Tag Archives: compassion

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.

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Lowering the Flags of our Fathers

attachment“This church, along with our whole city, was completely destroyed. The Allies’ bombs wiped it from the face of the earth.”

I shifted uncomfortably as our middle-aged German guide came to this point in our tour of historic Worms this weekend. She had proudly taken us around her beautiful city, pointing out the significant remains of its long, multi-layered history dating back to the Roman Empire and playing a significant role in the Protestant Reformation. But now photographic images of the mass devastation that this civilian population endured at the hands of our grandparents confronted me with a side to the story that I had never really considered before. How could this local citizen so calmly look our group of mostly British and American scholars in the eye and talk about it? Rather than use this opportunity to protest the “terror bombings” carried out against her people at the close of WWII, she shocked me with her humble confession.

“Well, we were the ones who provoked it, after all.”

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits?

This willingness to bear national shame over the Holocaust and the nationalist aggression of their ancestors has impressed me during my brief time here in Germany. This is a country with a long history to be proud of. But nestled among the soaring cathedrals and elegant castles are more recently erected monuments to their shame. A set of pillars in Worms (near the Jewish cemetery) with an inscription memorializing those who were made victims of German nationalist pride. A bombed-out church in Mainz with a series of plaques, describing its proud history but concluding with a humble reminder that any society built on violence and oppression will be judged with a similar end.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Listen! The LORD is calling to the city– and to fear your name is wisdom– “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it. Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures… Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins. You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing… Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations. ”
Micah 6:8-16

As I listened to our tour guide’s personal acknowledgement of causes for both national pride and national shame, I couldn’t help but draw mental parallels to how a similar situation has been handled in the USA. We treated two entire races of people as if they were not equally created in the image of God, holding one set under our thumb as slaves and later as “liberated” but unequal citizens, and getting rid of the other set through massacres and round-ups into reservation camps. While these are arguably sins of the past, the question still remains of how we respond to their fallout today.

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits? Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

In teaching my children about the American Civil Rights movement, I was shocked but actually not-so-shocked to discover that our Christian history book had simply skipped it, deigning the injustices suffered and the victories won for oppressed minorities within our country not worth mention. Such refusal to acknowledge and disclose the sins of our past can only lead to further hardheartedness and future recurrences.

And in more recent days, I have been deeply disappointed by the refusal of persecution watchdog organizations like International Christian Concern to report on the terrorist shooting of African-American Christians at worship in their Charleston church, not to mention the strong trend of Black-church burnings that continues across the South. Were such attacks on Christians or churches perpetrated in other lands, ICC would most certainly have reported them. And yet despite multiple emails pleading with this group to cover the persecution of Black Christians in their own country, they remain silent.

“Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job 42:6

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:3-4, 17

Among the many biblical virtues that patriotic Christians love to promote, somehow confession and contrition seem to get lost. And yet these are the hallmarks of true religion. Upright Job went back and set the record straight, lowering himself in repentance when he realized how wrongly he had spoken of God. And integrity-bound David recorded his confession for all posterity to read when he abused his power to take whom he wanted and get rid of whom he didn’t.

The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to [spare] them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make amends so that you will bless the LORD’s inheritance?”
2 Samuel 21:2-3

Even on a national scale, David recognized the need to accept responsibility for his predecessor’s racist sins. As Israel suffered the ongoing repercussions of Saul’s unethical treatment of the Gibeonites, David humbly took it on himself to do whatever it would take to make things right.

Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

And this is the spirit of contrition and national humility that I see dawning in the American South. The shocking display of racism that left nine worshippers dead is jolting devout Southerners into a public acknowledgment of the stain on our heritage. The Confederate flag may represent much that we are proud of, but it also represents much that we should be deeply ashamed of. Perhaps in its place we would do well to take a lesson from the Germans and erect monuments to those our ancestors have wronged, lest we forget and repeat the mistakes of our past.

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”
St. Christoph Church, Mainz, Germany

Redefining Greatness

attachment“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Driving through the Scottish countryside for an anniversary getaway last weekend, my husband and I laughingly but seriously asked each other the question that we occasionally revisit in our life together.

