Rooted and Grounded, Paul’s Love Poem

Sun-Sky-Quote-Picture

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I had to take this scripture into myself this weekend. To let it work on me, to feel the poetry of it. The kneeling, the bowing, the praying, the astonished heart of one who has been overcome by the fullness of God, of God’s love. This text reads like a love poem to the Damascus road experience. The astonishing moment where a bright light shines lovingly on all the dark and hidden corners of one’s soul and changes everything. This river of grace and love which flowed through Saul the persecutor changing him, altering him forever; breaking open his heart, enlightening his eyes, drawing forth love and compassion from one who was, who had been a persecutor.

And then he is no longer that, but something new. Love paints all things with a new light and his life is transformed. One might wonder if Paul ever regretted it, this move from wealthy pharisee with political power and prestige to hunted revolutionary speaking and preaching the gospel of Jesus to a hurting and lost world. But if we wonder then perhaps we have missed the love poem written in this text. So many years after the Damascus road incident, so many years and experiences later, Paul writes:

Kneeling before the Father,
The archetypal father from whom all fathers
On earth or in heaven (perhaps even the third heaven but who can say? In the body or out.)
Take their name

And I

I only a simple child
Moved by the love of the Father
Moved by the love which,
Is beyond my knowledge

Yet

Somehow I feel
A new experience
An abundance of glory
(can you not feel it? )
This then
Is the love of the Father

A love which has no height
No depth
No width nor circumference
With which to contain it.

(can you not feel it?)

An abundance of glory, an earth shattering, life changing, unexplainable fullness of God. All these years after Damascus and he’s still in love with God. Paul is given to some rebukes in his writing; he is given to some self promotion, but mostly, he is given to love and surrender for the sake of the gospel. And Paul knows that this is not an easy love, it is not a comfortable love but one which will change you, which will shake up your life and take you to places you cannot at this time imagine. Even as he prays that we too might have the experience of God’s love he also prays,

But be strengthened
Be rooted and grounded
In love
Because you’re going to need it
Because this love,
It will change everything and change is hard
Even when it’s good.

(Love lives in your heart now, can you feel it?)

Be strengthened
In your inmost being
In the depths of the dark inside places
Of your soul.
Be strengthened
Because hope grows.
A new light
A new potential
Future possibilities expand
And
Love says yes
Be strengthened
Because your heart
Just might break open
To wondrous new possibilities
And you may find yourself
Opening up to impossible people
And impossible situations
Which are quite possible now

(how cool is this? But do you dare believe it?)

Paul who had been Saul, who had been replete with all the signs of success that one might hope for in his day, must have spent a lot of time shaking his head, wondering how he came to be in the places he ended up. How did this upright pharisee end up running from the law, hanging precariously in a basket as it was lowered down the city walls. How did he end up shipwrecked on an island. How did he end up in prison? He must have been shaking his head in wonder at times, because no matter how bad it got, it was better than anything he had ever known. It was a fullness of God’s presence, of God’s love, of God’s Spirit that he could not put into words. It was the love of God in Jesus Christ which he could not contain, could not encapsulate such that he could somehow convey it.

It was beyond the height, the depth, the width or length, of anything he could hold up and show. It was uncontainable, this love which flowed through his veins and remade him, which rebirthed him, a whole new creation.

Paul threw it all away. All of his privilege and his influence, his respectable position in society. All gone. He was no catepillar refusing to become a butterfly, creeping around on all those legs, staying safe and remaining in all that he knew. He threw it all away, entered the chaos of the chrysalis and was reborn, remade, because this uncontainable, unknowable love shattered every preconception and expectation that he had. And in this love poem that is our Ephesians text he prays the same for us. “In the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith.”

In the abundance of his glory, that unrestrained, indomitable, life-changing, life-altering glory, which no person can witness and not be changed by-

Be Changed! Grow firm and strong, be brave, so very brave, because this will change everything; it will take you to new places and new roles, new positions in society, it will change everything!

