creative tongues

Christians are creative forces in the world.

By the word creative, I’m not referring to innovative idea-mongers or artsy collectives.  To me, “creative” refers to calling into existence that which is not yet (ex nihilo, if you will).  For Christ-followers, this creation and re-creation is our lifeblood – both in our very existence and every day as Christ makes us new.  And thus we have this as our common responsibility and joy in a destructive world: to create that which is not yet, within our given spheres of influence.  In a given situation, this could mean calling into existence beauty, truth, peace, grace, etc.

I find that the most difficult creative tool for me to master is my tongue.  Which is unfortunate because it’s the foremost tool I’ve been given.

It seems sometimes that I absorbed everything about my Bible school upbringing that taught me to think critically and defend all that is excellent and right, but somehow practicing at gracious, honest dialogue slipped my mind.  My tendency, in a pinch, is to either avoid conflict altogether or to verbally body-slam my adversary (for the record, that’s the only way I could ever body-slam anyone).  Or, more often, I complain to my friends and family under the guise of venting about problems.  There is no better excuse for gossip than being a verbal processor.

And here’s where creation comes in.  First, to remind me that I am forgiven, redeemed, and free from the fear and pride that characterizes my communication.  And second, to provide me with the motivation and the means to change.

Our words, in direct correlation to the power of the Word Himself, have the power to create or destroy.  We have the opportunity to dignify or vilify, love or hate, lift up or ignore, seek to understand or seek to be understood, provide peace or impose stress.  We have the power to breathe life or deal death with our words.  And as Christ-followers the latter is not an option.

The motivating force behind a creative tongue is charity, otherwise known as, well, love (agape), but I’m using it for the connotation of leniency in judging others, especially when it comes to encountering their art.  This requires perspective – crawling into another person’s viewpoint and making ourselves at home there – and the constant remembrance that blimey, God loves this person too.

When it comes to our tongues, it also involves shutting up and listening.  Sometimes when our tongues hang out behind our teeth with nothing to do they end up having a nice little chat with our hearts and minds and maybe God, and end up speaking God’s words – i.e. words of creative power.

We can never forget that our daily interactions are not with philosophies and rhetoric – they are with real live humans created in the image of God and dearly loved by Him.  When we talk with non-believers or believers about the art, culture, and events that surround us (no matter how broken they are) we should be creating, not destroying.

Status Update

First-place recipient of the 2011 Jerry B. Jenkins Writer Award.

8:26.

That’s time for a shower and a quick shave, I think, eying the red digits of the clock radio conveniently placed at the foot of my bed.   I massage my temples and widen my eyes, willing myself to wake up as my feet find the floor.  I have just achieved a grand total of four snooze sessions, waking every few minutes to check that I wouldn’t be late to my first class.  I have a couple extra minutes (I usually get up at quarter-till), but my mind is strangely alert this morning.

I make the six-step journey across my dorm room to my computer, turn it on, and head for the bathroom with my towel over my shoulder.  My computer always takes forever to warm up.  I’m counting the days till it dies and I can buy a Mac.

When I return, I pull up iTunes, Gmail, and Facebook.  I glance at the computer screen between pulling on articles of clothing to check the subject lines in my inbox.  Don’t want to miss anything important.  Ah, there’s the email from Facebook saying that seven of my five-hundred-some friends have birthdays this week.  #32’s birthday is on Thursday, should probably plan something for it.  I peruse the newsfeed, noticing that #211 has posted new pictures of our date last night, and skim past the verse #78 posted on his status (he’s always doing that).  Looks like #432 will be in Chicago next week – we should plan a get-together.

Several minutes later, I’m feeling pretty good about remembering to brush my teeth as I stride across the plaza heading for Music Theory III.  I see #330 and fall into step beside him.

“How’s it going, man?”

“Alright. You?”

“Not too shabby.  What class are you heading to?”

“Hymnology.  What about you?”

“Music Theory with Denison.”

“Good class.  I enjoyed that one.”

“Yeah, he runs a tight ship.”

“Enjoy.  See you later!”

“Have a good one, man.”

I fob into the music building, wave my ID cheerfully at #17 at the desk, and check my mailbox.  Sight-singing test results.  Ick.  I frown melodramatically at #17.

“Ah, the bane of my life!”  I intone in a tragic voice, indicating the sheet of paper.  She smiles.

“Don’t worry, this is your last year of it, right?”

I nod assent.

“I keep reminding myself of that.  How are you this morning?”

“Kind of tired, actually.  I want coffee.”

“Don’t we all.  Have a good one!”

