Tag Archives: blessing

A Mighty Line of Mothers

Mama,

In you I meet Eve,
Embodiment of the Spirit’s glory
Bearer of the seed who will triumph over evil
Mother of all the living

In you I meet Sarah,
Personification of beauty and faith
Bearer of the long-awaited (and sometimes doubted) covenantal heir
Foremother of our faith

In you I meet Miriam,
Prophetess of the Most High
Guardian of the deliverer, worship leader of the delivered
Nurturer of a nation

In you I meet Deborah,
Spokeswoman of the King
Dispensing justice, raising up leaders
Mother of Israel

In you I meet Hannah,
Maidservant of God
Faith-filled in shame, faithful in devotion
Producer of a king-maker

In you I meet Abigail,
Voice of the Holy Spirit
Intelligent in intervention, beautiful in form
Savior of a king

In you I meet Ruth,
Humble bondservant to God
Faithful steward of little, honored with much
Noble woman

In you I meet the Queen of Proverbs,
Essence of feminine nobility
Teacher, manager, businesswoman, homemaker, fashion plate
Glory of her husband, Hero to her children

Happy Mother’s Day

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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.

The Suffering Credential

IMG_0307I’m sitting alone in an urbane, international airport, but my mind is still with the rural, northern Nigerian pastors whom I’ve been with all week. Something about these men—their lives, their testimony, and the zeal with which they serve God despite all the odds—commands my respect.

Ironically, one of the themes of our time together was the role of suffering in the life of a believer and, in particular, in the life of a minister. I felt grossly inadequate teaching this particular audience about the spiritually developmental benefits of suffering. Unlike when I present this message to a western Christian audience, my point became less of an exhortation to embrace suffering and more of an affirmation to those who already have. These pastors face the daily threat of their daughters being kidnapped as prize-brides for Muslim men and of their newly converted church members being assaulted or killed by their former communities. Diocesan meetings often concern how they can hide their at-risk daughters or members in each others’ homes as they bear together their heavy financial and safety risks.

Pastor's children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
Pastor’s children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
My affirmation fell on parched soil. Compared to their colleagues in the widely popular prosperity churches (who generally avoid rural, predominantly Muslim areas for their ministry contexts), these humble servants of God feel like losers. Their trousers are ripped from repeated attempts to kick-start their decrepit motor bikes, their wives have to make soap and sell whatever they can to keep food in the childrens’ mouths, and their success rates in church growth have hardly put them on the map.

But I couldn’t help mentally making the comparison between these African church leaders and their Western colleagues, too. They lack the academic credentialing and rigorous theological training that the Western church values as a fundamental qualifier for pastoral ministry. This is not to say their hunger for further knowledge is lacking (it’s anything but), but rather that opportunities to acquire it are rare prizes. And yet their opportunities abound for acquiring a very different sort of ministry credential.

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
…the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18-22

When questioned by the Jews about His own ministry credentials, Jesus pointed to His upcoming suffering. He could have bragged about His personal line with the Father or performed a few exciting miracles. But instead He pointed to the greatest miracle of all: His willingness to suffer for a cause that He valued more than His life. Of course the capstone of that miracle was the fact that He would rise from His suffering, but without death there would be no resurrection.

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God…
2 Corinthians 6:3-7

Paul, too, defended the credibility of his ministry by pointing to his own suffering. The validation of his right to speak so authoritatively was how much he had endured for the sake of his message. Yes, the message was truth whether or not its bearer had been persecuted for it, but the proof of its worth and the depth of his ability to deliver it were forged in the fires of suffering. This minister was able to comfort because he had been comforted. He had the right to call others to persevere under severe trials because he had already done the same. The knowledge of his book learning had taken on a third dimension of messy life experience, and that became his leading credential.

