Tag Archives: narrative theology

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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Dead before God

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

Dear Weary Warrior,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, darkness is your friend.

God: The Noble Mother

imagesIn a society embroiled with conflicting ideas about gender roles and sexual identity, writing about the feminine nature of a masculine God feels like gardening in a minefield. But to neglect or abandon this aspect of Scripture would be to deny a significant part of who God reveals Himself to be, effectively putting Him in the box of our own culturally conditioned “image.” As much as I shy away from the political and social agenda that drive similar conversations, Scripture itself compels me to take a deeper look at the maternal character of God.

A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

For years now I have read and reflected on Psalm 103 as an exposition on the fatherhood of God. It doesn’t take long to notice the judicial oversight and compassionate leadership of a father relating with his children in its underlying narrative. But only lately has it struck me that Psalm 104 is just as much an exposition of God’s motherhood, especially when laid side by side with Proverbs 31. The parallel imagery and language are so tight that I can’t help but think they were intended to be read comparatively.

…you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, … they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.
Psalm 104:1-8

Like the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31, God is described as a fastidious homemaker. He takes care to dress Himself gloriously and to decorate His home beautifully. Light is His favorite garment and sky-blue the color He chooses to paint His downstairs ceilings. He employs the elements (wind, fire, and water) as His domestic help. And although He initially carpeted the whole downstairs with water, He decided to rearrange the floor plan to include large patches of dry land, too.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart…
You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away… Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.
Psalm 104:10-23

Like that industrious Proverbs 31 woman, God’s lamp never goes out at night. He works all day watering His garden, feeding His household, and making sure that each member of His brood is well looked after in body and spirit. And while the rest of the family sleeps, He keeps vigil over the prowling “night owls” to make sure they get their tummy full, too. Around the clock He keeps up His work of tender nurture, creative provision, and loving care.

How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Psalm 104:24-26

His motherly ingenuity and domain are anything but small in scope. Just as the woman of noble character engaged in global commerce, buying from and supplying ships that crisscrossed the seas, He fills the earth with His handiworks, too. In fact, He repurposes the oceans as playgrounds for His “little ones” and as sidewalks for His children to ride their boats around on.

These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. 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 104:27-30

But beyond being a cosmic homemaker, universal food supplier, and global nanny, God meets His offspring’s greatest need through the gift of His presence. He doesn’t simply bring them into the world and then abandon them. As long as He is nearby, His dependents learn and play and grow in peace, assured that all is well with their world. But the second they can’t see His face, they have every cause to panic. Their lives are utterly contingent on His.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 91:1, 4; 131:2

And so like the children of the Proverbs 31 woman, God’s children rise up with blessing and praise for all He is and all He does. We approach Him confidently when we need something, snuggle under His sheltering wings when we are scared or overwhelmed, and rest peacefully against His chest when we simply desire the reassuring comfort of His presence.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:28-31

The point is that God is not only the perfect father: He is also unapologetically the ideal mother. This is no cause for confusing gender or reinterpreting the divine, but it does liberate us to relate to Him with the same intimacy and security we experience with a mother. It also sheds a new light on the significance of human mothers as image bearers of God’s maternal attributes. A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

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.

Deserted or Delivered?

IMG_8608The space between the grief of Good Friday and celebration of Resurrection Sunday is always such an awkward time for me. I have cried myself dry meditating on the incredible suffering that Jesus endured through the course of His endless trials, beatings, and hours on the cross. His pain is finally over, but the time for celebrating His triumph has not yet come. In the between space, I am stuck with the classic mourner’s question of how to make sense of the events that led to this loss.

Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
But you, O LORD, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Psalm 22:16-20

In the lead-up to Jesus’ death, there seems to be this mounting anticipation that God would show up and deliver Him. Isn’t that what Jesus was begging Him for during those agonized midnight prayers in the garden? Isn’t that what He consoled His disciples with when they wanted to fight in His defense? God could show up any time with His armies of angels to deliver His Son. But He didn’t.

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
Psalm 22:6-8

Through the insane marathon of accusations and trials, Jesus remained eerily silent. Why? He had no need to defend Himself and set the record straight. He trusted God to do that. But God’s silence was even more deafening than Jesus’. As question after mocking question chipped away at His identity, He stood and later hung with His eyes on heaven. Surely God would answer. Even one of those thundering voices and descending doves would do. Surely the Father would speak up for His Son. But He didn’t.

