Breathe.

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Burn out. Exhaustion. Stress.

I remember as a teacher in inner-city middle schools having to remind my slightly hormonal, emotionally out-of-control students to stop and breathe. Somehow the extra oxygen to the brain was just what they needed to refocus and regain control.

Some days I need the same reminder: stop, take a deep breath, focus, let it out.

But more than oxygen, my soul craves the life-giving breathe of the Spirit.

How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from God?

Sometimes the burdens of life, the non-stop demands that pile up into days and weeks start to squeeze the life out of me. I look for reprieve, but as soon as I manage to carve out a little space some other urgent responsibility pushes in. And no wonder! The lifestyle that Jesus calls us to is impossibly intense.

Take every thought captive. Pray without ceasing. Bear each others’ burdens. Share with those in need. Entertain strangers. Visit the sick. Feed the poor. Work. Teach. Serve. Proclaim. Disciple. Listen. Weep. Rejoice.

If I am to take this impossibly great commission seriously, I am going to need a lot of help. And that’s just the point. I need the Holy Helper.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
…the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Genesis 1:2, 2:7

When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:29-30

He is the One who hovered over the face of the dark, unruly waters in the beginning, bringing order out of chaos and beauty out of emptiness. He is the Air that God breathed into the lungs of the first man, pouring life into dust. And He is the renewing force that restores worn-out souls, that reinvigorates exhausted minds, that reignites burnt-out bodies.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
John 20:21-22

Of course Jesus knew we couldn’t manage carrying this workload on our own. And He never intended us to. Along with a commission He gave us His Spirit to do the job with us, or more accurately, to do the job through us. But as much as I may theologically acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s existence, I too often fail to live as if it is true. So no wonder I end up where I am now: worn, spent, and running on empty.

I need to stop and breathe.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me
to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate
for more of the Spirit.

I need to open my spirit to His presence, to clear some space in my “get-‘er-done” mind for Him to have room to work. How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from Him?

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 3:16; 4:3

The Holy Spirit may be omnipresent and omnipotent, but His power at work in me is not automatic. Like any relationship, it needs to be cultivated and developed, given the time and space to grow up in me. I can’t fake its fruit. I can’t force its results. But apart from an intentional, ongoing connection with the Holy Spirit, I know that my spirit will shrivel and die.

So what does it look like to be in a relationship with the Spirit?

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Ephesians 4:30

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. …Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-25

I suppose it’s not too different from nurturing any close relationship, only in this one co-dependency is a good thing. If we want to be close to Him, we have to pay careful attention to His gentle promptings, allowing Him to adapt our preferences, opinions, and habits to His. We will do whatever it takes to avoid grieving Him, which primarily entails not shutting Him out of any area of our lives. Far from perpetuating a performance mentality, seeking to please the Spirit means laying down our over-weaning sense of responsibility and letting Him take the controls.

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. …Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:18-20

And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:21

And this is what I love about Him. He doesn’t take over in some degrading, depersonalizing sort of way. He doesn’t make us His insignificant sycophants nor does He use us merely for His own self-centered purposes. Instead He pours His infinite Spirit into our mortal frames, making us more gloriously human than we ever were before. His Spirit interacts with our personalities to create a perfect spark, a renewing, creative force that sends us back out into the world to create as He creates, to beautify as He beautifies, and to love as He loves.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate for more of the Spirit.

Breathe.

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Closer than You Think

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenWhere is God right now, anyway?

The atheist laughs at the question; the agnostic shrugs it off as irrelevant; but the struggling Christian grasps for an answer.

Her cries of “Forsaken?!” erupt from experiences that seem to deny the presence of a loving, protecting God.

His cries of “Abandoned?!” flow from deep disappointment over the ways God has not responded to prayer, has not intervened in a seriously messed-up situation.

Does God even hear? Is heaven so far away that it takes an earthquake or a massacre to get His attention?

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD. …For you are their glory and strength, and by your favor you exalt our horn.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men! …O Lord, where is your former great love?
Psalm 89:15-17, 46-49

The Psalms seem to resonate with schizophrenic prayers of people grappling with messy earthly realities in the face of a pristinely perfect heaven. At one moment they can celebrate and affirm the tangible, even visible presence of God on earth, intervening and making things right. But the next verse over, they are calling out in disillusionment, feeling like God has slammed the gates of heaven and no longer hears or cares.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:9

Sometimes the gap between heaven and earth seems infinite.

But is it really?

The great wonder of Christ’s incarnation was that, for a season, heaven came to earth. What a great relief to actually get to see God walking around with hands and feet, facial expressions and audible words! No more of this guess work, trying to figure out where God is and what He is doing—the woman about to be stoned heard Him absolve her, the father of a dead child saw Him bring her back.

Sometimes the gap between heaven
and earth seems insurmountable.