As I consider the massive gap between the church in the West and the church in Africa, I think we have much to offer each other. I’m delighted to be a small part of bringing some of our training in Biblical knowledge and study skills to the Global South, as a number of other Western groups and churches are doing. But I think we also need a good dose of what our African and Asian contemporaries have to offer. Their suffering has earned them a right to be listened to and respected. It has also given them insights into God and His Word that we cannot see until we share similar experiences.

We may have more educational credentials. But they far outrank us in the suffering credential. Perhaps we would do well to request their help in our area of need.

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.

Suffering or Prosperity? The Gospel for a New Year

“I just prayed that your book will be published this year.” My husband’s voice broke through my sleep-obscured thoughts as we snuggled in the New Year this morning. Putting off the inevitably icy reception of the air outside our covers, I lay in bed praying and wondering what this new year will hold for us.

We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago. With your hand you drove out the nations and planted our fathers; you crushed the peoples and made our fathers flourish. It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.
Psalm 44:1-3

I remember wondering the same thing on a New Year’s Day several oceans and years ago. We had set the day aside to fast and pray, asking the Lord’s direction and blessing on our upcoming year. Small children and frequent visitors had kept me busy, but I finally managed to slip away for some focused time in God’s presence. As I meditated on His sovereign rule over governments and toddlers, ministry plans and personal resources, His voice broke through my thoughts.

“Take all that you hold dearest and lay it in My hands.”

One by one I named my children and my husband and offered them up to Him in worship. This wasn’t a completely new exercise for me. I had occasionally used it as a litmus test for the state of my heart, checking to see if God still had first place in my affections and loyalties.

But He was after something else this time. He urged me to go on. I began naming everything else I could think of that was important to me: my beautiful home, the treasures that filled it, my friends and communities on both sides of the world, my health, financial stability, and success in ministry. Each of these I surrendered into His hands with a growing sense of dread, wondering why He was asking me to do it.

Finally He let up, telling me to leave it all there in His hands.

I agonized in His presence, chafing under the thought that perhaps this had not just been a test, after all. What if He was going to take me up on my offer? And yet He had already anticipated my next impulse, reminding me not to try to take it all back.

I do not trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory; but you give us victory over our enemies… In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever.
Psalm 44:6-8

I walked through January not knowing whether to dread the upcoming year or to look forward to it. Did this mean that God was going to take all of those things and prosper them or simply take and keep them?

But now you have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies. You made us retreat before the enemy, and our adversaries have plundered us. You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations. You sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale.
Psalm 44:9-12

Little did I know that by the end of that year, we would have lost our entire income, our home in South Asia, our status in ministry, and many of our closest relationships. I would be a mental and emotional wreck, struggling to survive the aftermath of trauma and incapacitated to serve my family or my God.

All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness.
Psalm 44:17-19

That was the darkest year of my life, scored by a valley of suffering deeper than any I had thought humanly possible. I had placed all of my eggs in one basket and entrusted it to God’s hands. After all, wasn’t that supposed to be the safest place? But He dropped the basket. As I reviewed the chain of events that led to my utter devastation, His was the hand I saw behind it all.

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–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.
Psalm 103:2-5

Years later I can look back and recount the ways that He caught each of those “eggs.” Not a one of them hit the ground and was permanently destroyed. In fact, most of those precious treasures that I entrusted to Him have been returned to me, radically altered but greatly enhanced through the process. I still bear the scars of my losses, but I have gained new stories to tell of God’s faithfulness.

As I survey the life He has reconstructed for me, drastically different from the one I would have chosen for myself, I can see how He was working all along to fulfill the deepest desires of my heart. I look around my Scottish home and marvel at its beauty. I consider the friendships that sweeten our life from near and far, the ministry opportunities that fill my days, and the rich provisions that make our life possible and I can’t help but see God’s hand in all of it. I watch my husband flourishing and my children developing into mature, well-rounded disciples of Christ and fall to my knees in gratitude.

Screen-Shot-2014-12-29-at-9.37.45-PMWill this next year hold success or suffering, prosperity or pain? I really don’t know what to anticipate. But I do know the glorious, nail-pierced hands of the One who holds it all.