As a child there were all sorts of things that I dreamed of being: the prettiest girl in the school, the fastest runner on the field, the smartest student in the class. Those aspirations have taken different shapes over the years, but they all boil down to what my father proudly called a “vision for greatness.”

Greatness is being God’s shadow.

That deep internal drive to distinguish myself, to be the very best in each area of life has been with me for all long as I can remember. A fellow student in the honor’s program at college once gently criticized me for the way it pulled me away from simply enjoying my friends, asking me why I was always so “driven.” At the time his question didn’t make sense. Weren’t we all pursuing the same goal of excellence and success?

Of course I recognized that my definition of success was radically different from that of the world. I wasn’t seeking fame or fortune. I wanted to be great in the kingdom of God. But for me that was still a matter of individual achievement. I threw myself into being the best teacher, the best cross-cultural communicator, the best champion of the poor, the best homeschooling mother, the best hostess, the best counselor, etc.

I thought that by being great in the roles God called me to I would bring greater glory to Him. But without realizing it, my headlong pursuit of greatness was actually all about my performance, about my setting lofty goals and then being publicly recognized for having achieved them.

Over more recent years God has re-defined my vision for greatness.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…
Genesis 1:27-28

And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:49

Greatness is being His shadow. It’s copycatting His character and His work on earth, mimicking in the seen world what He is constantly up to in the unseen world. It’s living as an interactive image of the Creator, fleshing out in each mundane detail of life what He is actually like. This happens each time I give ear to the complaint of my frustrated child, each time I forgive the offence of an insensitive stranger, each time I respond to the distress of a silently suffering friend.

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. …And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

One of the greatest moments in my life was the time I was accidentally mistaken for Jesus. There was a high-end market in the South Asian city where we lived that I tried to avoid, partially because of the aggressive crowd of street-urchins that would hound me from shop to shop. The rare occasions when I did visit there were usually times when I wanted a special treat, an escape from the usual slog of work and ministry. As much as I wanted to ignore the grimy hands tugging on my clothes, God’s Spirit would prick my conscience, reminding me that He never indulges in a hiatus from caring for my needs. And so, albeit begrudgingly, I would buy packs of roasted nuts and distribute them around, sometimes also taking the time to bless each child in Jesus’ name.

…Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet…
Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:26-34

On one occasion my husband and I, out on a special date, witnessed one of these beggar children chasing a potential benefactor across the street, right into the path of an oncoming car. We rushed over to the little body left lying in the street, pushing through the crowd of his buddies to check him over for injuries. As my husband scooped up the child to carry him to a hospital, he began to squirm and protest in terror, even more afraid of what this stranger might do with him than he was of the fact that he had just been hit by a car. His friends all reassured him that we could be trusted. “We know her. She’s helped us before. Remember? Her name is Jesus.”

At the time I was horrified to discover that I had failed in my repeated attempts to tell those children about Jesus, but in retrospect I realize that I had accidentally done something greater. I had shown them Jesus. This was the measure of my success: not that I had ended their poverty, not that I had founded a school or orphanage, but that I had faithfully lived as a reflection of Jesus in those seemingly insignificant, unintended encounters on the street.

“Her name is Jesus.”

Too often my big-picture focus and goal-oriented agenda cause me to miss the most obvious opportunities to achieve greatness in God’s kingdom. Thankfully God’s Spirit keeps drawing my attention to what my human way of thinking would otherwise miss.

Greatness isn’t distinguishing myself. It’s imitating God.

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

Bridging the Gap: Confessions from a Member of the White Race

attachmentConfession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

These words scroll endlessly down my screen as I read my Ugandan and Rwandan students’ essay submissions from this month’s Spiritual Formation unit. They have been asked to write about the people they find it the hardest to forgive and about situations in which they need to take steps towards reconciliation. My screen is full of stories of betrayal, slander, violence, and theft. But many of these stories are not just about individuals; they involve whole tribes or communities who carry complicated, time-accrued grudges towards each other.

