But Jesus warned

Matthew 12:15-21 Jesus healed all the sick among them, but he warned them not to reveal who he was. This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah concerning him: “Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen. He is my Beloved, who pleases me. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not fight or shout or raise his voice in public. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. Finally he will cause justice to be victorious. And his name will be the hope of all the world.”

Have you read Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card? It’s part of the Ender’s Game series but takes place about three thousand years later. The Speaker is charged with understanding and expressing the mystery and truth of a person’s life.

It’s not easy work, but our pastor is particularly good at doing this and is having multiple opportunities to use this gift, three funerals in three weeks. After dear 97-year-old Alicia’s service Thursday, I was able to watch by live stream the funeral of our son-in-law Cesar’s 50-year-old Aunt Rosina in southern Brazil. In both cases, I felt I knew the people better in some ways in death than I had in life. I expect that will be true for Jane too, next week—my friend whom I wrote about in the last post, whose service will be next Friday.

Photo from Shutterstock by diy13

This celebration of a person’s unique impact on the world always comforts me. Doing it well honors the significance of the person to those who knew him or her.

So when I read this Scripture this morning, it struck me that by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, he was free from the restriction not to reveal who Jesus was, and chose this passage from Isaiah to crystallize for his readers (including us!) the essence of Jesus’ character. Read it over a few times. Let its loveliness sink into your heart. Are you encouraged? I am! Even more when I look back to his baptism in Matthew 3:17, and forward to his transfiguration in Matthew 17:5, two other times God the Father calls Jesus his Beloved, and the Spirit bears witness and empowers his work. A beautiful partnership.

He is so gentle. Yet his intent to bring justice will one day be successful. Because he not only died, he came back to life. Take hope!

But God wants us to show mercy

Matthew 9:10-13 Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

Jesus quoted to the Pharisees the Greek version of Hosea 6:6. Perhaps he thought the first part of the verse would invoke for his hearers the next phrase: “I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.” Know my heart of mercy. Do as I do—but it starts in your heart with a change of attitude, a change of paradigm. A different, more open way of seeing the world. Not less love for God, but more.

Not as easy as clicking a button. Photo from Shutterstock by Artur Szczybylo

In response to my post about wondering how I will get through the next few weeks of political mutual destruction, my sister-in-law Elaine (see Art and Scripture on FB) recommended a very helpful little book, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) by Brian McLaren—see https://brianmclaren.net/store/–scroll down just a bit.

It’s an easy read, in big print. But maybe not so easy to apply . . . I would be delighted to know your thoughts!

I’m adding to my list of suggestions for these next weeks:

*Show mercy.

*Work to overcome biases.

But God made us his captives

2 Corinthians 2:14-15 But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God.

I had met Jane at church—enough to greet her. But I got to know her when I was asked to regularly pick her up for church once a month. She was a little hard of hearing, but her mind was sharp as a tack, and we had fascinating conversations going to and from church. She told me about the books she was reading, about events and people in the retirement center where she lived, about her own story—the jobs she had held, her decision not to pursue a doctorate at Pitt though she was invited by professors there to do so, her choice to worship at Ascension, her siblings and their families, her decision not to marry . . .

Jane was up to the minute with current events and shared some of her concerns with me. Once we drove by a lot where a huge old apartment building had been razed. She said, “Wouldn’t that be the perfect spot to build the new Amazon distribution center? I’m quite sure Amazon will choose Pittsburgh.” (They didn’t.) I was impressed that Jane was aware of the competition for this potential source of jobs and was able to engage with me in a discussion of the pros and cons of Amazon coming to our city.

When Karis, All I See Is Grace was published, I bought a copy for Jane. But she greeted me asking for an autograph–in the hard copy of the book she somehow obtained on her own!

Jane loved our family. She followed Dave’s ministry in detail, and always had pertinent questions to ask him. She loved nothing more than a visit from me at her retirement center—if I brought Caleb along. She was thrilled when both our daughters were pregnant at the same time.

Visiting Jane for her 94th birthday. The retirement center was decorated for “Christmas in July.”

Then she suffered a massive heart attack. When I went to visit her in the hospital, she almost leaped out of bed in her excitement. “Debbie, you’ll never guess who was just here! Mark Stevenson! Such a nice young man.” (Mark is a pastor at our church. I think he’s about my age, so perhaps Jane thought of me as young also?!) Jane proceeded to talk to me nonstop for over an hour. She would have kept going, I think, had I not needed to excuse myself.