This is no prosperity gospel! This is not a promise that if you believe God will give you everything you ever wanted, but rather that God will fill you with good thing you’ve never even considered, never imagined, never even knew you needed. You may find yourself dangling from the city walls in a basket, on the run from the police because you fed the homeless, because you protested the violence, because you stood with those who suffer and demanded justice. You may find yourself walking away from a life of prestige and privilege and yet feeling somehow deeply fulfilled and not lacking anything at all.

But it is an act of bravery, an act of trust to open one’s heart so fully to Jesus. To surrender so deeply and let God remake you. Because, if you are like me, then you know what it is to say, ‘I have plans. I know where I’m going and I know what I want to achieve, so the sooner God gets on board with my plans, the better we will get along.” It’s an act of bravery to let go of our expectations, our hopes and dreams and let God bring something new and unknown into our hearts.

I wonder if you will try something with me. Hold your hands out and clench your fist tight. White knuckle it for a moment. All that God longs to give you, the goodness and abundant life that Jesus came that we might have, is not something that God will force upon us. Go ahead and release your fists, turn your hands over, palms up, feel the openness, the release, the surrender of an outstretched hand, an open palm.

When Saul was riding down that Damascus road he was holding tightly to all he knew. He was a white knuckle pharisee, trying his very best to do every right and correct thing. He was in control, till God knocked him for a loop, unseated him, and offered him an opportunity for growth. Paul, courageously opened his heart, released his grip, and surrendered. God does not pry our hands loose but offers us opportunity, after opportunity. The pain of a tight-fisted grip on life is unnecessary and therefore sad and painful. God asks only that we will release our grip on our preconceptions, our plans, our insistence on safety and being right, and let God fill our surrendered, up-turned palms with good things!

God longs to fill our lives with good things, with a rich, full, abundant life. Jesus looking down over Jerusalem, that city which kills its prophets, where he would meet his own death, was filled with compassion. “If I could,” he said, “I would take you all under my wing, like a mother hen.” If you will let me, I will love you, I will care for you. What more do we really want, than to know we are loved, we are accepted, we belong?

Glory be to him who, working within us, can do infinitely more, than we can ask or imagine. Infinitely more, and yet we struggle to allow this, to let go of our plans, but Paul says, let go, let God work within you. It will be more and greater than anything you could ever imagine! It will bring you to places you never thought you would be, you never thought possible! Infinitely more. Just let that sink in. God will do infinitely more than you can imagine.

But be filled with the fullness of God, that incomprehensible, life-changing, life-altering love and then watch what happens!
God who is at work within us,
will not abandon us,
will walk with us as we go,
leading us, bringing us to a new land,
a new way of being.

This new way of being that is not rooted in fear and self protection, but is rooted and grounded in love. It is not rooted in white knuckle sobriety or propriety, but in deep surrender, faith, and trust in the One who loves us. This new way of being that insists we be rooted and grounded in love, that we act with love, that we open ourselves up to love, that we release our fear-based grip and allow God to fill our lives with good things.

Paul, in his deep-rooted love, in the rich abundance that has flowed into his heart and soul, changing him, taking him to unimaginable places, opens his heart with deep compassion for the church, for that beleaguered, struggling community and he prays:

Kneeling before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven or on earth takes its name: in the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner selves, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, so that knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.

Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever amen

This prayer, this love poem, it is our prayer, is our love poem to God, to one another. May we be rooted and grounded in love, may we speak with love, may we act with love, and may we be strengthened in our inner selves, may we have the courage to release our tight-fisted, fear based grip and allow God’s grace and love to flow through our veins, remaking us, re-birthing us, making us a new creation, that God might look down upon us and say, “I’ve got kin in that body.” May God who can do infinitely more than we can ever imagine forgive our fear and continue to work within us, remaking us, reforming us into the body of Christ.

