Tag Archives: darkness

What Are You Doing Here?

sinai“I can’t go on like this anymore.”

The pastor groans on Sunday night; the professional sighs on Monday morning; the defeated mother cries into her washing; the depressed father sobs into his pillow.

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility. I can’t keep shouldering this burden on my own. I just want out.”

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility.”

Elijah had reached the same place. Weary from years of preaching a message that no one took seriously and worn from forever just barely scraping by, he had probably been on the verge of burn-out for awhile. But now fear pushed him over the brink.

The man of God had plenty to be afraid of. The king was furious after three years of drought for which he held Elijah responsible. The queen had just issued a death-threat after he made a fool of her god and took down all of her prophets. But none of that was really new for Elijah. He had always lived on the edge, recklessly pursuing God’s call no matter what the cost. What eroded the last vestiges of his confidence was his fear of failure.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:3-4

God had entrusted him with the impossible task of turning His people’s hearts back to Him, and now after the cosmic showdown of the century, they still refused to repent. If all his sermons and warnings, even signs and wonders still didn’t convince them, what more would? Zeal for God’s name had worn Elijah out, but that was all it had been successful in doing.

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

There he went into a cave and spent the night.
1 Kings 19:7-9

Elijah needed a place to regroup, to escape from constant responsibility and ever-present threats. He quite literally ran for his life until he reached the place where he would be sure to find God: Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, had been where his ancestor Moses met God back-to-face. Surely here Elijah would receive some much-needed direction from God on how to deal with His stiff-necked, idolatrous people.

And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
1 Kings 19:9-10

And sure enough, God showed up. As He had done with the discouraged Moses, He invited Elijah to voice his complaint and engage Him in a back-and-forth conversation .

Elijah’s presenting complaint detailed his frustrated efforts and the people’s persistent rejection of both God and himself. But hidden just under the surface was his respectfully concealed finger, pointing the blame at God for not making things any easier for him. After all, wasn’t Elijah simply trying to follow His orders? Why had God saddled him with such an impossibly difficult burden and then left him on his own to carry it? The weight of responsibility was crushing him to the point that he simply wanted to quit, even if death was the only way out.

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13

God’s initial response came not in a verbal defense, but through a series of tangible experiences that would challenge Elijah’s assumptions about Himself. Elijah’s ancestors had experienced Him here as the terrifying God who thundered from the top of the mountain, shattering rocks and billowing smoke until they couldn’t bear being near Him any more. In fear they had begged for a mediated relationship with Him, one in which the buffer of angelic messengers and a stone-encoded set of rules would protect them from being consumed by His fire.

That approach to pleasing God is precisely what wears us out.

But that approach to pleasing God was precisely what had worn Elijah out. No one could bear the burden of those impossibly heavy stone tablets on his own. No one could successfully fulfill God’s calling without His moment-by-moment support sustaining her from within.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them… The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Hebrews 12:18-21

So God set about showing His servant a new way of relating to Him. His Spirit came not as the forceful wind but as a gentle breath; not as the overwhelming earthquake but as a confidence-restoring whisper; not as the fire that consumes and burns up but as one that consumes and fills. Such an intimate invitation coaxed Elijah out of his hiding place and into God’s presence.

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:22-24, 28-29

God’s question came again. What are you doing here? Why have you come back to this scary old mountain? This is the place where fear and distance define our relationship, where rules and performance stand between us. Go to the new mountain where I dwell with my people in intimacy and love, the place where you are neither alone in your struggle nor doomed in your mission.

And this is the same invitation that rings down through the experiences of all who have encountered God in their fatigue. We turn back to Sinai in our performance-oriented relationship with God, shuddering under burdens that He never intended us to carry alone. He invites us forward into the easy yoke of His Spirit, in which His power works through us to accomplish the impossible.

We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

Of course we can’t go on like this anymore. We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6

Advertisements

Dead before God

Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
Hans Holbein,
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

Dear Weary Warrior,

I can’t imagine what you are going through right now. You have braved so many battles, stood strong through storms that would have sunk a lesser man.