It briefly registers in the back of my mind that I just said that to #330, but I don’t think about it too much.  On to theory!

I sit next to #46 in theory.  Resting my backpack against the seat in front of me, I clap him on the back and ask him how he’s doing.  He grunts something that sounds somewhat congenial for the time of the morning.  He seems to be preoccupied with filling in the last few answers on his homework, so I turn to #6, who just came in.

“How was the concert last night?  How’d your duet with what’s-his-face go?”

She throws her hands in the air.

“Totally missed the harmony on the third stanza, but he sounded great.”

“Wish I could have been there.  Had a date with you-know-who.”

“Ha, I see where your priorities lie!” she shoots back, petulantly waving her hand in my face but unable to stop herself from grinning.  #6 is always fun to banter with.  I think momentarily about the comment wars we get into on Facebook and smile in amusement.

The rest of the morning moves along at a good clip.  I sit with #211, #2, and #501 during chapel, make some plans behind #32’s back for his birthday, and joke with #460 and #93 behind us about #345’s new hairstyle.

As I enter the elevator on the fourth floor of the music building to go visit #2 at work I notice I have just said “have a good one” for the sixth time.  As the elevator slowly rumbles down the shaft, I question myself.  Where is that phrase coming from?  What do I mean by it?  I remember #22, whom I met my freshman year.  He once said that he sometimes wanted to shock people who asked him how he was by telling them how he really was.  Sometimes he just wanted to say, well, I feel like crap.  I absentmindedly pull a push pin out of the fabric-covered board and insert it back into its hole.  Do I really care that people have a “good one,” whatever that is?  Do I really want to know how people are doing when I ask them how they are?

The elevator door opens on the first floor.  I walk up to the desk where #2 is sitting, guarding the premises from identification-less trespassers.  He starts telling me about the coffee dates he’s having with several of his friends.  I pretend to be interested.

“I’m trying to figure out how to be more intentional with my conversations.  One part of me really wants to tell them that I understand what they’re feeling, that I’ve been through it before…”

Shoot, I still have to finish studying for that test on Monday.

“…But I also realize that when I do that, I risk pulling the conversation around on myself.  I want to focus on them, on listening to them, on ditching the shallow stuff and going deeper with them, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I think so,” I say, looking thoughtful.  If I skip that recital tonight I can get another hour of studying in, or I could even bring my notes with me and pretend to listen.

“Speaking of which, I feel like I haven’t had a real conversation with you in a while.  Want to do coffee sometime?”

“Um, sure, I’ll check my schedule and get back to you on that…”

Just then, #250 stops by the desk, and I remember that I need to confirm a practice with her.

“Hey, we still good for tomorrow around two?”

A couple minutes later I’m on my way back to my dorm room, absorbed in planning out my day tomorrow.  On the elevator up to the fourth floor of the dormitory, I exchange pleasantries with #137, commenting on the weather and my plans to go rollerblading later.

When I reach my room I toss my backpack to the floor and flop onto the sofa.  I’m kind of glad my roommate isn’t back yet; I need to plan out my schedule and sort through some of these thoughts flying around inside my head.

I slide my computer onto my lap and open up Facebook again.  I sink back into the cushions, not really looking at the login screen.  I wish I could just talk out all the things I’m thinking right now with someone who cares about me, all of the anxieties about school and relationships and all that.  It just isn’t convenient to do that, though, not with all the homework and practicing I have to do.  And besides, which of my friends would I talk to?  I mean, I can’t just focus in on one relationship when I have so many.

I glance out the window at the clock across the plaza.  Only about a half hour until the student dining room opens.

I want to be known, to be told by someone observing my life that I’m doing all right, that all the seemingly mindless little things I’m involved in actually add up to something important.  But if I actually find someone interested in listening to me, I know I would have to listen to them too, and I’m way too busy to start a deeper relationship with one of my friends.  Besides, I have too many people to keep up with as it is.

I sit for a while, feeling rather alone.  Ironic, that I would feel this way when I have so many friends.

I find myself wondering what it must feel like to actually pay attention to someone with the goal of knowing them better.  Not knowing about them, knowing them.  Maybe that’s what #2 was talking about.  What was it he had said again?  I hadn’t really been paying attention.  Maybe I should have been.

I sigh and turn back to my computer.  Time to put up a new status.

I pause with my fingers poised over the keys.  For a second, I wonder if anyone reading my status will ever really know what I’m trying to say, will ever really know me.  What’s the point?

“Test, three papers and a Schubert piece due on Monday.  Wish I had more time to spend with friends, but such is the life of a 21st-century college student…”

Five friends “like” my status within three hours.

