Threatened by Glory

I am ashamed of myself.

Last night a young atheist sat at my dinner table, prodding me with questions about my life. I had no difficulty explaining the humanitarian work I was involved in for the many years we lived in South Asia. Mentoring illiterate women and training untouchables to become teachers is quite the fashionable thing to have done. But how could I explain to this highly intelligent, completely secular neuroscientist my personal, interactive relationship with God or, even harder still, His zeal for His glory among the nations?

I balked. Seeing my life through her eyes, it made no sense. Voices from God? You mean thoughts from your own subconscious which somehow bypassed your self-awareness filter. Purposefully going to developing countries to call people of other faiths to the worship of your God? I thought the West had gotten beyond such imperialistic arrogance. A God who commands the worship of all people everywhere? Whoa. You’ve got to be kidding. Who would even want to believe in that?

The invitation to faith implies a humiliation of reason.

This was one of those defining moments in which personal faith collides with public reality. What I easily accept and even stake my personal life on suddenly seemed silly and obnoxious when described in a humanistic, scholarly context. I was confronted with an unavoidable test of faith: did I believe in the reality of God’s current, imminent reign enough to publicly assert it?

Daniel was faced with a similar conundrum. Among his fellow Jews, his faith in God made sense. But at court among the most powerful and prestigious Babylonians, it must have seemed ridiculous. He was well-enough versed in the literature and philosophy of the land to know how ludicrous his stodgy, monotheistic convictions must sound, and he was certainly politically aware enough to recognize how threatening his claims of his God’s supreme power and glory would be. What subservient captive would have the chutzpah to tell his illustrious conqueror, “Respectfully sir, you are nothing compared to my God.”

Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. …
“This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
Daniel 4:19, 24-25

And yet that is exactly what Daniel did. When Nebuchadnezzar summoned him to interpret a disturbing dream, he was faced with a tough choice. Asserting what he knew to be true would be dangerous. How could he tell the king that his God was going to prove Himself the superior King, judging him for his arrogance and humiliating him until he gave glory to the God of his captives? That would be a bit like the ant threatening the boot, just before it went “crunch.”

But Daniel believed in the power of God more than he feared the power of the king. He was more convinced of the actuality of God’s invisible reign than he was of the reality of Nebuchadnezzar’s very obvious reign, so tangible that Daniel had experienced the subjugation of its lash and cuffs.

Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird. At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
Daniel 4:33-34

Daniel believed, so he spoke up despite how ridiculous it sounded. And God showed up and proved him right. The mighty king of Babylon down on all fours, eating grass and hanging out in his birthday suit. The glorious King of Heaven exalted to the highest throne, proving once again that He is worthy of all honor and devotion. Daniel’s faith had collided with human reality, and his faith had not backed down. Instead it had changed reality.

Faith changes sight.

Likewise, God’s Spirit emboldened me last night, nudging me forward to assert what I know to be true about Him. Thankfully my message was not one of judgment but of invitation.

He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before.
Daniel 4:35-36

But the invitation to faith implies a humiliation of reason. The call to glorify God necessitates a subjugation of the glory of man, putting it in its proper place under His feet. And as I talked to my guest about the great Love of my life, I watched her face rise and fall in disbelief and amazement, disdain and desire. Such loss of personal autonomy. Such gain of joy and significance. She left misty-eyed and smiling, touched by my testimony of the ways God has given me greater glory with Him than I ever had apart from Him.

In the end, Nebuchadnezzar’s eyes were opened to the truest reality. I can only pray hers will be, too.

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When My World Fell Apart

I never realized how much I took for granted until so much of it was taken from me. Physical safety. Financial security. A sense of control over what happened to my body, my possessions, my future. The ability to predict how others would act: confidence in my friends’ solidarity with me and certainty in what God would never allow my enemies to do to me.

