O Is For One And Only

We humans believe numbers mean something. For God, it is precisely numbers that mean nothing, nothing at all. ~ Soren Kierkegaard

number one

Only one number matters. Who wears it matters more.

We are designed to live for an audience of One but we long for the love of the many.

This is Holy Week, when we remember the cruelty and incomprehension of the numbering crowd. Jesus, alone on the cross, bears the weight of our fickle longing for more.

We have, from the start, broken the first commandment of the one God who knows what we need. But “no other gods before me” has become “every other god before you” for us, his wild and wandering children. Do we still worship other gods in our sanitary age? We do–we worship the god of numbers.

Drawn by the power of numbers,  we submit to  the whims of the herd:

  • What everyone is doing
  • What everyone is watching
  • What everyone is buying
  • What everyone is believing
  • What everyone is fearing
  • What everyone is applauding,

We will applaud the same.

How much are you paid? How many adore you? How great is the evidence of your charismatic success?

Numbers dazzle us. Numbers pressure us. We crave the impressive approval of numbers, when we were made for an audience of One.

One King

Josiah was only eight years old when he climbed onto the throne of Judah. His hell-bent father and grandfather had crowded the countryside with altars, sacred poles, carved images of the sun, the moon, the constellations, and “all the host of heaven.” The bloody and brutal fruit of importing the gods of other nations? Child sacrifice, temple prostitution, and soothsayers whispering secrets in the night.

The Old Testament reads like a tragedy–God’s people dancing to a dark and demanding audience of gods, exchanged for the blessing of One.

But Josiah was different, a king who remembered who is King.

Josiah pulled down the altars, demolished the shrines, beat the idols and images into powder wherever he found them. He did away with mediums, wizards, priests of Baal. But most important, he blew the dust off a forgotten book and called a nation to turn back to its Author, to return to an audience to One.

“Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might…nor did any like him arise after him.”  (2 Kings 23:25).

One person, with a single intention, embracing whole-heartedly one unconquerable love–what can God accomplish through a person who lives every day for his applause alone?

Whose applause and approval are you dying for?

In our series, An Alphabet Adagio, we are savoring the story of the Bible, our story, alphabetically. You can subscribe to e-mail above so you won’t miss a letter.   

N Is For Nobody Cares

One of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody. ~ Mother Teresa

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Nobody cares, nobody notices.

Their eyes were fixed on grander schemes  while you labored in the back, while you gave until your heart ached with unrequited effort.

You were the one moving mountains by grit alone, but no one glanced your way. You were faithful and true, and credit is due. But the cheers still echo for someone else, not you.

Nobody noticed.

Discouragement is a tricky companion. The fickle crowd is its best friend. The illusion that nobody cares can make us blind to the smile of recognition by the only One who matters.

 “I alone am left…”

Elijah, according to the book of James, was “a man just like us.” Appointed by God to call his people back to faith, he is cold-shouldered at every turn. Baal is the impotent but beguiling god du jour, and the evil queen Jezebel kills God’s prophets just for fun.

Elijah is a prophet.

God, in his “show-not-tell” way sends no rain for three years–as in, who really controls the life-giving storms? In a dramatic showdown on Mt. Carmel, 450 prophets of Baal, in desperate frenzy of self-mutilation, call on their silent rain-god and lose the contest to Elijah’s calm prayer.

God answers that prayer with drenching, joy-giving rain. Like Rocky, fists lifted in triumph at the top of the stairs, Elijah runs all the way to the palace to share his victory. The King and Queen are unfazed. Hardened hearts will not see God no matter how dramatic his entrance. A price is now on Elijah’s head.

Have you been there? You did everything right, you stayed true to God, and now you are worse off than before.

Deeply discouraged, Elijah runs to the wilderness and feeds on despair:

  • God let me down
  • God’s people let me down
  • I am all alone, nobody cares.

Ah, Elijah, the story isn’t over yet, don’t you see? If life seems to have no happy endings, it’s because the ending has not yet arrived. God assures Elijah there is work to be done, and there will always be a faithful remnant, just the right number of burden-sharers who refuse to bow to Baal.

Read 1 Kings 19 and you’ll find God’s simple solution whenever discouragement hits:

  • Nourishing food and rest.
  • Time in creation, just you and God.
  • Quiet reassurance and a the reminder to keep moving in the direction he has in mind.

It may seem nobody cares, but the story is not over. And God owns the pages ahead.

