THE PSALM 22 EXPERIENCE
an imaginative prayer
I had an amazing experience this week. I was imagining the crucifixion scene. The verse that stood out to me was this.
They offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.
Gall, I believe, was the pain reliever that was given to help numb the pain of crucifixion, but as most pain relievers I would imagine that it knocks you out and makes you less awake, less aware. Jesus desired the full experience, not to numb it. If he numbed the pain, there might not have been any words spoken from the cross. He may not have had the same clarity. But how do you push past the pain to find that clarity? You don’t. It is only in the pain, when it is at its peak, that everything becomes brutally clear. So what was it that became clear to Jesus in the midst of His pain? I considered His words from the cross to see if they would offer any insight. There it was.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
This sentence is the first line of Psalm 22. So I wondered, what was it about that Psalm that brought Him such clarity? I pulled up the passage and began to read. As I did, I imagined Jesus on the cross speaking the words.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
His voice was quiet and nearly unintelligible, because He was weak and his mouth was dry. The priests and scribes had a hard time understanding Him, which is why they thought He might be trying to call Elijah. But the thieves on either side of Him were Jews and their closer proximity to Jesus gave them a better discernment of what He was saying. They recognized the words from the Psalm and they joined Him in the recitation.
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
With their added voices, stronger than Jesus' because they were further from their point of death, the priests and scribes and other Jews standing nearby then understood and they also joined in.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
As the voices began to swell, more and more Jews joined in, the Roman guards gazed on in bewilderment, the priests’ faces flushed with shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
Finally, the growing tide of the sacred chant reached Jesus’ mother, John, and the other followers who watched from a distance. They, too, added their voices.
Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother's breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother's womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.
By this point, the sound of the voices in unison had become a cacophony that could be heard by those on the road to the city, the Via Dolorosa. As the sound traveled toward the city, wave upon wave, more and more voices blended in.
Many bulls encompass me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Next, the citizens of the city itself, street by street, stopped their activity and listened. Once they heard the familiar words, their mouths picked up the refrain as if they had minds of their own. It swept across the city like a wave until the whole city had become one, unified voice.
For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
The people in the temple came running out to see what the commotion was all about. They joyfully picked up the refrain and it carried into the temple halls. The court of the Gentiles, the women's court, the court for Jewish men, the Holy Place for the priests. All heard the words and their mouths effortlessly opened to speak the sacred words which they had memorized in their youth.
I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!
When the last stanza of the Psalm was spoken, the voices of this sea of people - from the cross to the opposite gate of the city - raised their voices even louder in anticipation of the final words of the Psalm.
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that HE HAS DONE IT!
Then Jesus, gathering every last ounce of strength He had left, cried aloud in triumph.
IT IS FINISHED!
As the words of the Psalm die from the lips of the priests serving in the Holy Place, the curtain hanging in front of them ripped open as if a bolt of lightning had split it in two. It made a thunderous roar, rolling through the temple like a pyroclastic cloud, shaking the very walls of the temple itself.
The sun came out and shined its face upon the city once more. People stood in the streets and all along the Via Dolorosa and looked at each other, dumbfounded by the event that just occurred.
The centurion looked up at Jesus in amazement. It seemed as if every word spoken had been written for that day, that moment, for this man, this moment of death.
Truly, this was the Son of God.
Since the Fall of Man, God has been clothing us, keeping us warm. How often have we taken His warmth for granted, His closeness, His concern for our welfare?
Why are we never content with our environment? We are too hot in summer, too cold in winter, discontent and grumbling about every little change of weather. Why can't we understand the rhythms of the Earth and how important they are?
Or the healthy rhythms God would have us find in our own life? There are seasons of life for a reason. If God would always be moving powerfully, when would our spirit rest? If He never moved at all, when would we discover the excitement and adventure of following Him?
As I walk along the Bluebell trail, I have Your blanket of warmth over my shoulders. The scene is a beautiful testimony of life and death. Trees that thrive on the shores of the pond and creek become dark, broken stumps in the swamp.
The trail is passable, but barely. Last night's rain has left puddles and muddy spots along the way. I need to tread carefully with my rubber-soled shoes. Roots protrude here and there and, when I stumble or trip, You are there to catch me. When I work my way around a pile of driftwood left by flood tide, You steady me and watch my back.
