Tag Archives: despair

Warts and All: On Why I Love the Church

853664e3b6e531ef7a9fc711013888ddI hear a growing chorus of frustration with Christianity and the “the church.” It pops up in blog posts, surfaces in individual conversations, and seeps through the cracks of our decaying religious moral. And for the most part, I would add my voice to the critiques.

Sadly, the church rarely lives up to its noble calling. In far too many cases truth has been wielded with all the tenderness of a baseball bat, authority structures have abused and suppressed the very sheep they were entrusted to nurture and empower, and programs, systems, and corporate culture have squeezed the very soul out of those who come seeking God.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

I have seen (and smelled) the underbelly of too many Christian organizations and churches to be naïve to the painful realities involved in any human community. There isn’t a group that I have been part of that doesn’t have its casualties. At this point I’m not sure any story of Christian abuse, neglect, insensitivity, or betrayal can shock me. My own experiences have trained me in just how damaging the church can be.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

An ecclesiology which sees the church primarily as a filling station for our individual spirituality will lead us to easily and quickly quit on it when it does not scratch where we itch. We have bought in to a consumerist paradigm which uses marketing strategies to grow churches and business models to run them. No wonder we are inclined to take our business elsewhere when their services no longer suit us!

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:2-6

But despite all its toxic boils and cancerous perversions, the church is still the Church. It is the body of Christ, the family of our Heavenly Father. That’s not just a nice metaphor designed to give us all a warm fuzzy at the end of a special service. It’s the reality that the Trinity set in motion when the Father sacrificed His Firstborn to bring many more sons and daughters into the family. It’s the reality that we breathe in and out as we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence with each of us.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

But God has put the body together, giving 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.
I Corinthians 12:13-14, 24-27

God doesn’t offer us individual package deals. As much as we like to think about how much He loves each of us as His special child, the implications of that relationship are that we are now stuck with each other as a family. More than that, we are actually one huge, living organism, bound together by the same life-giving Spirit and topped off with the same life-directing Head. No one of us can belong to God without belonging to the others. No one of us can quit on the rest without also quitting on God (and ourselves, while we are at it).

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to church.

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to the church.

Years ago a wise Indian pastor knocked the bluster out of me. In response to my self-important criticism of the theological limpness and evangelistic anemia of the mainline church, he quietly replied that he found it easier to stand outside of something and throw rocks at it rather than to remain doggedly within it and work for change. His comment made its mark, influencing me from then on to choose my church based not on its vitality but rather on its need.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:8, 11-12

The longer I have practiced being part of the solution rather than a harbinger of the problem, the more I have come to love the church. What started as a theological commitment to unity has become a part of my spiritual DNA. The more I love God, the more I can’t help but love His body. The more I invest in His family, the more I mature in sharing His own heart.

As frustrating as I still find certain people to be, as infuriating as lousy theology, damaging relationships, and distancing structures still are, I honestly cannot conceptualize of being a Christian apart from the church. It’s my family! Wherever I go in the world, I find my kin. Whether the songs are unfamiliar or the language incomprehensible, these are my people. I have no choice but to bear with them in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

So when we raise our voices in critique of the church, we had better recognize that we do it as insiders. Whatever each of us points out as a problem we then have the responsibility to proactively engage. This warty body’s only hope of eventually matching up to its glorious Head lies with each of us, its members, doing our bit.

This is the only Body we’ve got. We may not always like it, but how can we not love it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Hope Comes Hard

aLife’s harsh realities have a way of squeezing the stars out of our eyes. When I encounter a young couple dreaming of their happy future, my smile comes bittersweet, already feeling the pain they will inevitably encounter but also savoring the naïve hope they can enjoy for now.

For those who have already been around life’s block a few times, hope doesn’t come so cheap. We know that things rarely turn out the way we expect, and allowing our hopes to rise again entails the risk of exposing them to another crash. The inexperienced might call us skeptics, but we can hardly afford to be otherwise.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

But as people of faith, how do we reconcile our awareness of life’s pain with hope in God’s goodness? The easy way out (and one I have repeatedly given into) is to mentally separate these categories, relegating God’s intervention to the realm of the spiritual and maintaining our self-protective pessimism towards life in the “real world.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
John 11:3-6

This is the dynamic I observe in Martha’s guarded response to Jesus after her brother’s death. She had every reason to hope that He would have come quickly to heal Lazarus. After all, wasn’t that what He went around doing for everyone else? Of course He would come for the one He loved. But He didn’t.

Faced with such deep disappointment, Martha had a difficult choice to make. She had already lost her brother; she didn’t want to lose her Lord, too. And yet how could she make sense of His unresponsiveness to her heart’s cry? How could she reconcile her faith in His goodness with His failure to prove it?

