Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

Polarization and The Root of our Identity Wars

My children joke that every few years I go through an identity crisis. They aren’t completely wrong. The upheaval of each international move followed by a change in role and community does give rise to a certain identity angst and its accompanying quest for belonging. Decisions over how to dress and what labels to use in introducing myself give rise to the deeper questions of who I am, from where I derive my value, and with whom I belong.

Without the taproot of a secure connection to God, we are unable to relate securely with each other.

The more I look around, I suspect our society is in the midst of an identity crisis. Whether this crisis is the inevitable aftermath of soul-denying modernism or the product of media-induced hyper-connectivity at the cost of local community, the signs are obvious. We are scrambling to stake out who we are, what matters to us, and with which tribe we belong. Issues such as our opinions on health practices, racial narratives, and political parties suddenly define us more than where we live, to whom we are related, or to Whom we belong. Interestingly, it is not enough for us to simply know these things about ourselves. We feel compelled to make sure that everyone else knows them about us and, while we are at it, that everyone associated with us identifies themselves in the same way. Yet our fierce insistence on our labels only reveals how deeply insecure we really are. 

But what is making us insecure? Why is this new form of tribalism suddenly so urgent that it would transcend our former relationships and suck us in to virtual “position” wars? While recently working with a cohort of Christian leaders in Nigeria, we identified displacement, loss of livelihood, and loss of cultural or religious identity as threats that give rise to oppositional identity. This posture of “my identity at others’ expense” comes from fear of scarcity or loss and leads to distrust, division, hostility, and eventually violence. It doesn’t take much to see the similarity between ethnic conflicts in Nigeria and tribal polarization in America. We erect media barriers, dig positional trenches, and lob slander grenades to preserve an identity that we feel is under threat.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will…

I wonder, however, if the real threat is from within. We don’t know who we are, what gives us value, and to whom we belong. Our identity dysphoria leads us to lash out at anyone whose difference exposes our inner insecurity. Untethered from any deeper sense of meaning, value, or belonging, we frantically lash ourselves to those labels and groups which provide the illusion of a stable identity and community.  

His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

The human need for a secure identity is primal. Knowing who we are forms the foundation for interpersonal relationships and social functioning. Years ago I took a seminary class on the book of Ephesians while at the same time discipling a group of South Asian women who were new believers in Christ. They had left behind their former cultural-religious narrative and needed a new sense of history, belonging, and purpose. My professor emphasized the major theme of identity in Ephesians, pointing out Paul’s agenda to root pagan-background Greek Christians in a narrative that would hold them together with their Jewish Christian counterparts. That shed new light on Paul’s labelling them as “God’s holy people in Ephesus,” his retelling of the story of their adoption, inclusion, and eternal purpose, his prayer for them to be rooted and established together in love, and his instructions on how to live in community. This was just the sort of identity formation my South Asian sisters needed. They needed a taproot of secure connection to God and each other if they were to flourish.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Perhaps the same could be said of us. Without the taproot of a secure connection to God, we are unable to relate securely with each other. We need His direct, steady affirmation of love for us. We need to know who we are in His eyes and what we are in His telling of our story. This comes as we sit long in His presence, consume a steady diet of His Media, and imbibe deeply of His Spirit. Deepened intimacy with God produces a security within ourselves that will in turn enable greater elasticity in our engagement with others. 

Far from encountering difference as a form of threat, we will experience it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

As I have learned through my many life transitions, identity crises present a beautiful opportunity to return to our Source and deepen our roots in His love. The questions they raise can lift our eyes to the grand narrative from which we derive our meaning and in which we currently participate. If we know who we are, from where we draw our value, and to Whom we belong, we can be open to those around us, able to receive the gifts and absorb the shocks that come through our interactions. Far from encountering difference as a form of threat, we will experience it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.

In 2021 our tribalism is competing with our identity in Christ, threatening to transcend the unity we share as His Church. Among the saints at Ephesus, just as in the Church of our day, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” does not negate our differences; rather it encompasses them, tethering us all to a shared Center. This is the holy common ground on which we take our stand.

…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 1:3-5, 2:18-20, 3:14-18, 4:1-7, 4:13.

Weak Humans, Safe Leaders: Our Need for Ongoing Nurture of the Soul

Good leadership is a big ask. It entails unravelling intricate relational knots, settling ruffled emotions, overseeing controversial decisions, and guiding others forward through trying circumstances, all while experiencing them ourselves. We hold ideals for what our leadership should look like—participatory, humble, wise, meeting people where they are—and yet frequently find ourselves responding in ways that don’t match up with our intentions. Our best laid plans for building up others and bringing about needed change get hijacked, among other things, by our own stress behaviors and unintended reactions.

