For Sylvester, With Love

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Sam 16:7

His chair is still on the front porch at the bottom of the street, at the top of the steps, by the front door.  A cat is keeping it warm perhaps not realizing he isn’t coming back.  The whole house is empty now, its inhabitants having been evicted though they paid their $100 per week for a room in a house without heat and use of bathrooms shared by 15 other adults.  The man they paid didn’t pass along the money to the bank but he does drive a nice new car.

So when everybody moved out, it was like breaking up a little family that had formed from those who had endured all kinds of suffering, were mostly alone the world, but learned to depend on each other for company, encouragement and it turns out, life.  The chair on the front porch was often moved down to the driveway, where others would gather to visit, share beer (that had no restrictions as to time of day…morning was just as good as after 5) and always wave up an arm in salutation as we passed by on our way home.  It was the greatest homecoming every time we’d pass by them.   Often it was just a hollar of one another’s names with a big smile and jovial wave.   Sometimes we had the time to stop and visit too.  But it reminded us each time that community mattered, a greeting could go a long way to humanizing one another and that the world includes far more beauty than our own little households can contain.

A year ago, Sylvester sent a girl to our house on New Year’s day who had been struggling with crack addiction, had been kicked out of their house because of it (though others certainly used, just not to the same degree) and was in danger of losing her one year old baby.  Our small exchanges gave him the sense that we might be able to help her.  (Turns out we couldn’t, but it did deepen our friendship with Sylvester as we worked together to try and support her.)  I learned through that experience that Sylvester was a care giver.  He was no respecter of persons and cared little for self-protection in the face of others in need.

I don’t know much about Sylvester’s life prior to his living on our street.  He showed more gums than teeth in his smile, most likely due to crack use.  He had crazy hair that would almost seem over the top for a costume designer, but couldn’t help but make you smile.  His face was worn, certainly from a hard life, also evidenced by the fact he spent his days in that chair drinking all day, every day, except when I saw him walking down the main road, usually with black bag in hand from the liquor store.  Even then, I got a huge smile and hearty wave.  His eyes showed sorrow and perhaps even the futility of life, and yet his kindness caused me to miss this…and perhaps miss him too.  I wish now that I had taken more time not just to enjoy him and our unlikely friendship, but to really know him as well.  He died the week before Christmas, apparently following his wife (who I never knew about), who had died a year and a half earlier of AIDS, apparently his killer too.

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.  For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.  James 2:1-10

Sam delivered the news of Sylvester’s death and we cried together.  Sam moved to a beautiful new house outside of the city when they all had to leave but Sylvester just found another room on a street down the road notorious for drug dealings and prostitution.  He stopped eating, which Sam had made sure didn’t happen when they were living together.  When the “family” in that house broke up, it seems along with it went whatever remained of Sylvester’s will to live.  He died in a room at Grady, basically another anonymous homeless man.  He had nothing in his appearance that would cause strangers to adore him or even notice him.  He is that guy that is driven by on the side on the road, invisible at best, feared at worst.  I imagine him now robed in splendor, washed and made whole with teeth “like a flock of sheep, each with its twin and none missing” as the bride in Song of Solomon i is described.  There is still wine, but no longer to anesthetize the pain of a hard and lonely life but instead as part of an abundant feast, to celebrate life everlasting with the Lover of his soul.

I kept waiting to hear plans for his funeral or memorial service.  Sam finally called yesterday to let me know it would be at 9 this morning.  We hurried our morning exercise, got the kids up and dressed in appropriate and respectful attire and prepared them for the purpose of our attendance at this opportunity to honor Sylvester.  A person’s life should be remembered, celebrated, honored and its ending grieved, because we were never intended to die.  As we approached the exit on the way to the funeral home, Sam called to say there would be no service.  The funeral home had already loaded his casket in the car and not a soul other than Sam was there.  At 8:45, the car pulled away, taking his body away, alone.  I cried the entire way home.  This is the value we give to a life that doesn’t leave behind a solid bank account or years of evident community investment.  This is the reality of a grown-up without blood relatives to be located, the only ones really expected to send off their own with dignity.  Man looks at the outer appearance.