After that heart attack, Jane was moved from her lovely apartment in the retirement center to a nursing home, where she shared a hospital-style room with a woman who was not happy she was there. In fact, hostile might not be too strong a word. When I looked at Jane, startled at what came out of the woman’s mouth, Jane laughed and said, with a little chuckle, “Perhaps in time I’ll win her over, poor dear.” She set aside the book in her lap—one of the classics; I’m sad that I don’t remember which one—to show me with delight cards and photos she had received from friends and family. When I was ready to leave, Jane said, “Don’t worry about me. I am content. Contentment is a choice. I have chosen to be content.”

Those words have rung in my mind and heart often since that day a few months ago. I didn’t imagine that would be the last time I would see Jane. But then COVID hit. We kept in touch through notes on cards, and Jane sent cards to each of my daughters when their babies were born (she had kept track of their due dates).

July 26, Jane’s 95th birthday, her COVID test came back positive. Last night God took her Home. She has left me with the scent of Christ-like fragrance, rising up to God.  And the reminder that contentment is a choice.

But Jesus says, “Love your enemies”

Matthew 5: 43-48 You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” my fortune cookie tells me.

If you’re like me, you dread the next weeks, when we’ll be flooded even more than the pathetic “normal” by politicians tearing each other apart. What to do—an extended screens fast? Focus that time instead on proactive love for neighbors and friends?

Suggestions welcome! Meanwhile, enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-RG0Xh42zs

But God said, “What have you done?”

Genesis 4:8-10 One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him. Afterward the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?” “I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?” But the Lord said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”

I “attended” two funerals yesterday, both virtually. Both deaths were from cancer. Both men were celebrated for the choices they made in life to serve not only themselves but other people, at significant cost. Both used the gifts God gave them to make a difference in the lives of the people in their spheres of influence. One was a dearly loved member of our church. We miss you, Bob.

The other, John Lewis, was elected to Congress in 1986 and re-elected sixteen times. Called the “conscience of Congress,” he served as a representative from Georgia until he died on July 17. I heard part of his funeral on the radio on Monday and watched it on YouTube with Dave last night. You can start at 1:06 to hear Rep. Lewis challenge us in his own words.

Rep. Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. He was the last surviving organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, the youngest speaker at that event which was the setting for Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech. An ordained Baptist minister committed to nonviolent change, Rep. Lewis lay down his life over and over again for the sake of achieving MLK’s vision for the “beloved community” (see https://www.gcorr.org/25-traits-of-the-beloved-community-2/).

Rep. Lewis’s story sounds very much like Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 4 and 2 Corinthians 6 and 11. He was beaten repeatedly, left for dead, imprisoned. By 1963, he had been arrested 24 times. His skull was fractured by police when he stopped to pray during his crossing of the bridge in Selma, AL in 1965, scars he bore the rest of his life. He was arrested in 2006, 2009, and 2013 for protesting peacefully. Yet he held tenaciously to his belief in nonviolence and the possibility of reconciliation.

I hope this is enough to pique your interest in learning more about this remarkable man, who has now joined the company of saints around the throne of God. A powerful part of his memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda was the special music offered by Dr. Wintley Phipps. For me, it was even more meaningful because the week before, Dave called my attention to this video, which gives background I wasn’t aware of before about the hymn Amazing Grace:

You may not agree with all of Rep. Lewis’s political positions—I don’t—but there is no doubt his life says to us, “Yes. I am my brother’s guardian. Like you, Lord—his blood cries out to me from the ground.” And watching people worship as Dr. Phipps sang in the Capitol Rotunda touched me deeply.

But God is the light by which we see

Psalm 36:7-9 How precious is your unfailing love, O God! All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of your wings. . . For you are the fountain of life, the light by which we see.

I had an awful dream last night. More about that later, and the glimmer of light God is giving me through it.

Friday evening, we had a several-hour blackout due to a storm. Suddenly it was obvious how much we depend on electrical power, not just to see what’s around us, and do things we want to do, but to communicate with other people. Dave missed a meeting with leaders from several countries. I missed some online connecting I planned to do while he was on that call.