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:20-22

Martha went out to meet Jesus, relieved to be with Him again but steeling her heart against the further disappointment His presence might bring. She couldn’t help but state the obvious: it was His fault her brother had died. But rather than dwell on the gaping wound in their relationship, she quickly covered it over by affirming her faith in what she knew to be theologically true.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
John 11:23

As usual, Jesus knew the struggle going on in her heart and put His finger right where it hurt. He didn’t just want vague statements of her faith in His sovereignty. He wanted her heart, in all its broken, disillusioned messiness. In a claim that could have seemed almost taunting in light of His recent track record, Jesus promised the very thing Martha was too afraid to hope for. Her brother would live again.

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24

Still attempting the valiant feat of holding on to faith while dealing with disappointment, Martha came up with the safest possible spin on what He had just said. Her theological training came in handy, allowing her to state with certainty what the written Word had already guaranteed. She could look forward to the distant hope of resurrection but could not bear to think of something closer to home. Spiritualizing Jesus’ promise allowed her to affirm its truth while not letting it destabilize her immediate expectations.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

And as always, Jesus understood. Rather than push the point of what He was going to do in the situation at hand, He met her where she felt safe to go. His claims about Himself were the basis of all that He did. If she was willing to state her belief in who He was and the way He works on behalf of His people, what more was needed?

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
John 11:27

Martha rose to the occasion, just as Peter had. Despite her struggle to see His goodness in the here and now, despite her inability to claim that He would fulfill her deepest longing, she stated her categorical faith in Him. The rest would be resolved in the minutes and eternity to follow. But for now, Martha had found a bedrock on which to rest her hope: Christ Himself.

Like Martha, many of us live stuck between yesterday’s disappointments and tomorrow’s hope. We know God is able to intervene now and we know He will be faithful to make things right in the end. But what hope can we claim for how He will act in between? As He did for Martha, Jesus responds to our hidden fears with a call to trust in who He is and how He works, not just in the distant future but also in the here and now.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

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.

Missing Purple

attachmentBombed out churches. Imperious monuments. Golden palaces. Now stained glass windows…

I’m finally home from a summer of travels, but I’m still processing the significance of the sights that I took in across Germany and France. So much of a people’s worldview can be discerned by what they build to last long after they are gone. These cathedrals and monuments, paintings and palaces still speak on behalf of their long-dead creators, their messages either ringing true through the centuries or being discredited by the passage of time.

Last week as I stood gazing at the medieval windows of Notre Dame, I was struck not only by what was present but by what was missing. Our guide had already pointed out the stunning imagery of the north rose window, its intricate designs all depicting scenes from the Old Testament that would later be fulfilled in the New. The effect of the light shining through the multi-colored scenes was a stunning purple, intended to communicate a sense of anticipation and forward movement.

But when I turned to look at the south rose window, the one depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the early church, I was surprised to notice that it lacked the same purple hue. The glorious fulfillment of the Old Testament was there, with the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) sitting on the shoulders of the four great prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and scenes from Christ’s miracles, death, resurrection, and enthronement. But the sense of future anticipation was missing.

…singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth.

I can’t help but feel that the purple is missing from our worldview, too. We are well trained to look back and celebrate the story of what God has done in the past, but we don’t know how to look forward and see that we are participating in the story of what He will due in the future. Without a clear vision of where our story is heading, we lack the direction and the motivation to get there.

You will arise and have compassion on Zion… The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory. For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:13-20, 26

The psalmists and the prophets spoke out of incredibly messy situations, pointing to a future reality in which God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. The afflicted man could cry out the depths of his soul’s current anguish and in the same breath describe the heights of God’s future deliverance. The disheartened prophet could talk about the seeming dead-end of hope while still claiming the certainty of God’s promise to make all things new.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?

“For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. …
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:3,14; 3:17-18

The saints of the Old Testament could endure and navigate incredibly troubling situations because they could see how their story was leading to something better. Of course that hope wasn’t always easy to hold onto. Faith never comes easy, especially when it is severely tested. But their patient endurance paid off when the Messiah finally came and made good on a lot of what God had promised.

But what about all the mess that still remains? Why don’t we see worshipping nations and prostrate kings, all declaring the glories of our God? What happened to the end of oppression and the coming of God’s compassionate, just reign? We live in a world where terrorism and sex-trafficking abound, where impaired bodies and broken hearts define our existence.

We can anticipate our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where life-giving streams and healing leaves apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

We cling to the fact that somehow Jesus’ death and resurrection is supposed to relate to all this, but how? The Old Testament holds out hope that the earth will be restored, and yet the only hope we can point to is the salvation of our souls. No wonder we segregate our lives, singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth. Our only hope is eventual escape-by-death.