I can sit at my less-than-tidy desk miles away from East Africa and try to mentally untangle the cause-and-effect web of historic animosity between these conflicting groups, but one thing is abundantly clear. At some point, someone from one of the groups has to stop pointing the finger and start admitting where their people have been wrong. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. And leaving it as it is will only result in further segregation, mistrust, and retaliation.

It’s crazy what I can see so clearly in someone else’s country but am blind to in my own! As I read the headlines about ongoing race conflicts in the U.S., I am struck with the fact that the same dynamic is at work. As a white member of the American middle-class, I am wired to think individualistically, to think of my status as something that I alone determine and am responsible for. But my individualistic mindset has blinded me to the fact that I am part of a race, a group of people from whom, for better or for worse, I have inherited my appearance, my social position, my identity, and my worldview. I may not be overly conscious of my race (looking for the Caucasian box on application forms always strikes me as a bit odd), but that is more a testimony to my having grown up with my race being the dominant one than it is to my being color-blind. I can afford the luxury of not thinking about it!

But for American blacks, especially in my beloved South, race is something they are never allowed to forget. The days of slavery and legal segregation may be past, but (often not-so-subtle) snubs, derogatory comments, and biased treatment from people of my color serve as daily reminders that they are not only different but also despised. Media-coverage of incidents of unfair police treatment and spiteful hate-crimes has only recently brought to white awareness what has been the ongoing reality for American blacks: that they are still treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and that even the “nice” whites hold pre-judged assumptions about the intentions and moral character of the black race of which they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

I could throw up my hands in defense and exclaim: “I’m not a racist!” But even if I could honestly claim that I have never avoided the seat next to a black stranger in a subway or clicked my automatic-lock button as I drove by a hooded black man at night, the inescapable fact is that people of my color have perpetuated the ongoing divide between whites and blacks. I may not condone their actions, but they still represent my “kind.” And until enough people from my race go out of their way to demonstrate a message to the contrary, their message of hatred, mistrust, and division will stand as a representative banner over us all.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, …then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
Philippians 2:1-7

As uncomfortable as it is for me to suddenly discover myself on the side of needing forgiveness rather than being the one asked to give it, I recognize that this is exactly the position I need to adopt if true reconciliation is ever to take place. If a few people can represent my race with their hateful comments and violent actions, then can I not step into the gap they have created and verbally acknowledge the wrongs of my people, both past and present? I may not be guilty, but we are. And beyond guilt, I feel a profound shame over this aspect of my cultural inheritance.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, …. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge… As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 2:14-16; 3:17-4:3

So it’s my turn to practice what I teach. Lay aside my rights. Promote others’ interests over defending my own. Take up Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and humbly do what it takes to break down the barriers of hostility between groups of people for whom He died. If that means listening sympathetically to the hurt and frustration of my black brother, then I consider it a privilege that he would be willing to open his heart to me. If it means confessing the ways in which racist assumptions have influenced the way I think and asking my black friends to help me see life through their experience, then I can only pray that they will find me worthy of their trust.

Confession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

We’ve got long way to go. But thanks be to God, we’ve got a great Mediator already on the job. May His Spirit reign in all our hearts, bringing peace that defies history and love that surpasses human understanding.

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.

Secondhand Sighs

http://stoneshout.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/bear-burden.html
http://stoneshout.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/bear-burden.html
I’ve been doing a lot of heavy sighing lately. I don’t mean to. Pathetic sounds just sort of escape my lips before I realize it. But I think they are a sound indicator of the state of my heart: burdened.

For me, life is good right now. I have much to rejoice and give thanks over. But for several of the people I love, life is a waking nightmare. The bottom has dropped out of their world and their dreams are dying a slow, painful death. As I walk with them through their dark valleys and listen to their anguished cries, I can’t help but absorb their pain. The question is, what am I supposed to do with it?

Of course these burdens have driven me to perpetual prayer, crying out to God day and night to put right what has been made so wrong. My emotional involvement makes my prayers for others fervent and passionate. But it is also weighing me down to the point where I feel I have little left to offer, and that just doesn’t seem right.

