“You’ll Love Three Forks!”

We talked about Steve Martin and Anastasia and asking for signs. About the times when you plead for a neon billboard to drop out of the sky and tell you where that next step should go – and the times when you think something is a sign but hindsight proves you wrong. And then we talked about visas for England and Canada and laughed over airport mishaps — and then the day was over and it was time to go.

Driving home under a sparkling Kentucky sky, I thought again about signs and remembered a recent moment that could have been prophetic – but maybe not because sometimes it’s hard to separate wishful thinking from divine nudge. And I turned on the radio at the exact moment someone read a Bible verse that repeated nearly word-for-word my almost-maybe-not-sure prophecy. And I had to breathe deep and slow to calm the butterflies that leaped up inside at the flicker of “but what if it’s true?”

Winding my way through the hills near the apple orchard, an oncoming pickup truck flashed his lights at me as he appeared over a ridge, and I instinctively began to slow. Here on these narrow back roads lined with stone walls and flash-flood gullies, drivers warn each other to prepare for what’s coming and I knew to expect a hazard somewhere over the hill. But what I didn’t expect was a tree-lined bend and a man in blue jeans standing in the grass at the curve and motioning for me to stop. A second man with a long gray beard and tattoos up both arms planted himself a few feet further on and repeated the command as a stream of cars began to pass me going the other way. I waited, watching them and smiling to myself at the everyday beauty of the way the drivers here work together to avoid catastrophe. When the stream of cars dried up and they waved me on, I rounded the bend and the previously-unseen truck stalled in my lane and continued on my way, confident in my faith in two strangers who could see my future better than me.

It wasn’t until I’d turned onto the main road that it hit me. I had talked and laughed and wondered about signs today – hoping for road signs that would tell me exactly where I was headed. But instead of highway markers counting down the miles to my destination or big overhead signs telling me where this road would take me, I got a few flashes of light from a passing truck and nonverbal gestures from total strangers who were positioned to see something I could not.

My grandma used to tell a story from when my dad was young. They were driving across the endless hills of Wyoming and Montana, the whole family heading west. And then the billboards started to appear: “You’ll love Three Forks!”

Over and over, these billboards popped up by the side of the road, proclaiming again and again that Three Forks was something to love. And so my grandparents decided to stop there overnight, and my dad and all his siblings waited to see what glories this Three Forks would bring.

The joke that made my grandma – and my dad – laugh so hard was that Three Forks turned out to be one of the most awkward experiences of their years of shared stories. Their motel room was not en suite and the toilet was public and located off of the lobby – the lobby where locals sat until late into the night. The bathroom was not soundproofed and the family – with eight kids and a long day in the car – kept it busy all night long.

I don’t know much about Three Forks or if that billboard campaign ultimately worked for them, but I know that it didn’t work for my dad’s family. If you had heard my grandma tell that story – barely holding back her laughter – you’d know that they do NOT love Three Forks and never will.

And I think again about signs and wanting to know exactly where I’m going. And I hear my grandma’s laugh in my deepest memories and the way she always said it – “you’ll LOOOVE Three Forks” – as if to emphasize the error of the giant billboards that had led them there. And I know that sometimes we do get neon signs that point the way home, or “Road Closed” signs to keep us from going astray, or big searching spotlights that pierce the sky and guide us in to land.

But today I watch the sun set from the safety of home, and I think about small flashes – almost undetectable in the light of day – and about strangers who told me when to move forward, even though I didn’t know why. And I think about words that maybe-sort-of-might hint at a future I can’t see – a future I don’t even really know how to find.

I want billboards to mark my route. I want the assurance that I’m on the right path – assurance like fireworks and my name written across the sky so I know it’s definitely meant for me. I want to know what I can do now to make the right future happen. But I know that sometimes the signs are small. And sometimes the future will happen no matter what we do today. And sometimes all we can do is follow the direction of those who can see what we cannot — to sit in the car until that tattooed arm waves us on around the bend.

And so — today — maybe it’s okay to trust that signs will come when we actually need them — and until then, maybe it’s okay to trust the waiting.

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Long Live The Fools

This is the moment that makes fools of us all.

It’s the moment of hope becoming real. It’s the moment of light breaking through. It’s the moment of the miracle that no one expected and no one looked for – the moment that stopped the world in its tracks and sent us off in a new and unknown direction.