We are missing the purple.

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98:1, 7-9

If what God has done in history is the full extent of the good news, then we really do have little to look forward to (and all those Old Testament promises were grossly over-stated.) But the fact is that our waiting, and His story, are far from over.

We are still anticipating the New Creation, that time when God will bring heaven and earth together in a glorious union. And we are anticipating our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where garden and city will combine in a Christ-centered utopia with life-giving streams and healing leaves that apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. …All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
Revelation 5:9; 15:2-4

Jesus told us to watch and work towards it. John warned us that it would take a great amount of patient endurance to finally reach it. But the day will come when we pick up the songs of the psalmists and prophets and sing them with a new spin: past tense.

If I were to create a stained glass window depicting the world as I see it, I’m afraid it would involve plenty of messy, unpleasant scenes. But as God grants me a developing eyesight of faith, I see a hope-filled hue of purple shining through the shades of pain.

What are the colors in your worldview window?

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.

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.

Beyond Disillusionment

Patty Toland, a friend and co-worker, recently sent me her story of wrestling with God through devastated dreams and deep disillusionment. The complete article was originally published under the title ‘The traps to destroy’ in an anthology entitled “Beyond the Edge.”

1981 was the year that God clearly called me into missions. So I terminated my classes at a secular university and began studying Bible and Mission. I was sure God was leading me to work in Africa among a tribe that had no church and worshipped evil spirits. Twelve years later my dreams became real as I stepped off the plane into hot, humid, lush, green West Africa. My anticipation and joy were almost insuppressible. Little did I know that seven months later I’d fly out of the country for medical treatment and be told I probably could never return again due to poor health.

Suddenly the whole world for which I was living swirled around and around, leaving me in questioning darkness. “God, where are you? Why can’t You overcome it? Why did You lead so clearly, then seemingly pull the carpet out from under my feet? How can I go on when all my hopes and dreams have been dashed?

Then the journey through my internal battles began, starting in darkness and confusion, then gradually being trapped by unbelief, anger and bitterness. I began to think God had brought me all the way to Africa just to dump me there. I neither felt, saw, nor sensed His presence. I searched for Him, longing for a word, a verse, or some small feeling of assurance, yet heard nothing. I did have a kitten and a co-worker who comforted me, but not Him. He remained silent. I was incensed at His apparent inability to be a true Father as the Bible portrayed. Not until one year later did I slowly begin to recognize that He had manifested His presence to me through my co-worker and even the kitten. He was physically with me through them! I wanted Him in a supernatural way and missed Him in the ordinary and natural.

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
“He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.”
Psalm 50:14-15, 23

At one point while lying in a hospital room, I read the Word out of sheer boredom and loneliness. It said to offer up a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God and that He would be glorified. Feeling my bitterness of spirit rise up and giving in to what I knew wasn’t the Truth, I chose to declare audibly to God, “I have nothing to be thankful for.” I waited for an impending lightening to strike me dead (which I would’ve welcomed as being the most merciful thing He could’ve done) and instead gently heard, “That’s why it’s a sacrifice.” It had never occurred to me that the cost to whisper thanks in my bitterness and anger was worth more to Him than years of thanks during the easy times.

The cost to whisper thanks in my bitterness and anger was worth more to Him than years of thanks during the easy times.

As time went on and improvement in my health was not apparent, all that I believed about God and the Bible were shaken to the core. I realized my faith was shallower than the depth of my circumstances. Capitalizing on that was the Enemy, seeking of course to finish off the last morsel! I knew it was a battle for my mind.

“But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.
Job 23:8-10

I knew the only way to give God a fair chance was to at least read the Word again from the beginning to end, allowing it to seep into the sparse cracks in my thinking that were still slightly open to Him. To read the whole Bible from a bitter, angry state of mind is quite a challenge as there are no givens. My theology was revamped as I saw how much the Bible spoke of suffering and testing rather than how much He wants to bless us and make us happy. Even Job looked all over and couldn’t find Him, but was still convinced that God knew where he was and that when God was done testing him, he would come forth as gold. I wasn’t that convinced, but was intrigued that even Job couldn’t sense God’s presence.

The entire health battle lasted 9 years and I realize that the tool of struggling physically has brought stripping … There is a deeper spiritual well from which to drink that brings true abundant life in Him. The drops I’ve tasted are sweet and I wouldn’t trade them. I wasn’t able to say that during the deepest part of the trial, but as He healed my spirit and I looked for His will above mine, a whole new freedom was released. … As a result, it has brought me into a whole new life – a deeper one in God and His fullness that I otherwise would not have known.