A Friend to God

http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za
http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za
Lent again.

My tummy grumbles and my spirit joins in. I don’t really feel like forty days of self-imposed discomfort.

What’s the point? Life is tough enough as it is. Why add to the misery?

But then I think of someone I love. He has gone through incredibly tough stuff, grief beyond my ability to comprehend. I want to be able to relate to Him, to understand what makes Him tick. But how can I if I don’t share His experiences?

Abraham got a chance to do just that. He got to know what it would feel like to lose his only child. He experienced the heart-rending agony of a father watching his son silently plead for mercy as he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? … And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.
James 2:21-23

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Abraham was getting a backstage pass into God’s cosmic play. He was getting the chance to enact God’s future story, to experience the same grief and elation that God the Father would feel over the death and resurrection of His only Son.

Moses, too, got the inside scoop on God. He got to bear the brunt of an ungrateful crowd griping about how he was handling things, angry about their health and safety conditions and ready to get rid of him as soon as he had outlived his usefulness to them. He also got to feel the agonized betrayal of a people head-spinningly quick to forget all he had done for them when their convenience or comfort was at stake.

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” …As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. …The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.
Exodus 33:7-11

But along with the pain, Moses got the privilege of being God’s friend. He got to feel what God feels and know what God thinks. Incredibly, he even got to chat with God face to face, swapping stories about the “kids” and deciding how they would handle them. Sometimes they argued, often they disagreed, but their relationship was characterized by mutual commitment and love. At the end of the day, God was still God and Moses still a mortal. But they were friends.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:13-15

It’s easy to think of holy men long ago who walked with God that way. But when I stop to think about what God says He wants from us, I am dumbfounded. His greatest “command” is to love Him with all that I am. He doesn’t want a polite, contractual relationship in which I do my bit and He does His. He wants me to engage Him with all my heart, soul, body, and mind. He wants me to speak my mind and to listen to His. At the end of the day I am still the child and He the Father; I am the servant and He the Master. But we are friends.

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Matthew 26:38
Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
Luke 15:6

And our friendship will express itself in my getting involved in His life story just as He is involved in mine. If I am His friend, I will love the things that He loves and do the things that He wants doing. But on a deeper level, if I am His friend I will groan when He groans and laugh when He laughs. I will stay awake with Him in the garden, watching and praying as He faces the darkest night of His soul. And I will party with Him in the kingdom, celebrating each stray sheep that is found and each lost son that comes home.

Rather than being what I most avoid,
hardship is a gateway to what I most desire.

Just as sharing similar experiences ushered Abraham and Moses into closer friendship with God, so walking a mile in God’s shoes enables me to relate with Him in greater solidarity. As I learn to see myself and the world around me through this lens, I come to value suffering in a new way. The trials that I experience (whether voluntary or not) are opening my mind and shaping my heart to be able to commune with God in ways I couldn’t before. Rather than being what I most avoid, they are a gateway to what I most desire.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 3:10-11

So I dive into the disciplines of Lent full on—not because the Bible commands it or because I enjoy self-imposed misery, but because I really want to know Christ. I want to be His friend in joy and in sorrow, in struggle and in triumph, in the middle of His story and at the end. I want to walk these forty days of trial with Him so that I can also celebrate their victorious completion with Him. This is my opportunity to invest in our relationship.

For better or for worse, I get to be God’s friend. Now that’s a privilege worth suffering for.

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The Road from Broken

attachment“He didn’t show up.”

I listened to the hum of my friend’s tires through the crackle of our phone connection, speechless in response to his overwhelming grief. The crack in his voice tore at my heart.

“My back was to the wall. I kept crying out for God to rescue me. I kept waiting to see what He would do, trusting that He would intervene.

“But He didn’t.”

Images flashed through my mind, memories of the times my spirit has broken under the crushing blow of God’s unresponsiveness. The unborn children that I had pled with Him to save. The violent attacks that I had begged Him to rescue me from. And more recently, the tiny niece whom I had persistently called on Him to heal.

But He didn’t.

When God lets our worst nightmare come true, how can we ever rest in His arms again?

When God allows our worst nightmare to unfold in front of our eyes, what can we say? What comfort is possible after He brings the darkest night of our soul? The sun may still rise, new mornings may come, but how can we raise our eyes to their hope-filled rays without remembering the dashed expectations of this night?

As I prayed through Psalm 89 this morning, God once again walked me through the arduous path from the valley of the shadow back into the land of the living. Ethan’s psalm is one of those conversations which suddenly takes an unexpected left turn, the sort of song that begins with pitch-perfect worship and ends with dissonant lament. But reading the beginning in light of the end shows me the way forward through the valley of despair.

I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
Psalm 89:1-2

At the moments when I have felt most let down by God, the hardest thing to do is to look Him in the eye. In an effort to preserve my sanity and my faith, I am tempted to look away, to settle for “Well, He is God and I am not. Who am I to expect any better than this?” But on the other side of disappointment, the psalmist undertakes the daring venture of repeating what he had based his world on before it fell apart. God’s unfailing love. His firm faithfulness.

