Echoes

Certain things make me feel like I’m falling in love.

They aren’t typically things that every single person would sit and marvel at. They aren’t even things that everyone enjoys. But sometimes, when I’m very quiet, and when my heart is open, I can feel them moving my heart.

Snow-covered mountains.

Silent winter nights.

Snowfall.

The sunset.

That moment of leaving a night of conversation with good friends.

Seeing my breath in the air.

Listening to the sweet, melodious sound of a violin, cello or piano.

Looking directly into the eyes of someone you truly care for…and smiling warmly as they return the favor.

These things move my heart in a way that few other things can. It all sounds rather emotional and elementary; however, in this regard, I hardly mind being reduced to a child-like state of wonder and awe. Such things and their effect on me is a rather humbling prospect- they allow me to remember how small I really am, and how vast, beautiful, and mysterious creation is. They quiet my soul, force me to inhale, to slow my walking…and marvel.

These things aren’t unbiblical. As Isaiah 1:18 says, “…Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them white as snow…” The Psalms are similarly full of poetry and verse extolling the beauty of nature, literally commanding us to strike our chords in time to the beat of thunderclouds, the rush of rivers, and the blowing of the wind. You get the sense that the Psalmist composed those verses in a similar state of awe; he was baffled, perplexed, and mystified by what he was witnessing in nature. In the Song of Solomon, the appreciation of physical beauty is overtly stated over and over…it is literally composed for the point of exposing that which is beautiful.

All these things are beautiful. Truly. And yet we say that creation, that this world, that our bodies, that all that surrounds us is fallen, is broken, and is therefore not worth finding any sort of worth in.

Are we so sure?

A man by the name of Athanasius would most likely disagree. He was a bishop who lived during the 4th Century, a champion of the faith who fought tooth-and-nail against the heresies of Arius, a man whose misunderstanding of the nature of Christ would rock the church and force our ancestors into formulating the creeds that form the early statements of Christian doctrine. Athanasius believed that when Jesus became incarnate, He was clothed in flesh that we might be clothed with incorruption; He died in order to meet the end of death. When this took place, all of creation was given new life, and the process of redemption started and completed. The world was still fallen….but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ made it beautiful, it made it new…and gave it all, gave us all, a chance to be what we were always meant to be.

Thus, all of creation was permeated by Jesus’ love. Our bodies were made like His, our souls given the chance to be united with the Triune God, and creation itself was brought back from the brink of destruction. When Athanasius thought of being “only human,” he saw it as a blessing; it was us being made in the image of God, in the image of that which is perfect. Thus, to him, humans had worth because of our nature- because we were given the chance to take upon the nature of Jesus Christ Himself. All creation has been irrevocably united with Love.

I think that I often feel like I’m falling in love when I see the snowfall because the snowfall reflects the perfect Love that was shown for me. I think that the beauty of creation, of music, of nature, of human love, is that, by their very existence, they whisper gently in our ears the identity of a Love that is utterly unfailing, unending, and utterly, blessedly beautiful. Creation echoes with redemption and love.

And that is why it is beautiful.

Human relationships are meant to do the same- to echo Christ’s love for us. When we choose to love one another not based on our potential, our gifts, or our perfections, but rather out of knowing who we are in Christ, and when we choose to accept and work with and bear with and love one another despite the ways we don’t measure up, we are incarnating Christ in that relationship. We are becoming a tangible example of how Christ loved us.

Music is beautiful because it shows elements of God that are mysterious, yet beautiful. Haunting, yet comforting. Foreign, yet blessedly familiar. Structured, yet as free as the flow of the ocean’s waves upon the shore. In music, we find a release, a breaking of tension that can unlock a place of peace for our souls. We can find a way to express emotions that words simply cannot personify. In music, we find a way to be ourselves, and to belong. In this, we are given even greater hints at the wonders of God. In Him, we can truly belong. In Him, all of our unruly emotions can be captured and made sense of. In Him, we find the most profound sense of peace.