At the convergence of streams, You speak to me about my life, about how the new stream ahead won't be so very different from the old one.
"Perhaps the water will be a little deeper or run a little more swiftly, but you have endured high water before."
I take a step in slick mud and just at the exact wrong moment I shift the weight of my pack and slip.
"Watch your balance here. Balance is very important in the slick spots. Keep your eyes on the trail. Watch for twigs or fallen nuts."
How can I enjoy the scenery if my eyes are constantly on the trail?
"The trail is part of the scenery."
EXISTENCE IS NOISY
Existing is noisy. We sigh, clear our throats, clatter dishes, click computer keys, talk on the phone, and handle non-stop app notifications on our smart phone. Sometimes our noise irritates others. We think, “Why can’t they just be quiet? Why can’t they mute their phones?”
Yet we don’t realize that our own noise is just as irritating to someone else. We think our noise is more important. “I’m working here! Shut up so I can think!”
We never stop to think about our own deep roots of self-importance, pride, and arrogance that dismiss the other person’s noise of existence as being inferior to ours. Perhaps in God’s eyes the giggles of a child at play rank higher in importance than the merging of two multimillion dollar companies. How does God feel when we put “Do Not Disturb” on our instant message status? Effectively shutting out anyone who might need us?
Practically, we realize there is no way to be available to everyone all the time. We all have appointments to keep, work to accomplish, and moments when nature calls us into the little room where it just isn’t appropriate to take a phone call. Perhaps what we all need is to show a little bit of grace to each other.
In other generations the only means of contact was by letter and the quickest one could expect a response was several days. Have we become so jaded by our society of instant gratification that we can’t wait fifteen minutes for someone to respond?
Have we come so far that we’ve forgotten the nature of time? It takes time to create something beautiful. It takes time to heal old wounds. It takes time to grow a crop of corn. It takes time to build a lasting friendship.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Let’s try not to get so obsessed by where we’re headed that we forget to enjoy the journey.
WAR AND SHALOM
Why is it we scratch at the door when we are locked in? Why is it our ears perk up at the first hint of gossip? Why is it our pulse goes up at the prospect of buying something new? In our fallenness we strain against the state of contentment. Our nature is bent towards fight or flight. We crave the straining, striving, fighting, bullying, gloating, demeaning, despising, displeasing parts of life.
Our entertainment is the storm, not the calm. We don’t write books or make movies about perfectly happy people whose lives have no drama. We write about murder, deceit, violence, greed, manipulation, disloyalty, and malice. Somewhere deep inside we know the universe is at war. We express that inexplicable sense of reality by reenacting those acts of war in our imaginations and with each other in the real world. We spin tales of warrior alien races or oppressive phantoms and vampiric mutants. It is our inner spirits sensing the presence and work of demonic forces and trying to make sense of their destruction. As the swords of God and Satan’s angels clash in our ears, we look around in confusion, often not able to recognize friend from foe. We are lost, vulnerable and gullible.
The hardest thing for us to do is stand still. Our sinful nature is ever trying to fight or flee from God’s Shalom peace. Shalom is all about stillness. In Shalom, there is movement, but not striving. In Shalom, there is work, but not slavery. In Shalom, there is communication, but not discord.
The Shalom life should be lived in a spirit of awe and gratitude. Awe that God has chosen you to live all-out for Him. Awe in His creation and in His work in your heart and in the lives of others. The Shalom life is ever mindful of the love of God as you savor the simple things in life: rest, work, study and prayer. The Shalom life finds God's love in the midst of life's simplest expression - existing. The Shalom life has value for no other reason than God loves you. You are God's hidden harem bride; He cherishes you in secret while the world turns to ruin.
My name has never been in lights on Broadway. My picture has never appeared in the New York Times. The only thing significant about my life is its insignificance. As a child, I remember life as a rhythm of repetitive events that, as they were experienced year after year, provided a foundation of appreciation and understanding about what life is really all about.
