Category Archives: Narrative theology

Great is Thy Faithfulness?—New Eyes on an Old Story

BlackHave you ever started to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” but found the words caught in your throat? A song that at other times has lifted your heart in grateful worship now comes back to mock you, its statements and claims the polar opposite of your personal experience. Morning by morning you haven’t seen new mercies: you’ve heard news of a new crisis. All you have needed His hand has not provided. What are you to make of it?

In the world’s eyes, you might be a laughingstock, someone who has foolishly invested in an unpredictable God and come up empty handed.

In other Christians’ eyes, you might look like a failure, someone who must be out of God’s perfect will. What else would explain His lack of blessing on you, your family, and your work?

Far from being evidence of our Father’s rejection, our hardships are proof of His love.

While others prosper around you, you struggle to make ends meet. While others’ ministries take root and flourish, your sacrificial efforts seem like water poured out on sand. You waver between discouragement and exhaustion, wondering how to interpret your life story. Have you done something wrong, or has God simply been unfaithful?

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered…
Hebrews 5:7-8

But perhaps you have been interpreting your story through the wrong set of eyes. If we evaluated Jesus’ life by the standard of motivational magazines or successful living books, He would come out the greatest loser of all time. Like us, He struggled and suffered. And like us, He begged God to go easier on Him. He still ended up deserted and destitute, mocked and accused of being cursed by God. But that was not evidence of God’s rejection. It was proof of the Father’s love.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Hebrews 12:5-6

God’s way of prospering His children has always looked radically different than the world’s. If our lives are filled with hardship and struggle, it is merely because He is taking us through the same intensive training to which He subjected His Firstborn Son. Yes, He loves us just as we are. But He also loves us too much to leave us that way. His commitment to our development compels Him to afflict us. Far from being evidence of His anger or rejection, our hardships are proof of our Father’s love.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:7-9

Because of His great love for us, this Father not only punishes His errant children, He also trains His devoted ones. In some families only the squeaky wheel gets attention. In God’s family, the obedient children get an extra dose of His coaching. At times His training grows so intense that we are tempted to fight Him or simply to quit. But as the legitimate children that we are, we believe He is treating us this way for our good, even when we don’t feel it.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:10-11

Somehow in the way God writes stories, going with less prepares us to receive more, being knocked down paves the way for us to be raised up. Suffering and reward, pain and glory—these are the themes He wrote into the lives of that great cloud of witnesses who went before us. And this is the plot line He is mapping out for our lives, too.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 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.
Hebrews 2:9-10

And so like the Older Brother who blazed this trail ahead of us, we hang in there. When we are tempted to think that our Father has forsaken us, we look ahead to see how Jesus’ story is turning out. The path to His success led through unspeakable suffering and deep humiliation. But because He submitted Himself to the Father’s discipline, He is now seated with Him in the heavens. The multitude of voices shouting around His throne carry the opposite message of what He was subjected to on earth. And in the midst of all that, He cheers us on.

Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Hebrews 2:11

You may be a few steps behind, still slogging through obstructed labor and obscured vision, but you are walking the same trail. And you are not alone. Our whole family has been called to live this story. The details will look different as our Father customizes His training with each one of His kids, but as He was with Jesus, He will be faithful to finish the good work He has started in you.

The song rings true after all: Great is thy faithfulness.

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In A People Garden

IMG_9140Would the world be a better place if it weren’t full of people? People, not things, perpetrate violence and atrocities on the earth. People pollute the ground with their waste and the air with their emissions. People overfill certain parts of the planet, cementing over its other inhabitants and upsetting their life-sustaining cycles and webs.

The narrative that rises from focusing in on these harsh realities can often cast people in the role of barbaric imposters, of foreign invaders whose very existence on the earth brings nothing but harm. But is this the picture that God sees? What story does He tell about how we fit in His global garden?

