Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Here and Now

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing.   

Isaiah 40:26

I’m reading Isaiah 40 this morning and verse twenty-six catches me, corners me.  I write these words on the page next to today’s date, a replica for further study.  I circle the last six words, “not one of them is missing.”  The word missing is translated lacking, failing.
Not one of them is missing. Not one of them is lacking.  Not one of them is failing.
Later, I sit down at the kitchen table with two anticipating three-year olds.  They fire off their questions and leave no room for response as they climb up into chairs that just might give them a closer look at what I’m holding.
It’s one of Jake’s Christmas presents from his grandparents, a box that could hold a pair of shoes it’s so ordinary looking, and yet it’s the picture against the blue that captures their attention and interrupts their play. Jake remembers opening this box, but in the chaos of opening presents, this one was placed out of sight until now.
“What is it, Mom?”
“Is it a flashlight?  I want the flashlight! Can I turn it on, Mom?”
“I want a turn!”
“No, me! Mom, can I turn on flashlight, pwease?”
I put the box down and explain that it’s not a flashlight. They are intrigued, hooked, ready to see something amazing. Not taking a moment of their fascination for granted, I tell them it is a star constellation kit.

Jake tries to say it after me, constellation, watching my mouth, but he gets tongue-tied. Lilly just sits there with saucer-eyes like I’ve just told her Santa Claus is coming back tonight. If you know my Jake or you’ve read about his infatuation with the moon, you will understand why he asked Santa to bring him binoculars.  A $6 pair of binoculars summed up his Christmas list because it is yet another tool that allows him to look up into the sky searching.  So, I am not at all surprised that he can’t wait to see the stars on his own bedroom wall.
We get out the box of pencils, which will be used for poking holes into the cardboard hemispheres.  I grab a couple of pieces of black construction paper and some chalk so that they can make their own constellations on black sky while I assemble the thing. Lilly wastes no time getting started while Jake begins breaking the chalk into pieces in typical boy fashion. With tiny hands occupied, I pull out the directions and get started myself.

I read aloud some of the facts included in the box.
There are about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, but even on a dark, clear night, we can only see a few thousand of them with the naked eye.
The stars are giant balls of glowing gas that give out light and heat.  Some are several times larger than our Sun.
The nearest star to us (apart from the Sun) is Proxima Centauri.  It is so far away that its light takes more than four years to reach us.
The constellations are not groups of stars that are close to each other.  The stars appear in the same areas of the sky when seen from the Earth.
Astronomers use the constellations (about 88 of them) as a way of finding their way around the night sky, so they can find the stars and other space objects they are interested in. 
I feel as if I’m talking to myself because neither one of them looks up or meets my statements with a question like usual.  I watch her making marks on her sky paper and then she’s asking for stickers.  I get up, find her some silver sparkle stars and she’s once again engrossed in her creation.

I smile as I continue gathering the pieces and making sure I know what I’m doing before I start piercing holes into the cardboard.  The directions use that word, pierce, and I can’t help but think about how God pierced the darkness with light.  I think about the astronomers (whom we often call wise men) staring at the same black sky all those years ago and how God used constellations to help them find the long awaited star that led them to the Savior.
I remember the verse I wrote down about the starry host, words suggesting the stars are called forth to the battlefield, like an army led by a mighty general.  But not only are they appointed to the place He assigns, the Creator knows them by name and this astounds me as I stare at this cardboard model I have set out to replicate the Milky Way.  Suddenly I get a glimpse of my smallness. 

We sharpen pencils and I ask them to count as I pierce the blue sky with the pencil, following carefully marked constellations made up of stars that are named by God.  We get to thirteen, Tucana, then Grus, both seen from the Southern Hemisphere. We keep on counting and I ask, “Who made all the stars?”  Jake thinks a bit and then Lilly blurts out, “Baby Jesus!” which has been her answer for everything the past month. 
We keep counting and soon we’re saying 48 and my hand is cramping.  I look over at the other hemisphere and I realize just how far I have to go and I sigh real deep. 
Lilly notices and says, “That’s really hard work, Mom.” 
“Uh-huh,” I agree.
In seconds, she’s up on her elbows, standing in her chair which I don’t allow, but I ignore it because I’m punching holes in the sky and already I’m tired and we haven’t even reached fifty yet.
“That’s makes us tired,” she says, trying to catch my eye.
I look up, force a smile. 
She tells me, “I just like a star- stars be quiet, Mom.”
Oh, good!  I need quiet, I think to myself, while Jake keeps asking me about the flashlight, wondering if he can turn it on.
After one hundred I stop counting and we are not talking stars anymore.  A sharpened pencil, battery-operated light bulb and cardboard cutout make up my simple spread of tools.  How hard can this be? I think, and I realize it’s only a duplicate, a tiny model, not even close to the magnitude of the real thing and I am tired after poking one hundred holes into cardboard.