When I felt secure, I said, “I will never be shaken.” O LORD, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.
Psalm 30:6-7

But in one tidal wave of events, the peace of the garden was replaced by the chaos of the flood. My assumptions of how the world worked were overturned, my soul left tumbling and swirling in a sea of helplessness and confusion. The foundational truth of the first Psalm, that the righteous always stand firmly planted by God’s nourishing stream, gave way to experiences that forced me to question everything I had ever known.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea– the LORD on high is mighty
Psalm 93:3-4

That tame, predictable stream had now run over its banks, rising until it threatened to completely engulf me. The world was no longer a safe, nurturing place for me, those who populated it no longer a source of understanding and acceptance. Who could comprehend the atrocities that had been forced on my body, the horrors that would forever be imprinted on my soul? Who could protect me from further attack, both in physical reality and in the ongoing reality of my memories?

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do ?”
Psalm 11:3

As the fallout of those experiences continued to break over me, I felt myself being washed away in a torrent of devastation and confusion. My secure foundations crumbled beneath my feet, failing me just when I had counted on them the most. Tossed about by the chaos of uncertainty and the power of destructive forces, I reached a breaking point within myself.

The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me… In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help.
He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
Psalm 18:4-5, 16-18

I could no longer cope with the overwhelming circumstances without and the rising terror within. Without immediate intervention, I would be overcome. I cried out to God in panic, a drowning soul with nothing else to grab on to. And He showed up with an ark.

The ark of His love saved me from the overwhelming flood of my trauma.

Safe in His hold. Secure in His love. His ark held me through the gale that continued to swirl all around me. This ark of our relationship was one that He had called me to build long before I could have comprehended the life preserver it would turn out to be. Year after year I had worked on it, dutifully laying plank after plank of prayer and Bible study, faith-building choices and love-driven obedience. Little did I know that what I thought I had been constructing for His sake, He was planning for mine.

O LORD God Almighty, who is like you? You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.
Psalm 89:9-10

As my life as I had known it continued to be washed away by trauma’s flood, I found rest in the sweet security of my relationship with God. His unfailing love for me became my anchor in the storm, my safe place in the midst of danger, my true north through waves of disorientation. He became my defining circumstance. More than the storms of traumatic events, more than the messy wasteland of their aftershocks, His unshakeable love formed the foundation in which I could root myself.

God became my defining circumstance.

The storm did eventually subside. The waters slowly receded, revealing the radically altered terrain of my world. Relationships redefined. Circumstances changed. I held back, afraid to emerge from the safety of the ark, reticent to leave the comfort of the cocoon. But His dove-like Spirit nudged me forward, assuring me with the rainbow-sealed promise of His ongoing presence.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall…
Psalm 46:1-5

Together we have done a lot of rebuilding, not according to the blueprints of my former life, but from scratch, making something new. For a long time I looked back and mourned all that I had lost; I now rejoice in what I have gained. New roles. Different abilities. New communities. Old relationships, deeper for having withstood the storm. But most of all, I rejoice in the new identity He has given me, one so firmly rooted and established in His love that I no longer fear the future. Now more than ever, I am that tree flourishing in the garden, roots sunk deep into the stream of Living Water.

Making Sense of Trauma

For the longest time I couldn’t understand what was going on in me. Why did my daughter’s little hands touching my throat suddenly make me panic? Why did my laughter now end in tears, happy moments suddenly dissolve into uncontrollable sobbing? Why couldn’t I respond spontaneously to the people and situations around me, instead feeling like I walked around in a daze, like I was watching my life from the other side of a glass window?

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of God’s bigger story.

It took a long time for my husband and I to recognize that I was experiencing the aftershocks of trauma. It took us even longer to understand what trauma is and how it works. Having emerged out the other side of those years of struggle and search to make sense of my nightmarish experience, I have come to see trauma as an integral part of God’s redemptive plan for creation. Far from being a recent psychological development, trauma is woven right through the fabric of the biblical meta-narrative. As shocking and inexplicable as the experience of trauma was for me, it was anticipated by God from the beginning.

So the LORD God said to the serpent, “…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:14-16

Who else could have foreseen the cosmic repercussions of a serpent slipping quietly into the serene goodness of the garden? In an instant, the world as it had been was turned upside down. Death introduced. Life redefined. Intimacy shattered. Relationships fragmented. Fear and failure became ever-present companions, frustration and pain the new normal. And childbirth entered the scene.

