Holy Moments – Day 22 – Dawning Light

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“Mommy – What does ISIS stand for?”

Her blue eyes peeked out at me from behind her purple bedspread. It was time to turn out the light. Not the time to launch into a discussion like this. And what did she mean “stand for?” I took the literal route.

“ISIS is an acronym. The letters I-S-I-S are short for the longer name of a group calling itself the Islamic State.”

“Some boys on the playground were talking about it and what they did in Paris.”

“Hmm.” My mind reeled. What did she know? I didn’t want her to worry. We work so hard to keep her safe, happy, carefree…

I asked her what she’d heard and it was just vague details about attacks. She’d heard of Islam, so we discussed the fact that there are people in all religions who can become extreme and bend their views into hatred of others who have different faiths. I stressed that this is wrong, that God loves every person, that He created every single one.

“Will they come here?”

“There are people in our government and all over the world working very hard to protect us.”

“We’ll be warned, right? And we can run to our house and lock all the doors. Do we know what they look like?”

“Some of them. But it’s more like we’re watching their emails and telephone calls. Get some sleep, ok? I love you.”

Oh, Lord. I couldn’t tell her the whole truth….What do they look like?

They look like my friend from middle school – Mary – whose mother was Syrian and father was Lebanese. They look like guys I dated in high school and college – Italian. They look like the Greek guy at the deli around the corner from my office building in New York City. And they look like Zaidan – the Lebanese gentleman I worked with for years at a nonprofit civic education group in Washington, DC, where our mission was to encourage young people to participate in the democratic process.

What do they look like?  They look like us. And what’s on the outside has nothing to do with it. 

My daughter’s questions, posed on the first day of the week, led to 6 days of soul searching, long-bouts of reading articles on Facebook, and a general unease. I wanted to say something about this historical moment. But what?

On Saturday, as my daughter and I were listening to Christian radio and she was singing her little heart out, she gave me more to chew on…

“I want to sing a song for the talent show later this year, but if I choose one of these, I’m afraid everyone will laugh at me or think I’m weird.”

It wasn’t bedtime. It was time to dig deep. I’ll spare you the details of that discussion. But as I tried to bolster her spirit for a lifelong journey of faith, I was also coaching myself. In a time like this, when the world feels akimbo, maybe it’s appropriate to get out a wrench and tighten up the nuts and bolts.

All of the events of the last week have reminded me that choosing to walk through the narrow gate is never easy. It requires a daily commitment, a re-surrendering of my will to God’s will, because for me and for most of us, the natural instinct is to “run to our hous[es] and lock all the doors.” The world is quite frightening, and the Lord’s commands aren’t easy either. If we truly try to follow any one of Jesus Christ’s teachings we quickly find that he was, in every sense, radical.

But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who hurt you, pray for those who mistreat you.” – Luke 6:27-28

ISIS is no exception to this command. Each terrorist deserves God’s mercy as much as we do – which is not at all – and still God offers it, freely. Yet, how often do we hear prayers for our enemies from our altars? How often do we pray for them as we close our eyes and ask for protection?

Every time I publish a blog piece, I expose myself as a believer. I wonder sometimes how much of a risk I’m taking in proclaiming the Bible as Truth. I remember that Christ’s message was not one of perpetual comfort in this life, but of eternal peace in the next.

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more.”  – Luke 12:4

If anyone proved the veracity of this statement, it is Jesus himself, for if we do not believe in the truth of the Resurrection – the Son of Man literally brought back to life and walking the earth in his flesh and blood – we are not truly Christians. And the power Christ invoked is the same power promised to those who love Him.

I pray…that you will know what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead… – Ephesians 1:18-20

If I could say only one more thing to my daughter, it would be the one thing Jesus says most often: “Don’t be afraid.” And this is not some self-help advice meant to puff up her ego. NO. Why? Because God never meant us to face our fear alone. From the Old Testament to the New, scripture is consistent on this – there is no place we can go to escape God’s loving presence, and He wants us to call on Him. When we admit our need for Him, he is endlessly forgiving of our failures – of our desire be self-sufficient and to ‘go it alone,’ of our judgments and anger toward our enemies, of our hiding from His power, of our foregoing His assistance, and of our acting as if He doesn’t exist. He stands ready at all times, offering us the safety of His eternal love. We need only to surrender to Him again. 

Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too. If I fly with the wings of dawn and alight beyond the sea, Even there your right hand hold me fast. – Psalm 139: 7-10

I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, I ‘will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin. – Psalm 32:5

Do not be afraid of them, For I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 1:8

As I have told my daughter, sometimes carrying this message of hope will make me unpopular. But I remember these words of Christ as well, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.” (John 15:18). Knowing that He is with me always and experiencing His powerful love has created within me an unshakable joy and peace that is more than enough to get me through the tough moments. See, I can only serve one master, and I learned some time ago that serving myself is a dead end.

Holy Moments – Day 21 – Take Courage

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When I heard that there would (of course) be a special Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Sunday – to pray for the victims of Friday night’s terror attacks – I thought of the votive candles. Hundreds of votive candles, carrying prayerful smoky wisps heavenward.

When I was in France twenty years ago, I saw many cathedral ceilings covered in soot. For unless a church community can afford the time-consuming and careful process required for removing centuries’ worth of grime from stone, plaster, and paint, the residue of thousands upon thousands of soulful expressions must remain.

So in many sacred places, I gazed upward into a chalky blackness that obscured colorful, inspiring art, hidden just behind.

This weekend, it was hard to look at Paris and see its beautiful view. Candles on its sidewalks, near its restaurants, in its churches, gave the ‘City of Light’ a sadder connotation. ‘Not like this,’ I thought. ‘It shouldn’t be like this.’

But faith requires looking past the present, and holding fast to a beautiful hope that is hidden – for now. And faith is also standing steady on the promises of the past, which point to a secure eternal future.

In this world you will have trouble. But take courage; I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

 

Holy Moments – Day 5 – Opportunity

Sometimes we are called to rise to the occasion. Globally, this is happening right now.

I know, I know…The people – the Syrian refugees – are far away. They are not walking our roads in search of food, shelter, and new lives. So it’s easy to ignore them. Or even to think one can justify contemptuous feelings when a tiny, tiny minority of them have refused help because it came in packages marked with red crosses.

But – when we choose not to turn the TV off. Or when we choose to take a good, long look at the videos. And at the heartbreaking photographs. And when we sit still long enough to listen to the whisper inside, we know that we are being called.

Jesus told us:

I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. – John 13: 34-35

Easy? Hardly. Notice that He didn’t give us a choice about who to love. We are told to love everyone.

And for many of us, loving like Christ goes something like this:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” – G. K. Chesterton 

What did Jesus say again? Put into simplest terms: They will know you are Christians when you love like I do.

Can I love like He does? Only with His help. And that’s a challenge – even on my ‘best’ days. But He didn’t say, “Here’s a suggestion.” He said, “I give you a new commandment.” So my question should only be – ‘How will I obey?’

Could this be the world’s holy moment? I think so. A moment we are being asked to rise to perform acts of sacred love. Acts set apart from the norm. Acts of real love – that is, selfless love. Defined by the fact that they demand no thanks. 

Watch this.

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The Heart of the Matter

I saw something this morning that made me want to vomit. Two investigators from the Center for Medical Progress went undercover and interviewed a director of Planned Parenthood who discusses on video – over wine and salad – the systematic harvesting and selling of body parts from babies she and others abort. Apparently, livers and hearts are in especially large demand. And she’s careful not to crush these valuable commodities during the “extraction” process from each mother’s womb, which she describes, in detail. By dinnertime today, this story was all over the national news, and media outlets were reporting that the director “allegedly” sold these baby body parts. But I watched the video. I’m taking her at her word.

People have all sorts of arguments for the slaughter of the innocents. But as I said when I shared this story with Facebook Friends, evil cannot grow where there is Light. For me, before today, the selling of body parts of aborted children fell into that category of: “I guess I knew that could happen, theoretically speaking, but who would actually do it?” Now, my idealistic ignorance has abruptly ended and nausea has given way to a rising, righteous anger.

Righteous anger. Yes. I’m going to claim the moral high ground on this one and say I am righteously angry. I’m not just plain-old ‘mad,’ because someone holds a different point of view. Killing and dismembering an infant shocks the senses because it violates the natural law – that inborn sense of right and wrong that we were all given. And from which we all go astray through sin. But allowing sin of this magnitude to continue without rising up to point out that it is grievous and heinous is a communal sin against God, is it not?