The good news for 2015 is: He reigns.

Longing for Eden

Once upon a time a garden grew
Where darkness had covered and Spirit flew
Planting the seed of something new:
The conception of Eden.

Beauty and order, life and light
Sprang from the earth and ended the night
God in His garden declared it all “right”:
The birth of Eden.

Not yet finished, good but not best
God stepped back and man failed the test.
Fruit prematurely plucked, cursing the rest:
The loss of Eden.

Again God came near and His Spirit hovered,
Planting the Seed in the womb of another
Angels sang with hope recovered:
The promise of Eden.

Withered vines healed, fruit restored
Mustard seed grew, moving toward
A garden more sweet and full than before:
The glory of Eden.

Still unfinished, the garden felt its lack
As thorns pierced His brow and He took its flack.
Sun hid its face as earth received Him back:
The Seed of Eden.

Garden grows on, new fruit arrives.
Pink cheeks fill our hearts, rosy dreams fill our eyes.
We celebrate the gift of life:
The joy of Eden.

Dark shadows steal over fresh rosy cheeks.
Mother heart pierced, father heart weeps.
Fruit prematurely plucked, hope and curse meet:
The death of Eden.

Sun still comes up but limp limbs hang down.
What comfort, what purpose in going on?
Empty arms, barren trees, sweet fruit now gone:
The loss of Eden.

But sure as the dawn we for look for the morn
When seed will again sprout, life be reborn
Empty tomb greet those who show up to mourn:
The resurrection of Eden.

Until then we tarry, inspired to nurture
The garden around us, our friends, family, culture.
Preparing the earth for its bright promised future:
The coming of Eden.

In Memory of
Eden Wang-Hua Clark
July 2, 2014–October 20, 2014

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“Bless Them” or “Bring Them Down”?

From childhood I have sung and prayed the Psalms, reveling in the words that they provide me for worship, for intercession, and for the soul-baring expression of my deepest struggles to God. Their ability to capture the essence of my messiest emotions and turn it into relationship-building prayer causes me to return to them everyday, using their words to shape my prayers. But sometimes as my soul sails along one of their pristine highways of praise it suddenly collides with a dark, imprecatory wall.

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:44-45

How do I pray along with psalms that ask for bad things to happen to my enemies? I thought I was supposed to ask God to bless them, not bring them down. How can praying for my enemies to be ashamed and dismayed possibly fit with God’s command for me to love them?

Make them like tumbleweed, O my God, like chaff before the wind. As fire consumes the forest or a flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm.
Psalm 83:13-15

But as I look a bit deeper, I discover that not all of these imprecatory psalms are vengeful. While some clearly do call for pretty nasty retaliation (Wishing our enemies’ children to be dashed against rocks is quite out of bounds for those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus’ teachings and example), others are asking for something quite different.

They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, O LORD; they oppress your inheritance. …They say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.”
Take heed, you senseless ones among the people; you fools, when will you become wise?…Does he who disciplines nations not punish? Does he who teaches man lack knowledge?
Psalm 94:4-10

In these, the psalmist is asking for horrible things to happen to his enemies so that they will repent and change. The problem is that these people think and act as if there is no God, as if He will not judge them in the end for what they have done. But the psalmist knows better. By faith, he knows that, left on this trajectory, they will eventually run into the wrath of a just God and be eternally judged for their actions.

Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD. May they ever be ashamed and dismayed; may they perish in disgrace. Let them know that you, whose name is the LORD– that you alone are the Most High over all the earth.
Psalm 83:16-18

So in a moment of loving compassion, he asks God to intervene in his enemies’ destiny. Scare them. Shame them. Break them. Humble them. Do whatever it takes to teach their minds that You really do notice and will call them to account. Do whatever it takes to turn their hearts back to You before it is too late.

Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law; you grant him relief from days of trouble, till a pit is dug for the wicked.

