A Letter to One Whose Name Is Bitter

Dear Mara,

May I ask about your name? Mara. Bitter. You weren’t born with it, I know. You don’t have to choose to live with it. And you certainly don’t want to die with it.

What rogue seed ground its way into the soil of your life? Do you remember?
Words that punched and tore the fragile membrane of your heart?
Betrayal that exploded from the inside out?
Loss that left your roots and nerves exposed and burning with every touch?

Mara, perhaps it was a million stoney seeds that cracked into you, or maybe it was one. giant. thing. Whatever the circumstance, let me lean toward you and say with my whole heart, I am so sorry. I’d like to join you in your memory of that point of impact. You can cry if you want to, or if all your tears have long dried up, we can just sit for a spell and I will loan you all my sorrow and compassion.

(sitting together a while)

Mara, I know that like your namesake from centuries ago, you have shrugged into this name, this ill fitting, hot, itchy cloak of a name and you’ve worn it for so long that it feels like yours. Your name, your identity: Bitter. You probably didn’t even realize that when the surface of your life fractured, a tiny seed fell into the crack and made it’s home there in the hurt, burrowed in the tangle of shrapnel left behind by the words, the wounds, the why.

And like seeds do, in time Bitterness sprouted, not a tender green root of life, but a sharp thorny root that dug in and began to grow. And grow. And grow until the thorny, twisted thing of it made itself at home in you, convincing you that loving that vile root was the best way to love yourself, defend yourself, heal yourself.

And so, you chose to feed the Bitter
washed its leaves with the water of your attention
curled up in its false warmth
nurtured it like it was a friend

while it went about its task of strangling you to death.

Oh Mara, turn to Jesus! See Him on His cross, bound by your Bitter vine, held to the splintered wood, the poison of it seeping into His own body, strangling HIM, killing HIM. See His chest heave as He paid the price for your Bitter Root, hear His cry as he pulled it into death with Him —
It. Is. Finished.

Mara. It is finished.
He has so much more for you than this.

You are not your own, and you certainly are not owned by this invader, this imposter, this Bitterness. Mara, You were bought with a price by the One who named you from before time began. Your name, your true name, is inscribed on the palm of the hand of the Maker of heaven and earth. He did not rescue you from the domain of darkness to hand you back to it, Mara. He did not open His hand and let you run off its edge to hang and swing and cling to the vine of Bitter. Let’s say it together:
Enough, Vile Root.
Enough, Preserver of Self.
Enough, Thief.
The Lord hears. He forgives. He redeems.
May Mara be no more. Her day is finished.

Before time began, your name was on his lips, a name that holds a mysterious myriad of meaning. Enclosed and sealed inside your name are words like:
Child.
Little one.
Redeemed.
Forgiven.
Cherished.
Beloved.

Hear Him call your name on the breeze, feel the zip of air rush by as His sword cuts the root from its place. Let the air rush in even as He pulls and pulls the vine from you.

Let Him rid you of this home invader. Throw off the cloak of oppression that the vine has woven across your heart. Bow as He takes his rightful place on the throne of your being. Breathe the clean air, stretch your arms high. Adore him. Worship him. Open your mouth and let Him remove Mara from you and fill you with a song of rejoicing.
Look ahead, friend. The day is coming when you will hear Him say your name with His very own lips. You will run your fingers over the palm of His hand where the proof still puckers his skin even today that declares now and forever: you are HIS and He is yours.

I can’t wait to see you in person, to sit at the table at the Great Feast and hear the music from the mouth of the Lord as He sings out our true names face to face.

Looking forward to forever,
Shannon

A prayer for these days:

Our Father, you are seated now as you were those thousands of years ago when you peeled back the curtain to give your servant Isaiah a glimpse of you.  Your Son is seated at your right hand, reigning, ruling, holding all things together by the word of his power.  Your Spirit has made His home is in the most unlikely place, the temple of human hearts. It is in your presence that there is fullness of joy.  We pause and marvel, our hearts bowed low as we approach you in prayer.  