How do I love wholeheartedly without being consumed? How do I immerse myself in other people’s pain without being submerged by it?

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. … Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…
Isaiah 53:3-4

As always, God reminds me that He has walked this path ahead of me, not just as the transcendent God who reigns from heaven, but also as the fleshy mortal who wept here on earth. He knows what it is like to carry other’s burdens and be weighed down by their sorrow. He didn’t dodge the pain or distance Himself from the suffering. And yet somehow He managed not to be completely overcome by it.

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.
John 11:3-5

When I read John’s account of how Jesus reacted to his friend Lazarus’ death, I am amazed that He got emotionally involved in it at all. Right from the point that He first heard that news of His friend’s illness, He told His disciples that it wouldn’t end in death. What’s more, He could already see the big picture of what was going on, that this was a cosmic play in which God was setting things up to put His glory on display. Jesus understood all this. He could explain all this. And yet when He came face to face with Mary’s grief over the loss of her brother, He burst into tears.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
John 11:33-35

Her pain was His pain, because He loved her. He didn’t stand at a slightly detached distance, maintaining professional control over His feelings and offering wise words of truth. Even though He already new the future outcome, He entered into her current reality. He allowed it to affect Him right down to the core of His Spirit, disturbing His serenity and breaking down His composure. He didn’t preach at her. He wept with her.

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
John 11:40-42

But Jesus didn’t get stuck there. Nor did He try to go it alone. He entered fully into the seeming hopelessness of His friend’s immediate situation, but then He lifted it up into the context of God’s ongoing story. This was not the end. He believed it not only for his own sake, but He clung to it for her sake. He carried her burden to God in prayer, exerting His faith in God’s good purposes for her when her faith was too weak for the task.

And, as He does, God showed up to finish what He had started: in Lazarus, in Mary, and in Jesus. The Father comforted His Son. And in turn, Jesus comforted Mary and healed Lazarus.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5

This ripple effect of comfort flows down through history to me. Like Jesus, Paul, and the many others who have gone before, I get to stand in the crossroads between earth and heaven, stretched between the colossal chaos of what is happening in this realm and the cosmic order of what God is orchestrating in the heavenly one.

I am realizing that I cannot bear this burden in isolation, from God or from others. If I try to carry it alone it will crush me. But thanks be to God, He has built His Church out of a community of suffering comforters and of comforted sufferers. As we each go to the Father in desperate, dependent faith on behalf of the other, He will supply the comfort we need to sustain ourselves and support each other.

Second-hand sighs. Second-hand comfort.

These are what hold me together. These are what bind us together.

A Friend to God

http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za
http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za
Lent again.

My tummy grumbles and my spirit joins in. I don’t really feel like forty days of self-imposed discomfort.

What’s the point? Life is tough enough as it is. Why add to the misery?

But then I think of someone I love. He has gone through incredibly tough stuff, grief beyond my ability to comprehend. I want to be able to relate to Him, to understand what makes Him tick. But how can I if I don’t share His experiences?

Abraham got a chance to do just that. He got to know what it would feel like to lose his only child. He experienced the heart-rending agony of a father watching his son silently plead for mercy as he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? … And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.
James 2:21-23

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Abraham was getting a backstage pass into God’s cosmic play. He was getting the chance to enact God’s future story, to experience the same grief and elation that God the Father would feel over the death and resurrection of His only Son.

Moses, too, got the inside scoop on God. He got to bear the brunt of an ungrateful crowd griping about how he was handling things, angry about their health and safety conditions and ready to get rid of him as soon as he had outlived his usefulness to them. He also got to feel the agonized betrayal of a people head-spinningly quick to forget all he had done for them when their convenience or comfort was at stake.

