Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Organic God, Week One: Mary, Why Are You Crying?

The ladies of the Gathering at Fellowship North have begun our new Bible study, and I have to tell you - I am loving the concept behind this one. It's a book. An actual, real, read-it-through, hardback book called The Organic God by Margaret Feinberg. Now, I got nothing against Beth Moore or Kay Arthur or Priscilla Shirer - love 'em as much as the next woman - but this book study is how I operate. I read. I think. I write. I learn. It's my process, and I get to spend the next several weeks walking through it with some of the dearest women I know.

I'll try to share my thoughts here each week (it's part of my process, after all), so with no further ado...

Week One

We've begun with the first three chapters, and they are: luminescence, an organic appetite, and bighearted. The first chapter, luminescence, is really more a preface...okay, it is a preface. But I did about 15 reflection questions on it, so I get to call it a chapter. At the end of the next chapter, she asks us to read John 20 and Luke 24, the passages where Jesus appeared to Mary and Cleopas (+ one), respectively, after His resurrection. She asks her readers to consider why all three of these individuals had a hard time recognizing Jesus.

The perspectives that the women in my group brought to the table last night were very interesting. That's one thing that I love about an intimate group study...we really have the chance to sharpen one another, even if just by explaining our own insights into the Word. Julie said that perhaps Mary and the travelers didn't recognize Jesus because He didn't want them to, wasn't ready to reveal Himself yet. Marty suggested that their recognition of Jesus was proportionate to their motivation in finding Him. Bev's eyes lit up as she recounted how magical she finds the story of the road to Emmaus, and she pointed out how Cleopas and his companion were caught in despair over everything that had happened in the previous week and unable to recognize Jesus for their own grief.

My opinion on Mary and the travelers' inability to see Jesus initially is fairly straightforward, but as I began to unpack it and realize its application in my life, an intricate urge toward faith and awareness picked up where the simplicity left off. I believe that Mary, Cleopas and Cleopas' companion failed to recognize Jesus because he was neither who nor what they were expecting in those moments. Grief-stricken, Mary was expecting to find Jesus' body and return Him to the tomb. Thinking He's the gardener, she implores Him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." I think this is where Jesus' heart may have broken a little. Mary cannot have been a very large woman, and here she is, wanting to find Jesus' body so desperately that she's willing to carry it back to the tomb herself. I can almost hear the compassion as He says her name. And instantly, she recognizes Him. I've always loved that it only takes Jesus saying Mary's name for her eyes to be opened.

In Luke, we read about two travelers on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion (possibly his wife). I think it's significant that Cleopas and friend are leaving Jerusalem, that it symbolizes resignation and a loss of hope. Now, I'm not judgin'. I've often wondered how I would have reacted in those days, and I most likely would've been about a mile ahead of them on the way home, crying my eyes out and drowning in a sea of confusion and disappointment. But Jesus shows up. He meets their grief and bewilderment head on, taking them back to the beginning and explaining the prophecy that revealed just how much of a tragedy this all was not. At best, they recognize that He's special, but it's not until they sit down to eat with Him, and He breaks bread, that their eyes are opened. Whether it was the act of Jesus breaking bread that they recognized or the fact that He chose to open their eyes in that moment is not clear to me. Regardless, they recognize Him, it all falls into place, and they immediately rush (uphill) several miles back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what they've seen.

So what do I do with all of this today? Quite simply, I realize how often my expectations cost me an encounter with Jesus. When I pray for help, I tend to have specific ideas on how that should be provided. How many times have I missed His comforting presence because it didn't arrive in the shiny little package I thought I'd ordered?

By the same token, how willing am I to believe that God can show up in magnificent ways that are not, at first, easily believable? It was easier to believe that Jesus' death had been a loss than to believe that He had risen from the dead, even for people who had seen Him perform that miracle for another. I tend to fall back on convenient expectations, not realizing that I've set the bar too low by limiting what God can do to how much I can anticipate.

Jesus had told His followers that He would be crucified and rise from the dead on the third day. Still, they had trouble believing it when they saw it, perhaps because their hearts didn't fully believe it when they heard it. What promises has God made that my heart has not fully believed? And how often am I failing to recognize Him because my eyes are clouded by my own uninformed grief? And so...