It was the most glorious revolution of them all – and it makes us fools.

Because who could believe it? What sane person – capable of logical and rational thought, raised in a world where science can stop disease, create weather, and find things our eyes can’t see – could possibly believe this story and still be called wise?

Things like this don’t happen, you know. People may occasionally return to life – after five seconds, or five minutes, or maybe even fifty. Sometimes it’s the paddles that bring them back – those magic wands of science that can restart a dead heart. And sometimes it’s a kiss of life that does it, oxygen shared from the lungs of another that flips the switch connecting body to earth. And sometimes even the doctors don’t know why that person began to breathe again. But it never happens like this.

Who could believe that a body could be dead and buried, sealed away from all light and air and sound for three days, and then walk among us again as fully alive as you and me? Who could believe that THREE DAYS of death wouldn’t be enough to stop life?

I had a dream once that my dad had died. Years before we even thought of cancer, I dreamt that he flipped a tractor he’d been driving and was killed. And on the day we got home from the funeral, his ghost walked through the door.

And it was awful. It wasn’t scary or even creepy, but it was awkward and a little embarrassing. You see, his ghost didn’t know that he wasn’t real. He knew he’d died – and was a little grumpy about it – but he didn’t know there was a difference between being a ghost and being alive. So we had to pretend he was our real dad and ignore the fact that he couldn’t eat or hold things and that we could kind of see through him. And we had to decide if we would let others know his ghost was living with us or try to hide him whenever people showed up – and we had to figure out what to do when Sunday rolled around and he wanted to go to church to preach.

It was horrifying not because there was a ghost, and not even because my dream-dad was dead, but because it was so obvious – even to adolescent me – that being present wasn’t enough. In those initial dream moments after the tractor rolled, we may have wished for him to come back to us. We may have thought that it would be enough to have his ghost around – to be able to talk with him and share stories and even take walks together.

But it wasn’t. His ghost was no more than a shadow of who he’d been, and it didn’t take long for my whole family to realize it was better to bury, mourn and learn to live without him than cling to a ghost who no longer had the capability to grow in wisdom and strength – and in love.

I never mentioned the dream – especially later when the curse struck and the potions failed and the warrior fell – but I never forgot.

There’s a thing that happens sometimes after you’ve lost a loved one – after the initial shock and grief wear away. You discover that there are moments in life when you feel like you only just missed them. If you had turned a second earlier, or placed a phone call at the exact right minute, you’d have somehow broken through the barriers of time and seen them or talked with them. That – because the light was perfect and that song was playing, or because the breeze smelled of barbecue and children’s laughter drifted across the backyard fence, or because of a random moment of deja vu as you drove through an unknown neighborhood – you believe for less than a breath that they are not truly gone.

And then the flash fades and you know it was silly and you don’t even know what you would say to them now. (Except for “I love you” because that will always be true.) Because you know that they’re gone and it wouldn’t really be them you’re talking to – not them in this moment, in the world of today. They wouldn’t know the you that you are now, and it wouldn’t be the same.

I say these things not to make you sad, but because I know that death stops life.

And that’s why I know the story of this day makes fools of us all. To believe that a man could come back to life after three days without water, food, or air – that a grave could open up and let the real man back out, not a ghost who can’t eat or a shadow you can’t touch or even an undead creature like Frankenstein’s monster, but the real man with a beating heart and a stomach that growls for food and the ability to see his friends for who they are now after grief and fear have wrecked them – to believe something like that in the face of everything we know about death and life and the way things work in this world requires the most ridiculous kind of faith. The kind that looks at all the rational logic and says, “Yes, that’s true – and yet…”

Believing this story makes us foolish to those who don’t, but here’s what I know: This story is why death can never stop life again.

You’ve all seen the Matrix. You remember that final scene after Neo learned how to break the matrix and live free from the machines that controlled everything:

“I’m going to hang up this phone and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”

It sounds foolish to those who don’t believe that such a world exists – who don’t even believe they’re trapped – but that doesn’t make it less true.

Once the matrix was broken, it could be brought down. Once Voldemort’s spells no longer worked, he could be defeated. Once Luke’s shot hit the exhaust port, we all knew the Death Star would fail.

