Tag Archives: depression

Great is Thy Faithfulness?—New Eyes on an Old Story

BlackHave you ever started to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” but found the words caught in your throat? A song that at other times has lifted your heart in grateful worship now comes back to mock you, its statements and claims the polar opposite of your personal experience. Morning by morning you haven’t seen new mercies: you’ve heard news of a new crisis. All you have needed His hand has not provided. What are you to make of it?

In the world’s eyes, you might be a laughingstock, someone who has foolishly invested in an unpredictable God and come up empty handed.

In other Christians’ eyes, you might look like a failure, someone who must be out of God’s perfect will. What else would explain His lack of blessing on you, your family, and your work?

Far from being evidence of our Father’s rejection, our hardships are proof of His love.

While others prosper around you, you struggle to make ends meet. While others’ ministries take root and flourish, your sacrificial efforts seem like water poured out on sand. You waver between discouragement and exhaustion, wondering how to interpret your life story. Have you done something wrong, or has God simply been unfaithful?

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered…
Hebrews 5:7-8

But perhaps you have been interpreting your story through the wrong set of eyes. If we evaluated Jesus’ life by the standard of motivational magazines or successful living books, He would come out the greatest loser of all time. Like us, He struggled and suffered. And like us, He begged God to go easier on Him. He still ended up deserted and destitute, mocked and accused of being cursed by God. But that was not evidence of God’s rejection. It was proof of the Father’s love.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Hebrews 12:5-6

God’s way of prospering His children has always looked radically different than the world’s. If our lives are filled with hardship and struggle, it is merely because He is taking us through the same intensive training to which He subjected His Firstborn Son. Yes, He loves us just as we are. But He also loves us too much to leave us that way. His commitment to our development compels Him to afflict us. Far from being evidence of His anger or rejection, our hardships are proof of our Father’s love.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:7-9

Because of His great love for us, this Father not only punishes His errant children, He also trains His devoted ones. In some families only the squeaky wheel gets attention. In God’s family, the obedient children get an extra dose of His coaching. At times His training grows so intense that we are tempted to fight Him or simply to quit. But as the legitimate children that we are, we believe He is treating us this way for our good, even when we don’t feel it.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:10-11

Somehow in the way God writes stories, going with less prepares us to receive more, being knocked down paves the way for us to be raised up. Suffering and reward, pain and glory—these are the themes He wrote into the lives of that great cloud of witnesses who went before us. And this is the plot line He is mapping out for our lives, too.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Hebrews 2:9-10

And so like the Older Brother who blazed this trail ahead of us, we hang in there. When we are tempted to think that our Father has forsaken us, we look ahead to see how Jesus’ story is turning out. The path to His success led through unspeakable suffering and deep humiliation. But because He submitted Himself to the Father’s discipline, He is now seated with Him in the heavens. The multitude of voices shouting around His throne carry the opposite message of what He was subjected to on earth. And in the midst of all that, He cheers us on.

Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Hebrews 2:11

You may be a few steps behind, still slogging through obstructed labor and obscured vision, but you are walking the same trail. And you are not alone. Our whole family has been called to live this story. The details will look different as our Father customizes His training with each one of His kids, but as He was with Jesus, He will be faithful to finish the good work He has started in you.

The song rings true after all: Great is thy faithfulness.

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The Slog to Glory

IMG_0587My family and I set out to climb a mountain last weekend.

Let’s just say that the idea of making it to the summit of a Highland munro was more glorious than the reality of actually doing it. Images of the Von Trapp family cresting a grassy, Alpine peak to soaring strains of “Climb Every Mountain” came back to mock me as we slogged across the prerequisite boggy plain. At times our lofty goal was reduced to simply trying to take the next few steps without being sucked down in the mud. And that beautiful vertical ascent I had imagined involved a lot more back-and-forth trudging (to the tune of whining children) than climbing from glory to glory. Despite our burning lungs and quivering calves, the top of the mountain seemed to loom even farther overhead than when we had started. In frustration, my youngest child finally expressed what I was feeling:IMG_0613

“Why are we even doing this?”

If I’m brutally honest, I have to admit that permutations of this question have risen in my mind at different times during my long walk of faith. And I witness the same deep disillusionment in other discouraged believers, trying to find a positive spin on why their lives and ministries have not turned out as they had expected .

IMG_0584We set out with glorious expectations of victorious living and mountaintop experiences with God. We are fortified with stories of great heroes of the faith who seemed to effortlessly leap over challenge after challenge, buoyed up by their overcoming faith. And yet when we get hit in the face by crisis after crisis, or bogged down by the life-sucking sludge of everyday struggle, we are tempted to lose heart.