I hear a cry as of a woman in labor, a groan as of one bearing her first child– the cry of the Daughter of Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands and saying, “Alas! I am fainting; my life is given over to murderers.”
We have heard reports about them, and our hands hang limp. Anguish has gripped us, pain like that of a woman in labor.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth, And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everyone says, “Glory!”
Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24, Psalm 29:9(NKJV)

Throughout the story of Scripture, childbirth symbolizes trauma. When the prophets brought news of overwhelming disaster, they described it in terms of sudden pains seizing men and nations like a woman in labor. The overwhelming power of God’s voice is depicted as sending the deer into labor. And all of creation is described as groaning under the protracted, agonizing curse of childbirth.

Like labor, trauma seizes otherwise strong, stable men and causes them to uncontrollably weep and moan. It transforms intelligent, articulate women into incoherent, curled-up infants. Trauma overpowers everything else in our lives until it becomes our defining circumstance, the moment by which we count our time, the event that re-interprets all others.

Trauma is a horrific means to a desirable end.

But along with trauma’s devastation comes an opportunity for re-creation. Just as the overwhelming pain of childbirth prepares the way for a new life to emerge, the distressing blow of trauma can open the way for a new identity to be formed.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
…And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
Hebrews 2:10, 13b

Jesus’ experience of trauma was life re-defining, both for Himself and for all of us who cling to Him in faith. Through the agonizing pain He endured, He gave birth to a new family of people. And through the unspeakable horrors He experienced, He earned the right to be exalted over all of creation.

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
Matthew 24:7-8

Jesus’ trauma was also part of a bigger story, the transition period in creation’s millennia-long birthing process. Ever since it was subjected to the curse, creation has been moaning, shuddering with the pain of bringing forth something new. Natural disasters. World wars. Like any woman experiencing transition in labor, the thought that this state of affairs might go on forever makes it unbearable.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. … We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:18-23

But blessedly, the dark tunnel of trauma does not go on forever. There is an end in sight, one which is new and improved over the beginning. The events that leave us shattered and overwhelmed are making way for us, like the rest of creation, to undergo a complete over-haul. In the process we clutch ourselves in anguish and groan with the memory of what we have endured, but we also look forward in hope to a new, better day.

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of a bigger story, important pieces in a puzzle that God has been assembling since the beginning. Though it will never make sense to me on this side of glory, I have learned to see trauma as a horrific means to a desirable end. Damage bringing renewal. Death producing life.

When God Finally Says Yes

My husband and I were up till all hours last night, scrambling to find a solution to, what seemed at the time, a major crisis. Our 14-year-old daughter was about to be stranded in Houston overnight, stuck on an incoming flight so delayed that she had already missed the last flight out to her destination. We felt so powerless as parents, sitting in our kitchen in Scotland, unable to get to our child when she needed our help. So in between being put on hold again by the airlines and posting frantic facebook requests, we kept calling out to God to please take care of our girl.

We didn’t have to wait nearly as long as David did to receive God’s reply.

God’s delay may have sounded like a no, but His reply was a profoundly gratifying yes.

David spent years as a youth, helplessly stuck between the rock of God’s calling on his life and the hard place of Saul’s jealous attempts to thwart it. Anointed as king but hiding out like a convict. Promised God’s protective love but constantly running for his life. Again and again he called out to God for help. He saw God intervene in the moment and deliver him from each immediate threat, but God did not instantly solve his ongoing, bigger problem. If anything, each time when Saul walked away from an encounter still the rightful king and still his powerful antagonist, David very well could have felt like God had just said “no.”

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm. O LORD, save the king! Answer us when we call!
Psalm 20:7-9

But David didn’t stop asking. He didn’t really have much choice about his life circumstances; those were mostly out of his control. In the face of his helplessness, he clung all the more intensely to God as his only helper. And in the end, God came through.

O LORD, the king rejoices in your strength. How great is his joy in the victories you give! You have granted him the desire of his heart and have not withheld the request of his lips.
Psalm 21:1-2

When God finally removed Saul and established David as king, David’s prayers overflowed with gratitude and relief. His joy in what God had done was that much greater because he had waited so long to see it happen. What he might have taken for granted had it come quickly and easily he could now savor as a precious gift from God.