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” …As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. …The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.
Exodus 33:7-11

But along with the pain, Moses got the privilege of being God’s friend. He got to feel what God feels and know what God thinks. Incredibly, he even got to chat with God face to face, swapping stories about the “kids” and deciding how they would handle them. Sometimes they argued, often they disagreed, but their relationship was characterized by mutual commitment and love. At the end of the day, God was still God and Moses still a mortal. But they were friends.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:13-15

It’s easy to think of holy men long ago who walked with God that way. But when I stop to think about what God says He wants from us, I am dumbfounded. His greatest “command” is to love Him with all that I am. He doesn’t want a polite, contractual relationship in which I do my bit and He does His. He wants me to engage Him with all my heart, soul, body, and mind. He wants me to speak my mind and to listen to His. At the end of the day I am still the child and He the Father; I am the servant and He the Master. But we are friends.

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Matthew 26:38
Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
Luke 15:6

And our friendship will express itself in my getting involved in His life story just as He is involved in mine. If I am His friend, I will love the things that He loves and do the things that He wants doing. But on a deeper level, if I am His friend I will groan when He groans and laugh when He laughs. I will stay awake with Him in the garden, watching and praying as He faces the darkest night of His soul. And I will party with Him in the kingdom, celebrating each stray sheep that is found and each lost son that comes home.

Rather than being what I most avoid,
hardship is a gateway to what I most desire.

Just as sharing similar experiences ushered Abraham and Moses into closer friendship with God, so walking a mile in God’s shoes enables me to relate with Him in greater solidarity. As I learn to see myself and the world around me through this lens, I come to value suffering in a new way. The trials that I experience (whether voluntary or not) are opening my mind and shaping my heart to be able to commune with God in ways I couldn’t before. Rather than being what I most avoid, they are a gateway to what I most desire.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 3:10-11

So I dive into the disciplines of Lent full on—not because the Bible commands it or because I enjoy self-imposed misery, but because I really want to know Christ. I want to be His friend in joy and in sorrow, in struggle and in triumph, in the middle of His story and at the end. I want to walk these forty days of trial with Him so that I can also celebrate their victorious completion with Him. This is my opportunity to invest in our relationship.

For better or for worse, I get to be God’s friend. Now that’s a privilege worth suffering for.

Open Letter to a Hindu

mind_the_gap_logo_by_rrward

Sometimes we say things to edify one audience that inadvertently hurt another.

Such was the case for me last week. Noticing an unusual number of visitors to my blog coming from an unfamiliar site, I decided to track down the source. My heart sank when I saw its title: When They Call Your God a Demon.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 14:6

I groaned as I read the rest of the post, feeling the pain I had caused this American Hindu. This is not the first time I have felt myself caught between two worlds, able to see from opposing perspectives but unable to reconcile them without tossing integrity out the window. Hindus graciously accept all sincerely pursued paths as leading to the same God; Jesus claims to be the exclusive way to God. While I clearly fall on one side of this gap, I want to remain sensitive and relevant to those who live on the other.

The following is my attempt to love my neighbor without compromising my love for God. It also explains why I have taken down my earlier post about Toppling Giants.

Hi Deepika,

I am the author of that article. To remain silent would be to continue the breakdown in dialogue between us, so I have been praying for wisdom and grace in my reply.

For starters, I commend you for your fair treatment of my article. You neither attacked me nor exaggerated my position.

I confess that, at times, I too have struggled to understand and accept the aspects of my God that are violent or exclusive. When I read His Scriptures and talk about Him with others, these are not what I focus on. I marvel at His love and His beauty, His slowness to anger and His quickness to forgive. I wonder at the vastness of His creation and the intimacy of His relationship with so many different kinds of people, including me.

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Acts 17:29-30

And yet, if I am honest with the claims He makes about Himself, I cannot deny that an integral part of His character is His claim as the Most High God and His call for the loving allegiance of all He has created. I feel the offensiveness of this, especially when I consider it through the eyes of the many Hindus I have the privilege of calling my dear friends. I want to find a way around these claims, to redefine the aspects of my God that conflict with their core values and faith so that we can carry on in relationship similar to the one you described in your article.

But to do so would be to invent my own god. We can choose which god we worship, but if we start picking and choosing which of His characteristics we accept and which ones we reject, we are really just creating our own illusion.

So I am stuck between conflicting loyalties. And at the end of the day, I choose God. I believe that He is the source of my love for others, and that He loves them more than I do. But I still don’t understand how that all plays out, and I would be lying if I said that I am perfectly comfortable with it.