I was born the youngest of five children. My parents owned a farm a short distance from the state capital. Like all farm families, our lives followed the rhythm of the seasons. Spring, summer, autumn and winter sang a four-step harmony to which we danced our lives. The cycle of planting, cultivating and harvesting crops was painted in the backdrop of a pasture full of cows giving birth, raising young and fattening for market. We were a religious family. We regularly attended the Mennonite church, but often visited and participated in activities in several other churches in nearby communities. Seasons were marked, not only by the growth of our plants and animals, but also by the rhythm of church life.
In the spring, we planted our spacious garden. To a young girl, the length and breadth of it seemed unending. Dad would plow, disc and run the cultivator to prepare the soil. Using the edge of a hoe, he would jam it down into the dirt then walk from one side of the garden to the other to form rows. Each seed had to be covered by just the right amount of soil. Potatoes were never planted from seed, but from small bits of the potatoes harvested the year before. We would use a hoe to mound up the dirt along the line of the row so the potatoes had room to grow inside. Besides vegetables, mom always planted flowers, marigolds, here and there to help keep the bugs away. We stuck the seed packets on small sticks at the ends of the rows to remind ourselves what was planted. Once the garden was “in,” we would pray for rain to help the seeds grow.
Springtime brought also Easter services when we remembered how Jesus died on a cross for our sins and rose from the dead. At our church, Easter was a long affair and included two services and a breakfast in between. It was hard to get out of bed so early, but the beautiful sunrise services our church held on the bank of the river were well worth the effort. The sun crept up over the horizon and peered through the heavy mist rising from the surface of the river. Shivering, we stood and listened to the story of the women who came so early to the empty tomb. Then we went to the church and shared in a potluck meal before the main service at 10:30. My mom played while everyone sang the songs of resurrection: He Lives, Christ Arose, Christ the Lord is Risen Today and The Easter Song. The earth has awakened from its long winter’s nap and Jesus is risen indeed.
Summer brought long hours of hoeing, weeding and making hay. When I was too small to hoe, I was given row after row of weeds to pull, provided I correctly remembered what the good plant looked like. Once I grew big enough to hoe, I quickly discovered that the constant stooping made my head ache. Hay was baled two to three times a year, depending on the weather. First, it was mowed down and allowed to dry. Then it was raked into furrows to prepare it for baling. Our family owned a square baler, which was a lot more work than a round baler. Bales were formed and roped by the machine then kicked out onto the field. My father did not allow us girls to lift the bales, but we were permitted to roll them out of the way of the tractor as it made the next pass. My brother would lift the bales onto the wagon so they could be hauled to the barn, where they would be flipped onto an elevator that carried them up into the haymow where they were neatly stacked.
Summer also brought church camp and Vacation Bible School. I loved the evening campfires and the songs we sang around them. I met my first serious boyfriend at church camp. He had blonde, curly hair and the spookiest blue eyes I’d ever seen. They also taught me how to swim there. Since my mom was a pianist, she helped with the music at several churches for VBS. Stories about Bible characters and crafts to take home delighted children of all ages. VBS songs usually had motions or catchy tunes. To this day, I sometimes sing through the songs that taught me the books of the Bible to figure out where to find what I want to read. Plants and animals aren’t the only things that grow in the summer; children are also growing in their knowledge of God.
Autumn was spent harvesting our crops. The endless rows that we had planted in the spring and weeded in the summer were now bursting with full ears of corn, beans, peppers, cabbage and tomatoes. Bushel baskets full of harvested crops were hauled in to be put up for the winter. The women would gather chairs in a circle under the big shade tree and snap beans or shell peas while they gossiped. Corn was cut off of the cob and stuffed into Ziploc® bags for freezing. Cabbage was put into crocks to make kraut. Fresh picked elderberries, raspberries and blackberries were made into jam, put in small jars and sealed with paraffin wax. Dad had to decide which of the spring heifers to keep and use as mamma cows in years ahead. Steers were sold at the stock sale or butchered to fill the chest freezer with beef. Rows of canned vegetables in the cellar and a freezer stocked with frozen goods were essential to the survival of our large family for the long winter ahead.
