May I Take Your Coat, Please?

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They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

When what you wear tells everyone around you who you are and what’s most likely in your bank account, then handing it over can be a really big deal.

It’s wearing your Rolex to the gym, or your stiletto Manolo Blahnik’s or Jimmy Choo’s to the grocery store; everybody gets it. You don’t need to show the money.

When what you wear on the outside tells your community that you might be somebody, laying it down in the mud only to be stepped on by some donkey becomes a public act of defiance. A defiance of all that you’ve been thinking might define you. You might as well throw that Rolex or those designer shoes into the trash can at Wal-Mart for all to see. It’s like you’re saying your stuff and who you are doesn’t matter.

But, maybe you’re poor. You got nuthin’. Choices or circumstances keep the cupboards bare. Everything hinges on the third week of the month. Almost everything you have has been given to you. You choose food or medicine, but never both.

Perhaps you are somewhere in the middle. What you have you worked really hard for. And what would your middle-class friends think if you just up and laid it down for another kingdom?

This week, the last week Jesus walked the planet, I find myself in all three places.

No, I don’t own a Rolex and my shoes, if a pair has a designer label on them at all, it’s because I got lucky at the consignment shop. If I dare to compare myself to most humans; the displaced, the trafficked, the marginalized, the war-bitten, then I am rich indeed.

How do I  know?

Because, I rarely think twice about my toilet. I don’t have to scan my street for possible danger before going outside. I have at least 14 choices to choose from in my refrigerator. I am an American.

Yet, it is here that I am most assuredly somewhere in the middle. Working class parents, working class husband. Everything is worked for, everything is justified.

I need it.
I saved for it.
I earned it.
I borrowed against it.

It can actually be harder to let go of things when you’re in the middle.

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I can be wretchedly poor as well. Perhaps not in the tangibles, but poor nonetheless. Poor in generosity and kindness. Poor in time management and fruitful living.

Poor in trust and belief.

There is something about following Jesus through his last week on earth that exposes what is lacking in me. Like those other branch-wavers and those coat layer-downers, at the beginning when things seem to be going according to plan, I am there, too, waving and laying it down.

Do it Jesus.
Do what you said you were going to do.
In the way we all think you should do it. 

But then He doesn’t.

Instead, He literally upsets the apple cart and all the other carts and yells something about prayer being The Thing. Then He spends a couple of days talking about fig trees and fathers loving wayward sons and wanting to invite people to a marriage feast that no one else would really want to sit next to.

He breaks down all of the rules carved onto stone tablets and etched into parchment to just two: Love God. Love people.

This makes a lot of people really mad, and then they lose their minds when He says, “Boys, it ain’t about religion.”  It only leads to hypocrisy…and wearing Rolex’s and designer shoes to the gym.

Jesus spends His last week on earth not giving the people what they want;  freedom from the tyrannical boot of the Romans; that will come later. Instead He kicks out the weak beam of religion declaring there is a better foundation.

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But some things need to happen first.

A meal.
The washing of feet.
A betrayal.
A garden taking on blood and sweat.
A kiss.

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That’s when all the palm branch wavers and coat-layer downers scatter into the shadows. Things are not going according to plan.

Expectation is a funny thing. Hope is so tied to it that when expectation is tipped over onto its back, hope tends to run for the shadows, too.

Twenty years should be long enough to pray for a mother’s healing, right?

What about each and every child that birthed out of you? If you give them Jesus their whole growing up lives, they will still follow Him after they leave home, won’t they?

If you pray forty years for a skeptic to recognize the One who has loved him beyond measure, well, God’s gotta answer that one doesn’t He?

The last week Jesus walks the planet is a hard one. Religion and hypocrisy are being thrown up against the wall, the very life choked out of them. It is violent and bloody because it is the only way to kill evil and what leads to the death of our souls.

I wish that none would perish…

The only death Jesus is willing to embrace is His own.
No one is laying down a coat for that.

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(PXHere photo)

There is just one garment on the ground now and it belongs to the one dying on a cross.

It is here on a Calvary Hill where expectation and hope are restored to their rightful places. It is when resurrection breaks forth that an invitation to a table happens, a banqueting table, where the rich, the poor, and the ones in the middle get to sit and eat together with no falseness, no shame, no comparison and no coats. What we think defines us won’t matter anymore because we’ve shed the externals for what’s real.

We’ve been invited to a table where real love happens. The tears of the last week have been forever wiped away. There is so much joy, so much laughing.

Jesus is asking, “May I take your coat, please?”

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Fences and Walls That Love Built

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Don’t let the barbed wire fool you.
This criss-crossed boundary maker is a mean fence.

I’ve tangled with them many times and felt the initial scrape, then the sting of its puncture. I’ve watched the thin red line as it bloomed where metal razor-ed my skin, a dot dot dot of blood clotting fat and round.

