how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth

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Lenten waiting


I have a worn index card in the front of my Bible with the words “wait on the Lord” on the front, followed by a list of verses. At some point a few years ago I decided, in the midst of the slow discovery of reading, to start writing down every time I came across these words or concept in Scripture. I don’t know now why I needed the reminder in that season, and I stopped capturing them long before completion, but not before preserving this small remembrance that Scripture calls us, repeatedly, to wait.

In the church year we usually focus on Advent as the waiting season, and of course it is: a waiting for the promise, the birth, the arrival. But this year I have been struck by the remembrance that Lent, also, is about waiting. Advent, and then Christmas as its culmination, is a joyful and expectant waiting, in a sense waiting for the “already.” Then we journey through the few glorious months of Epiphany, reminding each other again and again of how God is present with us, and then we come again to Lent. Lent, slipping in to remind us of the other reality in which we dwell, this waiting of the “not yet,” the waiting of the brokenness for which Christ went to the cross, a brokenness and need that still defines our world and our lives, and all too painfully so.

Waiting, however, is not sedentary. And it always keeps in sight the object. I think this is why I have come to love using the word longing to capture this reality of our existence. It is the longing that the psalmist cries out with in Psalm 130:

my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning –
yes, more than those who watch for the morning.

In the insulation of our present age the full understanding of these words can be lost. I have never been a watchman, striving to remain alert for the safety of the city. But in a different way I have glimpsed what it is like to wait for the morning. It is sitting in the utter darkness of the wilderness, completely dependent on a series of events I have no control over for the bringing of light, warmth, and the freedom to move forward into the day. It is feeling that I can hardly focus, glancing up every five seconds to scan the horizon with desperation for the slightest first signs of pink. It is feeling, in the depth of the morning cold, that even though reason tells me the sun has risen every day of my life, for a split second I am afraid it never will and if so, I will not make it. So I watch for the morning; long for it with the knowledge that in some very real way, my life depends on it. So the writer of Psalm 130 weaves these words together, this watching and waiting and hoping and redemption, because they can only exist together. Because waiting is about the action of hope looking to the promise of redemption.

But waiting is also about the realities of life in a world of brokenness, limitation, and need. Going forward to receive the ashes at an Ash Wednesday service, one of the traditional statements proclaimed over us is to remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Or, as Psalm 103 says it, “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” Its place remembers it no more. To wait is to accept this place non-remembrance. To name that I am not the meaning of my own life, that God’s freedom has an eternal scope and is not so narrowly defined as to mean my pursuit of self-defined happiness and fulfillment. It is to choose, as Wendell Berry says, to “plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant; that you will not live to harvest.” It is to say that the limitations of our creatureliness are okay, in fact they are good. Our sin has always been to want to be more than what we are, and so we need Lent. We need to be reminded of our mortality.

Lent is a remembrance of longing. It is choosing to engage in practice what we know to be true in some deep recess: that we are a waiting people. That discipleship is primarily about waiting. Growing, yes, but anyone who has had a garden knows that growth involves a lot of tending, and a lot of waiting. And the practices of tending must come before the promise of fruit.

As one of those Lenten practices then, traditionally, we give things up. Why? To identify with Christ in the wilderness, yes. But also, to practice longing. To embody it. To feel it at some (let’s be honest) relatively easy place of our being, in order to remember that this is in fact the practice of a truth so deep that even touching its edges is greatly tender, and we feel it. And the feeling matters. It touches us at a different place than the thinking alone. And we need this reminder. Not morbidly, but because the recognition of brokenness is actually the first seed of hope.

The reality of our lives on this earth means that our hope must be planted and grow in broken soil, and practices of longing are like the tiller that prepares it. Those who need nothing do not need to wait. Those who are fulfilled do not need to hope. Only sinners need redemption.

And I believe to long in the way the Lord has designed us to is anything but ethereal, mystic, and theoretical. Brokenness drives us to isolation, to hiding behind illusion to cover our vulnerability. If we do not exist at a level of relationship with others where we see and are seen in our insufficiency; where we demonstrate publicly in our failure and our falls how we are still waiting for redemption; we are not driven to lean into the hope of our longing. We do not have to incarnate the love of God and remind each other of truth, which is the great gift of relationship. If we do not feel our lack, we cannot long for the fullness of Christ and we cannot recognize its shadows here and among us.

So my prayer this Lent, for myself and for you, is that in all the tenderness it entails, we will wait. Wait together. Need each other. Embody longing. Speak the truth of freedom. Refuse illusion. Practice.