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.
Psalm 88:15-17

Anyone looking at all you have been through might be tempted to wonder why God has been so hard on you. After all, aren’t you His son? And yet He has allowed blow after blow to knock the wind out of you. The painful events that He has ordained for your life are so huge that your sufferings have come to define you.

For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
Psalm 88:3-5

No wonder you are a dead man, drained of life and numb before God. No wonder all you can do is lie there like a corpse, unable to work, unable to fight, unable to feel anything other than exhaustion beyond your years. You have born enough trouble and grief to count for many lifetimes. In fact, you have shouldered the weight of the world, and that cross has crushed you.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.
Psalm 88:6-9

Does the darkness of the grave disturb you? Do you feel like you should be able to resist this, too, to somehow throw off the grave clothes and dig your way out from underneath that massive stone? And yet you simply can’t. The life has been pummeled out of you until all that is left is an empty shell. As much as you would like to escape this current state, there is nothing you can do but lie there in the grave: helpless, still, undone.

Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Psalm 88:10-12

Are you wondering about God’s purposes for your life? Statements about your glorious future probably feel like a mockery right now. The only thing you can see in front of you is the ugly black wall that traps you in. How in the world can your current condition bring glory to the God you have served? It seems to testify against His faithfulness and love, not to them. Wouldn’t a dramatic deliverance serve His purposes better than debilitating oblivion?

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. …even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you…
Psalm 139:7-12

But that isn’t what He has chosen for you right now. Resurrection might come in the morning, but for now He has provided night. This grave is your shelter from the storms that await you outside. It blocks the blinding light and muffles the sharp sounds that threaten to overwhelm you. Snuggle into its swaddling clothes and let the darkness hold you tight. You are here with God.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. …My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
Psalm 139:13-15

He has been with you from before the time you had consciousness, before the time you were aware of your identity or your commission. He created you with the physical and emotional limitations that now hold you down. His perfect design of your body included the inability to pass through every storm unscathed, to resist succumbing to the death that now defines you.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.
Psalm 139:16-18

In fact, this day is among those that He wrote for you in His book. For today your assignment is not to save the world, to preach the kingdom, to heal the masses. Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God. Tomorrow will eventually come, when hope dawns and the “new you” emerges. But God is not in a rush to get you there. He created this gap between death and resurrection for a reason.

Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God.

This is your space to simply be with Him, the Sabbath for your soul. Sleep in His presence. Lie numbly and do nothing in His presence. Cry if you want to, or let Him do it for you if your tears won’t come. You don’t have to answer the questions of the cosmos or figure out how this is working together for your good. You have committed your spirit into His hands. Now simply let Him hold you.

Today, darkness is your friend.

God on the Rocks

IMG_8908Last week’s travels brought me up close and personal with some seriously spiritual rocks.

Stonehenge has long held a fascination for me and for my husband, especially in recent years as he has been researching the significance of cosmological alignment in the New Testament writings of Paul. We wondered if we would sense the spiritually charged atmosphere there that led people of ancient times to carefully erect these massive stones into their set pattern of alignment with the stars. Though this ancient site is internationally renowned as a sacred portal between heaven and earth, I found myself as spiritually impressed by the stones as were the flock of sheep that stood nearby grazing impassively.

IMG_8967In a similar but different vein, the island of Iona is a place we had long dreamed of visiting. Pilgrims still flock from around the world to visit this sacred site from which Columba introduced Christianity to Scotland, the Book of Kells was created, and generations of priests and kings were nurtured. I expected to be deeply moved by walking near stone high crosses that have been pointing pilgrim’s eyes heavenward for almost 1,000 years and by worshipping in the stone abbey where countless generations of saints have experienced close encounters with God. But as much as I enjoyed visiting these historic stones, they were just that for me: places of reminder, places of the past, but not places that aroused my soul or brought a closer connection between my spirit and God’s.

I have plenty of room in my theology for sacred places and sacred stones.

We meet God at the rocks because that’s where we cry out for help.

Abraham repeatedly set up altars at the sites where he experienced the presence of God’s Spirit in powerful ways. These stones marked the sacred spots where he and his descendants after him would be able to return and encounter God anew. Who could have foreseen that the most seemingly random of these wilderness sites, where he almost sacrificed his son Isaac, would end up becoming the temple mount of Jerusalem over 1,000 years later?