How can it be that you welcome us to come to you in this way, that we do not have to slink into your presence, but run to you in boldness?  It can ONLY be because your Son Jesus Christ came to save sinners — US — and through him we can be called the children of God, heirs to a kingdom that we cannot yet fully grasp.  So we come to you as children, needy and humble in heart and know that you hear and respond to us.  

As we shuffle around in these strange days, we feel the frustration and weight of not knowing what to do.  Practical clarity feels out of reach and as soon as we may be about to grasp it, it slips out of our hand.  We hear the voices of many shouting words and more words, plans and ideas and fears and predictions until our heads and hearts spin like a top.  Help us, our Father, to fix our eyes on things above where Jesus is seated at your right hand.  Help us remember that you are not spinning like a top, that you are not fretting and seeking counsel from mere men.  Help us remember that while no one can fully grasp your mind and your inscrutable ways, still you desire for us to know you.  You do not hide yourself from us.  You are the one who gives counsel, who says, “This is the way, walk in it.”    We desire to know your will as it is perfect and for our good and your glory.  We ask that through the power of your spirit and the grace given to us through Jesus our Savior, you would align our hearts with yours.  

Father, the giver of every good and perfect gift, we thank you for the another day.  For many these days are filled with turmoil and trepidation.  Help us to taste and see your goodness, the promised manna, as you provide and sustain us.   It is so difficult for us to truly believe that in you, we truly have everything that we need.  Give us eyes to see your faithfulness and open hands to receive bread — even when to us it may look like a stone.  Settle fretful hearts.  Enlarge our faith.  Increase our trust in you.  We cannot do it on our own.  You are faithful, help us to remind ourselves of this.  

As the wind shifts in the current days and the temperature of our culture continues to rise, cause our hearts to be soft and not hard.  Forgive us for being quick to anger, quick to sling words of accusation and judgment, for grumbling,  for lacking compassion for others.  We can’t make it through one day without our flesh vying for its own way.  Forgive us for giving in to temptation, for failing to turn our hearts from wicked ways and sinning in our thoughts as well as our deeds.  

Stir up the wind of grace that forgives us into our hearts so that we might exhale it towards others.  Loosen our grip on our own rights and opinions and demands.  Teach us humility as we look to and remember our humble Christ.  He did not revile in return those who insulted him, he did not threaten when he suffered.   Indeed, he bled for those who hated him, and apart from grace we would not love him either.  Increase our understanding of the forgiveness that you have poured out on us so we may forgive in the same way.  Help us to know, like Jesus did, that our case is safe in your hands Father, that justice is yours and not ours.  We trust you with our wounds.  

And finally, we know that we have a true enemy, one that hates your glory and desires to steal and kill and destroy.  Guard us from his schemes.  Give us sharp minds and keen eyes and wise hearts that are alert and sober minded.  We gather your armor onto us and ask for your protection to forces seen and unseen.  May we remember that victory is already yours.  Help us not to be afraid, but to stand firm with the armor of God covering us.  

Father in heaven, the winds of change are upon us and we want to stand on the waters with our eyes fixed on you.  Save us, hear our prayers, strengthen your weary children.  Bind us together by your steadfast love and through the peace that Jesus brought to us.  

And all your people said, 

Amen.  

Sinking Sand | A Memory

Once upon a time in Florida, there was a pale green house with a screened in porch and one slow ceiling fan. It sat, small and unassuming, under giant trees with great lengths of gray curly hair that flowed from their branches. Off to the side was a small storage shack that held black rubber inner tubes with air valves that stuck out a good inch (they could leave a nasty scrape right down your rib-cage if you weren’t careful) and scratchy rafts with popped seams that still floated just fine.

A few yards away was a lake, also small and unassuming, always still, always murky, always smooth but for splashing and paddle boat oars and an occasional fish rippling the surface.