My mom apologized to me when Jake opened this present.  She wondered if it might be a bit advanced for his age and worried we might not get to use it until he was older.  Cody agreed with her and tucked the box safely on the top shelf of Jake’s closet.  But Jake started his search not too long after that.  He didn’t know what it was, but he knew it had to do with the night sky.
About ten years ago, my mom bought my dad a telescope for Christmas.  I remember how he lit up as he hauled the thing out to the front yard. Each one of us were given a glimpse of God’s creation as he rattled off which star was which, pointing out constellations and planets.
Last month, outside a pizza joint, my dad grabbed me by the arm and pointed out Venus in the November sky.  It was brighter than any other star in the sky, but I would have never known it was a planet.  I remember now that his face brightened as he told me why it was visible this time of year. He hasn’t been feeling too well the past several months, but that night when he was talking stars and God’s creation, something was different.  A light was glowing inside him and I see that in my son- that same glow, the same excitement over lights in the sky and for a split second I wish that I had it too.  
I wonder why it hits me just now that maybe Jake gets this fascination from his Poppy.  I never considered it before, but here I am tracing star patterns with a pencil, and I smile at this thought.  As I pick up the Northern Hemisphere, they grab their snack cups.  She drops a Cheerio on the floor and I tell her to find it.  He mimics me, bossing her around like a second parent.
She tells me after only half a second, “It’s really hard work.”
I get the entire thing put together and we find a dark place to turn on the light and see the stars.  We sit there on the floor in the closet, the three of us, and I ask if they can count the stars on the ceiling. 
“That’s really hard, Mom,” Lilly responds on the heels of my question.
Jake gives it his best, but in seconds the door is opened and they are running upstairs to find their blankets. While they are gone, I sit in the dark and I think about Lilly’s comments throughout the morning.  I don’t know where it is found, but I know this verse well and I whisper it in the dark under the stars.  Nothing is too hard for you.   Later, I would look it up once they were asleep in their beds and add it to the page with the words about God naming the stars.
Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.   Jeremiah 32:17
They return to the closet, armed with blankets and breathless and I chuckle at how important it seems to have covers as we lie on our backs to look up at the stars that God made and named.  But as we settle in, I stumble into it.  Comfort.  There is comfort under a blanket of stars that my Creator has stitched together, purposely, intricately, beautifully.  There is comfort in knowing that not one of them is missing.
I leave to go make lunch and they stay for a bit in the closet with the stars that God made.  Hours later, I find the glowing cardboard model still lit, projecting light into darkness.  They’ve abandoned it already.  There it sits after all the time I spent carefully attaching the two hemispheres and lining up the quadrants just so. 
They’re too young.  Mom was right.  When they’re older, I guess.  More mature.  More patient. Oh, well.
I gather it up and turn off the light, but then I realize I am too young, too. At night I’ve been reading about how God speaks through His word, sometimes revealing His character or reminding me of His love or guiding me in a certain direction.  I’m faced with this truth and it pierces my heart. 
God speaks loudest through the Now-Moments in the Here-Place. 
I am too young to fully grasp God’s character. I am only able to understand a small part of Who He is and that’s OK.  It’s alright that I’m not mature enough, not complete enough to fully understand because He is Here and Now.  And I am never too young, never lacking in this moment in this place.
I am here now.  And I am listening. He is a Here-and-Now God.  I Am.  

Whatever I can grasp here and now is just right.  The way my little ones gaze into the dark and talk about the stars that God made is right where they need to be.  I realize, too, that there is beauty in God’s creation being celebrated by a three-year-old boy and a fifty-something-year-old man.

When it’s quiet, I return to Isaiah 40 and Jeremiah 32 and I add another to my collection, as if I’m threading jewels on a string.
 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so.
Genesis 1:14-15
The bookends stand out to me, applauding the Creator who pierces darkness with stars I can’t even count or see and who knows them each by name and places them just so in the magnificent galaxy, a masterpiece reflecting His character and glory. God said… and it was so.