I can’t even remember how I know three of them.

excellence | identity

Originally published on www.madenewblog.com.

All I really remember about my first few years of lessons is that I wanted to play.   My brother and sister both played, and it looked like fun.  When I started it was the pure joy of creating something beautiful and meaningful out of nothing.  Poof – Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”  Just by pressing down white and black keys, I could make tears come to my mom’s eyes.  How cool is that?

During my teen years, I got serious.  As a teenager and college student, I entered wholeheartedly into my craft.  I was good at piano, people liked it when I played, and I had fun doing it.  Everybody told me I should pursue it as far as I could go, educationally and otherwise; that I had a career ahead of me.  So I pushed ahead.  Possibly due to the trauma of puberty (or something more inherent), I began placing higher and higher value on the affirmation and criticism of others.  I began to fear performing.  I began to stress out about recitals and competitions and master classes.

To avoid what I perceived as the cardinal sin of the musician – messing up in performance – I pushed myself harder, practiced more, made sure every note was as perfect as possible, every page memorized.  I Christianized this concoction of pride and fear by labeling it “pursuing excellence”.  That somehow rang better in my ears than “self-aggrandizing” or “wildly afraid of failing”.  In fact, I think that’s where it all intersected – concurrently in my teenage Christian life,  I was struggling deeply with the shame of sins I couldn’t shake, and the desire to be admired for my holiness in front of my peers.  Naturally, this spilled into my musical life.

As a young pianist, if I didn’t do well on a performance I blamed it on everything from letting my pride get in the way to not practicing hard enough.  It most certainly would have been wiser to memorize Bach than memorize the Lost Woods maze sequence from Ocarina of Time (a hypothetical situation, of course… but if you’re interested: right, left, right, left, straight, left, right). The point is that it came down, somehow, to not loving the Lord enough to discipline myself and work hard.  Because after all, He’s the one who gave me my abilities, and wouldn’t it be a waste of those God-given gifts to not work hard(er) on them?  And isn’t that what God wants – for us to hone our talents for His glory?

We are given such good gifts in the arts.  The ability to manipulate sound into exquisite sonic patterns that can rip a soul apart or mend it.  The opportunity to mix and match colors, lines, textures and shapes to represent something of profound meaning.  Communicating depth of feeling and truth with little black lines and arcs on a blank page.  These are neither small nor simple gifts, and therefore not easily mastered, if ever.  Thus, we have a joyous responsibility to play skillfully, to seek excellence in our craft, because honestly – such truth and beauty are worth pursuing.

But my heart in this matter was centering my pursuit of excellence on who I was and hoped to someday be, rather than being made new (shameless, I know) in Jesus Christ.

Fast-forward to my first few years of college, and I was optimistically wrapping my dreams for the future around my craft, like overstuffing a flimsy flour tortilla with taco ingredients (something I still struggle with).

I think the breaking point was when I performed rather abysmally during a master class for a visiting pianist my senior year.  I remember vividly the anger and disillusionment I felt afterward.  I felt that I was simply not good enough, to make a living, to get noticed, to be famous, whatever it was I was searching for – I didn’t really know what that was anyway.  At that moment I just felt lost.  If I didn’t have my musical ability, what did I have?  I had poured my heart and soul into every aspect of this artistic endeavor, seeking to make it the best it could be, and then (cue sad violin music) tossed it out into a cold, cruel world, where critics and misunderstandings and the mediocrity of mass culture at large ripped it apart.

Obviously,  I’m poking fun at my younger self and how devastatingly serious I was about this moment.  I even wrote a blog post shortly thereafter entitled: “The Moulder of Dreams” which was meant to be a broodingly brilliant pun.  The editors changed it to “Molder of Dreams” because they didn’t think anyone would catch the British spelling.  How primitive of them.  But I’m thankful for the angst because it pushed me to a living truth; I’m not sure how else I would have received it.

I associated doing the best that I could at my craft with who I was.  In this vein, my struggle to perfect my art mirrored my struggle to perfect myself.

This slowly became evident to me.  Accumulated shame, disillusionment, and a class about unity with Christ converged and I realized what I had been avoiding all along – that in Christ, my identity is not mine to form or control (thank God!), but in Him, through Him, and because of Him.  I remember actually crying from the relief of this truth finally penetrating my heart.

It’s often difficult to put feet to this.  I can realize I’m out of shape, but until I get up off the couch and exercise, there will not be a transformation.  Again, hypothetical.  And that is where I am now – ironically, sitting on the couch typing this post, but that’s not what I mean.  I am struggling to relinquish control while striving to live a holy life.  Seems like an oxymoron, but mostly what it’s done is to bring this moron to his knees a lot.

