When I was training for a marathon, I would fill my pockets with orange slices in Ziploc bags. As weariness snuck up, one or two slices popped in my mouth would push it back and give me strength to press on another few kilometers. God's words and His encouragement sometimes come in bite-sized slices -impressions, experiences, encounters - and are just enough to push weariness back and keep us pressing on a little further...

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Chasing Sunset (January 22, 2009)

Sometimes, the only cure for a criminal heart is to be arrested by beauty. 

I had something else to say today, actually. Had it all planned out. Reams of outlines and parables have been whirring through my mind, concocting the deepest of meditations, rich with wisdom and wittiness. It was brilliant, in case you’re wondering.

But, then…. well, then….. I was arrested. Stopped in my tracks. Unexpectedly and breathlessly captured by a God who doesn’t play by my rules. When I am discouraged with myself, I expect shackles of shame and “that look” – the one you can feel even when you can’t see it – with lips pursed and eyebrows drawn up in silent disapproval, the unspoken “tsk, tsk” stinging like a whip. But today, for no reason that I can explain, He pulled me close with cords of loving kindness. And I am undone.

When I talked last week about having a criminal heart, I wasn’t trying to be unjustly hard on myself. I was just trying to be honest about who I know that I am. I believe that each of us, deep down, knows who we really are. The thing I’m trying to prevent us all from saying is that overused breezy clich√©: “I’m a good person”. What we actually mean is that we think we’re better people than others we know. Being better than someone else (by our own estimation) doesn’t make us good people by default. It just makes us better actors.

If there is a perfect King, who is building a perfect Kingdom to be populated by perfect people (and by “perfect” I don’t mean snooty, up-tight, narrow-minded and judgmental. I mean it in the true sense of the word – delightful, refreshing and pure, people whose very presence softens you, wrapping you in the feel of home), if that’s what Heaven is made of, I don’t make the cut. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does (no offense).

And that is the problem. If left in our hands, the Kingdom of Heaven would be a very lonely place.

Fortunately, God found a better place to leave it – in His hands. His hands may be firm, but they are not harsh. In fact, a friend of His made this observation:

“The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.
He does not punish us for all our sins;
He does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
For His unfailing love toward those who fear Him
is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.
The LORD is like a father to his children,
tender and compassionate to those who fear Him.
For He knows how weak we are;
He remembers we are only dust…”

(Psalm 103:8-14, NLT)

I love that He knows how weak I am. He remembers the day He drew the first bit of dust from the ground and molded it into a shadowed likeness of Himself. He breathed into those fragile lungs the first breath of life, a holy respiration that we reenact every moment of every day – it is the very thing that binds us to life.

When I am feeling like a failure, when I know I would not show compassion to someone who had behaved the way I had, when I refuse to forget others’ sins and hold their guilt against them, it is good to know that God does not act the way that I do. And He remembers I am only dust. He does not expect me to be gold, because I am not. I am dust. But in His hands, I am in the process of getting to gold.

Let me illustrate. Today, I went running. I ran through a familiar forest, but a place I had not been for many months. It is a sacred place for me, memories of past prayers and treasured sunsets haunting now cold bare trunks devoid of leaves or life in this, the season of nature’s deep sleep. The sky was grey and heavy; the trail sporadically slick, a sheen of lightly frosted mud brushed on my well-worn path. My thoughts were like the sky, grey and heavy, clouded with frustration, with wanting to be more than I am, with irritation at getting lost. Yep, lost. I had taken a new path, one that I was sure would loop around to where I was accustomed to running, but suddenly there was a Christmas tree farm and beyond it, the autobahn. This was uncharted territory.

Mentally growling and almost literally kicking myself (danged underbrush), I felt like I was getting what I deserved - lost in the cold under a steadily darkening sky. “Please, God”, I panted, “Show me where I am.”

Silly me. I forgot Who I was dealing with. Around the next bend He not only showed me where I was - He showed me who I was.

A few things you need to know about me – I love sparkles on the water. I love sunsets. I love how the light of a setting sun colors the world around it, blazing tangerine beams breathing pink over earth, trees, and sky. Everything is beautiful in the light of a setting sun. Apparently, even me.

As I ran along a now familiar path, the grayness of the sky lifted, fingers of sunlight pushing past the trees and casting their bare branches as sharp shadows against the growing fire of the setting sun. My pace picked up, knowing the beauty that was coming. My heart picked up as I sensed “that look” – the one you can feel even when you can’t see it – with lips spread wide and laughter caught up all about His eyes; His pace matched mine, together chasing sunset.

I could try for days to describe to you the intimacy of those next moments; the sherbet lake, the blushing clouds, the naked winter trees dressed in pink and gold. The sparkles on the water. With each step I was reminded that I am dearly loved, not because I am perfect or lovable or a “good person” (for I am not), but because this good King delights in loving creatures He knows are made of dust. I have never been merely tolerated, I have always been treasured, and when I have eyes to see, the earth itself pulses with His love. A barren winter landscape hasn’t got a chance of remaining dull under the gilded kiss of sunset – and neither does a barren soul.

This criminal heart was arrested by Beauty. And I am still undone.

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