And once that heart began to beat again – even before the stone rolled away and the man stepped out – death lost its power to stop life.

We still live in the matrix now. The story is not complete, and death is not yet gone. But that man – not a ghost like my dream-dad and not a blip in the space-time continuum, but a real living, breathing man – came back to life and showed us that we live in a world we weren’t supposed to see. A world where life is forever and anything is possible. A world in which the curse will someday break for good and happy endings will come true. A world in which the greatest hope is also the most foolish one.

Hallelujah and amen.

No Reservations

Nathan Fillion was recently asked by a fan how he stays so joyful all the time, and part of his answer stuck with me:

“There’s a lot of sticky darkness in the world. I implore you, if you see a way to make an impact for good, please do it.”

Sticky darkness. It’s the kind of phrase I wish I’d come up with. It isn’t the darkness of an ordinary night, with a moon and stars adding magic to the world. No, sticky darkness is what it says: stuff that sticks to our skin, gets into our lungs, and stops our breath. It’s thick and it’s tangible. Try to wave it away like smoke and you’ll find strings of the stuff caught between your fingers like a spider’s web. It looks endless and impenetrable and creepy.

There are so many kinds of darkness in our world today, and too many of them are sticky. For some of us, the darkness is vast – the work of governments and kings and history. For others, the darkness is specific and personal and has a name and date. And for still others, it shadows our every thought and whispers heavy lies straight into our ears.

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Photo by Frank Zhang on Unsplash

When I quit my (temporary) job two years ago to move to Kentucky, my then-boss smiled at me and said, “You’re a little bit of a gypsy aren’t you?”

She was more right than she knew. The love of travel – of wandering – is in my blood, nurtured by years of exploring the North American continent by car with my parents and brothers, spending weeks on the road every summer and sometimes during the school year, too. The journeys defined my childhood even though I was uncomfortably prone to motion sickness, so it isn’t a surprise that I grew up with a touch of wanderlust.

But it wasn’t until my university years that I saw what travel could really be, when I discovered Samantha Brown on The Travel Channel and saw that learning about new places could be fun and that you can still be adventurous even if you prefer five-star hotels to camping in tents.

And right after her show came Anthony Bourdain and his food-centric travels around the world.

And I didn’t really like him.

He was laidback and funny, but he also ventured far from the five-star hotels I liked seeing. And sometimes he ate the bugs and grubs that were offered up by people whose languages I couldn’t understand, from cooking fires set up outside, far from any health codes or hand sanitizers. I would point the remote at the TV and think about changing the channel. His show made me uncomfortable and I told myself I didn’t want to watch it – but I would wait. And I would watch. And I would try to name what it was that made his show unique.

And one day, I stumbled across a proverb of the Maori people of New Zealand:

He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

And it clicked. Anthony Bourdain’s show was supposed to be about food, but it was really about people. It was about how all of us – all around the world – are all the same. We’re all people. And we’re all worth knowing. And the simple act of sharing a meal can make us friends.

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The news keeps replaying the fact that Anthony Bourdain is gone. The tributes are pouring in and I find myself mourning a man I never knew and didn’t always like because of the way he showed me a different world than the one around me. He broke bread and drank wine and shared laughter with people I wasn’t always sure I could talk to, and I didn’t like knowing that, either.

Fortunately, I’m a different person today than I was when I first stumbled across his shows. I’m older and wiser and – I think, I hope – someone who now loves travel and people the way he did. I still love to visit new places and explore them like Samantha Brown, but when I’m offered a food or experience that’s new, I often think of Anthony Bourdain. And I smile a little. And I say yes. “If Tony could do it,” I think to myself, “so can I.” And I look up at the people around me rather than at the food in front of me and send up a silent prayer to remember this time, this place, this moment, these people.

It’s the people, it’s the people, it’s the people.

I’ve been shaped by someone I never met in person. I’ve been taught by a man I wanted to ignore. I watched him sing karaoke in South Korea and then turn around and laugh with Spanish-speaking women in bright scarves by the side of dusty village roads, and I saw that while he talked about food, he looked at the people. And he made me look at them, too.