The truth is, I cannot be true to my God and change what I believe about yours.

Having said all that, I hurt with you over the disrespect you felt over my article. How can I say derogatory things about your god without insulting you? This is the dilemma I have felt for years. The truth is, I cannot be true to my God and change what I believe about yours. But the last thing I want to do is insult or attack you. I may think and pray along the lines of what I wrote, but I feel it was inappropriate (and perhaps even unloving) of me to write it in a public forum. Please forgive me. I have removed the article from my site, and will try to be more careful in what I publish in the future.

There is this ongoing tension between airing opinions that are true to ourselves but offensive to others. I’m not sure where the line should fall on that. To be frank, I usually avoid sites like yours because your opinions are associated with experiences that have been extremely painful and damaging for me. I know you don’t mean it that way, and I am not implying that you shouldn’t write freely about what you believe. But there truly are two sides of this coin. I imagine you are familiar with the tantric side of Kali. We used to live down the street from a tantric ashram, with skulls stacked up at the entrance and fearful rumors among the poor in the neighboring Hindu community that each month one of their children went missing as a human sacrifice. I know this is the not the aspect of Hinduism that you promote, but it is there within the system. For me, even a benevolent picture of the mother goddess brings back dark memories.

So I resort to affirming my love for Him first, but also to affirming my love for you.

So what is the way forward in demonstrating love and respect towards each other even as we experience major hangups over each other’s gods? I don’t think either of us would suggest that we give up our own gods. I am aware of my own competitive, selfish tendencies enough to know that the love and compassion I feel for you is a product of the Spirit of God flowing through me. Apart from Him, I would be a pretty lousy friend. So I resort to affirming my love for Him first, but also to affirming my love for you. I hope you can accept me on those terms.

Sincerely,
Tiffany

When There are No Words

Words escape me just now.

I have spent the past few weeks immersed in the life stories of my Ugandan students, listening, reading, and responding to their experiences of pain and trauma, survival and redemption. Even as I walk through my routine of homeschooling and hospitality back home in Scotland, the echoes of their ongoing stories continue to reverberate through my soul.

They have survived genocide and rape, bullying and witchcraft. Some have witnessed their parents butchered, their siblings shot, their husbands poisoned to death. Others carry the scars of intense hunger and severe beatings, crippling poverty and abusive families, obstructed justice and oppressive social systems.

Despite attacks from every angle, these valiant men and women have carried on working, ministering, leading, and serving. On the surface they are strong and capable, but just beneath their wounds lie festering and vulnerable. Their safety and survival have depended on the ability to stow away their painful baggage. But I have assigned them to pull it all out and put it into words.

Words offer a healing release, except for when they won’t come.

Sometimes prayer is merely a groan, a feeling felt in His presence, a desire placed in His hands.

Some traumas run too deep to put into words. Some experiences are too painfully fresh to be able to stand back and formulate into rational sequences of sound. They can only be relived in images and sensations, imaginations and dreams.

And so they remain locked inside the soul, expressing their presence through irrational behaviors and unexplainable tears. Left alone they slowly suck life out of the spirit, leaving little behind but the empty shell of a once vibrant person.

I am like a deaf man, who cannot hear, like a mute, who cannot open his mouth; I have become like a man who does not hear, whose mouth can offer no reply. I wait for you, O LORD; you will answer, O Lord my God.
Psalm 38:13-15

I have been there myself, walking around in my shell of a body, mechanically interacting with the people and events around me while feeling spiritually and emotionally trapped within invisible walls. Comforting comments bounced. Listening ears walked away empty. Without words to bridge the gap between my inner experience and my outer reality, I carried on a lonely, dual life, one of external performance and internal anguish.

I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart. All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.
Psalm 38:8-9

But the beautiful thing about God is that He is not limited to words. His Spirit passes through the walls of language and location and time. He is able to enter the world of our memories and emotions and commune with us there, too. He sees the images that haunt us. He hears the silent screams that reverberate through our souls. And He knows the longings that we haven’t figured out how to express.