Is there someone who feels alone and needs your encouragement today?

 

In our series, An Alphabet Adagio, we are savoring the story of the Bible, our story, alphabetically. You can subscribe to e-mail above so you won’t miss a letter.     

Time And Time Again

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is. ~C.S. Lewis

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I once believed time was linear.

That time, like an untamed river, rushed onward, too intent on reaching some far off ocean to wait while I gathered my courage.

I thought I had one chance to step in. Just one.   And every evening, under time’s steady flow, I must wash my hands with either gratitude or grief–the good and the regrettable both swirling down the drain together. Gone.

You can’t go back. You’ve made your choice. Others are waiting for their turn.

Time Again

But I’ve learned time does more than roll on. She also puddles, circles , eddies and leaps according to the will of a God not bound by her. With a dip of his finger come second chances, sweet reunions, rebirth and redemption to redirect the tide.

God broods, he hovers over our moments and memories, reminding, restoring, making all things new. And by his mercy, the past is reoriented, the future is reassured  and the present is weighted with  grace even as the seconds tick away.

What do you regret? What wound is unhealed? At what age did you resign with a tired shrug and turn in the keys to your dreams?  Who were you meant to be, but you lost the design? Who were you made to love, but you forgot?

It’s not too late, it’s not too early, the moment’s right to reconcile the time.

Start small. Start simple. Start now.

  • Say, thank you.
  • Say, I’m sorry.
  • Say, I’m ready to turn around.

Give God a smile and say, yes, one heartbeat moment at a time.

And ponder this poem…

Until Then

There comes a point of no return

when, without fanfare, cunning

time capsizes and we turn

into what all along we were becoming.

.

Until then, though—

.

until the verdict of what will be

waves down death

to finish off this business of destiny—

.

every thought, every twitch of muscle, breath,

blink of eye, every nod is another

grain on the scale, precisely dropping space

by space, imperceptible in pace,

down toward one finale or the other.

~ By Jeff Reed, a pastor, poet and wise connoisseur of time.

 

Photograph by Melanie Hunt

 

M Is For Wisdom, Muddled

“The greatest good is wisdom.” St. Augustine

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Wisdom. In her presence only the foolish are confident. And the wise admit we are fools. 

In our Alphabet Adagio, we’ve reached the book of Proverbs. A voice calls,

“Happy are those who find wisdom and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue more than gold. She is more precious than jewels and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov 3: 13-15).

Do you thirst for wisdom above all?

Solomon’s Wish

King Solomon breathed one prayer as he began his reign in Israel. God, pleased, and perhaps pleasantly surprised, responded,

“I give you a wise and discerning mind, no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you.” 1 Kings 3:12-13.

From that moment, Solomon, as ordinary and dysfunctional as any of us, was transformed. Words poured from his mouth with such exquisite precision, we quote them still today. He solved the unsolvable, constructed the un-constructible, and ushered in the golden age of Israel’s history. The temple Solomon built for God was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Politics, engineering, law, science, literature–there seemed to be no arena where this king did not excel.

Except the arena off-stage, lights off, crowd dispersed, when no one else was looking.

Solomon consumed wives like potato chips, exchanging their gods for his own. His son, and successor, Rehoboam, openly rejected wisdom and stupidly played the fool.  (1 Kings 12) The briefly glorious nation slid into civil war.

Yet, Solomon’s name is attached to three stanzas of wisdom’s song found in Old Testament pages:

  • Song of Solomon: A poetic ideal of relationship.
  • Proverbs: A practical roadmap for beautiful living–the small choices that make all the difference.
  • Ecclesiastes: A cry of despair for a system, badly broken–when you obey every proverb and your world crashes anyway.

A tension filled triad, and the Bible doesn’t deny it. It’s a dance I know all too well. Like Solomon, I dream of what should be, strive for what’s hoped for, and stagger in bitterness at sometimes-earned pain. And get up to try again. More often than not, wisdom dissolves in a muddle, until I remember to lean on the One who gave wisdom her name.

[Colossians 2:2-3]

Is wisdom the gift you would ask for first?

 In our series, An Alphabet Adagio, we are savoring the story of the Bible, our story, alphabetically. You can subscribe to e-mail above so you won’t miss a letter. 

 Dear Readers,IMG_2891

Please excuse my long pauses in our adagio–I am studying Hebrew this year toward completing my Masters in Theology and the language is tricky, time-consuming…and the print tiny! Thank you for your patience as I soak in this ancient wisdom.