So, with all of that said, what about excellence in art?

I speak this to my forgetful self:

Excellence is not beating myself up until I get it right.

Excellence is not what defines the success of my art.

Excellence is not an indicator of how much I love God.

Excellence is not designed to impress Christ enough that He loves me.

Choosing to pursue that which excels – the joyous, the peaceful, the living, the holy, the viscerally true – is a real thing, motivated by real love.  That all-too-familiar maxim of the apostle Paul takes on an identity focus:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Excellence denotes that which excels, is above, is high and lifted up, lofty and beyond our understanding.  Paul placed it in a litany of words such as true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy.  We know of only one Artist deserving of such language.  And that Artist has chosen to reflect His excellence in His Art.  He has created, on and in and around this world, things breathtaking, arresting, terrifying, beyond comprehension in their power, beyond understanding in their delicacy.

And in this, true excellence in [anything] is linked, finally, to identity – not to a what or a how, but a Who. Excellence in art-life should be an outpouring of worship to Him, crafted thoughtfully and with truly high standards because of who we are in Christ.

Oof.  Now to get up off the couch and, trusting Christ for the results, see it through.

Prince of [Peace] on Earth

Excerpt from “Shadows and Songs”, a musical/dramatic production of the Christian Reformed Church of Western Springs, IL.  In this production I folded the traditional lessons and carols format on top of itself, so that the Old and New Testament readings corresponded (1 and 4, 2 and 5, etc.), and finished with the 9th reading of John 1.  This excerpt is paraphrased from the 3rd reading (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7) and the 7th reading (Luke 2:8-16).

Left – prophet Isaiah, street preacher, carrying a sign (“THE END IS NEAR” on one side and “THE LIGHT IS COMING” on the other) and a bullhorn.  Right – shepherd, in cowboy outfit – nomadic, rough around the edges.

Isaiah: (with conviction – persuading, pleading – very animated) 

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

on them has light shone.

Shepherd: (as if telling a story – a tall tale – around the campfire) That night, we shepherds were out in the field, keeping watch over our flocks.  Suddenly, an angel appeared to us, and glory blinded us, and we were scared out of our minds! But the angel said to us, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

Isaiah and Shepherd: For unto you a child is born,

Isaiah: …Unto you a son is given…

Shepherd: …Who is Christ the Lord.

Isaiah: And the government shall be upon his shoulders.

Shepherd: “You’ll know him this way: he’ll be a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a trough.” And suddenly the sky was on fire with angels, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest!”

Isaiah: …and his name shall be called…

Shepherd: (concurrently) It was…

Isaiah and Shepherd: Wonderful.

Isaiah: …Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of…

Isaiah and Shepherd: Peace…

Shepherd: “…on earth, for with you, He is happy!”

Isaiah: Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Shepherd: When the angels went back into heaven, we were like: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and check this out” and we rushed over and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, wrapped up all snug in rags, and lying in a trough, (spreads hands confidently, completing his tale), just like they said.

Reason to Celebrate

Excerpted from “Expect Joy”, a musical/dramatic production first premiered at the Christian Reformed Church of Western Springs, IL. 

Scene: Joseph’s father and brother Joshua enter stage right and freeze in position.  Joseph’s father is at a workshop table (littered with tools, wood; set next to a wooden chair), sanding a block of wood; Joseph’s brother is holding a chuppah (canopy) pole, admiring his handiwork.

Joseph enters from stage left, looking dazed.  Joshua notices him and steps quickly over to him, excited to show him his work on the wedding canopy (chuppah). 

Joshua: Look, I’ve just completed the first half of your canopy!   Dad came up with this great method of hooking the cloth to the top, and I’ve… (somewhat bashful) carved some flowers into it so it’s pretty for the day.  Do you like it?

Joseph stares at him; he is somewhere else.

Joshua: (slightly taken aback, but still excited) Um, well, it’s still in process.  (looks down slightly, but regains composure) Mom’s going nuts, Joseph.  She’s been cleaning like crazy, planning out menus, you know.  She’s really happy. (claps him on the back) We all are.

Father: (regally) Weddings are joyful occasions.  Remember that, Joshua, not happy – joyful.  Nothing so simple as happiness.

Joshua: (looking worriedly at Joseph) Hey.  You OK?

Joseph looks around, waking up – Father is wiping his hands with a rag, Joshus looks at him earnestly.

Joseph: (in disbelief) Mary… (looks down and then up at them again) is pregnant.

Thunderstruck silence.

Father: (dangerously) What did you say?