But what about when those painfully short years ended? When Christ ascended from the earth and sat down at the right hand of the Father, did the doors of heaven shut behind Him?

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:8-9

Thankfully not. Jesus blazed a path between the two realms, transversing the short distance with His physical body in tow. Rather than ditch it on the way up, he took a bit of earth along with Him as a keepsake from His visit, a memento of His return. And He left with the promise that He would soon send a bit of heaven down to earth.

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 thankfully, Jesus didn’t keep us waiting too long. A little over a week later He made good on His promise. A package arrived from heaven, not in the tiny, earthy form of another baby, but rather resembling the sort of phenomenon we would expect when a heavenly Being lands on earth: violent winds swooping from heaven, eerie flames dancing overhead, and gloriously strange manifestations in those with whom it came in contact.

Glimpses of heaven are all around us.

As inspiring as it is to rehearse these 2,000 year-old stories, it can still feel like heaven is impossibly far away. Why don’t we get to chat with angels reassuring us that Jesus will come back the same way He left? Why can’t we see the Spirit flame spreading and alighting around us as we trudge through days of frustrated labor and nights of unconsoled tears?

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matt. 28:18-20

But if we take off our “It is only real if I can see it” glasses, glimpses of heaven are all around us. Each time the fruit of the Spirit manifests itself in us, God has broken through. Love? Peace? Patience? I know those aren’t native to my fleshly self. Repentance? Faith? Transformation? I witness the miracle of His powerful intervention in the most unexpected situations. And then of course there are those jaw-dropping evidences of God at work in the world when justice is served, when healing happens, when captives are set free.

…I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.
2 Corinthians 12:1-4

Through all that, I am learning to see the very present interface between the heavenly realm and the earthly one, the one existing just above the other with constant interaction between the two. As a friend of mine recently said, it is as if a veil hangs over us, hiding the heavenly realm from our earthly eyes. Sometimes that veil gets momentarily lifted, like when Stephen was granted a glimpse of glory just before his death or when the apostles and prophets were shown the heavenly realities going on behind earthly events. And to be honest there have been times in my own life when the veil has been particularly thin or even, for a brief but breathtaking second, lifted.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. …Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:1, 9-12

More often than not, though, heaven remains an invisible reality, perceived only through eyes of faith. I cherish those memories of when it has been less so, replaying them in my mind when my faith wavers and my current struggles cause them to grow dim. I actively pursue the fruit of God’s Spirit and the great commission through which He is bringing heaven down to earth. And I long for the day when the clouds will roll back, allowing us to gaze with unveiled faces on the heavenly reality we have been participating in all along.

It’s a lot closer than we think.

Messy Cosmology

Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
My teenaged daughter (an avid Marvel enthusiast) dragged me to the second Avengers film this past weekend. As she took in the clever comments and creative combat sequences, I pondered the cosmological implications of the story line. Apart from revealing my overactive analytical tendencies, the film raised my ongoing questions about my place in the broader range of cosmic beings.

In a tense argument with his fellow avengers, Tony Stark pithily pointed out that they were not merely fighting the evil within a closed system. They were up against powerful external forces that they could neither predict nor control. “We’re the Avengers, we can bust weapons dealers the whole doo-da-day, but how do we cope with something like that?”

How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are?

When I stop to consider the reality of the spirit beings that inhabit our cosmos, I can’t help but echo Tony Stark’s sentiment. How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are? Who are we in the pecking order of created beings, and what’s our role in the overall story of the world?

what is man …? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:2-8

In the beginning God set us up in the garden, male and female, with orders to govern and tend everything (and everyone) in it. He put plants and animals, water and earth under our feet. And though His Spirit set us above the rest of the earthly creatures, He didn’t set us over the heavenly ones.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Colossians 2:15-16

As much as our Enlightened assumptions and humanist culture may deny it, we are neither the center of the universe nor the top of the evolutionary chain. We were created lower than the angels, under the rule of spirit beings who were created by God for His good purpose. Call them angels, call them gods—whatever they are, they, like us, stand accountable to God for the way they govern and tend what He entrusted to them.

God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”:
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed…
“I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.”
Psalm 82:1-7

So far, they, like us, have done a pretty lousy job of performing their assigned role. Far from upholding justice and promoting peace on earth, many of these spirit rulers have used their position to pervert, oppress, and extort the peoples of the earth. And we thought the mess on earth was all our doing! But what goes on unseen by us has been keenly observed by God.

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos.

In response to the cries of His saints and in keeping with His own heroic justice, God came down to deliver humanity from bondage to these spiritual tyrants. No wonder the demons worried about what Jesus was going to do with them. They were the stewards who had been caught mistreating His servants, and He was the master who had come to judge them.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking.
Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death…
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.
Hebrews 2:5, 8-10, 14-16

The puzzling bit of the story, though, was why God showed up wearing human flesh. He didn’t have to become one of us to rescue us. But what no one had anticipated was what God would do with His unruly world. He hadn’t come simply to reestablish the cosmological status quo. He had come to mess it up.