I have pictures of my mom and dad when they were teenagers with cool hair and wild bathing suits standing knee deep in the water, smiling big, the pale green house just out of the frame. I have pictures of my grown-up parents floating, tossing and splashing years later with my brother and me in that same lake, with that same house in the background and on the same rubber inner tubes and scratchy rafts.

Artist: Nancy Harvey (Shannon’s mom)

They are vivid memories. But the thing I remember most is surprising – it is the sand. I’ve never felt or seen sand like it since, soft and pale and almost impossible to walk through. It moved and shifted as the soles of our feet pressed on it, even when we quickly dug our toes in for stability. When we followed that smushy sand down into the water – it transformed under our feet like something alive and would slowly pull us into it, like quicksand without the “quick.” We stood like stones at the water’s edge and watched as our feet, then our ankles, slowly disappeared into that sand, as if there was no such thing as solid ground.

It was wet and gloppy and we made the most amazing dribble towers on the edge of the shore. It was too something (heavy? slippery?) to make a sand castle. Maybe heavy is a good word – I can still feel the adrenaline that propelled me up off the ground and sent me screaming into the water away from my brother as he shouted “Who wants applesauce!?” and lobbed fistfuls of the sloppy dripping sand straight toward my curly head, where the sand would SLAP and grind down to my scalp and take days to come out.

Why am I thinking about this place now? Why am I remembering that sand with such detail, and finally, why am I writing it down to share with you?

Well, the reasons are layered. The first is that I miss being able to be somewhere else. The second is that lake was beautiful and lovely and I wanted to invite you to visit it with me in my memory, in case you also miss being able to be somewhere else.

But mostly, I wanted to think about that sand with you. The days are growing long, the novelty of being at home has worn off, for us grown-ups, for our teenagers, for our little ones. We started off a few weeks ago standing on new and unstable ground, each step shifting beneath us, changing sometimes by the day, causing us all to feel an unfamiliar instability, measuring our steps to find a walking rhythm.

And the days have melted by like Dali’s clocks, like dribbles of wet sand running down a melting tower.

Some of us are lingering around up on the shore, growing accustomed to the strange new ground that we are walking on. Restless maybe, stepping around burrs of inconvenience and attitudes and boredom, working through the (very real) disappointment of canceled things, but doing pretty well considering. Some of us are closer to the water’s edge, where the sand seems to breath just enough to swallow our feet slowly, almost imperceptibly, until we look down and see that we are buried up to our shins.

If this is where you are, may I ask what is in your sand? Loneliness? A slow build of pressure contained in the walls of your home? The squeeze of online schooling or bickering kids that seems to get tighter each day? A low hum of impatience toward those close to you? The constant chatter of news and information that seems to change by the minute, crowding your mind and stealing your attention span? The knowledge that your first month’s bills were covered, but you aren’t so sure about the second?

Still others of us have felt like we are already underwater, feet wedged into that mysterious sand that gulps and holds fast. What makes up this sand? Have Isolation and a deep loneliness begun to make you feel smothered by their heat? Has your job disappeared like steam off that inner tube? Are you a caregiver who suddenly can’t give care due to restrictions? Has the tension in your home become oppressive or even frightening? Have sopping heavy wallops of circumstances landed on you, blindsiding you, grinding into you and you can’t shake them off?

Oh church family, my words seem hollow today. I wanted to write with shouts of LIFE coming off Easter Sunday, and indeed Life is ALL around us, even now. But I know for many of us, our hearts are growing tired. I want to remind you that you have a family, brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers in Christ. Like Paul who so desperately wanted to join his “spiritual children” in Thessolanica but was “torn apart from them,” so we desperately want to be knit together through our bond of Christ’s family.

So, for today, let’s pray to the One who is able to lift us from the miry bog, the Lifter of lonely heads, the One who sees us and finds us in the sand. Let’s pray that He who is able would rescue and revive and restore and refresh his children.