Last Sunday I encountered one of those a-ha moments in which my experience suddenly fleshed out my theology. Literally. I had spent the afternoon meandering quietly through a private walled-in garden. Blooming roses crept up ancient stone walls, weeping willows swayed beside a meandering stream, and birds, wind, and water mingled their voices together in peaceful song. That evening, as the garden began to fill with people coming in for an open-air concert, my mind cynically assumed that the perfection of the garden would be marred with their fabricated fashions, noisy chatter, and energetic gestures.

But to my surprise, I discovered that, far from messing up the beauty of the garden, the people completed it. Their vibrant colors, sounds, and movements filled the garden with a new element of life that I hadn’t even noticed was missing. In fact, as I looked around the by-then familiar green-scape and listened to French horns sounding across the distance, it struck me that the people were the most beautiful flowers in this garden. They were the crowning touch. Their creative accessories complimented the decorative designs on the plants. Their effervescent spirits animated the terrain. And their artistic composition filled the space with melodies that the birds quickly picked up and played back.

As I reflected further on this unexpected discovery, I realized that I was experiencing a foretaste of the garden-city, the new creation for which we long and towards which we proactively work as we wait for God to bring His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This garden resonated with echoes of Eden, bringing human “progress” in harmony with natural development.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”
So God created man in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Genesis 1:11,20, 27-28

In the beginning the world was empty, the ground was bare. God planted grass and trees, animals and eventually people in His fertile garden, giving them all the same commission: Live. Grow. Blossom. Reproduce. Spread out. Fill the earth with your unique contribution to its vast array of textures and colors, functions and sounds. Testify in your own limited way to the presence and nature of your Creator. Echo back to Him the song of creation, imitating His innovative work in the world.

God … will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God…
Psalm 52:5-9

Of course the story goes on to show how we have abused our role in God’s garden, stealing the fruit that wasn’t ours to eat and oppressing our fellow inhabitants with our selfishness, greed, and outright contempt. And God has much to say about how He will come and tend His garden, uprooting the weed-like plants who defy their Gardener’s order and choke out His other plants.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:1-3

But God also intervenes in His garden to nourish and restore the plants that have been trodden underfoot or impeded from what they need to grow. Jesus came to walk among hillsides of tender shoots, watering weary souls, restoring withered limbs, and even raising dead branches. He cut off fruitless vines who were leeching life from those who needed it, and He grafted in foreign vines who longed to be included under His life-giving care.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15

God takes great delight in His people garden. He shines the light of His face on us in warming, life-giving relationship. He satisfies our parched hearts with streams of living love. He crowns us with beauty and fills our branches with fruit, the satisfaction of a project successfully accomplished or the fruition of a dream finally fulfilled.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. … No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.
Revelation 22:1-5

And best of all, God is in the process of planting us as near to Himself as it gets. He is gathering His vast array of plants into one garden-city, built out of organic stones and filled with the light of His presence. Even as we wait for the fulfillment of His story, we are already flourishing in His courtyard, rooted by His stream, and abiding in His Vine.

IMG_9033So who or what are we in the story of creation? Would the world be a better place without us? I am reminded that, according to God’s narrative, humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of His eye. Without us, His garden would be beautiful but incomplete. Our expansion is what He intended from the beginning; our advances are potential reflections of His image within. We are an integral part of His earth, planted here to thrive.

Walking a Mile in God’s Shoes

Jeremiah_14Last spring I spent four days in agony. My food suddenly seemed dry and tasteless. My knees trembled with weakness. And my heart felt like lead in my chest. Day and night, waking or sleeping, all I could think about was what 200 girls in Nigeria were currently experiencing. I could feel their terror as brutal men surrounded them. I could feel their pleas for help, their forced captivity, their dominated bodies, their broken spirits, and their forever altered reality.