In the new order of things, humans would no longer be stuck beneath the heavenly beings, completely vulnerable to their oppressive whims and dependent on their arbitration between heaven and earth. Instead we are being made one with His Son, raised from death but also raised in status.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…
…far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
Ephesians 2:6; 1:21

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos. We are being given a seat along with our older Brother at the very top of the command chain, above all those powerful creatures that He had originally placed over us.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Ephesians 6:12-13

Although our mortal bodies still dwell on earth, engaged in that age-old wrestling match with the powerful spirit forces that seek to enslave us, our heavenly status is sealed. We are the children Jesus came to raise up to glory. We are being groomed to become co-regents with Christ, reigning with Him over a new heaven and earth. This is the hope to which we raise our eyes, the ground on which we are called to stand.

Now that’s epic. Even Marvel couldn’t come up with a cosmic story ending this good.

Yours truly.

attachmentWho am I to God?

The question lurked beneath the surface of our long-distance phone conversation. I looked out at the breakers pounding the shore, eroding age-old stone into flimsy particles of sand. That same question again, the one that rarely gets spoken, yet the one that lies just beneath the consciousness of those who are being slammed by wave after wave of suffering.

Am I the apple of His eye or am I simply collateral damage?

Am I the apple of His eye,
or am I simply collateral damage?

I listened to my friend on the other end of the line, trying to make sense of God’s seeming inactivity in the face of his devastating losses. Sure, he had pounded on heaven’s doors begging God to intervene and the worst had still happened. But that didn’t mean that God didn’t care about him. Or did it?

Actually, he was trying to avoid the question, not wanting to run the risk of putting God on the spot. Instead he attempted to appease himself with reminders of the many other godly people who have suffered over the ages: hundreds of parents whose babies were massacred under Pharaoh and Herod, thousands of faithful Israelites who were tortured and killed by wicked kings, and countless other believers who have suffered the loss of homes, children, dignity, and safety throughout the vast story of humanity. God did not rescue them from their suffering. He let it happen as a part of His bigger plan of redemption for the world.

What makes me any more special than the rest of them?

I listened to my friend trying to let God off the hook. It is one thing to talk about His individualized care for each sparrow while perched comfortably within the safe shelter of a family nest. It is another to grapple with His goodness while lying broken-winged and abandoned on the ground.

Being left to suffer doesn’t call our special position with Him into question.
It confirms it.

But as he tried to chalk his sufferings up to being the necessary by-products of a messed-up world which God is still in the process of putting right, my heart broke. Seeing it that way would relegate him to the utterly insignificant category of collateral damage, deemed not important enough to warrant God’s altering “the plan” in order to save.

Who am I to expect any better than this?

O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”
Psalm 3:1-2

Who indeed? Is this all that we are to God? That is certainly the message that the enemy has whispered in my ear, a thousand times over. “You aren’t important enough. He won’t bother.” It slips in nicely alongside the truth that the world does not revolve around me. But before we lower our expectations and slink away from God’s front door, it may be helpful to first ask His opinion.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers… what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
Psalm 8:3-5

Who am I to You? Why would You care about me? You are so big and important—why would You notice my suffering and bother Yourself with my mess?

How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? …Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD will hear when I call to him.
But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.
But let all who take refuge in you be glad… Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Psalm 4:2-3; 3:3; 5:11

God’s reply?

A cross-shaped hug.

Adoption papers.

And a personal comforter, the Spirit who wraps Himself around us the way Boaz covered Ruth.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Romans 8:16-17

This is the Spirit who prays for us when we don’t have the words. He reassures us that we really are God’s children, as cherished by Him as His only begotten Son. And He reminds us that the Father is treating us no differently than He did our older Brother. Being left to suffer doesn’t call our special position with Him into question. It confirms it.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Romans 8:31-32, 35-37

Like those merciless waves, trouble and hardship and insecurity and loss pound the self-confidence right out of us. But they also open opportunities for God to prove just how much we mean to Him. Our older Brother’s suffering is the crucible in which the Father proved His love for us. And our suffering is the means through which He persistently prepares us to share in the family heritage.

Far from being the unfortunate side-effect of a barely-controlled cosmic rescue mission, my friend’s trial is the carefully wielded sculpting tool of a master Craftsman. God is wearing down everything that stands in the way of His life-giving love. Of course the process is devastating. Of course it causes him to question who he is to God.

But God’s resounding answer comes back, roaring over the power of the waves:

You are Mine.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-12504286
But now, this is what the LORD says–
he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you,
I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
Isaiah 43:1–5