Greetings from Ireland my dear friends!
I am sitting in a teensy internet cafe that requires tokens to log on. It’s almost 2am here in this hostel in Belfast where I’ve slept the last half-dozen nights on a bottom bunk.
People keep asking why I came here. People kept asking before I left.
I didn’t know.
I’d never been to Europe and I’d always had a soft spot for Ireland. A mutt like most of us, but when my hair is copper half the year coupled with my love of Guinness – maybe they’d feel like my people? Not to mention the overly romanticized daydreams of writing my great novel on loose-leaf paper against emerald-hued hills. So, when the opportunity opened I bought every shade of green that Patagonia offers and packed my bags. (And my compression socks.)
Of course there was anxiety… travel and money and unclear expectations and not being in control. Bad luck with trips in the past. Being away from home where any million things could go wrong and I couldn’t get there in a moment’s notice. The hope of my first European experience – with a lover by my side to see & share and in my bed to be held by, now permanently dashed.
The gift of hearts unafraid to see you through a magnifying glass is priceless, eh?
And it’s those few that see my fears and scars up close who received this note I tapped out quickly before flying ‘cross the pond:
“These are the words I’m meditating on: ‘…beauty from ashes…’ – part of Isaiah 61, which has been my life’s mission, to offer. It dawned on me that I don’t see that offering as Christ’s and I can RECEIVE it. And I certainly don’t expect it.
Beauty from ashes.
Beauty from ashes.
Will you pray that passage over me while I’m gone?”
And the resounding “Yes!” lifted my eyes heavenward and my heart from the pool of anxiety somewhere near my ankles where it’d dipped to.
What’s interesting about that? Well, as you know, there are seven voices that weave Hope is Hard and the themes for each week (to give you, our truly beloved reader, a semblance of continuity) are sent out far in advance. How serendipitous (oh our sneaky good God) that while I was booked to be in Belfast the post I’d be writing was on Isaiah 61. The chapter that first told me God brings beauty from ashes! The chapter that’s commanded my attention and commandeered my spirit since I read it years ago on a sticky hot Ohio night when I swear the Holy Spirit Himself blew breath to billow the curtains, just to make sure I was paying attention I suppose.
I also suppose that my prayer was a bit selfish.
I wanted beauty FOR me from the ashes OF me.
I’ve been divided. War-torn. Heart-broken.
And where did God bring me?
To a nation divided. War-torn. Heart-broken.
We’ve walked miles and miles and miles in blistered feet through and around and inside of a city whose war I don’t remember being mentioned in high school history. 40 foot walls (still here.) Bombings. Fires. Torture. Paramilitary terror. Streets governed by fear and fury. All in the name of religion. Catholics vs. Protestants. Nationalist vs. Loyalist.
Here I am. In 2017. And on my taxi tour of the political murals on both literal sides, the police were in the streets looking for those responsible for capturing a man the night before, those that caned him with a crow bar and poured boiling water on his face as punishment.
This week I’ve sat in a breezy classroom in Trinity College Dublin’s Irish School of Ecumenics as a professor of peace taught me The Troubles. In the hallways of a monastery we wound our way to the very room where secret political meetings brought friendships only God could’ve orchestrated. We’ve perched under a gazebo in Belfast’s Botanic gardens to lean into the story of mystic Jesus-followers who’ve seen it all and see hope still. Yesterday we sat tucked on sofas beneath slivers of stained glass as a rock ‘n’ roll scholar (who also happens to be a sought-after theologian minding the gap) shared his years and ponderings.
This morning we worshipped at the Catholic mass inside of a breathtaking cathedral where earnest hands clasped. And then – oh the beauty of what next, oh the beauty from ashes – we gathered for tea and biscuits with elderly parishioners who have walked as “Unity Pilgrims” for decades to the other side of town! …The side they’re not welcome on. The side they have to cross gates to get through. The side that has to cross through gates to get to them. The side they’ve built walls to keep out and are kept out by. And they attended a second worship service. In a Protestant church. Where they hugged friends. Where peace itself has a handshake and a warm smile and a cuppa tea.
The man sitting next to me, an almost-retired financier who recently joined this group of white-haired rebels, took a genuine interest in getting to know me. He shared his story in a booming voice and big smile. He said plainly “If we listened to the words we’re all saying on Sunday morning than there wouldn’t be any of this separation. Never would have been any.”
But hundreds of years speak, rather yell, otherwise.
Separate schools. Separate sports. Separate flags.
And yet… they all claim a God who desires peace and brotherhood. Don’t they?
And there’s the rub. There’s the anvil-weighted heaviness. The younger generation sees an answer for peace –
Can you blame them?
If these religions under His name have done so much harm, wouldn’t life without Him bring repair? Oh the trickery of our enemy. His slight-of-hand hasn’t changed much since the garden; convincing Eve that she didn’t need God and instead could be enough god on her own. And it’s the same now in a city of people I’ve fallen in love with.
And it certainly isn’t just Northern Ireland facing the despair of division. The world over is ripped at it’s seams. And what is God’s heart for His broken beloved creation?
Beauty from ashes.
Good news to the poor.
Freedom for the captives.
Comfort for all who mourn.
The whole of Isaiah 61.
Our first record of Christ’s public teaching is in Luke 4. He’d just been in the wilderness without food for forty days, tempted by the devil himself and now He was in Nazareth preaching in the synagogue. Methinks He’d have a lot to say. We wait with baited breath much like the Galileans did all those years ago. And Jesus unrolls a scroll and reads out loud…
There is hope stitched in every word because of the heart of God it describes.
It was that hope and that heart I mused briefly while walking down the cobblestone streets of Belfast after church(es) with the Unity Pilgrims. I told my new friend Chris that it seemed as timely as possible that I had to sit and share my thoughts on this age-old and so-needed-now chapter of Scripture tonight.
I couldn’t believe that the words I’d selfishly asked to have prayed over my own heart were the words I was now hearing God pray over this city, His city, and my guts desired to join Him in that cry for these brothers and sisters.
In just a few days my heart had seen the gaping need for hope in Belfast. Who else saw it? Where were the other rebels crossing lines and extending hands to bring beauty from literal and figurative ash? What was God up to?
After all, it doesn’t take too long of a skim through the Old Testament and New to see that claiming cities torn away from Him is God’s very business.
I ducked out of the rain into a cab and changed clothes in a communal bathroom before walking back out to another meeting with strangers.
A South African pastor who’d met his Hoosier wife in Dublin. His right hand man a German who’d married a gal from Florida. They planted a church in Belfast. They’re raising babies and loving university students and now twenty people meet in a borrowed school on Sunday mornings to ‘do church’ and cry out, sing out, ask expectantly, praise loudly, and shine a light in the darkness.
What could motivate them to do this slow, tedious work so far from home? To press in when division and war and heart-break seemed to win the souls and the days?
In his Afrikaans accent the pastor shared “Before we came here God gave us these specific verses, I’d like to share them with you.”
Any guess what rolled off his tongue and painted goosebumps up my arms?
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captive and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord, for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”