As the weekend progressed, I became more and more trapped in their experience, unable to shake myself free from the overwhelming pain of what they were going through. I couldn’t explain why it was so personal for me. I didn’t know any of those girls, nor had Nigeria been on my radar before that. But of all the news events and world crises that daily flit across my computer screen, this was one with which I was involuntarily but inextricably bound.

I wept on their behalf. I pleaded with God as though what was happening to their bodies was being done to mine. I read the Scriptures searching for answers to their dilemma. I sat in church feeling torn between two worlds, my body in a peaceful sanctuary while my soul was tossed about in the backwoods of Nigeria, denied access to the altar of God and forced into subservience to a cruel tyrant.

Why was I feeling this way? As I tried to make sense of it with my husband, it became increasingly clear to both of us that, for whatever reason, this was a prophetic burden God was giving me to carry.

God’s children stand in the gap between
human experience and divine perspective.

When I look back on God’s people through the ages, I see that I am not alone in this odd experience. Earthy farmers and holy priests, young boys and elderly widows, seasoned apostles and inexperienced girls have walked this path ahead of me, bearing the yoke of standing in the gap between human experience and divine perspective.

“Therefore groan, son of man! Groan before them with broken heart and bitter grief.
Cry out and wail, son of man, for it is against my people; it is against all the princes of Israel. They are thrown to the sword along with my people. Therefore beat your breast.
Ezekiel 21:6, 12

But what I still struggle to understand is the prophetic role of feelings, whether privately endured or publicly enacted. Why did Ezekiel have to experience the discomfort and defilement of lying on his side for days on end, eating bread baked over poop? Worse yet, why did he have to go through the agony of losing his wife without even being allowed to mourn her death? This wasn’t a little demonstration that would be over in a day or two. It was real and permanently life altering. So was Hosea’s assignment to marry and raise kids with a woman who would repeatedly cheat on him.

But if you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the LORD’s flock will be taken captive.
Jeremiah 13:17

What is accomplished by simply feeling prophetic pain? I see the point in Ezekiel’s experiences portraying messages for others to receive or in Jeremiah’s tears moving him to intercede on behalf of other people. But how do I explain the times when God overwhelms a prophet with feelings that have no apparent product?

God gives us the chance to
walk a mile in His shoes.

I am beginning to suspect that God wants company. He wants some of His people to get Him, to understand how He feels about the events He constantly witnesses on earth. Even the relatively few crises that flit across my computer screen overwhelm me, and yet I can switch them off and go process my feelings with a friend. With whom does the Triune God who unceasingly watches over the earth share His heart?

All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” … I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
Psalm 22:7-17

He invites us to share bits of it with Him. He grants us the privilege of getting to peek through His eyes, to walk a mile in His shoes, to share in His story. This is what I think was happening with David when he wrote the prophetic psalms depicting what Jesus would later experience on the cross. And yet David wrote them in the first person. Somehow he himself was sampling the bitter agony of the cup that Jesus would come and drink down to its dregs.

Somehow I think this is the privileged yoke that God has been giving me to bear on behalf of His persecuted people in Nigeria. For a short period of time last spring I got to feel His grief over them from afar. And now, for reasons beyond my current understanding, the Lord has opened the door for me to go and be His mouthpiece in their midst. Next week I will be in Abuja teaching Spiritual Formation to a class of mature Christian leaders from all over Nigeria. And the following week I have been asked by the Bishop of Kontagora (for whom I once had the privilege of opening a different sort of door) to travel through his diocese encouraging the Christians there, particularly those displaced by Boko Haram’s violent regime.

For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. … “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
1 Corinthians 2:11-16

I have no certainty in what will be accomplished through my presence in Nigeria and no confidence in my ability to make God’s plans succeed. But I do see God’s hand at work. And so in the heritage of God’s servants past and present, I offer myself to Him, body, heart, and mind, to use as He pleases.

Only time will reveal what God has in mind.

