Tag Archives: curse

Comforting Eve

 

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“Virgin Mary Consoles Eve” By Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa.

Two women, old and new

One’s flesh tainted, the other’s faith true.

Lovely Eve, with face from God downcast

Clings to shame imposed by her past.

 

Glorious tresses fail to bring

O’er corrupted flesh full covering.

No passage of time can hide

The death of life she feels inside.

 

Far from the garden as she may flee

She can’t outrun shame’s misery.

Her labour miscarried, her fruit ill-born,

Love’s light lost leaves her soul forlorn.

 

Will serpent’s grip forever chase

All hope of freedom from her face?

In expectation and agony she sighs

As one by one, each offspring dies.

 

But from one daughter a Seed now springs,

An incorruptible life to end Eve’s suffering.

Perfect fruit Mary’s willing womb bears,

Proof to the world its Creator still cares.

 

Two women meet face to face.

Eve, dammed by law, encounters Mary, full of Grace.

“God is with us,” her feminine form cries.

“Through our seed the serpent crushed, and his lies.”

 

Take heart, mother, sister, daughter.

Lift up your heads, oh son, brother, father.

The King of Glory comes as gentle Healer

His reign to restore creation’s grandeur.

 

Eden shall return, only bigger and better;

Christ has come His earth to unfetter.

Sons brought to glory, daughters adorned as a bride

Reigning o’er heaven and earth by His side.

 

Two women, both mothers of our race,

Look in hope on their newborn baby’s face—

The fulfillment of God’s promise, the hope of life to come—

Leave behind disgrace as they celebrate the Son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In A People Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Making Sense of Trauma

For the longest time I couldn’t understand what was going on in me. Why did my daughter’s little hands touching my throat suddenly make me panic? Why did my laughter now end in tears, happy moments suddenly dissolve into uncontrollable sobbing? Why couldn’t I respond spontaneously to the people and situations around me, instead feeling like I walked around in a daze, like I was watching my life from the other side of a glass window?

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of God’s bigger story.

It took a long time for my husband and I to recognize that I was experiencing the aftershocks of trauma. It took us even longer to understand what trauma is and how it works. Having emerged out the other side of those years of struggle and search to make sense of my nightmarish experience, I have come to see trauma as an integral part of God’s redemptive plan for creation. Far from being a recent psychological development, trauma is woven right through the fabric of the biblical meta-narrative. As shocking and inexplicable as the experience of trauma was for me, it was anticipated by God from the beginning.

So the LORD God said to the serpent, “…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:14-16

Who else could have foreseen the cosmic repercussions of a serpent slipping quietly into the serene goodness of the garden? In an instant, the world as it had been was turned upside down. Death introduced. Life redefined. Intimacy shattered. Relationships fragmented. Fear and failure became ever-present companions, frustration and pain the new normal. And childbirth entered the scene.

I hear a cry as of a woman in labor, a groan as of one bearing her first child– the cry of the Daughter of Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands and saying, “Alas! I am fainting; my life is given over to murderers.”
We have heard reports about them, and our hands hang limp. Anguish has gripped us, pain like that of a woman in labor.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth, And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everyone says, “Glory!”
Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24, Psalm 29:9(NKJV)

Throughout the story of Scripture, childbirth symbolizes trauma. When the prophets brought news of overwhelming disaster, they described it in terms of sudden pains seizing men and nations like a woman in labor. The overwhelming power of God’s voice is depicted as sending the deer into labor. And all of creation is described as groaning under the protracted, agonizing curse of childbirth.

Like labor, trauma seizes otherwise strong, stable men and causes them to uncontrollably weep and moan. It transforms intelligent, articulate women into incoherent, curled-up infants. Trauma overpowers everything else in our lives until it becomes our defining circumstance, the moment by which we count our time, the event that re-interprets all others.

Trauma is a horrific means to a desirable end.

But along with trauma’s devastation comes an opportunity for re-creation. Just as the overwhelming pain of childbirth prepares the way for a new life to emerge, the distressing blow of trauma can open the way for a new identity to be formed.