The majesty of mountains cannot hope to compare with the glory of the One who can displace them with a flick of His thoughts. The ocean is power, and yet could be emptied by a word from His lips. The forests and plains personify life and rebirth- and yet, God is the only one who is capable of birthing or rebirthing anything. Snowfall can temporarily clothe the world in newness; God’s garment of unblemished purity is everlasting. In all things, He is more. He is bigger, stronger, and more effective. He is utterly ultimate.

All the things in this world that we find beautiful are, at their core, merely and simply echoes. They have so much worth…but only as they direct us to the One, True Source of beauty and life.

All things are echoes.

May we, as humans who have been clothed with incorruption, who have been given a second chance to have a million second chances, who have been given the gift of being made in the image of God…

may everything we do, big or small, be echoes of the beauty, majesty, power, and Love that is the sole providence of the one true God.

Certain things make me feel like I’m falling in love.

Certain things makes me know that I am loved.

Certain things makes me know that I was made to echo love.

May our lives be echoes.

Day Two

Erwin McManus says that part of being created in the Image of God is our creativity. Like Him, we can imagine things that don’t exist, and then we can make them exist.

We write books, paint, build, make music, dance, propose, mentor, compete, design, sculpt, photograph, share, like, tweet, retweet, and check in.

We cut and color our hair, hang flags, mix and match pieces of clothing, and base our purchasing choices on what best fits our image.

I can look at an empty plot of land and imagine a building there. And I can build it. If I build it, it will certainly fall down… but you get the point.

I can imagine things that don’t exist, and I can make them exist.

I can even go on Shark Tank and try to get people to help me sell the things I dream up.

But Shark Tank is a ruthless place.

And I think it’s ruthless because the Sharks have been in the real world. They’ve had incredible ideas that failed miserably and cost them all kinds of money. And they’ve had ideas that, when worked and bled for, soared. But my guess is that they’ve experienced more crashing and burning than soaring, because good ideas are common, but successful ideas are not.

The difference between success and a good idea is Day Two.

The difference between us and God is that God can create by using only His words. We have to work at it.

Then again, there are some things God works awfully hard at. Like taking a family of pagans and moving them from Ur to Canaan and then getting their descendants to actually believe that when he tells them how to live, he means what he says. Like getting people to quit getting divorced, but to refuse divorce because they choose to consistently love each other and not because there’s some law against it. Or getting people to quit making each other slaves because they finally realize what he’s been trying to tell them all along – they’re all valuable, and they’re all family.

God has lots of great ideas. But he doesn’t quit with just good ideas.

If you’ve ever tried to turn an idea into reality, you’ve probably found out how hard it is. The first day usually isn’t all that tough, because you have lots of energy and excitement. You know what you want to build, and you’ve finally started.

But Day Two is a little tougher, because when you were planning, you didn’t think about all the things that would get in the way.

Like learning how to mix paint colors.

Or the fact that your fingers bleed after a few hours of trying to learn to play the guitar.

Or the fact that she doesn’t know you exist.

The early church faced a Day Two problem in Acts 6. In Acts 2, three thousand people became believers in Jesus. In Acts 3, a crippled beggar got healed. More healings happened. More people got saved. The church was moving. Day One was the realization of a dream that has existed in the mind of God for millennia, and the apostles got to be right in the thick of it.

And then they realized that their dream of being the hands and feet of Jesus, of feeding the needy in their midst and creating opportunity through community outreach for people to hear and respond to the gospel, would require a bit of organization.

People were getting left out.

They were getting left out because of prejudice. Because the people in charge of distributing the food played favorites.

Day Two was much more difficult than Day One.

You can go read the rest of the story, but my point is this – had the apostles given up when the dream got difficult, we wouldn’t have a Christian church. We wouldn’t have a Bible. We wouldn’t even know the story.

