Palm Sunday: Triumph to Tragedy

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and I had the opportunity to bring the message at Sydenstricker UMC for a vacationing Pastor Don. Click here to hear the sermon, called “Triumph and Tragedy.” In it, I explore the shadows that fall over the joyous reception Jesus had that day at Jerusalem: the shadow caused by our own spiritual blindness, and the shadow of the Cross. Give a listen and let me know what you think!

logo_logo_v3

This. I Wanna Do THIS.

I’ve started readings for one of my fall classes, CD 501 Vocation of Ministry–which looks like it will be a chance for us to push into what being in full-time ministry will be all about. (“You sure you wanna do this?”) One of the books is Stephen Seamands’ Ministry in the Image of God, and I just have to quote from his Chapter 4, on “Glad Surrender.” In it, Seamands himself quotes from Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. Check this out.

# # # #

In the story, Much-Afraid is puzzled when she learns that she is ascending to the High Places not to remain there forever but so she can descend back into the Valley of Humiliation from which she has fled. At the beginning of her journey with the Shepherd, as they cross a swift stream running through the valley, he bids her listen to the words being sung by the rushing water: “Come, oh come! Let us away–Lower, lower, every day…From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys sown below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.”

The water sings joyfully as it hurries down to the lowest place, yet the Shepherd is calling Much-Afraid to ascend to the High Places. It seems contradictory, so Much-Afraid asks what it means. “The High Places,” the Shepherd explains, “are the starting places for the journey down to the lowest place in the world. When you have hinds’ feet and can go ‘leaping on the mountains and skipping on the hills,’ you will be able, as I am, to run down from the heights in gladdest self-giving and then go up to the mountains again […] for it is only on the High Places of Love that anyone can receive the power to pour themselves in an utter abandonment of self-giving.” At this point in the journey, however, Much-Afraid is perplexed by the Shepherd’s answer.

Later, though, when they arrive at the borderland of the High Places, she begins to understand. Standing before the towering cliffs still to be scaled, the Shepherd has Much-Afraid look up at the mighty waterfall flowing down from the High Places. When she does, she is awed by the tremendous height of the rocky lip over which the water cascades down and the deafening noise as it crashes down onto the rocks at the foot of the fall. Never has she seen anything so majestic or terrifyingly lovely. Once again, as in the valley, she hears the waters singing, “From the heights we leap and go, To the valleys down below, Always answering to the call, To the lowest place of all.”

To Much-Afraid the fall of the mighty waters is both beautiful and terrible. She can hardly bear to watch the water cast itself down from the heights above only to be shattered on the rocks beneath. Sensing her apprehension, the Shepherd urges her to look more closely. “Let your eye follow just one part of the water from the moment when it leaps over the edge until it reaches the bottom.”

As she does, she gasps in wonder. Once over the edge, the waters were like winged things, alive with joy, so utterly abandoned to the ecstasy of giving themselves that she could have almost supposed that she was looking at a host of angels floating down on rainbow wings, singing with rapture as they went. To the water this was the loveliest, most glorious movement in the world. And its joy didn’t end when it broke upon the rocks below. In fact, the lower the water went, the lighter and more exuberant it became. A rushing torrent, it swirled triumphantly around the rocks and then flowed downward, lower and lower, around and over every obstacle in its way.

As the Shepherd explains, “At first sight the leap does look terrible […] but as you can see, the water itself finds no terror in it, no moment of hesitation or shrinking, only joy unspeakable and full of glory, because it is the movement natural to it. Self-giving is its life. It has only one desire, to go down and down and give itself with no reserve or holding back of any kind. You can see that as it obeys that glorious urge the obstacles which look so terrifying are perfectly harmless, and indeed only add to the joy and glory of the movement.”

Soon Much-Afraid discovers firsthand what this means. After she ascends to the High Places and is given a new name (Grace and Glory), compassion for those in the Valley of Humiliation wells up within her. They are so fearful and bound; she longs to tell them how the Bridegroom-King can free them as he freed her.

As she rises to go down into the Valley, she sees the great waterfall and hears the song again, “From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys down below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.” Now she fully understands. She has been brought by the King to the High Places so that she too can pour herself out in joyful abandonment. The thought of being made one with the great fall of many waters filled her heart with ecstasy and with a rapturous joy beyond power to express. She, too, at last was to go down with them, pouring herself forth in love’s abandonment of self-giving. “He brought me to the heights just for this,” she whispered to herself, and then looked at him and nodded.