I don’t have to look far for an example of this in my own leadership. A few years back I was asked to develop and facilitate a spiritual formation program for a group of global leaders. Months of careful preparation led up to what, I hoped, would be a sacred space for honest self-examination, vulnerable sharing with others, and transformative encounter with God. But the week did not unfold as I had imagined. Some of my sessions fell flat, my content and style met with critique, and I myself found it difficult to connect with people. In the moment I could tell that I wasn’t responding to the situation with the level of flexibility and grace that I aspire to, but what I couldn’t see was how my reactivity was shutting down the very processes I was trying to facilitate. Where was the breakdown, and what within my way of being had so radically interfered with my way of doing?

As humans, the state of our soul inevitably affects the quality of our leadership.

Leadership does not happen in a vacuum. We are humans before we are leaders. Whether we are aware of it or not, we carry our inner selves—shaped by our ongoing experiences and deepest needs—into our leadership. This functions both as an asset and a liability. Our humanity enables us to relate with others, to share with them the comfort that we have received, and to point them to the hope that we ourselves have walked deeply with Jesus to take hold of. And yet our humanity also gets in the way of our ability to relate with others. Exhaustion, anxiety, and insecurity hinder our capacity to love as God loves, and our own unmet needs can produce reactions that distance and destroy rather than nurture and build up. 

In my case, recent developments in our family situation had re-surfaced deep insecurities about my personal significance and my sense of acceptability before others. We had a child in crisis, were facing yet another move, and were in the process of relinquishing our vocational stability, plan for the future, and belonging to a particular community and place. With my sense of identity and belonging laid so vulnerably bare, my stress behaviors were triggering off the charts. I went about seeking to establish my significance and secure my place in this organizational community by proving what a great job I could do, only my heroic efforts had more the effect of a bull in a china shop. What others intended as gentle critique came across to me as goading rejection. What I intended to be interactive, life-giving facilitation came across to them as rigid and domineering. Though my words invited creative response, my demeanor shut it down.

I have learned the significance of taking the time to notice these reactions within myself and prayerfully identify their deeper causes.

As humans, the state of our soul inevitably affects the quality of our leadership. This truth goes far beyond simply addressing the need to guard our souls from sin and to nurture love for God in our own lives (the importance of which always merits emphasis). It points us to the significance of recognizing and addressing our own deepest needs in an ongoing manner. Just as our need for food, sleep, and oxygen is ongoing, so are our needs for love, acceptance, belonging, and significance. Where these have been damaged through past relationships or deprived through current circumstances, we will be vulnerable. Certain situations or interactions will act like triggers, bumping against our tender areas and provoking unexpected reactions, which usually are our built-in mechanisms for self-protection, need-meeting, and situation management. The problem is that these coping mechanisms are rarely experienced by others as loving, let alone consistent with good leadership.

So we are human, and our humanity affects our leadership. What can be done about it? I have learned the significance of taking the time to notice these reactions within myself and prayerfully identify their deeper causes. Beyond confession, these moments of deepening self-awareness move me to bring my whole self into more intimate relationship with God. I come as a little child, asking Him to kiss the parts that hurt and assure the parts that are scared until I am once again securely at rest in a world over which He lovingly reigns. Only then am I a whole enough person to safely lead others.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What reactive tendencies do you notice in yourself? How do you behave when under stress? (You may want to ask your spouse, children, or teammates to help you identify these.)
  2. In what sort of situations or interactions are these behaviors likely to come out? What do you notice as a common factor?
  3. As you consider this common factor, ask the Holy Spirit to help you see the fears, insecurities, or unmet needs that may be driving your reactions. What might these be?
  4. What could be a more godly and helpful approach to addressing your areas of vulnerability?

Come, Lord Jesus?

I’m not sure if I am ready for Christmas this year. 2020 has overindulged me with food for Advent, the period of preparation leading up to Christmas. Never have I found it so natural to enter into this season of watching for God to come as in the midst of this year’s political turmoil, social unrest, cataclysmic weather, and global loss of stability, community, and life. A weary world cries out for a Savior, whether under the guise of a vaccine, a candidate, a policy, or a donation. And my soul joins the cry: Hosanna! O save us!