I have labored poking holes through flimsy cardboard and I’ve not even scratched the surface with this tiny replica of the constellations. 
I haven’t even come close. 
If Creator-God calls out each star by name, each taking its position where He has appointed, can’t I find comfort in knowing He does the same for me?  So often I think my success or my completion of a task or even a mindset I’ve grappled with then finally conquered is due to my strength and knowledge, my ability.  Yet right here in God’s word, in this verse I've scribbled down in the waking hours when the sky is still dark and the sun is yet to peek above the horizon, I read why none of God’s creation is lacking, why He will not let me fail. 
Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. 

Because of Him, not me.   
Because of His power and strength, not mine.
The sun, the moon, the stars all stand where He tells them to stand.  They haven’t figured out some mystery or reached some higher level of understanding.  He simply spoke and they were.  And not only that- they are right where they are supposed to be and I see that so am I.
I am here now.  I am where He has called me to be, in this place where I can praise Him for Who He is with everything I am.  I add one more verse to my list, because the wording is so very close and this one I know by heart.  It’s about sheep, not stars.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 
John 10:3-4
The Almighty One calls out the stars, the Shepherd calls out His sheep.  He knows these by name, as well.  He leads them to the battlefield; they are among wolves.  But right here my heart finds peace and I know that I am reading truth.  He goes on ahead of them. I look around and I have new clarity in this Here-Place that He’s already been.  He is here now.  He goes before me.  There is not a place I will go that He hasn’t been and there is such comfort in knowing that and I want to wrap myself up in it.
I will continue to follow Jesus, because He speaks, and I am learning every day to listen for His voice, to find His imprint in creation and His truth in His word and His glory in these Now-Moments that rush on by me like sand falling through an hour glass.
It’s the end of 2013.  I normally have a list of things I want to do better or start doing in the new year.  But today, I hear God saying, Live here, now. I don’t feel the need to reach for tomorrow when today is right here in my grasp.  I don’t want to place my dreams on the top shelf, waiting until I’m older, more mature.  Here and now is where I am and God is a here-and-now God.  A Present God.  He is I Am.

As 2014 begins, I want to seek Him here and now. I want to hear Him... and follow. I want to praise Him here and now for Who He is.  I want to thank Him for showing me how small I am yet how loved I am. I want to see His glory and proclaim it here and now, because that is all I have: Here and Now.
He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
    who turns midnight into dawn
    and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out over the face of the land—
    the Lord is his name.
Amos 5:8

Thursday, December 19, 2013


I’m sitting here wondering how to start this thing, but then in the silence I hear it, Shalom.

It means Peace to you, and it is the heartbeat of God’s message found in the pages of Luke chapter 2.  Shalom was spoken of long before that December night we celebrate, from the prophet Isaiah and Micah, and shalom was on the hearts of the people of Israel that cried out to God.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Isaiah 9:6 (Emphasis added)

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.  And he will be our peace.

Micah 5:2, 5 (Emphasis added)

But what is peace? What do I do with a word like shalom- a short, two-syllable word that is both a greeting and also a farewell? Why do I keep running straight into it and where do I put it? How do I wrap up peace this Christmas season?

Peace is not what I’d use to categorize this story of a baby coming before the wedding, tarnished reputations and questions- so many questions.  I can’t quite get past the donkey ride in the cold night leading far away from home and night-shift shepherds (who were complete strangers) throwing a holy baby shower and kings on camels traveling for years from a distant land to give gifts to a newborn who was a king. 

Unexpected, yes.  Peaceful, hardly.  But this is a story full of peace.  Full of peace.  Not pieces of peace here and there, last minute attempts to adorn this fascinating story of long ago.  Full of peace.  Peace spilling right off the pages into our lives. Shalom.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Luke 2:6-7

The birth of the Messiah was predicted, but who would have guessed it would happen like this?  Who would recognize it and who would miss it, because I’m not sure I’d be looking for a king there either?  They were all waiting for this moment, but they weren’t expecting this and who would have scripted it this way- there in that tiny town with a stable and animals and no room and a baby in a manger?

I remember the Christmas gifts wrapped in red and white, green bows sparkling under twinkling lights just feet from where I sit. I think of what’s inside those bundled packages.  I think of how many times a day the kids ask me if it’s time yet for Jesus to unwrap His gifts since it’s His birthday.

Mary wrapped her precious baby boy in strips of linen, and she laid Him where animals had slopped down dinner.  And as she laid Him there, I can almost hear her saying, “Really, God?  Here?”  The stable was more like a cave than the rustic, vintage barn that always meanders its way into my imagination.  The Savior of the world was born in a cave, a hole cut into the side of a massive rock- cold and dark and so unexpected.  Yet, this was God’s picture of peace.