Am I called to love my neighbor as myself? Yes. And aren’t you too?

Is the unborn child our neighbor? I think so.

I’ve been wondering all day where to go with this…What to say or do next. I think it comes down to a basic statement and a few questions for our nation.

Fellow Americans, and Christians especially:

The hearts of unwanted, unborn children are literally, up for sale.

Is yours?

Will you sell out to the public opinion, which says that the unborn aren’t worth protecting?

To Whom does your heart belong?

And how will you show your love?

My heart belongs to the Lord, maker of Heaven and Earth. Maker of me. And so I sing His praises. And cry out with righteous anger on behalf of the Voiceless, who are also created in His image.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

— Matthew 22: 36-39

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Take Me Praying

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So we’ve all seen the news reports. We know a few details. A man full of evil entered a House of God in Charleston during a Bible study and killed nine people. Once arrested, he reportedly told police he had wanted to start a race war.

Even before I heard Charleston’s mayor say that a race war will not happen….that the community is coming together in a beautiful way….Yes, back before I’d heard that the victims were well-known, cherished members of the community, I’d had this one thought running through my mind:

Take me praying.

Thinking about your own death is uncomfortable. And certainly, the idea of dying at the hands of a murderer is among the most disconcerting thoughts possible. But when I heard this story from Charleston, my mind went here:

Sometimes, we may wonder whether we are doing God’s will. But I’m sure of one thing. If I’m praying – talking to my Lord – I know I’m doing exactly what He’d like me to do.

So, when my time comes, Lord, take me praying. Please. 

Take me praying.

The nine people for whom thousands mourn tonight were walking in the Light at the moment they met their Father. And despite the horror of the scene, those with faith to see can look past the carnage to what lies beyond. Hope. Eternal Truth.

Darkness came into a place of Light. But the Light will not be overcome.

And what is the response to Evil in the heart of a murderer? 

Light. Accessed through prayer.  

Join with me and millions nationwide who pray for the city of Charleston.

Lord God. Adonai. Emmanuel. You are with us.
We know it is right to give you thanks always and everywhere.
So Lord, we thank you for hearing us, for being present in our suffering.
We lift up our hurting hearts and pray that Your peace will comfort the families and friends of those lost in the tragedy in Charleston.
May they be lavished with Your love.
May they know the strength of Your arms.
While grieving, may they see your Light in every direction they turn.
And may the Good that comes from this terrible event be attributed to You – the One from whom All good things come.
In Jesus name we pray,
Amen
.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

– John 1:5

People of the Cross

imageAll over the world, we were marked today.  We are the People of the Cross.

“Getting” our ashes wasn’t something to be proud of. In fact, if we’re in it for the right reasons, it’s an act of humility.  We bow down to our Creator, recognize our proper place (as dust in His hands) and prepare ourselves to seek reconnection, or deeper connection, with Him during Lent.

I was anticipating this mark on my forehead all week – anticipating being seen as a person “of the Cross” by others, because people look at you differently when you have ashes on your head. In fact, they find it hard to look you in the eye at all.  They keep trying not to stare at that smear between your eyebrows. It makes many uncomfortable. Others think it’s weird. It makes them think, if even for a second – about Christ and His followers. And that’s not popular in many circles.

I’ve been one of the “People of the Cross” for quite some time, but I first heard this term on Sunday night when I saw Ann Voskamp‘s Facebook post – a still-shot from the video of the 21 men martyred on a beach in Libya over the weekend. This latest savagery by ISIS specifically warns the “People of the Cross,” and would usually provoke an instantaneous physical reaction in me. Violence (or knowledge of it) makes my hair stand on end, adrenaline surge, and stomach flip, and then I become nauseous – very, very nauseous.  But strangely, I stared at their names in the sidebar and felt…peace. I recognized – the horror was over. I prayed for their families, each one by name, and felt…more peace. So, I thought about why for all of the next day. And I knew that God, from whom nothing is hidden, was seeing me wonder, helping me figure it out.

Monday, my daughter and I drove to her piano lesson, and I was thinking again about men in orange jumpsuits on a beach….

Oh, dear God, what was going through their minds?  Hooded men with sabers standing right behind them. Each one knew this was it. Take one man, you know – did he hear the waves ebbing in and out?  Or just the pounding in his ears?   