But my longing is tempered by the sobering thought that we may not be ready to receive what we ask for. If God showed up on earth today, would we welcome His coming any better than those who failed to receive Him 2020 years ago? Would we be willing to have our lifestyles, our our social structures, and our economic interests overturned by His radically different ways? Am I ready (and willing) to turn over my personal plans, my property, my time, my relationships, and my body to His way of doing things? 

Such radical relinquishment of control rattles what little sense of security I have left at the end of this destabilizing year. It forces the question: Who do I really want to be in charge? Whose rule would I truly welcome in my life and my world?

As our family has worked our way through Advent readings from the Prophets and Gospels, our Christmas warm fuzzies have been replaced with sober self-reflection. Their message repeats: God does not show up on human terms. If we invoke His presence in our world, we need to understand what it is we are asking for. We are inviting the Refiner’s Fire to burn away our dross. I am asking the Judge who sees my hidden agendas and petty indulgences to lay them bare. This is the process through which He makes all things new. He exposes what is wrong and then catches it up in His merciful arms to change it until it is right. 

Am I ready to receive what I am asking for? 

And yet can I afford not to ask for it?

As I sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” images flash through my mind of Covid patients fighting a losing battle for breath and landscapes devastated by wind, fire, and flood. I see communities divided by mistrust and anger, individuals torn apart by mental illness and addiction, and families separated by conflict, war, politics, quarantine, and death. We have done our best to rule the world under our own steam, and 2020 has shown us how well that goes. 

I identify with the rich young ruler, wanting to receive the gift of God’s kingdom and yet vacillating on the threshold of what it will cost me. I’m not sure I am ready for Christmas this year. But I am sure that I can trust the One whose coming I anticipate and hasten. His arm is strong to save and gentle to restore. His ways are not like ours, and for that I am increasingly grateful. 

So yes. Come, Lord Jesus.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: Sex Scandals and What our Leaders Need

I need this.” Reading the recent investigation on claims of Ravi Zacharias’s sexual misconduct, I was caught by the statement multiple women reported hearing from him.  Having worked with Christian leaders around the world, I hear more in those words than a pick-up line. I hear the plea of men and women caught up in the isolation of their ministry success and feeling desperately in need.

“In need of what?” their admirers may wonder. Beyond fame, fortune, and following, these leaders evidence amazing riches in God’s wisdom and power. If that isn’t enough to satisfy, then what is? Yet so many leaders end up enmeshed in immorality and scandal that news of it is hardly more surprising than that of another dip in the stock market or sighting of a hurricane. Unsurprising, yet damaging, those whose lives they influenced are left to grapple with doubts over what was real and what was not. 

Henri Nouwen, who served in the L’Arche communities founded by now-disgraced Jean Vanier, identified the conditional nature of the world’s love as a source of enslavement, particularly to those in its limelight. Gifted leaders who perform well are elevated to hero status, with the caveat that they consistently meet and exceed expectations. “These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them.  …It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.” 

Ours has become a culture in which leaders are either sanctified or vilified, with very little room for being human. We are familiar with the idea that power corrupts, but we fail to recognize how our image of leaders undermines their capacity to live as beloved children of God, made of weak flesh and in need of ongoing nurture.  This in no way excuses their indecent behavior or abuse of power, nor does it downplay the devastation of broken lives and disillusioned communities left in their wake. But there are multiple forces at play driving good leaders to end up in bad places. To the extent we can recognize and work to change these, we can alter the increasingly familiar narrative of fallen leaders and discredited ministries.

Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses.

Sex scandals among leaders are as old as the Bible.  David’s abusive treatment of Bathsheba fits the pattern perpetuated among leaders from Seattle to Sri Lanka. Taken at face value, his public statement of confession (Psalm 51) reveals a heart that did not intend for things to end up where they did. But the toxic mix of unquestioned authority and pedestalized isolation led this otherwise godly leader to seek his next “high” in the wrong place. For the many like him, fanfare as addictive as a “Like” button can combine with a dizzying height of social expectation to create a lifestyle fueled by a perpetual adrenaline rush. Add to that long work hours, constant travel, and the pressure to perform, and it is no surprise that the Davids of our time suffer from a deep inner hunger.  Their souls are starving, and the quickest “bite” they can grab is a shoddy stand-in for true intimacy, not to mention one of the very lambs they have devoted themselves to shepherding.