My former boss may be right about my love of wandering, but now I travel more for the people than the places. And not just for those I already know, but also for those I have yet to meet. Because the farther I get from home, the more I see that community is found when people come together, even if they were strangers when they sat down. This is what Anthony Bourdain tried to teach me all those years ago when I debated changing the channel each time his show came on, and this is what I learned from him when I finally started listening. I still love road trips and Disneyland and all the tourist vacation options and five-star hotels, but he convinced me to see another world – to look beyond the food with too many legs or the languages I can’t understand or even the familiar sights of famous cities and see instead the faces who fill the streets. To hear the music of many voices, and to listen to the beauty of their stories.

Anthony Bourdain opened my eyes to a new way of living my life. They say that he challenged people to leave their comfort zones behind and I agree – because that’s exactly what he did for me.

What is the most important thing in the world?
It’s the people, it’s the people, it’s the people.

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Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

My friend Stephanie wrote a book – the first in a series – about the light and the dark and the battle between them, and her version of darkness is what I picture when I think of this thing that took Tony and Kate and Robin and so many more of whom the world has and hasn’t heard. It’s a presence – a cold and clammy cloud that knows names and speaks lies that sound like truth. It’s sticky and thick and doesn’t like to let go.

I can’t claim to know how this particular form of sticky darkness feels. That hasn’t been my battle to fight, and I can’t speak for those who do. But I do know about other forms of darkness, and I know how it feels to be caught in a tunnel – how it feels when I can’t see the way, when the light at the end stays hidden for longer than I thought possible. And if that was bad, how much worse must it be where they were?

I can’t make it better. And sometimes the weight of it feels impossible. How can we fight against a thing like this?

“I implore you, if you see a way to make an impact for good, do it.”

Nathan Fillion said it. And Anthony Bourdain lived it. Those of us who can, should. The drowning man doesn’t wave his arms in the air and yell for help; it’s up to the lifeguard outside of the water to see the lack of movement and get the life preserver. Not just once, but as many times as it takes, over and over again. It’s up to those of us who can see the twinkling stars above the darkness to look around and find the people who can’t. It’s up to us to sit with them and invite them to eat – to share in the communion that makes all of us people together. Not to force them, but to welcome them. And to see them.

What is the most important thing in the world?
It’s the people, it’s the people, it’s the people.

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If you are one who knows the shape of the darkness that Tony and Kate and Robin all fought, this is for you:

It’s okay to not be okay. You’re fighting a battle, and when are warriors ever okay?

And it’s okay to use the weapons given to you. Those pills from the doctor can turn the tide of this fight, and it’s absolutely okay to use them. Because you are worth it. You are so, so worth it. And you are loved. And that’s the truth. Because you, my friend, are the most important thing in the world.

The Poverty of Ruth

Have you ever felt like you’ve been getting up on the wrong side of the bed all week? Like nothing you’ve touched has turned to gold in days – and most things feel like they’ve actually crumbled?

That has been my week.

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The thing is, it hasn’t been a bad week. Bad weeks for me look like tears and headaches, too much to do on not enough sleep, and anxiety filling my gut with lead. This week, in contrast, has had rest and laughter, no pressing deadlines, and only the best songs in the car.

And yet.

And yet this week feels like a failure more than a win. It looks like a good week – all the plotted points are above the line – but I keep tripping over the effects of past mistakes and of things I did back when I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And now as we near the end of it, my rear view mirror shows me the crumbled castles rather than the peaches-and-cream sunset.

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And I find myself thinking about Ruth in the fields of Boaz, trudging all day under a hot sun, bending over again and again to scrape a few stalks of barley out of the dirt, hoping she’ll have enough to eat at the end and forcing herself not to think about what will happen if she doesn’t.

Weeks like this can be hard – weeks when nothing is wrong but all the tiny things pile up to overshadow the blue skies and sunshine – and my instinct is to push this week away. To focus on the good things and make a plan so next week will be better. I don’t want to be with Ruth in the fields, and I don’t want to look at the towers I’ve built and see where they’ve cracked. I want this week to be one flawless pearl on a string of many.

But then Ruth trudges by again, her back bent, her hair stringy with sweat, and her fist tight around a handful of dirty barley. And I can’t ignore her. I can’t ignore the hardship of her path – or her choice to walk it.