But God looks at the heart.  Maybe the heavenly paparazzi gathered to snap pictures of Sylvester’s entrance.  Maybe the shouts and cheers of welcome were deafening upon his arrival, drowning out the silence of his departure from here.  His soul receives the value, affection and cherishing of one loved as a broken world with sinful people increasingly refuse to offer.  Oh may it not be so here…could we not start, as His people, cherishing the lives that our utilitarian world despises?  Could we not, like the Father, run with arms wide open toward those He loves regardless of their outward and evident brokenness?

(Love) always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.  1 Cor. 13:7-13

Disagreement and Difference is Not Sin

For those of us who highly value “truth” as something to be sought after, as the end goal to any problem or question, the notion of relativity can seem threatening.  If a math equation has one correct answer, a jury decision has one outcome, a who-done-it has one solution (Colonel Mustard with the lead pipe in the billiard room), then it is very hard to be comfortable with more than one conclusion being appropriate.  In medicine, for example, we want one magic bullet, not a series of treatments or combination of factors which together all influence an outcome.  We want one clear diet: (paleo!, vegetarian!, Greek!) that can be applied universally as the one best way to get nutrients and live with strength, health and energy.  The downside to a narrow view of “truth” is that it encourages polarizing thoughts and approaches in a way that makes harmony impossible.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  John 14:6

Jesus is the truth.  Jesus is wisdom.  He is certainly not both the truth and not the truth.  But He did demonstrate that you can love fishing OR carpentry and be equally faithful to the Father.  Jacob prepared a roast for his father for a blessing and Daniel was a vegetarian in captivity.  It is not what goes into the body that makes one holy or defiled, but what comes from the heart.  Paul’s journeys took him to cities and smaller towns, neither more holy places to live than the other.  But I want to elevate the former above the latter.  I confuse “cool” for truth.  I confuse preference for truth.  I confuse body parts for the whole body…in other words, it takes all the very different parts with very different functions to make the whole body run properly.   The whole earth is full of His glory, not just select neighborhoods.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.  1 Cor. 12:12-20

We were not all made with mathematical minds but some have the eyes of an artist or the heart of a poet.  Some have the skills of a counselor to draw out the wrestlings of another’s heart while others have the ability to teach, imparting information in such a way to effect change in the student.  There are some who love food and delivering the beauty and comfort of a carefully crafted meal while others find ease and delight in working with their hands to construct homes or cars.

Some of us are loved well by being given space from noise and demands while others are loved well through constant connection and interaction.  We enjoy different television shows and movies because they articulate the different experiences we each have with the world as our particular stories need to have them identified.  We are passionate about different political issues because God has given us different responsibilities in this large Garden to cultivate.  We hear the same problem and come to different conclusions about what should be done not because one is lacking the information that brought about the other’s conclusion but because God has wisely given us different perspectives and only He is omniscient knowing all the details.

So why do our differences make us angry at one another?  Why do we so badly need for others to be us, to see it our way, to do it our way or to come to our same conclusions?  Why do I roll my eyes at one person but not another?  Why do I judge the ear for not being the voice or the voice for not being the ear?  Why do I demand that the toes perform what only the fingers can really do well while forgetting that the toes are keeping the whole body balanced and upright?  The shin bone is not sinning against the elbow by not bending, it was not made to bend and would not be doing its job if it bent – gross, it would actually be broken if it did.

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it,but sitting in judgment on it.  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?  James 4:11-12

People who live in American suburbia are not sinning against God’s kingdom any more than people who live in Manhattan are somehow more in touch with God’s kingdom.  Being moved to tears at a beautiful ballet is not “fake” any more than being emotionally consumed by a football game.  Just because we don’t understand one another’s passions or perspective does not mean we are sinning against one another in our differences.  I am sinning against the body, however, in my persistent judgement of others.  We are sinning against God as we assume His role in judging our brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends.  And interestingly, His judgment of the other “parts” in Christ’s body has all fallen upon Jesus leaving instead verdicts of righteousness.  Why is it that I who proclaim this Good News of His affection deny it to my own family of believers?  It is because I still don’t really believe it myself.  I continue to want to merit His favor and so demand that others do the same.