Angels gave their birth announcement in thundering song.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”  Peace to you.  Shalom.

When Mary laid her baby in a dirty, dingy cave, it wouldn’t be the last time. Once more, years later, Jesus’ body would be wrapped in linen and once more.  The unexpectedness of it all would cause ripples of questions and waves crashing down around shaky faith.

Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God.  Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.

Luke 23:50-54

And that’s when this thought comes tumbling into my heart, unexpected.  Peace is God with us not life without pain.  Jesus, Emmanuel, came to live with us, and He came to die for us.  He lived to die.  He was born to live with us, and He lived with us to die for us.  Peace is knowing who wins, not getting excused from the battle.

He is with us.
He is for us.

Completeness is at the core of shalom.  It means whole, and as I read this story with fresh eyes I see Peace in a brand new light.  I can’t escape the thought of it when I read this in Jesus Calling on the same day, and I know I am on the verge of something that’s always been there- familiar, yet still unexpected- and I cannot stop searching, and I don’t even know what it is I am after, but it’s there, so I keep on.

“Focus on Me- Emmanuel- and let my living Presence envelop you in Peace.”

I read it three times just to give it time to sink down, down to the places where my dreams lie waiting and my fears crouch low, the places where memories billow up, some on cue and some uninvited. This word ‘envelop’ grabs me and I put down my pen, look up its meaning, wondering why it has such a hold on me.  It reminds me of Jesus wrapped in cloths, but the picture is different in my mind.  Unexpected.  It is surrounding me- His Presence, this Peace.  

It’s not contained in the manger or in the tomb or in any cave of life.  It’s living.  His Presence is living- alive and free. And being alive means active, full.  Full of peace. And there is quality, vitality, and reality here. 

I realize why this word ‘envelop’ has captured me so.  Right there in the long list of synonyms, staring back at me without blinking are these two: ‘swaddle’ and ‘swathe.’  I’ve already read about these words- which both boil right down to ‘wrap’- so I know that they might as well be the same word.  One is used of binding an infant, the other of bandaging a wound. 

I grab my pen once more and I’m writing questions, mind reeling faster than hand. 

The linen was wrapped around your body which was broken for me.  Your Presence is surrounding my brokenness, and it’s what makes me whole.  Could it be that this manger scene was given to display what Your Presence does for me?

I dig deeper and stay close, because there’s more, and now I’m hunting for it.

As Mary’s heart split, deep with fracture, she watched them lay her boy in that cave.  He was dead.  Her heart was crushed. She would have remembered the last time her boy was wrapped with strips of linen, shepherds gathered round in that small enclosed space.  Here again.  Staring into a cave at a perfect plan that seemed to have gone terribly wrong. 

I have stared into my own cave and wondered, too.  Here again, God?  Really?  Why this cave? Why here?  Why now?  Why me?

God the Father knew this moment would come, an assault against the hearts of those who loved Jesus and lived with Him, shattering their expectations one by one.  He knew the questions would follow, but more than that, He knew that this was scripted.  It was written this way on purpose.  This is not a story gone wrong.  This story has no errors.  My story has no errors.  Neither does yours.

All who loved Jesus, including Mary, watched the slow, circular roll of that tomb stone, steady arms guiding the way until it halted to a standstill in front of the entrance. Death sealed up, shut up, finished. The Father knew this moment would come and that three days later an earthquake would erupt, the splitting open wide of God’s heart where Love and Redemption and Mercy and Grace were poured out all around.  The final payment.  The debt dismissed. The stone rolled away and a risen savior. 

This moment would be unexpected as well, and this moment would forever change everything. 


The stone wasn’t the only thing moved by the magnitude of His love.  All of creation, all of time, all of heaven and all of earth were moved in that moment.  And that moment brings to mind the beginning, the part that, on the surface, seems to be a mistake, an oversight, a badly scripted plan.  And yet, seeing the whole of it, my breath catches, and I have to remember to exhale. 


Jesus, tiny and frail, bundled with swaddling strips for comfort and warmth, eyes peering up into the dark of a cave.  This couldn’t have been God’s plan.  Why here?  Why a cave? Only one explanation is given to gather meaning: “Because there was no room at the inn.” 

