to do is live life to the fullest. This lenten season has me praying the words of this song:

Dear God, I’m trying hard to reach you

Dear God, I see your face in all I do

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe it

Strange Waters

February 10, 2013 1 comment


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Today has been one of those days. Dealing with a hard mess. I’ve been uprooted once again in my life. Criticisms are in abundance these days. I’ve had to deal with a few crises. Tonight was a crises that turned out not to be a crisis. There are some people who freak out about emergencies in the moment and then afterwards are calm and relieved. I am not one of those people. I am calm and collected in a crisis. And then afterwards I freak out. Tonight I called 911 because I thought the building across the street was on fire. Turns out it was a swimming pool with lights that looked like flames, kept increasing and fogged up the windows. The main fireman was a real jerk and made me feel like a total fool for doing the right thing. But the panic kicked in after they left. I knew that would happen. This is not my first time calling 911. or my second. or my third. it almost wasn’t my fourth either but thankfully the most recent incident before today someone else did it. The subway wasn’t running to where I am living. So I had to take the streetcar. But unknown to all the people waiting in the freezing cold for an hour none were running either way. finally I got a taxi and payed out the $35 since it was well past midnight and I have to work tomorrow.

One of my profs is really into Bruce Cockburn music. Interestingly, he was the one who introduced me to Cockburn 8 years ago and who was instrumental in me leaving home (though he had nothing directly to do with it… he just made me think and question) and also in me staying a Christian. He doesn’t know either of these things. Anyways, he recently talked about how Cockburn uses intertextuality in his songs, meaning that he makes references using cue words. Two songs that illustrate this beautifully are Strange Waters and The Whole Night Sky.

I try not to use this platform to vent or rant. I figure you don’t need to hear my rants. But I’ve been thinking about the role of lament lately and how we need to recover this. There are psalms that throw a very angry fist at God demanding an answer or action. And then there’s the hard psalm that ends with a prayer to dash the Babylonian babies’ heads against the rocks. What do you do with that piece of Scripture which we call the word of God? I’m not sure I have answers. But I do think we can take our anger and our pain directly to God and he can handle it as we express it.

So here is my lament. It is filled with anger, pain, frustration, sadness, questioning, confusion and anything else that a good lament can hold. I do not offer this on here to make you, my reader, worry or feel sorry for me. God is good and faithful, and truth be told, lately I have been feeling his grace and blessing on my life in abundance. The psalms also hold a mixture of gratitude and angst. I know I am not alone in feeling angst, yet a peaceful gratitude. And I know God can handle all our pain and anger in its ugly form and so I offer this as a prayer to God and a prayer of solidarity with all those who want to follow God but are caught in the mire and mud of this messy life and who desperately need to offer prayers of lament, alongside the prayers of trust, praise and gratitude. The words of Cockburn are in italics.  There is a reference to Thoughts on a Rainy Day in my lament.

I’ve seen a high cairn kissed by holy wind/ Seen a mirror pool cut by golden fins/ Seen alleys where they hid the truth of cities/ The mad whose blessing you must accept without pity.

I’ve seen a high cairn kissed by holy wind. I have seen his work, his love, his grace. God’s spirit is here.

The alleys – which have become my cathedral – are the places where truth is found. Truth is on the margins, it is held by those who are rejected, abandoned, ostracized, alone. If there is any hope for the Western church, it is in it becoming more and more marginalized. To live as Christ taught, is to take up your cross and follow Him. I follow the One who was crucified, despised and rejected.

I’ve stood in airports guarded glass and chrome/ Walked rifled roads and land minds loam/ Seen a forest in flames right down to the road/ Burned in love till I’ve seen my heart explode.

Burned in love till I’ve seen my heart explode – with the drums of this amazing song pounding away in my head, the image of a bullet shattering my heart and blood spurting everywhere. I feel burned in loving and shot so my heart explodes. And while my heart is in shock, I must be strong once again not for me, but for others.

