When the World is Upside Down

World upside down

The snow is dirty. So. Dirty.

And the woman beside me is eating a too-ripe banana, and the slush and puddles have replaced any sort of magic that big snow brings, and the offensive ordinary is overpowering on this Wednesday.

Sometimes you just know you were created for more than this. When the world seems upside down, and nothing seems right, and your words are misconstrued, and your heart is lonely – you know you were made for more.

And it doesn’t matter where you are in this world — whether it be shopping at Harrods in London, or sitting with the Dalit in Kolkata, or at a bazaar in Karachi, or a café in Paris, or a government issued cubicle in Boston — there are times when your soul screams loud “There’s got to be more than this!” 

And you look around afraid that the inner words were shouted aloud, but as you look around you realize – no one heard them. This is your inner struggle, your shout for salvation.

When the teenager gets pregnant and you’ve tried for ten years to have a baby; when the corrupt co-worker gets a promotion while you sit in the shadows; when the friend gets a raise added to an already high salary; when the one who abused continues abusing; when the poor get poorer and the rich get richer; when the mean get meaner and the meek, meeker.

When the world is upside down, that’s when your heart longs for eternity.

And on this day that is marked — when an indifferent world sees foreheads with the black smudge of a cross, that longing for eternity quite literally makes its way from heart to head. In this upside down world, a cross changed everything.

And through that cross we know we are created for so much more.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

When the Tree Lights Go Out

English: Closeup of a string of decorative Chr...

It happens every year. After Christmas and New Year celebrations end, a melancholy comes upon me and I struggle to make sense of life.

I’d like to blame it on the cold, but weather has little to do with it, for the melancholy has come in desert sun and in northeast snow. It isn’t about depression, or seasonal affective disorder, or disillusionment.

It’s about living out the reality of Christmas once the lights on the tree have gone out.

When my winter world sparkles with white light and presents I can believe that God is here and he is Good. I can believe that all I do matters, that I can make a difference, that the world can be redeemed.

And then the lights go out and the world feels dark. And I understand how my toddler felt when I used to turn the lights off and leave him alone in the dark with Jesus.

It’s now when I need the verses I have committed to memory; it’s at this point when my theology faces off with my reality; it’s in this place that I need Truth to feed my soul and calm my spirit. It’s today that my Faith needs to walk.

How about you? As the lights of the tree fade into your memory and photo book, how do you live the reality of Christmas?

My Gift-Wrapped God

English: Gift ideas for men - wrapping paper e...

My friend placed the package in front of me. It was beautiful with its white on pale blue embossed gift wrap. A ribbon was tied around the package, not just any old way but with care and artistry, strands of it separated and curled carefully with scissors to create twists and spirals around the bow. It was so pretty, I didn’t want to touch it. I wanted it to stay there, forever gracing my table with its oh so pretty perfect wrapping.

“Open it!” said my friend. “You’ll love what’s inside it”

“But it’s so pretty” I said. “I don’t want to ruin it by opening it. I just want to look at it”.

“You’ll like what’s inside more than the wrapping paper!” She said with confidence.

But still I hesitated.

When I finally opened it I realized immediately that she was right – I did love it. So much more. What was inside was useful and lovely and something I longed for but would never buy myself.

Sometimes I think I gift wrap God. I wrap Him in pretty paper with ribbon. I try to put him conveniently into a gift box, contained and concealed where I can just enjoy lovely gift wrap and the matching bow; flawless decoration with little purpose.

God. The Sovereign Lord. The Maker of the Universe. The idea is ludicrous, but I do it.

Is it my worry that I won’t like or want what is inside? That containing God is easier than wrestling with who He is and what He requires? This thought makes me swallow hard and cringe a little.

A gift that sits in its wrapping paper may look pretty but is essentially stripped of use, emptied of its power. It’s useful only as a dust catcher that on closer look isn’t that great. And when I gift wrap God that’s exactly what I do – I strip him of His character and block my ability to respond; block myself from being changed, transformed, comforted and loved.

My prayer and challenge is that I open up the package accepting the gift for what it is in all its mystery and wonder. My Gift-Wrapped God. 