Because there was no room at the inn.  So much is crammed into this statement spilling over with disappointment.  Because they were miles away from home, it was terribly inconvenient.
Because they were forced to travel here when a baby would be coming any day, it was the worst possible time. Because no one saw a thing wrong with sending a pregnant woman away to the animals’ shelter, it was so incredibly uncomfortable.  Because they had nowhere else to go, it seemed hopeless.

As my pen scratches out one after another, I see it. The only reason that sweeps my face into wide smile, relaxes the grimace I have felt as I list them out one by one, as ink smears across the page: Because it was always God’s plan, she wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger.

What sounds like a story gone wrong, sliding wildly, recklessly off the tracks, is God’s perfectly scripted salvation story brimming with love and sacrifice.  When Mary laid her baby in that manger, with strips of cloth wrapped around His small frame, God knew.

The Father knew.

He knew that the beginning would mirror the ending.  He knew the rest, what was coming, unfolding.  Jesus was born to die.  And there is peace in this perfect plan. He is Peace, and His Presence envelops me.  I read this from Isaiah, and it’s one I know well, because I have been here before on this search for peace. These words reveal the way to perfect peace- shalom shalom. 

You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.  

Isaiah 26:3

My mind plays a part in this, because it has to do with where my thoughts rest and Who it is I lean against.  There’s a wrangling of my thoughts- the ones that run wild and divert my gaze from Christ.  It’s bringing them back to Him, lining them up with His promises.  I am tempted to focus my mind on the cave that’s dark and cold and no place for a king; I struggle to get past the dirty manger that I would have never picked for this story.  I focus too hard on those people who let Mary give birth out there in the cold. 

But when I let all of that fall away, I see Jesus, and suddenly I am in the place where Peace is found. I see that Peace was right there in the middle of disappointment.  Peace was right there among the pain and the hurt, standing smack-dab in front of judgment that was passed.  And when I discover this path to peace, the God of Peace Himself promises to keep me there in that place of shalom shalom.

The tomb that held Jesus’ body after my sins nailed Him to the cross was not any more a backup plan than the cave or the manger in Bethlehem.  This place where God’s finale rang out in the heavens was also carefully and lovingly determined.  It was here that all of time and all of creation reached a glorious crescendo.

At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.

John 19:41

The tomb was in a garden.  The dark cave of death was inside a garden. This was the plan. Life envelops death.  Peace surrounds brokenness. 

When sin entered the Garden of Eden, creation was instantly a broken world in desperate need of a savior.  Sin entered the garden, but then so did Jesus.  When He entered this garden, sin and death were defeated forever and everything that sin had us wrapped up in- bound in- has now been reversed. There is life in Jesus- eternal life- and communion with God.  Peace with God once again.  The Father picked a garden, a place full of life and beauty and the very creation that imitates His character.

The placement of those strips of cloth is fresh in my mind: “The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.”  (John 20:7) Another question comes quick on the heels of this: What becomes of the linen cloths now that You have conquered darkness, the whole of sin and the depths of death itself?

I realize it isn’t as much about what is wrapped as Who is doing the unwrapping.  The reversal of sin and death is in each strip cast aside.  The removal of death’s curse and sin’s grip sets us free, and that is why those cloths lay there folded, unneeded.  It is finished.

The broken relationship has now been restored, and we are no longer God’s enemies.  Shalom.  He is with us.  He is for us. Though the battle rages on, there is Peace.  Peace dwells among us and reminds us that the Victor is on our side. Shalom.

God initiated this holy conversation in a single word: Shalom. When Jesus left to prepare a place for us, He knew He’d be returning.  So until then, He left His Peace, His Presence, here with us.  

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

John 14:27

I think of all the things in my life that God has brought full circle, and I wonder…  How would I live if I knew the rest?  Would that be enough?  Would seeing the end make the unexpected any easier? 

It doesn’t take me long to realize that even with an understanding of the ending, beautifully wrapped and explained and healed with strips of His love and grace bound tightly around my soul, I would still struggle with the unexpected parts.  I would still have to search and pursue this peace that comes only from knowing Jesus.

Shalom is not the end of the conversation; it’s the beginning, the flinging open wide the door to constant communion with the Father who loved us so incredibly deeply that He wrote this story for us. 

My mind drifts back to the little voices that trail behind me, following me as if I know the way.  Their questions, full of curiosity and wonder, make me realize that they are searching, too. When they ask me if it's time yet for Jesus to unwrap His presents, I can tell them that He already has.  He already has.  Gathering them real close like I do when I want them to listen, I will tell them the good news that Jesus has already unwrapped His Presence, and He is here with us.  


Peace to you.