Irresistible Grace

The next prompt from Writing in the Margins:

Words “do” things.  So much so, that God wants to write on our own hearts, Jeremiah 31:33 offers this,

This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts.

Through your practice of margin writing what has been written on your heart?  Write that in the margin next to Jeremiah 31:33.

I referred to Jeremiah 31:33 a journal that I wrote many years ago.  My pastor at the time read it and told me that this passage was very important to early Presbyterians.  Now that I am returning to the passage, I feel like taking this pastor out to lunch and asking him again to expand upon what he meant.  What I wrote in my journal was: In Christ, we are so blessed with a wide-opened invitation to the new Covenant described by Jeremiah.  Jesus makes the law of God so simple:  We are to love one another.  In this way we come to know God and become part of God’s people.

Before I respond to this question, I saw a Facebook post recently referring to the Presbyterian church that gave me pause.  Apparently about a year ago there was a discussion that seems bizarre to me at the General Assembly regarding Israel today.  The discussions seem even more strange to me in light of all the troubles in the world today, especially in the Middle East.  It seems Israel needs our prayers and support more than ever.  As a vague generality, I would say that Presbyterians at the national level get sucked into some strange debates that do not reflect the experience of being a Presbyterian at the a local church.  What I believe and have always heard taught at all six churches where I’ve been a member:  God keeps his promises to the Jewish community of faith and to Israel.  In the article I found addressing this issue, Mark Achtemier of John Knox Presbytery says it more eloquently than I could:  “[This overture would] undermine the tradition of careful theology.  We cannot make a categorical distinction between ancient and modern Israel, that would only make sense if God has abandoned his promise. The gift of calling of God is irrevocable. Approving this overture is to proclaim that God’s promises are untrustworthy.”  The overture to make a distinction between the Biblical Israel and modern day Israel did not pass, but now I feel like I can’t read Jeremiah 31:33 without this caveat:  As a Christian when I read the Hebrew Scriptures I let them speak to me personally, so I do read the phrase “House of Israel” speaking to a very broad community of believers, as all those who struggle with God.  My understanding is that Christians are drawn into the promises of God through Jesus, who said that he could take stones and turn them into children of Abraham.  So this passage on one level speaks to those of the Jewish faith and the nation of Israel.  Informed by my Presbyterian tradition, the words “A New Covenant” also resonate strongly with my experience of faith.

So here’s my very personal reading. (Gulp)…

I love this powerful passage; I feel so comforted and awed by it.  Imagine everyone knowing the Lord from the least to greatest with God’s law of love within them, living in a state of friendship with God and each other, all sins forgiven.  Transport me to this place!  And yet, in the quiet of my heart where I feel so intensely the presence of Christ, I know that I’ve already been welcomed.  This is the state of grace!  For me, as a Presbyterian, Jeremiah 31:33-34 is the most beautiful description of irresistible grace I can imagine!

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord:  I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts.  And I will be their God and they shall be my people.  And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brothers, saying ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest declares the Lord, and I will remember their sin no more.

Doesn’t this speak to an amazing, deep, personal relationship with God?

To get back to the original question:  What has been written on my heart through the practice of margin writing?  To answer the question, I looked back at all the entries I’ve made and wrote a one-sentence lesson from each.  I had three hand-written pages, so I did my best to boil it down to just words and themes.  My heart’s been filled with an embarrassment of riches:

  • Gratitude, wonder, awe
  • Guidance, protection, provision
  • Hospitality, rest, unconditional acceptance
  • Renewal, knowing I need the Word like crops need rain
  • Courage, diligence, and a responsibility to do good
  • Illumination, wisdom, power
  • Complete freedom in Christ
  • Empathy, healing, peace
  • A longing for justice
  • The ability to focus on what matters
  • Forgiveness, a home in God, belonging, family
  • Hope, trust in God, joy
  • Love

My heart is apparently bursting, and yet, I am still very much a work in progress.  I could add links that relate to all of the words above, but for now I’ll just say that doodling in the Bible is good for the heart.  After putting all this down, I find myself wondering:  What holds me back from living into all this more fully?

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All Things New

The next prompt in Writing in the Margins:

Read Revelation 21:4 and reflect on the text.  What if in on place God “wipes” away the old and writes in the new in the margins?  Write into your margin what would be erased and what might be written in by God’s grace.

