Tag Archives: abandonment

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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When Hope Comes Hard

aLife’s harsh realities have a way of squeezing the stars out of our eyes. When I encounter a young couple dreaming of their happy future, my smile comes bittersweet, already feeling the pain they will inevitably encounter but also savoring the naïve hope they can enjoy for now.

For those who have already been around life’s block a few times, hope doesn’t come so cheap. We know that things rarely turn out the way we expect, and allowing our hopes to rise again entails the risk of exposing them to another crash. The inexperienced might call us skeptics, but we can hardly afford to be otherwise.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

But as people of faith, how do we reconcile our awareness of life’s pain with hope in God’s goodness? The easy way out (and one I have repeatedly given into) is to mentally separate these categories, relegating God’s intervention to the realm of the spiritual and maintaining our self-protective pessimism towards life in the “real world.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
John 11:3-6

This is the dynamic I observe in Martha’s guarded response to Jesus after her brother’s death. She had every reason to hope that He would have come quickly to heal Lazarus. After all, wasn’t that what He went around doing for everyone else? Of course He would come for the one He loved. But He didn’t.

Faced with such deep disappointment, Martha had a difficult choice to make. She had already lost her brother; she didn’t want to lose her Lord, too. And yet how could she make sense of His unresponsiveness to her heart’s cry? How could she reconcile her faith in His goodness with His failure to prove it?

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:20-22

Martha went out to meet Jesus, relieved to be with Him again but steeling her heart against the further disappointment His presence might bring. She couldn’t help but state the obvious: it was His fault her brother had died. But rather than dwell on the gaping wound in their relationship, she quickly covered it over by affirming her faith in what she knew to be theologically true.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
John 11:23

As usual, Jesus knew the struggle going on in her heart and put His finger right where it hurt. He didn’t just want vague statements of her faith in His sovereignty. He wanted her heart, in all its broken, disillusioned messiness. In a claim that could have seemed almost taunting in light of His recent track record, Jesus promised the very thing Martha was too afraid to hope for. Her brother would live again.

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24

Still attempting the valiant feat of holding on to faith while dealing with disappointment, Martha came up with the safest possible spin on what He had just said. Her theological training came in handy, allowing her to state with certainty what the written Word had already guaranteed. She could look forward to the distant hope of resurrection but could not bear to think of something closer to home. Spiritualizing Jesus’ promise allowed her to affirm its truth while not letting it destabilize her immediate expectations.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

And as always, Jesus understood. Rather than push the point of what He was going to do in the situation at hand, He met her where she felt safe to go. His claims about Himself were the basis of all that He did. If she was willing to state her belief in who He was and the way He works on behalf of His people, what more was needed?

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
John 11:27

Martha rose to the occasion, just as Peter had. Despite her struggle to see His goodness in the here and now, despite her inability to claim that He would fulfill her deepest longing, she stated her categorical faith in Him. The rest would be resolved in the minutes and eternity to follow. But for now, Martha had found a bedrock on which to rest her hope: Christ Himself.

Like Martha, many of us live stuck between yesterday’s disappointments and tomorrow’s hope. We know God is able to intervene now and we know He will be faithful to make things right in the end. But what hope can we claim for how He will act in between? As He did for Martha, Jesus responds to our hidden fears with a call to trust in who He is and how He works, not just in the distant future but also in the here and now.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

A Prayer for the Persecuted

"Sanctuary" by Cadi Clark
“Sanctuary”
by Cadi Clark
What do rape victims and the persecuted church have in common?

Both have faced the invasion and desecration of God’s Temple. Both have survived atrocities that leave them scarred and damaged. And both are left with some serious questions about why God didn’t protect them from evil men.

Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross echoes through the voices of the Psalms, some in response to national disaster and other in response to personal abuse. This is the same question that I have encountered in counseling sexually abused women and in interacting with Nigerian Christian leaders. The inevitable conclusion their hearts struggle not to feel is that God has somehow forsaken them.

Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Remember the people you purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, whom you redeemed– Mount Zion, where you dwelt. Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins, all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.
Psalm 74:1-3

How can they not take it personally? God’s Word has set them up with certain expectations that they are valuable in His sight and therefore worth protecting. They could even tell stories from the past of how He did deliver and honor them, including their testimony of salvation. But if they are still so precious to Him, then how in the world could He stand by and watch their devastation?

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
74:4-7

What hurts deeper than the physical assaults they have endured is the sense of violation and desecration that remains. Their bodies are no longer their own; their sacred places have been contaminated. The very place where they communed with God has been damaged, hindering their ability to share that intimacy with Him again.

They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!” They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land. We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.
74:8-9

How could God allow that level of destruction? Physical suffering is one thing, but that He would permit such an assault on their souls seems unthinkable. Doesn’t He want to have relationship with them? If so, then why didn’t He draw the line around how far the enemy could go in attacking them?