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.
Genesis 28:16-18

Jacob recognized the significance of the stone he had randomly selected as a travel pillow during his flight from his homicidal brother. One night’s sleep on it revealed to him a ladder-like portal between heaven and earth. Angels running up and downstairs to intervene in the world of desperate mortals? No wonder he named it Bethel and erected it as a standing monument to mark such a sacred space, one that he would be sure to return to for further help and direction.

He cried out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf, and the LORD answered him. …
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”
1 Samuel 7:9-12

And Samuel erected his Ebenezer stone as a standing reminder of God’s spiritual presence and tangible intervention at a particular point of need.

People have been meeting God at the rocks for as long as we have felt our need for help, for external intervention from a source that is greater than we are.

And the case is no less true for me.

“On the rocks” spirituality gets expressed in desperate invocations and terrified litanies.

Although the rocks I travelled miles to see did not do it for me, the rocks that I encountered later that night in Iona did. Taking advantage of the extended twilight of a summer’s evening in the far reaches of the North Atlantic, I grabbed my trainers and set out for an exploratory run around the island. Ethereal Celtic hymns floating through my earbuds matched the ancient beauty of the rocks, the sea, and the last traces of a spectacular sunset. Low tides and uninhabited tracts of stunningly rugged land allowed me to run along unhindered as I ambitiously attempted to circle the entire island.

I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock…

In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. …He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? …He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.

…you stoop down to make me great. You broaden the path beneath me, so that my ankles do not turn.

The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God my Savior!
Psalm 18:1-2, 6, 16-19, 31-33, 35-36, 46

But what a precautionary glance at a map would have shown me was the precipitous rock mass that I would encounter three quarters of the way around the island. At first I took it as one more delightful obstacle to clamber over, but as the summit of each ridge only provided a view of another steeper, rockier one, my heart began to sink. Darkness was setting in fast and I was alone on what now felt to be dangerous, unfamiliar terrain. I kept pressing on, hoping that the next rise would reveal the familiar grassy slope where my family were snuggled up inside the warmth of our white-washed B&B, oblivious to my predicament. But the reality finally dawned that I was stuck: too dark and steep to go forward, too late to make it back the way I had come. Panic stricken, I cried aloud to God to help me as I turned back, scrambling over sharp rocks and running recklessly through peaty bogs. The floating, peaceful lyrics no longer fit the moment: my spirituality was one of desperate invocations and terrified litanies.

In God’s kindness, He brought me back to flat land before dark, to the cottage before I could no longer see my way. But that night the rocks of Iona, the ones on the other end of the isle from the high crosses and sacred abbey, became for me sacred rocks, because there I encountered God.

Whether in the rocks of history or on the rocks of life, God is most present when we are most needy.

Meet Him at the rocks.

Breathe.

iphone wallpaper
iphone wallpaper
Burn out. Exhaustion. Stress.

I remember as a teacher in inner-city middle schools having to remind my slightly hormonal, emotionally out-of-control students to stop and breathe. Somehow the extra oxygen to the brain was just what they needed to refocus and regain control.

Some days I need the same reminder: stop, take a deep breath, focus, let it out.

But more than oxygen, my soul craves the life-giving breathe of the Spirit.

How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from God?

Sometimes the burdens of life, the non-stop demands that pile up into days and weeks start to squeeze the life out of me. I look for reprieve, but as soon as I manage to carve out a little space some other urgent responsibility pushes in. And no wonder! The lifestyle that Jesus calls us to is impossibly intense.

Take every thought captive. Pray without ceasing. Bear each others’ burdens. Share with those in need. Entertain strangers. Visit the sick. Feed the poor. Work. Teach. Serve. Proclaim. Disciple. Listen. Weep. Rejoice.