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.
…And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
Hebrews 2:10, 13b

Jesus’ experience of trauma was life re-defining, both for Himself and for all of us who cling to Him in faith. Through the agonizing pain He endured, He gave birth to a new family of people. And through the unspeakable horrors He experienced, He earned the right to be exalted over all of creation.

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
Matthew 24:7-8

Jesus’ trauma was also part of a bigger story, the transition period in creation’s millennia-long birthing process. Ever since it was subjected to the curse, creation has been moaning, shuddering with the pain of bringing forth something new. Natural disasters. World wars. Like any woman experiencing transition in labor, the thought that this state of affairs might go on forever makes it unbearable.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. … We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 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 8:18-23

But blessedly, the dark tunnel of trauma does not go on forever. There is an end in sight, one which is new and improved over the beginning. The events that leave us shattered and overwhelmed are making way for us, like the rest of creation, to undergo a complete over-haul. In the process we clutch ourselves in anguish and groan with the memory of what we have endured, but we also look forward in hope to a new, better day.

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of a bigger story, important pieces in a puzzle that God has been assembling since the beginning. Though it will never make sense to me on this side of glory, I have learned to see trauma as a horrific means to a desirable end. Damage bringing renewal. Death producing life.

It Isn’t Finished

Wait a minute. I thought everything was supposed to be under Your feet! So how could a curse placed on me actually be effective?

That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Ephesians 1:19-23

The gears in my mind ground to a halt, my paradigm attempting to shift without the prerequisite clutch. For years I had been banking on the fact that Jesus is the victor over all the powers of darkness, that His resurrection and enthronement had broken their ability to directly harm His people. After all, was He not now seated on the throne of heaven, ruling over every creature in the world, both seen and unseen? Was I not seated there with Him, too, endowed with every spiritual blessing because I was His adopted child?

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:6-7

These truths had become the core of my faith as I lived and worked in a spiritually hostile environment. They gave me the confidence to persevere through the graphic demonic nightmares and intense spiritual struggle that were our constant companions. And they were the ready response that I gave to local friends who warned me that I should be careful not to incite the anger of the gods and spirits who inhabited that place.

I had been so confident that powers of evil couldn’t touch me. It never occurred to me that a curse could cause the illness that threatened my life and the lingering effects that redefined it for a long time after. So years later, when our pastor prayed that any curses on me would be broken and those symptoms abruptly lifted, I was left with some major questions.

Our frail bodies are the means through which God is putting all things under Jesus’ feet.

If Jesus has already defeated the spirits that stand in opposition to Him, then how could they still have that sort of power over me? If all things have already been placed under His feet, then by what authority could they dictate what happened in my body?

You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.” … Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.
Hebrews 2:8

But as I revisited the claims of Scripture, I realized that I had assumed wrongly. Jesus is seated on the throne of Heaven, but all things have not yet been put under His feet. He is the victor, but the battle still rages.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Ephesians 3:10-11

And we are the battlefield. Our hearts, minds, and bodies are the places in which His enemies seek to spite Him. And our hearts, minds, and bodies are the places in which He will finish what He started with His death and resurrection.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 6:10-12

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we run into those subtle, well-laid traps of temptation deep within our hearts. We should expect those deadly arrows of doubt and lies to go flying through our minds. And of course messengers of Satan can place strategic thorns in our flesh, all in an attempt to rob us of our blessed position in Christ, to separate us from His love and to hold us under the curse.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand…. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
Ephesians 6:14-18

There is absolutely nothing fair about this battle! We can’t even see our enemy as they duck about laying landmines in our least expected, most vulnerable places. How are we to win a cosmic war for the preeminence of Christ with handicapped spirits, besieged minds, and mortal bodies?

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21

The point is that we can’t, but He can. From within our weak bodies, our willing spirits receive strength from His Spirit, the power that delivered Jesus’ weak body from death. Our faith may be thin, but His armor is impenetrable. We may take hits along the way, but He will succeed in winning the battle in and through us.