…You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain; with your strong arm you scattered your enemies. The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it. …Your arm is endued with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.
Psalm 89:8-13

And having driven his stake firmly back into that rock, the psalmist faces head on the one excuse that might explain away a loving God who lets nightmares come true. Could it be that God just wasn’t big enough to handle this situation? Was His arm bound or this situation somehow beyond His reach? That would be convenient to believe. It would certainly let God off the hook. But the psalmist refuses to settle for a smaller deity, an emasculated, toned-down version of God. Instead he boldly reiterates God’s history of overcoming much greater forces than the one He just seemingly gave in to.

So God is loving and God is strong. Then why did He stand back and let this happen? How can I reconcile what I have heard Him say about Himself with what I have just seen with my eyes? The evidence seems to mount against Him.

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant,’I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’
“No enemy will subject him to tribute; no wicked man will oppress him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down his adversaries. My faithful love will be with him, and through my name his horn will be exalted.

But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice. You have turned back the edge of his sword and have not supported him in battle. You have put an end to his splendor and cast his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with a mantle of shame.
Psalm 89:3, 22-24 38-39, 42-45

At this point my courage falters. I am tempted to escape the conflict by switching into dissociative worship, gazing on God’s heavenly goodness while blocking out my earthly pain. But the psalmist takes the risky step of bringing the two together in the same room, laying side by side the specific promises God has made and the contradicting realities he has experienced. He refuses to deny, downplay, or excuse either of them until they have somehow been reconciled.

The tension builds until it is almost unbearable. The unspoken question hangs in the air: “Why have you let me down?” But the psalmist won’t say it. He doesn’t want to pass judgment on God prematurely.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life…
Psalm 89:46-47

And that’s when the element of time finally enters the room, allowing us all space to breathe again. The story isn’t over. The worst may have already happened, but God isn’t finished.

The worst may have already happened,
but the story isn’t over.

The babies may have died. The brutal act may have been completed. The contract may have been terminated. The relationship may be over. But that isn’t the end.

In God’s story, death ends in resurrection. Sorrow ends in comfort. Shame ends in glory. Brokenness ends in renewal. And suffering ends in redemption.

And so as I stand in the midst of the valley with my friend, my backward-looking questions of “why” give way to forward-reaching cries of “how long?” Like the “Are we there yet?” conversations that inevitably occur in the backseat of a seemingly eternal road trip, I switch from disappointment to anticipation. God’s “No” compels me to cry out in faith: “Then how much longer?”

He didn’t show up. But He will.

It is only a matter of time.

Against Mere Spirituality

"Hiding the light from the dark” Robert Bainbridge http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-14646794
“Hiding the light from the dark”
Robert Bainbridge
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-14646794
Silence. Solitude. Meditation. Prayer.

Sunday morning’s sermon should have resonated with my Spiritual Formation soul. After all, this is the subject I teach. Henri Nouwen, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux: they were all there, their famous quotes beautifully interwoven into the tapestry of the message. And yet the longer I listened, the more disturbed my spirit became within me. Something was seriously missing.

And then I realized: it was God.

That seemed so preposterous that I went back to listening, searching for Him between the fibers of the sermon. How can we talk about spirituality without the Spirit? But sadly this isn’t the first time I have encountered the puzzle of isolationist spirituality.

Spirituality itself has been a missing component in much of modern thought. Our dualistic splitting of body and spirit, natural and supernatural, and even secular and sacred have forced us to chose which we will focus on at any given time.

Rather than resist this philosophic intrusion, the church has capitulated to it, allowing our sphere of influence to be relegated to the realm of the spiritual. Full stop. We sing. We pray. We exhort. We encourage. But at the end of the service, the only thing we carry away is a soul that has been strengthened to hold on for another week as it waits to be evacuated to heaven, hopefully taking a few others along with it.

Our relegation of the physical sphere, however, has resulted in a spiritually bankrupt society, governed by a secularism that leaves no oxygen for the soul. And a new generation of spiritually starved souls has gone looking to end their hunger.

So why aren’t they finding God?

Because we left Him behind at church and in our prayer closets, safely tucked away in His tidy box where He won’t threaten our economic interests, our time restrictions, our professional interactions, or our safe, convenient lifestyles.

But that sort of split-spirituality won’t cut it. And our indictment is found in the words postmoderns use to describe what they are searching for:

Authentic. Radical. Embodied. Real.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. … And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
Romans 8:9-11

If those words described our spirituality, then wouldn’t they find God among us? If we were actively integrating our faith into our physical lives, embodying Christ in our care for all of creation (spiritual, social, physical, and global), then wouldn’t those seekers flock to us?

Instead they have been left to create their own form of spirituality, one which lacks the Spirit we claim to be full of. And so we get messages like the one I heard Sunday morning. Though it held out an appeal to pursue the “dangerous, radical adventure of a spiritual life,” it made no waves in a university chapel setting which was oriented for people “of all faiths or no faith at all,” because at bottom it didn’t challenge a secular paradigm. It didn’t call people to God; it only called them to leave behind the noise of the world and to get in touch with their deeper, truer selves.