Joshua: (dumbfounded) But wait a minute, that’s… (trails off…)  Is she sure?

Joseph: (dazed, sits on the chair next to the work bench) Yes.  She knows.  It’s true.

Joshua: A WEEK before your wedding?  I mean… (pauses awkwardly, stumbles) Weh.. well, what did she say? Did she say… (ends rather lamely) sorry?

(Father stoically silent through all of this)

Joseph: She said… (pauses, as if unsure of sharing it with them) she said…

Joshua gestures as if to prompt him to speak.

Joseph: (impatiently) She said she saw an angel, okay?  A messenger of God, saying that this child… this child would be… the Messiah.

Disdain on Father’s face, Joshua is silent, observing Joseph seriously but worriedly.  

Joseph: This angel, he… told her the name and everything, told her that (as if remembering exact words) the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the baby would be the… the Son of God.

(Pregnant silence)

Father: (controlling himself)  So this is what she said, did she.

Joseph nods.

Father: And, you believe this?

Joseph hesitates.

Joseph: Um.  Yes, I do. (Beat; coughs) I, um, had a dream.

Father raises eyebrows.  Joshua is calculating what just happened.

Joseph:  There was an angel in it.  And he told me to take Mary as my wife.  He told me to raise this child as my own.  He said… that Jesus would save us from our sins.

Joshua: (after a beat or two; almost eager)  You saw an angel?

Joseph: I believe so.

Joshua: (wondering) What did it look like?

Father: (interrupting, thunderously) Enough of this nonsense.  Joseph, you will divorce her.  We will not have a harlot living in our home.  Even (in disgust) associated with our family.

Throughout the ensuing dialogue, Joshua stands awkwardly, still holding the tent, watching in anguish.

Joseph: (trying to persuade) Dad, the dream!  The angel, he said…

Father: (brushing it aside) Do you seriously believe that story?  We all know how this happens.  It’s the same thing, time and again – stray from the law in one iota (gestures with thumb and index finger vehemently) and like that (snaps fingers) you’re on the road to disgrace.  She will not take us with her in that shame.

Joseph:  Dad!  You’ve known her all her life – we’ve grown up together!

Father: It goes to show how little we can actually trust an outside appearance of holiness.  God desires true purity – purity of the heart, Joseph.  Do you want a stained bride?  What does Solomon say about the adulteress? Remember your lessons! “Her feet go down to death; (points) her steps lead straight to the grave.”

Joseph: (fighting back)  I will not divorce her.  I believe that Yahweh has spoken to her, and to me.  I believe this child is the Son of God – the Messiah!

Father: Foolishness!

Joseph: (confronting his father) No!  I will do what the Lord tells me.

Father: (truly angry) You will do what is right!  What is lawful!  Disown her and leave her to her shame!

Joseph backs up slowly, sits with his back to his father, head in his hands.

Father: (softens somewhat, pleading) Son. I know this is disappointing.  There are many other young girls – from good families – that are not (disgusted, can barely say it) pregnant out of wedlock.  Listen to me, son. (beat) “A wise son brings joy to his father.” (puts his hand on Joseph’s shoulder) Don’t be foolish.

Joseph: (somewhat defeated) I have to do what the angel said, Dad.  I just have to.

Father, as if slapped in the face, stands and looks dumbfounded at Joseph for a moment.  He clenches his jaw, angry.

Father: (seething, slowly enunciating) If you will not listen, if you will insist on taking that harlot as your wife, and raising her illegitimate child… directly disobeying your parents and your people’s law, then you shall have nothing to do with this family, Joseph.  Nothing! (exits heavily, slams door)

Long silence.  Joshua slowly crosses the room, tentatively; sets his hand on Joseph’s shoulder.  Joseph is downcast.

Joshua: Joseph.

Joseph stirs, and looks back slightly, almost irritated.

Joshua: Dad forgets.  Yahweh once told Hosea to seek out his (stumbles on the words) adulterous wife.

Joseph shoves his hand off of his shoulder

Joshua (stepping back but defensive): I’m just saying, there’s a precedent!  (take time) What if God is using you to tell a larger story to our people, like Hosea?  What if you’re meant to show them His love for us, His desire for us to return to Him?  What if… you’re paving the way for the Messiah to finally come and redeem us from our enemies?

(Pregnant pause)

Joshua: I’m sorry, Joseph.  What I mean to say is… I believe you.  If you say that God sent you a messenger… I… I believe you.  You don’t lie. (Turns to go, pauses)

Joshua: Hey.

Joseph looks up, but not at him.