But instead, we snuggled on the couch in the light of a single candle, enjoying an unexpected quiet space just for “us.”

Our Friday-night candle

One topic of conversation was how much we take for granted electrical power, clean water, food, etc. etc. Our friends in Venezuela are delighted when they have power for a few hours.

Another topic was a video Dave had just filmed for me, and whether I would find the courage to post it on Facebook. (I did it the next morning; you can see our best-of-seven-attempts on the All I See Is Grace page.) I needed courage because “marketing” is hard for me. My family and close friends have heard me bewail that all too often.

A tough reality for people like me: authors must sell their own books. This is true whether we publish traditionally or independently, in this market where book publishers are fighting to survive. After giving it my best in the few months after Karis, All I See Is Grace was published, I breathed a sigh of relief, said “Whew, that’s over,” and settled into my next writing project.

Last month, though, my spiritual director challenged that view, suggesting this moment, now, when not just the U.S. but the whole world is caught in pandemic and economic upheaval, when we’re feeling the stress of isolation and disruption of our routines and expectations, when we can’t visit our loved ones in nursing homes or hospitals or mourn them properly when they die, when we as a nation are grasping for new understanding of the realities of entrenched systemic racism, when “fake news” and “real news” can be hard to tell apart, when gracious public discourse seems to have all but disappeared . . . this moment is perhaps the moment Karis’s words of hope and joy and love across boundaries can encourage us to turn toward God in new and deeper ways to find the light we need.

If any of this resonates with you, you can help me by sharing the video on your own FB page, and by liking the All I See is Grace page. Even by gifting the book to people who are struggling right now.

We made the video deliberately without “God language,” hoping it could merit a viewing by a wider audience. The book, though, takes people straight to God.

All this makes sense in my mind. Ever since I posted the video, though, I’ve been on the edge of tears. And last night I had this horrible dream.

I dreamed an eighteen-wheeler pulled up in front of our house and dumped a load of large, sharp rocks on our front lawn. Like monster gravel. I ran out waving my arms in protest, yelling to say they had the wrong house, when I saw a caravan of trucks pulling up. None of my arm-waving or yelling or window-pounding made any difference. One by one the trucks pulled up and dumped their loads, until I was forced by the growing mountain of stuff back into my house. Dirt. Garbage of all kinds. Old appliances. Squashed this and rusty that. By the time they were all gone, I couldn’t see out of our windows or open the door. I was stuck inside, trapped by an avalanche of refuse.

It’s as vivid to me now in the retelling as it was in the dreaming.

Lord, what on earth . . . ?

“It’s your fear,” came his whisper. “Your fear of reliving the grief. The losses. The exhaustion. The huge emotional cost of writing the Karis book. Your fear of not having learned all you needed to learn, of not having much to contribute, of letting Karis down by not representing her life adequately. Your feelings of insecurity in U.S. culture and with technology, of not knowing the right things to do or say. Your fears of not using well the limited time you have left in the world, however long that may be. All these messy, rusty, broken-down old fears.”

“It’s not really about the marketing, then?”

“No. You’ll have a totally different experience with sharing Horse Thief 1898. The Karis book pulls so much emotion back to the surface that it’s hard for you to maintain perspective. There’s so much of you in that book, in her story, that you feel vulnerable, out of control, unable to defend yourself. Like in the dream.”

“Oh.”

Believe it or not, this truly is a ray of light into my darkness. Because I am delighted with the Horse Thief story and would love to share it with you! And I don’t want that to be as hard as I find talking about Karis, All I See Is Grace. A long post, to say thank you to God who is walking this journey with me, and to you, who are doing so as well. Thank you.

Maybe I do need a good cry to help regain my equilibrium. Maybe in your own circumstances, you do too?

But each day the Lord pours out his love

Psalm 42:7-8 I hear the tumult of the raging seas as your waves and surging tides sweep over me. But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me.

This video makes me laugh. But have you ever felt this way, like giving up on a project you’ve invested in? Or a relationship, or even life itself?

Oops–I don’t have the right level of WordPress to make this video work. Check it out on Facebook, All I See Is Grace.

This morning as I prayed for a friend with severe chronic illness, I was drawn to this artistic rendering of Psalm 42:1-5, which Val made for Karis on one of her tough days. It’s hung on our wall for years and has faded, but I think you can still read it. I need this challenge today, to remember and seek the Lord’s unfailing love, poured out for THIS day.