The battle is far from finished. All things will be eventually put in their rightful place under Jesus’ feet, but we are the means through which God is accomplishing that end goal. We are the weak vessels through which His strength is being proven.

And when it is finally finished, His troops will have every cause to cheer.

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies. Your troops will be willing on your day of battle.
Psalm 110:1-3

What to Expect When We’re Suffering

I sat in church this past Sunday morning, reveling in the beauty and joy of our communal celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Soft organ music filled the empty space with life. A crown of flowers bloomed from the thorns on the cross. The procession began down the aisle, with a shining cross held triumphantly high. My heart soared with hope. Death swallowed up in victory!

But as the back of the procession came into sight, my heart caught in my throat. The man carrying the second cross was still in his wheelchair, still suffering under the effects of the curse. Ordinarily I find great beauty and significance in seeing the juxtaposition of his suffering with the symbol of Christ’s suffering. But on a morning like this, it jolted my spirit with a harsh reality slap. Where is the victory for him?

What is the hope for my mother facing cancer, my brother- and sister-in-law awaiting the birth of a baby with significant internal deformities, or my friend whose mother is fading away in hospital? What does living on this side of Christ’s resurrection mean for them?

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:20-22

Christ’s resurrection marks the turning point for all of history, the hinge pin between the reign of the curse and the kingdom of God. In rising from the grave, Jesus defeated death, He broke the curse, and He inaugurated a new creation.

So what are we to expect now?

The disciples had struggled to know what to expect of Him. But as their faith in His resurrection power grew, so did their confidence in applying it to those still suffering under the curse. A crippled beggar made whole. The sick and suffering healed. Prison doors shaken open. A dead boy raised to life.

…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-8

But that wasn’t always the way it worked out. Sometimes the thorn was not removed from the flesh, the prisoner was not freed from his chains, the victim was not spared from death. How did they reconcile the victorious reign of Christ with the pulverized body of Stephen or the agonized prayers of Paul?

Somehow Paul’s expectations didn’t seem at all disappointed. He had experienced the healing power of God in his own life, and had conveyed that power to countless others. And yet his faith wasn’t rattled by the constant barrage of suffering from which God did not deliver him. If anything, he took it as par for the course.

But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23

Paul understood the story. Death has been swallowed up in victory—for Jesus. But we are still in the earlier part of the story, the part where suffering precedes glory. Yes, He has opened the gates of glory for us, but the path from here to there still involves hardship and pain.

Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, … so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
2 Corinthians 5:2-5

Jesus walked this path ahead of us, and He has given us His Spirit to help us as we now struggle down it ourselves. At times He intervenes, breaking through our present suffering with a dose of future glory. But those healing fixes are only temporary. The pain we are spared in one situation we will face again in another. The body that is miraculously healed from deformity or cancer will eventually succumb to death.

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” …
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:35, 54-57

As painful and gruesome as it is, death is the final door we pass through to glory. As much as it stings on this side, it will lose its venom on the other. And in the end, death will be swallowed up in victory for us, too.

He is risen. Our turn is coming!

What Are We Waiting For?

Most days, the city streets of our former home in South Asia confronted me with a sharp awareness of the curse, a devastating reminder that God’s kingdom has not yet fully come. Naked, malnourished children. Deformed cripples. Emaciated animals. Chaos and filth. Poverty and oppression. The vacant stares of hope-deprived women. The overworked bodies of desperate men. The sight of their suffering revolted me, overwhelmed me, and moved me to compassion, all at the same time.

And then there was the day when I stepped out into those same streets only to encounter an eerie silence, open clean spaces where the squatters and beggars normally overflowed, white straight lines where the trash and stray animals usually cluttered. All traces of mess, misery, and squalor had been swept away overnight, and the road had been prepared for a visiting dignitary. For that one day, the scene looked right. I could walk down the road without a jarring sense of the world being horribly wrong.

But what had become of all those people? Had their wounds been tended, their bodies fed, their families sheltered, their dignity restored? This quick-fix looked really good for a moment, but what difference did it make in the long run?