In the autumn, we all had to get ready to go back to school. Shopping for school clothes and supplies was a daunting task with five children in the house. My mom was a master at figuring out what clothes had to be bought and what could be passed down to the younger girls to wear, but my brother always got new clothes since he was the only boy. I was always very excited when school started. My thirst for learning seemed unquenchable and I always prided myself in having the best grades in my whole family. I hated missing any days, but was never able to get perfect attendance. A victim of frequent strept throat, my mom taught me how to tell whether I was contagious so I knew whether I could go to school or not.
One of the small habits I had was that I would listen to Children’s Bible Hour and Aunt Sue and Uncle Dan on the radio after school every day. It was one such afternoon when the narrator began talking about how important it is to accept Jesus into your heart. I had gone to church my whole life, but didn’t fully understand what that meant. As the man on the radio explained it, I could feel the love of God wash over me I wanted to follow His will for the rest of my life. I went and told my mom and she took me into the living room where we knelt down in front of the couch and she led me in the sinner’s prayer. It was something much more valuable than crops that she helped harvest that day.
In the winter, our focus was keeping the animals warm and dry. Barn stalls were mucked out and blanketed with bedding for the cows and horses. Although it was warmer in the barn, a door was always left open for the animals to wander around in the pasture in order to keep them flexible and exercised. Dog boxes had to be cleaned and filled with fresh straw. Outdoor runs were be thoroughly cleaned of droppings in preparation for snow. My father had a kennel license and bred English Coonhounds. The menfolk were always so excited when coon season began. The detached garage had been modified into a hunter’s cabin where the coons were skinned and hunters gathered around the wood stove to tell lies. Sometimes the coon carcasses were butchered for family eating; other times they were fed to the dogs. Pelts were sold to supplement the family income.
Like for all Christians, winter focused on celebrating Christmas and commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The story of the shepherds was read on Christmas Eve and the one about the wise men read on Christmas Day. Pretty paper was often replaced by newspaper wrapping in order to have enough money for presents. Dad always played Santa and tried to guess the contents of each gift before handing them out. Dolls, bikes and winter clothes were torn out of packages one at a time; each of us taking a turn until every gift was opened. Then we would always gather around the piano for carols. Since our family sang together, we were often involved in the Christmas programs at several churches. We named my favorite doll Baby Jesus because he was used in so many manger scenes. Winter was a cozy and reflective time.
It is true that my name has never been in lights on Broadway, but it does appear in the inside cover of our family Bible. My picture has never appeared in the New York Times, but my face is in every family photograph. Though my life may be insignificant in the eyes of the world, it is of utmost importance to my family. My childhood firmly built a foundation on which I have been able to build a happy and fulfilling life.
Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great. I Timothy 3:16a
A poet once told a story of the path of life. Upon walking this path, he came to a fork in the road and chose the one less traveled. About a year ago, I faced a fork in my own life's path.
One road was wide, paved and well-tended by previous travelers. Many Christians had traveled it before me with great determination. It is the road of certainty.
The other road, although less traveled, is much more beautiful. Without the stain of man's destructive hand, the path is bordered by fragrant flowers and trees. Birds and small critters frolic in its wild meadows. This is the path of mystery.
Christians don't enjoy the path of mystery because it can be dangerous. Like any mountain road, there are cliffs and treacherous curves. One can easily lose their way and begin to feel quite lost. This path requires a more adventurous soul - one who trusts that their Guide will not allow them to tumble down the slope. I chose this path.
I must say it is an invigorating experience to resign oneself to the path of mystery - to come to terms with a truth that is too high, wide and broad for one to understand.
From the beginning, I determined that I would not allow myself to get separated from my Guide. I approached this journey with an unwavering trust that God's hand would keep me safe. Each day, He pointed out new signs and sounds. I do not know the name of every beautiful thing I've seen on this journey, but I know the warmth that swells in my heart at that first look and I know the thrill it gives me when my Guide takes my hand.
I have a long way to go before I reach my destination but, if the old adage is true and life is all about the journey, then I'm so glad I chose the road less traveled.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
God dwells in creation. Everything is formed by God. Even the elements are shaped by His hand as the environment in which they exist permeates their color. The flow of wind and rain carves their shape. The weight of their neighbors and gravity itself presses their atoms into a specific density. Each element unique, unlike any other, displaying the explosive creativity of God.