Joshua: Mazel tov, Joseph. A baby, no matter whose, is truly a miracle.  And if you say it’s God’s baby… well.  Than that IS a reason to celebrate.

Exit. Lights down. Joseph exits.

Nothing Like a Baby

Excerpted from “Expect Joy”, a musical/dramatic production first premiered at the Christian Reformed Church of Western Springs, IL. 

Scene: Table with cutting board, peppers, hummus and a jar of olives on it, a wad of dough, and a pot with a long-handled spoon sticking out of it.  Elizabeth (in the middle stages of pregnancy) is bustling about chunnering to herself, chopping vegetables and kneading bread at the table.  A chair sits to the side, and one behind the table.

Elizabeth: Oh dear me, so much to do and so little time. Cleaning and baking and cooking – it never ends.  (pauses in the middle of the kitchen, holding her tummy and checking things off)  Bread, veggie, hummus, olives, ah, stew! (goes to pot and stirs vigorously).  And I need to remember to sweep.  (speaks over her shoulder to someone offstage)  I know just what you’d say if you could, Zeke.  (quote fingers) “Why clean? She’s family.” Well, I’ll tell you why – she’s had a rough time of it lately and I want her to feel welcome, and how welcome would you feel if the floor was dirty and dinner was 30 minutes late?

(Finishes stirring and moves to knead the bread – flour on hands.  Kneads zealously.)

Elizabeth: (to herself again) All those arrogant, ignorant idiots and their foolish wagging tongues. (gets violent with the dough progressively, punctuating her words)  All those hypocritical, mean old beards looking down their turned-up noses at that poor girl.  All those twittery flibbertigibbets with air for brains pointing and talking behind their hands like addled hens. We are NOT going to let our John be that way, so help me God.  He will be decent, and upstanding, and clean in manner and dress.  The perfect gentleman.  (to Zeke) And he’ll comb his hair, if it’s the last thing I do.  Couldn’t get you to do it all these years but I’ll eat a grasshopper if I don’t raise a neat boy.

A knock comes at the door.  Elizabeth jumps slightly and turns as Mary enters.

Elizabeth: (outspread arms and rushing to Mary)  Why, Mary, so good to… whooooooo (stops short and sits heavily on the chair).  Oh lordy calm down there… hooooweeee (holds tummy and leans back).

Mary: (concerned) Cousin Elizabeth!  What’s wrong, are you alright?

Elizabeth starts laughing, hearty

Elizabeth: Mary! (chortles) This baby’s doing a jig right now, because of you! (places Mary’s hand on her abdomen)

Mary: (bewildered) Me?

Elizabeth: Cousin Mary, you are blessed among all women to be carrying that child.  And I’m blessed with the great joy of receiving you here, as the mother of my Lord!

Mary: (overcome, tears fill her eyes)  Oh, Elizabeth. (clings to Elizabeth’s neck in relief)

Elizabeth: (hugs her and then tries to extricate herself)  Now then, hon, let me get you a seat. Those of us great with child types ought to look out for each other!

Elizabeth pulls up a seat for Mary.  Mary sits and Elizabeth returns to her work, chuckling.

Elizabeth: How was the journey?

Mary: Well. (she pauses, then looks down)  The hardest part was to the edge of town, and that was over quickly.  It was beautiful the rest of the way.

Elizabeth: (pauses and places a floury hand on her hip, her ire up)  Did those fools at the gate give you trouble again?  I know their daddies and I will give them what for…

Mary:  No, no, only a little.  It’s not new anymore to them.

Elizabeth: (muttering and turning back to kneading) Hooligans.

(moment of silence)

Elizabeth (tenderly) And… how are you, child?

Mary: I’m… I’m okay.  (convincing herself)  They’ll always look at me a certain way, and view me as something I am not.  But I know what I have seen, and I believe.

Elizabeth: (proudly punches the dough) Brave girl. (points at her triumphantly)  You are blessed doubly, to believe that what the Lord has said will come to pass!  (holds tummy; belly laugh) Haha, look at us!  You and me, a virgin and a decrepit old woman, given the joy of bearing children.  (laughs) God certainly works in mysterious ways.

Mary: (smiles, wistfully)  It means so much to hear you say that.  To know that you believe me!  It’s just you and Joseph right now.

Elizabeth: And Zeke! (looks back) Right Zeke?  Haha, he’s still speechless about the whole thing…

Mary: (holding her tummy and hesitant to bring it up) Elizabeth… um, I’ve heard stories about labors since I was a little girl.  Does it… (nervously) is it…  I mean, I know that you wouldn’t…

Elizabeth: (goes over to her, sits and clasps her hands, all floury)  Honey, I have no idea how much it will hurt.  I expect it will hurt badly, unless people groan and scream for the fun of it.  There’s no doubt it will be painful, and no doubt that the pain won’t end for you after he’s out.  But, oh honey…

(leans back)

Elizabeth: There’s nothing like a baby.  And with how these two babies came about (touches each tummy), there’s reason to hope, reason to be brave, and reason to anticipate with joy – not fear.