But you, O LORD, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations. You will arise and have compassion on Zion… He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. … “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:12-20

When I look back on the world of the Old Testament, I see devastating famines and wars, cruel oppression and slavery, hunger, sickness, homelessness, and death. And I see God’s hope-inspiring promises to come and turn the curse on its head, to bring His kingdom in all its beauty and “rightness.” The pleas of the destitute would be heard and responded to. The plight of the suffering would be noticed and made right.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:18-21

With the coming of Jesus, I see God’s fulfillment of so many of those promises. He didn’t send out a brute squad to clear the rabble off of the streets to prepare a nice, tidy way for the coming King. He walked into the middle of the mess Himself and got busy unraveling the curse, one need at a time. A blind man? Healed. A bereaved mother? Given back her son. A hungry crowd? Fed their dinner. A demonically oppressed man? Delivered. A shamed woman? Protected and honored.

Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
John 15:20

Despite Jesus’ extraordinary work to break the curse in so many areas, He lived a life of hunger, homelessness, and oppression, meeting His end prematurely in a violent, unjust death. His disciples suffered political oppression and physical ailments, relational tensions and poverty just as He did. And He promised all of us who want to follow Him that we can expect plenty more of the same.

The presence of God’s Spirit reverses the curse in our lives, flowing His life into us and bearing His fruit through us.

Today I look around me at the many people I know who are abused or bereaved, sorrowing and suffering, questioning and depressed, and I wonder where that kingdom is now. Was Jesus’ life among us just a blip on the long, unending horizon of human suffering? Was it just a temporary reversal of the curse, applicable only during the short time that the Dignitary was visiting our town? He finished His job and left, going home to His pristine throne room and glorious entourage. Are we on our own again, back to the normal of life in a messed up world?

Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. … Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!”So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.
Acts 3:2-7

But just before He left, Jesus promised His followers that He would be with them, that He would send His Spirit to continue His work among them. The presence of His Spirit would reverse the curse in their lives, flowing life into them and bearing fruit through them. And just after receiving that Spirit, a few of them walked the city streets and encountered a crippled beggar. What help did they have to offer? The message of redemption for his soul, but along with that, the power to break the curse on his body.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Romans 8:35-37

Our streets are still messy, our bodies are still a shambles, our souls are still plagued with sorrow and doubt. But we have more than just hope for the life to come. We have the Spirit of God surging through us, transforming our spirits, renewing our minds, and even intervening in the curse on our physical world. Yes, we are waiting for that grand, all-encompassing day when everything will be made new. But in the meantime, the Spirit of our King is empowering us to face down trial after trial, caring for one need at a time, until His kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven.

Blessed?

“And what about you—tell me about your children?” This standard getting-to-know-you line fell flat on its face yesterday as I chatted with a woman sitting next to me at the lunch table. All around us women were enjoying the venue of a pastor’s wives conference to talk about their joys and struggles in family and ministry, but this vivacious woman, ministering in conflict-hardened Belfast, had no children to speak of. Her face fell as she spoke frankly about the deep grief of infertility, about how she has mourned the loss of being the fruitful woman she was created to be. And yet despite this gaping hole in her life, this woman considers herself blessed.

Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. … Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
Psalm 127:3-5

Listening to her painful musings on living between the curse and the kingdom took me back to a season in my own life when the grim realities of life left me cynical and questioning towards the glorious promises of Scripture. I had always cherished the Psalms that spoke of the blessings that God pours out on those who love Him: long life, success in their work, good reputation, lots of kids, established home, and all that.

Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways. You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. Thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD.
Psalm 128:1-4

These happy descriptions fit perfectly with my own picture of what it looked like to be blessed by God. But the further I got into life, the more of a mockery that ideal became. When I looked around me at those who were wholeheartedly pursuing the kingdom of God, so many of their lives were full of anything but safety, security, and prosperity. Their children died of cancer, their husbands lost their jobs, their wives miscarried, their finances diminished, their health declined, their ministries failed. How could I reconcile the picture I witnessed before me with the picture described for me in the Psalms?