Let a righteous man strike me–it is a kindness; let him rebuke me–it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it.
Psalm 94:12, Psalm 141:5

The psalmist knows from personal experience that it often takes a pretty heavy blow from God to set him straight. He has learned to embrace God’s discipline in his own life, to see it as a blessing instead of a curse, because it saves him from greater harm and it prepares the way for his greater good. He is asking nothing for his enemies that he would not also want for himself.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 7:12

And that is where love fits back into the picture. In asking God to discipline our enemies, I think it is possible to fulfill the law of love on the deepest level, asking God to do for them what we would want Him to do for us. Clearly we need to keep close tabs on our own hearts, evaluating whether this is a prayer born out of love or out of revenge. But it is a prayer that we can wholeheartedly join in, especially as we progress through the multiple stages of forgiveness.

You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you.
Psalm 86:5

It scares me to think of the consequences that my “enemies” may face if they remain unrepentant. When I seriously consider the day they will stand before our righteous Judge, I cringe and beg Him for mercy. I suppose this is an encouraging sign of the work of His Spirit in me, expressing itself in another layer of forgiveness towards those whose wrongs against me remain unconfessed. If our final reconciliation is predicated on their repentance, then I eagerly pray that God will do what it takes to bring that about. Even more, I long for the day when my enemies will turn and run into our Father’s forgiving embrace.

Bring them down, Lord, so that You can bless them.

Unemployed but Rich

“You have no idea how rich you are in Jesus.”

I stared incredulously at my friend through tear-swollen eyes, thinking to myself that she was the one who had no idea how terrifyingly poor I was. We had just lost our job, and were subsequently being forced to abruptly leave the country in which we had been living and serving for eleven years. We were in the midst of selling and giving away most of our possessions, saying goodbye to all our friends and church family, and leaving behind the only life we had dreamed of. Ahead of us lay a great void, with no certainty of a job, a home, or a community awaiting us. I had never felt so poor.

Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked … The days of the blameless are known to the LORD, and their inheritance will endure forever. In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.
I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be blessed.
Psalm 37:16-19, 25-26

But as much as the weight of our poverty pressed in on me from all sides, my friend’s words rang true. I may be selling my cherished table and chairs in order to buy next month’s groceries, but I had to believe that all we had invested in the kingdom of God was not lost. As we launched into a season of severe financial insecurity, I wondered how true the psalmist’s words were about never seeing the children of the righteous begging for bread. I had always been the one distributing food to other people’s children. What would now become of my own?

The nation of Israel worried over the same question as they launched into the great unknown of the wilderness. Slavery hadn’t been a lucrative form of employment, but at least it had kept a roof over their heads and bread on the table. Wandering about in the desert as unemployed nomads didn’t exactly smack of financial responsibility. How would they feed and clothe their families? How could they provide a stable home and a secure future for their children?

You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance. Your people settled in it, and from your bounty, O God, you provided for the poor.
Psalm 68:9-10

Yet in the midst of their poverty, they never lacked what they needed for each day. Clothes and shoes that didn’t wear out. Meat and bread falling from the sky. Water gushing from unexpected sources, unattached to bills or taxes.

Even major life expenses were covered in the most unanticipated ways. When it came time to build a place for worship, they didn’t have to settle for crumbs, cobbling together a makeshift structure with which they could “get by.” They found they had more gold and silver, precious gems and expensive fabrics than they could use, all unexpected gifts that had been handed to them by their former masters as they had hastily exited Egypt.

Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Luke 9:58

Similarly, Jesus lived out the same juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, of financial insecurity and abundant provision. He left behind the steady income of his earthly father’s business in order to invest Himself in His heavenly Father’s business. It didn’t pay much; in fact, He didn’t have a pillow to call His own or a bank account to fall back on.

…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58:10-11

Jesus may have been God, but He still experienced the needs of a man, complete with all of the demands and expenses of life in the real world. Regardless, He never lacked what He needed. Scraps of bread stretched to feed thousands. Jars of water became the finest of wine. The tax collector still showed up to demand his share, but a fish caught from the sea coughed up just the right number of coins to cover it.

