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Beloved on Friday: Persecuted but not Forsaken

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Something has shifted in how I experienced this Good Friday, and I am still struggling to put it into words. For many years now, I have used this day to enter more fully into the sufferings our Lord endured—not because they were insufficient in and of themselves, but because I want to knowChrist, both in the fellowship of His sufferings and in the power of His resurrection. Keeping vigil with Him through the hours of the night on Thursday and then through the horrific series of events that culminated in His death on Friday afternoon has been a labor of love, motivated by my desire to feel the things He felt and therefore adore Him more fully.

My experience of trauma and abuse several years ago radically heightened my sensitivity to our Lord’s experience of the same. As I mentally replayed a blow-by-blow account of all Jesus went through during His arrest, trials, “breaking” by the Roman guards, and finally crucifixion, I would focus on the Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 descriptions of His suffering, focusing in especially on His sense of abandonment by the Father. The overwhelming horror of it all left me in anguish at the foot of the cross, longing for it all to be over and for Sunday to come set things right.

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; He heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.

Return to your rest, my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.
Psalm 116:1-2

But last night’s Maundy Thursday vigil framed my experience of today in an entirely different light. Bouncing back and forth between John 13-17 (Jesus’ final words to and prayers for His disciples) and Psalms 113-118 (the Psalms He and His disciples would have been singing as they finished up their Passover meal and headed out to Gethsemane), the theme of God’s victorious love kept ringing in my ears. Of course on Passover night they would have been reflecting back on the progression of God’s love in redeeming Israel from slavery, from the sea, from the surrounding nations and their gods, and from their own fears as they progressed from Egypt to Zion. And this is the narrative, as N.T. Wright argues in The Day the Revolution Began, in which Jesus chose to frame His own unfolding story.

How would Jesus have been experiencing the victorious love of God in the midst of His own suffering?

But how would Jesus have been experiencing the victorious love of God in the midst of His own suffering? As He sang these lines about love and faithfulness, trust and deliverance while grappling with His impending betrayal and death, what was He thinking? It is easy to see the love of God for us in the sufferings of Jesus, but where was the love of the Father evident for Him in these events?

“Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
John 13:31-32

“If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. …the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me,but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.
John 14:29-31

This is where Jesus’ lengthy discourse with His disciples in John 13-17 opens my eyes. Apart from preparing His disciples for the trauma they would soon face, Jesus was processing His own thoughts on what was about to happen. He did so in external dialogue both with His band of confused friends and with His very present Heavenly Father. Again and again He affirmed the goodness of what was about to happen, not just for His disciples’ sake but also for His own.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. John 15:9a

…You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.
John 16:32b

Far from the heresy commonly sung in some Christian communities that “the Father turned His face away” from Jesus hanging on the cross, Jesus grounded Himself in the sustaining faith that His Father would never leave Him nor forsake Him. Those last few hours as He prepared for His fast-approaching “hour,” He couldn’t say enough about the Father’s love for Him. While this was partially for the benefit of His disciples, I’m increasingly convinced that it was also for His own benefit. Just as the Father’s affirmation of His belovedness at His baptism had sustained Him through the trial of the wilderness, Jesus’ repeated affirmation of His own belovedness to the Father was preparatory to His ability to keep believing and living in it when everything around Him would scream otherwise.

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.”

“And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” John 17:1, 5

At this juncture, Jesus’ requests of the Father were in line with the horrors that would soon befall Him. Having just urged His disciples to ask the Father for their heart’s desire and promised that He would grant it, Jesus asked the Father for His heart’s deepest desire: to be glorified both in the Father’s presence and along with His beloved friends. The cross was the next crucial step towards the fulfillment of this prayer, and both Jesus and His Father knew it. He would be lifted up from the earth as a spectacle for all to see, through one set of eyes a spectre of gore and shame but through another set of eyes a vision of victorious love.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:24

The Father was not only loving us though the cross; He was also loving His precious Son. Though Jesus’ prayers for deliverance in Gethsemane and His feeling of abandonment on the cross manifested the depths to which His sufferings took Him, the overarching narrative in which He consciously engaged was one of being profoundly loved. He was living in His own exodus story, paving the way to bring along the multitude of brothers and sisters He wanted to share in His glory. No one took His life from Him, not even the Father. Rather out of a profound sense of loving and being loved, Jesus willingly entered into the most agonizing labor love has known. And the Father and Spirit endured it along with Him.

Out of a profound sense of loving and being loved, Jesus willingly entered into the most agonizing labor love has known. And the Father and Spirit endured it along with Him.

This transforms the way I walk with Jesus both through this painfully victorious day and through the Good Fridays that will surely come in my own life. Because I am so profoundly loved by the Father, His Son, and their Spirit, I have the opportunity to join the family business of laboring over our shared inheritance, the Kingdom of Heaven made tangible on earth. In the dark hours that are part and parcel of that advancement, I will not suffer for Jesus, but rather with Jesus.

As His own story so beautifully manifests, all believers’ experiences of trouble, hardship, and persecution only confirm how very held we are in the love of God. We enter not into a family relationship where our Father is opposed to His children or afflicts suffering on them from an aloof distance, but where He is with us, for us, and at work through us by the power of His victorious love.

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:36-39

 

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In A People Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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