Leaders are responsible to safeguard their flocks, their families, and their souls. Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses. Thomas à Kempis’s words, penned long before the invention of global media, point to the need for leaders to regularly step back from the microphone, to abstain from social dialogue, and to engage in guided soul-searching: “No one can safely appear in public who does not enjoy seclusion. No one safely talks but he [she] who gladly keeps silent. No one safely rules but he [she] who is glad to be subordinate.” 

Our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be

But we also have a role to play in safeguarding our leaders. Paul repeatedly requested the loving engagement of the communities that he led, disclosing his weakness and begging their prayers. Whether or not they invite it, our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be. 

That is what our leaders need. Our leaders need us to be Samuels and Nathans who mentor and supply needed guidance, Jonathans who provide intimate friendship and peer support, and Abigails who intervene and call forth the best in them when we see danger ahead.  Only then can we work together to put an end to the blight of scandalous shepherds and victimized sheep.

The Infertility Gospel

Again, Lord?

My heart breaks each time I hear news of a couple losing another unborn child. One loss is enough, but as the death toll rises, grief stacks on grief until hope reaches its breaking point.

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:16

What happened to the promise you made to our first parents? I know that sin didn’t make childbearing easy, but you set our hopes on the fact that we would eventually succeed. After all, isn’t fruitfulness what you created us for?

So God created mankind in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.
Genesis 1:28

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:2

For Christian men and women, the desire to have children is so much more than just starry-eyed dreams of tiny toes and baby announcements. It is the fulfillment of our God-given commission to reproduce little images of ourselves, to love and nurture them as He does us, and to fill the earth with their serving hands and worshiping voices. Our bodies and our hearts long for this like a sculptor’s fingers long for a bit of clay or a writer longs for pen and paper.

So when we give childbearing our best shot, when we once more risk the pain of failure or loss, what are we to think when God doesn’t bless us with a living child? What hope can we cling to for the woman whose womb won’t carry or for the couple who simply can’t conceive?

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:33-35

Strangely, I think this is exactly the issue the Ethiopian eunuch was wrestling with as he pored over Isaiah’s words on the road out of Jerusalem. In them he found a kindred spirit—another Servant whose “life” had been humiliatingly cut off and who found Himself without the honor or joy of offspring. And yet this Man’s story didn’t dead end there. If there was hope for Him, perhaps there was also a way forward for this infertile man.

And somehow the good news about Jesus that Philip was able to explain to the eunuch satisfied that quest. Was the good news simply that Jesus had died to take away his sins, or is there something in the gospel that also addressed the pain and disgrace of his infertility?

…and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great…
Isaiah 53:10-12

Looking further in the passage he had been reading, the answer begins to dawn. After the anguish of His suffering and the dark night of the grave, the Servant would somehow find Himself with more children than any one body could produce. Because of His self-sacrificing investment in the lives of many, He would be honored among the great patriarchs who normally only achieved that status through their impressive numbers of children.

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
Luke 11:27-28

The good news about infertility is that, in Christ, family and childbearing have been redefined. Mothers and brothers are now those who have been brought near through His blood and who share in the work of nurturing and teaching the rest of God’s children. Fathers are those who mentor and shape those who are younger in the faith (or not yet in the faith.) And children are those whom we have the pleasure of watching as they grow in faith and fruitbearing.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… To Timothy my true son in the faith…
1 Timothy 1:2
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Romans 16:13

Yes, our hearts and our bodies still long to produce biological children to hold and to love. And of course we ache and grieve when we are unable to do so. But that is not the only way to go about fulfilling our created purpose. The joy of all believers, both those with and without babies of their own, is that the Great Commission redefines the Creation Mandate. We get to spread our tents wider than we could have ever imagined, loving children that were not born to us and investing ourselves in the nurture of people with whom we would not otherwise have shared a bond.

“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back…
Isaiah 54:1-2

I have witnessed this joy in the face of the Nigerian man who told me that though none of his biological children are still living, he is the father of more children than he can count (including three of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram whom he took in after their rescue). I feel this joy as God brings to me exponentially more spiritual children to counsel and mentor than the four unborn children I lost. And I cling to this joy for the sake of those whose wombs are bare and whose cradles remain empty.

The gospel for the eunuch is the good news for you. In God’s family, you can have more kids than the rest of us.

When the Spirit Doesn’t Come

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I can think of few experiences more disheartening than seeking God’s face and not finding it. We struggle enough to remember Him in our busy daily lives, to hunger for Him in the midst of so many competing attractions. But when we finally say no to everything else and discipline ourselves to tune in to His voice, it can feel like the ultimate betrayal when He doesn’t immediately reward our efforts with a blissful mountaintop experience.