The first thing that came to mind was that God would eliminate needless fear and replace it with love.  As I read a little further in this chapter I noticed that the cowardly would not be part of the new heaven and the new earth; their place is in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.  Being cowardly was listed first among the vices.  What found it’s way into the margins was a note:  “Choose love, not fear.  There are no cowards in heaven.”

Of course, I imagine my kid’s reading this one day and I want them to have a healthy regard for their own safety.  Fear can be a useful emotion.  But the cowardly take a healthy emotion and use it for all the wrong reasons.  Cowards breed fear to maintain power and to support their own greedy intentions.  Cowards fear those who are different in extreme ways.  This can take the form of targeting those who are different with violence or simply withholding basic life necessities.  Love is the total opposite of this type of behavior.  Love reaches out first in trust; love gives what it can.  Love does the right thing given the circumstances.  I still have these words ringing in my ears from Makoto Fujimoro’s commencement speech…

The world that ought to be is not a utopia.  It is instead created out of sacrificial love.  To love is to quest for this world to come.  To love is to endure…Love is generative and will create a stage for the new to appear.

A day that’s hard to imagine, a day when God will wipe away every tear!

alpha and omega

As I was working on this page, I also felt inspired to redo two pages I had done earlier, here and here.  If you make a mistake or are just generally unhappy with how a page turned out, you can always wipe the old away and do something new!

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Transgressing in Love

I belong to a Facebook group called the Journaling Bible Community.  The group is hosted by Shanna Noel, who ignited the Illustrated Faith movement when she first brought her scrapbooking supplies to the pages of her Bible.  The group has about 20,000 members who share examples of art in their Bibles.  It’s an amazing, supportive, and encouraging group of Christians from many different backgrounds who share a love of the Bible and a creative approach to reading it.  If you haven’t explored it, I highly recommend it!

The funny thing is at least once a week someone posts an observation along the lines:  “Your art is really pretty, but I just don’t think you should be covering God’s Word with paint.”  And if a week goes by without a member complaining, then there will be a member who shares a story of feeling completely misunderstood and hurt by a relative or church member, taking offense upon seeing art in the Bible.

When I heard Makoto Fujimua describe his Four Gospels project and say that art is always transgressive and heard him speak of the need to transgress in love, the words rang true!  I listened to Makoto’s commencement speech at Belhaven University.  He shared the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume just before his death as an example of transgressing in love, and I felt inspired to illustrate this passage.  I’d like to dedicate this page to Shanna Noel, who has definitely done a beautiful thing for Jesus by drawing so many people deeper into the Bible!  I pray God will continue to bless her amazing creative ministry!!!

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Our Home in God

I am moving on to the next prompt in Writing in the Margins.  Syria continues to be in my heart and prayers, and I am following the developments in the Middle East with much greater awareness.  My heart and prayers go out to the people of Turkey as they face the disaster of a bombing at a peace rally.

The next invitation in Writing in the Margins:

Watch Makoto Fujimura create painting from the biblical text:

How does his process of illumination inform your margins?

After seeing images of war-torn Syria, there was something healing to me about seeing the beautiful art of Makoto Fujimuro and something comfortable and familiar about his voice and vision.    I’ve been pondering something that he said in the above video:  “Art is always transgressive, and we need to transgress in love.  We have a language to celebrate waywardness but we do not have a cultural language to bring people back home.”

For me this quote brought to mind the story of the Prodigal Son and also a brief reflection on what it means to be “Home in God.”

Home is….

  • where there’s always someone happy to see you;
  • like reconnecting with a forever friend when you can pick up just where you left off no matter how much time has passed;
  • feeling free to let your guard down and be completely yourself;
  • where you are known and loved;
  • a place of forgiveness, where friendship is more important than any mistake we might make;
  • a comfortable, familiar feeling;
  • a place of rest, security, and restoration;
  • warmth and light.

Ultimately, home is hospitality and it is the heart of God’s love.  My favorite words from the story of the Prodigal son:  “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”  Though we are a long way off, God is running toward us.  When we feel the warmth of God’s loving embrace, the response is simply to offer others the same kind of love that meets us right where we are.

Parable of the Prodigal Son

Parable of the Prodigal Son

A Moment for Self Reflection

Getting back to Writing in the Margins, this is the original invitation that prompted my deep dive into Zechariah:

Zechariah 8 shares a vision for a new day and age in Jerusalem when the streets will be restored after a time of exile.  Read that vision with Catherine C. Marshall’s quotation in hand.  How does her quotation illuminate this text for you?  “Annotation covers a broad territory.  It has been construed in many ways:  as link making, as path building, as commentary, as marking in or around text, as a decentering of authority, as a record of reading and interpretation, or as community memory.”