“Judge not that ye be not judged” must begin with me.  If I can claim a higher status in God’s kingdom for anything apart from Jesus, then I may keep my snooty attitudes about others.  If, however, my only claim of comfort or security, goodness or integrity, is as far as I am hidden in Him, then I must extend this unreasonable grace to others as well.  They will know we are Christians by our love.

Vineyard

In front of our town home, where we lived before our current neighborhood, there were three very large sea grass like bushes on the other side of the parking lot.  They were huge and beautiful when in bloom, though my children frequently were cut by their sharp, long leaves which were so inviting to run though or pluck as a long sword.  In the winter, the landscapers pruned those things all the way down to the bottom so they just looked like little hay bales or stumps.  Two totally different looks for this plant and two totally different effects for the setting around it.  That is about the season I find myself in these days.

Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.  I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there.  I will command the clouds not to rain on it.  Is. 5:5-6

There is pruning and there is total abandonment.  When God observed that the vineyard He had created for fine wine, Israel, was only producing bad grapes, this was His response.  He would make it a wasteland.

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).  Matt. 27:46

Because there were no good grapes to be found, no, not even one, Jesus took on the destruction of the vineyard for whom He had come.

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.  “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.  But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has,and he will surely curse you to your face.”   The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”  Job 1:8-12

God did not allow Job to be destroyed or trampled.  Only Jesus could fully withstand that because only Jesus was truly pure and righteous.  While Job’s friends had it all wrong, we still see by the end that Job didn’t accurately understand his own relationship to God before what we might call this “pruning”.  Jesus was crushed for our transgressions so that we may be pruned to bear His righteousness.

Nonetheless, “stretch out your hand and strike everything he has” is pretty tough stuff.  On far less loss I am willing to “curse God to His face”.  Or if not curse God, because let’s be honest, I’m  a good southern girl, I’m quick to assume total abandonment and call into question everything I have believed about God as easily as Adam and Eve did.

And I’m starting to think that is just what He intends.

He doesn’t want to destroy me, but He does want to destroy my false notions about Who He is and who I am in light of that.  What looks and feels like a wasteland, by faith in His substitution, becomes for us nothing more permanently fatal than winter pruning.

What is Mankind?

The last few months I have been exercising my ability to distinguish responsibilities from concerns, exhausting myself less on that second category into which I’m rarely actually invited in the first place.  Perhaps like the restfulness of the beach, being present in the immediate moment is less fragmented, less hectic (well, when I have the house to myself at least) and less hairy.  Granted, it can feel a little trivial, but again, part of the practice is gaining a peace with the mundane.  There is a certain freedom to stepping back with hands raised to say, “Not my concern.”

But what I want for my children’s education is not a system that positions them as merely recipients of life nor do I want them to be made into “yes men” who never take initiative to go beyond the minimum requirements.  My desire for them is that they be curious and observant, discovering the beauty that is either present or possible around them and do their part to increase it.  I want for them to be aware of the broken places not so that they can stand in judgment but to engage in healing, restoration and rebuilding.  I want for them to be the kind of neighbors who are out on the front porch, not sealed behind closed doors or protective fencing.

So how do I reconcile the pull back of God’s hand in my life recently with the desire to taste and see that He is good and respond actively to that?

I don’t know.

Its like sitting in a concert where the pulse of the music compels everything in you to stand up and dance, but you are supposed to remain still and seated.  So, here I sit.

Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
    in the heavens.
 Through the praise of children and infants
    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
    to silence the foe and the avenger.
 When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.