Photograph of owls by Melanie Hunt

 

 

L Is For Lament: Stumbling Uncensored To God

“When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it’s like they are holding the baby of you.” ~ Anne Lamott

sad puppy

Before my aging coffeemaker has sighed its morning offering, I have already sung a lament or two.

Not for me a cheery whistle and sports page to start the day!

All is not right and I can’t forget it, not with the news as close as my i-Phone. Not with the cruelty, stupidity, incompetence, the arrogance of the “have’s” and the abuse of the “have-nots,” fresh-printed and tossed on my driveway, still warm.

I’m always caught by surprise, as if I were the world’s author and my words move off the page when I’m not looking. So, with my morning shower, it begins.

But I’m not very good at lament. I become what I despise somewhere in the middle.

Psalms of Lament

It’s amazing they are in the Bible at all, the poems, the songs, the prophet’s choking cries. With blunt, sometimes blood-thirsty honesty, they grab God by the collar and refuse to let him go.

Deliver me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked….I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears…How long, O LORD: Will you forget me forever?….Do not put me to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol…Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them…In your faithfulness put an end to them.*

Is God really okay with unfiltered fury, with tear-choked thoughts only our pillows can hear?

Yes. Oh, yes. Let me introduce you to the One who will not flinch.

The psalmists and prophets complain without fear. In their verses we watch wide-eyed as predators pounce, close friends betray, enemies mock, sufferings loom, vengeance demanded when God seems suspiciously silent.

But what good is lament, when each day brings new material?  This is the surprise–these psalms are for worship, safe enough to chant them in the most sacred of places.

They serve as a template for healing, they guide our slipping feet to more  dependable ground. God leans forward, attentively listening until every complaint is exhausted, and then whispers hope when we think there is none.

When I thought, ‘My foot is slipping’, your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul” (Psalm 94:17-19).

The psalms of lament give voice to early morning angst too risky to share, and lead to an embrace too wonderful to miss.  

*Psalms 3, 6, 13, 31, 35, 54

Have you prayed the psalms of lament?

In our series, An Alphabet Adagio, we are savoring the story of the Bible, our story, alphabetically. You can subscribe to e-mail above so you won’t miss a letter. Next: M is for Wisdom, Muddled.

Someone To Blame, Someone To Save Us: K Is For King

When God wants to take charge of the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the poor and the meek. ~N. T. Wright

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Everybody wants a king. Someone to fight our battles, someone to fix what’s broken, someone who’ll carry  the sword we can’t begin to lift.

Everybody wants a king, until we get one.

Everybody longs for a kingdom. A place where our will is done, our wishes realized, our ways and wit applauded at every turn.

Everybody wants to be a king, until we become one.

The book of Judges ends with an ominous tone, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The prophet Samuel bears on his weary shoulders the complaint of God’s people. You and your words from God are not enough. Give us a king, like the other nations, a super hero to fight our battles, to lead us to prosperity. Give us a leader with less obscure demands than those God sends us.

God comforts a dejected Samuel. It is not a prophet, but God himself the people have deemed replaceable.

Samuel warns them–human leaders seldom keep their promises. Greed nips at the heels of power. We love our champions, but we come to despise their feet of clay. We love our sand-castle kingdoms, but, too soon, they wash away.

It’s humbling to be human when what we really prefer to be is God.

But we were made for so much more than the sum of our demands. Every page of the Bible sings with the promise,  the Kingdom we long for is at hand. The King who fights our battles and fixes the unfixable is closer than we know.

And, to our never-ending surprise, we are the sword of he wields.

 

Are you still looking for a human king to fix things?

In our series, An Alphabet Adagio, we are savoring the story of the Bible, our story, alphabetically. You can subscribe to e-mail above so you won’t miss a letter. Next: L is for Lament.

 

Are You A Paint By Number Or An Original Work Of Art?

No great radical idea can survive unless it is embodied in individuals whose lives are the message. ~Erich Fromm

painting in progress

“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world.” Romans 12:2 may be the most universally ignored command in the Bible, yet the key to all the others. Are you a work of art in progress, or do you counterfeit the crowd?