I read this prompt and read Zechariah 8, but had trouble drawing a connection to Catherine C. Marshall’s quote.  I thought to myself:  “Maybe I just don’t understand Zechariah 8, let me read all of Zechariah.”  Then I felt even more lost.

Please excuse the following moment of self-reflection…

After reading an article about a young couple getting married in Syria and also taking time to learn the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic, I felt like God laid it on my heart to pray for peace in Syria.  I found myself drawing a connection between Syria’s current troubles and Israel’s in the book of Zechariah, which I’d been thinking about already as a result of the above prompt, and started praying my way through the book, while also praying a novena to St. Threse of Liseaux.

Now I can finally look back at Catherine C. Marshall’s quote and see how it illuminates if not the text, then the whole experience of writing in the margins; I inadvertently did all of the things she listed:  I drew a connection between a challenging Bible passage and a current situation in the world; I found myself envisioning a path forward out of crisis; I wrote commentary and made plenty of marks; my thoughts and prayers probably did in some small way exhibit a decentralization of authority; I made some notes about how I read and interpreted passages, and I preserved some memories of the Syrian crisis from an outsider’s perspective.  This was maybe not the response that Lisa Nichols Hickman expected, but at least I did my best to answer the question!  And the whole experience stretched me.

One takeaway:  The Bible has wisdom for whatever we might encounter in life, and Jesus has been through it all:  temptation, betrayal, humiliation, pain, abuse, loneliness, misunderstanding, abandonment, and death.   As it relates to the experience of many Syrians, Jesus was a child refugee in Egypt.  The great hope we have as Christians is faith in God, who will not leave us under any circumstance and who is with us even in our darkest hour.

A look back….

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Praying for the Children of Syria

In Zechariah 8, the prophet offers these words:

Thus says the Lord of hosts:  Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with a staff in hand because of great age.  And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets.

I pray it may be true in Jerusalem and also Damascus.  I pray this for where I live, too.  As a wife and mother, my most frequent prayer is that my husband lives to see our grandchildren.  This pretty much sums up all my hopes and wishes for life:  A long life with my beloved and to see my own children grow into adulthood, and if God wills, to have children of their own!  I was reminded of a quote from Henry Noewen:  “anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal, the most hidden is the most public, and the most solitary is the most communal.”  How true!  I wish a better life for the children living in Syria in part because I wish for the same blessing for our own sweet children.  I pray for God’s healing love to make a better future in Syria, and I pray for us all to love truth and peace.

I pray especially for safety of children travelling as refugees.  I pray for their parents, too.  God give the parents the strength they need for a most difficult journey to an unknown future.  It’s hard enough to be a refugee, but to be a refugee with children in tow. I can only begin to imagine the physical exhaustion and frustration the parents must feel.  I don’t even want to think about winter coming.  I pray the children give the parents strength, love. and hope to endure.

I chose to do a little digital art this time, simply adding a Bible verse to a stock photo to create a printable that speaks to my heart about what the vision in Zechariah 8 is all about…

truth and peace

Praying for Future Leadership

One day the conflict in Syria will come to an end.  My prayer is that God is preparing a reasonable leader now, who can lead the country as it rebuilds.  There are so many things that are messed up about Syria.  I hope the country can acknowledge Israel and be at peace with her.  I know there has been trouble between Syria and Israel since Biblical times, but does there always have to be?  The teaching of Jesus that we should pray for our enemies seems like wise counsel in this great humanitarian crisis.

I feel like there are a couple things the Middle East could learn from America, not that our country is perfect in any way, but here are two things that seem to make us very different:

  • We are a forward looking country.  For the most part we just leave conflicts behind and move forward.  We don’t tend to get stuck reliving prior conflicts.  It’s true that there are Civil War reenactors and people who can’t bring themselves to ever buy a Japanese or German car after World War II, but these are exceptions.
  • We let religious leaders do the work of leading people on journeys of faith and living lives that reflect the highest ideals of our chosen religion. We let the state do more mundane things like build roads, defend the country, and provide education.  Somehow in America people have gotten the idea that the separation of church and state is to protect the state from religion.  As a Presbyterian, I feel quite qualified to set the record straight:  The reason behind the separation of church and state was to protect the Kingdom of God from the corrupting influence of political power.  (How many times have I heard:  “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?)  And the hope of many founders was that our chosen faith would make us better citizens.