Maybe today’s not even Day One for you – what you need is to find a dream worth chasing with all your heart.

Maybe it is Day One, and you’re excited about seeing one little piece of your dream become reality.

And maybe it’s Day Two, and you’re discouraged. Maybe you’re thinking about quitting, because there are obstacles you never thought you’d face.

Maybe you’re thinking you’re not cut out for this “making the invisible visible” thing that people like Erwin McManus talk about.

Let me ask you to do something.

Remember that you’re created in the Image of God, and remember that means that you should follow his lead in making a difference in the world.

And if you can believe all that, then remember what God did when his biggest, most audacious dream got messy because the expression of his most profound creativity, the human race, decided not to follow his instructions, and in so doing made the road forward infinitely harder than it should have been.

He got down on the road with them, made them clothes for the journey, and started working Plan B with all his creative energy.

If he can do it, so can we.

If we don’t, what stories will the world never hear?

What difference will you fail to make, just because you chose to stay in the muck of insignificance instead of just getting up and trying again?

“All God’s children have their troubles”: Why “Downton Abbey” Moves My Soul

DowntonAbbeyI don’t usually watch TV shows, but after a friend of mine recommended the Emmy-award winning TV series Downton Abbey, I decided to give it a try.

And I’m hooked.

This British period drama created and written by Julian Fellowes (Academy-award winning writer of Gosford Park) centers on the aristocratic Crawley family and their cadre of servants. The story begins the day after the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912. Upon learning that the male heirs of the estate died on the “unsinkable” ship, the Crawley family must appoint (quite reluctantly) an unknown distant cousin as the new heir of Downton. The show then follows the interrelated lives of the upstairs aristocrats and downstairs servants as they face various conflicts (both profound and petty) amidst the radically changing world of the early twentieth century: World War I, women’s suffrage, Fenianism, and the looming Great Depression.

Sure, the show has its melodramatic moments (some critics go as far as labeling it a “soap opera”), but what makes Downton so appealing to me is its unique blend of romanticism and realism. The idyllic, English countryside and the extravagant décor of the Crawley estate (the Highclere Castle in Hampshire); the fashions and manners of high society; the aesthetically sophisticated musical score; and the poetic quality of the dialogue certainly appeal to my romantic sensibilities. At the same time, the show’s historicity; the grimy conditions of the downstairs world of the workers; the brutalities of war; financial uncertainty; miscarriage; heartbreak; family tragedy; and the cruel disappointments of life provide a healthy dose of reality. Indeed, life at Downton, like real life, is both beautiful and ugly.

Fellowes’s writing is beautiful, smart, and humorous, and he brilliantly creates both endearing and despicable characters. Beyond its archetypal ingredients (Byronic heroes, scheming shape shifters, underdogs, and damsels in distress) and compelling conflicts (sibling rivalry, teenage rebellion, love triangles, deceit, and betrayal) that make for any great story, Downton beautifully portrays and celebrates Christian virtues, something quite rare for prime time TV. I’m moved and inspired by the kindness of Lord Grantham; the forbearance of Lady Grantham; the wisdom (and wit) of the Dowager Countess; the sincerity of Matthew Crawley; the integrity of Mr. Bates; the loyalty of Anna; the devotion of Mr. Carson; the humility of Mr. Molesley; the selfless sacrifices of Lady Sybil; the generosity of Cousin Isobel; and the astonishing human solidarity between the privileged aristocrats and their lowly servants. These characters certainly have their flaws, but their acts of compassion are truly inspiring.

While the apparent differences between the upstairs and downstairs worlds make for interesting dynamics, what I find more fascinating is their striking similarities. Despite socioeconomic class or status, both the Crawley family and their servants face the same demands and challenges of everyday life, the pressures and anxieties brought by the societal expectations of their time. In other words, they each confront the realities of what we call the “human condition.”