10 signs you are stuck on a paint-by-number canvas:

  1. You assume God thinks like you do. If you are disgusted, he must be. If you are delighted with yourself, he must be. If you hate yourself, he must too.
  2. When you ask, “What would Jesus do?” you really mean, “What would I do if I were in a good mood?”
  3. You are more excited about the idea of meeting a celebrity than getting to know what Jesus really did.
  4. You are easily swayed to fear, anger or sentimental tears by what you read or watch.
  5. Your opinions reflect the crowd you hang with.
  6. You worry about how you look, or are perceived.
  7. You fret over what you don’t have.
  8. You are more self-protective than self-giving.
  9. You avoid thinking about the suffering of people you don’t know.
  10. You are easily offended and quick to judge.

If you admit to any of these, congratulations. Recognizing the mold you are being squeezed into is the first, important step to resistance. Why be a pre-planned paint-by- number, when you are meant to be a work of art?

10 Steps To Becoming A Work Of Art

  1. Grab onto this truth–God does not think like you do. Isaiah 55:8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways my ways, says the LORD.” Left to your own devices, chances are very good that the way you perceive things, the ways you respond, are the opposite of God’s. But your mind can be changed.  You can learn to think like God.
  2. Read the Bible yourself. God hasn’t left us clueless, but has ultimately revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. If you read the Gospels carefully, you will notice that almost every time Jesus  speaks, thinks, and acts, the people around him expect the opposite. If you aren’t astonished by Jesus you haven’t met him yet.
  3. Look in the mirror and repeat these words, “The world around me is bullying me to be something I was never meant to be.”
  4. Look for patterns. One popular paint-by-number perspective? God is indifferent, people are disposable, life is cruel, it’s every man for himself. There you have the subplot of postmodernity.
  5. What you think about God matters. If you believe God is perpetually angry, disgusted, indifferent–that’s the kind of person you will be. If you are perpetually angry, disgusted and indifferent to others, that’s who you suspect God is.
  6. Open yourself to the incomparable mercy and grace of God, and you will become like him.
  7. Die. Actually, die to your presuppositions, prejudices, pressures and patterns–lay down on the operating table and let God give you a self-transplant.
  8. Be renewed by listening to God and loving others the way he does.
  9. Let God fit you with lenses of trust and hope in him.
  10. Turn your attention all day long to what is “true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise.” Philippians 4:8

 

How are you choosing to be a work of art?

Happiness Is Overrated: J Is For Joy

There are joys which long to be ours. ~Henry Ward Beecher

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I stand at my front door and fret for happiness while joy taps patiently at my back window. I listen to the “if only” whispers in my head, even as the soaring promise of today fills the air.

Happiness teases, like a dust mote, dancing just beyond my grasp.

Happiness, the kind that means life is going my way, makes an unsteady target. I aim too low, wish too small, and often hit the bulls-eye to find it was at someone else’s expense. My prayer for sun cancels a farmer’s thirsty hope.  His blue ribbon win means someone else goes home a loser. Her bargain purchase guarantees someone else’s shrinking funds.

But the pursuit of happiness is a human addiction, and sometimes our dearest god.

Happiness And The Biblical Story

The day the wilderness-wandering Israelites finally reach the Jordan River, expecting an easy milk and honey welcome, they peer through the border mists and panic.

There are giants in the Promised Land.

There always are. Problems never take vacations. Bickering, battles (see the book of Joshua), and bad leadership (see the book of Judges)–we bring ourselves wherever we go.

And then the book of Ruth, where we read about Naomi.

Naomi is bitter. Famine in Israel drove her family to immigrate to foreign pastures, away from the land of promise. Did her reluctant feet lag behind, and turn for one last look at familiar faces and farmland? Did she wonder if they left too soon? Would everything have been fine if they had waited for God to act?

The signposts to happiness are often hidden from view. And oh, the grief we carry if we choose the wrong move. Maybe today you are reeling with regret. Or looking with disgust at the cards in your hand, feeling forgotten. The lie is shouted in every ear, “It’s too late for you.”

Naomi’s husband died among strangers, the two sons put down roots, marrying women not of their faith. And Naomi, a displaced widow, spent a decade, daily tallying the cost of a long ago decision. Then, a final blow–the sons died too, and Naomi and their foreign wives were left to their fate.

But even in dungeons of self-pity, joy will keep on knocking. The rest of the story of Naomi, and the daughter-in-law who would not desert her, is a beautiful read. Themes of self-giving kindness, and God’s welcome embrace enchant us still today. It’s the story of how a woman can endure life-crushing blows, the end of all possibility of happiness, and be given something better. It’s the tale of Ruth giving birth to King David’s grandfather and placing the baby on Naomi’s empty lap, and God stirring all the good and poor choices together and making for Naomi a hearty stew of Joy.