If I am to take this impossibly great commission seriously, I am going to need a lot of help. And that’s just the point. I need the Holy Helper.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
…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.
Genesis 1:2, 2:7

When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:29-30

He is the One who hovered over the face of the dark, unruly waters in the beginning, bringing order out of chaos and beauty out of emptiness. He is the Air that God breathed into the lungs of the first man, pouring life into dust. And He is the renewing force that restores worn-out souls, that reinvigorates exhausted minds, that reignites burnt-out bodies.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
John 20:21-22

Of course Jesus knew we couldn’t manage carrying this workload on our own. And He never intended us to. Along with a commission He gave us His Spirit to do the job with us, or more accurately, to do the job through us. But as much as I may theologically acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s existence, I too often fail to live as if it is true. So no wonder I end up where I am now: worn, spent, and running on empty.

I need to stop and breathe.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me
to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate
for more of the Spirit.

I need to open my spirit to His presence, to clear some space in my “get-‘er-done” mind for Him to have room to work. How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from Him?

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 3:16; 4:3

The Holy Spirit may be omnipresent and omnipotent, but His power at work in me is not automatic. Like any relationship, it needs to be cultivated and developed, given the time and space to grow up in me. I can’t fake its fruit. I can’t force its results. But apart from an intentional, ongoing connection with the Holy Spirit, I know that my spirit will shrivel and die.

So what does it look like to be in a relationship with the Spirit?

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Ephesians 4:30

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. …Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-25

I suppose it’s not too different from nurturing any close relationship, only in this one co-dependency is a good thing. If we want to be close to Him, we have to pay careful attention to His gentle promptings, allowing Him to adapt our preferences, opinions, and habits to His. We will do whatever it takes to avoid grieving Him, which primarily entails not shutting Him out of any area of our lives. Far from perpetuating a performance mentality, seeking to please the Spirit means laying down our over-weaning sense of responsibility and letting Him take the controls.

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. …Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:18-20

And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:21

And this is what I love about Him. He doesn’t take over in some degrading, depersonalizing sort of way. He doesn’t make us His insignificant sycophants nor does He use us merely for His own self-centered purposes. Instead He pours His infinite Spirit into our mortal frames, making us more gloriously human than we ever were before. His Spirit interacts with our personalities to create a perfect spark, a renewing, creative force that sends us back out into the world to create as He creates, to beautify as He beautifies, and to love as He loves.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate for more of the Spirit.

Breathe.

The Singing Exorcist

images

Our first October back in the US brought great consternation to my children: skeletons dangling in our neighbors’ front yard, images of witches and evil spirits plastered on storefronts, and little shrines filled with plastic symbols of death, demons, and sorcery set up on reception desks and public entry ways of homes, businesses, and schools. My children kept turning to me in shock, searching for an explanation.

Idols, shrines, and spirit worship were an integral part of the world they had grown up in. They understood the reality of the spirit beings that those “cute” little symbols were representing. And our recent encounters with overt demonic attack in South Asia had left us all shaken and hypersensitive to the presence of the spirit realm. Our impulse was to look away as we walked past, to avoid eye contact with evil lest we invite further attention.

Our careful avoidance of the spirit realm
betrays our underlying fear.

This is the same posture I notice in many Western Christians when the topic of spiritual warfare is raised. Furtive glances. Lowered voices. Subject changes that switch to more “edifying” thoughts. Excuses that the Bible doesn’t give much attention to it and neither should we. But our careful avoidance of the topic betrays our underlying fear.

So what is an appropriate posture for Christians when confronted with evil?

Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.
1 Samuel 16:23

A theologian-friend once pointed out to me that young David was the first exorcist we meet in the Bible. Called in to play his harp for the demon-possessed Saul, David was brought face-to-face with unmitigated evil on a daily basis. But rather than hide in terror or play around as if these ghosts were merely a figment of Saul’s superstitious imagination, David confronted them with singing.

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:1-2

He sang songs of praise to God’s superior power and glory, songs of thanks for His love and protection. He sang songs of petition for God to stop the evil oppressors and songs of triumph celebrating God’s victories, past and future.