And this is where I see a shocking similarity between secular spirituality, eastern spirituality, and much of historic Christian spirituality. It is predicated on the pursuit of our own spirits, of seeking to transcend the physical realm that we assume holds us back from the full realization of who were are as spiritual beings. So saints and mystics, monks and disciples of all stripe and religion end up pursuing the same path.

Silence. Solitude. Meditation. Prayer.

All of these are disciplines which I advocate in my classes as core to the Christian life, but always with the understanding of their purpose. These are practices that nurture the communion between God’s Spirit and ours, building a bond between us that forms the basis for all the rest of life. But true spirituality always erupts in transformed living.

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. …in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 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 8:19-23

God’s Spirit is too penetrating to stay locked in a monastic cell, too powerful to remain safely contained in our hearts. He moves through every layer of our being, bringing it in conformity to His glorious image. And He manifests Himself through our physical bodies, working radical redemption in the world around us as we use them to tend His global garden.

Mere spirituality calls us in to our private selves.

Real spirituality calls us out into the public mess.

From Where God Sits…

Dadaan refugee camp, Kenya Benjamin Grant/Digital Globe/Caters News Agency http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/feb/03/the-daily-planet-satellite-images-from-google-earth-in-pictures
Dadaan refugee camp, Kenya
Benjamin Grant/Digital Globe/Caters News Agency
http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/feb/03/the-daily-planet-satellite-images-from-google-earth-in-pictures
I have been home from Nigeria for almost a week now. I have managed to wash the dust out of my hair and the smoky smell out of my clothes, but a spirit of unrest still lingers in my soul. All is not well with my world, because people I love are still in danger. Terrorists continue to detonate bombs in busy markets, schools and churches; Boko Haram continues to massacre whole villages of people and take over increasing amounts of territory. And recent history tells us to expect a massive outpouring of violence against Christians just after the elections that the nation is preparing for as I write.

Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He lies in wait near the villages; from ambush he murders the innocent, watching in secret for his victims. He lies in wait like a lion in cover; he lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net. His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. He says to himself, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.”
Psalm 10:1-2; 8-11

When I stack all those odds against a government crippled by corruption and internal political jockeying, my heart fails within me. What hope is there for Nigerian Christians living in Muslim extremist dominated regions of the country? The realist in me knows better than to expect anything other than more of the same: unchecked violence, terrorism, and persecution, culminating in either annihilation or mass migration.

Given the news coming from around the world, the bad guys seem to always get away with their terrorist tactics while the good guys inevitably get the short end of the stick. What has remaining true to Christ accomplished for those tiny, minority communities in Iraq? What has turning the other cheek accomplished for the church in Nigeria?

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.
Psalm 73:13-15

Fear begins to creep over my spirit where hope used to dwell. Fatalism crowds out faith, telling me to quit looking through rose colored glasses and simply accept the inevitable. Righteous people suffer. Wicked people prosper. And in a dog-eat-dog world like that, why shouldn’t we do whatever it takes to defend our rights and lessen our suffering? After all, if we don’t fight to protect ourselves, who will?

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
Psalm 73:16-17

But as I follow that logical train of thought, I realize that somewhere along the way I have gotten off track from the way God tells the story. I have failed to account for the fact that He still reigns, not merely over those few human souls that are being extracted from a world that is otherwise going to hell, but over all of creation.

Knowing the end of the story completely changes the way I interpret the middle.

If the Scripture in the Halleluiah Chorus is really true, if the kingdoms of this world are now becoming the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, then that is a total game-changer. If Jesus is actively reigning over Nigeria and the Middle East, if Isis and Boko Haram are simply pawns in His hands, then that changes my perspective on everything. Sure, it leaves me with a lot of question as to why He allows them to do what they do, but it removes my need to take matters into my own hands.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace. The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.
Psalm 37:10-13

Knowing that God reigns over these bullies enables me to laugh in the face of their threats, not because the danger they pose is any less real, but because I can foresee the looks on their faces when they turn around and see Who is standing behind them. I don’t know when that will be or how much more of their terrorizing we will have to endure before then, but the end of the story is already written.

Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
Psalm 37:1-2

And knowing the end of the story completely changes the way I approach the middle.

But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.
Psalm 10:14

I don’t have to surrender to fatalism, because a personal God is actively reigning over the situation. He is keeping track of each terrorized child. He has taken note of each turned cheek, exposed as an act of faith that He will intervene on behalf of those who trustingly lay their right for vengeance in His hands.

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret–it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.
Psalm 37:7-9, 16-17

Nor do I have to give in to fear. It is not solely up to us to take down these powers and protect the vulnerable. They have not managed to de-throne God. And though they may act like no one will ever be able to hold them accountable, I refuse to believe their charade. Either running in terror or picking up guns in panic would be a capitulation to their version of the story.

The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land. You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.
Psalm 10:16-18

Instead I am prostrating myself before the Governor of nations, the King of heaven and earth. He is still in charge, and He is not the least bit threatened. I don’t know what means He will use to take down His enemies. It may even be that He mobilizes His people to take up arms in defense of the oppressed. But whether He leads us to take action or to turn the other cheek, He is the source of our confidence. One way or another, He will win His war on terror.

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the LORD.
Psalm 27:13-14 (NASB)