Amen

Secretly, in the dark.

seed paper towel

It’s science class in the third grade, and your teacher hands out these tiny little seeds. She tells you that we are going to grow these seeds in a wet fold of paper towel so we can watch the mysterious actions of a seed opening up and growing. The whole class gets busy wetting and folding their paper towels embedding the seed, usually a bean sprout of some kind, into the folds and slipping them into a glass jar. Over the next few weeks we all watch anxiously. Class only gets started when the teacher is able to pull us away from the window where we go every morning to see if this is the day our seed will open and send it’s roots down, it’s stem up. Some of us are less than careful and our paper towels dry up, the seed dies. Others are too anxious and water over and over and the seed is soaked. Those who strike that happy medium are rewarded when their seed starts to open and a slender white root probes the paper towel looking for dirt and ground. The whole class wants to see and we all crowd around the lucky first one. The mysteries of the earth are exposed, laid bare before us as we stare in amazement. We wonder how it knew to open, how it knew which side was up and which was down. Even as we see what was formerly hidden in the dark of the earth more mysteries beckon.

 

The kingdom is like a mustard seed, Jesus says, from the smallest of beginnings, in the dark of the earth, in the unseen places, it will grow and become a tree! It’s hyperbole, an extravagant and untrue statement. It forces us outside our prior understanding by suggesting something we know can’t be true. Mustard seeds don’t become trees! Acorns become mighty oaks but mustard seeds? They stay pretty small, just your average bush, really. Reason insists that we know our limitations just as the mustard seed isn’t a tree, we know we too have limitations. We are a small church in the middle of a small, mostly rural area. We have our limitations. We are an aging group with declining numbers, we know our limitations. Don’t we?

 

But, Jesus says, in the depths of the soil, in the dark and unseen places, something is happening. The seed is nourished by faith and lovingly tended. Something in it breaks. That resistance and desire to stay safe in its hard shell, the shell that promised it would stay intact until just the right moment, gives in, shatters, is broken open and growth begins. Hafiz, the 15th century Sufi poet wondered,

 

“How did the rose ever open its heart and give to the world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise we all remain too frightened.”

 

Anais Nin might have been responding when she wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

 

It’s easier to see the rose bloom than the seed sprout. The rose is out in the open, warming in the sun. We can watch its petals slowly spread out. The seed, however is hidden, in the depth of the soil and the dark, wet of the earth. Weeks can go by without any visible sign of change, of growth. Before we grew our seeds in wet paper towels we grew grass seeds in a dixie cup filled with dirt. Do you remember that? I suspect that my third grade teacher knew how often we had looked at that bare dirt and failed to believe anything could possibly be growing in there. it’s so hard to believe that change is happening when you can’t see it. As a child I wanted to dig in and see what was happening underneath all that dirt and I didn’t trust that things really were happening. I needed to see it. At the gym where I work out there is a poster in the bathroom, in that most private of places where a woman might look at herself in the mirror and get discouraged because all that hard work and dieting isn’t making the difference she’d hoped for. It says, “When you get discouraged, imagine yourself a year from now, and get back to work.” It’s part of our nature, I guess, that we want to see our hard work and our brave risks produce change now, visibly, let me see it happening! But the process begins within the dark and unseen places.

 

Jesus says the kingdom is like a, that is one, mustard seed, that a man took out into the field and planted. Imagine going out into the field and planting that one singular mustard seed. It’s such an insignificant thing. To plant that one seed. Here we are hungering to see change happening, to see our efforts manifesting, and he says it’s like planting one, tiny, insignificant seed in a field. And then things happen, somewhere in the dark soil this seed opens and grows and becomes, more than we ever could have expected, not a bush but a tree! The smallest thing, perhaps some passing kindness, a smile, a thank you, a gracious welcome, a bit of attention, planted faithfully grows into something incredible, grows into the kingdom! We struggle with the desire to see things happen but silently in all the dark quiet places, what we have planted grows and becomes! Under the surface and out of sight change begins and growth happens!