She could have gone home, back to the land of her birth, and let her mother-in-law forage alone. She could have returned to her family and married again and never worried about where she would live or what she would eat.

But she didn’t.

Ruth could have picked the easy life, but she chose instead to be family to a woman who had none, even though it meant poverty and isolation. She came from a life that was by all accounts comfortable and chose instead to work in the fields all day, caking dirt under her nails and withering in the heat of the sun. She chose to live a life that required her to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again. To bend and scoop for her daily bread rather than bend and snap for admiration. To place herself between the ridicule – or worse – of the men around her and what remained of the dignity and self-respect of her mother-in-law.

And as I stop and watch her for a moment, I realize that Ruth had courage.

Courage can mean a lot of things. Yes, it can mean facing down dragons both physical and metaphorical. It can mean charging into battle and standing up – or sitting down – when no one else is.

But courage can also mean – in the words of Eugene Peterson – a long obedience in the same direction. Facing each new day and doing what must be done, even to the point of scooping up the scraps that have dropped from the master’s table. Sometimes courage looks like the patience to simply keep walking through the heat and sweat and choking dust, or the humility to take what’s offered even when it isn’t how we would have wanted to get it.

Ruth’s poverty didn’t last forever, and neither will this week. I certainly don’t like being in the dirt with her today, but as I watch her move through the field, I see the strength that sustains her as she bows her body close to the earth to gather her food, and I see the courage that keeps her here, in this field, doing this work. She doesn’t know how it will end, but this is her path and she will walk it. And that is enough to keep her going.

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As this week draws to a close, may I remember Ruth in her poverty. May I take joy in the hope I have, be patient through my own mistakes and frustrations, and faithfully meet with the One who knows exactly where this path will take me. (Romans 12:12)

The Witch Doctor’s Story

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My grandparents spent most of their adult lives working in clinics in the remote wildernesses of Ethiopia and Cameroon. They have always had the best stories to tell, stories of danger and adventure and medical cases that we in the Western world would never dream of seeing.

One of these stories has stuck with me over the years, and has been on my mind over the past week. I’ve forgotten if it took place in Cameroon or Ethiopia, and perhaps it doesn’t matter, but what I do remember is that it goes something like this:

The local witch doctor invited several important people over for a meal one day, my grandfather among them. I don’t know if you can say that my grandfather was friends with the witch doctor (although, knowing him, I imagine he would), but this was the kind of invitation that you don’t turn down, the equivalent of a dinner party with the local movers and shakers.

After dinner, as was the custom, the host provided entertainment for his guests. He stood and said, “Now I will tell you a story, one that my masters told to me, and I know it is true because they were there when it happened.”

He then told his guests the story of Moses and the Biblical plagues on Egypt . . . but he told it from the perspective of the pharaoh’s magicians who copied each of the first nine plagues to prove that they and their gods were just as powerful as Moses and whatever god he had. This uneducated witch doctor in the wilds of Africa told the story perfectly, from memory, with no variation from the Biblical version (apart from the viewpoint), and he shared details that you could only have known if you’d been there.

It was opposite but perfectly parallel to the Biblical story . . . except for one important difference.

The witch doctor told his guests about each of the nine plagues that the magicians copied, and then he stopped. The magicians cast darkness over the land like Moses had done, and there the witch doctor left it, creating a story that showed their gods to be equal in power to the god of Moses. Leaving the pharaoh with absolutely no reason to believe that he should listen to Moses and the foreign god. Leaving the Israelites in slavery, and the land in darkness.

At the end of his story, the witch doctor – as was custom – asked if any of his guests wanted to share a story of their own.

My grandfather – son of a Swedish-American farmer far from home – stood up. “That was a good story,” he said. “I know it, too . . . but I know the whole story. Why don’t I tell it for you now?”

And he proceeded to tell the witch doctor and guests the version found in the Bible, the one with ten plagues. He told about the same nine plagues and how the magicians copied them, but instead of stopping there, he carried the tale on to the tenth, to the plague that brought death to every household except those whose doorways were painted with the blood of a pure sacrifice. To the plague that the pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t copy; the one that broke the stranglehold of slavery and opened the gates of Egypt for the Israelites to escape.

And after the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were free and the battle was won by the God who had guided the hand of Moses, my grandfather ended his story, thanked his host, and sat down again.