You welcomed him with rich blessings and placed a crown of pure gold on his head. He asked you for life, and you gave it to him– length of days, for ever and ever. Through the victories you gave, his glory is great; you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.
Psalm 21:3-5

Similarly, Jesus’ long wait for deliverance made His resurrection all the sweeter, His exaltation all the more glorious. He had begged God for His life, and for a time it certainly seemed as if God had said “no.” Long, silent night on trial. Eternal, agonizing day on the cross. Three solar cycles in the grave, wondering if God would show up, if He would reverse the natural laws of death and decay.

Surely you have granted him eternal blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in the LORD; through the unfailing love of the Most High he will not be shaken.
Psalm 21:6-7

But Jesus didn’t stop trusting His Father’s love. And in the end, God came through. He had not prayed in futility. He had not waited in vain. God’s delay may have sounded like a no, but His reply was a profoundly gratifying yes.

Anticipation heightens gratification.

On a much smaller scale, God’s reply to our frantic prayers last night brought us greater joy because He made us wait for it. Of course we had asked Him to bless and protect our daughter as she left home yesterday morning. But had He answered that prayer in the time and way that we expected, she would have arrived at her grandparents’ home without a hitch and we would have carried on our routine with little thought for God’s intervention.

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.
Psalm 116:1-2

Instead He allowed us a sleepless night and heart-stopping moments in exchange for the deep delight of seeing Him answer. Countless concerned friends. Loving, proactive strangers. A safe home to shelter our child. A kind-hearted soul to put her on the next day’s flight. At last we snuggled down into our bed, blissfully at rest in the unfailing love of our Father.

Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.
Psalm 116:7

When God Says No

What happens if I pray for a miracle but God doesn’t show up and do it?

I recently received an email from a woman struggling with how to pray expectantly for a healthy baby while facing genetic odds to the contrary. Her fearful questions reminded me of a time years ago when I faced similar circumstances, stuck between the rock of unbelief and the hard place of disappointment.

Sometimes we feel stuck between the rock of unbelief and the hard place of disappointment.

God had been teaching me much about faith, calling me to higher levels of prayer and expectation. I had been reticent to claim things of Him that He had not clearly promised, but at the same time His Spirit was convicting me to ask more of Him. As I slowly began to do so, I was amazed to see Him show up and do things that I never would have expected. Miraculous healings. Sudden changes of heart. My faith was growing in leaps and bounds, and I wanted that to continue.

So when I found out that I was expecting a child, I recognized another opportunity for my faith to grow. My joy over this new gift of life was mixed with fear that, like the three who had gone before her, she would die in utero. Each doctor’s appointment confirmed my fear as her development began to fall off the charts. I was tempted to resign myself to the inevitable, to protect myself from the crushing weight of disappointment by not holding out hope that God would work a miracle. At the same time, I wanted to live by faith, not fear. So I kept wrestling in prayer, begging my Heavenly Father to spare her life. I clung to the truth that He loved me and that nothing was impossible for Him.

God said no to His only Son.

When I lost the baby, I almost lost my faith. God had told me to ask, so I asked. Then He said no. I felt betrayed. My faith in His goodness was shattered. Where could I go from here?

Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
John 11:41-44

I was not alone in this experience. Jesus had walked this path ahead of me. He had approached God in faith, asking Him to do the impossible and watching Him answer with incredible miracles. He had related to God with the boldness of a child, confident in God’s fatherly love that would hear and respond to His requests.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba”, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Mark 14:35-36

But when Jesus begged God to spare His life, God said no. Jesus had put His faith on the line, wrestling with God in prayer in the garden, refusing to resign Himself to the inevitable. He clung to the truth that God loved Him and that nothing was impossible for Him.

“He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ”
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “”Eloi, Eloi,” “lama” “sabachthani?””–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Matthew 27:43, 46

And yet at the end of the day, Jesus found Himself strung out on a cross, fighting a losing battle for breath, and crying out His feeling of abandonment by God. He had trusted His Father. Through prayer and supplication He had made His request known to God, but God hadn’t granted it. Where could He go from here?