I pray that the eyes of my heart may be enlightened, that I may know the hope to which He has called us, the riches of His glorious inheritance in His holy people...(Eph 1:18)

Monday, January 10, 2011

They Say That Hope Can Make You See

I am not a gardener. Not even close. In fact, I find the entire practice of gardening both mystifying and maddening. I grew tomatoes once, with my grandmother’s help. She happens to have the greenest thumb south of the Mason-Dixon line, though, so I’m pretty sure I did not grow those tomatoes. I tied some vines to some stakes and did a whole lot of post-planting inspection. That’s all. If the growing itself had been left to me, we’d have had a salsa-less summer. I just can’t grow things. Unfortunately, my yard reflects this.

The last few times I’ve pulled out of my driveway, I’ve looked at my flowerbeds and winced. I was too concerned with our busy schedule this summer to pay attention to my overgrown, weed-infested flowerbeds. Said overgrowth and weeds had remained in place and simply become petrified versions of themselves as we headed into the fall and, now, winter. So I thought: this weekend. I have to start thinking about spring planting this weekend. And I resolved to get out there on Saturday, yank those weeds out, rake some leaves, and lay the foundation for what I’m sure will be a wildly successful spring planting endeavor. Right? Right.

The wonder of yard work when you have a 3 year-old is that you have someone to keep you company – someone who is thrilled to be outside, soaking up the sun and generally enjoying Mommy’s lack of focus on whatever mischief is being made. So Olivia and I ventured outside on Saturday, armed with nothing but the best of intentions and one very serious set of gardening gloves. As Livi ran off to explore and play, I began my work in the flower beds.

As I reached for the first brown, crackled stems that had invaded my garden earlier this year, I was surprised to notice how much resistance I encountered. The strength of these roots was no match for the frailty of their above-ground extensions, and my first few attempts at ‘cleaning house’ yielded a few broken-off stems and little more. I guess I thought that since everything I could see was so weak and dead-looking, pulling the entire plant up would be no problem. Wrong. Those roots were still thriving.

It reminded me of the dead things in our lives, of the things that don’t belong, the invasive imitators that rise up to choke beauty. It reminded me of my reluctance to try to yank those things out of the soil because I know what their roots are, and I know how deeply they’re embedded. I know how much soil they’ll disturb on their way out, and I know how much strength it will take to grab hold and give ‘em a good pull. So, very often, I settle for some good old-fashioned cosmetic gardening - you know, cutting back those feeble old stems, the things that signal to the world that weeds are choking parts of my life - and figuring that I’ll deal with the bigger issue later.

Still, I called this to mind and found hope: that within the difficulties of the past year, some of the more invasive roots began to find themselves being pulled up and tossed into the burn pile. And that’s good. What’s hard is realizing that our work is never done, that as long as we’re here on this earth, we remain in need of constant pruning. But I also find comfort in that…comfort in knowing that this is common to all men, that if I can lay eyes on you, the good work is still in the process of being completed. And I find comfort in knowing that He who called us is faithful. And He’s far better at gardening than I am.

At one point during all of this, Livi presented herself and asked what I was doing. I explained to her that these were weeds, and they were in the way, and to get rid of them we had to pull them up by their roots, and that sometimes their roots were buried deep, so we had to be really strong to get them up. She seemed, at best, under-impressed and resumed her play elsewhere. I finished cleaning out the flower beds and set to work sweeping leaves out of my carport.

While she may not have been thrilled with the weed-pulling, Livi found the sweeping extra interesting, thanks to a couple of genius kiddie brooms gifted to her by my mom and Nana. So she decided she would help. She kicked a few leaves toward the edge of the carport, and then I heard her say, “Mama, look! I’m helping!” I looked up, and she was leaning into the tree just beside our house, with her head down and both hands on the trunk of the tree, pushing with all of her little might.

I chuckled a little at the irony…this very tree will have to be professionally removed within the next 3-5 years because of its proximity to the house and the threat of its roots disturbing my home’s foundation. A little bit wearily, I asked her what she was doing. She said, “I’m pushing this tree up, Mama.” As I began to explain to her that this is a giant tree, that it is huge and heavy, its roots are stronger and deeper than we could imagine, and that there’s no way her little body could move such a force, my soul heard: “…and you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move…” And I realized, she had not stopped to consider the process and the variables. She didn’t grimace at the possibility of discomfort. She knew only that she didn’t want that tree to be there, and if her mommy could move things like that around, then she could too. It was just that simple.

I want that kind of faith. I want that courage. I want to see what my Father has done in one area of my life and unswervingly trust that He can do the same in another. I want to tell that mountain to move.

…for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.