And when that child played and sang, the evil spirit tormenting Saul shut up and left.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers…, what is man that you are mindful of him…? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
Psalm 8:3-5

David thumbed his nose in the face of demons, not because he underestimated their power, not because he overestimated his, but because He rightly understood God’s. God’s exalted position over all of creation provided the basis for David’s humble confidence in confronting spirit powers.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves…. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Colossians 1:13-16

David recognized what we too easily forget. God created and rules over spirit beings just as He does over all human beings. They are the work of His hands, seen and known by Him even if they are scary and alien to us. And we as Christians no longer live as captives to their dark purposes. Yes their power is real and they are at large wreaking havoc in our world, but we have no cause for fear.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Colossians 2:9-10, 15

Jesus has already taken them on and unmasked their charade for all to see. Their knowledge is limited. Their power is restricted. And best of all, their days are numbered.

So how do we carry on in the meantime, aware that the serpent is contained but still has fangs?

We can afford to be neither flippant nor fearful.

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
Ephesians 6:11

The powers of darkness are present and active, and we are called to be vigilant and proactive in resisting them. To play around with demonic symbols and magical games is as smart as toying with a venomous cobra. But to avert our eyes and pretend like they aren’t there doesn’t make them go away. If anything, it gives them permission to carry on their work unhindered.

Christ’s exalted position over all of creation emboldens us to humbly confront the spirit powers.

We have a role to play in freeing our world from demonic rule. It involves neither violent aggression nor cowardly hiding, but rather a bold faith in the victory Christ has already won.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
Colossians 3:15-16

So we join in with the singing exorcist. We sing songs of praise to our triumphant King. We speak words of truth, proclaiming His victory over our demonic foes and rebuking their false claims on those He has delivered. And we tune our hearts to the grateful chorus of the redeemed, fixing our gaze on the One holding the basket as we sing down the serpent.

The Death of Dreams

Joseph sat in his grave, remembering his former dreams.

Once upon a time he had dreamed of greatness, of being honored and approved of by his family. It hadn’t seemed such an unreasonable dream at the time. After all, he had been his father’s favorite, the firstborn son of his beloved Rachel. With the physique of a superhero and the mind of a sage, Joseph had had every reason to dream of a rosy future.

LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me.
Psalm 16:5-7

He had been certain that God favored him too. Why else would He send him such hope-inspiring dreams? Sheaves of grain bowing down before him. The sun, moon, and stars paying homage to him. The message had seemed so clear then. God had great things in store for his life, position and prestige beyond his wildest dreams. Even his father felt threatened by the obvious meaning of his dreams. Joseph was surely destined for a life of greatness.

But nothing was the way it had seemed.

I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
Psalm 16:8-10

Rough hands. Brutal blows. The spiteful, sneering faces of those he had trusted. The cold, hard betrayal of those nearest to him. His knees hit the bottom of a deep dark pit. His whole life flashed before his eyes. Was this the end? Surely they just meant this as a cruel joke. Surely they would not abandon him in this grave or allow his flesh to rot in this hole.

A rope from above. The light of day. Resurrection of hope, only to be dashed again. Twenty pieces of silver exchanged for his life. Was this all that he was worth to them? Chains of slavery fastened to his soul. Was this what would forever define him?

When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.
Genesis 39:3-4

A fresh start in Egypt. The favored attendant of a prestigious master. This wasn’t exactly the kind of greatness that he had originally imagined, but Joseph threw himself into making the best of it. Competent and hardworking, trustworthy and unbelievably successful, he quickly rose to the top of the service chain, his master honoring him far above the normal status of a slave. Past dreams forgotten, present chains overlooked, Joseph accepted his new identity. He might not be the favorite son of his father any more, but at least he was secure in his new position as favorite servant of his master.

But even that was not the way it had seemed.

Trauma leaves us in the dark, devoid of all the certainties on which we based our past, bereft of all the dreams towards which we oriented our future.

Harsh accusations. Sickeningly familiar chains. Triumphantly betrayed by his jealous mistress. Angrily turned on by his beloved master. Was this the full extent of their relationship? After years of loyal service, wasn’t he at least worth a fair trial? Joseph found his body once again thrown into a deep dark pit, his soul once again abandoned to the grave.