Out of nowhere, my daughter asks,

“Who was the greatest person who ever lived?”

I am taken to an even deeper place of calm.

“Jesus.”

“No, I mean, on Earth.”

“Jesus.”

I hear myself say His name – matter of fact. It’s like my need to over-explain, my anxiety, my rush to fear – I must ensure that she gets this – has been stripped from me.

“Who was the second most important?” she follows-up.

“There really wasn’t one. No one comes close.”

There’s a slight pause.  And then she says,

“Oh, yeeaaaa….. right.  You’re right, Mom.”

Hmmm. Odd. There’s a satisfied customer in the backseat, and I didn’t tell her about anything. The conversation drops, and we ride in silence until some other, random topic emerges.

But I’ve finally realized why I’m at peace about the beheading of 21 men. Because what’s shown in the images, is not the full Truth. The horror isn’t the only thing that happened there. In verbalizing His name aloud, I have witnessed to myself the Truth my heart and soul already knew. He, Name Above All Names – Jesus – was there too. And “he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.”  (Hebrews 7:25)

Jesus was right there on that beach. Why He allows such terror, I don’t know, but I have full confidence that He was waiting right there for those who called out, “Lord, help me.” Arms outstretched, scarred hands wide open to receive His children, He was waiting to welcome them home. Waiting to say to each and every one, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

I don’t want to live a life of cheap grace, where nothing is required of me. I want to be humbled, to bow down only before a perfect King who endured every suffering, rejection, and death, then overcame it all, for me. So, I wear my ashen cross, not with pride, but with reverence, because I am His, I’ve surrendered, and it’s brought me peace.

Sleeping Trees

 

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The sun rises in our capital city today, but things are different.

Yesterday, a fire in a very large waterfront home tragically took the lives of 4 children (cousins from 2 different families) and 2 adults, their grandparents.  I heard about it midday, when a beloved friend called – very, very upset.  Her kids were friends with those kids, and she would have to deliver unthinkable news…

I don’t know the families, had never met the children or their grandparents, but….well, I guess when you have kids, this kind of news is just especially gut wrenching.  So awful. Devastating. How would I as a parent, feel?  Instinctively, I hold my breath just imagining the sudden free-fall into darkness.  I reel like this every time a story hits, literally, “so close to home.”

I look at the barren trees this morning and in my mind hear my youngest son’s words: “The trees are sleeping.”  That’s what he said, back in the fall, when the preschool class was learning about seasons, and I immediately fell in love with the analogy – perfect for a 4-year old and 42-year old alike.

A cold, dreary winter combined with sad news can make people huddle and hide, withdrawing from the light. Right now, we can’t see it for all the bleak grayness of the world, but something new and beautiful will be visible in time.  I have faith.  I believe. I will hold a candle for those who can’t right now.  I believe – in Him.

And Jesus said,

“I am come a light into the world,

that whosoever believeth on me

should not abide in darkness.”

– John 12:46

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Only believe, only believe;

All things are possible, only believe.

Fear not, little flock, whatever your lot,

He enters all rooms, the doors being shut;

He never forsakes, He never is gone,

So count on His presence in darkness and dawn.

“Only Believe,” Paul Rader

(From The Bible Promise Book for Women, Barbour Publishing, Inc., 2014, p.13)

Day 9 – The Rock

Less than 20 miles from my home, developers have discovered a historic altar.  It is a rock.  A moss-covered boulder actually, with a large, simple cross carved into one side. Archeologists believe this artifact marks the spot of “bush meetings” – worship services held secretly in the woods by slaves and free blacks in the 19th century after meeting houses were closed following Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The current plan is to move the stone to storage, before creating a permanent home for it at a nearby Methodist church.

While it is heartening to see that the developer and historians have been working together cooperatively on this project, those who care about the altar’s significance are concerned.  Will dislodging it damage it in any way?  How will storage conditions affect its appearance?  What if it cracks in transport?  Despite the advice experts will give, these are questions that can really only be answered with, ‘We won’t know until we try.’

Sometimes I look at something so beautiful as this altar, and wonder if the preservationists see in it the same thing I see…..A community of people, oppressed in every way, came together in a private place to humble themselves before the Almighty. Sure, today it’s a thread in the narrative quilt of our county, but that carved cross represented so much more to the people who put it there.  The believers who risked their lives to come and worship in secret cared more about the God to whom they surrendered their souls than they did about the altar.  It was just a reminder of where to go – a place of redemption and hope that enabled them to endure their suffering.