How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
74:10-11

The spiritual discouragement that settles in seems like it might be the new normal. It seems the enemy got what they wanted after all. Is God really going to let them get away with this? If so, that sends a pretty loud message to His devastated people. He must be angry with them. He must have rejected them. If God won’t act on their behalf, there’s not much point in going on.

But you, O God, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth. It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. …It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.
74:12-17

A brief survey of history reminds them that this isn’t the first time God’s people have faced opposition. And always before He has been the sort of leader who uses His power to rescue, defend, and make things right. If that’s how He’s done it in the past, then surely there is hope that He will do it again today.

Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O LORD, how foolish people have reviled your name. Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.
74:18-19

With slightly renewed confidence in their relationship with God, devastated cries of abandonment can shift to bold pleas for help. Their world not longer feels like a safe place and they are still defined by the mockery and abuse that were heaped on them. But if God will acknowledge the depths of their ruin and address it, there is hope that they may yet be restored.

Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land. Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name. Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long.
74:20-22

After all, they are His people! He is the one who reached out to them in love in the first place and established a relationship with them. They bear His image and His name. Any mistreatment of them is actually an assault on their God. His honor is on the line as much as theirs. Because they are His beloved people, they are His cause to defend and to promote.

May our response to their predicament never give them cause to doubt whether God still cares.

Some of us can relate with this prayer more personally than others, but all of us should join in praying it. Any attack on a part of His Temple is an attack on the whole. So we stand with the battered church around the world in praying for God to rise up and restore them. And we stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters here at home, unwilling to settle for the disgrace that has been heaped on them.

May our response to their predicament never give them cause to doubt whether God still cares.

The Legacy of a Leader

tombRunning the streets of Paris this week has gotten me thinking about great leaders and the legacy they leave behind. My different routes take me by towering structures and massive monuments, opulent palaces and magnificent cathedrals. And while sparkling golden domes and triumphant archways inspire me with their grandeur, I can’t help but see them in the context of les miserables at whose expense they were built. While I doubt that these great leaders had the suffering of the marginalized in mind as they drew up their strategic plans and executed their visionary agenda, I see that as precisely the problem.

To be frank, I notice a startling similarity between political visionaries who build their empires on the backs of their downtrodden subjects and spiritual leaders who build the church or its institutions at the expense of their downtrodden sheep. I sympathize with the heavy mantle of leadership, the constant pressure to do what is best for the whole group and to keep the flock moving forwards towards important goals. But too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of the flock. They reach their destination leaving behind a long trail of limping lambs and wounded stragglers, unintended but uncared for casualties of their leadership agenda.

Too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of their flock.

In the classroom-based leadership training and the pew-based leadership observing that I do around the world, I have encountered all sorts of worthy church-building agendas. For some the focus is on evangelism or numerical growth, for others it is on preaching of pure doctrine or promoting the holiness of the church body. Often I encounter more specific goals like making a church more relevant to a particular generation or social group, or the less-likely-to-be-stated agenda of preserving its status quo in doctrine, worship style, or values.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off ? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
Matthew 18:11-13

But whatever the agenda, when I see a pattern of marginalized members whose needs have been neglected or run over “for the good of the church as a whole,” alarm bells go off in my head. Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine cooperative, contributing sheep to go after the one wounded straggler.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
Psalm 103:3-6

In fact, as I look a bit deeper at God’s leadership style, I see a strong pattern of focusing in on the downcast and specializing in the “pit-dwellers.” He makes their problems His problem, using His power to strengthen those who are feeling weak, His position to promote those who can’t put themselves forward.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:22-26

Under God’s pastoral care, the people who get preferential treatment are those who don’t fit the perfect Christian mold, whose life circumstances, emotional state, or inability to contribute to the “agenda” of the church have put them at risk of being marginalized. Rather than allowing them to straggle at the edges and fall prey to the wolves, the Master Shepherd moves the rest of the flock to surround its weaker members. He invests them with additional attention and honor, calling the rest of His sheep to do the same.

I have seen (and experienced) Christian leaders who are willing to risk following in the shoes of their Shepherd. The Ugandan pastor who risked his standing in the community to protect an unwed mother from the customary punishment of being thrown over a cliff. The Indian Christian leader who hires disgraced ministers with a checkered past so he can offer them careful mentoring and a second chance. The Californian university professor who gathers demon-oppressed students under his sheltering wing for prayer and counsel. And the well-respected old Presbyterian pastor who wept with a traumatized, washed-up woman, willing to believe a story that pushed the limits of his theological paradigm and willing to put his reputation on the line to stand by her.

Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine to go after the one wounded straggler.