He was assigned a grave … with the rich.
Isaiah 53:9

And as the Israelites in the wilderness had experienced before, even Jesus’ major life expenses were provided for in the most lavish of ways. Just the right vehicle given on loan for His triumphal procession. Just the right facility offered rent-free for a farewell banquet with His disciples. The finest perfume for His anointing. The finest real-estate for His burial.

Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields–and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.
Mark 10:28-30

As I meditated on God’s promise to provide for His needy people, to exponentially supply them with all the things they had given up for His sake, I was deeply convicted. My pauper’s spirit betrayed my miserly faith. Of course He would feed my children. Of course He would meet all of our needs, not just the spiritual ones.

In the months ahead, the bills still came in and our cash still flowed out, but we saw God take care of us in the most lavish of ways. He dressed us in designer hand-me-downs. He fed us with gourmet day-old bread. He spoiled us with up-scale temporary housing. And He showered us with the priceless gift of experiencing the abundance of His love.

I look back now and see that my friend was right. I had been measuring my wealth by the wrong standard. I had no idea how rich we were in Jesus. We still are.

Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
James 2:5

Hungry but Satisfied

“Fasting isn’t helping me to want God. It’s just making me want food.”

Jesus chose the Author of life over instant vitality, the Bread of Heaven over fast food, the Source of delight over immediate gratification.

This candid statement from the youngest member of our family did not surprise me at all; if anything, it captured what we were all feeling at the moment. Hungry, weak, and irritable, we were all secretly feeling that a hot, hearty meal would do a lot more to help us love God than more prayer and fasting would. And yet even though we were struggling to believe it, Jesus’ statement about not living by bread alone inspired us to carry on with our fast.

See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected.
Hebrews 12:16-17

The story of Esau selling his birthright for some hot, mouthwatering stew took on new significance as we faced a similarly hard choice. Was some nebulous future blessing really worth this very tangible current discomfort? Our gnawing stomachs competed with our hungry spirits, threatening to overpower their good intentions with practical realities.

They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the desert? When he struck the rock, water gushed out, and streams flowed abundantly. But can he also give us food? Can he supply meat for his people?”
When the LORD heard them, he was very angry … for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance. Yet he gave a command to the skies above and opened the doors of the heavens; he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Men ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat.
Psalm 78:18-25

As the day wore on, we sympathized more and more with the children of Israel’s fixation with food during their forty years in the wilderness. No wonder they grumbled and complained. They were hungry! They were crying out for the most basic of human needs, one that God had designed their bodies to crave. And yet, God was clearly displeased by their desperate demand for food. What was He trying to teach them that they failed to get?

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ …
It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Matthew 4:1-4, 7

Jesus voluntarily put Himself through a similar trial. When God’s Spirit led Him out into the wilderness for forty days, He chose to deny Himself food during that time. Some people would call that mentally imbalanced or perhaps overly zealous. But Jesus took it very seriously. Despite His severe hunger, He refused Satan’s suggestion that He turn rocks into bread. What would have been so wrong with that? Was it simply a bad idea because it originated with Satan, or did Jesus refuse to help Himself to some much-needed food for some higher reason?

So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.
Hebrews 3:7-9; 4:15

In many ways, Jesus was reliving the story of humanity: the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, the story of Esau in the wilderness, the story of the children of Israel in the desert, and the story of our family around the empty kitchen table. He chose to resist the appeal of food that was dangling just within reach. He chose not to settle for less, not to sell Himself short of the blessing that He knew He would receive if would just hold out for it. He chose not to put God to the test with demands for food, acting as if God were ultimately unsatisfying and inadequate to meet His needs.

In your distress you called and I rescued you, I answered you out of a thundercloud; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
… I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it. …
But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
Psalm 81:7-10, 16

Instead, Jesus chose the Author of life over instant vitality, the Bread of Heaven over fast food, the Source of delight over immediate gratification. He passed the test that all others had failed. He proved to us that it could be done. And as His followers, He invites us to voluntarily take up the challenge.