My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
Psalm 22:14-15

As the telltale signs of death slowly stole over Jesus’ body, His confidence began to waver. Where were those signs of God’s goodness, those affirmations that He would indeed honor and deliver His beloved Son? Jesus’ throttled body bore evidence against the glorious promise that God would send His angels to protect the one He loved. The crushing weight in His chest made a mockery of the biblical assurances that God would deliver His soul from death. The worst had come, and God hadn’t intervened.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
Psalm 22:1-2

Was this really how things would end?

Jesus cried out what His mind knew wasn’t true but His heart couldn’t help but feel: “My God, my God, why have you deserted me!?!”

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.
Psalm 22:11-13

He knew how the story would end. He had rehearsed it with His disciples a million times. He would die but He would rise again. This wasn’t the end, but it sure felt like it. In the moment, all Hell was breaking loose. His disciples had scattered. The demonic hordes had gathered, hovering in the air all around Him and enjoying every moment of His distress. But through the roar of their taunting voices, Jesus tuned His interpretation of reality into the still whisper of the Spirit within.

For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
Psalm 22:24

Even as the dark shadows of death stole over His vision, Jesus clung to the sweet comfort of God with Him. There was nothing to be afraid of anymore. The worst had already happened. The storm still howled all around, but God was within. He had never left. And even now His Spirit was bearing testimony to Jesus’ Spirit that this was not how it would end.

The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him– may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.
Psalm 22:26-28

God would deliver Jesus from the grave. He would raise Him up to a position of glory and honor greater than He had lost in the first place. He would cause the knees that had marched against Him to bow in worship before Him. He would cause the tongues that had mocked Him to testify that He is Lord. And because of God’s faithfulness to deliver Jesus, He would prove Himself faithful to deliver all others who put their hope in Him.

What feels like yesterday’s desertion
will turn out to be tomorrow’s deliverance.

This is the outcome that I cling to in the in-between spaces of my own life. When God seems to have turned His back on me, when He has already allowed the worst to happen, this is the version of reality that I turn to. What feels like yesterday’s desertion will turn out to be tomorrow’s deliverance. What others may have intended for my harm will turn out for my good.

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn– for he has done it.
Psalm 22:30-31

Why? Because that is the way God works. He sets up the greatest crises to put on display His greater deliverance. He is the God who delights in unexpected twists and surprise endings. He is writing my story along the same plot lines as He did Christ’s. Of course it will turn out good. He is the One doing it.

My bit of the story…

This time last year I was furiously finishing up writing a book on shame, wondering what next God would lead me to do. Was it time to launch a more public speaking ministry, or should I pursue a more academic track by doing that postgraduate degree down in Edinburgh? The last thing on my radar was writing a blog. I don’t even like blogs!

But what I intended as a sacrificial labor of love for others has turned out to be a blessed source of nurture and growth for myself. My motivation in writing is to address those topics that we often feel are too messy to have anything to do with God. We are comfortable confining them within the sterile walls of a counselor’s office, but we don’t know how to take them to church, to the Scriptures, or into God’s presence.

Writing this blog has taken me beyond just privately relating with God through the ups and downs of my own life to having to put into coherent words what it looks like to live the full range of human emotion and experiences coram deo, before the light of His face. More than anything, I want to capture a perspective of how He sees us: how our struggles make sense in light of His ongoing story, how His eternal story infuses meaning into our everyday experience.

We are part of an ongoing story, with God as the author, us as the characters, and our daily lives as the stage on which He is playing out a grand metanarrative.

The cerebral part of me far prefers doing theology “from above,” losing myself in lofty thoughts about the nature of God and His creative brilliance in littering His natural and written revelation with symbols and themes that point to heavenly realities. But living with my feet planted on earth—my soul splattered with its muck and my hands dirtied with its troubles—has forced me to take my theology to the bathroom. Who God is must be relevant to how I navigate even the most unpleasant or mundane of earthly circumstances. And actually, as I have learned to look more honestly at His Word, I’ve been delightfully surprised to discover just how “earthy” He can be.