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
Hebrews 10:32-34

We begin to wonder why we work so hard to accomplish so little, why one hard-won step forward inevitably results in a downhill slide back. Doesn’t God want us to make it to the top? Why does the path have to be so steep, our struggle to climb it so constant? In the face of so many insurmountable odds, we are sorely tempted to sit down and settle for spiritual mediocrity.

Why are we even doing this?

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”
Hebrews 10:35-38

No one forced us to choose this difficult path of faith, and no one is forcing us to keep moving forward in ministry. We chose it because we believe in the One who called us. Yes, we believe in the miserable outcome for those who do not respond to Him in obedient faith. But it’s not really fear of hell that motivates us. It is love for God, and an overwhelming desire to see that look of delight on His face when we finally crest the last summit.

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.
Hebrews 10:39, 11:26-27

The truth is that we really are members of that great cloud of witnesses, ones whose very transformed nature it is to keep going despite ourselves. They kept going not because it was somehow easier for them to keep believing or because the trials they faced were any less daunting, but because their deeper longing for God won out over their immediate desire for comfort and security.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. …If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

When I look for what earned these “faith hall of famers” a spot on the list, I don’t find major accomplishments or grand success stories. In fact, most of them died long before they reached the top. Abel got killed; Enoch simply kept walking. Noah got up each day and added a few more planks to the most futile project anyone could imagine. Abraham meandered as a refugee in a land he would never own; and Moses died gazing at it from a distance.

They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
Hebrews 11:37-39

What set these men and women apart were not their heroic feats of faith but rather their unsung refusal to quit. By any human standard, they lived their lives as losers, people who had very little to show for all they had invested. And yet they looked to God for their stamp of approval. And He deemed them worthy. In fact, He is proud to be called their God.

God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, …let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 11:40-12:3

The same Spirit that kept these saints of old going is now at work in us, prodding us to keep putting one wobbly foot in front of the other. They cheer us on as we finish what they started. Yes, the slog is slow and mucky, but it is taking us somewhere. Our victory is not in how quickly or easily we make the summit, but in how faithful we are to take each inglorious step along the way.

Why are we even doing this?

For the joy set before us.IMG_0641

Sharing at Grace & Truth

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

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.

In God’s Kitchen

IMG_0294If you would have told me five years ago that I would be professor and spiritual mentor to Christian leaders across the developing world, I probably would have groaned.

At the time I was firmly entrenched in my life in South Asia, up to my elbows in teaching responsibilities, counseling duties, prayer needs, and ministry demands. I was doing what I loved, but somehow my delight had turned into duty. I began to resent the knocks on the door and the requests at the church, feeling like I was overstretched and underappreciated. I was tired and wanted to be let off the hook.

Sadly, I got my wish.

I think I am not the only one who has struggled with self-important exhaustion. I hear it in those conversations at church when people one up each other with the lists of all they have to do. I read it between the lines of my students’ journal submissions describing how close they are to burn-out and yet how there is no one else whom they can trust to handle some of their ministry responsibilities.

At the heart of all these well-intentioned servants is the false assumption that we are the only ones capable of carrying out God’s all-important work. We feel that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen. Shouldering such an emotionally laden burden on our own leaves us exhausted and (dare I say it) just a bit resentful.

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 19:4

Two years ago, I began this blog with an article about Elijah needing some cave time after the intense demands that God had placed on him. Elijah’s condition connected deeply with my own at the time, as did God’s gracious provision of time and space to heal. But as I revisit his story in light of my own, I see a similar dynamic at work.

‪Then Elijah said to them, ‘I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.‬
‪At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘ Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. ‬
1 Kings 18:22, 36

Elijah had begun to believe that everything hinged on him. God had called him to perform some unbelievable feats: stopping up the heavens, confronting a hostile king, and taking on a high-powered, politically favored god along with its entourage of priests and devotees. Elijah’s special commission had also come with special provisions, but somewhere along the way he started believing that he was special, the only one willing and able to carry out these critical tasks.

‪He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn 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 19:10

Elijah’s bold faith in God’s accomplishments through him began to carry a tinge of assertive self-importance, and with it a note of self-pity. This really came out in the exhausted, post-traumatic laments he made to God.

The Lord said to him, ‘Go back the way you came, … and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. … Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.’‬
1 Kings 19:15-18

God’s first response to him was provision, not exhortation. But with time, God called Elijah back out of the cave with a gentle reminder that he was not the only one, that there were plenty of other arrows in God’s quiver. He sent Elijah back to work, this time with the assignment to mobilize and mentor his successor. Long after Elijah’s ministry was over, Elisha would carry on the same work with an even greater portion of capacity and effectiveness than Elijah had ever had.