Faded Glory

My friend is dying.

attachmentOnce one of the most beautiful women I knew, her glory is fading. Cancer has sealed her throat, stopping the ready laughter and stilling the spry step that I knew her by. Pain is her constant companion, cutting her off from food, from sleep, from being able to enjoy much of anything. My soul revolts at the thought of her bright eyes dulled with pain, her pretty jaw clenched with suffering. And though her spirit fights on, her body is wasting away.

This is so wrong.

Flowers aren’t supposed to be crushed mid-bloom. Beautiful symphonies aren’t supposed to be cut off mid-note. Exquisite works of art aren’t supposed to be ruthlessly defaced.

And yet death doesn’t follow my rules.

It insists on corroding beauty, on stealing away the final remnant of God’s image in human flesh. And as I watch it do its nasty work in my friend, my soul cries out in protest.

I feel like I am watching glory depart from a temple.

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes…”
Say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to desecrate my sanctuary–the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, the object of your affection.
Ezekiel 24:15-16, 21

Ezekiel bore the burden of this agonizing process twice over, both times helplessly watching the delight of his eyes being snuffed out. His wife’s premature death was more than a personal loss—it was a tangible enactment of the bigger story he was a part of. That story was one that he was chosen by God to witness and proclaim: the departure of God’s glory from His temple.

Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.
Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them.
Ezekiel 9:3; 10:18-19

Carried up in a vision to see it happening, Ezekiel could hardly bear the sight of God’s Spirit leaving the Jerusalem temple. Like the worst kind of death, the fading glory of God’s presence lifting out of its physical dwelling tore at his heart, bereaving him of his most beautiful treasure. What had been a magnificent structure, befitting the glorious Spirit who filled it, was left behind to decay and crumble.

This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.
I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Ezekiel 37:5-6, 26-27

But in the midst of his overwhelming grief, Ezekiel was assured that both of these losses were a gruesome step in an otherwise glorious process. The Spirit would return; the glory would re-ignite. But it wouldn’t look the way it had before. The destruction of one beautiful structure was making room for another.

The glory of the replacement would far outshine the original.

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
This season we celebrate the return of God’s glory to its temple, the coming of His Spirit to a new physical dwelling. Expected and yet not, the birth of Jesus was the reunification of Spirit with body. The glory of heaven returned to earth. The fullness of God contained in one physical space. And yet it didn’t stop there.

The destruction of that temple gave rise to another. The desecration of that sanctuary sanctified another. The emptying of that body gave fullness to another.

This is the reality in which my friend is now participating. Body and soul, she is an integral part of that majestic dwelling, the earthly temple of the Heavenly Spirit. Her life on earth has been a glorious reflection of the Spirit in whose image she was created. The beauty of her face has mirrored the beauty of her spirit, full of joy, of love, of life.

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment… Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful.
1 Peter 3:3-6

And now as her physical beauty fades, the beauty within shines all the more brightly. She has spent a lifetime gazing on the beauty of God, and the beauty of His Spirit has settled deep within hers. Even as her bodily temple is being destroyed, her truest beauty remains unscathed, radiant for all to see.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
1 Corinthians 6:19; 15:36-37, 42-43, 54

As much as it breaks my heart to hear of her suffering, to know of her slow, painful demise, I look forward through my tears to the end of her story. Her magnificent temple is crumbling, but it is making way for another. The beautiful form by which I have always recognized her will depart, but the spirit it has housed will one day return to its dwelling. I don’t know what that new version will look like, but I do know it will be even more gloriously beautiful than the old.

Death may win this day. But it will lose that one.

Unfading glory.

As we gaze on your kingly brightness
So our faces display your likeness
Ever changing from glory to glory
Mirrored here may our lives tell your story
Shine on me, shine on me

Graham Kendrick
Copyright © 1987 Make Way Music

My bit of the story…

This time last year I was furiously finishing up writing a book on shame, wondering what next God would lead me to do. Was it time to launch a more public speaking ministry, or should I pursue a more academic track by doing that postgraduate degree down in Edinburgh? The last thing on my radar was writing a blog. I don’t even like blogs!