 

How does joy differ from happiness in your experience?

In our series, An Alphabet Adagio, we are savoring the story of the Bible, our story, alphabetically. You can subscribe to e-mail above so you won’t miss a letter. Next: K is for King.

 

Staying Green In A Season Of Drought

God never denies us our hearts desire except to give us something better. ~Elisabeth Elliot

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The photograph was taken this month at Folsom Lake, our reservoir, source of vital water supplies. What should be dancing waves of blue is a moonscape. Refills of melting snow have been scarce of late in Northern California.

We are in drought.

Drought comes in many forms, not only meteorological. Maybe you are there in the barren stretches of unanswered prayer, of unresolved issues. Maybe  heart-held dreams haunt you like the distant mountains, unreachable but real.

When everything seems dry and barren how do you stay green and growing?

The biblical writers lived in a similar climate to mine, and drought was a recurring concern. Throughout the scriptures, their ancient words remind us what to do when life-giving rains refuse to fall, when we watch the forecast with spirits already parched.

This is what the Lord says:
Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord.
They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future.
They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land.
But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.
They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water.
Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought.
Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. 

Jeremiah 17:5-8

Questions To Ask In Seasons Of Drought

In your thirst for resolution of unfulfilled longings, are you looking to other humans to be the answer? Is your fierce desire focused on anything smaller than God? Our hearts are like balloons–they grow only as big as what fills them. Maybe your dreams are too small and the bar of your love set too low, and God waits to enlarge your heart with himself. Who knows what he could do through a bigger-hearted you?

Have you planted yourself by the water of God’s nourishing presence? Do you send your roots down deep each day by spending time with him in listening prayer and attentive Bible reading,  allowing him to shape your hopes to align with his?

We can’t make it rain, we can’t force our dreams to come true, we can’t schedule the answers to long-stretched prayer. But we can drink deeply of God’s presence and love, and stay green and fruitful in seasons of drought.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change…” (Psalm 46:1-2 NRSV)

Are you experiencing a time of drought? How do Jeremiah’s words speak to you today?

 

 

Christmas Is A Puzzle, Not A Pageant

This is often the way God loves us: with gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be. ~William Willimon

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Christmas is a puzzle, not a pageant.

Christmas is a mystery, not a platform or position, a posture of defiance against an unbelieving world.

Christmas is a paradox, meant to leave us dumb-struck by a gift we didn’t ask for, the gift we needed most of all.

Christmas isn’t for the smug, the satisfied, the sure. So stop humming the melody and listen to the words instead. Let your certainty be rattled. Let your heart find a humbler place.

O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

Something has to die before Jesus can be born in us. For we have remade God in our image. It’s time to let him out of the box, to empty him of our narrow assumptions. Let God be God, not a bigger version of us.

Don’t be so sure he is offended by what offends you.

Don’t be so sure he is impressed by what makes you wildly cheer.

Don’t be so sure you know how you would have responded to his coming. That you would have kneeled and not jeered. That you would have wept with joy, not crossed to the other side of the street.

Not sure is the best place to be at Christmas.

Because then we will kneel before the manger and really look. What will we see?

A Puzzle

A baby. An infant, needy and weak. God come down in tears, in hunger, in restless nights, a mother’s soft arms his only dwelling. This prince of heaven watched over by livestock. This brilliant rabbi sharing meals with the despised. This miracle-worker avoiding the applause of the crowd. This eloquent preacher refusing the perks of the popular. This most powerful of all humans allowing human arrogance to do its worst, for our sake.

Every year we forget. We slather our presents, programs and pageants on ourselves when God preferred to present to us a puzzle.

Embrace The Puzzle

Do you long to savor a moment of the true Christmas?

Sit in quiet and remember the infant you still are. Be hungry. Be needy. Be weak and helpless to be anyone important. Recognize your poverty, your limited understanding, the many ways you have yet to grow. Be small, curious, easily delighted and honest in your dismay. Turn your face to love and refuse to look away.

Is it hard? Do you feel more comfortable in the box seats of  the pageant?  If God stooped to  become a child, he can empower you to do the same.

Merry Christmas, my treasured friends. Thank you for joining me as we question and chew on the things that really matter. May you be blessed as you have so blessed me. When life calms down here, we will return to our Alphabet Adagio. Meanwhile, may your Christmas and New Year be puzzling in the best of all ways. Love, Janet.