 

The patience and the hard work, the risks taken, which at the time don’t seem to produce anything, work within us and change us, help us to grow and become the people we most deeply desire to be. Anne Frank, locked up in her attic space, could never have known or imagined how many people her words would touch, what an inspiration she would become in her refusal to hate, in her insistence that love will win and that there is good in humanity. But perhaps she has some inkling of what it might be. She wrote,

 

“Everyone has inside them a piece of good news. The good news is you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

 

Simple words planted on a sheet of paper left in a cold and bare attic where trauma occurred. Simple words which stir the heart and break open the brittle shell of resistance. We do have a piece of good news. We are good news. We are the seed planted out in the field and we do not know what we might become; we do not know what we can accomplish; we do not know what our potential is! We have only to break through our resistance and stretch our roots down into the soil, that good rich ground that is the Word of God, that is our source and our sustenance and grow!

 

Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” But this letting go, this release of certainty, this cracking of our defensive, protective shell, it’s really hard to do! And when we do, we want promises! Ezekiel 17 speaks to the captives, those who have been stripped of all power and privilege and taken hostage in Babylon, taken hostage to insure the compliance of the rest of Israel. Moments after Ezekiel warns the Israelites not to seek the protection of the even more powerful and just as likely to plunder Egyptians in order to overthrow the Babylonians, he promises them that God will pluck out a fine shoot from their branches and establish it on a high and lofty mountain, and it will put out branches and bear fruit. From the depths of exile and the fate of a hostage, this small cutting, this soon to be grafted on branch will grow to become fruit and refuge to every bird of the air. But the Israelites don’t see this happening. They only see themselves stuck in an abusive hostage situation and maybe, just maybe, the Egyptians would help them out. Maybe they could force the situation and free themselves. Maybe they could take control and make things turn out the way they want it to. Or, Ezekiel says, they could wait for God to act. Or, Ezekiel says, they could have patience with the process of change that is going on under the surface, unseen, in the hidden and dark places, the inaccessible places. Oh but how they wanted to make things happen right now! And don’t we all? It’s so hard to be patient with these slow, internal processes, to trust that things really are happening and growth and change are occurring.

 

We are planted like a tiny seed in a vast field. We begin our growth and our transformation in the dark of the soil, rooted and grounded in God’s Word. We begin our growth in the darkness and in the unseen internal spaces. How often do we want to pluck that seed out of the soil and look at it, just to see if it’s really doing something? How often are we tempted to “push the river” and try to make it go faster? How often do we look towards the powerful and mighty around us and seek to be like them, to emulate them, to adopt their DNA instead of allowing our own to grow and manifest God’s glory just as God intended. Instead we look at those around us and we wish we could be like them. But we are still that small seed. That unseen seed planted in a large and vast field. In our own way and in our own time, God will use us. We will, and are, moving from the isolated self-protected state of a seed to the expansive, spreading, branched out state of a tree, sheltering all manner of life. Isn’t that amazing? The world would tell us to maintain our hard-shell of protection, to care for ourselves and our needs, but God says, no, break open and grow, break open and search for me. It’s a risk, and as Anais Nin acknowledged, it’s something we tend to do only when the pain of staying closed in on ourselves gets to be just too much.

sunrise

Can we trust that if we do allow ourselves to break open, to stretch deep inside and deep down into the darkness that we will find sustenance, that we will be nurtured, and that all of this can and will go on for some time, perhaps a long time, before the first shoots of new growth begin to show above the surface? Can we be faithful as we wait for these shoots to show up, to continue watering our little seed and resist the urge to unearth it and check to see if it’s really doing something? Can we have faith that growth and bearing fruit is part of our DNA even when we don’t know where or when that growth may occur? We know what we are, and it is tempting to hold onto that with a tight, white-knuckle grip, but we do now know what we might be, or how God will use us. Learning this requires release, it requires surrender, it requires allowing the process to continue, even when we don’t see signs of success or immediate relief from our anxiety. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed planted in a vast field, and the church is a foretaste of that kingdom. Today we are the mustard seed, planted in the heart of the piney woods in southeast Texas. We grow unseen and undisturbed at first, we grow simply and without concern as God is our gardener, our pruner, our sustenance and our joy. We stretch our roots deep into the soil of the Word and are fed and sustained. We stretch our hearts and our hands to the love of God which warms us and fills us with all manner of good things. We know that it may be a while before new shoots begin to surface, but we are content. We are, after all, just a seed, small and simple, planted in a vast field.