Of course I’m not decrying the need for proactive nurture of the healthy members of the flock, but I am pointing out the importance of being willing to be inconvenienced by the ones who don’t fit the agenda, whose lives are messy and complicated, whose problems probably won’t go away with a few counseling sessions or a bring-them-a-meal rota. Whether they are the generation not-in-focus, the sub-culture we weren’t looking to attract, the unemployed or recently divorced man who doesn’t fit in our tidy picture of the “perfect Christian family,” or the emotionally messy woman who can never seem to pull herself together—the agenda has to adjust to make space for them, too.

As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
1 Peter 2:4-6

God’s ultimate agenda for His church is to build her up one living stone at a time, including in His magnificent structure people who fit our preconceived mold and people who don’t. A leader’s legacy is not based on numbers, buildings, programs, or even doctrine. It is found in the people he has loved and nurtured, the living stones that she has helped to find their place in the walls of God’s cosmic temple.

That’s the sort of monument I want a part in.

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.

Does He Even Have a Name?

The story of the Gadarene Demoniac (whom I prefer to call the Gadarene Disciple) became deeply personal for me a number of years ago. This man, whose story had formerly seemed bizarre beyond relevance to me, became a beacon of hope for me and for others like me who have experienced severe demonic oppression. What I love about the way this author portrays him is that she has taken the time to humanize him, to restore the dignity that was so brutally stolen from him by the malice of evil spirits and the ignorance of fearful people. Just as Jesus looked beyond the grotesque form and bizarre behavior to connect with the image of God still alive in him, I pray that we as His representatives on earth will look at others with the same love.

Messy images.

Glorious hope.

Jesus My Healer

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As he (Jesus) stepped out onto land, a madman from town met him; he was a victim of demons. He hadn’t worn clothes for a long time, nor lived at home; he lived in the cemetery.

Luke 8:27

He was somebody before the demons victimized him. We aren’t told his name or what his life was like. But I would like to humanize him if possible. I suspect he was a man of significance; a significance he didn’t even recognize. Oh, it might not have been financial, though it could have been. Maybe it was influence; maybe he was a man that people respected, looked up to, enjoyed knowing. Maybe he had a wife and kids and a nice livelihood that enabled him to provide for them. We aren’t told these things.

Whatever his life was, it wasn’t anymore. Whatever his influence may have been, it was no more. The…

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Closer than You Think

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenWhere is God right now, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes the gap between heaven and earth seems infinite.

But is it really?

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

Sometimes the gap between heaven
and earth seems insurmountable.

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

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

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

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

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

Glimpses of heaven are all around us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a lot closer than we think.

Yours truly.

attachmentWho am I to God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I to expect any better than this?

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

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

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

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

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

God’s reply?

A cross-shaped hug.

Adoption papers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are Mine.

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

Inhabiting No Mans’ Land

attachment-e1430302595774I’m caught in an evangelistic no man’s land.

I will exalt you, my God the King…
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations…
Psalm 145:1-2,13

On one side of me I see my glorious King, risen and reigning over heaven and earth. I see multitudes of saints and angels around His throne, caught up in the ecstasy of white-hot worship. And I feel myself drawn into their number, ready to abandon all inhibition and join in their joyous, unfettered proclamation of Jesus as King.

One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. ..They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds. They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.
Psalm 145:3-7

But then I look in the other direction. There I see sidewalks full of regular folks, going about their everyday business with little or no reference to this supposed King. Where is He when their paycheck runs short or their partner walks out? What mighty deeds or miraculous intervention can they speak of? Life is hard and, in their estimation, the only one looking out for them is Number 1.

The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
Psalm 145:20

When I look at the proclamation of God as King through these eyes, it suddenly loses its luster. It begins to sound like a taunt instead of a tender. Aren’t His benefits only available to those who are already members of the club? Isn’t He the God who threatens to destroy those outside the club, the “wicked”? I can see how the good news that I so desperately want to proclaim would come across as slightly less than appealing.

And this is how I find myself stuck, marooned between two radically different perspectives. In this no man’s land I fall silent, relegating my worship to my private life and proclaiming God’s goodness only within the confines of the clubhouse.

…The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
Psalm 145:13-16

But when I go back to the bold, unapologetic claims of my spiritual predecessors in the Psalms, I realize that I have missed something. Those outside the “holy club” may feel like God has done nothing for them, but that doesn’t mean He hasn’t. Their very existence is testimony to His proactive love. When they were oblivious to their own existence, He formed them in their mother’s womb. When they felt vulnerable and alone, He was watching over their every step. Even though they haven’t looked to Him for food, He has repeatedly handed them both their bodies’ needs and their hearts’ desires.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
Psalm 145:17-18

The point is that God doesn’t just take care of the people who are in His club. He actively relates to every person He has made, showering them with daily expressions of His love whether or not they return the favor. Even better, He promises to get more involved in their lives if they will turn around and ask for it.

I’m not stuck in the gap;
I’ve been called to stand in the gap.