Narrative theology has continued to unlock the Scriptures for me, meandering like a flexible stream through eternal truth and unpredictable experience, pristine worship and scrappy struggle, heavenly reality and earthly reflection. It is painful but rewarding labor to perpetually lay distressing human realities on the table next to my Bible and go looking for what God has to say about them. At the same time, it is a joyful act of worship to be able to discover His current awareness through His past interaction with people living the same kind of stories.

I have come to view life and read Scripture through the lens of an ongoing story, with God as the author, us as the characters, and our daily lives as the stage on which He is playing out a grand metanarrative that culminates in our shared glory. If you have wondered about my blog category called “Defining Metanarratives,” it is where I stick those posts that have attempted to retell that overarching story from different angles. This is the big story that makes sense of all our little stories.

Experiencing our little stories is what enables us to participate in His big story.

At the same time, experiencing our little stories is what enables us to participate in His big story. Taking the time to reflect both psychologically and theologically on my own past experiences and others’ ongoing struggles has deepened my appreciation of a God who has written Himself into such a convoluted, bitter-sweet plot line. And, in a roundabout way, it has trained me for the next step in my own story.

Later this month I will be travelling to Uganda to teach a masters-level class on spiritual formation. As I have spent this summer preparing for the course, I have been repeatedly struck with the pleasant realization that the massive amounts of reflection and writing I have invested in this blog over the past year have also been equipping me to teach Christian leaders in the developing world. I look forward to the privilege of getting to be a part of their stories as they bring God’s kingdom to their corner of the globe.

Because of this delightful addition to my workload, I am planning to scale back the frequency of my blog posts to once a week. I would rather sustain quality over quantity. I pray God will use what I have written and guide what I keep writing to help you experience your role in His story. It’s a joy to be living it with you.

The Way His Story Goes

Relieved. Delighted. Confused.

In so many ways, the disciples’ reactions to Jesus’ resurrection mirror my own. I’m relieved to have the long struggle of Lent and the deep sorrow of the cross finally finished. I’m delighted that Jesus is alive, that His story ends in triumph, not defeat. But I’m also confused.

Suffering precedes glory.

Does the road to glory really have to pass through such deep valleys? Why does the cost of victory have to be so high? If God is the Author of His own story, why did He choose to write it this way?

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
Luke 24:17-21

Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, I scratch my head trying to figure out how the glory of the kingdom fits with the agony of the cross. I have expectations of what is good, of how things are supposed to be. The benevolent aren’t supposed to be taken advantage of. The innocent aren’t supposed to be condemned. The gentle aren’t supposed to be abused. The young aren’t supposed to die.

So how do Christ’s sufferings fit with His glory? Why couldn’t He have picked a nicer way to deal with sin and overcome death?

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Luke 24:25-27

But even as I ask those questions, I hear His gentle, chiding voice, much the way it must have sounded to the disciples. Of course it had to happen this way. Of course suffering precedes glory. That’s the way the story has always gone. Who am I to think I can come up with a better plot line?

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Luke 24:44

God has been working this story since the beginning of time. This is exactly the way He intended it to be. The heel that the serpent would strike. The rock that Moses split open. The abused, rejected king of the Psalms. The suffering servant of the prophets. The deliverer always suffers first. The sufferer always rises to glory after.

Extreme glory calls for an extreme story.

I admit that I still struggle to embrace this kind of story. It is so extreme. Intense suffering. Overwhelming glory. My mediocre humanity wants a safer story, one with less risk and more “balance.” But that kind of story would not be true to God’s self-revealing plan. Nor would it fit with the integral role He has prepared for us in it.

That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
Ephesians 1:19-21

Perhaps this is one more bit of supporting evidence for why He deserves to be God and I don’t. He not only wrote the story this way, but He also wrote Himself into it as the greatest sufferer. He could have avoided the pain, claiming immunity as cast director. But as the one who was brought the lowest, He earned the right to be lifted up the highest.

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
Luke 24:45-48

And so I stand down in humble amazement. How can I question Him over what He was willing to endure Himself? How can I resist embracing and perpetuating His story in my own life? I will join in that joyful crowd of witnesses, proclaiming and participating in His sufferings so that I, too, may share in the glory of His resurrection. I will make His story my story.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 3:10-11

The Story Goes On

All the candles have been lit and burned low. Endless trips to the store have turned to endless leftovers in the fridge. The tree stands empty, the bank balance is down, and the scale reading is up. Christmas is over, and it’s back to life as usual.