We want spiritual climax without the amorous preliminaries. We want a relational harvest without the months of weeding, planting, watering, and waiting. Underlying our efforts at holiness and our attempts at devotion, we have this absurd assumption that God should feel honored by our intentions and be standing at attention, ready to jump whenever we feel like spending some time with Him.

Somewhere between the extremes of slavish groveling and childish petulance, we struggle to know exactly what we should expect of God relationally. Is He the sovereign, almighty King into whose holy presence we are unfit to ascend, or is He the compassionate Father who stands with arms ever spread just waiting for us to come home?

Looking back over the course of history, He is a good deal of both. The Spirit comes when His people call, but not always on cue.

When the slaves in Egypt cried out for God to come, He kept them waiting awhile. After their deliverance (and according to His instructions), they worked hard and long to prepare a place where they could continue to meet with Him. And when the tabernacle was built, the people purified, and the priests consecrated, God’s glory cloud visibly descended and filled that space, providing a very real experience of His presence among His people.

Similarly, when David took proactive steps to create a dwelling place where the Spirit could come in all His glory, he received a promise for the future rather than the immediate answer he was looking for. His son Solomon picked up where he left off, clearing the ground, laying the foundation, and building a magnificent structure faithful to its heavenly counterpart and worthy of its divine Tenant. And when the temple was finally built, the sacrifices offered, and the prayers lifted up, God’s Spirit once again came in an overwhelmingly tangible form, His presence gloriously visible to all who had gathered to partake of it.

Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel… And they installed the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their groups for the service of God at Jerusalem, according to what is written in the Book of Moses.
…The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. The Levites slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their relatives the priests and for themselves. So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:16-21

Perhaps the most perplexing wait was the one the worshippers experienced in the post-exilic temple. After years of crying out in exile, risking life and limb to trickle back into the land, building walls with sword in one hand and trowel in another, and finally managing to erect a slightly diminished but nonetheless glorious temple, the Spirit didn’t show up. The people had assembled, the sacrifices had been offered, and the priests installed, but the glory cloud never came. No smoke. No fire. No filling.

Though they couldn’t have understood it at the time, the Spirit was planning to return differently than they had expected, and much later in history than they had in mind. In the meantime, how were they to feel? As though they hadn’t tried hard enough, or maybe they had missed some prerequisite that God had intended of them? Or perhaps it was God’s fault. Maybe He had quit on them or no longer cared. In moments of faith they could see His presence through the small favors He sent their way, but the long waiting with little visible evidence of His coming made it hard to keep seeking His face.

The tiny bundle of flesh carried into that temple in his mother’s arms hundreds of years later would contain the longed-for Spirit, but only those who hadn’t quit watching for it would recognize His coming.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.

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 1:4, 2:1-4

He would be the one to pour out the same Spirit on another group of waiting worshippers who had gathered, been purified, and were faithfully offering up sacrifices of praise. Who knows what the disciples were expecting or even if they were expecting at that time, but when fire and wind descended from heaven to fill their house, I think they all knew that the Spirit had come. The wait had been worth it.

Thankfully we don’t have to wait for centuries to experience the Spirit’s presence with us now. Each ray of sun touches us with His warmth; each meal on our table fills us with His provision. And more than that, God’s Spirit testifies directly with ours that we are securely loved, not abandoned. At times He meets with us in powerfully tangible ways, speaking into our minds and moving in our hearts in a manner indescribable but no less real. At other times He seems silent and inactive, provoking us to frustration and longing.

But even this desire for Him to come is the fruit of His presence already at work in us. It is the wind behind the faith that keeps us walking and waiting, preparing our hearts and creating space in our lives for the Spirit to move. He may not come when or how we expect. But when He comes, the soul feels its worth.

No Room for the Spirit

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“There’s just something missing at church. I can’t put my finger on it, but each week I come home feeling frustrated and empty.”

How often have I heard this sentiment expressed by Christians of all stripes (and felt it myself)! If often falls in the context of a fair critique of artificial fellowship, program-driven worship, or pre-packaged sermons. But perhaps, just perhaps, it is a symptom of a deeper issue, one which starts in us.

The “church” of Hannah’s time was experiencing an all-time low. The spiritual leaders who had been entrusted with the holy task of ministering before the Lord and of shepherding His people were instead using their powerful position to take advantage of vulnerable women and to embezzle the offerings of faithful worshippers. Their minds were so far from the Spirit around whom their service and their facility were oriented that they didn’t recognize His work when He showed up!

