The scene opens on the ancient grounds of Camp Pragmatics where newly arrived recruits stand uniformed and ready before Drill Sargeant Joe Lamech Skull, now in the middle of Company 666‘s morning drill.
And I said, My strength and my hope is perished from the Lord:
Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall.
My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.
This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.
It is of the Lord‘s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.1
We all search for heroes and heroines, and some even find them, only to discover their clay feet. When we see faults of different proportions in our Christian brothers and sisters, we tend to be less forgiving with them than we are with those who aren’t of our faith. Yet the same God who works in you to transform you into the likeness of Christ, works in me to do the same. And as we disappoint one another, even betray one another, we must love each other, hating the sin all the while.
Such sin we can see so clearly in others. But our own we so often fail to see until we are forced to. On some sin-encrusted surfaces of our lives, the grace of God melts and molds us easily to conform to His image. On others which are more obdurate, our stony footholds of sin must be hammered away by the heavy blows of suffering until we are transformed.
You’re restless. You can’t sit still. You have a nagging task you can’t identify. You’re looking for something unknown. But the land is arid and the country is a wilderness. Then after a while, unexpectedly, the first sign of relief appears. You run towards it like you would a spring in the desert. You drink deeply. And …
One wintry Thursday morning, under a queer blurry sky, an old woman trekked down a bustling city street with an unsightly burlap bag hanging from her shoulder. The people that passed her noted her appearance which seemed awfully ordinary except for the bag, of course, which couldn’t possibly be a handbag.
Every once in a while she would stop and ask a passerby something, then shake her head and keep walking. This happened from early morning to evening so that the people who passed her while on their way to the office or store would pass her again on their way back. The ones she had already stopped and spoken with would give her a wide berth more often than not. She really did seem strange, but in a familiar sort of way.
I feel as if I’ve put it off long enough while going around in circles, thinking, thinking, thinking, feeling that it must be said, to myself and to you – if you are a Christian believer – that you and I are no different from the man on the stretcher whose sins were forgiven by the Son of God, or the woman who touched the hem of His garment and found the healing she had sought from her disease.
I’m not certain what Italian movie director Franco Zeffirelli was thinking when, in Jesus of Nazareth, he had Mary weaving on a loom in the moments just prior to her betrothal ceremony. No doubt he wanted to separate Mary from every other girl of her time, indeed all time, who would anxiously be checking every last detail of her appearance before presenting herself to her beloved, not to mention the entire village gathered together for the celebration. All eyes would be upon her, the center of attention.
You overtake me, Jesus,
Though fleet of foot
You need not be
As the wind soft
Silent breezes now
In full sudden embrace
As a mother to her child rushes
Though ever near
Stoops, takes her up
Kisses the grimy world
Away in enfolding arms
And fills the trembling heart
With love that never leaves
Eternal, ever stays.
Martin Luther characterized it as one of the most obscure recorded: an amazing account, the mysterious struggle between two combatants, one human, one divine, written of in Genesis 32: 22-31.
For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice ….”
– Zechariah 4: 10
Anyone who hasn’t turned on the news and come away disheartened isn’t paying attention. The years that saw men and women strive for noble ideals in the interest of their countrymen, when the Constitutional Convention assembled to debate the great truths that should be enshrined as the foundational principles of a nation, those days are long past. The leaders that strode across the canvas of time – George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson – seem shrouded in the distant past replaced by the frontrunners of our current presidential primaries, a morally and intellectually bankrupt buffoon and an equally corrupt power-hungry crony capitalist.
Ah, LORD, what am I
that You would provide
for me, a sinner,
the feast of life
the true life of all
the breath of You
body and blood
my Lord and my God!
Every book that’s worth its salt leads me inexorably back to the only book that I read and re-read constantly, and which also happens to be the best-selling book of all time: the Bible. And let’s face it: all good books should do that, because every good story must have concerns that every one can relate to existentially, people, places, events that we can relate to, even identify with, and they must inevitably bring us back to the big questions in our life:
Why am I here? How can I know truth? What gives meaning to life? What should I do?