And this is where I now find myself. After taking me through a multi-year attitude adjustment, God has recommissioned me as a mentor to classrooms full of Elishas. I marvel at these African leaders’ insight, maturity, and commitment to the kingdom. I am humbled and delightfully surpassed by their accomplishments and their godliness. With people like them at the helm, there is great hope for the global Church.

I feel as if God has invited me back to help in His kitchen. I used to serve here as if I were doing Him a favor. Now I realize that, like I used to do with my own young children, He is doing me the favor. He is letting me be a part of what He is making of the world. He could do it a lot quicker and easier without me, but out of His great love He is sharing the pleasure.

My response used to be “Must I?” Now it is “Please, may I!”

A Prayer for the Persecuted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Legacy of a Leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Your Heart Condemns You

photo credit: http://stephenonbible.blogspot
photo credit: http://stephenonbible.blogspot
“Shame on you. How can you even call yourself a Christian?”

The accusation of an enemy cuts deep; the rebuke of a friend even deeper. But the condemnation of your own voice from deep within stops you dead in your tracks. How can you even answer?

When your own heart condemns you,
where can you turn for an alibi?

Memories of past failures come back to haunt you. Countless “if-only’s” scroll down your mental timeline. Caught between a past you cannot change and a present you can’t escape, your heart begins to beat to the rhythm of every criticism that has ever been leveled at you, both intended and implied.

“They must all be right. There must be something fundamentally wrong with you,” your heart testifies against your spirit. Shame seeps deeper into the core of your identity, stripping away your last defense and paralyzing your final attempts to stand up to the accusations.

When your own heart condemns you, where can you turn for an alibi?

As much as it may feel like it, you are not alone in this struggle. Although it takes place in the lonely prison of your own mind, godly men and women through the ages have fought this same battle.

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”– and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Psalm 32:3-5

David had plenty to regret and plenty of opportunities to regret it. His inexcusable behavior towards Bathsheba and Uriah, his failures in handling the antics of his children, and even the cries of “foul play” from his opponents came back to haunt him again and again. Instead of attempting to ignore or deny the accusing voice within his spirit, David recounted his shameful past in full, remembering not only the causes of his shame but also its resolution. Yes, he really had done those awful things that kept popping up on his mental record. But he had also laid them bare in God’s presence, confessing them to Him and receiving His full forgiveness.

Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.
Psalm 32:6-7

So when the mighty breakers of condemnation began to overtake his spirit, David clung to the Rock. Only God’s verdict of “forgiven” could release him from the skeletons of his past.

Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him. Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart
Psalm 32:1, 10-11

David combatted his recurring shame with a tenacious faith in God’s unfailing love. By faith he could sing of the blessedness of being forgiven. In fact, by faith he could go a shocking step further and sing of the joys of being counted righteous. Giving in to his shame would hardly do justice to God’s love. Celebrating his position as God’s beloved child would.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. …Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
1 John 3:16-20

And this is precisely the refrain that the seasoned disciple John picked up in his letters to younger believers. Speaking out of the depths of his own experience, he taught them how to respond to voice of condemnation in their own hearts: Go back and remember the extent of Jesus’ love for you. Recount the ways His love has compelled you to live out love for others. Remember the time you gave something up that you really treasured? Remember the time you forgave that person who had really hurt you? Why did you do what would otherwise be counter-intutive? Because Jesus’ love lives in you. Because you really are God’s beloved child.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “”Abba,” Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
Romans 8:15-17

And for those times when even our faith in God’s love runs dry and our memory of His good work in us fails, God picks up the struggle on our behalf. Paul described how God’s Spirit testifies to our own, answering our heart’s condemnation with His resounding assurance: of course you are Mine!

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Romans 8:31-35

God knows the battle that shame wages within our hearts. He not only silences the Foe whose voice accuses us from without, He also refutes the voice within ourselves. Our standing as His children is secure because of Christ’s track record, not ours. Not even our own hearts’ testimony against us is enough to separate us from His love. He is both Advocate and Judge. He reserves the right to decide who He loves and why.

God reserves the right to decide
who He loves and why.

And so when shame nibbles away at your confidence and condemnation steals over your spirit, run to your Alibi. Cling to your Rock. Listen to His affirming words telling you who you really are. Let His Spirit’s voice echo through your soul until it becomes one with your own.

And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. …
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

And that is what we are!

1 John 2:28-3:1

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 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.