I have a terrible memory. If I’m not writing things down as we talk about it, and I’m on another train of thought, it is highly likely it will be forgotten. Because of this I almost always have a notebook of some sort on me, especially in recent years when it’s becoming increasingly more important for me to remember deadlines and important details, which would very easily fall through the cracks of my brain. But there are some things one doesn’t easily forget.
About a year ago I heard words from a man of great faith whom I admire in a plea to a group of college-aged Christians involved in student ministry. I have heard a lot of words, but for some reason, I’ve kept these words in my heart (and in a notebook page taped to my bedroom door) for a while, and have been able to spend a lot of time with them. This man was amidst an extremely messy, trying time in life, as his wife was battling cancer, yet he drove three hours away from home to speak to us about the smile of the Father. “How would our lives look different,” he asked, “if we would only know who we are by knowing the smile of the Father, every day, for the rest of our lives?” He talked of the revelation of God in Jesus’ baptism, (“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Matt. 3:17) and how these words are transformational for our identity. How would knowing this change the hurt we endure? How would this change our outlook on interacting with others?
As I was processing what was said (taking notes so I would remember of course) and holding it up with a discerning eye to my day-to-day life, I knew very quickly: I was not operating out of knowing my identity as a beloved, as the object in the Father’s eyes when he smiles. I wanted this desperately. For the past year now I have meditated on this thought, using different prayer techniques, scripture, journaling, the whole nine yards. There have been a few outstanding thoughts as the Lord has been changing my heart from its stony, performance-driven default to a vibrant, alive, beloved heart. Some of these thoughts have been stuck in my mind since moving to Nashville a little over a month ago. I wanted to share a few of them in this blog post. This is me unpacking thoughts, so please excuse any messiness. I will do my best to edit messiness out once I am done writing, but sometimes I can see the link between my own scattered thoughts, even when others may see incoherency. Either way, here it goes.
A Muddy Child
I am not yet a parent, but hope to be – God-willing – one day. But as of right now, I may not know a ton about children. I have observed a good amount, which makes me an expert (cue eye roles from literally anybody who has had to raise a child), right? Children, at least in my experience, are not naturally very clean. They somehow find a way to make a mess wherever they go, and then drag it along with them wherever they are headed next, leaving behind a trail of destruction. I may be dramatizing a bit, but children love getting messy. It’s one of the best qualities they have, and I can say this as someone who doesn’t normally have to clean them up. Playing in the rain is not a problem for a child. I’m not sure at what age or why we start to hate being in the rain, but I can remember loving the rain as a kid.
One of the thoughts that has stuck in my heart and mind from focusing my attention on the Father’s smile is this visual. It’s a rainy day, and a child has been laughing, dancing, playing in the rain and mud. The muddy child then hears the call to come inside, immediately running into a kitchen and ruining his parents’ clothes just to run and give them a hug. The parents aren’t angry, they are delighted to hold the child in their arms, and they will gladly make the child clean again by putting the clothes in the washer and giving their beloved a bath. For the moment, they just want the child to know he is unmistakably theirs by holding him in their arms.
This world is messy. As Christians, we are not called to keeping ourselves “clean” from the world’s mess by sitting on the sidelines. There are problems which require us to – figuratively, maybe literally for some – roll around in the muck to get to the other side. When we are baptized under Jesus Christ, we are not only baptized to the joy and the life of Jesus, but also into the suffering and death of Jesus (“Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined in his death?” Rom. 6:3). This means as we fight the sinfulness of the world, it may get messy at times.
Let me make an admission here: I’m unsure if what’s described here as “muddy” or “unclean” is meant to directly correlate with sinfulness, as this could be a connection easily made. This may be a failed aspect of this allegory. More-so, I think it is representative of the messiness involved with combatting the sin of the world, but there are some situations where it seems like some of both. I’m still processing this. Let me also make a distinction: the only way to combat the sin of the world is with Jesus Christ! It cannot be the work of our own hands, but the one directing our hands. Jesus took on all the mess of the world through the cross, and has already defeated it, and he just invites us into the field to see his work in real time. Our strength in this comes from knowing who we are by knowing we are held by the Father. Through being held even amongst the messiness, and through the continual renewal of our hearts and minds, we can: 1) know the smile, and then the heart of the Father; 2) know who we are; 3) have the strength to love others and let them know who they are. This has echoes of 1 John 4 throughout.