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:23

Prayer doesn’t have to involve carefully crafted words or even coherent sentences. Sometimes it is merely a groan, a feeling felt in His presence, a desire placed in His hands.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
Romans 8:26-27

And yet prayer is also the outlet for our pain, the bridge that once again connects us to Someone outside of ourselves. It is us laying bare our broken, messy selves before God’s holy, penetrating gaze, knowing that our only hope lies in communion with Him.

jesus-weeping-277x300

Even apart from words, we can invite God’s Spirit to come into our most privately held grief and pray the right words for us. Sometimes even His intercessions go too deep to be able to express with words. He cries along with us, compassionately expressing our pain with groans of His own.

That is where I find myself now, groaning along with the Spirit on behalf of my students. Some things I have words for, specific prayers on their behalf and written replies to their assignments. But for the most part I agonize in God’s presence over all they have endured, longing for the redemption of their pain.

Thankfully, God doesn’t need my words.

Renovating Fatherhood

“I can’t call Him Father.”

God entrusts His image to frail human fathers.

I looked across the table at the emaciated young woman whose life had been destroyed by the double whammy of a manipulative, molesting father and a violent, abusive husband. For as far back as she could remember, the men in her life had treated her with anger and contempt, violence and disapproval. As I listened to her story, I marveled at the fact that she could still relate to God at all. After years of having Him so misrepresented to her by her father and her bridegroom, how did she now conceptualize Him?

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Matthew 7:9-11

The Scriptures tell all kinds of stories about messy human fathers. Adam blew it. Noah got drunk and made a fool of himself. Abraham sent his son away empty-handed; Isaac got his kids mixed up; Jacob played favorites. Judah broke his promises. Eli spoiled his boys. Samuel did more with other people’s kids than his own. Saul was violent and verbally abusive. David was negligent and aloof. But the Scriptures also tell the story of the perfect Father whom human fathers were designed to represent.

Then the LORD came down in the cloud … And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:5-7

It amazes me that God would entrust His image to frail human fathers. No wonder He constantly has to come in behind them and set the record straight. When He explained to Moses what He was really like, He emphasized how much He loves all of His children, explaining that He prefers to treat them with grace and compassion, not anger and retribution. That being said, He also sets clear expectations for them, standards which He lovingly but firmly enforces.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, … who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed…
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:3-5, 9-14

Despite his shortcomings in demonstrating the Father’s love to his own children, David did an excellent job of describing it. Fixing our problems and satisfying our desires, this Father takes great delight in caring for His children. He doesn’t look down on us for our limitations or resent us for our neediness. He understands our genetic disposition and our emotional hardwiring, because He designed us that way. Rather than hold our weaknesses against us in anger, He compensates for them with His love.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
John 14:8-10

Jesus took up the role of showing us what the Father is really like. His actions and His words perfectly reflected the heart of the Father. Welcoming the prodigal. Forgiving the delinquent. Challenging the self-satisfied. Empowering the weak through the gift of His Spirit. His Fatherly love does not lower His standards for His children; it compels Him to stoop down, take us by the hand, and help us up to meet them.

…go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. …your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Matthew 6:6, 8, 26

But it wasn’t enough to Jesus to merely mediate an accurate picture of the Father. He repeatedly prompted people to go directly to His Father and relate to Him as their own. Turn to Him. Talk to Him. Ask Him for anything. He’s already tuned in to you. He values you. He anticipates your needs. He delights in giving you good things. That’s the kind of Father He is. That’s the kind of Father He wants to be to you.

Our heavenly Father throws open His arms to His kids in a gesture of delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

For better or for worse, our experience of our human fathers informs our perception of our heavenly Father. Some of us have been blessed with fathers who beautifully portray the heart of God, enabling us to tangibly experience His unconditional love. Others of us have had our picture of God horribly distorted, wrinkled, twisted, or shredded by frail mortals who conveyed a very different message about who we are to the Father.

But despite the strength or weakness of the messenger, the message stays the same. God throws open His arms to us with a delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

And we get to call Him Father.