Next weekend, mzaczz taking a walky grandfather will celebrate 95 years on this earth with a screening of a feature-length film documentary that has been made about his life. It will be more than an hour of the stories that he has carried around with him for nearly a century, but this week, I can’t help thinking that they all ultimately boil down to this one story-within-a-story, this tale of an African witch doctor’s after-dinner story that ended in slavery and a stalemate, and the response from the ancient documents that make up the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, the response that continues the narrative into freedom and victory. Because the tale that was chosen as entertainment on that day all those years ago just happens to be one of the most important tales of all.

Which brings us to Easter.

Sure, the plagues on Egypt happened centuries before Jesus was even born, but that witch doctor unknowingly provided a perfect glimpse into how the events that created Passover also informed the events of Easter.

You see, sometimes when Friday comes, it feels like this is how the story ends. The battle is lost; the hero is gone. You did your best, but it all fell apart, and that ninth plague of darkness settles down heavy over your eyes and feels like it will never leave. Sometimes, when Friday comes with jeering crowds and stone-faced guards and a weight to carry that you know will kill you, it feels like you were an idiot to hope. To hope that this man who showed a different way to live will evade arrest and survive a trial and lead a revolution after all. To hope that this stuttering shepherd from the desert could possibly convince the mightiest ruler in the known world to give up his free workforce. To hope that there is any reason to believe that your story will end in the light instead of in this darkness that overwhelms everything.

Sometimes Fridays are dark. And some stories try to leave us in that darkness.

But the darkness isn’t the end. There’s more to the story, if someone will stand up to tell it. The darkness is only the ninth plague out of ten, and do you know what the tenth plague brings?

Freedom.

Yes, the tenth plague is death, but the tenth plague also offers freedom from death. The tenth plague proves that the God of Moses is not like the gods of the Egyptian magicians. They couldn’t copy this one, because they couldn’t send death across the land and offer a way to escape it. Only the God who is master over both life and death could do something like that.

And, in providing a way to escape death that night in Egypt, this God of Moses showed what he would do again so many centuries later, this time for everyone who was and is and will be: He would provide a pure sacrifice to protect all who will accept it from the angel of death that passes over everyone.

Fridays can be awful, and the darkness of that ninth plague can seem like it will last forever . . . but the story doesn’t end there. The tenth plague comes, and suddenly death is no longer inescapable. Sunday comes, and a man returns to life because God already proved long ago in Egypt that death doesn’t work when he tells it not to. Sunday comes, and the blood of the pure sacrifice is suddenly available to anyone who wants it, who wants to be free from the fear of death.

Sunday comes, and the darkness lifts, and the gates burst open to let the captives run free.

And Sunday always comes. Because the God of Moses and the God of the Gospels is the master of both life and death, and he gets to decide when the story ends.

Hallelujah. Christ is risen.

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The Holiness of Brooms

Walking back to my office the other day, I dawdled down the hallway, enjoying a moment of stillness with late winter sun pouring through the windows.  Glancing through the open doors of the auditorium, I paused for a moment to admire the way that the stained glass windows covered the wooden chairs in a haze of gold.

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As I turned to go, my eye caught motion at the back, behind the rows of seats.  A woman in a baseball cap quietly swept the floor near the lobby, moving methodically across a room lit only by stained glass.

I didn’t want to disturb her peace, so I held my breath and stepped back, turning toward my office door.

But I couldn’t walk away.  I could still see her in my mind’s eye, sweeping away the dust of the day in a room that fills only three times per week – when the students arrive for chapel.  I could almost see all of the feet tramping across the floor, hundreds of students pouring in and out, in and out.  Talking and laughing and joking with one another, and then singing with hands held high in worship.  Scuffing the floor restlessly when the speakers drone on, and pounding a rhythm when the music calls for it.  All of the feet of all of the people who enter that room, all of them tracking in dust and dirt and sometimes even mud.  And no one really noticing that they’re bringing dirt in with them, because none of us ever really do notice.