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
Luke 23:46

In an ultimate act of faith, Jesus went right back to God. He laid His Spirit in His Father’s hands, trusting in His unfailing love despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And His Father didn’t fail Him. He let Him down as far as the grave, but He held His body intact through the agonizing wait for the third day’s dawn. Then He said yes.

God’s love is powerful enough to accomplish a “yes,” strong enough to hold us through a “no.”

As I teetered on the brink of losing my faith, I, too, reached out to God in a final act of desperation. I placed the last shredded remains of my faith into His hands, begging Him to hold onto it for me because I had no strength left to hold into it myself. And God didn’t fail me, either. He held my faith intact through the death of another dream and the long wait for hope’s resurrection.

On the other side of healings and deaths, high hopes and devastating disappointment, the confidence that I can claim as I boldly ask God for a miracle is His Fatherly love: powerful enough to accomplish a “yes,” strong enough to hold me through a “no.”

Renovating Fatherhood

“I can’t call Him Father.”

God entrusts His image to frail human fathers.

I looked across the table at the emaciated young woman whose life had been destroyed by the double whammy of a manipulative, molesting father and a violent, abusive husband. For as far back as she could remember, the men in her life had treated her with anger and contempt, violence and disapproval. As I listened to her story, I marveled at the fact that she could still relate to God at all. After years of having Him so misrepresented to her by her father and her bridegroom, how did she now conceptualize Him?

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Matthew 7:9-11

The Scriptures tell all kinds of stories about messy human fathers. Adam blew it. Noah got drunk and made a fool of himself. Abraham sent his son away empty-handed; Isaac got his kids mixed up; Jacob played favorites. Judah broke his promises. Eli spoiled his boys. Samuel did more with other people’s kids than his own. Saul was violent and verbally abusive. David was negligent and aloof. But the Scriptures also tell the story of the perfect Father whom human fathers were designed to represent.

Then the LORD came down in the cloud … And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:5-7

It amazes me that God would entrust His image to frail human fathers. No wonder He constantly has to come in behind them and set the record straight. When He explained to Moses what He was really like, He emphasized how much He loves all of His children, explaining that He prefers to treat them with grace and compassion, not anger and retribution. That being said, He also sets clear expectations for them, standards which He lovingly but firmly enforces.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, … who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed…
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:3-5, 9-14

Despite his shortcomings in demonstrating the Father’s love to his own children, David did an excellent job of describing it. Fixing our problems and satisfying our desires, this Father takes great delight in caring for His children. He doesn’t look down on us for our limitations or resent us for our neediness. He understands our genetic disposition and our emotional hardwiring, because He designed us that way. Rather than hold our weaknesses against us in anger, He compensates for them with His love.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
John 14:8-10

Jesus took up the role of showing us what the Father is really like. His actions and His words perfectly reflected the heart of the Father. Welcoming the prodigal. Forgiving the delinquent. Challenging the self-satisfied. Empowering the weak through the gift of His Spirit. His Fatherly love does not lower His standards for His children; it compels Him to stoop down, take us by the hand, and help us up to meet them.

…go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. …your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Matthew 6:6, 8, 26

But it wasn’t enough to Jesus to merely mediate an accurate picture of the Father. He repeatedly prompted people to go directly to His Father and relate to Him as their own. Turn to Him. Talk to Him. Ask Him for anything. He’s already tuned in to you. He values you. He anticipates your needs. He delights in giving you good things. That’s the kind of Father He is. That’s the kind of Father He wants to be to you.

Our heavenly Father throws open His arms to His kids in a gesture of delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

For better or for worse, our experience of our human fathers informs our perception of our heavenly Father. Some of us have been blessed with fathers who beautifully portray the heart of God, enabling us to tangibly experience His unconditional love. Others of us have had our picture of God horribly distorted, wrinkled, twisted, or shredded by frail mortals who conveyed a very different message about who we are to the Father.

But despite the strength or weakness of the messenger, the message stays the same. God throws open His arms to us with a delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

And we get to call Him Father.