Our suffering now is part of our glory then.

I finally reached the point where I stopped reading the Psalms. It hurt too much to read about that fruitful woman, flourishing and happy as she placed yet another infant into the delighted arms of a proud father. My motivation in following God was not all the perks that came with the deal—I loved Him for His own sake—and yet His promises had taught me to expect more. His Word raised my hopes; my experience dashed them. As I wrestled with God over this, I began to suspect that my picture of “blessing” was missing something.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3-10
But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.
1 Peter 3:14

I began to search the New Testament for the way it described blessing, but each time I encountered the word it was paired with descriptions of suffering and difficulty. How could failure and frustration, tears and infertility count as blessing? Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? And yet Jesus’ teaching was clear. In His coming kingdom, those who have it hard in this life are first in line for the good things of the life to come. And this doesn’t just mean those who have chosen to give things up for God. It covers those who have suffered under poverty, injustice, or any source of sorrow that is “not the way it is supposed to be.” In one of God’s predictably grand reversals, those who endure the effects of the curse now will be proportionately blessed then.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 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 8:18, 22-23

Does that dry the tears of those who mourn or lessen the pain of those who struggle? Not at all. But it does give hope for what will come in the future and new significance to what we are experiencing now. In a way, our suffering now is part of our glory then. It is a critical part of the birthing process that all of creation is groaning under. We cry out, waiting for our bodies to be redeemed from this wretched curse, assured that they eventually will be, but struggling through the messy process nonetheless.

As I wrapped up my conversation with the woman at the lunch table, we shared in a moment of joyful celebration over the coming kingdom of God and the specific joys that it will bring us. We affirmed to each other how our earthly struggles have heightened our motivation to labor for the coming of that kingdom. And we parted ways, all the more certain of the truth that we are blessed.

“Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. …
This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 54:1, 17

Give Us a Break!

My sister-in law found out last week that the baby girl she is carrying has a significant heart problem. For the next several months, she will constantly face the excruciating question: will the life that she is nourishing within flourish and grow or will it wither and die?

My friend just lost her baby. This isn’t the first time she has gone through this, but it will be the last. Along with her baby, she just lost her uterus, too.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Psalm 90:1-2

How do I pray about all this? My heart is crushed with grief for these precious women. They have endured so much loss, so much disappointment, and now my friend’s hopes of bearing a child are dashed forever. How can I call her to hope in God when I myself feel that He has been too severe with her? And yet where else can I turn but to the One who gave birth to the world and everything in it, who holds her children, her body, and her future in His hands?

You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning– though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
Psalm 90:3-6

At times like this He seems so harsh, so distant and uncaring. We feel like helpless peons, tossed about in a cruel world where blossoming infants are suddenly blighted and our ability to bear fruit is abruptly cut off. Did He not call us to be fruitful and multiply? Does He not raise our expectations with talk about blessing His people with children: making them fruitful vines, filling the barren woman’s arms, and all that? And yet another infant has perished under His watchful gaze; another godly woman lies bereft of her fruit-bearing capacity.

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. … their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. …
Psalm 90:7-11

Is God angry with us? Is this suffering simply the product of a sinful, cursed world in which life is cut short and the days we do have are filled with sorrow and hardship? If that is all we have to look forward to, then our lives are reduced to a desperate act of survival. If God truly is that aloof and indifferent, then we have no hope at all.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

But life can’t really be that bleak. God can’t really be that unloving. There has to be more to the story than I can see at this moment. So, as Moses did before me, I turn to God and ask Him to show me the big picture. What are our lives really about? What cause do we have to keep hoping, to keep persevering through the pain and pressing on towards the future?

Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.
Psalm 90:13-16

Give us a break, Lord! We can’t go on like this much longer. Show us some mercy. Apart from you, we will wither and die. We can’t bear another day imprisoned under these steel skies. Break through the dark clouds that swirl around us and let us see your beauty, your goodness, your love. We are your weak, grieving people. Come and comfort us. Reassure us with your smile. Touch us with your tender hand. Give us a reason to be happy again. Show us those wonderful ways that you intervene on behalf of your servants. Give us a sign of your goodness. We want to believe, help us in our unbelief.