As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”

“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. …

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
1 Samuel 1:12-17

But that didn’t stop Hannah from encountering Him. Her desperation for a child and her deep faith that God was the only One who could give her one drove her into His presence. There, through the veil that separated her from the ark of the covenant, she communed with the Spirit in a powerful way, His prayers bubbling up on her lips and mingling with her own tearful longings. And despite Eli’s well-intentioned blunder, the Spirit spoke His blessing and assurance through His not-so-spiritually sensitive priest. Hannah left the tabernacle strengthened and encouraged, filled with the sweet satisfaction of having met with God.

Though Eli’s sons didn’t recognize it, God’s Spirit was living in their midst. He did respond to the prayers of the faithful who came seeking His face. He did take issue with their corrupt practices. And He wasn’t about to let them get away with using Him as an excuse to get what they wanted or a talisman to protect their own self-interests. So when they hauled the ark out of its holy home and put it on display before the eyes of pagan invaders, God let them lose, both the battle and the gift of His Spirit.

She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.”
1 Samuel 4:22; 5:7

But as He had done for Sarah when her husband devalued her glory in a similar way, God honored His Spirit’s abode in the eyes of its captors. He allowed no one to desecrate its holy form. He poured out plagues on the households of those who took it in. And He brought down in involuntary worship the idol-king who presumed to use it as a self-gratifying prop. By time He was finished with them, Dagon and his Philistine devotees were begging for the Spirit to depart from them. The care with which they sent off the ark and the gifts with which they surrounded it testified to their newfound awareness of the Spirit’s power and worth.

“I will not enter my house or go to my bed, I will allow no sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”

We heard it in Ephrathah, we came upon it in the fields of Jaar: “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool, saying, ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ”
Psalm 132:3-9

No wonder David prized the Spirit’s presence with him more than any other gift or accomplishment. No wonder he felt the incredible wrongness of the way the ark had been neglected, abandoned as it was in some shed in a farmer’s field. And no wonder zeal to build a proper house for the Spirit consumed him. The lack of a permanent building or organized worship hadn’t prevented David from meeting with God and enjoying the fellowship of His Spirit. But the value he placed on the Spirit drove him to honor It with the central-most space in his kingdom.

This is what I think we are too-often missing, both in our churches and in our hearts. We fail to recognize the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We forget to honor Its holiness, to give It central place in our thoughts, our prayers, our service, and our worship. We go through the motions of doing the right things while missing the beauty and the power of the One who could fill them with meaning and satisfaction. In short, we take the Spirit for granted.

For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.
Psalm 132:13-16

The Spirit may be the least-visible member of the Trinity, but It is certainly not the least precious. Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the pouring out of the Spirit on us as individual believers and as a Church. This Gift is one to be treasured, adored, welcomed, and sought out. Whether our churches welcome the Spirit’s manifestations or not, whether they invoke It’s presence or not, the Spirit is with us. Both in private prayer and in corporate worship, the onus is on us to faithfully, zealously seek His face.

And as each heart prepares Him room, Heaven and nature will have cause to sing.

Priesting Lessons, or When God Invites Us to Dinner

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What does it mean for me to be a priest? Obviously some people are called into a specific type of priestly ministry, involving specialized training, recognition, and a particular leadership role within the church. But what about the rest of us? If a core part of our identity as believers is to be part of a priesthood, what does that actually look like?

Embracing our identity as priests should radically shape the way we go about our lives. Studying the Reformation with my children in our recent history classes has reminded me how life altering this doctrine was for the believers of that era. In a post-medieval context, it infused common people with a new boldness to approach God directly and to study the Scriptures personally. But how does this doctrine speak into an individualistic era in which we are more likely to think of our relationship with God as a personal matter and relegate our spirituality to what we experience in our private time with Him?

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob …
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
Exodus 19:3-6

Like us, Moses had a long way to go in figuring out how to do this whole priest thing. He, like his ancestor Abraham, had been chosen as God’s representative on earth. But what started out as the not-so-simple task of confronting a powerful government and rescuing a group of slaves quickly turned into an even more complicated task of leading an unruly nation through its unpredictable adolescence and into its high calling of being a kingdom of priests. For starters, Moses needed a little training himself.

Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.
Exodus 18:19-20

Thankfully God sent along his father-in-law, a veteran priest from Midian (and a fellow descendent from Abraham). In addition to his invaluable advice about empowering those under him to lead, Jethro also charged Moses with the dual responsibility of taking the people’s concerns before God and of speaking God’s concerns to the people. More than that, he called Moses to live before the people in such a way that they could see what it looked like to be a priest in service to God and imitate his example. Jethro himself led by example, blessing Moses and ushering him, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel into communion with God through a sacrificial feast.

When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” … He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. …

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Exodus 24:3-8

Moses faced a steep learning curve as he was almost immediately called on by God to lead his people in a similar encounter. God was going to show up on a nearby mountain in His overwhelming power and glory. This was no small deal. It was God once again descending to inhabit a physical space on earth and to meet with His people. The first try at this on the mount of Eden had ended in disaster when the people-priests violated the terms of their employment and desecrated themselves with restricted food. This time around they would need to be more careful.

Moses went to great lengths to prepare his community for the day of God’s coming, telling them God’s words and ways, calling them to respond in obedience and faith, offering sacrifices of prayer and praise on their behalf, and teaching them to do the same. Using the same words our great High Priest would later speak as He introduced yet another communion feast, Moses applied the blood of God’s covenant to their physical bodies.

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Exodus 24:9-11

And amazingly, the same holy God who had traumatized them with His life-threatening thunderclouds and earth-shattering voice now invited Moses and his companions to come to His place for dinner. Just as a select few of Jesus’ disciples would later get a mountaintop glimpse of His glory, God gave these mortals the opportunity to gaze on His beauty. Feet planted on earth and eyes gazing into heaven, they ate and drank with God.

The intimacy of this absolutely floors me! And yet this is the very sort of communion that we get to share with God each time we break bread and drink wine together in His presence. Not only do we eat and drink with God at the Eucharistic altar, we also dine with Him each time we invoke His blessing on our meal and receive our daily manna with thanks. In a very real sense, when we pray over our food we are functioning as priests.

And just as communion is by nature a communal act, our priestly calling is anything but something to be limited to our private lives. We are those whom God has called into relationship with Himself so that we might represent Him to others and others to Him. His blessing on those around us is mediated by our faithfulness to intercede on their behalf before His throne and to speak on His behalf into their lives.

As we consciously live and serve in the presence of God, we become the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and man. That is what it means to be a priesthood of believers.

Identity, Purpose, and a Reason to Get Up

IMG_0795“Name one thing worth getting out of bed for.” It was one of those rare mornings (for me, anyway) in which I just couldn’t summon the motivation to wake up.

Actually, this has been one of those unusual seasons in which the immediate is less pressing and the eternal has more space to come rushing in. I’m not generally happy with anything less than an overfull diary and the adrenaline-inducing challenge to clear hurdle after impossible hurdle, awakening each day with a sense of urgency to get up and accomplish some goal. But removing some of those roles on which I hang my sense of importance has allowed me to gaze deeper into the question of identity.

When I teach on identity formation, I begin by asking learners how they introduce themselves. Inevitably, the answers cluster around kinship and roles. A second glance at the surnames our ancestors adopted confirms this is not a new phenomenon: John-son and Jack-son, the Mac’s and the O’s (meaning descendant of), and our many occupational names like Smith, Hunter, Barber, and even Clark (derivative of clerk, variant of clergy).

I remember once being led through the helpful exercise of listing all the ways that I identify myself, the point, of course, being to guide me back to my relationship with God as the bedrock of my identity. While cognitively I found this concept very satisfying, it has really been in the times of losing or struggling in those roles and relationships that I have been compelled to clear away the rubble that obscures the ever-present bedrock of my identity.

What does it actually mean for my identity to be based on God? Is this simply a cliché way of stating that I am nothing apart from Him or that I find my worth in belonging to Him? While all that is beautifully true, it doesn’t actually give me a goal to pursue other than investing in our relationship (which is of central importance to who I am). But surely there is more to life than simply sitting alone with God, loving and being loved. Surely there is a role that this identity entails.

This is the story that I have been searching for. It begins with a man and a woman in a garden, commissioned to fill the earth with babies and plants. Of course that would take time and work, but their goal was clear and satisfying. And their role bore far greater significance than simply clocking in and out each day as gardeners and caretakers. They were functioning as priests in the garden-temple of God. Eden was His home on earth, the physical space where He came to meet with His people. Their work of filling, beautifying, and tending it was a sacred service to Him. They were His holy homemakers!

