new life

Bones rattling dry
   no flesh
      no breath

“Command the wind.”
“Who? I?”
“Command the wind.”
“Yes, Lord.
         Breathe –
   and want, and cry.”

Breath bringing life

Inspired by the Easter Vigil reading of The Valley of Dry Bones.


Truth Is a Person

As we make the Spiritual Exercises we ask for various graces. Recently I have been asking for the grace to admire people.

It started with a seemly simple assignment a couple weeks ago: List the people you admire, people you would like to imitate.

I had a hard time making that list. In fact, it took me a week to think of one person that I very conditionally admired and might want to imitate in certain aspects.

I could, however, quite easily list qualities that I admire, skills that I want to develop, and character traits I would like to emulate. That’s not what I’d been asked to list, but I figured it was something, so I started writing:

courageous, fierce, just
joyful, spontaneous, still
voiced, diligent, kind, gentle
nurturing, loving, blessing
patient, laughing
feeling emotions, open to God
generous, honest, humble
open to people, open with time

As I wrote “open to people” the Spirit nudged me:

“Embody, Helen –
not theory, never pure virtue –
‘I am the truth.’

“I am . . . the truth.”

Jesus’ claim shakes me.

It wouldn’t bother me if Jesus said, “I always tell the truth,” or “I live an honest life.” Those statements would fit my understanding of reality. But “I am the truth”?

I tend toward idealism. I don’t mean that I tend to set impossibly high standards (though I do that too). I mean I tend to think that ultimate reality is in ideas and thought, to value a concept above a person, and to think of truth and love as abstract.

Basically, I tend to think that there’s an ultimate standard of goodness that God conforms to and is, therefore, good.

In so doing, I idolize goodness; I idolize my understanding of goodness; I idolize my understanding.

Then Jesus steps in and says, “I am the truth.”

And my idol crumbles, vaporizes, vanishes in thin air. Truth is a person.

I am undone.

I want to love this person, admire this person, emulate this person. I want out of the idealized world where flesh and blood are shadows. I want to live in physical reality. I want to enter stories, not theories. I want to admire people, not ideas. I want to know Truth.

Good Works: created for me

American culture is largely utilitarian. As a people we are obsessed with productivity, usefulness and efficiency. This obsession extends to the way we think about people, including ourselves. “What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask a new acquaintance. “What have I done?” is the question we ask ourselves, the question on which we often hang our worth.

A local organization recently started a job training program. The program, like every other job training program I know of, has the goal of equipping people to be useful in the current economy (and be paid for being useful). We expect our high schools and colleges to do the same. There are tasks to be accomplished and positions to be filled. We want our schools to prepare young people to be useful, to take on those works.

As Christians we often expect our discipleship programs and Bible schools to do the same: to produce productive people. We might not be as concerned with the money making aspect of productivity, but we want to train people to be useful in the Kingdom, to do good works for the Kingdom.

We prepare people for good works.

When I was eleven years old, I memorized Ephesians 2:10 for Awana (think Evangelical version of the Scouts). Ostensibly, I memorized it so that I could, through hard work, reach the goal: “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.” Actually, I memorized it to look good, out-do my friends, and get enough points to buy rubber stamps. Those who designed the program anticipated my motives. They did, after all, invent Awana bucks.

All that to say, I memorized Ephesians 2:10 nearly 20 years ago. I’ve read and recited it hundreds of times since. And, until this week, I never heard the last phrase. In my mind, the verse—the universe—read this way: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus just so that we could do some of the good works on the long list of good works that God needs to get done.”

After all, I buy a vacuum cleaner because I need my carpets cleaned; I hire a plumber because I need someone to fix my clogged drain; I build a shelf because I need something to hold books. It makes sense that God would make me because he needs a Sunday school class taught, a child fed, or a room cleaned. When I was asked to consider who I am, who God made me to be, my question formed accordingly: What good works did God make me for?

This week, while engaging the First Principle and Foundation in the Spiritual Exercises of St.Ignatius of Loyola, I was asked to consider, once again, Ephesians 2:10. This time, in one disorienting moment, I saw what was written. Yes, God creates me for good works. But God creates those good works for me. Rather than having a list of good works and creating me to accomplish them, God creates me and forms good works that are suited to me. I am the primary creation, the good works secondary.

When interacting a child, I often prepare a task particularly suited to the interests and abilities of the child. I might suggest baking cookies or making cards. I might invite the child to help me rake the yard. I might give the child a puzzle to solve. In every case I think about the child and prepare the good works accordingly. Whether the child is useful or efficient does not cross my mind. I want to see the child enjoy her work. I want to build a relationship with the child as we work together. I want to encourage a child to grow in his confidence. Could it be that God’s love and care for me is greater even than mine for children?

A few months ago I was talking with a friend about her vocation to full-time ministry. One portion of her story has remained in my heart, a foretaste of this week’s reorientation.

She talked about being called to enter full-time ministry, exploring options, and sensing that the work she was called to did not yet exist. She did other things for a few years. Eventually she sensed God saying, “Now.” She quit her job and started walking through open door after open door. Soon she was in full-time ministry, a ministry perfectly suited to her, and that didn’t exist until God said “Now.”