In the summer, laziness and daring married into a perfect storm as I attempted to climb over the bending wires instead of going through the gate in my effort to get to Mr. Howard’s barn before my sisters. It cost me a twisted fall and red-faced embarrassment.

In the winter after packing snow for a trail all morning to get it “slicker’n a bean” as my dad would say, and in my zeal to go airborne over the road on my sled, I often missed the rusted thorns protruding from the snowbanks. It cost me a shredded coat and a ripped wrist. A sort of jagged justice for not watching where I was going.

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Fences speak.

They tell where the boundaries are. They announce what needs to be kept in or kept out. Some fences even declare a belonging. Most of us want to be on the right side.

The trouble is, trouble comes when we think we’re on the right side of a fence but we’re not. The trouble is, trouble comes when we think we own our own lives.
When deny our own remarkable creation.

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With a hammer in hand, or our finger plucking strings; with our paint-stained canvases or our eye pressed into a telescope, we believe we are the creators, the music-makers, the color splash-ers, and the universe finders. It’s a lie. But it isn’t the first lie, it’s the second.

The first lie happened in a garden a very long time ago when the first and most noble of all creation were told they could be like God. In those days there was no need for fences or walls.  It was all very good living there. Nothing needed to be kept in or out. Nothing needed protection. With the exception of one tree, it was all there for the enjoyment and well-being of the first man and the first woman.

Belonging was a way of life.
Communion was as natural as breathing.

It’s when we believed the first lie that we can be like God, having all knowledge of good and evil, that humanity slid into the second lie: God does not exist.

All there is us.
Just us.

“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.” 
“I believe the simplest explanation is, there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.” -Stephen Hawking

So God built a fence.

Not a tangible fence made of split wood, or twisted metal, but a word fence.

God’s words, His fences are ones of provision and care, of blessing and peace. His fences hold communion and belonging. They are about living within sacred parameters because of one thing: Love.

God’s fences are gracious boundaries for the safety of our souls.
They should never be moved.

Don’t remove an ancient boundary stone that was set up by your ancestors.- Proverbs 22:28
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The Burren, or Boireann, meaning rocky place in West Ireland, is so named for its limestone landscape that goes on for miles. Despite the amount of moon-like rock everywhere, the Burren flourishes with foxgloves and rock roses. Butterflies abound.

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The dry-stacked stone wall, so common in this part of Ireland, zigzags along the road and throughout the tufted fields. Put up with little security and no mortar, these walls are easily knocked down. However, it is this very thing, the fear of injury from their collapse, that keep livestock safe within the confines of their pasture.

Throughout County Clare and up through Galway thread famine walls built during the Great Potato Famine for the sole purpose of providing work and not just charity for the starving Irishman and his family. The stony landscape needed clearing and the Irishman needed feeding.

These walls speak bread.
These walls speak honor and dignity.

Fences and walls, the sacred ones, are good for us.

Sometimes we don’t pay attention. Sometimes we ignore the warning signs. And sometimes we just don’t believe. We think our life will always be like a warm summer day and if winter does come, it’s a such long way off, so what does it matter?

Some would call God’s fences rules and when fences become rules then often the fence becomes an offense, and heaven knows we’ve enough of that already.

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” -1 Peter 2:7-8

Some say rules are meant to be broken, that “rules” is a bad word. The truth is, rules, these fences and walls that come from a good, good Father, are surely not meant to be broken.

Something happens when I break down my neighbor’s fence and take what I want. Something happens when I let my own walls break down and something is taken from me.

Besides, the One who was broken for us all did all the breaking that needed to be done.

God’s fences are meant to embrace us because what is beyond His fences is a whole lot of hurt. But some deny, some forget, and some don’t know.

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I ran for my life once after coming face to face with a black bull that I hadn’t seen until it was too late. I am terrified of bulls. This one was at the far end of a field I wasn’t supposed to be in because it was too close to the slaughterhouse down the road. The field was for animals awaiting their fate,and therefore were skittish and not to be trusted. Ignoring my mother’s admonition, I hauled myself and my little brother over the forbidden fence… just because.

The field, full of black-eyed Susan’s and Indian paintbrushes, was a wildflower’s paradise. Queen Anne’s lace swayed in the tall grass. Grasshoppers jumped and bees buzzed. Because of the beauty, it seemed right at the time.

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I didn’t see the bull until my brother and I were about thirty feet from him. He wasn’t tethered. Hearing us he turned his head, his eyes a sharp white against the blue black of his hide. I froze. With his eyes zeroed in on us, he put his head down and began a slow trot in our direction. Then, faster.  I screamed, “Run!” and turned toward home.

I didn’t pick my brother up to help him. I just kept yelling for him to run and hoped his five year old legs would keep up with my ten year old ones.

See, when you’re on the wrong side of the fence and things go terribly wrong, it’s every man for himself. It becomes all about self-preservation.