Pentecost: Re-igniting Glory

“I’m not sure what to think about Gollum. He is so evil and disgusting, but I still feel sorry for him. I kind of wish something good would happen to change him back into the man he used to be.” My twelve-year-old son’s observations about Tolkien’s pathetic, twisted character match my own take on humanity.

How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame ? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?” Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD.
Psalm 4:2, 6

Obsessed with the beautiful bauble dangling before us, we gave up life in Eden to pursue our deluded heart’s desire. We turned from the light of God’s face to gaze into the mirror of our own distorted reflections. Like the characters in Tolkien’s story, we turned from the glory of the Garden to the grey, lifeless towers of our own making. From Eden to Babel we chased after our own glory, and in the process we lost it.

We turned from the light of God’s face to gaze into the mirror of our own distorted reflections.

Decay. Corruption. Falling short.

Distrust. Isolation. Fragmentation.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Colossians 1:13-15

But God did not quit on us. He did not turn His back and leave us in our dark, lonely cesspools, chewing on bones and mumbling over our “precious.” He wrapped His glory in a soft, warm body and dwelt among us. He shone the light of His face through the eyes of a Man who looked beyond our faded facades and loved the remnant of His image within.

If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. … Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever–the Spirit of truth. … you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
John 14:7-9, 16-17

For a brief time, God’s glory was once again visible in the face of Christ. When the disciples looked at Him, they saw the Father. His glory began to dawn within them. Glimpses of unity. Glimmers of love. But Jesus’ bodily presence was only a temporary, external solution. He prepared His disciples for His departure by promising them His Spirit, who would come and live within them instead of among them.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 2:1-4

And so it happened, just ten days after His ascension. Gathered disciples, sitting enclosed within man-made walls. Wind and fire, moving freely the way they had when they parted the sea and led God’s people through the wilderness. God’s glory flame returned, blowing through their midst and settling on each of them the way it had once settled on the tabernacle and the temple.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation– This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven…
Colossians 1:21-23

In one of God’s grand reversals, the ugly effects of Babel were overturned in a instant. Language barriers dropped. Alienating behaviors overcome. The church broke out of its walls and began to speak the love of God to everyone outside. The Spirit of God took His mobile sanctuaries to the world, connecting with each person in the language of his or her heart and gathering them into one glorious kingdom, one beautiful Bride.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3:16-19

This is the story that we are living today. We are that Church, the living, breathing sanctuary of God’s Spirit. His glory has returned to us and is living within us, transforming our isolated, Gollum-like selves into a loving, nurturing, unified community. Sometimes our ugly wins out over our beautiful, but His Spirit will not quit on us until He has so filled us with His love that we overflow with it. Empty and distorted as we were, we are being filled with the Spirit of God until our lowly bodies reflect His glorious image. Our glory is back!

“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Ephesians 5:14

Expecting the Unexpected

“I’m nervous about this, Lord. How can I be sure that You will show up and heal her? What if I have misinterpreted You? I’m afraid to put Your name on the line, to expect something of You that You may not plan to do.”

Not asking for a miracle might keep my faith in place, but it also kept my faith from growing.

Miracles were as foreign an idea to me as giants and dragons. I believed that they happened, but were more likely to occur long ago in a far away land. Why? Because, in my experience, that wasn’t the way God usually worked. Because the cost of discipleship had oriented my expectations towards suffering and struggle, not healing and deliverance. And, if I were perfectly honest, because I was too afraid to expect more of God and then be disappointed.

Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
John 14:11-13

But Jesus’ words raised my expectations. They called my bluff, pulling aside my cover-up of piety and surrender and revealing my wimpy faith. Why didn’t I ask Him for more? Was it because I believed that asking for miracles would be inappropriate for a mature believer in His sovereignty, or was it simply because underneath my theological excuses, I was compensating for a lack of faith that God would actually do what I asked?

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
John 15:7-8

As I studied Jesus’ final interaction with His disciples before His death, I heard my own weak faith reflected in their responses to Him. Resignation. Fear. Doubt. And I heard Him nudging me to ask for more from Him, to extend beyond the safety zone of my expectations and risk disappointment with Him. Not asking for a miracle might keep my faith in place, but it would also keep my faith from growing.