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, … Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. … My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Psalm 63:1-5

Fasting provides us with the opportunity to sharpen our appetite for God, to turn to Him for the strength and satisfaction we ordinarily receive from food. Of course it is miserable and difficult and requires patient endurance: that is the point. But as our family later admitted to each other, despite our moment by moment struggle to choose God over food, He supplied what we needed to keep going through the day. And the longer we went, the sweeter the thought of Him became. We found that we, like the Psalmist, were empty but full, weak but strong, hungry but satisfied.

Homeless but Hopeful

I hate packing. Hate is pretty strong language for such a mundane task, but the sight of jumbled piles and a deconstructed home revives unsettling memories of years of frequent moves and unexpected transitions. More than once I have awakened in the morning, knowing that my family’s belongings needed to be sorted through, packed up, and moved out before the end of the day, but not knowing where our next home would be, let alone where we would sleep that night. I have too often fought off that familiar lump of panic in my throat while paring down our possessions, making an endless series of emotionally laden, partially informed decisions about what we should hold on to and what we can give up.

Packing reminds me that I am essentially homeless. Each time I go through the process of either relinquishing or transporting the sum total of my earthly goods, I live out the reality that there is no place on earth that I can call my own. And each time I empty a place that I had cleaned, decorated, and made into a refuge for my family, I am faced with the bare truth that it was never really my home.

What happened to the blessing of being securely settled in the land, of planting gardens and still being around to enjoy their fruit? Is that sense of settled security not something that I should look for, too?

The more we feel our current homelessness, the more we love our future home.

Displacement and homelessness have always been a reality for God’s people, transition and immigration have always been our lot in life. When God brought His people out of slavery in Egypt, He took them through forty years of homelessness, forty years of waking up each morning and wondering if this day they would have to pack and move again, forty years of going to bed each night and wondering where the next day’s food and water would come from. No continuity with their past. No security for their future. No place on earth they could claim as their own, except what God provided.

“In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. The nations will hear and tremble… By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone– until your people pass by, O LORD, until the people you bought pass by. You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance– the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established.”
Exodus 15:13-17

But He did provide. Day after day He showered down food. Night after night He kept watch from the pillar of fire in their midst. He took them through harsh conditions and terrifying moments, leading them away from the only known sources of water and civilization and towards the unknown of adverse terrain and hostile people. Sometimes they were overwhelmed with gratitude at His past provision. Sometimes they were overwhelmed with fear at their future uncertainty. But at all times, God was their refuge, their safe place, their home.

“In your distress you called and I rescued you, I answered you out of a thundercloud; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. …If you would but listen to me, O Israel! You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not bow down to an alien god. I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.
Psalm 81:7-10

Like the forty days that Jesus endured in the wilderness, these forty years of insecurity and homelessness were a time of training. God was walking his people through a series of carefully crafted trials, designed to disconnect them from their former home, deconstruct their former identity, and detach them from every source of security save Himself. But through that painful weaning process, He was preparing them for a better home than the one they had left.

…They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. … If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Looking back on all they had lost, the price seemed too high: at least in Egypt they had been settled. But looking forward to the home God had promised, they had every reason to persevere, to embrace the pilgrimage on which God was leading them.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
Psalm 84:1-2, 4-7, 10

Comfortably settled in my own current dwelling, I find it easy to lose sight of the life-long pilgrimage to which God has called me. But when I raise my eyes beyond my pretty kitchen curtains to gaze on the beauty of His dwelling place, my heart churns with longing for my real home. In seasons of comfort and of distress, He has been my shelter.

Pilgrimage is not easy; frequent moves and unsettling circumstances inevitably feed our fears about whether we will survive the journey. But along the way He turns our struggles into blessing, our tears into sources of fruitfulness and beauty. The more we feel our current homelessness, the more we love our future home.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.
Psalm 90:1