They say ISIS is about 28 miles southwest of Erbil. That’s no stone throw away— but, yeah, if you were feeling particularly nimble, you could tie on a pair of old runners and jog that distance.
Somewhere along the way in the travelling, I seem to have lost words?
Somewhere along the way, something in me perfectly broke and now I’m home without words and I wake drenched in these night sweats and I can’t find sleep anymore either.
I lay awake staring at the ceiling and memorize faces that looked me in the eye and told me horrors till their voices broke and they looked away.
I get up and let the dog out at 2 am when the wind won’t let either of us sleep.
When I flew to Iraq, I flew through Israel.
First, 7 days in Israel. Then flew on to Iraq.
Maybe the only way Iraq and war and hemorrhaging humanity makes sense is through the lens of what happened in Israel? Maybe that woman with a slop bucket and a mop in Bethlehem baptized us with the awakening?
Maybe the way you find words again is to feel along to where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us —
because the only way words can make any sense in all this mess are through the dialect of His.
The sky over Bethlehem felt like this an exhale.
It feels like an invitation to never stop exhaling. It’s almost the middle of Lent and we’re walking the streets of Bethlehem. Sometimes you just need to pause everything for a minute and go find the beginning… if you’re ever going to make sense of where all this is going.
I’ve been carrying around this 40 Day Pilgrimage of Prayer in my pocket for weeks, trying to find my way — His way.
You can hear every footstep echo on these age-old stone streets. There’s been so many of us here.
The headlines keep screaming about Iran and nuclear weapons and elections in Israel and tensions begging for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestinians, and Iraq is blasting away at Tikrit, trying to dislodge the tentacles that is ISIS.
The air in Bethlehem feels like this burning belief in the lungs:
Hope is the salve that keeps our broken hearts soft.
We may find relentless heartache in our days, but our days must never lose relentless hope.
You can feel the warm breath of heaven here.
Spring dares to come.
* * *
When we walk over to the Church of the Nativity, somebody’s laughing loud that her very weather-wise husband told her it would be warm, that she wouldn’t need a coat in Bethlehem.
Her hands are pulled up into the sleeves of her sweatshirt.
Then she breathes out so that we can see her breath hang in the dusk. Her laughter falls over us like something warm.
She pulls on those sleeves of her sweatshirt when she bends low, crouches down ahead of me to get through the door of the church where God was born.
Our guide says the door is impossibly low so that pilgrims couldn’t ride their steeds, their camels, their donkeys, straight into the Church of His Nativity. No one gets to meet God unless they get off their high horse, get down off of whatever they’re riding high on.
Somebody cracks one: The doorway to God is made only for those who make themselves small.
Turns out wise ones still seek Him.
I stand silently with that for a long time by the carved inner doors and something settles into me:
Any problem shrinks low whenever we exalt Christ high.
O yeah, little town of Bethlehem… the hopes and fears of all of us now are held in the mind-blowing unconceivable that happened here…
When I run my hands across the carved wood of the doors, the surrendered wood, you can feel the engraving of time and hopes and fears, how they make their way into the crevices, run into the lowest places.
Turns out that when God comes to this sod, visits this planet, He doesn’t come the expected way: God doesn’t enter our lives through the most esteemed place — but through the most accessible place….
God never comes in ways to impress us — as much as He comes to make ways for us to have intimacy with Him.
In a world of ache and grief and war and brokenness, in a world where you’ve tasted the grittiness of your own unspoken broken–
when you bend low through that door and you kneel down and touch the place where the Maker of the Heavens delivered Himself into earth, where the Creator of the Cosmos birthed Himself as a creature…
where God came to this sod?
You’re crushed by unfathomable grace.
God is with us.
God was one of us.
God walked this sod, pressed His holy heel into the earth, let His divinity fill a container of skin and filled His lungs with all our atmosphere of ache.
We aren’t alone in this mess. Us on this pale blue dot of a planet in the vast blackness of the cosmos — we are the visited planet. He came. He sees. He knows. We are not alone. God is with us.