As the story too often goes, these original priests misallocated the temple resources, taking for themselves a portion that didn’t belong to them and disqualifying themselves from ministry in God’s presence. The garden temple was desecrated and decommissioned, but God didn’t abandon His plan to create a physical space where He could dwell with His people. If anything, their failure made way for a bigger, better floor plan.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. 
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

Genesis 12:1-9

Abraham’s call to the priesthood came without a temple already provided. But he still understood his role as a mediator of God’s blessing to the rest of creation. He set about filling the land that God led him through with altars and worship, calling on God’s Spirit to come and inhabit that place. And he was meant to extend the presence and blessing of God into that sacred space, representing God in the way he cared for his family, his flocks, and the many “neighbors” with whom he came in contact. Though at times he failed to protect his wife or speak truthfully to neighboring kings, for the most part Abraham used his privileged position with God to intervene on behalf of his oppressed and even wayward neighbors.

And this is where I begin to catch a vision for the role we are playing, too. Though I am far from finished with tracing the themes of priesthood and temple through the Bible (shoot—I haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet), I already glimpse the significance of the seemingly mundane tasks that fill my day. That stack of essays I need to read and respond to, that neighbor I need to call, that mess in the closet I need to sort out—all of this is part of the high calling God has placed on me. As one of His priests living in the earth He has chosen to fill with His Spirit, the daily work that I do of tending, beautifying, and blessing my immediate surroundings is a sacred service to Him.

What finally got my identity-questioning, vision-lacking self out of bed the other morning was His gentle response to my search for purpose.

“Do it for Me.”

The Individualist Branch

branchI consider myself a pretty blessed branch. I wasn’t always so nicely situated as I am now. I started off on the wrong side of the vineyard, growing up on a vine that just wasn’t going anywhere. Thank God He saved me from that dead-end and grafted me in to the Living Vine. Without Him I don’t know where I would be.

Of course, nothing in life comes easy. God has given me so much. The least I can do is take the potential He has invested in me and make something of it. I want to live up to His expectations and do Him proud. That’s why I pay close attention to His standards and strive for excellence in all I do. I never want Him to regret having picked me.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. … Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15:1-5

After all, I understand that the point of being a branch is to bear fruit. I’d be a pretty worthless branch if I didn’t! So I make every effort to fulfill my calling. I avoid the things that would compromise my output quality, and I rise each day determined to produce the best fruit possible. I groom, discipline, and develop myself, ever pushing to squeeze out an admirable and plentiful crop.

I have come a long way from where I started, and most people looking at me would say I am an admirable success of a branch. But if they examined me closer up, they would notice the bitter or blighted fruit that often pops out on me. I scramble to cover it with my charming leaves and other presentable products, but I still know it is there. And that disturbs me.

If I’m really honest, I’d have to admit that sometimes I fake it. In some of my places I look and see no fruit at all. I know the kind of fruit He expects, but it just doesn’t automatically pop out on me like that. What’s a branch to do? So I hold out last season’s fruit, pretending like it is fresh and real. I simulate a healthy, thriving branch while all the while I know that I am shriveling from the inside out.

What’s wrong with me? What am I missing that other branches seem to get? I see them fresh and green, bearing beautiful fruit in season while I push and groan trying to pop out a few decent deeds. What do they have that I don’t?

Sometimes I suspect it might have something to do with that Stream they root themselves close to. Or perhaps the way they all cluster around the Vine gives them an extra advantage.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:9-13

But I’ve never placed much stock in going with the flow or running with the pack. I enjoy the challenge of making my own way, maintaining my freedom rather than being confined by the group. I want to bear good fruit, but I’d rather do it on my own. I’ve carried on this far with the sap-transfusion that the Vine conferred on me when He transferred me in. But perhaps that isn’t enough.

Perhaps there is something to this whole communal connection thing. I may be designed for producing fruit, but I can’t produce my own sap, too. And though I prefer connecting to the Vine in my own, personal relationship, I’m beginning to recognize that being a solitary branch falls short of His purpose for me. Only as I conform myself to the greater plant, investing myself in the other branches and allowing them to impinge on me, will we together realize our full organic potential.

If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit…
John 15:6-8

I suppose there isn’t really any room on this Vine for a stand-alone branch. If I want to stick around, I’ll need to stick closer to Him and to my fellow branches. Interdependence may strip me of my independence, but it will fill me with more of His life-giving self.

After all, fruit bearing is a team effort.