The excitement and fanfare of Christ’s birth may be finished, but His story goes on. The shepherds head back into the office, the angelic lights go away, and mundane earthly life begins. The kingly visitors pack up and leave and a young family are left to deal with the aftermath of their celebration: a jealous king intent on eliminating Jesus.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. … When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Matthew 2:13-16

Midnight warning. Abrupt departure. Terrifying flight. Hunted. Infants massacred in His place. Residence in a foreign land. Indefinite displacement. Near misses. Repeated moves. Would their lives forever be hounded by danger and difficulty? This was no way to start a marriage, and it was certainly no way to raise a child. Why hadn’t the angels just explained that it would be like this in the first place? What had happened to all those glorious prophecies about Jesus wearing the government on His shoulder? At this point, “helpless refugee” seemed a more fitting title than “Prince of Peace.”

The outcome of their stories gives us hope in the middle of our own story.

Jesus was living a carefully crafted recapitulation (recap) of His ancestor David’s story. David’s start in life had been similarly spectacular: chosen out of the lineup of brothers to be anointed as the next king, victorious over an evil giant, miraculous deliverer from countless invading forces, celebrated hope of the people. But all those glorious celebrations came to an end and David was left to deal with their aftermath: a jealous king intent on eliminating him.

Saul sent men to David’s house to watch it and to kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, warned him, “If you don’t run for your life tonight, tomorrow you’ll be killed.” So Michal let David down through a window, and he fled and escaped. …
David went to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. …
Then the king ordered the guards at his side: “Turn and kill the priests of the LORD, because they too have sided with David. They knew he was fleeing, yet they did not tell me.” … So Doeg the Edomite turned and struck them down. That day he killed eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. He also put to the sword Nob, the town of the priests, with its men and women, its children and infants, and its cattle, donkeys and sheep.
1 Samuel 19:11-12; 21:1; 22:17-19

Midnight warning. Abrupt flight. Unexpected provision. Hunted. Priests massacred in his place. Residence in a foreign land. Indefinite displacement. Near misses. Always on the move. Would his life forever be hounded by danger and difficulty? This was no way to establish himself as a leader, and it was certainly no way to raise a secure, prosperous nation. Why hadn’t the prophet told him all the facts in the first place? What had happened to that glorious prophecy about him being king? Was he not God’s “anointed one” (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek)? At this point, “scum of the earth” and “tramp” seemed a more fitting title.

But the story didn’t stop there, for Jesus or for David. And it doesn’t stop there for us, either. As we do narrative theology we study the stories of Scripture and start to notice trends in how they develop and how they work out. Narrative theology then invites us to lay the outline of our stories like a transparency over the contours of matching biblical stories. And to the extent that our own stories are similar to the biblical stories, we can interpret our life experiences within the same framework and according to the same patterns.

God’s eventual fulfillment of His promises to David and His ultimate exaltation of Jesus to the highest throne are the happy endings that we cling to as we continue to muck along through the mundane of our own story. To the extent that we faithfully trudge along in their footsteps, we trust that God will complete our own stories in similarly satisfying ways. And that gives us hope in the middle of the mess: the story isn’t over yet.

Advent: Waiting in the Dark

It’s dark. I have been up for hours but the sun still shows no sign of rising. If my calendar didn’t inform me that these are the longest nights of the year and my globe didn’t show me that my place on the planet is temporarily tipped far away from the sun, I might begin to despair.

Will the light ever dawn again?

The Israelites found themselves asking a similar question. It had been a long time since they had seen the light of God’s presence among them, and they despaired of it ever returning. Once upon a time they had lived in their own land, victorious over their enemies, successful in their endeavors, and happy in their community. The symbol and source of their blessed life was the temple, the place where they had seen the radiant cloud of God’s Spirit alight among them.

Then the glory of the LORD rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the LORD … Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them.
Ezekiel 10:4, 18-19

But all of that was long gone. Wave after wave of calamity had come along, stripping their land, destroying their homes, starving their children, wiping out their elderly, raping their women, and carrying off their survivors in chains. Devastated. Distressed. Their lives were a ruin. Their temple was rubble. It had been violated and desecrated beyond belief, and the light of God’s presence had departed from it. Without that light, they had no hope. Would it ever return?

The night in our soul can last so long that we despair of ever seeing light again.