Love, grace and peace from your sister in Christ,

Shannon

Seeing the Unseen

I went to China for a minute last month and stood on a dusty road at the edge of a field. Then, I headed to a very busy street in India in a town that I couldn’t find again if I tried. Next I popped over to the Sky Walk in Australia and almost had a heart attack when I looked down. Then it was off to France where I stood right underneath The Eiffel Tower, pinching myself to be so close to such a sight. I came back to America and stood on a red carpet in Hollywood, checking out Meg Ryan’s shoes and staring at her famous blonde hair as she chatted into a microphone while Billy Crystal stood off behind her. Finally, I went to the front row of an NBA game and shrunk back in my seat because the men were GIANT in front of me on the court.   

My cousin, who is a sound designer/insanely smart music producer person, laughed off to my right and said, “How amazing is this? Where are you going next?”

I slipped off the gear that was on my head and over my eyes and in a disorienting and dizzying whoosh I was pulled back into a kitchen chair in Marietta, Georgia. 

My cousin’s sound design team is working on virtual reality technology from an audio perspective, so that what is heard in the headset will accurately “travel” as the person wearing it turns toward or away from the source of the sound. He explained that in order to create realistic virtual reality, the brain must trick 3 of our 5 senses. So far, technology has the sight piece and now they are fine tuning sound and touch, which explained why it took me a few minutes to reorient myself in his kitchen after removing the headgear. My brain thought I was elsewhere. I eyed the technological brain-bender on the table before me and my fingers almost itched to put it back on. I felt the temptation to be tethered to this virtual world, my brain tricking  my own senses. I said to my cousin, “This is insane. I could sit here for a thousand hours. I should never own one of these – why would I ever leave my house??”

Verses began rolling around in my heart after that experience. I began to think about my life in terms of what is real and what is virtually real. I began to wonder if part of me has been “tricked” as I walk around on this earth. 

Since the beginning, the sin that rules human hearts has deceived us that what we see, hear, taste, touch and feel are what is real. But scripture tells us a different story. 

2 Corinthians 4:18 We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 

Paul tells us that what “feels” like the long lasting reality of living is actually “transient” (Definition: lasting only for a short time; impermanent). Our ACTUAL reality is happening in things that are “unseen.” Those unseen things area are “eternal” (Definition: lasting and existing forever, with no end or beginning.) How far is the distance in reality from temporary to eternal!  It is unfathomably (Definition: incapable of being fully explored or understood) farther than the distance from a kitchen in Georgia to a crowded street in India. 

So how then do we set our eyes on this “unseen” reality? We have to:

  1. Seek it/Look for it
  2. Put something off/put something to death
  3. Put something on

Paul tells us in Colossians 3: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth….Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming…

12Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

That’s quite a list.  I’ll summarize:

  1. Seek Jesus. Set our minds on Him. Seek the things that are unseen. Note that these are active words that call us to move our eyes and hearts and minds and senses UP to where Jesus is seated with the Father. 
  2. Kill the things of the world that have tricked and betrayed our eyes and ears and hearts — those earthly things listed above that crouch at the door of our heart, engaging all our senses. Their job is to deceive, to bind us to temporal things, to keep our eyes down instead of up where Jesus sits. Their job is to lead us to destruction. Put them to death before they do.
  3. Put on (as God’s chosen ones) the things above: compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Forgive, bear with one another, love, admonish and teach, sing together and be thankful — doing all this as one body in the name of Jesus. 

Let us not overlook how much of this seeking and putting off and on is done together as the body of Christ.

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.


 Hebrews 13:14-15

One day this vapor will be gone and our eternal reality will be before us.  Until then, may we seek, praise, forgive and bear with one another as Christ dwells in us richly. Together. 