The cross on the boulder still works today – if, despite our reservations and questions, at some point, we give it a try. People of every era experience fear, pain, and losses. We’re not so advanced or unique. So our community would do well to concentrate on understanding for ourselves the strength of these people’s faith and the grace they experienced, gazing up at that cross, and embracing the Rock of (all) Ages.

Day 6 – God Winks at Sam’s Club

It almost goes without saying that when you lose someone, you are more sympathetic to other people’s losses as well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have your eyes open to actually see the needs of others. At least, I wouldn’t think so – and not while shopping at Sam’s Club of all places. There, I’m usually “in the zone” – just trying to get in and get out in as little time as possible. But, if you ask God to use you, I think sometimes he does.

Today I saw a familiar-looking face in frozen foods. Two aisles later I remembered, ‘He lost his wife a couple years ago….kids took karate with my oldest son.’ In produce, I saw him again, and as we both arrived at the bananas and picked up handfuls, he smiled and said, “I have six kids. These won’t last 15 minutes.” “I know,” I said, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but….” and I made the connections for him. I gave him the only gift I could in that moment – a chance to talk to someone he started to recall the more we chatted. And when he said, “I get by each day with God’s grace,” and I said, “Yes, that’s right,” his eyes just lit up with light. He knew then that I was sincere, and I could tell he appreciated my concern all the more. I told him twice I would pray for him and his kids, and how blessed am I to be able to do that for one of my brothers?

I checked out with my haul of stuff, packed my trunk, and hopped behind the wheel to get home before lunch. But before I reversed out of my space, a white Suburban backed into a spot slightly to the right and ahead of me. The driver got out, his back to me.  He had thick white hair and was wearing a baseball cap. On the back of his truck were two bumper stickers, both with the name of a woman – one with her birth and death dates, the other for a road race organized in her honor. It was a familiar name. I googled her. Ah yes – I remembered this local story from two years ago. She was 31, had gone to the same elementary school as my kids, then the affiliated high school, was a celebrated high school and collegiate athlete, married, and then passed away due to childbirth complications after delivering healthy twins. Hmmm…Wasn’t this…. interesting? To have noticed these stickers on a truck that wasn’t directly in front of me.  Then for “some reason” I felt curious enough to look her up, only to find she went to my kids’ school and died in a similar way as my stepsister, who passed just a couple weeks ago?  What to do next?

I prayed on it, took a deep breath, and then…I wrote the driver a note. Basically, it said, ‘Dear Driver – I don’t know who you are, but from those stickers I know she was precious to you, and I am short of words to fully express my deepest sympathy for your loss. My kids are at her same school, and I just lost my stepsister to post-childbirth complications. It seems that these things can’t happen in modern times, but they do. I will be praying for her family, and for you.”

Today, I am grateful for having been given grace enough to notice people and things that on most days I probably would have missed. May these families feel a small dose of comfort and peace for having been ‘seen’ today.

 

Day 4 – Eva and Me

All I know is, her name is Eva Togbah. On September 23, she was sick.  Observers would know it right away; she couldn’t hide a single, long trickle of blood running out of her mouth.  Sitting in a car outside the Doctors Without Borders Ebola Treatment Center in Monrovia, Liberia, her young yet worn face looking into the distance, she became an unforgettable image.  Fifteen days later, her photo appeared in my morning paper.  But the newspaper article was about thousands of affected people. So of course, the details of her care, her suffering, her relationships with loved ones, what became of her ultimately – all of these are omitted.  Editors must fit text into limited space, right?  Or is it that readers have short attention spans and no one’s really asking about one woman named Eva?  In a world of billions….

I’m quick to anger because I don’t know whether Eva survived this horrible virus, but then I stop to consider that I am convicted as well. Her face cries out silently for help.  How many times have I seen her face as I go about my weekly routine? The people I meet on a daily basis might not have Ebola, but they may suffer, many in unspeakable ways.  Right here and now I can wait to hear the whisper, about where to listen longer, share a smile, give encouragement, or simply minister by being fully present.  Lord, have mercy on me and show me your way to love.