But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”
The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
Genesis 40:14-15, 23

Left with nothing but memories of the past, his former dreams came back to taunt him. He vaguely remembered a time when he had assumed that his life would be one of security and comfort, when he had actually aspired to honor and greatness. How could he have been so naïve as to believe that everything turned out good in the end for the righteous? Any last shreds of those ideals were cruelly crushed as he was once again used and forgotten. The clang of the prison door behind Pharaoh’s cupbearer sounded the death-knell on Joseph’s last dream.

The death of our dreams gives rise to God’s.

A black curtain of hopelessness shrouded his soul. The dark wall of an empty, meaningless future barred his way, mocking any attempts to imagine his way around it.

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck.
Genesis 41:41-42

Joseph’s dreams had died. But God’s dreams for him were finally ready to be resurrected. Little could he know the dream God would send to Pharaoh, the position of fame and power that he would be appointed to, or the ways in which God would fulfill each one of his former dreams beyond his wildest imagination. His father’s multicolored robe replaced by Pharaoh’s finest linen. His dream of bowing sheaths fulfilled by his brothers’ kneeling plea for grain. His vision of being adoringly surrounded by a family of celestial beings finally realized with the incredible relocation of his whole family to Egypt.

Trauma leaves us in the dark, devoid of all the certainties on which we based our past, bereft of all the dreams towards which we oriented our future. But the death of our dreams gives rise to God’s. The removal of our plans makes room for His. As bewilderingly futureless as the post-traumatic prison may seem, it is a gateway to a greater glory on the other side. The grave will give way to new life. Our dead dreams will be resurrected into newborn realities.

When Kingdoms Collide

“Oh, I already know how this story is going to turn out.” My all-knowing seven year old leans back from our history lesson with an air of exaggerated patience, rolls her eyes, and rattles it off. “The guy becomes king, conquers all the other kings around him, builds a big empire, and dies all of sudden. Then everyone argues about who should be in charge and the kingdom falls apart. Then another king takes over.”

And, when I look at it, she’s right. With a major exception.

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:10-11

Jesus came to earth to establish His kingdom. Forerunners prepared the way. A messenger told the people to get ready for their new king. And after Jesus’ grand entry before the crowd at the Jordan, God Himself anointed Him, pouring down His Spirit and thundering out Heaven’s affirmation that Jesus had every right to be king.

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Luke 4:5-6

But this King had competition. The kingdom He was claiming was already ruled by a prince and his legions of allies. Jesus’ first step toward conquest was a trip to the wilderness for a face-to-face confrontation with their overlord. Grueling test. Proven strength. Trick questions. Overcoming answers. The negotiation ended and Jesus left the room triumphant, but His opponent wasn’t going to quit that easily. He would wait for a more opportune time.

Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!”
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!”
The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”
Mark 1:23-24; 3:11

As Jesus moved about the territory He was claiming, He constantly ran into His opposition, legions of smaller, local tyrants who oppressed their subjects and resisted His reign. When He entered a synagogue, they screamed out their terrified questions about what He planned to do with them. When He walked through the countryside, they fell at His feet in resistant obeisance. And when He stepped off the boat into a new region, they stormed at Him, first threatening to drive Him out and finally begging Him for permission to stay.

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. …
Then he rebukes them in his anger… saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance…
Psalm 2:2-8

Jesus slowly but surely spread the kingdom of God, confronting the renegade rulers of the earth with His words and with His very presence. He was the Son of God come to reclaim His inheritance, and they knew it. But that didn’t mean that they would give up without a fight.

A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. … He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
4:37-39

Raging fevers and deathly pallor. Shrieking voices and shaking frames. Lashing winds and violent waves. Wherever Jesus turned His enemies opposed Him. But at His rebuke, they had no choice but surrender. Convulsing bodies gave way to perfect calm. Writhing seas settled back into life-sustaining eco-systems.

“If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? … But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.”
Matthew 12:26-29

Driving out demons and healing the sick were at the core of what Jesus had come to do. With each oppressed captive that He liberated, He was transferring one more subject out of the kingdom of Satan and into the kingdom of God. His method of conquest matched the mustard-seed growth curve of His kingdom: slow but sure, small but unstoppable.

Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me. … Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
Psalm 22:12-16

Each confrontation ended in victory for Jesus, in one more person or bit of space added to His growing kingdom. But His enemies didn’t quit. They rallied to turn one of His own disciples against Him. And when they actually succeeded in nailing Jesus to the cross, all Hell broke loose to torment their vanquished foe.

The surprise twist in the story is us.

For a brief moment in cosmic history, it looked like Jesus’ kingdom would go the way of all others. Shepherd struck. Sheep scattered. After all, fierce competition had always plagued Jesus’ disciples. Who was the greatest? Who would inherit His kingdom?

…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…
Ephesians 1:20-23

But God intervened in this story. He resurrected the King, raised Him off the earth, and gave Him an even higher throne. Enemies scattered. Lost sheep gathered. A kingdom without end. Heaven and earth brought in line under His righteous reign… almost.

…you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:2, 6-7, 10

The surprise twist in the story is us. Jesus handed over the keys of His kingdom to His Church, delegating to us the role of finishing what He started on earth. Through the power of His Spirit, He has called us to continue His work. Liberating political and spiritual captives. Healing the physically sick, emotionally wounded, and mentally ill. Preaching the kingdom. Loving our fellow heirs of the kingdom. Advancing His kingdom where darkness still reigns.

And there is the rub. The battle for God’s kingdom isn’t over. His enemies are still at work, and we are an active threat to their power. We all know who wins in the end, but the end hasn’t come yet. In the meantime, we fight His battle, exchanging blows with the powers of darkness. And this will be our lot until every knee in heaven and on earth bows in its rightful place before the throne of Jesus the King.

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

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

Giving Up with a Fight

If God took from me everything on earth that I most cherish—my husband and children, my home and community, my health and security—could I still rise and bless His name? I used to periodically ask myself this question, using it as a litmus test for my heart’s posture towards God. Was He truly on the throne of my heart, or was I holding on to anything else more tightly than to Him? In moments of abandoned worship, I could wholeheartedly answer yes. At other times the question would make me shudder, suck in my breath, and confess that no, my heart was not oriented towards Him in such total surrender.

True relationship calls for a fight;
true love results in surrender.

It struck me recently that I have not asked myself that question in a long time. Perhaps this is because in the years since I last asked it, I have experienced many aspects of that hypothetical worst scenario, and by His grace, I love Him more now than ever. But this discovery also made me fear that I have grown so accustomed to wrestling with God that I have forgotten how to surrender. How do these two postures fit together in how I relate to God?

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Mark 14:32-34

Jesus embodied both wrestling and surrender during the hours leading up to His worst scenario. Like His ancestor Jacob, He stayed up all night wrestling with God over the outcome of the next day’s events. Jesus knew what was coming. He had been preparing for it and preaching it for a long time now. But that didn’t take away His shear dread at the thought of actually going through with it.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba”, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Mark 14:35-36

Sleepless night. Anguished cries. Hot tears. Bloody sweat. No, God! Don’t make me have to bear this. It’s too hard, too much. Spare me! I don’t want to go through with it. Won’t you let me off the hook?

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Matthew 26:42-44

Through the night Jesus called out these candid objections to His Father. All was not well with His soul, and He did not pretend otherwise. He would not lie down and rest, He would not back down, He would not stop wrestling until God answered Him.

But even as He voiced His protest to God, Jesus affirmed His willingness to surrender. With each round of stating His will, He also declared His desire that God’s will would ultimately prevail. Here was a wrestling match between two contestants with opposing wills but united hearts. Their clash in desire did not undermine their deep love for each other or their mutual commitment to each other’s honor. And not for a minute did Jesus let go of the submitted respect of a son to his Father, a servant to His Master, a man to His God. More than anything else—even more than His very life—Jesus wanted God to win. But that didn’t stop Him from wrestling in the meantime.

Jesus’ exemplary prayer unmasks our false dichotomy between grappling prayer and serene surrender. What does God want of us? To argue our case heatedly and pester Him persistently until He answers. To love Him wholeheartedly and surrender to Him fully after He does, even when His answer is no. True relationship calls for a fight; true love results in surrender.