That day in the field it was all about me. Of course, I kept looking back and yelling for my brother to keep running. I kept looking back hoping he wouldn’t fall yet doing nothing to help him. We made it over the fence safely, the bull stopping short about ten feet from us.

I hoped for the best for my brother, but in my fear, I didn’t do much about it except a whole lot of yelling. There is no peace, no safety, no provision, no care on the wrong side of things. For the thirty seconds or so that it took to get back over the fence my brother did not belong to me. When it’s every man for himself there is no communion.

Sacred fences, God’s sacred words about everything in the whole wide world, His words about marriage and sexuality, the poor and the rich, the refugee and the immigrant; our identity, our womanhood and our manhood; being young, being old, giving and receiving, living and dying; all of them spoken to preserve communion with God and his most noble of creatures, us.

Sacred fences declare a holy belonging.
Holy walls speak of provision and blessing.
Within their boundaries are mercy and grace.

Inside, a communion as natural as breathing.

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You Can And You Must

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She was born on a Sunday and turned twenty-four on a Tuesday.

Tuesday was a much milder day than the day she broke through the womb. That day was a hard-as-blue steel day, the ground under two feet of snow.

Tall grass poked through the snow in the fields off Old Chadbourne Road. Every now and then the copper colored stalks would vibrate in the wind that blew off the back field giving the landscape the feel of an Arctic plain; flat, desolate and so cold.

I’d gone for a walk when early labor injected its first pulse of pain. If all went like the four others, I had plenty of time before heading to the hospital. When I turned the corner onto Old Chadbourne, I let the cold air assail my nostrils. I felt alive and clean. I thought about the baby. I thought about becoming a mother for the fifth time. The twinge of what was to come splayed across my belly. I prayed in the cold. I knew what I was in for.

As it turned out, I was wrong.

At first, everything was the same as the others. The pain level, the intervals, the breathing. The walk around the nurses’ station over and over and over again. The moment I stopped talking and crawled into the bed. It was just a matter of time.

But this is where the youngest stopped birthing according to plan. This is where she quit flowing with my natural rhythms. Everything came to a stop and I lay there in a vise grip of pain with nothing to show for it. The end was such a long way off and I was in too deep to turn back. My body. My baby. All had gone silent except for the pain.

It suddenly became all about endurance.

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Nothing changed for a very long time. This middle place where nothing appeared to be happening kept taking from me. It took my strength. It took my courage. It took my resolve. I was done in. I quit.

I lay my head on the pillow and whispered, “I can’t do anymore.”

A warm breath in my face. My husband’s words coming through a veil. Yes. Yes you can.

Sweat drenched hair stuck to my cheek, my head a slow motion side to side shake.

I closed my eyes wanting some place real quiet.
I never, ever want to work this hard again.

A woman’s voice.
“You can do it.”
She poked. She prodded. Her eyes found mine.
“You can. And you must.”

It is not at the starting line where we choose to keep going. It’s not even the the finish line. It’s somewhere in the middle when the distance ahead of us is still so far away and the distance behind us is too. It is in the middle of nowhere that we decide if we’re going to keep going. To keep trying. Keep believing.

Do I keep moving forward even though I cannot see the outcome anywhere in sight?      Do I keep believing when all around me say I’m a fool?
Do I keep trusting when the odds are stacked against me?                                                      Do I lean into the pain and make it work for me?

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I remember standing in a classroom watching a child hell-bent on destruction, tearing things apart, tearing himself apart.

What am I doing here? In the middle of chaos and human fracturing, watching a child shatter in pieces, I was tempted to walk out of the classroom. To not look or hear or feel. What difference could I possibly make in this life? The writing was clearly on the wall for this kid.

A psych ward.
A medicated brain.
Statistically speaking, a jail cell.

Can’t I just go someplace real quiet?

Except I don’t get to walk away.

See, I follow Jesus and he never walked away. He leaned into the hard thing.

Somewhere in the middle of a garden he leaned in.  He leaned in the middle of an interrogation and the lash. He leaned in the middle of thorns and in the middle of a stumble in the street.  His father’s voice coming through the haze. You can. You must.

He walked a calvary road right into the jaws of pain and death and for what?
Just the joy of heaven and the whole wide world.

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The nudge to stay put in the classroom was real, so I did. I prayed for God to intervene, intercept, to do whatever he needed to do to rescue in that moment and in all the other moments to come. I walked toward the broken child and embraced all the pieces.

You can. You must.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s the only way to keep moving forward.

Minutes before midnight the Pixie Girl finally emerged from my spent body; the last baby for me because of the difficulty and the blood spill afterward.

This last one who laughs loud and sparkles fierce showed me when I find myself somewhere in the middle where all is hard to the point of quitting, I can and must remember if I lean into the pain and make it work for me I will keep moving forward.

O’ the joy!

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You can and you must.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.-Galatians 6:9

Photos of mothers courtesy of google images.