For Syria, I pray for a counsel of peace to exist between the government and religious leaders in post-war civil war Syria and for God to lead all people of true religion to work together toward restoration and healing!  I pray for peace and mutual respect between Syria and ALL its neighboring countries.  I pray that Syria can draw strength from its past and its incredible heritage while looking forward to a brighter future.  And most of all I pray that Syria’s future leadership will be guided by these wise words from Zechariah:  “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another.  Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor.  And let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”

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World without End

I am obviously not an expert in apocalyptic literature, but I know that it’s not a good sign when the four horseman show up.  They have a tendency to execute judgment.  As I thought about the passage and the vision of peace that follows in the same chapter, I thought maybe what God is telling us is that throughout human history there will be times where it feels like the world is ending, but have faith, something new is being born.

I know many Christians who are interested in Apocalyptic literature and attempting to discern when the world will end.  Of course, Jesus says nobody knows the hour.  I know many more Christians who pray:  “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen!”  Maybe God gave us Scripture with the horsemen, not so that we would live in fear of the world ending, but that we would have hope in the midst of troubled times when it feels like the world is coming to an end.

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Praying for an End to Wickedness

First, let me say, I probably should not be allowed to illustrate prophetic visions or apocalyptic literature!  (It’s not my intention to make light of the situation, but once I start picturing flying scrolls and baskets….)

That being said, there’s something about the image of God shoving wickedness into a basket that I do like:  it implies that it is not as hard as we believe to change the things we hate.  Among the things I would put in the basket:  beheadings, kidnappings, poison gas, barrel bombs, and in my own country, school shootings.  It doesn’t have to be complicated for the world to be a better place.  If individuals, one by one, could leave wickedness behind and simply love God and neighbors, the world would have so much less heartache.  It sounds far-fetched, but “Love one another” is what Jesus taught, and we understand him to be savior of the world.  Leave your sins behind and walk in newness of life!  There would still be sickness and death and accidents, but maybe not so much violence, not so many children lost too soon.  The more I read and learn, the more my heart breaks for the children of Syria.  God hates the shedding of innocent blood.

As an aside, I am at a loss to explain Russia’s actions in Syria.  Even if the current ruler maintains power, hasn’t he lost his mandate?  Over 200,000 of his people have died, millions have fled the country, and large parts of the nation are in complete disrepair with no water, electricity, schools, or medical services.  He has bombed his own people.  How does one gain any kind of public support after all that?  As I pondered the meaning of this, I remembered Sahner’s sobering observation into the strategic importance of Syria from Among the Ruins:

As is clear from this potted history, Damascus has seen its share of conquest over the centuries.  But what accounts for its constant changing of hands, and what has made the city seem so sweet a prize for so many aspiring rulers?  If Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, as pundits remind us constantly, Syria is surely their bottleneck.  Lying astride the land bridge between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian plateau, Syria was where the empires of antiquity traditionally met for battle.

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Praying for the Holy Spirit

Sometimes I think to myself, if I ever did a process video…

Tonight it would have been me sitting on the floor of the bathroom cutting little letters out of masking tape while my daughter splashed and played in the tub!  Little bits of tape and waxed paper were scattered all around me!

Cutting these little letters out gave me lots of time to meditate on this verse:  “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”  I can’t help hoping that the Holy Spirit will descend upon the country and turn people’s hearts toward peace.  Syria’s history is filled conquests and wars and violence.  Even times of peace are punctuated by feasts and pilgrimages celebrating various martyrs.  (I’ve been reading more of Among the Ruins.)  What if God’s spirit prevailed?  Power and might have been tried again and again, and it just keeps bringing heartache and a hunger for vengeance.  What if a totally different way was tried?  I feel like a country with the heritage that Syria has deserves better than an authoritarian state and much better than a violent group of extremists with no regard for the country’s national treasures.  Yes, there are amazing architectural treasures, but the greatest treasures are its people and the traditions they have stubbornly continued, like Christians who still insist on speaking Aramaic and Catholics who live tucked in neighborhoods surrounded by statues of Mary, who hold their ground, saying “We were here first.”  A better solution may take thinking differently, plenty of patience and time, but I believe with God, all things are possible.  The Jewish people, Christians, and Muslims all trace our spiritual ancestry to Abraham.  I pray that we may all walk like Abraham in faith and loving kindness.

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