I ponder these things: my reading of Ephesians, the way I prepare works for children, the way God prepared good works for my friend. God, it seems, is not utilitarian. He’s more interested in relationship with me than in making me productive.  My earlier question, I see now, is the wrong one. As I consider who I am, the real question is not What good works did God make me for? The real question is Who has God made me to be? What talents, desires, gifts, skills, and story has God given me? Where in time and space has God placed me?

What good works has God made for me?

The Ten Best Ways

Tears pooled in her eyes. “That’s why I need to know the end. That’s why movies are so unsatisfying. They finally get free, and the story stops. I need to know what happens after they are free. I need to know which way to go.”

She picks up a Bible and reads, reads of the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea. Salvation, baptism, freedom. She reads and stops.

I continue the story, my hands moving through desert sand.

“After God’s people had passed through the waters into freedom, they were free to go anywhere they wanted. But which was the best way to go?

“God loved his people so much that he showed them the way to go. He led them to Mt. Sinai. . . . He gave them the Ten Best Ways to Live.” *

The Ten Best Ways to Live: The Law.

I had been trained in a deep disregard for The Law. It was the Old Covenant. It was useless for salvation. It revealed guilt. It enslaved. It was outdated, irrelevant.

Yes, there were parts of it we would do well to keep: if Paul had repeated the commandment, then it was for today; if Jesus had repeated the commandment—well, we would have to evaluate whether he was saying that for the Church or for Israel. When it came down to it, all that mattered were the nine commandments. (Paul never did tell us to keep the Sabbath holy.)

But these Ten Best Ways to Live?

I invite the children, one by one, to talk with God about The Ten Best Ways, about this story. Once all the children have settled on their mats, I roll out my own. I choose plain white paper and a few crayons.

What would life be like without these Ten Best Ways? Without The Law? I wonder. What difference did these words make? How did people without these words live?

I draw a line, splitting the paper in half. The Law, the line. One side, life without the law: murder, cheating, lying, child sacrifice, oppression, adultery, usury, chaos. The other side, life according to The Ten Best Ways: respect, honor, justice, order, unity, rest, safety.

Love does not free us to wander lost. Love frees us and shows us the best way. My heart fills with thankfulness for the Law, with love for the Giver of the Law.

Freedom is only the beginning.


*The Ten Best Ways language is from Young Children & Worship by Sonja M. Stewart and Jerome W. Berryman

Jehovah Jireh: provision in horror

I love the Bible. Often I’ll read a chapter or two before bed. If I wake up in the middle of the night I’ll recite Psalms. If I’m having a rough day I’ll cling to a verse or two. There is deep, deep comfort in the words of Scripture.

But there’s one chapter that I never liked. That horrified me. That I’d rather have forgotten and never heard of again.

Genesis 22

The heading in the NIV sounds so innocent: “The Testing of Abraham.”

“God Commands Human Sacrifice” was the title in my head.

I’ve heard a few sermons on Genesis 22. I’ve heard about the great faith of Abraham. I’ve heard about the foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. I’ve heard about God’s goodness in providing a lamb. I’ve heard about Isaac’s submission. I’ve even heard about Abraham’s agony. But I’ve never heard a word on Isaac’s horror.

Can you imagine? Your father, a godly man, an honorable man, a man who treasures you like no other–he invites you to travel with him to worship. You travel, father and son, first with servants and donkeys, later on foot. Something seems a little strange. You ask about it. Where’s the animal to be sacrificed? This godly man, he says God will provide. And you walk on.

You’re carrying the wood. The wood for worshiping God. You get to the top of the mountain and gather stones. You join your father in building a place of worship. It’s a transition into manhood, a moment of special connection to your father and to his god. And then–

You’re tied tight with ropes, laying helpless on the altar you built. The wood you carried surrounds you. About to be burned. And your father, the man you trusted and followed–he stands over you with a knife. Because God said to.

“The Testing of Abraham”

Hours later you walk down the mountain, retrace those steps. If you were ever a child those days are gone. How do you trust again? How do you not?

From that event come two words. They’re words we use lightly. They’re words we connect to money and cars and jobs and clothes. They’re words that slip off our tongue with little thought.

Jehovah Jireh. God will provide.

How many times have I heard those words?

You need food? Jehovah Jireh. You’re out of work? Jehovah Jireh. You have bills pouring in? Jehovah Jireh. Amen and amen. I love that truth! I love those words!

But wait! They come from this unbearable story? This moment of horror!?

“Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and the wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
(Genesis 22:7-8)

Hours later, horrors later, Abraham names the mountain Jehovah Jireh, The LORD Will Provide (verse 14). A lamb replaces a man. It is the first time we hear those words.

Jehovah Jireh isn’t about cars and clothes and houses and jobs. Jehovah Jireh is about horrible sacrifice. Jehovah Jireh is about the end of human sacrifice. Jehovah Jireh is about the ultimate sacrifice.

Nearly two millenia later another Isaac would lay bound, surrounded by the wood he’d carried up the mountain. In agony he would cry to his father, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?!” This time there would be no lamb to take his place. This time he is the lamb, he is Jehovah Jireh.

Some years later another man would reflect on Jehovah Jireh and this second Isaac, and he would exclaim, “If God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) This is Jehovah Jireh.