“9 God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 10 This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins…
16b God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 19 We love each other because he loved us first.” 1 John 4:9-10; 16b-19
How often am I so caught up in fear revolving around if I am “presentable” to go to the Lord, missing the smile of the Father? I am the Beloved, an adopted child into the house of God, a grafted branch into the tree of life. How often do I forget this and believe I need to make myself clean before going to the only one who can make me clean from dealing with the mess of this world and my very own mess? Lord, make me like this child! Let me run into your arms because I know I am yours and yours alone.
The Liturgy of Light-bearing
The etymology of the word liturgy has been a topic of debate for a while now. One popular train of thought is liturgy, as a combination of the Greek words for “work” and “people,” literally means “the work of the people.” So in the Christian tradition, this is the gathering of the congregation, praying together, worshipping together, ministering together, etc. The other common thought is liturgy in light of the Opus Dei (“Work of God”), which seems much like the opposite of “the work of the people,” but can be understood as the participation of the people of God in the “work of God.” Arguments aside about the semantics of a word, as a people of God we are called to work, in some way, shape or form. So for now we are going to just boil down the word to mean Kingdom work.
The physical properties of light have also been something historically up for debate. Is light a wave or a particle? In the 1700’s Isaac Newton concluded light was a group of particles, while other scientists believed light was just a waveform. Somehow, the nature of light acts both as a particle, moving in a straight line, and emitting photons out of metal exposed to light, yet displaying properties of a wave in diffraction and interference. Albert Einstein asked the question, made famous from memes in an Old El Paso taco shell commercial, “¿Porque no los dos?” (“Why not both?”). He concluded light is somehow neither particle nor wave, but somehow both at the same time. It has a dual nature not displayed elsewhere in the natural world. Regardless of what it is composed of, it is light which allows us to visualize reality, as we can see our surroundings by having light. It really only makes sense to know light with an experiential knowledge.
Why am I talking about electromagnetic properties of light and debated meanings of a theological word? I promise this isn’t some attempt to get into the Christian Science (which I would say is neither Christian nor science) realm, nor a lecture of any kind. Light is constantly used in the canonical Scripture as a symbol of godliness, God/Christ himself, or the people of God. In Genesis God speaks, “let there be light,” and there was light. This light then participates in the illumination of the rest of creation. In the exodus, God provided a pillar of fire as a light to guide the Israelites at night, illuminating their path. The psalter who penned the acrostic poem of Psalm 119 echoed this in saying “Your word is a lamp for me feet, a light on my path.” Isaiah looked ahead to the light – Jesus Christ (John 1) – saying “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow, a light has shined” (Isa. 9:2, Matt. 4:16). ”You [the people of God] are the light of the world,” Jesus says in Matt. 5:16. And we look forward to the day where “the city [the new heaven and earth] does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Rev. 21:23). Light is laced throughout the Scripture, and we have light within us only through the light of Jesus Christ. However, much like the physical properties of light, it is often hard to describe Christ within us in plain words, but it is easy to understand with an experiential knowing.
Imagine with me another image of a child with his father. It’s late at night, and the father needs to get some work done outside. It could be working on a car, skinning a deer the father has killed to feed his family (this is the experience I had as a child in this situation), or any other job requiring an urgency, which did not allow the convenience of waiting until the morning. Although the father could easily afford a portable light fixture to illuminate the work, he sees an opportunity for his son to see his work and spend some time with him. So, he wakes his son up from his sleep, hands him a flashlight, and invites him out with him. The kid fumbles the flashlight around at times, losing focus, drifting the light away from his father’s hands to see what else is going on outside. He hears an owl hoot, or some leaves stirring, or just looks up at the stars, not paying attention to where the light is pointing. Patiently, the father corrects him, asking him to focus on his hands. Occasionally, the father may ask the child to hand him a needed tool, but the father is doing all the work. Yet somehow, at the end, he looks at his son, and says “aren’t you proud of what we did together?”