Forgetful Hearts

Easter is my favorite time of year. I recently heard that according to the church calendar, Easter actually lasts for 50 days. I would like to propose that we all commit to wearing pastel colors and provide Cadbury eggs to the congregation during these days at CBC. Who do I need to speak to about that?  (Joking, joking…)

In all seriousness, Easter can splash by us like a rock skipping on a lake.   Many of us moved from praising our risen Lord in the morning to vacation mode or back-to-work-the-next-day mode in a matter of hours. As believers, we live in the shadow of Easter every day, but as we know, we are a forgetful people.  

The message of Easter is a familiar one to most of us, but still we move through it, here today gone tomorrow. The Lord knows that we are forgetful, and he reminds us to remember again and again, no matter how familiar the message. Peter tells us, “So, I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.” Not only does he give us his own Word so that we will always have the “remembering” at our fingertips and in our heart, he writes the story of Easter so our eyes can see it. I heard someone say last week, “Isn’t it beautiful how creation tells the Easter story over and over again?” Yes, it certainly is.

Some years ago, long before we moved into this house, someone planted a magnolia tree in our back yard. It’s a rare kind, according to my dad who knows about such things. When we moved in a few years ago, it quickly became my favorite view. It grew up tall and huge, shading the corner of our sun-room and perfectly hiding the unattractive corner where the air conditioning unit and coiled-up hose lived. 

However, apparently its glorious leaves and branches that I loved to see draped over the corner of my house were (not quite so gloriously) threatening to rub the shingles off the roof. One summer day last year, my husband casually mentioned that he was going to trim it back “because it’s brushing all over the roof.”

I headed out for the afternoon and this husband of mine—whom I will identify by his initials to protect his identity B(ert) W(ilson)— killed my tree. All that remained was a sawed off fat stick in the ground with spiny looking angry branches that poked out from its once beautiful form. I sputtered and stared and may have gotten a few tears in my eyes and said (yelled), “What have you DONE to my tree?? You killed it!”

“Of course I did!  It was destroying the roof, Shannon!”

For the past year I have stared bleakly in the direction of my once beautiful tree, hating the stumpy spiny thing that remained, lonely for its previous shape and health and life and shade. A few weeks ago I walked out onto my porch and sat down facing the used-to-be-tree. The tree that was dead. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Out of the spiny hideous poking remains bloomed the most pristine, perfect white flowers. My dead tree (indeed, dead!) was suddenly gloriously bursting with life. 

I stared and then cried as this tree proclaimed the story of Easter to me. It shouted it with flitters of joy in the petals of those flowers. “Remember Jesus!” It said. “Remember the good news!” And I did. I remembered that his body was once dead. Dead! His body was ruined, crushed, destroyed, pierced, buried behind the rock and sealed in death…. until LIFE burst forth where there was no life. This is the resurrection story of my Jesus written on the white bursts of life on that tree. Before my very eyes. 

I love Easter and I loved celebrating here at CBC among our body. I love that one week later I sat and thought of that magnolia tree again as Pastor Aaron painted the picture of my heart- our hearts. Dead. Without life. No thready pulse, no shallow breath indicating life. No life. 

“You (me, us!) were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ!”

Because of HIS life bursting forth that Easter morning, our hearts that were dead can burst to life.

We heard from Ezekiel the prophet that it is the LORD who does this. HE washes us with clean water so we can be clean. HE cleanses us from all our idols.  He gives us a new heart and a new spirit. HE doesn’t just give our old heart a jolt, he removes it (as it was dead and made of stone!) and puts a new soft heart within us —  one that will love the Lord our God. One that will  mark us as a child of God. One that was bought for us with the blood of his Son. 

And into the world we go with our new hearts pumping the life of Christ in our veins. No longer are we followers of the course of the world and the prince of the power of the air, but we are followers of our Jesus who died and gave himself for us. 

So, Happy Easter (again and still), brothers and sisters of Community Bible Church.  It is a joy to walk with you in the newness of life. Let’s be on the lookout for the story of Jesus as creation proclaims it in these weeks and tell others what we see!