Remember our need in order to plant seeds of hope.


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Woman, behold your son! …Behold your mother!
John 19:26-27

The disciple whom Jesus loved.

We read John’s self-chosen name without really taking in the reality of a relationship that could define itself as such. That John would have the confidence to proclaim those words is astonishing. Who are you? Oh, I’m the one the King of the World loves. But of course, while at some intellectual level perhaps John could grasp Jesus’ King-of-the-World-ness, mostly I think Jesus was his friend. And while Mary had been told long ago by the angel that Jesus would save the whole world, mostly I think He was her son. Mary and John were incredible, yes. But they were also ordinary. Just because He loved the whole world doesn’t mean Jesus was any less woven into the fabric of their lives through intimate relationship. Just because He died for the whole world doesn’t mean they felt any less the ripping strands as they stood and watched. In fact, they probably felt it the most, because of their relationships, and precisely because they stayed and watched. It is difficult to imagine what those heart-wrenching moments were like for these two, as their Savior and Son and Friend was torn from them.

Yet, it is also because they stayed that we are given these words of Christ. They opened themselves up to love Him enough that even though they knew profound pain could be the only inevitable end of this relationship, they also knew the joy of intimacy was worth it. And because they stayed, and because they loved, we see this beautiful glimpse of Jesus’ intimate provision for relationship, and of relationship itself.

It rubs something in us the wrong way to say that Jesus might have somehow loved a few people at some sort of level of greater intimacy, as if God could have favorites. But that’s because we calculate love in measures, as if it was a product given, taken, or exchanged. We talk about loving something more, which necessitates loving other things less, and in the limits of English particularly we are forced into the linguistic corner of having only one word to use for loving both oreos and a lifelong friend. God doesn’t love more or less, doesn’t measure or dole out. God IS love. Love means He gives Himself, in fullness to and beyond our capacity as He knows it at any given moment. There is not a human measure by which to judge what fullness looks like to one or another. We are simply all full, cups running over with His love. So while Christ, in Divinity, loved no one less, we do see that He clearly lived in intimate human relationship more closely with some than others. He loved the crowds, yes, but that differed from what the fullness of His love to His disciples looked like, and that differed from the fullness of His love to His three closest disciples, or to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, or Mary Magdalene, or Mary, his mother, and this disciple who is explicitly named as “the one whom Jesus loved.” So surely, in that reality, Jesus loved Mary and John in a beautiful, uniquely intimate way.

In that moment, then, dying on a cross to meet the ultimate needs of humanity for all eternity, His love also reached down to meet the most practical, relational needs of these two. In all that was happening internally and externally in that moment, a piece of Christ’s heart was concerned for provision. A piece of Christ’s heart knew that yes, the Spirit would come and His presence would dwell with them, but also, in an incredibly human way, He was leaving them, and that left a real, relational void that I am sure never stopped aching until the day they were reunited with Him for all eternity. Knowledge of the intimate presence of God in our lives does not fully erase human relational need. It does not fully ease human relational loneliness. It does not fully remove the ache of human relational loss. Culture says relational longing is fully met by the pursuit of pleasure, in whatever temporal means, as quickly as possible; usually sexually. The church, unfortunately, often says (though at times without speaking) that relational longing is fully met in marriage, doing unspeakable damage to the hearts of both singles and married alike by promising them something that cannot stand. To grieve and long and need is not solely to lack some particular definition of intimacy, nor is it to lack sufficient faith, it is simply to be human in this relationally broken world. Jesus was a man and He knew this. He knew He could not fully ease this pain for Mary, John, and so many others. He knew this, and yet also knew that He was the eternal provision even in that ache. He knew that He had lived with them in order to show them how to live with each other.

I wonder if He wept, asking John to fill the role the faithful son in Him desperately wanted to? But I imagine His heart also swelled with joy, knowing all that lay before these two and the richness life would hold as they continued in the provision of relationship He had opened to them. The eternal reality of the relationship of all who would believe in Him erases previous barriers and limits of intimacy. Mother, see? Through my love this is also your son. Son this is also your mother. I have given you an example; live into it. He was leaving, but the beauty of Christ-defined relationships was only beginning. These relationships, our relationships as believers, formed and centered on Him, are His provision for us to walk this weary life. They are not incidental, they are not disposable, they are above all not to be lightly tread. We are relational beings, shaped in the very Image of God, and relationships that dwell in the heart of God are the most profoundly practical and intimate gifts of His presence and provision. From the very moment of utter human brokenness on the cross, Christ speaks to the ones He loved to remind us of this truth.