But what I intended as a sacrificial labor of love for others has turned out to be a blessed source of nurture and growth for myself. My motivation in writing is to address those topics that we often feel are too messy to have anything to do with God. We are comfortable confining them within the sterile walls of a counselor’s office, but we don’t know how to take them to church, to the Scriptures, or into God’s presence.

Writing this blog has taken me beyond just privately relating with God through the ups and downs of my own life to having to put into coherent words what it looks like to live the full range of human emotion and experiences coram deo, before the light of His face. More than anything, I want to capture a perspective of how He sees us: how our struggles make sense in light of His ongoing story, how His eternal story infuses meaning into our everyday experience.

We are part of an ongoing story, with God as the author, us as the characters, and our daily lives as the stage on which He is playing out a grand metanarrative.

The cerebral part of me far prefers doing theology “from above,” losing myself in lofty thoughts about the nature of God and His creative brilliance in littering His natural and written revelation with symbols and themes that point to heavenly realities. But living with my feet planted on earth—my soul splattered with its muck and my hands dirtied with its troubles—has forced me to take my theology to the bathroom. Who God is must be relevant to how I navigate even the most unpleasant or mundane of earthly circumstances. And actually, as I have learned to look more honestly at His Word, I’ve been delightfully surprised to discover just how “earthy” He can be.

Narrative theology has continued to unlock the Scriptures for me, meandering like a flexible stream through eternal truth and unpredictable experience, pristine worship and scrappy struggle, heavenly reality and earthly reflection. It is painful but rewarding labor to perpetually lay distressing human realities on the table next to my Bible and go looking for what God has to say about them. At the same time, it is a joyful act of worship to be able to discover His current awareness through His past interaction with people living the same kind of stories.

I have come to view life and read Scripture through the lens of an ongoing story, with God as the author, us as the characters, and our daily lives as the stage on which He is playing out a grand metanarrative that culminates in our shared glory. If you have wondered about my blog category called “Defining Metanarratives,” it is where I stick those posts that have attempted to retell that overarching story from different angles. This is the big story that makes sense of all our little stories.

Experiencing our little stories is what enables us to participate in His big story.

At the same time, experiencing our little stories is what enables us to participate in His big story. Taking the time to reflect both psychologically and theologically on my own past experiences and others’ ongoing struggles has deepened my appreciation of a God who has written Himself into such a convoluted, bitter-sweet plot line. And, in a roundabout way, it has trained me for the next step in my own story.

Later this month I will be travelling to Uganda to teach a masters-level class on spiritual formation. As I have spent this summer preparing for the course, I have been repeatedly struck with the pleasant realization that the massive amounts of reflection and writing I have invested in this blog over the past year have also been equipping me to teach Christian leaders in the developing world. I look forward to the privilege of getting to be a part of their stories as they bring God’s kingdom to their corner of the globe.

Because of this delightful addition to my workload, I am planning to scale back the frequency of my blog posts to once a week. I would rather sustain quality over quantity. I pray God will use what I have written and guide what I keep writing to help you experience your role in His story. It’s a joy to be living it with you.

The Way His Story Goes

Relieved. Delighted. Confused.

In so many ways, the disciples’ reactions to Jesus’ resurrection mirror my own. I’m relieved to have the long struggle of Lent and the deep sorrow of the cross finally finished. I’m delighted that Jesus is alive, that His story ends in triumph, not defeat. But I’m also confused.

Suffering precedes glory.

Does the road to glory really have to pass through such deep valleys? Why does the cost of victory have to be so high? If God is the Author of His own story, why did He choose to write it this way?

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
Luke 24:17-21

Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, I scratch my head trying to figure out how the glory of the kingdom fits with the agony of the cross. I have expectations of what is good, of how things are supposed to be. The benevolent aren’t supposed to be taken advantage of. The innocent aren’t supposed to be condemned. The gentle aren’t supposed to be abused. The young aren’t supposed to die.

