Lenten Longings

A sacrament is a human or physical means to the experience of divine grace. The most common sacrament celebrated in the Christian community is that of bread and wine, a physical means by which we experience the grace made possible through the sacrificial gift of Christ’s body and blood. But there are many things in concrete human experience that can be sacramental for us—that help us experience the truth and presence of God in profound ways—things like thorns, or the ache of human longing.

As fall turns to winter, short days and cold weather descend and put our gardens to sleep. The earth is dark and lifeless—cold. Our bodies slow down and for many of us, the short, dark days bring on a deep weariness of spirit. In our heart throbs an deep longing, a desperate wish for light and life. It is in such hopeless times that our hearts quicken with thoughts of spring, when longer days lead to warmer weather, and to the awakening of the world—resurrection! Barren trees birth buds and blossoms, then leaves and a full dress of green.

We all know what this ache is like. It might come in simple forms, like a deep thirst for a drink or a deep hunger for food. But often it involves a longing for other people. Depending on our place in life, we might long for a parent who is distant or gone forever; for a spouse who is too-long away; for distant friends or for a love not yet discovered;  for a child who has walked away, never to return.

But our longings often reach beyond what we can see and touch. All of us from time to time feel a deep and nameless longing. It may be something we have not yet named. Long ago Saint Augustine said in prayer, “You have created us for Yourself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in You.”  We’re born with a God-shaped vacuum that awakens in us a nameless longing for eternity, an aching wish to draw close our Creator. And, perhaps, all our human longings are underscored when we lack a connection to the One who made us.

And the longing for our Creator is “felt” by more than just humans. In Scripture we are told that all creation is groaning, longing for a rescue from the painful consequences of sin and of living in a fallen world (Romans 8:18-23). We long for the return of our Maker, who has the means and desire to make things right again. This is the longing we feel in Advent season, as we await the coming of God in the person of the Christ-child—Emmanuel—“God with us.” It is also the longing of Lent and Good Friday, as we await the resurrection light of Easter morning. This is the longing we feel as we look for the return of the Christ—our Maker and Keeper and Healer—come, Lord, and come quickly!

But our own small longings are just an echo of a longing as deep and wide as the universe—the longing that God feels toward us as members of His alienated creation. Ever since the fateful day of separation in Eden, God has longed to be intimate with us. He didn’t create us so He could inflict punishment on us for our failures, or so He could abandon us and watch us flounder in darkness. He made us to be His friends. All the great people mentioned in Scripture had serious failings, but what set them apart was their profound friendship with God. (Look at Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and David, all known as friends of God.) God has a longing to be a friend to every one of us. And the Father sent His Son to overcome the alienation and heal the rift. In Christ we are no longer strangers, but citizens of God’s kingdom and members of His family (Ephesians 2:19). There need be no distance.

Jesus once told a story of a father and two sons, by which he illustrated the passionate longing of the divine Father to be close to His children—both those who choose to live selfish, excessive lives and those who actually think they can earn His favor by being good. See the passion of the Father as he welcomes His prodigal son home, despite his earlier offenses:

“A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began….” (Luke 15:11-24, NLT)

As you feel the ache of longing in your heart, whatever its source, let it become a divine sacrament to you—a means by which God calls you to yearn for Him and His return. Let it be a means that drives you to reflect and prepare for that and for any other future event, like the longing you may feel to plant your garden, when the warmth of spring is still a long way off.

And know that in this heartache, you have begun to tune your heart to the heartbeat of God, the one who loves you and longs for your love and your transformation. You have begun to know the ache in His heart for you.

Garden Tip: A longing for spring in the middle of winter can be a source of depression, but it can also be a call to action and awareness. Those who receive seed catalogs in the mail during the cold months often find hope stirring and take a sketch pad in hand to begin a garden plan and make a seed order. Take the time to dream of possibilities and let your longings grow to full maturity. Lay out the rows and beds for your plants. Make all the necessary plans and preparations.

And as you begin the long, dark days of Lent, don’t hide from the ache in your heart; embrace it. It reveals your awareness that things are not right, that things here are broken. Take the time to prepare your heart; don’t waste any time. Remember also that the longing in your heart reveals something to you about the heart of the Creator, who longs for us to come to him. Remember that the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas was an expression of God’s longing for you and for the restoration of all things. Look forward to His resurrection at Easter as a sign of its further fulfillment. Then let your heart groan as you await His return, when the present darkness will be overwhelmed by light, and there will be no distance between creation and Creator. Turn toward His longing embrace and make ready.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lowly exile here,

until the Son of God appears.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel—has come to thee, O Israel.”

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Peace on Earth

“Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you.”