I’ve seen the eIMG_0603 (1)mpty auditorium on many golden afternoons over the last few months.  It’s often quiet and still, and I sometimes step inside just to feel the peace of a place that has for decades been used to offer praise and prayers to God.  The ancient Celts believed that some places in this world were thinner than others, and a person standing in them could be in both this world and the Otherworld at once because the stuff of heaven bled through into the spaces of earth.  I’ve stood in places where I felt this to be true – places where the years and centuries of prayer have somehow soaked into the bones of the space and become a memory that is almost tangible.  Places where peace hangs heavy in the air and stirs the faintest remembrance of Eden, when the glory of God walked through the garden in the golden twilight hours of each day.

In the afternoon hours of my work week, when the building is quiet and the sun casts hazy light through the colored glass, I’ve felt a whisper of that peace in the auditorium on campus.  God has been invited into that space so many times over so many years that the room seems to wait in a holy hush for the students to arrive again and fill it with worship.

All of this flashed through my head as I stood there and thought about how I’d assumed it was the years of prayers that made this space feel holy.

And then I crept back to the open doorway to watch the woman sweep up the dirt of people that she didn’t even know, sweeping it clean even though the people who used the room would probably never know how she’d prepared it for them.

And I thought, “This.  This makes a place holy, too.”

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May we be people who usher in the holiness of God with brooms as well as with singing, and who show love to strangers even when no one is around to see.

The Craziest Story Ever Told

 

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Have you ever noticed that everything about the birth of Jesus was unexpected?

Nothing was done in the way that anyone thought it should happen.  Even the wise men who came from far away to herald the birth of a king looked for him in Jerusalem, because isn’t that where a king of Israel should have been born?

In Luke chapter two, verse five, it says that Mary went with Joseph for the census registration because she was “pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.”  I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about the fact that she was pledged to be married to him, and not actually married.  I grew up believing that Jesus was born in a stable because the town was so full of people that there were literally no rooms to be had . . . but isn’t it possible that there were no rooms because no one wanted an unwed, pregnant couple?  (I should state here that I haven’t extensively studied this idea; I’m merely pondering a possibility.)  Could it be that Jesus was laid in a manger because the people of Bethlehem were refusing to associate with his unwed parents?

Perhaps Jesus was born as an outcast within his immediate world.

We already know that he eventually became a refugee, living in Egypt to escape the price put on his head by a jealous king.

And then there were the shepherds.  We know that shepherds were in some ways the lowest of the low in that world.  They were that culture’s homeless men huddled in doorways, or holding cardboard signs next to freeway exits.  They tended the sheep and lived with the sheep and smelled like sheep, and they were never clean according to the rules of the Temple, which meant that they were never allowed to worship with the rest of their society.

But an angel came to these men and told them the news that an entire civilization had been waiting for centuries to hear.  These men – these lowest of the low – these were the ones who first heard the news that the Messiah had come at last.  These were the men tasked with spreading the message that Emmanuel had finally arrived.  The people chosen to bear witness to the beginning of the greatest rescue mission ever attempted were the last people on earth that anyone would take seriously.

And let’s not forget those wise men.  They were foreigners.  Wealthy, exotic foreigners.  After the shepherds had gone back into their hills, and the people of the city had had time to forget the message that they had heard on the night Jesus was born, these strangers waltzed into town with gifts for a king.  And they gave those gifts to a toddler – a little boy whose parents had (possibly) not been married.

The people had been waiting for a Messiah for so, so long . . . but everything about Jesus was unexpected.

Even if I’m wrong, and Joseph and Mary were formally and legally married during their time in Bethlehem, it doesn’t change the fact that everything about the birth of this baby was opposite of what it should have been.

The people waited for a Messiah.  They got a bunch of shepherds telling wild tales of angels in the hills and a baby in a manger.

The people wanted a king.  They got wealthy foreigners who brought costly gifts to the son of a carpenter.

The people hoped for a warrior who would lead an army to liberate them from the heavy yoke of Roman rule.  They got a man who walked their dusty roads with fishermen, and who let the Romans kill him so that he could liberate all of time from the heavy yoke of eternal death after physical death.

The people expected something that they could understand, but what they got instead was the wildest of tall tales that was, incredibly, true.

The story of Christmas is crazy.  Fortunately for us, the God of the universe works well in the crazy.

Gather ’round, ye children, come

Listen to the old, old story

Of the pow’r of Death undone

By an infant born of glory…

(Andrew Peterson, Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come)