I’m sitting across from you
on the Metro
and down the tube we go
in and out of the dark
save where we sit
under dirty fluorescent bulbs
with cheap cologne and dirty boots,
worn coats and dull looks,
silent warnings against trespass.
Already Christmas lights are blurring in the afterglow
of gifts spilled in haste on to waiting hands below
the ribboned paper and dainty bows caparisoned
like a king’s treasure to tease even from cynics a frisson
A wet stone in my open palm
and the water trickling down my arm
returning to the brook like tears,
the only sign that eyes
set like stones yet can weep.
Such moments deserve better frames
from the hand that sends them
down the assembly line of time
even the luxury to inhabit them endlessly,
a black hole until all feeling is gone.
Holding on to the resentment kept me sane,
kept me from screaming, until I entered
into the rock, limestone hard glitter
so that Elijah-like the earthquake, the storm,
the fiery shaking of world passed over me.
What I feared the most was the whisper
when it came, that would not break a bruised reed
or quench a smoking flax, that would not leave me alone
but sought me out as if this Person
from whom I have a right to expect nothing
would give me everything.
Hesed. Lovingkindness. Waiting for me
to come out of the cave-harbored wretchedness
into the healing light of grace unlooked for,
undeserved, mine to harbor
1 Kings 19:9-13
There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
Note: In this poem, I use a line from the following excerpt:
“In the Old Testament, God defined himself by the term hesed. This is an untranslatable Hebrew word which is sometimes rendered mercy, loving kindness, covenant-faithfulness or even love. It takes a whole sentence to even begin to translate the term, but this is a good place to start. When someone from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything, I experience hesed.” – Michael Card
She was dead she thought
The leaves gone gray with frostbite
Fullness of life pinched like the last rays
Of twilight and the seed rotten
In the grave of her heart where it lay
Thick corpse unlooked for, unhoped for.
Then the recrudescence of the unseen cloaked –
Birth pains preceded by incredulous laughter
Behind three visitors, welcome yet sorely
Testing her faith that after all these years
The barren belly and breasts hanging loose
Like the flaps of Abraham’s tent would swell
With child and milk and passion flailing
In her arms in cries of longing.
Still yet would the muted prayers of her heart
Confuse a blind priest and escape like drunken speech
From a spirit overburdened with years of enduring
Whispers interspersed with “poor Hannah”
And taunts hastily stifled between pursed lips
Escape the earth to a listener in the heavens
Beneath the frozen stare of endless reeling stars.
Oh, birth that fell upon the girl betrothed twice:
First to the gallant, plainspoken carpenter by trade
Then to the shame that lay as heavy upon her as the child
Ripening within, immortal Savior, promised to a broken remnant
Who had almost ceased to believe their barren vineyard –
Stripped, plundered, bruised under heel of pharisee and emperor –
Would find its fruit at last in the promised seed of God
Eternal hid here in the virgin’s bespoken womb!
Now to ready the still beating heart beneath the flesh
That spawns decay, loss, grief, hate, pain and misery
Unbroken by relentless time, but that time itself stoops
To enter into a stable wherein lies a gurgling babe,
The hope of every longing heart
The joy of bright expectant eyes
The peace of life newborn where once there was none
Now in this advent of his return.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Like Elisha telling of a heavenly chariot or Ezekiel straining to relate a vision of God’s limitless glory, sometimes you just have to commit yourself to absurdity and use words to bear witness to what has happened to you.
On the eve of this Lord’s Day, as I think of those gathering to worship and praise their Maker and their King across the world, I am glad that Scripture is replete with the attempts of the prophets, poets, and apostles to describe the relationship of God to His people. No one metaphor or image is adequate. We need all of them to describe its various dimensions. Moreover, each one expands in scope and vision with each passing day as we walk with Him in the fullness of the knowledge of His love and faithfulness; “for we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13: 9, 12).