(Job 12:8)

From ancient times, the sea has been looked upon as a symbol of unruly power and chaos. Anyone who has experienced, in even a small way, the raw power of a stormy ocean will understand the association. Its raw force lies so beyond our capicity to control it that the only valid human response is of fear and awe. Nothing made by man can stand long against its destructive forces.

In ancient Near Eastern literature, the sea was believed to be governed by the god Yam (which is the semitic word for “sea”), the deity who embodied and ruled over the sea’s raging power. Yam’s kingdom was Tehom—the deep—the place of primordial chaos. Yam was closely associated with Lotan, the great seven-headed serpent or dragon that dwelt in the deep and embodied the forces of evil. All the ancient pagan cultures had gods of the sea, and all were thought to embody similar attributes. The ancient Greeks called this god Poseidon; the Romans embraced him as Neptune; the Vikings called him Aegir. This was the god of chaos, storms, shipwrecks, earthquakes, and tidal waves. He was unpredictable, unruly, and untamed, just the same as his kingdom.

The ancient Hebrews, who lived in this ancient semitic world, were called into the service of Yahweh, the God of all things. This was the Creator, who formed our world from the chaos of the deep. The Hebrew Scriptures begin the account of creation in this context:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2, NLT).

From the chaos, God created a world that was good and beautiful, and He populated it with all His creatures, including humankind. The people He made were given charge over the other creatures, which would relate to people much as people should relate to God. But as the story progresses, the people reject the rule of God and begin to stir the waves of chaos in the world once again. They become as unruly and destructive as the primordial deep. In the time of Noah, God destroyed most of the human race for their destructive wickedness (ironically by using the chaotic forces of a great flood). But as Noah’s descendants spread on the earth, they turned once again to their own way, until even the unruly waves of the sea were better at following God’s instructions than they were. Even of God’s chosen people, the prophet Jeremiah said:

“Listen, you foolish and senseless people, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Have you no respect for me? Why don’t you tremble in my presence? I, the LORD, define the ocean’s sandy shoreline as an everlasting boundary that the waters cannot cross. The waves may toss and roar, but they can never pass the boundaries I set. But my people have stubborn and rebellious hearts. They have turned away and abandoned me.” (Jeremiah 5:21-23, NLT)

The human race, having embraced the path of selfish disobedience, have become the agents of chaos in the world, rather than God’s agents of peace and beauty. And since the beginning, God has been on a mission to restore the order of His creation by reaching out to the people He made, even at great personal cost. It was for this reason that the Christ was born, to live a life of goodness and ultimately sacrifice—so that the rift between God and His ruling creatures could be healed and His people could be transformed into His servants—His agents of peace.

With all this in mind, remember this account of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee:

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and started out. As they sailed across, Jesus settled down for a nap. But soon a fierce storm came down on the lake. The boat was filling with water, and they were in real danger.

The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?”

The disciples were terrified and amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “When he gives a command, even the wind and waves obey him!” (Luke 8:22-25, NLT)

After seeing this astounding miracle, the disciples were overwhelmed and asked, “Who is this man?” They knew the power of the sea. They had heard stories about sea gods. They also knew that the God of all things, Yahweh, could draw the boundaries for the sea. They knew He could silence its rage in an instant. They knew the story of  the prophet Jonah, who had set sail for a distant land in disobedience of God’s call. God sent a raging storm to swamp Jonah’s boat, but when Jonah was thrown into the water, the sea immediately went still at God’s command.

Who is this Jesus? It is a question we all must ask. Perhaps you doubt the stories written about Him. But have you ever taken the time to look closely? If we come to see Him clearly, as the Creator of all things, the One who stirs up storms and quiets them with a word, the only honest response to Him is jaw-dropping awe. This is the One we celebrate at Christmas.

The Baby is born in Bethlehem.

Universe-Spinner spun.

Galaxy-Weaver woven.

Earth-Maker formed.

Storm-Stiller come.

Creation-Healer now with us.

Emmanuel.

The Child is born in Bethlehem.

Hallelujah!

Garden Tip: Though this may not pertain to your personal garden, it does relate to God’s garden—the world in which we live. Open your eyes to the power of a storm. Walk in it; stand it it; raise your fist to it if you must. The storm is in God’s hands, and so are you. The storm must always do God’s bidding. But He has granted you freedom—freedom to participate in His work of bringing peace and beauty to the world, or to rage against His order as an agent of chaos. It is your choice to make. He is on a mission to recreate what has been broken. He is calling you to join with Him in the work of His garden. What will you do with this call? Do you dare to become an agent of God’s peace on earth?