So how do Christ’s sufferings fit with His glory? Why couldn’t He have picked a nicer way to deal with sin and overcome death?

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Luke 24:25-27

But even as I ask those questions, I hear His gentle, chiding voice, much the way it must have sounded to the disciples. Of course it had to happen this way. Of course suffering precedes glory. That’s the way the story has always gone. Who am I to think I can come up with a better plot line?

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Luke 24:44

God has been working this story since the beginning of time. This is exactly the way He intended it to be. The heel that the serpent would strike. The rock that Moses split open. The abused, rejected king of the Psalms. The suffering servant of the prophets. The deliverer always suffers first. The sufferer always rises to glory after.

Extreme glory calls for an extreme story.

I admit that I still struggle to embrace this kind of story. It is so extreme. Intense suffering. Overwhelming glory. My mediocre humanity wants a safer story, one with less risk and more “balance.” But that kind of story would not be true to God’s self-revealing plan. Nor would it fit with the integral role He has prepared for us in it.

That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 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 1:19-21

Perhaps this is one more bit of supporting evidence for why He deserves to be God and I don’t. He not only wrote the story this way, but He also wrote Himself into it as the greatest sufferer. He could have avoided the pain, claiming immunity as cast director. But as the one who was brought the lowest, He earned the right to be lifted up the highest.

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
Luke 24:45-48

And so I stand down in humble amazement. How can I question Him over what He was willing to endure Himself? How can I resist embracing and perpetuating His story in my own life? I will join in that joyful crowd of witnesses, proclaiming and participating in His sufferings so that I, too, may share in the glory of His resurrection. I will make His story my story.

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

The Story Goes On

All the candles have been lit and burned low. Endless trips to the store have turned to endless leftovers in the fridge. The tree stands empty, the bank balance is down, and the scale reading is up. Christmas is over, and it’s back to life as usual.

The excitement and fanfare of Christ’s birth may be finished, but His story goes on. The shepherds head back into the office, the angelic lights go away, and mundane earthly life begins. The kingly visitors pack up and leave and a young family are left to deal with the aftermath of their celebration: a jealous king intent on eliminating Jesus.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. … When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Matthew 2:13-16

Midnight warning. Abrupt departure. Terrifying flight. Hunted. Infants massacred in His place. Residence in a foreign land. Indefinite displacement. Near misses. Repeated moves. Would their lives forever be hounded by danger and difficulty? This was no way to start a marriage, and it was certainly no way to raise a child. Why hadn’t the angels just explained that it would be like this in the first place? What had happened to all those glorious prophecies about Jesus wearing the government on His shoulder? At this point, “helpless refugee” seemed a more fitting title than “Prince of Peace.”

The outcome of their stories gives us hope in the middle of our own story.

Jesus was living a carefully crafted recapitulation (recap) of His ancestor David’s story. David’s start in life had been similarly spectacular: chosen out of the lineup of brothers to be anointed as the next king, victorious over an evil giant, miraculous deliverer from countless invading forces, celebrated hope of the people. But all those glorious celebrations came to an end and David was left to deal with their aftermath: a jealous king intent on eliminating him.

Saul sent men to David’s house to watch it and to kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, warned him, “If you don’t run for your life tonight, tomorrow you’ll be killed.” So Michal let David down through a window, and he fled and escaped. …
David went to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. …
Then the king ordered the guards at his side: “Turn and kill the priests of the LORD, because they too have sided with David. They knew he was fleeing, yet they did not tell me.” … So Doeg the Edomite turned and struck them down. That day he killed eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. He also put to the sword Nob, the town of the priests, with its men and women, its children and infants, and its cattle, donkeys and sheep.
1 Samuel 19:11-12; 21:1; 22:17-19

Midnight warning. Abrupt flight. Unexpected provision. Hunted. Priests massacred in his place. Residence in a foreign land. Indefinite displacement. Near misses. Always on the move. Would his life forever be hounded by danger and difficulty? This was no way to establish himself as a leader, and it was certainly no way to raise a secure, prosperous nation. Why hadn’t the prophet told him all the facts in the first place? What had happened to that glorious prophecy about him being king? Was he not God’s “anointed one” (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek)? At this point, “scum of the earth” and “tramp” seemed a more fitting title.

