Sometimes the story just writes itself around you and you don’t even know it’s happening. Then one day, you smell that heavenly aroma and it all comes back.
There’s nothing quite like it – that smell of a freshly baked loaf of bread. You may try to break it all down to science and molecules, but I will fight you to the end over it. That smell is pure magic. It communicates all the things in one whiff – comfort, provision, nourishment. It somehow symbolizes everything we need – physically and emotionally.
And there she stood over that counter – kneading the dough. My amazing mom – faithfully providing for her family. I saw the picture this week and it all came rushing back to me. There was no Walmart in the steamy jungles of Liberia – there was simply flour, water, and her hands. So she kneaded that dough, she baked the loaves, and we ate that bread. Day after day, week after week. It nourished our bodies then – and today it nourishes my soul.
I think about those frantic Israelite mothers in Egypt – the time comes to go, and what do they do? They grab their bread, some just had dough, and flee Egypt for the Promised Land. Those children would eat, because their mom packed the bread! As a child, there is so much comfort in that – so much security knowing that you will be cared for.
There is another bread – one that is offered at the altar in the Tabernacle throughout the Israelite’s wanderings in the desert. And later in the Temple in Jerusalem – throughout the history of the Israelite people, The Bread of the Presence has served as a symbol that acknowledged God as life and nourishment.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus held bread. And broke it. And fed 5,000 people with only 2 loaves. He never runs out, does He?
And then come these astonishing words: “Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35
Can we all get back to that simple place once again? The place of a child who needs nourishment as simple as bread? Bread that satisfies to the fullest. Bread that comforts and nourishes. Bread that heals all our brokenness. Bread that feeds all our needs – physical and emotional. Bread that never runs out.
I could tell by the subject line that I didn’t want to open the e-mail.
Yet, I knew by the subject line that I just had to open the e-mail and read the words I didn’t want to read.
It was true. Another place closing. Another place that I love – gone.
Thing is, this isn’t just another place. I drove by one of my favorite restaurants the other day and saw the for sale sign. That was a bummer. This was different. This hit deep, and I suddenly didn’t know how to process it.
It’s one of those places that I have never been able to get out of my soul. One of the first places I understood the word “home”. In a life of feeling perpetually out of place, this was a place that welcomed misfits like me and gave us a sense of belonging.
It was my sophomore year of college – that summer when I walked through the doors of a The Shelter, a youth hostel in the middle of the city of Amsterdam on the edge of the red light district.
I had no idea God would forever change the trajectory of my life that summer. That He would show me who I was created to be and that I would never be satisfied settling for anything else.
I went back after college and spent a year in those walls – eager to learn, eager to meet people from around the world, eager to share my Jesus with them. God used that place to forever alter my life.
It was in that dining room where I would eat with people from around the world – Laughing, singing, talking, doing life together.
It was in that kitchen where I learned to make Moussaka and Boerenkool. But it’s really the place I learned that the simple act of spending a day cutting onions and peeling mounds of potatoes can carve out quiet places to let the Spirit in.
It was in that snack bar where I would discuss the beauty of my Jesus with a Spanish traveler who had just from a Tibetan monastery. Where I would pore over the Scriptures and rest in the peace of the Psalms with my friend Jess, a gay prostitute who was desperately hungry for balm for a hurting soul.
It’s where I learned not to fear the questions – for if you keep looking you will find the Truth. It just takes a lot of courage to face the real questions and a lot of persistence to uncover the answers. It’s where I saw that we aren’t really all that different under the surface – where a smile has the power to transcend all cultural, racial, and political differences. And sometimes when trying to register a group of 20 travelers who don’t speak English, a smile is all you have.
It’s where I learned to love shoarma and frites with mayo. And I learned the value of knowing how to ask for coffee with whipped cream in Dutch (Koffie met slagroom, alstublieft)
So I read the e-mail, and as the truth soaked in that they were having to close their doors due to the current condition of our world, the tears started to fall. Not just for all the faces I saw, the people I had come to love, the memories I cherished… I wept for the loss of a place to return to.
Oh how the heart longs to remember what fades so quickly! How often we long to return to places that matter because they remind us of who we were. More importantly, of who God is and what He has done. And I don’t have many of those places…
Growing up in the jungles of Africa was an unmitigated blessing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But my home no longer exists – the ravages of war destroyed my childhood village many years ago, and I will never be able to take my family to the place I grew up. I can show them the country as it is, but it will forever be a different place than the home I knew.
So all these years, my heart has clung to this special place on the edge of the red light district in Amsterdam. I longed for the day I could show my family the place where God changed the course of my life. Where I learned how real He truly is and discovered that He really will catch us when the world crumbles around us. I have walked through those old hallways with my family so many times in my mind – just waiting for the day it could become reality.