The Friendly Beasts

“Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

(Job 12:7)

I have often wondered what the animals and birds see when a forest—once lively with activity and birdsong—suddenly falls silent. Or when a happy dog suddenly cowers and whines, or suddenly explodes with barking, but for no obvious reason. Perhaps the birds in the forest are silenced by a swooping owl or hawk—or something else that I’m blind to. Or perhaps the dog smells or hears a snake in the grass or a rabbit in a nearby shrub. But sometimes I haven’t been able to discern the cause, even after looking closely. And I wonder.

I wonder if they see things—not just things hard to for us to see—but perhaps things truly invisible. I remember the story of Balaam and his donkey (Numbers 22:21-36). The false prophet was riding his donkey to take payment for cursing God’s people. An angel stood in his path—an angel Balaam couldn’t see. But Balaam’s donkey saw the angel and stopped. Balaam got off and started to beat the animal. But still the donkey refused to move, and the Lord caused the donkey to speak in protest. I wonder—does this still happen? What am I blind to? What of the spiritual realm are we all blind to?

I remember the animals who gathered to board Noah’s ark, called by God to come in twos for their survival (Genesis 7:1-24). I remember the ravens called upon to feed Elijah as he hid deep in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:1-7). And what about the great fish that swallowed Jonah to rescue him from drowning? All these creatures did God’s bidding, and often while the people around them failed to do so. And what about the frequent call in the Scriptures for us to join the rest of creation as it sings God’s praises? Do we hear their voices singing? Do we join them?

As Job was struggling to make sense of his terrible suffering, he said to his accusing friends, “Just ask the animals, and they will teach you. Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you. Let the fish in the sea speak to you. For they all know that my disaster has come from the hand of the LORD. For the life of every living thing is in his hand, and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:7-10, NLT).

Job’s friends assumed it was sin that had brought this trouble on Job, but Job knew that it was more complicated than that. He knew his own heart, and he couldn’t understand why such trouble had come upon him. He somehow sensed that at least the animals would understand his plight, even if his friends couldn’t. He knew that trouble could fall upon even the best of people and still be a part of God’s plan, that there were mysteries beyond the wisdom, the ideals, and the control of people. Do not the animals recognize this by following their instincts, accepting their given place as members in the creation?

And listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who saw more wisdom displayed in the ox and donkey than in his own people: “Listen, O heavens! Pay attention, earth! This is what the LORD says: `The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me. Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care—but Israel doesn’t know its master. My people don’t recognize my care for them.’ ” (Isaiah 1:2-3, NLT)

The beasts live in proper relation to their masters and their Creator. But we, who were given the work of  caring for the creatures and their environment, have forgotten our own Master—our Maker, our Protector, our Healer. And so we also fail in our work as masters. “Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

With this in mind, let us approach the Advent season with an old Medieval carol in our hearts. This carol first surfaced to documentary history in connection with 12th-Century France, and from there it spread to Britain where it is still often sung. This song is often written off as fanciful, the product of an unscientific age, no doubt because the animals in it are said to speak and to offer gifts to the Christ child. But is it so fanciful? I wonder. And even if it is, I hope that as this Christmas approaches, each of us will offer the Christ—our Maker and Master—the small gifts we have with as much willingness and joy as the creatures in the stable.

The Friendly Beasts

Jesus, our Brother strong and good / was humbly born in a manger rude, / and the friendly beasts around Him stood. / Jesus, our Brother strong and good.

“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown. / “I carried His mother up hill and down. / I carried her gently to Bethlehem town.” / “I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

“I,” said the cow, all white and red. /”I gave Him my manger for His bed. / I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.” / “I,” said the cow, all white and red.

“I,” said the sheep, with the curly horn. / “I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm. / He wore my coat on Christmas morn!” / “I,” said the sheep, with the curly horn.

“I,” said the dove, in the rafters high. / “I sang Him to sleep, so He would not cry. / We sang Him to sleep, my mate and I.” / “I,” said the dove, in the rafters high.

And every beast, by some good spell, / in the stable dark was glad to tell / of the gift he gave Emmanuel, / the gift he gave Emmanuel.

Gardening Tip: Remember Balaam’s donkey and open your eyes to the world around you. It is shimmering with miracles. And pray for a second sight that reveals the spiritual realities all around and underneath. Any place where you are standing can be for you a thin place. Read the account of the prophet Elisha’s victory over the Aramean army (2 Kings 6:8-23). The prophet could act with confidence even when facing thousands of armed men. Why? because he could see what others could not. What are you blind to?

And as Advent approaches, remember the friendly beasts in the stable; open your heart to God’s gift to us in the person of the Christ. What gifts has He given to you that He now is calling you to offer back to Him? What gifts has He bestowed on you that He could use to change someone’s world this Christmas?