Kneeling there in Bethlehem, wrecked by the incomprehensibility of the Master of the Universe pulling on flimsy flesh, climbing over the walls of this world, slipping into time through the back door of the universe that is Bethlehem — all I could think was the the Holy Other curls His newborn fist in the cradle of a barn feed trough — and we are saved from ourselves.
We are saved from our hopelessness — because God came with infant fists and opened wide His hand to take the nail sharp edge of our sins.
Emmanuel, God is with us in our ache and He gave us more than explanations for all our messy brokenness —
God gave us an actual experience of Himself, because God knows explanations can be cold & Christ’s arms are warm.
When I walked slow up the stairs to the the sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity, the woman’s bucket was steaming straight up.
I had thought the sanctuary was empty.
Had absolutely no idea where everyone else was. I had lingered behind too long with God, awed?
I’d stood there quiet, waiting, before the stained glass brokenness of His birth, rising there above the altar. Waiting for God knows what.
Waiting for God.
He’d come. Here. He had literally come right here.
That’s when I saw her steam rising from a bucket. I had heard the slosh of the pail tipping over first, up near the altar. Then she had stepped out of the shadows with her mop.
And she’d began this slow choreography of grace across the floor. Of mopping up the mess down here because God came down here.
She looks like Mary, breaking her jar of nard and and letting her love run out, washing the feet of Jesus in the fragrance of her love.
She doesn’t have to be seen, she doesn’t have to be known — she’s mopping up the birthplace of God.
The music —
Where in the world is the music coming from? Haunting notes, high and lovely. From the dark? From behind the altar?
Her shoulders, her shoulders, are moving with the notes.
The music’s coming from her.
The music’s coming from within her.
She turns with her mop and the whole thing feels like I’ve walked in on her anointing Him and I kneel low — like I don’t want to interrupt? Don’t want to be seen? Like I am watching a singular act of worship and it’s brought me to my knees.
I am witnessing an incarnation — her humble act of service is incarnating her Lord. And something in me brims…. and spills.
This world won’t be changed by fame-lusters like it will be by faith-livers.
This world won’t be changed by the flashy like it will be by the lowly.This world won’t be changed by more selfies like it will be by more self-sacrificing.
This busted-up, warring world will taste resurrection, not because of people stepping up in front of news cameras or spotlights or spout their soundbites — but because of people who step down into the shadows to be the light of Christ.
This bleeding, broken planet will taste healing not because more of us tried to climb ladders to be seen — but more of us went lower and saw the face of Christ in those who are too often unseen.
This spinning, scarred chunk of sod in the corner of the universe will taste shalom not because more people wanted to be crowned important — but because more of us have knelt at the feet of the One who is Important and we’ve got the dirt of His kingdom under our fingernails.Hope rises up when there are people who are willing to descend and serve because God descended and gave.
Hope rises up wherever people beat their power into plowshares, their microphones into mops, their ladders into life lines for the languishing and lost and hardly living.
Hope rises only when there are the courageous who are willing to go lower and incarnate Christ.
And here is this exquisite woman with her bent back and humble mop in the place where God first touched this sod, first let his loud cry mingle with humanity.
And I’m a kneeled mess and can’t stop weeping, my shoulders moving with the breaking of my heart over the beauty and rightness of her lowly offering right where He Himself came low and offered Himself.
The woman leans her mop up against a pew.
She steps in close toward me. And she cups my face in her wrinkled, warm hands.
And she gently kisses my one wet cheek — and on my other wet cheek.
There’s hope in our hells when we become like Jesus to each other.
I don’t understand the thickness of the foreign words she murmurs over me, but I know how this communion makes me feel, and she holds me up as my repentance breaks right open and falls like rain.
She’s like my Mary who kisses the unlikely with this fragrance of His love —
anointing me for my own going lower and dying.
[Journey through Israel to Iraq to be continued]