When a kitchen maid unexpectedly finds herself sympathizing with the sorrowful Lady Edith (spoiler alert: Edith’s just been jilted at the altar), another maid reminds her, “All God’s creatures have their troubles.” Regardless of status, wealth, or power, no person is immune to suffering. The comforts and pleasures of the Crawleys’ privileged life at Downton do not protect them from trial or tragedy.

The show’s theme of human solidarity reminds me of an important motif in Ecclesiastes, that whether men are rich or poor, foolish or wise, the “same event happens to all of them.” That death and difficulties are inevitable in this earthly life particularly rings true for Christians as Jesus and the New Testament writers repeatedly reminded the church of the persecution and hardships it would face. For Christians, suffering is not an exception to the rule. It is the rule. We’re not invincible. Life is fragile. And as the honorable and beautifully flawed inhabitants of Downton remind us, regardless of class or creed we’re all in need of grace.

If you’re looking for a beautifully written, filmed, and acted TV series, I highly recommend Downton Abbey.

Here’s a link to a preview.

For the Least of These

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40 (NIV)

Last summer, I was teaching at a creative writing camp for youth. Yes, for writers it is like Disneyland, thanks for asking. One day, I was in charge of the group that would walk to the Botanic Gardens and spend the day gaining inspiration from the amazing displays of art (both natural and manmade). I set out with 13 teenagers at 9 AM. Half a block to Colfax. Cross without any of the girls getting hit by a car. Past a corner convenience store.

As we passed the little local shop, a woman appeared, kindly asking for help. I say appeared because she wasn’t lurking around the store, she hadn’t been sitting on the sidewalk. We were walking. Suddenly she was there.

“Are you with all of those kids?” she asks.

“Why do you ask?” I’m cautious. I’m responsible for their safety, and I can’t let them get too far ahead. They don’t know where they’re going.

“Could any of you spare a little food?”

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to not be cynical about all of those corner beggars that are becoming more and more prevalent. I understand times are hard, but you always hear those stories of people making a great living by asking for freebies. This woman wasn’t like that. She seemed a little distressed. My group kept walking. They were almost to the next block.

“I’m sorry ma’am. I can’t ask these kids to give up their lunch. We have some place to be in a certain amount of time. I’m sorry.”

I walked away, my backpack weighed down by a box of granola bars and my own lunch. Why didn’t I give her my sandwich? Or at least half? Why didn’t I give her my granola bar? I might have been a little hungrier that day, but I had two credit cards in my wallet. I could have purchased lunch at a cafe in the gardens. Yet, I walked away.

Jesus said that the most important thing is to love God with all your heart, soul, body, and mind. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor. At that moment in time, this poor woman was my neighbor. Literally. She was standing beside me.

What’s my problem?

I was afraid. I was working in a non-church situation with non-churched kids. I was worried about spending money. I was worried about having blood-sugar issues. I was scared of making a sacrifice that I didn’t plan on making. Every comment I’ve ever made about needing to take care of the poor was rendered useless in that one moment. Oh me of little faith. Me of little action.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus talks about taking care of the poor, giving them the coat off your back, giving them a place to sleep when it’s cold and rainy, filling their tummies for a day. I couldn’t even let go of a half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That woman most likely didn’t starve to death.She probably doesn’t remember me. The saddest bit of all, though, is that I had a chance to be Jesus to her. I had a chance to be God’s answer to her prayers for just a bite to eat. She also could have been a lazy freeloader. She may have been an angel. But it isn’t my responsibility to choose who I serve and who I don’t. It’s my responsibility to let my words, and actions, and choices point every person I encounter toward the throne of God.

We never know when God is going to drop us into a moment where we have only a nanosecond to decide and act. It’s easy to give sacrificially when it’s on our terms. But when it comes out of nowhere, my natural reaction is the deer-in-the-headlights look and a  “no, thank you.”

My lunch didn’t taste so good that day. Neither did my humble pie.