For me this is how liturgy is both “the work of the people” and Opus Dei – “the work of God.” As a people, we are called to be the light of the world, and the work in this light is to illuminate the hands of the Father; the work He has done and is doing. Anything else we do, if not done to point to the work of the Father, is work for ourselves. And much like the child, we often stray from focusing on the hands of the Father, even often with good intentions. It is good to love justice, it is good to love knowledge, it is good to love truth, it is good to love peace, it is good to love love, but if this justice, knowledge, “truth”, peace, or love is outside of the light provided by Jesus Christ, then it is a distortion of light – at best – if not darkness itself. We often get so caught up in trying to find our individualized calling, missing the great call to be a body of light-bearers, illuminating the hands (and smile) of the Father. This is especially true for me. I admittedly enter this year of the Nashville Fellows selfishly hoping for a clear answer in direction for my career and calling. Already, in only a month here, I have so often forgotten my great call to make disciples, showing them the light of Christ through my life, words, actions, and relationship. How much reminding I need to remember (I told you I’m terrible at remembering, remember?). While I look forward to gaining more understanding on the particular plans and opportunities – through career and calling – the Lord has for me to share his light, I believe this impossible to find without taking the focus off of myself and instead placing it on the Father’s hands and smile.
This wouldn’t truly be a blog post by millennial/Gen Z (I fall right in the transition years which don’t really feel like either) young adult Christian without me referencing C.S. Lewis in some way, so let me go ahead and cross this off my checklist. But because I’m also an indie hipster (I pray you read these self-descriptors in a jocular tone), I must reference a less mainstream, deep-cut C.S. Lewis book, coming from the second book in his space trilogy, named Perelandra. In Perelandra, Ransom, the protagonist, is transported to a pre-fallen Venus (or Perelandra), where the first people are being presented with the temptation. In this trilogy, the eldila (roughly equivalent to angels/spirits) are described as dancing bits of light, and they guide most of Ransom’s actions, ultimately leading him to playing a part in fighting the temptation faced by the “Adam and Eve” figures of Perelandra. At the end of the story, Ransom is faced with the eldila after he has battled the tempter of Perelandra, and they speak to him saying,
“Be comforted. It is no doing of yours. You are not great, though you could have prevented a thing so great that Deep Heaven sees it with amazement. Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He [God, named Maledil in this story] lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad. Have no fear, lest your shoulders be beating this world. Look! It is beneath your head and carries you.”
This leads me to ask: How often am I so busy looking down at my own hands, my own attempts at work, missing the hands, the work, the support beneath my head which carries me, the smile of the Father? I so often miss the joy of my smallness, my belovedness in his eyes. Lord, let me be like a child, remembering the Sunday School hymn of “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Don’t let me forget you alone are the light.
The Lord is making me more like a child day by day, and I am so thankful for good words from a godly man who told me to focus on important things, such as the smile of the Father. While living in a new city, which is much faster-paced and work-oriented than I imagined, it is very easy to lose sight of who we are as children in the arms of a Father, and bearers of light. I pray we can read these words and know who we are from a better understanding the Father’s heart.
The Smile of the Father
I love to watch you laughing, playing in the rain
Come on, child keep dancing, I’ll love you all the same
Even when you’re rushing in, tracking in the mud in the clean kitchen
And ruin my clothes just to come give me a hug
I won’t yell or curse you, I won’t run or hide
I’ll be the one to clean you and turn your clothes to all white
Cause you know the world’s a mess, trying to bring you down with its loneliness
I’ll hold you in my arms ‘til you can’t help but know you’re mine
Child, know my smile
Know my name
Child, know my smile
Forget your shame
Come on child, awaken, I need you by my side
There’s work which cannot wait now, you need to hold my light
Hope you know my love won’t stop
When you lose focus, let the flashlight drop
Just watch my hands so you’ll know my work in your heart
Child, know my hands
Know my work
Child, know my hands
Forget your hurt
Child, know my heart
Know my hurt
Child, know my heart
Know your worth