I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.
Psalm 2:7-8

God the Father had invited His Son to ask. Jesus in turn invited His disciples to ask. Now it was my turn to ask, taking Him at His word that both His glory and my joy would be increased through my doing so.

Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
John 16:24
Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful… Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
Acts 3:2-6

And so I asked Him to heal my Hindu friend, whose rheumatoid arthritis had kept her crippled and in pain all the years I had known her. I went to her home and laid my hands on her knees, asking Him out loud to restore her ability to walk. And I returned to my own home, relieved to have dispatched my duty and wondering what would come of it. Would God show up and do what I had asked? Had I just raised my unbelieving friend’s expectations of a God who might not rise to meet them? My action had either set her up to encounter God in a powerful, personal way or to turn away from Him in disappointment and disbelief. Petrified, I could only watch and wait to see what He would do.

Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.
Acts 3:7-8

A few days later I went by her house. Much to my astonishment and my joy, I found her walking around without support, something I had never seen her do. My jaw hit the floor. It had worked. God had done what I asked!

When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?
By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.
Acts 3:12, 16

As it was for the disciples, my friend’s healing afforded me the opportunity to once again call her and her husband to faith in Jesus. But her healing also called me to greater faith through Him. Learning to trust our Father meant learning to ask Him for the impossible. I could not claim what He would or would not do with my request, but I could rest in the assurance that He would hold my faith in His goodness regardless of the outcome. Just as He had taught me to accept the undesirable, He now taught me to expect the unexpected.

Beyond Abuse: Becoming the Bride

Faced with a world full of ugliness and abuse, I want to run home to the garden. I want to recapture that time when the man and the woman existed lovingly with each other, at peace with God and with all of His beautiful creation.

God isn’t returning us to life in the garden. He is grooming us to live as His bride in Heaven.

But we left that garden behind long ago, and the way back has been barred ever since. Cut off from our Life-source, our former beauty has faded. The image of God within us is tarnished almost beyond recognition, its dim remains further broken down by the destructive ways that we treat each other. Abuse denies the remnant of God’s image within us, screaming to our souls that we are worth nothing more than the dirt from which we were created and to which we will return.

Abandoned. Beaten. Violated. Accused. We quiver and cringe, cut off from God, isolated from each other. Hagar weeps by a well in the desert, longing to be loved. Tamar rips her clothes, lamenting her lost purity. The concubine clings to the doorframe, pleading for protection.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:15, 19-20

And God draws near. His glory puts on flesh and walks among us. He sees the unwanted Samaritan woman alone by the well, and He loves her. He defends the accused adulteress standing before Him with her purity in tatters, and He restores her. He delivers the Magdalene woman from a horde of spirit attackers, and He opens the door for her to stay right by His protective side.

But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation …
To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Colossians 1:22, 27

But His redemptive work doesn’t stop there. He isn’t content to merely fix the problems and right the wrongs. He doesn’t want to simply return us to the garden. He has been planning something much better from the beginning, a surprise that surpasses the goodness that we started out with. He is in the process of putting His glory into us, reversing the decay of our souls and raising us up to a life that is better than ever.

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
Revelation 19:7-8; 21:2-3

Unlike the king in Esther’s story, our King picks up the basin and the towel to wash away our impurity with His own hands. He then proceeds to oversee our beauty treatment, dressing and bejeweling us until we radiate with loveliness. And with a crowning touch, He will present us to Himself as the bride of His dreams, the helper suitable that He has been waiting on since there was none found for Him in the garden.

“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he … showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
Revelation 21:9-11

And we, with unveiled faces, will stand eye-to-eye with our Kingly Groom. We will perfectly reflect His resplendent glory, and He will adoringly gaze on our radiant beauty. We will dance and sing in His presence, bold, beautiful, and confident in the love of our Husband. Our home will be a place of healing and joy, of comfort and safety, of security and peace. And the best part is, we will live there happily ever after with Him.

Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints. …let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp. For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.
Psalm 149:1-4