I confess that I too often stand helplessly in the space between these two camps, wondering why God doesn’t do more to make Himself known to those who live apart from Him. How can they know to turn around and call out to Him if they don’t even know that He is there and that He cares?

The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
Psalm 145:8-9

And then I realize the ridiculousness of my self-imposed predicament. I’m not stuck in the gap; I’ve been called to stand in the gap. I wonder at God’s seeming apathy towards the suffering of the world while blindly neglecting my role in bringing the news of His deliverance. I’m the one who doesn’t adequately care. I’ve been trying to pass the world off as God’s problem when all along He keeps calling me to be part of the solution.

All you have made will praise you, O LORD; your saints will extol you. They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Psalm 145:10-12

My role is to take His praise to the streets, not in a rubbing-it-in-your-face sort of way but with all the boldness and compassion of one who has been sent with a life-altering report. My awareness of people’s perspective should not neutralize my message. Rather it should compel me to raise their awareness of God’s reality.

No man’s land is the place where the prophets lived, the expanse that Jesus bridged, the gap that we are now called to fill.

I guess it’s not such a bad place to inhabit, after all.

Deserted or Delivered?

IMG_8608The space between the grief of Good Friday and celebration of Resurrection Sunday is always such an awkward time for me. I have cried myself dry meditating on the incredible suffering that Jesus endured through the course of His endless trials, beatings, and hours on the cross. His pain is finally over, but the time for celebrating His triumph has not yet come. In the between space, I am stuck with the classic mourner’s question of how to make sense of the events that led to this loss.

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.
But you, O LORD, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Psalm 22:16-20

In the lead-up to Jesus’ death, there seems to be this mounting anticipation that God would show up and deliver Him. Isn’t that what Jesus was begging Him for during those agonized midnight prayers in the garden? Isn’t that what He consoled His disciples with when they wanted to fight in His defense? God could show up any time with His armies of angels to deliver His Son. But He didn’t.

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. 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.”
Psalm 22:6-8

Through the insane marathon of accusations and trials, Jesus remained eerily silent. Why? He had no need to defend Himself and set the record straight. He trusted God to do that. But God’s silence was even more deafening than Jesus’. As question after mocking question chipped away at His identity, He stood and later hung with His eyes on heaven. Surely God would answer. Even one of those thundering voices and descending doves would do. Surely the Father would speak up for His Son. But He didn’t.

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.
Psalm 22:14-15

As the telltale signs of death slowly stole over Jesus’ body, His confidence began to waver. Where were those signs of God’s goodness, those affirmations that He would indeed honor and deliver His beloved Son? Jesus’ throttled body bore evidence against the glorious promise that God would send His angels to protect the one He loved. The crushing weight in His chest made a mockery of the biblical assurances that God would deliver His soul from death. The worst had come, and God hadn’t intervened.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
Psalm 22:1-2

Was this really how things would end?

Jesus cried out what His mind knew wasn’t true but His heart couldn’t help but feel: “My God, my God, why have you deserted me!?!”

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.
Psalm 22:11-13

He knew how the story would end. He had rehearsed it with His disciples a million times. He would die but He would rise again. This wasn’t the end, but it sure felt like it. In the moment, all Hell was breaking loose. His disciples had scattered. The demonic hordes had gathered, hovering in the air all around Him and enjoying every moment of His distress. But through the roar of their taunting voices, Jesus tuned His interpretation of reality into the still whisper of the Spirit within.

For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
Psalm 22:24

Even as the dark shadows of death stole over His vision, Jesus clung to the sweet comfort of God with Him. There was nothing to be afraid of anymore. The worst had already happened. The storm still howled all around, but God was within. He had never left. And even now His Spirit was bearing testimony to Jesus’ Spirit that this was not how it would end.

The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him– may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.
Psalm 22:26-28

God would deliver Jesus from the grave. He would raise Him up to a position of glory and honor greater than He had lost in the first place. He would cause the knees that had marched against Him to bow in worship before Him. He would cause the tongues that had mocked Him to testify that He is Lord. And because of God’s faithfulness to deliver Jesus, He would prove Himself faithful to deliver all others who put their hope in Him.

What feels like yesterday’s desertion
will turn out to be tomorrow’s deliverance.

This is the outcome that I cling to in the in-between spaces of my own life. When God seems to have turned His back on me, when He has already allowed the worst to happen, this is the version of reality that I turn to. What feels like yesterday’s desertion will turn out to be tomorrow’s deliverance. What others may have intended for my harm will turn out for my good.

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn– for he has done it.
Psalm 22:30-31

Why? Because that is the way God works. He sets up the greatest crises to put on display His greater deliverance. He is the God who delights in unexpected twists and surprise endings. He is writing my story along the same plot lines as He did Christ’s. Of course it will turn out good. He is the One doing it.