But God has shown us a way

Romans 3:20-22 No one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law . . . We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

Our Waymaker. Miracle-worker. Promise-keeper. Light in the darkness.

Photo from Shutterstock by Amanda Carden

John 14:21-24 Jesus replied [to the woman at the well], “The time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem . . . But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him in that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”

Worship him.

But God calls us into light

1 Peter 2:9-12 You are a chosen people, royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light . . . Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.

Philippians 1:27 Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. (See also Hebrews 11:13-16.)

Photo from Shutterstock by Tom Wang

One of the tenets Mom lived by was, “Always leave a place better than you found it.” As kids, we didn’t appreciate the extra cleaning, weeding, or whatever she deemed necessary to leaving a place better, such as the mission housing where we stayed when we visited Guatemala City, or the Panajachel lake property belonging to another mission where we went for vacations. Nor did we necessarily like the accompanying song, “Brighten the corner where you are.”

But Mom’s maxim is striking me today as an apt expression of Christian teaching in relation to the world we live in, whatever the country or circumstances. When our brief stay on Earth ends, will we leave it better than we found it?

I’m asking this question both as an individual and as part of the great international unshakeable Kingdom (Hebrews 12:27-28), embodying Jesus, his hands and feet here until he comes back, offering to him our first loyalty. If Jesus were here, how would he view the church’s track record in the place where you live? What would he care about? I suspect our personal safety, comfort, prosperity, and “rights” wouldn’t be as high on his list as how we are caring for others, wanting to leave a better world not only for our own children and grandchildren but also for other people’s children and grandchildren.

One thing is crystal clear: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). To save, not to condemn. To love, not to hate. To welcome, not to reject. To serve. To care and heal. To understand, not to judge. His stance wasn’t popular. He was criticized even by his “own” people (Matthew 11:19). It wasn’t about being “nice.” It cost him his life.

Today, on this Fourth of July here in the U.S., I’m asking myself: How can I add light and hope, Jesus-style, rather than deepening the darkness and gloom so pervasive locally, nationally and internationally? I believe he will show me my small part, if I open my heart and listen.

You are the light of the world . . . let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16).

But God supports me

2 Samuel 22:17-20, 29 The Lord reached down from heaven and rescued me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemies, from those who hated me and were too strong for me. They attacked me at a moment when I was in distress, but the Lord supported me. He led me to a place of safety; he rescued me because he delights in me. . . O Lord, you are my lamp. The Lord lights up my darkness.

 

Photo from Shutterstock by Olha Rohulya

“I have drunk your light, though darkness was poured in my cup.”

These exquisite words, penned by my friend Stacey Regan, so eloquently express my life experience that I would want them engraved on my tombstone if I were to have one (I won’t). I have been savoring them, turning them over and over in my mind ever since I read them in the song Stacey gifted to the beautiful (Un)ordinary Time devotional Elise Massa crafted for our church: https://sites.google.com/view/ascensionmusicandworshiparts?fbclid=IwAR3wozRxohJikkN8XhlXcNJuAM3WsL-_rJXJwRXHGC-BaTWe9Iee-fawK8k

Elise describes this collection here (scroll down to find the video): https://sites.google.com/view/ascensionmusicandworshiparts?fbclid=IwAR3wozRxohJikkN8XhlXcNJuAM3WsL-_rJXJwRXHGC-BaTWe9Iee-fawK8k Karis and I both got to contribute!

Who or what are my enemies, you may ask upon reading David’s song of praise in 2 Samuel. I’ll turn it around: Who or what are your enemies in this (un)ordinary time? Depression, desperation, worry about the present, anxiety about the future, grief, exhaustion, impatience, family stress from too much confinement, lack of resources . . . We do have an enemy who wants to destroy us, and he plays dirty, kicking us when we’re down. Stomping on us, sometimes. He is a thief, trying to rob our peace and our joy. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10). Pouring darkness into our cup.

But Jesus—oh my goodness. Tasting his Light, even in the worst of circumstances . . . Well, that’s what the Karis book tries to convey. Hope. Because Stacey’s experience, and Karis’s, and mine—it’s available to you, too. Today. To each of us as we walk, step by step, each with our own challenges, through this most unordinary time.

Photo from Shutterstock by Sandi Cullifer