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days… my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them.
Isaiah 65:17, 19-20, 22-23

Once again, my soul settles on the reality which Moses died believing but never seeing. Two thousand years later, a baby survived some rough birthing circumstances only to later have the breath of life crushed from His lungs. His resurrection is God’s response to the prayers of anguished sufferers past and present. It broke the curse under which we writhe. It relocates our hope to the new creation, where the curse will be finally and fully undone. Our fruitfulness will be restored. Our babies will live. Our God will be with us. Our joy will be full.

Seven years ago today, I watched as a team of blood-spattered doctors raced the clock to rescue the tiny infant from my own failing body. Hours later, I awoke from the anesthesia, wondering if she had joined the four others who had gone before her. My womb was gone, and with it my fruitfulness as a woman. But in God’s incredible kindness, He spared me my Anastasia, my little “resurrection.” Today, I hold her sturdy, growing body and bury my face in her soft, warm skin. She is my living, breathing reminder of the power of His resurrection, a tangible sign of His goodness in the here and now.

Lord, fill the empty arms of those who mourn. Create anew the bodies of those who are at-risk. Restore the fruitfulness of our bodies, our work, our lives.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us– yes, establish the work of our hands.
Psalm 90:17

Abuse: An Assault on God

“Why should I care about abuse?” Cain asked God almost the identical question, right after he beat his brother to death. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Genesis 2:7, 15; 4:2, 8

The irony of Cain’s question makes me laugh every time I read it. Had not God just created a magnificent world and placed people in it to tend and “keep” it? Was Cain not a devoted gardener, a “keeper” of the soil and a nurturer of its tender plants? He had embraced his God-given role to rule the earth in a way that made it more fruitful, more beautiful, more full of life, but did he not understand that his care for fellow humans was an inseparable part of that created role?

The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Genesis 4:10-12

If Cain thought it was possible to tend his own business without tending his brother, he was in for a big surprise. Even the land had noticed his abusive treatment of Abel, and as a result, it was boycotting his business. It refused to cooperate with his efforts to make it productive, righteously protesting his abusive behavior and compassionately receiving his victim’s broken remains.

Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. What is done against us is done against God.

But the land wasn’t the only one that had noticed. God saw the way Cain had treated Abel, and He took it personally. Abel was precious to Him. He had lovingly fashioned Abel’s body and spirit according to His unique design. Abel was God’s handicraft, and Cain had defaced it. Even worse, Abel was God’s image, and Cain had desecrated it.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.
James 3:9

Abel, like every other human on the face of the earth, had been created in the image of God. That meant that his body, his personality, and his very life were a sacred representation of God Himself. Any mistreatment of Abel was, in fact, a direct attack against the God in whose likeness he was made. When Cain raised his fist to strike Abel, he was really assaulting God. And as the Scriptures go on to make clear, when we raise our voice to lash out at another, we are really attacking God.

“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
Genesis 9:5-6

God does not tolerate such abuse, against Himself or against the ones He loves. He confronted Cain for His reprehensible conduct, allowing him no wiggle room for excuses or diverting questions. Like any good property owner, God required Cain to give an account for the way he had cared for his brother. And like any offender caught red-handed, Cain was left powerless before God. Everything he had said or done to Abel was laid bare before God, and all he could do was beg God for the compassion that he had refused his brother.

The story of Cain and Abel is just the first in a long line of abuse stories that are an integral part of our Bible. God does not turn His face away from abuse, nor does He allow us to. He will require us to give an account for how we have looked after each other, not just in terms of whether we have abused others or not, but also in terms of what we have done to protect, nurture, and build them up.

When I stop to look at myself and at those around me as living, breathing, touchable images of God, I am moved by a deeper, more connected love for humanity. What happens to us happens God. His glory is bound up in our frail lives.

Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is an affirmation of that image.

So am I my brother’s keeper? Even the dirt knows the answer to that one.