God kept sending messages of hope, but their ongoing reality was anything but the radiant dawn that the prophets had foretold. After generations of living as refugees and exiles, they began to hobble back to their homeland. But the wasteland that met their eyes was nothing like the dreamland of their memories. Weak. Discouraged. They began the painstaking process of restoration. Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple. Nehemiah worked on the wall. Ezra re-established the priesthood. But God’s glory-cloud never showed up. They were plodding along by faith, laboring against overwhelming odds to bring back all that had been lost, to restore their lives to what they were supposed to be. Ready. Waiting. Surely any day now the trumpet would sound and the Lord would descend as He had before. Nothing happened.

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire … he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver… and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.
Malachi 3:1-4

Generation after generation came and went, and if anything, things only got worse. Tyrannical local rulers. Oppressive foreign invaders. Corrupt, mafia-run priests. Degrading practices throughout the land. Abominable idols in the temple. Where was the promised Messiah who would clean up all this mess? Where was that righteous King who would establish justice and peace for all time? Many quit on any hope of change, but the faithful persevered in waiting. Deep darkness covered their world, but they strained their eyes watching for the dawn. How long could they go on believing without seeing? The Old Testament closes its final book in a mess, with 600 years of hope unfulfilled and the light of God still missing.

The night in our soul can last so long that we despair of ever seeing light again. We can barely remember what it was like when we felt happy, connected to our community, and right with the world around us. We slog along, day after day, dutifully doing what we are supposed to do but not seeing any change. We cry out to God in laments and prayers, begging Him to return and restore us, but He isn’t responding.

Will the light ever dawn again?

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.
Malachi 4:2

Weak Writers, Strong Source

David manic-depressive? Peter OCD? Paul suicidal? The mere possibility would have rocked my world once. The idea that my heroes of the faith, the inspired authors of Scripture, could have been influenced by mental or emotional “disorders” would have left me squirming uncomfortably. Why? Perhaps because those who raise these points often do so in order to discredit the inerrancy of their writings. Perhaps because I want to think of these men of God as above such human frailty, serenely transcending the storms of life and passing on pristine truths that teach us how to do the same.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’sake. For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
2 Corinthians 4:5-7

But the fact of the matter is, God chose real, messy people to write His Word. When we lay aside our rose-colored glasses and read their words the way we would read a letter written by anyone else, we can’t help but hear their messy emotions, their heart-rending cries, and their dangerous questions. These were men and women who struggled the way we do, and whose human frailty was completely intertwined with their writings to and about God. Whether we slap disorder labels on them or simply chalk their occasionally frenzied condition up to their particular life circumstances, we have to come to terms with the fact that they were real people struggling with real issues.
So does the mental and emotional frailty of the Biblical writers make what they wrote any less true? Only, I suppose, if Scripture’s authority hinges on human aptitude. We would all be in trouble if it did. Thankfully, human limitations do not constrain God. If anything, He seems to specialize in making His lofty, unchanging truth known through the weakest, least-likely candidates: shepherd boys, fishermen, and former terrorists.

God specializes in making His lofty, unchanging truth known through the weakest, least-likely candidates.

My own life struggles have pushed me to embrace the messiness of the Biblical writers. As long as my life was simple and straightforward, I was content to read the Bible as a series of propositional truths that I was meant to believe and obey. My modernist mind searched the Scriptures for abstract truth, valuing it as more valid when it stood completely apart from any particular context. But that approach to the Bible simply could not hold water when life experiences left my soul riddled with holes. Broken, confused, and desperate for God to speak to my troubled heart, I went back to the Word with new eyes. There I found a whole community of people as messed up as I was (some, shockingly, even more so). What they had to say about God resonated deeper and rang truer because of the difficult circumstances in which they said it.

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me… Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
2 Corinthians 12:7, 9

Far from being a threat to their credibility, the Biblical writers’ life stories provide a fitting frame for the truths they wrote. It is one thing to write about the sovereign goodness of God when He is orchestrating our lives according to our expected patterns; it is quite another when He turns our world upside down and seems to be in no hurry to make it right. We like singing hymns written by people in such desperate circumstances, but are we content to build our theological towers on the writings of depressed, conflicted invalids? If God can accomplish the transmission of His inerrant Word through their messy lives, I guess there is hope for us, too.