 You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
 all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
 the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!  Psalm 8

For the Joy Set Before Him

Evelyn Anne mentioned a podcast she recently heard which once again stated the reality that we are all chasing “the next thing” that will bring happiness.  We chase it through tiresome posts on Facebook, search for it in the Twitter feed, hope it’ll come through Hulu or Netflix, maybe at happy hour that always feel well-deserved after the toil of our labor or perhaps in a second helping of that yummy “treat” from the freezer section or bakery.  For me, I search for it in relationships…the euphoria of connecting at a deeper level with another human being.  This comes to mind as Terrell and I today acknowledged how richly blessed we are with friends, friends who are more than social company but instead are those who take us deeper into the beauty and complexity of life.

One of these beloved yet very new friends sent this in an e-mail:  In The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald there is a touching scene in which the grandmother in the story, who is visible only to the princess, says to her, in essence: “Now is not the time for you to be understood. Now is the time for you to understand.”

Isn’t that what we’re looking for in music or television or a movie – lyrics or characters or situations that articulate our own experience of life in some way?  Even in a delicious dessert or glass of wine I go to be seen or understood or simply met where I am.  I watched the entire season of Orange is the New Black,even though the lesbian sex scenes began to feel overly gratuitous,  because there was something of Piper Kerman’s experience of stepping out of one familiar culture into a wholly different one that I identified with deeply.  I go to these things or people to feel less alone.  And I think it is that raw and vulnerable sense of aloneness, an isolation not created by physical separation but at a more emotional and psychological level, that creates the frantic search for its alleviation.

For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.  If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.  Romans 14:7-8

He knows when I sit and when I rise, my going out and my coming in, before a word is on my tongue, He knows it!  (talk about finishing someone sentences)  Each day I live was written in His book before one came to be.  (Psalm 139)  I belong to Him!  Such knowledge is not only “too lofty for me to attain” but eludes me without effort.  “Thanks for all that God but I’m just going to see if there is something witty on Twitter.”

Why am I so much hungrier to be understood and known that to know and understand?  How defeating a way to live, on a practical note.  I mean, if my driving passion is to be known and understood, how often is that really going to happen?  And if or when it does, what then?  (Like a new iPhone, how long does the novelty last?  Apparently people are already complaining about motion sickness iwth the new ios7.)  How does that moment of being seen or known or understood bring life to others?  How does that serve the needs for restoration around us?  As a life objective, it will leave me always disappointed and always unsatisfied.  But to know Him?  Well we can’t exhaustively, maybe ever, but probably not even close to the limit of what He has revealed even in this lifetime.  Whatever I do for the least of these I do for Him, which means He intends to show Himself to me through others, not just my own reflection in a mirror.  Novel.  AND, its not just that I jump on the gnostic bandwagon and ignore the natural desire for intimacy, but rather, see that He is already there too…Living Water from which to drink so I don’t have to go sucking it out of others and leaving them dry.

 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Deut. 30:19-20

For the Lord is your life.  Choose life.

Ok, sure, but how?

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  Col. 2:2-3

What is needed is understanding.  Now is the time to understand the mystery of God, Jesus, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  Will it happen now?  No, not yet.  But we are promised that One Day we will know even as now we are fully known.  What if He really could become “my life” in such a way that the needs of others – to be listened to, to be known, to be seen, to be cared for – actually became a greater priority than being known, listened to, seen and served?  What if I could ever resent my bed instead of the knocks at the door?  Oh my goodness what freedom that could bring!

When my family returns home momentarily, will I choose life, love and God over self?  Of course not.  Their noise will be too loud, their mess will undo my labor and their demands will be urgent and I’ll probably not respond like Jesus with my eyes fixed on the Father.  Nor did Adam, Israel or the disciples.  But because the second Adam listened to God’s voice above the serpent’s, because He held fast to the Father and loved Him with His whole heart, mind, soul and strength, the blessings of a life pre-occupied with God over myself are mine.  What was not possible with man is now possible through the effective work of Jesus.  He started all this, and He will finish it.  What Good News.

…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  

Hebrews 12:2