On Firsts

It’s my daughter’s first day at a summer job. The job is a miracle; a gift in an economy unkind to students, new graduates and 55-year-old men and women who have been laid off.

Firsts are hard. First days of school with their stomach-ache and tight new shoes; first days of jobs with their need to make a good impression; a first kiss with awkward lips meeting for the first time, the excitement coupled with sheer terror at moving into a new place in the relationship.

But there’s something I love about firsts.  It’s in the hyper-awareness I experience of everything around me. The attention to detail, the adrenaline that pumps, the feeling of accomplishment that I actually got to the place I was supposed to and logged on to a computer, or found my boss. That feeling at the end of my first day that “I did it!”. That honeymoon stage where despite everything being new, I feel truly alive. That’s what I envy of my daughter’s first day.

It is a contrast to the mundane where I think I know everything and I go through life on autopilot, sometimes not even recognizing new if it’s staring me in the face.

It was in the grey of November last year, a grey that comes after the brilliance of fall, that I longed again for a first. For a beginning. And in my case it was a spiritual beginning. My faith was old and stale; stale like the old bread on my counter that crumbles as you pick it up. So stale that preservatives are no longer effective. Not even fresh butter and home-made jam can take away the staleness.

I knew all the things I should do; I knew about Bible study and prayer, about connecting with people and service, about waiting and patience. But knowing those things was part of the problem. I needed to go back to a first – a first love. I needed to remember a place where all was new, each word, each concept, each discipline.

And so I started with the Beginning. I decided that I would read the Bible as though I’d never read it. I would have no schedule, there would be no rules, there would be no mantras – I would just read.

I began at Genesis and I began to read. And I read and read and read some more. When I stopped I left a piece of paper marking the spot. I didn’t write or journal, I just read. And pretty soon creation and the fall were over and I was into Exodus, and I continued to read. I read things I don’t remember ever reading, I felt no pressure or guilt, I just read.

And as I read an extraordinary thing happened. I began to feel like this was a first. It was like I was seeing these words for the first time. The adrenaline began pumping and I was hyper aware. Truth entered into stale, new entered into old, I felt I was reborn.

It is the end of June and I have just entered Samuel. The wordless petition of Hannah is over and Samuel has just heard the voice of God. It was his first. 

Downtown Crossing Dirty

No matter how much the Downtown Crossing T station in Boston is cleaned, it’s always dirty. A dirty bandaid that fell from a wound; a cigarette butt still sending up smoke, evidence of being recently tossed on the ground to avoid the penalty of breaking the strictly enforced ban on smoking; a banana peel, missed by the cleaning crew – no matter how much bleach, time and energy is used, there is always residual dirt. It never looks clean.

Today as I walked up the stairs to Washington Street this reality hit me. There will never be enough soap, bleach or paint to get this station clean. There are too many crowds, too much traffic, too much raw humanity.

Yet despite this, cleaning crews in the morning and evening continue to work their mops and buckets down stairs and on platforms. Thankless jobs in a thankless station that can never be clean.

And that is how I sometimes feel. I feel Downtown Crossing dirty. I feel the weight of my sin and brokenness. I feel the power of defeat and doubt. Like dirty bandaids and old garbage these things clog my soul, waiting for a clean-up crew to come and try to make it clean.

But stopping in the tunnel of Downtown Crossing I hear this amazing melody of grace. It’s an old hymn that is often heard amidst expensively coiffed and well-dressed people so I shake my head to try to take in the incongruity of this hymn with my surroundings. Am I imagining this?

But it’s unmistakable!

Here in the midst of Downtown Crossing dirty is the melody to “How Great Thou Art”. The sounds resonate in this echo chamber, beautifully played on a violin by a man whose clothes won’t make it to the well-dressed category. The words flow through my mind as the music swells, unwilling to be drowned out by the noise of an incoming train.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee – How Great Thou Art, How Great Thou Art. 

Suddenly none of the dirt matters. All that matters is this sound, this reminder of a God who is as present in the diversity and dirt of humanity in Downtown Crossing as he is among the beautiful and clean. A God who restores and makes all things new.

My soul is lost in this melody of grace, a melody of grace made for places and moments like these. A melody made for Downtown Crossing dirty.