Plants do so much more. They mine the elements for their treasures and use their powers for growth and change. Gnarly, twisted roots seek out the ingredients of life and convert their energy into unique expressions of leaf and flower. Each plant a distinct and one-of-a-kind flavor of the God-life buried within it.
Creatures go one step further. They utilize the plants, literally ingest them, to feed their own unique expression of movement. Small and massive, quick and slothful, they each move to the beat of their own drum. Their territory is marked by their limits, their perspective of the world narrowed by their experience. Their enemies are only the ones they can see. Their prey only the ones God allows.
Mankind masters these things: the elements, the plants, and the animals. Their intelligence imparts the power to combine them, hacking their strength to create something new and totally other. Their imagination is endless, never satisfied until the next new thing that takes shape in their mind is made real on the earth.
Their creativity, beautiful and bottomless, can also be selfish and thoughtless, distorted and obsessed. They give little back to the elements, the plants, the animals. Mostly, they just take, rob, steal, harvest. Their eyes are clouded to the mystery of creation. They struggle at times to appreciate their place in the circle of life. They have eyes, but do not always see the beauty and perfection of the elements. They have mouths, but do not always savor the flavors of the plants. They have ears, but do not always listen to the voices of the animals. In this blindness, deafness, and dumbness they often miss the essence of the Creator himself.
To find their way to the God of all that is, humans must open themselves to the myriad of His reflections in the earth. When they do so, when they allow themselves to notice, to observe, to appreciate God in all things, they begin to desire a different path. They abandon their unnecessary control, manipulation, and exploitation of their fellow inhabitants on this planet and they discover a journey wherein they can step lightly. Instead of fighting against the elements, plants, and animals, they learn to harness their life-glow, to partner with them towards new and creative expressions of the life force God has instilled in them. Together, they stretch towards the peace and harmony with which they were created in the beginning.
THE GRATEFUL LEPER
On my face
In the dust
How did I get here?
I was healed
How was I healed?
I was traveling
In one direction
And met Jesus
On the way
He told me
To turn around
The home of
And as I went
I was healed
It was there
On the road
That I found
In my joy
I turned again
I ran to Him
When I saw Him
I was undone
I fell down
Into the dust
On my face
On my face
In the dust
Some might say
A posture of
But for me
A posture of
And His companions
Watch my back
As I surrender
At His feet
A voice says
But I cannot
Until the work
Between His world
When He sent me
In the opposite
I turned back
And found Him
In the demilitarized zone
Between my people
And His people
Between my beliefs
To no one
Can meet from
They come from
Where Jesus is
On the margins
With the outcasts
Sick people dwell
THE GOOD DOG
There is an old parable that says there are two dogs inside of us, one good and one bad, which are always at battle. The dog who wins is the one you feed. Which dog am I feeding? The one who is out to devour me or the one sworn to protect and stay by me as my best friend?
The dog that is looking out for my welfare can only be found outside the dogfighting ring. I cannot expect it to venture into the pit of vice and greed. The loyal dog will go to the ends of the earth, but will not follow me into the pit except to clamp onto me and pull me out of that desolate, dangerous place. Its happy yips will draw the envy of those standing in the gamblers circle betting away their lives.
The dog of endurance will not leave me in the wilderness of confusion, misunderstanding, and self-doubt. It will stay faithfully present as I navigate the stars, the moon, the tracks of migratory animals and feed on the bloom of the cactus, drink from the hidden oasis, and discover my own mettle in the sun-baked desert.
The dog of valor will wag its tail happily by my side on the mountain trail, even if it only leads to the other room. The curious dog will perk its ears up to every noise, sniff the air of breath, and hunt out the burning bush of God’s presence - the place of holy ground; the fire of omnipotence that will change my life.
And when I find it, my perfect landscape called home, the dog of contentment will curl up at my feet and rest, only to regain his strength for our next sojourn onto green pastures and beside still waters.
OVER THE HILL
Over the hill
All downhill from here
Could be a good thing
No more steep climbs
Clawing my way to the top
Gravity a friend
Stop and smell the roses
Rest a minute
Back in my day
Life was simpler
People had real conversations
Savor the cozy
Reclaim the joy
Let the journey unfold
One vista at a time
Nothing to prove
Not even myself