Mary: (smiling, emotional but confident) You’re right, Elizabeth.  My heart is happy in this – God has promised to save us through this baby.  And He will bring me through it – young as I am.  I am blessed, like you said.  Because He chose me to carry His son, our only hope.

Elizabeth: (chucks her under the chin, rises heavily and returns to stir her pot) That’s the spirit, hon.  You ought to write those words down before you forget them, and read them often to remember your courage.  (yells to Zeke) ZEKE!  Dinner’s ready!  Don’t you be keeping us pregnant ladies waiting.  We wait enough as it is.

Freeze.  Lights down.  Exit.

A Good Friday Liturgy

2,016 years ago, God couldn’t walk.  He had to be carried everywhere, like most babies.

2,014 years ago, God took some staggering first steps, fell and scraped His knee.  He cried, and His mother wiped away His tears and told Him to try again.  Or maybe He still crawled everywhere at two years old.  Some toddlers are late bloomers.

2,010 years ago, God ran across the street in a small town with the other kids, perhaps playing a version of soccer.  He might not have been very good at it.

2,000 years ago, God walked across the dirt floor of a carpenter’s shop and got a splinter stuck in his big toe.  He possibly said “ouch!”

1,986 years ago, God hoofed it all over the countryside, talking to people and healing them of diseases.  He accidentally stepped in sheep dung, and had to wipe his sandals on the grass.

1,983 years ago, God walked the streets of Jerusalem, bloodied and beaten, carrying a rough-hewn beam of wood on His back.  His feet failed Him, and someone stronger had to carry the cross for Him.

The liturgy below presents glimpses of the last walking moments of God (incognito).

We easily forget that it wasn’t just our salvation that Jesus Christ bought for us, it was the opportunity to walk out our salvation.  Through an entire sinless life −even in the unwritten mundane ways − Jesus placed before us both a standard and a directive.  We are to walk in His steps, through His strength, for His glory. We worship a God who has walked in our shoes, and our highest hope and assurance is that we would walk in His.

Stay tuned for part two on Easter Sunday.  Let’s just say, leaping may be in order.

This liturgy was written for the 2016 Good Friday service at my church, and it borrows elements from the liturgy of the Stations of the Cross.

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We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

God of power and mercy, in love you sent your Son that we might be cleansed of sin and live with you forever.

Bless us as we gather to reflect on his suffering and death that we may follow his example and walk in his steps. We ask this through that same Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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The Garden of Gethsemane: Matthew 26:36-41

Lord of Power and Might, in this moment, you submitted yourself to the Father. 

We are weak and weary. Our spirits are willing, sometimes. May we keep watch on this dark night with you, for you, because of you. We submit our wills and our prayers to you, knowing that you hear. May we accept your plans as exceedingly greater than we can imagine.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Go to Dark Gethsemane

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Betrayed by Judas: Mark 14:43-46

Faithful Friend, in this moment, you surrendered yourself into the hands of a faithless friend.

With the symbol of love and trust, you were betrayed; that you would be a steadfast companion to all who accept your offer of friendship. May we turn to you now in loyalty and love, and remember your faithfulness to all generations. 

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended

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Denied by Peter: Matthew 26:69-75

Resolute Father, in this moment, your strongest follower proved to be a coward. 

So often we waver and whimper our way through life. When we hang out with like-minded people, we are bold and brazen. When we face hostile consequences, we are ashamed of you and ashamed of the Gospel – like Peter. Give us the courage to claim your name with boldness.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

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Judged by Pilate: Mark 15:1-5, 11-15

Just Judge, in this moment, you made yourself weak and gave your enemies power over you. Your trial was rigged, your jury blinded by jealousy, and your judges unjust.

As sinners, you judge us with honesty and equity – based upon your holiness, we have been found guilty. As our Savior, you took our punishment as your own; based upon your sacrifice, we have been made righteous. In response, may our hearts be grateful, our attitudes toward other gracious, and our lives holy.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Man of Sorrows, What a Name

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Scourged and Crowned with Thorns: John 19:1-3

Suffering Servant, in this moment, you endured scorn and ridicule from those you came to save. You were crushed for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.