You’ve been leading me/ Beside Strange waters

These waters are very strange. I don’t want to be a leader. Heck I don’t want to be influential. Leadership and influence get one in trouble and caught in the mire and mess. I want to honour God – but this yoke is not easy nor is the burden light! Strange waters indeed!

and yet – God is leading. And he is leading me. And he is leading me, beside strange waters.

Not still waters. Not calm waters.

Strange waters. Uncertain waters. Tidal waters. Unknown waters.

What does it mean to follow one who leads me beside strange waters? What does it mean to trust when the seas are raging and threatening to engulf me?

Across the concrete fields of man/ Sun ray like a camera pans/ Some will run and some will stand/ Everything is bullshit but the open hand.

Everything is BULLSHIT but the open hand. Everything is meaningless save for following Christ. Everyone is out for themselves. It’s all bullshit. Except Agape love. School. People. Church. money. housing. friendship. BULLSHIT! Nothing but complete bullshit. Dung. Crap. The open hands of one who surrenders completely to God is the only thing safe from bullshit.

You’ve been leading me/ Beside strange waters/ Streams of beautiful lights in the night/ But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys? If I loose my grip – will I take flight?

There ARE beautiful moments – lights in the pervading darkness. Streams of beautiful lights in the night.

But this is no pastureland! No – this is no pastureland. it is a dark valley. Beside strange waters. Beside rough waters. Beside uncertain waters. Beside unknown waters. Beside rushing waters.

And look! See my tears – they fill the whole night sky.

Derailed and desperate/ How did I get here?/ Hanging from this high wire/ By the tatters of my faith.

If I loose my grip – will I take flight?

Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere and knocks you off your feet.

Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere and knocks you side ways.

And look! see my tears! They fill the whole night sky!

If I loose my grip – will I take flight?

Amen

Surrender

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The past few weeks I have been brought to my knees over and over.

I remember going on a retreat with the youth when I worked for another church. I described my horrible camping experience a little in another post. This was a weekend I dreaded. Because I had to somehow be strong during a weekend that I knew would be full of triggers. I found myself over and over questioning God, questioning his role in my life and my suffering and why the heck I’ve been through what I have and lost all that I have.

I sat on the rocks and looked out at the lake. The lake was huge. I could not see past the horizon.

I felt God quietly saying to me, “Elizabeth, you cannot see beyond the horizon of this one lake… how can you see my plans for your future?”

I’ve been reminded of that moment a lot lately. And reminded of another passage in Isaiah:

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but I will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’

Over and over I am seeing how God has had is hand all over my life. He has been intimately involved even in moments that i thought he had left me alone. God orchestrates my life and redeems the difficult things and even my bad choices to turn it into a beautiful song that brings honour and praise to him.

I’m in a strange place of discernment right now. I’ve never enjoyed periods of discernment. I like clear answers and clear roads. Yesterday, I was fretting and worrying about my future. Today, all that fretting and worrying seems futile, even funny – for all God asks of me is to follow him. And over and over he has shown me that he really does know me inside and out, and that he really does go before me and with me. I have a course load this term that is not representative of a science student at all – I cannot get into any science courses. Only theology and church history courses. It’s not what I expected would be on my plate – but I need to trust that God has this too in the palms of his hands.

I am learning to surrender. It’s not easy for someone like me who wants to be independent and who is known for her stubbornness. But one by one, the stubborn parts of me are being broken down and I find myself letting go of me – of my will, my hopes, and my dreams and saying be it unto me.

Today I heard a song that I haven’t heard in ages by David Crowder. It is my prayer today. and tomorrow. I imagine I will have to keep saying these words over and over because it is so easy to forget to surrender and God knows how much I kick and scream when I do not understand his ways. But today, I offer them earnestly.

Take my heart, I lay it down/ At the feet of you who’s crowned/ Take my life, I’m letting go/ Lifted up to you who’s throned.

And I will worship you Lord, only you Lord. And I will bow down for you, only you Lord.

Take my fret, take my fear/ All I have, I’m leaving here/ Be all my hopes, be all my dreams/ You are my delight, my everything.