And I wept for the loss of that opportunity.
God has placed eternity in the heart of man (Ecclesiastes 3:11) – and yet we try to fit this small earth around that. We grasp for the ideal of an unchangeable good – a place where our hearts feel safe. But buildings crumble and heroes let us down.. What do we do then? Construct new idols? New mirages of control or illusions of contentment? Or do we reject the stuff of earth and place all our hope firmly and only on heaven?
We’ve all experienced loss this year. And I know my story is light compared to the life changing loss many have endured. But we all share this one thing – longings for something we may not be able to return to. It comes out in grief, sorrow, rage, cynicism, depression… and I wonder – what do we do with all these feelings?
When the longings start and we are torn between what is and our nostalgic memory of what was … we often think we have to choose between the two. Instead of rushing past the callback, why don’t we linger a couple more minutes and let it bloom into something of beauty? What if we’re experiencing a foretaste, a promise, a shadow of what is to come? In His moments of greatest agony on earth, Jesus looked to the “joy set before Him”. (Hebrews 12:2)
Do you see it? Can you smell it? The welcoming notes of the fresh baked bread? The delicate aroma of flowers we have yet to discover? We blush and call it childish nostalgia – but could it be so much more?
“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves… These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” CS Lewis
So today i don’t think I’m going to wipe these tears away too quickly. I think instead I’ll try to just rest in the magic of the mystery. To let the ache in my heart intensify my longing for heaven – that great unending good that will never be taken from us. That we will never outgrow, move away from, or lose. This is the gift.
“For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Hebrews 13:14
I stood there the other night and remembered… I remembered the day I ran away from it all.
The wind tickled my face as I stood at that outdoor concert and watched these three faithful men sing truth and proclaim the power of that truth. And my heart remembered.
I remembered a time when I almost lost my way. A season when nothing made sense and it was hard to know who or what to believe anymore. A time when choices danced before me like mirages and I couldn’t find solid ground.
I remembered the words pounding through my head as my feet pounded the pavement. “I believe in God the Father Almighty…” It feels like yesterday in my heart and soul.
“Creator of heaven and earth…” These thoughts crowding my mind – racing so fast, they can make you fear for your sanity sometimes. “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son our Lord … MY Lord!” How had I ended up here? Trying to escape the cycle of bombarding thoughts, walking the streets of Brugge, Belgium, simply because I didn’t know where to go or what to do? How to quiet the noise inside my head – screaming at me from the moment I woke up until I finally found escape in sleep? “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”
It had been a long journey to this moment. Months in Amsterdam, telling people about my Jesus – the One who promises freedom. All the while, crumbling inside from my own lack of freedom. Trapped in my insecurities, in my doubts, in the dysfunction I had come to see as “normal”. So I ran away to Brugge, and I walked those streets.
I remembered those days when I was a kid. Long Sundays in church, reciting a liturgy I thought was old and “dead”. They called this the “Apostle’s Creed” – it didn’t mean much to me back then – just words we said every week. “He descended into hell. On the third day, He rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father…” I remembered sitting in that college cafeteria, telling a wise professor that I was beyond all that now. I was exploring new ways to worship. He didn’t say much, only gently reminded me to not forget those who had gone before me – “You are standing on over hundreds of years of history…”, he said.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic (universal Christian) church” Suddenly the scrambled thoughts started slowing down. I found myself mouthing the words, savoring each precious morsel… “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting”
There are many ways to worship, but in this moment, walking those old cobblestone streets, God began to set me free from the tyranny of the new. He brought those words to life in my heart on that day in Brugge, Belgium, and I no longer had to figure anything out – I knew. And that simple knowing quieted the screaming voices in my head.
My God showed me that as long as I clung to what I knew was true, He would lead me through what I didn’t know. Though emotions may soar to great heights and plummet to sordid depths, nothing can shake the reality of this foundation. I BELIEVE IN GOD THE FATHER – I wanted to shout it from the rooftops… and I still do.
Here is where I can plant my feet and not be shaken. In these days of confusion and fear around the world, it doesn’t take much to feel like a “wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6) Headlines scream terrifying news at us, the pundits on TV tell us what (and who) to believe, people are displaced, having to flee their homes, politicians ask us to put our faith in them – it’s hard to know who to follow and what to trust in anymore. “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened” (Lk 21:9) I still believe in God, the Father Almighty”
We are surrounded by the constant shifting shadows of life – today I choose to plant my feet on the one thing that will never change.I still believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord” “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Mt 24:35) I still believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting
And in the threatening waves, Jesus whispers, “Peace, be still”.