The punishment that brought us peace was placed upon you, and with your stripes we are healed. May we see your sacrifice clearly, feel you suffering deeply, and hear your voice calling us to repentance and holiness.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed

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Crucified: John 19:15-17; Luke 23:33-34

Healer of the broken, we broke you.

Binder of the wounded, we wounded you.

Lamb of God, we slaughtered you.

Yet it was the Lord’s will that you be crushed, that your life be a bloody sacrifice for our sin. You emptied out your life unto death, that we may have life overflowing. May this be ever before us, never far from us, always within us: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Blessed are those whose sin the Lord will never count against them.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Beneath the Cross of Jesus

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Promised His Kingdom to the Thief: Luke 23:39-43

Lover of the Unlovely, in this moment, you made straight the path for a crooked man to enter your rest.

Our ways are bent and our hearts are twisted, but the kingdom of God is not populated by perfect spiritual specimens. We are in a holy company of thieves, prostitutes, murderers, and liars – who have met God, in Christ. Remind us of the grace that does not give us what we truly deserve.

Lord, Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: How Deep the Father’s Love for Us 

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Died on the Cross: Luke 23:44-46

Giver of Life, in this moment, you gave yours up for us. Through the rending of your flesh, a way was made for us to enter your presence. 

Remind us of the depth of this death and the breadth of your love, that we, ever thankful, may die to ourselves daily and live a life worthy of your sacrifice.

Lord Jesus, help us walk in your steps.

Hymn: Amazing Grace

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Placed in the Tomb: Matthew 27:57-60

Rock of Our Salvation, in this moment, all hope was sealed away.

May we remember the silence of your grave, and keep silence.

(silence may be kept)

Lord Jesus Christ, your death is the sacrifice that unites earth and heaven; through your blood you have reconciled us to you. May we, who have faithfully reflected on these mysteries, follow in your steps and so come to share your glory in heaven, where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Hymn: What Wondrous Love

Autumn Rains

Fall is beautiful enough without being rained on.

As I walk home from work, my head is down against the wind and my thoughts are plugged in to the Prairie Home Companion podcast.  But look, the rain is a steady drizzle, fogging the lights flashing back and forth on the road to my left.  I can distinguish individual raindrops in each passing headlight, and the reflections splatter across the vision – sparks from a welder’s flame.

The fallen leaves are pasted as in a scrapbook, some curling at the edges as if the glue was not spread with enough care.  Others simply cling to the pavement for dear life – a panoply of oviod, hexagonal, and arciform stencils with stems stubbornly sticking upright.  The leaves that have held on longer sway precariously, perching on wrinkled branches, moments from the plunge.  It must be a hell of a life for a leaf – you bud, blossom, fade, and fall the one year you exist; and from there it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to fertilizer or fire-fodder.  The only consolation is going out in a blaze of glory.

The rain collecting on my hat swings around the brim and hesitates at the edge before leaping to the ground.  Some daredevil drops hang bare-knuckled, waiting for the jolts from my movement to leap into the abyss, but they all eventually join their comrades in the rush to the lower ground.  The carpets of leaves become streams, nudged by the water into long wavy lines.  Playful jostling is all part of the final act.

Why is decay so beautiful?

There are slim green-veined hands, yellow-rimmed with orange fingers and bright red nails.  There are brown-stained fat hands with tattered edges.  There are perfectly tiny bejeweled fingers, mirroring the larger.  There are gangly mustard hands, graceful copper hands, flaming cubist hands, pointed black claws – all drenched and dripping and rearing up from the grassy cemeteries on right and left, grasping and gripping for what?

I scatter rain from my coat as I enter 5585 Clarendon Hills Road.  I scrape the persistent mud from my shoes; the fragments of leaves smear on the mat, shredded flesh mixed with mud.  I drop my keys on the faded and stained carpet, and reach for them as I silence Garrison’s sultry voice.  There is the smell of garlic from Apt. 104, where undoubtedly my wife has cooked up something wondrous in the kitchen and my daughter has cooked up something wondrous in her diaper.

I enter to crying baby, smiling wife, spicy pumpkin candle and warm incandescence.  Those blue eyes and a new haircut from the neighbor upstairs; chubby limbs and tiny toes – and yes, it looks like Nadia’s got something special for me.  My girls are here, my home is here, my life is here – and such life.  Linnea’s made a butternut squash shepherd’s pie which is autumn on the tongue, and there’s Trader Joe’s pumpkin ice cream for afters.  And the sentiment is rooted in the joy of changing seasons, the agony of withering life, the hope of rebirth two seasons hence, and what it all means to my spirit; and it all occurs within a penumbra of brilliant colors.

What delight there is in death.