What Much-Afraid once considered terrible, love’s abandonment in self-giving, has become to her altogether lovely, a fountain of unspeakable joy. What she has shrunk away from for fear of losing herself, she now gladly embraces as the grand purpose of her existence.

# # # #

This is at least the third time I’ve read this, and it’s moved me deeply each time I do. In fact, this passage was part of one of the more powerful experiences of God that I’ve had in the past year. I read this for the first time over lunch in my office at work, tears streaming down my face. I felt two things at the same time. I felt the desire to join the water “to go lower, lower still.” And I felt more affirmed in my path than in practically anything else this year: that yes, this is what I am calling you to do; that it will be all right even though it might look scary sometimes; that this is “the grand purpose of [my] existence.”

I can’t say I’m ready to do this, and at the same time, I don’t think anyone ever can. But the rivulets are forming up. They are flowing into trickles, then into tiny streams, then on into a great river that rushes to the edge and off, abandoning all it knows for the ecstasy of the flight, and the privilege of going lower, lower still. Come along for the ride.

Recovering From Surgery

Thanks for the words of concern and prayers in my recovery from a burst appendix two weeks ago. They’ve all been deeply appreciated. I wanted to pass along a few observations from my convalescence.

  • I really don’t do “recovery” well. I want to be out doing things and when I do, I chafe at getting exhausted. It’s getting a lot better; for awhile I needed a nap every afternoon. Now that’s less the case. I took one yesterday, and then had a hard time falling asleep at night.
  • Saw my surgeon for my second follow-up this morning. I’m healing well, according to him, but not there yet…he wants to see me Monday, and maybe that will be the last time. I’m really ready to be done with this…
  • We definitely have an Enemy, and I’m kinda not surprised he came after me. We go up to the mountain for our Emmaus weekend in eight days, and folks have commented that the Enemy often tries to do something in advance of a weekend. Glad I got to catch that particular spear…
  • It’s amazing to me how much my routines have been upset, and that includes my spiritual ones. I used my commute in each morning as prayer time, and now I’m out of that habit. I have to make time differently for Christ, and that’s been a struggle sometimes.
  • Prayer works. I really did feel bathed in security when I was being wheeled in for surgery, and prayers for healing since then have been answered. The secondary infection that set in has largely disappeared, praise be.
  • The dog really doesn’t understand what’s going on. She’s hurt and perplexed that she can’t stay in the bed with us at night anymore. It’s hard to explain to her that the last thing I need is for her, in the middle of the night, to hit a tender spot or pull on something that doesn’t need tugging on. So we’ve started teleworking together, that seems to let her feel more comfortable.
  • I’d been prohibited from lifting more than 20 pounds until today. Man, I’ll miss that excuse for getting the kids to do things…

Journaling

This is a post partly about journaling, and partly about practicing listening to God.

For my birthday recently, a brother in Christ gave me a lovely leather-bound journal with one of his favorite scriptures embossed on the cover: I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13). That’s the straw that broke this camel’s back, and I’ll be starting on a course of journaling now.

This has to be at least the third time in recent weeks that the topic of journaling has come up in an encouraging way: in other conversations, in podcasts I listen to, I’ve been getting The Nudge that perhaps this is something I ought to do. And so when Tim presented me with this book, well…call me simple, but I finally took the hint and listened to what God was saying.

To do journaling will be a different experience for me. I’ve kept a “journal” before, but it was more of a diary–more of a recounting of the day and what happened, and less a reflection time. This kind of journaling would be different, more of a spiritual exploration than describing my days, and so I would need to approach it differently. As I head into it, I need to set out some of my ground rules (and I’d welcome others that you might have from your own experiences, dear reader!), often around what would be different:

  • I give myself permission to be incomplete, rough, unfinished. The writer in me–nay, the perfectionist in me–thinks, ponders, casts and recasts, until the final words that come out are just so. But this is to be an unpolished set of reflections, not something ready to turn into a blog post or an essay. It can be the partial, not the whole. And that’s OK.
  • I give myself permission to not write. When I was keeping my other journal I would feel guilty if I hadn’t summarized each day, regardless of whether I felt like it. This time, I need to let God move me. He might do so every day, every other day, or not for awhile, or several times in a day. And that’s OK.
  • I give myself permission to be vulnerable. That one’s harder. I didn’t tend to be very expressive in my diaries, and I don’t think that same style will work here. And that’s OK.

What other things do I need to bear in mind when I start journaling?