But the story didn’t stop there, for Jesus or for David. And it doesn’t stop there for us, either. As we do narrative theology we study the stories of Scripture and start to notice trends in how they develop and how they work out. Narrative theology then invites us to lay the outline of our stories like a transparency over the contours of matching biblical stories. And to the extent that our own stories are similar to the biblical stories, we can interpret our life experiences within the same framework and according to the same patterns.

God’s eventual fulfillment of His promises to David and His ultimate exaltation of Jesus to the highest throne are the happy endings that we cling to as we continue to muck along through the mundane of our own story. To the extent that we faithfully trudge along in their footsteps, we trust that God will complete our own stories in similarly satisfying ways. And that gives us hope in the middle of the mess: the story isn’t over yet.

Weak Writers, Strong Source

David manic-depressive? Peter OCD? Paul suicidal? The mere possibility would have rocked my world once. The idea that my heroes of the faith, the inspired authors of Scripture, could have been influenced by mental or emotional “disorders” would have left me squirming uncomfortably. Why? Perhaps because those who raise these points often do so in order to discredit the inerrancy of their writings. Perhaps because I want to think of these men of God as above such human frailty, serenely transcending the storms of life and passing on pristine truths that teach us how to do the same.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’sake. For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
2 Corinthians 4:5-7

But the fact of the matter is, God chose real, messy people to write His Word. When we lay aside our rose-colored glasses and read their words the way we would read a letter written by anyone else, we can’t help but hear their messy emotions, their heart-rending cries, and their dangerous questions. These were men and women who struggled the way we do, and whose human frailty was completely intertwined with their writings to and about God. Whether we slap disorder labels on them or simply chalk their occasionally frenzied condition up to their particular life circumstances, we have to come to terms with the fact that they were real people struggling with real issues.
So does the mental and emotional frailty of the Biblical writers make what they wrote any less true? Only, I suppose, if Scripture’s authority hinges on human aptitude. We would all be in trouble if it did. Thankfully, human limitations do not constrain God. If anything, He seems to specialize in making His lofty, unchanging truth known through the weakest, least-likely candidates: shepherd boys, fishermen, and former terrorists.

God specializes in making His lofty, unchanging truth known through the weakest, least-likely candidates.

My own life struggles have pushed me to embrace the messiness of the Biblical writers. As long as my life was simple and straightforward, I was content to read the Bible as a series of propositional truths that I was meant to believe and obey. My modernist mind searched the Scriptures for abstract truth, valuing it as more valid when it stood completely apart from any particular context. But that approach to the Bible simply could not hold water when life experiences left my soul riddled with holes. Broken, confused, and desperate for God to speak to my troubled heart, I went back to the Word with new eyes. There I found a whole community of people as messed up as I was (some, shockingly, even more so). What they had to say about God resonated deeper and rang truer because of the difficult circumstances in which they said it.

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me… Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
2 Corinthians 12:7, 9

Far from being a threat to their credibility, the Biblical writers’ life stories provide a fitting frame for the truths they wrote. It is one thing to write about the sovereign goodness of God when He is orchestrating our lives according to our expected patterns; it is quite another when He turns our world upside down and seems to be in no hurry to make it right. We like singing hymns written by people in such desperate circumstances, but are we content to build our theological towers on the writings of depressed, conflicted invalids? If God can accomplish the transmission of His inerrant Word through their messy lives, I guess there is hope for us, too.